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Life Lessons
You Are What You Eat
by Jack LaFountain

Titan froze dead in his tracks. He lifted his nose into the wind, whimpered, and backed away with his naturally curled tail tucked between his legs.

            I’d never seen him act like that. No amount of encouragement could get him onto the foot trail just beyond the chain link fence. Sworn promises of dog treats fell on deaf ears. I finally surrendered and turned around. Once we were moving away, he resumed his usual jaunty pace with only a few glances back over his shoulder.

 

Lake Kobold is decidedly rural, lying between the Olympic Mountain and Puget Sound. Bears are not unheard of. Cougars are rarer. The unseasonably dry summer, though, was attracting more than the usual number of visitors -- human and otherwise -- to the lake. A large predator might be out there. I had my doubts, but if there was one, it would move on soon, so I let the matter drop.

            Three days later, though, Titan still refused to go beyond that fence. My companion might have been willing to forego our usual route, but I was not. I took him home and returned to the lake path alone.

            (This is where I have to stop for a moment and speculate on which of us is the more intelligent creature.)

            Tall pines crowded the road, making it look narrower than it really was. In the breaks between the pines, alders, and madrones, wild blackberry vines and laurel reach over to shade the path. Shadow is the order of the day. Further back, ferns monopolize the carpet of pine needles. I was twenty or thirty yards beyond the fence when the shadows seemed to close in on me. There was nothing out of the ordinary, except that there was. My gut said so. The sudden realization that it was unnaturally quiet was followed by the creepy crawl of unseen insects on the back of my neck.

            “Screw this,” I said, turning around.

            Sanity always takes over just a bit too late. A streak of white flashed in the corner of my eye. A twig snapped off to my left. I decided to see how fast I could walk. I wanted to run but was too stubborn. More twigs snapped. I moved faster. A small pinecone flew past my left ear. Pride be damned, the latent sprinter in me broke free with a vengeance.

            (Discretion is a life-extending lesson best learned early.)

The next thing I remember was lying on the living room floor trying to suck down as much air as I could. Titan was standing over me with an I-told-you-so look in his dark brown eyes.

            (Live and learn, right? I’d like to tell you this is where I learned, and the lesson ends, but we all know that’s not how these things go.)      

            I was shaking all over. As a precaution, since the chill might be the onset of a cold, I had a generous shot—okay, two shots—of Mr. Daniel’s Tennessee cold remedy. Steadier, I had a good laugh at myself and decided to forget the whole thing ever happened. The entire episode was fading when Titan whimpered and slunk off to the bedroom.

            “Coward,” I called after him.

            Throwing wisdom to the wind, I went to investigate—alone.

            (Yeah. Just like in the movies. Stupid, I know. Live and learn? Let’s just say I have a slow learning curve, and let it go at that.)

            After another nip of courage, I crept over to the window and peeked outside. The wind, heavy with the scent of rain, had the tops of the pines doing the Jersey Bounce. Thunder rumbled in the distance as the first drops splattered on the deck beneath the window.

            “That figures,” I said. “Things get creepy; it starts to rain.”

            I eased open the front door praying that, just this once, it would refrain from creaking like my bum knee. Yeah, that didn’t happen. The sound of metal grinding on metal was answered by the crash of garbage cans, followed by receding laughter. I burst from the door. Rounding the corner of the house, I hit a pile of empty beer bottles and went asshole over teakettle.

            “Son of a bitch!”

            I was still on my back looking up when the clouds pulled out all the stops.

            Soaked, I limped back inside. I stripped off my dripping clothes and rummaged through the linen closet for a towel. A robe around me, I plopped down then to collect my wits. The sound of the recliner hitting its stop brought Titan from hiding. He snuggled up to the footrest and propped his head on my scraped knee. I decided against calling the sheriff. The culprits were decidedly long gone. Sending a deputy out into the rain to look for them would not endear me to the local constabulary.

            “Next time,” I told Titan. The words eventually sunk in. I bolted upright. “Oh hell no! There damn well better not be a next time.”

