This is the fourth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: readers voted for their favorite title out of a list we provided, and we each wrote a story using the winning title.
The winning title for Round 4 was Cold Heart. For them interested, the Round 4 Title voting results are found HERE.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same thing goes if you find yourself not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Perry’s submission.
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s Perry’s:
A kid named Emmerson Doodle came into the world in the usual way. But there was nothing usual about Emmerson — for starters, he was blue. Having been deprived of oxygen in the womb, Emmerson adapted and even thrived. As we find out, oxygen is poison to magic, stunting one’s magical Talents. Emmerson soon finds himself in perilous situations where his magical Talent is needed to save himself and his “girlfriend” Sofi. Spoiler alert: a fictional pigeon is killed in the telling of this story.
Copyright 2022 — Perry Broxson
(6,270 words – approx. reading time: about 24 minutes based on 265 WPM)
As the song says, “He came into the world in the usual way.” Usual, in that Emmerson Doodle was born in a hospital to loving American parents; unusual, in that he was born blue – hence, the ensuing verse of the song: “Little boy blue and the man in the moon.”
To be sure, it was the ensnaring umbilical cord that caused the onset of the pigmentation anomaly. The obstetrician, alarmed by his hue, panicked and handed him off like a football, urging nurses to run, run, run him to the end-zone of the NICU where his blood oxygen levels could be managed.
The blue boy’s father, Don Doodle, suited up and visited his son hours after delivery. “He’s blue,” Don said to the neonatologist. “Emmerson is blue. I’m not a doctor, but I know that’s not good. He feels cold. Is he getting enough oxygen?”
The doctor, a fleshy man with silver hair and bushy eyebrows, said, “He is, Mr. Doodle. We’ve double, triple-checked our instruments. Little Emmerson is receiving sufficient oxygen. It’s just that . . .”
“Um,” he searched for words. “His body. His little body. Is. Um. Rejecting. Yes, rejecting, oxygen.”
“Rejecting oxygen,” Don Doodle gasped.
“The cord, you see,” the doctor continued. “We think the cord deprived him – in the womb. Gradually, as he grew, it constricted, ultimately allowing only 10% oxygenated blood.”
Don shook his head. “No. My grandmother was put on a respirator when her oxygen levels went to 85%. You’re telling me that my son is perfectly fine at 10%?”
“Yes,” he nodded gravely. Then, he scratched his silver head and said, “He’s healthy, Mr. Doodle. Somehow he’s adapted. We’ve scanned his brain and tested his vital organs. Your son is a perfectly healthy infant.” The doctor crossed himself and cocked his eyes to heaven.
“But he’s blue,” Don Doodle said absently. “My son is blue.”
Two years later, Don and Dawn Doodle watched their son, Emmerson, toddle down the hall, chasing a red ball. Don turned to his wife and said with more sadness than he intended: “I thought he would change.”
“Change?” Dawn asked.
“You know – to our color.”
Dawn attacked. “He’s healthy, Don. That’s what’s important. Emmerson is super smart and well-adjusted.”
“He’s also blue,” Don said. “And if he stays blue . . . his life will be . . . difficult. People are mean. People are unaccepting.”
“And you,” Dawn interjected. “Are you accepting of our son?”
“Of course I am, Dawn,” he said, his eyes shining with sorrow. “It’s the world I’m worried about. It’s so cruel. It may crush him . . . .”
“Or make him stronger,” Dawn countered. “Sure, he’s different, Don. But it’s skin we’re talking about. I don’t care if he’s paisley or polka dotted. When I think of what my body did to him – strangling him like that – I thank God Above that he suffered no other effects.”
They looked at one another for a very long time, each hoping the other would say the thing they both thought: that being blue was the least of Emmerson Doodle’s peculiarities.
At nine, Emmerson entered seventh grade, skipping fifth and sixth grade. A twelve-year old kid named Sid wasted no time bullying him. “What are you s’posed to be, a Martian?”
Emmerson regarded the boy for a moment then said, “If you’re referring to the erroneous conjecture that Martians are green, you’ve got the wrong color as well as the wrong planet. Given the molecular composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil, it’s highly unlikely that hominid life would present as green . . . or blue.”
“You talk funny,” Sid said, then punched Emmerson in the shoulder.
“Even if I do, that’s not necessary,” Emmerson said, rubbing his arm.
Sid hit him again and laughed, “Won’t even be able to show your mommy the bruises . . . ‘cuz you’re blue.”
Sid socked him again and Emmerson fell down. The bully hovered over him, pointing, laughing, calling him a Martian.
