Chapter 11: Stag Party

The quarters surrounding me were starting to feel uncannily familiar, my back stiff from sleeping straight up in the creaky wooden desk chair. There was a perfectly accommodating four-poster bed over my shoulder, but I could never be bothered to hoist myself onto it. My home, but not my house. The ash paneling plating the walls feel like chitin, and occasionally they bulge like a rug where rats and roaches and other unseen critters scattered. At one point it must have skeeved me out, but eventually I realized that they were the not inhabits that could mean or cause me harm. Scooching my elevated ass across the rug, I swung my feet around to stand up from my squat, wooden writing desk. Index cards and various papers were spread haphazardly across the surface, crawling with indiscernible scribbles that I didn’t so much read as I serially unraveled. I yawned and pressed my knuckles into my back to get in a good stretch. The more and more I left this place, the less familiar I felt with my own body. Charlene and Christine could be sisters, but I can’t say if I am either, both, or something in between. Perhaps I was the man from mars. I could eat cars and bars and guitars and never have to think about my own problems, such as finding the means to regurgitate the woman that it (meaning I) ate. Oh yeah, then there was the whole reason I had been in the wrong vehicle at the right time. Would Jenna recognize me if I visited her like this? Would Charlene even be capable of loving Christine’s girlfriend? Fuck, I couldn’t dwell on that, I had to focus for Dove’s sake.

I removed the brass keyring from my belt and thumbed for the key that had my own features carved into its base. Every room in this estate locks automatically from the inside and out. All except for those abandoned quarters which have frosted over with the fuzzy gray mold of forgotten passengers. No one ever handed me these keys, nor did I wake up with them beside me after I experienced tons and tons of hot steel, plastic, and flesh pulverizing my bones into a fine pink mist. At some point, I just idly felt at my belt and discovered them hanging off one of the loops. Perhaps they were destined to leave me in just the same fashion. One day I’d wake up here and realize that I could never again move around on my own accord. I certainly did not plan on inviting any new human additions now I was conditionally stable. Regardless, I was on for a rendezvous with the woman who inadvertently inducted me into this sluggish bacchanal, our keys conveniently consecutive: C and C. Perhaps we would make some music together.

Swinging open the door into the hallway of my designated wing, I planted the first sneakered step of my colorful journey across the serpentine geometric carpeting. That combined with the stucco walls and slanted ceiling really brought together the vibes of a seventies bungalow. Considering what I’ve seen of her home decor, I’m inclined to believe that this was the influence of the previous caretaker at work, though I hadn’t bothered to ask her directly. We had only engaged in one conversation prior and it had been… tense, if not the least bit strained. Above the elevator at the end of the hallway was a dial turned to 13, my lucky number, and upon the panel beside the sliding door I pressed in the lower switch. There are no clocks in the whole house as far as I can surmise, but the sky always seems to have those technicolor bands of twilight when I deign to look through the windows. The exterior of the estate, whether real or mere projection, is composed of a coniferous mountain forest. The longer I stared out into that forest, the more yellow eyes came out to meet my gaze. Some were pairs sitting at a conceivable human height, others were hunched to the ground or peeking through branches, few were singular orbs, and fewer still (but far from none) were those multifaceted bunches of tuberous optical nerves. My personal hypothesis is that these eyes belonged to the former occupants of those mold-infested rooms, and rather than crumbling away they joined with something else. Something feral. Perhaps they were all the individual cells of the alien brain—for it is certainly alien to human sensibilities even if its origin is terrestrial—that claimed all our hearts. That was the disquieting thought running through my head when the elevators dinged, folding in to deposit me into the dingy basement.

The only distinct room in the basement is an underground garage that lacked an automatic folding door or any ramp to the surface. Within the stretching concrete catacomb there was only one single car: a baby blue 2004 Honda Civic. Its paint job was in far better condition than when it first came into my possession, only sporting a couple sun spots on its roof. I could still recall the strange, symbiotic thrill of driving like it was only moments ago, racing down the interstate like a wild steed ready to sprout wings and fly. In retrospect, it’s clear that I was slowly inebriating myself with bloodlust, bonding with my unknown captor into a terrible dance of deception for perpetrator and victim alike. Charlene was the offspring of that thoughtless night of passion, born from a conjoined womb half-cut with viscera. On that note, I popped open the hood to my former paramour’s resting place.

