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by Adrienne Jones
Description: Callum Doherty picks up a trinket from an odd jewelry dealer at a hippie music festival, "a good luck charm" the man tells him. But days after clasping the pendant around his neck, he discovers it can't be removed. After visiting every locksmith and jeweler in the city with no success, he reluctantly accepts he's stuck with the thing. But when an overwhelming burst of success transforms him into a wealthy superstar overnight, he wonders what other sudden life changes are linked to the pendant--like the terrifying shapeshifters he spies following him through the city, slinking around his property, and watching him while he sleeps.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [454 KB]
Reading time: 293-410 min.
It was a festival of freaks. Why had he never noticed the freaks before? Had he been one of them? Bodies bumped into him so hard he lost his footing, the grass flattened to slippery mud with the perpetual stomping. Long hair flowed and arms waved and twirled, some smelling of Patchouli oil, others of cannabis and body odor. A shirtless tattooed man stepped on Callum's toes then danced on, oblivious. They had become the crowd, fused, no longer individuals but elements of the whole. Like bacteria.
It wasn't that long ago he'd enjoyed these concert festivals. Hell, two years ago he'd have been stumbling and twirling with the rest of the chemically enhanced figures, thinking them wild and beautiful, hoping to see a braless breast come loose from a tie-dyed halter top. But he had no delicious toxins in his brain to add flavor to the crowd this time. They just looked stoned and dirty.
He strained to find his friends in the ocean of colorful tee shirts. Thomas and Walter always managed to ditch him at social gatherings lately. He told himself it wasn't intentional, but his subconscious didn't quite agree, which added to his shitty mood.
Someone shouted his name and he turned to see his friends over at the beer tent, waving. Callum waved back and tried to maneuver the crowd, slowly working his way over. His friends were in a bout of giggles over something. He felt a stab of envy. Walter and Thomas were very much alike, both in the financial business, buying yuppie vehicles and surrounding themselves with beautiful women. They played squash on Tuesdays and took vacations to Jamaica or some other island at least once a year. They invited Callum on these trips, but he always declined due to his nearly nonexistent finances.
Callum was an artist, and while he wasn't starving, he couldn't afford a lot of extras. He worked odd jobs to make ends meet, but painting took up most of his time. It hadn't been said aloud, but he knew his friends thought he was wasting his life with his art. He'd shown his work here and there, but sales were sporadic. Thomas had offered repeatedly to get Callum a real job at his company. Callum always refused, and Thomas would give him a frown of misunderstanding laced with pity.
In the beer tent he found Thomas and Walter chatting with a man holding a giant inflatable Gumby. A red bandana graced Gumby's slanted green head. Tears leaked from Thomas's eyes as he squeaked with laughter. Gumby guy was dressed as Jesus, sandals and all. He'd even made puncture wounds on his hands and feet with red marker.
Callum had opted not to drop mushrooms with his friends that morning, and was suddenly very glad.
Thomas turned to him. "Cal! You're the smartest guy I know. You can answer this question. Weren't Gumby and Pokey homosexuals in real life?"
Callum raised an eyebrow. "They were made of clay, Thomas."
"Callum's an artist," Walter explained to Jesus. "He's had his sense of humor surgically removed."
"Yeah, and you've had yours chemically implanted," Callum said. "Let's get a beer."
Up at the beer counter Thomas and Walter befriended a group of pretty girls with headscarves and nose rings. The women giggled and sipped wine coolers while Thomas went into wooing mode, an effort in his drug hindered state. Cal left them and went for a walk, since women were generally not interested in talking to him. He hadn't grown up to be big and athletic like his two friends.
Five foot six with chin length, auburn hair, his features were close to feminine. He had a lean, sinewy body, a trait made more obvious when standing beside burly companions like Thomas and Walter. In the old days, he'd shyly hang by the sidelines when women approached his friends, hoping a scrap of attention would be tossed his way. On rare occasions his shy sensitivity had worked in his favor, but thus far all his relationships had been short-lived.
