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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Diablo’s Paint Shop by John Clauder San Bernadino, California. Land of fast women and faster cars. Not as hot as home, which isn’t a bad thing. And hey, they have piña coladas here. And a beach- real water and everything. But let me start at the beginning- okay, okay, the middle, really. July twelfth was a sunny day- hot and salty air, a little breeze but not too much, and I was at Seal Beach. It was a Saturday, so the shop was closed for the weekend. Carlos had demanded his new paint job be ready for the show on Sunday, but then again he didn’t read the agreement very carefully. I’m good at small print for a reason. But enough about him, he’s small fry anyway. I’d managed to find my favorite lounge chair the day before when I’d cleaned out my garage. Kind of a red-and-white thing, real leather backing. You don’t get that kind of quality anymore, just this chintzy plastic crap they sell at the chain stores. Not that I don’t approve of a giant soul-crushing behemoth that devours the market, but I’m more of a style man myself. That being said, I was enjoying the day. Shark sightings had been low the last couple of months, but I had a good feeling today. I pushed my Ray-Bans up my nose and smirked as I saw the surfer go under as expected. The rest of the beach promptly lost its damned mind when the truth sunk through their thick skulls. I think they only got half of the kid back, too. You know, that was a really good piña colada that day… Anyway, right, story. You know, for an objectivist I certainly sidetrack myself a lot. I hung around on the beach for another ten minutes or so until they closed it and kicked people out. It didn’t take long to pack up the chair and the umbrella, and I headed back to the Hummer and went home. I’d picked up the house on Pallisade Drive about four years ago during a housing crisis- gave the previous owner more money than he’d expected, but he was certainly worth every cent. I’d just walked in the door when the phone rang. I picked up the wireless handset and held it to my ear as I paced the house- I suppose the phone makes me uncomfortable. I prefer talking to people face to face. The voice on the other end was pathetic; a stammering, whining voice like an imitation of a kicked puppy would’ve been an improvement. This sounded like someone had tazered Piglet. “H-h-h-hello, hi, er…” “What?” “Er- job, yes, you were advertising about a job,” came the young man’s voice. If I could bottle that insecurity I’d sell it to the military as a chemical weapon. I shrugged and looked out the window; looked as though my lawn needed mowing again. “Yeah, I need an extra hand down at my paint shop. You got experience?” “Uh, yeah, yeah, some, I do I mean.” “Hey kid.” “Uh… y-yes?” “Grab some sack.” “Uh, ye-yessir.” “Fine, whatever. Now listen, do you have experience?” “Yes, yes sir, I do,” he said. I waited a little while. After six seconds I decided his brainpower was being used up on not stammering, so I gave him a prompt.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“What kind of experience? Where have you worked?” “Uh, worked, right, I, uh, over at Shotgun Jimmy’s in Scranton a few years back, and, um, um…” “Spit it out.” “Kineman’s Paint until last month.” I decided it’d be better to talk to the kid in person, get him in a room where I could actually get a better indicator why he was so nervous. “Alright, fine. Tell you what I’m gonna do. You come in on the fourteenth, that’s Monday, at eight-thirty in the morning. I’ll have finished opening shop and we can have ourselves a chat, see if you’re right for the job.” “Oh th-th-thank you s-sir! I w-w-” “Kid?” “Y-yes?” “Stop talking and hang up the phone.” Click. Relief. I’d bring the kid in, see if he had any skills, probably kick him out the door after ten minutes for pissing me off. See, I run a paint and body shop- show cars only. I’ve gotten a reputation as the best, and I wasn’t exactly keen on some halfwit runt botching my work- or worse, a moralist. Can’t get anywhere with a moralist. They’re usually the worst of the bunch anyway, so it’s not like I need to work on them; a moralist just gets in the way. I was at the least interested to see how such a nervous wimp had survived in a shop at all, let alone two. Hopefully Manuel would knock him on his ass the first day and either shut him up or get him some guts. But that was all I was going to dwell on it for the moment. I did the usual things- checked my email, watched the evening news, unwound by the fire with a good book. At about eight my phone rang. I decided to let the machine get it. Turns out it was Carlos. I wondered how he’d gotten this number as he screamed obscenities at my recorder. Something about coming to my house and killing me if his car wasn’t ready in an hour. I smirked at that one; he wasn’t the first to try and kill me, he certainly won’t be the last. Eight-fifteen passed without incident, and I decided I’d order a pizza. I picked up the phone and began my pacing again as it connected me to one of the little shops in town, one I knew had a little delivery girl who I wanted to have, with or without the pizza. With any luck it’d be her round to deliver. I’d spent the last week getting information on herwent to one of the local Episcopalian private schools, was a good, God-fearing girl until last week when she’d apparently tried shoplifting and gotten caught. Lucky for her the pizza shop wasn’t exactly discriminating about its hires. That being said, I had to get to her before it was too late. I ordered a medium with peppers, anchovies, and mushrooms. Figured I’d save half for breakfast in the morning. The eight-thirty running of Frasier was just coming on as I put a little moisturizer into my hands and rubbed it into my scalp. Took a moment wondering where Angie was tonight, probably out at a club being a tease again. For a clean girl she certainly acts dirty. I’m getting off-track again, aren’t I? Yeah, thought so. Okay, right, so at nine-ohfive the doorbell rung. I picked up my wallet and tossed a buttonup shirt on, though I didn’t bother fastening it. I opened the door to see the little pizza girl chewing gum and looking depressed. Right on cue, and late as usual, the sound of a four-fifty big block

