Thursday, January 8, 2009

Strange Tongue (Full Story)

David Stokes is as regular as a period.

My mom told me not to speak of things I have no earthly way of knowing about, but there’s really nothing else to it. David arrives when you expect, orders the same whole milk grande latte with a dash of nutmeg on top, stays for about as long as you’d expect, and when he leaves, it’s a temporary relief. He’ll come again and probably sooner than you’d like.

Today is no different. At exactly four oh three, he pushes through the drafty front door of The Bean Queen and walks right up to the counter. I’m already steaming the milk, but he states his order anyway, “One grande latte, whole milk, thanks, Alan,” like it’s all one word, like my name is an ingredient in his 4pm fix. He leaves a five-dollar bill on the counter and moves to claim his usual table in the corner. It’s the one beneath the art deco print of an impossible looking girl looking at her reflection in a mirror. It’s about as odd as he is, but I think his preference is more about the corner and less about the art.

The machine squeals as it presses the last of the juice through the beans. I hit the button with one hand, frothing the milk with the other. It might not be as fancy as the prints on the walls, but mixing the perfect latte, especially for someone as regular as David Stokes, is an art. My mom taught me to take pride in my work, even when others didn’t.

I pull a mug from the top of the machine, where steam warms the ceramic. In the bottom, I place one of her favorite earrings. A stud. It’s small with a diamond set in gold, all of it fake if I knew her at all. We never had money for luxuries, though that hadn’t stopped her from bending over backward to get me a laptop for my freshman year of college. Her argument was that “Education isn’t a luxury, Alan,” but neither was medicine.

Selling the laptop was the only time I’d ever lied to her, but we needed the money. She needed the money. And now I need her.

I slip the small folded paper envelop from my pocket. Its contents look like nutmeg and sugar and smell like fresh cut wood and something light and sweet. The woman who sold it to me through the back ally door of the local new age boutique store down the road called it Strange Tongue. I hadn’t bothered to ask what was in it, only what it would do. If it didn’t work, I’d be out more than the price of a laptop.

Covering the earring with the powder, I glance over the top of the machine. David Stokes is in a red shirt, which is almost funny. His coat and scarf hang on one of the knobs that dot the wall sporting a mural of a regal looking coffee bean. As expected, he’s covered the table with his organic chemistry books and is tearing up the paper of his notebook with formulas and atomic structures. It’s perfectly predictable. David Stokes is perfectly predictable, which makes him exactly what I need.

The woman’s instructions had been to find a creature of habit. Spirits have an easier time with chaos, she said, so finding a creature of habit was basically like ensuring that whatever happened wouldn’t be permanent.

“I’m sorry,” I say under my breath. David has no chance of hearing me, but saying it aloud makes me feel better. “And thank you.”

The espresso goes in first and the powder hisses as it melts into the black liquid. I lean over the cup and speak the words the woman gave me. They’re written in clear block letters on a sticky note in my pocket, but I’ve been repeating them to myself all day. I watch for a second to be sure the earring doesn’t float, which I realize now I probably should have done before, but the surface becomes placid. The earring stays at the bottom and I pour the milk over, shaking the foam into a delicately ridged pattern that David will never notice.

Before I can think twice, I slide the cup onto the counter and take the five. “David,” I say, slapping his change down.

As usual, he takes the leftover dollar and stuffs it into the over-sized coffee mug on the counter with a handwritten sign that reads, “If you fear change, leave it with us!” I barely manage a “Thanks, man,” before he scoops the change into his pocket and returns to his table.

Focus is difficult after that. I keep one eye on David in the corner as I mix drinks that are more syrup than coffee for girls who are more sparkle than substance. They lean on the counter, fishing for discounts with low-cut tops, but my eyes are on David. I don’t know what to expect, but I don’t want to miss it.

Five sips in, his head dips and I make change for the girls in a rush. They leave in a burst of giggles. I didn’t miss the shot at my preference, but I also couldn’t care less.

David hasn’t moved for a full minute. His head is bowed over his chem books, his hands limp on the table. I slide into the seat across from him. It wobbles beneath me as I lean forward.

“David?” I ask, not knowing what else to say.

His eyes blink slowly and his arms fall from the table to wrap around his stomach. The gesture makes his shoulders slope in on themselves. He looks cold, small. When he raises his head, there’s a little frown on his lips, the kind that sits to heavily in the eyes that the lips have no hope of hiding the hunger behind them. It’s a frown I know so, so well.

I lean forward until my chest presses against the table. My heart pounds against it, each beat coming more quickly than the previous one, all my hope raging inside me like a storm. I swallow and know my voice will shake before I speak. Beneath the table, I press my hands into fists and those against my thighs. I don’t know what I’ll do if this hasn’t worked.

I take a slow breath and in a shallow voice, I ask, “Mom?”

Vertical lines etch into the skin above his nose as the frown deepens. Slowly, his eyes meet mine. He squints.

