Continuing the latest batch of short fiction to appear here, I’m happy to present a second helping of almost urban fantasy. This one comes by way of a little town in Mississippi. It was originally published in my collection of short fantasy tales, Mysfits (available here).
Copyright © 2010 Josh Langston
Sara Sweets bit the arm off the postman and chewed contentedly. She had waited until after the day’s delivery in case anything interesting showed up, but nothing had. No surprise, Tuesday mail usually sucked.
She ate the other arm. The best thing about voodoo cookies, aside from the taste, was that they worked any time of year. St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Arbor Day. Didn’t matter.
She thought about how her dog, Pretzel, had barely gotten out of the way when the mail carrier tried to kick her–the second time. Sara bit off one of his legs. And then the other. Cookie paraplegia. She giggled.
Pretzel, curled up at her feet, looked up as cookie crumbs landed on her head. She shook her ears, sniffed at one of the ginger-colored crumbs, and then ignored it. Pretzel had definite ideas about food. She preferred meat. Fresh or not didn’t seem to matter much.
Sara put the remains of the postman cookie in a Glad bag, sealed it, and dropped it in her apron pocket. It wouldn’t do to finish him right away. He needed time to think about what he’d done, and she needed time to remind him in case he’d forgotten. Anybody who’d kick a little dog like Pretzel had probably kicked dozens of others, maybe hundreds. Even thousands. The postman was a piece of work. Well, a piece of something.
She knew where he’d be: Hobart General. Loxahatchee wasn’t Biloxi, after all. One hospital was plenty.
“C’mon, Pretzel. Time to go.” She patted the wicker basket affixed to the handlebars of her bike. The little dog bounded up her leg, jumped into her accustomed place, and curled up again.
Bright fall sunshine and dark ominous shade alternated as she pedaled under stately hardwoods down McGlover Street toward the hospital. Dark and light. Happy, sad. Couldn’t have one without the other. She passed through what served as downtown Loxahatchee with its cherub-topped fountain. The sculptured water feature had been donated by Hobart’s widow, in a partially successful effort to elevate the public’s memory of the county’s most notorious bootlegger (and former state senator).
Pretzel had gotten the hang of the therapy dog business pretty quickly, and several patients–mostly children–dearly loved her efforts. It was a boon for Sara who lived for her volunteer work, though she was getting a little too old to be a candy striper. Wanda Wilkins, the charge nurse, had pointed that out often enough. Sara was too polite to tell Wanda her own retirement was considerably overdue. But, as soon as she managed to find a suitable artifact, Sara would bake a big-ass cookie with Wanda’s name on it.
“Hey Miz Sara,” said Jarvis Jones, the custodian. Jarvis had bloodhound eyes, a bald head, and a kind heart.
“How’s the family?” Sara asked.
“They fine, Miz Sara, jes’ fine.” He reached down and scratched Preztel’s head.
“We got any new customers?”
“Not yet,” Jarvis said, “but I heard the ambulance a while ago.”
Sara couldn’t suppress a smile.
“You wouldn’t know ‘nuthin’ ’bout that, right?”
“Not a thing,” Sara said. She stared into his dark eyes. “I heard Jarvis Junior got into some trouble.”
“Naw,” said the custodian. “A little argument is all.”
“With Nora Platt? Nobody has little arguments with Nora. Fact is, nobody in their right mind goes near that woman. She’s scary.”
“You scared of her?” Jarvis asked, surprised.
Jarvis crossed his arms and frowned. “Now I’ve heard ever’thing.”
It wasn’t that Nora frightened her. It’s just that Sara couldn’t get close enough to Nora to find an artifact without giving Nora the opportunity to find one of hers. Stalemate. “Is Junior okay?”
“He’s not walkin’ too good, but he’s still workin’.”
She put her hand on Jarvis’s shoulder. “Want me to look at him?”
“Bring him ’round to the house after dark.”
