Fiction: The Changeling

By Tom Hamilton

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If you look at city blocks from an airplane, there are way more squares then there are rocky diamonds. I remember this when I’m on the ground. And I did as I drove around searching for a mark. It’s not as easy as just finding the house with the most expensive car. The people who have all the money are smart enough to want to keep it. No one could possibly lift each fancy brass knocker or ring every single doorbell. I don’t have the strength or perseverance of the mailman. So, it pays to notice the subtlest of nuances: like a pick-up truck with a Sturgeon on the camper or a carved wooden plaque which says: Grampa and Grandma’s house.

When people think of con artists, the most elaborate and complex schemes usually come to mind: the pigeon drop, three-card Monty, the king in the tower. But it’s nowhere near as complicated as all that. It’s simply a matter of finding someone old and feeble-enough to impose your will upon. Preferably, someone who still has access to their banks accounts and doesn’t need a second signature from their son or daughter, nephew or niece. Then gaining their confidence while breaking down all resistance with a presumptuous and forward politeness. Like a fast, sleek point guard taking the defender off the dribble. Worming your way into their quilt-covered, big-box-TV living rooms and….

My thoughts were interrupted by a streak of colour off to my right. A strikingly-attractive young woman, who was wearing a tan, polka dotted sundress, was being tugged along by several leashed dogs on the sidewalk. She was tall, a little taller than I like them, with auburn hair flowing down past her freckled shoulders and complimenting a fair face, her thick and sensual lips, the shade and perhaps the flavour of caramel. A song on the radio told me the colour of her eyes in an instant of almost supernatural synchronicity: “…auburn hair and tawny eyes, the kind of eyes which hypnotize me through, hypnotize me through.”

The dogs were a perfect match for their master: an orange-sherbet Irish Setter, a caramel-apple Lhasa Apso and a Golden Retriever following a streamlined Doberman Pinscher, which was the subtle colour of coffee infiltrated with cream and just a hint of sugar-white fur underneath the chin. These animals foraged across the silver concrete, straining at their burnt-orange chords as if they wanted to circle the globe on four feet.

Almost involuntarily, I pumped the truck’s brake, waving my arms in a desperate attempt to get her attention. For I felt a need to be seen by her and to be thrilled by her reaction, preferably a clean-and-comely smile. My poor, ruined heart had been packed in ice for so long, it felt like a donor organ being transported in a six pack cooler. It was like a dead battery that needed to be jolted back to life by jumper cables. It needed to be held in tender, soft, svelte, petite female fingers; to be nursed back to health like an injured red bird. But she didn’t seem to see me and only kept on walking, as if senile or impaired somehow. Oblivious to my deep, sexual stare.

Finally, and with much help from the prick who was laying on his horn in the car behind me, I was forced to round the corner. By the time I’d completed my turn and shed the road rager, I was nearly at the next block. I tried glancing back over my shoulder across a vacant lot, which was strewn with shards of burnt-brown broken bottles and the bushy hairstyles of weeds. But the girl and her dogs could not be seen anywhere. Of course I made the square in an effort to relocate them, but it was as if they’d slipped into a doorway or dropped through a manhole. Sometime during my third trip around the block, I realized that they were gone.

***

“Well that seems kind of high Timothy,” the old woman said.

“‘High’ compared to what, ma’am?” I quipped. “Everything’s high, nowadays.”

We were sitting on lawn chairs inside her garage, looking out over a freshly seal-coated driveway. A pitcher of iced tea sat on a wooden ‘Fightin’ Illini’ tray table, along with two transparent plastic cups. She was frowning down at the invoice I had just slid across to her. When she didn’t say anything else, or more importantly, when she didn’t start writing the check out, I knew that I would have to talk:

“Hey,” I said, “you’re a senior citizen, aren’t you?” It wouldn’t have taken a carnival weight-guesser to make this estimation. “Are you over sixty-five?”

She looked up from the bill, pride twinkling in her eyes. “I’m eighty nine,” she said.

“Well that makes you eligible right there.”

“Oh,” She puffed up and purred. “For what?”