“I thought I disabused you of that notion,” Emmerson said, struggling to get up.
“Disabuse this,” Sid said, cocking his leg for a donkey-kick to the ribs.
It was a girl that tackled Sid. Her name was Sophia, but everyone called her Sofi. She flew, did Sofi, like a super-sonic torpedo, piling headlong into the kidneys of the kid named Sid. He buckled and grunted and sprawled gracelessly into the schoolyard turf.
“You shouldn’t oughtta,” Sid started, then spit out a dirt clot. “You shouldn’t oughtta have done that, Sofi. I got no problem hittin’ girls.”
Sofi took two steps and let her foot fly, kicking Sid under the chin. A tooth launched and landed ten feet away. The crowd of kids oooooed as Sid scrambled to his feet, his mouth mangled and his eyes wild.
“Get a teacher,” Emmerson implored the onlookers. “Someone get a faculty member.”
No one moved. The spectacle was too engrossing. All eyes were on Sid and Sofi, and Sid was now on the offensive. He charged Sofi and grabbed a handful of her auburn hair. He slung her in a crescent and flung her to the ground. Then he pounced, mounting her, his knees pinning her shoulders. “I’m gonna smash your teeth out, bitch. Then I’m gonna knock the freckles off your stupid face!”
“Do it, chicken shit,” she snarled, “I dare you.”
Sid raised his right arm and grimaced, blood gushing from his gum-hole. He clenched his fist and brought it down, swinging with strength borrowed from his future self. He hit her. He hit the heroine that had saved Emmerson Doodle from a beating. To his surprise, however, everyone laughed . . . including Sofi.
“What’s going on here?” Mrs. Baxter, the librarian, shouted, pushing through the throng of onlookers. The children pointed at Sid, at Sofi, and at the strange appendage that had replaced Sid’s right arm and fist. It was a bird’s wing. Specifically, a chicken’s wing.
The feathers tickled Sofi and she sneezed. “Get off me,” she said, squirming free.
Sid looked at his left arm. It was a normal human limb. He looked at the downy wing that had sprouted out of his right shoulder – a beautiful, brightly plumaged avian appendage. Sid screamed at the alien thing. He held it up and presented the wing to Mrs. Baxter, pleading with her to change it back, change it back.
“Change what back?” Emmerson asked. Immediately it changed, mirroring Sid’s left arm.
“What just happened?” Mrs. Baxter asked, genuinely flummoxed.
“Nothing,” the blue boy said. He then plucked Sid’s tooth from the soil. He stepped up to the bully and told him to open wide. Sid did. Emmerson carefully returned the tooth to its mooring. He then whispered softly into the weeping boy’s ear. “I forgive you.”
Word got out: There’s a blue child in New Jersey that performs miracles.
A news crew banged on the Doodles’ front door. A reporter pushed her mic into Don Doodle’s face. “How does it feel to be the father of a miracle worker?”
“Uh,” Don stammered. “He’s just a kid. A regular kid. Tell you what, it’s family game night. We’re playing Uno. Do you mind just . . . leaving?”
The reporter placed her high-heeled shoe between the door and jamb. “There’s a hospital, Mr. Doodle, five miles from here.”
“Mercy Hospital,” he acknowledged. “I know. It’s where Emmerson was born.”
“Why not,” the reporter insisted, “take Emmerson to that hospital? He can display his powers in the children’s cancer ward. We’ll accompany you. We’ll film everything. Emmerson will be famous. A phenom. A celebrity. A global icon.”
“Like the Kardashians?” Dawn Doodle shouted over her husband’s shoulder. “No thanks!” She then shoved Don aside and slammed the front door on the reporter’s foot.
Back at the kitchen table, Don asked his wife and son, “What is our obligation?”
“To?” Dawn asked.
“Society,” Emmerson clarified. “Father wants to know what our – what my – obligation is to society. It’s a fair question, Mother.”
“It’s a stupid question,” Dawn shot. “The answer is none. You have no obligation to society. You’re nine years old. Life is hard enough because you’re” –
“Blue,” Emmerson finished.
“Because you’re special,” Don said. “But the real question is: is it true? Can you really perform miracles? Are you . . . magical?”
Emmerson looked at his blue hands and waggled his blue fingers. “Like a wizard, you mean?”
“Like whatever,” Dawn said. “A warlock? A fairy? A – I don’t know – a leprechaun?”
Emmerson laughed with his mother.
Don did not laugh. He was deep in thought. Then, quite seriously, Don said, “A god?”
The family got quiet, each pretending to study their Uno cards. On impulse, Don pressed his cards to his chest and said, “Do you know my hand, Emmerson . . . what cards I have?”
