(Note: This is part 2 of an ongoing series. For Episode 1, click here.)
Grue liked the city. It was dark, empty, and quiet. Grue liked the dark. He felt safer in its shadows.
A thick blanket of fog filled the narrow streets of the city from morning to night. It huddled in the alleyways collecting aluminum cans and muttering over dead cats, and it transformed every abandoned building into a wizard’s tower rising up past oblivion into the murky sky. On a good day, the pea green haze obscured the sun entirely and made even high noon seem like the fading of twilight. On a bad day, one could not even see the nose at the end of their face. Those were the days to stay inside, out of the way. Days to make sausages and listen to old scratchy records.
Today was a good day. An outside day. A day to sell. Grue could practically smell the opportunity in the air. It smelled like ripe sweaty carcasses… and cabbages. Grue liked cabbages.
“Aughtdogs ‘n Angabers!”
Grue shouted out the words with relish. He liked that phrase. It was in fact his second favorite thing to say. It was short, to the point, and bounced between the fog shrouded buildings like the cry of a water buffalo in distress.
Grue did not have a pleasant voice; it was slow and thick and stumbling, and it had that particular sort of timbre that made little old ladies clutch their purses and scuttle off to the other side of the street. He did not like his voice; it sounded too much like his mother’s. He preferred not to think of his mum, as such thoughts brought up unpleasant memories of his past. Therefore, he chose not to speak very often at all. If he did not speak, then he would not remember. And if he did not remember, then he would be safe.
Grue’s second favorite phrase was “Boo!”
Granted, that is really just a word, perhaps even a complete sentence if you want to be technical about it. But Grue never managed to finish his schooling and honestly didn’t know the difference. He wouldn’t know a preposition from a participle, even if the latter was dangling right in front of his face. He did know that if he stood very still in the fog, and kept very quiet, he could whisper that one word when anyone got too close. It was a magical word, and he quite enjoyed the terrified antics of those who fled away, screaming into the fog, upon hearing it uttered.
What Grue did not know, was that his face perhaps held more destructive power than that single word. Now it was a good word, and given the foggy streets, it might have had a similar unsettling effect on any unsuspecting travelers that heard it whispered suddenly out of the gloom, regardless of the villain that uttered it. But when combined with that leering grin of large yellow teeth, the lumpy nose, the patchy stubble, those enormous drooping eyes, and the dented brow that made up the entirety of Grue’s face, it was a horrible thing indeed.
His body wasn’t much better, to be honest. He would have stood about six feet tall, if it had not been for his unfortunate hump. Even despite that particular detriment, he might have been able to pass as a respectable sort, save for his ratty clothes that barely managed to stretch across the bulge of his belly, and his old once white butcher’s apron clearly stained with years of yellow grease and the rusty red of other less savory splatters.
This was why Grue liked the dark; people often did not see him lurking there until it was much too late. And thus, he was very rarely ever assaulted by stones these days. He could live his life without the constant torment from frightened and angry voices. He could peddle his wares in relative peace.
The flapping slap of flip flops echoing down the cobblestone lane drew Grue’s attention towards the direction of his psychiatrist’s office. He was probably overdue for a visit, but Grue did not want to go. Dr. Fade made him talk about his past, and the past was a thing that Grue would rather forget about entirely. As it has already been established, Grue did not like to talk about anything. For a salesman, he rather preferred to simply be left alone.
Regardless of his particular apprehensions on the matter, someone was certainly approaching. Grue slunk back into the foggy miasma beside his cart and tried to formulate a plan. If it was the doctor, then perhaps saying “Boo!” would scare the prying coot away. If it was a customer, then maybe a bellow of “Aughtdogs” was more in order. Grue wrinkled his brow and banged his fist against the side of his head. Thinking was hard. Planning for the unknown was even harder.
He was thankfully spared the need to make such a decision by a timely parting of the mist, which briefly revealed the form of a short, grey-skinned girl. She was a relative newcomer to the city, but Grue had seen her about. He opened his mouth to hawk his wares, but was cut short by a shake of the girl’s head.
“Can it, boyo. I ain’t hungry,” she said.
Grue closed his mouth and simply nodded. A sheepish grin slowly crept it’s way across his face. This was a decidedly unpleasant expression, when taken with the rest of his facial features. Grue always tended to smile around women, regardless of if they were the traditionally pretty ones or not. Pretty much everyone was prettier than Grue. His mum had always scolded him not to look at girls, so he felt he was getting away with something naughty when he did. Of course, he had no clue how to talk to the ladies, which made him rather uncomfortably aware of his own social failings. In the end, he just stood there with a slowly faltering grin. He wondered what this particular girl wanted, and more importantly, when she would go away.
