back

For the Love of Lilly

Harold Bussineau’s silver Civic purred across the desert against the soft roar of the hot air they ripped through, the only car on the road in either direction. The Silver Bullet put him back eleven thousand dollars last year on his return to Flagstaff—which was about the extent of his budget. Royalties from his first book had all but dried up, and his publishers were ravenous for his second. A second he now had doubts would ever exist.

His daughter Lilly had her window down, letting her arm dangle out into the viscous air, Arizona sun toasting her skin a soft brown. He should be annoyed—the air conditioning was on, for Pete’s sake, but somehow he didn’t mind the subtle waste of energy. Let it be, as Lennon sang, and Harold did. With his daughter beside him and a medley of oldies on the radio, he felt like the greatest dad in the world. He brought his attention back to the road, “the world’s longest frying pan,” he’d often joked, “so hot it’ll melt the black off your tires.” But that joke, like most of his, was soon passé with his daughter. After a few too many uses he put it in the vault, where the only chuckles it got anymore were his.

Arizona was more empty space than anything, more square miles of open desert, the true land of the living dead. He always caught the cacti waving their stubbly arms at him out of the corner of his eye, the tumbleweeds creeping by inches, ever since he was a kid—and still those moving figures in all that nothing unsettled him. More a trick of the rising heat than anything, he knew, but a little bit of him still considered the plants some species of very patient animal.

Lilly sat forward in her seat and squint off into the horizon, and Harold did the same.

“Something there?”

“That’s new, isn’t it?”

For a moment he couldn’t see what she was talking about; his optometrist had tried to get him into a pair of prescription glasses but he just could never see himself wearing anything that changed the landscape of his face so much. He blinked a few more times, and the distance between his eyes and the speck of billboard on the horizon got smaller.

“I’m not sure. I didn’t think there were any billboards on this road.”

“There weren’t.”

“What’s it for?”

Lilly squinted harder, leaning forward more as if the extra inch or two would give her the edge she needed. “A museum. It’s a museum. Weird.”

“Why is that weird?”

“Just wait.”

Ten seconds later, he could see it clearer—read it even.

The billboard looked very old in its place at the side of the road—the paint was sun-faded and flaking off in sheets, as if it had seen several thousand days just like this one. “Stilliken’s Rest’rant and Curios’ty Museum! Next Left.” To one side of the text was a black and white photo of a man in a dark suit, tipping his bowler’s hat toward the camera as he molded his face around a wink.

“How’d they get it to look so old, Harold?”

“Don’t know. Sure is strange though,” Harold said, mentally cringing. His own daughter, calling him by his first name. Like they were strangers. If they were, he was to blame. At least she doesn’t call you Mr. Bussineau.

“Can we go? Just to see?”

Harold thought for a moment—he did have a meeting with his agent at four, and it was two-thirty now. If he rescheduled it would give him more time to come up with something, anything to show that he was writing. He just had to think of a good excuse.

“My car broke down in the desert.”

“Of course it did, Harold.”

“I...yeah. Let’s have a look.”

“All right.”

Lilly winked at him. He smiled back, but in some deep place that wink gutted him. How had he forgotten about her for all that time? How surprised he’d been when he’d come home finally and seen her, the almost-thirteen-year-old her, how ashamed he’d been. In spite of her mother, the woman he’d tried to run from in the first place, Lilly was still willing to give him a second chance. He didn’t know what he would have done if she hadn’t.

He took a left.

Up ahead, on the right, was a small shack.

“There, see? That’s probably it,” he said.

“That little thing, are you sure?”

“I don’t see anything else.” What would the shack contain? He imagined shrunken heads and snake oil. Polished stones, flattened pennies, scorpions embedded in suckers. Gift shop fare.

Still, Harold couldn’t stop himself from imagining that something inside that little shack would get him writing again, the way he’d been writing when he’d signed the three book contract with Doubleday. When he’d been away from his ex-wife, and their daughter (New York was as far as he could get without crossing the big Atlantic) while he was looking for himself in so, so many bottles. Finding himself sometimes, too, only the self he found seemed only to care about sex and drugs and suicide. Writing, too, but he didn’t remember much of that.

When finally he’d found himself sober and with a gun in his pocket, (how it had gotten there he didn’t know, but why it was there was evident) he decided to kill the man he’d become. He flushed the drugs, poured the booze down the sink, and locked the door to his apartment.

Three days later he’d emerged, new and yet familiar. He knew no one would be able to see the body he’d left in the hotel room, lying between the bed and the wall in a pool of vomit and blood, with a metaphorical bullet in its head. Completely unrecognizable as the Harold Bussineau whose book had been #1 on the New York Times best sellers list four years before.

The new Harold had returned to Flagstaff and attempted to make amends with his ex-wife, reunite with his daughter, and keep the frustrating bout of writer’s block at bay. So far he’d failed miserably, but he felt that if he could just patch things up with Lilly, everything else would seem less important.

Beside him, Lilly produced a loud honking sneeze, and that was the moment the car decided to fail him. A plume of thick black smoke erupted from under the Civic’s hood, followed by even more—smoke that rolled up and over the windshield, decreasing his visibility to nothing.

Not now, not out here. Dammit. My fault for thinking of it.

Harold pulled over, trying to feel with the tires where he’d left the road and dropped onto the gravelly shoulder. It was harder than it should have been; he ended up three car-lengths from the road, stopped at an angle.

“Bless you.”

Lilly sneezed again, and he popped the door open before stepping out into the heat. It felt good, even though he was wearing long pants and a light sweater. He’d changed in the car before he picked Lilly up from her mother’s, deciding he should try to look nice for his daughter and the meeting with his agent. Lil had winked at him, and he cherished that wink because all her mother had given him was a scowl and a curt nod.

He focused his nearsighted eyes on the shack. They were only about a half a mile away. Behind him, a door slammed.

“Harold?”

“I guess we just walk now, Lilly.”

“What are we going to do about the car? Can you call someone?”

Harold took the cell phone out of his pocket and opened it.

NO SERVICE. LOW BATTERY.

“Nope. Not out here.” Harold turned the phone off, so he could save whatever battery he had until he had a chance to use it. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll call from the museum.”

“Okay.”

The roadside gravel crunched beneath their feet as they walked.

Lilly sneezed three times quickly, each one taking a full breath away from her.

“You all right? What’s with all the sneezes?”

“Mom says I’m allergic to magic.” Harold stiffened and turned his body slightly away from her. He felt his face go red. What kind of thing did she mean by that? His ex-wife and her obsession with magic…part of the reason he’d gone, if he could trust his memory. The drinking hadn’t started in New York, just ended there. He’d seen something, Lilly’s mother had done something terrifying and called it magic, and he’d been angry and afraid and drunk and he’d just gotten into a car and gone. She was still at it with the magic then, just decided to keep it from Harold this time around. But now she was involving Lilly. He pretended his daughter who called him by his first name and called her mother “Mom” hadn’t said what she’d said, and counted the steps he took toward the shack while she followed.

Four hundred and fifty-six more steps and they were finally there, under the small overhanging wood panel that placed them on the porch of the strange little construction. Harold stuck his face up into the screen window and tried to see inside. He couldn’t see anything—dust had caked the screen, and the store looked dark. Lilly shuffled up next to him.

“Well? Aren’t you going in?”

“Is it open?”

Lilly reached past him, grabbed the door handle and pulled it open.

“Duh.”

She slipped inside, and he hesitated a moment before following, taking one last look in the direction they’d come. Then he ducked his head and squeezed himself through the little door.

He felt like the little shack they’d been walking toward should have been smaller on the inside. Should have been dusty, with shelves of odd knick-knacks pointing out toward him. But no—there was a small round table with two tall chairs in the center of an empty room. A small version of the sign they’d seen on the highway was propped up on an easel by the table.

Harold sat down at the table, unsure of what else he should do. Lilly sat down across from him.

A small man came from behind a small door, directly behind Lilly. Harold recognized him as the man from the sign, but he looked much older. A long white beard trailed off his chin and hung all the way to his belly, which was covered in red flannel. Must be this Stilliken character. Looks a lot older than in the picture, though.

“Welcome to my little curiosity shop. You can call me Randal, and I’ll be helping you folks out today. Can I get you anything to drink, young miss?”

Lilly shook her head. “Just water please.”

“Uh huh. Just water, huh? I’ve got that. For you, sir?”

