The Wild Card
C. Maria Plieger a.k.a Indigo ©
When Wayne slammed in, his muscle shirt stuck to his suntan with sweat and grease, and threw himself down on the tatty leopard throw on the tattier sofa, I suddenly had trouble breathing.
For once, to my credit, I didn't say anything stupid, like, "No luck, huh?" I sidled to the fridge and got him a cold beer. He didn't thank me, just popped it and guzzled in silence, glaring at the water-stained ceiling of the rented trailer. Exhausted (I had clerked all day down at the diesel stop), I sagged onto the arm rest beside him, watching dragonflies bash into the window. I wondered why I'd ever thought we'd be happier out here, on the outskirts of town. For one thing, I'd thought Wayne would stay home more. Unlike some other members of my family, I'm not very good at predictions. Unlike the entire rest of my family, in fact, I'm not much good at anything. Okay, there is one thing....
No, I told myself. No, Gretchen. No, no, no. Never again.
Dragonflies thumped into the window, their wings making papery crumpling sounds against the glass. I heard myself murmur, "Um, listen.
I've got this cousin, Siegfried. He's, like, the best mechanic this town ever had."
Wayne turned his scalding hot-chocolate gaze on me. I knew what he thought of my relatives, at least the ones he'd met. Weird. He wasn't about to meet Siegfried, I meant to be careful about that.
"The one who fixed my watch, you mean?"
He meant the watch I'd bought him for our living-together anniversary this spring; he'd left bits of it embedded in a bartender's jaw. "No," I said, "that was Sigmund. Siggy. Siegfried's brother. Siggy fixes watches. Siegfried's the mechanic." I hadn't let Wayne meet Siggy, either; that was too close for comfort.
Wayne snorted, thumbed the remote, and started watching Duck Tales. No cousin of mine named Siegfried, I understood, especially one with a brother named Sigmund who fixed watches, could possibly have
what it took to fix Wayne's truck.
But he hadn't exactly said no, either. "Leave it to me," I burbled.
"I'll take care of everything." I was feeling a bit manic; this was our longest conversation in weeks.
A giant robot was attacking Uncle Scrooge's money bin with a battering ram (this struck me as glaringly Freudian, but then so did everything lately), and I don't know if Wayne heard me.
When Wayne left for the bar after supper, he gave me a funny look; I must have protested less than usual. I watched him bump away in the late sunlight, in my dented Mazda, the dents mostly compliments of Wayne. Vacillating near the wall phone, despite the built-up heat in the trailer, I felt cold.
Don't do it, Gretchen.
Just this one last time.
I caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror down the hall. I hadn't even managed to be as tall or blond as the rest of my family; I just got stuck with their pale eyes and wispy eyebrows and typically skinny frame; though no one ever dared call me Skinny. Not even back in school, except for the odd newcomer to town--but he or she always caught on fast.
I had full lips, though; Wayne used to say he liked my full lips, when he was still saying things like that. I shivered and picked up the receiver.
My sister Dagmar answered icily, before I could stammer a word.
"Hello, Gretchen. Ursi said you'd be calling about now."
Darn that Ursi. "Hi Dag," I said brightly. "Say, listen, I've got some work for Siegfried. Is he free sometime soon?"
There was a pause, followed by a raspy exhalation. "Siegfried's booked up solid for the next four months, as always. As you very well know."
"Oh." I gulped. "I was hoping he could fit me in sooner. Like, maybe, tonight." Prudently, I held the receiver away from my ear.
Another lengthy pause--after which my sister's voice proceeded to scour me as though I were a small, muddy child. "You've got a lot of nerve, kid. First you move without telling us--by the way, don't think for a moment we don't know where you are."
The back of my neck prickled; I never for a moment thought that. My moving had been mostly a symbolic gesture.
"It's that pickup again, isn't it?" Dagmar's voice scraped.
Darn that Ursi.
"And of course, Wayne-baby's still out of work, so you can't afford a real mechanic. You know, kid, Siegfried's pretty cheesed off at you. In fact, we all are. We never see you anymore unless you want something."
I felt a chill at the thought of Siegfried cheesed off at me. He always was the wild card, the one I wasn't sure of, but I'd have to worry about that later. Right now, I was busy making my voice quavery and close-to-tears. "I-I know. But you've all been on my case so much lately, about W-Wayne."
