Authors: Matthew Krause
Tags: #alcoholic, #shapeshifter, #speculative, #changling, #cat, #dark, #fantasy, #abuse, #good vs evil, #vagabond, #cats, #runaway
Table of Contents
Book I of The Glaring Chronicles
by Matt Krause
“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.”
- Jules Verne
1980: Awful Game
It may not seem like a big deal to you, but the first part of that month when Sarah Smallhouse’s stepfather got free Cinemax on their cable box was like a vacation in Paris … or at least how Sarah imagined Paris might be. She had only seen Paris in that movie
, which had been rereleased the previous Christmas, and it was one of those rare times when her mother had left Big Buddy to stew in his easy chair while she took Sarah and Little Bud to the theater. Granted, the Paris of
was a cartoon, but that made it all the more magical in Sarah’s nine-year-old eyes. It was just the first of many places she wanted to see and knew she never would, but when it came to dreams of travel, the movies were the next best thing, a window to that other world, and for one glorious month in the spring of 1980, Cinemax opened that window into Sarah’s home.
Every day after school, Sarah would wait for Little Bud to get out of his kindergarten class, walk him home as fast as she could, fix him a cheese sandwich, and set him up in the room they shared with his favorite toys. Once her brother (half-brother, Mom reminded her, but she never saw it that way) was cared for, she settled cross-legged on the floor in the center of their living room, turned the TV to Cinemax, and gazed into the window of worlds. Most of the movies she had never heard of, but she watched them all the same—weird titles like
The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh
. If Mom scored the lunch-and-early-dinner shift at Rusty’s Diner, Sarah could watch until Mom got home at 7:00 p.m., but most of the time Mom got saddled with the late-night trucker’s shift. On these nights, Sarah could watch until almost 9:00 p.m. when Big Buddy came home from second shift.
The 9:00 p.m. nights were the best of that glorious month, five nearly unbroken hours of movies with only brief intermissions to fix Little Bud another sandwich at 6:00 p.m. and tuck him into bed at 7:30. Sarah would even watch the previews of other movies that came after the movie she just saw, and she’d dream of a day when she could look through this window any time she wanted, at anything she wanted, without fear of interruption.
Yes, these nights were almost the best. Almost.
Then Big Buddy would come home.
Sarah had learned early on what happened if there was no food for Big Buddy when he walked through that back door that connected the kitchen to the garage. As such, she made a point to start browning the ground beef at 8:30 in the evening and have the pan of Hamburger Helper simmering by 9:00. If she was daring, she might have Big Buddy’s plate already on the table, a steaming mound of the processed casserole piled atop it, with a fresh can of Coors Light waiting next to it. But even this did not safeguard her from Big Buddy’s wrath. Like a gourmet chef at a Michelin star restaurant, she had to time the presentation of the meal just right; otherwise, the goulash might be a couple degrees too cold or the beer a few degrees too warm, and a sound thrashing would commence.
That’s what Sarah called it—a thrashing. Not a beating or an ass-kicking but a thrashing, like what Tom Sawyer got from the teacher for protecting Becky Thatcher (Sarah had watched this in a movie on one of those splendid afternoons). Sometimes it was a swift kick to Sarah’s backside with one of Big Buddy’s work boots, catching her so hard she would tumble against the wall. Other times it was a backhanded slap that found the side of Sarah’s head, snapping it sideways fast enough to make her ears whoosh. Sometimes it was a combination of the two. Whatever it was, it all amounted to the same thing—a thrashing meant only for Sarah, just as the thrashing in the movie had been meant for Becky Thatcher … only Sarah had no noble Tom Sawyer to take the blows in her place.
After dinner, Big Buddy would retire in his Barcalounger, putting up his feet without even bothering to take off his boots. He would have his second of many beers, and once it was empty he would shout for Sarah to grab him another, howling through the house like a tortured animal.
Sarah would run to the fridge and deliver the beer as fast as she could, and even this took precision. If she was too slow, Big Buddy’s fat, muddied work boot would swing off the elevated footrest of the Barcalounger, landing a cruel punch in Sarah’s ribcage. But if she ran to deliver the can of beer more quickly, she would risk shaking it in her hands, and if the slightest bit of foam spurted up when Big Buddy opened it, again the boot would swing. Sometimes Big Buddy called for another beer well after Sarah went to bed, forcing her to crawl out of bed, ever careful not to awaken Little Bud who slept beside her, and scamper as fast as she could to the kitchen. On these occasions, she was never fast enough, and the swinging boot ensued, and at last she chose to sleep curled up on the floor in front of the fridge, ever awaiting Big Buddy’s cry so she could deliver his next beer in a timely manner.
All of this was a good system, and after a time or two she had mastered it well, keeping the slaps and kicks to a minimum. Of course these days were made more bearable by those few beautiful hours after school and before the arrival of Big Buddy, where she could sit undisturbed in front of the television, gazing into the window called the movies. For that one almost picturesque month of free Cinemax, it was almost good.