“You’re an angel, Miz Sara. You truly are. I’ll see you later.” Jarvis turned and walked away, pushing a cart loaded with tools.
“I can’t promise anything,” she called after him.
Jarvis waved without looking back.
Fortunately, the moon was full. That gave her some options. She was considering them when a door opened suddenly and knocked Pretzel across the floor. The dog regained her footing, if not her dignity, and Sara found herself nose to nose with Wanda.
“Oh, it’s you,” the charge nurse said.
“You almost squashed Pretzel! She’s–”
“Animals don’t belong in a hospital. Lord knows what diseases they carry.” She leaned forward and touched the strap of Sara’s apron with a pudgy index finger. “Ever wash that thing?”
“Of course. I–”
“Next time, use soap,” Wanda said.
Sara decided to make Wanda’s cookie even bigger. With sprinkles.
“There’s a new patient in 21B. He doesn’t like dogs.”
“That’s okay. Pretzel doesn’t like mailmen.”
Wanda fixed her with a suspicious glare. “How’d you know he was a mailman?”
“There are only about two secrets left in Loxahatchee, and neither involves him.”
Wanda scratched her head.
“I saw his mailbag in the ambulance when I came in,” Sara added.
Wanda sniffed, then stared at the dog. “That animal needs washin’, too.”
Lots and lots of sprinkles, thought Sara.
Wanda waved her down the hall. “Check with me before you leave.”
“Why? You gonna give me a paycheck?”
“We need to talk is all. Don’t forget.”
She left them alone in the hallway. Sheer habit caused Sara to look down at the floor where she spotted a long hair. She held it up to the light. Red. Just like Wanda’s. She pulled out an empty Glad bag, sealed the hair in it, and stored it beside the leftover postman cookie.
The rest of the day passed without incident, and Sara almost forgot about checking in with Wanda before she left. Pretzel remembered; she growled as they walked past Wanda’s office.
Sara knocked on the door, then entered. “You wanted to see me?”
Wanda looked over the top of her glasses the way old doc Swensen did. She probably thought it made her look intelligent. It didn’t.
“We’ve decided to terminate the Candy Striper program,” Wanda said. “It’s old fashioned, and doesn’t do much for the patients.”
“And no more therapy dogs, either.”
“Who decided this?”
“The Administrative Team.”
“I didn’t know we had one.”
“We’ve always had an advisory committee. Now we’ve got a new chief administrator, and he values our input.”
Sara could imagine what input Wanda supplied. This definitely meant a stop for sprinkles at the Piggly Wiggly on her way home.
“So, that’s it,” Wanda said, standing. She held out her hand. “Thanks for everything. We’ll call if we think of something else you can do.”
Jarvis and Jarvis Junior arrived about the time Sara finished the dishes. She seated them at her kitchen table where the light was best and served them sweet tea and Nutter Butter cookies. It put Junior at ease.
“What d’you ‘spose set old Nora off?” Sara asked.
“Tell her, J.J.,” said Jarvis senior. “Tell ‘er what set her off.”
“You know she’s a big wig at the hospital,” J.J. said.
“Yeah, but I don’t know what she does. It sure ain’t work.”
J.J. sipped his tea. “She fires folks. She got Pap fired, but he was too scared to say anything.”
“I ain’t scared o’ nuthin’,” Jarvis said. “Least of all some dried up ol’ white woman. And I didn’t git fired; I got retired.”
“Same difference. You won’t get a pension.”
“Why not?” Sara asked.
“I’m not ‘vested.’ I’ve worked there for nineteen years, but I can’t get a pension unless I put in twenty.”
“Ain’t that a bitch,” Sara said, shaking her head. “That’s pretty low, even for Nora.”
J.J. set his glass down forcefully. “That ain’t the half of it. You know what folks say ’bout her.”
Sara frowned. “No. What do they say?”
“She got the power,” J.J. said. “That hoodoo shit. She can do stuff.”