Inside were all the proper metal tubes and bobs and extensions for this make of automobile, at least I assume so. There was only one major addition: a pale thirty-something blonde woman naked and lodged into its intestines. Her hair and skin were mottled with grease stains, and champagne red burns latticed up and down her exposed limbs. A pipe shoved itself through her right eye-socket and presumably into her frontal cortex. This left only her left eye to stare unblinkingly, milky and steamed over, devoid of recognition or signs of life. Reaching into the back pocket of my jeans I took out my pocket knife, the sharp blade creating a thin cut in my wrist and a sharp ring in my ear. Bearing my arm in a sigil, I let lost drips of my blood spill onto the mouth of the corpse. Sliding past her lips, she began to quiver once it hit her tongue, the eye growing more lucid as it swiveled in the direction of my person.…Christine…” Her voice rattled, a guttural wheeze between every word that echoed through her hollow chest cavity.

Hey aunt Charlotte,” I gave her the best warm smile that I could feign.

‘Aunt’... heh… less… heart…” Her chuckle was devoid of humor, “ust… want… softhing… yess?

You got me, Char,” I rubbed the back of my palm nervously, “I was thinking that maybe I could get you out of your… current predicament… and you’d come with me for some fresh air.

Why?” She narrowed her eye.

Because we’re dealing with a sensitive situation and an unknown party, and I don’t think Charlene’s particular charms will be helpful for navigating it. From the reels I’ve seen, you’ve always been pretty quick witted.

Hisss… Char… lene… hate… stufid name…” she attempted an incomplete, twitching sneer as her disgust caught in her throat, “why not… just… Christine? … I never… used… ridic… ulous… ortmanteau…

It’s ‘cause I’m not her, and she isn’t me,” I took a long breath, “maybe the line there is already getting fuzzy, but for now I’m still my own woman. Now, back to the question: do you think you could help?

I’fe… seen… tough… svots… other… amfires… fore… ut… why would… trust… me?

I trust because I think you want out of this thing as much as I don’t wanna see you in caught in there,” I motion towards the car, “and I know you’re basically an okay person, if quite strange, and it’s not like I have a ton of room to judge anymore. I chose to join with you, and you weren’t really in control while you were just a car.

Okay… niece… let’s hel… each other…” She held out her uncrushed arm, “follow… my lead… I know… your… new… to this…

Hehe, yeah,” I grab her fingers and clutch them in mine, “you’ve got that right, auntie.


Dove watched the flying array of flesh ribbons return to human form, though one that cut a far more imposing figure. This person looked like they could’ve been a close relative of Charlene, with the same hair and seaweed green eyes, but their slight crows feet communicated maturity and experience. Dove wondered if the clothes Charlene had worn the first time they met had originally belonged to this person, though in the moment that explanation too appeared incongruous. The stranger carried themself with an air of detached refinement, even if some sapphic indications poked out like loose threads. They were dressed in a short navy blue vest with triangular clips that matched its sharp cut and tall collar. This accentuated the velvet cream dress that sat tight to their waist, a short red scarf tied in rabbit ears around their neck. When they turned their eyes to Dove, they seemed to center themself with a heavy dose of the stuffy air of artifacts.

Hello, Dove.” They spoke with a low, haughty tone.

Uh, hi,” Dove shuffled on their feet, “you look and sound pretty different, Charlene.

Yes, because I’m Charlotte,

Wait, the lady who ate her cat?” Dove puzzled at her, “so is Charlene inside of you right now? Or are you like a whole ‘nother person, or…? She wasn’t super clear about this stuff.

Yes, she has her troubles with that,” Charlotte smirked, “some personalities are more expressive, arguably more dominant than others, and this body was mine for over a century. Charlene is here. Think of her like a film director: she sets the limitations on what I can and cannot do, dictates how close I have to stay to the script. She asked me to assist you with your investigation, due to my greater familiarity with matters of our breed. I don’t wish to outsize my expertise, I’ve just had the scant impressions of ships passing in the night, but knowledge of the threat at least instills caution.

Oh yeah, we’re doing that,” they rubbed the prickling hairs at the nape of their neck, “could you give me a rundown of what I should expect? Like, what are the protocols?

