Verse 15: I ONLY WANT TO BE WITH YOU
Lex awoke to the sound of a pair of seagulls having a raucous argument right outside Zoot's bedroom window, yet did not consider going back to sleep. Some people have built-in snooze settings, but Lex was not like that. Once awake, he stayed that way. Zoot slept on, her brown body lay half under half atop the bedclothes, tantalizingly arrayed. Lex briefly entertained the idea of waking her for a return engagement, but he did not know how much sleep the natives of this world required. Gloria had been so sleep-deprived yesterday that she had taken two naps, after all.
Strange. Here he was, naked, sharing a bed with a fetching and passionate woman with whom he'd enjoyed a night worthy of song, yet his thoughts strayed to another. This was not like him at all. Lex Machallo was no one-woman man, but normally he at least thought of women one at a time. Yet here he lay, watching Zoot slumber and thinking of Gloria. Had it been Gloria beside him, would he picture Zoot instead?
The question preyed on him as he slipped away to answer another imperative. That attended to, he wandered into the other chamber to retrieve his purse. The room possessed but a single floor-to-ceiling window and he pulled the curtain cord to get a look at the world outside. It was well past highsun. Motorized transports sped along the street, and a uniformed man carrying a pouch stared up at him. Lex waved, but the stranger did not return the greeting, just continued to gawk.
Lex's internal clock was at odds with the evidence of his eyes. On a hunch, he activated his spellengine, and checked the time setting. As he'd suspected, while Mystic baked under the afternoon sun, back in Yorvadan twilight's last gleaming was giving way to night. Less than a day had passed there since his arrival on Earth. Out of habit, he glanced at his Guild postings. The last message received sought a singer to entertain a party of Necromancers on a three-day jaunt to the Tydral Rim, and a name to contact if interested. Shuddering at the very notion, he checked the time stamp: 19:00.00, Lowday, 43rd of High Suns, 500.000,330. After that, all transmissions had ceased. Since postings went out at the top of each hour, 25 hours a day, 1000 days a year, he deduced that his Great Adventure had begun sometime between 19:00 and 20:00 the previous day.
Had anyone missed him yet? Highly doubtful. His next engagement lay two more days in the future. Not until he failed to show would anyone take notice.
"Lex?" Zoot stood in the hallway, rubbing her eyes. She had donned a light purple robe, whose belt trailed on the floor behind her. She smiled at him with incongruous but beguiling shyness, then noticed the open curtain. Dashing over, she yanked them shut. "No need to give the neighbors a free show," she giggled. "I thought you'd left." She sounded relieved that he had not.
"How could I?" he asked. "What does the rest of the world offer that can compare to you?"
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Zoot purred and gave him a tender hug. "What time is it?"
Not knowing the local answer, Lex replied as best he could. "Past midday." She looked at a clock in the shape of a grinning cat.
"It's quarter to two," she announced. "Plenty of time."
"For what, pray tell?"
She nuzzled his bare chest. "For plenty of things," she replied. "I'm sure we can fill the hours before I have to be at work. Do you have any plans?"
"Quite a few, and you are dressed perfectly for them."
She pursed her lips against his ribs and blew, making a sound like a drunken trumpet. "Getting a mite presumptuous are we?" She reached down and cupped him, giving a gentle squeeze. He returned her affectionate embrace, bent his face towards her, but she turned away.
"No kissing!" she decreed. "Not 'til I brush my teeth. My breath would gag a raccoon."
"Your breath is as sweet as mountain clover," he assured her, lying through his teeth.
"You, Sir Lex, are so full of it that it's a wonder your eyes are still that unearthly shade of blue." She gazed up at them for several seconds, considering, then stood on tiptoe and kissed his chin. "Now be a true gentleman and let me go." He did so, and she walked languidly towards the door. "How are you at making coffee?" she asked without looking back.
"Wholly unsuited to the task," he confessed. Coffee again! He marveled. Will wonders never cease?
"Tsk. Typical useless male." She looked over her shoulder and gave him a long, appraising look. "Well, maybe not entirely useless." She waggled a finger at him and entered the kitchen.
Lex used the time alone to offer his morning prayers with Zoot opening cabinets and running water in the background. Once finished, he got off his knees, looked for his purse, and saw Zoot standing there, holding it. "Heavy," she commented. "What's in it?"
