(Formerly “The Black Cat Effect,” revised slightly on April 17.)
At work one morning, I got a phone call from my neighbor Jack. (Why do people lose their minds when they retire? Seriously, it’s like the only thing that kept them sane before was their job. Now, their whole world has shrunken down to my front lawn, and questions about why I didn’t pick up my newspaper.)
“Felix? This is Jack! Jack Scrivens, your next door neighbor!”
“Yes, Jack. What’s up?”
“Well, I just got back from walking Topsy, and I saw water gushing out of your front door!”
“Yes, gushing, gushing!”
I googled the nearest plumber and ran out the door.
When I got home, I saw a green truck outside with a huge clover leaf on it. I went inside and saw that my Irish plumber had already let himself in.
My house was something out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. Green and black water flowed freely across my floor, a veritable Mississippi River of backed-up sewage. I saw a scaled mass in the deepest part of the water in my living room. It looked like some kind of tentacle.
“Mr. Carpenter, in here!” a whiny voice yelled. Before I could puzzle over how he knew my name, I found myself in the master bath looking at a red-haired midget in green overalls, with a wooden tool that looked more Shillalegh than wrench. His nametag said “Warwick” in bright gold letters. I stood there wordlessly viewing my wrecked bathtub.
“Well, you got yourself a hydra there,” said Warwick.
“Yep. Maybe more than one at this point. Now I reckon he — or they — been living down there a while, so it’s really entrenched. The fangs really chewed things up.”
“Yeah. Look, if you keep repeating what I say we’re gonna be here all day.”
“Right, sorry. Look, uh, Warwick…I find it hard to believe…I mean can’t you check the, uh…Jesus, a fucking hydra?”
“Yeah. Big, scaly reptile with lots of heads.”
“…Can you fix it?”
The funny-looking midget wiped his brow. “Well yeah. I could probably coax him – or them – out. It’ll cost you, though. Five gold coins.”
“Gold coins? You’re joking,” I said. That leprauchan-looking guy paid me no mind and unpacked a crossbow and several bolts out of a large backpack. “I’ll just put it on your tab. You’re good for it, right?” said Warwick. I nodded, and then he yelled down my devastated, riven bath drain, “ALL RIGHT YOU TENTACLED SONOFABITCHES! I’M COMIN’!!!!” Then, I saw a rain of gold dust, and Warwick had disappeared. Vanished in thin air.
I was convinced at this point that I had a gas leak of some kind and it was making me lose my ever-loving mind.
I was hardly back in the office when my phone rang again. When I saw it was Jack again, I felt like screaming.
In fact, I did. I screamed really, really loud, like a howl, in the middle of the Cubicle Farm. At the top of my fucking lungs, like I was being attacked by a grizzly bear.
I got a lot of weird looks. (That wasn’t new to me.)
“Felix? This is your neighbor Jack, Jack Scrivens!”
“Yeah, I know, Jack! What is it now?”
“Oh, I hate to bother you at work Felix…but I’m hearing some kind of terrible hissing coming from your backyard! It’s just giving Topsy the creeps! And you know how her tummy gets when she’s scared, she just voids her–”
“Right, right. Thanks. I’ll take care of it right away.”
“Oh, well that’d be just fine, thank you so much Felix, I didn’t want to interrupt or distur–” Click.
I googled, I dialed, I ran.
When I got home, I saw Warwick’s green van still out there, but I also saw a camoflauge jeep with a matching horse trailer. I walked to the backyard, and it was utterly ruined. Just fucking, irrevocably ruined. All of the bamboo, the herb garden, the patio awning, everything, was ripped apart by what seemed to be gigantic snake tracks.
Oh, and I had a hedge maze now. A fucking hedge maze.
A seven-foot-tall dark-skinned man in a “desert camo” hat and cargo shorts ran up to me. He had a green nametag on that said “Jordan.”
“Holy sweet shit, what in the fuck happened back here? Who the fuck are you?” I said with a growl.
“I’m the landscaper-slash-zoologist you called! Jordan Ramsey! Excuse me, do you talk to all your people like this?” he said.
“Look, no, sorry, I just have…a hedge maze? How did this get here?”
“The hedge maze is just a symptom. You’ve got a medusa in your backyard — big snake-woman with snakes for hair — and whenever they show up, they put these things up and fill them with stone statues. Now, if you see her, don’t make eye contact, else she’ll make a statue out of you.”
“A fucking medusa? Those actually exist?”
“I don’t make the rules.”
“Right, uh…so we’re just screwed then?”
“No. Luckily — you’ve got me. And you’ve got this,” he said, leading me out to his horse trailer.
