Fine Print

Fine Print
by Kristi Brooks

The fluorescent lights of the 24-hour post office reflected off Tommy’s bleached mullet as the overweight lady behind the counter continued stamping the packages of drug money. Her skin was pocked from years of acne, and the flab on the underside of her arm jiggled a little every time she moved. Tacked to the wall next to her was a picture of two chubby children who looked just as disgruntled as she did. Tommy looked back to his box of packages and tried not to think about what the conception had been like.

The packages didn’t contain bundles of money, but rather porn DVDs with evocative titles like Double the Pleasure and Blow It. Neither he nor his boss really cared about the movies. In fact, it was likely Tommy would receive these same DVDs back in less than a month. No, it was the 100-dollar bills taped on the back of each one—inside the case, but carefully tucked behind the insert—that interested them. This time however, Darlin’ Joe was only going to receive part of his money. Tommy had decided it was time to go out on his own.

His fingers drummed against the hard, gray Formica as the woman continued at turtle-like speed. Each envelope was addressed to one of 10 different P.O. Boxes that were scattered throughout the northeastern states. Once a week, the packages were gathered and taken directly to Darlin’ Joe. The man was a recluse who barely left his high-rise apartment, especially during the day. His pale, blotchy skin spoke volumes of his fear of all things sun related. It was an unusual fear, but it was nothing compared to the man himself.

Tommy had known all the major players by the time he was 12, and among the lower-level street hustlers, Darlin’ Joe was nothing more than a ghost, a man so old he never emerged from the confines of his apartment unless he absolutely had to. As Tommy had progressed through the ranks, he’d decided those kids’ impressions of Joe might not have been too far off.

Tommy remembered when he starting hustling at the street corners, peddling Joe’s new miracle drug. They called it L.O.A., and the high was rumored to be so potent that it left users in a virtual euphoria for a full day. However, when they crashed back to earth, it was an unbelievably harsh landing. They were under strict instructions not to give out too much at once. Apparently a high dose was bad for repeat business.

None of Joe’s staff were allowed to use the drug. If they caught you using, there was no second chance, there was only a name and a faint memory. Joe did not tolerate dissent among his crew.

Tommy may not have been the smartest tool in the shed, but he paid careful attention to those young boys’ rumblings. On cold windy nights, they would huddle around a dumpster fire and whisper about their leader, short, dark whispers that were quickly gathered up by the wind and deposited in secret corners. They spoke of Joe’s secret life, of his odd, deeply-held religious beliefs and his obsession with all things Voodoo.

However, the rumor that Tommy found the most ridiculous was the one about the ball of hair that Joe wore around his neck. But the other boys swore that this was the case; they told of the collection of hair he’d assembled from people who worked for him. They spoke with soft reverence, and Tommy still remembered that fear several years later, when he found himself ushered into Joe’s living room by two goons and forced to sit on a stool next to a covered tray.

“What’s under there?” he wondered aloud.

A noise to his left startled him, and he turned to find that Joe had stepped out of the shadows in the far corner of the room. The kids in his neighborhood had gotten one thing wrong: Darlin’ Joe wasn’t some old goat living out his last days, but a surprisingly young man who didn’t look a day over 40. His skin was so pale it was almost translucent, and combined with his thick black hair and forest green eyes, it gave him the appearance of a perfectly sculpted china doll.

“They’re just scissors. It’s nothing to get upset over.” Joe told him as he pulled the maroon cover off, displaying a pair of solid gold scissors resting on a satin cushion. “I can’t do this without my special scissors.”

Joe stood behind Tommy and ran his hands over his head, meticulously inspecting his hair.

“My life really began when I was 10, Tommy. Do you remember what it felt like to be 10 and to be free for the summer?”

Tommy shook his head and cringed as Joe’s fingers tightened their grip on his hair.

“Well, you should. For most boys, it was the last summer they were kids, young enough that the prospect of their teenage years was too far off to care about, but enough removed from their kindergarten years that people no longer considered them babies. Ten is truly the perfect age.”

Tommy nodded slightly, as if on cue, mindful not to break Joe’s rhythm.

“My 10th summer, I lived in New Orleans, and I’d been playing kickball with a few friends up and down the street. One thing led to another, and before I realized it, I had run right into a Voodoo practitioner’s shop. Have you ever been in one of those?”

