“The Guest” Science-Fiction by James Hanna

"The Guest" Science-Fiction by James Hanna

Only females had escaped the disaster—a hundred tiny creatures known as Aphrodites although the press dubbed them Thumbelinas.  Their survival was not due to the imprecision of the meteor that had destroyed their little world, but because males had no apparent ranking on the planet Aphrodite.  And so a miniature spacecraft, containing only women, had been plucked from the asteroid belt by the mining shuttle returning to earth.  So enchanting was the diminutive cargo of the spacecraft that every one of the Thumbelinas had been safely delivered to the NASA laboratories.

Henry Hokum first learned of the creatures from his daughter, Deborah.  “Can we adopt one, Daddy?” she asked.  “Can we?  Please?  They’re only six inches tall.”  He studied the newspaper article that his daughter had thrust into his hands—an article confirming that the government would not be segregating the Thumbelinas at the laboratories.  Instead, the women would be placed with a hundred carefully chosen families across the country.  This seemed partly due to the fiery temperament of the little creatures, the consistency with which they irritated one another, often coming to blows or stabbing each other with wee hairpins.  If left to its own devices, the race seemed determined to self-destruct, and so it seemed wise to assimilate the women individually into their new world.

Only females had escaped the disaster—a hundred tiny creatures known as Aphrodites although the press dubbed them Thumbelinas.  Their survival was not due to the imprecision of the meteor that had destroyed their little world, but because males had no apparent ranking on the planet Aphrodite.  And so a miniature spacecraft, containing only women, had been plucked from the asteroid belt by the mining shuttle returning to earth.  So enchanting was the diminutive cargo of the spacecraft that every one of the Thumbelinas had been safely delivered to the NASA laboratories.

Henry Hokum first learned of the creatures from his daughter, Deborah.  “Can we adopt one, Daddy?” she asked.  “Can we?  Please?  They’re only six inches tall.”  He studied the newspaper article that his daughter had thrust into his hands—an article confirming that the government would not be segregating the Thumbelinas at the laboratories.  Instead, the women would be placed with a hundred carefully chosen families across the country.  This seemed partly due to the fiery temperament of the little creatures, the consistency with which they irritated one another, often coming to blows or stabbing each other with wee hairpins.  If left to its own devices, the race seemed determined to self-destruct, and so it seemed wise to assimilate the women individually into their new world.

“A planet?” he said.  “In the asteroid belt?”

His daughter laughed.  “It’s magic, Daddy—magic.”

He shrugged and shook his head.   Since the situation defied both science and speculation, it seemed best to submit to a child’s interpretation of the matter.

“All right,” he murmured, not in the spirit of charity but because he owed his daughter a concession.  His daughter had scarcely benefitted when his divorce had been finalized last month, when his ex-wife had reminded him that ten years of marriage were enough.  “We were good together, Henry,” she had told him. “Just like a pair of old shoes.  But who wants to live with an old shoe?”  He had nodded profoundly and had felt vitalized for the first time in years.  A towering man with wandering eyes, he was more like a spring bull than an old shoe.  And so he had been trolling the singles bars while his daughter remained with a sitter.

“Can we, Daddy?  Can we?  Their hair is so golden.”

He looked at his daughter and smiled indulgently.  He was glad to have her for the summer, but she had grown clingy since the divorce and her clinginess too often kept him from the bars.  Perhaps a diversion, something to compensate for her mother’s absence, would help him take better advantage of his freedom.

“All right,” he repeated.  “If that’s what you want.  Let’s adopt a Thumbelina.”

*

A letter from NASA arrived in the mail.  He opened it and read.

May 3, 2040

Dear Henry Hokum & Daughter:

Congratulations.  You have been selected as a host family for one of our Thumbelinas.  Her name is Clarissa and she will provide you with hours of intrigue and entertainment.  You will particularly enjoy it when she sings since her voice is sweet, full, and purer than that of any nightingale.  Sometimes, she can be a little temperamental, but this can be moderated with steady attention and a select diet.  Please stock up on honey, cantaloupes, and sunflower seeds.  These are her favorite foods.  She also needs lots of milk, not to drink but to bathe in because her skin is very delicate.  We will deliver Clarissa to your home in one week.  Should things work out, the arrangement may be made permanent.

