Any respectable Archetype knows it's a waste of time; their chances of survival are much better if they can hide in the human world. But since nobody sent her an invitation to the world-saving, she's practically obligated to interfere.
|Publisher:||Less Than Three Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)|
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Beauty and Cruelty
By Meredith Katz, Keith Kaczmarek
Less Than Three Press LLCCopyright © 2015 Meredith Katz
All rights reserved.
Cruelty worked two jobs and, when people bothered to ask, she made up stories about why. "I'm putting myself through college," was her favorite, because it was easy and expected and thus utterly believable. Nobody questioned further when she mentioned college. College: the paving stone to greater things. The start on the journey of life. It wasn't a waste to work in fast food if it was in the name of college. And who would want to see a pretty girl go to waste?
And she was a pretty girl. She'd been respected as a beauty back home, though it wasn't the trait she was best known for. Her long, straight hair was too red be anything but from a bottle. Her skin was almost chalk-pale, her eyes a dark forest green. She was short, barely five feet tall; at work, this was a hindrance. She was expected to get down the same syrups and filters that taller men and women must also get down, though that only really became a problem when it was slow and others would notice the little things she did to get around inconveniences. She favored a men's button-down shirt, slacks, bare feet, and when she had to wear shoes, chose ones she could slip off and on easily regardless. She was slim, with barely any curve to hip and breast; some older customers called her, in their amicably sexist and objectifying way, "a slip of a thing." It wasn't entirely untrue: she was a thing, and one that had slipped between the cracks of this and that.
"Welcome to Burger Village," she said, smiling at the next customer with her mouth alone. "My name is Rue; can I take your order today?"
When Cruelty had time to expand on her reasons, she made up new stories: "I want to save up enough so I can take a year off and write," a blatant lie; she was incapable of that sort of creation, always a reader but never a writer, "I want to move out of town to live with my boyfriend," mostly good for the customers who wanted to see if she was available, and, when she needed tips, "My family's in a bit of trouble, and I just want to be able to help," but of course, she'd abandoned them long ago.
When she was being more honest, she just said, "It isn't an easy world to live in." That, at least, was completely true. "A girl has to eat". Less true, though she could stretch it for the sake of metaphor. She did have expenses. Housing. The daily cost of living. It would never have been a problem back home, not for her, and when she let herself stop and thought about it, she found it a bit shameful that she'd come to this. But "home" was a lost cause, and she had always fancied herself as something resourceful, something unwilling to be driven into a corner. If something was a lost cause, it wasn't a cause she'd take up. Her integrity had been put well aside. Even so, the bi- weekly paychecks didn't go very far, and it seemed like once she'd come here, money mostly went into her hands to leave them. Daily costs went on endlessly, her future went on endlessly. If this was where she found herself, a girl in a reason-based world with people asking her to explain herself away, she would nevertheless always make the best of it. What was important was to keep living.
So she worked more often than she didn't, and at the end of each day, she'd return to what wasn't her home but was where she lived. The one-bedroom rented house was far enough out from the city center to be affordable, and it still ate up most of her paychecks. It was a little run-down, and a bit far from her jobs, in suburbs which had once been countryside before the city began to eat the country. But it gave her some privacy, had its own sense of charm and, most importantly, room for a garden. Each summer, she refreshed its paint as best she could to maintain it, but the roses which grew all over the walls tore at them and flaked the paint, and she would rather have her roses than any kind of well-maintained house.
She never invited any human being inside beyond what obligations she had as a tenant, and as a result, very few people but Cruelty herself ever entered her house. If they did, they'd see what she was saving money for. Books in bookcases, books on tables, books stacked on the floor, books in the kitchen cupboards, books in the (unplugged) fridge, books in the bathroom, books lining each step upstairs, making the climbing treacherous, books in the old attic, books discoloring where they sat in the windows. The bed was more a place to read than sleep, and it too was covered in books. There were shelves where shelves normally weren't, overfilled and spilling out everywhere, and every flat surface turned into some kind of bookstand.
She kicked off her shoes as she entered the house, picking a book off the landing. There was a reason her food budget went into it, she thought bitterly. Books were her bread and butter. It wasn't like she'd get what she needed anywhere else. It wasn't that imagination was dead — the books were proof of that. But she knew as well as any that it was belief that was dying these days. Oh, some gods still had their followers — for now, she thought sharply and with a touch of schadenfreude, but they were probably next; thank you, humanity. But folktales, cautionary myths, fairy tales, transformations and spells and magic not personal but outside oneself ... no, that belief was basically gone, barely hanging on in animated films and children's imaginations.