A string of wagon carts lined the edge of the field, selling everything from psychic readings to nipple rings. He drifted past the items, stopping at a cart full of tee shirts and hemp bracelets. Then something caught his eye in the next booth down the line. For a moment he stopped breathing. Hanging on the wall of the next cart was a painting. His painting.
"Hey scrawny, you gonna buy something or what?" The man selling the tee shirts sneered with two missing teeth.
Callum shook his head. "No." He stared over at the painting. He'd done it back in art school and sold it along with four others at a rare showing in New York, his biggest success to date. He was so euphoric that day. He couldn't remember the customer he'd sold the piece to. But there it was, staring back at him like a long lost love.
He moved toward the booth, dazed with incredulity. It was a jewelry cart, the displays of colorful stones abandoned for the moment. A black curtain hung across the cart halfway back. He looked up at the painting on the wall, moving closer, examining his signature at the bottom. Callum E. Doherty. Considering the odds of selling a painting in New York City, then finding it four years later at a concert festival in Western Massachusetts, he shook his head.
"Can I help you?" a deep voice asked.
Callum yelped and jumped backward. "You scared the crap out of me," he said to the man who'd appeared at the counter.
Callum felt small around Thomas and Walter, but he was puny next to this giant. Close to seven feet tall, his muscles strained against an odd purple velvet robe that fell to his ankles.
A drum solo thumped from the distant stage, vibrating through Callum's chest. He glanced back at the beer tent, but couldn't see Thomas and Walter.
"Can I help you?" the giant asked again.
He looked up at the weird guy. "Um...I'm not sure."
The jewelry dealer raised his eyebrows expectantly. He looked like an ancient Viking someone forced into a silly costume as a form of torture, facial structure like armor, with jutting cheekbones and chin. The eyes were set deep under a cliff of a forehead, and in the glare of sunlight seemed lavender, just a shade lighter than his velvet robe. The stranger's copper red hair hung in a thick braid that ended at his waist.
"Are you looking for any particular stone?" The enormous man gestured toward the trinkets on display.
"I'm sorry? Oh, the jewelry. No. Thank you. But this painting...this is weird, but, I painted it. I'm Callum Doherty."
The big man grinned, a wide crest of strong white teeth. "You're the creator? How wonderful." The voice was so deep it seemed to vibrate, traveling through Callum's body like the drum beats from the band.
"May I ask how you came by it? I mean, you're not the original owner, are you? I'm sure I would have remembered you."
"I bought it from a friend. I take it with me when I sell my jewelry on the road. It brings me luck."
Callum beamed. His painting was important to someone. His ego lit up inside, warming his shattered soul. He inspected his work while the big man watched, unmoving. It was strange to see the piece again after all this time, an abstract of deep blue, bursting with dashes of red and black. In the center was a bleeding eye. He'd never thought of this work as lucky. He wasn't feeling lucky when he painted it. If memory served, he was feeling disjointed and a bit insane.
"This is amazing!" Callum laughed. "I can't believe you have my painting. I mean, what are the odds?"
"You seem quite pleased." The jewelry dealer looked amused.
"I'm sorry for being all goofy." Callum glanced at the painting. "It's just...this has never happened before, I mean, stumbling across my work like this."
The giant finally moved, turning his back. His heavy red braid swung like a pendulum as he tugged the black curtain to one side. "Why don't you join me for a cup of herbal tea?" He gestured behind the curtain with his big hand. "We can discuss your work."
Callum looked behind the curtain, where the glow of a lantern was all he could see. He glanced back over his shoulder at the beer tent and spotted Thomas and Walter still enmeshed in their conversation with the hippie chicks. They probably hadn't even realized he was gone.
"Perhaps we could discuss future transactions. Are you still painting?"
Callum gave his attention back to the jeweler. "Yes. I mean, hell yeah, I'm still painting. It's all I do."
The big man smiled. "I've got several colleagues who'd love your work."
That closed the deal. Callum grinned. "I suppose I have time for one cup of tea."
