It’s always the same.
It’s dark, for one. Black as pitch. Black as night. Black as black can be. Imagine that you’ve got the blackest thing in the entire universe. Then you take it into your bathroom, and then you close the door and shut out the light and you still try to look at it. It’s just that black. Basically what I’m saying is that there is a general lack of ambient illumination. Are we clear? Special.
Actually, hold on. Before you answer that, I’m going to have to ask you to strike that last declarative. There is no “general” lack of illumination there. There is, in fact, no light whatsoever. How I am able to see there remains a mystery, but then again, I don’t think daydreams need eyes so much.
Then, there are the ravens. There are ravens there like there is a general lack of ambient illumination, which is to say, there are fuck-all lots of them. They kick and wheel and croak and billow, and to walk in that place is nigh-to impossible. Claws rake and feathers batter the skin of what probably is your face, though you don’t know for sure. The roar of their beating wings is like a pair of oceans; and the ground beneath your feet is soft, and slightly springy, composed as it is of millions and millions of their dead. I do not know how deep the corpses go. I have never dug down to the bottom. I am afraid of what I might find there.
There is nothing in that place but ravens and night and me, except one thing. Far off in the distance, almost at the edge of sight, where the tumultuous horizon of birds meets the lightless and featureless sky, there is a structure. I have never seen it clearly, though from what I can see, it appears to straddle the line between “castle” and “ruin”, existing in a decaying architectural null-space between the two. A tower reaches skyward from one wing, either half-fallen or, alternately, half-complete, but most of it lurks low to the ground, brooding. Many times I have quested for it, straining myself against the clouds of ravens in my path, my legs sinking knee-deep in the soft sea of dead feathers and ribcages below me. Never have I made the image of the castle grow even an inch in my sight…
…but there was one night, one night after the breakup, after an evening spent hammering what little was left of my brain into peaceful submission with a packet of meth and about two liters of Jägermeister, that I saw what lives there. Because, despite its wrecked and ruined state, there is a gate to it, a solid one. And on that night, even as I struggled amidst clouds of penumbral wings, I could see it opening.
It was white.
I woke up screaming.
I have been clean and sober ever since that night, and the gate remains blessedly closed. Most visits, it is just me and the ravens and the dark, such as with this here visit I’m currently experiencing.
I begin my walk to the castle. I don’t honestly know why I’m trying to get there, since its contents were apparently horrible enough to write themselves neatly out of my memory. I have two theories, though:
1. Attaining the castle will at last gain me mastery of whatever lies within.
2. There’s nothing else to do here.
The birds are not deep today, or perhaps I am lighter. I do not sink far, and so—
* * *
“And so I says to the guy, I says—are you listening, kid?”
Snap. Back to… the other thing. Back to Des Moines. I hesitate to call it the real world—you’ll understand why in a minute—but it’s close enough. In a magnesium flash, the ravens resolve themselves into a stack of American Spirits, in cases.
“G’huh,” I say.
Urinal shakes his head at me. Dandruff flakes fall to the counter, right over the worn patch where people always slide their credit cards. “Kid?” says Urinal, his mild halitosis tickling my nostrils through the little speaking window. “You were switched again, weren’tcha.”
“You all right, Brand?” says Elroy. “You need me to take this one? I can sign into the second register!” He smiles in his frantically keen fashion, swipes his badge through the beep-evoking slot on Register Two, then peers out through the Plexiglas at Urinal. “What can I getcha?”
“No,” I say, trying idly to figure out whether Management would have had the time to install some kind of particularly sadistic light bulb into the fluorescent fixtures while I was out cold in the shadow country, or if it was just me. “I got it.”
“Hokay,” says Elroy, swiping his badge again to the sound of another beep. “I’m gonna go check on the Spartan. He’s been in the walk-in for way too long.”