“Your name is Grue, right?” the girl asked.
She waited in awkward silence for a moment and then ventured another question. “Is that short for something?”
Grue shook his head and reached up to scratch behind his ear.
“So… what’s in the pot?” She pointed to the tureen labeled ‘SawSe’ which was set in the center of his cart.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” the girl asked. Then she snickered, realizing that she had essentially reversed her role from the previous hour and now found this terribly amusing.
Grue shook his head again and closed the lid. Silence fell between them, and he glanced about the street in agitation. He looked back at the girl and took a deep breath, then opened his mouth and whispered, “Aughtdogs…?”
The girl reached out and patted him on the arm. “Neh. It’s all good buddy. I gotta go anyways.” She turned away, leaving Grue staring in amazement at the spot on his arm. Girls almost never spoke to him, unless you counted screaming and running away as conversation, and they certainly never touched him.
She stopped a few steps away and reached into the pocket of her faded yellow raincoat. Turning back to Grue, she flashed a demented little smile to him and called out. “Here. I found you a gift.” She tossed something small and black towards him, and then winked at the increasingly distraught gentleman before continuing on her way.
Grue stood there dumbfounded as the object landed with a dull thud at his feet. He did not even bother to blink again, until the fog had swallowed the girl up completely and the sound of her flip flops had faded away once more. Finally, he stooped down and picked up the object with a distrustful wariness. It was a disheveled black bird. Well, most of a bird. The head seemed to be missing. Grue shook it once, just to be certain, and then nodded in satisfaction to himself. It was dead.
He glanced around for the missing head, turning a full circle where he stood, but it was no use. There was no head to be seen. Satisfied that he had not been the one to break the strange little girl’s gift, and thus would not be held responsible if she came asking for it later, he lifted the lid to the chili pot and dropped the bird swiftly inside.
There was a funny feeling swelling up inside Grue’s chest. It was a tightening and burning sensation, with a bit of an odd little flutter. He did not know what it meant. Nobody had ever given him a gift before, especially not a girl. He figured that maybe he was about to throw up.
He shuffled towards the closest alleyway, overcome with a desperate need to hide and collect his thoughts. The ungreased wheels of his cart whined a plaintive cry and the pot lids rattled in protesting syncopation as the rickety old thing was dragged across the stones and shoved up onto the sidewalk. Grue ducked into the alley, sunk down to the ground with his back to the wall, and leaned forward to place his head between his knees and his hands behind his neck. Taking short shallow breaths of panic, he began to sob softly like a little baby.
The sobs gradually became louder and turned eventually into a full blown wail. Grue raised his head up and silently scolded himself to be quite. He knew that the noise of someone in distress would bring nasty things from the rooftop down upon him. Despite his mental warning, the wailing continued. Frustrated, and now very much concerned for his own well being, Grue clamped his hands over his mouth and forced himself into silence. The hungry cry however, continued on unabated.
Grue lowered his hands in confusion and realized then, that he was not the one crying at all. This was a reassuring realization, as he was certain that he had never been prone to tears in the past, especially not over a scrawny, bird giving, waif of a girl. In fact, he was pretty sure that he had not cried since childhood. Still, the fact that he was in such close proximity to one who was crying meant that he was still in just as much danger as before. He turned his head down the alleyway and hissed out a loud, “Shhhhhsh! Be quiet!”
For the briefest of moments, this seemed to have done the trick. The air fell silent and Grue clumsily rose back to his feet. As he was about to venture back out into the street however, the howling started again, this time much more insistent than before. Frustration rose up in his clenched jaw and Grue stormed back into the deeper depths of the alleyway, determined to stop the caterwauling in one way or another. It did not occur to him that an angry twisted behemoth stomping down the corridor might actually make things worse.
As it was, despite his squinting glare, Grue failed to notice the source of the noise until something caught him sharply in the shin and sent him tumbling head over heels into the pavement below. The crying suddenly became muffled, and Grue glanced over his shoulder to see what had attacked him. It was an infant’s car seat, now toppled upside down from his own clumsy collision. The irritating cries issued out from beneath it.
The oddity of this situation did not immediately cross Grue’s mind. There were no cars in the city, at least not modern ones that plied the bumpy avenues. The fog made it practically impossible to travel anywhere, except on foot, and there were no filling stations to keep such conveyances running. There was a rusty old schoolbus down on Anchor Street near the pier, and some battered volvos that served as makeshift abodes for the colony of cats in the junkyard across town. But the occurrence of an actual moving motorcar was as foreign to the city as are wings on a buffalo. Therefore, a car seat was by its very necessity a completely anachronistic anomaly.
