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Excerpt for Dream Girl by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

DREAM GIRL

S. B. Springer



1

When Roger McMillan was eleven, he leaned on a fence rail and looked down the lane, waiting for his mother to return. Now at nearly thirty-years of age, he hated leaning on fence rails, and yet, here he was. He knew this confrontation would end badly.

On the other side stood the old man with his belly hanging over his silver belt buckle, one the size of a tea-platter with a gold horse embossed upon it. The man looked at Roger with a stern expression, his bushy brows electric with agitation, his steel blue eyes boring in. There was nothing shy about this guy when he was mad or simply had had enough of all this dang horse manure.

Roger placed both his hands on the top rail and refrained from picking at a curled peeling of whitewash, a sure sign of looking weak and nervous. He pulled himself forward, rocking off the heels of his cowboy boots. Standing at around six-foot, Roger was tall, and at one-hundred-sixty pounds, he was lanky. Unkempt tufts of sandy hair curled around his ears and across his neck, the ends skirting the collar of his western yoked shirt. He stood in the shade of his straw hat. He looked at the man, his employer, at least for now. Just get to the point.

Behind him, in the arena, moving in a slow canter with neck arched, head tucked in, mouthing the bit, the sorrel rocked the girl riding him. Her hips melded to the saddle. This was a horse of impressive lineage and should have been a winner. But, since he wasn’t . . .

The horse moved with grace, but it wasn’t enough. The girl riding him had features thin and youthful and a cowboy hat of crisp beaver felt set squarely upon her head. She held her spine erect and her shoulders square. She held her hands low and kept the reigns taught but not too tight. Roger was not her first teacher and her form was good. He may have done no good, but he did no damage either.

When the pair went through a figure eight pattern the horse shifted its lead smoothly. She was doing well, but not well enough to bring home a silver belt buckle the size of a tea platter.

Roger could easily say to the man, I’m sorry but your daughter just doesn’t have her heart in it. She’s smooth, she’s polished—he wanted to add how he’d done with her all he could—but that was the point, wasn’t it? He had done all he could, and it wasn’t good enough.

“I need someone more inspiring,” said the man.

Sure. The girl would be perfectly happy romping around on her horse, maybe doing barrel racing or something fun; but in the world of high breeding . . . well . . . Roger was a trailer on jacks.

“I need someone with a bigger name,” the man added. “One that pulls weight.”

The man was right about inspiration. Roger was born to ride, to feel the feet prancing below him, the muscles of the beast alive and throbbing. Teaching spoiled rich girls, not so much. Placating their proud fathers, not at all.

“I’ll pack,” he said.

The man tugged at the brim of his ten-gallon hat. “Sorry it didn’t work out.”

Roger traveled light. That afternoon he threw his saddle into the bed of his old Chevrolet pickup and tossed his duffle in after. He refused to look back at the trailer he’d called home for the last year. He refused to look back at the ranch as he rumbled down the gravel drive toward the two-lane highway. The old man had been decent enough and handed out a few big for severance. Roger drove across the flat California valley for several hours, and that evening he turned up a side road, rocked over uneven cobblestones, and parked by the side of a mudhole of a lake. It was maybe three acres in size, nestled in the bottom of a bowl that was walled by mounds of oat grass studded with oaks. Along its banks, shaded by willows, the shallows were choked by a hedge of cattails. In the waning light, swirls of red winged blackbirds splattered the sky and twirled as a group to form a funnel cloud.

Roger didn't’ need much. That’s what he told himself that night while sitting by his fire and chewing on a piece of jerky. He didn't need much, but that wasn’t true. He needed a break. It was time to stop drifting. He thought of his mother, and then he thought of women in general. “Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em either.” But he was a cowboy, a loaner. There was no woman for him.

Women didn’t run in the family. Roger grew up on a dirt ranch with one hundred breeders and a bull on one-hundred acres of improved pasture. He had lived with his dad who had long ago run off his mother, being a man with no need of a woman particularly. In addition to longing for his mother, Roger had dreamed of the big time. He would be famous, in the magazines, and one day he would look up and she would be there. “I’m so proud of you,” she would say.

To Roger, the big time meant fine horses of lineage trained well. He was rough, dumb, not stupid but unable to talk much, not a shaman at all. He found it hard to sell himself into positions, and he found it harder to keep them. He lived out of a duffle, called home wherever he hung his hat, and when he could afford it, he bought the latest copy of Horsemen’s magazine and longed after the full-page spreads of well-bred horses. That night as the fire died down by the lake, he wondered what he would do next because his future was sinking, the bloom of a promising future tarnished with age.

In the early gray light of morning, for a moment he forgot where he was and even who he was, but the recollection returned as his eyes opened. He rolled to his side and rose stiffly, his blankets falling from his back as he pushed himself up. By the time he stretched and went to find a tree, he was well awake and happy. Why so happy, he wondered. Well, look about him. The world was still and gray but rapidly coming to life. In the distance, he heard the honking of geese. The brown grass was renewed with a sprinkling of dew. First thing in the morning like this, the world was full of hope and promise. So, Rodger was happy, and on the bright side, he was free to do as he chose today. He was on no timeline. Later, in the heat, he might grow depressed and bored with no prospects and of having to start over once again, but now, as he stood by the trunk of the willow, its canopy sprawled over him, he was in the timeless zone.

The timeless zone. The gray light. The new hope of a new day. Once again, the sun would rise.

