The Boot Scraper
Blind with exhaustion, J'ai'allee Olderman rode the Wild North Winds, hopping from wind to wind down the laylines of time. She had no strength left—not for battle, not for survival, not for thinking. She let her Luck take her where it needed her to go. All she could do was trust that it would keep her safe. Stepping off when the moment seemed right, she found herself standing in front of her childhood home.
J'ai cursed softly. This was the last place she wanted to be. She ignored the half dozen feral cats that scattered in alarm at her appearance and warily eyed the two dust colored wolfhounds who rose from their shady bower under the alders and slunk resentfully off into the tall grass. They were old and scarred from many a battle with the demon wolves who haunted the shadows around the house. Some of their wounds looked fresh. J'ai scowled thoughtfully. It was not hard to puzzle out. The waves of the war she had been fighting traveled far and lapped at the shores of every alter-dimension. Even in this remote place, battles raged.
Her exhaustion caught up with her. J'ai shuddered. She now stood on the high plains of Montana. Sort of. She also had one foot in dozens of other realities, depending on how you twisted your mind around to view such things. The abandoned farm house with the broken ridge-line was not real. She squinted, trying to see past the illusions that hung like tattered curtains over the ancient stone house which was the core bit of truth. The original house, built a thousand years before, high upon the wind-swept moors of a place called Sterling Bridge in Scotland had long since fallen into ruin, the roof gone, the walls tumbled to rubble heaps. The remains were a haunt for tourists and English children playing at being witches. None of the family visited the historic home-site anymore. Back when the stones were new, war had forced the Laird of Olderman Castle to move his house time and again. Viking wars. Irish wars. Clan Wars. Rebellions against the British. Every time a war began to boil around them, he instructed the family sorcerers to pick up the house and send it some-when else.
War followed them. Demon hounds became a permanent fixture in the shadows on the moors. Finally, tired of the genocide, tired of watching his women being burned upon the pyres, Grandfather harnessed the winds and brought the stone house to the Americas. Three hundred years they tried to make a go of it here. They moved often. A bit of an illusion still clung to a random stone ruin in Newfoundland. A bit more clung to the top of an Appalachian mountaintop, the ruin of the log cabin long since burnt and turned to ash.
The New World was full of pragmatic people who did not cotton to the ways of witches and sorcerers. Mobs burned the house on the bluffs above the Ohio river. Slaves burned the plantation house outside of New Orleans. Tired of wars, the bloodline of the old Aunties began to thin. The house in the Minnesota woods was still full of relatives but they had forgotten the druidic ways. J'ai did not visit them much for they looked out at the world with dead eyes.
She studied the external illusion of the farmhouse. Paint flaked off the clapboards and the trees in the windbreak were crowned with halos of dead branches. Time was catching up with her Grandfather's house if even the illusions aged.
Dust sifted through the air around her. It was the remnants of a thousand battles from a thousand wars and she shed it like a molting chicken shed feathers. J'ai shook out her kilt, pounded on her armor, and stomped hard on the cracked sidewalk, turning her boots from a dusty gray to dark umber. She kicked the toes of her boots against the cement stairs and used the boot scraper to get the blood and dung from the bottom of her boot-heels. The dung was horse. The blood was demon.
J'ai studied the stoop. Riding boots, leather hiking boots, and rubber Wellingtons stood in a line by the back door. The footwear belonged to her family. Ghosts, they were. She considered kicking off her own footwear, meaning to place them in that line but thought better of it. It was an ill omen to place herself alongside the dead. Who knew what kind of welcome was waiting for her inside. She might have to make a hasty retreat and it would not do to ride the winds barefoot.
The mudroom was full of cardboard boxes stuffed with discarded boots and galoshes. The wall hooks hung heavy with coats and scarves faded the same color as the old cardboard. Everything was dusty. The morning sun, streaming in around her back, highlighted the air, air so still the dust just hung there, as if frozen in time.
J'ai locked her fist around the hilt of the short sword at her side and used her left hand to try the door into the house. It was not locked.
Her stomache sank. The house was usually not so welcoming, especially to her. She opened it.
“Hello, the house,” she called. There was no response but she heard something heavy moving in the rooms beyond. Everyone she knew had long since died and turned to dust. The house should have been empty but the kitchen smelled of coffee and bacon. Something was baking in the oven. The ancient radio, caught in its own time loop, still played the same program it had first played long ago when it was new. J'ai recognized the voice of Patsy Cline.
She slipped silently into the dining room. It smelled of cinnamon. Someone had made cinnamon rolls. They stood cooling on a metal rack in the center of the giant table amid a pool of melted sugar. Dust hung heavy in the air even here but this time it might have been flour dust. Nostalgia swept through her. Her mother had done that. Made rolls and buns and loaves. It had been a Friday ritual. But her mother was dead and buried.
“I made you breakfast but you are late so I fed it to the dogs,” Grandmother said reproachfully.