Carefully, and still fearing some sort of trap, Grue nudged the overturned carrier with the toe of his boot. The noise from beneath stuttered to a halt. Grue rose to his knees and shuffled over to the contraption, pausing to sniff at it for a moment and then quickly flipping it over before pulling his arms back to shield his eyes.
Nothing happened. Nothing untoward anyways. There was no explosion, or sudden cackling of laughter that would indicate Grue had been tricked. There was just a curious gurgling coo, and then the sudden and quite distinct smell of fresh feces. Grue frowned and leaned closer to peer inside. He found a soft green blanket adorned with yellow ducks. Of course, as it should be no surprise by now, wrapped within the blanket was a baby.
Grue was not what most would consider as the nurturing sort. Anyone that knew him would absolutely agree that he had no business at all looking after a baby. And yet, here was one that clearly needed looking after. Grue knew that with all the crying they would soon both be in trouble, and unfortunately he was the only one around to act.
His first thought was quickly discarded, as he realized that stuffing the child in the chili pot with the bird would probably not do enough to stifle its pitiful cries. He also knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that this would be the wrong thing to do. Not that doing the wrong thing bothered him all that much; but if his mum found out about it, she would surely be cross. He did not like it when his mum got cross.
Something skittered across the roof tiles above, and without thinking Grue grabbed the car seat and yanked it close. That settled it, then. With this one act he had committed himself to the foundling’s protection, at least until he could pawn it off on someone else.
Carrying the baby with him and keeping his gaze on the fog obscured reaches above, Grue made his way back to the sidewalk and quickly spared a glance out in both directions. If he was lucky, that girl would still be around and he could make her take the baby. It might even be her’s anyways! Grue was not so lucky. The girl was long gone.
The skittering noise sounded again, followed quickly by another, and then another a short distance off. Things were gathering on the rooftops; dark and deadly things that Grue did not want to think about. He grabbed a bottle of runny mustard from his cart, popped the cap, and squirted the contents into the carrier. Then he added a big scoop of soggy onions for good measure. Perhaps that would cover the unholy smell wafting forth from the baby and give them both time to escape. Even if it didn’t, it would give the child something to snack on he figured, and perhaps lessen the infant’s cries of hunger. Satisfied with these preparations, he set off into the fog at a steady pace, leaving his cart behind and not daring even a single glance back over his shoulder.
He did not know where to go, or what to do. His only plan for the moment was to get away from that alley and the skittering things above. Grue did not have any friends, at least not ones he trusted with a baby, and he foolishly hoped that providence would provide him with a miraculous solution. There wasn’t a hospital to take the child to, and this part of the town was scarcely populated, so he simply kept moving. He did not want to face the things chasing him, and he certainly did not want to have to explain to anyone what had happened to the baby, should the situation get worse.
Somewhere in the back of Grue’s simple mind was the hope that he would somehow find the child’s parents. It never really occurred to him that a baby left in an alleyway to be devoured by skittering unseen things probably did not have any parents. Certainly not the sort that would have had the kid’s best interest in mind, anyways. Even as bad as Grue’s own upbringing had been, he had never been abandoned and that is saying something. Of course, in Grue’s estimation, it had probably just been a mistake. Like a missing sock, or a misplaced sandwich. Nobody just tossed out a baby.
It was the rare working street light, one of the few left in the city, that finally provided Grue’s salvation. A flickering lamp that was intentionally left on both day and night to illuminate a sign in official important looking lettering.
This was it, the solution he had been seeking! Grue had no clue what esquires did, but he knew who Grundy, Dooley, & Smarr were. They were fancy gentleman. They had money. They bought ‘aughtdogs on Tuesdays and tipped him rather well. They had an office to help people. Grue needed help. The baby he had found needed it even more.
He set the car seat, condiment adorned child included, on the front stoop by their door and rapped three times. The skittering sounds overhead stopped and waited. Grue frowned, looked down at the poor helpless thing covered in mustard and onions, and then knocked again. There was no answer.
He glanced back up towards the rooftops, imagining the horrible multi-legged things that waited patiently there to devour both him and this child. Then taking a deep breath and finally coming to a fatalistic decision, he stepped away from the baby and let out a ragged wail of despair. Grue turned and raced off down the street, making quite the desperate racket as he vanished into the fog.
“Aughtdogs ‘n Angaburs… ‘n babies! Inna blanket! Inna bun!”
The skittering noises hesitated… And then they followed hungrily after.
Continued in Episode 3!
Copyright 2015 by Robert A. Turk – All Rights Reserved