30. EPILOGUE – Mais de Portraits

“Gracious guests!”

It was Christmas in the year of 3005. Synthetic snow chopped through the skies of Las Vegas, twinkled past neon signs and a gaudiness that had neither faltered nor improved in over a millennium. Up and down the boardwalk went sad gamblers, honeymooners, town clowners, bucket-listers, and impersonators of celebrities of the distant and not-so-distant past. For the first time in what seemed an eternity, a few of those streetsteppers lacked dog ears.

In this transitional age, yesterday’s “monster” was today’s celebrity! Perhaps someday the pendulum of passionate hatred and patronizing love would cease its swing, and settle in the middle over a point of understanding. Until then, Trials would ride the wave of fame!

She was one of three acts in a carnivalesque variety show. After the trapeze and a dancing ape-man, there was her role—and, as they were not yet sure how to take advantage of her magical abilities, they had her pretend to be the wisecracking puppet on someone’s lap. “What are you, kitten me?” she said to packed houses—and to the tune of five billion dollars a night (in future dollars, so not very much, but she’s a cat, she doesn’t have rent to pay).

Tonight she went wandering the Vegas strip, as she was wont to do. She knew better than to go out strolling as a black cat, so, using the Tabby-Babby-Crabby spell, she changed the colors of her fur. She took a break under a roof of flashing bulbs, under the message, “NEW VAUDEVILLE—APE DUDE, TIGHTROPE DANCING, JOKES AND FUNNIES WITH THE AMAZING CAT!” Squinting through Vegas legs, she watched the cars pass and the feet step off. Here came a familiar pair of stack heels. Trials liked knowing her fans, and was enchanted to know that this particular fan had come for the twenty-seventh time!

And here was another familiar sight: pinstripe pants and daring suede shoes. But whose? If only she could see above the shins! Then she would recognize the wearer right off!

Wait…what’s this? As the car door behind those legs opened all the way, it released a blast of saltwater!

The crowd shrieked! Trials skittered and jumped out of the way – the water merely grazed her tail. Now, instead of exhaust, a new, sweet-smelling breeze hung in the air…an island breeze! Rejoice, Trials, for here is an old friend!

The crowd, disturbed by the salty tide, parted for Robert; Trials trotted just behind his heels. Unperturbed, the fishman walked up to the ticket booth, his pipe bubbling with a low gurgle. Once he had made his purchase and asked whether he could see the stars up close (rejected!), Trials got his attention with a Thumb-Lumb-Tumb spell, which nicked him in the neck and bounced away.

Robert whirled, ready to see a heckler. Instead, he found the cattiest cat to ever cat, a patterned tabby sitting sweetly.

“What brings you here?” she asked.

“I hope that’s a rhetorical question. Long time no see, Trials! I wanted to surprise you, but we should’ve known it’s not so easy getting something past you.”

“So it’s a whole surprise party just for me!?”

“Did I say ‘we?’ I meant…” Robert gave up with a shrug and a grin. “You got us hook, line, and sinker.” He fished out a card more fitting for Halloween than for Christmas, decorated as it was with orange bats and green-eyed cats, and handed it to Trials, who caught it between her round forepaws. “Dracula didn’t share a guest list, but when he throws a party, it’s go big or go home.”

“Me-wow!”

The party was to start directly after the show; Robert sat patiently in the back rows of the act, not exactly enjoying anything on display but more than willing to support a companion. He did notice, with a little satisfaction, that this carnival act did not treat its members as mockable freaks. Though the ape-man was labelled as simply an ape-man, and not, say, Elroy Apeman, he was lauded for his skills, not poked and prodded for his looks. When the gorilla did his dance, even the jaded Robert got to clapping…clapping in the name of societal progress!

At the end came Trials and her “master.” While the werewolf who held her on his lap glugged water, Trials quipped, “Water you, kitten me?”

