She stared at me with a bovine look on her wrinkled face, and behind the yellowed and moony eyes there was a half-hidden glare of expectation. I'd seen it before, on customers from all walks of life: that sensation that they deserved something more beyond the basic transaction. Pleasantries and a reasonable amount of small talk were included in the standard exchange, but occasionally someone would come to believe that there was something more required, something not on the menu but somehow worked into fine print that only they could read. Something dark.
I couldn't fathom what this old bird wanted. There were no creepy waves of sexual undertone that were common in situations like these. Folks of all proclivities had assumed that my smiles of thank you had been invitations to the boudoir. No, there was something more sinister behind her gaze, something deeply unsettling. I felt a thin trickle of cold sweat run down the back of my neck.
"Was there something else, Ms. Pearkes?" I asked, and hoped that my voice squeaked less in her ears than it did in my head.
"Oh, my dear," she cooed, and placed a twisted talon-like hand over mine. Under the hot overhead lamp that hung above the register, a nightmare profusion of veins, moles, and mutant hairs mapped the skin of her bony appendage. I held my ground, though every sense screamed at me to recoil in horror, to pull my own hand back as though from a fire and run screaming through the kitchen and out the rear door, all the way home to the safety of my bed where I could pull the covers over tight, as though that warm cocoon could protect me from all the fear in the world. "You've been so, so good to me." She gave my hand a dry pat, like the rasp of a sheaf of bark. "I wonder if you mightn't accompany me this weekend on a short trip over the water?"
I had never wished more for another customer to queue, but it was close to closing time and the place was deserted. Please, I pleaded in silence. Some random walk-in. Someone looking for directions, or a public washroom. Anyone. But no one came, the bell above the door remained silent, and I was trapped in a conversation I didn't want to have.
"Over... over the water?" I managed.
"Yes. You see, one of my cousins has taken ill. A mortal disease, so the doctors say. He lies on his deathbed now at Saint Principe's Hospital, on the mainland. Do you know it?" She cocked her head ever so slightly to the side, a questioning movement that only served to make her look more bird-like. A vulture, I thought, glancing down at the talon that held my hand fast to the countertop.
"Yes, Ms. Pearkes. It's the largest hospital for miles. It must be costing your cousin a fortune," I said.
"Oh indeed, indeed. Or, it would be, if the poor boy had made something of himself. Unfortunately, he'd been something of a layabout, and now it's up to his family to bear the burden. There are few things more unfortunate than dying penniless, wouldn't you agree?"
I offered her a nervous laugh, more of choked chuckle than anything. "Dying hungry's gotta be pretty bad too. And loveless."
"Ah, you do have a flair for the dramatic, my boy!" She cackled exactly how I expected her to, a dry and throaty cracking laughter that sent shivers down my spine. "Yes, it could always be worse. So, would you accompany me? I've not made the trip across the water in ages, not since Mister Pearkes passed. My, that's been some ten years now!" she said. Her yellowed eyes widened in disbelief.
"For how long?" I asked, then realized that I'd just shown interest. I watched the opportunity for outright refusal dance away along with the fading daylight.
"No more than three days. The doctors have given him a day less than that, but I do believe in offering the benefit of the doubt, don't you?" She smiled a lipless smile that revealed perfect pearly rows of porcelain teeth, loosely seated atop grey gums that looked like raw chicken that had been left too long in the refrigerator.
"Yes, sure," I agreed. "I'm off for the weekend," I admitted, and further sealed my fate.
"Excellent!" she said, and pulled her hand free from mine to clap in excitement. I felt a relief I'd never known in my short years. She took one of the business cards from its holder near the register and from the small clutch purse that hung at her side she produced a gleaming silver pen. When she uncapped it, I saw that it was one of the old-style fountain pens with a steel nib that opened to allow raw ink to flow. She wrote smoothly onto the back of the card, with short and measured strokes in a beautiful cursive style. It was as though she was painting. When she finished, she pooched her lips together and blew over the wet ink with her wrinkled mouth. She reached over the counter and gripped my upper arm tightly, her hand clamping and manipulating so that I turned my palm up. She pressed the card into it and smiled that horrid smile again, and gave my arm a generous squeeze. I looked down at the card and read what appeared to be an address. "Pick me up here tomorrow morning, at seven sharp. I will not tolerate tardiness!" She gave my arm a last painful squeeze and released me. She picked up the box of sweets that I'd prepared for her, a box that she'd paid for and concluded the actual transaction for almost fifteen minutes before. I felt like I was waking up from a long dream that I hadn't wanted to have. I watched her go, and started a little when the bell over the door pinged to announce her departure. Almost at once the lights in the café seemed to rise from a previously unnoticed dimness, and a wave of fresh air washed through the place. I breathed a sigh of relief, then realized I'd just agreed to accompany the woman for the next three days.
"What have I gotten myself into?" I asked the empty store.
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