Aside from my brother, I’d never really had roommates except in college. The only reason it worked with him and me was because we didn’t have a choice. We were two pet rats thrown in a cage that never got along, and no amount of biting, clawing, or squeaking our dislike would change the rat owners’ decision to house us together. My mother never really wanted to deal with our bickering, and my dad’s solution was to tell us; “Get along, or get beat.”
College had been a bit of a challenge for me, in the way it was challenging for a betta to tolerate another of its kind in its tank. I’d thought it was my chance to expand my horizons, meet new people, learn some spiffy new stuff, and potentially make friends far removed from my awkward high school years. Maybe it was me finally being away from home that made my usually pessimistic self so hopeful, but my four years at a state college socked the optimism from me faster than a heavyweight fighter versus a lightweight. It also just made me hate people more.
I was drained. I’d reached the end of my, ‘Adrenaline is a totally appropriate replacement for sleep!’ tether. With rebellious eyes drooping of their own accord, I faced Knight.
“No,” he said, and pointed a finger at me, eyeing me up and down. “I’m not driving you home, and if you get pulled over for erratic driving you better not mention my name.” A flicker of something passed through his expression, too quick for my sleep-addled brain to track.
He scoffed and shook his head, either from exasperation, or trying to hide whatever I’d missed. “Get out of here. I need to call the owner to let him know he can open the store back up. You and the green crew need to skedaddle before then.”
I looked toward the back door. The other Goblins were already piled into the back of the van, leaving just Slies, Knight, and me in the kitchen. I turned weary eyes down to my new hip attachment.
“How does this work? You can’t walk out like that. Do you have some kind of disguise?” I asked, knowing I’d lost any semblance of tact the minute the words tumbled from my mouth like a waterfall of word vomit.
“Something wrong with the way I look?” Slies asked, belligerently.
“Uh, no. I just mean it isn’t very covert to walk around with a green man the size of a toddler.”
“Who you callin’ a toddler?”
The situation had the vibe of a trap with no outcome except the loss of a hand, or something equally vital. So I just stared at him a moment, and then turned on my heel and walked away.
“Hey!” Slies hurried up with me, his pack slung over his shoulder. “Jeez,” he said, under his breath, “can’t you take a joke?”
“I’m too tired for yours, or anyone else’s, shit at this point. And I still have to work tonight.” I groaned. My toenails still throbbed from being on my feet all night, and weariness weighed on my shoulders like concrete dragging me down into the icy depths of exhaustion.
“No worries. You won’t even notice me around.”
Doubtful, Rational Brain said, dryly.
“To answer your question, we have, ‘look the other way’ charms crafted by a local Witch. As long as we’re not actively trying to draw attention to ourselves, people can’t see us.”
He’d caught up to me at that point, right as I stepped out into the sunlight. The van had driven off, taking all the other goblins, dead and alive, back to wherever it was the goblins lived. I looked down at the talisman he held out.
It was a disc that fit in the center of his palm, about two inches across. It was made from dark, reddish-brown cherry wood, which I knew because my father went through a weird phase post-military, where he wanted to reconnect with his inner man and work with his hands. Or something equally teenage eye-roll worthy. It was varnished with something to make the wood darker, and for some reason my bones were aching from more than sleep just from being in its presence. There was a symbol etched into wood, a triskele, in fact. A swirly Celtic symbol I recognized from one of my more eccentric college roommate’s books. It was like three octopus arms, curling out from a central point in the same direction, sans the suckers. When I tried to concentrate on it harder, my eyes slid away, like water across a puddle of oil. It had a small hole through the ‘top’ and sides, like a long tunnel through the wood, in which a length of worn, brown leather cord was threaded through and looped around Slies’ neck.
There was something disconcerting about the sensation, and it left me mildly uncomfortable. Whatever powered the charm didn’t seem to care for me, almost like a person rolling a piece of hard candy around in their mouth, just to spit it out when the flavor didn’t suit their taste.
“Witch, you say?” I asked, curious despite the disagreeable impression from the talisman.
“Yeah, she’s as old as the woods around the town, and the Boss has been doin’ business with her for almost as long as that.”
