#BOSK-BL1317-RIVAL

DEAD ON A RIVAL MAKES NO SENSE SO PRETEND THIS STORY IS CALLED SOMETHING ELSE PLEASE

J. J. W. Mezun ☆ Season 2 ☆ 2015 June 1

I

Autumn’s eyes were lost in the carpet as she & Edgar walked down the hallway to their room with a black suitcase in Autumn’s hand. Every few steps Autumn glanced up for just ’nough time to see the # on the door she was passing.

She still couldn’t get her mind off the peculiarity o’ their situation: some short man in a giant mustache claiming to be “Sir Al Arbor” knocks on their apartment door & tells them that they have to evacuate for the next few days so it can be debugged & tells her that a room has been booked for both o’ them here @ the Maple Motel, no charge. Sure ’nough, when they came to ask ’bout it, the staff confirmed what the moustached man had said.

The # “407” caught Autumn’s eyes. However, that # had no consequence to them, for their # was actually “415.” Now, when they reached that door, that was when they stopped & Autumn used the key the staff gave her to open it.

She paused in the threshold, scanning o’er what she could see o’ the room. So far, it appeared to be just an ordinary motel room: a yellow-white bed with a spring popping up from a torn spot in the middle; a short white cooler that Autumn knew not to touch, so as not to be charged an arm & a torso; a li’l TV covered in dust & ants, & with broken glass in the screen due to being shot @ with a rifle, which Autumn surmised probably didn’t get mo’ than basic cable.

However, Autumn knew looks could be deceiving. For instance, she knew that when the motel staff smiled @ her & asked her to have a nice day that they actually couldn’t care less if she had a nice day or a crummy 1—not to mention that ’twas 9 PM. She also knew that this room could be full o’ traps hidden ’neath layers o’ ugly but practical furniture.

’Course, standing still outside her room as if she’d lost motor skills wouldn’t help her figure them out any mo’ swiftly, so she finally entered, Edgar following.

“You want me to put the suitcase ’way?” asked Edgar.

“No, I’ll do it,” she said without looking @ him. “You ne’er know what traps they’ve hatched round here.”

Edgar didn’t reply; ’stead he sat quietly on the bed, staring out the window. ’Twas a beautiful, lazy night—as opposed to all those arrogant nights that race all o’er, showing off their magnificent calves—still in twilight, due to the longer days o’ late summer.

“Hey, d’you think they have free internet?” asked Autumn.

Edgar felt the bed bump under him as the other side weighed down. He turned & saw Autumn sitting down with her laptop on 1 leg, the suitcase on the other, still in her clutch.

“Uh, I guess you’d have to check,” he said.

“I want to check out this ‘Al Arbor.’ He seemed suspicious. Voice didn’t sound like a moustached male @ all. I know how moustached men sound, & they don’t sound like that. Not usually, a’least.”

Edgar nodded. Autumn does know a lot ’bout social signs & all that, it seems; so maybe she does have a reason to be suspicious.

They heard a knock on the door, causing Autumn to look ’bove her monitor with a furtive wince.

“Just as I thought,” she said as she closed her laptop & set it next to her. “They think they’re going to trick us into answering the door just like that, as if only our ordinary friends came by to say hello.” Autumn’s wince became wincier. “Only, we don’t have any friends.”

She got up; but before she went to the door, she turned to Edgar & whispered, “Keep the suitcase safe, OK?”

Edgar nodded & scooted o’er to her spot o’ the bed, feeling the power o’ her authority seeping into him through the warm spot she left. He then began worrying ’bout what disasters he might cause with these new responsibilities. He grasped the handle o’ the suitcase tightly, feeling its tough scaly hide, as if ’twere his baby—’cept he wouldn’t hold any baby that tightly by the handle, ’cause that’d be rude.

Autumn opened the door & saw a short man with a plain, hairless face in the same green uniform the rest o’ the staff wore.

“We don’t want any,” Autumn said ’fore he could speak. “Whatever you have, we don’t want it. E’en if you don’t have it, we probably don’t want it.”

“Sorry to perturb you, Madame, but we just realized we neglected to clean your room. It’ll only take a few minutes to do so.”

“I still don’t want it,” said Autumn. “We’ve slept in the sewers for months; you think we care if our bed has a literal spring loose or is covered in jism from a wild, late-night tryst by some cubicle worker who stopped loving his wife, but is too timid to say anything, much as his wife, who is probably cheating on him with the repairman?”

“It’ll only take a few minutes, Madame.”

“Yeah, it’ll only take a few minutes for you to abscond with our possessions,” Autumn said as she crossed her arms & winced to her eyes’ fullest wincing capabilities.

“Madame, we can assure you we would ne’er do such a thing. We are professionals, after all.”

“I’ll have you know that thieving is an immensely professional career. Not any bum can do it, y’know.”

The attendant ignored her & said, “’Sides, we grant all our customers an insurance that if any o’ their possessions are lost, we will refund them.”

“O, truly? & what if some possessions are nonrefundable? What if, say, that laptop o’er there”—she pointed @ it—“had important work on it that I can’t afford to lose?”

The man shook his head. “We’re sorry, Madame, but we’ve gotta clean this room ’fore the bed bugs evolve into carpet critters & truly become a nightmare. By the way, we’re also going to have to scrub your laptop to make sure it doesn’t have any bed-bug cooties on it. Did you sit on that bed?”

