I must be remembering who I really am.
These thoughts occupied most of my attention, so I saw but didn’t register my guide beginning to slow down ahead of me. Nor did I pick up on Its signal, waving a hand behind Its back, motioning me to follow suit.
While I tried to shift the silvery bag further back and out of my way, It turned Its foot out like an ice skater would do to stop. And came to a decisive halt right in front of a small, local retailer I didn’t know.
Then It went flying—literally—when I crashed into It from behind. I, on the other hand, dove straight for the pavement.
It must have recovered right away because as soon as I rolled over onto my side I was assaulted by a puckish wink and a wide smirk mocking me from above. “That’s the spirit,” It said, “keep your head down, maintain a low profile, and stay under the radar.” The facetiously stern face of the Fey floated up and away from me as It added, “Never mind, you’d probably better wait out here, anyway.” I heard It enter the store a moment later.
That’s when my cell rang. I don’t know why I’d brought my work phone along: ingrained habit, I guess?
I answered the call on auto-pilot while sitting up on the sidewalk, trying to look like I was there intentionally. “Yes? Hello?”
Uh oh. My least favorite co-worker. Dennis the Nemesis.
His voice emanated out of the phone, a dull droning. “Good. You’re still up.”
That’s right. I’m on call.
My shoulders slumped.
How could I forget?
“Yeah?” I asked.
“We need you to come in,” he said like he was the boss of me.
He is the boss of you.
That’s right, he’s acting manager this week.
“What happened?” I asked.
He droned louder, “The network’s down. And probably will be...all night. Nobody can access their computers. And then there’s a problem with the...”
He was like an alarm clock going off but I couldn’t find the snooze button to make him shut off. I glanced around for help and saw the store front looming over me.
Small, white signs with big red letters shouted the price of milk and bread, while brash posters shouldered each other aside to push competing sodas and beer. Above them giant shoe-polish white letters spelled out this week’s must-have specials. I couldn’t think over their shameless desperation for my attention, so I scrambled to my feet.
Fortunately, whatever had been going on with my footwear was no longer going on so I didn’t land right back on my face. Instead my feet felt leaden. I put one in front of the other.
“It’s a qua-a-arter to midnight,” he informed me.
His droning took on a soothing rhythm, something to shuffle my feet to as he filled me in on all that wasn’t working. “How so-oo-on can you be here? I’m a-al-lready late. I need to le-ee-ave by...”
I headed for the next intersection to hail a cab.
A different sort of droning reached my ears as I neared the curb and the added noise made it harder to hear. The messenger bag slid off my shoulder as I pressed the little cell phone closer to my ear, making it awkward to talk and walk at the same time.
“We’ll need you to do all the manual monitoring. Until morning. When the first tech support people come in...at six.”
I fell into a slouch of futility as he continued. The bag slipped down to the crook of my arm and I almost dropped my cell. I growled at the bag and slung it around to my other arm, about ready to set it down so I wouldn’t have to fuss with it anymore.
The external noise grew louder and more grating, indicating that something big was coming down the street, something other than nighttime traffic, but Dennis started speaking again and I had to hunch down over my phone to hear him.
“Then you can hand over...to Ranadeep. And go home. For a couple of hours. But you’ll need to be back...by eleven. For the meeting.”
Might as well get this over with, that’s all I could think in my despondence.
“Okay, be there in fifteen,” I consented.
To be a good, responsible person I would need to hurry. It was my job, after all. What could be more important than that? No excuses. No slacking. No waiting for a taxi to show up. I would walk directly there to show my dedication.
So I stepped out onto the street without delay.
“Xiriki!” someone shouted.
From closer came again: “Xiriki!”
“XIRIKI! Look out!”
I slowed, confused.
I heard sounds, but they made no sense to me.
I let my new bag slip off my shoulder. But instead of being free of the pesky faerie satchel, the strap got very demanding, wanting me to back up. Like a leash, the leather strap kept yanking on my arm and I was too foggy to resist.
Trying to think was like slogging my way through honey—pleasantly futile. My brain wasn’t even offering up sardonic remarks or contentious comments.
I stopped backing up to crane my neck forward, staring as hard as I could, but the strap dug into the crook of my arm, jerking me back hard, just in time to be gone from that spot when a noisy behemoth swerved in my direction.
Lights, bright ones, came at me, and then a loud blaring sound, followed by a small crunching noise. For the briefest instant it had looked like I was about to be mowed down by a huge, hulking—no, no it couldn’t be...
After that I was the one making loud sounds, but nothing coherent.
I looked around and saw that it wasn’t my bag pushing me around, but the fey creature—enlarged again but even more solid—pulling on the bag. I was led away from the street and back onto the sidewalk.
“The Placid Fiend!” It said in an out-of-breath voice.
Then It crouched down, using partially unfurled wings for balance, and began picking things up off the ground. It beckoned me over, turned me around to the side and stuffed them into the metallic bag. “I can’t believe the Slug found us.”
Indignant It complained, “They were supposed to keep it distracted.”
Mesmerized by the light of the streetlamp above us glinting off peacock-like iridescent sheens on feathery wings, I heard the sharp sound of a zip being closed and blinked a couple of times as It asked, “Where were you going?”
I looked around again, one hand clenching the strap of the charmed bag for reassurance.
“Who were you talking to?” It squinted at me while straightening up and tucking Its wings back in.
I couldn’t help noting how the Fey still towered over me, but now all willowy tall without much bulk, before the delayed reaction caught up with me.
My cell. I jerked around scanning the ground.
My work phone lay in many tiny pieces in the road near where I’d been standing.
“Sorry, that thing was tainted.”
When I looked at the creature blankly, It gazed down at me with a face exaggerating incomprehension. “Your phone. Cursed. Slimed.” It made a sour face, and then tried to wipe Its fluttering hands off on something to show me It had touched the ‘thing.’ But It couldn’t find anything to wipe them off on and Its mouth puckered even further in distaste.
After a moment It shrugged. When It was done shrugging we were the same height. “Clever beast, getting you to bring the thing along in the first place. Didn’t think the Slug would be able to get to you like that.”
I felt like I’d been under a spell that had been shattered as well.
I could finally speak. “No way am I going in to work!”
Certainly not tonight of all nights.
The creature squinted at me and my loud declaration. “No, you’re finally going to do the job you were intended to do.”
Uh oh, what will my super swell guy of a coworker do now?
Oh good, the smart-assed commentary was back.
Smiling to myself I thought, tonight I’m Dennis’s menace. He’ll have to stay there all night and be the one back in time for the eleven o’clock meeting.
But something far more important was going on here, and I needed to wrap my brain around it.
Okay, okay, so I was right. There had been an enormous...what’s the official name for them?—gastropod, bearing down on me, ready to grind me down and make me one with the dull gray of faded asphalt.
Then how come all I saw now was a big street sweeping machine laboring slowly down the road?
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