At a foldout table in the back of the wagon stand, the black curtain shut out the day, but two lanterns cast enough light to see. Boxes of jewelry sat stacked in shimmering rows and the sweet spice of incense lingered in the tiny space. Callum wondered if this man had a home, or if he lived like some wandering gypsy.
"I've got a jewelry outlet in Rhode Island, but I love to get out on the road," the man said, answering Callum's thought. "I too consider myself an artist."
Callum's eyes drifted over the strange rings and bracelets hanging on hooks around them. It was mostly silver, adorned with unique patterns of shiny stones. "Do you make it all yourself?"
"I have several talented protegees, but the designs are mine. My work tends to be a bit unusual, which is why I travel. To find unusual people to buy it."
Callum laughed, thinking of the freak show dancing to the acoustic jam outside. "Well you've struck gold in that category."
The man grabbed a wooden box from the floor behind him. "Here, look through if you'd like while I make the tea."
Discomfort swelled as Callum took the box. He hoped he wasn't expected to buy anything. The stuff looked expensive as hell. Once again the man seemed to answer his thought.
"I'm not trying to sell you. But I would like to give you a piece before you leave, as a gift. I swear, your painting has brought me excellent luck."
Callum nodded awkwardly and sifted through the box of jewelry while his new friend poured tea from a small kettle. The stones were a variety of colors and shapes, decorated with skulls and dragons and glass eyeballs. He was still examining them when the stranger set two cups on the table.
As he sipped the tea, he relaxed. Then the relaxation turned into something else. His limbs became heavy and a sense of euphoria eased over him. The jewels took on a rainbow aura.
"What's in this tea?" he asked.
Callum laughed. "No seriously, man, what's in it? I feel kind of high or something. Is it ginseng?" His head swam pleasantly.
"No, Callum. I told you. It's opium." The redhead smiled.
Callum's fear fought to overtake the drug induced euphoria. There was a war going on in his central nervous system. He dropped the cup and it smashed on the wooden floor. "You gave me opium? You drugged me?" He tried to stand but his legs refused.
"Relax, Callum. It was a very small amount. It won't debilitate you."
He tried standing again but lost his balance and fell. The redhead picked him up and placed him back in the chair. "Don't be afraid. I want to give you something, Callum. Something special."
The panic that had started like a tiny dance in his heart escalated to a stampede. He'd been so preoccupied with his ego that it never occurred to him this man might be a danger. He felt very small. He was Jack, and he'd climbed up the wrong beanstalk.
The jeweler pulled a red velvet box out of his robe. "I want to give you something, Callum. But it's not my dick, and I've no plan to harm you, so would you please calm down? Your thoughts are like daggers."
Callum stared into the lavender eyes. "You've been reading my mind," he mumbled. "What are you? Fortune teller?"
Laughter bellowed from the redhead like drums. "Something like that." He placed the box on the table between them.
Callum stared at him. "Are you like...you know," he slurred. "One of those medieval festival dorks who like..." He twirled his hand, completely stoned. "Who like, you know, pretend they're really knights and fucking...um, kings and shit?"
The redhead grinned, lavender eyes twinkling. "No. I am not."
The opium had taken ownership, giving him warmth and confidence. "So tell me, Red. Or whatever your name is. Are you gonna read me my future?"
The velvet giant shook his head. "My name is Larr, and I'm not going to read your future. I'm going to give you your future. If you want it." He picked up the red box and pulled a necklace out. "It's a good luck charm."
Callum collapsed into laughter, sliding off the chair. "Oh my Christ. Oh mother. That is priceless. Say it again. No I mean it! Say it again. A good luck charm...that's hysterical."
The giant frowned down at him. "You don't hold your drugs very well."
Callum grinned up at him. "I'm a bit of a lightweight," he whispered. "Not my proudest....attribute."
"Take a look." The giant held out the necklace.
Callum stood up with effort. He took the thick chain and studied it. Not quite silver, not quite gold, it looked dirty, like an antique that needed a soak. Its heaviness surprised him. "What's this made of? Steel?"