“You do that,” I say. Elroy unlocks the door to the cash stand and heads around back, the cuffs of his faded trousers hovering a good five inches off the ground. The Boy Scout uniform Elroy wears to the exclusion of all other garments is far too small for him; I figure it’s a remnant from his childhood and probably has great sentimental value or something but, I mean, my lord.
I watch him go.
“The raven-place again, eh?” says Urinal, snapping me back to attention.
“Uh,” I say. The light is starting to give my temples grief, so I simultaneously shade my eyes and give them a rubdown in one handy maneuver.
“That’s you seeing through your soul’s eyes,” says Urinal.
“Yeah. Probably.” I give a great sigh and glance up at the pump alert, which has just started to chime. It’s usually pretty dead here at the Grimes Street Q&D on the weekend, but sometimes we get the occasional lost or laid-over motorist. As a matter of course, I take down the license plate number on a pad of paper next to the register along with a little note as to the motorist’s description. Utah. 076-XGC. Brown hair, about 5’11”. Tan leather overcoat. It’s come in handy more than once when the Daylight cops come ’round asking us to track the former movements of a fresh corpse they’ve got on their hands. Things tend to… befall people who wander downtown Des Moines at night. If you’re not here on purpose, if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing in this city and exactly how you plan to escape when it all goes south, then, brother, you’re in trouble.
“Someday I’ll find out where it is,” I say.
“Where the raven-country is? Or where she took your soul?”
“Both,” I say. “I think it’s both.”
Then I squeeze my eyes shut. “Wait. You’re doing it again, Urinal. You still’ve got jack for proof that Erin did that.”
Urinal laughs. His breath is stale, like beer left on a radiator overnight. “Like Aitch Eee Dubba Hockey Stick, Brand,” he says. “She was E.C. all the way.”
Urinal generally refers to the Darkers as being part of the “E.C.”, which stands for “Enemy Camp.” He does this because he is allied with the “M.U.”, the Man Upstairs. When Sunny still worked here, she always tried to get him to change his tune to a more gender-neutral “B.U.”, attempts which Urinal always laughed off, because, well as he put it to me once: “Kid, I ain’t never seen Him. But, I tell you, you standing anywhere near the guy, or even, like, t’ree or four phlogistonic layers away, you can hear him bellowing. If that’s anything but a guy on that throne, she’s one hell of a bull dyke.” His period was a long drag on his Marlboro. “Besides,” he finished, “‘B.U.’ sounds like something that’d come out of the wrong end of a sick dog.”
In case I haven’t made this abundantly clear, Urinal is an angel, quite possibly the filthiest and most disgusting of the whole choir. His Fundamental Name is “Uriniel”, which means something like, hell, I don’t know, God Is Like An Eagle On The Heights, but “Urinal” is both easier to say and more fitting to his general composure. Gerta, the big Swede who tends to work opposite shifts from me, inadvertently coined the name while struggling over the original, and though she was red-faced and apologetic about the mistake, it had already been loosed on the world, and it just kind of stuck from that point on. He wears a shabby overcoat and worn-through shoes, has bad teeth and three weeks of scraggly facial hair, and if you stare at him long enough you can feel the world peeling away, revealing a cosmological wonderment so awe-inspiring that it takes your breath away; or perhaps that’s just the haze from his considerable body odor.
I shake my head. “You can’t prove it.”
Urinal coughs, spattering flecks of phlegm and tea-colored saliva on the etched security glass. “Right,” he says. “You think ‘Erin’ was just, what, a coincidence? She was Erinyes, Brand. A Fury. You didn’t notice the wings? The dog-pelt? The serpents on her head?”
I gesture aimlessly. “I dunno. She always wore that coat. And the fedora.”
“The blood dripping from her eyes?”
I slap my palms on the countertop. “Look. Of course I noticed something. I’m not completely insensate. It’s just, we have no guarantee that was blood. It could have just been eye makeup or something.”
Urinal chuckles. “So she put her face on everyday while in the middle of one o’ them ‘grand male’ seizures. Or doin’ some bull riding.”