“What if I did?”

He shook his head ’gain. “We’ll have to give you a change o’ clothes & wash yours. We simply can’t have you going round spreading those bed-bug cooties.”

Autumn closed the door without a word. She turned back for the bed & said with a limp wave o’ her hand, “’Twas nobody. Just a religious nut trying to sell us eternal salvation & a condo by the Fountainhead.”

But her solution was impertinently foiled when the man dared to knock on her door ’gain.

What a dick, she thought: knocking on our door all night as if that were its purpose—to be manhandled by his germy knuckles.

“Just ignore it,” Autumn said as she sat down next to Edgar, leaning into her laptop & continuing her research.

To Autumn’s relief, the knocking ’ventually ceased & they had peace once mo’.

“Well, I can’t find anything on this ‘Al Arbor.’ I have a feeling he fabricated the name so he can scam us. We must be on high alert.”

Edgar nodded, not knowing how else he should respond.

“So, what should we do now to pass the time?” Autumn asked as she closed her laptop.

“Dinner?” said Edgar.

“Hmm… To be honest, I don’t know if I can trust the food round here,” said Autumn. “You ne’er know what treachery that ‘Al Arbor’ guy or that guy who knocked on our door might be hatching. I don’t trust any o’ them.”

“We could always go to a restaurant.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Autumn. “Just make sure you take everything with you.”

“E’en the stuff that isn’t ours?”

“’Specially.”

So they went off, Edgar now carrying their suitcase while Autumn carried the bed o’er her back, with the television set in 1 arm & the lamp in the other.

“Um… You need help with some o’ that?” Edgar asked as they went down the hall.

“No: I have it covered.”

As they walked down the lobby, the receptionist—who Autumn noticed was someone completely different now—stared @ her, wide-eyed.

“Uh… Madame… You need help with that?”

Autumn aimed a chary eye @ her.

“So you can pocket them? Nice try, Madame, but I wasn’t born a week & a half ago. I wouldn’t be able to talk yet if I were.”

“Uh, you know we offer a bed & a TV here. You don’t need to bring your own,” said the staff member, her expression growing mo’ uneasy.

“It’s a religious thing,” Autumn said quickly ’fore going out the door.

They were surprised when they saw that the Rock Lobster was still round; but when they sat @ their usual spot in the corner, they saw that Dawn was gone, the waiter now being a short man in a tuxedo with short, middle-parted brown hair.

“Either she must’ve sold it or it automatically reverted to 1 o’ the debt holders,” Autumn said to Edgar as she watched the waiter walk o’er to their table. “Mo’ likely the former.”

The waiter stopped @ their table & said into his notepad, “What can I do for you today?” only to have his attention snatched by the bed still on Autumn’s back & the TV set sitting on the side o’ the table. “Madame, I’m ’fraid you can’t bring those in here.”

“What? What kind o’ shoddy business you running here?” said Autumn. “When that woman in the strange jacket owned this place, she would let us do this—hell, she’d let people do anything; she was a terrible owner. That was what made her so great.”

The waiter blinked @ her ’fore continuing, “I’m sorry, Madame, but rules are rules.”

Autumn grumbled. “Can we a’least get a meal to go 1st?”

The waiter nodded. “We can definitely do that. What would you like?”

“Just a bowl o’ Ramen noodles & a cup o’ water, please.”

The waiter twisted his eyebrows @ Autumn. She could read them as the “Mmm… Look @ your pedestrian clothes, with their smelliness or their holes that reveal other clothes that probably shouldn’t be seen in public.” She wanted to rip those eyebrows off.

“I’m ’fraid we don’t serve Ramen noodles here, Madame.”

Autumn crossed her arms. “Well, what’s the cheapest meal you do serve?”

“We have an exquisite garlic cake for only 400₧1.”

“400₧? I could probably get a garlic cake for a quarter o’ that @ the Hundred Tree. Make it 200₧.”

“I’m sorry, Madame, but we don’t haggle here.”

“Whatever. Just go get it.”

The waiter wrote this in his pad. “Got it. I’ll get it to you in a jiffy.”

“A whole jiffy, huh?” murmured Autumn. “The woman in the jacket would’ve done it in only half a jiffy, 2 moments, & an instant.”

Autumn turned to Edgar. “I don’t trust this waiter. Who would shampoo their hair down & wear such a nice suit @ a craphole like this?”

“You think the waiter’s trying to steal your stuff, too?” asked Edgar.

“No… No, that’d be contrived,” Autumn said as she stared down @ the red-stained table surface, ruminating o’er the idea. “I think he’s probably just trying to o’ercharge us.”

The waiter returned with a Styrofoam box & a paper cup & set it down in front o’ Autumn with the bill. Autumn quickly paid the bill, though not without grumbling ’bout the steep price.

She turned to Edgar. “Could you carry my food for me, please. My hands are full.”

So they left, Autumn dragging the bed, TV, & lamp all the way back to their motel room. This time the woman @ the counter didn’t say anything, trying to keep her focus fully on the computer in front o’ her & ’way from the crazy lady.