Thank you for opening your heart to a little refugee.

The letter was signed by Jean Hargrove, a public relations official with NASA.   Startled by the news, Henry called her office immediately.  She answered her phone on the first ring, as though she had been expecting his call.

“Ms. Hargrove?!”

“Yes.”

“Henry Hokum.  You wrote me about a Thumbelina.  About my providing a home for one of them.”

“We know that, Mr. Hokum.”

“There must have been a mistake.”
“No, Mr. Hokum.  There’s been no mistake.”

“I’m a barfly, a jerk—a pop music promoter.  My wife left me a month ago.”

“We know all that, sir.  You were carefully investigated.”

“Well isn’t there a problem?”

“No, Mr. Hokum.  There would only be a problem if you were a married barfly.  Thumbelinas are very jealous.  They cannot abide the presence of wives, mistresses, or lovers—not for very long.”

“What about my daughter?”

“She’ll make an allowance for your daughter.  Children of ten, they like.  Perhaps because they share the same emotional level.”

“So how did they build a spacecraft?”

“We really don’t know, Mr. Hokum.  Theories abound but we really don’t know.  Perhaps it was a gift from an interplanetary civilization.  One that takes pity on tiny creatures in distress.”

“And how did they survive in the asteroid belt?”

“We don’t know that either, Mr. Hokum.  We don’t understand their language—not yet.”

Then why are you placing them with families?”

“We believe it will speed up communications.  Collectively, they’re disinclined to talk to us.  Mostly, they just jabber among one another and get into fights.”

“I’m terrible with women.  Just ask my ex-wife.  I’m a bore.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Hokum.  Thumbelinas are not impressed by men.  We want her to feel at home, don’t we?”

Henry sighed and scratched his head.  He was totally out of objections.

“One week,” he said.

“One week, Mr. Hokum.  And please buy some sunflower seeds.”

*

The following morning, a delivery van pulled into his driveway.  A few minutes later, the doorbell rang.  Henry cringed as he answered the door.

“A delivery, Mr. Hokum.”

Henry looked with astonishment at the miniature house that a pair of deliverymen were carting on a dolly.   Moments later, the men were gone and the house lay parked in a sunny corner of his living room.

Henry studied the house.  It was a marvelous construction—six feet high, solar powered, and lined with tiny green shutters that complemented its white siding.  He slipped loose a panel, examined the interior, and was even more amazed.  The house had an elaborately decorated living room, a bathroom with shiny faucets, a spacious bedroom with a telephone—even a gymnasium.  Obviously, no expense had been spared to make his small visitor feel at home.

When his daughter came home from day camp, she squealed.

“Is that for me, Daddy?”

He shrugged guiltily.  “No, Deborah.  That’s a real house.”

“It’s wonderful.  How does it work?

“It’s powered by the sun.”

Holding her breath, Deborah peeked into the house.  She ran her hand over the stunted staircase, a bed no larger than a book, and the little treadmill in the gymnasium.  She touched a tiny light switch and gasped when the living room came aglow.

“I can’t wait till she’s here, Daddy.  We’re going to be such friends—her and me.”

Henry patted his daughter on the shoulder.

“Even the plumbing works,” he said.

*

Six days later, a tall saturnine woman was standing in his doorway.  She frowned when he asked her in, as though he were inviting her to bed.  She was holding a briefcase and what appeared to be a shoebox with holes.

“Mr. Hokum?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Jean Hargrove.  We made an appointment.”

“A week ago,” he admitted.

“And the week is over, Mr. Hokum.  I would like to introduce you to your guest.  And then I would like to go.”

“Why the rush?”

“There’s no rush, Mr. Hokum.  I would simply like to go.”

She followed him into the living room where she dropped the briefcase and then set the box upon the coffee table.  She then stared at him critically, as though he were an intruder in his own home.

“Let’s wake her gently, shall we?  She’s napping.”

