3. the Demon; the Buttery Bun
5.15am, Tuesday, twelve hours in
A disturbance a hundred feet away drew Diana’s attention, she making out a serpent so massive that it required the support of the top branches of several large trees – her spiritual nemesis come to bring death to her and destruction to all about her. She slid off the unicorn and snapped a look at the Queen, Prince, and their steeds, relieved that that fantasy group now as inanimate, devoid of color, and otherwise uninvolved in this confrontation as the boulders in the meadow; and so as safe. Diana not surprised: while some humans interact with creatures from both the Fantasy and Spiritual Worlds, those two planes have no contact with each other.
Except for Lily-Bianca, who, when Diana slid from her back, had stepped over to the Mallorn tree, returning to nudge against Diana. Diana didn’t understand how Lily-Bianca remained animate but stepped in front of her and held Lily-Bianca’s face between both her hands saying, “Dear Lily-Bianca, there is nothing here that you can help me with. Please stay here and wait.” Diana stepped from her steed, her friend, pushing off Lily-Bianca’s forehead to punctuate her polite command, and walked towards the disturbance to engage the evil.
Lily-Bianca followed just a step behind, ignoring Diana’s prescript, paying for her loyalty with her life. On Diana’s fourth step, the demon launched himself through the air, effortlessly traversing the hundred-foot distance, all eighty-four feet, eight hundred and forty pounds of him crashing onto Lily-Bianca, pulverizing her, coiling his length on top of her pancaked remains, seamlessly turning to engage Diana, his horse-sized head ten feet off the ground.
Diana stayed statue-still, in the thrall of the serpent whining, “Nicely done, last night, Diana, killing my protégé. Easy for you, it seems.” A mass of green braids, each as thick as a child’s swing-over-the-river rope, framed his head like a lion’s mane. Rising twelve to eighteen inches above the braids, an array of snail-like horns sprouted from his head, a veritable spy plane bristling with antennae. His two eyes peered out from the ends of protruding sockets reminiscent of jeweler’s microscopes, the eyes darting hungrily over Diana, a ready-to-carve standing rib roast.
She involuntarily watched his muscular, pink forked tongue snap in and out of the front of his mouth or dart to the left and right of his three-foot fangs, stalactites, his mouth open wide as he spoke. His flared nose placed high up on his face, Diana couldn’t avoid looking in his nostrils, queasily fascinated by his kitchen-string-sized nose hairs, visible and distracting during the serpent’s soliloquy.
“His four hundred pounds not enough to defeat your buck-fifty? Although, really, in honesty, I planned for him to face you at your age twelve; still yourself, but four years younger – DreamWeaver, then, right? A fairer fight, that. But you fucked me, didn’t you, little bitch? Traveled four years back to stand in for your younger self. The old bait and switch, eh?
“Sneaky little twat. Spoiled my plans to kill you, your brother, mother, and dear old dad. The whole family at once, my plan. Neat. How sweet it should have been. Afterwards, would have just gone away. Sated. At least for a time. I’m easy, don’t you know? Heh! Heh!”
The pungent smells exuding from the serpent’s body or blowing out of his mouth recalled Diana’s recent nasty bouts with vomit and diarrhea, her single step back not a help. Meanwhile, a grey monochrome infiltrated the sky and landscape, reducing the colorful scene to dull uniformity. And also meanwhile, the rich sounds of land, air, and water stilled, replaced by the grieving wail of a foreboding wind.
“But no! Cheating cunt! You saw to it that my standard bearer, my hero, killed no one. Instead, you piece-of-shit, you killed him – fucking-wow!” The serpent turned his head three-quarters of a circle around, staring at Diana out of the corners of his eyes, unwinding until face-to-face with Diana again.
“Well, fuck you! You tricked me out of my simple wants: one single family. Now I’m going with Plan B – the entire enchilada. Heh, heh!” He nodded, his smile ever-present. “I am going to destroy mankind with a website that will pay followers cash for points, points earned by committing crimes. No force needed, just that old standby: temptation. Worked for Eve. Heh, heh!
“Plan already in place, don’t you know. First losses already inflicted. So easy. It’s juicy, the plan: human civilization will self-destruct – drown in chaos, misery, hate, and fear. Actually choosing to – free will, don’t you know? And it’s about fucking time, don’t you think?
“And you, Diana, will be responsible, fucking bitchy-bitch. Will be? No! You are responsible. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see the pain you would suffer if you watched humanity sink into nihilism. Because you won’t be around to witness the anarchy, the mass hysteria, the End of Days to follow.” He locked her eyes.
“Because your End of Days is now. I choose the intimate, sensual pleasure of tearing your head from your shoulders, muscle by fucking muscle, ripped cord by fucking ripped cord, rending your skin like a fucking sheet of paper.