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

with the muffler removed flared up and then died down as Carlos’s car screeched to a halt on the street outside my apartment. “How much?” I asked the pizza girl, pulling her attention back to me as four men piled out of the car. “Twelve thirty-five,” she said. They saw me and began walking towards the door. I reached into my wallet slowly, pulling out a hundred. I handed it to the pizza girl. “There you are.” “I don’t have change for this,” she said, looking cross. “Did I say I wanted change?” I replied. She looked more than a little startled, especially after Carlos yelled something in Spanish at me as he strode up the sidewalk. “Could you wait here for just a moment? Hang onto the pizza for a second.” I asked her as the posse got up to the door. She dumbly nodded, then gasped as Carlos grabbed my shirt with both hands and pulled me towards him. Standard intimidation tactic. “I hope that my car is ready, or you are one dead gringo,” he hissed at me, his ‘homeboys’ nodding approval. “Ready on Monday, like I told you. You can’t just call me and ch-” I began, but was stopped as he applied four knuckles to the side of my mouth. The pizza girl squeaked in shock, causing one of the men to move behind her. She instinctively backed against the wall of my house. “No, you’re gonna have it ready by tomorrow, you hear me? I tol’ you when I need it, and you gonna deliver, got it?” “Sorry Carlos, no way in Hell,” I smiled at him. He scowled and threw me to the ground before pulling a pistol from his belt. A Beretta 8000. I didn’t think Carlos was stylish enough to buy Italian, but people surprise me on occasion. He pointed the weapon at my head as one of the others put his hand over the pizza girl’s mouth and held her against the wall. “Fuck you,” he scowled, “You gonna finish my car, clear?” “Carlos, Carlos, Carlos,” I said, smiling. I stood and brushed my shirt off, “You signed a contract, remember?” “Contract don’t mean shit, you get the job done,” he fumed. I couldn’t suppress my chuckle. He pulled the hammer back theatrically- useless since firing the thing would do it anyway. Ignoring the scare tactic, I held out my hand. There was a brief burst of flame and a sizzle. For his credit, Carlos barely jumped back, but kept the pistol pointed at my face. “The signor of this document, whosoever he, she, it, they, or indeterminate may be, whether in person or via proxy, via the affixation of their signature in any form or manner cognizable as consent, signature, or indication of nomenclature, heretofore assigns, conveys, and sells all spiritual property, including their soul, spirit, and/or other intangible personal manifestations, to the presentor of this document or to him through one of his representatives or assigns,” I quoted from the paper that had materialized in my hand. “What the hell is that?” “Part of the contract you signed.” “I didan’ sign nothin’ about no souls,” he rumbled.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“You should’ve read the fine print. Now, Carlos, let me put this in a way you can understand,” I said, leaning in past the gun until my eyes were a few inches from his. “I own your soul, Carlos.” He simply looked at me, confused. Most of them did that. Some would drop to their knees and begin praying, but most were simply confused when the end came. I gave a mental shrug. “Carlos, lower the gun.” I could see the gears in his brain trying to fight it, but it was useless. He lowered the weapon immediately. “Good boy. Now Carlos, turn around.” Turn. “Good. Shoot your friends.” They tried to run, but Carlos was quick and efficient. None made it more than twenty feet before they went down. The pizza girl was trying to edge away along the side of the house. “Shoot her too.” She screamed and bolted. The bullet caught her through the throat and she went over burbling into the hedges. A little bit of weak flailing and it was all over. I casually walked over and pulled the pizza out of the dropped bag, and rescued my hundred from her pocket. I quietly strode back to the house and smiled at Carlos. “Oh, and before I forget, shoot yourself in the head.” I shut the door as the shot rang out. I heard his body hit the door just before I picked up the phone and called 9-1-1. By the time they’d arrived, I had finished my dinner and put the rest of the pizza in the fridge. Monday rolled around without much incident. The police had had me come down to the station a couple of times over the weekend to fill out reports. Five deaths outside my front door had gotten them curious, but there was nothing they could pin on me. I got into the car and buckled up before heading out. It was a gloomy, rainy day, not really what one would expect when thinking of the Los Angeles area. Traffic was stacked this morning, probably one of the local fools who seemed to lose all sense behind the wheel when it rained. I arrived at the shop on Springdale at nine-thirty, a full hour and a half late. Nothing ruins my day like being late at my own shop. Manuel was leaned against the door under the awning, and beside him was a thin, pasty young man of about twenty whose eyes refused to meet my own. “Get lost,” I said to him as I unlocked the door. Manuel gave me a small nod and went inside as the kid began to stammer. “B-b-but I came down here to i-i-inter-interview,” he squeezed out. “Do I look like I care? Go away.” “But-but-but you said I could…” Damnit. Yeah, I’d said he could interview. Meant I had to let him get a few words in. What? You think it’s odd that I keep my word to people? Why? The big guy upstairs is the liar and cheat, not I. I’m an artist. “Fine. Come in. You’ve got ten minutes to impress me.”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Uh, okay,” he said and pulled off his backpack. As he walked in behind me he pulled a white binder from it and followed me into my office. “Sit.” He sat. “Alright, your ten minutes starts now,” I said, sitting on my mahogany desk and crossing my arms. He wordlessly handed me the binder. I opened it and began flipping through the pages. Photos of cars with custom paint littered the pages. The work was impressive- not perfect, but better than the stuff out of most shops I’d seen. “This all your stuff?” I asked, not looking up. He mumbled something. “Speak up.” “Yes, yes it’s mine.” “All of it?” “A-all the stuff… mumble books was my d-design…” “All these designs are yours. Okay, who did the painting?” Mumble. “Fucking Hell kid, either speak up or get out of my shop!” “The entire shop team! Everyone. Everyone helped.” “That’s better. Any parts in here you did solo?” “I-in the back.” Flipflipflip. In the back were several photos of just doors or hoods, all with impressive paintwork done on them. My annoyance abated for the moment. His quality was good enough. On to the next test. “Alright, I like your work. Now tell me, why aren’t you working at Kineman’s anymore?” “I-uh, well I quit…” “Why?” He refused to look me in the eye, “B-because they w-were cheating the c-ccustomers.” Now I was interested. “Alright, they were cheating the customers. Elaborate.” Over the next ten minutes of stammered conversation, he explained how Kineman’s was cooking the books, conning its customers into unnecessary work, and substituting cheap import parts for the real thing and charging for the good stuff. Apparently the kid had refused to take part in any of it and had finally quit after four months of pressure to conform. “Alright then. Shop’s open six days a week, I’m here five. We pull Sunday work if we have to. You fine with that?” “I, uh, I d-don’t work on th-the Sabbath.” Gold. I had a lot of trouble suppressing my smile. This kid was gonna be fun. “Got it, understandable. Hey, what was your name?” “Gabe,” he murmured. “Short for Gabriel?” “Uh… y-yeah,” came the stammering reply. I allowed myself a smile, knowing he’d mistake its meaning. I extended my hand. “You’ve impressed me, kid. I’ll give you a week, see how you do. We’ll go from there. Sound good?”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

He blinked. Looked down. I began to wonder if I’d moved too fast for him when he suddenly grabbed my hand and shook. “Good, good,” I said, “Pay’s fifteen an hour to start, twenty an hour once you’ve been here two months. You show up at seven forty-five and help Manuel clean any crap off the lot, clean the showroom windows if they need it. The mechanics arrive at ten, so get any work on internals done by then. Clear?” Nod. “Good. I’ll have a formal contract for you to sign in the morning. You ready to work today or are you gonna need a day to get ready?” “I, I wasn’t expecting to make it past the interview, I have an appointment-” “Go to it. We’ll be fine without you for the day,” I said. If the kid had any less confidence his head would’ve imploded. We exchanged a few parting words, some bullshit about the weather, and he left. I brushed some lint off my now-dry shirt sleeve and walked out into the shop. “Manuel,” I said, not very loudly. From across the long room I saw his head poke out from under a hood. “Carlos committed suicide over the weekend. Do me a favor and take his car down to the courthouse and get the title changed over. Take the contract with you,” I called. He nodded and wiped his hands off on a towel before grabbing the keys off a hook on the wall. Carlos, being dead, clearly couldn’t make the last payment on the paint job. That being the case, his car was now my property. As I heard the eight-cylinder twin turbo fire up outside, I decided this might not be such a bad day after all. At four in the afternoon my cell rang. I pulled the sleek iPhone out of my pocket and read the screen. Angie. I answered the call. “I’m at work, what do you need?” I snapped, the other hand mixing a bucket of paint. All I heard was a groan from the other end of the line. “For shit’s sake, Angie, are you drunk again?” “No baby, just really… reeeeeally hung over.” “Fine. Why are you calling me?” “I wanna see you tonight baby. Y’know?” “No, I don’t know.” “I think tonight might be the-” she began, but I was already pissed off and I’d heard this line before. “No it’s not, you cocktease. You’re the oldest virgin I know and that’s sure as Hell not about to change. Go finger yourself or something until you decide you actually want to get laid,” I snapped and hung up. I was working, damnit. I didn’t have time for her games. An hour and a half later I pulled into my driveway to see Angie sitting on the stoop outside my front door. Well, maybe sitting wasn’t the right word. Passed out against and propped up by the masonry would be more accurate. She was wearing a lowcut shirt with some sort of butterfly pattern. For now it was doing a great job as a drool catcher. Even the noise of the Hummer’s engine didn’t rouse her. I parked the car in the garage and walked into the house. Four oh-five. Fixed myself a sandwich, ate said sandwich, sat down at my desk to do some paperwork. At about four-thirty I finally heard

