Pipsqueak

“Hey!” someone said. “Watch it, kid!’

Pip didn’t hesitate. She didn’t even look. Arms flailing, hair whipping behind her, she ran headlong into the flow of pedestrians. She dodged people or—failing that—crashed through them.

Pip wasn’t a kid, not in her own mind. At seventeen, she felt like she had already lived lifetimes and probably had. Her current life had soured abruptly, several years earlier. The arrival of her monthly blood had brought with it crazy dreams, strange looks from parents, teachers and doctors, and eventually, the mysterious black dog that was about to eat her, if it had its druthers.

Tearing headlong down the street, Pip didn’t see the guitar case until it was almost too late. She leapt at the last minute and cleared it, but she landed poorly on the other side and fell hard onto the concrete.

Almost immediately, Pip felt a weighty presence loom over her. She went fetal, closed her eyes and raised her arms to shield herself.

“What the fuck are you doing?” someone asked.

Pip opened one eye.

The someone was a guy with a scruffy face, a mouth with more angles than curves, and bed-head hair. Hands on his knees, he stared down at her.

Pip unfurled. She looked around, searching for the black dog. Despite her expectations, the beast hadn’t leapt upon her with its snapping, drooling, tooth-filled jaws in the lead.

“You’re bleeding,” said the guy. He crouched beside her, all lanky folding and bending. He wrapped his hand around her arm and lifted it to where he could see its underside. “You scraped your elbow.”

The moment he said it, pain bloomed there and drew Pip’s attention. She twisted her arm around to look at the wound. The black pantyhose she had found and transformed into an undershirt had a webbed run that started at her elbow and traveled down her forearm. A single, slow crawl of blood was taking the same path.

The guy reached around to his back pocket and produced a red handkerchief. His long fingers, insect-like in their partitioning, were the first things Pip really noticed about him. They crawled in the fabric of the handkerchief. He held it out to her.

Pip shook her head. The blood was already coagulating.

“What’s your name?” he asked, returning the handkerchief to his pocket. He didn’t smile. His face was hungry. His nose looked as if it had been broken, and his skin was darker than some, lighter than others. His eyes could have contained whole universes, they were so astronomically deep.

Pip said, “Pipsqueak.”

The guy nodded gravely. “You hurting anywhere else?” He stood and walked back to his folding chair.

“No.”

“You in trouble?”

“No.”

“Was someone chasing you?”

“No.” No one ever believed Pip when she told them about the black dog, so she’d stopped trying. Apparently, she was the only one who could see it. It never left footprints, drool or hair in its wake, so Pip had never convinced anyone that it truly existed.

Pip got to her feet.

The pixies had returned, having fled at first sight of the black dog. They were sniffing around her wounded elbow. She shooed them, but they didn’t give up. Their dragonfly wings hummed, and their chameleon tails curled and uncurled as they shoved each other out of the way. One got close enough for a taste and came away with a smudge of red on his nose and lips.

“Dream!” Pip scolded it by the name she’d given it. She had had to name all the pixies, since they’d refused to tell her their real names. She had chosen a set of names she’d read once-upon-a-time, in a comic book*. She waved her hand to shoo the tiny creatures again.

“Did you say something?” asked the guy from his folding chair.

“Oh, nothing.” Pip started to go.

“You hungry?”

Pip hesitated, then answered honestly, “Yeah.”

He moved his guitar to one side and reached into a purple gym bag. “Better move over here or one of these pedestrian assholes will knock you down again,” he said.

Pip edged to where she could stand with her back against the wall. She felt safer there anyway. Her elbow throbbed. Several of the pixies were clinging to her nylon sleeve with fingers and toes—upside down, right-side up. They were playing in the drying line of blood, painting each others’ faces and naked bodies with it.

“You live around here?” The guy pulled out a couple sandwiches in zip-locks and offered one to Pip.

“Uh huh.” She could tell it was peanut butter and jelly, her favorite, and immediately set about removing it from the baggie.

“How come you’re not in school?” They all asked that question. It was a knock on the security door through which—if they could crack the code—they’d get into her stash of secrets.

“I don’t know,” said Pip. Another lie. The truth was that her parents had taken her out of school and put her in the Malum Institution for crazy people. They don’t teach reading, writing and arithmetic to schizophrenics.

“What do you know?” He gave her a sly, fox-in-the-henhouse look, and for the first time, Pip noticed the sharp pitch of his eyebrows.

She watched him while sniffing at the edge of the sandwich.