“That would be cheating, Father,” Emmerson said.
“But do you know?” Dawn asked.
Emmerson closed his eyes and unbridled his mind. “Four, seven, four, and two. Your probability of winning is twenty-three percent.”
Don Doodle splayed his cards, face up, on the table. “Four, seven, four, and two,” he said. Dawn made a noise that sounded like a goose honk. She then swept all the cards onto the floor and pointed to Emmerson. “You won’t do that . . . or anything like that . . . in public. Do you hear me?”
Don tried to interrupt but Dawn shooshed him. “I’m serious. If history has taught us anything, it’s that humans destroy that which they can’t understand. There are people in the First Baptist Church on the corner that would burn you as a witch. As a witch!”
“Honey,” Don said, patting her hand.
“Don’t honey me,” she raged, rising from her chair and hugging her son. “Emmerson, promise me. Promise mommy that you will never use your powers.”
“Okay, Mother. I promise.”
The following week, Emmerson sought out his savior, Sofi. On the school playground, he approached her with his hands behind his back. “Sophia,” he called. “May I have a moment?”
Sofi said, “Sure,” and stepped away from the circle of girls.
Emmerson looked at his shoes, then to the sky, then into Sofi’s freckled face. “It’s just that,” he stammered. “Sorry. Uh. What I mean to say is . . . I’m usually quite eloquent . . . yet, somehow, words fail me.”
“You’re welcome,” Sofi said, slugging him softly on the shoulder. She then pivoted to return to the girls.
“Wait,” Emmerson said, “I want to give you something. It’s this.” He pressed a small object into her palm and ran away.
Sofi slowly opened her hand and observed the gift. She instinctually knew that it was magical.
“Go away,” Dawn Doodle shouted at her front door, her hands deep in dishwater. The knocking was light but insistent. “Get the door, Don,” she told her husband. “It’s another nosey reporter, I’m sure of it.”
“I’m in the bathroom” Don called.
Emmerson got up from the couch and shouted, “I’ll get it. It’s for me.”
“Hello,” Emmerson said to the visitor on the doorstep.
“Hello,” the old black man said. “You must be Emmerson P. Doodle.”
“Come in,” Emmerson said. “You must me Eldritch Q. Telling.”
The old man smiled, his wrinkled eyes twinkling like dimes in moonshine. “I will come in, young man, but only with your parents’ permission.”
“Mother,” Emmerson called to the kitchen. “Can Eldritch Telling come inside?”
There was a “What?” and a clang of pans, then the sound of speedy footfalls. “What’s going on here? Who are you?” Dawn Doodle demanded.
“He’s Eldritch Telling, Mother,” Emmerson said. “I’ve been expecting him.”
The old man took off his fedora and pressed it to his heart. “Indeed, I am Eldritch Telling. Your son sent for me.”
“Sent for you?”
The old man looked at the blue boy and they smiled, sharing a secret. Emmerson said, “He knows why I am like I am, Mother. We should listen to him.”
Don Doodle, hustling into the room, buckling his belt, heard the last exchange. He put his hand on Dawn’s shoulder and said, “Yes, I think we should listen. Please, come in, Mr. Telling.”
At the kitchen table, Eldritch sipped tea and crunched a milk rusk. “My Grampy called it the Talent. Bein’ black, he weren’t exactly blue as you, but he’s was bornt with just a quarter lung.”
“I’m sorry,” Dawn said, “what’s this got to do with” –
“Oxygen,” Eldritch said, “it’s the pisen that kills our natural bornt talents.”
“Pisen?” Don asked.
“Poison,” Emmerson translated.
“So you’re saying,” Dawn started then halted. “What exactly are you saying, Mr. Telling?”
Crumbs tumbled from his thick lips. “I’m sayin’ me and yous is pisened by oxygen. And we ain’t allowed to be what the Good Lord intended us to be.”
“And what is that?” Dawn asked.
“Gods,” Eldritch said. “Created in His own image – right there in the Garden.”
Don Doodle stood and said, “Gods! That doesn’t make sense. You’re saying God . . . The God . . . made mankind to be like Him, godly, and then took it all away with oxygen?”
“The Fall,” Eldritch said. “In the Garden. Before the fall we’z gods, stridin’ over the earth, immortal, magical. So my Grampy said.”
Dawn refilled the man’s tea glass and said, “Your grandfather, you say he was like Emmerson. Tell us about him.”