Even with Harold sitting down the little man was barely eye to eye with him. Kris Kringle without anything below the knees, he thought, and yeah, that was pretty fair. “Do you have any lemonade?”

The little man closed one eye and rolled his other one up its socket, apparently giving the question plenty of thought.

“I can do lemonade. Anything else to start off with?”

“Where is everything?” This from Lilly, who had been looking around an empty room during the exchange. The little man sighed.

“Right. Well. You caught me at the end of my run, that’s all. Things are all packed up, going to my son in Kansas City soon’s the season’s over. Been doing this too long, it’s lonely work. And it’s not like I have my wife to keep me company, she got hit by a car last year—right out here.” The little man pointed out the front window as if there were any other roads to see. “That’s when I decided all this...that I was done with it.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr...Randal,” Harold said, “That must have been horrible.”

The little man returned his gaze to him from the window.

“What was that?”

“I just said I was sorry for your loss.”

“Oh. Yeah, sometimes things go that way. Sometimes you get cheated. Lose someone you love. Can’t dwell on it, though. There’s always tomorrow.” Stilliken seemed to force a smile. “Anyway. I’ll be off with those drinks.” He took off toward the kitchen.

“Wait, Mr. Stillik—Randal,” Harold called after him.

“Yessir?”

“You said the end of your run, didn’t you? But I’ve never seen that billboard before.”

The little man winked, grinning.

“Didn’t you now? That, believe it or not, is an old board. Been down for seven years—just had it put up again last week.” Then, “What were you planning on doing about the car?”

Harold’s jaw dropped. Just a little. Because he hadn’t thought about it, not in all the time since it had broken down. Because the little man had just taken his feet out from under him.

“Wha— how did you—”

“Most people don’t park half a mile away, Mr…”

“Oh—Bussineau.”

“Mr. Oh—Bussineau. I figured when I saw the smoke signal something was amiss.”

“Right.”

“So, what were you planning on doing about the car, Harry?”

“I don’t—” Harold started to say, but then his throat closed up. The little old man had just called him Harry. How? Was he reading his mind? A moment after the thought occurred to him, it seemed he was right.

“Now, Mr. Bussineau. Don’t you worry, there’s no trick here—I’ve got your book in the other room. I quite enjoyed it. It was the last thing Laura read before the accident. Atrocious picture in the back, I felt bad for you, but you look healthier now. You don’t mind if I call you Harry, do you?”

Harold glanced at Lilly, who was following the exchange with rampant interest.

“No, that’s fine. Uh…thanks for liking the book—hope your wife enjoyed it as well.”

Stilliken shrugged. “She had to skip all the gore and sex parts, but I think she thought it was all right. Maybe I can get you to sign it later?” Harold was starting to get impatient, and very embarrassed. Impatient with the attention he was getting, and embarrassed by the idea that his book had been the last thing someone had read before they’d died, and the woman in question hadn’t even liked it. How horrible was that?

“Sure. Sure. Now, about the car. I...I don’t know. What should I do? Do you have a telephone?”

Stilliken’s previous grin widened. “Nope. I’ve got something better.”

“Better than a telephone?”

“Before I was in this business, I was an auto mechanic. Damn good one. Don’t ask me why I decided to quit, cause I don’t even know. Laura pressured me out of it, I guess. I can fix your car if it’s fixable. That all right?”

Harold nodded as he wondered at the incredulity of it. Just as he realized he had a problem, there was a solution sitting right in front of him.

Lucky.

As sure as he was grateful, a little voice popped up, a voice he hadn’t heard in a while. Lucky, huh? Will you call yourself lucky after you’ve been robbed blind and the car breaks down again just a few miles up the road? The voice, just a little over a year old. Go away; he’s a good man. Just wants to help the famous author. No response and that was good. He nodded, and the little man winked again. Something was weird about that wink, something Harold didn’t like.

“I’ll get on it after your drinks. And food. Were you two planning on eating anything?”

Harold and Lilly exchanged glances, checked the gauges on their stomachs, and nodded.

“Yeah, we could eat. What do you have? I didn’t see a…”

“I don’t use menus. Takes away from the friendly atmosphere we—I try to create. Worked better when Laura was still alive. Anyway. Here’s how it works—I ask you what you want to eat, and you tell me. Then I make it. Either of you have any idea right now? Lilly?”

Harold’s daughter made a show of thinking about it, then lit up. “Do you have grilled cheese? And a pickle?”

Stilliken nodded. “Sure do. For you, Harry?”

It’s Harold. Harold, not Harry. He felt a prickle of anger and tried to push it away. It’s okay; he’s just trying to be friendly. Then the other voice popped up. He knows, buddy. He knows you go by Harold, and he’s just trying to piss you off. Kill with kindness, you dig?

“Ahh...how about a tuna fish sandwich? I’ll also have the pickle,” he said, winking at his daughter.

“I can do that, Harry. After I bring the food and drinks out I’ll have to get your car, okay? Then maybe you can sign my—your book.”

Harold counted to ten with taps on the table as the little man talked. Come on, come on. “Sure, yeah.”

“Aw’right,” Randal Stilliken shuffled back into the kitchen. “Won’t be but a minute or two!”

Harold and Lilly were alone again. She gave him a weak smile, and he returned it.

“So,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You like this place?”

She bit her lip and looked around. “It’s okay. Not as cool as I thought it would be...all the stuff’s gone like he said.” Then, looking over his shoulder, she let out an excited squeak. “Ooh!”

Harold looked where she was looking. From the corner of the little shack, a space occupied by several empty shelves, a little dog was trotting toward the table. It was brown, so it blended easily with the bare brown environment, but he couldn’t tell what kind it was. One of those dogs whose parents hadn’t exactly been selective.

It walked right up to where Lilly was sitting and put its head in her lap. She laughed and patted its head. Maybe I should turn into a dog, Harold thought. Life would be so much easier—no books to write, no manners to worry about—and if he ended up with Lilly it wouldn’t matter what sort of bad things he’d done in his past, he’d just be a dog. She’d feed me, walk me once in a while, all that. Wouldn’t be so bad. He sighed.

Lilly looked at him. “What?”

“Just thinking I should be a dog, that’s all. Make it all easier for me.”

Lilly crinkled her face up. “Dad, that’s ridiculous. You’re famous! People love you! Besides, the only one who could turn you into a dog is Mom, and you won’t even get near her.” Harold blinked. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists.

“Lilly. Listen to me. Your mother can’t do magic. She and I don’t get along for a bunch of reasons, but none of the reasons is because she does magic. Because she doesn’t. All right?”

Lilly didn’t answer. She was looking at the dog, petting it over and over from the base of its head down its back.

“All right?”

She looked up at him with a face that was twisting in emotion, anger winning out. Harold furrowed his brows, preparing for whatever was about to come his way.

“I know you think you’re trying to protect me from whatever...mental sickness you think Mom has, but you need to stop. You don’t believe in magic, or—or witches, and that’s fine. But don’t tell me I can’t believe, because you have no right! Even if my mother is different, even if she’s not like any of my friends’ moms, she’s still my mother, and I still love her, and I still want to defend her. But you said you loved her, and as soon as she told you she was different, you left. And you didn’t just leave her

“Did you know she lied for you? Did you know she told me that you were away on a writing trip for a whole month before finally telling me that you’d left? She knew how much you meant to me, and she knew how much it was going to hurt. So don’t say my mother is crazy, and don’t tell me the things she can do aren’t real because there was a time when I needed my father and he wasn’t there. But she was. Mom was. Okay?” Tears were rolling from her eyes now, and Harold felt his throat clench. Don’t cry. Please, not now. He wasn’t sure if the thought was directed at himself or his daughter. Did it matter?

“Lilly—”

“I’m done talking about it, Harold.”

He nodded, knowing that he’d be unable to speak another word if he tried. Because Lilly was right. Even if her mother was crazy, she’d been there, and he’d been off in New York on a years-long bender. She was the one Lilly would defend, not Harold. The thought drove a hot spike into his gut, and that was his punishment—he deserved every ounce of pain it gave him and not a drop less.

A moment later the little man returned through the door to the kitchen, with two plates in one hand and two drinks in the other.

“Here we go! Food and drink for the weary travelers.” Harold saw him catch sight of Lilly and her weepy eyes, and he shrank into his seat. I made her cry, and he knows. But if the little man knew such a thing, he made no sign of it. He just plopped the plates of food down in front of them, then the drinks. He smacked the dog on its butt, not hard, but enough to make the animal let out a half-hearted groan.

