Something inside Greta changed when Roddy died. The kinds of foods she craved, the clothes she fancied, the TV she watched, and, most notably, what she thought of their kids: all changed. Part of it was the strain of doing it all on her own—she had no family, and Roddy’s people lived way across the country in Newfoundland. A bigger part was the absence of Roddy’s spell.
When they’d met some twelve years ago, Greta was different, but so was Roddy. At the Gold Rush, a roadhouse ten minutes from the Pacific Ocean, Greta had been go-go dancing and waiting tables, now and then stripping during side gigs. The freedom of it, the feeling of all those wanton eyes, the knowledge that the day only started whenever she felt like rolling from bed, it had been her lifeblood. It had been everything.
“How’d you like to feel some power between your thighs?”
Greta had turned to look at the man in head-to-toe leather. He had a long strawberry blonde beard and a mane of hair to match. His muscles bulged up top and the axel of his pants bulged below. A thousand and one men hit on her every week, but something was different about this guy.
After her shift, she’d climbed aboard his FXE Liberty, Harley Davidson. That power was between her thighs all right. Roddy took her to the ocean where they fucked beneath a moon while sea lions barked from the docks down the beach.
They’d married two months later; she’d worn a white gown that was cut away about two inches below fluorescent pink panties. They road away from the little church with Colt 45 cans tied to strings bouncing behind them, scores of leather-clad friends toasting their wake.
The money troubles came first. Roddy had a friend, one who preferred high pants and argyle sweater vests to leather chaps and boots. This friend gave Roddy his insurance textbooks and after work, instead of riding out to the sunset, Roddy prepared for the licensing exam. Greta had hardly noticed, little Axel was already bubbling in her internal cauldron, and the notion of motherhood, cool motherhood, badass biker bitch motherhood had her mind entirely occupied with the future.
“You shaved your beard,” she said the day Roddy had come out of the washroom grinning, now licensed to peddle insurance.
“Same guy underneath,” he said, even as he snatched one of her hair elastics and tied his hair into the first ponytail that she’d ever seen him wear.
“Better be,” she said, believing him, though not overly concerned. She’d been thinking, it would likely be easier, if they were going that route, to have kids in quick succession.
Axel was born, and thirteen months later came Nicks. Greta had no time to consider that Roddy was different, his bike in storage, his hairline racing back his scalp, his idea of a spicy night renting something off the satellite dish pay-per-view, because she was also so different. She didn’t think about collecting the male gaze like charge to her internal battery, didn’t recall aching for the vibration the Harley played between her legs, didn’t feel the need to find adventure at all. Mostly she wanted to steal naps, each feeling like a victory worth celebrating.
By the time Axel was five and Nicks was four, both in school, Roddy’s muscle had gone to flab, he’d taken to shaving his head, he played golf a minimum of two nights a week, and every evening home he tuned the station to a different copaganda drama. Greta sat next to him on that couch on nights she didn’t work—she’d taken a job at Chapters, shelving books and blankets in the afternoons and evenings.
She’d been at Chapters when she took the call from the hospital. “That can’t be,” she said into her phone, standing in the breakroom, looming above Phyllis and Kirk’s shared birthday cake. “No. You’ve made a mistake.”
She went to the hospital and there was the Roddy: frumpy, ordinary, and dead. She wailed and wailed. The kids joined her that night. Four days later, they had the funeral. There, the old faces and the exhaust fumes and feel of leather beneath her fingers resurrected something she hadn’t noticed die.
“You know, Roddy and me played Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who’d ask you for a ride,” a man named Freddy said as the line of condolence wishers played her by.
He leaned away, leering. His hair had gone a little grey, but it remained long, as did his beard. He was flabby but looked hard beneath the leathers. His eyes were crow’s feet upon crow’s feet, a map of meeting tough winds head on. Less than an hour after the casket was in the ground, Greta asked Roddy’s cousins who’d flown in to take the kids for a few hours.
Freddy fucked her from behind while she leaned against the funeral parlor garage. Roddy’s spell had lifted. Day after day, Greta looked at the kids and wondered what had possessed her. They didn’t even feel like her offspring. They certainly didn’t belong to the woman who’d married the tough biker named Roddy. But what could she do?
Seven and six, the kids stood in line at the fair ground, waiting to hop up on one of the camels. Greta was about half soused as she stared at the riding crop leaned against a golden straw bale that acted as a piece of the makeshift paddock’s perimeter.
“You’re up next,” the woman in charge said, hefting one boy and then another up the wooden step stool and onto the huge animal’s back. Across the cordoned space were two more camels, all being led slowly by women in flannel shirts and manure flecked boots.
Greta scanned the fair, her subconscious taking over, and when she was satisfied that nobody looked at her, she snatched the riding crop. She then leaned down to Axel and said, “I want a picture, go take your sister out into the middle before your turn.” Axel didn’t question, didn’t pause, he took Nicks by the arm, even as one of the handlers called for them to stop. Greta didn’t wait for them to turn around and whipped the leather tip of the riding crop discreetly off the nearest camel’s huge testicles. It let out a great honk, kicking backwards—sending the crop flying, fortuitously, away from the scene—before charging forward as if trying to outrun the sudden pain.
