The Lorelei Signal
Written by Melissa Embry / Artwork by Marcia Borell
It’s not a real home, this house I’ve found. Nothing but a number and street name to put on papers, something to keep school counselors and social workers off our backs. But I want the guardian to like it anyway. Because once he took care of me, and now it’s the other way around.
He’s still wearing his school backpack when we walk from the bus stop to 421 Live Oak Street. It’s the middle of the afternoon, but a tree too big for its yard throws the little house into twilight. Drawn curtains and rusted burglar bars cover the windows.
“What’s in there?” he says.
“Some old guy.”
The guardian--his mortal name is Ismail--raises an eyebrow.
“Not old like you,” I say. “Probably not more than ninety.”
The guardian’s work permit says he’s fourteen. To mortal eyes he looks more like twelve. He’s been around, sometimes alive, sometimes not exactly, for a couple hundred years. He still seems like a kid to me, who used to be a goddess. With the right makeup, I can pass for the twenty-one I put on my job application. Without makeup, I can’t fool anybody into thinking that I’ve lived longer than the sixteen years since I was born as an avatar.
“You think this’ll work, Mala?” Ismail asks.
“DMV didn’t blink when I put good old Number 421 on my application. Post office delivered it here.”
He starts up the path to the house’s front door.
“What are you doing? Did you hear me say I already checked it out?” I head after him. If anybody comes to the door, I want to be the one doing the talking, not some scrawny brown kid who looks like a Save the Children commercial.
We’re on the porch now. Ismail takes a sniff. “Smells like demons.”
“Anybody ever tell you you’ve got demons on the brain?”
“You. A lot.”
I take his elbow, steering him back to the sidewalk. “Hey, you know I trust you.”
He doesn’t look convinced.
“That’s why I brought you here to look things over,” I say. “But I’m not giving up on this place yet. Do you have any idea how much I had to go through to find it?”
“I guess you’re gonna tell me, no matter what.”
“Here’s how this house business works. We need an address, a real address, where we can get mail sent. So I couldn’t use a fake address like we’ve done before.”
I slip a hand into my jeans pocket, curl my fingers around my new MasterCard, delivered thanks to an application I fished out of the junk in 421’s mailbox. Really, who sends credit card applications to somebody who won’t leave his house until a hearse comes for him? “I had to find a place that’s lived in, but not by anybody who’s going in and out, not anybody who checks his mail regularly. I know this is a little spooky, but it’s not like we’re actually staying here. It’s just an address we use for your school and stuff. You know people give us funny looks when we tell them our address is a bedroll in a vacant lot.”
“They say we’re homeless,” he says. This bothers him. After two hundred years of--well, call it living--in a goddess’s temple, not having solid walls gets to him.
“We’re not homeless,” I say. “We’re camping out. Temporarily, until I get my commercial driver’s license. Then we’ll get a real place.”
I shrug. He and I ride different waves. Have I always existed? All I know is, after being possessed by an indwelling deity--creating, giving, and unmaking for more years than I can remember--I don’t have the same awe about material things Ismail does. Things come to me, like stray dogs, whether I ask them to or not. Come because they still know me, and I know them--all the flakes and fragments of their being whirling through space.
Ismail calls this relationship I have with matter amoral. The priests at the temple called it theft. Which is the reason why I had to leave the temple in a hurry, dragging the guardian along, with demonic avengers hot on our trail. The reason why we lay low now. And why I don’t try to slap Ismail out of his demon-sniffing ways. But I’m not giving up on this house.
~ * ~
“Glad you decided to show up, Miss Devine,” my boss says when I arrive at work that night. “That is your name, right? Mala Devine? ’Cause if I have to fire somebody my first night on the job, I want to be sure I get the name right.” He laughs a creepy laugh.
His name tag says “Orson”. He’s my new boss at The Montana’s valet parking service. And he’s not giving me the respect due to the restaurant’s ace parker. With me at the wheel, Hummers slither into spaces most valets couldn’t coax a Mini into. Even manual transmissions obey me.