“I see the dog found you.”

Lilly nodded, sniffling. “What’s his name?”

Stilliken shook his head. “No idea. Some people drove through here, ate dinner, and apparently forgot their dog. In the desert. Tied to a weed.”

Lilly’s eyes widened. “That’s horrible! Those horrible people. So, you found him then?”

“Found him. Fed him. Waited for the people to come back maybe, even though I knew it was no mistake, they left him. Sometimes people come back for other reasons.

“But you never named him? Why not?”

“Never felt like it. Just a dog. Wish I could get rid of it, that’s the truth. Now you two eat your dinners; I’m going to go out and see what I can do with your car. I need your keys, though. So I can drive it back when I’m done.”

Harold handed the little man his keys. “Thank you. Lunch is delicious. Just what we needed, right Lilly?” She nodded, having taken four big bites out of her grilled cheese, and smiled at Stilliken. “Thanks.”

“I’ll be back before you can say my name,” the little man said, and was out the door.

Harold looked at his daughter. “So.”

“Yeah.”

They finished their meals in silence.

By the time the silver Civic roared its way back to Stilliken’s Rest’rant and Curios’ty Shop, Harold was three hours late for the meeting with his agent. The sun had slid down the western part of the sky, and its color had deepened, casting rays that were no less intense despite their indirect nature.

Lilly played with the dog in earnest out in front of the shack, having it fetch a stick she’d found out among the cacti, and Harold paced back and forth through an empty structure, thinking various things. Most of the thoughts were about his daughter, some were about the Civic, and even fewer were about the book he should have sold by now. Well, “should have,” on account of the date on the calendar, and on account of his agent, who loved to repeat the adage: “You get few to no chances in this business to screw up, Harold. When you have an in, you have to take advantage of it, or nobody will want to touch you later on, even with your good stuff.” Yeah, well. Harold thought, Can’t always hit a home run, especially when someone’s pressuring you to do it during that at-bat, on that pitch. But the book wasn’t bothering him at the moment. He’d figure something out, even if it did happen to be nothing more than a strike-out with his name on it. He’d have money coming in, which was more than he could say for himself at the moment.

He had to work around his budget until he was in the spot he least wanted to be: he had to cut his Tucson visits to see his daughter to once a month, because he couldn’t afford any more than that. Round trip from Flagstaff was almost two hundred dollars, and his royalty checks were barely covering things asas it was. He had no savings. He knew it was pathetic, but what could he do?

His ex-wife had come to the conclusion that he was too busy to travel and see his daughter, that he didn’t even want to, though he’d done his best to convince her otherwise. An unfortunate conclusion, since Lilly took such stock in her mother’s opinion—he still hoped her mother had taken the middle ground and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had a feeling that hadn’t happened. His daughter was probably still separating herself from him. You didn’t come back soon enough. She’s going to be gone. He could feel himself losing her even now, as he paced over the creaky floorboards in the old shack.

Then go get her back! Do something! Make it how it was before, when she loved you no matter what because you were her Daddy! Do something, or you’ll lose her forever, and you don’t know how that will feel. He didn’t, of course—but he had an idea. The idea was an itchy finger twitching against his heart, plucking its strings in preparation for a chord that would most likely tear him apart.

Harold looked at his daughter, now taking the stick from the dog’s mouth and throwing it out into the desert, and continued pacing. What could he do, when it felt like he’d already plunged in, arms flailing, and come up empty a thousand times? What could he do that he hadn’t already tried? You can decide to do something or not to do something, but you can’t decide not to decide. Okay, but how could he choose when both decisions left him in the same position he started in or worse? Then it doesn’t matter. But if you haven’t decided by now, you know you won’t move there. Harold kept pacing, but his attention turned to the little old man and the situation with his car. What if he fixed the car and stole it? What if he’s too old, and the car’s too new and he has no idea how to fix it? What if his legs are too short, and he crashes it on the way back?.

Harold stopped pacing.

The little man was back.

Stilliken was stepping out of the car by the time Harold had walked over, dust from the tires still billowing into the road. Lilly was still playing with the dog, and barely glanced over at the returning vehicle, but her overall body language had changed; she was having fun, clearly, but she was also ready to leave. The little man pushed shut the driver’s side door, a door that was easily twice his height, and addressed Harold.

”Bet’cha didn’t even have time to say my name, did you?”

Harold folded his eyebrows, and then remembered the last thing Stilliken had said before he’d left.

“Nope, I guess not. So... is it fixed?”

“Fixed.”

“Good to hear it. Was it difficult?”

“Couple of replacements, a few valves tightened. She’s gonna run like new now, at least until she don’t.”

“Ah.”

“Yep.”

“So... How much do I owe you?”

“Well. Might as well not beat round the bush. I’m gonna have to charge you six-fifty.”

Harold blinked. No, that can’t be…

“Six-fifty? Jesus. I don’t know if I can afford that...you sure, that much? Wow.”

“That a problem?”

“Um. No, it’s just...well, I haven’t gotten paid yet. For the work I’ve been doing...the last five months.”

“Hmm. That is a tough spot.”

“Well, you know I’m a writer—my book, and...yeah. But I’m trying to get my second novel out the door. It’s going to be a while. My agent isn’t very happy with me.” Harold turned to look back at the door of the little shack. Lilly was crouched down, petting the little man’s little dog, probably to say goodbye. “Neither is my daughter.”

The little man leaned back against the Civic. “Well. Here’s something. How about I make you a deal.”

“A deal?”

“Yeah.” Stilliken cleared his throat. “You only pay two hundred, and I don’t gotta keep feeding that dog your girl’s so fond of.” Harold raised an eyebrow, waiting for the little man’s words to register properly.

“You want me to take your dog?” Weird.

Stilliken shrugged noncommittally. “Ain’t mine. Dog ain’t no one’s. ‘Sides...it’s been creeping me out lately.”

Harold narrowed his eyes. “How so?”

The little man looked side to side before hooking his finger at Harold. Harold bent over, and the little man whispered in his ear.

“Dog talks. Keeps telling me it can make me rich an’ famous.”

Harold stood back up, frowning at the genuinely distraught expression on the man’s face. Then Stilliken’s eyebrows straightened out; his mouth opened wide, and great gut-busting rounds of laughter poured out. Harold chuckled. A joke. Right. Confusion beat out incredulity, as his mind went back to the six-fifty he’d have to pay if it was all a joke.

“Wait, do you still want me to take the dog?” he asked, and it was Stilliken’s turn to look confused.

“Sure do. That aw’right??”

“Uh. Yeah, I just didn’t know if you were kidding about that too.”

“Har. Not this time, sir. Just be careful that girl doesn’t get too attached. You know how kids are.”

“Oh, no. It’s not a problem. I’ll just drop it off at the animal shelter on the way home...thanks for the break, Mr. Stilliken.”

The little man clapped a little hand on Harold’s shoulder. “Call me Randal. We all need someone to cut us a break once in a while. I’m your someone today. Aw’right?”

“Thank you.”

After writing the check, Harold looked at his watch. It was time to leave, he felt it like a strong wind at his back. Still, there was one thing left that needed doing.

“Right. Can I...do you have a bathroom I could use?”

The little man let out some more laughter, identical to the kind he sprayed before. This time, however, instead of amusing Harold, it disconcerted him. What a strange little man.

“Sure I got one, it’s right in there past the left shelf. Can’t miss it.” Harold pasted a polite smile on his face and started walking back toward the shack.

“Thanks,” he said.

As he passed Lilly, she gave him the I’m bored look. “Are we leaving now?”

“We are. And we’re taking the dog with us.”

For the first time that day, Harold’s daughter’s face lit up, and she looked genuinely happy. Maybe even happy with him. No, that was still a long shot. “We get to keep Monroe?”

“You named him already? Jeez Louise. No, we’re dropping him off at the animal shelter on the way home. Just doing Mr. Stilliken a favor.”

Her face fell, and Harold felt guilty for getting her hopes up. But she couldn’t expect he’d let her keep a dog they found out in the middle of the desert, could she? What would it look like? A desperate attempt at penance for not being there? Here you go, Lilly. This is for those three years I spent trying to find myself. How’s that? He didn’t want to buy his daughter’s forgiveness, her respect, but part of him wondered if it would work. Harold opened his mouth to say ‘Sorry, we can’t keep him,’ but what came out of his mouth was something entirely different.

“I’ll think about it.”

