PodCastle 740: Beck’s Pest Control and the Case of the Drag Show Downer

Show Notes

Rated PG-13

Beck’s Pest Control and the Case of the Drag Show Downer

by Abra Staffin-Wiebe


I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast and arguing with my daughter, when my work phone broke the silence of our discussion.

Not happening, I signed, quickly swallowing my last bite of peanut butter toast so I could talk on the phone. Bedbug infestations are a no-go.

Moooooom, she answered, holding the word for emphasis. You promised!

“Beck’s Pest Control,” I answered my phone. “This is Beck. How can we help you?”

My mind was still on my argument with my daughter. I had promised, a month ago. You can’t break promises to kids, not even when they ambush you in a moment of weakness. And I confess, I was proud of her grasp of strategy.

Annie’s a smart, observant girl. She waited until I came back from a rough call. She ran me a bubble bath. She let me soak away the last traces of puke and ectoplasm. She waited until I settled into my armchair with a cup of hot chocolate, also provided by her. Then she’d sprung her request on me.

“Yeah,” a male voice answered me. “José Hernández said you might be able to . . . fix my problem?”

I perked up at the hesitation in his voice. Hesitation meant this was probably one of my unusual — and therefore better-paying — gigs. José’s had been.

“What’s the problem? Beck’s Pest Control can help.” I signed, Job.

Annie rolled her eyes. Not done talking about this.

I nodded my capitulation. Later.

I would follow through on my promise to take her class on a field trip. After all, she’d already made sure the parents met me and signed permission slips on Career Day. But there was no way in hell I was taking a class of kids into a bedbug-ridden apartment.

I was determined that Annie wouldn’t suffer socially because her mom was the gross bug lady. It was hard enough being raised by a single mom who was also a small business owner. I would never forgive Melissa for leaving us when Annie was only five, when we started to realize the full extent of how our daughter’s profound deafness would affect our lives.

Annie liked her high school. She was doing great in her classes and she’d made friends. I was relieved by how well she was settling into high school, because there aren’t a lot of choices for Deaf schools. I did not want to screw that up.

“You have to experience it to understand,” my new client said.

If I had a dollar for every time a man told me that, I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for Annie’s summer astronomy camp.

I grabbed my pad of job forms. “Your name?”

“Justin Coleman. I own The Juicy Patty.”

I recognized the name. “The burger joint?”

“Yeah. We open at 11 a.m. Can you meet me then?”

“Sure.” Interesting. Most property owners tried to keep pest control away from paying customers.

The drive to school was usually a peaceful time in my day. Today, though, I could tell that Annie was up to something. She was practically bouncing in her seat. It wasn’t the field trip, because I’d already agreed to discuss that later.

She sprang it on me as soon as I pulled up to the student drop-off point. I’m working on a sculpture piece I’d love you to see. Can you park and come in?

Sorry. I have an appointment with some bedbugs.

Just for a minute? Pleeeeaaase?

I gave her suspicious mom eyes. Why?

No reason.

Then no.

Okay, fine! The truth spilled out of her in a flutter of quick-moving hands. My art teacher Miss Grace said she would be in early today and I want you to meet her. I think you would like each other.

I frowned. I like all your teachers.

No, really like her. Like, like-like her.

Once I untangled the meaning of that, I was flummoxed. Annie was trying to matchmake me? I was doomed. Not now, I signed.

She frowned and switched topics. Melissa emailed. She said she needs to talk to you about my graduation, but you won’t call her back.

Melissa had skipped Annie’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony. And now she was bugging me for a subtitled copy of the graduation video. Sometimes I regretted letting her re-open communications with Annie at all.

I have to go. Love you.

I escaped to the bedbugs. They seemed like a simpler problem.

On my lunch break, I drove to meet my new client. Nostalgia struck me when I saw the red neon lips blowing a kiss at passersby. Back in the day, Lip Sink was the first drag bar in the city, but there had been no name above the door, no “Open” sign, and no advertising posters. Literally the only sign that there was anything of interest inside were those red lips.

Drag shows weren’t my scene. I’d gone to Lip Sink only once, to support a friend doing drag in public for the first time. I’d still felt sad when I read that it was closing after twenty years, part of the wave of entertainment-venue closures during the bad times.

