A couple of days had gone by since everything that went down at the pharmacy.
Perri had unpacked and seemed to be getting acclimated to her surroundings, although I cautioned her about venturing too far without her pass.
Work was work- Thursday was slaving away over some hot tar to seal some cracks on Route 46. Temperatures that day reached 103, but with the breeze, it only felt like a balmy 96 degrees.
Friday was pretty straightforward. Some speed demon sideswiped the guardrail by Red Arroyo Road a few days prior, so we had to replace the stretch where paint was traded and called it a day from there.
The funny thing was that I STILL hadn’t cashed my check from the Exchange Program after all that time. Besides my meager paycheck, I stopped by the First National Bank of Llano County to deposit the check Smith handed off to me along with all the various instructions concerning Perri. Since it was a Friday, it was no surprise that the bank lobby was pretty crowded. I dutifully waited in line until it was my turn, scrolling through my phone to see if there were any messages from Smith or the others.
The next thing I know is that I hear a familiar voice call out “Next in line, please!“. I couldn’t peg it right away, but I found myself involuntarily cringing at the sound of it.
As soon as I put my phone away and looked up, I could see why.
The teller was the chubby one from the gruesome twosome at Culberson’s the other day.
She was talking to a colleague in the next window when she turned and recognized me.
Honestly, I was at a loss for words. I’m pretty sure I was going to laugh, but before I could do even that, the little door in front of her window slammed shut and she hung out a sign that said ‘NEXT WINDOW PLEASE‘.
At least she didn’t call me ‘birdfucker’ in front of the whole bank.
As it turned out, there was no way for the Exchange Program to legally purchase the debts I incurred fixing up the ranch. However, they still had leverage in that they could decrease my stipend for taking care of Perri if I wasn’t making payments to the bank on time.
So between the two checks, I was able to take a bite out of my loan payment with enough left over for gas, groceries and some drinks at the Spur. And sure enough, not long after I was in the bank my next stop was a few blocks down the street to the Copper Spur. I even planned ahead and bought a change of clothes with me, since my work gear smelled like hot tar.
When I got back into my truck, I slid the key into the ignition and hurriedly began changing. However, instead of starting up the truck right away I find myself listening to the radio.
“This is your KZPI top of the hour news update. Our leading story…..some tense moments on Capitol Hill this afternoon as the Hart Senate Building had been evacuated after an envelope containing a suspicious white powder and a threatening letter was discovered in a senator’s office. Hazmat teams inspected the contents of the envelope and searched the Senate building for any additional parcels before giving the all clear.”
I was about ready to switch the station when the news report continued.
“The parcel was discovered by staffers in Sen McMasterson’s office who quickly notified Capitol police. The two term Senator from New Hampshire was considered a key swing vote in the passage of the Interspecies Exchange Act earlier this year. Although authorities haven’t disclosed the contents of the letter, sources indicate the party that sent the letter and powder was most likely motivated by the Senator’s vote….”
“What’s striking about this is that mail addressed to the senate offices is typically processed off site.” A man who sounded like he was being interviewed by phone explained. “This means this was either missed at the Senate mail processing facility or- more likely- it was hand delivered to the Senate office buildings.”
That doesn’t sound good.
Some belated due diligence before Smith showed up with Perri showed that some Exchange Program field offices being vandalized or getting death threats. Was what happened in the Senate today an escalation?
Or maybe I’m overthinking things. The perpetrator could just as easily be some crusading SJW or militia nutjob- all too human and with an axe to grind and willing to risk federal jail time over his or her mail-order antics.
No time to worry about that, though. Might as well put in a somewhat overdue appearance at the Spur.
The sun was beginning to sink low on the horizon when I stepped through the doors of the Copper Spur. Sure enough, Clyde and Cyrus are in their normal places at the bar.
“……..so the Korean businessman turns and asks ‘What do you mean ‘wrong hole’?” Clyde guffawed at the punchline.
“Well now- look who’s here!” Cyrus said as he lifted a mug of beer in my general direction.
“Hey stranger!” Clyde bellowed as he heartily smacked me on the back. “We were starting to wonder if we should put your picture on the side of some milk cartons.”
“If you do, be sure to get my good side.” I reply as I shake both of their hands.
“That might be a little hard to do since your ‘good side’ has been spotted frequently than Bigfoot.” Cyrus said dryly before taking another pull from his mug.
“Hey- speaking of fantastic critters, how’s your houseguest?” Clyde asked. “She didn’t look like a happy camper the last time we saw her.”