Greta fell to her knees, screaming over a broken wrist while onlookers had to assume she screamed over the two, unmoving children who’d been trampled by the camel named Buster.
The traveling carnival closed-up shop and Greta accepted her settlement, though freedom seemed almost enough. She claimed grief when she quit her job. She claimed too many memories when she sold the family house and bought a hobby farm outside town. She let people think whatever they wanted when she visited the Harley Davidson dealership and started taking lessons. She’d never had to know how to pilot a bike in the old days, that had always been up to Roddy. Once she could hang, she hit the road, finding her youth, discovering if she adjusted her sights and expectations, time hadn’t been all that cruel to her natural way of life.
After eleven months of riding, she needed a break. She put her bike into the barn and set about doing nothing for the foreseeable future—the settlement afforded her such a luxury.
Groggy, mouth tasting like last night’s wine, Greta awoke in a bright, bright bedroom to her phone vibrating on the bedstand. She checked the display, huffed, and answered. “Freddy, how are ya?”
“Long, loose, and full of juice. How’s about you?”
“You woke me up.”
“What’s with the tone, baby? You not happy to hear from me?”
Greta kicked sideways, letting her feet hang an inch from the floor. “Like I said, you woke me up.”
“That mean you don’t want to come for a ride with your old pal, Freddy?”
It took a moment for Greta’s equilibrium to stabilize as she stood, took two moments for her mind to catch up to Freddy’s words. “You in town?”
“Just got in to find your house occupied by some yuppies.”
Greta snorted, walking toward the washroom. “I moved out of there right after the kids died.”
“Ah,” Freddy said, tone shifted. “I get it. Sad stuff.”
“Whatever. How about I come meet you in an hour, you can buy me breakfast.”
Freddy laughed. “It’s damned near three o’clock.”
“It’s seven AM somewhere.”
“Where we meeting?”
“An hour,” she said and ended the call as she plunked down onto the toilet.
Freddy’s face lit when he and Greta made eye-contact in the Denny’s parking lot. “There’s the girl I knew,” he said, taking her into his big arms.
She kissed his mouth, licking his lips playfully as she broke contact. “Hey, big boy.”
They stepped inside, having their pick of tables during an especially intense afternoon lull. A waitress appeared with two menus.
“Coffee? Water?” she said.
“Coffee,” Greta said.
“Coffee. Pretty dead in here,” Freddy said.
“Fair’s in town,” the waitress said. “Be right back with those coffees.”
A flash of passion lit inside Greta. She relived the moment she’d committed the perfect crime. The absolute precision of how it played out giving her tingles all over. “I say we go; you can win me a stuffed bear.”
Freddy’s expression soured momentarily. “If that’s…it won’t bring up bad memories?”
Greta grinned. “Bad memories of what? I’ve always had a good time at fairs. So long as I win a prize.”
There was no riding paddock this year, but there were a couple extra rides and all the ways to get conned out of money a place like that ever offered. Cotton candy in hands, Greta and Freddy linked arms as they walked amongst the crowd. At the end of the grounds was a tent, a sign above its doorway reading KNOW THE FUTURE.
“How about it?” Greta said and pulled Freddy along.
He said nothing, moving at her whim.
Inside, there was a little woman, painted to look more grizzled than she was, wearing a Gypsy costume. Before her on the table were a money box and a crystal ball.
“Tomorrow locks her secrets up tight, and—”
“How much?” Freddy said, interrupting the spiel.
“Ten per pop,” the fortuneteller said.
Greta handed over a purple bill and grinned at the fortuneteller as she stashed the money and got busy putting on a show. The crystal ball turned blue, then green, then yellow, then red as the fortuneteller’s hand played through the air just above.
“I see good—”
The crystal ball cracked, silencing the fortuneteller. The glass went foggy black. A billow of thick, thick smoke bloomed free.
“I don’t—I don’t—” the fortuneteller said, pushing away from the table.
Freddy jumped to his feet, backing to the doorway. Greta was mesmerized by the shifting, writhing smoke. The cloud grew and grew, forcing Freddy to grab Greta by the hand and drag her outside while the fortuneteller escape via a rear passage. The tent tore as smoke puffed through the roof, its colors changing, its texture changing, its effect changing.
“Jesus!” Freddy said, his grip slipping from Greta’s wrist as he stumbled away.
Greta couldn’t move, amazement held her in place. That smoke was no longer smoke. A beast, its flesh rotting, grey, and spilling free in reeking, maggot-infested clods. Upon its back were two children, their murky skin fetid and soft as bruised apples, their white, white bones poking free at unnatural angles.
“Axel,” Greta hissed, “Nicks.”
“Take a picture, Mommy,” the putrescent children said atop the decomposing camel a second before the great beast charged, flattening the woman, and making it three more steps before its form sloughed outward in a great wash of wriggling gore.
Eddie Generous is a Canadian author of numerous books, he owns and operates Unnerving, is the host of the Books North Podcast, and is a big fan of cats. www.jiffypopandhorror.