He took a bite of his and chewed, using his whole jaw.

After a time, Pip said, “I know how to take care of myself.” She stuck her finger inside the sandwich, hooked a dollop of filling and put it in her mouth.

“That so?”

“Mm-hm.”

The guy’s sandwich was gone long before Pip’s. When he’d finished, he wiped his hands on his jeans, then reached for his guitar.

“You sing?” he asked. He caressed the instrument, causing it to hum.

“No.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Pip stopped eating when the sandwich was half-gone and put the remainder back in the zip-lock baggie. She put it in her pocket.

“That’s too bad,” said the guy. He strummed a few notes. “You sure?”

“Sure as taxes.” Pip’s dad had often used that expression quite effectively.

“Well, what do you do?” he asked.

Pip frowned at him and his questions. “I do magic,” she said.

“What kind of magic?”

Pip shrugged. “The real kind. Look, a guy gives you a sandwich, it doesn’t mean you have to answer all his questions. Especially not if he didn’t say so up front.” She pushed away from the wall.

The guy nodded. “True dat.”

“I gotta go to work.” Pip took a backwards step. “Thanks for the sandwich.” She turned abruptly and would have run, but his voice stalled her.

“Hey, Pipsqueak,” he called.

Pip paused and looked back over her shoulder.

His eyebrows rose into ridges and wrinkles. “Since you’re so good at magic, you probably already know that you don’t do magic, you either are magic, or you’re not.” His gaze traveled up and down her, evaluating, sizing her up.

Pip curled her upper lip at him, then turned and left.

One of the pixies, the one Pip called Desire, curled her tail around Pip’s ear and swung there. “Was that your boyfriend?”

Pip peered sideways to where she could see the pixie swinging in and out of her peripheral vision. “Are you on crack?”

The pixie said, “Not today.”

Pip took the long route to work, watching for followers and the black dog.

Twice a week, she cleaned Bradley Wemple’s apartment. Bradley was a thirty-year-old geekazoid shut-in who rarely left his computer desk. He sat there in boxers and a t-shirt, tapping away on the keys. Sometimes, he’d shout obscenities at the screen.

Pip suspected he was rich because he ordered all his food in and could afford to hire her.  She charged three twenty-dollar bills per week for her cleaning services, and he paid all that without complaint. It had been one of her better strokes of luck when she’d begged him for change, and he’d offered her the job instead.

Pip spent the rest of the day gathering up food containers and empty cookie boxes. She took out the garbage, dusted, wiped down counters, and washed silverware. She didn’t hurry, because it was warm there, and she could pretend it was her own home. When she washed Bradley’s clothes, she also washed her own. While scrubbing down his bathroom, she showered. Washing away the blood and street dust soothed Pip. She stood for longer than usual in the hot water, and even if Bradley had refused to pay her, she’d have cleaned his apartment for the privilege of a shower.

Shortly before dark, Pip picked up the envelope Bradley had left on the table. She didn’t open it immediately, but put it in her pocket.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” asked the pixie named Desire.

“No.” Pip kept her voice down.

Desire tickled Pip’s ear with a puff of air. “You should open it.”

“No. I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him. Trust is a two-way street.” That was another of her father’s favorite expressions. Pip slung her bag over her shoulder. It held her clean clothes. She had repaired the broken strap with a series of men’s belts connected and tied to the original. Their buckles clinked together when she moved. She headed for the door.

“I’m leaving,” she announced and received a grunt in response. It was all she ever got from Bradley, all she ever needed. She locked the door on the way out.

The walk home was pleasantly uneventful. Pip had noticed that the black dog couldn’t smell her when she had showered and was wearing clean clothes. Her step was light, and she held her head high. When she got back to her building, she found that same guy, still seated in his folding chair on the sidewalk, playing his guitar. She stopped in the shadows at the edge of the alley to watch.

People periodically paused to listen, smile, bob their heads and drop money in his guitar case. His response was always the same—nothing. He just kept playing.

Pip liked the guy’s music. She crouched in her hiding spot, picking idly at the scab on her scraped elbow and listening to the thrumming—now-light, now-dark—tones of the guitar.

His fingers danced over the strings as if gathering the notes, but it was his face that most intrigued Pip. He didn’t make the music face that so many musicians did—tight mouth, furrowed brow and squinted eyes. This guy’s face opened when he played. His mouth loosened into an easy smile and his pinpoint eyes relaxed.