I’d like to break Orson in gently, but already he’s dissing me. And he wears a weird-smelling aftershave that makes me sneeze. And he thinks I should show up five minutes before my shift starts instead of five after. Now he’s looking crossways at my skinny jeans and halter, the stilettos, the necklace with chunks of raw emeralds that’s the last link I have to the temple.
“Is this the image we want to project at The Montana?” he asks.
I’m annoyed my goddesshood’s expired sell-by date won’t let me unmake him.
His eyes focus on the necklace. I hope he’s really eyeing what’s beneath the necklace. That would be normal. Orson’s look isn’t.
“It’s the image that gets the tips,” I say, batting my green-as-a-Bollywood-starlet’s eyes at him.
A Buick slides to the curb, some guy with a gray goatee at the wheel. I flash Orson a smirk and a wave when I drive away to park the Buick.
At 2 a.m., I pick Ismail up from his job. Now I’m in a black Porsche. The other bus boys wave and hoot as Ismail slips out the back door of the Burger Palace and climbs into the car. Almost climbs in.
“Something stinks,” he says, taking a whiff.
“So I got a little sweaty.”
“Not you.” He backs away.
“Don’t tell me--it’s demons.” I wish I could laugh, but something stops me.
Ismail slides in, looking like he expects something to grab him. I click the door locks. “Don’t,” he says. “Don’t lock it.”
“In case you have to jump out? Stop being creepy.”
He gives the car’s interior a once over, pulls a hamburger out of his knapsack and starts munching. “What?” he asks, seeing my look. “Customer sent it back. Didn’t want the cheese after all.”
“It’s full of onions. Now you’re the one stinking things up.”
I drop him off at the motel where we spend the weekends and speed back to The Montana, all windows open, AC going full blast.
Before I even turn the car over to the customer, Orson sniffs as loudly as Ismail. “I hope you haven’t been using this vehicle for personal purposes.”
“It’s your aftershave stinking things up.” I expect him to snarl, but he only about-faces on his squeaky rubber heels.
After my shift ends, I wave off the crew going out for drinks. The few guys left in the restaurant offer to give me a ride home--as if I had one. Or ask if they can wait with me at the bus stop. This last offer I’m tempted to take, tonight at least. I fake a few karate chops I saw on YouTube. They laugh and leave. I’m alone.
The few blocks’ walk to the bus stop never bothered me before. But tonight I jump at shadows.
At the motel, Ismail’s asleep in front of a TV blaring its pre-dawn news crawl. I pick him up to tuck into bed. He’s heavier than I’ve noticed before. And taller. He’s grown in the years since he came to me as the guardian.
He sits up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. Hey. Get lots of tips?”
“Close those baby browns. Tomorrow’s a school day.”
He looks at the alarm clock. “Today’s a school day.”
“So tomorrow morning you can sleep till supper time if you want to. We’ll eat steak, not leftover hamburgers--”
“Pancakes. Lots of maple syrup.”
“Whatever you want, big guy.”
He cuddles back into his pillow. I sit beside him till he falls asleep. Did he do his homework? Brush his teeth? I check to be sure there’s milk for his breakfast in the chest I filled from the motel’s ice machine. My soul’s hosted a million-year-old deity but I’m too young to be mother to this kid.
~ * ~
Sixteen years ago, after the priests told my parents I was a reincarnation of the goddess, they dropped me off at the temple without a backward glance. Goodbye and good riddance, probably glad not to have to support me. The only human beings I saw for the next dozen years were the priests, people begging me for miracles, and the guardian. Not that the guardian was exactly a human being. Long before I arrived, he’d been doomed by a curse to be the temple guardian. By my day, he was nothing but a walking, talking skeleton. And my best friend.
Then I grew up. By a custom older than time, the goddess began seeking a younger avatar to inhabit, so I packed as much of the temple treasure as I could fit into my old suitcase.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the guardian asked when he caught me at it.
