Skin

 


Skin

 

For Jim Harold and Evan

  

            Wilton breathed the espresso that filled the All Night Fifth & Mission Café.  It was late on a Thursday.  Too late for sociable chatter with other coffee lovers, yet too early for the red-eye crowd.  As he had hoped, he had the place to himself.

Wilton had been working late on a family dispute for one of his, particularly difficult clients.  Two generations of poorly-written wills had been deemed legally insufficient and his customer, an ill-tempered cur, was suing the executor.  That was part of the business, though.  What bothered Wilton was that his client mistook his lawyer for his bartender.  Wilton’s only consolation was that he got to bill the man for it.

            On nights like this, the All Night was a refuge, a place Wilton frequented so often he knew every barista by name.  He liked the place for its coffee, and for its doughnuts, and for some of its more attractive employees.  However, his true loyalty stemmed from them not minding him dozing in their small, upstairs sitting room.  Wilton ordered a decaf latte from Betty, the pretty, young woman who worked nights, and a maple bar.  No, make it two.  It was a two-doughnut kind of night. 

“Thanks, Willie.  Have a good night,” Betty smiled.  Wilton balanced the haul on his briefcase and stumped up the wood-paneled stairwell.  The room was a small compartment with a pair of kitschy, chest-high french doors; a garish, overstuffed couch; and a densely paisleyed easy chair.  Wilton shouldered his way in, swinging the doors with a springy creak.  He set his burdens on some hunting and astronomy magazines stacked on the end table and threw himself onto the couch’s familiar cushions.  His cushions.  Wilton leaned back and kicked his shoes off, sending them spinning like polished clay pigeons.  A wave of relief flowed from his feet, up along his bones, and found escape at his mouth.

“Oh, thank God.  Those things were killing me!”

He sunk into the soft, faux suede and became aware of just how tired he was. Consciousness faded and his body twisted itself around until his feet rested on the couch’s armrest.  Without his particularly willing it, one of his hands moved to the table and pincered his cup.  He was pleasantly half-aware of the milky joe dreamily approaching his mouth.  He smiled in anticipation, hoping to find a way to imbibe without sitting up.  This led to several false starts, however, and he sleepily returned it undrunk.

He closed his eyes and listened to the gentle sounds of the café.  The soft footsteps of Betty downstairs, the quiet hum of the air conditioner, and the occasional rush of plumbing.  This is perfect, he thought, and a smile broadened on his face in sweet anticipation of sleep.

It was at that moment that a man walked through the double doors with a loud squeak.  Wilton started upright, releasing a violent, surprised grunt.  The newcomer regarded him with a pleasant grin.

“Well hey, buddy, looks like I caught you napping!”

Wilton saw that the intruder was a tall, gangly man in dirty blue jeans and a black tee shirt.  Despite being thin, he had a soft, puffy look about him, resembling a scarecrow left out in the rain.  The man carried a giant, sticky, cinnamon bun, with which he gesticulated towards Wilton amiably.

“Mind if I join you?”

Ducking the honest answer, Wilton croaked, “Why, of course not.  Come on in.” 

The tall man sat on the paisley chair and kicked his legs out to their full, prodigious length. 

“Well, thanks!  This is a nice little room, isn’t it?  Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to find another one making himself comfortable.”  The man cracked his knuckles leisurely.  “So, bud, what’s your name?”

Wilton looked at him with worn, displeased eyes.  “I’m Wilton.  Wilton Drakes.”

“Nice to meet you, Wilton Drakes.  I’m Franklin LaRue, but all my friends call me Frankie.”

“Nice to meet you, Frankie.”

“Yeah, I’m from up the river about thirty miles.  Got me a cherry concern up there, plus a side deputation from the Game Department.”

Wilton thought the man was disgustingly chipper.  Assuming a deep, furrowed grimace, which Frankie failed to notice, Wilton resettled into the couch.  He sighed loudly, hoping this would make clear his disinterest in further conversation. 