“Eh- I got the silent treatment, mostly.” I shrug.
“What have you two been up to, anyway?” Cyrus queries.
“Just showing her around town and getting some follow up questions answered, mostly….”
“How’s she liking it so far?”
“Seems to be adjusting all right. One of the girls from the Exchange Program I talked with is pretty sure the wide open spaces will do her some good compared to her last home.”
“Which was….?” Clyde asks.
“Japan.” I chuckle. “Just the other day we were in Culberson’s-“
“Going out for malts already? What did I tell ya, Cyrus….?” Clyde interrupts.
Cyrus replies with a somewhat indifferent shrug, prompting me to continue.
“So she wanted to know if they had green tea ice cream- she said it was really popular in Japan when she was there.”
“Green tea?” Clyde scrunches up his face. “Sounds odd, but it might be worth a shot.”
“I think you can order some of that online if you can’t get it at Culberson’s.” Cyrus volunteers.
“Hey….hey!” Clyde asks as though he just thought of something. “Can she speak any Japanese?”
“Clyde- the woman barely speaks to me in English….how am I supposed to know if she speaks any Japanese?”
“So let me get this straight- the woman that’s now living under your roof hardly even talks to you now?” Cyrus asks with traces of a grin.
“Yeah- pretty much.”
“You know, there’s a saying that describes guys in your situation.” he continues, with no sign of the grin fading.
Clyde and myself burst out laughing while Cyrus is still grinning. As the only married man between the three of us, Clyde and I would sometimes defer to him when it came to women- even though his former rodeo star wife was what many of us would consider a ‘catch’.
“Is your homestay going to be joining us tonight?” Clyde asks.
Damn- good question. It had been a few days since I promised her we’d go out for some Mexican. The thing is, if I left right now and went straight home to pick up Perri, then immediately turned around, we probably wouldn’t make it to La Olla Cobre before closing time.
This is part and parcel of living in a town where everyone closes up shop at 9:00 at night- even on a Friday.
But if I could get Perri to come to me….
A thought occurs to me as I pull out my phone. I still had a landline at home, so this could work if Perri was around.
Three rings and a robotic voice directing me to leave my message after the ‘beep’.
“Y-y-yeah……hey! Hey Perri!” I start off slurring, even though I had yet to order a drink. “Play…. P-P-Payday today- whoo! I…I’m down at the…. the Sp-spore? No no….the SPUR right now! I’ve only had a c-cup…..cup cup….couple of beersh….and it’s the d-damnedest thing….I c-can’t find my truck keys. I was wondering if you could be a pal…..aaaaaand come on out here w..with the spare key by the front door.”
Cyrus and Clyde know I have yet to drink as well, leaving them equally confused at my drunk-dialing play-acting.
“O-OK! Talk to you shooon…..toodles!” I was about ready to hang up when an additional though occurred to me.
“Don’t forget your day pass!” I said in my normal voice to finish the phone call.
“I didn’t know we had an improv night here.” Cyrus said.
“Yeah- what was that all about?” Clyde asks me.
“If Perri hears that and thinks I spent all the money I’m supposed to get from taking care of her on booze, she’ll be here in a heartbeat.” I explain. “The sooner she gets here, the better our chances at grabbing a bite to eat at the Olla before it closes- like I promised her.”
“I dunno, man” Clyde said apprehensively. “Seems like you’re playing with fire.”
“Hey now…..I just figure I should do something nice for my homestay, even if it requires a little trickery.”
“I hear ya, but I don’t know if those are the right buttons to be pushing, Bryce.” Cyrus spoke up.
“Well look who decided to join us!” Dolores said upon seeing me back at my usual spot in the bar.
“Good to be back….I even had an acceptance speech written and everything.” I said to the bartender.
“Seven and seven?” she asks.
“Sweet Jesus, Yes- that would hit the spot.”
In no time Dolores was back with my drink while I simply sat back and listened to Cyrus telling me, Clyde and Dolores about the ranch his drones were used to inspect this week.
Before I knew it, I spied a familiar-looking shock of white hair passing through the Spur’s front doors and in the blink of an eye, I was face to face with a rather dour looking falcon harpy.
Tonight, she was wearing a pair of denim cutoffs and a button up denim shirt. While it covered up most of her upper body, it seemed to hug every curve along her waist, breasts and taut little belly.
“You’re getting predictable, Mr Host.” Perri said churlishly.
