Gods and Monsters Installment 6: Wild Animals in the Halls of Learning

Reading Time: 7 minutes

THE STORY TO NOW: Gabriel, a vampire hybrid, becomes a DJ in San Francisco at the Club VAMP. River adopts a crow whom he names Huck.
Read last week’s installment hereSee all installments here.

(Image created by E.E. King with Adobe Firefly.)

Chapter: 11

River

Healdsburg High — 1972

Wild Animals in the Halls of Learning

It’s the last Monday of River’s senior year. Fog lingers in the air, impenetrable as suspicion.  River huddles against the dampness while Huck grips his hunched shoulder delicately between sharp talons.

On River’s way to class, the hall is blocked by the wide back of Chip, the school’s star football quarterback. He is flanked by defensive tackles Brian and Tom. In between them, trapped by expectation, is Jim Jackson.

Tall and blond, Chip’s eyes are as blue and empty as an ice cave. Even alone, he is more than a match for frail, gangly Jim. River swallows. River watches. It is like seeing an injured animal caught in a snare.

“Hey faggot,” Chip pokes Jim just under the ribs, making a flat knife of his hand. “Where you goin’… homosexual studies?” Jim doubles over, exhaling sharply.

Brian and Tom stand behind Chip, two muscular pillars. They snicker.

“Hey,” Jim pants, “don’t start a war of words; you’re unarmed.”

Chip reddens, “Don’t talk smart ass to me, faggot…You ain’t funny. When I looked up ‘fairy’ in the dictionary, there was a picture of you.”

“Well, I’m not the idiot who had to look up fairy… I take it you won’t be going to AP English with me, will you?”

Chip pokes Jim again, harder, and sharper.

“Leave him alone,” River cuts in.

When Chip whirls around to see who is behind him, Jim ducks under Brian’s arm and flees down the corridor.

“Well, if it isn’t the magic crow boy,” Chip says. “Why don’t you go sit in your nest, freak.” Brian and Tom laugh.

“Come on Chip, be a smart boy and go to class. I’m sure you could use it. I hear you have to get passing grades to make the team.”

“And with your record, you’re not going to pass a blood test,” Jim’s voice shouts from the end of the hall.

Chip runs toward Jim, but River stands in his way. River is strong and lean, alone he might be a match for Chip, but he is outnumbered. Chip reaches for River’s throat, but before his hands close, he screams and falls back, clutching his head.

“Boys!” The megaphone of Mr. Meggers, Dean of Boys, should have acted like cold water on fighting dogs, but Huck is neither boy nor dog. He flies, cawing, down the hallway, triumphantly clutching a lock of Chip’s gold hair.

Chip, Tom, Brian, and River are pulled into the office for questioning and recrimination. River is guilty. He has brought a wild animal into the halls of learning. Even though there’s only a week of school left, he’s suspended.

River doesn’t mind. It just gives him more time to wander the woods with Huck, seeking treasure in bright mushrooms and damp alcoves.

Once, Huck plucks a bullet, silver as a meteorite, out of a mossy bank where it was stuck tip down into a soft sea of green like a tiny fallen rocket. It is Huck’s favorite piece.

Sometimes, in deep woods, unseen hands guide River to discover an unknown flower. A breath on his cheek directs his head to follow the flight of a strange insect. Wisdom blows in the wind, and it has a voice that River knows. It is his uncle Ryo’s voice.

There are many reasons spirits ramble. Some are made of memory, telling stories to keep a time or people alive. Others search for meaning or for vengeance. More than a few have unfinished business. And occasionally souls remain, hovering like good angels, offering protection and advice. Perhaps this is why River does not fear the voice of Ryo in the breeze.

Chapter: 12

Gabriel

San Francisco — 1981

Coffee and Orchids

After Kristjan’s removal, Gabriel has a private bathroom. No one moves next door to Gabriel, even when Marco, against every instinct in his being, lowers the rent. He considers raising Gabriel’s rent, but something in Gabriel’s bottomless stare prevents him.

Gabriel has arrived with nothing. He buys some suits, black and sleek. He purchases silk shirts, dark, and gleaming. He acquires vests of satin and velvet. On anyone else they would have looked ostentatious, but on Gabriel, they fit. Gabriel likes vests with their slim embrace and secret pockets. They cover a multitude of flaws, stains, wrinkles, an empty pocketbook, a stolen key… or a hollow heart.

Carefully, slowly, he obtains a few possessions. He doesn’t buy much, but whatever he gets is the best: silver cutlery, a mahogany coffee grinder, a French press, and two crystal wine glasses. He stocks his cupboard with fine ground coffee, rich cream, cinnamon, dark powdered chocolate, and nutmeg. He favors sweet, pure butter, fresh croissants, and at dusk, one glass of rich, full-bodied, blood-red wine. Gabriel grinds beans and brews coffee strong and dark. When he pours in the rich cream he favors, it froths, rising to a perfect steamed dome.

He discovers an herbal store that sells lavender cigarettes. He likes the feel of the slim cylinders between his fingers. He admires the elegant satin paper that matches the texture of his shirts. He has never liked the smell of tobacco on his clothes or in his hair. But he enjoys the scent of burning blossoms. He pleasures in watching smoke curl from his mouth after morning cappuccino like a misplaced fog.

He begins collecting orchids, placing them on his window. His collection is vast. Under Gabriel’s care, whose touch has always brought death, the orchids flourish. Perhaps it is because the alien beauties are as unusual, seductive, and deceitful as Gabriel himself. Or perhaps it is because sometimes, even devils have guardian spirits.