Lilly smiled at him again, and this time he knew there was no going back. His subconscious mind had betrayed him, for little more than the weak hope that the dog might appease his daughter; that it might make her like him again. Silly thought, since it’s not a dog I took away from her in the first place. It was me. It’s the reason she stood with her mother on everything, even with all of the witchery—sure, Harold Bussineau could write, but could he hold a family together? All signs have always pointed to no.

“I’m going to go the bathroom, all right? Then we can leave.” Lilly nodded, and Harold ducked into the small front door of the shack again. One of her loud sneezes followed him, and he shook his head, chuckling. The bathroom was a small, cramped space—the perfect size for the man who occupied it. The toilet was even a little on the petite side. When he was finished, he washed his hands and flicked out the light, just as he caught sight of a small sign plastered to the wall by the door:

“Today I bake, tomorrow I brew, today for one, tomorrow for two.”

Weird again.

Lilly was standing by the open back door of the Civic, looking around with her hand cupped over her eyes. Harold didn’t have to try very hard to imagine just what it was she was looking for; what else could she want but the dog?

“What is it, Lil?”

She looked up at him, concern in her eyes. “Monroe ran out into the desert...I was going to go after him but Mr. Stilliken said I should wait here—he went out instead.”

Harold scanned the desert himself and saw nothing.

“What direction?”

Lilly pointed, her finger reaching off to a point just off to the left of the shack.

“Huh. They shouldn’t have gotten far; it’s only been a few minutes. Maybe we can’t see them because Mr. Stilliken’s shop is in the way.”

“Yeah, maybe. I just hope Monroe’s okay.”

“He’ll be fine. You heard what Mr. Stilliken said, that dog survived being left tied to a cactus—besides, he’ll come back. I think he liked you.”

Lilly smiled, and to punctuate Harold’s point they heard a dog’s bark, off in the distance from behind the shack.

“Here he comes now. See, I’m not full of it.” Lilly’s smile widened, and Harold felt his chest expand. This is what it’s supposed to be like, how being a father should feel.

“I guess not.”

Monroe, as Lilly called him, came bounding out from behind the shack and toward them and stopped just feet away, tail wagging his whole body, tongue lolling out of his mouth.

“Good boy,” Lilly said. “Now why’d you have to run off in the first place, huh? Where were you going, huh? Good boy, Monroe.” She knelt in front of the dog and rubbed behind his ears. She promptly sneezed.

Time to go, Harold, his inner voice said. Time to leave. You’ve already been here too long. He nodded unconsciously, agreeing. He addressed his daughter.

“Ok Lil, let’s get the dog in the car. You want to sit with him in the back, or what?” She nodded and crinkled her forehead.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Mr. Stilliken?”

She had a point. Why hadn’t the little man returned with the dog? Was he just slow, or had he fallen and gotten hurt or something? Surely he couldn’t leave the little man out in the desert just because he was in a hurry to go home. No, that was illogical. Stilliken had lived out here practically forever; he probably knew the desert in these parts like the wrinkles on his face. Besides, he’d probably show up five minutes after Harold went out looking for him. What was the use in worrying? He decided to trust his gut—a gut which, at the moment, was telling him with some authority just to go.

“He’ll understand, I think. I’m sure he’s all right. Just probably walking back slow.”

Lilly seemed to take this into consideration then nodded again. “Okay. Let’s go.”

A minute later, they were speeding down the road, and Stilliken’s Rest’rant and Curios’ty Shop was just a receding point in the distance.

By the time Harold pulled the Civic into his apartment structure’s parking lot, the sun was no longer in the sky, and if it were he wouldn’t have been able to see it; Flagstaff was not the desert, even if it was out in the middle of it. Trees and buildings would block most of the horizon, especially in the residential subdivisions, where his apartment complex was located. Harold found it funny that when most people learned he was from Arizona, they automatically assumed he lived in the desert. Like assuming everyone in Florida lives in one giant swamp. Thanks so much, Grand Canyon.

Harold put his foot on the brake and turned the key toward him. The car ceased its gentle rumbling. His back hurt, as it often did after these trips, and on days where he sat in front of the computer for hours, either typing, or...not.

He looked into his rear-view mirror. Lilly was asleep in the backseat, bent over the dog she’d named Monroe. He was laying across her lap, idly watching for anything interesting out the window, bearing an expression of boredom (if that were even possible). Lilly had sneezed several times on the way home, and Harold had decided she must be allergic to dogs, or at least this one. Neither he nor his ex-wife had ever had one, so who knew? Weird, though. She never sneezed the whole time she was playing with him. A smaller voice, one he ignored, said maybe the dog is magic. Yeah. He chuckled a little and got out of the car. Yeah, the dog’s magic. I’m sure it even talks.

“Lilly,” he said as he opened the back door, “Lilly, we’re here. You want to wake up now?” She lifted her head and gave him a heavy-lidded look.

“I don’t feel good. I need to sleep.”

Monroe lifted himself off her lap and started stretching, then jumped down out of the car.

“You can sleep once I get you inside, ok? You’re not sleeping out here, Lil.”

She nodded and yawned as she reached for her father. Harold helped her out, and just before he closed the door, he caught a glimpse of something on the backseat.

A dark spot.

You damn dog, he thought and took a closer look. To his surprise, it wasn’t either of the things he suspected. It was a dark brownish red spot, drying but still wet towards the middle.

Blood.

“I don’t feel good,“ Lilly had said. “I need to sleep.”

“Lilly, are you cut or anything? Are you bleeding?” She eyed him sleepily then shook her head.

“No, why?”

“There’s blood in the backseat.”

They both looked at the dog, standing in the parking lot with his tail wagging.

“His foot,” Lilly said. She was right; Monroe’s front paw was dark red like it was a paintbrush that had been dipped into a bucket of crimson gloss.

“Oh. Yeah, that’d be it. Uh...” He grabbed a couple of napkins sitting under his front seat. “Here.” He gave the napkins to Lilly, and she tied them around the dog’s foot.

“He must have gotten hurt in the desert, don’t you think?” Lilly asked as she tied.

“Yeah, probably.” But he wasn’t limping at all before, was he? He’s not limping now, is he? He wasn’t. The dog seemed oblivious to the blood on his paw. So maybe it’s not his. He shook his head. No, he didn’t want to think it.

Lilly sneezed.

“Ok, let’s get inside,” he said, but he was thinking something altogether different:

You left that man in the desert, and now you find blood on his dog, blood that’s not Lilly’s and if it’s not the dog’s either…no. Can’t be jumping to conclusions. Get inside, and take another look at the paw. There has to be a cut, maybe one that bleeds a lot but doesn’t necessarily hurt the dog very much at all. Stilliken’s fine.

The little man was most likely asleep in his little bed right at this very moment, dreaming about whatever he dreamed about at night. His rational side won out, for the moment, but Harold’s heart still beat hard as they walked the dog through the front door of the apartment.

Lilly walked to the foot of the stairs and then stopped. “I’m going to take a shower, okay Dad?”

“Sure. Yeah.”

“Then I’m going to bed. I don’t feel very good.”

“Okay.” He was looking at the dog, who was looking around the apartment. “I’m going to see what I can do about his foot. Clean it, bandage it, whatever.”

“Okay. Good night.”

“Good night.”

She was halfway up the stairs. Don’t waste another opportunity like this one, Harold. “Lilly?”

“Yeah?”

“You know I love you, right?”

She smiled and nodded. “Good.”

“Night, Dad.”

“Night.” Then the bathroom door shut and he was left with the dog and the blood on its paw.

The kitchen sink inspection left the origin of the blood undetermined. Warm tap water running through the dog’s furry toes, Harold was again reminded of a paintbrush and the way the paint came off when it was cleaned. When all the blood had washed down the drain, he looked at each toe individually and was unable to find any cut or any place where blood was flowing out. What did this mean?

It means you need a drink. The answer came out of nowhere. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine any way the dog could have gotten his whole paw covered in blood like that. How did that happen? If it was Stilliken’s blood (and he had to entertain that possibility now, as little as he wanted to—how many other living things were out in the desert, anyway?) then how had it gotten from inside the little man to the outside of the dog’s paw? It was as if Monroe had run through a pool of blood…

You left that nice little man in a pool of his blood, out in the desert. No, that wasn’t necessarily true. There was another possibility here; there had to be. How sure was he that the dog hadn’t had his paw covered in blood before it ever went outside? Lilly would have noticed. She’d played with it long enough.