J'ai eased around the corner and nodded at the lumpy form in the overstuffed chair. “Grandmother,” she said. J'ai called her Grandmother out of respect. The woman was old, older than anyone could reckon. The pervasive dust seemed to settle in the wrinkles of her face and the folds of her neck. Her hair was not white but that odd, dusty color of faded red. She had been a fixture in this house for as long as anyone could remember. J'ai suspected she was easily a thousand years old and had come across the Atlantic with the druidic spell that had brought the house.
“Your dogs seem much abused. The demons have found you again, I see. Is it time to move?”
A dusty lump of clothing on the couch snorted, muttered in his sleep, shifted a bit, and then settled again to continue snoring. Grimy knees poked out from under the hem of a dusty kilt. Uncle Doug. She had never actually seen him awake. A rum-runner by profession, legend said he fell asleep not long after the repeal of Prohibition and had never woken up again.
“Where could we move that they would not find us again?” Grandmother asked, sending an annoyed glare towards Doug.
“I am sure we could think of something,” J'ai said. The timer went off in the kitchen. Another batch of cinnamon rolls was done. J'ai returned to the kitchen to rescue them. She thought about leaving but the back door to the mud room had convieniently disappeared. J'ai closed her eyes and cursed silently. Despite her wishes, the door remained stubbornly hidden. The house despised her and yet it would not allow her to leave.
When she came back to the dinning room, she had a roll slathered in melting butter in one hand and a glass of cold milk from the refrigerator in the other. Taking a huge bite, she grimaced. It tasted like dust but she was famished. She finished it in three gulps. As was the nature of these time-loop illusions, it filled her, satisfying her hunger, though the food existed on a solitary time-line that only she remembered. The ghost of her mother flitted through the air, visible only out of the corner of her eyes.
The groaning from the chair caught her attention. Her grandmother had shaken off half her fat and risen to her feet. Uncle Doug held her elbow.
“Uncle Doug?” J'ai said in surprised disbelief.
Doug was now resplendent in a sharkskin suit the color of gunmetal and slicked back hair. A shoulder holster and a gun ruined the fall of the shiny gray material across his broad shoulders.
“What are we doing?” J'ai asked, placing the glass and plate carefully on the dinning room table. The table very obligingly swallowed them. Somehow the oil cloth tablecloth had turned into brocade linen.
“We are moving, you silly child,” Grandmother said. “As you suggested.”
“I did not …. I was tired ....” J'ai sighed in resignation. “Where?”
“To the place you have made for us. To the place where the demon wolves will not follow with so many warriors to guard our back. You were right to choose that city.”
J'ai shook her head. “I am not sure what you are talking about. I have made nothing.”
“We are going to your house,” Uncle Doug said with a rakish grin as he guided Grandmother towards the front door. They never actually managed to get anywhere near that portal as the room moved and shifted around them.
“No, you are not.” J'ai said firmly.
“Too late,” said Uncle Vernon, coming in from the kitchen. “The dogs have already decided.” There was the sound of dog nails on tile and two pugs trotted happily into the living room. As she watched, their tattered ears healed and their scars faded. Uncle Vernon's dust-colored overalls became a limo driver's uniform.
J'ai glanced over at the old woman. The dust in grandmother's neck creases became strings of pearls. The farm dress became a Coco Chanel suit. Hopelessly outdated but very chic even in its old age.
J'ai spun around as the light shifted. The rustic kitchen was now her own, all polished aluminum and white enamel. Not everything stayed the same. The red oak boards under her toes was not the pristine pale tile of her apartment. Nor was the black walnut wall paneling. J'ai glanced out the wall of windows of the living room. She recognized the towers and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean beyond them. They now stood in a high rise in downtown San Diego.
“I liked the white walls and the tile floors,” J'ai complained.
“Your cold heart is telling. Embrace the warmth. Maybe you will attract a husband with it tonight at the party,” Grandmother said with an amused snort as Uncle Doug settled her onto the stylish red couch. J'ai wrinkled her nose at the garish color and thought to change it. She was out of practice. She stopped trying when all she could accomplish was a deep purple paisley pattern that hurt the eyes and offended her sense of style.
“Party? This used to be a third story walk-up. I have no room for a party.”
“I've added a few stories to your building. You live in the penthouse. Look around. This is just the parlor. The dinning room and ballroom are more than big enough.”
“Ballroom? That's crazy.” J'ai wanted to argue further but the change in her clothing had her distracted. The heavy leather armor and chain mail had turned into a short, skin-tight dress covered with 20 pounds of pearls and silver sequins sewn on in great arcs and swirls. The work of a famous designer no doubt. J'ai resisted the urge to look for a name tag. The woolen kilt became gossamer silk, the drape of the fabric hiding the thigh holster. The long sleeves hid throwing knives. She wiggled her hips. The fabric slid unimpeded across her naked love mound. Grandmother had given her a Brazilian.
“I am dressed like a gangster's moll.”
“You can hardly be called a moll if you are running the business, can you?” Uncle Doug observed.