"Something like that."
Callum examined the tiny red stone that hung from the chain like an afterthought. It was a delicate red teardrop, smaller than his thumbnail. The dainty and beautiful charm didn't even vaguely match the crude metal chain upon which it hung. He became mesmerized, wanting to crawl inside of all the redness and swim around.
The big redhead touched his shoulder, startling him out of his hypnotic tangent.
"Do you like it?"
Callum handed it back. His head was starting to clear, the buffer of the drug weakening. "I don't want your fucking necklace, Lurch. Sorry, but I'm weird about people drugging me without my consent."
"I'm sorry about the opium, Callum, but it was necessary. If you're going to accept this gift, you need to do...see something that will make you understand what you're accepting. It can be a jarring experience without a bit of pharmaceutical help."
Callum pointed at him. "You're a freak."
The giant raised the necklace. "You don't believe I'm sincere."
"Go fuck yourself, psycho, I'm outta here."
Callum stood and found that his legs agreed to hold him this time. He felt stupid, wandering away from his asshole friends only to end up shacked up in this wagon with a mentally unstable jeweler. He lunged for the curtain but the stranger grabbed his shirt and yanked him back, slamming him into the seat. Callum gasped. The redhead loomed over him like a tower of flesh.
"What the hell do you want from me?"
"C'mon Callum, do you really think you just happened to stumble across your painting today?"
Callum tensed. "What do you want?"
"Put this pendant on, if you want your dreams of being a successful artist to be realized."
Callum stared at the man, then let out a cold laugh as something occurred to him. He slapped himself in the forehead. "Oh my god, I'm such an idiot! Did Thomas and Walter set this up? I get it. Let's all make fun of the poor starving artist. You know what? You can go fuck your--"
"SHUT UP!" Larr's voice played Ping-Pong with the wooden walls.
Callum went still, arm hairs standing at attention.
"I'm sorry," the stranger said, his features smoothing out again. "I apologize." He shook his head, frustrated. "This gift is meant for you, Callum. If you don't want it, I'll let you leave, no questions asked. But seriously--take a good, close look at it before you make your decision. That's all I ask." He held the necklace in front of Callum's face.
"What are you gonna do now? Hypnotize me?"
"Just look at it," Larr said through clenched teeth. His pale skin stretched tight against his jutting bones.
Callum's boldness wilted. He looked at the blood colored stone. Again he found himself wanting to become tiny, so he could swim inside of it. An odd tingling tickled his stomach, then the world flashed red and the wagon was gone.
He was in the center of a spacious, ornately lit room. Smartly dressed people milled around drinking champagne, the cologne-scented air moving as they brushed past.
"What's happening?" he asked, but his voice was small and far away. He studied the sprawling chandeliers and fancy drapes. The scent of smoked oysters found his nose, real enough to make his mouth water. A waiter weaved through the crowd handing out hors d'oeuvres.
Nobody seemed to notice Callum, who stood in the center of the gathering wearing shorts and sandals. People congregated along the walls, examining artwork. Callum wandered over and stood behind a couple studying a huge painting. He peered between the couple's shoulders at the piece, knowing somehow that it was one of his, although he also knew it was one he had not yet painted.
"What's happening?" he said again.
The woman turned to ask the man beside her a question, and Callum was momentarily given a full view. He saw his signature on the bottom corner. Callum E. Doherty.
His head swam. Looking around the room, he saw the walls filled with his paintings, a gallery show. Some of the pictures he remembered but some he didn't, although he recognized them still as being his own.
"Callum! Callum over here!" a voice behind him beckoned. He turned around and saw a dark haired man in a tuxedo waving to him. He did not know the man.
"I'll be right there, Silas!" a voice behind him said. He spun back around and the man and woman had turned in his direction. He went numb. The man was himself. He looked into his own face and nearly wet his shorts.
