Robert M Brown

"Happy Birthday to me," I said and raised my glass, saluting my tiny apartment, full to bursting with scabby garage sale furniture and mounds of books, but empty of life and hope. I knocked back the shot of cheap Canadian whiskey and grimaced at its harshness. My thirty-fifth birthday. When had birthdays stopped being something to celebrate and become a funeral for another wasted year?

I poured another shot.

My job had gone overseas a year before, like all the others I was qualified for. Amy and my savings left together not long after that. No more unemployment for me. There were other forms of assistance that I could apply for, but I hadn't. I lacked the strength and will to further delay the inevitable. What was the point? The overwhelming futility of life had simply worn me out.

There was a knock at the door. I ignored it. Downed the second shot and dumped a box of bullets onto the table. The wicked-looking hollow-points rolled in circles as I poured a third shot.

My mother's death, just a couple weeks ago, was icing on the cake. We had not been close in recent years, in part because of her crazy mystical ideas, but she was still the only family I had. My friends had all drifted away over the years, one or two at a time.

Time wears away everything, sooner or later.

I took up my pistol, popped out the empty magazine and downed the third shot. My stomach, empty but for the caustic booze, began to burn.

That damned knocking again. "Go away!" I shouted.

"Gregory Adams?" came a voice. "I have a package for you. From your mother."

It was after midnight and my mother was in no condition to send packages even if it were an hour when delivery services were working.

The room spun a bit as I stood, and strange shadows flickered in the corners of my vision. I kicked my way through the clutter and opened the door.

There was no one there.

"Down here."

I looked down, took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, then looked again. There was a gnome looking up at me. About eighteen inches tall, face like something carved from a dried apple, wearing jeans and a tiny leather jacket. He carried a small box in his hands.

"What the hell are you?" I asked.

"Bendith Cluricaun is who I am," he said. "Cold and wet is what I am." He looked pointedly at the foggy parking lot behind him. Drizzling rain seeped down through the chill air and formed oily puddles on the pavement.

"Oh. Sorry. Uhm, come in." I stepped aside. He entered and I closed and locked the door. The gnome looked around my apartment and said, "Fire your decorator."

I decided to ignore the fact that my guest was a mythical creature who could not really be standing there and act as if he were any other late night visitor. "What, you don't like Early Garage Sale?"

"Ha." Bendith looked up at me and he must have mistaken the bemusement on my face for some other emotion. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm pretty sure I lost them."

This did not clarify the situation for me.

"That's good," seemed a safe thing to say, so I said it.

Bendith made his way through the detritus to my coffee table. He pushed aside some stray bullets and set down the package. He looked at the bullets, the whiskey, and the pistol, and then at me. "I see you're ready for trouble. I'm impressed. Your family always was sharp, though."

I sat down on the couch and poured myself another shot. Maybe it would help these hallucinations go away. I remembered my manners and offered the bottle to my guest. "Have some?"

"Thanks." He grinned, took the bottle in both hands and knocked back an impressive dose of Canada's cheapest. "Damn. That doesn't just hit the spot, it knocks it down, kicks it, and tosses it out the door."

I swallowed and closed my eyes while the burning settled down to a moderate simmer. My mouth was becoming numb, which helped. "Not to be rude, Bendith," I said when I could talk again, "but could you tell me who you are and why you're here?"

"Oh." He hopped up onto the table and sat there cross-legged, frowning at me from under the shrubbery of his eyebrows. "Well, my people--my clan you might say--were friends of your mother. We helped each other. She asked me to get this package to you."

How absurd. I would have known. . . . A faint memory tickled at the dark reaches of my mind. A dream, I thought, but one which still lingered thirty years later. "I remember waking up once," I said slowly. "I saw little . . . people. Dancing. In the living room, across the hall from my bedroom. But that couldn't. . . ." My denial of the memory faltered as I looked at the little man sitting on my coffee table.

He smiled. "I think I know the night you're talking about. Your mother had baked up some of her special brownies and we had a grand time till the small hours of the morning."

I began to build a tower of bullets, to keep my hands occupied in a way other than pouring another drink. "Were you with my mother when she died?" I asked.

Bendith looked away. "No. Some others of my people were, but she sent me away with this." He tapped the package. "It was madness, what she did. No offense. Brave, oh yes. She went up against the Baron in Black with nothing but her native wit and will. Very brave, but. . . ." He took another drink from the bottle, propping it on one knee and leaning way back. "None of my people came back from that one either," he said sadly.

"The Baron in Black?"

"He's a, well, what you might call a power. Someone to be reckoned with." Bendith shuddered. "I wouldn't care to go up against him."

"Oh." I frowned. "And my mother went unarmed to face him? Why?"

Bendith smiled, his ugly face scrunching up painfully. "Well, not quite unarmed now that you mention it. She may have had a few wee Molotov Cocktails with her."

That sounded like my mother.

"As for the why, that's a more complicated thing. The best I can tell you right now is that she thought someone had to do it." He drank again, draining an astonishing amount of whiskey though he had to lay back almost flat to do it. "She was right too, if you ask me. The Baron is one of those people who think they can do anything that no one can stop them from doing, if you understand me."

I nodded. I'd known the type, though I did not then know how far the Baron in Black had followed his whims, or what power he had to enforce them.

"Maybe this will tell me more," I said and picked up the package Bendith had brought. It was small, about the size of a paperback book, wrapped in brown paper and taped shut. I took out my pocket knife and slit the tape. The paper joined the other trash on the floor and I opened the box.

Inside there was only a folded piece of paper and a bit of silver chain. I opened the note.

"I know this last year has been hard for you," it read. "I hope this helps. Happy Birthday. Love, Mom." That was all.

End Excerpt

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