When the hospitality industry rebounded, somebody bought the place. There were grumbles in the QUILTBAG community when they found out the new owner planned to open a burger joint in the hallowed landmark.

The new owner, Justin Coleman, had promised to respect the history. When he took over, he rolled with it and named his burger joint The Juicy Patty. A neon pair of buns (bread variety) with a patty between them joined the lips.

I liked that. Too often I’d seen businesspeople promise the community respect, only to forget their promise as soon as it was convenient.

Inside, times had changed. The thrust stage still reigned over the room, but now it was surrounded by four-top tables with white butcher-paper tablecloths and chrome condiment caddies.

The bar used to be backed by an extensive liquor collection managed by bartenders who called everyone honey and lavishly garnished every drink. Now there was a simple row of beer taps at the bar and a chalkboard menu covering the whole back wall.

I hadn’t eaten before I left. Once I saw that menu, I knew I’d made the right decision. There were a dozen different burgers on it, ranging from a chipotle black-bean patty, to a basic diner burger done right, to a kimchi-topped burger that took six different parts of a pig to make. I ordered the basic diner burger with a side of fried pickles.

Justin appeared quickly. He must have been watching for me.

“I’m Justin. You’re the person I talked to?” he asked.

“Rebecca Long, call me Beck.”

He shook my hand with enough fervor that I mentally ratcheted up the level of pest I’d be dealing with. “Would you like a burger? It’s on the house.”

“I already ordered the diner burger,” I told him. “The first time I eat in a restaurant, I always choose the most traditional thing on the menu. It’s a good way to test if the chef really knows her business. I like to know what I’m dealing with up front, before things get complicated.”

I let that hang in the air.

He sighed. “Yeah. Sorry. You’re here on business. It’s just — our burgers are really good, and I hoped to cushion the experience for you a little so that you wouldn’t be driven off.”

“Tell me.”

“I didn’t know what I was getting into when I bought the old Lip Sink building,” Justin said. “Once I learned about the history and how much it meant to folks, I thought the right thing to do was to try and preserve that. We figured out our own way of making it work.”

“I guess if anyone knows how to make concessions everyone likes, it would be a restaurant owner,” I said.

He looked pained. I grinned.

“Thanks. Anyway, we still have the stage, so we started doing a once-a-month drag show. For old times’ sake. The ladies are a lot of fun. The first time, folks show up for the entertainment. They come back for the burgers.”

I glanced around the nearly empty restaurant. “What happened?”

“It’ll be easiest if you see it for yourself,” he said. “I asked Martina Shaken to perform today.”

The velvet curtains at the back of the stage were swept aside, revealing Tina Turner. It was Tina at her peak, albeit almost a foot taller. A lion’s mane of tawny curls highlighted her perfect cheekbones, the golden fringe of her shaggy mini dress showed off the slim musculature of her legs, and a vicious pair of high heels promised both pain and pleasure.

Martina Shaken stalked across the stage to seize the mic. Her smile was brave. Her makeup was flawless. Her eyes were filled with dread.

She launched into “Private Dancer.”

The music and the original Tina Turner’s voice spilled from the cheap speakers. On stage, Martina lip-synced along with the song, shimmying her hips and stomping her feet.

The bartender set my burger in front of me. I nodded my thanks and dug in. Mmm. Buttered and toasted bun, a smashed burger that was perfectly seasoned and just the right degree of greasy, elevated by the crunch of raw onion and the tang of dill pickles.

Between one bite and the next, it all changed.

Don’t get me wrong, the burger was still great. It was my appetite that vanished. It didn’t matter how good it was, I wasn’t hungry. My hips will testify that doesn’t happen often to me, and as you know, the hips don’t lie.

On stage, Martina sang her heart out. She wasn’t lip-syncing anymore.

I listened to the most stirring rendition of “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” that I’d ever heard. It was an anthem of heartbreak and independence. It should have made everyone in The Juicy Patty jump to their feet and cheer. Should have, but I felt the opposite.

A paralyzing sense of dread froze me in my seat. All my basic animal instincts screamed that something was deeply, horribly wrong. I had to freeze to avoid drawing its attention.

I knew this feeling. Justin had been right to call me in.

