Paradise by the Dashboard Lights Chapter 3: MG and the Sunshine Band

Case File: Michael Gray

Michael Gray

Alright. This is a bit of an odd one, because I don’t usually keep track of the human practitioners in Binghamton like this- because, I suppose, it feels kind of weird, and also because Alfred’s practically the only one I regularly associate with. There aren’t many major practitioners in Binghamton. I don’t necessarily know that there are any in the world. Maybe it’s because most of them tend to keep it under their hats, or maybe it’s because they usually look on me as kind of a poor relation, what with my no-magic schtick. Doesn’t matter; Michael Gray is a Warlock. A Harbinger, in his terms.

Michael Gray, of all fucking things, was a meteorology student. Demons like that kind of thing. They usually choose mathematicians, economists, accountants- anyone who works with numbers. You might not really think of meteorology as a number science, but it is little else.

The way he tells the story, he met his ‘familiar’- the demon he made a pact with- while he was checking on a weather station up one of the local hills. He found a bald eagle. Turned out the thing was a demon of Wrath, who called herself Pamola. She offered him a choice: Make a pact with her, or die. This was, I’ve now come to understand, an empty threat; The way she explained it to me was ‘He’ll be immortal if he makes a pact with me, and if he doesn’t, he’ll die of old age.’

Tricky fuckers, demons.

I met him last year, just after the whole thing with Chaac, where he wanted to talk with me about this impending disaster. It turned out to be nothing. Ever since then, we’ve kept in touch, and I’ve begun talking with him more to learn about the nature of demons. Along with Li Xue Zi, he’s provided most of my information about demons- what little there is. Li Xue Zi isn’t particularly social with other demons, and Pamola takes a particular pleasure in not giving direct answers to questions, which is why she’s a demon of wrath.

That’s another important lessons. Demons inspire their sin; They don’t embody it. A demon of wrath is not a psychotic so much as they are provocative and snide. This is about as much fun to deal with as you might expect.

Michael, himself, mostly just wants to use his powers responsibly. He got into meteorology to save lives- an unusual but surprisingly admirable point of view- and he’s done the same as a Warlock. The problem is, he’s not the best at actually figuring out how to translate ‘aware of disasters’ into ‘solving disasters’.

Powers and Weaknesses

So. Michael Gray got kind of boned when it came to powers. He’s clairvoyant. He foresees disasters. He’s one of the major figures in the Department of Infernal Affairs- the local schools of warlocks- because of that. He can feel a disaster coming.

But apparently, fate is not a guaranteed thing, because he feels potential disasters. He feels anything that MIGHT be a disaster. Every time a politician gets worked up or there’s a particular twitch in the weather currents, he gets these nightmarish fucking visions of the world ending in various ways. Apparently Paloma finds this absolutely hilarious, watching him get worked up and furious at the people responsible. I think it sounds like being a lawyer. But despite that, he’s usually a pretty cheery person when he’s not dreaming of disasters; Apparently, the fact that the world hasn’t ended yet gives him a lot of faith in mankind. Most of the time. Sometimes, though, it gets worse; Apparently, he was having a really awful time of it in 2015, first with that whole summer thing- which I now suspect has to do with what I was told about Zion- and the plague stuff in September, not to mention what happened in December.

That’s what makes me nervous. I now have him at 3 for 3 on predicting supernatural near-misses. The more likely or more damaging the disaster, the worse his dreams get. That’s scary. On the other hand, our world is not necessarily doomed by fate. Just… we have to keep batting a thousand.

Though I still don’t think that one about Trump becoming president is very likely. How much could people really care about an e-mail scandal?

Michael Gray: The visions aren’t the only aspect of it, of course. I’m capable of some limited foretelling. Paloma’s given me a gift for haruspicy. Part of the problem there is I quite dislike killing animals, and the foretelling is more powerful the rarer the bird is; I don’t make very much use of this, for a variety of reasons, the destruction of rare species only one of them. It’s enough to make some money, but the more large-scale and important the prediction is, the more difficult it becomes. Don’t ask me how the hell that works; perhaps it is simply a function of me feeling more pressure.