Roger strode to the water’s edge. Along the bank was a thick growth of cattails, their long slender shafts rising in a thick mass, and beyond, was the lake, its surface still and smooth.

Still and smooth, but then the surface broke into a series of concentric rings, swelling into small waves, washing out from the center. At first, Rodger thought a fish was rising, and judging from the action of the water, it would be a big fish, probably a cat but maybe a carp. Either way, they were both fish known for their magical properties, a good omen rising on a new day. Thinking maybe a catfish, maybe a carp, Roger wasn’t prepared for what did rise.

Roger was a man who trusted his eyes. Even if some things in life didn’t happen, things like mermaids and dragons, for instance, Roger believed in what he saw. He didn’t dismiss his vision with a shake of his head and a comical remark about needing more sleep. Roger prided himself on accepting what life threw his way.

There is something lovely about a woman’s wet hair. The strands pulled tightly together, the fluff gone out and the essence remaining, hair weighted and pulling at the scalp, tightening the skin, and in the case of this woman rising, exposing a widow’s peak. She broke the surface and rose, her hair dark and shining with water, her skin brown and beaded with drops, her face a well-proportioned oval with features proper and pleasant and relatively young, like maybe thirty, like maybe Roger’s age.

She rose higher. Her shoulders were bare. Roger hesitated for a moment, his heart pausing a beat because the girl rose higher still. Bare shoulders, but then a white top of light frilly material emerged. The sleeves hung part way down her arms. The neckline stretched across her bosom and drew together into a V at her cleavage. The material was nearly translucent where it clung to her, but at least she wasn’t naked. Roger was shy about those kinds of things, but as it were, with this lady of grace rising from the center of the lake—and never mind how she hovered from the water so unnaturally—Roger’s throat remained loose, and he refrained from stammering out broken country lingo. He simply stood and stared, and he stared unabashedly brave because somehow it seemed right to stare, as in, whoever can rise from the water that way deserves attention. So, Roger stood and stared.

She was now out of the water to her waist. She was looking down to her left and her hands were at her sides, her fingertips waving lightly across the surface, disturbing the water into small ripples.

Roger stood in the timeless spot of the morning, the world caught between black and white; and the moment being timeless, he had no idea how long he stood and stared at the beauty of the lake. She never did contact him. She hovered in the water as if in her own world. It was a peaceful world she inhabited, Rodger thought, judging by the serenity of her being. A moment passed, no telling how long, and then she dropped away, returning to the lake. The water swelled to fill the cavity of her disappearance.

A crow cawed. Roger shook his head. The day began.

2

Roger hung around the lake all day, wiling his time with the patience of a fisherman. He sat under the shade of a willow tree and napped with his cheek pressed to the moist earth during the afternoon heat. He chewed methodically on his jerky, working his jaws as if reciting a mantra, calming him, centering him, and that evening, giving him the patience to wait at sunset for the rising of the magical fish, but no such luck. That night he slept fitfully on the ground, there always being a pebble or twig to roll over, so he was up before even the first light, standing at lake edge, gingerly stretching his tendons.

In contrast to the foreboding that signaled bad times ahead, foreboding like before his mother left and again before the old man with the belly and the buckle fired him, in contrast to that feeling, what he felt now was optimistic excitement, something new to him, and he liked it. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew this magical woman of the lake, his own personal Lady of the Lake, was a good omen unlike the Lady in the King Arthur stories who was an evil temptress. His mother had read to him when he was young, back before he recognized the blankness in her eyes. This lady gave him hope, and so he stood at lakeside in the predawn and wished for her to reappear.

Her beauty only encouraged him further. Roger did okay with horses, not so much with women. He was a non-talker for the most part, and while horses could understand his vibe, girls mostly preferred words to some weird horse-whisperer thing. That nonverbal communication he did was mostly creepy. He could look at a horse, say one hesitant to enter a trailer for the first time, and he could smile and be reassuring and maybe offer a handful of sweet grain, and the horse would trust him. Women, not so much. While he was okay with being alone, the idea of a magical lady had kept him here the whole day, and now the sky was graying, and he hoped her rising at dawn was a daily ritual.

Just as the light hit the lake, its source still behind the horizon but the edge of the world beginning to tint red, the air quieted, and then, from the center of the lake, the concentric circles swelled, and from their center, the woman rose.

Once again, her dark hair glistened with water and hung heavily, pulling her scalp tight, exposing her widow’s peak, exposing her jawline; and while yesterday she looked down, today she raised her head, jutted her chin, and looked in his direction. She continued to rise, her brown shoulders breaking the surface, her white gown hanging from her arms, dropping over her breasts, forming the V of her cleavage, clinging to her form. The same as yesterday except now she looked at him, and in her dark eyes he understood she was indeed returning his gaze. He grew excited but let his face show only reassurance, a gentle smile, a smooth brow unencumbered with furrows, a peaceful set of the jaw. It’s going to be okay, he thought.

“Who are you?”

Those words came to his mind as though he’d heard them out loud, and maybe he had, but mostly he thought he was simply imagining them. The voice was attractive, female, but with a hint of huskiness, a tonal quality of don’t mess with me. He let the words settle in his brain, and they made him happy.

“I am just a friend,” he said, but maybe not out loud. They were vocal in his mind though as if he had truly spoken. How sometimes one might say of a girl they had met, we had a connection, we could communicate with our eyes, to Roger’s way of thinking, he and this girl, they had that thing between them. “I find you fully beautiful,” he said, and those words he would never speak out loud.