He looked several years older than Pip, though she knew from experience that faces lied—especially street faces. Based on the looseness of his jeans, she guessed he was on his third or fourth wearing since the last time he’d washed them. His shoes had seen many miles of pavement, and his hoodie had wear-and-tear around the cuffs.

Pip found the story in the song he was playing and followed the lilting notes. They danced gracefully one minute, making her smile, then tripped over one another in slapstick fashion, making her laugh. In the next moment, they ran along otherworldly pathways, stalking prey and setting Pip’s neck hairs on edge. She shivered.

“Go talk to him,” said Delirium, a girl pixie with the longest fingers Pip had ever seen. No pixie had more than two fat fingers and a thumb on each hand, but Delirium could wrap her thumb and forefinger all the way around a cigarette.

Pip shook her head.

“Go on. Are you afraid?”

Dream hovered in front of Pip, his arms and legs splayed wide for emphasis. His dragonfly wings hummed. “Scaredy cat!”

The others joined the chorus as well. “Scaredy cat! Scaredy cat!”

“No,” whispered Pip. “I’m not scared, I just don’t want to.”

“Scaredy cat!” Dream bobbed in time with the chant, and his pixie penis bobbed in counterpoint.

Pip ignored them. She had pulled the scab completely off and had caused the scrape to bleed again. “Dang it,” she whispered. “Dang it, dang it, dang it.” She put her blood-stained finger in her mouth, pushed away from the wall and crept back to her nest. She lived in a rent-free basement window well, just the right size for her and the pixies. The well was situated under a wooden wheelchair ramp that had been a later addition to the building. The ramp sheltered her from the rain in spring and most of the snow in winter, and no one ever looked under there. She kept the well covered with a flattened refrigerator box in order to keep out the cold, the moist and the prying eyes.

Always careful, Pip surveyed the area for onlookers before she slipped into the space beneath the ramp. One hand trailing the wood overhead, she bent and crept to the edge of the basement window well. She took off her shoes, lifted the cardboard cover and perched on the edge of the well. Slowly, she slid down into her nest, pulling the cover back into place as she went.

The window well was almost long enough for her to stretch out and as wide as a couch cushion. Pip had draped the concrete block walls of her nest with tattered blankets. She sat with her back to the wall, legs stretched out in front of her. She parted the makeshift curtain she had hung over the basement window and tied it back with a velvet ribbon. This revealed the window’s glass, painted black on the inside. Flecks had chipped away, and dappled light escaped from the room to illuminate her nest with a mottled glow. Printing presses banged out a regular rhythm inside there, 24 hours a day. Through the window, Pip felt the structure’s escaping heat. She nestled into the cushions she’d gathered from abandoned chairs and couches. From the depths of an unraveling wicker basket, she produced a clean cloth and patted the blood off her elbow.

The pixies piled together like puppies on her pillow. “You should have talked to him,” Dream said. The others started a lazy chorus of, “Scaredy cat.”

“Fuck off.”

“She only talks like that when she’s scared,” the pixies told one another and agreed.

Pip withdrew Bradley’s envelope and opened it. Inside, she found not three, but six twenty-dollar bills—and a sheet of pink note paper. Confused and curious, Pip turned over the note and read.

“Dear Pipsqueak.”

She was surprised and pleased that he’d remembered her name. She’d only told him once, and he’d never called her by it, not until just that moment.

The pixie named Desire stretched out along the part in Pip’s hair, elbows on Pip’s forehead, chin in hands, and read along. Her wings went still as her warm little body relaxed onto Pip’s head.

The note continued. “I’m going away. I’ve met someone who knows someone who needs someone like me to take care of their computers. I won’t be coming back. Your employment is terminated. Don’t come here anymore.” She reread the note several times, trying to find the punch-line in it. There was none. It was signed, “Thank you for your service, Bradley Wemple.”

“Oh,” said Desire. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s bad” said Pip. She ran her hand back through her hair and sent Desire tumbling. “Oh, crap. Sorry, Desire.”

“What’s bad?” asked Death, the runt of the pixies, her head resting on Dream’s belly.

Desire flew up into the air beside Pip’s head. “The fat guy with his fingers stuck to a keyboard is abandoning us.”

“He’s not abandoning us.” Pip scowled at Desire.

The pixie made a face. “Whatever.”

Destiny said, “Close a door today, another opens tomorrow.”

Before tomorrow could come, however, Pip had to cry, and she had to sleep. She kicked the pixies off her pillow and unfolded her sleeping bag. She’d found it by the train tracks. It smelled like mold, but it was dry and warm, and it soaked up tears very well.