All ghosts change the atmosphere when they manifest. Sometimes the room feels colder. Sometimes people weep without knowing why. Sometimes they get frenetically horny (don’t ask). I’d only felt something like this once before, with a ghost that went poltergeist.

Once a ghost goes poltergeist, my job becomes more difficult, dangerous, and messy. We needed to figure out how to lay the ghost quickly.

Martina Shaken threw aside the mic for the grand finale. Even without it, her voice carried through the whole restaurant. Goosebumps raised on the backs of my arms.

She held the last note impossibly long. When it broke off, the feeling of dread also ended. I gasped out loud from the relief. The room smelled of ozone, like after a lightning strike.

Martina Shaken left the stage as fast as she could in those tall heels, but not before I saw the tears streaking her perfect contouring. The only other customers in the room got up hastily, threw cash on their table, and fled.

“You see my problem,” Justin said with a sigh.

“What if you don’t have any performances?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I tried that. The busboys broke even more dishes than normal, the servers dropped silverware, the customers started fights, and our line cook had a nervous breakdown.”

He had a problem, all right. All the ghosts I’d encountered needed an exorcism or some therapy, but since I hadn’t yet met an exorcist priest I trusted, or a therapist for the dead-but-not-quite-gone, what they got was me.

“I need to talk to Martina Shaken,” I said. “The best way I know to get rid of ghosts is to figure out what they want. She might be able to help us with that.”

“What other ways do you know?” Justin asked.

“Let’s not worry about that yet,” I said. The other way involved burning the haunted structure to the ground and salting the earth. He wouldn’t want to go that route, even if I did know a very understanding arson investigator.

When he knocked on a door with a sparkling star painted on it, a shaken voice said, “Yes?”

“The, um, pest control technician wants to talk to you.”

“Fine, as long as she doesn’t mind seeing me en déshabille.” The voice firmed. Her stage name aside, Martina wouldn’t stay shaken for long.

Justin opened the door and waved me in. I stepped into a small room with a dressing table and a locker for private belongings. A dress rack held the gold fringe mini dress. The walls were covered in lipstick kiss-prints with signatures underneath.

Martina sat in front of the dressing table mirror. She wore a steel-boned underbust corset, a pair of shimmering bronze pantyhose, a lot of makeup, and not much else. She noticed me glancing at the kiss-prints on the walls.

“Mine are over there,” she said, pointing.

“Everyone kisses the walls?” I asked, cringing inside at the thought of all those germs.

“Only the first time they get a standing ovation,” Martina said. “They go out and perform, and then they come back and kiss the wall if it goes well.”

“Then we paint over the shape of the print and the signature,” Justin said. “Some of these are thirty years old and have been repainted a couple of times.”

“You were breathtaking,” I said to Martina.

She snorted. “Honey, I’m always breathtaking. What’s happening on that stage now is something else and it certainly isn’t me.”

“What happens when you’re on stage, from your perspective?”

She squirted out a dollop of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and began working it along the hairline of her layered shag wig. “When I go onstage, everything is normal. It changes when the audience starts to get into my performance.”

“What’s it like?”

She massaged the sanitizer into her scalp. “At first, it’s like I’m singing with somebody who’s standing right beside me, even though there’s only one voice. I can sense the other presence. I can hear it in the timbre of the song. I can’t stop myself from singing, even though I usually lip-sync.”

“And then?”

She loosened the wig along the hairline and gently peeled it off, then rested it on a waiting polystyrene head. “Have to be careful with lace front wigs,” she commented. Under the wig, she had a shaved bald head.

I waited while she wiped off the leftover glue-and-sanitizer goop from her hairline.

Finally, she met my eyes in the mirror. With her bare skull and dramatic eye makeup, she looked fragile and vulnerable. “It’s like I’m a puppet. The performance goes on, but I’m not in control.”

“Have you tried to leave the stage?” I asked.

“In the middle of a performance?” Her eyes widened in shock.

I tried another tack. “That must be terrifying. Do you notice any emotions that don’t feel like your own?”

She peeled off her lush fake eyelashes. “Yes. I’m not looking forward to going on stage at the beginning, because I know what’s going to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I love my fantabulous fans, my Martina olives.”

She blew a kiss in the direction of the empty restaurant.

