A Yearning So Vivid
“How long have you been the Poe Toaster guy?” Jade asked, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car.
“Since 1949—the hundred-year anniversary of his death,” Zachary replied from the passenger seat. “Mr. Jerome didn’t meet me until 1998 when I let him catch me leaving a note saying the torch had been passed. I pretended I was new to the game. I could tell he began to feel a deeper connection to Poe after having to explain the tradition to me. So began our friendship.”
“You know, you try to wear this façade of evil… but I can see through it.”
“Do you?” Zachary challenged, raising one eyebrow. “Or do you just see what I want you to see? You think because I have friends, that I couldn’t possibly be evil. Is that your reasoning? There are varying definitions of evil and I have no idea whether I conform to any of them in particular. But I do know this—I put myself before everyone else, I desire more than I deserve, and I don’t care who I have to step on to get what I want. That doesn’t mean I can’t love.”
“But love is not selfish… or condescending, for that matter.”
“Did I forget to tell you? I don’t subscribe to the Bible’s definition of anything. I see things how I see fit to and I answer to no one. If you want to stay with me, you’d be much better off if you realize that from the beginning. Now… are you ready?”
“Yes,” Jade sighed.
“Do you have the notes?”
“Let’s go to the cemetery.”
Jade had parked her black Honda Civic two blocks south of the cemetery, on Pratte. She put on a gray toboggan, wrapped a red scarf around her neck. She waited until getting out of the car to zip up her thick, leather jacket, careful not to snag the fabric of the scarf.
“Are you going to… where’d you go?”
“Right here,” Zachary whispered, nothing but a blurry, black shape on the ground next to her. “Let’s get to where you can get a good look at the crowd.”
“It’s freaking freezing out here,” she said, hugging herself. “Why don’t you just put the notes in their pockets? Why do I have to do it?”
“Because when I’m just a shadow, I’m usually a bit nearsighted and clumsy. It might be difficult getting them into their pockets. They’re so spread out. This isn’t going to be easy. Okay, that group of three. Two men, one woman. The woman’s wearing an Oriole’s hat and earmuffs.”
“Four young men. One’s got extremely curly hair.”
“I see them.”
“Yes. There’s Jerome, standing by the west gate. Stay clear of him if you can. I’m going to try and bring them all together between those two walnut trees.”
“How are you going to do that?”
Jade saw Zachary’s shadow move across the pavement, over the curb and through the fence. As she walked toward the south gate, she saw Zachary’s form become solid, but not human.
A loud, throaty caw echoed through the cemetery. If anyone was talking before, they weren’t now. As all the onlookers searched the darkness for the embodiment of their hero, Jade made her way through the crowd, doing her best imitation of a pickpocket, though, planting messages rather than stealing wallets.
When Zachary was certain all the notes had been distributed, he took flight toward Poe’s gravesite. Before passing through the light from any of the streetlamps, he became the shadow again. Once he was at his destination, he was a solid human again and placed a wide-brimmed hat on his head. He held out his empty hands and in an instant, they were occupied by the three roses and the bottle of cognac that had been waiting in the car. He gently placed the items on the ledge at the bottom of the gravestone.
“One rose for you,” Zachary recited quietly. “One for your love. One for the love that was lost. And the cognac because you hate it so. Until next year, my old friend.” Hearing the crowd approaching, he walked toward the trees beyond the gravesite. As soon as he was able, he slipped behind one and once more became shadow. The man with the extremely curly hair looked around the tree he saw the Poe Toaster disappear behind and found nothing.
“That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Chris said.
“You didn’t believe me?” his friend, Cameron, asked.
“No,” Chris replied. “No, I didn’t.” He cupped his hands and blew into them, rubbed them together and put them in his jacket pockets. In his left pocket, he felt what he thought was a receipt, but he couldn’t remember what for. He pulled it out, looked at it and saw it was a handwritten note. “What the hell? Dude, come over here.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a message. Uh-oh. It says I’m supposed to read it silently and not share it with anyone. Sorry, dude.”
“What? I want…” Cameron reached in his pockets and pulled out the same note. “I got one, too. Greg… Baxter…”
Having read the note and followed the directions, the Orioles fan, her two friends and the goth girl were already in their cars and about to drive away.
Chris and Cameron’s friends had been speaking to Mr. Jerome. “I was expecting something else is all,” Mr. Jerome said, shrugging his shoulders. Curious, he followed the two to see what the commotion was about.
“Did you guys get this?” Cameron asked Greg and Baxter. “Look in your pockets.”
Both of them pulled out notes. Mr. Jerome snatched Greg’s from his fingers.
