(That’s it, that’s the joke, please don’t sue me for making a punny reference, Disney)
By Sarah Cooley
I suppose it was my own damn fault. That’s just what you get for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, you would think I’d know better by now, but I guess when I stopped maturing physically it also stalled my mental improvement. I was never a brains guy anyway, was always ready for a fight, less so for helping with math homework. Eh, I’m getting ahead of myself though. I suppose I should start at the beginning, when I first met Gloria, and defied everything my common-sense told me, and volunteered as a parent.
It was a cloudy night in the Autumn of 1962, and I was making my way home through the side streets and alleys of New Orleans. I was always looking for trouble back then, and that was generally where you could find some, but I didn’t bargain for the type I found that night. Blood wasn’t an uncommon scent to pick up on the rougher side of town, there were always gang scuffles and injured vagrants, but not this much blood. It was like someone had set up a butcher’s shop in the dark behind a dumpster. Except that butchers usually weren’t peddling human remains.
The wave of scent hit me like a moving vehicle, wafting from a side-street I was crossing past and catching me off guard. Now, you can go ahead and assume that the only reason I went to check on things was that I was looking for an easy meal, you definitely wouldn’t be completely wrong. But I’m not a complete degenerate. If there was someone to help, I would’ve helped them. And I mean, there was someone there that needed help. My arrival was just too little too late.
When I got to the scene, there was some fucker on his knees, rifling through a lady’s hand-bag. The lady was there too, but prone, and bleeding out through her external carotid artery. Wasn’t that hard to guess what had happened. The dumbass didn’t hear my approach, which made his terror at being bodily hoisted by the back of his coat all the more satisfying.
“Now what do we have here? Having a fun little night on the town, huh?” He must have sensed there was something off about me–and rightly so–because he didn’t even attempt striking back at me.
“Ey, get off me ya’ bastard kid, this was my find, you can go get your own!” He was standing on his own now, and violently shook my hand off his shoulder. I pursed my lips, pretending to give his advice some thought for a moment as he panted nervously.
“Mmmm, no, no I don’t think so. I think I’ll be taking it from here, old man.” He tensed and whipped out a knife, going for a gut strike, and I was in a playful mood, so I let him.
Knives are an extremely intimate way to kill someone–you need to get extremely close to your target, just short of embracing them like a lover. Which makes the violation of the blade penetrating one’s flesh all the more terrible, it’s not dissimilar to a sexual-assault. I’ve never liked knives, or the sad excuses for villains that choose to wield them. That said, I wasn’t above having one used on me for the sake of theatrics.
There was a beat, then two, then three, where we just stood there, one of his hands bracing against my shoulder and the other pressing the hilt of his weapon into my abdomen. That’s when I dropped my glamour and let the illusion of a living, healthy man fall away. I grasped the arm with the knife and easily forced it out and away, making it fall and clatter on the pavement. Now he struggled to get away, but that wouldn’t do. I threw and pinned him against a wall.
“No! No, please! Let me go!”
I smiled, baring my teeth like a dog. He whimpered. Getting other predators to beg for their own lives never stops being satisfying.
“Shouldn’t have hurt her, fucker.”
With the woman-murdering bastard quickly dispatched and my mask back in place, I went over to the poor woman to assess the situation. She was lying in about 2 of her 6 liters and bleeding-out faster than anyone could’ve helped. Miraculously she was still conscious, but definitely entering shock. I might’ve not been much of a stand-up citizen, but I wanted to try giving her some comfort as she was leaving, like you do. She was so young, probably around the age I’d been when turned. I dropped into a crouch, taking her dusky right hand and squeezing it, trying to see how aware she was. Her fingers were almost more chilled than mine.
“Hey, hey there, do you hear me?”
Her head lolled my direction, but I don’t think she was able to focus her vision anymore. She seemed to look right through my face. “Please…” her grip was surprisingly strong for a mostly-dead woman.
“It’ll be over soon Ma’am. I’m sorry it was like this, though. Definitely could’ve had a better send-off, huh?”
She made a sound, somewhere between a choke and a genuine chuckle. “Please, p-please protect her…”
“I know… you’ve come for me… but please–watch over my Gloria.” Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d been addressed as if I were the angel of death himself, but it was my first time being spoken to as such when I hadn’t actually been responsible for the speaker’s death. The kicker though, was that she smiled at me. I’m not a very superstitious creature–ironic though it may sound–but hearing her say that name, and seeing the tears collected in her unseeing eyes as I felt the life literally draining out of her… Well, to say the very least I was shaken. My state of surprise and trepidation is what I now usually blame my immediate response on.
“Of course, I’ll keep her safe.”
It was dumb, there’s no way around that. I had absolutely no obligation to this woman, or whomever this Gloria was, I had no reason to promise anything. But I did. I had just enough human-sappiness leftover in me to make a promise to a dying woman, and I would end up dealing with the consequences accordingly. She made another of her choking-laughs before finally closing her eyes.