 

An hour later the rain dialed down into the slow drizzle people in Washington know so well. Despite the cleansing rain, Titan continued his refusal to venture off toward the east end of the lake. I left him at home and once again went looking for clues.

            (I know, I know. I was living but not doing much learning. I was too damn mad to just let it go. It’s amazing how many times one can be wrong in a single day.)

            Next to a puddle near the chain-link fence, I found the print of a tiny barefoot. Just beyond the gate was another. The prints had me scratching my head. They were no bigger than those of a toddler. Something was not right. I had no idea how much the kids weighed, or how long ago they passed that way, or if any of them walked with a limp. I’m a retired...er, janitor, not a damned Apache tracker, for Christ’s sake. But I did know which direction they were going. I followed the tracks around the lake as far as Dr. Hummel’s fence. I stood there for several minutes before deciding against trespassing.

            Hummel was a professor at St. Martin’s in Olympia. I met him once at a town council meeting and couldn’t help thinking the man was a real ass. His condescending attitude pissed off the council, resulting in public access to the lake. And as it was, I had no desire to have to explain to him why I was on his property should I got caught.

            Hummel’s house was set back from the shore, allowing for a view of most of his property. At the place where the drive curved around the house were a half-dozen piles of the biggest mounds of horse shit I’d ever seen. Each one had to be at least six feet tall. Strange, because Hummel didn’t own a horse. On the upside, it explained the recently increased traffic around the lake. Hummel was actually having shit trucked in. Horse dung has been a useful commodity down through history, but I couldn’t fathom what a college professor needed with fifteen tons of it.

 
 

The next day, I was sitting on the porch with my morning coffee when Titan came to attention. He started making the chuffing sound that served as his something’s-up warning. That was followed by the crunch of gravel as Sheriff Greene’s cruiser rolled up my driveway. A long drink of water in cowboy boots eased out of the driver’s door and casually laid two fingers to the brim of his Stetson. 

            “Morning, Sheriff,” I said. “You want some coffee?”

            “I never turn down coffee this early in the morning,” he replied.

            “What brings you out this way?” I asked when we settled down with fresh cups.

            “I’ve just been out to see Fred Cook,” he said between sips. “Someone killed a bunch of his chickens the other day. You seen anything out of the ordinary?”

           “Somebody turned over my trash. Little kids, from the size of the footprints.”

            “Don’t make sense,” he said with a shake of his head. “What would kids be doing out here?”

            “Have you talked to Dr. Hummel?”

            The sheriff winced like he’d gotten a surprise mouthful of cold coffee. “Do I have to?”

 
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            “I’m not sure," I said with a shrug. “Yesterday I followed those footprints as far as his fence.”

            Sheriff Greene nodded his head but said nothing. He looked off in the direction of the doctor’s place and sighed.

            Better him than me. The thought flashed across my mind before I could put the brakes on it.

            “Well”—the sheriff set aside his cup—“if I have to, I have to. Duty calls. Thanks for the coffee.”

            “Anytime,” I said. “Say, do you have any idea what he does with all the horse shit?”

            “What?” Greene said.

            “He has mountains of horse shit in his yard,” I told him.

            “Horse shit, you say?"

            The sheriff shook his head, got in his car, and drove away.

            As they have a habit of doing, things got back to normal. Titan consented to walk the old trail again. No more sheriff visits, and no more kids turning over my trash. One evening I filled up a cooler with beer, put some burgers on the grill, and moved the radio outside to listen to Gunsmoke. That night’s episode was “Bloody Hands.” Just before the radio play started, I went into the house to unload a couple of beers. My bladder was only half empty when Titan began barking. It was a get-the-hell-away kind of bark. He was seriously tuning up to eat someone alive. I ran for the door, struggling to get my fly up without doing any bodily harm or falling on my face.

            Titan was backed up against the storage shed, hackles up, teeth bared, and eyes fixed on the tiny monstrosity waving a stick in his face. I slammed to a halt in the doorway. I must have looked like a wide-eyed idiot with my mouth hanging open like that. Standing in my yard, doing battle with my dog, was a grotesque little man.