In my experience, it’s hard to say,” she looked over to Bill, “judging by the manservant, I can venture that we’re dealing with someone independently wealthy and possessing eccentric tendencies, perhaps the last scion of an old family that mysteriously died out. I’m not sure why Bill and his master are here or what they have to do with the anomalous qualities of this town, but I suspect that they bought the deed to this antique store in order to gain access.

So we’re dealing with a rich dick, huh?” Dove cracked their jaw, “could be one of Laura’s relatives, which sounds like a prime opportunity for some answers.

I doubt it, Dove.” Charlotte touched their shoulder with a gloved hand, “even if that is the case, it’s not in our best interests to initiate a physical altercation. We just need to find a way out of here.

What, you can’t handle yourself in a fight?

I’m not worried for my own sake, Dove, but yours. For one, you’re weak, and what you’ve just eaten is only enough to sustain your sanity, not your strength. Second, even if you weren’t effectively malnourished, you have yet to reveal any particularly advantageous aptitudes. I’ve heard tales of fiends whose very names can fill the throat with iron, and being able to make a scary face doesn’t really compare.

Well sorry I’m not so fucking gung ho,” they tilted their head back and sighed at the ceiling, “guess it doesn’t matter I never asked for any of this shit. Let’s just go. The sooner we get this crap over with, the less I have to be lectured on my diet.

Charlotte rolled her eyes and guided Dove around the stacks of dusty knick-knacks to the front door. Dove shuffled through with the arms of their jacket pressed to their chest. It certainly wasn’t the first time someone had insulted Dove by calling them weak, it’s just this time it wasn’t in the context of masculinity. So what if they weren’t a behemoth in a tidy ascot? Dove understood the importance of self-defense, especially around people in authority, but defending yourself and overpowering someone else weren’t always the same thing. They believed in strength in numbers, wielding power through unity, not coveting it for your own satisfaction. Thinking back to a conversation that seemed a world away now, Audrey had been increasingly worried about her personal safety, and Laura had suggested getting an open carry license while Dove tried to get her involved in a queer self-defense class. Laura had thought Dove was just speaking from the standpoint of their aversion to guns, but Dove was trying to emphasize building a community of people who were willing to have eachothers’ backs. Firepower by itself means nothing except the inevitability of escalation. Laura didn’t get the difference there, and Charlotte seemed similarly oblivious.

We’re ready,” Bill still had a few inches over Charlotte, but they cut an impressive silhouette together.

Good.” He lurched back around and sized Charlotte up, “I believe the master will be pleased. Follow me to the car.

Bill escorted them out of the building and into a narrow alleyway leading to a backstreet. This man, built like a linebacker in a political cartoon, had to slant his body at a 45 degree angle in order to squeeze through without scraping his shoulders. The back of his suit was definitely getting scuffed, but that was a far more acceptable indignity than simply scooting sideways. With a better look at the back of his head, Dove thought his hair leaned more Eraserhead than Frankenstein, like a fat clump of steel wool glued to his scalp, while his sideburns came halfway down his ears in a stormy gray gradient. His age was effectively interminable, anywhere from 28-to-50, kinda like a character actor that appeared in many things but never stuck in your mind. He also smelled like shoe leather. Charlotte was lifting up the hem of her dress, her displeasure as brusque as the efficiency with which they reached the car.

His ride matched his attire and his size: a chevrolet silverado retrofitted into a hearse. Dove was a bit scared he’d have them ride around in the truck bed, but he opened the backseat door for them both to crowd in. Dove went first, scooting around to the passenger side, catching a glimpse of the empty coffin propped open in the back. It was certainly swanky, a nice marbled mahogany with gold inlay and padded purple suede lining. Lying in there, catching some Zs while some guy chauffeurs you around town, it probably didn’t feel half bad. Were they… were they fantasizing about that? Eh, fuck it, they’d take a nap in the thing. Out of everything that had happened thus far, sleeping in coffins felt relatively less objectionable. It’s something a normal person could fantasize about if they felt particularly morbid or exhausted.

Charlotte hesitated a moment, looking unsure, and then hoisted herself onto the upholstery. Once she clicked on her seatbelt, Tiny squeezed himself into the driver seat and put his key in the ignition. The car slowly rolled down the street as the radio sprung to life. It was already a couple of minutes into Nosferatu by Blue Öyster Cult. What, did this guy have a fucking mixtape? Dove looked over to Charlotte, who was tugging her collar and looking a little fishy.