And please vote, it really does make a difference.

Atina: We live in New York, it hasn’t made a difference since Reagan.

Politics

The Harbingers are a weird group, and I still haven’t really cracked the nut that is their organization. They’re extremely secretive, for one thing. For another, they’re just not very organized. Michael complains endlessly about the others in the group not caring enough, but what they do care about is something of a mystery. I mostly just nod along and ask a few questions, which he deflects in a way that indicates either a supreme degree of narcissism, or a deliberate attempt to evade me.

The impression I do get is that most Harbingers try to profit off of their pacts in one way or another. Usually, either by gathering information, or by making money. I suppose that doesn’t really surprise me, but they’re not very organized.

Part of the problem here is, I don’t quite understand what motivates demons. Fairies love stories; undead love stability. I haven’t been able to find a unifying tendency in demons, aside from their need to feed.

Maybe that’s part of the issue. Demons, as far as I can tell, exaggerate human characteristics. The seven deadly sins are all connected with intense biological urges on the part of humans; desire, fear, and dominance. Demons exaggerate those characteristics through their actions, demanding focus on them. Maybe they make it hard for Warlocks to get anything cooperative done because of that.

It’s probably for the best. Harbingers are not particularly stable.

Michael Gray: In honesty, I think that all of this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of demons. They are not evil, they are not even particularly inimical. Most of them simply need humans to care about them. Paloma can be frustrating to be around, and her personality is… admittedly strong. But the anxiety and stress the dreams give me are important. That’s why I stay with her.

Atina: It must be noted that Paloma is also really, shockingly physically attractive. Like, holy shit. I would not be surprised if the two of them were banging all over the place. Michael sure is lucky to have such a sexy babe deign to hang out with a nerd like him!

Atina: It turns out that Paloma is also an accomplished forger of handwriting styles.

Past Cases

Michael actually keeps his nose fairly clean, but there was one funny incident I wound up helping him with. See, Paloma? She’s a bald eagle. (Michael Gray: And a dedicated patriot!) (Michael Gray: Please, Paloma.) So, she’s protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which imposes crippling fines on those who transport, capture, or otherwise possess certain North American birds- the bald eagle among them. They’re also protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Act, which specifically protects them- though Bald Eagles are no longer endangered.

This understandably caused some trouble when people found that Michael apparently was keeping a bald eagle in his house.

This resulted in a longstanding feud between Michael and the authorities, which I was finally able to clear up for him, by demonstrating that the eagle was simply selectively nesting, rather than being held there against her will.

This became hilarious, and slightly terrifying, when Paloma savaged the Fish and Wildlife service agent responsible. Not, like, badly, but the guy has some very impressive and debonair scars, now. We tried to stop her, but he threatened to bring charges if we harmed her. That guy was really dedicated to his job. I can admire that.

Chapter 3: MG and the Sunshine Band

The door hung slightly askew. In the dark room beyond, a figure lay across the table. I recognized it as Michael Gray.

“Is he…?” asked Eric, his expression shocked, one hand over his mouth.

I pushed the door open. As a beam of light fell across the desk, and flashed off of several empty liquor bottles. “Whazzuh?” asked Michael, lifting his head blearily, almost falling out of his chair. His eyes were red. His expression was slack. He’d been hitting the plastic jug vodka. I winced. “Oh! Atina. Surprised I saw you. Been drinking like the world was gonna end!”

“You doing okay, Michael?”

“Yeah, yeah! I mean, the nutsos didn’t murder everyone, and we didn’t get eaten alive- yet, hahaha! Now we’ve just gotta worry about your love-life!” He grinned cheerfully, and nodded at Eric. “Oh, jeez, I’m being an awful host. Want some?” He shook one of the jugs, which still had a couple of inches left, and held it out to Eric. The boy winced, and shook his head. “More for me.” Michael hefted it up, and took it in one long swig, and then retched. “God, Atina. Fucking dreams. You would not fucking believe the dreams!”