“Normally I love to perform, but these performances aren’t normal. I notice when things start going weird, because I feel excited to perform in front of a crowd. I crave their applause.”

She smeared cold cream on her face and began rubbing vigorously, paying extra attention to her concealed, glued-down natural eyebrows. All the contouring, the dramatic gold-striped eye makeup, and the lipstick swirled together into a full-face mask like a preschooler’s paint palette as her more masculine features re-emerged.

“Is there anything else you can tell me, however small?” I asked.

She wiped off the cold cream with slow, smooth strokes of a damp cloth as she thought. “At the very end, I feel frustration. A surge of anger. The time before this, a guest’s glass broke in their hand right when I felt that.”

The geist was closer to polterning than I’d thought.

“Thank you,” I told Martina.

Once we were back at the deserted bar, I said to Justin, “You know you have a ghost problem, right?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s as obvious as the fruit-fly outbreak in the kitchen. But I didn’t know if you’d believe me. About the ghost, I mean.”

“I believe you, and I can help you.” I took out the card with my rates for special jobs and slid it to him. “I’ll throw in the fruit flies for free.”

He read it and winced, but it was the kind of wince that said he would pay it and not complain too much if it got the job done. “Okay.”

I took out the paperwork. “While I fill out your contract, get me a few jars, parchment paper, tape, apple cider, dish soap, and a banana.” I knew he had bananas because of the Elvis Burger on the menu.

When he returned, I handed him a contract that wasn’t too specific about the nature of the pest. Courts tend to think that legal documents about binding ghosts are less than binding on the people signing them.

While he read through it, I poured some apple cider into the jars, added a couple of drops of dish soap, and tossed a chunk of banana in. After he signed, I asked, “Do you know who the ghost is?”

Justin reached across the bar and grabbed a manila folder. “I thought you might ask that. Two regular performers died before their time while Lip Sink was open, one of a drug overdose — not here — and one of AIDS. And two ladies died unexpectedly before their scheduled debuts.”

“How?” I rolled a piece of the paper into a funnel with a tiny opening at the bottom and taped it to hold the shape.

I started on the next funnel while he explained, “Darnell Washington died in a car accident, and Cameron Jones was killed in a domestic violence incident. She’d tried to get help, but the police wouldn’t listen to her. The next time he killed her.”

I gave the dead a moment of silence as I nestled the funnels into the jars. “I think your ghost is probably one of those last two. The solution is the same either way.”

“What’s that?” Justin asked.

“Give the ghost what it wants. Help it to move past whatever thwarted desire is holding it here. From what Martina said, it wants to be a star.”

“The ghost has performed on stage several times,” Justin said dubiously. “Obviously, it’s still here.”

“But it didn’t have the star experience, did it?” I said. “If it only wanted to perform, it would be satisfied and gone already. It wants a standing ovation and flowers tossed on the stage and rave reviews from the critics. It’s angry because it was denied that experience, betrayed by death before its time.”

“I can’t guarantee a good review! I can’t guarantee a reviewer in the crowd. I can’t even guarantee a crowd.”

“I’ll hire an actor to talk loudly about the five-star review he’s going to write,” I said. “I’ll order the roses, and you can throw them onstage yourself. Do whatever you have to do to pack the crowd. At the end, announce that everyone’s drinks are free thanks to the performer, so they cheer for her. What happens before or after won’t matter to the ghost. It’s the experience in the moment that has to be perfect.”

“It’s that simple?”

“People clutter up their lives with hundreds of wishes and wants and needs, but when you get right down to it, the thing that they want most in the world is usually very simple. Ghosts imprint on that strong, unfulfilled need.”

“Okay. I can do that.”

“The sooner, the better. The ghost is getting angrier the longer it’s denied. It’s losing its sense of self. If that happens, it will be a tragedy all around.”

My food had regained its appeal as the dread faded. I dunked a fried pickle in ketchup and crunched it, appreciating the burst of fat and salt and sour on my tongue.

“After I finish this excellent meal, I’ll sanitize your drains,” I said. “That’s usually where fruit fly problems spread. The traps will catch any strays.”

They would smell the vinegar, follow the funnel into the jar, fail to find their way out, and drown. Sometimes, you do catch more flies with vinegar.