“Clearing out while I can, before I lose my divinity. I saw the new avatar today.”
If he’d had eyebrows then, he would have raised them.
“At least, I saw her very great with child mother-to-be.”
“And you recognized the new goddess--how?”
“Because I’m a goddess. I know these things. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“It is my business. I’m the guardian, placed under a curse--”
“Yeah, right. Eons ago.”
“...to protect the temple against thieves,” he said, gritting his teeth.
“Protect away. It’s not stealing to take my own stuff.”
How could he answer that? “Leaving me here, stuck forever. Or until my curse is lifted. What’s the chance that’ll happen?” He sighed. “How much more time you got?”
“Offhand, I’d say--”
The flames of the temple lamps went out in a single blink. There was a sigh like the indrawn breath of the universe. Then the temple’s doors banged open. The ten thousand eyes of painted gods and demons on the walls glowed as an icy wind filled the sanctuary.
“--none!” Grabbing the guardian’s skeleton hand and my half-filled suitcase, I ran.
I already knew what it would take to lift his curse. And though there was no way I’d kiss him, while we were fleeing for our lives I managed to dab a wad of chewing gum that had touched my lips to his, well, not exactly lips. Did I hope he’d emerge from undeath as a handsome prince? The goddess must have laughed at that. He came back to mortal life the same scrawny kid he’d been when he was cursed, two hundred years before.
~ * ~
The next afternoon while Ismail’s at school, I go by the house on Live Oak Street. I tell myself it’s to check the mail, but I’m not expecting any. The house is dark and closed as ever. I consider checking out the garage. The car inside is what made me choose this house in the first place. A 1958 Thunderbird the color of a creamsicle, white leather upholstery, white sidewall tires. A car fit for a goddess.
And in spite of the dusty cardboard boxes filling the rest of the garage, the Thunderbird is as clean as if it just drove off the showroom floor.
It can’t be coincidence the car is here. It’s bait. I know that, but I haven’t said a word to Ismail about it. He’s not the only one who knows something about demons. I know them, too. And how to use them. I just have to figure out which one I’m up against.
I saunter up to the house. For the benefit of anybody passing by, I fumble through my purse like I misplaced my key, but all the time I’m looking, listening--and sniffing. Trying to smell what Ismail smelled. There’s a whiff of something faint, musty, a little too sweet.
I know I shouldn’t, but I press the doorbell, listening to the distant ding-dong inside. Nothing. I ring again and wait again. One minute, I tell myself. I’ll give it one minute, then leave and never come back. There’s a noise inside, a squeak, like rubber on a tile floor. The hairs at the back of my neck itch. On the other side of the door, three inches from me, somebody else is listening.
I back away, not daring to turn my back on that door. It opens.
“Mala,” Orson says. “What a surprise.”
“My surprise.” My voice squeaks like his rubber-heeled shoes. “Didn’t know you lived here. I was just collecting for--”
“Come in,” he says. “You like the car, don’t you? I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist it. Come in. We have so much in common.”
I back away, find the top step of the porch and go down it, still backwards. “Thanks, but this is all a mistake. Got to run!”
Yes, this is the part where I should run. The part where I should grab Ismail from school and use my new credit card to buy us a ticket on the next bus out of town. I do run, to the end of the block. I look back. The door at 421 is closed like it never opened. I take a couple of deep breaths. Wait, something inside me says. Wait till tonight when I’ll have a car. Maybe even the car. Then let Orson’s demon catch me if it can.
~ * ~
Orson’s not at The Montana when I clock in. I barely have time to breathe a prayer of thanks to the goddess before he drives up in the Thunderbird.
There’s an old guy, the one Ismail smelled at the house, in the passenger seat. I open the door, give him a hand out. He leans on his walker, not saying a word. Orson walks around the car.
“Come on, granddad,” he says to the old guy.
He hands me the keys. I shudder when his fingers touch mine. When I get in, I check the gauges. The gas tank is full.