“Tell me about them, Michael,” I said, pulling up a chair, sweeping an empty bottle of wine cooler off of it and onto the ground. Eric did the same, eying the box of wine with distaste.

“Last week. Sort of a slow burning one. Have you ever been to New York City?”

“Yeah.”

“So.” He hiccoughed, and there was a note of vomit to it. “Dreamt that there was blood, dripping out of the sinks. More and more of it. People avoided it, but then they started drinking when they got desperate. They started bleeding, too. It spread, and spread, and then, the whole island, just… Sploosh. Sank into the bay. All of Manhattan going down the fucking tubes.” He lifted a bottle, and frowned when it turned up empty. He reached for another one, which I carefully maneuvered out of his hands.

“You’ve probably had enough,” I said, not unkindly.

“Couldn’t possibly. Next dream was last Sunday. Dreamt that hell itself cracked open. Six great demon princes- Gods of their kind, beyond you or I or Paloma, walking astride the earth. Conquering. Devouring. Raping. Pillaging. All that stuff.” He shivered. “I dreamt of a woman on a black horse, running rampant across the world. Hunger, starvation. A loss of faith. A slow, wasting death for all of humanity. Dying where they stood, too empty of hope and vitality to even eat when there was food in front of them. Fucking worst I’ve had in a while. This week has been awful.” He looked up. “Another one. Just echoes, for now, but getting worse each night. Of shaggy white men, and fish. Fish that walk like people.”

“Sounds pretty bad,” I said, sympathetically.

“And I dreamt the fire was rising, Atina. Last night.”

That made me freeze in my seat, my expression growing tense. I looked aside at Eric. “We should talk about that later.”

It was a codeword. I keep a diary, you know? And there are things I don’t write down, even in there. I am eminently aware that there are some thoughts that cross through my head that I can’t allow to be recorded anywhere. They’re just… too dangerous.

Like my plans to deal with Roy.

Not violent plans. I’ve seen what he’s capable of. He’s beyond getting murdered in his sleep. And I don’t think that I’d have the heart to do it. But when he could destroy the world on a whim, it’s helpful to know when he’s feeling…

I paused mid-thought, and stared at Eric for a moment. The boy turned his perfect eyes to me, tilted his head, and quirked a brow. “Fire?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I said, a little more tense than would have been stealthy. “Alright. You’re three sheets to the wind, Michael. We need you sober.”

“Aw, fuck, Atina, do I have to?” he asked, grumbling. “These fucking dreams are really hard to deal with.”

“Come on. You’re going to love this. We’re going to be playing matchmaker.”

“What?” Eric turned towards me, frowning. “What are you-”

“Simple,” I said. “You swore to give her a demon’s heart. We’re going to find a demon, and set them up with Harriet. The silver platter thing can be metaphorical. You said she’s interested in demons, and their powers. If anyone can find a demon who’ll make a good significant other, it’s Michael. He’s got so much experience in what not to do.” I gave Michael a grin even as he groaned, though I wasn’t sure if the groan was provoked by the ballbusting I’d just given him, or his own hangover. I reached into my purse, and took out a bottle of water. When he’d guzzled it all down, I handed him another, and he finished that one, too.

“Alright,” Michael said, voice cleared with some actual water in his system. “So, Harriet. She into guys, or girls?”

“I think she tends to prefer feminine partners, but she’s been open to boys who don’t mind, ah. Crossdressing.”

“Huh. Not a big deal, most demons are a lot more loose about gender and stuff. They’re people pleasers. She ever mentioned a favorite animal? It’s not really vital, but it can be helpful, and knowing the animal makes it easier.”

“Well, she’s fond of birds. A crow would be good.”

