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See that girl kneeling next to the bookshelf in the library? She's whispering the book titles to herself. That's me. Back away slowly, and then run.

The Hero (#champion)

April 10, 2020


    If Arthur Fleek was honest, he had no idea where he was going.
    It had all started, of course, when he’d stolen the horse. This had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he was beginning to daydream about the rows of cars lined up in the McAdams’ garage that he could have stolen instead—Lamborghinis and Jaguars and three different Mercedes-Benz, with their comfortable leather seats arranged just right for the traveling person’s rear. His own rear was sorer than ever, having been jostled on the back of a horse for three days straight.
    Really, Arthur knew that he couldn’t possibly have stolen one of the cars. They were all registered, and there wasn’t a single charging station to be found on this road for love or for money.
    It had only been a few days ago that he had been a mere domestic worker for the McAdams, a tall, athletic family that only ever stopped at their big house in the Shenandoah between their frequent trips. These trips often lasted for weeks on end and were to places that to Arthur seemed romantic and unimaginably far. He had always longed to travel, of course. And the McAdams’ house, so near the old highway, seemed just close enough to adventure that he thought he would be satisfied. But his occasional glimpses across the hills to where wildflowers grew through the cracked tar only served to accelerate his longing for the open road and bold exploits.
    Arthur did not exactly look like a daring traveler. In his youth he had reached the height of five feet, five inches precisely and then ceased to grow further. At about the same time that he stopped growing, he also quit any and all athletic activity, and developed what his grandmother called “a little pudge”. But still the idea of adventure appealed to him, and the glimpses of the open road, so close to him, were like siren-song.
    And so, one night, quite without warning or any previous planning, he found himself stealing one of the McAdams’ horses (named Ginger), from their stable, as well as four hundred dollars from the vase in the front hall. Mr. McAdams often stuffed dollar bills down there when he thought no one was watching.
    He had been traveling for three days, and seen a very few people. At the beginning, he had passed by the small scavenging villages that made their homes around old billboards that displayed ancient advertisements such as CALL LLOYD NOW FOR INSURANCE CLAIMS. He rode his horse past the people as they emerged at daybreak to search the ruined cars that lined the road for parts. Their children, ragged and gap-toothed, ran next to him as he went past, begging for a ride. He almost agreed, but their parents shouted for them to stay close and shot him glares, and Arthur realized that they must have seen the sharp clothes of a domestic worker and the fine horse and thought him to be a wealthy traveler. 
    The last person he’d talked to had been the owner of a crumbling gas station many miles previously, an old man in about the same shape as his gas station. There was, of course, almost no money to be made in selling gas these days. Arthur had felt bad for the guy, and had stocked up on a series of snacks which he had been steadily consuming since then. Now the plastic bag was beginning to swing in the wind in its emptiness, and he wondered if there was any food to be found close by. 
    The road stretched out before him, wide and empty, going everywhere and nowhere. Arthur began to imagine food at the end of the road, the fast food strip malls of his childhood, greasy food in a paper bag and a styrofoam cup filled with a cold fizzy drink that burned your throat as it went down. His stomach grumbled.
    The clouds above him grew in darkness, and the prairie grass waved in the wind.
    Looking into the distance, he caught sight of something. His eyes widened as he realized that it was a sign, then squinted to read it.
    TACOS TACOS TACOS, blue and flashing and the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
    He almost fell off of Ginger. Righting himself, he kicked at her sides and spurred her into a joyful gallop. As they neared the stand, he imagined plates and plates of tacos, piled up to the ceiling. He wondered if horses could eat tacos.
    The sign grew larger as he neared it, and soon he caught sight of a smaller, yellow one right beneath it, reading Best Prices Best FoodCome and Eat!
    Finally they reached the stand. Arthur leapt off of Ginger and looped her rope around a nearby pole. “I’ll get you food too,” he said, pointing at her. Then he fairly ran inside.
    The inside of the taco stand was as neon blue and yellow as the signs outside. To his left and right were small booths with neon lights stuck onto their sides. Most of the booths weren’t in front of a window, but instead each sat below a large metal safe embedded in the wall, blue neon lights flashing around it. The ceiling was completely covered in vines, twisted in with small yellow and blue lights. They almost look like Christmas lights, he thought, and spent a good minute gaping up at it, trying to pinpoint where and how the vines were growing on the ceiling.
