You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Can I Keep Him?

Can I Keep Him?

a short story by Michael R. Lockridge

Bobby Blanchardt could not figure out just what it was he was looking at. It was not particularly large. It was about the size of a kitten. Though it sat more like a monkey or small man, it did not really feel like that. Feel was not the right word, but Bobby could not find a better one.

He knew that most people would find the creature disgusting. Hair sprouted from one place or another, but most of the skin was exposed. It was dry in places, wet in others. Some spots seemed to ooze a bit if the creature moved. The skin was bone white in places, several shades of red in others, and never a color that seemed right or natural.

Least natural were the eyes. They hid malice. Oh, they were big and frightened and innocent looking. They drew Bobby in. Yet he sensed a malice under the “help me” they tried to display. Still, they drew him in.

On impulse he reached down and picked it up. The boney tail wrapped around his arm in a possessive grip. The protrusions that covered the ridge along the back of the tail prodded his flesh and made him momentarily afraid. The little creature adjusted the grip and seemed immediately more pleasant to hold. If it weren’t for the sting of what felt like a paper cut on the back of his left hand Bobby might have thought he had imagined the boney grip.

“You are a kitten.” Bobby said. He was making a mental shift that was common among humans. He expected it to purr, but it did not. Bobby just kept trying to make it a kitten in his mind. The neighbors of Bergen Belsen or Dachau made a similar shift in thinking when they learned to live with something evil nearby.

It is thus that Bobby Blanchardt came to have a demon. It may have been just a tiny demon, but it was a demon nonetheless.

His mother assumed that Bobby had created an imaginary creature to fill his lonely hours when he came home begging “Can I keep him?” She could not see the creature he held in his arms when he asked her if he could keep it. Oh, her eyes saw it, but the information got lost somewhere on the way to her brain. She did not have the longing that Bobby had, or it might have actually appeared to be a kitten.

No, her mind simply lost the information. The kitten was imaginary, and that was that.

Bobby’s mother had a mind that embraced convenience. It had served her when Bobby’s father had walked away two years before, and it served her now. She said, “Yes, you can keep him.”

“I’ll name him Fluffy.” Bobby announced. It was the least fluffy thing in Bobby’s small world, but the name contributed to the illusion. Almost he could feel the thick fur when he stroked his new pet. He did not stroke it often. It felt boney, dry and scaly, except when he touched one of the oozing places. No, he seldom even touched it when he could avoid it.

That did not mean it was not always near him. Often it sat and just stared at him. When Bobby would go somewhere it would jump up and huddle on one of his shoulders, the nasty tail wrapped around him possessively. Bobby learned to ignore it most of the time, except when his mother asked about his “kitten.”

The fact that it never ate, never drank and seemed to never need to use any kind of litter box contributed to his mother’s belief that it was just imaginary.

For Bobby it was just there. It sat by his bed when he slept. It invaded his dreams. It was there when he ate or brushed his teeth. It was just there, as if it had always been there.

It went to school with Bobby. For weeks it just went there with him, sitting on his shoulder. Once he arrived at school it would jump down and find someplace to sit and stare at him. Bobby got used to it, and stopped thinking about it.

Somehow he knew better than to tell his few friends about his kitten. It might get complicated.

Then one day Ralphie was walking by the lunch table at which Bobby was sitting. Ralphie was different. He walked with crutches and wore a helmet all of the time. Bobby had never paid much attention to Ralphie, but this time he could think of nothing else.

He noticed how unsteady Ralphie was as he walked. How much he depended on those crutches. Bobby felt Fluffy’s eyes boring into the back of his head. Though he knew that Fluffy was involved somehow, he also knew that what he did next was his own choice.

He stuck out his foot and hooked one of those precious crutches and sent Ralphie sprawling between the tables. Nobody saw him do it. He knew he should react to the blood that came from Ralphie’s broken lip. He should feel sorry, or sad, or even gleeful. He felt nothing.

Fluffy seemed heavier when he leaped up on Bobby’s shoulder for the walk home. However, by the time he reached his home Bobby no longer noticed.