“Alan?” The voice is soft, surprised, but still unmistakably David’s and I realize that if the powder didn’t work, he’s going to think I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes,” I say, trying to sound casual. “It’s me.”

David’s eyes swoop around the coffee shop, taking it all in before returning to me. “What have you done?”

There is no mistaking that tone, even in David’s nasally voice. I let out the breath I’ve been holding. “Mom.”

She – he grabs my face, turns it roughly from side to side. “This is real? You’re, I’m here? With you?”

“Yes, but I don’t think we have much time.”

“I shouldn’t be here.” She looks down at her chest – David’s chest, lifts his hands and studies them. This time her voice is full of horror when she asks. “What have you done, Alan?”

I’m struck by the surrealness of seeing my mom’s expression interpreted by David’s face. He looks twenty years older, but also like David, at the same time. For a moment all I can do is watch David’s mouth twist into my mother’s. It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary.

“I needed to talk to you.” Hearing the words out loud, I realize how pathetic they are. I ripped open the veil, pulled my mom out of wherever she was, and forced her to possess a slightly annoying, but totally innocent college student who just wanted to study for his o chem midterm. I don’t even know what happened to David. I never thought to ask. Is he in limbo? Can he see us right now? Does he know what I’ve done?

The fury on his face is all Mom. “You promised.”

“I know but—”

“No.” She/he leans forward and speaks low through gritted teeth. “No magic. Ever. It’s too dangerous.”

I put my hands flat on the tabletop and brace myself for what I have to say next. “Something’s happening to me.” How could I tell her about the dreams? How ever since she died, there's this hunger building inside me. How almost every night now I dreamt of flames, and screams. Horrific scenes of people begging for their lives as they burned to death while I laughed, a delicious power surging through me, filling me up the way no meal ever could. And worst of all, it was me who set them all on fire. “I need to know about my father.”

David’s face contorts with rage. The words spew out of his mouth in one angry stream. “I did not spend every ounce of my lifeforce shielding you from his influence just so you could seek him out the moment I was gone.”

I jerk back, her words a slap to my face. “What?”

No. Mom had cancer. It ate away at her. The potions she drank were for healing. But I remember the name of the recipe – Soul Saver. The way she was always running her hand through my hair just before she mixed up a new batch.

“Alan,” she grabs my hand with both of hers. Her mouth is open, but no more words come out.

“Hey lovebirds,” a man’s voice shouts from behind me. “You think I can get some coffee?”

I turn around to see the counter is empty. Kris must’ve gone on her break. A red-faced man glares at me, taking a moment to glance pointedly at my hand in David’s before crossing his arms and making what I’m sure he thinks is a hilarious joke. “If you’re done gazing into your boyfriend’s eyes, maybe you can come take my order.”

A few of the other customers laugh and I feel my face get hot even though he’s got it wrong and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public, anyway. If I had one. “Sorry, sir.”

I choose a pace somewhere between walking and running. I don’t want him to think I’m rushing for him, but I don’t know how much more time I have with Mom. And I don’t want to be anywhere near David when she leaves.

I feel Mom’s eyes on me as I hurry through making the man’s triple espresso.

“You know, I don’t have a problem with you guys,” the man says when I hand him his change. “Just keep it on your own time. This is a place of business.”

“Yes, sir,” I say, and the hunger flares in me. I would love to watch this idiot burn.

I shove the fantasy aside and sit back down across from Mom. She’s doing that thing she used to do where it’s like she’s looking inside me, like she can read my thoughts. It’s unnerving to see that knowing look on David’s face.

“You’ve changed.”

I almost laugh. She has no idea. “I know. Tell me what you meant about my father.”

David’s eyes fill with tears and I’m amazed that his body reacts to my mom’s emotions. She’s really in there.

“I thought I could protect you. I thought if I raised you right, you’d never need to know.”

“Mom, please.”

She nods her head quickly and wipes her eyes. She takes a deep breath and spits it out. “Your father was a demon.”

The sights and sounds of the café fade away until there is only the word “demon” echoing in my brain, and David’s tear-streaked face pleading with me. And I know in my gut that she’s telling the truth. This isn’t some nightmare, or a sick joke. My father was a demon, and so am I.

David/Mom wraps his arms around his stomach and gasps. “I have to go.”

“Wait!” I say, too loud, but I don’t care.

“Be careful.” David’s body hunches over the table. The muscles in his face strain and push against each other as my mom fights for her last words. “Now that you know, he’ll find you.”

David’s eyes roll up as he collapses face first into his notes.

She’s gone.

 I don’t have time to feel sad. I sprint back behind the counter before the real David comes back. Maybe he’ll think it was a dream, if he remembers anything at all.

A middle-aged woman in a black pencil skirt comes up to me and orders a chai latte. I smile at her politely, but my eyes keep skirting around her back to the corner. David hasn’t moved.