    “Are you going to order?”
    Arthur followed a large flashing yellow and blue arrow to the counter, where a teenage girl leaned up on her elbows, blowing a piece of her bangs out of her face. She stood up as he neared, eyes fixed on the menu posted above her. Her name tag read “Imogen”.
    He only had twenty dollars, but eight was apparently enough to order the Very Giant Plate of Tacos. Breathlessly, he placed his order. Imogen punched a few keys on the huge machine in front of her and pointed at the booths. 
    “Your order will be ready shortly.” 
    Arthur nodded and followed another neon arrow to a booth in the back. He marvelled at the almost-full napkin dispenser at his table. Looking around, he realized that every other booth had one as well. He wondered if in this part of the world they somehow had a way of turning prairie grass into paper. Unable to resist, he took a napkin out of the dispenser on the table, glanced around and began to fold it into a star. 
    “That your horse?”
    He yelped. Turning around, he found himself nose-to-nose with an old woman with many long, twisted braids falling down her back.. Her face was so wrinkled as to give the appearance of someone who had taken a year long bath, and she couldn’t have been taller than five feet.
She pointed outside and repeated, “That your horse?”
    “Well, you’d better go bring him in before the twister gets here.”
    “What?” But she was already walking away. 
    Arthur stood, leaving behind his many-folded paper napkin, and walked to the door. He attempted to push it open but found that he couldn’t. He shoved his back into the door and slowly pried it open. Standing outside, he had to hold a hand up over his eyes to see as pieces of dirt and grass whipped by in the wind. Ginger was still standing where he left her, whinnying nervously. 
    He walked to her, practically sideways against the wind and led her towards the front door of the restaurant. He could see another girl standing just inside the door, and he waved his hands at her and shouted, “CAN YOU OPEN THE DOOR?”
    She nodded and, pressing her hands to the door, shoved it open. At that moment, he realized that Ginger was very likely not going to fit through the door. He briefly wished he’d left off of horses and hot-wired a car instead. 
    With Arthur pushing from behind, Ginger squeezed through almost all the way, but became wedged in the door at her hindquarters. He groaned and shouted to the girl “PULL FROM THE FRONT, WILL YOU?” And he began to push from behind. He could faintly hear Ginger’s complaints.
    Glancing behind him, he saw something long and dark moving in the distance. The twister, he thought, and pushed harder. 
    Finally, with a pop, Ginger squeezed through. He slipped in behind, breathing heavily. The girl says, “Pretty horse.” She was taller than him, with a pair of glasses pushed up into her curly hair, and her name tag read “Jane”. 
    “Thanks,” he panted.
    “We don’t get many people traveling by horse around here. Lots of dune buggies, Jeeps, burros…”
    He nodded and tried to think. “Um,” he said, “So shouldn’t we be in the basement by now?”
    “Oh, there’s no need for that.” Jane laughed. “Grandma built this place with the best Gorilla Glass she could get. We’ve had three twisters so far this summer and the only damage has been to the sunflowers.” 
    “Oh.” Arthur glanced outside. The twister was getting closer. 
    “You ordered the Very Giant Plate, right?” It was Imogen. She blew her bangs away from her face again, arms loaded with a plate the size of Ginger’s hindquarters.
    “Yeah, that was me.” 
    She shifted the plate, piled with tacos, and put it down in front of him. It landed on the table with a thud. “Good luck.”
    He sat down at the table. His legs shook so hard that he had to place his hands on his knees to force them to still. With trembling hands, he picked up a taco and began to eat.
    After a little while, Arthur realized that he had already downed ten tacos. His hands had stopped shaking. He felt both brighter and more awake than he had been when he’d started eating, which seemed strange. Usually after eating so much there was nothing he wanted more than to take a good long nap. Examining the plate, he found a vegetarian taco and held it up to Ginger, who devoured it in one bite. Giving her two more tacos, he leaned back in his chair. There were still at least twenty tacos left, and he set to work munching his way through them.
    He finished the entire plate in twenty minutes. The twister had passed by, whipping through the sunflowers in the next field. The girls and their grandmother continued to flit in and out of the kitchen, supremely unconcerned with either the twister or the horse standing in the middle of their restaurant.
    “All finished?”