As she was drifting off to sleep, that guy’s music rambled through her mind. It melded with her dreams, and though she forgot as soon as she awoke, it took her to a land called Fantasy that she’d only ever glimpsed. No one there was what he seemed, and everything had started as something other than what it was.

The next morning, an uncomfortable sound awoke her. She couldn’t immediately identify it, but she knew it wasn’t good. She listened intently and heard voices, a man’s voice. He was talking to the old woman who hung her laundry over the alley. Pip recognized his voice before she caught any of the actual words.

“Have you seen this girl?” he said. “Her name is Penelope. She’s sick in the head. You might’ve noticed… her talking to herself.” He put his pauses in all the wrong places.

The woman made a cooing noise, like an old pigeon. “I see hundreds of her every day.”

Pip got up on her knees and lifted the cardboard cover on her window well, just enough to peek out. The pixies joined her.

It was Mr. Pardie, as she’d known it would be. He stood there, bumptious, in his lemon sweater and gray slacks, with his pug-nose lifted, and his mustache barely hiding the disdainful curl of his lip. He was the one who had dragged her back the first time, kicking and screaming, to the hospital. He was the one who had hit her and warned her that if she ran away again, there would be “Hell to pay.” Mr. Pardie worked for people who didn’t like it when the money dried up. No patient equals no money.

After that first time, Pip had been returned to the institution to find a pile of letters on her bedside table from her mother, her sister and her friend. The staff had let them believe she was there the whole time. Pip hated everyone at Malum, but not nearly as much as she hated her mother, her sister and her friend for never even realizing that she’d disappeared.

Mr. Pardie moved on down the alley.

“Getting fired was bad, but this is worse,” said Despair.

Pip started to climb out of her window well.

“Don’t go out there!” cried Death.

Pip whispered, “I have to see where he goes and who he talks to.”

Delirium hovered in front of Pip’s face, hands gesturing wildly. “Don’t be crazy!”

The pixies’ wings began to buzz. They took handfuls of her hair and tugged. “Stop it!” she said. Once her upper torso was outside, they pinched her butt and thighs, “Ow!” But, Pip kept going. She put on her shoes and sneaked into the alley.

Mr. Pardie had already reached the end of the alley and was about to turn the corner.

Pip was careful. She kept to the shadows and hidden doorways.

An unexpected sound came from behind her, and Pip froze in place. It was a growl, a deep-throated animal sound, low and barely audible. It made all the pixies dive into her pockets and under her hair.

“No,” she whispered. “Not now.”

When no other sound came, she slowly turned her head to peek behind herself. She saw nothing, but that didn’t ease her mind. She could feel the black dog watching her.

Looking around the alley, more afraid than she’d ever been, Pip watched the old woman go into her building. The door slammed with a hollow, metal grind.

Pip wanted to be back in her nest with nothing more complicated than pixies to trouble her. She wanted for this convergence of events to have happened without her, or better yet, to have not happened at all.

“Pip?” said Dream. “It’s definitely the black dog. You should run now.”

“Shut the fuck up. It’ll hear you.” Pip knew she should run. She wanted to run. She took a step in the direction of running, but she couldn’t go that way. Mr. Pardie was there.

Pip started to shake.

Another growl rumbled, closer this time, definite.

Pip looked back toward the other end of the alley. She saw the beast’s red eyes.

The black dog was bigger than a normal canine, larger even than a wolf, and meaner. It had bristles that stood up in a ridge along its back and copious drool that ran in strings from its maw.

It had been tracking Pip for weeks, perhaps months. Before, she had always outrun it or hidden from it. As time passed, however, it was growing bolder, and it was closing in. When it finally caught her—Pip knew—it would tear her flesh and rend her soul. She knew other things about the black dog, but no other knowledge buzzed as urgently in her gut as that one tidbit did.

Mr. Pardie had paused to talk to the guy with the guitar.

Pip made herself as small as possible.

“Have you seen this girl?” asked Mr. Pardie, holding up a picture.

Pip knew which photo he’d be showing around. It had been taken on her first day in the institution. She’d be dressed in bleached blue scrubs, with her hair combed flat to her head and pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes would be deadened by drugs.

The guy studied it. “I’m not sure. Is she a runaway?”

“She’s crazy is what she is.” That was Mr. Pardie’s spontaneous response. The rest sounded memorized. “She ran away from a mental health facility. She’s a danger to herself and others.”

“Are you her father?”