Over the years the Ralphie type of incidents graduated into planned and carefully executed acts of meanness. When they were over Bobby always lacked any of the feelings he knew should accompany such minor evil. At such times he would sense that Fluffy had gotten bigger, and felt heavier on his shoulder. Then he would promptly forget the observation.

The night he took Suzie Wells out in his mom’s car was the first time he saw Fluffy grow. Suzie had seemed very interested in Bobby, and he felt some interesting things when he was around her. That night when she said “No!” he knew she meant “Yes!” Fluffy sat in the back seat and watched.

As Bobby fulfilled all of the desires Suzie must truly have toward him he saw Fluffy physically swell in the back seat. When Bobby was finished and Suzie huddled against the door of the car, weeping, he realized that she could actually see Fluffy over his shoulder. Seeing Fluffy must have done something to her, because she never told anyone about that night.

Over the years Bobby had gotten new friends. They liked the things Bobby would come up with for them to do. At least they did until, one by one, they began to disappear. Most were assumed to be runaways. Only Lenny disappeared in a way that could be explained. He vanished into Juvenile Hall, where he was found one day hanging from a shower curtain rod.

After that Bobby’s mom was on his back. She whined and wheedled, complaining about his bad friends and bad performance in school. She began to irritate Bobby. Even worse, she obviously irritated Fluffy.

Bobby couldn’t even remember how the baseball bat had come to be in his hand. He just remembered the satisfaction of swinging it, again and again. The hollow thunk when it hit. The warmth of the blood.

With his mother now gone and the evidence against him, Bobby soon found himself sharing a series of jail cells with Fluffy. It didn’t bother Fluffy. He just sat and stared. Even the fact that the cells were a bit cramped due to the increased dimensions of Fluffy did not bother Fluffy.

Bobby took to spending hours just sitting and staring back. He lost himself in those huge eyes. The malice was no longer hidden. It was exposed, and hungry. Fluffy would stare at Bobby. Bobby would stare at Fluffy.

They couldn’t put anyone in a cell with Bobby. Even the most hardened felon would beg to be let out after an hour of sharing the cell. Nobody cried when Bobby was convicted and moved away to prison to sit on Death Row.

For months that became years Bobby would sit and stare at Fluffy, and Fluffy would sit and stare at Bobby. The whole prison sighed a sigh of relief when Bobby finally lay on the table, tubes sticking out of his arm and his heart not beating. Even then he stared, even in death.

A great, hulking demon arrived in Hell that night. It was well known that his name was Fluffy. The other demons pointed and made signs behind Fluffy’s back, but none dared to do so to his face. He had fed well, and was greater than most demons in Hell. Not the greatest, but more than a match for any regular demon.

Fluffy dragged a man along behind him. Most of the demons drew back from the creature when they looked into his eyes. The eyes were filled with malice and devoid of fear. Fluffy dragged him downward and deeper into Hell.

“Hey, Boss!” Fluffy shouted as some broad, dark shoulders filled the passage ahead. The shoulders turned to reveal the Dark Lord himself.

“Oh, uh, hi Fluffy.” said the Dark Lord.

Fluffy dragged Bobby out of the shadows and held him by one arm in front of the Father of Lies. “I found him on the street where you left me, Boss. Can I keep him?”

The Master of Deceit looked at the human spirit dangling in front of his eyes. Bobby gave him a sullen and baleful look. The Dark Lord snorted.

“Wow.” he said. “Good work, Fluffy.”

“Thanks, Boss.” said Fluffy. “Can I keep him?”

“Uh. Sure.” said the Dark Lord. “What the Hell. Sure. Keep him.”

Fluffy hugged his prize to his chest and moved even deeper into the recesses of Hell. Finding a dark corner far from the writhing masses of tormented souls Fluffy put his pet down on the ground.

Fluffy sat, and began to stare at Bobby. Bobby sat and stared at Fluffy.

After what might have been a millennium or maybe a half hour, Bobby said, “Know what, Fluffy?”

Fluffy said nothing. He just raised the horny ridges above his eyes a bit in question.

“I don’t really think you are a kitten.”

For the first and last time in all of eternity laughter rang through the halls of Hell.

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