“Whoa-ho. No crows.” Michael shook his head quickly, and groaned, rubbing his forehead. The three of us sat in the faculty lounge, and he was taking cups of black coffee, blearily staring down at a large notebook. “It’s like- Okay, certain demons take certain shapes. The most dangerous are the ones who take the shape of tricksters. Think about it. Crows, foxes, coyotes, cats; these are animals renowned for their intelligence, their skill, their mythological power. A demon that can’t live up to that kind of background, they’re going to attract competitors, and they’re going to get killed. So they’re rare. And they’re unwise to mess with. You don’t want a crow, trust me. Or a cat. Snakes can be real trouble too, depending on the type.”

“Well, that’s going to make her less happy.” Eric leaned forward. “Is this remotely safe, though? A demon… Someone who might steal her soul. I couldn’t leave her with such a great danger at her heart.”

“The thing about a demon is, they do best with a group. If they’re connected with only a single person, they tend towards the obsessive. If they have a one-way relationship with a group of people, they get… nasty.” Michael shuddered. “Don’t want to start a cult, don’t want them to become the center of someone’s attention. It can be downright addictive for them. But include one, diffuse the attention they give and get across several people, build them into a social network, and they’re as safe as anyone else. Hmmm.” Michael checked his notebook again. “I might have someone. I found her working in a strip club.”

“A strip club?” asked Eric, an eyebrow raised. “You go to such places often?”

“It’s the nature of demons. Strip clubs, crack houses, corporate law firms, tech startups… Anywhere where a group of people find themselves focused on a single person, dependent on them, worshipping them, demons will naturally gravitate there.”

“This had better not be an excuse to go to a strip club on my dime, Michael,” I said, an eyebrow raised.

“Not at all. You see, the one I have in mind is somewhat… well, shy, is the only way to put it. She’s currently a rather minor demon of Sloth, but given a few decades, the right impetus, and the attention of the wrong people, and she could become a Demon of Lust of a rather… fearsome mien. She is young as demons go.”

This was something I’d picked up. Demons were very fond of non-answers. ‘How old are you?’ ‘Older than I should be’. ‘Older than the mountains.’ ‘I have seen nations rise and fall’. What they don’t mention is that that’s compared to the average lifespan of an animal in the wild; that the mountains they’re referring to western names given to some of the less impressive mountains; and that nations rise and fall about as frequently as people do. Demons give answers that are not really answers. It’s part of what makes them a pain in the butt.

Sometimes, I think it’s a reaction to their inability to lie. Maybe when you can’t lie, you practice obscuring the truth so much that you can’t really help it. Or maybe demons are assholes. Li Xue Zi, the pretty white snake, was something of an exception, being given towards earnest answers and an open desire to help.

Honestly? I mostly only knew demons by reputation. I had met very few, and interacted with even fewer. Maybe I needed to work towards changing that.

Melody Songi- have I mentioned that demons aren’t very creative with names?-met us outside of the strip club. She was pretty. Short, pale skinned, dressed in a black dress. A brilliant red scarf hung around her shoulders, wrapped around her arms. The effect made her a study in contrasts, the red scarf creating two brilliant red stripes around her shoulders, much like a red-winged blackbird. I found that quite interesting. A clever supernatural creature would aim to hide their true nature. But then, the number of supernatural creatures who thought they were clever was always far smaller than the number who actually were.

“Hey, Michael. I haven’t been making any trouble, just like you said. Just… feeding off of the tips and stuff.” Melody pouted her lips. I realized, abruptly, that the dress that she wore was actually, despite its colors, very conservative. It concealed the curves of her body, revealed barely any skin. It was slinky, and tight, but it disrupted her outline. It was an outfit that was, ultimately, made for hiding who she was, rather than flaunting it. She was defiant, but she was shaking slightly. She was nervous.

Eric stepped close to her, suddenly, his eyes meeting hers. He stared into them for a long second, Melody’s back stiff, her eyes wide with shock. Slowly, he began to nod. “You have a kind heart.”

