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Touchy and Feely
By Graham Masterton
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2011 Graham Masterton
All rights reserved.
Two Storms Coming
Sissy stepped out into the yard and lit her first cigarette for two days. She was trying to quit, but while she was waiting for Mina Jessop to show up she had read her own fortune and the cards had given her a warning that she had never seen before.
Two storms coming, both at once.
Mr Boots her black Labrador jostled past her and bounded out onto the grass. He lifted his leg against the leafless cherry tree, and shook himself, and then he stood still, listening, looking around. Occasionally he glanced toward Sissy, as if he expected her to explain what was happening.
Her yard was sheltered by a steep slope and a stand of tall fir trees, but all around her she could hear the wind getting up, and the first few flakes of snow came whirling down and settled on her shawl. The wind was whispering and rustling everywhere, like ghosts in other rooms. She couldn't hear any traffic, or dogs barking. She felt as if she were the only person in Litchfield County left alive.
She drew deeply at her cigarette and blew out smoke through her nose. She didn't really enjoy smoking outside, but she was expecting Trevor to come around at four o'clock and she couldn't stand his disapproving sniffing.
Trevor disapproved of everything about her. He disapproved of her wild white hair, and the odd collection of art-nouveau pins she used to fasten it into a bun. He disapproved of her long black dresses and her lace-up boots and her layers of multicolored hand-knitted sweaters. He disapproved of her dangly silver earrings and all the silver necklaces she wore.
'You look like a fortune-teller, momma, from a traveling carnival,' he told her.
And yes, she supposed she did. But she was a fortune-teller. She could read people's tea-leaves and see at once if they were going to be happy. She could look at the palms of their hands, and see how well they were loved. She could sometimes coax a ouija board into giving her a garbled message from beyond, A JNE WEDNIG. Her specialty, though, was the DeVane cards, a rare pack printed in France in the eighteenth century, almost twice the size of the Tarot, more like table mats than playing cards. They were called 'The Cards of Love,' and when she was laying them out, Sissy could almost taste the various sweetnesses of human affection. As sickly as syrup, sometimes; or tinged with bitterness, like blood.
Occasionally, however, the DeVane cards predicted that something bad was going to happen. They could warn you if your illicit love affair was about to be blighted by an unexpected diagnosis of cancer; or if you might be paralyzed in a car-wreck, or ski slap-bang into a tree. They could tell you if your friends were saying vicious things about you, behind your back, or if your husband was making love to a girl who was barely out of orthodontic braces.
This afternoon, when she had laid out her cards on the coffee table, Sissy had turned up two Predictor cards. On the first card, two men in gray topcoats were sheltering from a downpour under a monstrous black umbrella. On the second, a man and a boy were walking hand-in-hand across a snowy cemetery, with the snow still falling on the headstones. The boy's face was as pale as a moonlit window.
The right-hand Predictor was supposed to foretell the worst that could happen, while the left-hand Predictor was supposed to foretell the best. Usually, when a storm card came up, a sunny card came up, too; or at least a promise of settled weather.
Sissy had never turned up two storm cards together, not like this, and she couldn't tell exactly what this meant, except that there was serious trouble coming, of one kind or another, and that there was no escaping it.
'What's happening, Mr Boots?' she asked, out loud. Mr Boots made a curdled noise, deep in his throat. 'The cards said two storms coming, both at once. What do you make of that?'
She finished her Marlboro, right down to the tip, and then she crushed it out in the geranium pot next to the back door, pushing it right below the surface of the soil so that Trevor wouldn't see it.
'Come on, Mister,' she said, and went back into the kitchen, where it was warm, and filled up the kettle.CHAPTER 2
A Potential Catastrophe
As they passed Cannondale, Howard glanced down at the gas gauge and saw that the needle had crept below half full. 'Shit. I'll have to stop for gas.'
Sylvia was frowning at her roots in the illuminated vanity mirror. 'For God's sake, Howard. Can't you fill up on your way to the office tomorrow?'
'It won't take long. There's a gas station right up ahead.'
'Howard, I need to get home. My chicken is going to be pot-roasted to rags.'
But through the grayish-green three o'clock gloom, Howard had already fixed his eyes on the yellow Sunoco sign in the middle distance. 'If you're worried about your chicken, call Lisa and have her switch the oven off.'
'Just because your father had a fetish about never letting your gas tank go below half.'
'It's not a fetish, Sylvia. It's common sense. Look at that sky, for Pete's sake! Is that impending snow or is that impending snow? Supposing we get stranded all night. How do you think we're going to stay warm?'
'Howard, it's less than forty minutes home. There isn't going to be a blizzard between then and now.'
Howard went deaf. That was Howard's response to anything he didn't agree with. He wasn't an argumentative man, but things had to be done a certain way. Life was a series of potential catastrophes and if you didn't take sensible precautions then one or more of those catastrophes would happen to you. He never tired of coming into the kitchen when Sylvia was cooking and reading out loud from the News-Times about avoidable accidents.