“It’s possible! Or maybe she was just really bad at putting on makeup.”
“Right, kid, right,” says Urinal. “So if it wasn’t her what took your soul, what happened to it?”
“I misplaced it, maybe.”
“Sure. Kid, the Husk isn’t that fragile. You can’t just bump into a table by accident and rip a hole in it. Your soul isn’t a fucking bag of cat litter. It takes something at least moderately strong to crack it. Something like that demoness you were in with.”
“Look, I don’t want to talk about Erin,” I say. “Relationships are hard enough as it is without people like you flinging these supernatural accusations around like… lawn darts.” I take a moment to recover from my ridiculous simile, and then continue. “Let’s just take it from before I went funny.”
“You’re the boss,” says Urinal. “So anyway, I says to the guy, and he’s got his gun on me and everything, and so I says to him…”
“Hey!” I say, suddenly, craning my neck to try and see around both Urinal and his aura. Yep. It’s one of Them again. The Thing doesn’t even try and run as I hustle myself out from the locked register stand and out to the shelves. It just sits there with a look of manic, clueless innocence.
“Hey,” I say again as I approach, grabbing the Thing’s golden-white forearm even as it reaches for another handful of peanut bars. Normally it’s not a very good idea to grab one of the Shiny Happy Electrical People with your bare skin, but luckily, I’ve got this screaming case of R.S.I. and they made me start wearing this special glove on my left hand, and being as I work in Des Moines after dark, it was only a matter of time before Mister Fix-It decided that my R.S.I. glove needed an upgrade. There are some pretty peculiar functions buried in the palm plate, functions I frankly haven’t wholly explored. I’m a little afraid of what I’d find out. At the very least, though, it’s perfectly insulated and well-suited for grabbing little delinquent Electric Fae runts.
“Aah!” shouts the Shiny Happy Electrical Person, dully, as I remove its hand forcibly from the display case and begin rifling its Laser Tag harness for other shoplifted goods. “Aah! Whyto for! Gimme gimme!”
“I keep telling her,” I mutter, as I stuff the peanut bars back onto the shelf. “I keep telling her.” Then, I fix the S.H.E.P. with my best fae-killer glare, crouching down so as to look at it full aface. Its duckfluff hair crackles and weaves with static, filling the air with ozone. “Listen,” I say. “You go back and tell Miss Teague that–”
“Why why why!” protests the S.H.E.P. “Need protein! Carb-o-hiDRAte! Keep up the fight! Shoot shoot shoot!”
“Listen to me,” I say, squeezing harder with my gloved hand. “Listen to me.”
“Oo,” says the S.H.E.P.
“You go back and tell Jordan that–”
And just then, my valiant attempts to communicate with the little fae are rendered pointless, because the intended recipient of my message comes bursting through the door.
“There you are,” says Jordan, shoving past me and putting her own gloved hand on the S.H.E.P.’s shoulder. “It is not in the least bit acceptable to be running off like that.”
“You know full well that there is plenty of food in the food court,” says Jordan.
“Pee-nuts,” says the S.H.E.P., blinking placidly.
“We have peanuts,” says Jordan. “You’ll find them in the McDonald’s. They’re with the sundae fixings.”
“WHOLE pee-nuts!” protests the S.H.E.P.
“Let me remind you again,” I say. “We have a strict limit on the number of fae allowed in this store at one time. That number would be zero. I seem to remember us having this conversation before.”
“I know,” says Jordan. “Brandon, I’m sorry.”
I grunt. Jordan’s on special assignment from Queen Medb of Summer Country “@” Kaleidoscope Mall, An Alliant Properties Venue to keep the Shiny Happy Electrical People busy at night, which she does with endless games of Laser Tag. It keeps the little boogers happy, for the most part—or at least occupied, because they’re almost always happy, the little delinquent bastards. I grouch, but Shadow from Graveyard Shift has told me stories about what life was like before someone figured out a way to keep the fae occupied at night. Bill the Raccoon, another Graveyard regular, wasn’t always like that. Neither, he says, was Headless Tom. I don’t want to probe too much further into that; like with my R.S.I. glove, I’m a bit afraid of what I’d find.