“And I prefer the now to the then.”
Satan rose gracefully into the air, the sunlight reflecting off his slimy, mottled-green skin, piercing Diana’s eyes like needles. Diana followed his ascent, tilting her head back until it hurt. Twenty, thirty, forty, sixty feet up he went, drawing the air with him as he rose, making it difficult for Diana to breathe.
She stayed in place fixing her eyes on him, watching his head ritualistically sway left and right, watching the sneer on his face – foreplay for her suffering and death. She stayed as most of his eighty feet returned to the ground, and only his head still raised – six feet off the ground. In place as he slithered to her, listening to the grinding stones and earth beneath him as he slid in for the kill, binocular eyes glinting in anticipation.
He closed until only twenty-four inches separated their noses, his body-stench and gutter-breath bringing bile up from Diana’s belly to her throat. But she in place still, staring directly at and through his dead eyes, into the wicked soul encased in monstrous body.
Death at hand, she stayed. Standing. Still. Stoic. Small.
Her shuddering jarred her awake, her head snapping left and right, her hands squeezing the chair’s arms, pulling her forward, ready to bolt. Ivy sat on her heels in front of the rocker looking up into Diana’s face, hands on Diana’s hands, saying, “Good morning, my dear. You’ve had a bad dream.”
Diana relaxed deep into the rocker, used both hands to wipe her glistening face, licked her dry lips, and looked to the window – “Darkness there, and nothing more,” thinking. “What time is it?”
“About 5.30am,” Ivy standing up.
“Can you get me coffee?” Diana rubbing her forearms. “And Vaseline, for my lips? And a Popsicle, any flavor.”
“Do you drink coffee?”
“I never have before. But I do remember as a child liking the taste and the zing of sips stolen from my parents’ cups. I think it will suit me perfectly, now.”
“Milk and sugar?”
“No. Just the coffee.” Dee looked to the window and back, “Ivy?”
“Yes, my dear?”
“I’ve been dreaming. Sometimes just seeing flashes. I can’t tell what’s real any more. Is my Grandfather…” Diana choking on the question.
Ivy took a breath, “Yes, my dear. He’s gone.”
Diana nodded slowly, her eyes returning to the window, “Nevermore,” thinking. “They did that, you know. My enemies. I saw it. They knew what he meant to me. Probably even knew it was he who warned me, advised me my family in danger; encouraged me to go back four years and help them. He had a strong connection to the Fantasy World, you know.”
“I did know, my dear. “He was the only human of his generation with the power to cross over.”
“Yes. They killed him.” She looked at the active flames of the newly-refreshed fire.
Ivy, “I’m so sorry, my dear. Do you want to talk about it?”
Diana shook her head. “No. I accept that part of my life is past. Was past when I was twelve. Four years ago. I’m sixteen, now. Thank you, Ivy.”
Ivy nodded, like she wished she had something useful to add, settling for touching Diana’s shoulder on the way out to get the coffee.
Diana lay back and closed her eyes, breathing very slowly, thinking, “Plan B is on. Total war: no holds barred. Heard it directly from Satan’s mouth. Grandfather first casualty. But how did I escape? How am I still here?”
She waited, but no telegram arrived; no cellphone chimed: text received; no answer in any form presented itself. “But he’s missing something, too: me. He wanted to kill me. He didn’t want me to escape. If not a danger, I’m at least a nuisance to him.
“So be it. Here I am. Where do I go? What do I do?” Her breathing slowed. She lay still. “Up to four years ago I was DreamWeaver. Since, I’ve been Diana. Am I still Diana? But if not Diana, who am I now?”
Ivy didn’t bring the answers, just a tray holding a tube of Vaseline, a coffee carafe, a cup and saucer, and a sandwich. “What’s that?” Diana asking, her chin pointing to the sandwich while she snatched the tube of Vaseline and applied a bit of the salve to her lips.
“I thought you might like a PB and J. The bread’s soft and I lopped off the crust, easy to eat even if you’re not hungry,” Ivy, setting the tray on the side table by Diana’s bed.
“Not hungry. In the universal, all-encompassing sense of the word not: for nothing. Just the smell of it is making me sick.”
“I’ll take it away,” pouring a cup of coffee and handing it to Diana.
“The coffee isn’t hot.”
“I took it up as soon as it stopped dripping.”
“Sorry. I don’t do tepid. Is there a microwave?”
“Yes. Would you like me to reheat it for you?”
“Yes.” Diana looked across the room at Audubon’s Louisiana Heron. “Please.”
Ivy removed the tray, returning two minutes later carrying only a saucer on which sat a steaming cup of coffee. Diana snatched it saying, “Good!” a quick frown reflecting the coffee’s thin aroma. “Where’s yours?”
“I have water,” Ivy raising her glass and sitting on the chair by Diana’s bed.