Psst, hey,” Dove leaned over towards Charlotte, “you okay?

Yes, I-” She took a second to swallow, her face blanching, “I just get a little carsick.

Do not worry, madam,” Bill spoke up from the front seat, somehow able to hear over the moody guitar strumming, “I believe this drive will not take too long.

Thank you, Jeeves,” Dove rolled their eyes.

It’s Bill.

Dove kept their eyes on Charlotte as the rest of the song played out. She stared down at her nails, her eyes straining against their taut folds as she tried to induce spontaneous growth through psychokinesis. There was this Werner Hersog movie that Marcus had streamed for them one time. A remake of the original silent film. The final scene where the protagonist becomes this strange, twitching creature with beady eyes and snaggleteeth, scrunching his body into the corner of the room. The song effectively conjured this image and the closer they watched the otherwise sophisticated Charlotte, the more she came to resemble that desperate, trapped beast.

“Hope every one of you ghouls out there discover your own pure hearted woman tonight. Once again, this hour we’re taking requests from all callers. Call 1-800-334-IGOR if you want in on the fun. We’ve got Marten on the line, Marten?"

‘Hey Igor, love the show and I’d love to hear Video Killed the Radio Star from the Buggles.’

"Aw, you’re a real true blue crypt creep, Marten, requesting such a morbid tune! But as you all know, my only wish is to please. So here it is: Video Killed the Radio Star!”

Dove listened to the ethereal opening chords that led into tinny vocals, staring out the window to watch the car transition from lit streets into the dense wilderness. Nerves shot, they pulled up the sketching app on their phone. Drawing with their finger never felt natural to them, especially after they cracked their screen, the lack of a clear focal point causing them to render lumpy curves and disconnected lines. Still, it worked fine for quick and dirty ideas. Combining a few key moments of the night up to that point, they drew the head of that entrancing grandfather clock with an extra orifice where a stitched and mounted squirrel sprung on its haunches. That was what Dove meant to draw, but the end product looked more like a poorly angled barn with half a horse on a bale hook, but it was close enough that they could decipher it given enough time. Dove sorta wanted to see what Charlene might interpret it to be. She had been flattered when they gave her a quick sketch they had done of Rosa on a scrap of a legal pad. They were sure, if she got a look at this rorschach, she’d probably have some pithy or vulgar take on it. Sadly, Charlotte neither seemed in the mood nor capable of that absurdist disposition.

I believe we’re here,” Bill parked the hearse in a lot that sat in a copse that surrounded a small cabin.

Dove opened their own door while Bill helped Charlotte to plant her feet back on the solid earth, treating her like a decrepit grandmother. Charlotte accepted his hand for the step down but, after collecting herself, she withdrew her arm sharply. The home of this mysterious ‘master’ was only the size of a single bedroom apartment, at most. Above the door was a hanging sign that read “Black Cat Bistro” in swirling iron letters that danced along the back of a witch's smart mounted best friend. They must have been missing something, because the dimensions of the building were barely large enough to house a commercial kitchen, let alone an entire steakhouse.

Bill opened the breezy spruce door for them, leading into a spacious parlor room. The decor of the room matched that of the exterior, with green carpeting that suggested the forest floor and warm red wood paneling that portrayed dense foliage. An arabesque chandelier hung overhead, spruced up with dimmed LED lights to convey the feeling of gas lanterns. There were two plush couches with sloping oak frames and sequined pillows that each bore the mark of a stag mid-leap. Between the two seats was a low coffee-table topped with a large doily, a short lamp, and a full porcelain tea set. The most out-of-place feature in the room was an arcade cabinet, Cabela’s Deer Hunter 2018, which had a more garish camo design that you might expect in a bar or VFW hall. The controller, though, must have been custom-made for the sake of thematic consistency, because Dove couldn’t believe that a gold inlay of antlers on a varnished wooden shoulder stock was standard for light guns. Bill walked over to the doorway besides that of the entrance.

Please enjoy the refreshments as I speak to the master,” he pulled on the brass handle and slipped inside.