As I left, Justin was making calls to put together a drag show for lunch the next day.

My answering service has a list of jobs to automatically approve and schedule. While I was out, they accepted one I was willing to bring the kids along for, but I knew it wasn’t as exciting as Annie had hoped. They beat me to the calendar, so it also conflicted with Justin’s pulled-together-last-minute lunchtime drag show.

Justin resigned himself to my absence after I emphasized that taking care of the ghost ASAP was important and my presence wasn’t needed to make it work. I hired an actor and ordered the roses. Most importantly, I gave Justin my emergencies-only phone number.

When Annie got home, I told her, I got a squirrel infestation case tomorrow at lunchtime, and I’m willing to let your class watch the process of live-trapping them.

She made a bored face.

Take it or leave it.

She nodded reluctant agreement. Accept-hard, she signed.

Then her face brightened. You’ll finally meet Miss Grace! She agreed to chaperone. I know her schedule for the week, and she’ll be able to join us halfway through. She has a meeting at the beginning.

The school will be okay with me just taking you kids? My hands shaped a cloud of confusion in front of me.

The school bus driver will be there. And the parents already signed permission slips and liability waivers. Parents could volunteer as chaperones. She shrugged. Nobody did, so Miss Grace says they don’t have room to complain.

In exchange for a twenty-percent discount, the homeowner had been happy to allow a few Deaf high school students onto their property.

Unfortunately, the students weren’t impressed by me setting a live-trap.

They perked up a little when I got out the extension ladder, but lost interest once I demonstrated basic competence in staying on it, the bloodthirsty little varmints.

I loosely taped a piece of plastic across the hole the squirrels had gnawed into the eaves, leaving room for air to circulate so the squirrels could follow the air currents out.

Safely back on the ground (to the students’ disappointment), I explained, If the plastic is torn, I know that a squirrel went through. So I keep catching squirrels until the plastic over the hole stays after I reset it. Then I seal the hole.

Otherwise they would die and rot inside the walls. Can you imagine how bad that would smell? Worse than a thousand farts! As I signed fart, I puffed up one cheek and forced some air out of the corner of my mouth for comic effect.

No reaction.

I hoped the show at The Juicy Patty was doing better than I was, because I was bombing.

Let’s give the trap a few minutes, I signed. Everyone, back on the bus!

I climbed on the bus after the kids. I caught the lips-to-goalpost-position of finally and the finger-to-nose-twist of boring before they hid their hands.

Annie sat alone, staring out the bus window with that slight jut of her lower lip that meant she was trying not to cry. My poor kiddo. The field trip that would have been a big hit with her middle-school friends wasn’t cutting it for the high schoolers.

My phone buzzed. When I pulled it out and saw Melissa’s number, I knew my day was about to get worse.

“What do you want?” I said, cutting to the chase.

“A copy of Annie’s graduation video.”

I thought of the thumb drive with the video, sitting in an addressed envelope buried at the bottom of my work bag. I had tossed it in there days ago when I got Melissa’s first message, but somehow I hadn’t gotten around to taking it to the post office to mail.

“Annie was disappointed that you weren’t there,” I said.

“If I had gone, I wouldn’t have understood what anyone was doing with their hands, anyway. With subtitles — ”

My phone beeped to warn me that I had another call waiting. Justin.

“I have a work call. I have to go.” I hung up on Melissa with no apology.

“Beck here,” I answered.

“It’s not working!” Justin yelled.

I jerked the phone away from my ear. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you get a crowd?” I heard music in the background, but no cheering or clapping or other crowd noises.

“Yes, but they aren’t clapping. They’re sitting and staring at the stage. The critic was great before the show, but now he’s frozen like the rest of them.”

I heard the sound of glass shattering.

Justin groaned like he’d been nut-punched. “That was a twenty-year Glenkinchie.”

“Did somebody drop it or was that the ghost?” I demanded.


“Hell. It’s gone polter. I’ll be right there. Keep the show going. If you can, clap and throw roses on the stage.”

“I’ll try.”

What was I going to do? A poltergeist was a threat to everyone around it, and I’d promised to help. But I couldn’t leave a busful of high schoolers on a client’s property.