She lifted the lid off the box and he gaped.   Asleep on a velvet cushion was a perfect miniature of a woman.  She was beautiful, incredibly beautiful—her skin so white and shiny that she appeared to be made of porcelain.  Only when she stirred, brushing her long blonde hair from her eyes, did he realize that she was a living being.  She looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and reserve.

“You might introduce yourself,” Jean said.

He continued to stare, too dumbfounded to speak.  “Henry,” he finally stammered, slapping his chest as he spoke.  The slap brought a hiccup to his voice.

The tiny woman smiled and he felt himself blushing.  Although the smile did not seem spontaneous, it was entirely disarming.  Even her dimples had dimples. 

Felling wholly embarrassed, he looked back at Jean, but her presence did not reassure him.  Next to the dazzling creature in the box, she looked like a big awkward horse.  His eyes, as though drawn by a magnet, returned to the tiny woman.

“Hey there, Dolly,” he said.

Jean scowled.  “Her name is Clarissa, Mr. Hokum.  Please have the courtesy to address her by her name.  Now show her the house we delivered you.”

Henry pointed towards the little white home with the green shutters.  Noticing it, Clarissa yawned.  She did not seem surprised or unduly impressed.  Obviously, her startling beauty had endowed her with a king-sized sense of entitlement.

“I said, show her, Mr. Hokum.  Carry her over to it.”

Pick her up?”

“Yes, Mr. Hokum.  She expects to be carried.”

Self-consciously, he extended his hand towards the tiny woman.  He felt like a panhandler and was surprised when she hopped instantly into his palm.  She was warmer—far warmer—than he expected her to be.

Although his palm itched, he carried her to the house and deposited her in front of the doorway.  His embarrassment increased when she looked up at him, placing her hand on her hip, teapot-style.  She seemed to be in a hurry.

“Open the door for her, Mr. Hokum.”

Slowly, as though performing surgery, he pushed the door open with his fingers.  As she vanished into the house, he sighed with satisfaction.  He felt as though he had passed a test.

“So what happens now?”

Jean opened the briefcase.  “Now you will sign our agreement, sir.  The agreement gives you custody of Clarissa for one month.  During that month, you will interact with her, make her feel welcome, and try to teach her some of our language.  Just a few words will do—we’re not expecting rapid progress.”

“I’m a bad conversationalist—ask my ex-wife.  She says I’m a Neanderthal.”

“It’s just as well that you are, Mr. Hokum.  We don’t want to over stimulate Clarissa, do we?”

She placed the paperwork on the coffee table and handed him a pen.  Shrugging, he accepted the pen and signed the contract with an exaggerated flourish.  With his visitor now out-of-sight, he began to doubt that she truly existed.

Jean took back the contract and stuffed it into her briefcase.  “Thank you, Mr. Hokum.  If you have no more questions, I’ll leave you alone with her.”

His skin prickled as he followed her to the doorway.  He felt ill at ease, as though she might suddenly arrest him for fraud.  His heart missed a beat when her hand hesitated upon the door handle.

“We’ll check back with you in a month,” she said.

He nodded.

“And, Mr. Hokum.”

“Yes?”

“Good luck with her.”

*

Clarissa did not speak to him for the rest of the day.  Instead, she remained in her house—there he could hear her puttering in the bathroom, running on the treadmill, and chatting on the tiny phone in her bedroom.  Her voice had a rich lilting quality, but she spoke a language completely unrecognizable to him.  Apparently, she was talking to another little refugee somewhere in America.

When Deborah returned home from day camp, she squealed: Clarissa was peeping at her from the doorway of her house.  “We’re going to be such friends,” Deborah cried, a prediction that was instantly fulfilled.  Within minutes, the two girls were in Deborah’s bedroom, laughing, shrieking, and banging about like old friends at play.  They don’t even need a language, Henry thought, and the realization made him envious.

What was going on in there?  Aching with curiosity, Henry slipped down the hallway and peaked into the bedroom.  The two were playing Whack-a-Mole, a game involving an electronic rodent attempting to dodge a rubber mallet.  Deborah was wielding the mallet; Clarissa, skipping about on the game board, was teasing the critter from its hole.  She showed no compassion when the mallet struck the rodent, causing it to squeal like a pig.