When Autumn entered their room, the 1st thing she did was examine everything for any sign o’ tampering. This was how she confirmed that someone had searched their room, hoping to abscond with their possessions: she soon discovered a few dark gray hairs lying ’long the carpet, 1 near the closet, ’nother near the nightstand, & a 3rd near a tacky potted plant in the corner.

“Are you sure these weren’t left ’hind by guests who were here before us?” asked Edgar.

“I examined this room when we 1st entered, remember,” Autumn said as she picked a hair up with tweezers & dropped it in a plastic bag. “I know I ne’er saw any black hairs.”

Autumn put the bed, TV, & lamp back in their proper places & sat on the bed. Edgar joined her & handed her her meal, which she ate while trying to think o’ the best way to keep their property safe during the night.

They obviously have a key to this room, so the lock is virtually useless.

Then ’gain, she knew she was usually a light sleeper, able to wake @ the slightest disturbance. She’d just keep the briefcase with her in bed.

As she sucked on her drink, she noticed it didn’t taste much like water; ’twas much thicker & milkier. Is this some rich-person water? she wondered. Is this why they charged me so much? Cheap asses.

She wasn’t sure if ’twas due to her stomach being refilled or carrying that heavy bed round the city, but she soon found her nerves murmuring with exhaustion, causing her to slide down into a lying position. Her eyes repeatedly blinked, struggling to stay open.

Edgar saw this & asked, “You want me to turn out the light?”

“Yeah, I s’pose,” Autumn said in a large yawn. Then she turned to her side—knocking the now-empty food box onto the floor—& closed her eyes. Consciousness fully slipped ’way only a few seconds later.

II

Autumn woke to gentle nudging on her side & whispering. After a few seconds, she recognized the voice as Edgar’s, saying, “Autumn! Wake up!”

She blinked her eyes open & sat up, rubbing the side o’ her face. It took her a while to remember why she was sleeping in this foreign room.

But the next thing she noticed was much mo’ pressing: the room appeared to be so bright, despite the lights being out, that she turned to the window & saw the sun blazing near the top o’ the sky.

“What time is it?” she muttered as she wiggled the glasses on her nose in pain.

Augh. Forgot to take my glasses off ’fore sleeping ’gain.

Edgar answered, “It’s almost noon, but that’s not important—”

“Why did I sleep in so long?” mumbled Autumn.

“Autumn, our suitcase is gone!”

Autumn’s eyes widened, sobered to full consciousness now. She scrambled round the bed, lifting pillows & sheets, searching for the suitcase.

Edgar only shook his head as Autumn peered under the bed.

“I already checked: it’s gone.”

Autumn put her hands on her frazzled head. “I don’t understand. I should’ve woke if somebody broke in & stole it… Then ’gain, I shouldn’t have o’erslept, either.”

Autumn gasped. “Wait…”

Then she stuffed hands in her pockets & Edgar noticed, to his fear, that her pupils dilate.

Next she checked the secret pockets in her skirt, her shoes, & her socks. They were all empty.

“This is impossible!” said Autumn, clutching the head o’ the bed as if she were ’bout to faint. “How could I sleep through someone digging round my clothes, considering all the time it must’ve taken them to e’en discover some o’ my hiding places?”

“You did really conk out last night,” Edgar said timidly, wringing his hands round.

“Yeah, but that’s no different from the many other times I…”

Autumn’s eyes gazed round the room, searching for clues, only for them to latch onto the cup o’ water still on her nightstand. She picked it up, opened its lid, & sniffed it. It had a milky smell that fit its taste.

“No…” she said as she continued to stare @ the cup. “They couldn’t have. Why would the Rock Lobster be in on this… ’Less this motel & the Rock Lobster are both owned by the same people? How high up is this conspiracy?”

“What’s wrong?” asked Edgar.

Autumn sat on the bed ’gain, holding her aching head in her hands.

“OK, let’s consider this carefully, so we don’t allow our paranoia to tamper with the evidence,” Autumn muttered to herself. “How likely is it that they laced my water with sleep medicine?”

“What? Is that why you fell into such a deep sleep?” Edgar asked as he crawled o’er to her side o’ the bed.

Autumn paused, staring @ the cup & rubbing her chin.

“There’s only 1 way to find out…”

She reached for the cup & put it to her mouth, only for Edgar to stop her.

“Wait. You should have me drink it,” he said as he reached for the cup. “If you fall asleep ’gain we’ll be mo’ vulnerable than if I do.”

“Yeah, but what if it doesn’t work on skeletons?” asked Autumn.

“Then you can try it to be extra sure,” said Edgar.

Autumn couldn’t argue with that logic, so she handed the cup to Edgar.

“Don’t drink too much o’ it, though. I only took a few slurps, & look @ how it affected me.”

“I’ll try only a few & if it doesn’t work I’ll try mo’.”

“Good idea,” Autumn said with a nod.

But this was unnecessary, for only a few seconds after Edgar took a few slurps, his body slumped in tiredness & his head buzzed with drowsiness, & he soon couldn’t keep himself from lying down & sleeping.

Autumn nudged Edgar’s arm. “Edgar? You asleep?”

There was no answer.

She throttled his arm harder. “Edgar?” Then she leaned forward with her hands funneling her mouth & shouted, “Hello!”

Edgar still did not stir.