Immediately, Dove approached the door and pulled on the handle only to find it unyielding. Dissatisfied, they examined the strange, ebony framed plaque that was stuck to the door’s surface. At the top was an insignia in the shape of a heater shield with four different sections in distinct color schemes. In the top right was the white head of a buck with towering horns surrounded by juniper, to its left was the toothy maw of a black shark swimming in a cobalt ocean, in the bottom right was a yellow howling wolf in a marmalade twilight, and opposite that was a purble crow landing talons first in a bed of currant. Below the insignia were the lines of a poem written out in cursive on a chalk tablet:

When the low, heavy sky weighs like a lid
On the groaning spirit, victim of long ennui,
And from the all-encircling horizon
Spreads over us a day gloomier than the night;

When the earth is changed into a humid dungeon,
In which Hope like a bat
Goes beating the walls with her timid wings
And knocking her head against the rotten ceiling;

When the rain stretching out its endless train
Imitates the bars of a vast prison
And a silent horde of loathsome spiders
Come to spin their webs in the depths of our brains,

All at once the bells leap with rage
And hurl a frightful roar at heaven,
Even as wandering spirits with no country
Burst into a stubborn, whimpering cry.

—And without drums of music, long hearses
Pass by slowly in my soul; Hope, vanquished,
Weeps, and atrocious, despotic Anguish
On my bowed skull plants her black flag.

It’s Baudelaire,” Charlotte spoke up beside them, “Les Fleurs du Mal.

You’re pretty well read, hm?

I was a librarian,” she stared at the insignia, “for a time…

What is it supposed to mean? Are there things in the room that match up to the words in the poem?

I doubt it,” she raised an eyebrow, “if I were to venture a guess, I’d say it’s meant as a statement of our host’s outlook on the world. Baudelaire often dealt with the erotic, the disgust we feel at the evil of the world and ourselves, a macabre fascination, and the dream of achieving an ideal world. This poem in particular does not speak well of his more hopeful dispositions.

If that’s the case, maybe the guy should focus on getting some lexapro rather than arranging clandestine meetings.

Yes, I think we could all do well to take out mental health more seriously.

The two of them wandered around to search for potential clues as to the identity of their captor. Charlotte felt around the edges of the plaque in order to discover a hinge or hidden indentation. Dove, on the other hand, examined the tea set. They picked up individual cups and rotated them in their hands to spot any differences. Not exactly an artificer, each of the cups looked identical to one another. They all bore thick, abstract brushstrokes in cerulean enamel paint, presenting the silhouette of a deer frollicking in various phases of trot. Clearly their host had a special interest. Moving onto the tea pot, Dove couldn’t help but remember Ms. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, this one having the same oblong shape and thin spout. Picking it up, Dove had expected the sound of (hopefully) tea sloshing, or simply nothing, but was instead met with a series of high metallic clinks.

Beneath the lid was a treasure trove of pristine quarters, either fresh from a mint or a newly opened coin sleeve.

Hey, come look at this!” Dove held up the kettle triumphantly as Charlotte stepped over for a peek.

Hmm, quarters?

Mhm, yep, looks like I was right.” They felt self-contented.

About what?” Charlotte stared quizzically.

About the evil flower poem giving us a clue!” They took one hand off the pot to point over to the plaque, “‘when the low, heavy sky weighs heavy like a lid,’ i.e. the lid of a teapot.

Well, I’d say that’s a bit tenuous, but you may be steering us in the proper direction regardless.” She took a dollar’s worth out of the porcelain cairn, “I think it’s obvious what these are meant for.

She bent her knees and brought her dress low to the ground in order to reach the coin slot of the arcade cabinet, inserting the four coins before springing up to mount the rifle against her shoulder. Her eyes were fixed on the screen as it flashed “START.” Digital deers wander into her sights and she pinpointed their hearts clinically, scoring kill after kill as the points multiplied exponentially. She was so efficient that it became comical how many deer popped up on screen only to be mowed down. There was only a single hitch in Charlotte’s performance early on, when the screen prompted her to reload and she mimed pulling back something on the side of the rifle. Realizing it wasn’t there, she adjusted. After the round was over, the scoreboard displayed a wooden sign with “AGN” at the top followed by a record of 571,170 points. Charlotte had scored 796,885 points, entering the initials of ‘CPM.’ Then, the door clicked.

Guess he thought we’d need a lot more quarters, huh?

That, or we’ll need them again later.

Yeah, good point, I’ll take a few for the road.” Dove reached in to steal a handful for their jacket pocket.