Brings to mind some interesting questions about the lifespan of supernaturals, Rational Brain noted.
Sleep, Primal Brain mumbled, and I stumbled on one of the small bits of gravel. Although, I could trip on the air itself some days, so I couldn’t blame my worn state. I managed to make it to my car, and Slies hopped in on the passenger side after it unlocked with an ungodly cheerful chirp.
As I slid in on the driver’s side, Slies asked, “You okay to drive?”
“I’m fine,” I groused, as I tried at least three times, unsuccessfully, to get the key in the ignition. On the fourth, with Slies’ eyebrows climbing ever higher with each failure, I managed to get it in. “See? No problem,” I said, and yawned so big and long, a tear was one stray water molecule away from rolling down my cheek.
“I’m so reassured,” he muttered.
I puttered out of the lot and headed back to my apartment. Slies only had to shriek once, or twice, to alert me that I may have been driving off the road. We made it to my apartment without any accidents, and I trudged bleary-eyed up to my door. I unlocked it, opened it, and shambled to my room. The one thing I made sure to do was close and lock the bedroom door. I was too tired to care about what else he might do in the apartment. I flopped onto my bed and fell asleep.
An insistent beeping invaded the black, dreamless void of my mind, and I groaned and reached blindly for my phone. It was time to wake up, oh joy. I flipped open the cover on my phone, and poked the screen until the beeping stopped, never taking my face from the pillow.
“Time for work, eh?”
Adrenaline slammed through my system like a locomotive through a car on its tracks, and I scrambled in my covers, an unholy shriek torn from me like yanking out someone’s spleen. My feet tangled in the beige sheets, and I fell over the side of my bed. My head bounced off the carpeted floor, and stars skated across my vision like water striders across a lake.
When the little lights cleared, the tips of two large, green ears peeked over the edge of the bed, followed by the rest of Slies’ face.
“What the fuck are you doing in my bed?” I screeched.
Slies’ ears curled at the loud noise, and he scowled. “Jeez, you’re loud.”
I crabwalked backward a few feet from the bed, and it was then I saw enough of him on the bed to see he wore a pair of loose, blue cotton pajama pants pulled tight at the waist with a drawstring. He was shirtless, and a patch of curly black hair was spread across his chest, over his sternum, and then in a thin line down his midline all the way to his pants.
“And why are you half naked?” I was louder this time, and Slies actually covered his ears.
“I don’t like sleeping with a shirt on, and I’m in your bed because I’m not sleeping on that pathetic excuse for a futon you have out there. You might as well sit right on the springs, the thing is so thin.” He paused, removed his hands from his ears, and if possible his scowl deepened. “Not that your bed is much better. What the hell are you made of, that you can sleep on this rock?”
“Apparently sterner stuff than goblins who shouldn’t be in my bed any way,” I growled back at him.
He shrugged, and took a gander around my room. “Also, you need to fire your interior decorator.”
The room was Spartan, with only a full-sized bed and boxspring set directly on the floor. Saved on me having to vacuum beneath it, if it had one of those simple frames. The sheets were a washed out, greyish-brown the color of three day old oatmeal. The thinning comforter had been washed near to colorless, though it had started life as some kind of trendy-named beige. I had a plastic tote on the floor containing all my unmentionables, as my mother calls them, and a hamper that was occasionally home to the dirty clothes littering the floor. I had a standing lamp that I used for reading at night when the overhead light was too bright, especially given that reading meant changing positions and no one liked trying to block an overhead light with a book.
The closet had a few scattered plastic hangers, with some shirts, a couple jeans, and now my work clothes. When my mother had discovered wire hangers in the closet, she hadn’t beaten me with them, but she had a case of the vapors, to be sure.
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” I said, and stood, doing that awkward lifting of your legs and feet when trying to get something untangled from your ankles. I headed for the bathroom, and Slies scooted from the bed.
My hackles rose and I turned a deadly gaze toward him, my eyes a little wide, daring him to complete his path toward the bathroom door. It was one of those bathrooms that had two doors: one to the bedroom, and one to the main area of the apartment. Slies’ eyebrows rose, and he held his hands up in defense as he scooted around the end of the bed, heading toward the living room.