"Most of my worldly possessions," he answered truthfully. "May I have it, please?"
She looked at it dubiously, but brought it to him. Reaching in, he took out a vial of querbo leaves, popped one in his mouth and chewed. He noticed a box unnecessarily labeled kleenex, with a tissue already protruding from the top. He took one and disposed of the leaf's remains.
"What is that?" Zoot asked.
"Freshens the breath," he explained.
"How holistic! Can I try one?" He handed her the vial. She took one bright orange leaf and placed it gingerly on her pink tongue, then made a face. "Bihher," she commented, her tongue still sticking out. But she gamely chewed it, and took her own tissue when she was done.
"These things really work?" she asked.
"Judge for yourself," he answered, pulling her sharply towards him. They both fell into the love seat and she was once more nestled in his lap. He kissed her.
"Wow!" she exclaimed. "Watch out, Listerine!"
He tried to kiss her again, but she squirmed free and stood up. "None of that, you ruffian. Coffee's almost ready, and I absolutely have to eat something. You like pancakes?" He nodded. "Then pancakes it shall be." She looked around the apartment. "I think we've both earned breakfast in bed." He started to get up, but she motioned him to stay. "No naked men allowed in my kitchen while I'm working. You stay there and look pretty. I won't be long."
Zoot was good as her word. After a while, she announced that all was in readiness. "I'll meet you in the bedroom," she called. Lex went there, sat with his back against the headboard and awaited her arrival. She came in bearing a tray with legs, which she set down over his lap. On it were pancakes with melted butter, coffee, strawberries, juice, a jug of syrup, and a metal canister that said Red-I-Wipt.
"Ta-daa!" said Zoot as she sat beside him cross-legged with her robe appetizingly open. She poured some syrup over one stack and turned the jug over to him so he could do the same. "Dig in," she said, then waited for his reaction.
He took a bite, chewed thoughtfully and declared, "These are, indeed, most worthy pancakes."
Zoot grinned and took a bite of her own. For a while, they devoted themselves to the repast without further conversation. Zoot poured some cream into her coffee, but Lex declined her offer to do the same for him. He sipped from his steaming cup. It was not as fine as what Gloria had served him, but it still gave him tingles. Finishing her pancakes first, Zoot set her plate aside. She took the canister, shook it briskly and turned it upside down over the berries and pressed the nozzle. Whipped cream came out!
"Do that again," he urged.
"Your wish, my command." She repeated the action, completely burying the berries in a fluffy white mound. Then her brown fingers dug through the topping, picked one up, and offered it to him. He leaned forward and took it with his teeth. Zoot left her hand out, and once he'd finished the fruit he took each of her fingers in turn and sucked them clean. Then he returned the favor, as did she. They repeated the ritual several times, and the tray in Lex's lap began to rise and tilt. Zoot looked at it do so, and smiled knowingly.
"Someone else is hungry," she observed. "Let's have a look at him, shall we?" She moved the tray to the adjacent nightstand and admired what lay beneath. "I know just what he wants," she said. She grabbed the canister, licked her lips dramatically, and applied a large dollop to the tip. Then she opened her mouth and took everything inside.
Afterwards, she lay beside him, nestled in the crook of his arm. "So what's your story?" she asked.
Lex stroked her springy hair, tracing the stripes. "Not much to tell. I am but a wandering minstrel."
"A thing of shreds and patches?" she asked, with a musical lilt to the question.
He feigned offense. "I should hope not. I am very conscious of my appearance."
"And it shows. You work out? You know, pump iron?" Lex shook his head, since neither term made sense to him. "Just naturally strong and virile, huh? You are so lucky. I go to the gym three times a week just to keep myself at fighting trim. If it's not too personal, how did you hurt your arm?" She pointed at his spellengine.
He laughed. "That is not a poultice. It is my… computer." The term was inexact, but he thought Gloria would frown on him giving Zoot its true name.
"Yeah, right," she scoffed. "And I suppose that piece of jewelry you use to hold your hair back is a cell phone?"
Lex knew about those. Almost every patron in the tavern had one. "That would be silly. How could I talk out of the back of my head?"