“Well, that answers that,” Autumn muttered to herself.

III

When Edgar ’woke ’gain, he saw 2 things: 1, the sun hanging high outside the window showed that ’twas late afternoon, & 2, Autumn was gone.

In the beginning he began to panic a li’l, till he noticed the note left on the nightstand telling him that she was having Dawn examine something & that he should stay—she’d be back soon.

Since Edgar had nothing better to do—well, other than watch talk shows wherein guests hit each other with metal folding chairs—he decided to do a bit o’ investigating himself in the motel.

He started downstairs, telling the clerk—the same clerk as last night—that someone had stolen their stuff last night.

“I told you you shouldn’t have brought it,” said she. “What was wrong with the bed, TV, & lamp we offered?” Edgar could hear the bitterness in her voice.

“No, uh, not that—our briefcase is missing. & Autumn’s money. Someone picked her pockets.”

“Did you lock your door?”

“Well, yeah, but Autumn said it didn’t matter ’cause they have a key.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Uh… I don’t know. I guess the people who robbed us.”

“How does she know they have a key?”

Edgar shrugged. “Well, I mean, they got in, didn’t they?”

The receptionist scratched her head.

“Gee, this sure is a bothersome itch.”

She dropped her hand & continued, “Anyway, I’m ’fraid there’s nothing we can do to help you. You should be mo’ careful with your possessions.”

“But, uh… 1 o’ your staff, when he asked to clean our room, said that you guys offered some insurance policy to make up for the loss, right?”

The receptionist squinted @ Edgar. She’d left her glasses @ home today, & thus had trouble seeing.

“I’m ’fraid we do not offer such a policy, nor do we clean guests’ rooms while they still use them. I can offer you a # you can call if you need further assistance.”

“Uh… no, that’s OK. Sorry to bug you.” Edgar waved as tepidly as a leaf & left.

Well, that went nowhere, he thought as he headed back to his room. I guess I could look for some other staff member, but they’d probably be e’en less likely to help; & I doubt I could e’er get through to the # the receptionist offered.

Edgar sighed. No, I should’ve known this’d fail. After all, wouldn’t Autumn have thought o’ it already? She probably did & already guessed the reasons why it wouldn’t work.

Still blue in the mood, & still without else to do, Edgar sat on the bed & watched a show wherein a bunch o’ radio personnel laughed @ celebrities for criminally weighing too much or having sex a lot. It only took a few minutes for Edgar to develop the urge to hang himself, so he leaned forward to turn the TV off, only to be interrupted by the door opening.

“I figured out the culprit,” Autumn said as she burst in.

Laughter emitted from the television, followed by a voice saying, “Pretty soon she’ll have adopted all o’ Ethiopia.”

Autumn turned to the TV with a sour stare.

“What kind o’ garbage are you watching?”

“Ne’er mind that,” Edgar said as he hastily turned the TV off. “Who took it? Was it the guy pretending to be a room cleaner?”

With the TV’s racket gone, Autumn turned back to Edgar & answered, “No… Wait, that guy was a fake?”

“That’s what the receptionist said,” said Edgar, breathless with excitement. “She also said they don’t offer any insurance for lost items.”

“Cheap asses,” murmured Autumn. “Anyway, I had the hairs tested & they matched someone named ‘Heloise Solstice,’ whoever that is.”

“That’s that witch we worked for, remember?”

“No.”

“Remember? We were supposed to capture some golden egg for her, but you tried to stiff her, so she locked us in a jar… Hey, how did we e’er get out o’ there, anyway?”

“I don’t remember anything like that happening e’er. You must’ve just dreamt that,” Autumn said with a wave o’ her hand. “Anyway, we need to track her down so I can get my loot back & show that finch why stealing from me is a bad idea.”

IV

’Course, Autumn couldn’t teach her thief till she determined where the cackling asschasm was. This thief was smarter than Autumn expected, since she seemed to leave no records on the internet regarding her location—a’least, Autumn couldn’t find any.

“Maybe we should just let it go,” Edgar said slowly & unevenly as if his words tread bumps.

“I’m ’fraid that’s impossible,” Autumn said without turning her head ’way from her laptop. “My reputation’s on the grill here. Nobody steals from me; it should be the other way round.”

“Well, then what’re you gonna do?”

“I have an idea, but it might be a byte extreme…”

“Which means you’ll ’specially want to do it,” said Edgar.

“If you want, I can leave you here to watch more o’ that riveting show you were watching.”

“No, I want to go. What is it?”

“Well, I know for sure that the government has this kind o’ record—”

“Surely you’re not thinking—”

“So, my plan was to sneak into a nearby police station to steal them,” said Autumn. “Since these police are, let’s be blunt, not the brightest bolts, it shouldn’t be too hard. I mean, there’s a reason they’ve yet to catch me, despite my other crimes.”

They aimed straight for the police station, dodging treacherous shoe salesmen, stumbling drunks, & some evangelist peddling a cult called the “Heavenly Republic” & warning ’bout some heretic in a green jacket.

They premiered with the perfect stealth plot: Autumn stood in front o’ the front door & knocked.

The door opened, ’hind which was a woman with curly hair & thick black shades. On her jacket was a nametag that said “Captain Margaret Napoleon.”