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

a knock on the door. I put my pen back in its base, went to the front door, and opened it. Angie was still there, somewhat more vertical than before, though she was still doing her best to prop up the wall. “Hey baby,” she said. “Angie, you’re drunk. Again.” “’S, ’s’not my problem,” she slurred at me. Her eyes were baggy, her gaze unfocused. “No, it’s apparently mine now. Fine, get in here before one of the neighbors calls the cops,” I grumbled and took her by the arm. I pulled her inside and sat her on the sofa, taking a moment to put a towel under her first. The smell of liquor wafted off of her like cheap perfume. She mumbled something at me and then covered her mouth. I grabbed the wastebasket from beside the television and put it in front of her. When she’d finished emptying her stomach of four scotches, two bourbons, and a pint of vodka, I dumped the basket outside before bringing it back in to catch anything else that might resurface. “Just because you can’t die doesn’t mean you can drink like you’re trying to,” I commented as I headed over to the bar. I decided to go with vanilla roast today and scooped the appropriate beans into the grinder. Turning it on, I went and sat down in the chair across from her. “Doesn’t mean I can’t, can’t, y’know, ahaha,” she groaned, leaning her head back. Her black hair hung loosely down the back of the couch as the sun from the bay windows illuminated her face. “Just get over it, the rest of us have. You’ve been hiding in bottles for decades now,” I said, getting up as the coffee grinder stopped. “You haven’t.” “That’s personal.” “Haaaaa hhhhaaaa,” she slurred at me, the last ‘ha’ sending some spittle with it, “Little, little boy got kicked out of daddy’s house too, you’re still, still bitter.” I didn’t respond, merely quietly poured the grounds into the coffeepot and closed the lid. The silence was nearly deafening as I clicked it on. I quietly returned to the chair across from her. The silence had done a little to sober her up- she looked like she knew she’d just pissed me off royally. “Sorry,” she muttered. I remained silent as the coffee brewed, and she merely looked down at her hands under my glare. Getting up at last, I poured a large cup for her and went back to the couch. I handed it to her wordlessly and sat back down. She stared at it for a long while. Y’know, instead of telling you about Angie spending the next ten minutes staring into the black abyss of a coffee cup, lemme tell you a little about her. Angie’s not like you. She’s old, about a thousand, give or take a couple years. She used to live up there- you know, that place you so glibly refer to as ‘heaven’. As she tells it, she had an argument with ‘daddy’ and got kicked out. Ended up coming down on June thirtieth, I think in 1908, somewhere in Siberia. I managed to track her down two weeks later in Irkutsk, where she had arrived a couple of days before and had promptly drowned her woes in vodka. Since then her life has been a nearly-endless drunken stupor punctuated by evening parties, and in the last couple of decades, nightclubs. Money doesn’t seem to be a problem for her; I imagine men are lining up to buy her drinks at

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

night. And since she can’t die per se, she’s been more than happy to drink herself to levels of oblivion completely unattainable by mere mortals. Thus, the culmination of a hundred years of alcohol and misery was sitting on my couch staring into her cup of coffee. “Angie, just drink the damn thing.” “Hey, I’m really sorry about that…” “Say it again and we find out how immortal you really are. Now drink,” I commanded. Obediently she raised the cup to her lips and took a long draught. I took the cup from her and filled it up again. “This is the third time this month you’ve come here. This has to stop.” “Stop what?” “Don’t play dumb. This. Going out and getting wasted all the time. It’s pathetic.” “Doesn’t hurt so much when I’m drunk,” she muttered. Most people aren’t this coherent after that much alcohol, but most people haven’t had a century to build up tolerance. I’ve seen Angie drink three truckers under the table, one after the other. “Yeah, but you keep showing up here. If you’d stay sober for more than ten minutes I might not mind, but as it stands you’re just annoying me,” I said, watching her wince as though ‘sober’ were a dirty word. “If you don’t want me around just say so.” “I have. You keep coming back.” “Ahaha, that’s because you want me, haha.” “Angie, there’s a lot more pussy out there and it’s all easier to get.” “But you can’t have me, ahaha,” she said. I was really hoping the coffee would help soon, the drunken laugh was driving me insane. “You know what, get out. Just get out of my house.” “Hunh?” “Out,” I said. For a plastered angel I’ll give her this much: she knows how to push my buttons. She groggily got up and looked at me, then began staggering towards the door. An idea struck me. “Angie, wait,” I said. She turned around, wobbling to keep her balance. Even looked sort of hopeful- after all, I’d never asked her to wait before, just locked the door behind her. “Yeah?” “I’ll cut you a deal.” “I’m dru-drunk, not stupid. I’m not makin’ a deal with you.” “No contracts. Just listen,” I said. This had potential. See, the other thing about Angie that bugs me is that she’s pretty clean. Never broken a commandment aside from the honor father and mother thing. Sure, she gets wasted all the time, but strictly speaking you’re not going to Hell for that. I figured that this might just let me kill two birds with one stone. “Here’s the deal. I want you to come down to my shop. I’ve got a new kid working there named Gabe,” I began. She nodded slowly. I’d have to finish before her head went to autonod. “Provided you can stay sober, I’ll hook you two up. He’s a good kid, you’ll like him. Spend a little time working in the shop, take your mind off of things,” I said.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Normally I’d never allow Angie within a mile of my paint shop, but I was sure her eccentricities would help me with the new kid. Hey, even I’m wrong sometimes. She didn’t move or comment. This was new material for her, I imagined it’d take a few moments to digest- something about passing the century mark seems to make it tricky to assimilate new material. You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to learn to switch to a mechanical airbrush. She blinked once. I took this as the sign that her brain was crawling over the roadblock I’d set. “Sound good?” I asked. “Wait… you want to set me up… on a date?” “Basically.” “Waaaait… you know how often I get hit on, right?” “And?” “I could have anyone… yeah, anyone I think. I wanted,” she said, her thoughts apparently still reorganizing. I think if I’d suggested pimping her out instead I could’ve given her a seizure. I smiled a little and put one leg over the other. “But how many have I suggested? To me, you’d be at best a pleasure fuck. You could never really… have me,” I said. Keep them confused until you get a ‘yes’. Basic tactic in most lines of work. Her lips pursed as she tried to make sense of the statement. Qualifier plus a double neg. I decided to throw in one more to really pique her interest. “Maybe I shouldn’t have recommended anyone to you- you’re probably a little too strange to interest him.” I could see the look in her eyes- I’d challenged part of her identity. Sure, she hadn’t meant to build it, but I don’t know of a man who’s ever not tried to pursue her. The prospect of one who wouldn’t was somehow alien, something she’d have to rectify. “Oh?” “Yeah, just forget I mentioned it.” “No, wait, why am I too strange?” “No, just forget about it,” I said. She frowned at me. “Okay jackass, when?” “Sunday at-” “Sabbath,” she interrupted. Damn. So much for the easy pick. “Alright, Saturday.” “Saturday.” “At seven.” “Seven.” “Here.” “Here,” she repeated. I decided to check if she was just parroting. “In a clown suit.” “Clown suit.” “You’re not listening to me.” “Not list- what?” “Pay attention. Show up Saturday at seven, here and sober. And I don’t mean ‘I’ve just had a few’ sober, I mean fucking sober.” “Fine, I will.” “Don’t be late, don’t not show. I consider this a verbal contract.” “You said no contracts.”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Plural. Now, are you going to make it home alright?” I asked. Normally I wouldn’t care, but now that she was part of my plan I needed her. “Home?” “You got evicted again.” “Uh… yeah,” she mumbled. I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Spare room upstairs. You bother me and you’re on the street again,” I said. “Uh…” she managed. I had a feeling I’d just overloaded her brain with that one. I hadn’t offered her a bed in decades. “Angie, just shut up and go upstairs and take a nap,” I commanded. She seemed to readjust. She muttered a ‘thanks’ and wobbled up the stairs. So far the day wasn’t going quite as planned, but I was pretty sure I could make it work for me. First, of course, I had to hide the booze. I went to the bar and closed the cabinet doors on it. Fishing in my pocket, I pulled out the key and locked it. Tuesday arrived without much incident. Angie had fallen asleep soon after I’d sent her upstairs and hadn’t woken up by the time I’d left for work. Hopefully she’d have a hangover and stay in bed all day. I can dream, can’t I? I showed up to work early this morning, at about five to eight. Gabe was there cleaning the windows of the showroom. Inside, Carlos’s car sat on the rotating dais, its price tag displayed prominently on the windshield. “You’re leaving streaks,” I said as I passed by the new kid. He grabbed for the Windex and sprayed again, trying to fix the problem. I headed over to the shop door and unlocked it. “Just dry the window and get inside, you can fix it later.” He almost fell off his stool in his rush to get down. This was the kid I was giving a week to? He came inside and looked for a corner to set the stuff down. I imagined he’d brought the supplies from his home. Mine now. “Put the cleaning stuff in the corner. We’ve got a job that came in Thursday. He doesn’t need the car for another two weeks and we’ve got it sanded already, so I want you to get started on the paint. There’s a design in the folder. If you jack it up let me know, we’ve got time to fix it.” Nod. “I prefer ‘yes sir’.” “Y-yes sir,” he stammered. I nodded and went into my office. Saturday’s mail was still sitting on the desk, so I began going through them. Four credit card offers today. I took a moment to stuff the return envelopes with the materials from competing companies. I logged onto my private email and sent a small memo to reserve a few extra spaces for the senders before depositing the envelopes in the outgoing mailbox. Presently I was aware that someone was standing in the doorway. “What?” I asked without turning around. I knew it was Gabe- Manuel knew better than to bother me in the office. “S-sorry to bother y-you, but-” “Just ask the question.” “Which folder i-is… um…” “Job name is Arroyo. Check the tag under the windshield wiper. Now go away,” I said, waving a hand dismissively.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