The old man sipped and crunched and dabbed his mouth. “Grampy didn’t get the Talent ‘til he was full growd. It was when his runt lung begun to fail him. Said he could see things: angels, dead folks, heaven and hell. Colors, mostly. Said he couldn’t describe ‘em, but he’d sit and watch ‘em for hours.”
“What about the miracles?” Dawn pushed.
Eldritch smacked his lips. “Saved his drownt brother, Julius. Fishin’ for bream, he was. Uncle Julius got a little drunk and tumped out of his johnboat. Washed up at the river’s head three days later and Grampy brought him back.”
“Brought him back?” Don asked.
“Hugged him, is all,” Eldritch said. “Hugged him hard and told him he loved him and sho nuff, his eyes flew open.”
“Wow,” Emmerson said. “I wonder if I can do that.”
The old man shook his bald head and pointed a crooked finger. “They’s a price to pay, young man. Fate won’t be cheated. That very day a tornader struck a neighborin’ schoolhouse and killt two chill’en. Coincidence? Can’t say.”
“This has gotten a bit . . . dark,” Dawn said, taking the half-full tea glass to the sink.
Don took the cue. “Yes. We do thank you for taking interest in our son, Mr. Telling. But I’m afraid it’s time to” –
“I’m leavin’, I’m leavin’,” Eldritch said, waving his hands. “I’ve said all I need to say . . . ‘cept this.” He turned to Emmerson and met his eyes. “Young man, you’s different. But all that means is, you can make a difference. Hear me?”
“Say it,” Eldritch demanded.
“I can make a difference,” Emmerson stated. “I can. And I will. I promise.”
“One more thing,” Eldritch said, putting on his hat. “They’s a battle goin’ on. Invisible to most. If you ain’t seen it, you soon will. Good versus evil. The Jesus people call it Spiritual Warfare. Just so’s ya’ll know, Mister and Missus Doodle, Good don’t always win out. Truth is, it seldom does.”
“You’re scaring him,” Dawn said, pointing to the door. “Please. Leave.”
“Ain’t nothin’ pure,” Eldritch finished. “Not good. Not evil.” He bent his head and touched his hat brim. “Thank ya’ll for the snacks, Missus Doodle. I’ll see my way out. ‘Preciate ya’lls hospitality.”
Emmerson boarded the school bus the next day. There was only one seat available. It was in the back row – next to Sofi. “Mind if,” he asked.
“Not at all,” she said.
Emmerson fussed with his backpack and sat. “Beautiful,” he blurted.
He cleared his throat and pointed to her hair. “The blue hair ribbon I gave you.”
She smiled, her freckles brightening with her blush. “Yes. Thank you. It matches my dress and” –
They both laughed.
Suddenly, the bus swerved and the driver called: “Hold on, children!”
Sofi grabbed Emmerson’s arm and braced herself. The bus’s backend fishtailed, swishing and swaying, then overcorrected. The bus left the road and ploughed through a fence and stalled in an alfalfa pasture.
“You okay?” Emmerson asked. Sofi had lost her books but was unharmed. Kids were screaming and the driver, Miss Martin, shouted over the chaotic din.
“Everything’s fine. Don’t panic, children,” the driver said, but the blood flowing from her chin was unconvincing. “We’ve had an accident. A crazy man cut me off . . . I’m so sorry. Is anyone injured?”
Just then, the door opened and a man in a grey suit boarded the bus.
“Who are you?” Miss Martin demanded.
“I’m a man on a mission,” he said. “A dangerous man.” He pulled the 9mm from his jacket and pointed it at her.
“You ran me off the road,” she wailed.
“Yes I did.”
“You have something I want. Something I need.”
“And what in the Sam Hill would that be?”
The man pointed the pistol toward the back row. “That blue boy.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Miss Martin shouted. “These are my kids. You don’t touch a hair on their heads.”
The man shot her in the face.
“Bring her back to life,” the dangerous man said to Emmerson. “Show me your stuff, kiddo.”
“I don’t have stuff,” Emmerson said. “Even if I did, I promised Mother.”
The dangerous man pointed his weapon at Sofi’s temple. “Maybe you’ll be more motivated to resurrect Raggedy Ann here.”
Sofi recoiled, crouching into a ball.
“No,” Emmerson shouted. “I’ll try. I’ll try to do it.”
Emmerson walked the aisle toward the corpse. He kneeled next to the middle-aged bus driver. He put his palms over the entry and exit wounds. He closed his eyes and concentrated. He did not plead to a God, he just simply demanded that the gentle woman be restored.
As Emmerson collapsed, Miss Martin sat up. “Sugar,” she said, petting his sweaty forehead. “What in the Sam Hill is goin’ on?”