He stood there with Monroe in the sink for almost ten minutes, playing the same thoughts through his head. In the end he decided one thing: he did need a drink. Not just one, either. Several.

The only thing in his fridge was a bottle of champagne. He couldn’t stand hard liquor. He popped the cork off but didn’t bother getting a glass. Glasses were for situations where getting drunk was supposed to be fun. Pacing across the linoleum kitchen floor, he took swig after swig, not even bothering to taste it.

His answering machine blinked. Harold pressed PLAY. It was his agent.

“Harold. Cindy. I waited fifteen minutes; I’ll say that much for myself. The publisher’s tired of waiting, and they want to scrap your deal unless you had something five minutes ago. Sorry, I know it’s been hard. Oh, and call me back if you’re dead or something.” It’s not me that’s dead, he thought, taking another gulp from the bottle.

A whimper came from off to his left. Monroe; he’d left the dog in the sink.

“Right.”

After he got the dog down, the content of the answering machine message finally hit him. They wanted to drop him. Doubleday wanted to drop him. He sat down in the middle of the floor and put his head in his hands. His eyes seemed to be darting everywhere, trying to look at everything all at once, so he closed them.

No more money, no more money from Doubleday, they don’t want you anymore. There’s still royalties; there’ll always be royalties. That’s not going to be enough; it’s just not. No more money. You might be responsible for the death of a man. What if you could have saved him? Cops are going to find his body, and there’ll be evidence. Even if you didn’t kill him, they’d know you were there. They’ll know you left him to die. Lilly’s going to hate you; she’s going to hate you because your ex-wife won’t ever stop hating you.

Before long, the bottle of champagne was three-quarters gone, and he felt it. There was no dull happiness, no bubbly cheer. The kitchen was a deep hole, and he was all the way at the bottom.

“Help, I need help! Please. Things keep happening, and I can’t stop them, and I can’t make them happen like I want them to.”

Harold looked around, and the only thing he saw was the dog Lilly had named Monroe, and so he supposed it was the dog he was addressing.

“I need the kind of help no one can give anyone else...Nothing works anymore for me. Things keep happening.” Was he crying? That wasn’t champagne rolling down his cheeks, so he supposed he was. Did it matter?

Men don’t cry.

He hiccupped, deep in his throat, and it hurt. I’m not a man. I’m not a man.

“Stop it. Are you deaf? Men don’t cry.”

It was a voice he was hearing, and not one of his thoughts. He furrowed his brows and looked around. The kitchen was empty, but for himself and Monroe. Who had said -

“You’re a disgrace,” Monroe said.

Harold’s lip quivered. “You’re a disgrace,” he repeated, staring at the dog’s face. I just made that dog talk. He looked at the bottle of champagne, at Monroe, chuckled, then began to cry once more.

But the talking dog kept talking.

“I can make things better, you know. I can fix things for you, Harold.” Harold focused on the dog’s moving mouth. It’s barking or something. It’s barking, but I hear words. Because that man said it could talk. That’s why. The man I killed said it could talk and now I’m making myself hear it talk.

“Money? I can get you that. All the money you’ll ever need. Love? I can make your daughter love you no matter what. Innocence? That blood on my foot, no one ever has to know where it came from. I can make it all go away, Harold. All of the things that are bothering you.”

Harold’s brow furrowed again. “How do you know all the things I want?” Monroe chuckled. Dogs can’t chuckle. That’s ridiculous. You’ve never been so drunk, Harold, old buddy old pal.

“I’m a talking dog, and you’re questioning my ability to read your mind?”

“Uh. No, I guess...I guess I’m not. But you can’t expect me to be logical...right now.”

“All I expect you to do is make the right choice.”

“The right choice.” Harold was talking to a dog named Monroe. Finally, he just accepted it.

“My name’s not Monroe,” Monroe said. “But that’s okay.”

“Hey! You can read my mind! That’s amazing.”

“It’s a whole lot easier when you’re drunk.”

“So then you’re magic then. You’re a magic, talking, mind-reading dog. That’s ridiculous.”

“Okay. Can we move past that?” Monroe seemed to be getting annoyed. Or Not-Monroe, since that wasn’t his name. The dog is talking. Don’t make it mad. No, he didn’t want to make it angry. It was magical.

“Sure. Right.” Harold cleared his throat. “You want to fix my problems.”

Not-Monroe smiled a doggy smile. “That’s right. All of your problems, gone. Poof.”

Harold frowned. He was drunk, but not drunk enough to forget that all seemingly good deals had catches.

“What’s the catch?”

Not-Monroe licked his chops. “Three things, one for each of your three things.”

Harold clapped his hands. “Okay, whatcha got?”

“First thing. As long as you can’t guess my name, you can’t touch me. Second thing. You must consent to allow me whatever I need to keep myself alive.”

Harold’s head was swimming. The conditions were worded so technically. Like a lawyer. But nothing sounded like a catch, yet.

“Okay. That’s just two.”

“That’s two, right. Last thing. Whatever is given to me outside this house is mine until I choose to give it back.”

“Sounds like a con, Monroe.”

The dog smiled. “All I’m trying to do is give you what you need at the moment you most need it.”

Harold nodded. “Lilly will love me like she did when she was little?”

“She will. You’ll have money, your daughter will love you like before and you’ll be able to forget about the man in the desert. Won’t that be nice? All I’m asking for is safe passage from here once I’ve fulfilled your wishes.”

Don’t do it, Harold, one of his inner voices said. Remember Dad said “never agree to anything drunk that you wouldn’t sober,” and it was true—he had said that. But he’d never said anything about dealing with talking dogs, no, that was a new one. Maybe it didn’t matter what he decided. Wouldn’t he rather choose the things he wanted? It’s not like the dog was asking for anything huge. Just safe passage, as he said. Is it a bad deal? He couldn’t tell.

So he did the thing he wanted to the most. He agreed.

At some point during the night he awoke on the kitchen floor and stumbled to the couch in the living room, collapsing there. His head felt like it was being juiced, thoughts rolling around inside his skull like bingo cards in a spinner. Talking dogs, and deals, and Lilly, and blood, and death, and he fell asleep again.

The sound of the front door opening woke him.

It was morning, he knew that much, he didn’t know how early but the sunlight was coming in through the window at a small angle so that it couldn’t be past eight. He checked the front door—it was Lilly and the dog.

“Lilly?” His mouth was dry like he’d been chewing cardboard, and his head throbbed.

“I’m just taking Monroe for a walk, Dad. He needs to do some things. I’ll be back soon.” She sneezed.

“Uh? Okay. Be careful.”

“I will. Love you.” The front door shut, and so did the lids over Harold’s eyes. She loves me. Once more, he slept.

The telephone ringer was a part of his dream; it signified lightning in this particular one until he realized it was a telephone ringer and forced himself awake. How many times had it rung? Twice, three times? Where was the receiver? It rang again, from directly above him. The lamp-stand by the couch. He reached up and felt for the receiver, and put it to his ear.

“Hello?” He listened and heard nothing. The phone rang again, and he shot his arm out, trying to get the thing as far away from his ear as he could.

“Gah!”

He pressed the TALK button and tried again

“Hello?”

“Harold, it’s Cindy.” His agent. Mentally, he cringed. More bad news—probably calling to tell him she was dropping him as well.

“Oh. Hi.”

“I just got your new manuscript this morning in my inbox, Harold. I’ve been reading it all morning.” Harold raised his eyebrows. What new manuscript?

“It’s perfect; no, it’s better than perfect! Why didn’t you tell me you were working on a new manuscript? No, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Doubleday is going to love this book, and you’re going to be on the bestseller list. It’s a masterpiece! A thousand times better than your first one. You’re a genius, Harold, and I found you! We’re going to be rich!”

Harold’s mouth dropped slowly open. Carefully, he set down the phone on the lamp-stand and stood up. What is going on? He stared at the phone, as it emitted even tinier excited noises. Money, all the money you’ll ever need. Someone had said that. Who?

“Lilly! Come down here; something’s happened, and I don’t know...” then he remembered his daughter leaving earlier. With the dog, with Monroe. Taking him for a walk? Money, all the money you’ll ever need. Monroe said that. He shook his head, refusing to think about what Monroe had or hadn’t said (it talked, Harold? Really?) and checked the clock—it was eleven-thirty. Surely she’d have been back by now if it was about eight before. Three and a half hours for a walk? No. Maybe she was back.

He bounded up, ignoring the hangover, ignoring everything but his own thumping heart and the terrible bad feeling in his gut.