"What's happening?" he asked a third time, watching his own tuxedo-clad body walk past without seeing him. The other him had his straight auburn hair slicked back into a ponytail, a delicate diamond stud pierced into his earlobe. He followed himself across the room and watched as the other Callum took a glass of champagne and joined the stranger who'd been summoning him.
"That's me," he whispered.
Another man joined the little group, and they lifted their glasses, toasting Callum's strange clone. "To Callum," the dark haired stranger said. "Congratulations, Cal." The group clinked glasses and Callum watched himself smile as he took a long sip of champagne.
Then he was in the jewelry wagon again, gasping, suffocating. He felt Larr's strong fingers digging into his shoulders. "Breathe, Callum. Breathe!"
Callum gulped in air. It felt like someone punched him in the gut. He clung to the edge of the chair, head between his knees. When he finally caught his breath, he looked up at the ginger giant. "What did you do? What was that?" he whispered.
Larr shrugged. "That was your future, should you choose to accept it."
Callum swayed, queasy. "More drugs? Hypnosis?"
"If you take this pendant and agree to wear it unconditionally, then you can have the future you want--the future you just saw. If you don't accept this gift, then your career will be unfulfilled. Regardless of your talent."
Callum shook his head. "Are you some mutant fairy godmother?"
Larr scowled. "I am no fairy. There are conditions. Once you clasp this chain around your neck, your fortune will change. But if you remove it, even once, it will stop working. You have got to keep it on."
Callum eyed the necklace. "Got it; if I put it on, I can't take it off. What else?"
Larr adjusted his robe. "That's it."
"So what do you get out of this?"
"Nothing you need be concerned with. I will benefit from this transaction, but not in a way that affects you."
Callum looked at the charm, then back up at Larr. "I don't enjoy being the butt of a joke."
Larr sighed. "If that's true, then you don't want to hear what your friends are saying about you."
Callum frowned and stood up. He walked to the curtain. This time the big man didn't attempt to stop him. Callum pulled the curtain open.
Daylight cut a beam into the dimness. The concert was still in full swing. Over at the beer tent, he caught sight of Thomas and Walter walking off with the girls they befriended.
"They've discarded you," Larr said.
Callum spun back. "They just don't know where I am. I'm sure they're looking for me."
The giant laughed. "Really. You want to put a bet on that? Have a listen."
Suddenly Callum could hear Thomas's laughter and Walter's voice as though they were the only two speaking in the massive crowd. "It's not Cal's fault he's a loser. You should have met his parents. Psycho city." The raucous giggles of the girls pierced through Callum's skull, making him cover his ears until the normal sounds of the crowd elevated to drown them out. He turned back to Larr. "Was that really them talking?"
"It was." He made an exaggerated frown. "Making fun of your childhood, of all things. How cold. Won't it be wonderful to see their envy when your success blows theirs away?"
"How did you do that?"
"They mock you every day, Callum. They use you as a tool to get laughs. They pity you. They patronize you. They enjoy watching you struggle. Thomas and Walter do not care about you. In fact, sometimes they talk as though they hate you."
Callum went cold. "How do you know their names?"
The giant said nothing. He held out the necklace. Callum peeked back out the curtain and saw his friends walking toward the parking lot with the two women. They were leaving without him. Bastards. This was not the first time they'd done so. They left him in a crowded pub just last month, their excuse being they couldn't find him when a group of girls invited them to a party. Cal had been playing pool nearby. They simply hadn't wanted him tagging along, cramping their style.
The familiar rejection turned to rage, hot and gripping. As he watched Walter and Thomas's distant forms grow smaller, the anger surged from the most private place inside of him, the place where his art came from. He turned and looked at the tall stranger.
"Bastards," he whispered. "I'm done being a joke."
Larr nodded. "I know, Callum." He unhooked the clasp of the necklace. Callum bent his head, and the man clasped the chain around his neck. He stepped back.
Callum fingered the little red stone that now dangled below his Adam's apple. The stone felt warm. He looked up at the ginger giant.
Larr shrugged. "Paint."