Noticing him at the doorway, Deborah froze the mallet in mid-air.  “Leave, Daddy,” she said.

“How come?”

“Clarissa thinks you’re weird.”

He looked at Clarissa, hoping for some support, and was struck once more by the irrelevance of language.  The pout of her little mouth, the thrust of her tiny chin, the iciness of her stare all spoke a clear message:  Get Out.  But even in defiance, she was beautiful—so much so that she appeared to glow.  For all true purposes, she might have been a fairy.

Feeling justly chastised, Henry stepped away from the door and slunk back down the hallway.  Once he was seated in his den, laughter again spilled from his daughter’s bedroom.

*

The next day, he awoke to a beautiful song—a song so enchanting, so lively and full, that it reminded him of water tripping along a brook.  It was the purest sound he had ever heard—so utterly engrossing that, had he been a sailor, he would have run himself aground rather than drift away from it.  Spellbound, he arose from his bed and walked in the direction of the song.  He walked slowly, carefully—contemptuous of the sound of his feet.  Reaching the living room, he paused: Clarissa was indeed singing in her little home—singing so bewitchingly that she might have been an angel of the morning.  He stood there for an hour, listening to her sing, and when she was finished he felt an irrepressible sadness.

It wasn’t until he heard Deborah cheer that he noticed his daughter beside him.  “Wasn’t that lovely, Daddy?” she said.

“Incredible,” he replied.  “I never heard such a tune.”

“Yes you have, Daddy.  It’s ‘Hang on Sloopy.’  I taught it to her last night.”

He shook his head disbelievingly.  The song, on some ethereal level, did bear a slight resemblance to “Hang on Sloopy”—that trivial classic of the sixties.   But the thought of this in no way dampened his spirits; he continued to feel such joy—such pure and utter elation—that he could not contain it.  He dialed Jean Hargrove on her cell phone.

Yes, Mr. Hokum?”  Her voice was like sandpaper.

“She sang.”

I know that, Mr. Hokum.  Thumbelinas sing every morning—at sunrise.  They’re singing all across America right now.”

“Every morning?”

Yes, Mr. Hokum—every morning.  I think it’s some kind of ritual.”

“It was ‘Hang on Sloopy’.”

Her chuckle was like the raw cackle of a crow.  “That doesn’t surprise me, Mr. Hokum.  They’ve also sung car commercials.”

“It was incredible.”

Maybe so, Mr. Hokum.  But singing makes her ravenous.  Please don’t delay her breakfast.”

“Will that make her cranky?”

Very cranky, Mr. Hokum.”

He put down the phone and stumbled towards the kitchen.  There, he fixed scrambled eggs and placed a small portion into a bottle cap.  He also filled a thimble with coffee.   Returning to the living room, breakfast in hand, he tapped softly on the door to the little house.

She was wearing a bathrobe when she opened the door, a loose-fitting garment that puddled around her feet.  Clearly, he had interrupted her bath and, clearly, she was not happy.  She looked at him so coldly that he almost dropped her breakfast.

“Daddy,” Deborah cried.  “The sunflower seeds.”

Leaving the breakfast at her doorway, he dashed back to the kitchen.  The sunflower seeds.  He located a package of them and poured a small handful into a saucer.

“She likes them steamy, Daddy.  I gave her some last night.”

Panicked, he thrust the saucer into the microwave and hit the timer.  When the seeds were hot, he sighed with relief.  The plate burned his fingers when he retrieved it from the microwave, but he clutched it stoically and hurried on back to the living room.  Clarissa was still standing at the doorway to her house. 

“Be careful,” he warned her.  “They’re hot.”

She made no reply when he placed the saucer at her feet.  Instead, she bent over, gripped the rim on either side, and lifted it like an enormous tray.  Without a backwards glance, she squeezed the saucer through the little doorway.

Deborah clapped her hands.  “Thank you, Daddy.  She’ll need a big breakfast.”

“What have you two got planned?”

“Songs, of course.  And maybe a game.”

“More Whack-a Mole?”

Deborah giggled.  “Don’t be silly, Daddy.  I’m teaching her Monopoly.”