I gave him two hours. At ten o’ four the mechanics showed up for the day. After I chewed them out for being late and gave them their tasks, I went to inspect Gabe’s work. I found him in the paint booth, car inside. He had finished taping and was just starting to apply the base coat. Watching him work with the spray gun was impressive- his hands were smooth and controlled; he seemed in his element with the paint. I decided not to surprise him, lest he have to start over after jumping. Not indicating my presence, I turned and left the booth and headed to the showroom. I’m one of the only body shops with an attached showroom. When things are slow, we’ll usually fix and paint an old car and put it on the floor. Word of my work’s gotten around and invariably a collector will come through and buy it. Today, a middle-aged man was looking at Carlos’s car. I smiled and walked up to him. An hour later we’d settled on a final price for the car. He didn’t even bother flipping through the contract, just asked where he had to sign. I’m rather proud that I’ve managed to reduce the signing process to two signatures. He drove away, probably thinking that he’d just gotten a great deal. I quietly filed the contract away and headed back into the shop. I was lucky and caught Gabe as he was cleaning the spray nozzle. “Gabe.” He jumped, dropping the head of the gun on the floor. He swiftly picked it up and stared at me. I could see him hunting for words in the barren waste that he called a mind, so I decided to supply some. “Listen, I know you’re new here, I know it’s hard. New job, new area, you probably move with the work, right?” Nod. “Right. So I’d like to help you adjust. I know a… well, a girl who could use a friend. I think you’d like her,” I said to him. I knew I’d just derailed whatever train of thought he’d had in his head. “Tell you what, don’t think too hard on it. Come out and meet her once, and if you like her you two go from there. Sound good?” “Um… okay?” he said hesitantly. I forced a smile. “Great,” I said as I handed him a slip of paper, “This is my address. She’ll be waiting for you at my place at seven on Saturday. Don’t be late.” He nodded dumbly as I turned and walked away briskly. Tuesday evening. Four more days of Angie to go. For an eternal being, four days is usually an eyeblink. When it’s spent with Angie, eternity suddenly gets redefined in the under-a-week context. I’d come home to find that she’d tripped and fallen down the stairs, ripping the handrail off the wall as she went. She’d left plates and glasses strewn about the kitchen, and had somehow found and consumed a bottle of wine I’d forgotten about. I walked in the door to the smell of warm meat and dirty socks. I very quietly began swearing- if I didn’t need the girl, I’d’ve killed her then and there. No, I’m not being metaphorical. “Angie?” I said, walking through the house. The television was on, running through the five o’clock news. An abortion clinic had been bombed by a pro-life group I regularly contribute money to. At least the day wasn’t a total wash. Dirty clothes and drywall dust littered the stairs, the almost-empty wine bottle leaning on the wall on the