“Hey, I didn’t steal any heart! I swore!” Melody said, somewhat more hunted than the remark really deserved. Then she paused. “Oh. Uh. Thanks?” Her face reddened slightly. “You’re not really a human, though, so, sorry, I’m not-”

“I’m here on behalf of a human.” Eric smiled. “Meet us tonight at Doc Concrescence.” He slipped her a photo. “I think you’ll get along with her.”

We left, leaving the slightly bemused  demon to watch us go, an expression of interest on her face.

The owner of the kava bar was surprisingly relaxed about us bringing in the makings for a meal. We wound up using the small kitchen there to prepare it, a simple pasta meal, olive oil and garlic filling the air with the warm scent. Harriet arrived, and Melody soon afterwards, the two of them sitting across from one another. It was almost a minute before Harriet ventured a, “Hello.”

“Hi.”

“So… you’re Melody.”

“Yeah…”

“You’re a demon?”

“Uh.” The girl fidgeted in her black dress. Her scarf was tucked in tight around her throat, and barely visible as a thin rind of red around her neck. “Yeah.”

“This doesn’t seem to be going well,” I murmured, raising an eyebrow at Eric. “You sure that this is going to be okay? I was thinking a fancy restaurant, or-”

“It’ll be fine.” Eric smiled, and stepped into the back room. When he came out, he was wearing a guitar.

I’ll be frank. I’ve always had little respect for any guy who will whip out a guitar. This is another of the things that contributed to my lasting lack of popularity throughout my education. I can certainly admire someone’s ability to manipulate an instrument, but the composing of the music matters a lot more to me than the playing. But…

He began to play, and the song was unfamiliar, but beautiful. And that was an entirely different matter. Improvisation was something I respected a lot. It was creating something on the fly, and while I was not any good at it- or maybe because I wasn’t any good at it- it was wonderful.

You hear a lot of stories about fairies being creatively sterile. And I will admit, a lot of supernatural creatures I’ve run into have that problem. There aren’t many fairy jazz performers. Maybe it’s a supernatural curse. Maybe it’s just having lived so long and being exposed to so much that it becomes impossible to see the gaps, the things that have never played, when everything reminds you of a tune you heard long ago.

But Eric was good. Not good enough to bring tears to my eyes- I wasn’t some sap about music- but it certainly forced me to blink a bit to hide some embarrassing give-away. I took a slightly shaky breath, and stiffened my back.

“He’s really good,” said Tammy, as she stepped up next to me. Wallace was serving out the food and helping the owner to blend the Kava at the bar. It had just opened, I’d learned. The owner was putting his heart and soul into it. Daring. Risky as hell. But admirable. “You know, I asked him to make that promise to me. To promise he’d never leave me.”

I looked aside at her, my brows knit. “Did you know what it would do to him?”

“Yeah. Why else do you think I asked him to do it? I knew that he’d have to be bound by the promise if he made it. I thought- It was-” She gritted her teeth, and motioned for me towards the door.

It was the evening. The hot air still filled the air. A beautiful Wednesday evening, my birthday just a couple of days away. The city was still, waiting for a rain that still hadn’t come. The air was thick. I was honestly wishing we could go inside, but I had enough patience to listen to a little bit of teenage drama. “Tell me about it, Tammy.”

“We fought, a lot. I- didn’t have a great opinion of myself. I spent a lot of time getting- Well, it doesn’t matter. The point is that I thought he was going to leave me. We had a lot of fights over it. I had nightmares about it, and that’s like, the most childish thing I can imagine. He kept telling me he was happy with me, that he wanted to be with me. And so, one day, I asked him to prove it.”

We were quiet for a moment. “Sounds like the kind of thing that’d make for an unhappy relationship.”

“I know! I knew it when I said it to him! I thought it would shock him, make him face up to it, that he’d tell me it was too much to ask, that he’d get angry, and then- he just- He looks at me, with those brilliant blue eyes of his, and says, ‘I promise I’ll love you forever. Till the end of time. And no other.”