The burger place is about to close when I pull up, slip the girl at the window a five to send Ismail out. He stops dead at the sight of the car.
“Get in,” I say. “We’re leaving. The demon showed up.”
“And you stole its car? Thanks, but I’ll take a bus.”
“Are you crazy? We’ve got to go, now.”
The kitchen staff puts out the grease buckets while we argue. The Burger Palace workers skitter out in small groups. The lights go dark. I’m starting to worry that Orson’s on the curb outside The Montana, tapping a finger against his watch and demanding his car. Maybe calling cops. Or worse, sniffing me out.
I’m about to yank Ismail into the Thunderbird when a car drives up to the empty Burger Palace lot. Orson steps out of it, dragging the old guy.
“Mala, what did I tell you about borrowing customers’ cars? Lucky I was able to borrow another one to find you.”
Ismail turns to run, but Orson grabs him by the shoulder, forces him into the back seat of the T-Bird. He shoves the old guy into the passenger seat beside me, gets into the back with Ismail. The temperature in the car drops about fifty degrees.
“What’s going on, Orrie?” the old guy says. His voice is shaky, but like he’s not used to talking, not like he’s scared. Me, I have to focus on not desecrating the T-Bird’s upholstery. It’s the only way I can keep from wetting my jeans.
“Sorry, granddad, no time to explain,” Orson says.
But it’s not Orson, not really. The eyes I see in the rear-view mirror are the eyes of things I remember from paintings on the temple walls--the eyes of demons battling gods and heroes. Orson pulls a gun from under his jacket, fires it twice into the old guy’s head. So much for keeping the car’s interior clean.
Ismail’s eyes in the mirror are as big as mine must be. There’s a sound like sobbing. I don’t know whether it’s coming from him or me.
“Drive,” Orson says.
My hand’s shaking so hard it takes all my concentration to turn the key in the ignition and put the T-Bird in gear. We’re pulling onto the empty street before I can get the nerve to ask, “Where to?”
“To wherever you stashed the loot you took from the temple.” Orson sounds prissy as ever, like he does this every day, like there’s no old mortal with holes in his head slumped in the front seat. Like there’s no splattered blood and brains soaking through my halter top.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.
“No? Don’t remember you and your boyfriend here walking out of the temple with a suitcase full of jewels?”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“There’s no loot,” Ismail says. “There’s nothing left. It’s gone.”
“Gone? Don’t make me laugh.”
“It’s true. You know how much it cost to get us this far?” Ismail says. “To get us smuggled into the country, to buy new identities?”
“Not as much as you took from the temple.”
“All right, so we lost it,” Ismail says. “She’s stupid about stuff like that. She doesn’t know its value.”
“Be quiet, Ismail,” I say. “I can talk for myself.”
“Please do,” Orson says.
“It’s true what he says.” I swallow the part about me being stupid. “Did the goddess send you? The ingratitude, after everything I did for--”
An inhuman howl from Orson interrupts me. His reflected eyes glare at me in the mirror. “You think somebody sent me? You think somebody could just hire me to follow your trail? I was a god once, too, every bit as divine as you were. Now look at me. This is what the gods have done to me, left me punching time clocks, scraping by, nursemaiding an old mortal I could once have crushed like a worm.”
I try to keep from looking at the very crushed dead guy. A police car cruises up in the next lane, the cop flicking us a casual glance. Orson’s gun must be out of sight. Maybe the body keeled over on the seat looks like somebody getting a ride home from his designated driver. I think about doing something to make the cop pull me over. But what good is a cop against a demon?
The patrol car turns left at the next light. Its tail lights disappear into the night.
I drive, turn, this way, that way, trying to come up with a plan. Nothing.
“You’re stalling,” Orson says.
“You can’t get away with this.” Ismail nods toward the dead guy. “You think nobody will notice that?”
The scream startles me so much I turn completely around. There’s something in Orson’s his eyes trying to fight its way out. Something scared, something still mortal. “Oh, gods! What have I done? Help me! Please, somebody help me!”