The crowd rejoiced, but Robert shook his head. He could have written a multitudinous critical essay about the complicated social issues inherent in this show!

They were interrupted. Just as an attendant set a potted plant in front of the performers (presumably so that Trials could repeat “water you, kitten me” while pointing a paw at the plant), there pealed a ringing of bells, the sound and essence of powdered snow. All on stage stopped; their heads and opposable ears swiveled.

A chill went through the audience—but ‘twould become a festive chill, for ‘twas the season, after all.

Ever since the ignominious desertion of Santa Claus, people had given each other presents on this day, hoping to forget, but never to forgive, the jolly man who had forsaken them for frankly random animals; thereby some festivity remained in the winter holiday.

This, however, was the site of the Christmas revolution! In a quick blaze of polar vortex action, there on the stage materialized a hearty, healthy Santa Claus and his open sleigh, complete with eight reindeer! Now together with the ringing bells were gasps and the sounds of delirious fainters—those whose past experience with magic was purely sleight-of-hand!

Trials’ assistant was bluntly terrified, and he, too, fainted outright, forcing the feline to drag him offstage by the collar. This was just as well, for it gave the two-dozen elves ample room to spread out. Short people in green caps and stockings scurried out of his sleigh, bearing gifts in bowy cubes, tossing and kicking them to an audience that knew not what to say, if it was even conscious. Those who caught and opened their gifts, however, were bewildered in the good way, for the gifts were magnificent! All the while, the reindeers’ saddlebound amps pumped out a holiday-themed bopper, its vocals sung by a gyrating Saint Nick!

By the time the New Vaudeville showrunners had finally yanked him, his sleigh, and every individual elf away via comically long hooked canes, the audience had really come around. While the first impression had been lukewarm, applause now came like a hailstorm!

Robert, for his part, gave a standing ovation. Santa’s comeback had gone more smoothly than he expected.

Afterward, Robert met Trials out back, caught up with Santa, hopped in the sleigh, and they were off—sailing high in the sky, far from the madding lights! The magic reindeer, trotting on sheer air, swirled in epic arcs before banking on Bistritz’s prow (I do not know where on a castlebat’s body the ‘prow’ would be). They had arrived in Bistritz’s everlasting night, on a mossy castle porch, and the reindeer fed from a trough of grass and curds. And then…

“Gracious guests!” cried Dracula, who all but swooped up to the front door as soon as Trials pawed the door. He looked peculiarly radiant despite being in full possession of vampiric powers and the sickish pallor they brought; perhaps the mere presence of friends gave him life, which, if true, would make him the truest extravert of all. He embraced Robert, then Santa, then kneeled before Trials and shook her kittycat forepaw.

Fast enough to get the ball rolling but slow enough to permit relaxation, this perfect host Dracula showed his guests to the drawing room they all found so familiar—Robert and Trials thanks to their misadventures, and Mr. Kringle thanks to many madcap antics which ensued prior to the tale you now read, in which Dracula crossed paths with eminent figures from around the known world (though not the known universe).

Already waiting for them, reclined on a sofa, were Jaw and Alice. The former had decided to remain in his werewolf form. For all the disgust it had initially engendered in him, he had come to like it for its convenience. The latter found her human form an existential relief. Her shades sat in her V-neck, half-hidden by her blazer.

The instant they stepped through the door, Jaw had them in his sights. Eagerly, even hungrily, he leapt to his feet and in a handshake snared—Santa Claus! “Santa! Santa. The big daddy of Christmas. I’m such a fan, I never got the chance to tell you. Oh—keep the helmet. Consider it yours.”

“Ho ho ho,” rejoindered Santa, equally surprised and delighted. “What’s all this?”

“We had better sit down,” said Dracula…for he felt a story coming!

Everyone gathered around the fireplace and devoted their complete and utter ears to Jaw—even Trials, who not long ago had totally ignored a tale in the same space.

“My gratitude to Christmas runs deep,” he regaled. “I was just a boy when the big war started.”