She looked away, dropping her chin, turning her head.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so forward. I’ve embarrassed you.”

With her head still looking down and away, her eyes rolled in their sockets and the pupils spun up, centering on Roger. Hers was a demure look, downcast head and upturned eyes, and an interested look, coquettish. “Join me.” Her hand waved across the surface, producing a wake that rippled suggestively toward shore.

Roger gulped and hesitated. Like a cat, he wasn’t comfortable in the water. But he did want to join her. He became aware of how heavy his boots were.

“Or not,” she said. “I’m not going to beg.” With that she began to descend, and the surface swallowed her shoulders.

“Wait,” Roger yelled, and this time, he voiced the words. “Wait.”

He sat on the ground quickly and tugged off his boots. He rose out of his jeans as he stood, and as he moved to the water, his shirt fell from his shoulders and dropped behind him. Now he was only in his white under garments. His arms and legs were pale and hairy. Only his hands were tanned. The ground became moist and soggy. Mud squished between his toes. And then he was in the water and making his way through the cattails, pushing them aside and moving slowly, his feet sinking in with each step, clouds of brown water swirling around his ankles. The water rose up his calves, past his knees, and once he was through the cattail barrier, the water was to his waste.

While he made his way toward the center of the lake, the girl kept her head above water. She was a beacon luring him forward. Soon, he was all in except for his head. He kicked his feet behind him and floated on his chest. He moved his arms and legs like a frog and pulled himself toward her.

When he got to her she was still there, and he was so happy to be close to her. The water felt murky but cool. He began to tread water, his face only a few feet from hers. He had to move constantly to keep his head above the surface. In contrast, she hovered in place. Up close, her face was even prettier. Her skin was smooth and looked so soft and supple. Her eyes twinkled. Her hair glistened. And her lips, slightly parted to show straight white teeth, were plump and inviting. Her lips parted further; her mouth opened. She laughed.

He felt awkward enough flailing in the water, and then to have her laugh? Even with his body submerged in the cool morning water, his face heated.

She pointed at him. “Look.” She pointed up.

“Huh?” Bringing his hand from the water and raising it, his fingers bumped into the straw brim of his cowboy hat. “Oh,” he said, and then he laughed too.

Her eyes said come hither. She dropped from sight, the water closing in over her.

“Damn.” Before he could think himself out of it, he too dove in, leaving his hat to float upon the surface while he pulled back murky water and burrowed into her world.

It was dark and cloudy and he could not see. He swam about, desperately wanting to find her but unable to do so. His lungs began to hurt. His strokes grew weaker. He knew he had to resurface and began to rise, but something caught his foot and held him in place. His lungs burned now. His body cramped. His head grew dizzy, but not so dizzy he couldn’t think of the one thing that mattered. He had to get to the surface. He pulled his leg, but whatever had him by the ankle was too strong. He thrashed wildly, had to get to the surface, his arms flailing. And then his vision grew black around the edges, the curtain closing until only two narrow pinpricks of vision remained. His thrashing lessened. He grew less chaotic and calmed further. The last of his vision faded. His lungs no longer hurt.

* * *

When he awoke, he was calm even if he were still underwater. The girl was looking at him, so that was why he was calm. He tried to touch himself, needed to see if he was real, but she stilled his hand. He did feel her touch upon him, so that was good. He spoke in the way where words didn’t disturb the air. “Am I dead?”

“Not yet.”

He mulled that over. “Am I dying?”

“I’ll get you back to your world before that happens.” She grinned. “At least I hope so.”

He was confused. Death is supposed to be the bad guy, yet, here he was underwater, not breathing, and he felt okay. So, what was this? “Where am I?”

“Welcome to my world.”

“Your world is under water?”

She looked at him with amusement, like duh, Captain Obvious.

“But I’m okay here? I mean, I can’t breathe, but that’s all right?”

“For a while.”

“Are you a mermaid?”

“No, I have legs.” She shifted around so he could see.

In this strange floating world, he was naked and with her, also naked. He wasn’t sure what to do, but she got to the point. “Do you want to be my boyfriend?”

“Sure.”

3

Something slapped Roger on the cheek. He was asleep and barely noticed, but the next time it slapped him he stirred and opened one eye. A little while later it buzzed by again. A huge black bee. Roger swatted it away and woke up fully, but still, the sense of confusion remained. Where am I? Who am I? What am I?

He was warm. The sun beat on his back. Eventually, getting himself up, Roger discovered he was naked, his skin filmy with silt, and he was lakeside. His hat floated in the deep part and that sucked because he didn’t want to swim for it, but he didn’t want to lose it either. What really bothered him, though, was his uncertainty about what had happened to him.

No really, what did happen? He got his pale body out of the sun, sat at the base of a willow tree, and closed his eyes. Maybe he had slept, or maybe he had been experiencing a wide-awake dream, a vision. He had seen the woman and he recalled how they had enjoyed each other. But he had been underwater. So, was this real? Was she real? He had thought so at the time, but now he wondered. The mind can play tricks on a person. Reality and one’s perception of it should coincide, but now, they didn’t.

Eventually, he swam for his hat, and after, feeling murky and needing supplies, he dressed and drove out to the highway and came to a truck stop where he could use one of the public showers and get some grub on. He wasn’t certain about the woman of the lake, but he knew that he’d camp out there again just to see if she reappeared in the morning.