“Hell no,” Mr. Pardie said with disgust in his voice. “He’s dead. I work for the hospital.” He shifted uneasily and looked back down the alley. “So, have you seen… her or not?”

Pip ducked in tighter against the building. “Say no, say no, say no,” she whispered.

The guy took a deep breath and said, “I never seen that girl.”

“Well, why didn’t you just say so?” Mr. Pardie headed off down the street toward the tiny market on the corner.

Pip’s imagination went into overdrive, skimming rock-thoughts across her watery mind. Everything was falling apart—first Bradley and now this. It was only a matter of time before Mr. Pardie found her. She had maybe an hour, maybe a day. She’d have to vacate her perfect little nest. She’d have to go back to begging. She’d have to….

The black dog growled immediately behind Pip.

The pixies all vacated the area simultaneously, flying out of their hiding places with shrieks and streaking up into the air.

Black Dog or Mr. Pardie? Pip had less than a second to decide which battle she’d rather risk losing. A heartbeat later, she spun on the beast and stuck her finger in its face.

“Listen, fucker, get away from me. I’m not your dinner. As a matter of fact, you’re in my imagination. I’m off my meds, and that makes me crazy! And crazy… makes me dangerous!” She paused to pant.

The black dog’s ruff rippled. Its eyes flashed red-hot.

Pip stared the dog right in the eyes. Then, she waved her arms over her head and shouted, “Get the fuck out of here! Go on! Fuck off!”

The dog didn’t flee, but it didn’t attack either. It sat back on its haunches, drooling, and looked at Pip as if it wanted to see what she would do next.

A man behind Pip cleared his throat. The black dog spun abruptly and loped off down the alley.

Pip turned to face the guy with the guitar.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Pip’s troubles threatened to overwhelm her into tears. She crossed her arms and dropped her chin to her chest.

The guy said, “You’ve got a stronger set of lungs than I’d have guessed, but I don’t think this is a good time to be drawing attention to yourself.” He held up a sandwich. “You hungry?”

Pip nodded. As bad as things were, she was hungry.

The guy handed Pip the sandwich, then picked up his guitar case and chair. He stepped into the alley and found a spot to sit behind a rusted water heater, out of sight from the street. “We can eat here,” he said.

Pip sat down on a crate beside him, already opening the zip-lock baggie.

“Folks call me Jackass,” said the guy.

“What folks?”

“Most folks.”

“How come?”

“Because I am one.”

“Oh.”

“You can call me Jack, for short.”

The pixies returned cautiously.

Pip asked, “How come you didn’t tell him about me?”

Jack replied, “I didn’t like his mustache.”

Pip almost laughed. Instead, she said, “Thanks.”

“Let’s just say you owe me one.”

They ate in silence. Pip also chewed on her fears, her thoughts, and the thick, sticky silence in the spot where she should have had a plan. Thus, it surprised her when Jack poked her arm and said, “You listening to me?”

“What?” said Pip. She’d eaten all but the last bite of her sandwich without realizing it. She popped the remainder in her mouth. The pixies crawled upon her lap and shirt-front, scavenging crumbs.

Jack said, “I’ve got a house. I think you should come live with me.”

Pip’s eyes rounded, and she spoke with her mouth full. “What?”

“You’ll be safe there. You’ll like it.”

Pip smacked her tongue in the peanut butter on the roof of her mouth and swallowed. Her head was spinning. The offer sounded like a life preserver tossed into the choppy waters of her life—a life preserver that was very likely filled with sawdust and biting fleas.

“How much?”

“Nothing. You can live there for free.”

“What’s the catch?” she asked.

“No catch. I got an extra bedroom.”

Pip’s brow furrowed. “Just like that, you want me to come live with you? Just like that?”

“Sure, why not?”

“You don’t know me.”

“I know enough. I know Bradley trusted you, and I know you just lost your job.”

“You know Bradley?” This guy was starting to unnerve Pip.

“Sorta. I only met him recently. I know someone who needed someone like him to take care of their computers. I arranged a mutually beneficial partnership for him.”

“You?” Pip had the impression she was caught in a cosmic current that had no explanation and no escape. “You got Bradley that job?”

“Yeah.”

Pip stood up abruptly, sending pixies tumbling. She took a couple steps back.

“You got me fired!”

“Yeah, so?”

“You fucker.”

Abruptly, Jack’s face went sharp and pointy all over, and he was standing in Pip’s personal space before she even realized he was coming. “Never call me that,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “Never ever call me that again.” His eyes had gone as dark as a city black-out.