Sofi ran up the aisle and embraced Emmerson. “Hey, hey, wake up,” she said, patting his cheeks. She noticed that his complexion had faded, becoming pale – baby blue.
The man in grey pushed Sofi away. He then lifted Emmerson and tossed him over his shoulder like a sack of flour. He pointed his gun at Sofi and said, “You’re coming with us, carrot top. Move.”
Miss Martin, dazed, attempted to stop the man by grabbing his legs. He pistol whipped her and calmly exited the bus. He tossed Emmerson into his sedan’s backseat and shoved Sofi into the trunk. And then he was gone.
“You’re probably wondering why my colleague brought you here,” a fat man with slicked hair and palooka’s nose said.
Emmerson looked around. He was still woozy, and the photograph of his reality was still developing. He was in a block room, like one of those dank police interrogation cells he’d seen on TV. His eyes roamed to the fat man in the striped suit, then to the man in gray, then to Sofi, in the corner, chained to a radiator.
The fat man continued. “You do us a favor, and we’ll do you a favor.”
“Who are you and what do you want from me?” Emmerson asked.
The fat man drew on his cigar, snapped the cutter, and said, “They call me Tiny. Tiny Pellegrini. Funny, right? ‘Cuz I’m fat. Let’s just say I’m a business man. Between you and me and this cigar cutter, I run this town. Me and my boys. You met one of my boys already.”
The man in grey emerged from the shadows. “I’m Spook. You can call me Spook.”
“Tiny and Spook,” Emmerson said. “Are you guys, like, in a secret club or something?”
The men laughed.
“They’re mafia,” Sofi shouted. “They’re bad people. Mobsters.”
Spook slapped Sofi and told her to shut up. “The mouth on this one,” he said.
The fat man did not blink. “As I was saying, I run things. As the boss, I have a lot of enemies, and a lot of friends. I’d like for you and your girlfriend here to be my friends.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Emmerson objected.
Spook raised his hand and snarled, “Don’t sass the boss.”
Tiny waved Spook’s hand away. “I misspoke,” Tiny said. “I apologize, Emmerson. May I call you Emmerson?”
“Emmerson,” Tiny said soothingly, “it’s come to my attention that you have certain skills. I would like to commission your services. Capiche?”
“Don’t,” Sofi shouted.
Spook raised his pistol to whip the girl.
“Don’t hurt her. Please,” Emmerson blurted. “I understand.”
Sofi shouted, “Don’t worry about me, Emmerson. Use you powers. Zap these guys. Turn them into rats or pigeons or cockroaches.”
The thought seemed not to have occurred to Emmerson. He smiled and closed his eyes. He grunted and his blue face purpled. His teeth grinded and his fists clenched. Yet nothing happened.
Tiny and Spook looked at one another and laughed. Tiny said, “What, you think we didn’t think this through – that’d you’d use your talents on us?”
Emmerson exhaled, giving up. “Why? Why isn’t it working? You should be pigeons – both of you. I wished it. I commanded it.”
Tiny placed his fat hand over his cold heart and said, “Evil. Young man. Our hearts are 100% Grade-A Prime Evil. It’s like wearing full-body armor. We’ve seen your kind in the Old Country. Your Achilles’ heel is Pure Evil.”
“Pure evil,” Emmerson whispered, thinking of what Eldritch Telling had said. Ain’t nothin’ pure. Not good. Not evil.
Tiny reached into his breast pocket and retrieved an envelope. He fanned three photos onto the table. “This man,” Tiny said, tapping a headshot with his finger. “His name is Salvador D’Motto, a.k.a. the Walrus. He’s had that ridiculous mustache since he was twelve-years old.”
“He looks like a nice man,” Emmerson said.
Tiny lost his cool. His oblate face reddened and his jowls jiggled. “Nice? You think he looks nice? The Walrus ordered his boys to whack my wife. He sent me Elizabeth’s severed head in a cake box. Nice?”
Emmerson started to tear up. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you want from me.”
“I want you to magic him to death,” Tiny growled. “I want you to magic him under the goal post at Giants’ stadium. Can you do that?”
Emmerson began to cry. “I don’t know. I hope not.”
“I hope you can,” Tiny replied, nodding to Spook, who put his gun to Sofi’s head. “For your sake. And. For her sake.”
Emmerson clenched his face like a fist. His blue face purpled as he concentrated. After a full two minutes of holding his limited breath, he exhaled and said, “It’s done.”
“Yes,” Emmerson panted. “That man – the Walrus – is now under the Giant’s goal post. Buried.”
Emmerson searched inward. “Probably. I didn’t specify. But in a couple of minutes, your question will be moot.”