Diana sipped from her cup and grimaced. “Yuck! I don’t blame you for drinking water. This tastes like crap.” She sipped again, grimaced again, and set the cup on her side table spilling some into the saucer and some on the table. She slumped back into the rocker’s bones saying, “I need a fix.”
Ivy got up to clean the spill, “You said you were done with drugs.”
“Speaking metaphorically is all, Ivy. Even addicts can do drug jokes.” After a long breath, “Don't get me wrong; I still crave the stuff. But the using part’s over. No issue. What I mean? I feel like crap: all-over cold and cramping, stomach constantly rumbling like distant thunder, constantly nauseous, restless, sleepy, headachy. I have dry mouth and juices pour out of my eyes and nose. It sucks and you tell me I have a while to go. Not complaining, mind you. Just being clinical.”
“Gotcha,” Ivy, "But I do have a solution for the poor coffee, at least if good coffee is worth the effort,” holding the saucer with both hands.
“About a mile down the road is the Buttery Bun. Opens at six. They serve great American-style coffee and espresso drinks, too.”
“Wow! Never thought of that. A real-life café. What are we doing here? Grab the car and let’s go." Diana stood up.
“Therein the rub – no car available. We’ll have to walk. A mile in the cold and dark. Are you up to it?”
“For a good cup of coffee? Our driveway workout has totally conditioned me – a mile’s a tit. We’ll be there in four minutes. Let’s go. Wait! I have nothing to wear.”
“You do if you’re not fussy. We have plenty of clothes to keep you warm. You can keep your coat on even in the café. No one will even notice you.”
“Not exactly what a sixteen-year-old girl wants to hear. But under the circumstances…”
Diana retched as soon as she hit the cold morning air. She turned away from Ivy, pulled off her thick gloves and reached into the front pockets of her borrowed L.L. Bean Men’s Ultralight 850 Down Jacket that doubled her size. She cleaned her mouth with one of the tissues that she’d tucked into the left-side pocket and swigged from a water bottle stuffed in the right side, rinsing and spitting. “Sorry. Gross. But I think it’s over, at least for now.”
“Don’t worry about me, my dear. Are you alright to go on?”
Diana drank in the last of the night’s darkness and took a deep breath of the freezing air. “Ivy, I am so ready for this. Dark? Cold? Nausea? Nothing can hold me back. My first coffee is calling.”
They took off walking in the direction of oncoming traffic. Although the asphalt roadway devoid of auto traffic so early in the morning, and in this off-season, the pair chose to attack the mile to the Bun in the added safety of the adjacent sandy shoulder separating the road from the edge of the woods.
Ivy, “Why did you tell the police not to come with us? Aren’t you afraid of being attacked?”
“For one thing, we both know that the police will drive past at least three times on our walk there. But my only fear is being caught off guard. We are alert and ready. I’ll know when danger is nearby. Let them come. They won’t.”
In the quiet pre-dawn, Diana’s footsteps crunching into the frozen gravel were the only sounds except for the predicted passings of the police car. The pair waved without looking each time it came past. In the dark pre-dawn, except for a chance meeting with a lone doe just before they reached the café, she making a quick study of the two women before leisurely retreating to the sanctuary of the snow-covered woods, the two women saw no one and, except for Diana’s getting pinched in several places by a holly tree when she took a few steps after the doe, the trip uneventful.
Unlike the return trip when, under lightening sky, they would enjoy the songs and calls of goldfinch, juncos, blue jays, house finch, mockingbirds, chickadees, cardinals, downies, and catbirds; and when the pair would frequently stop to admire those birds with the temerity to land and sing nearby which, uncharacteristically, many birds of different species did – some even alighting on Diana’s shoulders. On those sweet occasions, Diana talked baby talk to them and listened to their chirping, learning which of the holly trees still had lots of berries and if any predators were about.
In just over twenty-five minutes the pair arrived opposite the glass and aluminum-framed single-story strip mall the café called home (as did its neighbors, a hair salon, a small appliance repair, and a party store), just as the first streaks of day, squeezing under and through midnight’s tight grip, backlit the strip. Before stepping across the road, Ivy checked both directions for traffic. For her part, Diana snapped her head left, to the edge of the wood that had followed them along their walk, drawn by a flash, just a split-second glimpse of movement, perhaps just a falling leaf flicking in and out of the deceptive light. Or did she indeed see two familiar figures duck into the dense woods behind them? Leaving an ephemeral blue trace? A spray of sulphur?
A clumsily rendered wooden sign-door-pull, two-feet high and three feet long, screwed across the entry door announced they had arrived at “The Buttery Bun,” ‘nondescript’ the kindest adjective Diana could muster to describe the facade. Ivy pulled on the sign to open the door and followed Diana in.