“Lilly?” No answer. Something was wrong, and he was responsible somehow. Up the stairs in four strides, then checking frantically for her. Bed empty, unmade. A box of tissues on the bed, and several strewn on the floor. Bathroom empty closets empty, everything empty. She was still gone.

He stood there, mind racing. He remembered the man in the desert, the blood on the dog’s paw, the drinking, the absolute unreality of the rest of it—the dog, the talking, the deal. The bargain. The bargain he’d agreed to, and which had already started paying dividends—how else could he explain the completed manuscript with his name on it? Sure, he’d been drunk, but Harold Bussineau had never been a man to discount what he’d seen with his own eyes. This time, well, he’d seen a talking dog.

It was real, all of it.

Of course it’s all real, Harry. Never mind that now. Must find Lilly. Because she might be in trouble, and even if you don’t know why you still feel it.

It was a new voice, not one of his own, but it was right. This voice led him outside, to his car and onto the road. Even as he obeyed the voice, he remembered it as Stilliken’s. The little man Monroe had probably killed. He shivered.

No one calls me Harry.

An hour later, Harold was fighting off panic. Even with the advantage of being able to look for Lilly with his car, it didn’t matter. The four neighborhoods and three subdivision he’d trolled as his brain constantly turned over all available bits of memory only amounted to more lost time, and a greater distance between him and Lilly, if indeed she was continually on a path away from him.

Whatever is given to me outside this house is mine until I choose to give it back.

Those words had haunted him since he’d gotten back in his car. Had Lilly counted? Had she “given” herself to Monroe? Well, she’d given her time, her attention. Of course, the dog would say that counted. It had taken his daughter, and he’d encouraged it. He cursed himself, and whatever blindness had come over him the night before. Whether or not he truly wanted to believe any of this, it was happening. He had a decision to make. If he was wrong, it might mean he’d lose his daughter forever.

Either Lilly and Monroe were headed back south, the way they’d come a day earlier, or they were going some other way.

If they were going some other way, he was already too late. How would he ever know just where? But he didn’t think it would be random like that—Monroe had things to do. Lilly had said that on her way out the door. His mind’s eye kept showing him the little man’s little shack. That was where they’d gone. Back. The place had been a haven for the dog, a home. A workplace. So he gambled on Lilly’s life with a hunch and drove that way.

I-17 South took him to the same exit he’d used to get onto I-17 North the day before, the vertical interstate he’d bypassed partially due to heavy traffic on the highway—tourists mostly, but also many people just like him: off to an early start on a weekend that might bring them together with family or friends. The car thrummed beneath him, vibrating heavily, and with the rate, his heart was pumping he might as well have been part of the machine.

“Come on, come on.”

Could Lilly and the dog have gotten this far? Five hours had gone by, and he was practically already twenty miles south of Flagstaff as it was. His kindergarten-like calculating skills in his amped-up state told him that would put Monroe and Lilly at somewhere around four miles an hour. Possible. It’s possible, anything is, Harry, the dead little man’s voice said. That dog can talk. Kept trying to tell me it could make me rich and famous. Then, when I didn’t accept, that dog turned into a tiger and bit my head clean off. Can’t count out a magic dog, Harry, especially when it’s got your kid.

So he drove on, toward the road he’d used as a detour, the road that had taken him past the little shack he already wished he’d never stopped at.

Toward the little road that had had such a strange name, one that even now he failed to remember. I’ll know it when I see it, he thought.

He was wrong.

He realized he’d made a mistake when he saw signs for Sedona and the beginnings of a city looming in front of him. Sedona was too far; he hadn’t gone through Sedona the day before. No, the little road had come to an end, and he’d taken a right, knowing he’d eventually get to 17. In fact, it had only been a few miles—four or five at the most. No Sedona, just pure, scorched Arizona desert.

Must have missed it.

Harold’s return pass got him no closer, as he found himself back at 17 without spotting the little road for the second straight time. His hands were sweaty, and it felt like his eyes were hot coals in his head as he turned around once again, uncertain of his sanity and yet certain of it by the same token. I’m not missing it because I’m panicking, he thought, I’m missing it because I can’t see it. Because it’s not there. That made no sense, but he supposed he hadn’t expected it to. In dealing with insanity, insane possibilities could not be ruled out. This was more than insanity, he had to figure. This was magic. Something his ex-wife had claimed to be an expert on.

This time Harold took it slow, noticing the odometer on the Civic and making a mental note each time it flicked a mile. When it had been three miles, he slowed down and focused his eyes toward the landscape on the left half of the road. A red truck sped past him, honking, but Harold paid it no mind. He was looking for something that would indicate some road in the desert, even if he wasn’t sure what it was yet.

Then he saw. A clear, straight line—on which no cactus seemed to grow. What were the odds of that? He stopped the Civic and put it in reverse. As he passed the line again, he noticed something else: tracks, leading down the path into the desert.

They weren’t dog tracks, and they weren’t girl tracks. It was sign of a larger hooved animal, like a horse or a donkey. They didn’t mean anything to him. This has to be the way…but please God, just let me be doing the right thing. With that slight prayer in the front of his mind, Harold pulled the sweaty steering wheel to the left and accelerated down the desert path.

After the first mile or two, the cacti-less path stretched before him for seemingly miles more, even on the flat plane of the desert ground. The tracks of the equine animal continued, shading toward the left half of what Harold imagined he must have been seeing as gray, paved road the day before. If the tracks were recent, he’d be coming up on whatever had made them pretty soon.

Harold was clutching at straws, flailing for anything that might mean Lilly was not lost forever. He was at the end of his mental rope, and that meant he might be making bad decisions. Was he being honest with himself, for instance, that he’d gone charging off into the distance in search of his daughter and a talking dog without even bothering to alert the police?

All the police would have done is tell me to sit it out, until it’s too late and Lilly is gone for good. Harold believed that. Police were more likely to gum up a thing, and might even suspect him. He could picture it now. “You seem awfully emphatic about this talking dog and isn’t it funny, we found a dead body out in the desert with your DNA all over it. You’re under arrest.” No, it was better that he hadn’t involved the authorities. This wasn’t anything anyone else could help with; it was Harold’s mess, and Harold would try to clean it. Hopefully, I’m in time when I do. Just let me know, God, if this is right. Let me know if I have to turn around and start over. I can’t wait much longer; Lilly doesn’t have time.

He didn’t have long to wait.

Even with the Civic trundling along at twenty-five miles an hour, the mule and its rider were visible long before he caught up to them, first as a high line of shadow that shimmered and winked in the hot afternoon sun, and then more substantially as he rode the gas pedal.

That it was a mule was obvious—too small to be a horse and too large to be a donkey, but with features of both—although the rider remained obscure, little more than a human-shaped bump on the beast’s back.

He pulled up alongside the mule and its rider, heart hammering like a wet fist in his throat as he rolled his window down. The rider was covered in cloth and slumped over the beast so that he couldn’t make out a face. The mule, apparently unphased by the arrival of the Civic, was still trudging along at a medium pace, so Harold could not stop the car.

“Hey! Mister! Riding the mule! Wake up and talk to me!” His voice was small in the afternoon largesse of the desert, and he supposed he sounded as panicked as he felt, but that wouldn’t let that stop him.

“Mister! Wake up!”

Finally, the figure on the mule stirred, bringing its head out of the cloth-covered depths of the pack animal’s mane, and slowly looked in his direction and sneezed, in the feminine fashion, he’d heard so many times since it had started almost twenty-four hours earlier.

She was covered in dark cloth, but it didn’t matter. The figure on the mule was his daughter, Lilly, and she was alive. His foot let off the gas in his surprise, and so the car rolled to a stop as he shouted his daughter’s name. That was okay, though, since the mule stopped as well.

Stopped, turned toward Harold and the Civic, and began to change.

He could hear his daughter groan as the animal changed size, and now noticed the many tight ties that had held her to the back of the beast that still held her, and seemed even to tighten as the beast shrank. What an effort it must have taken to even lift her head, to even breathe! He felt his hands go numb, along with his arms and legs. His heart beat heavier than ever, though, and blood poured into his forehead, panic and relief mixing like paint on an artist’s palette to form something altogether new: rage.

Harold yelled and kicked open the door, remembering just before lunging out that he had to unbuckle himself or his momentum would be wasted. The mule’s change seem to accelerate, and it achieved its next shape just as Harold’s feet fully met the ground.