Sara sat back. “Stand up and walk around for me.”
He limped around the room, then sat back down.
“Now gimme your shoe,” she said. “The left one.”
The young man hesitated, then untied his sneaker and handed it to her.
Sara held the shoe up to the light and squinted at it–all sides. She sniffed it, held it in both hands with her eyes closed, and finally set it on the floor and summoned Pretzel. The dog gave it a cursory inspection, then left the room. When Sara picked it up again, she was smiling. She reached inside and extracted a pea-sized pebble and set it on the table.
She handed him the shoe. “Try it on now.”
“Walk,” she said.
To his obvious surprise, the limp was gone.
“I swear I didn’t feel that in there before,” he said.
Sara was still smiling. “Wasn’t no hoodoo.”
“I wish fixin’ Pap’s job was that easy.”
She shrugged. “Y’all want more tea?”
They declined and eventually left. Sara cleared the table, put the glasses in the sink, then sat back down and examined the pebble. It was no more nor less remarkable than any other pebble one might find anywhere. Except that when Sara waved her hand over it, the pebble vanished. Satisfied, she finished eating the postman cookie.
The new chief administrator for Hobart General was a Yankee named J.B. Simion. Sara had no idea what the initials stood for, and didn’t much care. Anyone who took suggestions from the likes of Wanda Wilkins and Nora Platt was clearly an idiot and didn’t need to be in charge of anything.
Sara rolled out a thin layer of cookie dough and dusted it lightly with flour. She reached into the plastic tub which contained the cookie cutters her mother had left her and selected two generic shapes: one male, one female. Sadly, she didn’t have a nurse shape. Nor did any of the rest appear useful: cop, fireman, grocer, clown, soldier, cowboy. A few she couldn’t connect with a profession, although one of them favored a priest and another could have been a cheerleader. She opted to use the generic female shape with a good bit of extra dough. Voila–Wanda! She would just stretch the other generic shape to resemble tall, skinny Nora.
After cutting out the three shapes and adding pertinent details–an extra chin on Wanda, knobby knees on Nora–she stared down at the generic man shape. She didn’t know anything about J.B. Simion. She’d never met him. She mashed the dough back into the bowl then removed another gob, tossed it on the counter and rolled it out. At long last, she smiled. There was a little something she knew about Simion after all. She tossed the generic man back into the container and pulled the clown figure out.
She used a lot of sprinkles on all three.
“What’s this all about?” Wanda asked as she entered the room set aside for administrative meetings. It doubled as the gathering place for the Loxahatchee Kiwanis on the second Tuesday of every month. Sara liked the Kiwanis. They were always busy with projects to help the unfortunate, and Loxahatchee had more than its share.
“It’s just a little gesture of appreciation,” Sara said. “Pretzel and I thought it would be a nice way to say thank you for letting us be a part of Hobart General all these years.”
“You brought the dog?”
“Oh my, yes. We made a farewell visit to the children’s ward this morning. They were sad to hear Pretzel wouldn’t be coming back.”
“I hope you explained to them about the sanitation issue,” Wanda said. “We’re only looking out for their wellbeing.”
“I explained that in detail. And also that Mr. Jarvis wouldn’t be around anymore.”
“They know him?”
“Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t drop by to tell ’em a story about how lucky they are to be at Hobart General, and how sick kids who come here almost always get better.”
Just then Nora and a man entered the room. “Mr. Simion, this is a former volunteer, Sara Sweets. Nurse Wilkins you already know.”
He nodded at both of them.
“We’re all rather busy,” Wanda said. “We lost a patient last night.”
“The mailman?” Sara asked.
Mr. Simion appeared alarmed. “How’d you know?”
“Lucky guess,” Sara said. “He didn’t look very good when I talked to him yesterday.”
“You spoke to him? He was in intensive care.”
Sara smiled. “I never said he spoke back. I just chatted away like I usually do.”