“I thought you fought in that war,” said Robert, a hand on his pipe.

“Not that big war, the other big war. My parents, they were vacationing in Europe at the time. Got the best hotel for miles around. Only reason they could afford rooms is on account of the location. Matter o’ fact, the big war was on our hotel’s doorstep. Not a day went by without bombs soaring precariously close to our hotel room window. I didn’t understand what any of it meant; I just liked bombs. I thought it was all gee-willikers cool.

“My parents tried to keep me inside, but I just couldn’t stay cooped up, couldn’t be tamed—it’s like I had a little shark in me even then. Well, one night I ran out the door. Actually I ran out the window, because we weren’t on the ground floor—point is I ran out some opening, and I landed on the ground, and I ran, and ran, and I ended up on the front lines, which were alive with gunfire. My parents screamed for me! ‘No, Petey, don’t! Don’t run headlong into the big war!’

“The minute I got on those front lines, the clock tower of that wonderful hotel twelve feet away struck midnight. Guess what? It was Christmas. Not only that; it was the famous Christmas they make movie flicks about with the Christmas truce. You may recognize me as a character in those flicks: the ‘Christmas truce baby.’”

Santa’s eyes watered with new recognition. “The very same?”

“The very same,” Jaw said proudly. “When I got there and the clock bell tolled, all the shots stopped firing. In fact, any shells that had escaped their barrels just before the bell seemed to fly backward, back in. Bombs in mid-explosion? They faded. All those soldiers at each others’ throats? Their hands fell from their necks to their fingers and they shook on it. Then, seeing me, the lieutenant on duty ran up to me, tousled my hair, and stuck his doughboy helmet on my head. He told me, ‘Have yourself a happy.’

“We may never know his name,” Jaw said with a melancholy smile, “but we will always remember the good that simple act did.”

“Oh,” said Santa, “that was Lieutenant Philip Lumiére.”

“Oh,” said Jaw. “Well, to be honest, I…wasn’t that interested in knowing.”

“Well, you implied that you…”

“That is quite alright, you two,” said Dracula with placating gestures. “Santa Claus has lived at the top of the world in relative isolation for longer than most of us have been in existence! His social skills have something to be desired.”

“Hey!” Santa Claus did not say; he not only agreed, but also could not neglect his festive Christmas ghouls—nor his less festive old-man ghosts—who continued to haunt him on lonely nights. He still meant to find a therapist.

Trials butted in. “Hey, uh, that was heartwarmin’ and all—I mean, before the antisocial ending, which was total catsup—but where’d the elves come from when you completely trashed my New Vaudeville act, potentially ruining my career?” Nobody could tell whether or not she was upset over said career ruination.

“Oh, those elves? They’re clones.”

“…Don’t tell me ya got a clone Mrs. Claus too.”

“No, that one’s an original.”

Dracula was happy to explain. “Mrs. Claus had not been an irradiated corpse for centuries – she had been launched elsewhere on the Pole, far, far away from her spouse, and while she was in constant pain, and eventually locked in the center of an iceberg, they reunited last January!”

“Wow!” cried Jaw, clapping. “Lucky man!”

Soon after Jaw’s saga ended, Robert turned his attention to Alice; each one was sitting at the end of a sofa, close enough to touch the crinkling fire. “Good to see you, Alice. What’s up in the world, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Well, for starters, I’m Mayor Alice,” she said, and a smile briefly twitched on her face.

“Really! How is that?”

“I had been avoiding social interactions in my work for a long time. On the rare occasion I came out from behind my desk, I was screaming at an army of hounds too afraid of Wonderland to look me in the eye. This, I think, is the job for me, though. Maybe it is an illusion, the idea that I can get on even ground with the people of Stone’s Throw; I see the illusion as a challenge, and that challenge,” she added, flexing her wrists, “is an engaging conundrum to beat.”

