“You don’t belong here.”
Skunk awoke with a start. A beaming blonde woman with sweet round features placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of him. She laughed. The sound would have been pleasant had she not snorted afterwards.
“Looks like you could really use the caffeine this morning!” she smiled, winking. Skunk massaged his eyes and cupped his hands around the mug. He cursed himself for nodding off. His mind had been floating in and out of dreamland all morning. He closed his eyes―the warmth of the sun was like a blanket. Before long he felt himself drifting through a gray neighborhood: concrete loops of identical houses. It was as though he was riding on a black and white version of a merry-go-round. No matter what he did, he could not escape the gray world that was his life―not even at his favourite café.
“What are you doing by the window?” the woman inquired. “You usually sit at the front by the espresso bar.”
“I guess I felt like getting some sunshine today,” Skunk answered, peering through the window. He squinted, his eyes adjusting to the wash of sunlight. Strange paintings hung on the café walls. They depicted gold oceans and sea birds, of which Skunk had never seen the likes. The town of Belleville itself was like an antique painting: old and beautiful. From the window he could see all the way past the brightly coloured storefronts to the lake.
“The view is better here,” he added, sipping the bitter hot liquid. The woman nodded in agreement.
“Aye. That lake sure does glimmer at this time of day. Water clear as can be. They don’t call it the Glass Lake for nothing.” She patted him on the shoulder and circled a cloth over a neighboring table.
Skunk could see his face on the surface of the coffee. The black liquid was like a mirror. He ran a hand over his dark hair, fingering the white tendrils. He was born with a stripe of colourless hair down the centre of his head. He could still hear the mocking voices. They called him Skunk. He swirled the coffee around in his mug for a while and then took a long drink of his reflection. He smiled. “I taste good,” he thought, whimsically to himself. He then thought: would other people think the same thing upon seeing their reflection in a cup of coffee? Probably not.
“ Those who think differently make the biggest difference.” His mother’s words. Her memory made him smile. The two of them used to go down to the Glass Lake after dawn. The man-made rocky escarpments and barbed-wired fences were no match for their nimble toes. The town of Belleville was a magical sight to his young eyes. Bright lights bouncing from the fountains in the streets, and best of all, the constant buzz of laughter drifting on the wind…
A heavily ringed hand touched him lightly on the shoulder. His wife’s face greeted him as he looked up from the depths of his coffee mug. Mink. Skunk was relieved she’d cut into his morning bout of pondering. He could feel his thoughts slowly wandering toward the painful memory of his mother’s funeral.
“Skunkie, dear, you’ve been sulking by this window for hours! Hasn’t your coffee grown cold by now?”
“You know I drink it either way,” he replied, allowing the chilled remainder of his coffee to trickle down his throat. “Why are you wearing so many furs? Surely winter hasn’t arrived yet.” She took him under the arm, laughing. Skunk knew his wife had a thing for animal pelts. She had always been a tad eccentric. Perhaps that is what had attracted Skunk to her in the first place. Physically speaking, she wasn’t a beautiful woman. It was hard to tell what her body looked like beneath the bulk of furs, but her face always wore an expression of childlike bliss, and for Skunk, that was enough.
Mink took him by the hand. Her grip was urgent.
“My darling Diggory,” she began, “though I find you tremendously adorable sitting here all squinty-faced in thought, I must show you something.”
Dashing down the streets of Belleville behind his wife, Skunk was completely unaware as to where they were headed. He could barely keep up with Mink. She dragged him from the café onto the side street without so much as an explanation. Her stubby legs moved more swiftly than one would imagine, spiriting Skunk away more oft than not. Sometimes Skunk would wind up in a restaurant, where Mink would introduce him to all the Belleville frequenters. Other times, he’d find himself in the house of a stranger, drinking strange tea and using strange washrooms. One thing was for sure: no one was a stranger to his wife.