Not the exact words, but close enough that she clearly understood what he meant. And how serious a commitment that was.

“That’s… a hell of a thing for him to drop on you.”

“Me? It’s not about me, it’s-” She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You’re a compassionate person, I can see. You care about Eric, you were terrified he was going to be hurt in that fight. This promise is going to hurt him, someday. It’s going to tear him apart. And that means that you have to stay with him, because you don’t have a choice. And love isn’t great when it’s an obligation.”

She looked away from me, her expression crestfallen. “I don’t mind being with him.”

“But can you promise that forever? You’re not even a fairy. It’ll get you hurt someday.”

She was quiet for another second. “Why do you always call them fairies? Never the Fae, never the Kindly Ones, never the Lords and Ladies? It’s always fairies.”

“I read this book, a long time ago. From, uh. Of all things, it was for this roleplaying game.” She raised an eyebrow, staring at me. “Yeah. Anyway, it was about fairies. But it wanted to portray them as these terrifying, Lovecraftian things. Pure chaos and rapaciousness and predators and parasites and all these nasty things. So it noted that it wouldn’t use the word fairy, because in the modern world, that was the wrong thing to call them. It brought to mind the wrong images for what they were trying to communicate.”

“So you decided on fairies.”

“Words have power. Attitudes have powers. Names have power. All these little ways that you can change the world. That’s important, Tammy. It’s the most important thing. What you say matters.”

“And that means that you think I should tell him that he’s going to hurt me by his actions,” she said.

“If you don’t, I will. And if he’s as good a guy as you think, he’ll accept my reasoning.”

“Using people’s own self-sacrificing natures against them. Do you enjoy that?”

“Fuck no, kid. That’s why I drink and hate myself. Because I hurt people even while I try to do what I think is best for them. The fact that I’m almost always proven right doesn’t even help, it just makes it worse. Because it means I don’t stop. You two can still love each other just as much without a binding vow.”

“The vow has a purpose, Miss Leroux. It’s supposed to remind you, in the bad times, to keep the thing whole. It’s like marriage. The reason you make that vow is so you don’t get tossed in the winds. So you stay together through the hard times, and not just when it’s easy.”

“You’re still young.”

“That’s not the same thing as stupid.”

“I’m young, too, and believe me, it is.” I stared silently at the foliage. The little round-about in the center of town. The cars that spun quietly through the wheel, humming along, going their separate ways. I wasn’t really talking about Eric and Tammy anymore. “You going to tell him, or am I going to have to?”

“I’ll do it,” she said, her voice soft.

It was an awful thing to do. It would fracture their relationship. It might drive them apart. It might’ve been kinder of me to do it myself, but from me, it wouldn’t mean as much as it would from her. It wouldn’t show him how things could change. It wouldn’t teach him a lesson.

God, I would make an awful mother.

Michael Gray frowned at me as I entered the office. It was late, but he often worked well into the night. More often when he was having bad dreams. He was cleaning up bottles. “Atina. What’s up?”

“The fire was rising. What did you dream?”

“Nothing specific. Just the usual. The great beast, rising.” He gave me an uncertain look. “How are things with Roy, Atina.”

“They’ve felt… alright. I haven’t gotten into any fights with him. Haven’t had any conflict or friction.” I crossed my arms, and thought of the talk I’d had with Tammy, and my guts ran cold.

Of course it always lingered in the back of my head. That so much might rest on my relationship with Roy. That if I fucked up, I would doom humanity because of my romantic troubles. How the hell do you have a happy relationship with that kind of pressure?

“Atina. I know that you didn’t ask for an of this. But with great power comes great responsibility.”

“What fucking power?” I murmured “I can’t, in good conscience, use him for anything. He might die. He might kill everything.  It’s just great responsibility.”

“You need to talk with him, then.”

“Oh yeah. The heart-to-heart with the world-conquering monster.”