It didn’t.  “So, Wilton Drakes, what do you do around here?”
            “Just…‘Wilton.’  I’m an estate lawyer.”

“Well, that’s mighty respectable, Wilton!”

“Thanks.” 

Wilton closed his eyes, escalating his display of unsociability to the unwelcome guest.  This seemed to engender a pause, during which Wilton heard Frankie take a bite of a cinnamon bun.  The lawyer thought himself victorious, and his muscles untensed.

Then, in the same manner, that water circumvents a boulder, Frankie’s voice flowed around the sugary mass in his mouth.  “Sure is a pretty sky out there.  Can see all the way to good ol’ Zeta Ret tonight.”

Wilton’s nose wrinkled with displeasure.  “Is that so?”

“It certainly is, Wilton.” 

A body of quiet chewing filled the room.

“Mm,” Wilton grunted.

Frankie’s mastication continued—a wet, busy movement punctuated by a loud gulp.  “Probably means a cool spell moving in.  Clear skies an’ high pressure an’ all.”

Wilton rolled onto his side, nuzzling the rear cushions.

“You never can tell with the weather, though.  That’s for sure.  Some nights it’s clear as a bell, the next it’s like to wash you straight down the valley.”

            Wilton attempted to burrow into his couch.  He focused his attention on the ache of his unshod feet and the heaviness of his eyes.  He prayed that he would be asleep soon, that a gulf of blissful slumber would separate him from this pestering gadfly.

And, amazingly, it seemed to work.  Silence.  Or something close to it.  For a small, drowsy eternity, the only thing that Wilton heard was the occasional churning of the bun.  Unexpectedly, this reminded him of his own virgin drink and uneaten maple bars.  He considered consuming them, but the couch was so very comfortable and the threat of renewed conversation so very real.

Sleep crept upon him.  His idle thoughts took on a billowy substance, transmuting from hard reality into the formless material of dreams.  With a gentle exhalation, he descended to that low, still precipice of sleep.

“I once had me a lawyer.”

Wilton’s eyes opened into narrow slits.  Twisting, he stared at Frankie with silent menace.  He growled and swung his legs, pivoting to a sitting position.  Wilton saw that Frankie, unmoved, was casually examining the corners of the small room’s ceiling, chewing an abundant quantity of pastry.  Never removing his evil eye, Wilton reached for his decaffeinated latte.  He brought the drink to his lips and sipped it lukewarm.  When his rage was contained enough to speak, he fired a smoldering, “And?” 

Frankie looked at Wilton with raised eyebrows.  “I’m sorry?”

“The lawyer.  You said that you once ‘had me a lawyer.’”

“Oh yeah,” Frankie took another bite.  “So I did.”

Wilton’s lips pursed.  “Well?  What did you need a lawyer for?”

“Oh, well.  Weren’t much.  Years ago.  Orchard neighbor of mine once came out into this ol’ clear’d field that I had.  Tallgrass and all.  So, he comes out one night and takes his two by four with a rope through the ends and goes on till dawn making a crop circle.  What a terrible mess caused all sorts of opportunists a’come in, all outta season.  Poachers!  Pure trouble.  I got my lawyer to go after him for trespassing.”

Wilton snorted.  He flopped backward, fanned his arms along with the couch’s backrest, sneering like a bird of prey.

“Then you, Franklin LaRue, had an unscrupulous lawyer.  That could have been handled for free with a simple call to the police.”

“Ya think?”

“Yeah.  I do.”

Frankie seemed to consider this for a moment.  “Well, that’s a shame.  Still, didn’t have any issues with that neighbor after that season, that’s for sure.”

Wilton’s disdain took solid form within him.  “Frankie, let me ask you a question.”

“Shoot, buddy.”

“What are you doing at a coffee shop at this time of night?”

“Oh, well, couldn’t sleep, and I find this room kind of restful.  Ya know?  I tend to come here when I need some shuteye and I can’t get it anywhere else.  Or sometimes to run into nimrods traveling through.  Or sometimes to talk to that good-lookin’ Betty downstairs.”