“Hey,” Chris exclaimed. “It says we’re not supposed to share it with anyone. If you didn’t—“
“Read silently and don’t share the contents of this message with anyone. The Poe Toaster has selected you to participate in the real tribute. Meet the Toaster at Der Waffle Haus at Lexington Market at midnight tonight. That double-crossing bastard…”
“I didn’t get one of those,” one of the other onlookers said, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.
“Neither did I. Don’t cry, my dear. Your tears will freeze to your cheeks,” Mr. Jerome said, hugging her shoulders.
As far as 24-hour diners were concerned, Der Waffle Haus was one of the better looking ones Zachary had eaten at. And he had eaten at more than his fair share. However, no amount of real oak crossbeams, high-back chairs or waitresses in authentic-looking fraulein outfits could hide the fact that Der Waffle Haus was just as greasy as any other spoon in the country. This greasy spoon, though, did not appear very popular after ten p.m. and that was a very good thing for them.
Zachary and Jade sat at the biggest table in the farthest corner of the diner. “How many do you think will show up?” Jade asked.
“All eight of them,” Zachary replied, his voice unwavering. “Everyone wants to know who the Poe Toaster is. I’ll need you
to stand between those tables that mark the entrance to this section. Just in case we get people who were not invited.”
“What about Mr. Jerome? If he saw the note, I’m sure he’s not happy.”
“I know. I was planning on it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to give him his own, special, Edgar Allan Poe tribute. Now, it’s 11:45. Take your position, if you would, please.”
The first person through the door was goth girl, Gidget Kwaitkowsky. Pink hair, Sonic the Hedgehog spikes pointing in every direction on her head; classic, black motorcycle jacket, exactly thirteen indie punk band pins adorning the lapels, a Misfits logo embroidered on the back; red, plaid miniskirt, solid black tights. Lifting the corner of her upper lip at the mere mention of Gwen Stefani, Gidget was what her peers called a Riot Grrrl.
“Are you the Poe Toaster?” Gidget asked Jade, raising her eyebrows.
“No.” Recognizing her instantly, Jade jerked her thumb toward Zachary. “Back table.”
Second was the Orioles fan, Morgan Andrews. An English Literature graduate student at the University of Maryland, she had studied Poe’s work for years. Though, she did not consider herself an expert, she was probably the most knowledgeable of the eight. She showed her invitation, took off her earmuffs and pulled her hair back into a ponytail, pulling it through the back of the baseball cap. Jade allowed her through.
Next were Morgan’s boyfriend, Jack Blevins, and his friend from Boston College, Jason Hooks. A few minutes later, the last four invitees, Curly Chris Gabriel, Greg Barber, Cameron Costantino and Baxter, came through the door. No one knew Baxter’s first name. Trailing them was Mr. Jerome.
“It’s not our fault,” Chris shouted. “He followed us.”
“Yeah, and he stole my note,” Greg exclaimed.
“Calm down,” Jade said, gesturing her hands for him to lower the volume of his voice. “It’s alright. Come on.”
They followed her to the back table where everyone else was already sitting and had a cup of coffee in their hands. Mr. Jerome pushed his way to the front, shaking the note he had taken from Greg.
“What is the meaning of this? The ‘real tribute?’”
“Mr. Jerome, do you remember the day you met me?”
“1998. When you succeeded the previous Toaster—presumably your father.”
“I did not succeed anyone. No torch was passed. It’s been me from day one.”
“Since 1949? Impossible! You’d be at least eighty.”
“I’m much older, in fact. It was me, in Philadelphia, 1844, who inspired Edgar to write The Raven.”
“I don’t understand,” Mr. Jerome said, trying to blink away the confusion.
“My name is Di Corvo. Do you know your Latin?”
“Corvus is Latin for ‘raven,’” Morgan noted.
“Thank you, Ms. Andrews,” Zachary replied, not taking his eyes off Mr. Jerome. “My name is Portuguese for—“
“The raven. Clever. But how can you—“
“Look so young? I was born in the eighth century.”
“A vampire,” Morgan whispered and then fainted, nearly falling face first into her coffee. Jack caught her and pulled her close to him, his mouth agape and silent. Greg and Chris said “No way” together. Gidget grinned and said, “Cool.” Cameron mumbled, “Holy crap.”
“I’m not a vampire,” Zachary replied, rolling his eyes. “Just immortal.”
“Prove it,” Baxter said.
“This should be interesting,” Mr. Jerome said as he crossed his arms. “I can’t wait to see this.”
“Prove it, huh? There’s always a doubter. Hm. I could do magic, but that wouldn’t prove how old I am—just that I can do magic.”
“You can do magic?” Baxter asked.