“I am serious. If he’s a demon- and he certainly feels like one- he is in need of communication. Demons  do not think like we do. They are not like us. But they want to be. He is attempting to show you love the way that he has seen other humans show you love. And he can feel when you withdraw from him, when you pull back, when you are uncertain. You have to be honest about him, because it would be very dangerous to assume that he will not sense the conflict in you when you lie to him.” He smiled. “On the bright side, if you fuck up, it’s not like anyone will ever know you were responsible for mankind’s extinction.”

“You’re an amazing motivational speaker, Mike.”

“Hey. You’re the one who wanted to meet a dragon. You’re the one who talks. I just have to trust you to talk right.”

I returned home with the bottle of whiskey. Jack Knife was asleep upstairs.  Roy was downstairs, working over a plate of ribs. He looked over his shoulder, and smiled at me. For the first time, I think I saw the tension in his expression. The uncertainty.

I held up the bottle, and smiled. “I have a game for you, dragon.”

He froze, stiffening, is eyes narrowing. “You usually avoid that word around me,” he murmured.

“Yeah, well, call it a taste of what tonight’s going to be like.”

“You know I don’t like when you drink,” he murmured. “You know what it can do to your lifespan, what it can do to your cellular structure, and-”

” I hold a lot back, Roy. Some of it bad, some of it good, some of it just embarrassing. I know I drink too much, thanks for reminding me.” I smiled, and it came out a bit sharper than I wanted it to. “But I need to get in touch with who I really am, sometimes.  That can be scary, because I don’t like who I am, sometimes. But I have to face up to that.” I set the bottle down, and sat down at the table, waving for him to sit with me.

“What is this about, Atina?”

“I am careful about asking you questions. So are you. Today, I’m not going to be. Take a drink, ask a question. The other person answers, takes a drink, asks a question. We stop when one of us refuses to answer the question. Gotta be careful. Goad each other into opening up. Take it slow.” I leaned back into one of the chairs, and poured the whiskey. I took a shot of it. It burned going down, and I choked momentarily. It wasn’t good whiskey, it wasn’t smooth, or easy to drink. I didn’t buy that kind of alcohol. I’d never felt like the point of alcohol was to be unaware of how much you were drinking. It was supposed to be hard. It was supposed to hurt a bit. You were supposed to think about it. I placed the shot glass down. “How many people have you, personally, killed?”

“More than are alive today. I haven’t kept track. And few of them likely deserved it.” He poured out a shot, drank it, and continued, his quick southern accent unchanged. “Do you have feelings for that faerie boy?”

I paused for a moment, staring at him quizzically. “Eric? Fuck no. If I was into that type, I would’ve been going after Alfred. He’s a good kid, but not my type.” I took a shot, and set it down. The burn was getting a bit more intense. I stood up, filled a cup with water, and drank it down, sighing with relief. “Alright. Do you seriously get jealous?”

“Yes. He is young. Handsome. Full of potential. He has ambition and spirit. He is not an ancient monster. He has not killed even one person. You are not a woman who is attracted to violence and danger, Atina, despite your career aptitudes. Why do you not want him?”

“You have to take a shot,” I said softly.  He sighed, poured a shot, and drank it. Then he met my eyes again. His expression was stony, firm, his eyes ferocious, as he leaned forward slightly.

“Why do you not desire him?”

“He’s got a girlfriend. He’s kind of a putz. He’s a spring fairy, and I’d always feel shabby around him.” I looked down at the glass. “He’s not you.” I poured myself another shot, and drank it. When I finally looked up, he was still staring at me. “What would you do,” I said, swallowing hard, “if I left you for him?”

“Let you go,” he said, and his voice sounded utterly hollow as he stared at me. “Do you think I would hurt you? That I would force you to be mine, dominate you, conquer you, or do violence? Do you think I would punish you for not returning my feelings?”