    He resisted the urge to yelp again as a third girl appeared at his elbow, nodding rapidly. This one was small, quite thin, and wore a blue apron. He looked for her name tag and found it pinned to the apron, reading “Mabel”. She picked up the plate and went to the kitchen. As she pushed through the swinging door, the old woman came out. He gulped as he realized that she was headed towards him.
    “You traveling far? Got a place in mind?”
    “Just wandering, then? That’s fine, fine.” She brushed an invisible speck off the table. “You got a map?”
    She tapped her long brown fingers on the table and nodded to herself. “Let me go get one for you. You’ll need it, since you have of course disabled your wrist’s tracking mechanism.” Arthur gaped at her, and she fixed him with a glare. “Don’t tell me you forgot to do that?”
    “No, I disabled it.”
    “Good.” And she strode away towards the far corner of the restaurant, returning with a map in her hand. The words “MADE IN THE U.S. 2040” were emblazoned on the front in red. Wondering how reliable a map thirty years old could be, he took it and unfolded it across the table.
    It was blank.
    “Are you sure this is the right map?”
    But the old woman was gone. 
    The three girls emerged from the kitchen, walking in a line—first Jane, then Imogen, and finally Mabel. As he watched, refolding the map, Imogen and Jane walked to adjacent booths, stood on the seats, and began to enter codes into the safes embedded in the wall above their respective booths. With a pop, the safes swung open. They reached inside and both pulled something out that was covered in a dishtowel.
    “She sent us to give these to you.” Jane held out her hands, offering the object covered by the dishtowel. Ginger watched with seeming interest from next to him as he lifted the dish towel to reveal a small dagger. Eyes wide, Arthur took it from her. Gripping it in his hands, he turned it around and watched the neon lights glint off of it. There were words engraved upon the handle. He squinted to read them, for all the world they looked to be nothing but gibberish.
    “Watch it,” snapped Jane as he waved the dagger past her. “It’s not a toy.”
    “Sorry.” He put the dagger down on the table, over the map.
    Imogen was standing over him now, with another dish-towel-covered object.
    “Do you really need the towels?”
    She sighed. “Look, Grandma likes the mystery of it all. Just take it off.”
    In her hands lay a small silver flask.
    “She wanted me to tell you that it won’t take liquor,” she said. “It holds water and nothing else. But it’ll keep giving you water for as long as you need, so you’ll never have to refill it.” She handed it to him. “She also said something about using it for good purposes or whatever.”
    “Thank you.” He put it in his pocket.
    Mabel stepped forward. She had no dishtowel, but a brown paper bag. She handed this to him. “It’s tacos, for the road.”
    He took the bag and cleared his throat, frowning. “Can I ask why I get all this? I didn’t pay for a dagger and a magic flask, I don’t think.”
    Jane spoke. “Grandma does this for the heroes.”
    “Yeah.” She looked him over, pursed her lips. 
    “But I’m not a hero.” Still, the very thought of the word being connected with him filled him with a sort of gleeful joy. He could barely keep a grin from spreading across his face.
    “No kidding,” mumbled Imogen.
    Mabel elbowed her. “What she means is that the people Grandma usually does this for are usually...more muscular.”
    “And taller,” added Imogen.
    “But honestly,” said Jane, in a lowered voice, “We don’t know if she’s crazy or if there’s actually anything to all the heroes. But she has a stash of these objects in the safes, and she gives them away to anyone she likes the look of.”
    “Maybe she’s just trying to clean out,” said Imogen.
    Mabel said, kindly, “I’m sure you must have something heroic you’re going to do.”
    Arthur swallowed. “I mean, I didn’t have anything in mind…”
    They all looked at each other. “Well, good luck figuring it out,” said Jane, business-like. “Will your horse fit through the door again?”
    This time, without the wind, adrenaline, and urgency, it took about fifteen minutes to get Ginger back out the door.     Finally, he stood outside the taco stand, with a dagger, flask, blank map, and backup tacos in his bag. He got up onto Ginger, utterly bewildered. The girls stood below him. Jane and Imogen had their arms crossed.
    He turned the horse around, towards the road, and waved to the girls. Mabel waved back. He nodded, once, to himself,
and clucked to Ginger. Slowly, they rode away, into the endless roads and fields of fallen sunflowers.

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