That’s right, you little slug, Primal Brain rumbled, still somewhat amped up on shock and adrenaline.
I don’t think we’re his type, Rational Brain replied dryly.
The bathroom matched the rest of the apartment: small and unremarkable. The shower curtain was that plastic that eventually cracked, and the lightest of airflow would send it sticking to an unsuspecting body part, eliciting an unholy shriek. It was maroon—the color that was on sale—and had matching plastic rings to hold it up. Though a few were blue, to replace rings that had broken, and there were none of the same color to replace them when I bought new ones.
The bathtub itself was the real coup de grâce. It was an older apartment building, before they made the plastic, one-piece shower surrounds. Mine was tile, old and crumbly, and the heavy, ceramic soap holder had fallen out of the wall and onto my foot. The bruise had been nasty, and the gruff, old super with a bent back, wrinkled skin like a hound dog, and salt and pepper hair was unsympathetic. It revealed a real moisture issue eating away at the wall behind the tile, but he’d just patched it up, and told me not to use it. The rest of the tub was the same ceramic, with rust-like stains in the corners and running like a reddish-brown river from the faucet, to the overflow faceplate, and on down to the drain.
The sink was white, vanity top, and sitting over golden pecan engineered hardwood. It was bubbled and warped from too much water left on it, and not being cleaned up, from before I was ever in the apartment. There was no mirror over the medicine cabinet, busted by some druggie tenant prior to me, and never replaced.
The apartment had never been ideal, but it was within my means.
I took a shower at land-speed record, and blow dried my hair out. I peeked into the bedroom to make sure Slies wasn’t there, and I went in and got dressed even faster. I walked out into the living room to see Slies dressed, and eating something from a bowl while sitting on the aforementioned rock-hard futon. I assumed it was my cereal, since there really wasn’t much else here to eat.
“No wonder you’re single. You’re the worst housekeeper I’ve ever seen, and your cereal selection sucks,” he said around a mouthful of bran. “Bring some food home with you.”
“No wonder you’re single. You haven’t got a tactful bone in your body, or any manners to speak of,” I shot back, gathering my things for work, and grabbing my shoes.
Slies smiled, his sharp teeth revealing bits of bran stuck to them. “I’m a highly eligible bachelor, but I don’t have time to get into the intricacies of goblin courtship. You ready for this?”
The smallest, teeniest worms of doubt squirmed in my gut. “I’m not really sure what you guys want me to do. Celinwel doesn’t like me, and how am I supposed to know she’s some kind of supernatural drug dealer? It’s not something that comes up in casual conversation at work.”
Slies shrugged. “Guess you better get good at making friends, then, Toots.”
I took the high road and ignored the nickname. Slies hopped up from the futon, and walked over to the sink. He rinsed the bowl out and it thudded in the bottom of the sink.
“I’m taking a shower, then I’ll be out to do some sneakin’. I don’t know if I’ll be home when you get here, but I shouldn’t be too long gone.”
“Later then,” I said, and watched him grab his backpack and go into the bathroom.
Should we tell him about the soap dish? Rational Brain wondered.
Nah, Primal Brain responded.
It was only scant seconds after the shower head turned on that a muffled thud sounded from the bathroom, followed by a howl of pain.
The super wouldn’t be happy, but I couldn’t help but cackle as I walked out the door.
I’ll admit I was reluctant to be the goblins’ inept detective, or rather bait to bring out the criminal when I ‘got too close to the truth’. If that ever happened.
Julia and the other humans were already out the back door, and my crew already inside, by the time I arrived. When Julia and I reached each other, just for that brief hand-over report, she grimaced.
“I know it would have been nice to have a slow night, because of Stribs, but it’s turning out to be an average, crazy Thursday. Try to keep them motivated.” She paused. “Somehow. Good luck!” Then she was gone faster than I could say lickety split.
Not that you’d say that anyway. What is this, the 1800s? Rational Brain said scornfully.