“Perri! I’m glad you’re here!” I begin.
“How much of the Exchange Program’s funds did you drink away tonight?” she asks.
“None- I just wanted to-“
“I don’t believe you.”
I was about ready to speak up again when I considered her words. She wasn’t just expressing exasperation with me when she said that- Perri literally didn’t believe me.
“He actually didn’t spend any money…..” Clyde offered meekly, unsure how much weight his word had with Perri.
She looked incredulously at me, then at Clyde and Cyrus and then back at me.
“So even though you received funds from the Exchange Program, you still had your friends buy your drinks for you? Unbelievable…”
“That’s not-” I began to say.
Only now, Perri’s face was mere inches from my own.
“Exhale.” she ordered.
She looks beyond pissed. Better do what the lady says.
I breathe out and the harpy scrunches her face.
“Just as I thought- your breath reeks of alcohol.”
That’s because I’m working on my first cocktail of the evening. I’m not even three quarters of my way through- damn it….what’s three quarters of a Seven and Seven? I was never any good with fractions.
“We’re leaving.” Perri announces brusquely.
What? Wait- no….I just got here!
“Thank you for making sure Mr Host didn’t attempt to do something foolish like try and drive home in his current intoxicated state.” Perri said quietly as she nodded to Clyde and Cyrus.
Hang on- I am supposed to take her out to dinner, though. I’ll just have to try and convince her I’m sober on our way to La Olla Cobre.
As I start going through my wallet, I realize I don’t have anything smaller than a $20 bill. Now- Dolores makes a pretty good Seven and Seven, but not $20 worth of good. If I’m going to take Perri out for dinner, we gotta get going now. I can only hope one of the guys will pick up part of my tab at a future date- if Perri ever allows me to set foot back in the Spur again.
“Guys- it’s been a blast, we should do this again sometime. But I gotta get going…” I say as I hand Clyde off a $20 and start to usher Perri towards the door.
“Mr. Host- you’re in no shape to drive.” Perri protested.
“Perri, I’m fine-” I begin to say, although I wouldn’t be the first person who had been drinking to deny that they were intoxicated. More to the point, my avian homestay doesn’t seem willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. “I didn’t have that much to drink tonight. I called you because-“
My words die in my throat as I feel the toe of my boot catch onto something and I begin to lose my balance.
God damn it- how many times have I walked over the front step of the Spur’s front door without incident? Including more than once when I was literally falling down drunk. And only now- when I’m trying to convince my homestay that I’m actually sober- do I manage to trip and stumble down?
Only instead of face-planting on the walkway in front of the Spur, I feel something soft and downy enveloping me.
Feathers. I’m surrounded by white feathers.
Perri is now holding me up with her wings.
Oh Lord- I don’t want to admit it, but it feels so strangely wonderful being held in the falcon harpy’s wings like this.
“You can hardly stand upright, can you?” Perri asked. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but she sounded more like a disappointed sibling while admonishing me.
“No no….I’m good, I swear!” I insist, even though I know how panicky and unconvincing it must sound to her.
“Perri, about that phone call earlier, I was just trying to-“
“Honestly.” she chides me. “I’ve seen hatchlings with better self control than you, Mr. Host.”
I pause, suddenly losing my train of thought.
“I..I’m sorry, did you just say ‘Hatch Chilis‘?” I ask her distractedly.
“Hm? No- I said Hatch-LING….” Perri said, her exasperation increasingly evident.
“Oh….hey- speaking of chilis, how about we go to La Olla Cobre?”
“Absolutely not, Mr. Host. You’re in no condition to drive.” she said adamantly.
“It’s OK- we’re within walking distance. C’mon!”
The next thing I know, I’m gently tugging at Perri’s wing with both hands. I can’t quite bring myself to admit I like how her feathers feel against my hands, but I do.
The lovely, stoic harpy seems reluctant- yet she doesn’t break free from my relatively gentle grip, even though she could easily do so.
She still thinks I’m drunk- although I’m the one who sold her on the premise to begin with and my stumbling and the rather meandering conversation since we walked out of the Spur hasn’t done much to dissuade her.
“C’mon, Perri.” I coaxed. “I said I’d take you there and it’s only a couple of blocks.”
It’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s safe to say that La Olla Cobre is still within easy walking distance.
“You don’t have to-“
“It’ll be my treat- I insist!”
The falcon girl didn’t say anything right away but the two of us could suddenly hear a loud, rumble coming from her stomach.