"Good point," she conceded. "You travel all over, huh? Ever been to Miami?"
"Many times," he lied, hoping she wouldn't notice the faint distortion his prevarication caused in air around his lips as his magic tried, without success, to make the words reality.
"Just last month." The distortion grew a little, making his voice sound slightly tinny.
"It is quite lovely in the autumn." Thankfully,
his lack of knowledge on that point didn't cause any further growth.
"No, but I have always wanted to go there. What about you?" he asked, desperate to derail this train of conversation before his lies reached critical mass and gave him away. "Have you traveled much?"
"Hell, no. I'm a stay-at-home kind of girl."
"You were born in Mystic?"
She shook her head. "Gary, Indiana. You ever been there? Well, I'll save you the trip. Nothing there but crackhouses and funeral homes. Not much work for a music man, at least not anymore. Not much work for anyone 'cept, the Disciples. They keep busy."
"Disciples of which religious order?"
Zoot laughed with no humor whatsoever. "Hardly. The Gangster Disciples are a big street gang. They handle the drug traffic in half the city, and believe me, that is a growth industry. Spent most of my teenage years running with them; well, not so much running as lying down under them." She frowned at the memory. "One day, I was in this rathole near Concord Park, channel surfing, and I found Holy Grail. I laughed so hard I forgot where I was for a while. Then I realized how long it had been since I'd laughed at all. That night, while my banger du jour was passed out, I took $280 from his pants, went down to the depot with just the clothes on my back and got the first Greyhound outta there. I wound up in Cleveland. Took a look around, decided that wasn't much of an improvement and started hitchhiking. Every place I went, I got out, looked around, and decided 'Uh-uh,' and caught another ride. After a week, a couple-a college boys dropped me off in Mystic. I got out, looked around, and it just felt right, you know? It felt like I had arrived somewhere that wasn't just another place to rinse out my panties in a gas station bathroom. I walked around until I saw a Help Wanted sign, and that's when I met Bert. I've been here ever since and I could not be happier. Then again…"
She took the canister again, shook some more, and squirted lines on her body that began at her nipples and proceed downward. She set the can aside, lay back with arms and legs spread and announced that dessert was served.
Much, much later, the two of them left Castle Anthrax and headed back towards Gilda's. All the way, Zoot kept up a running commentary, making up stories about the people they passed. She was criticizing the fashion sense of a woman emerging from the Top-to-Toe Salon when a loud squeal followed by a wet crunching noise caught their attention.
"What the hell was that?" she asked. "Ohmigod, I think it's an accident right in front of Gilda's. C'mon."
She dashed in that direction with Lex easily keeping pace. What they found was an animal roughly the size of a badger, lying crushed and bleeding on the roadway where it had been struck by a small white car that now had two ruined tires and was leaking some kind of greenish fluid. The driver opened her door, went to look at what she'd hit and paled.
"What is that thing?" someone in the gathering crowd asked. "A dog?"
"Not unless they started making dogs with six legs," a man pointed out. "I've never seen anything like that before in my life."
Lex had, however. He eased away from Zoot and the crowd and casually moved towards the parking area. The creature was unmistakably a gxzyon. With finger length claws, a back covered in spiky fur capable of piercing hardened leather, and a wide mouth-containing row upon row of razor sharp teeth capable of gnawing through brick and even stone walls, they were one of the worst pests Kal had to offer. Willing to eat just about anything slow enough to be caught, including each other, they were so imbecilically fearless that they had been known to attack anything in their path, up to and including a Plasma Dragon. And then there was the musk…
The presence of a gxzyon in itself meant little; after all, both worlds had many things in common; ferrets and beef and strawberries to name but three. But the bystander's comment could mean only one of two things: either this man knew shit of his world's lifeforms or the portal had reopened.
Moving around to the side of the tavern, Lex soon confirmed this hypothesis. The swirling circle had indeed returned to its place behind the building. Lex felt relief wash over him. There might be a way back after all! He ran towards it, but before he could get close, it vanished. He slowed to a walk, then just stood there, hands at his sides, hopes deflated. He was still there when Zoot came up from behind and tugged at his sleeve.
"You look like you just missed winning the lottery by one number," she said.