Pip stumbled backwards, then turned and ran—her feet responding to instinct while her mind struggled to catch up. She didn’t stop for several blocks. By the time she gathered enough courage to go back, Jack was gone.

That night, Pip spread extra blankets over herself. Despite them, she lay shivering. The printing presses had gone silent, and the lights in the basement had gone out. The pixies were burrowing under the covers, next to Pip’s body, under her chin and hair, in her armpit and the cleft between her breasts.

“No,” said Pip. “I don’t like him. There’s something not right about him.”

“There’s something not right about you,” said Dream.

“Well, there’s good ‘not right’ and there’s bad ‘not right.’ He’s bad ‘not right.’ And I want nothing to do with him.”

Desire snuggled closer and murmured, “Bradley was a stranger, and you let him hire you.”

“That was different. He was good ‘not right.’”

“We’ll starve,” said Despair.

Pip yawned. “We won’t starve. I’ll go back to begging. It’s not so bad.”

Everyone settled down and was quiet. The shivers had subsided and a warm glow was spreading inside the sleeping bag. Pip closed her eyes and soon was well on her way to sleep.

Death stretched upon Pip’s palm, then curled up into a spiral, her chameleon tail nestled between her arms and legs. She gave Pip’s skin a licking kiss and said, “You hate begging.”

The advent of morning brought no good news. It had snowed during the night, and a cruel wind was tossing hats, crawling up sleeves and burning earlobes. Pip was wearing all of her clothes, every last item. The three pairs of socks made her shoes feel tight, but the alternative was worse.

“Lady Winter, Lady Winter.” The pixies were singing a song they’d made up on the fly, in harmony, with a chorus of, “I hate that bitch. She’s a mean ol’ witch. I wish Lady Winter would curl up and fucking die!”

Pip left her window well and trudged down the alley to the street. Pedestrians rushed along eschewing conversation and eye contact. There was no sign of Jack, the black dog or Mr. Pardie. Pip left the shadows behind and made her way down the street to the corner store.

“Good morning, girlie,” said the store owner, his Chinese eyes bright and cheerful.

“Good morning.” Pip headed for the canned food aisle.

“You browse,” the store owner called after her. “You browse. I make a phone call.”

Pip waved back at him. “Okay.” She picked up a can of peas, a whole loaf of bread and a package of cheese slices. She paid with one of the twenties Bradley had given her, wished the store owner a good day, then headed home again.

A pair of men in coveralls stood on the front steps of her building, smoking cigarettes.

Pip stopped at the bottom of the stairs and called to them, “Any idea when the power will be back on?”

One of the men hocked a loogie and spat it into the bushes. The other said, “Ain’t coming back on. Building’s been sold. They’re tearing it down to make condos.”

Pip nodded slowly, the information sifting gradually. “Condos,” she said.

“Condos,” the man replied.

“Pip, Pip, Pip,” cried Dream, tugging on Pip’s earlobe.

Pip turned her head toward him, and it drew her line of sight back up the sidewalk toward the grocery store. Mr. Pardie was there. He had seen her. Beyond him, the store owner stood at the corner and watched, arms crossed.

“Fuck,” said Pip. “Could this day get any worse?” She took off running and slammed hard into a large, solid body.

Pip sucked in a lungful of the body’s scent. It took half a second for the smell of him to register. She knew that smell. It was the smell of the hospital.

The man took hold of Pip’s upper arms and lifted her off the ground. He looked at her out of a swollen face and pinched eyes. “Penelope Chesterfield, I presume,” he said.

Rejecting him with everything she could muster, punches and kicks, groceries flying, pixies screeching, Pip squirmed and fought.

“Stop it, Penelope,” said the man fiercely. “You’re going to make me hurt you.”

Pip tried to bite, but she couldn’t reach any exposed skin.

“Hold her,” shouted Mr. Pardie from half-way down the block. “Don’t let her get away!”

Then, abruptly, the man cried out, and his grip on Pip went limp. He let go and put a hand to his neck. Blood leaked from under his fingers.

Pip landed on her feet but stumbled a few steps. She stared wide-eyed at the man. He looked at his blood-covered palm, then at Pip. Blood spurted from a small, well-placed hole in his neck.

Destiny hovered nearby, grinning, her teeth stained with blood.

“Come on!” shouted Delirium, and the other pixies took up the chorus. “Come on! Move! Let’s go! Run!”

Pip’s first step flattened her own loaf of bread, and she ran into the alley.

Chaos bloomed behind her. Someone said, “Call 9-1-1.”