“For the senior citizen’s discount.” I tapped the calculator. “And with your 10% discount, that brings your total down too…$1475.00.” She didn’t look much happier, but she did start writing the check out. After she’d put her John Hancock on the document, however, she seemed to brighten and was soon back to her old affable self.

“Would you like some more iced tea, Timothy?” she asked. I despised iced tea. To me, it tasted like dirty eggs which had been soaked in tap water. It was all I could do not to retch upon sipping it.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I answered. “That would be wonderful.” I watched the bile-colored liquid cascade down through the ice squares.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Timothy.” Of course my name wasn’t Timothy. It was obvious that the old woman’s weakened mind was confusing me with somebody else, someone from the lost and darkened decades before I was born. I was curious, however, and once I had the check in my wallet, I asked her:

“Timothy? Is that your son?”

“No,” she said, as her countenance darkened and what had been an unbridled sun was swept behind a cloud as huge and gray as a castle.

“But I did have a child once, a long time ago.” Her shrunken, slouching shoulders shrugged. I believe she was trying to guess my age. “Maybe…fifty years before you were born.”

“Oh?” I said, before taking another gulp of the horrid de-freshment.

“Yes,” she said, as her forehead cracked like a bulldog’s and her eyes filled with tinctured water and looked as big as buckeyes. Her features blackened and sank until her face looked positively possessed.

“We were trying to make it to the Quad Cities,” she began. “My mother knew a doctor there. Oh, they had automobiles then, but no one that we knew could afford one. So, I just lay there big as a house in the back of the wagon, exasperated from the heat. Then my balloon burst and there was water all over the boards. We had to get me off of the gravel, so my father pulled us into a roadside park. It was in Winslow Illinois, or ‘is’, I should say: it’s still there. Has been there since that August, 1915.”

I wasn’t going to ask where the husband/father was, but just as I wondered about this, she volunteered the information as if she’d read my mind:

“Killed in the Great War,” she said. “They never told me how it happened, but I knew: lost my wind in a dream one night; he’d choked the gas down just like all the others.”

“In 1915?” I said, confused. I hadn’t thought that the Americans entered the war until 1917. But even though the old woman’s mind seemed to dart in and out of reality, this time, she seemed to get the gist of my puzzlement.

“He was fightin’ for the Kaiser,” she said. “He was a German National,” she nodded along with me.

It was past time to get up and leave. But not only was I obliged to hear the end of the story, I found that I wanted to.

“Anyways, they spread a quilt out over a big picnic table and laid me down on it,” she continued. “The wind picked up in the afternoon and the horses spooked. It was all my father could do to keep them rounded up and settled. We had a woman traveling with us, some type-a-tramp or gypsy. She said that she knew something about birthin’ a child. Anyways, regardless-a-what she knew or didn’t know, I don’t suppose there was much choice left at that juncture.” The old woman paused before continuing with a violent demonstration: she thrust both hands in front of her as if clutching something and her fingers contorted like the branches of an old knobby tree. “She reached up deep inside of me and pulled that child out. If a child’s what it was? If that’s what you could call it.”

I swallowed and almost coughed.

“Well, the blood hit the front of them long skirts like a pig was sloppin’ it out of a bucket and they must have seen the baby before I did, because they stepped back, dropped it on the table top, aghast in the presence of the abomination they were witnessing.”

I took a tiny controlled breath and tried not to spit on the ground.

“And then I saw it: looked a bit like a bat, you know, a vampire bat, only covered in brown oil or some type of red syrup: like STP. But with whiskers like a cat, sort of. But it wasn’t innocent; that was what you gathered from lookin’ at its eyes; it had the knowledge of someone or something what had lived ten thousand years. Eyes black as the bottom of a coal mine.” The old woman paused again, lost her intensity, leaned back in the lawn chair and began to speak quietly:

“Anyways, it fell off the picnic table onto the grass; they never even tried to catch it. The midwife or whatever she was took a leak right there in her long gown just from lookin’ at it. I was passed out by that time, but years later before my sister died, she told me that it was tryin’ to move around on the ground a little bit, flapping around like a bird with one wing. Then Apple Eater – Apple Eater was my dad’s old Cocker Spaniel – well, he scooped it up in his jaws and ran off into the high weeds with it. They never even followed that old pooch, never even tried to save what had come out of me.”