The concern on her face touched him, and he shook off his disappointment. After all, what came twice might come again. There was hope still, and he chose to latch onto it. "I am fine, Zoot," he began, then, in an effort to provide a reason why he standing in an alleyway looking like seven kinds of idiot, he said the first thing that came to mind. "That poor gxzyon."
"That is what we call those creatures where I come from. What do you call them?"
Zoot looked out to the still milling crowd of gawkers. "Street pizza." She took his hand. "Let's get you inside. Maybe a little brandy will settle your stomach."
Inside, Gloria was berating a delivery man and did not notice their arrival until after the man had fled, metaphorical tail between his legs. Lex hailed her and she whirled about at the sound of his voice.
Her eyes lit up, but it was hard to tell what emotion illuminated them; it could been anything from joy to rage. "Where have you been?" she demanded angrily, clearing up that mystery. "I woke up this morning and guess what? No Lex. I checked the whole house, No Lex! I came to the bar, Nooo Lex! I came this close to calling Hospitals, LEX! But I was afraid they'd tell me 'no Lex' there either. Do you know how worried I've been? Do you know what has been going through my mind all day?"
Actually, he had a fairly good idea. She had been, he sensed, on the shady side of full-blown panic. He was about to offer an explanation when her eyes shifted to Zoot, standing beside him, still holding his hand.
"You slept with Zoot!" There was no mistaking the accusation.
"Well, y-yes," he stammered, wondering what rule he had unwittingly transgressed thereby. "Eventually," he added. "Then we had pancakes."
"Hey, standing here," Zoot interjected.
"You had sex with Zoot!" Gloria amended, expanding on the theme in more concise terms.
"Still standing here!" Zoot repeated, her anger rising to match Gloria's.
"It was quite pleasurable," Lex offered, hoping this information might ease the tension. It failed beyond his wildest dreams.
"What?!" Gloria yelled. Lex became aware that all sound in the bar, save the thump thump thump of the jukebox, had died away. He wasn't sure if Gloria realized that she had become the sole focus of attention, but if not she was the only one. "All right then – on a scale of one to ten – how 'pleasurable' was it?"
Zoot released Lex's hand and walked over to her employer. "Gloria, dear, can I see you in your office?" Zoot's voice was quiet but rigid as a girder. Gloria paid no heed, but continued to glower in Lex's direction. "Now!" added Zoot, grabbing Gloria by the earlobe and exerting pressure with her thumbnail.
"Ow! Ow!" Gloria yelped. "Leggo!"
"In a minute," Zoot said. "Come with me." She dragged the taller woman towards the backroom. "Lex, why don't you go to the kitchen and bother Tully?" she suggested as they went.
Soon a door slammed, and the babble of voices resumed. Lex, still dumbfounded by the unaccountable ferocity of the red-head's illogical reaction, decided the kitchen was exactly where he needed to be at that precise point in time. He found Tully covering maize chips with melted cheese. "Hey, sport," he said as Lex entered. "How's it hanging?"
Lex interpreted this as a colloquial request for an update as to his health and mood. "I am unsure. I had some encouraging news to share with Gloria, but she does not seem receptive at the moment."
"Seems like," Tully agreed as he set the dish aside and rang for pick-up. "So," Tully continued, "you and Zoot, huh?"
"Lex, they heard that all the way to Hyannisport!" Tully was clearly enjoying Lex's discomfiture. "Tell me: how was it? No, none of my business. Forget I asked."
Bridget came in, gave Lex a lewd wink, and took the gooey chips. After she had gone, Lex asked what that concoction was.
"Nachos," Tully responded. "They almost qualify as food and propriety be damned. A man in my position has to live vicariously. I have to know. How was it?
Lex told him. In detail.
"Damn," Tully shook his head in admiration. "That's even better than my fantasies. Thanks, Lex, you made my day. It's almost as good as I remember it."
"You are incapable?" Lex was horrified by the very idea. He could not imagine life without sexual pleasure. Next to singing, it was his favorite activity.
Tully shook his head. "Nothing works as God intended south of the border. You'd think that after all these years I'd be used to it, but I'm not and I hope I never am. I tell you true, given a choice between having my legs fixed or my tallywhacker, I'd pick the latter."
Lex's heart went out to the man. "May I ask you how you came to be so stricken?"