*

His envy of the girls—their quick and easy rapport—grew with each passing day.  But it also annoyed him that Clarissa—although only a fiftieth of Deborah’s size—was clearly the dominant of the two.  This was never clearer than when Deborah was tardy in fetching Clarissa her hairbrush, fixing her a snack, or heating up milk for her bath.  At such times, Clarissa would fly into rages—furies so epic that her voice would become as shrill as chalk scraping a blackboard.  Meanwhile, Deborah would scamper about in a breathless effort to placate her little ally.

One day, Henry had had enough.  “Why,” he asked his daughter, “do you let her push you around like that?”

“She’s so beautiful, Daddy.  I just hate to see her upset.”

“She’ll be a lot more upset when I flush her down the toilet.”

Deborah gasped.  “Daddy.  That would be mur-der.”

He shook his head—undeterred.  The thought of an inquisition—even a prison term—was secondary to the joy he would feel in getting rid of the little bitch.  But it did seem fair to warn her before flushing her down the toilet.  He rapped sharply upon the door to her little house.

She was wearing a jogging suit when she opened the door and her skin, normally lily-white, was flushed and glistening.  He pointed a finger at her midriff.

“No more tantrums,” he said.

She looked at him stonily, as though he were something an animal had dropped at her doorstep.  Her face was now redder than a cherry tomato.

“NO MORE TANTRUMS,” he repeated, emphasizing each word with a thrust of his finger.

She continued to glare at him, her arms folded haughtily across her chest.  Her eyes were so piercing, her stare so contemptuous, that he suddenly felt like a schoolyard bully.  When she slammed the door in his face, he flinched: he could hear her yammering behind the door—a tirade that was only intensified by his inability to comprehend a word of it.

Utterly frustrated, he called up Jean Hargrove.  “Please come and get her,” he begged.

Why?”

“Just listen to her.”  He held up the telephone then returned it to his ear.  “She’s scolding me like a shrew.”

Maybe you deserve it, Mr. Hokum.  You are a bit of a hound, you know.”

“I don’t deserve this much scolding.”

Well, you did sign a contract, sir.

“Not to be abused in this manner, I didn’t.”

In what manner would you like to be abused?  Tell her—perhaps she’ll oblige.”

“What gives her the right?  I’ve been a perfect host.”

Not from what I hear.  I hear you were watching her take a bath.”

“That was an accident.  And how did you find out?”

She complained about you to one of her little friends.  A few Thumbelinas have learned a bit of English, sir.”

“Maybe they could talk to her—tell her to respect her host.”

Maybe you could tell her.  Remember your mission, Mr. Hokum—to communicate with an alien race.  Let’s not lose sight of it, sir.”

 “I’m doing my best.”

“Are you?  Then why don’t I sense any progress?”

She won’t even speak to me.  She’d rather play games with Deborah.”

“Then it’s time you took charge of matters.”

“How?”

Figure it out.  Aren’t you the mature one?”

“You called me a hound.  That’s not saying much.”

“Much is not required here, sir.  Just teach her a few words of English.  We’ll be checking up on you at the end of the month.”

When the phone line went dead, he felt totally lost. The room was now quieter than a morgue.  What was she up to behind that little door?

He looked at his daughter.  “So what do I do?”

“Stay away from her house, Daddy.  She thinks you’re a burglar.

*

In the evenings, the three of them would watch television together.  At such moments, Clarissa would perch herself upon his shoulder—not in the spirit of intimacy but to get a better view of the programs.  She was captivated by American Idol and would watch the reruns for hours, memorizing tunes she would sing the following morning.  Complemented by her voice, the tunes would instantly blossom, acquiring a fullness so stunning and rare that the songs, in their original versions, seemed like rank parodies.  She also liked movies—old DVDs—and would grow irritable if he failed to replay them constantly.  Her favorite was Pulp Fiction.

Feeling increasingly trapped in his house, Henry spent more time at the singles bars—a futile pursuit since, whenever he brought a woman home, she would have to deal with Clarissa.  Standing at the doorway to her house, her hands upon her hips, she would look at his guest as though she were urinating on the rug.  He hoped the women would dismiss Clarissa as a chimera—the product of too much booze—but instead, they would dash out the door while Clarissa hurled gibberish at them.