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

third step. I looked upstairs for her- nothing. My room had been undisturbed. At least she wasn’t that suicidal. I came back down and looked some more; finally I saw her sitting outside on one of the stone benches in my backyard. I walked out and closed the door quietly behind me. I approached from behind her, noiseless. “Hey,” she mumbled, not turning. “Angie, what the-” “I’m sorry about your house. I didn’t mean to,” she said, looking at something in her hands. I came around the side of the bench and sat next to her. She turned the thing in her hands over, and I could see that it was a small flower, one of the marigolds I had planted around the yard. It was one of my special breeds, red petals fringed with white. They don’t exist anywhere else in the world, and the fact that there was now one less twanged at my annoyance level a little more. Okay, time for one of my asides. Oh shut up, I’ll get back to the story eventually. It’s not like you have anything better to do. You need to understand my garden before you understand why I was so damn annoyed. See, every plant in my backyard is something that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’ve got seeds of species that have died out, new breeds of a number of things, and a few things I’ve carried with me for quite some time. The apple tree, for example- it’s moved with me since I first grew it from a seed. I’ve got some attachment to it. It tends to take me a few years to get a garden arranged just how I like it, and I never keep more than a few of anything in there. It had taken me forty or so generations of crossbreeding and selection to get some of the flowers in there, including the marigolds. So when someone comes in and picks one, they are witlessly destroying at least a decade of work. Angie, naturally, doesn’t quite understand the concept. I leaned over and put my hands on my knees and my chin on my hands. Angie noticed the resigned-but-still-pissed look on my face and touched my shoulder. “Sorry…” “Shut up,” I snapped. “I… I’ll go ahead and go,” she mumbled. She began to get up, but I grabbed her arm. “Siddown.” A brief “huh?” escaped her lips as I realized I needed a plausible excuse for being unnaturally kind to her. She plopped back down on the stone and regarded me with confusion. “Listen Angie…” I began, while in my head all I could muster was shitshitshitshit. “I… well, the last few… well, decades… have been pretty hard on you. I may be… well, inhuman, if you get my meaning, at times…” Damnit, I was stumbling through this. I’m not supposed to stumble. Angie just stared at me, her big blue eyes widened in incomprehension. “I think it’s time someone actually tried to give you a hand instead of a drink. I guess I feel a little sorry for you.” “You what?” “I… feel sorry for you?” “You never feel sorry for anyone.”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Consider this an exception,” I tried. I’d managed to put myself off-balance fairly well as I tried to reconcile my need of Angie for my plans with my need of Angie as a target. I guess I was lucky that it had put her off-balance as well. “You mean I don’t have to go?” “No. You don’t. Just… listen, you’re gonna fix the broken stuff, okay? I’ll get some stuff from the hardware store and you’re going to fix it. And then you’re going to put the dishes up and do your damn laundry. I’ve seen what your apartments look like when you have them, you’re not doing that to my house.” “I… wait, I can stay?” she asked. I closed my eyelids so she wouldn’t see me rolling my eyes. “Yes. You can stay as long as you fix what you broke and treat my house like I treat it. And don’t pick my flowers.” “But… why?” “Do I have to explain everything to you? Just say yes.” “Yes,” came the almost automatic response. I nodded. I stood up, eager to get out of the same general vicinity as Angie. She simply sat there in stunned silence. “I’m going to the hardware store. Start cleaning up,” I said as I walked back inside. I closed the door, grabbed my keys off the wall hook, and went into the garage. I started up the Hummer and backed out of the driveway. Only when I was at the corner did I dare open my mouth. “GODDAMNIT!” I knew I’d spent longer at the hardware store than I needed to. I didn’t care. I pulled back into the driveway at a quarter to nine and went inside. To my immense surprise, the kitchen and stairway were clean. I heard the washer going, and the television had been turned off. The bottle of wine was back in the fridge, still at its almost-empty level. I surmised that she’d either found another source of alcohol or that she was sober. Neither prospect was enticing, but sober was slightly more preferable. Finally, I decided that knowing where she was was better than not. “Angie?” No answer. Great. I’d’ve prayed for her to be passed out somewhere if I had someone to pray to. I tried again and heard no response. I decided to check outside. Nothing. But something in the garden was amiss- my eye was drawn to the red and white marigold patch. Upon closer inspection, I found that Angie had grafted the flower back onto its stem and carefully taped it to a tongue depressor for support. I spent a long moment staring at it before I stood up and headed back inside. I went upstairs. The door to the spare bedroom was closed. I turned the knob silently and pushed the door open. Inside, I could see Angie passed out on the bed wearing one of my t-shirts. I decided to forgive the small invasion of my dresser this time and went to my room. After a short shower, I came back into the bedroom and pulled the sheets back before pausing. I wasn’t really sure why at the time, but I went back downstairs. The washer had stopped. I took a moment to put Angie’s clothes in the dryer and started it up before heading back upstairs and climbing into bed. Wednesday morning greeted me with the smell of something cooking from downstairs. I rolled out of bed and threw on a robe before heading down to the kitchen.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Angie was there, still in my shirt, using a wooden fork to scramble eggs in the pan. She looked over as I entered and half-smiled, though her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. “What’s the smile for?” I asked, inspecting her work. The sink was occupied by the other frying pan, and a plate of bacon was sitting on the cutting board. “I… um… no reason?” she mumbled. Inward groan- she and Gabe would get along great as long as she was sober, they both had the same nervous speech. I could feel the curiosity building in me- most people don’t smile at me for no reason. “Sure,” I said, taking the bacon and putting it on the table. I found that two place settings had been made. Was she thanking me for something? I mean, I’ve been ‘thanked’ before, but it’s usually some idiots in a graveyard doing something moronic with chicken blood. Their ‘thank you’ always comes with some sort of expectation that they’ll get something besides salmonella. An unsolicited thank-you without an expectation is just plain foreign to me. “I just wanted to say again that I’m sorry about… well, about yesterday,” she said as she slid the eggs into a bowl. The toaster popped two slices out and she put them on another plate and brought the rest of the food to the table. She sat down across from me and seemed to wait for some sort of prompt. Breakfast, let alone being awake before noon without it being because she was still up from the night before, was foreign to her. But she’d done it right- well, almost. “Oh, drinks,” she said, starting. She stood. “I’ll get it,” I said, standing and heading over to the fridge. Only after I’d gotten there did I decide it was so she couldn’t get at the rest of the wine. I poured orange juice for her, cranberry for myself. As I sat back down, she was still looking about four inches below my eyes. “Yes?” “Nothing.” “Say it,” I commanded. She chewed the inside of her lip a moment. “Thanks,” she mumbled, “Thanks for not kicking me out last night.” Yep, unsolicited thanks. No expectations, just thanks. “Just don’t do it again,” I said, scooping eggs onto my plate before passing her the bowl. She nodded wordlessly and prodded at her food for a moment. “Your clothes are in the dryer by the way.” Nod. Uh-oh. It’d been so long since I’d seen her sober that I’d forgotten how depressed she gets. It’s worse than you’d think- imagine living with an emo that can’t kill herself so she’s out of your hair. She was brooding, and I could practically see the little clouds of depression gathering. In an hour she’d start drinking again to escape it, or try to anyway. I mentally assessed whether or not she’d actually do any damage aside from that to my sanity and decided I’d rather not risk her being here with a liquor cabinet, even if locked. “I’d put them on. You’re coming with me to work,” I said before taking a bite of egg. I figured it’d be a lot harder for her to do damage with no alcohol around for her to get at, though I wasn’t sure how Gabe would react. But with any luck, I decided, they’d hook up and I’d have her out of the house a couple days sooner. She looked up from her breakfast at me, “Go with you to work? Why?” “Because I don’t trust you to be here alone.” “I’ll be good.”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Tell that to the handrail. Which you still need to fix, by the way,” I retorted. She mumbled something, what it was I didn’t really care. We finished breakfast and got her dressed and in the car. A thirty-minute commute later we pulled into the paint shop parking lot; Gabe was working on the windows again. He turned his head to look at me and wave, then went back to work on the window. I counted the seconds. One… Two… Three… His wiping stopped and he turned to look again, saw Angie, and promptly lost his balance on the short stepladder. He fell hard on his butt and the bucket of water upended on his stomach. Angie laughed. I managed an obliging smirk. I wasn’t keen on paying worker’s comp if he’d hurt his own dumb self. I parked in my spot and stepped out. Angie, distracted from her rainclouds, stepped out and went over to Gabe, helping him to his feet. He wouldn’t look directly at her, just turned red. I could see Manuel waiting at the door, so I went over and unlocked it while she mumbled something to him. I wasn’t close enough to make out words, but they muttered back and forth to each other as I let Manuel in. I turned around to find that he’d stopped talking and was staring at her eyes. He was snared- I’ve seen more than one man fall into those eyes. Finally, he mumbled something and broke away from her, going inside. Angie seemed less confused than normal, perhaps even a little amused. “What’s his name?” she asked me. “Gabriel,” I replied. Cue clouds, or so I thought. “I like that name.” “What?” It was my turn to be confused. Angie used men for free drinks and a bed to sleep on. She rarely if ever cared what their name was. “It’s a good name.” “You should know, he locked the doors behind you,” I said. I surprised myself with that one. I’m usually more than happy to rain on someone’s parade, but that was defeating the purpose here. I chalked it up to instinct as I saw her lip tremble. “Hey, I’m sorry. Forget I said that.” “That was… that was pretty cold,” she muttered, brushing past me to go inside. I shrugged. Screw it, it was time for work. She could deal with her own problems as long as she didn’t make more for me. I went inside and clicked the lights on in my office and began the daily paperwork. Two calls had come in about getting work done, one needed it ready by the end of the week. I called them back and told them to bring the cars in. We’d have to sand and basecoat the fast job today. I called Manuel in and told him to clear the space needed, move the schedules around if he needed to. He just nodded like always and did it. I like Manuel- he just gets shit done. No extra instructions, no clarifications, just fire and forget (a term I also applied to most of my former employees for another reason). At three to ten the mechanics arrived and began the tasks I had for them that day. Once they’d begun I went around the shop to see what was in progress. Manuel was busy attaching new hubcaps to a Charger we’d retrofit with a twin turbo a week ago. He nodded at me as I passed. As for Gabe- where the Hell was he? He wasn’t in the paint booth, he wasn’t sanding the new car, he wasn’t anywhere I could see him. I listened carefully and heard voices on the other side of the metal wall at the back of the shop. Angie and Gabe were having some sort of conversation. This annoyed me- time is money,