And then Big Buddy asked her to play.
In hindsight, Sarah knew it was her own fault. That afternoon, she had seen a commercial on Cinemax for a movie to be broadcast late that evening, a movie called
. In the commercial, there was music playing, and there were kids in a high school dancing in the cafeteria and on the bleachers at the stadium. There was a pretty blonde girl named Sandy who looked like the kind of girl Sarah would like to be best friends with, and it all seemed so magical, exactly what Sarah hoped high school would someday be. How she longed to see this movie … and yet according to the commercial,
would not be broadcast until 11:00 p.m. that evening. Big Buddy would be home by then, snoring in his Barcolounger in front of the TV after polishing off his fifth or sixth beer.
Still, there was this movie, a chance for Sarah to gaze into the window once again to another world, a world full of happy kids that perhaps Sarah would one day meet, kids dancing and laughing and living. She not only wanted to see the movie, she
to see it, to escape into it, to know that there was something better out there, something waiting beyond the world of Big Buddy and swinging work boots.
And so it was that at 11:00 p.m. that night Sarah waited just outside the living room, listening to the sounds—the windy hum of the space heater (for Big Buddy was always cold even on warm days), the radio-static chatter of the talking monkeys on ESPN … and finally the gargled growl of Big Buddy’s snore. He was asleep, and if his habits held true he would sleep for hours, at least until Mom came home and urged him off to bed. With great care, Sarah slipped into the living room, sliding her stockinged feet gently on the dirty wood floor so as to not make a sound. When she got to the TV, she crouched on all fours, and after glancing back over her shoulder at the Barcolounger to make sure the cyclops still slept, she switched the channel on the box over to channel 17, the sacred home of Cinemax, the combination code to open that window into the next universe.
Mere seconds into
the music began, informing Sarah that “grease is the word,” and she allowed herself to be wrenched from her life of flying boots into a world of rhythm and melody.
* * * *
“What’re you doing, little girl?”
She was no more than a foot from the TV screen, the volume just barely loud enough for her to hear, when the cyclops awoke. Sarah jumped like a rabbit but did not bolt or turn. Better to simply wait for the flying boot that no doubt would come. A moment passed and then another. On the TV screen, Sandy, played by pretty Olivia Newton-John, was crooning next to a wishing well, frustrated by the harsh turn of events.
“I'm talking to you, little girl.” It was not the voice of the cyclops Sarah knew. Big Buddy sounded almost gentle, the way he had back when he first came into Mom’s life. He had asked Sarah back then to call him Dad, and although Sarah obliged out of obedience, in her heart she had another name, one she had conceived after watching a video in school about people who protested slaughtering animals for their pelts by wearing coats made of something called “faux fur.” Sarah had liked that word “faux,” and deep within her heart, she had always thought of Big Buddy as Faux-Dad.
“I’m asking you what you’re doing?”
Sarah took a breath and turned slowly to face the worst monster in her closet. “It’s a movie,” she said. “It’s got music.”
“Turn it up,” Big Buddy Faux-Dad said.
Sarah reached up to the volume knob and carefully lifted the volume of the TV. In the movie, Sandy was singing of her hopeless devotion to Danny Zuko, staring into the reflection of the wishing well and seeing the smiling face of Danny, so tender and assured as played by the painfully handsome John Travolta.
… nowhere to hide … since you pushed my love aside …
“Come over here, little girl,” Big Buddy said. “I want to show you something.”
Sarah turned on her knees and slowly crept toward Big Buddy’s Barcolounger, watching his eyes the way she might watch one of the rats that scampered into their kitchen.
… out of my head … hopelessly devoted …
“You know you’re supposed to be in bed,” Big Buddy said, his voice still gentle. “Don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Sarah said.
Big Buddy smiled. “We wouldn’t want Mom to come home and find us like this, would we? Why, she’d have both of our heads and mount them on that wall right over there.”
“Yes,” said Sarah, and then corrected: “Yes, Dad.”
“I won’t tell her,” said Big Buddy. “I promise. I’ll even let you watch the rest of this movie. What do you think about that?”
Sarah looked back at the TV. Sandy gazing in the reflection, Danny still grinning back at her, and then she ripples the water and his comforting face disappears.
… head is saying … “Fool, forget him” …
“Just one thing,” said Big Buddy. “You have to do me a little favor?”
“You want me to get you a beer?”
“No,” said the cyclops. “Nothing like that. This is different, something fun. Something I think you’ll like. A little game.”
“What is it?”
“First things first,” said Big Buddy. “First you have to promise you won’t tell Mom. This is a secret game between you and me. And if you tell Mom, she’ll be mad at both of us but especially you. Can you make that promise?”
… heart is saying … “don’t let go” …
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Yes, Dad.”
… “hold on to the end” …
“Good,” said Big Buddy. “Let’s play.”
1986: Let’s Play
“Let’s play,” the shaggy boy in the backwards cap said.