After cleaning up, he looked at the coffee shop but had a better idea. He drove a way into the local town and parked at a tavern. Once inside the cool darkness, he called for a beer. Living out on the ranch as a trainer, he hadn’t had one for a while, and just as well because he had a tendency not to stop once he got going. Cool beer on a hot day and he had things to sort out in his mind. Alcohol helped to lubricate the brain, maybe not so much on technical matters, but in the realm of magical women who lived in a lake, yes, alcohol was just the thing.

He figured he’d pour down a few, stop at six and then go sleep it off in his truck. Relatively harmless, and he had the two large bills the rancher had given him for severance pay.

On around the fifth beer, a woman joined him. He looked up a little blearily having long since thought through the lady of the lake situation, and having decided yes, she was real, the whole experience had been real, he had enjoyed underwater sex with some mystical creature. And no, she had not been simply a wet dream.

He looked at the woman who was looking at him. He asked, “Are you real?” Of course, his words came out a little slurry.

She smiled. “Why yes.” As if to prove the point, she placed her hand over his on the bar. She pressed down, and he felt the weight of her mass and the force of her push. He drew a long breath through his nostrils, flaring them a bit as he did. Yes, she was real, alright.

He appraised her and asked, “Is there some sort of evil princess convention in town?”

Her lips had a downturned sensuousness, but their tips curled up ornately. Her face sloped back from her cheeks, giving a tilt to her nose that exposed her nostrils more than on most people’s faces, and the slope-back meant her eyes were set deep and away, looking like crows nested on a rocky slope. Her brow was high and her hair was jet black, perfectly straight and parted from a crooked center to fall down either side equally, but the face was so sloped that the hair never got close to those eyes. The tips draped her shoulders, which were bare, and her crop top was as black as her hair. Her lips were done up red. Tight jeans tucked into short black boots finished off her authentic Gothic look.

Roger had no idea why she was talking to him. She was much younger, but not a kid. Early-twenties, he imagined. “What’s up?”

“Buy me a drink?”

He wasn’t really interested, but he was five beers in. “Sure.”

She climbed onto the stool next to him and placed long black fingernails on the bar. She smiled at him again, “So, cowboy, tell me your story.”

“What story would that be?”

“Doesn’t matter really. Just something to pass the time while we drink.”

Roger ventured to say how he’d just been fired. He knew that gave him a loser vibe, but he didn’t care. There was something about this girl he had no desire to impress, so he figured he’d just be honest. Seemed like a good way to pass the time while they drank.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “But they don’t deserve you.”

“A nice thought,” he said, and then with conviction, “you’re right. They don’t.”

The bartender brought them fresh beer without being asked, and the bartender didn’t ask for money. Roger had been paying as he went. He shrugged and reached for the beer. Her name was Vivian, and she was easy to talk to.

Later he told her of his mother leaving, and Vivian placed her hand on his again and squeezed. Another set of beers arrived. He reached for it without thinking. She was easy to talk to.

Things went a little hazy after that, and the next thing Roger was aware of, he was totally feeling like fresh and steamy horse manure. “Oh, man,” he said. “I’m never drinking again.”

The next thing he was aware of, he was in the cab of his truck. He sat up and leaned on the steering wheel. He rummaged around the seat for a water bottle and sucked the thing tight with three long gulps, finishing it off with a crunch, a twist, and a toss. The sky outside was gray. The sun must be going down he thought. But then as the sky slowly grew brighter he realized that no, this was morning. “Oh, fudge,” he said. He fired up his truck and started off in a hurry. His bladder was full and pressing, but that would have to wait. He cursed his luck and his weakness. Now here he was missing out on the moment to meet with the lady of the lake once again.

He knew he wasn’t going to be there in time, but he pressed on anyway. He cursed the girl of the bar, what was her name again? That tart, he thought. He knew he only had himself to blame though, but she had been so easy to talk to. The beer had flowed so free. He didn’t recall how he ended up in his truck, but his drunk-self must have maintained a sense of survival. He wondered if he had any money left. She might have rolled him. He wouldn’t put it past her, but that was maybe just typecasting her as the black clothed tart with the red lips. She had been nice, very genuine. But come on, Roger, really, a twenty-year-old girl has an interest in you? What’s really up?

As he drove he tried to recall what they had talked about. A lot of it was vague. But as he crested the knoll and left the highway to rumble over gravel and cobblestones, on his descent to the lake basin, he began to draw on a memory. The girl had been very interested in hearing about the lady of the lake. Yes, that was so. He shook his head. Yes, he had talked about the lady of the lake. He had told of their relationship. And Vivian had been interested. Too interested as he thought about it now. He had told of their underwater encounter and she didn’t even let on the slightest that he was crazy. She had believed. Of course, now, he wondered how much of his recollection was subjective. He shook his head and doubted that Vivian had been a fake. No, she had been genuinely interested, and she had accepted what he told her, however crazy it sounded. Interested. But why?

That’s what gnawed at his gut more than the fermenting beer residue. Why? The question was foreboding

When he came around the bend and could see the lake, he also saw a bobtail truck backed up to the lake. It was plain white and unmarked and looked like something a flea market vendor might haul wares in. It also looked heavy with the back sagging.