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

and he was wasting both of mine. I went to the back door and stepped out. Gabe saw me come out and instantly failed at trying to not look guilty. Angie looked back and waved at me. I advanced on them. “Gabe, we need to have a chat.” “Um…” “My office. Now,” I said. I turned and walked back inside, followed closely by a hundred and fifty pounds of abortion advertising. Angie trailed behind him, watching me storm into my office. “Angie, wait outside.” “But-” “No. Wait out here,” I said and slammed the door once Gabe was inside. The kid looked positively terrified. “Alright Gabe, I’m going to try and explain this to you simply. We have a rush job due in four days. I am paying you by the hour. When you knock off to talk to someone, you’re costing me money- one, because I’m paying you for your time jacking around, and two, because you’re not doing your job. In essence, you are stealing from me.” “I-” “Have one more chance. If I catch you wasting time again like that, you’re gone. Clear?” “Y-y-yessir,” he managed. “Alright. Now, you can talk to her while you’re working, but don’t stop working because of it.” “Y-yes-yessir.” “Now get out of my office.” If he’d moved any faster he’d have left skidmarks. As he left, I saw Angie outside the door, glaring at me. Angie and I arrived back at my house in the evening. She’d refused to speak to me for the rest of the day. I instructed her to begin working on the handrail while I threw something in the microwave. She just grabbed the spackle and paint and began working without a word to me. I decided this was nice- she didn’t bother me with whatever was on her so-called mind. Apparently she didn’t like keeping her thoughts to herself much, as she finally cracked. “You were a real asshole today,” she commented as she worked on the wall. “You remember who you’re talking to, right?” “Doesn’t give you an excuse to be an asshole.” “I know a book that’ll argue that point.” “Ha-ha. You really hurt my feelings, and his too.” “Oh good, you care about someone past how many shots they can buy you,” I snapped, taking the plastic film off of a couple of frozen veal dinners. Yes, they make those. “I care about people. I do.” “You haven’t cared about anyone but yourself for decades.” “So have you!”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Then it looks like we’re well-matched,” I grumbled. I set the timer for six minutes and hit start. I basked in the luminescence from the bulb inside the microwave, focusing on the little rotating meals to keep myself from hurting her. The only sound was its hum for the next minute before she broke the wonderful silence yet again. “And thank you for introducing me to him.” Damnit, the thank-you thing again. I wished she’d stop doing that. “Yeah, don’t worry about it.” “No, really. I like him.” “Good,” I said. The gravy on the veal had started popping, sending little chunks of crap flying around the microwave. “I think he’s really nice.” “If that’s what you think. How’s the handrail coming?” “I’m about done patching the holes,” she said. “Make sure you paint in a crosshatch to match the wall,” I remarked as I wetted a sponge. She nodded. The microwave dinged and turned off a few seconds later. Opening it, I pulled out the steaming plastic containers and put them on the cutting board before wiping down the inside of the microwave. “Food,” I said. She came down the stairs and put the stuff on the counter. We sat down at the table and began eating in silence. Of course, no matter how much I try to avoid conversation with her, one of Angie’s talents is starting it again. “Why have you been so nice to me?” “Thought you said I was an asshole.” “Sorry… you were being nice until today. And you still are, cooking me food and not throwing me out and everything.” “Is it wrong to be nice?” “It’s suspicious, especially from you,” she said. Okay, so maybe she’s smarter than I give her credit for being. “You know, I’m not sure,” I said quietly, staring at a piece of meat on my fork. “You’re never not sure… what are you hiding?” “It’s complicated, Angie. Just drop it. Please,” I said. I think the please startled her, because she next word she uttered was “Alright.”. “Thanks,” I said. She smiled a little at the ‘thanks’- I don’t think I’d ever said that to her, either. After finishing my meal I stood, glad to be out of the awkward moment with her. She stood with me, even though she wasn’t done. “Finish your food,” I said as I threw away my dish and put the fork in the dishwasher. “I’m not that hungry,” she said. I doubted this. “Then just finish the handrail,” I replied. I walked up the stairs and decided to turn in early tonight. I wanted to get through the next few days and get her out of my house as quickly as possible. A quick shower and I was able to get between the sheets again. I found myself watching the clock on my dresser as the minutes passed, my mind refusing to turn off for the night. I wondered if this would really work, if I could really get both of them at once. I didn’t know. A lot of my plans involve chance, but this one had stakes higher than usual. About an hour of wondering had passed before I finally felt myself drifting off to sleep.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of my bedroom door opening. I didn’t bother looking up. If the need presented itself I’d be on my feet anyway. Instead, I felt the sheets move as Angie crawled into the bed beside me. I sighed. “Angie, what the f-” “I’m lonely,” she interjected. She slid up next to me and wrapped her arms around my stomach from behind before resting her head against my shoulderblade. “I see.” “Thank you again,” she said, and kissed me once on the back. I didn’t reply, and after a few moments I heard her snoring gently. Carefully turning over, I looked at her in the darkness. Even asleep she was beautiful, something I’d never noticed before. To my own surprise, I pecked her on the forehead before I went to sleep. “You’re welcome.” Thursday morning found me awake first. I was in the kitchen by six preparing omelets for breakfast. Angie came downstairs at about six twenty in the same clothes as yesterday. “Don’t you have anything else to wear?” I asked her. She looked terribly groggy, probably the result of almost twenty-four hours of complete sober. She mumbled something, still squinting at the light. “What was that?” “I said I got my clothes at a locker at the bus station.” “Wait, what?” “Got kicked out of the apartment, r’member?” “Yeah, yeah, I remember. All you have is a suitcase of clothes?” “An’ some other junk.” “Right. Well, come on and eat. I’ll pick up your clothes on the way back from work today.” I had decided I’d keep her and Gabe apart for a day- one because I wanted them to obsess over each other, two because I needed that damn car done by Friday. “Can’t I come to work with you?” “No.” “Awww, why not?” she said, draping her arms around my neck from behind. I shrugged them off. “Because Gabe’ll get jackall done with you there, and I need that car finished.” “I won’t distract him, I promise.” “And you’ll be showing up in day-old dirty clothes with spackle on them. If you want him to head for the hills, then by all means show up like that,” I remarked. This seemed to give her pause. She mulled it over in her head before nodding her assent. “Alright, but I’m going with you tomorrow.” “Fine by me,” I said, “So what’re you going to do here for the day?” “I don’t know,” she shrugged. I slid the last omelet onto a plate and handed it to her. She sniffed it. “What’s in it?” “Mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, cheese,” I said. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Anchovies?”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Just try it,” I said, heading over to the table. She cocked her head and sniffed it again before joining me. She sat down and poked at the thing for a while. “You bite it, it doesn’t happen the other way around,” I remarked between bites. She hesitantly cut off a bite and tried it. Chewed. Swallowed. “Hey, this is kinda good.” “Told you. Now eat up. If you’re gonna stay here all day you’ll earn your keep, got it?” I said. She nodded while chewing. “Good. The silver in the cabinet needs polishing, and after that I’d like you to run the dishwasher and clean the fridge, it’s getting a little dirty.” “Why don’t you just… well, you know, wave your hand and do it?” “Because I’m trying to stay off the radar? You do realize I’m not even supposed to be here, right?” “What do you mean? I mean, I assume you bought the house and own it and-” “No, I mean up here.” “Oooooh. Wait, he doesn’t know?” “No, He doesn’t.” “Careful, a priest might hear you,” she chuckled. I shrugged. I’ve been to mass before and argued with the priest in front of the entire congregation. I don’t really care if a few holy men hate me. And no, I don’t combust on walking into a church. I finished another bite and saw her looking out the window behind me. “What?” “There’s a squirrel out there wearing… pants?” she tried, probably wondering if she was drunk again. I grumbled and got up, grabbing Carlos’s pistol from the drawer as I went outside. I plugged the rodent once in the head and tossed it in the garbage bin. Every now and then one of the little morons would grab a fruit off the tree and suddenly realize it was naked. I’d managed to develop tools to keep them off the tree over the years, but now and then one got through. One of the hazards of keeping the thing, I suppose. I walked back in, wiping the barrel of the gun off. “Wait, is that…” “Yeah, one of them.” “One of them?” “Well, the other one. Hey, don’t look at me like that, I grew it myself. He dropped the apple, it was fair game.” “You do realize how much trouble you could get- oh, right,” she said as my expression clearly stated that she was preaching to the proverbial choir. I shrugged it off and gulped down the last of the omelet. “Right. Gotta go, you stay out of trouble.” “The fact that you’re telling me that is all kinds of wrong.” I allowed myself a smirk- she was right- and headed out. I arrived at the shop four minutes late today- some moron had had an accident and tipped over a delivery truck. Traffic was detoured, and I was ticked. I could see Gabe long before I got into the lot, just standing on the pavement leaning on a broom. I imagined he was supposed to be sweeping the gravel off the lot. He jumped back into action when he saw the Hummer coming. He was better than the last one- the one I’d had