            I call it a man only because it was buck naked and had a distinctly male appendage. It was no more than three feet tall without a single hair anywhere on its doughy body. That was one ugly little spud. The right side of its face was twisted around a bulbous nose, and keloid flesh covered the place where the right eye should be. It looked up at me with its single eye and hissed like a cat.

            Titan was not a cat person. With that hiss, shit hit the fan. Titan lunged at the thing; his jaws clicked together a fraction of an inch from the little monster’s arm. Sensing the tide had turned, the creature threw down his stick and ran for the woods. Titan was right behind it, but before he caught the little bastard, he was met by a barrage of rocks and sticks flying out from the trees.

            “Get 'em, boy,” I shouted and jumped from the porch in pursuit. “Eat the little bastards up!”

            It was a good plan that came up empty. The creatures scattered and disappeared into the trees. Titan and I resisted the urge to chase them through the woods. We played it safe. I knew where they were going.

 

Hummel’s Cadillac wasn’t in the driveway. That time around I accepted his absence as an invitation to snoop. Leaving Titan in the forest, I jumped the split-rail fence and headed straight for the piles of shit. They had to be the key to whatever was going on. My first glance was disappointing. There was nothing but horse shit; mountain after mountain of plain, old horse shit. But I wasn’t buying it. I shrugged and began to dig. My hands have been in worse.

            It didn’t take long to confirm my suspicions. A chrome track that ran through a small tunnel into the pile was hidden inches beneath the surface. A length of rope ran the length of the track. I pulled the rope and was rewarded with the sound of metal sliding along metal. A tray about eight inches wide holding a row of six gourd-shaped glass containers rolled into the sunlight.

            “They’re warm.”

            I jumped slightly, startled by my voice. I hadn’t meant to speak.

            The gourds were sealed with wax, and inside each one was a pulsating mass of dough. I returned the glass to the tray, pushed the tray back to the pile, and packed shit back over the opening. There was no sign of the little men.

            I washed my hands at a faucet near the corner of Hummel’s garage. I was just finishing up when a sharp tug at the seat of my pants sent my heart into my throat and my body whirling in panic.

            “Titan!” I gasped. “You scared the hell out of me!”

            Titan looked back up the drive. Then, I heard it. A car was coming. I turned off the faucet and ducked behind the garage. We were safe for the moment. However, that muddy puddle I left behind was sure to give us away. I slid along the side of the garage, keeping the building between me and the driveway. The tree line was twenty, maybe thirty, yards away. When the car rolled to a stop, I made a dash for the cover of the trees. Titan bolted past me, jumped a downed pine tree, and disappeared. He had gone to ground behind the tree. I almost broke my neck trying not to land on top of him when I did the same.

            I slowly worked my way along the downed tree until I caught sight of Hummel. He was carrying brown paper bags from his car to the house. I was starting to relax a little when Hummel reappeared on his front porch with a shotgun. The professor settled into a chair, lit a cigarette, and sat quietly smoking with the gun across his lap. His eyes swept over the grounds between his porch and the lake. He must have seen the mud and decided whoever did it was not far away. I muttered under my breath something about coitus with waterfowl.

            “I know you’re out there,” Hummel called. “Come on out.”

            A small, pink figure crawled from under the porch. Its palms came together in a posture of prayer as it stared up at Hummel. The gun roared and bucked. The little creature exploded into a bloody mist of guts and gore. The sound of the shotgun sent a covey of creatures scurrying across the yard. Two more shots rang out. Titan and I did not stay to see how good Hummel’s aim might be. We beat it the other way before he could reload.

            I slithered back into the woods until there was enough ground between me and Hummel to get to the road unseen. Once on the road, Titan and I were just out for a stroll. Sheriff Greene passed by going in the direction of Hummel’s place. The shots must have prompted somebody to call the law. I gave him a casual wave as he passed.

            “I wonder what he’s going to tell the sheriff, Titan?”  

            Titan didn’t have any thoughts on the subject, at least none he would share. I think he was put out by being forced to slink away without getting his teeth into one of Hummel’s little critters.