Roger accelerated. The truck bounced, and his butt flew from the seat. He slowed down, but rumbled as fast as he could, coming up to the parked bobtail, slamming on his brakes, and riding the skid to a stop. He was out of the cab in a heartbeat and running toward the truck, but then he held up short.

A large bald guy in a T-shirt bulging with muscle came around the back of the truck. The man would be formidable on his own, but he held a handgun, the muzzle oversized, though any muzzle pointed is too big. Roger stopped. There were maybe ten feet between them. The man said, “That’s close enough.”

Roger showed his palms instinctively.

The man said, “I’ve killed people before. It gets easier.”

Roger nodded.

From the lake, two heads of hair emerged. One was the dark hair of the lady of the lake, and even though she and Roger had made love, he still didn’t know her name. The other was topped with the jet-black hair of Vivian.

The man said, “Stay chill.”

The two heads swam toward shore, Vivian leading, the lady coming behind grudgingly, pulling back, but being jerked forward. At the shore, Vivian rose. She still wore her black crop top and blue jeans. She was holding a tether, and when the lady did not rise, Vivian turned and tugged. The lady grabbed her neck and pulled back, but Vivian leaned and tugged some more. The lady unwillingly rose. Water rippled off her skin.

Vivian said to the man, “Come get her.”

The man pointed. “We’ve got a problem.”

Vivian noticed Roger. She grimaced at the man. “Just shoot him already.”

The man squinted, and the gun barked. A flash of light came from the muzzle. In front of Roger, who was reeling back in terror, a burst of gravel erupted and splayed out a fantail. Pebbles pelted him as he turned his head.

When he turned back the man had his boots wet in the mud and was hoisting the lady onto his shoulder. Vivian now held the gun. The man didn’t take to killing easily, apparently, but Roger felt Vivian wasn’t bothered by it so much. Looking at her look at him, Roger realized she probably liked it.

The lady of the lake spoke. Roger heard her. Vivian reacted too, so she must have also heard the silent vibes. The man gave no sign he was attuned to the creature’s inner voice though. The lady said, “Spare him, and I will go with you willingly.”

“You’re coming with us regardless,” Vivian said. “You have nothing to bargain with.”

“What’s that?” the man asked. He was standing at water’s edge with the lady on his shoulder, but he looked to be waiting before moving on.

Vivian said, “The lady here says to not kill her boyfriend and she’ll go willingly.”

“That’s good,” the man said. “Agree to that.”

“I don’t like loose ends.”

The man scoffed. “That bum. He’s nothing, and why kill him? Who needs another ghost to reckon with on judgment day?”

“I don’t believe in that,” she said.

“Doesn’t make it less real,” the man said, “and even if not, why take the chance when you don’t have to.”

The man looked at Vivian. Her face was blank. He scoffed and walked past, up to the back of the truck, opened one of the doors, the panel swinging wide, and then with the weight of the lady on his shoulder, he grabbed a bar and placed a foot on the bumper and lunged and pulled them up and in.

Vivian walked backward to the truck door and never took her eyes or the muzzle away from Roger. She closed the door, still looking at Roger. She drew the latch down. It clicked into place. She came around and stood close to Roger, maybe four feet between them, the truck behind her, the lake over to the side, Roger’s pickup truck behind him. She stared, and her face gave away nothing.

Roger stared back. He felt lost and he felt anguish. He felt so dead already that he didn’t feel fear about getting shot. He stared back coldly. The gun fired once again, the muzzle flashing. Roger felt the bullet whiz by him. He heard the thunk of metal on metal behind him.

Reprieved and alive, Roger jumped into action. “You’re not taking her,” he screamed. He lunged toward Vivian. He had his fist back and he was going to swing. He did not fear death in this moment, so Vivian had nothing over him, and he wanted his girlfriend back. He let the fist go, had it aimed right for her chin. It was bad enough that she simply sidestepped the blow and then quickly sidestepped around him, getting behind him where she flew out with a kicking blow, some Martial Art move, her boot landing on his butt with so much force, and he, with spine whipped back and cracking, flew forward, arms splayed out. He landed on the gravel and skidded. His bladder, too full, now let go. That was all bad enough, but as she kicked him, she laughed.

“Stay down,” she said. “And don’t sweat it. I’m sure you’re used to losing by now.”

Roger stumbled up and charged her, arriving as she was climbing up into the driver’s seat. Another ungodly boot kick sent him on his back and skidding again. “You’re so much fun, darling.”

The truck started up an rolled out. Roger was not giving up. The truck couldn’t go fast on the rocks; it was too heavy in the back, water dripping from the door’s bottom. Roger was able to catch it and he jumped onto the bumper. Wherever they were going, he was coming too.

He rode with the truck out to the main road, but once they hit the pavement the truck stopped. Vivian came around. He jumped down to confront her. His face was scuffed as was his back. His shirt was torn and bloody. But he channeled the pain and the humiliation, and he was ready for the grand finale. Vivian was going down. Only this time, from behind, Roger felt the presence of the big guy. He felt the presence only for a split second before the blow crashed down on his skull. Roger’s knees crumpled, and he blacked out even before he hit the ground.

Much later, after he limped up the road and down to the lake, he sat in his truck. When he tried to turn the motor over it grunted and groaned. The bullet that had whizzed by him earlier had landed somewhere in the engine. Roger was still alive, but his truck wasn’t.

