(Seventeen Years Later)
Virgil took a deep and stinging drag of his joint. Nothing beat the satisfaction of tasting something home grown. The marinara sauce burbling on the back burner echoed the sentiment. Holding his breath, he nestled Mary between the naked breasts of the mermaid ash tray. With a slow exhale, he waited for the smoke to dissipate, helping it along out the screen door with a lazy wave of the hand. Pulling the rubber band free, Virgil shook his dark pewter streaked hair down around his shoulders. Viv had always liked it long, so he kept it that way. Not as much left on top as on the bottom, but he could still manage a respectable ponytail. Heaven forbid that his grandson smell it in his hair. Though he wasn’t entirely sure why he bothered—Charlie was a bloodhound. And Virgil was a grownup, dammit. He picked up his scissors and headed outside.
Dusk settled around the quiet yard with a strange, yellow-tinged heaviness. The huge trees surrounding the back half of his property were dark and watchful. I can feel it coming in the air tonight. Phil Collins began to croon in the back of his head. Weaving expertly through the rows of the garden to the basil, Virgil snipped a handful of the herb. He rubbed a fragrant leaf between his fingers and inhaled deeply. Nice. Life is pretty okay sometimes. It was good to remember that. Straightening, he looked out past the plants and into the woods. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being observed. Must be the time of night. Twilight was traditionally host to the faerie folk.
Absently he tickled the top of his other herbs, straightened a flamingo that was listing dangerously and slid a gnome’s shades a little more securely onto its wee cement nose. He felt a gentle nudge in his heart remembering Viv. She had been gone almost two years now, and he still felt her presence so strongly, though he no longer suffered a hard jab of grief.
This motley collection of garden creatures had her sense of humor all over it and he would never remove them. She had her part of the garden, and he had his.
At the edge of the garden he saw a small hole in the dirt. Kneeling, he continued to rub basil between his finger and thumb. Setting the remaining leaves in the grass, he traced the circumference of the hole. No gopher or mole did that. Weird, very weird. Settling back on his haunches Virgil ran through the various possibilities. He couldn’t stop the headlines from rushing through his head, but managed to talk himself down from the burst of paranoia. Marijuana plants tucked in the center of a retired school teacher’s garden was not the kind of stuff cops bother with. He had grown it for Viv to help with the cancer, and he kept it for himself to help with the aftermath of the cancer. Really, he needed to get control over his imagination. Where was all that when he was sitting in front of a very empty computer screen? He felt the familiar twinge in his stomach that became a violent twisting whenever he thought about his so-called retirement novel.
Movement by the wishing well caught his attention. Chase was dashing across the garden, crouched low. Hiding in the wishing well was a little beneath the dignity of someone turning seventeen tomorrow. The twins were seventeen. Time was one crazy ride. His life had changed in a million ways the day those two cabbagepatchers had suddenly appeared in his garden.
Virgil and Viv were having some Sunday gardening time. Virgil was always quick to point out that while they may both be in the garden at the same time he was the only one doing any actual gardening. Viv would counter that she couldn’t be blamed as she suffered from incurable “black thumb” and had been banned even from the simplest weeding. She could do magical things with flowers and herbs once they were grown, but involving her anytime before harvest was a bad idea. Her self-appointed gardening job was bossing Virgil around and tending to the many members of her Odd Little Garden Things.
While Virgil trimmed and planted, Viv cleaned and rearranged. She made outfits for some of the collection to mark seasonal changes or holidays. She had a plastic bucket with her necessary tools. A toothbrush, one squirt bottle with soapy water and one with plain water, a cloth for buffing and a small collection of paints and brushes for any extreme makeovers. Once all were beautified, she would create a fresh tableau. Hours were spent, never tiring of making “moments” in and amongst the plants.
Set back from the main road and bordered by woodland, it felt like they were miles from civilization. No traffic noises or people, he would often suggest Viv go topless. She had yet to oblige. They were both bent to their individual tasks, the sun warming their backs and the soothing quiet of the plants surrounded them.
Suddenly the peace of the day was broken with a flash of light and an enormous crack. Virgil searched the sky expecting to see falling debris from an airplane. For a moment he could only hear the sound of his own ragged breath. Then the wrenching sob broke through.
When he looked around he saw that Viv had already found the source. It was a woman. She was covered in blood. Viv was kneeling near her, whispering urgently. The woman nodded, whispering something in reply.
Puzzled by the apparent familiarity, he moved slowly towards them. The wretched-looking woman startled at his approach.
“He’s okay. It’s okay,” Viv soothed. “Annika, this is Virgil.”
“Are you hurt?” Virgil asked. Although she was covered in gore, he could see no obvious injuries.