'A 53-year-old Sherman man broke his back when he fell off the roof of his house while clearing leaves from the gutter. George Goodman will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His wife Mrs Martha Goodman blamed an unsecured ladder.'
Howard had let out a 'Hah!' of incredulity. 'She blames the ladder? A ladder is an inanimate object. A ladder can't see that an accident is waiting to happen. Why doesn't she blame the idiot who climbed up it without making sure that he asked a friend to hold it for him?'
Sylvia, cutting out pastry rose petals for the top of her apple pie, had said, 'Don't you think the poor man has been punished enough?'
Howard checked his rear-view mirror, flicked his right-turn signal and slowed down. A red Datsun had been following them all the way from Norwalk, much too close for Howard's liking, considering the slippery road conditions, and Howard wanted to make sure that the Datsun's driver was fully aware that he (Howard Stanton) was pulling off the highway.
'I don't know why that A-hole didn't ask me for a tow.' This was Howard's response to anyone whom he considered to be tailgating.
He pulled into the gas station, stopped, and switched off the engine. Sylvia twisted herself around to look at the wicker basket on the back seat. 'It sounds like he's asleep,' she smiled.
'Well, don't wake him up. I couldn't stand any more of that pathetic whining.'
'Let me just check that he's OK.'
'Of course he's OK.' Howard opened the storage box in the center arm -rest and took out a brown wooly bobble-hat and a pair of brown wooly gloves. He pulled the hat on and tugged it down low. He always thought it made him look like Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. Sylvia secretly thought that it made him look like Bert, from Sesame Street.
While Howard was fastidiously tugging on his gloves, finger by finger, she unfastened the basket, lifted the lid and peeked inside. There, fast asleep on a folded-up tartan shawl, was a glossy black Labrador puppy, only just old enough to be separated from his mother.
'Suzie's going to love him to pieces.'
'I don't know. He's a little snappy, don't you think? I just hope he doesn't have behavioral problems. I'm not sure we shouldn't have gone for the bitch.'
'Oh, Howard, he's adorable.'
Howard opened the Explorer's door and climbed out. It was breathtakingly cold outside, and there was a ragged crosswind blowing from the north-north-west. He unscrewed the gas cap and started to fill up the tank.
The A & J Gas Station was situated on Route 7 at the Branchville intersection. Now that it was growing dark, the road was almost empty, except for an occasional thundering truck laden with Christmas trees. On the opposite side of the road stood a boarded-up hut that looked as if it had once been a grill and diner, with a rusty old pickup outside it, supported on bricks, and a dirty bronze Chevy Caprice parked at the side. Beyond the hut there was nothing but woods.
The gas station was brightly lit and Howard could see the cashier behind the counter, his chair tilted back, his sneakers on the counter, watching television. Howard deplored self-service. Why should the cashier sit in the warm, doing nothing at all, while the customer had to shiver out here in the wind, and end up with his hands reeking of gas? The pump was slow, too, which irritated him even more.
Sylvia knocked on her window, and waved to him. He gave her a quick grimace but didn't wave back. There was a fine rain flying in the wind and he was sure that it was cold enough to snow.CHAPTER 3
The Garden of Love
'He loves you,' said Sissy, holding up the Garden card. 'No question about it, the fellow's besotted.'
'Are you sure?' asked Mina. 'I'm so worried that I'm going to make a fool of myself.'
Sissy shook her head. 'My dear, I can feel the radiance of genuine love through a foot-thick cinderblock wall. It's my talent. It may be my only talent, but I've never been wrong yet.'
'You make delicious cookies,' said Mina, who had eaten five of them, and kept glancing at the remaining two, as if they were going to try to make a run for it. 'That's a talent.'
'Store-bought. I can't bake. Gerry used to say that my cooking timer was the smoke alarm.'
Mina sat back on the worn brown velvet couch. She was small, but her head looked too big for her body, and her hips said 'consolation eating.' 'I never thought that Merritt would ever notice me, let alone love me.'
'You should give yourself more credit. Look at you, you're only thirty-one years old, you're petite, you're pretty. Your hair's a mess but that won't take much sorting.'
Mina tugged at her choppy blonde hair. 'I saw it in Complete Woman.'
'Don't ever try to copy anything from a women's magazine, my dear, especially hairstyles and sexual positions. The people who produce women's magazines are only trying to make you feel inadequate. That's their job. Would you ever buy a women's magazine if you didn't feel inadequate? Of course not.'
'I've known Merritt ever since junior high,' said Mina. 'I used to see him standing by the running-track, you know. His hair was so curly and the sun used to shine in his curls, and I used to think that he was a god.'
'He's a man, Mina, just like any other. He makes mistakes, he tells lies, he scratches his ass. But for all of that, he loves you.'
'And that's definitely what this card means?'
Sissy handed Mina the card so that she could examine it more closely. It showed a formal garden, under a cloudless sky, where roses bloomed, and pears ripened on espaliers. In the center of this garden sat a woman in a powdered wig and a crinoline and a tight lace bodice; yet bare-breasted. Close beside her sat a young man, completely naked except for a tricorn hat. Butterflies formed a cloud around their heads.