No reasonable human being would stop and ask a fox why it has been following them, or listen to any voice from a well telling them to drink to gain wealth, or throw a frog into a wall and get a prince. They wouldn't toss salt over their shoulder, hang a horseshoe over the door. She was pretty sure that even the people who'd heard of the evil eye didn't know what the fig sign was. Just three months earlier, her coffee shop job had neglected to invite her to the annual work party, and when she mentioned it pointedly, all she'd gotten was an, "Oh, sorry, must have missed you. Want to come?" Like that was the problem here, like admitting they hadn't paid attention would make amends. But even after that kind of dismissive snub, she couldn't be bothered to show up. Not much point. She certainly couldn't envision herself descending in a fury of wrath and curses. Even if she did, they'd probably just believe whatever followed was simply bad luck. That was the one quality humans could still point to outside themselves and blame for anything they couldn't explain away: Chance, coincidence, circumstance.
And if for some reason, they did actually believe in some magical reason behind their circumstances, the next step would be science. Nothing wrong with science, of course; she enjoyed the rules and behavior of the natural world as much as the next person. But science placed in opposition to magic was ... problematic. Mostly problematic for the Archetypes like her that found themselves in the middle of that opposition. It had happened to the Beast Enchantress over in Boston just last year; she lost her temper and turned a man into a pig, as one does. Cruelty recalled hearing she was tasered to subdue her, something like that. And after, she was carted off to be studied and people were presumably paid to not talk about it. One way or another, it was covered up, and no true belief was born of it. Cruelty certainly hadn't noticed a rush of scientists coming to believe in the Archetypes, so all that really resulted from that whole show of temper was that one more of their people was missing. She'd received the Enchantress's distress spells and request for aid, of course, but ignored them. No point going down with a sinking ship. No point joining a lost cause.
What was important was survival.
And her books were good enough, she thought. Authors had to believe in their stories as they wrote them, even if only just enough to make whatever they wrote seem justifiable, believable. Whatever bare scraps of belief she could get to sustain herself were in these books, not in taking action. She devoured them with her eyes, licked her fingers to turn the pages as if letter residue was clinging to them like sugar, and refreshed herself on stories to be able to last another day.
Regardless of their subject matter, used books were better than new on the whole. Used books had passed from hand to hand; fiction picked up traces of suspension of disbelief from each of their readers, and non-fiction picked up the realization of what the world is capable of. All the time their readers spent poring over them, caught in a bubble that was just them and the book, was transferred into the book then passed on to other readers to experience as well. Used books tasted like passion and wonder — and sadness, unfortunately. They all eventually reached the point where their readers decided not to keep hold of them. New books, in contrast, only had the hopes and dreams of the author. Less filling, but less of a reminder of how easily thrown aside a story was.
Cruelty licked a finger and turned a page. What a poor way to live, she thought.
* * *
"I think you had better go home for today," her boss Rick said very, very firmly. "I'll call you when we want to have you in again."
Cruelty knew what that meant; she was being taken off the schedule, her hours cut down to nothing. Punitive measures — firing would be kinder, allow her to more easily get another job, give her the privileges that come from being let go rather than choosing to leave. Cruelty had absolutely no compunction to obey anyone beyond the point it was convenient to do so, and little patience for being toyed with. The title of store manager meant as little to her as any other title. He was just the next in a chain of humans to smile at while she still wanted a specific job. This one was losing its appeal. She smiled brightly and tightly. Voice rising more on each word, she said, "Are you going to fucking fire me because that asshole called me a cunt?"
Rick winced at that, though probably not at the insult itself. More likely, it was at her volume and the probability that customers — including said asshole — could hear her in the front room. "I just think you need some time off," he said, likely intending to be tactful. "I'm sure you'll think about what you're trying to achieve here and how you want to go about it."
"Listen," Cruelty said, taking her apron off. "I'm not here to be hit on, I'm not going to tolerate being insulted, and if someone tries to do both at the same time, I will actually, yes, tear him apart. They think I have to take whatever sort of attitude they want to give me because they think I'm lesser than them. So, no. No, I am not going to be thinking about what I want to achieve here. If you want me to feel bad about giving him back a little of what he gave me, that's not going to happen."
Rick's temper was infamous; she'd seen him go after the other girls in the store many times. She'd also noticed it was mostly girls he hired to work there, and always the girls who got his temper. This time, it was her turn. He got up in her face, stepping in too close, leaning down with his eyes wide. His lips curled off his teeth, his own voice rising. "Then yes, actually, I am fucking firing you. Get the hell out, Rue." And, voice dropping scornfully, "You were always a bitch to work with anyway."