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

before just got stoned in the mornings and was useless for three hours. But discipline is discipline. “Do I pay you to daydream?” I asked as I stepped out of the car and slammed the door. I didn’t wait for a response, “Just go inside and get the Arroyo job done.” I opened the door and he rushed past me like a fleeing rabbit and went to the paint booth to get started. I muttered something; even I don’t remember what it was at this point. I just went to my office and started working. I had the feeling this was one day I was going to want to put behind me. Two hours later, I found out I was right. The bang from the shop got me out of my chair. I stormed into the work area and found the mechanics coughing in a cloud of blue smoke coming out of the ’67 Stingray we were souping up for a Beverly Hills client. This was beyond intolerable. I crossed my arms and waited for an explanation. “Uh, I think the timing belt broke,” one muttered, pointing at a hole in the hood of the car. True to his assessment, the timing belt had broken when they’d tried to test out the new turbo and sent a cylinder through the hood. For those of you who don’t speak Car, I’ll translate: These two failures had just cost me a few thousand in repair costs. I was beyond words, save two. “Fix it,” I rumbled. They looked at each other. “You want us to go get parts? ‘Cause that’s gonna cost extr-” “No it’s not. You broke it, you’re paying for it,” I said. They looked at each other. “No, we can’ do that for free,” one mumbled. “You broke it for free.” “Not our fault,” said the other. I’d had it. I reached into my jacket and put my hand on my pistol. Only superhuman control kept it in there, and I think they could see that I was ready to terminate more than their employment. “Uh… tell you what, we pay for half, that okay?” one offered. I twitched. Half was more than I could expect from mechanics- and probably the best even I could get from them. “Fine, half. Now go,” I said. They quickly left. And people think I’m evil. I arrived home at six after seven. I’d stayed late, personally installing the new parts on the Stingray and sending the mechanics home early so they couldn’t bill me for their time today. Even Manuel had stayed away from me that day, and Gabe was just bottled up in the paint booth doing his thing. I gunned the engine in frustration before I turned it off and stepped out. Slammed the car door and then the garage door behind me. I could smell rubbing alcohol in the air. I swore inwardly- Angie’s tried rubbing alcohol before when she couldn’t get her hands on regular liquor. “Angie?” “Yeah-huh?” came the reply from the living room. It sounded sober. This was suspicious, and I wasn’t in the mood for mystery. “What’re you doing?” I asked as I walked towards her voice. “Cleaning,” she replied. I decided it would be easier to just observe so I stemmed the conversation. The living room was spotless, even moreso than usual. As I got used to the rubbing alcohol I could smell the underlying pine cleaners and polish. “Holy crap, Angie. I didn’t ask you to do all this.”

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. I was still angry about the day, I guess my voice hadn’t adjusted to pleasantly surprised. “No, I appreciate it. It was… well, more than I asked. Thank you.” “I had extra time,” she said. I finally saw her lying on the floor polishing the bottom of a bookshelf. She looked up at me and waved casually. Annoyed though I was, I managed a small wave back. “What’s got you in such a bad mood?” she asked. I’m not usually so transparent. “Bad day at work,” I said. She shrugged and patted the floor next to her. I sat down and leaned against the back of the couch and recounted the day. “You’re not gonna fire him, are you?” she said when I mentioned Gabe. “No,” I replied, “He’s competent.” “High praise from you,” she smirked, using my shoulder to pull herself to her feet. “You bring any food home? I’m starving.” “No, but I can cook something. What’re you in the mood for?” I said as she picked up the dusting supplies. “I could kill for some pasta.” “Really?” “No, not literally. Nice try.” “Can’t blame me for trying,” I said as I headed into the kitchen. I took out a package of angel hair and tossed it into a pot of water. Setting it to boil, I watched Angie put up the cleaning supplies in the closet. “Hey, I got a question,” she said as she put them up. “Shoot.” “Why’re you being… well, nice to me? I mean, you’re generally- no, you’re always the most self-serving bastard around-” “Thank you.” “And it’s just… weird that you’re suddenly being nice. I can’t help but feel like you’ve got an ulterior motive here.” “You analyze too much.” “And I think it has to do with Gabe.” “Why him?” “He’s not your type. He’s not the kind of person you like- he’s the kind of person you acquire and then toss aside.” Damn. I’d forgotten that she was also sharp as a tack when sober. “He’s competent. He does a good job, and you know I needed a hire at the shop.” “Then why set me up with him? Why that? Why let me near the shop if I’m gonna distract him?” she said. By this point she was leaning on the counter, arms straight and supporting her as she interrogated me. “Because…” I couldn’t think of a reason fast enough. She pounced. “Knew it. I knew it. What’re you setting up? Vegas wedding? Did you have him sign a contract? What’re you up to?” “Angie-” “No, you know what, I don’t want to know,” she replied. “You’ve been rehearsing this all day, haven’t you?” I asked as I stirred the boiling pasta to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. It was a rhetorical question.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

“You’re planning something, and I’m not going to be a part of it. And I’ll have you know, I like Gabe. He’s a sweet person and he treats me with respect- not your fake kindness.” I had a response, I know I did, but it wouldn’t come. The lack of a reply seemed to only aggravate her further, and she brushed past me and stomped upstairs. I couldn’t identify the feeling I had as I watched her go- it was alien to me in this context. But looking back on it, it’s pretty obvious what was happening. I was jealous. I woke up early Friday morning and got dressed. Headed out the door an hour early to avoid Angie. The remnants of the pasta were gone- I guess she finished it off at night. Hunger trumps anger every time. I opened the garage by hand and rolled the car down the incline of the driveway. Had to throw on the brake, shut the garage manually, then get back in and roll it out into the street before I started it. I headed off to the shop. The day passed in a haze for me. I’d keep getting distracted, wondering if Angie was breaking into my liquor cabinet and getting wasted again, or if she was tearing up the house in anger- but my thoughts more and more drifted away from what she was doing towards merely how she was doing. I reflected over the past few days- it had been practically a pleasure to have her there. Things were… well, it was less lonely when she was around. Gabe came in a couple times with some random questions; I fielded them and went back to staring at my monitor. The mechanics came in and handed me a bill- I signed it without looking. At eleven thirty-five I couldn’t stand it any more. I got up and walked into the shop. “Manuel.” A head poked out from behind a car, socket wrench between his teeth. “Take care of the shop for me for the day, I’m going home early. Lock up when you’re done. Take off early if you want, I don’t care,” I said. I could see the confusion on his face before I turned and walked to the Hummer. I turned the car on and slammed the pedal to the floor as I exited the lot. “Angie?” I called as I got in the door. Silence. I sniffed- the air didn’t smell of alcohol. The place was still sparkling from yesterday’s cleaning. “Angie!” Nothing. I walked quickly through the house, then up to the second floor. The guest room was empty, the bed made. “Angie!” No response. I headed back down and out into the garden. Empty. I went back inside and sat down on a chair. Stood up. Pulled my phone from my pocket. I dialed her number. One ring. Two. Three. Four. Five.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