“You’ll pardon my skepticism,” Tiny said, retrieving his cell phone from his pocket. “You talk among yourselves while I verify.”
Sofi scuttled to the end of her chain and sat next to Emmerson; sweetly, she brushed his sweaty bangs out of his eyes. “You don’t look so good,” she said. “Your complexion – it’s pale. Almost . . . normal.”
“It’s the magic,” he said. “I feel it draining me.”
“Can you use whatever power you have left to magic us outta here?” she asked.
“I’ve tried, believe me,” he said. “But this place, these people – they’re evil. Pure evil. Any time I try to use my powers for good, the evil negates it.”
Tiny interrupted the conversation with a long and bawdy laugh. “Kid,” he bellowed, “you are a maestro. My sources tell me that the Walrus vanished from his favorite pasta joint. Six of his boys witnessed it. Poof! He disappears, leaving a hot plate of pork ragu. You are a bona fide miracle worker.”
“So we can go?” Emmerson asked.
Spook sniggered as Tiny tapped another photo with his manicured finger. “This guy,” he said. “I need him to stop living.”
“What did he do?” Emmerson asked.
“Let’s just say,” Tiny ruminated, “that his business model conflicts with my business model.”
Sofi piped up. “What? His heroin is cheaper than yours? I thought that was capitalism.”
Spook slapped her face, leaving the brand of his hand.
“Your girlfriend,” Tiny continued, “she’s a firecracker. Bet she’s dynamite in the sack.”
Embarrassed, Emmerson shouted: “It’s not like that! I’m only nine-years old!”
“You’re a pig,” Sofi seethed, glowering at the gangsters. “Both of you – soulless, shitty pigs.”
“Ouch,” Tiny chuckled. “In the words of Billy Shakespeare: If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
“You’re evil,” Emmerson whispered, contemplating the words. “Pure evil.”
Tiny held up the photo. “Kill ‘im. I don’t care how you do it. Make him jump into a wood chipper. Make him cut his jugular with a steak knife. I don’t care. Just kill ‘im.”
Spook pushed the metal muzzle of his gun into Sofi’s ear.
“Question asked, question answered,” Tiny said.
Seeing no alternative, Emmerson pressed the photo to his forehead and concentrated with all his might. He clenched his entire body, grunting and suffocating. His face purpled, blackened, then settled on an anemic pink – the color of hotdog water. His eyes rolled wildly behind his lids. Twin rivulets of rich, maroon blood seeped from his nostrils.
“Emmerson,” Sofi said, concerned.
Spook cocked the hammer.
Emmerson, in a fugue, opened his mouth and moaned. The haunted noises sounded like echoes in a cemetery. When finished, his head crashed onto the table top.
Sofi reached for him, but Spook whipped her with the gun butt, splitting her lip and gashing her gums.
“Wake up,” Spook said, lifting Emmerson’s head by his white hair. “You ain’t done yet.”
“His face,” Sofi said, covering her bloody mouth. “It’s not . . . not . . . blue.”
Tiny seemed not to notice. He was on his phone, attempting to verify the real time demise of business enemy, Jocko Marino.
Sofi batted Spook’s hands away and cradled Emmerson slack face. “Emmerson, are you okay? Can you hear me?”
Emmerson’s eyes opened. His pupils were white. The irises white. His eyes, perfectly white. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. “I see colors . . . all the colors . . . they’re too much.”
Sofi looked around the dim, dank cell. The only hint of color was inky stains of human gore on the cement floor. Spook grabbed her by her hair and flung her back to her corner.
Tiny raised his phone and celebrated: “Two for two! Jocko Marino just chugged a full bottle of Drano. His organs are dissolving as we speak. Kid, you’re the best hit man I ever saw.”
“He’s dying,” Sofi yelled. “Look at him. All this killing . . . is killing Emmerson.”
Tiny made a mock sad-face, pooching his lip. “Just one more, and we’ll call it a day?”
Emmerson rallied, straining to lift his heavy head. “You said you’d free us.”
“That’s what I meant,” Tiny said. “Do me this one last favor and you and your girlfriend are free to go.”
Sofi rattled her chains, knowing it was a lie.
Tiny flipped the last photo. “This guy. A real ball-breaker. Always comin’ for me – for my family. Relentless piece of shit. His name is Marlin Fitz” –
“Fitzgerald,” Sofi finished. “District Attorney, Marlin Fitzgerald. My father.”
Everyone looked at Sofi. Her blazing green eyes indicated her seriousness.
“Unfortunate,” Spook said, sneering happily.