            When we reached home, I grabbed myself an Oly from the fridge. Titan’s a beer snob. He insisted on a local IPA. Beer in hand, I settled at my desk and pulled down an old, familiar tome. I’d read Paracelsus before, so the results of my search weren’t surprising. Hummel’s shit piles made sense. The why was as old as my book.

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Hummel’s Cadillac rumbled down the drive and turned toward town a few minutes after seven. I waited another fifteen minutes before leaving the shelter of the woods and making my way across the professor’s property. I preferred to do my snooping by moonlight, but Hummel was a homebody. I’d been watching his place for weeks by then. Idle hands and all that. There was no further sign of little men. Hummel must have been doing a better job of controlling them.

            For the sake of appearances, Titan walked across Hummel’s lawn, pretending he was lost. I followed him, not expecting to find him in Hummel’s garage, but I determined to look just the same. Malamutes—you never know where they might turn up. 

            Hummel was either a very trusting soul or an unrepentant miser. I was leaning toward the latter. The cheap lock on the garage popped open in about fifteen seconds. As I suspected, the garage was a sham.           

Inside, laboratory paraphernalia littered three long counters that lined the outer walls. In the center of the room was a table dotted with beakers full of coagulated goo and test tubes filled with amber fluid. Above the countertops were shelves lined with powders and shriveled pieces of God-knows-what. Stainless steel pipes ran along the ceiling.

            The room had a coppery, salty smell I recognized. There was blood here somewhere; a lot of it. My nose led me to a door at the rear of the room. Instead of leading outside as I supposed, the door opened onto a second smaller room. There was the real surprise. Three chrome autopsy slabs occupied by pale, naked bodies were packed into the room. Clear plastic tubes carried blood away from the tables to the pipes overhead.

            “What the hell!” The words were out before I could stop them.

            The head on the closest table slowly turned toward the sound of my voice. It was a girl, probably mid-twenties, who was never going to see her late twenties. Her once pretty, blue eyes were sunken into deep, dark sockets. Her lips, cracked and dry, parted and tried to form words, but all that came from her was a rusty, croaking sound. The other tables were occupied by men of the same age.

            I rummaged through several drawers, found some gauze, and pulled the needles from the girl’s arms. I wrapped gauze tightly over the puncture sites. Turning sideways, I worked between the tables and did the same for the boy on the middle table. As I reached the third table, the boy took a final shuddering breath and exhaled the last of his life. What a waste.

            I had to get them out of there. I made my way back to the middle table and helped the kid sit up. (Live and learn. Sitting up was not a good idea.) The kid’s eyes rolled back in his head, the little color he had vanished, and he fell over with a hollow thud. Game over.

            “Shit fire!”

            Determined not to screw up again, I tried a different tactic with the girl. I found some dirty lab coats and propped her feet up. She stayed alive through the process, but I had no idea what to do next.

            I was about to go call for an ambulance when I heard the sound of tires on gravel. A familiar black Fairlane with a gold star on the door rolled to a stop outside the open garage door. Relief washed over me. I was going to have some explaining to do, but not as much as Hummel.

            “Sheriff, in here quick!” I waved for him to follow. “Call an ambulance.”

            I was halfway to the inner room before I realized he wasn’t following me. Sheriff Greene was propped against the front fender of his cruiser with a cell phone to his ear.

            “Yeah, it’s bad,” he said. “You better get back here and help me deal with this.”

            I wasn’t sure how the sheriff knew the situation was bad. He hadn’t been inside yet. He tossed the bulky phone into the front seat of his cruiser and slowly shook his head.

            “Come on, you’ve got to see this,” I urged.

            “Calm down, Roy,” he said, still shaking his head. “I’ve seen it, Roy. I wish to God you could have minded your own business.”

            He unsnapped his holster, drew his weapon, and pressed its long, black barrel against the center of my chest. I was suddenly sweating like a hog and ready to squeal.

            “Turn around, and put your hands behind your back,” Greene ordered.

            “Look, I know I was trespassing,” I explained. “But what about in there?”

            The sheriff made a circling motion with his finger.

            “Geez, Sheriff. Really?”

            I was already turning around. (One thing I have learned, when a cop draws his weapon and tells you to do something, don’t shit around---do it.) The cuffs went on with a smooth click. The next thing I knew, I was in the back of the sheriff’s car next to a wide-eyed, homeless youth.