Charlotte slid her fingers around the handle of the door, bracing the back of her shoulder against it. The door swung open cautiously. Behind it was a narrow hallway that matched the parlor visually, though all that was there was another chandelier and a door with its own plaque. Forgetting where they were, Dove pulled the door shut behind them as they passed over the threshold. They jiggled the handle to futilely try and open it, but it stuck fast. Charlotte turned her head shot them a look of annoyance that gave them flashbacks to Mrs. Simmons in AP Physics. They continued through the hall until Charlotte was directly beneath the chandelier and reached her hand up to grasp its stem. She pulled down on it, lowering it a few inches, before she felt some resistance and let it go to raise back to its original position. The next door clicked in response.

Why did you do that?!” Dove was bewildered.

Besides the door, this is the only object of interest in the room, so I thought I’d see if I could manipulate it.

They reached the door at the end of the hallway, and Dove caught a glimpse of the plaque before Charlotte opened it:

Please lighten the load.

Dove rolled their eyes. Whoever ‘AGN’ was, he was clearly a corny motherfucker. The next room was a bathroom with tiled floors, a drain, two stand-up showers, two chairs, towels, and privacy screens. Taken aback, the door closed on its own this time. The next plaque read:

Please enjoy a refreshing shower.

The pair gave each other an incredulous look.

You could just break the door down, right?

Oh, easily, but it’s in our best interests to appear compliant.

Do we really have to shower in here?

It would seem so. It‘s no skin off my back, really, you’ve already seen Charlene and I have no intention to sneak a peek at you.

Dove was flushed as Charlotte went behind the right hand privacy screen, most of her head still cresting over. They went behind the other one and tried to spot potential nooks for hidden cameras. Their brain was a little preoccupied weighing whether to be more mortified at the present situation or the fact that Charlotte knew about that. It made sense, as far as such things could make sense, that if Charlene has Charlotte’s memories then the opposite should also be true. It hadn’t been particularly salacious, she had simply taken a shower and neglected to cover anything but her hair with a towel. She didn’t see it as a big deal, but this had luckily happened at night and Dove had decided to just take a quick walk to give her some space.

While Dove considered this, Charlotte was already in the shower and humming a Joni Mitchell song. They certainly hadn’t pegged her as a flower child, but this woman was full of surprises. Tentatively, they folded their jacket on the chair, kicked off their boots and peeled down their socks, and then tore away their thin layer of clothes and underwear. The prospect of someone watching them was certainly discomforting, so they coerced up their breasts and smashed into the shower stall. It was a little embarrassing, feeling so precious about this, and it was hard not to feel kinda like a poser compared to when they had the physique of Joe Talbot. They didn’t, like, streak, but they’d hang around their apartment in tighty whities that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Now they owned a robe and a bunch of different hair products, which frankly made the cheap all-in-one body wash they were trying to lather up with feel like a throwback. They dried off their body with the towel before packing it around their hair. Once they opened up the stall door, they were infuriated to discover their clothes replaced in the chair by neater dress, their phone resting on top. FUCK! That douchebag took their jacket! That was their whole goddamn life, and for all they some giant was off somewhere incinerating it! They were tired of being jerked around, if someone wanted them to wear a fucking monkey suit then they were gonna make them wish they hadn’t!

They put on the underwear, black cotton, and tossed aside the accompanying lacy bra. Leaving the plain white undershirt untucked, they stuck their legs straight into the dress pants, kicking at the seams until it reached their waist. Finally, they slipped the suit jacket onto their shoulders, buttoning it only at the very bottom with the collar popped out. In two jerks they took off the sleeves, letting the pearl cufflinks clatter to the floor. It didn’t matter if the modifications looked stupid, just that it would piss off their host. Stepping out from their screen, they saw Charlotte leaning back against the door waiting for them, dressed in a long Jessica Rabbit-esque red dress with black gloves and matching heels. She studied Dove with an implacable expression.

I don’t think that was wise,” she finally said.

I don’t care,” Dove stuck their hands in their pocket, “he wants to talk to us? He can deal with it.

The door clicked behind her.

Hmph.” She turned her half-covered back to Dove, “que sera sera.

The next room was another hallway, entirely dark without a chandelier, so Dove had to read the plaque with their phone flashlight:

Please answer.

Upon reading that, their phone started to ring from an unknown number, prompting them to answer it.

