As I mentioned last week when I previewed some initial sketches, I proudly present Chapter 1 of my next novel, Rune Service! Enjoy!
“It’s a real shame you had to work tonight, Mary,” Sarah said as she leaned against the Ease-E-Mart counter, “what with your big date and all.”
I was surprised she remembered that. We weren’t precisely friends, you understand. Sarah was one in a baker’s dozen of customers that came by every evening. They all shared my misfortune of having to work in the middle of the blasted night, so we formed a little community of sorts, a support group for mass commiseration.
I shifted my weight on the milk crate I was standing on as I sighed. “Eh, I really don’t care,” I said, trying to sound way more nonplussed than I actually was. “It’s extra money I could really use and let’s be honest, on-line dating is overrated anyway.” Which was both the truth and totally a lie at the same time.
No way in Hell was I going to admit that my prospective date had canceled the exact second he found out that the profile pictures hadn’t been some strange practical joke. It’s the bitter truth that your average red-blooded American male (or any man for that matter … any woman either) just isn’t into four-foot tall bearded women.
No, that isn’t a joke. Welcome to the life of Mary Stone, overnight service station attendant!
Sarah gave me an unbelieving look as she poked at the El Explodo microwave burrito she had purchased. “Yeah and I’m Nicki Minaj.” Her purple lips made a little ‘oh’, the color almost garish on her black skin, especially with the bright blonde bouffant. “Shoot, sorry, honey. I know you were hoping you’d get lucky this time.”
I let out a double sigh as I leaned my chin against my fist, my silky red beard engulfing my hand. I had spent four hours this morning washing, shampooing, conditioning, and brushing the albatross hanging off my chin, determined to follow that old chestnut of making a weakness a strength. It’s not like I could shave it, not when it grew back within an hour.
“It’s okay,” I lied, waving my free hand dismissively at her. “It’s not like you’re wrong. I’m not a good liar.” I pushed off the counter and hopped down from my crate, dipping below the front counter. “Dammit, it’s so frustrating, though! I know I’m nobody’s idea of a sex symbol but you’d think there would be somebody out there who would at least do more than a blind date!”
I couldn’t see Sarah as I clomped around to the counter door, but I could hear her sympathetic grunt between mouthfuls of El Explodo. As much as I didn’t want to be here, I felt compelled to do my job and do it right which meant changing out the coffee every hour on the hour. That was right about now, but that wasn’t the only reason I felt like moving around.
There was something niggling in my gut like I had been crazy enough to eat an El Explodo myself or maybe stuck my fingers into an electrical socket. I thought that moving would work it out but it persisted. Sighing, I trudged down to the back wall with its assortment of drink machines and coffee pots, with everything from Mega Gulp Slushies to Triple Fudge Mocha Latte Instant Cappuccino available to fill the greediest of guts.
Sarah finally swallowed down her dinner and offered more sympathies. “There’s somebody for everybody, I honestly believe that.” I grunted in reply as I pulled myself up on the coffee counter. “Trust me, if some of the ladies that take my cab can get men, you can find somebody. You’re a helluva lot smarter than them, you’re hard-working, and you’ve gotta be loyal if you’re still showing up to this dump with what they pay you.”
“Oh, if you only knew.” Clomping down the counter, I methodically changed out the grounds on each of the tall coffee urns and fired up each machine. The damn things were almost as tall as I was, making them my perpetual nemesis at work. “Put a needle in my eye, but I’d be honest in saying life was easier on the road.”
“Say, you never did tell me what you did ‘on the road’.” No, I never did tell her, mainly as she was an insufferable gossip. Not a bad person, not at all, but I’d sooner tell Sarah my sordid past as I’d tell her the combination to the Ease-E-Mart safe.
“There, coffee’s done,” I announced right as the front bell chimed.
Sarah straightened up, brushing crumbs off her Hello Yellow Taxi Service jacket, while I craned my head over the aisles of junk food and overpriced travel supplies. It wasn’t exactly up to health code for me to trample down the counters in my work shoes. While the regulars didn’t care, I couldn’t afford to get fired because of some random midnight traveler reporting me.