The fact is, we walk a line on Swing Shift. Things go on during the Graveyard that would bend your brain backwards and tie it in a knot. Only the hardest of the hardcore take Graveyard. People like Shadow. Like Bill. Like Mister Fix-It. People whose struggles for both the Light and for excellent, prompt customer service have left scars of various sorts all over their bodies. Shadow’s missing an eye. I have never seen Mister Fix-It without his gas mask, nor have I heard him speak; I don’t even know if he’s strictly human. Bill, well, Bill’s a flippin’ raccoon at this point. And Tom has got such a stalwart constitution that taking off his damn head hasn’t stopped him. He may actually be dead. I’ve never checked. We see these iron veterans coming in at night to take over for us right before the Swing Shift ends at 11:00, after which we all hightail it the hell out of downtown Des Moines so we’re not there after midnight, when, reportedly, things really start to get fucked up. And by the time morning rolls around, everything is always sunny and cheery—at least, as sunny and cheery as Des Moines gets—and all ready for the normal workaday world again. When we start our shifts at three in the P.M., we take over from people named “Mike” and “Brandy” and “Stella”, wholesome-looking people with their own little struggles and dreams and no visible scars, totally ignorant of what happens to our little convenience kingdom right after they jump ship. The Grimes Street Q&D is open, as the sign outside proudly proclaims, Twenty-Three and a Half Hours a Day. Best as me and Elroy can figure, something happens in that last half hour, between when the Graveyard Shift leaves and the Day Shift comes on. Something that puts everything back in place, removes the vampires we’ve staked up against the walls, cleans up the blood pools, faces the canned chili, and generally gets the place all presentable. Because not once have we heard word one from Day Shift about the mess we’ve left behind.
And so, that’s my job. When I start my day, I’m handing out tire gauges, and by the evening, I’m stabbing those same tire gauges into the ruined eyes of a walking corpse, trying to hit the remains of his frontal cortex and send the damn thing back to the boneyard where he belongs. At three, I’m checking the milk for spoilage dates and by nine, I’m checking the milk to find the detonator hidden by the latest in a string of serial bombers determined to, and I quote, “scour the Earth white with cleansing fire”. When I begin, I’m saying Hi! and How Are You! and Here’s Your Change! and by the time I’m done, I’m saying Die, Brain-Sucking Fiend From Hell, Die.
But here’s the thing—I’m also saying Hi. I’m also saying How Are You. And I’m also saying Here’s Your Change. Because not everybody in Des Moines After Dark needs to be destroyed. Some of them just need a package of Twinkies. And so I—along with Elroy, Gerta, Spartan and the rest of the crew—we all walk the line between day and night, between things we need to remember and things we wish we could forget, between the crushingly mundane and the Uttermost Dark.
And we sell gas, too.
We are the Swing Shift.
I shake myself out of thought. “Huh?”
Over by the cash stand, Urinal is chuckling.
“I’m sorry,” says Jordan. “I was just trying to say that I’m sorry.” She frowns concernedly at me, her gloved hand still clutching her delinquent Shiny Happy Electrical Person and, in an effortless sort of miracle, keeping the little bastard away from the peanut butter cups as it squirms. Jordan’s got some strength to her. Nothing like Gerta, of course, who looks like nothing less than the bastard love child of a supermodel and an Olympic weightlifter, but a tough sort of oomph nonetheless. She’d fit right in here, and in fact has lent a hand on one occasion that I cannot fully remember because the C.I.A. was forced to scramble our brains afterwards. Nothing personal; they’ve got their jobs, I have mine.
“Was that a… a blackout again?” says Jordan.
Urinal leans up against the counter. “Don’t you worry about him. He’s not inna soul country now. Kid’s just practicing his voiceover in case his life gets turned into a teevee show.”