Robert pursed his lips in momentary meditation. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “The world needs fearless, adaptable leaders like you. But I’m concerned about your health…you know, your sanity.”

“About Wonderland?” She actually laughed aloud then. “They gave up on me, so to speak. What happened is, I changed my tactics. Back when I was preparing my mayor’s office, I set up a tea party in the yard. Perhaps instead of avoiding the Wonderlandoners until they became grotesque superbeings, I was better off making myself a clear target.”

“Sounds very unlike you.”

“Keep in mind I had traps and cages ready to go. I was terribly frightened, really. However, when the Wonderland folks started to appear and saw me refusing to budge and putting my foot down, strangely they didn’t yank me back into their Hell; most of them stayed for tea.”

Stone’s Throw, England…though a small town of the thirty-first century would in former times have been called a megopolis, it was small enough to captivate her. Her former home was gone forever, but there still remained the wind, the weather, even the sorts of trees and honeysuckles through which she ambled in her youth. Slowly its population of werewolves was falling; that was nothing new. What rose were humans, wildlife, and foreigners—tourists and immigrants from another plane.

With a chorus of technological cheeps and chips, Dracula’s cellular phone interrupted! All heads swung like switchblades as he leaped to his feets and made for the captain’s quarters. He cried, “Everyone remain in here! No need for alarm, no need!” Of course, he did not explain what the hubbub was about. He sprinted off, and the group noticed he was wearing Walter Whipple’s shoes. Nowadays he wore the Walters on special occasions; what society called fancy spats, he wore on errands or whilst shuffling ‘bout the house.

Mighty wingbeats signaled that their bat was descending, landing! The beats reverberated through the house, making the visitors all aquiver.

A grand thump brought them to land—specifically to a dock on the coast of Croatia…not that they could see it, lacking, as they did, a window.

Not long afterward, a breathless Dracula re-entered the drawing room, along with a man in a smart suit to rival Robert’s. It was Adam, a long-gone hero! Instead of his conicular hat, he wore aboard his head a pharaoh’s striped headdress, and on his chin a goatee swad in a golden wrap. One eyehole was sealed with a deep red eyepatch, the other with veiny white and pupil gold, bright enough to rival the fire.

The crowd shook hands, touched shoulders, politely rubbed (that was Trials the cat with his shin)! They licked and lathered (which was also Trials)! And then all were a-gabbing about the rumors they had heard about his affairs ever since, and the travails he had weathered. And Dracula showed them to the dining room, for all guests were now assembled, and the clone elves, who had taken their fill just earlier, stood by the hearth playing lounge music.

As the party entered, Adam mumbled to Dracula, “Such cordiality requires a response of equal politeness, and yet I cannot possibly rise to the task. Forgive me, for I have only fifteen minutes before my next work-related appointment—”

Dracula swatted the air. “We will manage!”

“—at my post in Siberia.”

Now the count began to worry. He cracked his captain’s knuckles. “I thought you only worked in West Europe.”

“I wonder where in the world you heard that,” said Adam lightly. He might have said “where in the universe” and been more accurate, but few knew just how far Dracula’s more recent travels had taken him!

With a flash of his cape, Dracula marched up to the night window and the wooden wheel. Adam decided he would rather spend these fifteen minutes chatting with his friend and savior than eating familiar foods he had long since supped upon; the other guests, who followed, seemed to agree.

So they crowded the deck, holding party platters of funny-shape cheeses and daintied fruits, and as Bistritz whirled onto a wild new course—almost rolling into the brightish evening – Adam rolled through his Q&A.

“Forty-three positions?”

“Just forty-two,” Adam said to Robert. “The World Government and I agree that it would be unfair to have the likes of me-slash-us serving in a single municipal post, as my body parts maintain separate consciousnii. Amun-Ra, however, is not suited to serve in any of the world’s governments. He does monitor the rising and setting of the sun, though—and it does not always rise on time, to my surprise and yours.”