That weird twisting in my stomach became twitching electricity up my spine as I laid eyes on my new customer. The guy was tall, easily six and a half feet tall, and slender under his stylish white leather coat. Hell, his entire get-up could have walked straight out of The Matrix in its attempt to be retro-cool. My only judgment was that it was an awfully huge waste of money.
In total contrast to the overpriced ostentatiousness of the clothes, his face was breathtakingly handsome. Flawless, pale skin over delicate features, that delicacy was balanced by a strong chin and intense gold-flecked green eyes, shaded by a wide-brimmed fedora. His lips were curled into an easy smile and his long, honey-gold hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail. This man could have stepped off the cover of a romance novel, for Pete’s sake.
I was transfixed, staring like a damn idiot while that tingle danced down into my fingers and toes. Sarah, well, she was obviously ready to make a grab for fresh meat as she stepped away from the remains of her burrito. “Well, hello there, honey,” she purred. “You look like you need a ride somewhere, dontcha?”
Mr. Handsome completely ignored her as he strode across the store, past the counter in a straight line towards me. I should have hopped down, the threat of the Health Inspector hovering over me, but I couldn’t. I’d never felt quite like this before, even when I thought I was in love before, and I had no idea what to do.
He barely had to look up at me as tall as he was, a quirk of a smile on his perfect lips as he held his hand up to me. “May I help you down from your perch, dear lady?” His voice was the hot knife to the butter of my ears and I took his hand without thinking. I barely noticed that my beefy mitt almost engulfed his narrow-fingered hand. “You’re exactly what I was looking for, what I was feeling.”
My brain caught up to my libido as he gently tugged on my arm. “Wait, what are you saying?” I arched a suspicious eyebrow, that electrical tingle evaporating. “What exactly do you think I am?” P. T. Barnum famously pronounced there was a sucker born every minute, a fact that I saw proven time and time again during my carnie life, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be one.
A look of confusion played over his timeless face as he gave my arm another futile tug. I might be vertically challenged, but I was almost as wide as I was tall and my new admirer had noodle arms in comparison to mine. “I need your help. Well, the help of a dwarf anyway.”
The spell was completely broken then, and not just for me. Sarah stepped away from the impending explosion, her lips pursed as she let out a low, deep, “Ohhhh.”
As for me, I wrenched my hand free from his, not making a pretense of being gentle. “Oh, you need a dwarf then? Some kind of rich, pretty-boy bastard, aren’t you?” That look of confusion compounded ten-fold, but I didn’t give a shit as I pushed him back from the counter with a foot in his chest. “Did you come to gawk at the weird little woman you heard about from the drunk down the street? Or maybe you’re all jaded and decided you needed something exotic to play with?”
“I, well, no, it’s nothing like that,” he tried to sputter out, hands instinctively brushing at my shoeprint on his immaculate white leather.
I hopped down from the counter, landing heavily on the tile, my cheeks as red as my hair and beard. His excuses were going in one ear and out the other as I continued to rant, “Don’t you dare lie to me! I’ve spent my whole life being stared at, on display in front of the crowd, pointed and laughed at for a cheap buck or two.” I barely came up to his waist but I wouldn’t let him talk down to me. Shoving him roughly against the nearest aisle and upsetting a selection of snack cakes, I growled, “I’m done with that, so if you’re looking for some cheap thrills, you can take your goldilocks down to the red light district!”
“No, please, you have the wrong idea, good woman!” He raised his hands defensively and took a deep breath. What came out next was almost a song, his perfect voice twinkling like bells with words I didn’t know, yet I somehow understood all the same. “I am Aelfread Aelfson, noble-blooded scion of the Sylvarian Elves, heir of the Spaces Below The Lakes, and I humbly beseech the aid of you, my full-blooded Dwarven sister.” As if to provide some tangible proof, he pulled off his fedora, letting his long hair cascade down and freeing his long, sharply pointed ears.
“What kind of crazy-ass language was that?” Sarah asked. “You ain’t an alien or anything, are you?”