“I am not,” I say, glaring at him. “Stay out of my head.”
“Kid, I’m not anywhere near your fucking head,” says Urinal. “You’re broadcasting like a fucking radio tower. It’s that damn cracked-up husk of yours.”
“Ignore the boozed-up Mystery,” I say to Jordan. “I’m fine. Thanks for your concern. Keep your charges out of this store. Okay?”
She nods, curtly. “Okay,” she says.
“Management doesn’t like it. Am I making myself clear?”
“Clearer than last time?”
Jordan nods again, wordlessly this time.
“All right,” I say, fixing my gaze down and to the left, coincidentally upon a package of Potato Flakes. Jordan stays there for a minute longer. All the goodness of real potato, I read. In convenient “flake” form. She acts like maybe she wants to say something but can’t quite find the words. I, on the other hand, have plenty of words. Words like “maltodextrin”.
Just when I start to worry that I will exhaust the literary potential of the box of Potato Flakes and be forced to start in on something else equally engrossing, Jordan turns on her heel and is gone, pulling the Shiny Happy Electrical Person behind her. “PEE-NUTS!!!” wails the Shiny Happy Electric Person as Jordan drags it through the door. Ten seconds after she’s removed herself from sight, the front of the store is bathed in crackling yellow radiance. A S.H.E.P. Temper tantrum, probably. I don’t bother to look; Jordan is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Instead, I go to the peanut bar display and spend a little while poking dismayedly at the slightly-melted packages, then go about trying to figure out which ones are salvageable and which have to be marked up as waste.
“Kid,” says Urinal, “you are such a moron.”
“You want me to’ve insisted they bought what they melted?” I ask him.
“Not about the fucking peanut bars,” says Urinal. “Here you are, holding a torch for a gee-golly genuine mother-loving FIEND FROM HELL, and you got a fine piece of mortal ass right there just crazy about you. And you give her neither two shits nor the time of day.”
“She’s not mortal,” I say, stacking the waste peanut bars on the be-grease-patina’d red-brick tile floor beside me. “She’s a changeling.”
“Ah ah ah,” says Urinal. “Point a’ order. She’s not a changeling. She’s the mortal sprog wot the changeling replaced.”
I pause and think about this. “No, you’re wrong,” I say, finally. “They’re both called ‘changelings’. Both the child that’s taken and the fae-kin left in place. Shakespeare. Bortbytingarna. It’s got literary precedent.”
Urinal shrugs. “Yah,” he says. “And who died and made you the king of the fucking language, huh?” He coughs again, producing a healthy glob of russet phlegm which he doesn’t seem to notice as it goes flying to the floor. “Semantics aside. That girl is a catch, Mister Brand. And you’re more interested in the fucking dried potatoes.”
“That girl, Urinal,” I say, slamming the peanut bars back into their home just slightly harder than would strictly be required, “is fae.”
“I believe it was already discussed, her being a mortal kid in an unfortunate circumstance, Brand. Besides. Even if she were. ‘Z hardly a stretch. She’s mall-fae.”
I shake my head firmly. “Doesn’t matter,” I say. “They don’t think like us.”
“Bull pucky,” says Urinal. “Kid was eleven ka-fucking years old when she got lost in that place. Plenny of time to develop your whatchacallit. Human wossnames.”
“Subject’s closed.” I gather the melted peanut bars up in a Handi-Shop basket and stride purposefully back behind the cash counter. “I liked it better when you were recounting humorous stories about how you got mugged on the way over here.”
Urinal grunts, and gazes at me blearily as if considering something. “Wull, all right,” he says, eventually. “So, anyways, like I says. So the guy’s got this gun on me. And he’s all, like, ‘gimme yer dough’. And so I says back to him, I says–”
I blink. “Hey.”
“Elroy’s not back yet.” I glance back at the door to the stock area, then proceed to stride back out from behind the counter, still purposeful.