“Did I not mention that? Yes. I can do magic.” He held out his hand and ignited a ball of flame. Baxter tried to wave his hand through it but Zachary transferred it to his other hand. “I wouldn’t want you to burn yourself. I could rattle off fact after fact from the first twelve-hundred years of my life but all that would prove is that I know my history.
“I could conjure a sword…” A medieval-looking sword appeared in Zachary’s hand. “…give it to you,” he said as he handed it to Baxter. “And have you run it through my gut…” Zachary grabbed the blade and pulled it to his abdomen, pushing himself onto it. His face contorted with pain. He pulled out the sword, everyone’s face was frozen in shock. The metal glimmered and dripped crimson. Zachary ran his finger along the steel, collecting blood on the tip, and brought it to his lips, but stopped before touching them.
“Ha! I told you… I’m not a vampire.” He smirked, clapped his hands and the sword was gone. He stuck his hand underneath his shirt and poked a finger out the hole where the blade had gone through the fabric. Lifting his shirt up, he bared his stomach and showed there were no marks. “Still… all that proves is that I’m immortal. So… I guess you’ll just have to trust me.
“As for being… the famous… Edgar Allan Poe… raven… I can show you that.” A moment later, he was covered in black feathers and walking across the table. “I would caw, but we are inside a restaurant.” Once he was himself again, he looked at his new friends and asked, “Are we convinced yet or do we have to delay the proceedings still?”
Morgan, now fully conscious, raised her hand. “Convinced.”
“Me, too,” Chris said. Then Cameron, followed by Jack, Greg, Gidget, Jason, Baxter and, finally, Mr. Jerome.
“Now, then, I suppose you’re wondering why I brought you here…”
“I thought it was for the real tribute,” Chris said.
“It was a ruse, you dummy,” Gidget chided.
“I apologize for the deceit but I’m afraid it was the only way you would have come. I need an army.”
“I’ve been thinking about joining the army,” Cameron said, his face alight with excitement.
“That’s good. This is your chance. Give me your hand.”
“Why? What are you going to do?” He slowly offered his right hand.
Zachary grabbed Cameron’s hand and turned it over, palm up. He held his own right hand over Cameron’s wrist as he looked him in the eyes. “The ink I’m about to mark you with contains a drop of my blood. Repeat after me. I am a soldier in the Raven’s army.”
Cameron repeated dutifully, “I am a soldier in the Raven’s army.”
“I will do what the Raven tells me without question. And I will never betray the Raven to anyone, at any time.”
One by one, Zachary swore in his soldiers. They had no idea what lay before them—only that it felt so good to be a part of something. Mr. Jerome looked at the faces around him and remembered the words of a protest poem a friend of his wrote years before.
A yearning so vivid is easily found by anyone with the means to look.
A yearning so profound is easily exploited by anyone with the charisma to hide it.
A yearning so desperate is dangerous when satisfied by the wrong hands.
Mr. Jerome felt as though he were in the same room as Hitler, Stalin, Kennedy and Sun Tzu, all at the same time. He knew he was not a part of Zachary’s agenda and, therefore, he was already dead.
“The eight of you go get rooms at the hotel next door,” Zachary ordered the others. “We’re in room 302. Wake up call is 8 am.”
Mr. Jerome watched Di Corvo’s soldiers leave and then sighed as he sat down next to Zachary. “What to do with me…”
“We…” Zachary replied, handing a cup to his old friend, “are going to have a toast.”
“One thing I don’t understand,” Mr. Jerome wondered, staring at his fate. “Why cognac? Nothing I’ve read has ever mentioned a preference for it.”
“He hated cognac.”
“Abhorred it. He had some harsh words to say about it when him and I met.”
“So, it was a joke between you and Edgar?”
“Ha! It’s a good thing I’m about to die. I’d have trouble explaining that one to visitors at the museum.”
“I can taste the poison, Mr. Di Corvo. Zachary. I think we’ve earned the right to call each other by our first names. Besides, I can’t be a part of any army and you can’t afford to leave me alive. Do I have twenty minutes?”
“Yes. You should have that long. Why?”
“Long enough to get me to Burke’s Café. I couldn’t ask for a better way to go. So long, my friend. I’m sorry I forced your hand. Whatever you’re planning, be careful. Everyone has a weakness. Even you. It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Thorneheart. Goodnight.”
“Burke’s Café must have some really good pie or something.”
“Actually, it’s the site where Gunner’s Hall used to be.”
“And what’s that?”
“It’s where Edgar collapsed on his way to the end.”
“So, that’s what he meant when he said he couldn’t ask for a better way to go.”
“Talk about poetic.”