“Hello there, kids. Here to turn yourselves in for vandalism?”

Autumn extracted a notepad & pencil from her pockets. “’Scuse me, Madame, but I’m an up-&-coming journalist, & I just wanted to ask if I could see a tour o’ the area for a practice paper.”

“Ah, I understand,” Captain Napoleon said with a nod.

Then she shut the door. Autumn could hear the click o’ a lock from the other side.

Autumn started biting her fist. “Hmm… Not 1 o’ my better plans.”

V

“Don’t you think this is a li’l extreme?” asked Edgar.

“Don’t be goofy,” said Autumn. “What’d be extreme’d be me letting that thief get the best o’ me. Now come.”

She squeezed glue onto a pipe & plugged the pipe into the rest o’ the mechanism. ’Twas the last o’ the glue in the bottle, so she tossed the bottle ’hind her into a mountain o’ the others. While she did this, Edgar stood back & goggled @ the complex contraption.

Autumn rose & rubbed the grease from her hands to her skirt.

“OK, I think we’re ready.”

As they walked back to the front o’ the police station, Edgar asked, “What does that thing do?”

“You’ll see.”

She knocked & saw the curly-haired police officer from before.

“Say, didn’t I slam the door on you 2 before?” asked Captain Napoleon.

“Nope, that was our 2nd cousins.”

Napoleon nodded. “O, OK.”

Autumn poked a thumb o’ershoulder. “We want to show you something.”

“Well, I do like looking @ things…” Napoleon scratched her chin, which for some reason kept itching. “Well, OK.”

She followed Autumn & Edgar round the building to the back. There Autumn stopped & pointed @ the mad mechanism she’d crafted earlier: a tightly-wound mound o’ rusty gray pipes, dry red & brown bricks, carefully crushed pop cans, & objects the officer couldn’t e’en identify.

Captain Napoleon tipped her shades up & stepped closer.

“Wow, that is amazing. How did you make that thing?”

She waited for a response. When she didn’t get 1, she looked round & saw that the other 2 were gone.

“Hey, where did you 2 go?” She scratched her head--not out o’ itchiness this time; she just figured that’s what you did in situations like these.

She turned her head when she heard a crash to her right & saw a maroon sedan’s front embedded in a mountain o’ white plastic glue bottles.

The driver hung his head out his window & raised a rumbling fist. “Bastard teens! Now they’re leaving their crap in my way when I drive, too? Why’re they all gainst me?”

The officer stared @ the mess with eyes wrinkled in consternation when she was suddenly spooked by a light tapping on her shoulder. She 360’d, expecting to see the ghostly manifestation o’ all her regrets. ’Stead, she saw Officer Murphy.

“’Scuse me if I’m interrupting something, Captain, but I just wanted to confirm this young woman’s claim that she had permission to have all our files.” Murphy’s bushy brown mustache twiddled as he talked.

Captain Napoleon paused for a second, scrutinizing Murphy as her fuzzy head tried to understand what the hell he was talking ’bout, only for the pieces to all crash together in her head.

She threw her hands up to her head. “You fumbler! You fumbled it all!”

She rushed back to the station. Murphy hung back, scratching his head--he’d seen the other officers doing it, so he thought he’d do it to look cool--as he watched the space Captain Napoleon had ran ’way from.

Captain Napoleon reached the front o’ the station just in time to see a red-ponytailed woman crossing the street with a cardboard box full o’ papers in her arms. Napoleon stopped, facing the ponytailed woman with a hand on her forehead, only to see the li’l robed skeleton scamper after her.

She funnelled her mouth with her hands & shouted, “Stop, scoundrel! You are flouting 1 o’ the deepest o’ civil laws!”

But she knew it’d do no good—telling criminals to stop criminalizing ne’er worked, for some reason. Usually she just bugged them by chewing saliva loudly or holding her finger near them & saying, “I’m not touching you…” repeatedly till they collapsed in cries & gave up; but this didn’t seem like a scenario compatible with such tactics.

Captain Napoleon returned to her desk with her head hanging in her arms, ruing all her life’s problems, such as the need to keep up her father’s honor or just how this chapter’s perspective somehow switched from the ponytailed woman’s to hers so sneakily.

VI

The mountain looked like an ice cream mix o’ chocolate & mint, with dry rock on 1 side suddenly melting into a grassy hill. Science had no explanation for said phenomenon—a common occurrence, the postmodernists say, for we do live in merely an illusionary world. She specifically built her home here decades ago for this very scenery; a humble but comfortable home hand-made from wood o’ various colors so that her house was erratically splotched with reds, browns, & grays.

Inside she sat @ her red plastic LEGO table, drinking her steaming cup o’ Boskeopoleon brunch tea, as she did every late afternoon. She animated a plastic Velociraptor in 1 hand & a Togepi doll in the other, reenacting “The Great Battle on the Rainbow Road” as she wrote in Discussions o’ the Matters Involving Greater Public Participation in Heavenly Affairs, the book o’ her made-up religion.

Said reenactment was interrupted by a door knock—a 1st in many years. She couldn’t e’en remember the last time someone had come by.

Ne’ertheless, she had expected this 1.

She slowly got up with her mug still in-hand & padded o’er to the door in her fuzzy pink slippers, hearing the knocks become heavier & heavier the longer she took.