"Well, we can't help it," she said, her voice softening. "You're The Baby." The Baby. In the real world, I was twenty, and by now had hordes of younger nephews, nieces and cousins. But in my family, once The Baby, always The Baby.
And Wayne--he was toad-droppings; all my family thought so. They just didn't understand. They didn't know how sweet he could be, sometimes.
Anyway, he couldn't help it. His family wasn't like mine, they never gave him any attention except to tell him what a dumb-ass jerk he was. He had drifted down from one of the small sawmill towns upriver. And since our locals tend to be close-mouthed, even proprietorial, about my large, variously talented, and admittedly somewhat inbred family, which provides so many indispensable services dirt cheap--Wayne hadn't heard much about us either. Which was how I hoped to keep things.
"Look, I'll see what I can do." Dagmar was forgetting to be mad at me already. "Maybe later this week...." I sniffled. "Th-thanks, Dagmar. I'm sure it's the very best you can do."
She sighed. "Listen, I'll call Siggy. Maybe we can put off Jim Beeker a little longer; he's not going to be a happy camper, but hell, family comes first."
That's what I was counting on.
"All I can say, kid," Dagmar growled, "is this guy better be pretty damn good in bed."
"He is," I said quickly. At least, he used to be. Before his truck broke down. I wasn't about to tell Dagmar that when Wayne's truck broke down, so did Wayne. I hung up, feeling vaguely disappointed. I could remember when Dagmar had been more of a challenge.
The next part should have gone smoothly, but of course it didn't. My earlier failure to sulk sufficiently had jangled some inner alarm of Wayne's, and he got home earlier than expected, before dark, perversely still sober. So there was absolutely no fudging the fact that his pickup--the shiny red and black four-by-four three-quarter-ton, slithery with chrome, bristling with aerials, and replete with mags, monster mudders, and aluminum running boards (and miraculously unscratched, unlike my Mazda)--was missing from its anointed spot in front of the trailer. "Siggy came and got it," I explained weakly, "with the tow truck."
Wayne stared at the profusion of tire tracks in the dirt. He seemed to have developed a tic in his left cheek. "I thought you said Siggy fixed watches."
"He does. But he also drives the tow truck for--for Siegfried."
Wayne's left eyelid twitched. Something didn't feel right to him; he was connected to his truck that way, as along some mysterious neural pathway.
He grabbed my arm, dragged me over to the Mazda (I noticed a fresh dent in the bumper), and said, "Drive." I protested that it was too late, the truck was in excellent hands, and we would have it back first thing in the morning, but it was no use; it was like an itch he couldn't scratch, because he couldn't pinpoint it.
I took the long way, driving as slowly as I dared, praying to the Old Gods for car trouble. Soaring, ivory-trunked aspens hemmed in the country road, power poles reared from the underbrush, farm silos thrust at the darkening sky. I told myself I was worried about nothing, that even though my family considered Wayne bat-guano, none of them would sabotage my relationship deliberately. I just hoped my twin sisters Ursi and Gudrun weren't there; they tended to be impetuous.
I remembered that Siegfried was cheesed off at me, and applied the brakes so hard the car slid sideways, narrowly missing the ditch. Wayne barked, then made me speed up. I compensated by driving in circles for a while, but when the moon came up, Wayne got suspicious, and eventually, despite my best efforts, we got there. "There" was Siggy's small farm, tucked among leafy cottonwoods beside the river. I pulled up behind the battered tow truck that Siegfried kept running, somehow, year after year. As I got out there was a sleepy murmur of chickens; a goat bleated faintly, crickets screaked. A fragrance of fresh hay, of camomile crushed underfoot. Wayne looked around, slapping at mosquitoes. A single dim light glowed in the house, and I started to suggest that Siggy had retired and we should leave, but Wayne was already loping off across the moonlit yard, toward the gaping door of the disused garage. As he scuffed back-I could have told him the garage was empty except for some old Harley-Davidson parts--Siggy appeared out of the darkness under the cottonwoods, so suddenly that Wayne jumped. Lanky, whitish-haired Siggy, his single long braid slithering over his shoulder like a serpent familiar, said, "They're out back," in his soft voice; and then, as my heart thudded into my stomach: "They're just getting started."