When Wanda stopped rolling her eyes, she focused on the plate of cookies Sara left in the middle of the table. “Did you make those?”
“Yes’m,” Sara said, pouring iced tea into four tall glasses. She passed them around.
J.B. Simion reached for a cookie, but Nora brushed his hand away. “Don’t forget, we’re going out to lunch in a while. I’d hate for you to ruin your appetite.”
“I’m sure one cookie wouldn’t hurt.”
Nora cleared her throat. “Fact is, we should all watch our sugar intake.” She gave him a glare that nearly melted the buttons on his sport coat.
Simion withdrew his hand.
“Suit yourselves,” Sara said, reaching for a cookie. She selected the thickest one, its top crusted with multi-colored sprinkles and held it up for all to see. “It’s an old family recipe. Most folks love ’em.”
Nora swallowed hard as Sara took a slow, loving bite of the confection.
Wanda and Simion sipped their tea. Nora watched them closely. Eventually, she sipped from her own glass.
“This is really quite good,” Simion said. “The flavor is–”
“Unusual,” Wanda said. “But… delicious.”
Nora yawned, then straightened. “I quite agree. May I have some more?”
“Certainly,” Sara said. “There’s plenty.”
Wanda and Simion yawned, too, but managed to empty their glasses. Sara refilled them.
“Would you mind if I invited our custodian to join us?” Sara asked. “It’s his party, too.”
“Sure, sure,” Simion said.
Nora put her head on the table and snored.
Wanda pointed at her and laughed, then slumped sideways in her chair.
“S’matter with them?” Simion asked.
Sara shrugged. “Tired, I reckon.”
Simion’s head hit the table with a thud.
Jarvis opened the door and peeked in. “You okay, Miz Sara?”
“Absolutely,” she said, biting the head of the clown cookie.
The custodian reacted to the three sleepers with alarm. “Didja kill ‘em?”
“’Course not,” Sara said. “They’ll be fine, long about tomorrow. For now, we need a gurney and your truck.”
“You sure about this?” Jarvis asked.
“Damn skippy,” Sara said. “Now go round up that gurney.”
Sara and Jarvis sat in the cab of the custodian’s pickup. Though long past its prime, the vehicle was far more practical than Sara’s bicycle for moving bodies. They stared across the street to the fountain where, except for their sparkly party hats, Nora, Wanda, and Simion were as naked as the concrete cherub.
Jarvis spoke without taking his eyes from the trio wading around the fountain. “Tell me again why they movin’ so slow.”
“That’s ’bout top speed for a zombie,” Sara said. “Plus, the water slows ’em down a might.”
“Why don’t they just climb out?”
“They’re followin’ orders. Can’t do anything else. I told Simion to chase Wanda, but not catch her. Told Wanda to chase Nora and Nora to follow Simion. They’ll keep it up for another couple hours unless somebody ties ’em down.”
Sara patted Jarvis’ hand. “Before I told ‘em to climb in the fountain, I had them throw away your retirement papers and reinstate the candy striper therapy dog programs.”
Jarvis smiled contentedly and pointed at the photographer from the Loxahatchee Ledger, the weekly newspaper. “Them three could end up famous.”
“I ‘spect so,” Sara said. She handed him a cookie, and they munched happily as more and more locals gathered to watch Hobart General’s Administrative Team doing slow-motion laps around the town’s cherished water feature.
“How’d you do it?” Jarvis asked.
“It was the tea. I call it zombie juice, but it’s pretty much just tea with a little somethin’ extra added to it. It’s harmless. They’ll be back to normal in no time. ‘Cept they’ll most likely be unemployed.”
Jarvis suddenly looked worried. “Back to normal? They’ll have us locked up for sure. What’re we gonna do?”
She shook her head and rocked back and forth. “They might remember going to the hospital, but after that, everything’s going to be a blank.”
Sara laughed. “Zombie juice only works during a full moon, but that’s the only drawback.” She gave him a hug. “You want another cookie?”