’Ventually, she opened the door. As she’d expected, the frowning young woman in the “PHAT LOOT” T-shirt was standing on the other side, ’long with her timid skeleton friend. A second after, she saw the young woman’s sour glare twist into an expression somewhat less sour & much mo’ muddled. Heloise smiled, e’en though she knew they wouldn’t be able to see it from ’hind her orange avian mask.

Autumn’s frown deepened ’gain. “So I caught you already preparing for ’nother scheme, eh?” She pushed her way forward into Heloise’s house.

“Be my guest, please,” Heloise said ’fore taking ’nother sip o’ tea under her mask. She watched Edgar politely slide past her.

“Are you prepared to return my property you pilfered or will I have to repossess some o’ your possessions to e’en the score?” Autumn asked as she swung her attention round the living room.

“You sure don’t waste time with your lines, Madame,” said Heloise. “You didn’t e’en ’splain my crimes yet.”

“We can flip the checkerboard already, Madame. Though you may have mistakenly thought I was such a sucker that you could simply slip in with your cute masks & slip ’way without me e’er finding you, I’m sad to say I’m not such a sucker. I didn’t get where I am now by being robbed whenever I turn my back.”

Heloise nodded. “I’m sure you didn’t.”

“So, will you show me where you’re keeping my property & convenience us both?”

“What property?”

Autumn held her arms akimbo. “OK, so I s’pose you will play stupid then. Tell me, then: why did I find a strand o’ your hair in my motel room this morn?”

“O, Madame, surely you’re not so na├»ve that you didn’t know ’twas I who was all o’ those people—the man who tried to clean your room, the man @ the counter, the man who sent you to the motel itself. It’s rather obvious.”

Edgar’s fearful face vacillated ’tween Autumn & Heloise. Though Autumn’s expression was still calm, Heloise could see the dormant fury it contained.

“OK… Sure. I didn’t know that already,” said Autumn. “Then tell me, what you were doing in my room? Have a bullshit alibi for that?”

Heloise took a long sip o’ her tea, savoring it in her mouth as she watched Autumn’s patience drain from her face.

“’Less you count ‘stealing your suitcase’ as an alibi, no.”

Autumn nodded. “So you admit it, then? Thank you for wasting all our time.”

Heloise smiled @ Autumn. “You’re welcome.”

“OK, so where is it?”

“O, why it’s o’er on that table right there,” Heloise said as she pointed to Autumn’s side.

“I’ve already looked round this whole—bullshit.” Autumn had turned just to humor Heloise, only to now see her suitcase, indeed, on a desk gainst the wall, right where Heloise was pointing.

“That wasn’t there before, but whatever,” Autumn said as she strode o’er to it. “Some subtle illusionist trick, I surmise.”

“I have quite a few other tricks, too, if you’re interested.”

“I’m not,” Autumn said as she started searching the briefcase.

She went o’er it a few mo’ times ’fore saying, “My cash is missing.”

“That’s ’cause I took it out.”

“Well, return it,” Autumn said as she waved the top half o’ her hand back & forward @ Heloise.

“I don’t have it.”

“Where is it then,” Autumn asked as she turned her head to Heloise with irritation.

That was when she noticed Heloise slowly backing up toward the wall ’hind her.

& that was when she felt the floor below her disappear. She looked down to see an airy black square below her.

“Ah, crap,” Autumn murmured to her feet ’fore gravity inevitable punched in, plummeting her into the abyss.

VII

Autumn discovered herself tied in a chair, her wrists handcuffed ’hind her, her ankles tied to the front legs o’ her chair, & bizarrely, a small baby blue blanket o’er her lap. She couldn’t remember this happening; everything after falling down the trapdoor was a fog.

Nor did she recognize the strange room she was in, with walls covered in watercolors, pencil drawings that appeared to her to be just a bunch o’ incomprehensible blobs o’ color, & shelves stuffed with mysterious cans & boxes without labels.

As she examined her environs, she saw Edgar in the same predicament she was in, minus the strange blanket.

“Edgar, do you know where we are?” she whispered.

Edgar looked down in shame. “I didn’t want to cause any… conflict or anything, so I just let her tie me up… I’m sorry.”

“Did she e’er say what this blanket here’s for?” Autumn asked as she raised a knee to tip it up.

“She said ’twas for, um… modesty.”

Autumn nodded. “Yes, it’s important not to peek @ one’s knickers ’fore butchering them. We must be civil, after all.”

They both turned their heads to the staircase when they heard a voice emerge from just ’bove it:

“O, good, she’s awakened,” Heloise said as she stepped in with a tray holding 2 bowls o’ soup. “I hope you 2 aren’t too uncomfortable.”

Autumn stared sourly @ Heloise.

“& what do you think you’re doing with us, you screwjob?”

“Bringing you your dinner,” Heloise said as she set the tray on Autumn’s lap. “See, the blanket also makes a superful soup-bowl pad.” She picked up the spoon, full o’ orange tomato broth. “’Course, since your arms are… unusable for now, I should have to deliver the spoonfuls for you. Say ‘ahhh.’”

Autumn bumped her knees up, knocking the tray o’er. Unfortunately, she failed to knock it forward as she’d intended, tipping it o’er toward her & spilling the bowl on her. She winced in pain as she felt the boiling liquid spread o’er her legs & stomach.