Wilton’s eyes narrowed.  “You know, Frankie, I do know.  As a matter of fact, that’s what I come here for, too.”

“Betty?”

“No, not for Betty!  For rest!  And, it just so happens that I’ve had a very long, very hard day, and I would much like to get some sleep in the few hours I have until my client shows up at the office tomorrow.”  He leaned forward menacingly, staking his elbows to his knees.  “So, if you don’t mind, I would really like to lay back down and get a little ‘shuteye’ myself.”

Frankie opened his mouth, the remainder of his bun raised in a gesture of surrender.  “Oh, of course.  What am I thinking?  Sure you do.  Please, please, don’t let me disturb you.”

Wilton scrunched up a mirthless smile.  “Thanks.” 

He angrily cast himself back onto the couch.  Shooting the man a final, venomous glare, he muttered “Goodnight, Frankie.” 

Frankie gave him a thumbs up and polished off the last of his cinnamon bun.  Wilton scowled as a look of witless consternation settled upon Frankie’s face.  But, Wilton was utterly unconcerned with the inner workings of Franklin LaRue.  He closed his eyes. 

Sleep, like a cold, damp mist rose over him.  He felt a gentle, sinking sensation that, as only happens in the most beautiful of dreams, conjured…

“Hey, Wilton?”

The lawyer’s face crumpled into a mask of rage.  Thrusting up on one elbow, he leveled fiery eyes on his tormentor.  “So help me, Frankie, if you don’t can it right now I’ll…”

“Wilton, can I ask you just one question?”

Wilton shook.  “What?”

“Bear with me, please.  I know this will sound strange.  But, Wilton, you are…human.  Right?”

Wilton’s brow corrugated in angry rows.  “What!”

            “I’d just like to know, Wilton.  You mentioned you make a habit of coming here to rest, and I just wanted to ask if you a good ol’, red-blooded human.  It’s a simple question.”

            “No, Frankie, I’m a 200-pound long-haired jackass, which perfectly explains why I like to sleep in coffee shops.  Of course, I’m human!  What the hell’s the matter with you?”

            “Well, might seem a strange thing to ask, I suppose, but some folk-o come round here ain’t human when say they are.  That really cheeses me off, let me tell you. They sometimes make a habit of sleeping in places like this.”

            Wilton’s jaw went slack.

            “You’ve been out in that crop circle of yours too long, Frankie.”

            “Betty says the same thing.”

            “This is ridiculous.”  Wilton stood and, in his haste, jostled the little end table, tumbling his latte off its pedestal of slick magazines.

            Before Wilton could even see it, Frankie shot out, unseating himself to grab the paper cup midair.  Despite his rage, Wilton couldn’t help but take notice—and then realized just how tired he must be.  His fatigue was affecting his judgment of time.  Before he had so much as cursed, Frankie had righted the vessel on the table and resumed his seat. 

“Careful now.”

            Wilton noticed that the other man stared at him with a hard expression.  This made Wilton uncomfortable, and in defense, he instinctually reverted to his courtroom demeanor.  He went for the initiative.

            “Hey, Frankie?”

            “Yes, Wilton?”

            “You were telling me some people say they’re human…and aren’t.”

            “That’s right.”

            “Just how would you know the difference?”

            The man smiled blandly.  “Well, it’s fairly simple.”

“Yes?”

“I peel their skin off.”

            Wilton’s eyes went wide.  “You what?”

            “I peel their skin off.”

            He’s insane.  This man’s out of his mind and I’m here in this tiny room with him.

            “You seem pretty upset.”  Frankie’s expression grew grave.  “You did say—for sure—you’re human, right?”

            I’ve got to get out of here.

            “Isn't that right, Wilton?”

            Wilton sprang for the door, catapulting his latte and doughnuts onto the wall.  Yet, as fast as Wilton was, Frankie was faster.  Before he knew it, the madman’s hand closed around his wrist. 