She laughed. The feeling rolling through her chest was more excitement than anything else, a kind of thrill, a desire to take action. Careful, she reminded herself. Make it subtle. Make it something they can dismiss as bad luck. "You worm," she said, the words forming carefully in her mouth and rolling off her tongue like the softest darts. "May you always live among your own kind."
It snapped through her in a pleasant rush; not sexual, not at all — that was a bit too pleasant an experience to want to give Rick credit for — but like some other kind of relief. A sneeze held in too long finally exploding out, stopping the itch that had built up in her sinuses. Expulsion of waste, a build-up in her system that she'd been ignoring her need for. She shuddered in the aftermath, tasting greenery on her tongue, eyes too bright and wild as she ripped her apron off and flung it at him.
Rage ebbed into irritation as she stormed out of Burger Village, shaking her red hair out of its ponytail. She didn't feel regret; she couldn't often find that in herself. But there were a few more annoyances to deal with now. Her regular paycheck was going to be halved with just the coffee shop job left, and she'd probably have to pick up more hours there. She had to go through the hassle of job-hunting and keeping a realistic-looking resume up to date when her entire life was a fiction. As well, his wife and kids possibly didn't deserve the plague of insects that would follow them from home to home for the rest of their lives. But whatever; if they left him, they'd be fine, and if they ended up deciding he was worth living with, they probably deserved whatever they got. It really wasn't her problem.
Still, the sensation lingered with her; she was annoyed with herself. It was weirdly contradictory; she hated that she'd lost her temper, but she hated more that she'd had to be so conscious of the risk of doing so. She was in a lousy mood by the time the bus brought her back to the house, and seeing the Cat sitting patiently on her front step didn't improve things any. Cruelty fished in her purse for her keys. Perhaps if she ignored him, he'd lose interest.
"Hello Cruelty," the Cat said. "You look mad. Pet me?"
Slowly, she sighed out her breath between her teeth. There was really no point in taking your anger out on cats. They were entirely resistant to curses, and they wouldn't feel guilt if they didn't deserve your rage. Most of them wouldn't feel guilty even if they did. Ultimately, she'd just look like a fool if she tried. For a long moment, she just looked down at him, then managed to twist her lips up into something resembling a smile. "Hello, Tom," she said. "How have you been?"
"Considerably unpetted recently," the Cat said. This seemed to be a sticking point.
Cruelty unlocked her front door and held it open so the Cat could enter. He started to, but hesitated in the doorway, seeming to ponder his choice. Cruelty let out a larger sigh at that. Always compelled to stop halfway through, and let the outside air in. She waited a few too-patient seconds and then nudged his rear with her foot. He entered slowly at the pressure from her shoe, with an expression like it was his own idea. "How's Tim?" she asked pointedly. Someone here could be polite.
"Still dead," the Cat said with good cheer.
Tim and Tom took turns being the King of Cats, depending on who wasn't dead at the time. Since Tom was obviously more on the alive side, her question had been rhetorical, but the Cat seemed happy to be able to brag a little about his own vital status. Both Tom and Tim loved being the Cat, or at least loved not being dead. She'd asked Tim once whether he even cared about being the King of Cats, and he'd just stared at her unnervingly until he got distracted by a particularly fascinating mote of sunlight. Further attempts to pry into their unique livelihood tended to result in paying attention to noises in the distance, the sudden need for a bath, or, of course, nothing at all.
"Glad to hear it," Cruelty said anyway. She shut the door behind them, latched it, and then kicked her shoes off. With a slow exhalation and growing headache, she sank into an armchair. Moments later, she had to fling both hands up to keep the two stacks of books next to it from collapsing on her as the chair shifted under her weight and nudged them.
Seeing her hands too occupied to fend him off, the Cat jumped into her lap and settled there, turning around a few times with sharp, heavy paws before lying down and beginning a dusty rumble.
Once she was sure the stacks were settled, she slowly pulled her arms away from them and then, lacking anywhere else to rest them, put her hands on him instead. She petted him slowly and steadily, kneading the fat fur at the back of his neck and hoping he didn't start to drool. The Cat had a terrible drooling problem.
Excerpted from Beauty and Cruelty by Meredith Katz, Keith Kaczmarek. Copyright © 2015 Meredith Katz. Excerpted by permission of Less Than Three Press LLC.
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