“Thank you, oh God, thank…”
And she was gone soon after.
And I was sitting in an alleyway with two rapidly cooling corpses, looking like a jackass.
I was able to find her photo ID still inside her disheveled bag, and thanked whatever powers-may-be that I wouldn’t have to try bloodhounding her trail across the entire damned city.
She’d lived in the Magnolia projects. It had barely opened three decades ago, but was already rundown. It was a bit before sunrise, so I wasn’t feeling too antsy yet. I found her unit–B4–and wasn’t sure how to proceed. It was nearly morning, but not quite, anyone inside would be asleep. I couldn’t just break in, so I knocked. I listened closely for signs of life, and could only find a single heartbeat inside. There was no response, and it wasn’t good to be seen loitering outside a woman’s house at this hour, so I knocked again, a bit more firmly. The heart inside the apartment sped up and I heard movement; I only felt guilty about the absurdly early wake-up call for a moment. The door finally opened–and I genuinely felt a spike of panic.
I was confronted with a three-foot child. She couldn’t have been more than 6 years-old. She rubbed an eye with her fist, her tight curls a mess around her round face.
“Didn’t anyone tell you not to answer the door for strangers?”
“Well, that’s good I suppose. But you just opened the door for me. Aren’t I a stranger?”
She scrunched her face in thought for a moment and then grew wide-eyed. “Oh, oops!” she began to pull the door closed.
“No, wait a minute there, I actually do need to talk to you. Your mother told me to come find you.”
She paused, giving me a wary look. “I dunno, that sounds awful sus-pish-ush…”
“I promise you, it’s the truth.”
Her curious eyes bore into me with an intensity that made me uneasy. She stepped aside and held the door open for me. “Okay, whadda you want?”
I grimaced. “Could you actually, um, invite me inside? Tell me that I can come in?”
She was practically still an infant, so the worst I received from her for my odd request was a withering look, but she complied, which was all that mattered. “Come inside?”
“Thank you.” I promptly crossed the threshold and pulled the door behind me. Then we stood there in the sitting-room. The silence was palpable.
“Whadda you want?”
This had seemed like a much easier task when I was still crouched down in an alley seven miles away. Children had always been an abstract concept to me, they exist, but not here, not in the same space I occupy. Speaking to one of these small creatures was uncomfortable, to say the least. I fidgeted with my coat sleeves.
“Are you always so rude to guests?”
She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, an all too adult reaction–upon closer observation I noticed that she wore a slightly too-long night-shirt, and had a shabby doll that resembled a rabbit clutched to her chest.
“Whadda you want, mister-woke-me-up?” She had a fair point.
“Um… I don’t really know how to do this sort of thing at all. Your mother can’t come home right now, and asked me to see to your safety.”
“Well, because she can’t keep you safe currently.”
“She’s… Left for a time.”
Looking back, I will readily admit that I probably did not handle my frustration well, given the situation.
“Does it really matter that much to you where she went? I don’t see how it changes anything, you’re alone now, and I’m all that you seem to have as a possible chaperone.”
Her eyes began watering at my abrasive tone, and that’s when I knew; I was a goddamned idiot.
“What’s that mean? Where’s Mama?” She backed away into a corner. “Why would mama send you?”
I was at a loss, I couldn’t do this. Why would her mother ask anyone like me for help? I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was the wrong person for this. I was no guardian angel.
I approached her slowly, and joined her on the filthy carpet, back stiffly against the wall, with a comfortable distance between us. I didn’t want to frighten her anymore than I already had.
“You have a good point, I don’t know why she sent me. And I… I don’t know where she is either. I’ve never been. What I do know, is that you’re feeling frightened, and possibly a bit alone, and I know what that feels like as well.”
She looked up at me, silent tears running down her round cheeks. “Yeah?”
“Yeah… I’ll leave, if you would like me to–but I promised to protect you, and I will keep that promise either way. But your mother isn’t coming home anytime soon, and I don’t think I would be doing a very good job of protection if I just left you alone here.”
She looked down, seemingly in thought. She reached out a small hand and grasped my larger, colder one.
“We were gonna go to the park today. Would you take me?”
This child deserved so much more than me.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that today, but I would be pleased to take you at night.” I pulled my hand away hesitantly.
Her wet eyes had widened in awe. “The park… at night?”
“That’s so cool! It’s gonna be so spooky!” She looked like rather than forbidding her from seeing the sun I had instead presented her with frankincense and myrrh. She immediately started to excitedly babble about what she would love to do in the magical night-park. She showed very little sign of stopping.
I cleared my throat. “Now, my memory may be a bit clouded, but I think it’s probably time for your breakfast?”
Finally stopping her ecstatic imaginings, Gloria looked up at me and blinked a few times as if processing what I had said. She hesitantly smiled and nodded.
I tried to return her smile as I felt a familiar, creeping pain in my chest for the first time in decades.