WolfRunning

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Prologue

From inside the cupboard, Héctor spied on his mother as she laid out the table. She’d wiped it clean and was picking wax from the gauzy red cloth spread over the top. The whole apartment looked almost tidy, the kitchen counters clear and all the dirty dishes piled in the oven. There was a timid knock at the door, and Héctor’s mother sighed. She lit the candles, patted her hair one last time and pulled the red shawl up over her head, rattling the bangles at each wrist.

As she walked past the cupboard toward the door, Héctor made himself small and breathless. A moment later the lights dimmed, and he risked taking in a little air. Only in the last few months had he learned how to avoid his mother’s bruja bruja(o)(esp) 1. sorcerer, witch; 2. a political fixer, a spin-doctor or facilitator. nose for discovering most anything he might be up to. Héctor was finally beginning to understand the Magica.

He’d crept in here through the gap at the back of the bedroom closet. Héctor was supposed to be watching his half-sister in their tiny bedroom. But earlier, he’d slipped Adelita a little Nite-Nite with two cubes of sugar, calling it a potion, and she’d be out for at least an hour. That’s all his mother had wanted, wasn’t it?

The candles’ cloying odor had tickled its way through the room by the time Héctor’s mother swept back in. Two young women, girls really, trailed behind her clutching each other’s hands. At the head of the dining table, Héctor’s mother stood waiting, holding herself tall. Héctor could feel the glow springing up off her skin. She’d already become La Dama Carmín La Dama Carmín (esp) The Lady Scarlet. . Her face was a mask, barely resembling the weary figure she’d presented a few minutes before.

Neither of the girls were particularly tall or hao-hao hao-hao (zho) attractive, from hǎohàokàn. Often used by teens to describe the “gu-mei” (“orphan beauty”) style. . They seemed nervous, excited, afraid to sit down before La Dama did. “The marks,” mark (eng) 1. guileless victim; 2. member of the working class; also “fish.”. his mother called these visitors when no one else was around. For many months, Héctor had tried to spot whatever it was that marked them and had decided that it was some kind of facial expression—a widening of the eyes, a slackening of the mouth, a quivering lip.

2

With a start of embarrassment, one of the girls sprang toward La Dama’s chair and pulled it back for her to sit. La Dama floated down into her seat before nodding the two girls toward chairs of their own.

La Dama raised a hand in a little beckoning gesture, and one of the girls began to mumble out her story. Héctor couldn’t hear the words but he didn’t care. It wasn’t what he was waiting for. While the mask remained unmoving, La Dama listened with her hands. Her fingers responded to every rush of words with small jerks of surprise and sympathy, drawing each new installment to the surface in turn. La Dama didn’t speak until the girl lost her place for a moment, fumbling for a name. The mask’s scarlet lips parted, a whisper supplied the missing identity, and both girls gasped. They sat frozen until the long fingers beckoned the last of the sob story from them.

Taking the nearest girl’s hand, La Dama placed it palm down on the threadbare gauze. Without more explanation, the other hands leapt eagerly to the same position. Candles flickered. La Dama began to murmur in her funny Spanish, more like the priest at church than the woman who usually lived here. Her bangles rattled. The glow Héctor had noticed earlier grew into a buzz, stinging along his arms and neck. The girls sat rigid with excitement, their breathing high and shallow.

Héctor had seen all this before, felt it from his little hiding spot enough times that he noticed as something in the ritual changed too soon, began peaking before La Dama had really gotten started. The girl who’d come for answers trembled. Glinting in the candlelight, the fine reddish hair on the girl’s neck lifted. With a grunt, her back sprang rigid and head tumbled back, cracking against the top of chair.

It was only for an instant, but Héctor caught the leap of his mother’s eyes from beneath La Dama’s perfect mask. When the other visitor reached for her shuddering friend’s arm, La Dama hissed a sharp warning.

The table shook. La Dama’s face was pale. Her fingers clawed the old cloth. Héctor heard tiny pops as one of her flawless nails broke and then another. The candles sizzled out. Now Héctor could feel it too,

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something huge and rustling above the table, drawing all the smoky air into itself. In the cityshine that glowed through the apartment windows, fine wrinkles appeared around the mouth of La Dama’s torn mask. Tart eddies of scorched candle wax filled the cupboard, tangling around, holding Héctor fast beneath the shelves.

. . .

Héctor stumbled backward. He was out in the night air. La Dama was gone, left the City. Héctor—now Boconito, the Little Bigmouth—had been running with his pack for more than a year, catching the wolf all up and down the roofgardens of the old Low. But that was over.

Loro, his narrow face twisted with fury, gave Héctor another shove, knocking the breath out of him. Their Techo-Bajo Los Pateadores del Techo-Bajo (esp) “Kickers of the Low Ceiling,” a “trance runner” pack. packmates were gathered round, confused but not interfering.

“Too good for us, Boconito?” Loro snarled. “Need to go find a fancier game? Just like your mama?”