“Jeez, Perri….did you skip lunch today?”
“It seems that…….yes, I may have missed my regular early afternoon meal.” the bird girl concedes.
“All the more reason to grab a bite to eat while we’re both in town.”
Seriously- I think all there was back at the ranch was a couple of cans of soup hovering around the expiration date.
She begins to shuffle my way while quietly mumbling something.
“What was that….?” I ask. I’m no longer holding onto her wings, but instead I cup my ear towards her in an exaggerated manner.
“I….” she began before inhaling. “Mr. Host- as I’m sure you’re aware of, harpies are an exclusively female species.”
According to some of the materiel the exchange program I went over, harpies were simply one race among the recently emerged demihumans that were monogendered. Lamia, Alarune, Arachne….all female.
“S-sometimes I wondered what it was like if I ever had a brother.” Perri began quietly, although I was able to hear her. “And I think thanks to you, I get to find out.”
I was not expecting that from her.
All this time we had to get acquainted and so far we mostly kept to ourselves- I still knew next to nothing about her background, her blood relatives or even her past host family.
“But….if your conduct tonight is any example, then perhaps having a brother is more trouble than it’s worth.”
What the hell, bird girl?
Although she has a point- it’s not like I’ve been an ideal host tonight.
While I’m trying to soothe over my bruised ego, I take in our surroundings. Something doesn’t seem quite right as I quickly scan the street behind us.
All seems quiet- nearly all the storefronts are shut down for the evening and most of the parked vehicles seem to be clustered back around the Spur. Not unusual- even for a Friday night. However, there’s one sedan…..it looks like a cop car, but a little too old. It’s parked on the opposite end of the street with its lights off.
And the odds of it being a cop car are pretty low. Out here, the sheriff’s, Tribal police and Highway Patrol all use pickups or SUV’s- not sedans- because of the high likelihood of responding to a call out in remote terrain, which means taking plenty of rough, unimproved roads and trails.
I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach- it could be the gruesome twosome and some of their friends out to finish what they started the other day.
I freeze in my tracks.
Damn it- like anyone living out in the countryside, I keep a gun in my truck. A nickel Springfield 1911 .45 semiauto. If Butchie and Chubbs from that little altercation at the pharmacy earlier actually had men in their lives and decided to sicc them on me and Perri tonight, I’m up shit creek without a paddle- unless I have some sort of equalizer.
And I don’t want to throw Perri into any kind of a fight, even though I’m sure she can hold her own.
I could always calmly try and make my way back to the truck. The thing is, since she thinks I’m drunk, there’s no way Perri will let me drive. How is she going to react if she sees a supposedly drunken me brandishing a loaded .45 in the middle of town?
I’m not imagining things, either. This sedan is pretty much hanging back and following us from a distance at a walking speed. Combined with what I heard about what took place at the Senate building earlier and my brief encounter with Chubs at the bank, I’m more on edge than usual.
However, there’s no point in panicking since the two of us are getting closer to La Olla Cobre. If we’re dealing with some nefarious characters tailing the two of us, odds are they won’t try something while there’s still witnesses around.
A voice brings my attention back to the harpy I’m taking a leisurely stroll with.
“Is everything all right, Mr. Host?”
“Hmm? Yeah…I’m fine.”
“Are you always this distracted when you’ve been drinking?”
“I’m not drunk.” I insist.
“That’s twice now that I’ve had to get you from that infernal tavern with your breath reeking of alcohol.” Perri points out.
“I swear- I haven’t had enough to get drunk.” I tell her, even though she has no reason to believe me.
“‘Prove it‘ how, exactly? Are you walking around with a breathalyzer test in your pocket?”
“You leave me with little choice, I suppose. There was something else I had in mind.”
Perri doesn’t say anything, but she’s standing a few feet away from me with her wings fully extended now.
With a single flap of her surfboard-sized wings, the falcon harpy is in the air a few feet above me. My first thought was that Perri had enough of my shit and was taking off for the ranch on her own.
If only it was that simple.
She’s seemingly floating there for a moment, perfectly motionless and suspended in midair- a deceptively serene vignette.
Before I know it, I’m dodging a furious onslaught of sharp, twisting talons as she launches herself at me diagonally. Each of her legs seems to be moving like pistons in a high performance engine as her talons keep swiping at my head and Perri intermittently flaps her wings to maintain altitude.