“Be that as it may,” Tiny continued, “the D.A. must die. He’s harassed me and my family too long. Kill him, Emmerson. And you both walk out of here. You have my word.”
“Your word?” Sofi spat. “You take children hostage and murder people . . . your word is shit.”
Spook sprung, kicking Sofi in the side with his Bruno Magli shoes.
“Stop it,” Emmerson pleaded, his voice as weak as his body.
Tiny pulled a TV remote from the table drawer and pointed it to farthest wall. A small, mounted screen awoke, pixel by pixel, until the scene was painted. Reporters surrounded a handsome man with wavy red hair. He stood on the steps of the courthouse, fielding questions. A reporter shouted: “D.A. Fitzgerald, what is your office doing about the spike in crime?”
“Glad you asked,” the District Attorney said. “Here, in my hand, is a twenty-eight page indictment of the Pellegrini family. The Grand Jury has just made its ruling. We’re going after Roberto “Tiny” Pellegrini and his crime family. On my desk are two-dozen arrest warrants. I plan to sign them today. The public can expect multiple arrests within the week.”
Tiny hit the mute button. Sweat beads rose from his scalp like heat blisters. “Kill him! Make his heart stop! Make him choke on his tongue. Make his fucking head explode. I don’t care how you do it, just do it. Kill him!”
Sofi protested and Spook kicked her into a crying silence.
“But he’s a good man,” Emmerson said.
“He’s not a good man,” Tiny replied. “He wants me to rot in prison. I have grandchildren. Does this man care that Sissy and Sammy will never see their Nonno again?”
“But,” Emmerson sighed, taking one breath a minute, “you deserve prison time. That’s justice.”
Furious, Tiny launched his body out of the metal chair and approached Sofi. He shoved Spook aside and grabbed her limp hand. Deftly, he ringed Sofi’s pinky finger with his stainless steel cigar cutter. Before Emmerson could protest, he severed the digit at the last knuckle. Sofi screamed as the fingertip bounced like a jack ball.
“Okay, okay,” Emmerson cried, waking from his languor. “I’ll do it, just don’t hurt her.”
“Noooooooo,” Sofi shouted, shaking the chains. “I’ll never forgive you, Emmerson. Never!”
Tiny wound up and swung, striking Sofi with the back of his meaty hand. Her head hit the radiator and she fainted. Tiny bent over her and ringed her perk nose with his cigar cutter. “I’m giving you ten seconds,” Tiny growled. “If that D.A. bastard doesn’t die, I start cutting off your girlfriend’s giblets. Her nose first, then her nipples.”
Emmerson stared up at the television. He squinted and strained and focused on the red-headed man, bombarding him with beams of malevolence. The D.A. seemed visibly shaken. He stuttered. He slumped. He rubbed his nose until blood flowed. He wobbled, as if punched. Teetering, he dabbed his nose with his handkerchief and apologized.
“You’re doing it, kid,” Tiny cheered. “Just a little more magic. Push harder. Prick that aneurysm. Pop his brain.”
Emmerson’s blue veins traced his face like wild ivy. Blood vessels blotted his white eyes. His skin rippled with chills as the patina of his blue hue drained away.
On the screen, Marlin Fitzgerald rubbed his temples. He swayed. Then he dropped to his knees.
“You’re doing it,” Tiny said, shaking his fat fist. Spook joined his side. Together they rooted like sports’ fans.
“Daddy,” Sofi whispered, her lips split and swollen, her cheek pressed to the cell floor.
“I can’t,” Emmerson groaned.
“You can,” Tiny countered. “I’ll cut off her tits if you don’t.” He snapped the cigar cutter like an eagle’s beak.
Just then, Tiny’s cell phone rang. The ring tone was playful and endearing. Emmerson had just enough awareness to identify it: it was the instrumental chorus to Harry Chapin’s classic Cat’s in the Cradle.
Spook looked at his boss, head cocked curiously.
“I gotta take this. It’s my grandkids, Sissy and Sammy,” Tiny explained. “I put on that ring tone so I’d remember to spend time with them . . . I didn’t do such a good job with their father.”
Spook nodded and returned his gaze to the TV. The D.A. was lying on the courthouse steps, holding his bloody ears. People were panicking, yelling for help.
On the sixth ring, Tiny took the call. “Sammy, Sissy,” he exclaimed. “You know Nonno is at work. What . . . a puppy? You got a puppy? Let me see it. Switch your phone to Face Time.”