My phone dinged with a text from Miss Grace. I’ll be there in 15. I look forward to meeting you. Annie talks so much about you.

I took a deep breath and texted back, Small change in plans. I need to make a detour. Meet us at The Juicy Patty. I sent the location.

I stomped my feet hard to send vibrations through the floor of the bus, and then I waved my hand so the kids knew I wanted to tell them something.

Once they all made eye contact, I signed, We will come back here in a short time. If you are lucky, you will get to feed a wild squirrel. First I have an errand I have to run. Just . . . stay in the bus and I will get everyone ice cream on the way back.

When I entered The Juicy Patty, it felt like I was walking through Jell-O — angry, dangerous Jell-O that held a personal grudge against me because I’d eaten its cousin.

Whatever Justin had promised the crowd had worked. The burger joint was packed enough that restrictions on serving food and beverages had kicked in, and many in the audience were wearing concert masks.

None of them were clapping. None of them moved at all, not even normal fidgets. I was only sure they were breathing because nobody had fallen over yet.

Katy-Perry-as-Isis had inspired the performer on stage. She belted out a note-perfect rendition of “Firework.” The terror in her eyes was the same that I’d seen in Martina Shaken’s. I knew if I asked her later, she’d say she felt like someone else was singing.

A light bulb flared and popped. One of the speakers exploded in sparks and a squeal of feedback. The audience didn’t even flinch. Despite the dead speaker, Goddess-Katy’s voice rang through the club with eerie amplification.

Justin stood next to the stage with an armful of roses. The sweat on his forehead gleamed in the stage lights. Moving in slow motion like a rusty Tin Man, he drew a rose and threw it on the stage. His hands bled from dozens of thorn pricks. He didn’t bother to wipe the blood away. It streaked the rose leaves.

I waded through the psychic Jell-O-Hate to reach Justin. It exhausted me, even though I’d been exposed to this before. Today, it was worse. Stronger. Angrier. More dangerous.

Goddess-Katy sang, “ . . . the moon, moon, moon!” She struck a dramatic pose after the song ended.

Silence reigned.

The poltergeist’s anger stabbed through the air. Three bottles behind the bar exploded in a rain of glass shards. None of the people standing nearby moved to shield themselves.

“Justin, you have to evacuate these people!”

He dragged his gaze to me. I could see that he had nothing left to give. My mouth tightened. Someone had to get these people out of the danger zone.

The sound of clapping broke my grim thoughts. I stared.

Annie stood in the doorway of The Juicy Patty, her face lit up with enjoyment as she clapped out loud.

And for a heartbeat, the sense of dread eased. People stirred. A man burst into tears.

Annie switched to applauding the Deaf way, hands in the air and twisting back and forth like wind-tossed trees.

Menace seeped back into the air as Goddess-Katy launched into “Dark Horse.” I plunged across the room toward Annie before it paralyzed me. As I moved, I made an E and shook it back and forth to sign, Emergency.

Annie’s eyes widened when she saw me.

Outside! I signed as I reached her, grabbing her elbow.

The poltergeist’s song drained the strength from my legs, but it didn’t affect Annie. She ended up pulling me out of The Juicy Patty. As soon as we were across the threshold, the effect cut off. I gasped and drew in a deep breath of air like a swimmer surfacing after too long underwater.

Mom, are you okay? Annie asked.

I nodded. I am now. The singer on stage is possessed by a ghost. Her song is trapping people inside.

Ooooooh. I wondered why I didn’t see anyone else clapping. I thought maybe it was just too dark for me to notice. She squared her shoulders and made a brave face. I can go back in and drag people out one at a time.

That was my darling brave girl. Because it didn’t affect her, she was willing and able to —

It didn’t affect her.

The ghost needed an enthusiastic audience, but its song paralyzed everyone who heard it with terror. Everyone who heard it.

Love you, I signed. I have a better idea.

I understood teen psychology enough to emphasize the edgy, almost forbidden, nature of the show I was taking them to. I explained that Annie would lead them in. I wouldn’t be much help inside. I told them to clap out loud, because it was a Hearing performer. I also promised them bribes in the form of ice cream and burgers. Justin’s contract meant he’d cover the tab for the horde of hungry teenagers. Hopefully, that permission slip Annie had gotten the parents to sign meant my buns would also be covered.