On the sixth ring I heard the familiar clickover as it went to the messaging service. I ended the call and sat down on the sofa. Pressed redial. One ring. Two. Three. Four. Messaging service. Hang up. I probably sat there for an hour redialing her number, never to get an answer. Looking back on it, I understand what was happening. At the time, I was completely confused, and as such I was getting angry. I’m normally in complete control of a situation, but I wasn’t here. This was going to drive me insane. At two I began pacing, phone in hand. I’d look at it every few moments to see if I’d somehow missed a call. At two-fifteen, I decided I needed to calm down. I walked over to the liquor cabinet, pulled the key from my pocket, and opened it. I took out a bottle of Jack and poured a shot. The stuff burned my throat- I’m more of a wine personbut I tipped it back anyway and poured a second. After the third, I capped the bottle and closed the cabinet. I felt a little better now. I sat back down on the couch and began trying to reason through what the Hell was wrong with me. Angie had been in my house sober for two days. She’d damaged the place, smelled like an armpit the first day, and was being used by me to try and destroy a new kid at the paint shop. I realized then that I’d never actually had her around for more than a few minutes while sober before then. Before, she’d merely been a pain in the ass as she drunk her way through the days. Now, she was actually pleasant to be around, and it occurred to me that she provided something I hadn’t had before- someone who I liked caring for. It struck me as odd- possibly even heretical- I cared about someone other than myself. Maybe I was jealous of Gabe, attracting her so easily. I’d always just been the one she’d come to when she was drunk and everyone else realized how annoying she was when she was being a tease. I hadn’t given a damn until now. I guess this is what it feels like to be ‘just friends’. Did I care? Really? Or was it just jealousy that I couldn’t have something worth having? I didn’t know- and really, I didn’t and don’t care. When I want something, that’s all there is to it. The rest of the day passed in an agonizing slowness. About once every thirty minutes I’d call Angie’s phone and get the messaging service. By seven the phone was about out of power, so I hooked it up to the little white charger they sent with it- a pathetic little white thing, some sort of corporate stab at a nonconformist image. I popped a microwave dinner in- I had to mentally stop myself from grabbing a second. Put the thing in the microwave and set it to cook before I sat down at the table. I looked across, and for the first time in days saw nobody. For the first time, I realized just how lonely I really am. I sat and ate in silence, staring at the empty space surrounding, suffusing me. The day faded into night, and I finally tore myself away from the table hours later, my halfeaten dinner cold. I left it there and trudged up the stairs. Turned into my bedroom and lay down, not bothering with a shower. She’d said ‘thank you’.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Hell, she wasn’t afraid of me. That’s a big thing to me. As I tried to get some sleep, I kept finding myself hoping she’d come in and lay down next to me again. It wasn’t a sex thing- believe me, I’ve had more than my share of sex- it was that someone was there because they wanted to just be near me, knowing who and what I am. After six nightcap shots of Kahlua I finally drifted off to sleep. Saturday. Today. It’s been nine and a half hours since I woke up at seven-ten this morning. I called in at the shop and said I was sick, use the spare key in the box in the gutter, make sure the Arroyo job is done. I hung up the phone with a click that echoed in my head. Angie may have been building up tolerance to alcohol over the years, but I haven’t. Two glasses of wine is generally my limit. I had a hangover- Hell, I still don’t feel well from it. I threw on yesterday’s clothes and went straight to the car- do not pass kitchen, do not collect two hundred calories. I got in and backed out of the driveway. There were a few places I knew Angie frequented- with a little luck I’d be able to find her at one. First stop was her apartment- or the unit which had served as such until recently. I tried the door but found it locked. I knocked twice. No answer. I tried the doorknob and found it to be locked. I looked around, making sure nobody was watching, then pointed at the doorknob. It clicked as the lock opened. I got in, looked around- the place stank like vomit and vodka. Mushrooms were growing out of the stained carpet and streaks of what I assumed were puke enameled the walls. So this was what she was like at home. As I covered my nose with my shirt collar, I found myself thinking, I can’t let her go back to living like this. I left the apartment without bothering to relock the door. If someone wanted to steal a mushroom they were in luck. I jumped back in the car and began hitting the local bars around the apartment. No sign of her. After leaving the fourth bar, I tried to reason with myself- this was pointless. She’d probably hit a club, gotten wasted, and had gone home with some random bastard who had spent the night unsuccessfully trying to get her pants off and was right now nursing a hangover, blue balls, and a Texas-sized bar tab. I kept trying. I began working the bars on the way to my house. It was only eight in the morning- the only bars even open were the ones that had a restaurant attached. The population in each was so low that I only needed a cursory glance, and I could usually manage to leave before they tried to seat me, though I did make a point of grabbing a peppermint when I saw a dish out. By two in the afternoon I’d checked every bar between her apartment and my house. Nada. A thought hit me- she might be at the shop. I turned onto Springdale and gunned the motor. As my luck would have it, I saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror a moment later. I didn’t have time for this. I snapped my fingers and the cop car ground to a stop, its fuel line gushing gas onto the pavement. Concentrated a little- his radio went dead. I breathed in deeply to calm myself as I threaded through traffic and finally pulled into the shop.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Manuel’s head poked around the side of the open door as I pulled in, some sort of sandwich between his teeth. He waved at me and pointed to the finished Arroyo car in the back. I nodded. “Has Angie been here today?” Manuel nodded. I didn’t wait for more, just rushed into the back. “Angie?” No answer. I frowned. “Gabe?” Nothing. Shit. “Manuel, did they say where they were going?” He shook his head, causing a bit of beef to fall from his sandwich. He caught it in his hand. I felt my lip twitch. “Fine. Fine!” I exclaimed. I was furious. But with no leads, I had nowhere to go. Manuel grunted behind me. Manuel had opened the door to my office and wandered off into the back of the shop. With no other options looking better, I went into the office. The red light on my phone was flashing- I had messages. Appointment. Reschedule. Gabe. The recording began with coughing- sounded like the kid was sick. The context of the message confirmed this. “Hi boss,” hack “The cold’s gotten really bad today, I’m sorta dizzy and I don’t think I can make it in. If I feel better I’ll come-co-” sneeze “come in. Please tell Angie I need to-” coughcoughhackspit “reschedule. I’m really sorry.” The phone clicked as he hung up his receiver. I leaned back in my chair, letting the supple leather mold to my body. For the moment, I was in control. I looked at the clock- two twenty-two. I took a few minutes to file the mail- something from the IRS, probably wondering how I was getting my merchandise so inexpensively. It’s all above the table, I promise. Since I was already dirty and didn’t have anywhere to be until seven, I helped Manuel finish the day out and close the shop. At six sharp I arrived home. I got out of the car and went inside. I threw the rest of last night’s dinner back in the microwave and started it. I went upstairs as it cooked and set out clean clothes- a blood-red satin suit with a black button-down shirt, a matching red fedora and black point-tip shoes. I set them on the dresser and made the bed, then went back downstairs as the microwave dinged. I set it on the counter to cool and returned upstairs to shower. At six twenty-nine, I finished shaving, put some wax on my scalp, and came downstairs in my towel to eat. Threw away the plastic tin and put the fork in the dishwasher. Went back upstairs, and began getting dressed. That, my dear reader, brings us to now. Looking in the mirror- the goatee looks good. Why am I so nervous all of a sudden? I pull the hat onto my head, the Italian silk feels good. You really don’t get things like this at home. It’s six thirty-four. Angie’s due downstairs shortly. I’m pacing. Okay, stop. Stop pacing. Relax. Breathe. My heart shouldn’t be pounding like this. She’s the same Angie I’ve always known.

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

Six forty. Do I? No, I can’t. I haven’t felt that way about anyone or anything since… well, since the war. I haven’t felt that way in so long. I don’t think I can feel it anymore. No, I do. I think. Six fifty. She will show up, right? It’s a contract, she has to. She knows better than to break a contract with me. Yeah. Shit. Seven. On the dot. There she is. She’s walking up the street. Why is she stopping there… come on, come up the walkway- screw it. I race down the stairs and pull open the door. She’s looking at me like she hates me again. Hell hath no fury indeed. “Angie…” “Shut up. I’m just here to wait for him. Leave me alone.” “He’s not coming.” Oh shit, there’s the glare. I think she may actually try to murder me. “What did you do?!” “Nothing! Nothing! He’s sick, totally not my fault.” “Then I’m going home.” “To where, Angie? Where the Hell are you going home to?” “Away from you!” Ow. No, don’t let her walk away. Grab the arm. Okay, she’s turning around and looking at me. This is good. Talk, stupid, talk. Say something. Okay. “Angie, I miss you.” “Oh fuck off.” “No, I mean it. No games. I really…” And now she’s looking at me like she expects something. Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn… “There something else or can I go?” “Angie, the last few days… I mean, I want you to be around. I mean with me.” “What?” “I…” “I what?” Damn. Okay, just get it out there… “I love you, Angie.” The End

This story copyright John Clauder. Do not reproduce or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

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Diablo's Paint Shop