I was at a loss for words. The old woman got up, took the pitcher of iced tea and poured it down a laundry sink. The diluted water dropped straight down from a pipe-less drain into a rusted filter in the concrete and swirled until it was gone.

“Dad found Apple Eater the next mornin’,” she said. “He was back in the heavier woods, his body all dried out and emancipated, but perfect like a taxidermy trophy. Funny, his brown fur had all turned gray. I knew that that could happen to a person, but I didn’t know that it could happen to a dog. Looked like a goddamn snow wolf.”

I was usually great at thinking of excuses to leave. But this time, my tongue felt thick and bulky. I tried to get up from the lawn chair, but my muscles wouldn’t respond.

“You want a piece of pie,” she smiled brightly, as the livid sun reappeared, as if it were mad from having to battle the winter for far too long. “I’ve got pumpkin and lemon meringue, but vinegar is by far my favourite”

***

The city seemed different to me, somehow. As if an aura of trepidation and dread had settled over the houses and tenements. The smell of all the oil and all the petroleum and all the fumes was making my stomach feel as if it were full of gasoline. The old woman had given me a check on some sort of credit union and I had no idea where it was or how to get there. Most credit unions closed at 4pm and it was already well past three. As I scanned the avenues and the street corners and the storefronts in search of a payphone or for an informed Samaritan who could perhaps tell me the way, suddenly, I saw her again.

She was wearing a black leather mini-skirt and tall biker go-go boots all the way up past the knee. Her eyes were a swirling black, formed with pressure like the cascading darkness at the bottom of a hopeless ocean. The eye shadow above and the lipstick below had been streaked on carelessly in dreamy shades so black that they looked blue. Her long, flowing dark hair was as cruel and beautiful as the mane of a wild mare.

The dogs were there, too: a fidgety Boston Terrier, black with white patches; a huge Rottweiler with a head as big and black as a bucket of tar; a moody-faced, pristine, and freshly-shaved black Poodle with knobs of hair at the ends of bare legs and above the grayish black paws. And a Doberman Pinscher: so black that its coat shone like vinyl; a fountain of tan fur bubbling out from underneath the chin then disappearing into whiskers near the dangerous teeth.

The girl looked even more stunning than she had earlier and her curves affected my emotions as if I were riding on a tilt-a-whirl. This time, however, I had no desire to look into her eyes. For I no longer wanted to be thrilled, as I was already charged with a terrific sense of fear. I tried to look away and discovered that I could not. Because the changeling was now looking at me and her eyes showed me what it was like to be old and feeble and helpless and unprotected. I felt the self-scorn, humiliation and foolishness that goes along with the experience of being mulcted by some little prick, just because he has a boy’s face or looks like your son or nephew or some nice guy that you knew from the U.S.O. dance during the Big War. And I was suddenly paralyzed behind the steering wheel. My arms went dead as if in a nightmare or like they were tied down with underwater weights. The truck veered out of control and headed for the curb. My strength returned just in time to avoid running off the road, where I would have totaled out a parked El Camino.

I was able to right my Chevy Silverado, but by now, I was past the group. Once I’d gathered myself, I looked back and saw that the Doberman was looking at me. They say that dogs are incapable of smiling, but I must disagree. For before the Doberman was pulled along and forced by the constraints to rejoin its party, before it turned away and jogged out to lead the evil pack which was headed southwest, it took the time to pause and see how I had made out in my near-mishap. Once it saw that I’d avoided disaster and was once again on the smooth asphalt, it raised its small-yet-vicious head and met my gaze. The eyes were tiny yet stern, like black marbles sprayed with Windex. And even though I was now too far away to hear a bark or a yelp or even a whimper, too far away to decipher what hate or loathing or lack of quarter those eyes held for me, still, I somehow knew that it was laughing.

THE END

Bio: Tom Hamilton is an Irish Traveler. His short stories, poems, plays, and articles have been widely published – recently, in Withersin Magazine, Existere Literary Journal and in the popular Dead Worlds book series. Along with his lovely wife Mary Theresa and their three small, adorable daughters, Tiffany, Hope and Catalina, he lives in Loves Park, IL, USA.

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IFPFiction: The Changeling