Your table is ready,” the deep and velveteen voice of a woman cooed, with the call ending drone synced up to the door’s click.

Thankfully, the final room was well lit, but it was also the smallest of its brethren. There was no door here, only a long wall mounted mirror which, since it could capture neither Dove nor Charlotte, only reflected the door that had just closed behind them. Dove spun around on their heels to try and open it again, but of course it wouldn’t budge. This time, though, there had been a plaque on both sides:

Please enjoy your meal.

Returning to the mirror, they saw the message reversed:

Please enjoy your meal.

Dove looked at Charlotte expectantly.

What do we do now?

We go through the mirror.

Oh, obviously,” Dove sighed.

Unceremoniously, Charlotte tucked her head down, stepping over the lower edge of the mirror and appearing on the other side with her back to Dove. She turned her head back and gave a nod for them to come through. They stepped up the long, partially illuminated surface. No more reflection, it was not even a window as much as a portal. There was a smidgen of logic to it, even if it was dream logic. All their life, there had been a hollow face staring at them behind the pane. Unable to smile, pretending to laugh, sobbing without empathy, its only genuine ability was to push them away. It isn’t possible for a reflection to hug. An embrace requires reaching past the barrier. Which Dove could do now, absent of their silent companion. Sticking in a finger, the glass rippled when they moved it with the resistance of nectar. Everywhere they had been left a streak of charred black before regaining its pristine quality, burning in reverse. At her whits end, Charlotte stuck her hand through the mirror and pulled Dove the rest of the way through. They were hyperventilating, pulled straight from one stratum of pressure to another. Before they could recover on their own, Charlotte pulled them up to their feet.

What in the sam hell, Dove?!” Her accent leaped from containment, “y’can play around on y’own fuckin’ time!

Get off of me!” Dove fell away from Charlotte, shocked out of their stupor.

Mm,” Charlotte stood up like a ramrod and cleared her throat, “well, uh, I’m sorry for blowing up at you, I suppose my nerves are a bit frayed. Let’s go ahead and get this finished.

Charlotte took the handle of the now-reversed door, thus placing it on their right. Unlike the version on the other side of the mirror, it was unlocked, and beyond it were sights Dove was not prepared to see. Behind the door was a restaurant, as promised, though the hedonistic atmosphere and clientele resembled a speakeasy straight out of prohibitionist’s fever dream more than a high-class bistro. All kinds of women in various states of dress, some wearing pincushion hats and veils, others in full suits and unwoven ties, a few entirely naked. A handful hung off handsome, well-groomed men while puffing on long cigarillos. More of them hung off eachother, a checkerboard of black and red dresses intertwined, wrapped in a kaleidoscope of hunger, lust, humor, and delirium. Besides the anachronistic coupling, the biggest departure from the bootlegger aesthetic was the drink they all gathered to imbibe. Rather than whiskey or moonshine, in every glass, every thin-necked bottle and ampule, and certainly staining the conspicuous red tables were gallons and gallons of blood. The place was raucous with a hybrid of dionysian and hemophilic appetites, and the tidy wait staff could barely set down a glass before it was abruptly licked clean. The band, who stood in contrast to the black and red crowd with their spotless white attire, were playing a suite of songs that ranged from jazz standards and Thelonius Monk to yacht rock and trip hop.

Just as disorienting as its appearance was the smell of the place: a potpourri of rich spices from every direction that forced Dove’s mouth to water. Looking at Charlotte, it seemed that the massive amount and variety of blood in one place was also getting to her. She held two fingers up to her temple as if she were fighting off a terrible migraine. Handling it got a bit easier for Dove when they noticed that some servers carried trays with huge chunks of raw meat and, in one case, what looked to be a human spleen. When they saw one patron tear into an ultra-blue steak with his bare hands, Dove felt their gorge rising. Falling into an old habit, they thanked the lord that they still found that disgusting.

At the front of the pandemonium was Bill, standing behind a reservation stand. He looked different, to be sure, but the outline was the same. His hair now a tundra of white rather than a black forest, his eyes an icy blue, and wearing a self-assured smile rather than lack on his face. He had traded in his shabby mortician outfit for a green crushed velvet suit that made him look a bit like Hugh Hefner, only with a stag’s head on his breast instead of a bunny. On one side of him was a list of specials written out on the chalkboard with that same neat cursive. The soup d’jour was kreatosoupa and the ‘wine’ selection included both pinot grigio and “26 AB Virgin Femme.” On the other side of him was the same grandfather clock that had intrigued Dove at the antique store, still stuck at 3:34.