“Has it been a while?” says Urinal. “Damn this celestial time-sense. Minute’s like a fucking hour half the time and the other, I’m sitting here for–”
“Watch the counter, Urinal,” I say, crossing back toward the stock-room door. “Don’t let anybody steal anything. Don’t you fucking steal anything.”
“Won’t,” says Urinal. “Can’t. You know that, Brand.”
And I do, of course. But I don’t stop to retract my jibe. Things could be the matter in back. Bad things. And when bad things start happening, around here, there’s usually little time for pleasantries.
I find Elroy crouched next to the walk-in cooler, furiously leafing through his Scout Handbook.
“Oha, Brand,” says Elroy. A faint trickle of sweat is snaking its way down his left temple. That is when I know that it is shaping up to be one of those nights, and accordingly, I wander casually over to a nearby safety cabinet. “Sorry it’s taking me so long,” says Elroy. “I’m just trying to find the right knot here.”
“What’s going on?” I ask, nonchalantly smashing the glass front of the cabinet with my R.S.I. glove and removing the fire axe from within. I have smashed the glass on this cabinet approximately six hundred and forty-two times since I started working here, and not once has it been because of there being, y’know, a fire.
“Spartan’s locked himself in the walk-in,” says Elroy. “He’s probably trying to valiantly sacrifice himself. Again.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” I say, testing the edge of the axe with my thumb. “Have you tried knocking?”
“No response,” says Elroy, rising to a half-crouch, keeping his place in the manual with his thumb.
“Possible that he’s just unconscious?”
Elroy shakes his head. “I used the Indian Listening Trick,” says Elroy. “There’s slithing going on inside.”
“You’re certain it’s not just garden-variety slithering?”
“The Indian Listening Trick,” says Elroy, grimly, “does not lie. It’s slithing, Brand.”
“Well, crap,” I said. “So what’s your knot today?”
“Well,” begins Elroy, cheering immediately. “I started out thinking I was going to try a Recapitated Sheep Head, but now I’m looking at a Five-Bend Inverted Turkish Enigma. You just get that much more power with the Five-Bender.”
“Great, whatever,” I said. “Make sure it holds.”
“Holds?” says Elroy. “Holds? Brand, in case you hadn’t noticed, both of the knots I’m considering here are quite firmly Inverted.”
“Aha,” I said. “So… we’re actually rescuing Spartan, so you’re tying a knot that’ll open the door.”
“Exactly, sheesh,” says Elroy. “I mean, come on, you want the door to stay closed I’ll just slap a Double Gordian on it and spend the next few hours sprucing up my résumé while you jerk a brain-damaged alcoholic in here off the street to take my place. I thought you guys needed an expert here, huh?”
“You’ve made your point. Just get to work.” I clutch the axe a little tighter. A critical point approaches.
Elroy nods in a placated fashion, squares his neckerchief and sets to work. He leafs through a few more pages, finds the diagram he’s looking for, and then—in a deft series of wrist bends that makes my nascent carpal tunnel syndrome throb in sympathy—works an impossibly complicated star-shaped miracle knot on the door handle. Baling twine is involved. So are bungee cords. Nodding to himself in satisfaction, Elroy stands back. One quick tug later, and the Five-Bend Inverted Turkish Enigma comes undone, somehow managing, through its very particular mechanical advantage, to undo a chain strung across the inside of the door as it does so. I can’t figure out how it works, but then again, I’m not the knot expert.
Freed of its restraints, the door creaks open a smidge.