“I'm what? Never mind. Why have you shaved me?”
Uncle Doug choked.
“The house did what you would have done had you given it a thought,” Grandmother chided. J'ai eyed her for a moment and then huffed in annoyance.
A half dozen of the Minnesota aunties shimmered into existence dressed as servers, holding trays of hors d'oeuvres. Two of her uncles took up their stations behind the bar. They had been rocket scientists back in their day. Now they all looked appropriately nonplussed at their demotion to barman. When did she get a bar? Couples began to spontaneously spawn throughout her apartment. They seemed confused until Uncle Doug caught up their hands and guided them over to Grandmother to make introductions. By the time granny was done they had detailed memories of events and choices that led them to this apartment.
J'ai went to the bar and took the martini handed to her. It was pale green, having been made with herbal vermouth and it tasted of sage and holly and rainforest greenery.
Her grandmother found her there, dragging an impeccably groomed man behind her. “There you are dear. This is a friend of your fathers. Daniel Corso. They have a long history of business dealings. He has a son much your age who wants to learn his father's business. He is lost somewhere in this impossible press of people. I expect great things of the pair of you.”
J'ai snorted. “Don't hold your breath,” she breathed into her glass as she drank deep of her rainforest martini. She had lost track of her age. It was somewhere between 20 and 920. In all that time she had never met a lover she had not eventually killed.
“Now dear. Do not get all prickly.” Grandmother patted Daniel Corso's arm. “She has had her heart broken too often. Now she has a wall around it to keep it safe.”
“Grandmother!” J'ai snapped. “He does not need to know that.” What did the old woman know about her broken heart?
Corso wanted to talk business. Something to do with smuggling and black-market sales. Easing away, J'ai left them and wandered into what used to be her bedroom. She opened the door into her closet, thinking to change into slacks. The house had turned it into a spiral staircase leading to the roof. Taking the steps two at a time, she emerged into the cool night air. She found a pair of recliners set amid planters and sat down.
The lump of blankets on the next chair snorted and shifted and became a young man where there had been nothing before.
“Shit!” she said, jumping. Her hand went automatically for her sword until she remembered she no longer carried such a weapon.
“Hello,” he said, turning to study her with impossibly blue eyes.
“Shit,” she repeated, her hand sliding between her legs.
The young man watched her hand with interest. “Is that an invitation? Did I miss a cue? Are we about to become lovers?”
“Don't be an idiot,” J'ai said, pulling out the small pistol.
“Oh. Ahem. Sorry. Yes, I see. Have I invaded some private space here?”
Talk of love-making made her nether regions tingle. The house reminded her that she still sported a Brazilian and it had been close to a century since she had had a lover. She had never made love with a naked love mound before. Curious, J'ai got off the lounger and loosened the fastenings at her shoulders. The dress dropped heavily to the roof tiles, sending up a cloud of dust. “Make love to me,” she commanded.
“Eh? Ooh, OK,” the blue-eyed boy said, sliding his hand between her legs. She freed his manhood and vanished his pants with the house's help. Then she settled upon his erectoin. “I don't ….”
“Just shut up and make love to me.”
“Oh. OK. Alright. Ooof.”
Afterward, as she collapsed on top of him, he tried to make small talk.
“My name is Danny Corso, if you were wondering.”
J'ai cursed. Fucking house. All up in her business. “I don't care,” she growled, rising up on her knees to chew on his lip, hoping to silence him. It brought about another round of love making.
Uncle Doug moved out of the shadows to watch her. She scowled at him as if to warn him off. Other than that, she chose to ignore him. Looking down, J'ai studied the beautiful line of the boy's jaw as Danny suckled at her breast. He would be a welcome diversion.
One of the pugs popped into existence, wiggling excitedly. J'ai cursed and pulled her throwing knives from her sleeve. A demon folded space at the edge of the roof and stepped down into her tiled garden. Uncle Doug was already moving, pulling a long sword from a pocket of reality at his back. She flicked the blades across the roof, burying them in the demon's eyes. Uncle Doug stepped in and beheaded it.
The sharp report of her pistol cut through the air. She looked down at Danny where he crouched upon the tiles, half naked, the pistol still pointed at the rift in space/time as he expected more demons to follow.
“That's mine,” she said, tugging it from his hands. He did not want to give it up at first but let her have it when she insisted.
“I was not comfortable making love to you with a pistol on your person,” the boy said.
“Wise,” grunted Uncle Doug as he wiped his blade upon a throw rug.
J'ai tossed the gun into the air where it promptly disappeared. Much to her annoyance, the house retrieved it and it reappeared in her thigh holster. Danny noted this and grunted. She was pleased by his lack of hysterics.
Maybe she could introduce him to time travel and take him with her. Maybe the house would use him against her and she would be forced to kill him as she had done with all her other lovers. Whatever the case, she was stuck here until the house got bored. In another hundred years perhaps she might escape. There had to be a dimension where the house did not exist yet. She just had to work her way backwards in time until she found the boot-scraper.