I stared down at the glass. I held it between my fingers for a very long time, considering my answer. There were only two I could possibly give to that question. One of them was a lie. The other would be just as obvious if I stopped the game. That was the danger of these kinds of questions. Once asked, the only thing to do was to forge on through, no matter how hard it is. “Yes.” I poured a glass, and swallowed it, before looking up. There was no hurt in his eyes. No judgment. I licked my dry lips. “Would you?”

“Never,” he said. “I would sooner die than trap you with me. I fell in love. But I will never be Him.” He was silent for a moment. “Please. Do not ask me questions about that. I will stop our little game if you do.” He took another drink, and wiped his mouth, before looking me in the eye. “Do you know how hard it is to fight my instincts with you? The desire to protect you? Not simply from death, or danger. But from the seduction of a better man? How I desire to protect you from even the most unlikely accident by binding you in my lair? How I war with myself to protect you from falling out of love with me? Do you appreciate how much I fight myself to keep you free?”

“I do now,” I murmured softly. I looked down at the drink, and took another. “Was it true, what you said, that falling in love kills you?”

“Yes. And to forestall your next question, and the one after that… I had a choice. I could’ve refused to open my heart to your actions. If I had wanted to.” He took a sip. “What do you think is more tragic. A mortal sacrificing their life for an immortal, or the other way around?”

“An immortal sacrificing their life for a mortal. It’s giving up so much. It’s… fuck. It’s too much. I don’t know how a mortal life could be worth eternity” I looked down at the drink. “What does it say that I ask you these questions, but I still don’t know what your favorite color is?”

“That you have your priorities straight. That you assess dangers and prepare for crisis. That you wish to survive. I love a woman who is determined to survive, to remain independent. I love you for your fierceness. And because I know the truth.” He leaned back, and took a shot. “What is the real reason you fear being close to me?”

I stared down at the drink, and didn’t answer.

“You know, now, that you can tell me that it is because you are frightened of me. You can tell me that you think I will hurt you. You do not have to stay with me for those reasons. You know that you are free. Do you think that it will hurt me, if you leave?”

“No,” I said, and stared down at my knees. I lied a lot. Especially to myself. But it was hard to lie when I was drunk. “I think that if I leave you, you would be okay. You’ve probably experienced enough that you’re not going to do something insane. I keep you close because I think I’m falling in love with you. I think I want you to be close forever. I think that you’re… terrible, and wonderful, at the same time, and that you play up the terrible side to drive me away to keep from hurting me, and that reminds me a lot of you.” I rubbed my eyes, and took a drink. “Can you lie?”

“Yes. But I don’t.”

I barked out a harsh laugh, rubbing my eyes. “You fucking asshole.” I sniffled down at my glass. “I missed the fireflies. And the fourth of July. And all those things. I should spend more time with you. I keep assuming you’ll always be there. I should do something special for you. We don’t have forever.”

He nodded slowly. “I think that’s a good place to call it a night.” He stood up, and stroked my hair, stepping past me, and through the open door, and out into the night.

My phone buzzed two shots later. I picked it up. It was from the Earlen. A text message. “The deal is struck.”

I sat there, and drank shot after shot of whiskey, until the bottle was empty. My head was fuzzy. The alcohol was hitting harder now, and with it the loops of thought, the self-hatred. The pain. Was I just driving a wedge between the kids because I was jealous of them? Was it all just me trying to pretend I knew how to run other people’s lives, when my own was in the state it was in? I was such a miserable fuckup.

I took another shot, and then another. I wanted ice cream, but I didn’t deserve ice cream. I was a bad person. I fell asleep, tears dripping down my cheeks.

I woke briefly in the night to someone gently lifting me up, and carrying me down the stairs. It was probably Jack. I thought of Roy, and sobbed a little bit, wondering if I’d ever see him again. If he’d hate me for ruining myself like this, for hurting myself, for self-destructing so embarrassingly. I was such a disappointment.

One thought on “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights Chapter 3: MG and the Sunshine Band

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