'Le Jardin d'Amour,' said Sissy. 'This card never comes up unless you're in love, and the person you love loves you.'
Mina kept chewing at her lower lip. She seemed reluctant to believe that the cards weren't playing a trick on her.
Suddenly she blurted out, 'It was such a chance meeting, you know. We hadn't seen each other in maybe ten years. But there he was, walking across the square, and I recognized him right away, even if he didn't recognize me. If our dogs hadn't stopped to have a sniff at each other, and their leads hadn't gotten tangled up — well, he would have walked right past me and not even known it was me.'
'Well, funnier things have happened.'
Mina lowered her eyes. 'Last night he took me to dinner at Oakwood's. He bought me strawberries and he said that I was special.'
'He didn't actually say, "I love you"?'
'No,' said Mina. 'Not those actual words.'
'That doesn't matter,' Sissy told her, slowly reshuffling the cards. It was early afternoon but her living room was so gloomy that she could hardly see Mina's face; only two reflected ovals from her glasses. 'The cards know when a man desires you, even if he won't admit it. And when the cards know, believe me, then I know.'
There was a very long silence between them. Mina took out her purse and frowned into it as if she couldn't remember what she was supposed to do next.
After another long silence, Sissy said, 'Twenty-five dollars should cover it, my dear.'CHAPTER 4
The Fatal Moment
At last the tank was full and Howard snapped shut the filler-cap cover and went inside to pay. On his way to the counter he picked up two Reese Sticks, a snack pack of Oreos and some peanut-flavored Cookie Dough. Sylvia had him on a diet but he always craved candy to eat while he was driving to work. How was he expected to face a stressful day at the office on nothing but two cups of milkless tea and a bowl of horse food?
'Pump number?' asked the cashier, without taking his eyes off the television.
'I didn't look, I'm sorry. But I'm your only customer. Maybe you could guess?'
The cashier was about eighteen years old. He had a large mooselike nose and greasy brown curls and a cluster of raging red spots on his face. He was gnawing a yellow-and-blue Sunoco ballpen. With his eyes still fixed on the television, he swiped Howard's card, tore off the paper receipt, and tossed the pen across the counter.
'Wanna sign that?' he said.
Howard stared at the pen and didn't move. After more than ten seconds had elapsed, the cashier turned at last to look at him. 'You wanna —?' he repeated, making a signing gesture, as if Howard were retarded.
'No,' said Howard. 'Not with that pen, anyhow.'
The cashier blinked at him. 'What's the matter, man? That one writes good.'
'I don't care. It's been in your mouth and I don't want to touch it.'
The cashier abruptly jolted his chair into the upright position. 'You're trying to say what, man? I have anthrax or something?'
'I want a clean pen, that's all, without any of your saliva on it.'
'Oh, excuse me.'
'Apology accepted. But if you want my John Hancock, you'll have to find me a clean pen to write it with.'
The cashier pulled open a drawer and rummaged through an assortment of string and screwdrivers and Doublemint wrappers and cash-register rolls. Eventually he had to climb off his chair, walk to the back of the store, and come back with a new pen from the stationery display. Howard signed the check and handed the pen back.
'Freak,' said the cashier, boldly. He had disturbingly near-together eyes, as if he was three generations inbred.
Howard said nothing. He stowed his candy bars into the pockets of his red weatherproof squall and carefully fastened the studs.
Silence always gives you the edge, that's what Howard believed, especially when you're dealing with people of limited intelligence. Make them feel that you know far more about the world than they do. That will cut the turf from under their feet, far more effectively than anything you could say to them. And silence can never be misquoted.
He pushed his way through the door and out into the wind. He had been right about the snow: it was starting to tumble across the highway thicker and faster. Halfway back to his car, he looked back. The cashier was still standing at the window, staring at him with such beady-eyed hostility that he couldn't help smiling in private triumph. Silence, that's the answer. Don't give the bastards a chance to talk back.
It was then that he was hit in the right side of the forehead with a .308 bullet traveling at more than 2,500 feet per second. His brains geysered out of his brown wooly hat and he was thrown sideways and backward, hitting his left shoulder against the concrete. His legs and his right arm flew up into the air and then he lay still.
There was a very long silence. The snow prickled onto his coat, and immediately melted. His blood, made more gelid by the cold, crept along the cracks between the concrete forms, southward, and then began to slide westward.
The Explorer's passenger door opened, and Sylvia screamed out, 'Howard! Howard!'CHAPTER 5
Feely Heads North
Feely had only $21.76 left which meant that his options were now limited to three.
1) Buy a bus ticket home.
2) Buy something to eat and try to hitch a ride home.
3) Save his money and stand on this corner until he froze into a municipal statue.
It was snowing so furiously that he could hardly see the other side of the street. He was sheltering under the awning of Billy Bean's Diner in his thin brown windbreaker, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. It was 3:47 in the afternoon but it could just as well have been the middle of the night. Snow -covered automobiles rolled past like traveling igloos.
Excerpted from Touchy and Feely by Graham Masterton. Copyright © 2011 Graham Masterton. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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