We followed him out to the small field behind the house. I knew it was over, all the subterfuge, especially when I saw Dagmar, shining-haired, just below the dirt rise in the middle of the field. I could tell, mostly by feel, that the process she had begun was already past the point of no return. She looked up at me, her eyes glinting greenly in her narrow face, and for a moment her voice faltered; then she got back to work.
My Uncle Gustav, the accountant, was there, fortunately; he and Siggy restrained Wayne from dashing up to his truck, which was parked atop the rise, moonlight caroming in its chrome curves. Its hood yawned wide, and Siegfield's tools were laid out in precise glittering rows, like surgical instruments, on a black-cloth-draped bench close by.
The air tingled with expectancy; even Wayne felt it, I think. He had a dazed look; Siggy and Uncle Gustav had seated him firmly (after thoughtfully dislodging the axe embedded there) on the low stump Siggy used for splitting wood.
Dagmar's voice rose sharply, then fell off, and she backed away, stepping carefully out of the large circle that had been traced in the dirt, and came over to stand beside me. The air thrummed. A distant rumble like thunder, somewhere, under the clear, cold sky. I shivered. "He's coming,"
Siegfried came. As the rumble grew, deafening, and the dirt atop the rise swirled up, dust devils obscuring the truck, Siggy and Dagmar calmly inserted earplugs. The racket died, and when the dust settled, Siegfried was there, astride his Harley-Davidson.
He looked like Siggy, sort of. But his features and long, sinewy frame were etched in flickery blue lightning, and his incandescent hair streamed in some otherworldly wind. Reddish smoke billowed past him, truncated weirdly at the perimeter of the circle that enclosed the rise.
The black sheep of my family dismounted. After the merest nod in our direction--though I thought his gaze lingered on me an uncomfortable instant--he strode over to the truck, picked up a crescent wrench, twirled it like a six-shooter, and got to work. Wrenches, ratchets, and sockets leapt twinkling through his fingers; blue sparks flew.
Dagmar nudged me, and I saw Wayne's stump was vacant. I found Wayne under a tree, heaving up the turkey schnitzel I'd cooked for supper. Figuring I owed him some sort of explanation, I slid down beside him. "About Siegfried," I murmured when his spasms had abated, "he's kind of, well, dead."
Wayne didn't comment.
"He kind of crashed his motorcycle, over on the highway. But, you see, he had all these expensive vices, and he owed my family all this money. Siggy even nearly lost the farm. So we're making Siegfried work it off." Wayne kept silent, no doubt digesting this last bit of clarification. Thinking it best to leave him alone for awhile, I slipped away to rejoin the others. Things were winding up. After a final flourish of his nut driver, Siegfried banged down the hood (I winced a little), then flashed around behind the steering wheel, without bothering to open the door. Ectoplasm's funny that way, bone-jarringly solid one minute and no more than a bad smell the next, as needed. The engine sprang to life, purring. Siegfried revved it a few times just for the pure joy of it.
What happened next was my fault. I should have known the hood whumping down with a smidgen more force than necessary would snap Wayne out of his revery and bring him galloping, breathing hard. I couldn't really blame Wayne. He never did let anyone else drive his truck, and here was this dead biker seemingly about to joyride it off into the Beyond. This was metaphysically impossible, of course, but Wayne wasn't thinking straight. Which explained why he was charging past us, bellowing and windmilling his arms.
Siggy and Uncle Gustav caught up with him just at the perimeter at the circle, pinned him down, and dragged him back, screeching. The ears of my most distant blood kin back in Europe must have been afire that night. Fortunately, Siggy's farm is isolated. We all glanced apprehensively at Siegfried, but he seemed oblivious to Wayne's imaginative, if sometimes unwittingly accurate, assessment of our lineage. As Siggy and Uncle Gustav replanted Wayne, less gently this time, on the stump, Siegfried wafted coolly out of the truck's cab, straddled his hog, and started cleaning his fingernails with a large hunting knife--waiting for Dagmar to send him back, like all the other times.
But this wasn't like all the other times. Something was wrong, very wrong. Gooseflesh sprouting, I realized what it was--as a thin wind from Otherwhere touched my neck, and the merest tendril of ruddy smoke coiled toward us. "The circle--" Dagmar gasped, starting forward.