Almost instantly, it roars the rest of the way open, clocking Elroy squarely across the forehead. Darkly silhouetted against a sea of bioluminescent agar and writhing black serpents stands Spartan, bleeding copiously from a forehead wound and a series of alarmingly deep cuts along his arm. Having begun my leap the moment the door cracked, I am right there by the time Spartan clears the aperture. I shove the door closed despite the hulking, gelatinous mass pressing insistently on the other side, and take a small nip on the hand from one of the escaping snakes for my pains. I snarl, scrape it off with the axe and crush it to a steaming pulp beneath the heel of my boot, then pivot and nail two or three more with my follow-through on the axe. Meanwhile, Spartan has torn a vertical strut from one of the smaller shelves and is laying about himself in a precise, military style, taking out a squad tiny beasties with the business end of his makeshift quarterstaff, one heck-spawned bastard at a time. Packages of detergent and instant noodle soup spill out from the sagging shelf onto the floor, their powdery inner-stuff mixing with the steaming serpent guts, creating a noisome paste underfoot.
“Elroy!” I shout. The Eternal Boy Scout is trying to get steady after his blow to the forehead, but my cry seems to focus him, and in a twinkling he is over to the door, working a Double Gordian on the handle.
And then, as rapidly as the violence erupted, it abates. Elroy collapses against the door of the walk-in while Spartan grits his teeth and sets about tearing his uniform shirt into bandage-shaped strips.
“Spartan,” I say, “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you this. Do NOT go all willy-nilly with the heroically sacrificing yourself without obtaining my permission first. Clear?”
Spartan nods. My eyes flit to the cuts on his arm. “All right,” I say. “Maybe you ought to punch out and go get those looked at.” The forehead wound is probably superficial, but the cuts look rather more troubling; it appears that Spartan had been fending off attacks from the agar-bound black serpent wedges with nothing more than his naked forearm for quite some time.
Spartan shakes his head and brings his fingers up to sign. No, he signs to me. Need the hours.
I shrug. “Suit yourself.”
One final escaping whatever-they-hell slithers across a nearby shelf and into Spartan’s line of sight, and he promptly drives his box-cutter into it, evoking a terrible squeal. Say what you like about Spartan, you have to admire the man’s dedication to the job. We first encountered Spartan Fox confusedly wandering the liquor aisle here at the Q&D on a particularly rough night. He cut a pretty imposing figure, tall and whip-thin but patently muscular, his mouth curled into a faint, permanent sneer by a tiny cleft on his upper lip. Even then, his olive skin had been crisscrossed with a considerable number of fine white scar-lines; though his years at the Grimes Street station have certainly added to them, it should be noted that he did start out with a pretty impressive collection. And no, he didn’t have a tongue when he started, either.
Anyway. We were down a man that night, because Stark Raving Chad had picked that night to descend into the gibbering sort of madness where he curls up in a corner of the break room and attempts to smash your nose in if you try and make him come out, and we really felt we could use the help. Especially considering the wrathful Native American spirit we had inadvertently pissed off by being environmentally unsound and who had promised to come back and reap him some heap terrible revenge or something.* So, I handled the mysterious-scarred-stranger-wandering-around-in-the-store matter the only way I could think of handling it.
I, um, hired him.
Four years later, Spartan’s still with us. Nobody knows exactly where he comes from or where he goes at night when he punches out. His driver’s license is ancient and wholly illegible save for his name, and he never makes reference to his home, wherever or whenever it might be. Sunny sort of took pity on him after a while and taught him (and all of us) sign language so we could communicate in something more than grunts and gestures, but except for Sunny, none of us really clicked with the guy. And now Sunny’s gone, too.
Still, he keeps coming around, and we’re glad to have him. He’s never sick, is never late, and is, not to mince words, a warrior of frightening skill. Plus, he’s awfully good at cleaning things.
Anyway. As Elroy adds a couple more loops to his containment knot, I wander back out to the front—axe still in hand—to check and see if there’s any customers waiting. Urinal’s still there when I arrive.
“Problem?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say, unlocking the security door and stepping back to my register, “that we couldn’t handle.”
* * *
* Turns out, we didn’t really need him that night; Elroy managed to talk Chief Whatsisface out of his revenge without a single thrown tomahawk. The text of his diatribe arguing for the comparative ecological soundness of the Grimes Street station is the stuff of legends around here, and is available upon request.