Coffee bean dust permeated the cafe and her first two breaths brought a rush to the susceptible Diana. She lingered at the entry to prolong the euphoria, using the moment to look over the half-dozen seated inveterate coffee addicts, two parties of two, the elderly hetero-couple fumbling with a small plastic knife to split a muffin without reducing it to crumbles; the other pair, a thirty-five year old mom encouraging her six-year old daughter to eat her pastry and drink her milk while mommy sipped her coffee, they out and about early for a school day, Diana noting; and two singles, one, a forty-five-year old man in jacket and tie, a dark overcoat carefully folded on the seat of the chair opposite, he sipping from the bathtub-sized cup held in his right hand, his left hand holding a hard-copy newspaper, perhaps reading details of a local iteration of the diabolical Plan B of her nightmare. And the other single, wearing his overcoat, torn and stained in several places and wearing his soft aviator helmet askew, partially revealing a cratered purple face, smashed nose, and long scraggly hair, a version of her disheveled self of just several days ago, he, this morning, warming his hands around the hot cup. Diana resisted the inclination to go over and hug him,
Another half-dozen customers waited standing, three in a queue at the cashier’s station to place their orders, the other three shuffling uncomfortably to stay out of the way of the café traffic while the barista completed their orders.
Despite just this brief moment to observe their protocols and rituals, Diana already felt comfortable as part of the mind-bending café community. “Just being here makes me feel better.” Six-foot Diana, a tinge of blush coloring her cheeks, looked up at six-four Ivy. “I’m being horrid to you, Ivy. Thank you for putting up with me. I’m sorry,” looking down to the floor and briefly at Ivy before stepping into the queue, Ivy beside her.
“Don’t exaggerate. But what about a muffin to go with your coffee?”
Eyes back on Ivy, “Don’t be sneaky, Ivy,” Diana squeezing her hand. “Sorry. I still can’t handle food.” On cue, a twinge of nausea forced Diana to turn away from the glass cases of pastries, salads, sandwiches, sweets, and cold drinks, to watch a hair-netted, flour-dusted baker write an additional special on the chalkboard menu, grim, she, perhaps running behind.
By the time Diana got to the cashier, a guileless, pleasant twenty-year old, no makeup, with long light brown hair combed out below her shoulder blades – an amalgam of Jack Kerouac, Blowing in the Wind, and Bernie Sanders – an eight-long line had formed behind her. Diana asked the ingénue for a detail of the coffee menu. She listened and then asked about the affogato, omitted from the cashier’s recitation, the additional question prompting a shuffling of feet and eliciting one audible sigh.
Abruptly Diana’s expression transformed from anticipation to anger and she stepped back from the cashier, scanning the line for the source of the impatience, finding her immediately: a well-turned out middle-aged, frowning, pinch-faced woman in a faux fur coat, a paisley kerchief tied around her platinum head, arms folded across her chest, shaking her head, eyes fixed on the plug in the progress. Diana, resisting a temptation to smack her face, engaged the dissident in a short-lived stare down. The testy woman, feeling the rising tension in Diana, noting her size and youth, noting her strangely taut face, also noting her even larger friend, hugged her large pocketbook to her chest, shrugged her shoulders, and looked away. Diana took two seconds to accept the surrender before disengaging and returning to the cashier softly saying, “I think the cortado will work. I like my drinks very hot, if you can.”
Ivy paid and stood waiting for the coffee while Diana went to get a table. The dining room held two ranks of six twenty-four inch square topped with clear-plastic, the plastic protecting browned newspaper pages from the 1930s and ’40s, announcing wars and woe. From the line against the banquette, she selected the table furthest from the tabletop-to-ceiling windows, sitting on the leatherette couch built-in against the rear wood-paneled wall enveloping the deep-inside of the café. From her seat, looking across the dining room, she had a clear view through the windows to the parking lot and roadway beyond, both visible now in the advancing daylight; and from her seat, muffled conversations from neighboring tables degraded into a single reassuring murmur.
Ivy set a double-shot glass in front of Diana who admired the artistically etched latte art – a milk-foam white flower, not botanically correct, Diana noticing, thinking, “But don’t sweat the small stuff,” the flower outlined by a border of lightly-saturated crema, the creamy brown foam produced by water pressurized through ground espresso beans, the creation on a canvas of espresso coffee. Diana lifted the glass, hot, and, after an investigatory taste, rapid-staccato sipped it empty without taking a breath. Looking up from her drink at a startled Ivy, Diana chuckled. “Totally delicious.” She took a lick of the brown foam lining the inside of the glass. “I could get hooked on this stuff. I’d like another but I’m too jittery to sit. Can we get one to go?”
Diana stepped from the café into the lightening day holding the lidless steaming cup under her nose, the cat and the canary.