In reality, I was stalling. I didn’t want to deal with any of this: Stribs’ death, Celinwel’s animosity, the goblins, Knight… The list went on. I’d also been flying from one thing to the next without a chance to really process any of it. Sharp claws of panic were making their way up from my gut toward my throat, but I swallowed them down and continued on to the back door. This time they’d left the smallest part of a wedge door stopper in the door for me, so I wouldn’t have to knock, and it allowed just the barest of finger holds to grab the edge of the door. With a casual glance it would appear closed, but it also meant Odella wouldn’t have to wait for me.
I went in, picked up the door stopper and set it on a shelf near the back door, and then headed to the crew room. I could hear the kitchen bustling, though there wasn’t any chatter going on. I hung up my jacket, put my purse on the shelf, and grabbed a headset from the bin over the registers at the first window.
I nodded at Lia as I passed the sink area, and she nodded back, but didn’t offer a greeting. Her expression was a mixture, as though her mind was on a loop of thoughts, and none of them very appealing.
I walked through the grill area, and noted a new face. She turned enough so I could see a nametag that read ‘Thea’, and then our eyes met. Hers were the bright orange of Halloween pumpkins, with vertical slits like a cat, set in a triangular face with prominent cheekbones. She had a happy, somewhat offbeat look, and smiled at my stare.
“Hello!” She beamed. She was on the heavier side, and moved with a bit of a spring in her step. Hair that was in a ponytail but would touch just beyond her shoulders if left down, was straight, thick, and the color of cinnamon streaked with honey.
Everyone within my view tensed at her voice, and it raised some internal eyebrows. It was more than her replacing Stribs. That level of uneasiness went much deeper than that.
“Holly!” Odella called, and I didn’t have any time to think on it further.
The night went by in a blur, punctuated by a few snapshots of interactions.
Bea stopped me on her way to the crew room for her ten minute break and asked, in almost a whine, “I wasn’t too mean to him, right? I just don’t want him to have died thinking I hated him.”
I didn’t want to break it to her that I doubted Stribs’ last thoughts were of her, but I also didn’t want to point out that Stribs wasn’t the nicest character.
“No, I don’t think you were too mean, Bea,” I reassured her. Her shoulder slumped in relief, and she whispered a quiet ‘thank you’ as she loped off.
Odella was somewhat aloof, but I wasn’t shocked, being that—according to all the literature I’d ever read—she was already dead herself. I wouldn’t say she sent out vibes of relief, but she wasn’t exactly broken up about it, either.
Anne was her usual, bouncy self, though she did tone it down an iota around Celinwel. It was our first night without the cloud of Stribs’ negativity hanging over us all, and Anne, being the little neurotic ball of sunshine she was, was going to shine no matter what.
Leo was off for the night, so I didn’t get to see his reaction, but he was a zombie, after all. And Nathan stayed well away.
The real puzzle was Celinwel herself. She’d kept her head down, making food, and her mouth shut, which was odd for her. And instead of being somber, she was more puzzled and angry, than anything else.
In an effort to do what Knight and Gozuk asked, I’d walked up to her on my ten minute break, and offered my condolences.
She scowled at me. “Like you know anything about it,” she’s said, her voice like an angry buzz of bees. It was also an odd response. Then she glanced over my shoulder, and caught sight of something. Her scowl lessened a hair, though her lips pressed out in a thin line. “Thank you,” she ground out between clenched teeth.
I turned to see what was behind me, and Odella wasn’t too far away, watching our interaction like a mother cat keeping watch on her kitten interacting with a bird of prey. Celinwel didn’t have Stribs to back up her behavior, or her, his, anymore. I faced Celinwel again and nodded. “No problem.”
At the end of the night, as everyone was getting ready to leave, Odella stopped us all and made a surprising suggestion.
“I know I wouldn’t be able to stay for more than twenty minutes or so, but how about we head to The Salty Wench for a drink, on Stribs’ behalf,” she said.
There was a general murmur from all those assembled by the crew area, and it was uneasy and leaning toward ‘no’ before Anne piped up with, “That sounds perfect. Stribs loved that place.”
I looked to Celinwel, who wasn’t happy, but she nodded. The others agreed.
“I’ll meet you outside and lead you there,” Odella said to me, as everyone headed out.
In all reality, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. But with Knight and Gozuk hovering over me, as well as Slies probably already in my bed, I didn’t have much choice.