Tully pursed his lips and sighed. "There was a war, son. Place called Vietnam. The story's not that uncommon, but the short version's that there was a sniper and an ambush, and I caught a half dozen rounds in the back. One of them lodged in my spine, and I ended up paraplegic."
"They could not remove these rounds?"
"Oh, they got them out easy as pie, but the damage had been done. At first, I just wanted to curl up and die, but I went through rehab and physical therapy and counseling, and had a lotta help. It took time, but I got better. Not great, but better."
"But surely someone can fix your spine?"
Tully shrugged. "Maybe someday one of these research labs will come up with a miracle for folks like me. There's always hope, Lex, and I know guys who are much worse off than me so I can't complain. Well… I can, but I try not to. Just a waste of time."
Lex mulled that revelation over for quite a while, then decided to move the subject back to something far less depressing. Something occurred to him, a question he'd been saving for just this occasion. "One thing happened I never experienced before. Each time before we joined, Zoot sheathed my manhood in rubber. What was her motivation?"
Tully laughed so hard he started choking. After catching his breath, he said , "Zoot, smart girl that she is, was merely practicing safe sex."
"What is safe sex?" asked Lex, no wiser than before.
"You know – to prevent unwanted pregnancy and to protect against sexually transmitted diseases," Tully explained.
"I beg your pardon?" He had never heard of anything so mind-boggling, so incomprehensible before. He was not sure he wanted to hear more and was spared by the sound of a throat being cleared. Gloria stood at the kitchen entrance, looking shamefaced. Zoot stood behind her.
Gloria spoke. "Excuse me, Tully, but could I have Lex for a minute?"
"Sure, babe," he told her, then to Lex, "We can finish this up later."
"Indeed." Lex agreed. "I have other matters I wish to discuss with you." He followed Gloria out of the kitchen. As he passed Zoot she gave him a reassuring smile. Soon he was in Gloria's office, and she closed the door.
At first, she seemed unwilling to meet his eyes, but gathered her resolve and faced him. "I want to apologize for my outburst back there. It was uncalled-for and inexcusable and I am deeply, deeply sorry."
"There is no need –"
"Let me finish. I'm not your mother, and I'm not your…" she paused, then resumed. "Well, you're an adult and Zoot's an adult and how you spend your time is your own affair, I mean, business. I should be happy for both of you. All I can say is that I expected you to be home this morning and when I couldn't find you I let my imagination fly into overdrive. It made me go a little crazy. You may not know this about me, but I've been known to have a bit of a temper. Zoot helped me get through to a saner place. So I apologized to her, and now I'm apologizing to you."
"I did not mean to make you worry. Zoot wanted me to see a movie, and…"
"I don't need explanations." She took a deep breath. "So, there was something you wanted to tell me?"
Lex did not recall mentioning that to her, but perhaps it had slipped his mind in the uproar. Shrugging mentally, he explained about the gxzyon and the portal.
"You really think it will open again?" she asked. "That would be wonderful for you!" She thought of something. "But when?"
"I am unable to say for certain, but I think it may return in one day's time. I have not done the calculations, but I estimate it to be on a daily cycle."
"But you arrived here early in the morning. The, um, thingy came through just before five o'clock. How is that a daily cycle?"
"Not your day. My day."
"Ohhhhh." She considered that. "Your days are longer! You should really talk to Hannah about this stuff. She's great with math. You don't have any plans tonight, do you? I mean, you and Zoot aren't, uh, getting together are you?"
"We made no such plans," he said.
"Then why not come home with me now? I'm taking the night off, so we'll pick up dinner fixings on the way home, and you and Hannah can try to work out the whole time differential problem."
A few minutes later, Gloria and Lex were headed homeward on her motorcycle. As they pulled out onto Water Street, Lex noticed a familiar rusty white vehicle coming towards them. He pointed it out too Gloria, who nodded.
"Ignore him," she said, and sped right past. Neither noticed the tarpaulin covered item in the back. Lex did not give Buzz another thought. He was too full of other feelings to care about a lout of such low character. He was with Gloria, she had forgiven him, and in a day's time he might be heading back to his old life. And yet, the prospect of the last did not fill him with unalloyed joy. He wondered why that was.