            “What the fuck are you looking at?” the kid said.

            “Fresh meat,” I told him with a smile.

            Sheriff Greene finally accepted my invitation to look over the interior of the garage. He didn’t appear impressed. Sauntering back to his car, he looked through the mesh at me and my companion.

            “The professor is not going to be happy,” he said.

     

Hummel arrived a half hour later to confirm the sheriff’s belief. He was out of his car almost before it stopped and stalking off into the garage. He reappeared in the doorway a moment later and waved the sheriff inside. They carried out two bodies wrapped in canvas tarps and took them into the woods. Between grunts, Hummel ranted about how long the “apparatus” was down. The sheriff’s assurances that the time was minimal didn’t soothe the professor.

            “Get them inside.” Hummel hooked a thumb toward the garage. “I’ll need your help to hook them up.”

            Hummel words sent a chill through me. Being bled by the professor’s gadget had zero appeal. I looked over at my partner in scientific discovery with a momentary twinge of envy.

            (If ignorance is bliss, the kid was in heaven. Live and learn; bliss never lasts.)

            The sheriff snatched the kid by an ear and pulled him from the back seat and through the lab. I followed them without resisting. The girl was back at work supplying blood to the doctor’s apparatus. My companion’s bliss came to an abrupt end when he spotted the two empty tables. Greene shoved his gun against the back of the boy’s head, unlocked his cuffs, and told him to strip. Mr. Toughshit Wannabe began to cry. I’m not sure if he felt the shift in Greene’s grip or just sensed the hammer drawing back, but the tears stopped. He got out of his clothes in record time. The professor shoved the kid onto the table, tightened leather straps around his wrists and ankles, and pulled a long belt over his waist. He then placed needles in the kid’s arms. A small pump began to whirr, and blood slowly filled the tubing leading to the stainless-steel pipes.

            Hummel’s attention turned to me. The left side of his lips lifted into a confident smile that truly pissed me off.

            “Have you got a winged one yet?” I tried to sound nonchalant.

            “What are you talking about?” he replied.

            “Your homunculi,” I said. “Have you got one with wings yet?”

            Hummel looked like he had been hit with a sledgehammer. “What do you know about that?”

            “I know what you’re up to,” I assured him. “You’re cooking up men out there in your shit piles. I just assumed you want a demon talker. Only the winged ones can do that. Oh my, I‘m sorry! I thought you knew. Seems I’ve spoken out of turn.”

            “You’re a liar,” Hummel snapped.

            “You’re right, of course. Carry on, Sheriff,” I said and offered the lawman my cuffed hands.

“Wait!”

            Hummel held out his palm in Greene’s direction. His eyes danced between me and the sheriff. Deep furrows lined his brow. His lips drew down in a thin, tight line.

            “Before we talk further, I want to show you something.”

            He retrieved a long knife from the table. Holding it up, he tested the edge with his thumb. He grabbed the kid by the balls and castrated him with a quick flick of the blade. Ignoring the kid’s screams, he dropped the testicles in a flask.

            “Put a towel on that, Sheriff,” Hummel said. “And shut him up.”

            Greene left the room, presumably to get the towel. My eyes shifted back and forth between the blood on Hummel’s thumb to the delicacies in the flask.

            Hummel tossed the bloody knife on the counter. The thought occurred to me that Hummel might be an excellent teacher. He certainly knew how to get people’s attention.

            “Don’t look so shocked,” Hummel said. “He was going to lose them anyway. You, on the other hand, have a chance to save yours. Tell me something I don’t know.”

            “You mean something else you don’t know.” I couldn’t resist the dig.

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“Yes,” Hummel hissed. “Something else. Let’s start with how a retired nobody comes to know anything about what I’ve created.”

            “A nobody?” I tried to sound offended.

            Hummel’s assumption would cost him.

            (Live and learn. Yep, live and learn.)

            “What’s this about wings?” he said. “Where did you hear this? There’s nothing in the literature.”

            “It’s common knowledge,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders.