Desire cried, “They’re coming!”

Pip risked a look over her shoulder and saw that Mr. Pardie was talking to some men in a car. One of them was emerging from the back seat, eyes on her. She kept running. After a moment, she heard his footsteps gathering speed and force behind her.

“They’re sending the car around the block!” said Dream.

Strategies wove through Pip’s mind. If she could get across the next street before the car made it around, she’d be able to outrun them. She leaned forward and pumped her arms. Her breath was loud and sharp.

When she finally reached the end of the alley, she paused to look left. The hospital car was screeching around the corner and heading her way. She looked right, and there was Jack. He was getting out of a van on the curb.

“Jack!” she cried. “Help!”

Jack turned and looked in her direction, brow furrowed, eyes dark as midnight.

“Help!” Pip ran toward him. She looked back and saw the faces in the car, determined and rock-hard. She saw the running man come sliding out of the alley. He glanced around and spotted her.

Without another moment’s hesitation, Jack pulled open the van’s side door. He got into the driver’s seat. He said nothing, just started the vehicle and backed up a bit, readying to pull out.

Pip dove into the back on her belly. “Go! Go!”

Jack pulled away from the curb. “Shut the door,” he shouted over his shoulder.

The running man caught up to the open door and reached for it. His hand grasped inside the doorframe.

The pixies bit and clawed at his fingers.

The man howled and stumbled away.

Pip got up and pulled the door shut. She locked it, then just sat there on the floor, panting.

“Put on your seatbelt,” said Jack. He took an abrupt right that sent Pip sprawling again.

It wasn’t until she was putting on her seatbelt that she noticed the pixies had gone particularly quiet. They were huddled against her, trembling, staring into the far back of the van.

Pip looked.

A pair of glowing red eyes stared at her from the darkness. It was there, right there. The beast barely fit, its head brushing the roof, ears flattened. It bared its teeth.

Pip looked forward and saw Jack watching her in the rearview mirror. His eyes gleamed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going to take you to my place. They’ll never find you there.” He pulled onto the highway.

Traffic and scenery slid by with increasing speed. Pip could smell the black dog’s breath. She saw Jack look at her again and again in the rearview. She pretended not to look back. They drove in silence. Eventually, Jack turned off the highway and cut a winding path through a residential neighborhood.

“That’s the one, there,” said Jack, pointing at an old brick house. “Home sweet home. I’m going to pull around to the back, where I can park.” He stopped at an intersection.

The moment he stopped, Pip undid her seatbelt, unlocked the door and tugged it open.

Jack’s eyes reappeared in the rear-view mirror. “We’re not there yet. Relax.”

An instant later, she was out the door and running.

“Hey!” Jack called after her. “Wait!”

Pip glanced over her shoulder and saw that he’d gotten out of the van, but wasn’t pursuing her. He closed the side door with a slam. She ran only far enough to get out of sight, then paused to look back.

The van was turning the corner, continuing on its way. She put her back to a wall and slid down it. The pixies slowly emerged from their hiding places in her clothes. Everyone sat together in silent contemplation.

A cold wind blew down the street and stuck chilly fingers into the neck of Pip’s shirt. She tugged her collar tighter and slowly stood. Leaning against the wall, she tucked her hands inside her sleeves.

“We can’t go home,” she said. “Mr. Pardie will be watching the alley. We’ll have to just disappear, go somewhere else and start over again. It won’t be so bad.” She wiped away the one tear that escaped. “We did it once. We can do it again.” Her nose was running. She wiped it on her sleeve.

“Can we go somewhere warm this time?” asked Desire.

Dream crawled up under her sweater and poked around, tickling. He dove into first one pocket, then the other. “Pip!”

“What’s the matter?”

“Where’s Delirium?” The tiny, chameleon-tailed pixie fluttered up and hovered nose-to-nose with Pip. “She’s not here.”

“Not here? What do you mean she’s not here. She’s got to be here.” Pip rifled her own clothing, while the other pixies called and chattered.

“Delirium!” “She was there with us!” “I saw her under the bench.” “She didn’t get out.” “Maybe she’s playing a joke?” “The black dog ate her!” “Delirium!”

“Quiet!” Pip shouted. She took a deep breath. “We’ll find her. Don’t worry.” She put her face in her hands then peered out through her fingers. “Okay,” she said. “We know she was in the van, right?” A chorus of nods confirmed it. “Then maybe that’s where she still is. We’ll go after her.”