Heloise stepped back & shook her head with her hands on her sides.

“That’s not how you eat soup.”

Autumn opened her eyes & stared @ Heloise with a calm look, as if they had just had a mere business transaction.

“The second I break out o’ here—& I will—I… You’ll wish I didn’t.”

“Here, I’ll help you clean that up,” Heloise said as she began rubbing the blanket gainst Autumn’s lap.

“Yeah, that’s—”

Heloise looked up @ Autumn. “See, it also makes a good towel.”

“Yeah, that’s OK. You can stop now,” said Autumn, looking ’way awkwardly. She wasn’t sure if the fact that she couldn’t see Heloise’s face made it mo’ or less awkward.

“You sure?” Heloise asked as she stepped back.

Autumn nodded solemnly.

Heloise raised a finger. “I know you’ll probably sigh @ me, but you know, if you had mo’ covering, it wouldn’t have burned so much.”

Autumn glanced @ Edgar. If she could control her hands, she’d spin a finger round her ear.

Heloise continued, “Anyway, who wants to watch the epic ‘Battle o’ the Bridge under Tear Clouds’?”

Autumn squinted, scrutinizing Heloise.

“What the hell you talking ’bout?”

Heloise clasped her hands together.

“Perfect! I’ll go set it up.”

& with that Heloise scampered back out the door, leaving Autumn to gape @ the empty space wherein Heloise used to be.

Autumn sat back with an uneasy frown. “We are clearly @ mercy o’ someone dwelling in the apex o’ insanity.”

VIII

“‘You shall ne’er pass, you heathen! The lord’s superior wisdom will crush you all!’” Heloise said in a deepened voice as she shook a big blue gorilla toy @ a Ninja Turtle action figure.

“‘Your tyrannical god shall fall to the superior justice o’ the republic!’” she said in a nasally voice as she wobbled the Ninja Turtle toy.

Autumn lay back as much as she could while still locked in her seat, her head tilted & her eyes glazed. Meanwhile, Edgar’s face grew wrinkles as he watched the feverish scene play out in front o’ him.

@ 1st Autumn saw only the gains in Madame Solstice’s inane display: it distracted Heloise so much that she didn’t pay any attention to what Autumn & Edgar were doing, allowing Autumn to sneak into her back pocket & get out her cell so she could text the police.

Hopefully they won’t be too bitter ’bout that whole pilfering all their files peccadillo…

& @ 1st, Autumn had attempted to spend her time thinking o’ ways to ’scape or moneymaking schemes she could try when she ’ventually did ’scape, but found she couldn’t think with the loud distraction in front o’ her; so ’stead, she sufficed with staring round her surroundings, feeding her mind with insipid activities, such as counting ceiling tiles.

She tried this for almost a half hour ’fore she came to a depressing realization: the ceiling didn’t e’en have tiles!

She groaned. “Is this nonsense almost finished?”

Heloise continued her play as if she hadn’t heard Autumn.

Autumn leaned forward. “Hey, crazy masked lady. You have ears?”

Heloise had the Ninja Turtle toy tipped back in her hand while the tiger figure in her other hand leaned o’er it.

“‘No, this can’t be it! You can’t die! Not yet!’” she said in a high-pitched croon.

She tepidly shook the Ninja Turtle toy.

“‘I… I’m not important… The revolution… Always think o’ the revolution… It is through that that we will live eternally…’” she said in a deep, scratchy tone.

“Augh. Ne’er mind,” grunted Autumn.

She attempted to sleep, but couldn’t get in a comfortable position in her infernal chair. The best she could do was hang her head forward o’er her chest like a vulture, which caused the back o’ her neck to ache after a while.

As the hours piled, she became increasingly restless, with the same thought pounding in her head, Where are those idiot cops already? I texted them hours ago!

4 hours later—after 5 false endings & a musical scene Autumn thought had far o’erstayed its welcome, all o’ which were interspersed with insipid commercials for sugar-saturated cereal & exploitive for-profit colleges—Heloise finally ended her story with the victorious republicans hopping up & down in cheer. Then she buried all o’ the toys under the table & brought out a pile o’ cards, flipping through them 1-by-1, aiming them @ Autumn & Edgar. The cards listed off a litany o’ obscure cinematic jobs, such as “Best Grip” or “Catering,” all o’ which were attributed to Heloise Solstice. Autumn was speechless—Edgar was, too; but then, he always was, anyway—as she gazed with unbelieving ire @ each card with heavy sighs.

Finally, Heloise dropped all o’ the cards, looked directly @ Autumn & Edgar for the 1st time since she started her play, & asked, “So, what do you guys think? Do you think it could win a Meyer?”

Edgar looked timidly @ Autumn, expecting mo’ uncomfortable conflict.

Autumn closed her eyes & took a deep breath ’fore saying, “Why did you waste our time with that moronic tripe?”

“Uh, Autumn…” said Edgar.