“No, sir,” Tommy answered, mindful of the scissors circling his head. He felt as if he was being inducted into Joe’s religion, like some kind of cult member. Personally, Tommy believed religion was nothing more than a mind game, and most of the time, people ended up like those poor Kool-Aid-drinking fuckers in Jonestown. And that shit wasn’t for him, thank you very much. If Darlin’ Joe wanted to discuss these philosophical considerations before allowing him into his drug syndicate, then so be it.

“Well, I can tell you one thing; there is a smell associated with those kinds of places that will burn straight into your nasal passages. Everything hits you at once: the darkness, the smoke, and the incense, all fighting way your senses. I stumbled backward, and in my confusion, I fell against one of the display cases.”

There were a few moments of silence as Joe contemplated this, with his head tilted back, his blue-black hair glinting in the soft wattage of the overhead bulb. The point of the scissors was thumping against the cleft in Joe’s chin with such force Tommy was sure that at any moment blood would start to trickle out.

This is most definitely a madman, Tommy thought. Oh well, it’s too late now, better drink my Kool-Aid and be done with it.

But Joe didn’t make him drink anything. Instead, he lowered the scissors and turned his cloudy green eyes until they met Tommy’s dark brown ones. “Think about what that must have been like, Tommy. Think about all the frightening things a 10-year-old boy could run into in a Voodoo shop. Can you imagine that?”

And for once, Tommy used his imagination. He could see himself entering that storefront door, wanting to do nothing except hide from his friends. I’ll get them when they round the corner, he thought as he ducked in, but he never did get them. Sunshine and laughter were wiped from his mind as the scent of raw earth, and something more menacing, reached out to him.

He’d never smelled a decaying body before, but his mind latched onto the image of a rotting mummy ambling around the shop, pieces of its frail body falling as it moved. Then the incense smoke curled around his face, temporarily blinding him with its bitter scent as if it were alive. Tommy found himself throwing up his hands to shield his face, and the boy he was imagining did the same.

But are you really just imagining it all, Tommy? Are you sure? a soft, pale voice warbled in his ears, reaching out to him through the smoke-infested room in his mind.

Tommy knew his body was sitting in Joe’s apartment because he could still feel the stool beneath his ass, but it didn’t stop him from being just as convinced that he was a 10-year-old boy.

His heart thumped so hard within his chest that it rattled his teeth. The fear was more intense than the time Fatty Simms had held a gun to his head and seared his flesh with the hot muzzle. Then, even though Tommy’s friend Adam had lain bleeding to death on the sidewalk, the fear had only been present in an abstract form, as if he were watching it unroll across a movie screen.

But this imaginary scene caused terror to flood in and pinch his insides with its ice-cold talons. His stomach was so tightly knotted that pissing his pants in fear suddenly became a distinct possibility.

Tommy shook his head in both places at once. When this didn’t work, he began to wave his hands around his face, trying to ward off the lingering ghosts of the vision. The boy in his mind began to fall back, and Tommy fell with him until Joe’s apartment vanished.

He blinked repeatedly, but nothing changed. He was still firmly in the shop.

The 10-year-old he’d become was struggling to move, sure he had either broken his back or something in the shop. He patted himself down, brushing his hands against the fabric of his pants and moving his legs to make sure that everything was intact.

As his eyes adjusted, he looked up to find a beautiful young woman standing in front of him. Her skin was the color of soft caramel, and her eyes shone with the same haunting green light as Joe’s, but it was the ball of hair bound to her neck that intrigued Tommy. In her hand, she held a knife so large Davy Crockett himself might have wielded it.

Her movements were hauntingly graceful as she moved through the dusty shop. Tommy watched her, so enthralled with her body that he was almost unaware she was swinging the knife down until it was inches from his head. He closed his eyes and screamed.

When he dared to open them again, he found himself curled into a protective ball in the center of Joe’s million-dollar apartment.

“And this hair, you give it to me willingly?” Joe asked, holding a clump of Tommy’s dirty hair as if it were a trophy.

“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

Somehow, he kept his legs from carrying him away as Joe held open the door for him to leave.

“You missed the most important part of that meeting,” Joe said. “She told me I would be a great man someday, possibly great enough to rule thousands of people, but that my ruin would be brought on by the sun.”