            Hummel’s face washed with sudden color. The muscles in his jaws tightened. I could almost hear his teeth grinding. His nose came to within an inch of mine.

            “There is nothing common about my work!” He spat the words, and his teeth clenched together. “The old texts are empty formulae. No one ever succeeded in creating a living homunculus. I have done what no other has done.”

            I couldn’t hold back the laughter. I overbalanced and almost fell from the chair. Ego always blooms best in humans. I straightened up in my seat and managed to finally get my laughter under control. Hummel had no use for my humor. His face went dark red, the knuckles of his clenched fists turned white, and his eyes were blue steel. He was a veritable rainbow. I don’t know where Hummel was hiding the gun, but the cold steel suddenly pressed to my forehead was a real downer.

            “Do it, do it, do it!” a choir of voices shouted.

            A dozen little homunculi scurried around my chair, jumping up and down and cheering Hummel on. One particularly gruesome little bastard, with a ski slope nose and eyes unevenly spaced on his lopsided head, pulled at Hummel’s pant leg and pointed at me. The flush on Hummel’s face faded, and his finger loosened on the trigger.

            “Yes, in good time,” he said, his normal pallor returning to his face. “There are quite a few new ones since your last visit, neighbor. Many hands make light work and all that. You will learn they are quite bloodthirsty little fellows.”

            Greene returned to the room with a towel in hand.

            “Do you want him on the third table, now?”

            “In due time, Sheriff,” Hummel replied. “First, I want to hear what he has to say.”

            “I don’t mean to tell you your business,” I said. “Well, maybe a little. You should listen to the sheriff. The bad guys in the movies always make this mistake.”

            “What mistake are you talking about?” Hummel asked.

            “They always let the hero live to discuss things,” I said. “It never turns out well.”

            “This ain’t the movies,” Sheriff Greene reminded me.

            He had a point.

            A gnarled little figure crawled onto the table to my right. This one had a normal-shaped head, evenly spaced eyes, and a nose that didn’t threaten to tip him over, but he was no beauty. One of his beady little eyes was a yellowish white. The other eye was coal black. There was no in-between with this one. He cocked his head right, then left, studying me. The little shit was a thinker. I didn’t like it.

            “He smells funny,” the little man said. “Kill him.”

            The little bastard had “the sight”. Dammit all to hell! I had no choice; it was time for the fat lady to sing. I focused my eyes on the little face, and I let my mind flow. The little creature’s head fell back; his arms opened like wings. I snapped the cuffs apart and rotated my index finger in the air. The homunculus began to turn in lazy circles, mimicking my movements. Greene and Hummel stared dumbfounded at the little performer. I moved my other hand in 4/4 time, and the little beast began to sing, I’m a little teapot, short and stout.

            At which point his head exploded like a ripe pimple.

            It lay twitching and oozing pus. Its kin reacted quicker than the men. They broke and ran for the open door. Titan cut them off. He caught one in his jaws, shook it like a sodden rag, and flung it in the air. The others turned tail and ran back into the garage.

            I rose from the chair. My joints popped and cracked. I am old---very old, as a matter of fact. But it wasn’t old age or sitting bound that had my joints talking. It was the transformation. I stretched to my full seven feet. It took a minute longer for all my arms to work through my shirt. It was okay. My audience was too paralyzed with fear to run.

            “Talking to demons doesn’t really require homunculi that have wings,” I said. “I lied about the wings. You don’t really need a homunculus either—not in this neighborhood. All you had to do was ask a neighbor; any of us would do. Should have done your homework, Professor. You picked the only neighbor who is a ghoul, a very hungry ghoul.”

            I brushed aside Greene’s weapon and lifted him to unhinged jaws. His skull had that satisfying crunch and delicious, semi-solid filling I find so exhilarating. And that long drink of - not water but blood - left me ecstatic in spite of Greene’s sparse covering of meat.

            Hummel wanted a homunculus that was able to contact a demon. Now, the professor was learning too late that old, very human lesson: be careful what you wish for--you just might get it.

            (Live and learn. Poor Hummel, he wasn’t going to live with what he learned. He looked far too yummy for that.)