We’re so glad to have you madams at the Black Cat Bistro,” rather than monotone, this Bill spoke with a lilting trans-Atlantic accent that reminded Dove a little too much of William F. Buckley, “I am Agamemnon, the maitre d of this noble establishment. Shall I escort you to your seats?

No.” Dove put their foot down, “we’re tired of being led by the nose, and we don’t wanna be part of this freakshow, just tell us what’s going on and why you brought us here!

What my companion means to say,” Charlotte stepped in front of them, “is that we unfortunately do not have the time to enjoy a meal, so we would like to know the purpose of your invitation, sir.

No time for a meal?” He put on a show of exaggerated shock, “if you don’t have time for a meal, you certainly don’t have time for all trifling matters. I assure you, once you try the veal you’ll be hooked, it’s impeccably tender.

I’m vegan,” they spat it at him.

Really? Well, I’ll admit I’ve been admiring the handiwork of your personalized jacket,” he reached under the podium and brought out Dove’s jacket on a wire hanger, “but I couldn’t help but notice that it isn’t pleather?

It has sentimental value,” their upper lip twitched. Charlotte pinched them to signal they should calm down.

Ah, apologies, we all must have our little indulgences. Speaking of,” he took a metal tin of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered it to Charlotte, “cigarette, ma’am?

No, thank you, I quit smoking thirty years ago.

Congratulations,” his face puckered into a wicked smile, “I respect nothing more than the force of willpower.

Yes,” Charlotte preemptively closed off the next line of inquiry, “this is certainly a fine establishment, and we’re grateful for your accommodating hospitality, but I was serious about our limited timescale.

Well,” he made a slow, deliberate blink, “I respect that too then. I’m sure you’ve no doubt noticed the anomalous qualities of this little hamlet of Blake. To quote the great Don Henley, ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’ That is, unless you have the proper means. The Black Cat has many locations across the US, including within the great state of Indiana, so perhaps I could help you find the exit to one of our other fine establishments.

What’s the catch?” Dove narrowed their eyes.

Ehehe, cuts right to the heart of it, this one? I’m sure that our kind lordess here can attest that you acquire many hobbies and trivial obsessions over the course of a long life. Myself, I am subject to the proclivities of a collector, and I shamefully find myself thinking of new acquisitions as I go about my duties. Right now, I’m rather obsessed with a certain item connected to this town. Sadly, it no longer exists, so you’d think I’d be prudent or sane enough to abandon this pursuit. You don’t know me very well then. This grandfather clock is one of the most erudite jewels in my entire collection, allowing you to witness important moments in the collective memory of a locale. Sadly, I cannot use it myself due to the nature of my own condition, but I have been able to confirm that it is calibrated to the perfect window for acquiring my newest white whale. So I was hoping that I might persuade one of you to kindly retrieve it for me.

I’m sorry sir, but I don’t believe we can agree to these terms, not if we have zero notion as to the potential risks.

They thought for a moment about the proposition. On one hand, even if Dove couldn’t figure out his whole deal, they had certainly seen enough to know that this guy was a sick bastard. Whether or not he had anything to do with Laura, the fact he was peddling human blood was enough reason to throttle him. Charlotte was probably right that he was throwing them into a dangerous situation with no regard to their well being. On the other hand, Dove wasn’t even sure how they were gonna leave the bistro on their own, let alone the town. They also wanted to prove that they were capable of handling themself after the humiliation of being babysitted. They could locate the moment, trade their outside of this purgatory, meet up with Marcus, and then give Laura a thorough piece of their mind.

Fine, I’ll do it, Dove moved before the clockface, “how does it work and what am I looking for?

Dove, I don’t think this is-

Excellent!” Agamemnon clapped his hands together, “don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it. As for how this works, just touch the face… now!

Dove stuck their hand out to touch the glass covering the hands of the clock, which, as soon as Agamemnon said “now” flipped backwards to 3:33. The music and intoxicating atmosphere faded away as gray static flooded their vision. Fuzz filled their ears before everything that was them was swallowed up.

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