“It is not mine,” Annika smiled with bitter satisfaction. Those cold words seemed to brace her. The tears cleared patterns through the blood on her cheeks. Her eyes were huge, haunted, and dangerous. Virgil was suddenly glad that he hadn’t dropped his shovel. He tightened his grip, walking slowly in a circle around the two women, looking for any sign of unwanted company. As he passed the wishing well, he heard a rustling from the depths.
Having built the ornamental well himself, Virgil knew it ended in a dirt floor. It was the focal point of the garden. He had built it big so Viv could admire it from the kitchen window. It was easily big enough for a person to be concealed in the shadow of the walls. Whatever was in there, it was good and cornered. Virgil raised the shovel over his head, trying to look and sound as intimidating as possible.
“We can hear you in there. No use in hiding any more. Come out slowly—with your hands where I can see them.” Virgil fervently hoped he was about to be embarrassed by nothing scarier than an errant squirrel. His snazzy, cop show dialogue would do him little good in an actual confrontation. He didn’t know who he was kidding with this shovel either. Viv was slowly placing herself between the now silent Annika and the wishing well.
“Come out!” Virgil knocked the side with the shovel. He’d thought he’d already experienced the weirdest part of his day. Then he stepped up and peered into the well, and things got even weirder.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Virgil was positive he had actually felt his heart stop and restart. “Viv! There are babies in the well!” Virgil nearly pissed himself when he turned and saw for the first time that Annika was holding a sword. A sword? She lowered it as she sank to the ground, crying silently.
Viv ran forward, leaning over the side of the well. She gasped in delight, which seemed a strange reaction considering the circumstances
“I’ll go call 911.” Virgil began backing towards the house.
“No.” Viv’s voice was sharp, and he looked at her in surprise. “I think we handle this ourselves.”
“Trust me, Virgil.”
He nodded, still eyeing the sword. Finding the babies had stunned Annika into utter stillness. He guessed she wasn’t a threat. Viv was positively glowing as she swung over the short wall into the well. It was becoming clear that she knew more about this crazy situation than she should.
“Go inside please and bring back my bathrobe. While you are in there, fill both sides of the sink. Lukewarm.”
His tasks were easily accomplished, and he returned to the wishing well at a run. Viv was still in the well, now holding the eerily silent infants. She quickly handed him her bundles as she scrambled back out. Virgil felt pretty impressed with himself when he refrained from passing out or screaming. Wrapping the robe around Annika’s shoulders, Viv spoke in a low voice.
“Now Virgil, I need you to take these darlings into the house and get them in that water. We need to clean them up and warm them. Annika and I will be right behind you.”
Afraid to speak lest he reveal a sudden return to puberty, Virgil nodded manfully and turned towards the house. Looking down he saw two sets of eyes observing him, one pair midnight black and the other silver with an oddly shaped pupil. Their hair looked blue. Admittedly he knew nothing about babies, but he’d never heard of them being born with blue hair. Walking towards the house like he was carrying a case of dynamite, Virgil hoped that the thundering of his heart wasn’t scaring the babies. At the back door, he turned to see what progress Viv was making.
They had stopped by the hose to get the worst of the gore off. Now he knew he was going bonkers. He could have sworn there was a fluffy, red tail sprouting from just above the woman’s ass. It was tipped with white on the end just like a fox. Unable to control himself, he glanced again only to see that Viv was holding up the towel like a shield. She met his eyes with an expression he had never seen. A wave of new understanding hit him. Shaken, he entered the house and headed towards the kitchen sink, with his silent riders in tow. Now was time to focus on the stuff he could handle.
This was a good plan until he reached the sink. Bathing one baby was completely outside his realm of experience, two was straight up impossible. He put them on the counter and stared at them. The spooky little things stared right back. Even in the light of the kitchen, he could swear their hair was blue.
“Shouldn’t you be making some kind of noise? Screaming for your mama? Are you two cabbagepatchers ok?” He felt like he was in a Scooby Doo episode where the eyes in the portrait followed the gang’s every move. He heard the shower, and Viv walking down the hall to the kitchen.
She unwrapped one of the bundles, indicating with her head that he should follow suit. Viv clucked and cooed. The wrappings were removed revealing a boy and a girl. Virgil felt his throat tighten; this bit of information somehow made everything seem very real. A quick examination showed that they were unharmed, just dirty. Viv lowered the girl into the warm water and was rewarded with the kind of bellow usually reserved for charging bulls. Almost instantly, her brother joined in the caterwauling. Viv and Virgil looked at each other and laughed.
They continued to chuckle intermittently through bath time as the infants settled down and started to tolerate the process. They were dried and wrapped in fresh towels when their mother appeared in the doorway. Her hair tangled and wet, she looked like a child herself engulfed in the bathrobe. She remained in the relative shadow of the hallway, blinking at the florescent lights of the kitchen.