As Sofi’s father lay dying on stone steps, she raised her head and looked at Emmerson, her father’s killer. He was white – his flesh, his hair, his eyes – pure white. He looked like some mythical creature – an Arctic specter, a snow ghost, a frost goblin. He looked cold, inside and out. Unrelenting, Emmerson focused his cold heart on the TV screen, leveling his lethal attention on the District Attorney.
Sofi looked at Tiny, his jowls jouncing as he spoke with his grandkids, a smile stamping his mug. She looked at Emmerson, serious and sick and slightly insane. She looked at Spook, whose face gleamed with sadistic joy in the white light of the TV screen.
“Try again,” she whispered to Emmerson.
No one heard her.
“Emmerson,” she repeated, “try again.”
Emmerson’s attention wavered. His icy eyes slid to her, as his face remained frozen.
“Emmerson,” she said, “they’re not pure evil. Tiny and Spook. At this moment – they’re happy. Look at them.”
Emmerson’s white eyes regarded his captors. Both were smiling; both were joyful.
“Try again,” she insisted, “before they snap out of their . . . their happy rapture.”
Emmerson nodded. The hemline of his lips turned up on each corner.
Tiny cooed, “What are you going to name the pooch?”
Spook stroked his groin and licked his lips, delighting in the slow demise of Marlin Fitzgerald.
“Now!” she shouted, foregoing stealth.
The two men turned, angered by her disturbance.
Emmerson hummed like a tuning fork. His white body vibrated, emitting subsonic waves. Like lightning, a craggy fissure sketched across the concrete wall. Sunlight streamed in, slashing through the dust and rubble. The floor shifted and separated. Sections of the ceiling buckled and caved.
“These,” Sofi said, holding up the chains on her wrists.
The steel links morphed into brittle bread pretzels. Sofi broke them and moved toward a breach in the wall. “C’mon,” she yelled, waving to Emmerson.
But Emmerson was not finished. As Spook aimed his gun at Sofi, Emmerson aimed his white, wizard hands at Spook. He bent his pointer finger back at an excruciating angle. Magically, Spook’s left leg mimicked the motion. Emmerson twisted his fingers into a helix. Spook did likewise, his torso corkscrewing, pulverizing his ribs and spine.
Tiny charged the children like a Spanish bull. He’d gone from victory to confusion to failure in mere seconds, and violence seemed to be the best recourse. He raised a broken brick of concrete, intending to bash their heads to smithereens. But kindness, like a crack in the cell walls, had already been exposed. Roberto “Tiny” Pellegrini was not pure evil, and thus, Emmerson’s magic worked.
As Spook died in a painful, spastic heap, Tiny disappeared, his pin-striped suit falling to the floor. Within the bolts of fine material, an animal stirred. From the muddle of the mob boss’s pants and shirts and socks and shoes and underwear and jacket, the creature breached the open crotch. It cooed and trilled. It was a pigeon, all black, save a single spot of white on its breast.
Sofi smiled as she looked up at the crooked television. Her father was being helped up by an aid. He seemed dizzy and embarrassed but perfectly fine.
As Sofi was celebrating, Emmerson collapsed. There was no doubt in Sofi’s mind that her peculiar friend was dead.
If Emmerson could speak, he would have told her what Eldritch Telling had said: “They’s a price to pay. Fate won’t be cheated.”
Sofi knelt and held him. Her tears watered his white hair, dampened his frigid face. “Emmerson,” she cried. “You’ve won. We’ve won. Don’t let these bastards take that away.”
She held him for minutes, rocking him, pleading with him to fight. When neither prayers nor pleading helped, she recalled the gift he’d given her – the blue ribbon. For reasons unreasonable and impossibilities possible, she looped it around Emmerson’s neck and cinched it. When nothing happened, she doubled her efforts, garroting her dear friend with the ferocity of a mafia hitman.
Emmerson coughed. He gagged and jutted his white tongue. She pressed her knee between his shoulder blades and tugged on the reigns of the ribbon, choking and choking until . . . until he turned . . . blue.
“Emmerson,” she said, relaxing the garrote. “You’re back.”
“I am,” he said. “At least I think I am.”
He sat up and she embraced him. “I’m sorry for that . . . what I did. It just seemed to be the only way. I didn’t know I was capable of such a thing.” She looked at the blue ribbon, then into his blue eyes.
“Nothing’s pure,” Emmerson said, quoting Eldritch Telling. “Not good. Not evil.”
Sofi gave Emmerson a wet kiss on his blue cheek. Then she stood and stomped the pigeon with the heel of her shoe. She picked up the mobster’s cell phone, admiring the twin kids on the screensaver. She then took Emmerson by the hand and walked through the crumbled walls; his cold, blue heart warming in the yellow sun.
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