Something had brought him to the lady of the lake. They had connected. And now she was gone. He wanted her back. And not only that, Vivian had kicked his butt, made him wet his pants, and mostly, she had called him a loser. Save the girl, get himself some vengeance, Roger smiled despite the pain. Suddenly his life had meaning, and it was nothing about coddling spoiled rich girls and their spoiled fathers either. Those two kidnappers never should have left him alive.

4

A month or so later, Roger stopped a man on the street. He was in the city now, a few blocks from a popular stretch of nightlife. Colored lights glowed upon them. Roger had a pack slung on one shoulder, and on his other side, he held his saddle by the horn with its pommel seated on his hip. He asked, “Spare a dollar?”

“Geez, buddy,” the man said, “you look like an able-bodied guy. You even got a saddle. So get a job.”

“Yes, I know,” Roger said with eyes downcast. “I’m trying.” Then he looked up, found the guy’s eyes. “But in the meantime, got a buck?”

The man pulled a wad from his pocket and handed it to him. “I don’t want to see you out here again.”

“Yes, sir,” Roger said.

“I can tell you’re not a bum or you’d have pawned your saddle by now.”

Roger shuddered at the thought. All he knew was horses and riding. Without that he would be common. “Thanks, again, Mister.”

The first time he had asked for money he felt dead inside. How humiliating, and it remained hard, but he had to survive. Yes, he was able-bodied, mostly. They had beat him up badly, but he was mostly recovered now. He was able-bodied enough, but his mind was void. Maybe it was a result of the blow to the head. Maybe it was the result of having loved and lost. Maybe it was some side effect of being with the mystical creature he had come to love. Maybe it was a result of Vivian’s dark magic. Maybe she had cursed him.

Vivian’s dark magic, he mused. Why say that? The woman had simply plied him with drinks. Nothing magical about that, right? Well, how did she know to find him? Of all the gin joints, why his? And then to pull the lady from the lake, to be able to do that. Feminine wiles, woman’s instinct: all women were magical; but Vivian was more so, and she was dark. And he owed her vengeance. But as his wounds healed over the course of the month and the humiliation of being homeless grew numb, his anger resided.

How about his resolve to find the lady? Was that less of goal now too? They had shot his truck and that hadn’t daunted him. He had taken his small pack and his saddle, all that he could carry, and made his way to the city. All the while he walked and hitchhiked, his mission in life burned bright, but after a few weeks spent downtown, his resolve was waning. He had no idea of how to find her. He didn’t even know her name. Life seemed hopeless. They should have simply shot him when they had the chance and done him the favor.

He looked at the money the guy had given him. It was a pretty nice wad, certainly more than anyone else had proffered over the last month, and it looked like he’d have enough to buy something to eat and get a few beers. Life was looking up for the moment.

Life was looking up even more the next day. At ten in the morning, he was lounging on the library steps when the doors opened to the public. He made his way to the restroom to wash, and then he found a comfortable seat in a sunlit window near the newspapers and began to read. This he did every morning, going through several periodicals, hoping to eye something about the lady, something to give him direction. As time passed and he found nothing, as his hope waned, he found himself growing interested in other articles, wars, and rumors of wars, and Willie Nelson was still performing, and how old was that guy now? Still performing. On this morning, what excited him was the announcement of a wild horse contest. There would be a cash prize to the guy who could saddle and ride the beast, El Diablo. The picture of the horse, what first drew his attention to the article, was a color print of the horse’s head. The beast seemed to be looking at the photographer with menace and hate. Its hair was jet black except for a white star on its forehead. But to enhance the allure, the photo had been doctored. The beast’s eyes were red, fitting to the El Diablo thing, and from its flared nostrils, yellow flames spiked out like flowers blooming over leaves of gray smoke. Roger chuckled to himself, waking dormant muscles. How long had it been since he laughed?

On this morning, soon after, a young woman who was a librarian approached him. She had her hands folded together in front of her. She wore glasses and her hair was tied back in a ponytail. Thin and a little fluttery, she reminded Roger of a bird. She said, “Excuse me.”

Roger looked up from his paper. Wariness rose within him. He knew she was going to ask him to leave. He was already preparing his argument, reminding himself he had a right to be here, the library was for the public, and he was that. He responded, “Yes?”

She sounded friendly enough and respectful. “I’ve noticed you read a lot of papers every day,” she said, and then hurried along with her words, “That’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I was wondering . . .”

“Yes?”

“Would you be interested in the Internet?”

Roger smiled. “I’ve heard of that.”

For once, lady luck prevailed in his life. This angel of information led him to a computer and showed him the search bar.

“What do I type?”

“Whatever you’re interested in. Just say it like you are asking a question of a friend.”

Roger thanked her and leaned over the keyboard. He peered at the screen but then had to look at his fingers when he typed. What about this El Diablo?

El Diablo is “the devil” in Spanish. El Diablo is a comic book. El Diablo is a fast food burger, presumably spicy, and El Diablo is a red-eyed, firing breathing horse that can’t be rode.

All interesting. Next, he typed, What about this Lady of the Lake? Well, she was the enchantress in Arthurian legend, but he already knew that. There were many books and movies on the subject. He clicked on the “next” page link. Many things such as health centers and basketball teams were named Lady of the Lake. Frustrated, he changed tactics. He typed in Vivian the Enchantress. And, well, crap. The first reference to appear in the list was to the Lady of the Lake. Apparently, some authors had named her Vivien. The Lady of the Lake. Roger scratched his head. Did this mean something? It must, right? In the world of magic, there is no coincidence. Coincidence is the magic. Yeah?