“Oh, I see. So since then, you never …”

“See the sun?” Joe chuckled under his breath. “No, Tommy, I’ve not had much need for it after that day. And now, I could care less if it ever rose again. Just see Flin sometime this week, and he’ll get you set up.” And with one quick pat on the back, Joe ushered him out of his apartment and into Oklahoma.

Since then, Tommy had been stuck out here for almost five years, peddling Joe’s “special” drug and mailing him his share without so much as a question. On his way out here, he’d been told by Flin that he was supposed to blend in with the locals so that they would begin to trust him.

Most of the pictures he found from Oklahoma came from a website about white trash shoppers. Before leaving New York, he’d had his hair bleached blonde and cut into a spike-topped mullet, and as soon as he’d gotten to Oklahoma, he’d gone out and bought a black suede jacket with a skull-and-flag logo stitched on the back.

It hadn’t taken him long to figure out most people in Oklahoma didn’t dress that way, but by then, he’d grown accustomed to the new look. People gave him a wide berth, and it amused him.

The lady behind the register was looking at him oddly. He stared at her for a moment, trying to figure it out. She nodded her head in the direction of his hand, and he saw that he was still drumming his fingertips, the repetitive sound filling the otherwise silent post office.

Apparently, I’m not annoying enough to warrant an actual comment, he thought as he looked at the box. He must’ve been at the post office for 30 minutes already, and she hadn’t even processed half of the packages.

Tommy chuckled to himself and thought about how he’d managed to hold back enough money that he was never going to have to stare at her cottage cheese arms again.

Once or twice, Tommy had almost decided not to go through with it. For some unknown reason, he’d begun thinking of those Jonestown followers and their grape Kool-Aid.

But you already drank your Kool-Aid, Tommy, you just didn’t know it …

An hour later, Tommy scanned the sparse contents of his fridge and briefly contemplated his actions. He grabbed one of the last two beers and popped it open, the metal lid clinking against the counter as if to herald his arrival.

“To freedom!” he announced to the empty room, chugging the first half of the beer in one gulp.

It was well past three in the morning and he was tired. He knew he would have to leave in a few hours. Joe was bound to be pissed off, and Tommy didn’t have much time to get moving.

It’ll take them at least three days to get the letter anyway, and by then I’ll be bye-bye birdie, he thought as he flopped on the couch. The room seemed to fill itself with the voice of his mother lulling him to sleep with her drunken crooning of “Moon River.”

He slipped down further into the couch. He could feel the cold glass bottle pressed against his thigh, but that couldn’t stop him from drifting toward sleep. There were bells now, soft, tinkling bells that blocked out his mother’s voice. Those bells became a deep and remorse-filled melody tumbling out of the brass bell of a solitary horn.

He was back in New Orleans, and he was running from his friends. He could feel the thick, rich ocean air strumming across his skin, he could hear the vibrant melody of a nearby saxophone playing for spare change on the sidewalk, and the smell of food so permeated the air that it felt like taking a small bite each time he inhaled.

Everything around him felt timeless and classic, and even though he’d never actually been there, it felt like home.

He ducked inside the heavy wooden door, his arm grazing against the rough brick exterior and scratching his skin. He jumped and cradled his elbow as he looked out at his friends. The wood fell in between them, a curtain that would never again be lifted.

But nothing could stop his body from turning around and facing the woman who had been in the imaginary shop all those years ago. She started to talk, twirling the ball of hair that hung around her neck.

“Thomas Andrew Mulhaney, you filled out a contract with Darlin’ Joe for a lifetime of service, did you not?”

“Umm …” Tommy didn’t want to say anything. What he remembered signing was a contract that simply stated Joe would be the one to terminate their agreement. “I thought the contract was really just a weird formality … I mean, who has drug dealers sign contracts? I just thought it meant—”

“You don’t have to tell me what you thought it meant. I know what you thought, because it’s what everyone thinks.” She eyed him as she continued to twist the ball between the palms of her hands. “You thought that was a standard service contract between two individual partners with the agreement to terminate the contract on Joe’s behalf, correct?”

Tommy nodded, his gaze fixating on the ball in her hands. It was beginning to glow. Her delicate fingers twisted it back and forth, stroking its surface as if it were a prized cat. In the middle of that brilliant glow, he could see the short, dark lock of hair that had been lopped from his head. A bright blue cloud emerged from the ball’s surface and drifted down to her feet like a dense fog.

