After four weeks, we’ve finally reached the end of my latest short story, The Storm in Her Smile. Last chapter, the Queen of Smiles finished the job that brought her to Mobile, sending Arturo Melendez to his grave. Now, all she needs to do is find whoever stole her electric motorcycle so she can get out of the city alive.
The problem, of course, to paraphrase Kathleen Turner’s character in Romancing the Stone, is that bastards have brothers…
So far, feedback has been positive, but a bit scarce. As always, commentary is greatly appreciated!
I turn to the woman on the bed to find her white-faced and shaking. She’s twisting the bedsheets around her naked body like they’re some kind of armor and cowering against the wall.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s over—“
Something hits the floor like a hammer, harder even than the tides Arturo tried to summon. I stagger to the side, but before I can move, a second blow comes. Half of the room’s floor explodes inward, revealing the dark waters of the bay beneath us. And from those waters comes something even darker, thirty feet long and scaled, rising from the deep like an avatar of destruction. The one remaining lantern shows me something that might have been an alligator once, given nightmarish proportions and fury. The Beast is too large to enter Arturo’s room entirely, but it thrusts its great maw and two front claws into the newly created gap, thrashing about in an orgy of destruction.
The storm rages across what’s left of the room. Once again, the Beast’s hide proves too tough to penetrate, armored scales that deflect the storm’s fury with ease. But Marco’s in our element now, not his. And while the brothers were damn near unstoppable as a team, they’re vulnerable when isolated. Without Arturo’s waters binding the storm, slowing its movements, I’m free to hunt for the cracks in that armor.
It doesn’t take long to find them. The thinner membranes that slide down over the creature’s enormous eyes. The boundary where the pale scales of its underbelly meet the darker scales of its flanks. Even the mouth itself; the pale white tissue that waits defenseless just past the terrible, tooth-filled maw.
The storm rushes forward again, and this time, the immovable object finds itself overcome.
When I reform my shell, the Beast is still thrashing, but these are death throes, not attacks. As I watch, the great body shrivels and shrinks. Scales run like water across the shattered remains of the floor, leaving a dark-skinned human corpse behind, its arms and torso still inside the room, its legs dangling over the edge like a fisherman’s lure.
The job only called for Arturo’s death, but something tells me Emma will be pleased to get three Melendez brothers for the price of one.
I turn back to the woman in the corner and freeze, the smile across my helmet now the only smile in the room. There’s little left of the bed itself, but the woman herself is still upright, all the better to show the gaping slashes in her body and the spill of organs across bedsheets that couldn’t protect her. I can’t tell if her wounds came from the Beast or the storm, but there’s no life left in her wide, bulging eyes.
It doesn’t matter that she was, by all appearances, Arturo’s willing bedmate, that she was probably a member of the Melendez gang, predator rather than victim. It doesn’t matter that I’ll forget her face in time, like so many others that are now just faint smudges of color from the past. What matters is that I’m supposed to be a professional, and there’s nothing more amateurish than collateral damage.
I reach to close her eyes, but I can still feel them on me all the way out the door.
Most of the brothers’ men have fled by the time I emerge from the innards of the crumbling building. A few idiot souls raise their weapons and die, but what was once the most feared gang in Mobile has already fragmented into pieces, spreading out into the city like cracks in a window. By the week’s end, there will be a half-dozen new gangs, fighting for dominance over a dung heap.
I’m at the top of the ramp to the street when I sense movement on the balcony. One guard remains, huddled inside the checkpoint’s barrier, too scared to fight, too scared to even run. I kick his gun into the water and crouch down.
“Someone took my motorcycle. Electric, one of a kind. 60 kWh battery life.” I describe it in detail, my voice filled with the snarl of metal against metal, the storm adding its voice to mine. “Spread the word. If I get it back, I’m gone. Otherwise, I’m going to stay a while in Mobile and kill every damn person I find.”
It takes hours to make it back to Jeannie’s little bed and breakfast, and by the time I do, my bike’s parked out front, freshly washed and shining like it just rolled off the factory line. Someone even tried to buff out the scrapes and dents it’s accrued over thousands of hard miles.
With the brothers gone, Mobile is kind of growing on me.
The next morning finds me strapping my saddlebags across the bike, and wheeling it back out into the street. Jeannie watches me go, her imaginary son—or daughter—long forgotten. Can’t say I think much of her establishment or her hospitality, but she served her purpose, for both the brothers and I, and that’s all you can ask of people these days.
It’s a long drive north, and I have to swap in a fresh battery from my saddlebags, but eventually, I roll into Lexington. It’s as far from Mobile as you can get while still being in Alabama, more ghost than town. I ride through the empty streets, past broken windows and boarded-up houses, and come to a small shack on the town’s edge. Its windows are filthy but intact. If it was nighttime, it would be lit from within, not by lanterns—not up here where even kerosene is hard to find—but candles. Dozens of them, all shapes, sizes, and fragrances.
Emma answers the door, looking even smaller than when she hired me, dwarfed by the shabby doorway she’s standing in. She stays quiet, swaddled in layers of clothing and saggy, wrinkled skin, and waits for me to speak.
“It’s done,” I tell her. “Arturo Melendez is dead. His brothers too.”
She stands there in silence, no emotion crossing her weathered face. Then she nods and steps aside. “Come in and tell me about it.”
The shack is barely big enough for the two of us, but a job is a job. I stand while she sinks into the only chair in the place. I tell her the story of her purchased vengeance, the gritty details of the deaths I visited upon her daughter’s attackers. When it’s done, she gives another nod, and swipes a crooked-fingered hand across her cheeks, as if wiping at tears that forgot to fall.
“Thought I’d feel something, hearing the news. But all I feel is empty.” She stirs suddenly, as if from sleep, and stands back up. “But thank you anyway. It’s good that he’s dead. That they’re all dead. And this is yours.”
I take the object from her outstretched hands. It’s a small journal, wrapped in weathered leather. I open it and scan through pages of handwritten text. “This was your grandfather’s, you said?” I keep the words soft, but there’s nothing I can do about the metal in my voice.
“That’s right. Wrote down every dream he ever had, from the time he was a boy to the time he died. Even the one where a man he’d never met spoke to the world, and in doing so, broke it.”
I pack the journal into my saddlebags. On the long journey ahead of me, I’ll read it thoroughly, looking for information. There weren’t many people witness to Dr. Nowhere’s dream. Even fewer lived to write about it. The rest of us just had to live with its aftermath. Somewhere in this long-dead normal’s diary, there may be clues that will take me one step closer to the man at the heart of everything that happened, to the creator and destroyer, to Dr. Nowhere himself.
But for now, I’m heading west. Across the Mississippi and then over the Rockies to the Free States. There’s a man there with a job for me and the right sort of payment to offer. It’s an escort mission this time. Should be quick. Should be easy.
Night falls behind me. Emma goes to bed in her empty house on the edge of an empty town. When she sleeps, like all normals must, I hope she dreams of her daughter, of happier times when there was still light and laughter and hope for the future.
For too many people, dreams are all that remain.
Next week, I’ll be posting a retrospective; what I thought went well with this story and the many things that didn’t. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!