“Dear, where exactly are we―” Skunk stopped mid-sentence when he noticed the rumpled sketches floating gracefully above his head. He recognized them immediately. They belonged to one of the town’s most celebrated artists, Spine Less. The artist was known for his surreal portraits. His paintings portrayed people distorted in the reflection of a well polished spoon. The number of papers riding the draft seemed to increase as Mink towed Skunk down Willful Way. Like seagulls, the sketches flocked outside of Spine Less’ art shop. A fretful crowd had also taken shape.
Central in the heap of baffled beings, Mink turned to Skunk and said, not without a gleam of horrified fascination in her eyes, “Something awful has happened.”
An animalistic whimpering came from inside the art studio. The people closest to the entrance bounded away in fright.
“Somebody call the police!” A panicked voice shouted, “There is some sort of vicious animal in there!” The citizens of Belleville began to panic.
“ Let’s not go jumping to conclusions,” Skunk started. “ Why don’t we all file peacefully into the building and see what the damage is.”
Only moments ago he’d been somewhat comfortable with a cup of coffee. Now he was in the midst of―as his wife had put it― ‘something awful.’ That was Belleville: predictably unpredictable.
The people obediently followed Skunk into the art shop. He gasped when he saw the condition of the studio. A colourful whirlwind looked as though it had struck the place. Paint had been spattered on the walls and was even dripping from the ceiling. Looking down, Skunk found that he was standing in a great glimmering pool of paint. Thousands of dollars worth of art supplies had been demolished. Huddled miserably in the corner of the compartment was Spine Less, wasting away in his own puddle of tears.
“This is a monstrosity!” he howled. “My astounding portraits have been vandalized!” He let loose a wretched wail― the very same sound that had been mistaken for a ‘vicious animal.’ Spine Less sprinted forward suddenly, his finger pointing accusingly at the gaping citizens before him. “Which one of you is the sinister stinkweed who has ruined my life’s work?!” he demanded. “Whoever you are, I hope you’re satisfied. You have blasphemed my name, ransacked my studio, and now I am nothing!”
It was true. Each one of Spine Less’ portraits had a freshly drawn mustache. Skunk scoffed and shook his head. Whoever did this was extremely immature.
“ Tsk, tsk,” Mink clucked beside him. “Who would do such a terrible thing?”
“Who would be able to do such a thing?” Skunk asked. The windows in the shop all remained intact. How could the perpetrator have entered? Skunk placed a hand on Spine Less’ quivering shoulder. The artist’s face was distorted with grief. He almost resembled one of his paintings.
“Spine Less,” he said delicately, “is it possible that you forgot to lock up your shop last night?” Spine Less looked at Skunk as though he was an alien from another planet.
“Lock up?” he replied. “We don’t have locks in Belleville. This is a trusting community. These sorts of things aren’t supposed to happen!” Skunk looked to his wife in confusion.
“No locks?!” he exclaimed in disbelief. Mink shook her head. “No security systems?!” Again, Mink shook her head.
“There’s never been need for them,” she stated simply. “Not until now, anyway,” she added.
“ Make way, policeman coming through,” hollered Officer Fanny Duster. The policeman squeezed his massive body through the muddle of people until he finally stood before the demolished pictures. “ It’s quite obvious who done it,”he declared.
“Well get on with it then,” Spine Less sniffed. The constable turned towards the mob.
“I believe whoever did this has a mustache! Therefore, I hereby arrest every citizen of Belleville with a mustache!”
Total uproar followed the cop’s conclusion. Skunk spoke up just as the constable was about to bind old Mrs. Foppish: the only woman in Belleville with a mustache.
“Stop! Stop! This is ridiculous!” he laughed. “Just because the faces in the paintings have been given mustaches doesn’t mean the vandal has a mustache.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that because you too have a mustache, would ya’?” Officer Fanny Duster growled.
“Of course not, Officer! I was with my wife in bed during the time when the crime would have taken place,” Skunk said in his defense.
Mink vouched for him, “he sure was! And let me tell you, he was on fire last night!” Her statement produced a hardy round of chuckling from the crowd.