Whatever that language was, it sent shivers up my spine. Though I didn’t know where or when, I had heard it before and I knew it like I was born to speak it. Something was horribly horribly wrong here, but through that instinctual pulse of danger in my veins, I felt a thrill, the thrill of discovery. A puzzle piece had been put into place that I didn’t even know had been missing.
Sarah looked at me in a panic and Aelfread looked down at me pleadingly. I looked down, biting my lip and stroking my beard, deciding in that moment which way I was going to go. I could try to forget this, send the so-called elf packing, and go back to stocking shelves, or I could try to embrace this new reality that had walked into the Ease-E-Mart.
“Sarah, it’s okay,” I said, trying to sound confident and doing a surprisingly good job at it, “but I think you’d better go.”
Apparently, she didn’t need to be told twice. Sarah gave me a single backward glance as she got to the front doors and then was gone, the bells tinkling as the doors swung closed behind her.
Aelfread ran his right hand through his hair, his hat still clenched in his left. He continued to speak in that other language, obviously relieved. “You’re doing the right thing, you know. My father will reward you greatly for your assistance. Surely even so far from the Lakes, all Figments know of his vast wealth and generosity!”
I turned back to the willowy elf and folded my arms over my chest, straining the fabric of my regulation red uniform shirt. I wasn’t sure if I could speak what he was speaking, but when I tried to, it came out naturally, as if I’d been speaking it my whole life. “What in God’s name is a ‘figment’? I don’t know you or your father from Adam’s housecat, and I certainly didn’t know elves were real, but you obviously know something about me that I don’t.”
Aelfread looked me up and down, obviously not believing me for a moment, but that disbelief faded as I stared him down unflinchingly. If there’s one thing I could do, it is winning a staring contest. “You honestly don’t know what you are?” He chewed at his lip. “I didn’t think Dwarves had orphans.” It was weird but the word he was using for ‘dwarf’ in that language sounded … noble. It didn’t stink of the prejudice and distaste that I associated the English word with.
“All the same, though, you can still help me, my dear, and perhaps I can help you even more than offers of my father’s riches.”
“I’m not ‘your dear’, pretty boy.” I was pleased to know that I could still smart off in this alien language. “My name is Mary Stone … and maybe I’d be game for that, if what you’re offering is the truth about what the hell is going on right now.”
“My apologies, Lady Stone.” Aelfread accompanied his apology with a graceful flourish of a bow. “And if it pleases you, call me Aelfie. I find it is easier for most other Figments and humans to say.” As he stood upright, it was obvious to me that Aelfie was a bit nervous under his cool veneer, casting an occasional glance at the door. “I would be most honored to tell you all about your people and the world you have no doubt been ignorant too in exchange for your assistance in my current difficulties.”
I frowned, shifting to put a fist on my hip and stroking my beard with my other hand. There was every sign, from Aelfie’s nervousness to the obvious desperation to search for help in a convenience store, that this strange elf guy was in actual real trouble. I wanted to know more, more about what I apparently was, but did I have to stick my neck out for him? I knew there was more out there; I could try to find it by myself and not risk my life.
Sure, I could have done that, but there were a few reasons why I didn’t. First, Aelfie exuded charm and sexual magnetism, so much that I couldn’t exactly ignore him. Secondly and more importantly, there was a principle I had picked up from my sideshow past and that was that freaks had to stick together. Regardless of what might actually be, he was some weird alien elf and I was a freakish bearded dwarf lady. If we weren’t freaks, I didn’t know what would be.
I looked back up at his expectant smile and thrust up my hand at him. “All right, Aelfie. You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Relief lit up in his almond-shaped eyes as he grabbed my hand with both of his. “Oh, dear Mary, you won’t regret this!”
As if someone had been listening to those very words, the entire front display of the Ease-E-May exploded inward, sending glass shrapnel throughout the store. The bread display was turned into shredded wheat, the drink cooler bled cola out of a hundred holes, and the entire front half of the place was generally trashed.
I was regretting agreeing already.