Harold staggered, then took in the scene before him. All prior thoughts of action were temporarily shelved. The little man Harold recognized as the shopkeeper Stilliken from the day before, stood in front of him, fully naked. Lilly was strapped to his back.

Stilliken chuckled. “Smarter than I took you for, Harry. Wouldn’t have known it, though. Not from last night’s conversation.”

Lilly sneezed, again, and emitted a low croak. Harold’s eyes narrowed. He made fists.

“You’re dead.”

The little man chuckled again, and Harold remembered how much he’d disliked it the few times he’d heard it the day before. The chuckle of someone you shouldn’t trust.

“I don’t know how you mean, Harry. If you mean you want to kill me, that’s just funny. Part of the deal you made with me was that you couldn’t harm me. If you mean you thought I was dead, well, that’s funny too. But only then because you thought that little dog Monroe was behind all this. I took care of that dog yesterday out in the desert and then spun myself into him.”

It made sense, in a way. Harold didn’t much care anymore. It turned out Monroe was Stilliken in dog’s clothing, and then mule’s clothing, but did that change anything? Whether it had been Monroe, Stilliken, or the Devil who had stolen Lilly from him, they had to pay.

“You took my daughter from me. I want her back.” Stilliken took steps down the path, away from Harold, and he had to follow.

“Sorry bud. No can do. First of all, the girl isn’t yours anymore. She’s mine, as per our agreement.”

“I didn’t agree to give you my daughter. The deal was...it was that she’d love me, and you’d get to leave safely. Remember?”

“Don’t be a fool, Harry. I said she’d love you like she did when she was little. Pretty easy there—I didn’t have to do anything but play on your self-esteem. Then, I got you to agree to let me keep anything that was given to me outside your house. Your daughter was on that list. The trick is, you made a bad play. I just capitalized.”

Harold had heard enough. He clenched his fist and lunged forward, launching it at the little man’s face. Stilliken stood there, grinning.

As soon as his fist connected, Harold’s face exploded with pain. There were flashes of white and red, and he realized he was on his knees. When he looked up, Stilliken was already down the path some twenty yards. The bundle on his back hung limply.

“Lilly.” Harold pulled himself to his feet and sprinted after the little imp.

“Don’t try it, Harry. You can’t touch me; it was part of the deal. Hit me; you’re just hitting yourself.”

“I need my daughter back. If I can’t take her from you, then can I deal with her? Can I give you something you want more?” His nose hurt; he felt blood dripping down into his mouth. Broken? Probably; it didn’t matter.

Stilliken chuckled again and turned to Harold once more. His eyes were not kind.

“You misunderstand me, writer man. Your daughter is what I wanted. Everything I did, I did to get her. Starting with the breakdown of your little car.”

Harold put his hands on his forehead and tried to focus. “Why...why do you want her? She’s thirteen years old...just a kid.”

Stilliken began to walk again. “I’ve married younger. The fresher the fruit, the sweeter the juices. The sweeter the juices, the longer I live. You don’t think I got to be this old playing the singles bars, do you?”

Harold blinked, and then stumbled along.

“No. No, you’re not going to marry her.”

“I disagree. What are you going to do, writer man, write a different ending? There isn’t anything you can do. The second condition was you had to allow me whatever keeps me alive. That leaves me Lilly and the right to marry her. Give up, Harry. Go back home, publish the book I wrote for you, and forget about my young bride. Or I’ll put an end to you right here.”

“No, no. No, see, I don’t want the book anymore. I want my daughter.”

“Don’t want the book? Should have said something before. I mean, it’s surprising. Probably the best story was ever written, by anyone. The story of my life. It’ll make you millions, Harry. All the money you’ll ever need.”

“But I’m so close. Lilly! Lilly, can you hear me?”

“You’ve lost, Harry. You got this far, sure. But you still lost. I don’t have the greatest patience in the world. You don’t stop right now; I’ll kill you. I’m tired of you as it is, and I have somewhere to be.”

Harold almost didn’t stop. He almost pushed the little man’s words, but then he caught a warning glance from Stilliken that said all the necessary things: I’ve got the upper hand, in every way. Got you in all the ways that count, and some that don’t. So his feet settled down, and he stood watching as the naked little man changed back into the mule and began trotting once again down the desert path on which no cactus grew.

Harold had lost.

No, he couldn’t accept it. Lilly still needed him.

“What can I do? There’s nothing I can do.”

Don’t believe that. Don’t believe that, or you’ve lost her. You’ve lost her forever. Just because he says you’re done doesn’t mean you are. He just wants you to believe it, and you almost do. Don’t believe it. You still have something.

But what?

He scanned his thoughts—there was a brief memory from a moment that already seemed forever ago. Slippery, too, as if he’d been drunk when it had happened.

Then he had it. Last night, when he told you the rules. There was a condition on one of them. “As long as you can’t guess my name, you can’t hurt me.” All you need is his name.

Stilliken, the mule, trotted on ahead, perhaps fifty yards from him. Within earshot. Harold started jogging again, trying to at least keep pace with the kidnapping pack animal if he could. Might as well try, right away.

“Stilliken!” The mule didn’t acknowledge him. That couldn’t be it—the little man seemed cleverer than that. He wouldn’t just give his enemy the answer. His whole name, then. What had he said his name was when he introduced himself inside the little shack? R…R something. Ronald, no. Randal. Randal Stilliken.

“Randal Stilliken! That’s your name!” Stilliken made no adjustment to his movements, and Harold was discouraged. So that wasn’t it either. He kept jogging, mind refusing to turn over like the motor of a dead car. Randal Stilliken. Randal Stilliken. Randal Stilliken. What is his real name? What do you call a man who steals your daughter? Something was familiar about that—Randal Stilliken sounded right, or almost right for something he’d heard before. An old story his mother had loved to tell him. But it wasn’t Randal Stilliken, no. It was...

“Rumpelstiltskin!” He shouted it at the top of his lungs, and this time the mule did react, kicking its hind legs up in surprise and starting into a little gallop, bouncing the sack on its back up and down with careless vigor. Rumpelstiltskin had been the man’s name. The same one as in the fairy tale? Why not, he thought, as he slowed. It doesn’t matter; he’s getting away with your daughter. You can’t just keep running. No, he couldn’t.

Harold needed the Civic.

Half a minute later he had it, and it started with an optimistic roar. Stilliken was just an image of rising dust in the distance, but he’d catch up quickly as the silver car put up its dust trail. Getting there wasn’t the problem, not anymore. Now he had a new problem. Once he reached the galloping Rumpelstiltskin mule, what would he do? With Lilly strapped to his back, Harold couldn’t just take him down with the car. He might entertain the idea of getting Lilly down first, but he had no way to get to the straps tying her in place, and nothing to cut them with. He’d effectively managed to play out of checkmate and into a stalemate, and that still didn’t provide him with any way to win. But you’re still playing, and that’s all that matters. You can’t stop him with force, but you might be able to tire him out.

As his foot settled onto the gas pedal, Harold offered up one final prayer. Please, let Lilly be all right when all of this is over.

He closed in on the galloping mule, which kept looking madly back to judge Harold’s proximity. As he got closer, something started happening. The straps holding the cloth-covered Lilly to the thing’s back began to snap, one by one, sending their ends up into the air.

She’s coming off.

It was true; as he watched, wide-eyed, the bundle that was his daughter slid to the side of the mule and hung there, supported by only one remaining strap. Brace yourself, Lilly. The strap snapped apart, and Lilly fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, rolling end over end on the desert path before coming to a stop. Harold was forced to swerve to the right to avoid running her over, although a tiny part of him wondered if it would have mattered. How could anyone live through what she’d been through? The same rage he felt before intensified, deepened.

He sped up.

In front of him, the Rumpelstiltskin mule seemed to have noticed Lilly was missing. It had slowed down and was bearing right as if to turn around. This gave Harold a perfect target. He caught the beast’s strangely human gaze and braced himself for impact. For Lilly, and all the other people you’ve screwed with over the years.

The world was then a flipping, turning chaotic mass of broken glass, clenched teeth, and flailing arms. When it came to rest, right side up again, Harold felt amazing. His hands shook with adrenaline, and he licked the blood off his lips absently. Wow.

What he heard then told him his work wasn’t over. It was a groan, highly animal but becoming more human all the time. He looked over his shoulder, through the shattered remains of the Civic. The mule, broken in many places, was changing again, presumably back into Stilliken. No, you don’t.