Héctor glanced at the others, trying to see if they understood what he was talking about. Loro was the only one Héctor had confided in. He’d promised not to tell. All anyone else knew was that Héctor happened to live with his Yèye yèye (zho) 1. paternal grandfather, 2. older Chinese gentleman. . Nobody ever asked how that had started.

“Yeah, they’re all going to know,” Loro slowly pronounced. “All about the famous Dama Carmín who decided she was too big for the plash, went and dried out dry out (eng) 1. move crownward; 2. become a naturalized U.S. citizen; 3. die (be subject to posthumous desiccation treatment). and left you here.”

Héctor forgot about anyone else. Pulling a fistful of dirt from a garden bed, he threw it in Loro’s face. The other loblitos began barking out, “ Bumping! bumping (eng) fighting. ” “¡Combate!”

Springing to his feet, Héctor charged his former packmate, feeling the wolf prickle up his back as he caught Loro in the midsection and sent them both crashing toward the roof’s edge.

Dear Someone,

Don’t know if you’re really there. Or if you ever will be. Guess we never know those kinds of things.

This letter is supposed to be about me. But I thought it might be easier to talk about the whole pack first. Don’t want you thinking I’m buggy, or at least any crazier than a bunch of other people. And I can’t describe our pack without explaining about the Old Man. Without him, none of us would be Wolves. Except Satellite of course. But don’t get me started.

Growing up in the Low, you learn to keep your head down and work the angles. Soon as you can walk, a sister or cousin begins to show you how to play each street corner, who to make nice to, who to stare down, who to duck and make sure they don’t notice. Then some auntie or abuela starts teaching you the funny stuff—how to guard against the Evil Eye and avoid unlucky numbers (fours, thirteens and all the rest) and never go begging on trouble.

None of that prepared me for meeting the Old Man. The first time I spied him on the sidewalk from my window, he looked like some little old digger: pearl-buttoned shirt done up to the neck and old straw hat curling up over his stiff black hair. I suppose that was who the marks are supposed to see, just another dried-up abuelo kicking the dust from his boots.

At the same time, the Old Man had a reputation as someone you could bring certain problems to. A last resort for parents who wanted to keep their son or daughter from the ranks of the kitchen mediums and card readers, the finders and number pickers, the curse removers, exorcists, and boil curers or, worst, the wild-eyed mumblers and shouters that haunted every other curbside. And maybe somebody in the family even hoped a little of the Old Man’s game would rub off—an uncle who wouldn’t turn up his nose at a little family edge over the neighbors, bosses or local munies.

I don’t remember what the Old Man talked about that first night. But I can guess. One thing would have been Nature, with a capital N. The word meant getting your hands dirty learning something useful. And because the only thing ECity trusts is business, the Old Man took us on as “maintenance assistants” or whatever he called our Pushar (the endless shovel pushing up in the skygardens or sniffing out leaks deep below the towers). We even got paid, sort of—in teas, salves and liniments, foul smelling recipes for an aunt’s digestion or a grandfather’s bursitis.

But Nature also meant the opposite of Magic. All the Old Man admitted to teaching were his Practicals: how to turn over an herb bed, rebuild an irrigation lock or monkey up a pipe stand without cracking your head open. Looking for Magic was something that got you distracted, confused. And the first time any rabbit breathed the M-word is when she met the Real Old Man, not the gentle grandfather who’d welcomed her to Skytown. You wouldn’t believe what long ears he had.

The Raking came first. Even as his eyes narrowed in reproach, you could feel those yellow orbs burning huge beneath their sagging curtain of wrinkles and smudged brows. Hot enough to set the Old Man’s blood simmering, as if this was what had cooked his skin dark, rather than the years of ECity wind and sun. It only took a moment for some of that heat to leap the distance and begin to prickle under your own skin.

Next came the Chuffing. While, the Old Man’s lips never revealed more than a glimpse of those long teeth, a single grunt was enough to blow your house down. Try to talk back, and he’d insist you hadn’t seen what you thought you’d seen, heard what you thought you’d heard, or felt what you thought you’d felt. So the Wolf, in any sense that meant more than just running or a roof-runner, became a secret we all had to pretend to keep.

Since the Old Man only talked about Nature, he ended up leaving all the finer points of running to the descriptions of our older packmates. That’s how we ended up whispering over all our Squinting, Buzzing and Tickling and such, all those things the marks and wheezers couldn’t see or hear, or at least wouldn’t admit to. We called it our pack’s Ebarka, and since the words meant whatever we decided, how could a grumpy old sharper object?

If wolf running was the Old Man’s cure, catching the Wolf also meant we’d never go back to being what our parents really wanted—back to normal, or close enough that they could ignore whatever strangeness was left. But it wasn’t going to happen. What they got back was something new.

I wish some of the others—Hightop or Poster Boy or Girl Nine—could help me explain our pack to you. How the little ghost tales we each brought to Skytown started to run together before we’d even noticed.

Well, more later I guess

Estel Waters
March 2nd
Year of the Mouse

all words! pictures © nap elezarian 2012

Magnet Girl 19 Hightop Satellite Hush Junktown Steampipe Bromista PosterBoy Ezra So Skytown unit12 unit13 unit14 unit15 unit16 Trees unit17