He kept trying to convince himself that this was just a dream. All he had to do was pull open that heavy door and find his way back out into the real world—not New Orleans, but Brooklyn or the Bronx. Hell, he’d even settle for Oklahoma City.

“Well, I’m not the devil, and neither is Joe, so don’t worry, your eternal soul is in no danger here. But your life … well, that’s an entirely different matter.”

“What is it I’m supposed to do? If you want me to repent, then I repent. I won’t cross Joe again, I promise.”

“Oh no, Tommy, that’s no good.” She said, her voice drawing out the word good until it oozed from her lips like honey. Tommy had time to think that this deep southern drawl was definitely more hospitable than the short, often rude accent one usually encountered in Oklahoma and Texas. “You signed, and now you owe me your heart and your brains.”

“What good are my heart and brains without me to use them?” He said as he began to back toward the door, trying to avoid the blue cloud that was now reaching for his shoes with tentative tentacles.

“You see, that’s the interesting part of the story,” she said, her voice suddenly fracturing into two distinct patterns. The figure began to take shape, and Tommy realized that he was in trouble, far more trouble than he’d originally thought. Joe was also standing in front of him, shoulder to shoulder with the woman. Both of their eyes shined with the same distant green glow, and when they spoke, their voices remained in perfect chorus. “A spirit can incarnate an earthly host of its choosing, but that the host has to be offered as a sacrifice. You, Tommy, are that sacrifice.”

“But-but—” was all Tommy could manage as he stood there, hypnotized by their soft green stares and the slight rhythmic swaying of their bodies. It was as if they were moving in time to a radio station only they could hear.

“Most Voodoo practitioners believe that a spirit enters the body. ‘Loa’ is a term that refers to the concept of saints or angels. What comes, though, isn’t the kind of angel that most people imagine.” They smiled simultaneously, their teeth standing out against the blue haze that now enveloped him.

Tommy opened his mouth to tell them he didn’t care about their religion, but before he could utter a single word, the blue cloud disappeared down his throat. He could feel it overtaking his consciousness as it surged through his body. Millions of tiny pieces, sharp as glass, poured through, contaminating him from the inside out.

“Our new devotee is coming. It needs to be baptized, and it needs to have a holy communion. For that kind of communion, we’re going to require your help.” Once again they smiled, and Tommy felt their eyes probing him, haunting him as his body was painfully thrust into the dark.

Hours later, a muscular man in a dark suit knocked on the door to Tommy’s apartment. “Open up, Tommy. It’s the FBI. We want to talk to you about Darlin’ Joe.”

After a few tense moments of silence, the man produced a key and entered the apartment on his own. His name was Donald Krenshaw, but everyone at the FBI just called him Don. Don was the guy you went to when you needed stuff done without a hassle, the guy who made everybody’s invitation lists around Christmas.

The Don that now stood in the apartment would not be on anybody’s Christmas list this year. That Don was no longer there; he was no longer acting on his own. He could only watch as he was drawn toward the now-deceased Tommy Langdon.

Nor could he stop his body from shedding his clothes, piling them neatly on the floor before walking across the room to the corpse, fully naked. On the couch was a tall, lanky man with a deep tan on his arms and face and a bright yellow mullet. Blood trickled out of the hole in his chest and corners of his glassy eyes like the bloody tears of crucified Jesus. He appeared to be holding his own brain and heart in each of his hands.

Kneeling on the floor in front of the man, Don gingerly took the heart from the blue outstretched hand and shoved it into his mouth with a hunger so deep and intense it was as if he’d never eaten before. His teeth gnashed the tender muscle and pulled back, the coppery taste of blood flowing down his throat like a fine wine.

This hadn’t been what he’d agreed to when the woman with the glistening dark skin and bright green eyes had come to him, but that no longer mattered.

And by the time the thing bit into the tightly wound coils that had been Tommy’s brains, there was nothing left of the amiable Don Krenshaw. Now the only thing that mattered was the nourishment, the sacrifice.

It had been at least 100 years since his banishment. He grinned at her, his eyes shining in the dim apartment.

She stood calmly in the corner of the room, taking in his smile and returning it with one of her own. There was much to do in the next few days, but there would be time for working everything out later. Right now, she let him feast.

Copyright © 2015 Kristi Brooks