“No, no, no,” said Autumn, shaking her head ’long with each word. “That story was objectively terrible—so much that it would take hours just to explain all o’ its flaws. Let me start by pointing out that 4 hours was far too long for the content & that you relied heavily on filler, when cutting your play down to only 2 hours would’ve improved it immensely. Your casting is absolutely ridiculous: I hadn’t realized God was a hand, Satan was the Noid, or that dinosaurs, anthropomorphic eggs, & 1 o’ the Ninja Turtles were angels. Would it’ve killed you to go out & buy a few authentic angel toys? Are they truly that rare? & don’t think I was so stupid as to not notice you doing every voice, making them all sound the same. I actually closed my eyes during most o’ the story—hoping to ignore it, ’cause ’twas dreadful—& I literally couldn’t tell 1 character from ’nother, they sounded that similar. You could’ve a’least given each character her own speech patterns. & speaking o’ stupidity, the viewer would have to be lobotomized not to notice the millions o’ plot holes. For god’s sake, 1 o’ the prorepublican angels was in 2 different battles that were later revealed to have taken place @ the same time! Do angels have special warping skills or abilities to bend time? & this is for a story that was nothing but battle after battle after battle, with only a basic info dump explaining why this war was e’en happening. Apparently Satan was the 1st one to consider that letting 1 guy rule everyone arbitrarily might be a bad idea, & only after an immediate epiphany out o’ nowhere that immediately leads him to work tirelessly to o’erthrow God, without e’en a question as to the risks. Anyone with e’en an elementary-school level o’ political or historical education would know that this is not how political movements work @ all.

“& that’s only a few errors I found in that dreck; but I’ll stop here, or else we’ll be here all day.”

She’d expected Heloise’s eyes to bulge & for her to charge @ them, tearing them apart.

’Stead, Heloise merely bowed her head slightly & said, “Thank you for your honest words. ’Scuse me,” & then turned & went out the door.

Autumn turned to Edgar & said, “OK, so it looks like we’d better devise a way to scape quickly ’fore she does something truly danger—shit.”

She stopped when she heard the door open ’gain. Heloise walked in with a suitcase that looked just like Autumn’s & sat it in front o’ her. Then she walked ’hind her.

Autumn tilted her head o’er her shoulder as much as she could.

To her shock, she felt the handcuffs on her wrists loosen. She moved her hands & discovered that they were free. She pulled them in front o’ her & gazed @ them in marvel, only for her attention to be snatched ’way by the loosening o’ the ropes on her ankles.

Throughout all o’ this the same thought hung on her mind: What is she doing?

When Heloise finished, she stood & stepped back, clapping her hands together dramatically, as if the ordeal had caused dust to cover them. Autumn also stood, amazed by her ability to do so after so long.

Before Autumn could do anything mo’, Heloise picked up the suitcase & handed it to her. This only fed her confusion.

This did not seem to bother Heloise a byte. She simply said, “All the money I confiscated from your various pockets is in there. You can count if you want.” She pointed a thumb @ Edgar. “Do you want me to release your skeletal friend, too, or do you want to do that?”

“What are you doing?” asked Autumn.

Heloise shook her head & tsk-tsked.

“1st she complains ’bout being robbed & locked up, now she complains ’bout being freed. Critics, you can ne’er please them.”

“You truly expect me to be fooled by this obvious trap?” asked Autumn.

“’Fraid there’s no trap anymo’, Madame,” said Heloise. “I only needed you here to critique my play. I’m such a solitary person, you know, have no friends who will do it, so I had to find ’nother way to carry it out. I’m sorry if I was rude in doing so; I’m not very good in social situations, which is why I stay solitary. I hope you understand.”

Autumn shook her head. “No. No, I don’t understand. This makes no sense @ all.”

Heloise picked up 1 o’ Autumn’s hands & gently patted it.

“Well, thank you, anyway, Madame. ’Twas a pleasure meeting you. I actually wouldn’t mind having tea with you some morn—though I’m sure you would, I can imagine.” She chuckled & turned to Edgar. “Anyway, your friend must be freed.”

Autumn stood back & watched Heloise closely, waiting any minute for a trap to emerge. But none e’er did. There was no trap when Heloise released Edgar from his chair, there was no trap when Heloise offered them dinner & Autumn declined, there was no trap when she led them back out to her front door, & there was no trap when they walked ’way from the house in the warm summer night. Autumn had e’en made a quick scan o’ the briefcase, expecting 1 last screw-you to be found inside; but when she rifled through it, she saw that all o’ her stuff was indeed inside, including the sum o’ all o’ the money Autumn had held in her pockets.

It bothered Autumn so much that she expected a trap to come up throughout the entire long walk back to their apartment. But if there was 1, ’twas the stealthiest trap e’er devised, for Autumn had noticed nothing wrong happening throughout their whole peaceful walk—& that was what was wrong!

“She couldn’t have done all that just so we could critique her idiotic play—only my doing so, & doing so immensely negatively, @ that,” muttered Autumn.

“Well, you did say she was crazy…” said Edgar.

“It’s just not right,” Autumn murmured as she shook her head. “I ought to go back & demand she tie us back up & do it right.”

“Must we?” asked Edgar. “It’s getting awfully late.”

He looked up @ the bright moon & was startled to see that it all o’ a sudden had a sour face, aimed down @ some unlucky people. It must’ve noticed Edgar looking @ it, for it suddenly turned its glare @ Edgar.

& that was when they both learned that they’d both be inflicted with the most horrible o’ curses for eons.