            But while Frankie was fast, Wilton found he had a weak, spongy grip that could not seriously challenge him. The lawyer threw his weight at the French doors, which wrenched his arm free.  However, in doing so, he lost his balance.  He hit the floor with a thud, and a sharp pain crawled across his lower forearm.  Frankie’s nails had lightly scratched him.  Wilton could see a thin line of blood seep to the surface.

            Now’s my chance.  Wilton stole a last, panicked glimpse at Frankie, who he saw was looking at the lawyer’s blood on his fingertips.

            “Well, I’ll be.”

Wilton didn’t stay to hear more.  In his black business socks, he scrambled downstairs.

            “He’s mad!  That damn fool hayseed attacked me!  Call the police and run, Betty.  He’s crazy!”  

The young barista casually wiped out her steam cup and watched him go with a patient look.  Wilton’s concern for her wellbeing lasted only as long as he was in the room.  He burst through the exit and sprinted along the sidewalk as far as his adrenaline would carry him.  This proved to be three blocks, at the end of which he rounded a brick building and gasped against its wall.

            He stayed there for a long time, replaying the events of the last few minutes.  With each breath of oxygen, rational thought returned to him.  First, he thought of driving home, which seemed like the most immediately reasonable thing to do.  Then, he considered finding a payphone and calling the police.  That, on second thought, was better.  He reached for the loose change he hoped would be in his pocket, which caused him to notice his feet.  Seeing his lack of shoes snapped him back to full reality, and he felt very foolish.

            ‘Are you human?’  Good God, I’m a full grown man.  I can handle this. 

Despite his white-collar profession, Wilton retained an athletic build not easily overcome when prepared.  Am I human?  Ha!  Every bit as much as Frankie is, and maybe a little more so! 

He had been tired, and caught off guard.  His honor would not allow him to slink away.  Besides, his shoes and his briefcase, with all of his client’s documents, were back in the café.  He needed to go back.  He was going back.

            Gingerly, he cat-stepped the furlong to the coffee shop, keeping an eye out for broken glass—or anyone he might later have to explain this to.  After a few minutes of anxious padding, Wilton reached the All Night Fifth & Mission.  He crept to the well-lit front window and, acting the best-dressed peeping tom in town, stuck out his head just far enough.  The café was empty.  Or, at least it looked that way.  Betty must have sensibly ran after all.

            He snuck in.  Opening the door, he half walked, half crawled to the base of the stairs.  Heart pounding, his frame-mounted the steps surreptitiously.  Finally, when the last platform was just at the level of his head, he stopped and stretched his neck to see into the upstairs room.

He froze.  His breath caught in his throat and he felt his knees knock together.  In that paisley easy chair that Frankie had so recently occupied, Wilton could see a pair of shapely legs.  Curved.  Feminine.  Green—and covered in scales, crossed in demure repose.  Wilton blinked hard.  Beyond her, towards the couch, he saw the lower half of a tall, thin man in dirty blue jeans.

            “Ol’ Willie give you a scare, Warden LaRue?”

            “Yeah,” he gestured, “but he ain’t no poacher.  Just a local yokel with the red stuff.”

            Wilton saw Frankie raise his arms.  He heard something like the rustling of cloth against leather.  Frankie let out a tired sigh and tossed his black tee shirt onto the couch, which was quickly followed by a pink, fleshy mass—still wearing a pair of dirty blue jeans.

            “Oh, thank God.  That thing was killing me!”


L. Burton Brender

 

L. Burton Brender is a Pacific Northwest author.  A career US Army officer and emerging fiction writer, he has published in Foreign Affairs, Armor Magazine, Small Wars Journal, The Deadly Writers Patrol, The Strategy Bridge, and the Tacoma News Tribune, among others.  His poetry has appeared in Zen Space, the Shrub-Steppe Poetry Journal, Collateral, and The Whispers of Wenatchee.  He coauthored one book of poetry, In Cadence, with Rodney Pattan, and published the history book Cashmere from Arcadia Press.  He has lived in the United States, Iraq, Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

 

1 Comments

  1. my kind of story. please publish more like this. totally loved it.

    ReplyDelete
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