A few of the orchids have full pouting maroon-spotted petals like dappled lips, opening onto harsh orange throats. Others are wiry, delicate, deadly hanging spiders. Some stand like ranks of monks, green hoods overshadowing brown velvet cassocks.

Each morning, after brewing one perfect cappuccino, Gabriel sprinkles coffee grounds around the flower’s bare, reaching, aerial roots. Coffee is chock full of nitrogen. Usually, grounds are too acidic for orchids. But Gabriel’s grow just fine.

Chapter: 13

River

Healdsburg — 1972

Night Fires Burning

Fog blankets the darkness. River and Huck are wandering home. It is cold and damp. In the woods, a dozen boys and five girls huddle around a bonfire warming themselves with cheap beer and cheaper vodka. Overhead, the faint diffused light of the full moon glows like a candle. The night smells fresh and unused. A few couples drift off toward the woods. River hears a muffled scream.

He races toward the sound.… There in the grass, empty beer bottles scattered around her, glinting in the night like fallen constellations, Lisa Handel is thrashing wildly in dry leaves, her short skirt riding above moist, scratched thighs. Tiny red lace panties lay ripped on the ground, like dried blood.  Tom and Brian are holding her down while Chip straddles her. Brian has stuffed a sock into her mouth. Her eyes roll wildly backward, exposing the whites like a frightened horse.

River curls his body into a fetal crouch. Then he springs, pushing out with both hands into Tom and Brian. He hits them squarely in the chest knocking the wind from their lungs. They roll off Lisa, tumbling into the dirt. River spins around, kicking Chip in the face.

“Run,” he yells to Lisa. “Run like hell!”

Lisa whimpers, rolling onto her stomach. She reaches a hand toward her torn underwear.

“Just go. Now!” River shouts. “Run!”

Lisa’s hand retracts as if bit. Crawling to her feet, she staggers through the woods. River is strong, nimble and has the element of surprise. Brian and Tom lie back on damp earth, as if sleeping.

River kicks Chip’s face.

All of his rage and disappointment, all his sorrow and fear explode in righteous anger. Poor Lisa, never popular. Never sought out. So excited to be paid any attention. I’ll bet she was thrilled to be asked to a party.

“You shit!” he yells, kicking again and again at Chip’s face, crushing the cartilage in his nose. River dances on his outstretched fingers, delighting in the delicate crackling of bones beneath his feet.

But Brian and Tom are used to being tackled. Now, with slow deep inhalations, they rise. Brian pins River’s hands behind him… Tom grabs a beer bottle and smashes it on a rock. Slowly, deliberately, he takes the broken edge and draws a vertical line up River’s face, connecting mouth to scalp. Blood tears flow down River’s cheek. His sight dims. The faint glow of the moon and stars fade.

Out of the night rises a howl. It is the sound of his worst nightmares and childhood fears. In his mind, he sees Gabriel’s pale, perfect body, unmarked and unmarkable.

***

In their room old as time and cool as death, the sisters sit. Nona is weaving four shirts. Three are bright crew necked pullover sweaters. The necks and arms are large, but Nona has run out of the yarn. They are not even half-woven. The fourth shirt is of grey, coarse wool. Its strands crackle slightly, tickled by static electricity. The only other sound, steady as a pulse, is the dull scrape of scissors being sharpened on a whetstone.

Chapter: 14

Gabriel

San Francisco — 1981

Chemistry

Gabriel contemplates his orchids. They are the only living things that have ever thrived under his care, yet he feels no affection for them. Truth be told, he feels no affection for anything, no joy or despair, no love or loneliness. Nonetheless, the orchids prosper, embracing their pots with hairy roots, sending twisted stalks toward the light. They also waft pheromones, the perfume of reproduction into the air, enticing winged insects with floral treachery.

“Every orchid has a unique pollinator it lures to gather pollen, by cunning and subterfuge,” Ryo says to Gabriel, but Gabriel, usually so finely tuned to the supernatural, does not hear him.

“Fly orchids mimic and exude the genital scent of female flies. But the orchid’s fragrance is slightly different… richer and more glamorous; familiar yet exotic, a redhead in a roomful of brunettes.  Males are always drawn toward mysterious sirens…God knows it was certainly my downfall. Humans,” says Ryo, “cannot detect the aroma of these orchids.”

But Gabriel can. He doesn’t smell it, but it makes the air around him heavier, denser, filling emptiness with meaning, packing the space between molecules with desire and deception.

Once a week, he faithfully soaks each orchid with water and daily he pats coffee grounds into their soil, when their furred roots brush against his fingers, the hairs sizzle and burn, scenting the air with the acrid smoke. As Gabriel watches, the roots divide where they have been scorched, sending forth new shoots. It is as if pain makes them propagate. The shadow of death shading their leaves fosters fertility.

Gabriel does not know that the way to make an old tree bear fruit is to hammer a nail into its heartwood. But it comes as no surprise that a foretaste of mortality generates the desire for continuance.


Watch the author read this week’s installment in the video below:

 

NEXT WEEK: Often, just when River is beginning to feel a place might become home, a howl rises from some dark night place, making the tiny hairs on River’s arms and neck prickle. The next day he’ll pack his bags and wander further down the coast, fleeing a nameless fear, traveling toward an unknown destiny.    

Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba and Sophie Gorjance.

E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.