We trooped into The Juicy Patty as Goddess-Katy sang “Roar” with full commitment to doing all the moves. She stalked across the stage on all fours like a tiger. She threw back her hair and roared to the world. The kids were mesmerized.

I stood under a light and signed along to translate the song’s lyrics, though leaden dread weighed down my limbs.

Finally, Goddess-Katy leaned forward for the last roar, arms spread wide as if she were flying. I heard the echo of a tiger’s snarl underlying her voice. My blood chilled.

The kids applauded vigorously.

All around the restaurant, people moved and shifted like they were waking up from a bad dream. They looked dazed, but they clapped along.

Goddess-Katy swept a deep bow. Justin threw the rest of the blood-smeared roses onto the stage in one convulsive heave.

“Five out of five stars,” the method actor ejected convulsively.

The weight of dread evaporated from the air. Goddess-Katy swept off stage to the dressing room. I followed.

I pushed open the dressing room door to find Goddess-Katy pressing a kiss to the wall beside the mirror. I grabbed a Sharpie and handed it to her. She didn’t acknowledge my presence as she took the marker. Moving slowly and deliberately, she wrote a signature and a date under the kiss-print.

Then she dropped the marker and crumpled to the ground. I tried to catch her, but she was too heavy for me. I was only able to cushion her fall and make sure she didn’t crack her skull on the floor. I supported her head in my lap.

After a few moments, her eyes fluttered open. “Girl, where did you come from?” she asked, her voice slurred and strained.

“Justin asked me to make sure everything was okay,” I said. “How are you?”

She pushed herself up on one arm and patted her wig to make sure it was still in place. “I’m fine, I think. But how did I get here? The last thing I remember is being on stage and having that horrible thing make me sing and dance like a puppet.” She shuddered.

“You came back here and kissed the wall.” I pointed.

She stood and walked over to examine the kiss-print. “That’s my shade of lipstick,” she agreed. “But this wasn’t my first star performance and that certainly isn’t my handwriting.”

I took a closer look at the kiss. The signature underneath said Cameron Jones.

Anger resolved, Cameron should move on unencumbered by the past. I thought of the envelope at the bottom of my work bag, and I imagined how liberating that would feel.

Goddess-Katy picked up a makeup wipe as if to clean off the wall.

“Don’t!” I caught her arm. “It’s good luck. As long as it’s up, you shouldn’t have any more problems.”

I’d talk to Justin about getting the kiss-print permanently painted as soon as possible. Maybe he could even put some plexiglass over it. There was no sense in taking chances.

“Oh. Oh.” Both sets of Goddess-Katy’s eyebrows, painted-on and glued-down, lifted high. “No tea, no shade, but it’s about time. Bye, Felicia!” She gave a little wave to the new kiss-print.

“Goodbye, Cameron,” I said. “You slayed it.”

I found that the restaurant had emptied when I got back. Justin beamed from ear to ear. I explained about the kiss-print, and then asked, “Is there a post office nearby?”

“Sure.” He gave me directions. “Why?”

“Something I have to do later.”

The teenagers dug into baskets of burgers and fries. Annie glowed with happiness, and the kids were throwing lots of kiss-fists around to show how much they loved the food and the show. It looked like our unplanned detour had saved the field trip.

Mom, Annie set down her burger and signed, Miss Grace is here. She pointed.

I followed her direction and saw a short, curvy woman with mischievous eyes and a generous mouth made for laughter.

Hello, Miss Grace signed. She had a sculptor’s strong, elegant hands.

Nice to meet you.

She waved to indicate The Juicy Patty. Not what I expected for a class field trip, but it looks like the kids are having a good time. What other surprises do you have in store?

I glanced at Annie. She looked smug.

I told Miss Grace, You’ll have to wait and see.

I was so doomed. I couldn’t stop grinning.


About the Author

Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Abra Staffin-Wiebe photo

Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including Tor.com, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age story about trickster gods and unlikely heirs. Enjoy an excerpt at: http://www.aswiebe.com/moreunkindness.html

Find more by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Abra Staffin-Wiebe photo

About the Narrator

Christiana Ellis

Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About SurvivorHey, Want to Watch a Movie?and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts.

Find more by Christiana Ellis