It was one of those lurid August days, all haze and steam, the sun hidden and stewing like a shameful lust. I dropped the kickstand, locked the Cruiser to the no parking sign, and wiped the glaze of sweat off my face and neck. Thrash was at my side (I'd doubled him along), and we shared a quiet look before heading in.
As we stepped through the glass front doors, the chill from the air-conditioning slapped me like I'd mouthed off. But that was good. It gave me a jolt, woke me up. There wasn't anyone at the front desk, so we hung a left and tiptoed down the pale gray corridor, sticking close to the wall. The Oakshade Retirement Home bragged about cleanliness in its brochures, and to back it up they made sure every inch of the place always reeked of rubbing alcohol and used rubber gloves. Some of the janitors said that if you stayed there long enough, the smell alone could make you sick, or even kill you. Not me, though. I loved that goddamn smell.
We slipped past a few cocked and shadowed heads lolling on the backs of Naugahyde furniture in the TV room, and then double-timed it through a quick Z-shaped turn on the left. I knew the way. I'd been there plenty of times before, enough to know to keep the sneaker-squeaks to a minimum, to pass open doorways without looking in, and never to stop to talk to anyone for anything, even if someone cried out for help. If I did, I'd be spotted, ambushed, corralled, a mob of them materializing out of nowhere, shuffling through the half-lit halls like zombies, penning me in. And then I'd be stuck getting pawed and petted and pinched for who knew how long.
Sure, it was risky, and even riskier with two of us instead of just one. But I wasn't worried that Thrash would give us away. He was the quiet type, the heavy; the brawn in the background who never seemed to move or make a sound except when damage needed to be done. He wasn't very big or much to look at, but he was expert at laying low, blending in, and holing up somewhere just out of sight until the time was right to strike. Not that I'd ever turn him loose on the bags of bones clattering around this joint--that just wouldn't be fair. No, right now Thrash knew he was just along for the ride, and I'd do all the talking.
We turned at the last room on the left. I rapped once on the door, opened it, and was greeted by two expectant eyes staring back at me. Her wheelchair was on the far side of the bed, in the corner by the window, and she was in it. Her wig was putty-colored and mangled and tilted too far to the right, and she'd forgotten to pencil an eyebrow over her left eye. The whole effect was like her head was sliding off to one side. She looked smaller than usual, crooked. But at least she had her teeth in.
"Genie!" she cried, smiling, opening her arms to me.
"It's Eug," I corrected her, pronouncing it "Huge," because that's what I called myself.
"Huge? What's wrong with Genie? It's a perfectly good--"
"Can it, sweetheart, you got no eyebrow," I leveled.
"Oh." She frowned. "See my purse?" She pointed. "When you hand it to me, you can give your Toots some sugar."
The woman had a one-track mind; she always wanted her sugar. I grabbed the red leather bag hanging on the closet doorknob, dropped it in her lap, and laid one on her. Her skin was cool, dry, and loose against my lips. Thrash was slouched over in the wooden chair on the opposite side of the bed, near the door, and out of the corner of my eye I caught that smirk of his. But I didn't mind giving her what she wanted, and I didn't give a damn who saw.
"There, that's better," she cooed, her knobby hands trembling as she held up a compact and drew a thin arch over her left brow. She seemed so pleased with the result that I didn't have the heart to tell her the pink over her left eye didn't match the purple over her right. "So..." She turned her eyes back to me. "How are you getting along?"
Excerpted from Huge by James Fuerst Copyright © 2009 by James Fuerst. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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