Hoping to bring her a little comfort, Virgil placed the drowsing boy in her arm, and Viv placed the girl in her other. She stood stiffly.
“There, little mama, I imagine that feels better,” Virgil said stepping back. He was still a little afraid of her, even without the sword.
She looked at the babies, her eyes wild. She made no move to cuddle the infants, just looked at them. Viv ushered the uncomfortable mother towards the guestroom. Virgil couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be a lump in the lower back half of the robe. Of course, it was just the weight of it folded on her small frame. But as they entered the back room, he could have sworn he saw a flash of reddish orange just at the hem of the dark robe.
When the door closed behind the women, he dashed to the cupboard. With admirably steady hands, he pulled down a dusty bottle of Jack and took a mighty swig. Capping it, he set it on the counter for later. It had been that kind of day after all.
Some time later, Viv returned to the kitchen and handed him a list featuring bottles, formula, and diapers. She picked up the whiskey, took a swig and then danced back down the hallway humming.
The store had been a blur. He finally just handed the list to a teenager in a blue vest and paid for whatever was in his cart. When he got home the wails had reached glass shattering proportions. Viv, no longer quite so chipper, dove into the bags and started making up bottles. Virgil, against his better judgment, followed the sounds of the screams. The woman was cross-legged on the bed, the seriously pissed off infants in front of her. The racket was impressive. Virgil had to admire their stamina. Viv sped into the room bottles extended out in front of her like a superhero. After working through some residual rage, the twins settled down and began to eat.
When the much preferable silence fell around them again, Virgil backed out of the room and enjoyed a longer visit with Jack. Viv appeared in the doorway. She had never looked more beautiful.
“Are you ready for this?” Her voice was low and steady. Virgil’s stomach twisted, he had been denying his suspicions all day.
“It’s my vision. They came from Utrøst.”
A mix of fear and happiness crossed her face, and she seemed suddenly at a loss. He offered the bottle, unsure of what to do or say or even think. Viv took it and crossed into the living room. He followed trying to find the right words.
“Instant family,” was what came out.
“Is that alright with you?”
He didn’t even have to think about it. Those pesky cabbagepatchers had worked some kind of magic on him. Maybe it was Utrøst magic, maybe it was just regular old baby magic, it didn’t really matter.
“Grandpa Virgil,” he kind of liked the sound of it. “Talk about accepting a reality I am in no way prepared to handle.”
Viv laughed, wrapping her arms around him. They stood holding each other for a long time after the laughter faded. The house felt different, three new heartbeats filling up the rooms with possibilities. That was pretty good, he should write that down. First, though, he just had to ask.
“So, was that a tail?”
What was that bullshit earlier about “no longer a hard jab of grief?” His buzz and his mood radically damaged, Virgil scooped up his basil greens and stomped to the open back door. He fought the urge to close himself in, leaving the door open to the scents of the garden and the approaching night. Mary was waiting, but he was no longer in the mood. Sighing, he opened the freezer and slid the unfinished joint into a zippered baggie. Slamming the door and resolving to get over himself, Virgil uncorked the merlot, poured a little in the sauce and a lot in his glass. Quickly rinsing the basil, he used the scissors to snip it into the sauce.
Minutes later at the table, Virgil twirled the pasta around his fork and sampled his masterpiece. Delicious. If only writing came as easily as cooking. Somehow, despite any training, he had discovered that adding fresh basil from the garden at the last minute was the secret to an incredible marinara. Yet, despite years of education and educating, words would not fly from his mind to his finger tips like golden unicorns. Golden unicorns? Shit, he couldn’t even come up with a decent metaphor to mock himself. A little voice in the back of his head pointed out that maybe he shouldn’t work so hard to dull his emotions if he wanted the words to flow. Virgil shut that guy up pretty fast. The wine and the Mary were just to help him adjust to life without Viv; he would give it up eventually. Not soon enough for Charlie, president of his personal anti-drug campaign.
Swigging his wine, Virgil shrugged off such unappetizing thoughts and tucked into his fantastic pasta. Might as well enjoy these fruits, he thought. Without warning, the uneasy sensation he had tried to leave in the garden returned. Someone was watching him. Pausing with the next mouthful hovering just above the plate, Virgil moved only his eyes towards the door. The door he had left open in defiance of his own instincts. His gaze drifted down towards the floor and froze. Leaning against the doorframe was a little man. Lilliput little. He wore tight pants, the color of wheat, and a silk tunic with the sleeves rolled up to display proportionately powerful forearms. His tousled hair was blonde, and his bright blue eyes were boring into Virgil with a combination of amusement and irritation. He’d never heard of a hallucination doing that.