He opened the door to the trailer to reveal a hulking bull-beast that stood on two legs. It was like a man, except with a bull’s head, and hooves instead of feet. Every inch of it was covered in thick, corded muscles. “OK, I think I’m starting to uh, get this…it’s a minotaur, right?”
Jordan nodded. “Yeah. Check it out.”
The minotaur roared and charged towards the backyard. I heard some of the most awful screaming and bellowing I had ever heard. It was the kind of world-shattering screaming that simultaneously created and destroyed the universe. Jordan laughed, and that was maybe even more horrible. It was like this high-pitched hyena laugh. “Hahahaha YES! Listen to that combat! They’ll be at this for DAYS! Motherfuckin’ DAYS!”
Later, I came back home for the day, and the only car outside was Christine’s. She’s home early, I thought. I heard a loud SCREEEEEEEE noise from the backyard and knew that my, uh, minotaur was working well. (I wondered briefly if I should feed it. What does it eat? The souls of the damned?)
Damage-wise, Warwick had cleaned up most of the water and hydra-chunks. Christine was lying down in bed, paler than I’d ever seen her.
“Hey, you didn’t go to your class tonight? What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“I’m just…tired,” she said.
This wasn’t anything new. I had felt that she was disconnected from our lives lately. Her energy-level was at an all-time low. She hated this neighborhood, and while she was sweet about it, I could see her wilting before my very eyes. Still she endured it, and so did I, because we made a lot of money in this town.
“Warwick left your bill,” she said. “And I paid Jordan and made him go home. He invited a few of his friends to watch whatever’s in the backyard. It was getting weird.”
“It wasn’t weird before?” I asked.
I went to go shower, read, and fall asleep.
Waking up to the husky roar of a minotaur is the worst way to wake up. Your entire day gets ruined by that.
I brushed my teeth, thinking about what today would hold. What next? A phoenix slams into my roof and I have to hire a roofer who summons some kind of water demon? Hey, maybe the hydra could kill the phoenix, and then I could get Ra, the Sun God, to redo my shingles! Whatever the case, I was convinced I needed to go out to lunch with my friends. There was something about being with a group that was calming. It’s the pack mentality.
I brushed my teeth then came out to the living room. There was a half-circle of chairs. From left to right — Warwick, Jordan, the hydra, the medusa (with sunglasses on), and the minotaur were sitting expectantly. (I knew I’d have nightmares for years from this.) Across from them was a single, unoccupied chair.
“Have a seat, son,” Warwick said.
“Son,” I scoffed, and sat down. “What’s the meaning of this? An intervention?”
The minotaur spoke up. “You’re killing your fiancee,” he said, with a throaty growl to his voice. I felt the foundations of the house shake.
“No, I think I’m just losing my mind and imagining things,” I said impatiently, thinking about how much work I had stacking up on my desk.
“No, actually, you are. Do you know why we staged all this stuff?” said Jordan.
“Staged? Why? Please, tell me!”
“To wake you up! To show you there’s more in life than just your narrow views! This is a great neighborhood? You both have great jobs? Then tell me why you’re not happy. If you could just expand your mind and believe what you thought wasn’t possible, you’d see what is right in front of you. To accept reality, sometimes we need to embrace the fantastic.” Jordan gestured at the assembled crowd.
I thought about the events of the last day and looked at the five individuals in front of me expectantly. “Fine. What do I need to know?”
“Christine is a tree spirit. You can’t keep her here anymore,” the Medusa said, in a dreadful voice that sounded a lot like a decaying supermodel.
Warwick chimed in. “Yeah. Stop being selfish and get her where she needs to be. Where you both need to be. It’s not just her, you know. You are something…more, too, though what, we don’t know. You know this place isn’t right for you. What have you actually felt here? Do you even feel alive here? What are you moving toward?”
Suddenly, it all made sense — our lives for the past five years, and the troubles we’d had. Christine was a tree spirit, and she needed to live with the trees.
Plus, that would explain all the leaves I kept finding in the shower.
I could tell you about the rest of our lives, but why spoil the ending? The middle is always the best. I could tell you that we moved to the biggest forest we could find, and that Christine grew into a more vibrant person than I had ever known her to be. I could tell you her pale skin became ruddy, and her white-ish blonde hair matured into a rich auburn; that she slept in tree branches and sang songs to the creatures of the canopy. Maybe I could even tell you we transcended our human forms, becoming something more than we were. I could tell you I howled in meadows filled with moonlight, sending my song cascading across the heavens. And, most importantly, I could tell you I found peace out there, shuffling my paws along the shores of twisting rivers with our growing family.
I could tell you all those things, but I won’t. I’ve found sometimes it’s better to use your imagination and figure life out for yourself.