Ismail catches on faster than I do. “We can help you. Look, we’re out of town now. You don’t have to go through with this.”
“They’ll know! They always know!” Orson’s still in there, but he’s losing the fight.
“No, no, it’s all right,” I say. “We can dump the car someplace. Nobody will know. We won’t tell. Everything will be okay.”
Then a click. “Shut up!” And Orson’s gone. “Drive,” says the thing that used to be Orson.
We leave the city behind. Orson doesn’t talk much anymore. Mostly he screams, the screams of the demon possessing him, the demon consuming him. It’s what happens sometimes when a god leaves you, when there’s not enough you left inside to fight off the demons prowling like wolves. I was luckier. I had Ismail to guard me.
It’s nearly daybreak when I spot what I’m looking for, the unfinished span of overpass blocked only by a few strands of plastic. I turn the car onto the overpass and stop.
“Are we there yet?” Orson spits out the human words like they make a bad taste in his mouth. “Because it’s only a question which one of you takes me where I want to go, you or this little whatever he is. There’s no way out.”
But there is a way out, a way to unmake this thing that was a mortal. A way to remove his demon from the world for goddess only knows how many cycles of time. Goddess, remember how I served you. Remember me, remember me! Then, “Orson,” I say.
“Drive!” The demon screams.
“Orson. I need to talk to Orson. Are you there, Orson?”
“I’m so tired.” His voice is small and weak. “I just want it to be over. I just want it to be over.”
I check the view in the mirror. Ismail’s eyes are wide, terrified. No, he mouths, no.
“I’m so tired,” I say, “so tired it’s hard to remember where we hid the jewels. Can you take the wheel, just for a minute? I’ll tell you where to go.”
It must be the demon that propels Orson out of the back seat, slams him against the driver’s side door, his body moving jerkily.
I start the ignition, put the car into gear and rev the engine a little, my other foot still on the clutch.
“You’ll have to go around,” I tell Orson. “Take your, uh, grandfather out and slip across the seat.”
He moves, twitching and muttering incoherently. But instead of walking around the car, like I hoped, he climbs over it. To the demon driving him, it must look like the shortest way. The scrape of his nails scrabbling over the top makes me cold. “Out,” I whisper to Ismail. “Out, and stay down.”
The thing that was Orson opens the passenger door. It pulls out the old dead guy, dumps him on the overpass, and crawls across the seat toward the wheel.
I open my door, easing out, balancing on one foot, the other still on the clutch, and release the steering wheel to Orson. For a second, he understands, is glad his ordeal will soon be over. For a second, the stink of blood and demon inside the car is replaced by a bittersweet waft of incense. Sacrifice accepted. Then I spring back.
The Thunderbird leaps forward, tearing through the flimsy plastic barrier, leaping joyfully into the empty air beyond.
Then, “Don’t look,” Ismail says. “Please, Mala, don’t look.”
But I can’t see anything anyway for the tears scalding my eyes, can’t see the mess of smashed metal and glass below us that a moment before had held a living being.
“You cut that pretty fine,” Ismail says.
I want to say something, want to tell him I’m sorry, sorry for everything I’ve put him through. Even sorry for Orson. But I can only bury my face against the guardian’s scrawny shoulder and sob.
Melissa Embry is a former newspaper reporter and editor living in Dallas, Texas. Having determined from her journalism career that if she ever had to write another heartwarming feature story it would be too soon, she turned to fiction, and has a special interest in developing inventive ways to kill people. At various times she has also worked as a cow puncher, stable hand, waitress, customer service representative and medical researcher, a job whose contact with radioactive isotopes required frequent checkups to determine whether she glowed in the dark.
Melissa blogs about the writing life, local literary events, and book reviews at https://nojobforsissies.blogspot.com. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous ezines and anthologies. When not writing, she volunteers at a nonprofit stable providing therapy through horsemanship to children and adults with disabilities.