He changed his tactics, allowing the women to take him to their homes, but the results were pretty much the same.  Clarissa would be awaiting him when he returned the following morning—her gaze so intimidating, so utterly self-righteous, that he felt as though he had slighted a queen.  And so, feeling like a trespasser in his own life, he would creep to the solitude of his den.

But communications were still an issue—at least to Jean Hargrove who came to see him at the end of the month.  After spending an hour with Clarissa, she looked at him sternly.

Explain yourself,” she demanded.

“She’s taken over.”

“I’m talking about language.  She hasn’t learned a thing.”

“She’d rather scold my dates.”

“Can’t she do that in English, Mr. Hokum?  She’s way behind the rest of the Thumbelinas.  Some are reciting Hallmark cards.”  She sighed, opened her cell phone, and made a notation on her calendar.  “One week, Mr. Hokum.  You have one week more.  If she hasn’t learned something—even if it’s just one word—I’ll place her with another family.”

“I’ll try,” he replied—a promise he intended to keep.  In the company of his little mistress—her relentless sense of proprietorship—he felt like an unworthy servant.  And so he resigned himself to teaching Clarissa English.

*

The following morning, she was gone.  He sensed this instantly, not because the house was silent—not even because the living room window was ajar—but because the little woman was so often incensed with him.  But he did not panic until he had checked the little house, looked under the living room sofa, and peered into his daughter’s room—and his panic was very brief.  Clarissa’s absence did create an uncommon sense of dread in him, but then again so had her presence.  And so it was not until Deborah spoke up that he realized the seriousness of Clarissa’s departure.

“You left the window open, Daddy.”

“We needed the air.”

“Now Clarissa’s gone.”

“Maybe she just went for a walk.”

Deborah started sobbing.  “We have to find her, Daddy.  A cat’s gonna grab her.”

He tried to joke her out of it—“Feel sorry for the cat”—but Deborah was inconsolable.  “It’s your fault, Daddy.  I’ll hate you forever.”

While Deborah sobbed, he continued his search.  He checked the birdbath in the driveway; he spread the hedges next to the house; he shined a flashlight into the gopher holes in the backyard.  Finding no sign of her, he jumped into his car—a shiny red Porsche—and drove up and down the neighborhood streets.  Deborah, sitting beside him, grabbed his arm whenever she spotted a robin, a sparrow, or a chipmunk.  “There she is, Daddy.”  But the tiny woman was nowhere to be seen—not even after he had been cruising the streets for several hours.  Desperate, he began knocking on doors, but none of the neighbors were helpful.  One of them, an irate woman with massive forearms, even glared at him.  “Waddayawant with a Thumbalina?” she spat.  “I hear they suck your breath while you’re sleepin’—like cats.”

At the end of the day, completely exhausted, he phoned Jean Hargrove.  “We’ve lost her,” he said.

“Lost her, Mr. Hokum?  Just what do you mean by lost her?”

“She slipped out the living room window.”

“After you left it open, I assume.”

“I only wanted air.”

And did you get some air, sir?”

“Plenty.  I’ve been searching the whole neighborhood for her.”

That won’t get you out of the woods, Mr. Hokum.  She was your responsibility, you know.”

“What more do you want me to do?”

He heard her sigh deeply.  “Nothing.  She’ll only come back if she chooses to.  It’s not uncommon for Thumbelinas to leave a home—usually it happens when they’re displeased with their host.  Was she displeased with you, Mr. Hokum?”

“I guess I was too much hound for her.”

Don’t flatter yourself, Mr. Hokum.  Probably, you weren’t enough of a hound.  Thumbelinas are only satisfied with blind devotion.”

“So where will she go?”

She’ll probably adopt another family.  There are plenty of people who would love to have a Thumbelina in their home.”

“What if she doesn’t like them either?”

If she doesn’t like them, she might give you another chance.”

“When is that likely to happen?”

Maybe in a week or two—if she doesn’t like them.  That will give you an opportunity to make amends.”

Become her slave, you mean.”

“If you want to put it that way—yes.

“I do want to put it that way.”