Interesting, but how did that help him? Not. Returning to the search screen, staring at it with disillusionment, he suddenly noticed the tabs at the top. With some renewed interest he clicked on the one called “images.” He scrolled down the screen, watching the gallery of pictures unfold. So many women, crazy stuff, this internet. After scrolling for a bit, fascinated by the array before him, his heart stopped for a beat and he had to force himself to pull in air. There she was. His raven-haired Vivian. He clicked on the picture. He clicked to open the page link. The social media asked him to sign up. He sighed, but being so close, he persisted. He clicked and stared at the form. He needed an email address. Man, he cursed himself for being such a Luddite. Didn’t everyone have email these days? This was another setback, but he was so close, and the one thing about being down and out, it had taught him was not to be too proud to ask for help. He went to find the young librarian and tracked her down to a row of books she was restocking from a cart. “Sure,” she said. “It’s all easy and free.”

Not that much later, armed with his own email that he could get on his cell phone, assuming he had one of those, he was staring at Vivian online. He felt like a private investigator, but soon after, he realized that there was little useful information here. He needed an address or something, and she put her location down as Planet Earth. Well, yeah, duh. Planet Earth. Guess that helped. Wouldn’t need to be procuring a rocket-ship at least. Images had helped him get this far, they were the world’s new currency, and so he clicked on the media link, and that was all it took.

The screen came in with a slight hiccup as if for dramatic effect, and the next thing to happen was he was staring at his love, the Lady, he just knew it was her. At least, it was her face and her hair and her shoulders and arms. Those were likely her breasts too, tucked into a bikini top. Her abs as well. But her legs were absent and in their place was the tail of a fish. The lady presented here was a mermaid.

But what especially excited him, the mermaid was performing nightly, swimming in a large tank above a bar in Sacramento. His lady was only a three-hour drive away. up north on highway 99. The last thing Roger looked up before grabbing his pack and saddle and thanking the librarian on his way out was the price of a bus ticket. Now, when he spent the rest of the day panhandling, he was doing so with purpose.

5

He arrived in Sacramento slightly before midnight, checked his saddle and bag into a bus station locker, and hurried along toward the Mermaid Bar, which he found in an old brick building in a section of Midtown that was renovated, only a few blocks from Capital Park, and busy even at midnight when people had to work the next day. He had in his pocket barely enough to buy one beer at the bar, maybe, unless they charged extra for the entertainment. Coming into the building, it was long and narrow, tables and chairs up front and the bar running the length of the left sidewall from mid-way to the rear. He clomped over the wooden floor on his way past the sitting arrangements and toward the bar, but already his attention was up high and centered on the large fish tank built over the length of the bar. The ceiling was high, maybe two standard stories, so there was plenty of room for the mermaid to swim around while those below her drank and gave her an occasional notice. Conversation was lively and the crowd’s interest in her sporadic.

“Like a fish in a tank,” Roger said. He wanted to spit but refrained. With head tilted high, mesmerized by the tank and the mermaid, his Lady, of this he was sure, he walked forward, wanting to be closer, but not paying attention to where he was going, like a tourist just arrived in New York City, a country-bumpkin, he knocked into others and barely noticed, so overwhelmed was he. If two lovers were meant to be together, the world would coalesce to make that happen. He believed this now more than ever. “I’m here for you,” he said.

“Can I get you something?”

Those words were real and nagging. Grudgingly he lowered his vision and found the woman behind the bar who was addressing him. He asked, “Huh?”

“Can I get you something?”

He thought of the few dollars he had remaining. He had been keeping himself clean, had been shaving every morning at the library sink, so he felt he didn’t look like a homeless bum, and those long days of solitude that often turn men inward, giving them a crazy glow apparent to outsiders, well, he had always been a loner mostly, so he was okay with it, just camping out, just being a cowboy. “No,” he said at last, “I’m okay for now.”

The bartender looked like she was about to say something, no doubt a line like got to pay to play, or such, no looking if you aren't drinking; but instead, she turned away from him. The bar was busy.

Roger returned his gaze to the tank and to the mermaid swimming there. Her dark hair streamed behind her and danced in the swells her tail created with its slow flowing movement. Dang, she was so pretty, even as a fish. Vivian must have changed her, he thought. Her legs had been wonderful, but he’d take her either way. “Lady,” he said in his mind, wondering if he could remake the connection they had shared. “Lady, I am here for you.”

She came now to the glass wall separating their worlds. She placed her palms against the plane and stared out. Her tail slowly swished. Roger raised his hand. “Here I am.”

“Cowboy,” she said at last. “I knew you were true.”

“Yeah, I am. I’m here to get you out of there.”

Her lips twisted downward. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”

“Does Vivian have you under a spell or something?”

“No, I mean, how are you possibly going to get me out. The glass is thick.”

A real voice came out hard and jarred his attention. “Look, buddy, if you aren’t buying then you got to go.”

Roger lingered on his Lady. “My name is Roger. I don’t know why we never got to that.”

“I’m Ingrid.”

“Buddy,” said the bartender.

“I’ve got to go,” Roger said. “But I’ll be back.”

“I hope so.