Finding Jack’s van wasn’t difficult. It was parked along the access road behind the building he had pointed out as they’d driven past. It was dead and dark. They tapped and called, but nothing moved.

“She’s not here,” said Death.

“I’m hungry,” said Desire.

Pip wrapped her arms up over her head and turned in place. “Everything’s gone to Hell, just like Mr. Pardie promised. This is all my fault. I should have gone back. I should have let them take me. At least then, we’d all still be together, warm and fed.” Her tears flowed then, without restraint. The pixies hovered around her, petting her and cooing.

“Pip!” called Dream. “Pip! Come look!” He had knelt on a windowsill and was looking into the building. He beckoned with a wave of his arm.

Pip wiped her eyes with her hands, then wiped her hands on her pants. “I’m coming,” she said. She crossed to the window.

A crack between the curtains revealed a dimly lit living room.

“Can you feel it?” asked Dream.

The very air pushed back on Pip as she tried to get closer to the window. It thickened in front of her and crackled with menace. “Stay back, you guys,” Pip said. She felt the magic as clearly as she felt the cold. It put a shiver in her spine and a strange taste in her mouth. “Stay back.”

Something moved beyond the window. Pip caught a glimpse, and then it was gone. “It’s Delirium,” she said. “She’s in there.”

She looked around and found a chunk of cement block holding down a garbage can lid. It was heavy and sharp, and it would go through the glass. Pip wasn’t so sure it would go through the magic.

“When I break this window,” she said, “don’t go inside. There’s something in there. I’ll go in and get Delirium. You wait out here.” The pixies all nodded. “I mean it. Promise.” The pixies all promised.

“I’m coming, Delirium.” Pip threw the chunk of cement as hard as she could. The magic broke with the sound of splintering wood before the cement had even reached it. And then, the window shattered as the chunk crashed through it.

No one moved for a moment. Then, when nothing else happened, Pip reached in and unlocked the window. She lifted it open and hefted herself onto the sill. The torn magic clung to her. She felt it wrapping tendrils around her limbs, scratching her, making her movements sluggish. They attempted to hold her in place, but she pushed on through and fell to the floor inside. She lifted her head and looked around.

Jack stood there, watching her, with the black dog just behind him. “You could have knocked,” he said, eyes hard and dark, brows lowered so far they nearly met in the middle. The black dog growled.

“You stay away from me,” Pip told him. “I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but I’m not afraid of you.” She got to her feet. “I left something in your van.”

It started as one whisper, then another. Pip saw a head peek around the doorframe, then another pop up over the back of the couch. More whispers followed.

“It’s okay,” said Jack. “You can come out. She’s not dangerous.”

The commotion began. A menagerie of kids swarmed out of their hiding places. They were more than a handful, and most unrelated by blood, as far as Pip could tell. The older ones stood alert and curious. The younger ones twittered and whispered. They all kept their distance, watching her. Their faces created a collage of shapes and shades. Their eyes, some bright and smiling, some shy or reserved, were all turned on Pip.

“Folks!” said Jack. “This is Pipsqueak. She’s going to be staying with us for awhile.”

Pip glared at Jack, “You can’t keep me here.”

The pixies came flying in through the open window. They gathered around Pip, some hovering, some clinging. “Did you find her?” they asked.

Pip gritted her teeth. “Not yet.”

A renewed chorus of whispers went up among the children.

The black dog lolled a pink tongue out in front. A corn-syrup stream of drool dropped onto the floor.

“I just came to get what I left in your van, and then I’m leaving,” Pip said.

A small, fair-haired girl with sun-kissed skin and violet eyes, the tiniest of the lot, stepped right up to Pip. She said, “I’ve got winglings too!”

Pip stared. “Winglings?”

An older boy with serious brown eyes and a mop of black hair said, “Winglings are from the other side.” He lifted his hand, palm up. Delirium was sitting on it. “She said you call her Delirium. When a wingling allows you to name her, it means she loves you. If she didn’t love you, she’d have killed you.”

“Killed me?”

“Oh yes,” said the boy. “They chew through to your jugular in less than a second, and then they sit back and watch you bleed to death.”

Pip blinked. She looked around at all the children, at the pixies intermingled on shoulders and in hair. The older boy had Delirium lying back on his palm and was rubbing the pixie’s belly.

Jack said, “Welcome home, Pipsqueak. Are you hungry?”

Pip didn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” she said, and it was the truth, in more ways than one.

* With a respectful nod to DC Comics’ The Sandman and Neil Gaiman.

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