I’ll make a note of it, Mr. Hokum.  Let us know if she shows up.”

*

Three weeks passed and Clarissa did not return.  Deborah, true to her promise to forever hate him, went to live with her mother full-time.  She left while he was out on one of his prowls.  Returning home, he saw a note upon the coffee table—a note with his ex-wife’s scrawl.

He picked up the note and read.

Henry,

When I left you, I had hoped you might grow up a little.  But it seems I’ve overestimated you once again.  So now it’s a living Barbie doll.  How did you get involved in something so sick?  And don’t try to say it was Debbie’s idea—she calls you an oinker behind your back.

Weren’t your other toys enough for you? The speed boat, the sports car, that damn swinger’s network you made me join. Did you have to get involved with a fickle little alien?  And did you have to let Debbie fall in love with her? You know how attached she gets to stray things.  But stray things wander off, Henry—you of all people should know that.  Really, I’ve never been more disappointed in you.

The damnedest thing is you will have to fetch her back.  Debbie is heartbroken—she cries every day—and I’m left to pick up the pieces once again.

I’m furious with you, Henry, so please don’t try and phone me.  Your daughter will be staying with me until further notice—or at least until that ridiculous pixie is found.

He put down the letter and started making plans.  Since further searching seemed useless, it was time to seek distractions—ways to ease the time until Clarissa might deign to return.  Thank Heaven for his toys.

He continued to cruise the nightspots, picking up women at random.  In defiance of Clarissa, her rare and uncompromising beauty, he grew less selective: it was now easier to overlook platinum blonde hair, starched face-lifts, and sagging boobs.  Solace, not beauty, was the point after all: the warmth of a cocktail, the glow of muted lights, and the thrill of anticipation before he moved in for the kill.  And his pickups, recognizing him for the hound he was, did not grow cross when his conversation lapsed and his eyes wandered fleetingly around the bar.  “You’re a one-nighter, slick,” one of them remarked before he took her home.  “But one-nighters are the best of all.”

And so, in the absence of his little mistress, he had himself a ball.

*

She came back on a Sunday morning, awakening him with the musical lilt of her voice.  The song was coming from the living room, where he had left the window open.  And the song was so captivating, so stunningly rich, that he barely recognized it as “Baby One More Time”—a Britney Spears number.  She must have learned it wherever she had been staying—probably there had probably been a teenager in the house and they had not gotten along.

He crept into the living room, careful not to make the slightest sound.  He could hear the water running in her bathroom: a lyrical tinkle that mingled so perfectly with her voice that she might have been a siren perched upon a river bank.  But not even a siren could have sung a song so beautifully.  It therefore seemed a sacrilege when he picked up his telephone and dialed Jean Hargrove.

Jean answered him on the first ring.  “Yes, Mr. Hokum?”

“She’s back.”

I know that, sir.  I can hear her.”

“Am I out of the woods?”

Has she learned any English?”

“I don’t think so.”

Then you’re not out of the woods, sir.”

“Give me a break.  She’s been gone for three weeks.”

You’ve had your break, sir.  I’ll be over in one hour.  If she’s not speaking some of our language—even if it’s just a word—I’ll be taking her with me.”

He hung up the phone, grateful for the delay—grateful that he would have another hour to hear her sing.  And her last trilling note had just faded away when he heard the knock on the door.  A moment later, Jean Hargrove was standing in his living room.

“Well, Mr., Hokum?”  He face was expressionless, like that of an executioner, and she was carrying the shoebox with holes.  Her eyes followed him as he rapped tentatively upon the door to Clarissa’s house.

 She answered the door in her bathrobe.  She looked weary and ruffled, like a housewife recovering from a hard day—but the curlers in her hair and the cream upon her face in no way diminished her startling beauty.  She watched him coquettishly as he patted himself upon his chest.

 “Henry,” he declared.

She smiled, a smile more dismissive than spontaneous—obviously, she was in a hurry to return to her bathroom.  Shaking her head, she drew a deep breath.

Oinker,” she piped.

The water kept tinkling. He looked at Jean Hargrove and smiled.  “There you are.”


This story was originally published in Zymbol.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000


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