“Interesting,” said Robert with a nodert. “This may be poor wording on my part, and maybe I’m not thinking from the right place…but how does it feel to be working with people who mistreated you for so long? For the enemy?”

“It is…” Adam took a deep breath and a sigh. “Complicated. And yet, it is all I ever hoped for. There is more gratitude than one would expect.”

Robert smiled.

“Are you running?” said Dracula.

“From what? Oh…the presidency, that. No, I have no thought of that; it would be unfair, you see. Robert should run.”

“Aw, no!” Robert cried – but even those rock-hard scales could not hide the bashful blush.

“You know,” Dracula exclaimed, “I never cease to be impressed by you. You are a strange kind of vampire, one who deals in darkness and in light. And not only that; you devote yourself to helping people everywhere—humans, no less!—whereas I…I am some sort of playboy vagabond.”

Adam replied, “Would a simpleton have freed me? No – would he have freed two planets?”

Their talk fell to a lull—but a happy lull, a lull of agreement, of perfect sympathy.

“Oh me oh my,” Adam said in nearly a whisper. “I nearly forgot. I have so much going on, you see…”

Dracula twitched. “What do you need?”

“Your help, perhaps, in the coming days; but let me begin at the beginning, and end with my all-too-hasty drop into Siberia…

“One week ago (or was it two?), I stopped E—Helen—as we were leaving a constitutional convention.

Jaw wolf-whistled—and the rest, with their critical stares, straightaway admonished him!

“My love for her has faded,” Adam said reflectsomely, “and it is not a matter of either of us being at fault. Indeed, if anyone should be to blame, it is I, for I believed she had to be mine! Our lives took us on separate paths and we drifted; time graced us each with truer friends, and each of us is better for it. The love I had for her is but a memory—and even that was a fantasy, had no chance, for it was so thoroughly inorganic.

“Naturally, we do not keep in touch. I accosted her, however, because I thought she might have some score to settle with Victor Frankenstein. I certainly had mine.”

For the first time in a while, Santa spoke. “My magical observatory may not be in peak condition just yet, but I know for a fact that that man is no longer living!”

Dracula murmured, “He means to cross over.”

“I mean to cross over!” Adam echoed most grandiosely. “Amun-Ra has contacts in the Land of the Dead. If he can negotiate with Anubis, pull a string here and there, why…I might be able to close the book of my tortured origin once and for all!”

What would he say to such a man as Victor? Questions revolved in the party’s minds. None believed that he would speak barbs of vengeance—but whether Dr. Frankenstein would fire his own was another story. To say nothing of Helen’s response; she had never met the doctor!

“Is Helen joining you?” Dracula queried. “She would at least be a powerful ally, for even for gods there are archlords to watch in the depths of the afterlife…”

“No,” Adam said, “but she did wish me the best.”

“Call my when you go,” said the count warmly. “And if I cannot make it…”

Suddenly the bat rocked! Had they hit a temporary gust of turbulence? Not quite—they were right above Siberia, caught in a strangely unforeseen wintrical storm!

The cabin reeled, and the snow buffeted them such that hardly a word they spoke could be deciphered! Still Adam, who scrambled down the hall in search of the emergency exit hatch, managed to hear, “Take the shoes!”

He had entered the dark of one of many cellars when another voice, almost ghostly with distance, added, “And the dresses!”

The dresses? Had Adam heard that correctly? Though he was a fiend with so much friendship to share, there remained parts of his own tangled past that Dracula was fain to broach. If Adam gave it time (as Adam was glad to do), such sad memories would lose their sting, and flower. The result, a felicitous garden, would bloom for lifetimes, its tenderness truer than any book.

The vortex below Bistritz was harmless to Adam. He was numb to ice, untouched by fire, but people he could feel. He fell like a diver without a parachute, to land on welcome snow.

FIN

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Author: Joi

I write, I draw, I do it all

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