“Besides, Constable Fanny Duster,” Skunk continued, “you too have a mustache!” The townsfolk had to hand it to Skunk, he made a good point.
“ Alright, alright. I stand corrected. You’re all innocent until proven guilty,” admitted Officer Fanny Duster. He eyed Skunk curiously, a hand stroking his chins. “You know, ever since Mayor Flumox passed, I’ve been on the look for an acceptable candidate to replace him,” he said. “Mr. Diggory, I think you would make an excellent Mayor of Belleville.”
There were no objections to follow the officer’s statement. Instead, the townsfolk began to applaud. Skunk stood dumbfounded. He could feel his face flushing with a sort of happy embarrassment.
“You want me to be your mayor?!” Skunk had to be sure he wasn’t misunderstanding. The people roared in affirmation.
“We vote for Skunk! We vote for Skunk!” They cheered.
“Okay! Okay! I’ll be your mayor!” Skunk boomed, proudly. “Together, we’ll get to the bottom of this break-in.”
“That’s my husband!” Mink hooted.
Unfortunately, the celebrating ended just as quickly as it had started, for Spine Less noticed something that nobody else had.
“You dingbats!” he swore. “In all your bliss and glee you failed to notice the open door. If that paint runs into the Glass Lake, our water will be poisoned!” A wave of nervous murmurs and worried whispers ran through the crowd. Skunk cleared his throat and immediately all eyes were on him.
“It’s okay,” he reassured them. “The water goes through a filtration process. If there are any toxins in the lake, they’ll be long gone before the water reaches our mouths.” The villagers seemed satisfied with this explanation and one by one marched out the exit with constable Fanny Duster in the lead. Skunk and Spine Less were all who remained.
“We’ll have this place looking good as new in a jiffy,” Skunk promised, helping Spine Less up. “You’re a brilliant artist, Spine Less. I’m sure you could fix your vandalized paintings.” At the mentioning of his totaled masterpieces, Spine Less fell to his knees in agony and began to sob and sob. Skunk didn’t know what to do, so he simply stood quietly.
“I have no purpose!” The sorrowful artist finally breathed. His eyes leaking and puffy, he wiped his nose on his sleeve. “My work had been undermined! My purpose has been undermined!”
“That’s not true!” Skunk declared. “We’ll catch the man responsible, and we’ll punish him. Everything will be okay.” His encouragement had no effect on the man. No matter what Skunk said, Spine Less’ lamenting only worsened. Torn with woe, the artist plunged his hands into his paint, guzzling mouthfuls of the carcinogenic substance.
“Stop!” Skunk shrieked. “You’re going to poison yourself!” He pulled out his phone and dialed a medic. By the time an ambulance arrived, Spine Less had fled his shop, slipping and tripping his way down to the Glass Lake. Skunk tried pursuing him. He tried stopping him. But his cries for help went unanswered, and his arthritic knees could not catch up with the young artist’s desperate strides. Poor Spine Less and his creative mind, torn to shreds by depression. The man was seen throwing himself from an escarpment and into the swirling depths of the Glass Lake.
Skunk had been mayor for barely a day and already had one casualty under his belt. The artist’s horrible demise consumed Skunk’s sleep. Right before Skunk would wake the artist would turn his head, revealing his tortured expression. Skunk would cry out for Spine Less to stop―for him to think about what he was doing and the impact his death would have on people. But the artist would shake his head, claiming that people’s lives would be better without him. Even after the nightmare was over, Skunk could hear the sound of the wind picking up. He could never tell if the howling discord belonged to the wind or Spine Less. The dream made Skunk feel as though he was going insane.
Skunk needed to keep a clear head if he was going to find the culprit. He had no reason to blame himself for the artist’s death. Whoever was responsible for destroying Spine Less’ art shop was also responsible for destroying Spine Less. Mayor Skunk couldn’t let a little emotion like guilt eat him alive, nor would he. Nothing would get in his way. He would be the best mayor Belleville had ever seen.