Harold pushed the Civic’s door open and stepped out, sprinting back down the road toward where Stilliken was becoming himself again. An unmarred self, free of the cuts and breaks that would have indicated he had just been plowed into at sixty-five or more miles an hour with a three-thousand-pound projectile. This man was hard to kill.

Rumpelstiltskin, himself once again, watched Harold approach.

“I warned you, Harry. I warned you, and now things are going to be ugly.”

“Lilly’s dead, look! You killed her—I’m going to kill you for what you’ve done to me.”

“She’s not dead, Harry. She’s asleep, and perfectly all right. My magic kept her safe, even when she came off my back. When she wakes, she’ll be fine.”

It would have been a relief to hear this if Harold could believe the little man. He couldn’t. Lilly hadn’t been asleep when he’d come driving up alongside, had she? No, the little man was a liar, and that was hardly a surprise. He was already looking for openings, moments that would be advantageous for him to lunge at Rumpelstiltskin. Of course, the little man wasn’t fooled.

“Yes, go ahead. Hit me. It will be a pleasure to do with you what I’ve done with so many...”

Harold didn’t move.

“No? Well, then. I have a wedding I need to be getting to.”

The little man turned and began walking back toward where Lilly lay, bundled in the cloth that had kept Harold from seeing her.

With Rumpelstiltskin’s back turned, Harold made his move. He took two steps forward and with the third, let his right arm fly up and then drop, his fist like a hammer falling on the head of a nail. But the imp anticipated this, or had read his thoughts, and threw his head to the left, so when Harold’s fist made contact, it barely glanced off a bony shoulder. Harold tried to regain his balance, and Rumpelstiltskin threw an elbow into his ribs and grabbed his head as he doubled over.

Harold felt white hot pain followed by an all-encompassing itchy numbness.

It took him several moments to realize he was still alive, and several more to realize he was paralyzed, near completely. He could breathe, yes, and could move his eyes, but he lay face down on the desert floor so he couldn’t see much that wasn’t in the way of dirt. He couldn’t feel the heat of the sand on his skin, but he could smell himself burning. Since he couldn’t move, or speak, or cry, he did what he could.

He listened.

At first he heard nothing. Then, in the distance, he made out footsteps and mumbling. The little man had made it back to Lilly, it seemed, and was talking to her. Or to himself, perhaps—the wind along the ground whistled into his ears, and he couldn’t make out any of Rumpelstiltskin’s actual words. Then he heard something else, another voice. Lilly’s, answering back. She’s alive. If he had any muscle control at all, he would have smiled. He’s going to take her, though, Harold. He’s going to marry her and suck the life out of her slowly...adding onto his sickeningly long life in the process. This time, there’s nothing you can do. Too bad you didn’t ask for help because now you’re done.

He heard his daughter sneeze, and then footsteps returning his way. Two sets of them. So he’s making her walk now, huh? The mule part of him must be broken. As they got closer, he started making out words. Mostly Rumpelstiltskin’s, as he was the only one talking.

“...be scared, Lilly. It looks bad now, sure. But it’s for the best, all of it. Don’t look at him if you don’t want to; I know it’s hard. He never loved you, Lilly, not like I love you. That’s why everything’s going to be okay now. We’re on our way to my little store, all right? Remember, from yesterday? Only now it’s different. It’s an altar.”

The footsteps moved nearer him until it seemed they were just twenty feet away. Then they were past him. Don’t go, Lilly, don’t go. I’m not dead. I’m not dead, and I love you. He thought it with all his might, as if forcing it to the front of his brain could somehow make his mouth work. But nothing moved, and he remained a silent body face down in the dirt. Rumpelstiltskin was talking again.

“Here, why don’t you take my hand. Don’t look. I’ve got you now; you’re safe.” A pause, and then “Good,” presumably as Lilly put her hand in his. Harold wondered what sort of psychological state she was in, that she’d let herself be led down a desert road by a short naked man past her supposedly dead father. It couldn’t be a good one. As if to prove his hypothesis correct, his daughter spoke.

“Gondoluca mestervinits!” Another pause, and then Rumpelstiltskin in mock amusement:

“What did you s—?” The imp’s voice was replaced by a POP so loud it felt like Harold’s eardrums busted.

Then there were running footsteps, coming toward him, and small hands were turning him over gently. His view went from sand to the horizon to a figure blocking the sun above him. A figure with long hair and distinctly feminine features. Lilly.

“Harold? Dad? Don’t, don’t die. Please don’t be dead. Oh no, no, he killed you. No! No, no, I was too late...I was...”

Harold wanted so badly to move his hand to her cheek, to blink, to smile and tell her he was all right, but the paralysis stopped him. No, wait, had he blinked? He had. His hand began to twitch, slowly. The paralysis was starting to let up. He moved his mouth, trying to speak, as Lilly’s face was in her hands as she sobbed. His words wouldn’t come out, but hers did.

“I’m so sorry, Dad. I should have treated you better; I should have been a better daughter to you. You came back for me, and who knows how hard it must have been with Mom, and then today—” She broke off, body wracked with sobs that shook the ground. Harold tried his mouth again, and this time something happened.

“Lil...Lilly.”

She froze. Then, after looking quickly around, her eyes returned to Harold’s body. He smiled at her, and felt a wet tear slide out of his left eye and down toward his ear.

“Dad!”

“I’m alive, Lilly. I was just paralyzed.”

She threw herself on him, once again sobbing, once again filled with emotion—though maybe the current one was better than the grief it had replaced.

“Oh, Lilly. Shhh, shhh. Everything’s okay, right? It’s over. He’s gone, isn’t he?”

She nodded hard into his chest and then looked up at him. “I...changed him,” she said and sneezed. Allergic to magic, he thought.

“You! How did you—?”

“Once you shouted his name and he bucked, I was able to start unraveling the binding spell he had on me...while leaving the protective one. All of a magician’s power and vulnerability lies in his real name...and once I knew it I had the power over him that I needed. Especially since he’d never bothered to find out mine, you know, Lillith. Or that I was a magician too.”

“You can do magic?” he whispered. Lilly laughed through drying tears.

“Yeah, I can do magic, Dad. Just like Mom. We talked about telling you, and I wanted to, but she didn’t think you’d understand...I mean, when Mom told you, you stopped loving her.”

Harold tried to sit up. His head flushed, and he rolled onto his side instead.

“I never stopped loving your mother. I think I was just...I was afraid she was insane. Then I needed to get away. Listen to me, Lilly. There’s nothing okay about what I did when I left you guys. Nothing. None of it was your fault or had to do with you not being enough or anything. I was a coward. I realized that, and I came back, but that doesn’t make up for any of the lost time, or the way I treated your mother. Because she was right, I wouldn’t have understood. I wouldn’t have believed in any of this. Now I do. Today I do.”

Lilly offered him a hand, and he took it; the strength she pulled him up with was uncanny.

“I love you, Dad. I forgive you.”

Harold felt as if the weight of a million stars had been lifted from his shoulders. He was forgiven. Oh, how he’d wished for those words, and for the smile on Lilly’s face. A smile of love, and understanding. It made him feel invincible.

“Thank you.”

She nodded and Harold took a look around. The Civic was totaled. The desert path, empty. The little man named Rumpelstiltskin was nowhere to be seen.

“What did you do with him?”

Her smile morphed into a sly grin. She turned, pointing to a spot in the center of the path.

“Do you see that little cactus?”

He did. It was barely a foot high, lacking thorns, and had a large yellow flower growing out the top.

“You turned him into a cactus.”

“It was all I could think of.” They both laughed.

“Let’s go home.”

Harold looked back one last time before they began to walk. The Silver Bullet had served him well, but he’d be able to replace it with the money he’d get from Rumpelstiltskin’s life story. He almost felt guilty for deciding to go ahead and publish it, but after all that little man had put him through, he would take whatever he could get.

“Lilly?”

“Yeah Dad?”

“Is there any way you can...I don’t know, magic us back to Flagstaff?”

“Nope. But I can call Mom to pick us up back near the highway. She’ll want to hear about this.”

Harold nodded, then looked down.

“Do you think she’ll believe it?”

“Oh, no. Heck, I don’t even believe it.”

So father and daughter walked away, toward I-17 and a gas station with a pay phone, toward a life of love and truth and magic. Behind them, a little flower atop the cactus formerly known as Rumpelstiltskin, swiveled to face the two like a single eye as they disappeared on the horizon.

Then that flower closed, shriveled, and was torn off by a passing breeze.



back