Out on the street, Roger trembled with anxiety. She was so close, and yet, so far away. Had this really become a rescuing the damsel in distress thing? Yeah, he supposed it had. They were of separate worlds but destined to be together, only a pane of thick glass separating them for now. What he needed was some sort of plan.

Best he could come up with, he went back to the bar fifteen minutes before closing at two in the morning. He was going to buy that beer and wait, but the bartender was cleaning with her back to him, the crowd thin now, so he slipped past her, went to the men’s room, and sat in a stall with his feet up, waiting quietly and hoping nobody was going to check too hard before turning out the lights. They didn’t. A while later the bathroom went dark, and a while after that, Roger felt it might be safe to explore the quiet building. He knew there might be motion detectors that would go off, but he had to take the chance. He expected he might encounter a night watchman too, but again, he must attempt this. With his hand on the wall to keep his bearings, slowly he progressed through the dark, but the main room wasn’t completely black because a dim light glowed from the fish tank. In a room behind the bar, after closing the door behind him, he ventured to turn on the light, and then he saw the ladder leading up the wall to a trap door in the ceiling. That had to be it, so he climbed.

In the crawl space of the attic, he saw the dim glow of the top of the tank, and he crawled over to it. Lying prone, he put his hands on the edge and looked over. In the soft glow of the night light, a shimmer like the cold brightness of a full moon, he saw her drifting as if asleep, and he was happy to see her two legs, the mermaid tail discarded and lying on the bottom. So, it was only a costume then. He was happy about that. His main goal was to rescue her, this he knew, but upon seeing her, other things came to the forefront. He stripped out of his clothes and slinked head first into the tank. He dove down toward her.

When he came to her he touched her shoulder and her eyes opened. She smiled sleepily at him and his heart fluttered. Then his lungs began to complain. He was going to have to surface soon, but he had just found her and could not pull himself away. His lungs burned, but still, he rubbed her shoulder. His vision blurred. He knew he was going to drown, but he didn’t care. His vision tunneled, and then the lights went out. When he awoke, he was with her and he was not breathing, but he was okay with that. They were together, floating in the tank, weightless and ethereal and ever so happy, the ions of his spirit tingling with their excited charge. He knew now what happily ever after meant, and he had to make that happen for real.

* * *

At some later point in time, Roger became aware he was hanging on the side of the tank and he was breathing deeply, taking long greedy pulls of air as if he could not get enough. Eventually, he calmed and then he remembered. He looked down.

She said, “It’s morning. You can’t get caught here. Go on.”

Reluctantly, he knew she was correct. He climbed from the tank with great effort because his muscles were unresponsive. Once out of the tank, he dressed even before he was dry, and then he retraced his steps to the bathroom where he waited. Later, when he heard a person inside and the alarm pad signal with a few beeps, he slipped out, stood against the wall until he was reasonably certain the coast was clear, and then he ran for the front door, but before pushing through he took the chance and looked back once at the tank.

“Thank you for loving me,” said Ingrid, the Lady, “but you’d best not come again. It’s too dangerous.”

“I live for danger,” he said with a laugh. And then he was out.

6

He bought a cup of coffee and headed to the library. By the time he got there it was open, so he went to the periodical room, which in this new city was much the same as in the previous. He had a newspaper folded open on his lap, but his mind was too preoccupied to read. He was disgusted with himself for his weakness. He had come to save the damsel in distress and instead he ended up sleeping with her. He wondered if maybe they could make this work. He’d spend his days hanging around and then late at night he’d hide in the bathroom. There was kind of a romantic tinge to the plot. Lovers separated but coming together clandestinely in the night.

As he thought this, he happened to look up, and just in time. He noticed her right off, before she saw him, but by the way she was moving, he knew she was coming right for him. The woman with the swept back face, high forehead, and straight locks of raven hair, was still dressed in a black crop top and jeans tucked into low black boots. Vivian was on his scent again as if he were a conduit for her magic.

Roger made his way out the back exit of the periodical room and rushed for the main doors, still clutching the folded newspaper in his hand. He ran for several blocks until he was winded, and only then did he look behind him. She was not coming, but that didn’t matter. She knew he was here in town, and that meant his silly dream of being Ingrid’s man on the sly wasn’t going to pan out. He had to do something more dramatic, and he had to do it now. If Vivian was on to him she would either snuff him out or move Ingrid. Yes, whatever he was to do, now was the time.

But what should he do? He felt the anguish of his inability to plan this out. But then again, up until now, nothing had gone to plan. Things had just happened. What Roger needed now was for something to happen. Right or wrong, just happen.

Only then did he notice the paper in his hand. Crap, he’d stolen from the library. This bothered him. True, he had much more on his mind, but this small indiscretion might be a bad omen. With renewed disgust in himself, he tossed the paper to the ground. True, he simply should have returned it, but he wasn’t thinking rationally. He tossed it to the ground in anger, and then he lost it and began kicking at the paper. Yep, he was going over, and he had to get a release. He couldn’t handle this pressure. He kicked the paper and the pages spread open in a fantail. He kicked it again and spread a section out further. He kicked another section, and then a subsection of it, pages flying out and skittering across the sidewalk. People passing by took a wide berth from his tirade. Now with papers spread he began to grind at the individual sheets, rubbing them on the cement with his boot heels, tearing them apart. Kicking and scuffing, he was beginning to tire, his nerves calming with fatigue. Once he stopped, he was breathless and less anxious. His mind was numb and not chastising him for his ridiculousness. That was good. A respite.


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