“Extra cream, please,” says the woman. “And a dash of nutmeg.”

“Of course.” The corner stays silent.

“He’ll be back soon, you know,” she whispers.

“What? I wasn’t—”

“Don’t be coy, Alan. I know what you’ve done.”

I pull myself away from David and try to place where I’ve seen this woman. Her eyes are the color of coal and her hair as dark as the cocoa beans in the grinder. Her features are sharp, smart, and unearthly beautiful but in a way you wouldn’t notice unless you took the time to study her.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

She smirks, the corner of her mouth twitching just slightly amused. “We’ve never actually met. My name is Amon. I’m surprised your mother never mentioned me.”

The ceramic cup in my hand falls to the counter and shatters. All eyes in The Bean Queen focus in on me and this woman, who I’m pretty sure isn’t a woman.

“Jesus, Alan!” Kris comes running in from the back. “What is wrong with you?”

“Sorry. I’ll—”

“I’ll get the broom. Try not to break anything else.”

“Kris, wait! I…I gotta go.” I toss my apron onto the counter behind me and sprint past David’s corner toward the front door. The screams from my dream echo inside my head. I can’t be that person. I can’t be a demon.

I push into the door and it pushes back. It’s locked.

He’ll find you, Mom said. Not much of a forewarning.

“Why the rush, Alan?” The woman in the skirt asks.

“Yeah, Alan.” The douche with the triple espresso. His eyes turn as black as hers, and his smile is just as tight and unnatural. Everyone in the café has those same coal black eyes, except for David Stokes who still lies slumped over his notes.

I back myself up against the wall. “Kris?”

Kris comes from the back and steps up to the counter holding a broom. “I’m tired of cleaning up your messes, Alan.” Her eyes. Her smile. All the same.

He’ll find you.

The woman, Amon, takes a step toward me. “We won’t hurt you Alan. You’re far too important.”

“I’m not what you think.” I feel the lie, a cold spark that my mind tries to extinguish. The truth burns inside my chest, growing and coiling around itself until I feel the fire all the way to my finger tips. “I’m not who you think,” I say between gritted teeth.

“We’ve been watching you. We can help you, Alan,” Amon says. “We can prepare you.”

“I don’t want it.” My voice comes out like a question.

“It isn’t about earthly desires, Alan. It’s your birthright.”

“No.” I try the door again. I can see out through the glass, but it’s like nobody out there can see me. Nobody even blinks when I pound my fist against the door and scream. I throw my weight against it, trying to break it. Nothing. They just walk by like sheep to the slaughter. It makes the fire grow hotter.

“Alan.” Amon lays a cold hand against my shoulder and I sink down to the floor. She crouches down in front of me. I don’t see any part of myself in her/his face, not like I did with Mom on David’s. I don’t know him. I don’t owe him anything. I am not his son.

I shove the hand off my shoulder and her whole arm goes up in flames. They reflect in her dark eyes like the sun over placid water.

“I said, I’m not who you think.” I wave a hand at Kris and she bursts into flames. Triple espresso, I smile at him first. “I don’t have a problem with you guys, but this is a place of business. Keep your soul snatching on your own time.”

Their screams fill my ears, just like in my dreams. Only this time the power is real, raw, and amazing. They’re evil and they deserve this. I back over toward the corner where I’ve left David, hoping he’ll wake up. I don’t know if I can drag him out myself and I can’t leave him here.

“Alan!” Amon screams, her voice is raspy. Her sharp features have begun to melt. “Stop!”

She reaches for me and with barely a thought, the flames grow hotter, higher, until I can’t tell her apart from any of the others.

“He won’t get me, Mom.” I turn around to find David awake and staring at the inferno in front of him.

“David, c’mon. We have to get out.” I grab hold of his red shirt, the fabric looks like blood in my hands. David doesn’t move. “David!”

“Let me get my notes.” He starts to gather his chem notes.

“Are you serious?” Sweat pours down my face and stings my eyes. Smoke fills most of the café making it hard to breathe. “C’mon!”

David’s fingers wrap over mine. “I thought we had an understanding Alan,” he says all at once and as calm as if he were ordering his coffee. His eyes are no different than they’ve always been. Nothing about him is any different. David Stokes is definitely in there, but I think maybe a small piece of sanity was lost in limbo.


“I come in every day, you make my coffee just the way I like it. You don’t cause trouble. You’re a good boy, Alan. And then you use me to talk to her?”

“I—” Is he really doing this now?

David sighs. “It’s fine, really. I understand. After all, had you not spoken to her, I would never be able to speak directly to you. And then there’s this.” He gestures to the carnage folding in around us. David smiles at me, his skin stretched too thin over his bony face. I’ve never seen him smile, never seen anything so personal come from him, but his expression is somehow familiar, like looking into a mirror.

“I always knew you’d take after me, son.”

Photo by Jayeb333 via Flickr Creative Commons

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