We were lucky; Siegfried seemed unaware of the breach. He looked as sleepy as Siggy, almost, up there on his chopper, as Dagmar raised her arms to begin a hasty banishing ritual. Wayne never did have good timing. "You dumb bitch." Aimed at me, his voice sounded preternaturally loud in the silence. I met his wild, humiliated glare.
I felt, rather than saw, Siegfried look up.
"This is all your fault, Gretchen," Wayne shrilled. "You slut!"
There was a collective hiss of indrawn breath. It came from Siggy, from Uncle Gustav, from Dagmar, from the trees behind us, from the weeds underfoot, and mysteriously, from above. I had only thought it quiet before. Now the crickets stopped chirring, small creatures froze in their scufflings, clouds of bats settled into trees and clung on for dear life.
Somehow, I knew this.
I was The Baby.
Above on the mound, Siegfried's eyes oozed green fire. He kicked down, hard, and the Harley exploded, spitting luminous pink smoke. Dagmar darted aside as it rolled forward, rearing, and did a wheelie down the slope. Across the scuffed-out place in the circle it came, along the dirt track, straight for Wayne.
Time screeched to a crawl. I found myself stepping in front of Wayne. Siegfried wouldn't hurt me, not me, The Baby. Even if he was cheesed off at me. After all, it was my dubious honor he was defending.
Then again, maybe he had just taken a sudden intense dislike to Wayne. As the superior plausibility of this struck me, my knees turned to glop.
Siegfried didn't waver. Instead he sped up, grinning, looming like an oncoming locomotive, and just as solid. Inanely, I snatched up Siggy's axe and waved it aloft. Siegfried grinned wider. Only at the last instant-I caught a nightmarish glimpse of neon-veined eyeballs, a thread of greenish spittle clinging between rows of phosphorescent teeth, ghostly bugs embedded there, legs feebly kicking--did he turn to swamp gas. A blast of icy air slammed through me; and then he was gone, his ruckus dwindling somewhere beyond the house, under the cottonwoods.
The smell of rotten eggs lingered. "Donnerwetter," Dagmar cursed, behind me. "He's loose."
"We have to get him back," said Uncle Gustav, the accountant. "He still owes us money."
"Watch out," mumbled Siggy, with uncharacteristic fervor.
We had to scramble then as Wayne's pickup came rumbling up behind us. I won't say Wayne deliberately tried to run us down, but he didn't try to miss, either. From the corner of my eye I saw Dagmar go down on the grass, writhing, clutching her ankle.
A strange, fierce joy thrilled through me as I realized my sweaty hands still clutched the axe. I swung it, hard, and felt it connect with a gratifying clang. The truck jerked, quivered, and almost stopped; then it came to its senses and lurched forward. Siggy, Uncle Gustav and I rushed after it. We watched its taillights dwindle down Siggy's long, tree-lined drive.
There was an explosion across the weedy yard, a belch of fuchsia smoke: Siegfried shot out of the mouth of the garage like a huge glowing bat and vanished down the drive. We glimpsed him a moment later through the trees, at the bend in the road, bearing down on Wayne's taillights like a giant, vengeful will-o'-the-wisp. Uncle Gustav was smiling. "Guess we won't have to look very hard for Siegfried."
Siggy nudged me. "That was a hell of a bung you put in that passenger door, Gretchen."
"Maybe we should take our time getting Siegfried back, eh, Gretchen?" Uncle Gustav winked.
I scuffed out back, sat on the stump, and propped my chin on my fist like The Thinker. Dagmar, rubbing her ankle, watched me in silence. "I'm leaving, Dagmar," I said after a while.
"I know," said Dagmar.
"I mean, really. Going far, far away."
"I believe you."
"Don't try to stop me."
She struggled up. "I won't."
I helped her limp toward the house. "Promise," I said. "Promise you won't try to stop me."
"I promise," she groaned, "already." But her eyes glimmered oh-so-faintly, and my heart eased a little. What chance did I have, against all of them?
You have to understand. I was The Baby. That kind of power is hard to give up.
~ The End ~
C. Maria Plieger a.k.a Indigo ©