Although the initial onslaught caught me off guard, I’m quickly able to discern that there’s some sort of pattern to Perri’s movement.
At least until she flaps her wings to give herself a little more altitude.
In my haste and near panic, I realize that she folded her arms so she could spin or pirouette more efficiently while launching herself at me from above.
She misses with her spinning, diagonal dive- but not by much.
I can’t do much more than back away as Perri lands flawlessly in a crouch on the sidewalk before me, slowly rising and spreading her wings as she gets out of her crouch. If that little spin move of hers left her dizzy, she’s certainly isn’t showing it. The falcon harpy is still glowering at me, her expression virtually unchanged.
“Perri, what are you-?” I start to ask.
She’s in the air again. In the blink of an eye, two flaps of her wings brings her up to the second story of the century old brick building that used to house Fort Quinn’s only newspaper. I think it’s one of those hippie new age shops that sells healing crystals or some shit- clearly I have more to worry about than the current occupant of this three-story brick building on Main Street as Perri’s talons manage to find purchase vertically on the structure’s exterior.
Before I can even call out to her, the raptor launches herself at me. I go against every instinct that’s screaming out in my body and telling me to keep backing away. Instead dash forward to the spot on the sidewalk Perri was standing hardly even three seconds ago.
Something whistles past my ear- damn it, there goes my hat again!.
As I pivot, I can see that Perri’s wasted no time in recovering and launching herself at me again- this time from the base of a street light a few feet behind me.
She’s coming right at me and there’s no time for me to duck, dodge or pivot.
Reflexively, I take a step backwards and brace for impact. Except my foot seems to have yet again found a sizeable crack in the sidewalk and I start to tumble backwards.
Instead of trying to break my fall, something tells me to just let gravity take it’s course as I continue falling backwards.
It wasn’t a soft landing, but it would serve my purposes well enough as I landed on my back with a thud.
Sure enough, Perri was there looming over me barely a nanosecond later. She looked as though she had no idea what I was doing as I brought both of my knees together while reaching up with both hands. In less than a second, Perri’s facial expression has gone from smug triumph to complete bewilderment- astonished that I was able to grab onto both of her wings, my body rocking somewhat from her forward motion. For the first time since she instigated this fight, she looks like she no longer is in control of the situation.
Instead of letting her come down on top of me, I kicked out my legs as they made contact with Perri’s knees. I was about ready to somersault from the bird girl’s momentum, and as I was ready to roll over I roughly pushed Perri off of me with both feet as I let go of her wings, sending the inexplicably aggressive raptor harpy sprawling to the sidewalk behind me.
Oh shit! The sedan!
I spring back to my feet in time to see it driving away at a normal speed. It doesn’t look like anybody got out- but I should try and get the make, model and license plate before-
Suddenly I feel something on my head and everything goes dark.
“Very well, then…..” I can hear Perri say.
It’s my Stetson, and to emphasise her apparent victory, she’s pulled it down on the brim so that it’s almost on the bridge of my nose.
“I’m convinced that you are in no way intoxicated, Mr. Host.”
“What the hell was that all about!?” I pant, bringing up my hat so that I can see.
“The oldest daughter in prior host family taught capoeira- she gave me a few lessons.”
“It’s a fighting style that originates from Brazil that incorporates common dance moves into-“
“I…I know what it is, Perri.” I mumble. “I’m just wondering why…”
“In Japan, I couldn’t fly as much as I would’ve preferred- but my host family sought other ways for me to remain physically active.”
“But…you’re….an apex predator! That’s like teaching a 700 lb gorilla how to use a crossbow!”
“Are you calling me a gorilla?” she scowled at me.
“I could call you a lot worse than that.”
“Why are you so upset, Mr. Host? I’m finally satisfied that you are in fact not drunk.”
“If you were impaired in any way, I almost certainly would’ve sliced your face open with my talons at some point.” Perri said matter-of-factly. “Yet even though you received no warning you were able to sufficiently evade and deflect my attacks.”
“So….what are you saying? That was like a sobriety test?”
“Of sorts.” she said to me as we resumed walking.
Damn it, there was that smug grin of hers.
I wasn’t fuming for very long before we were in the green glow of the neon cactus in front of La Olla Cobre and that mysterious sedan that only I seemed to notice hadn’t reappeared. Sure enough, we made it before closing time.
Not surprisingly, Fort Quinn’s only Mexican dining establishment is pretty informal. The interior was brightly lit with pale stucco, small two-person tables, abstract paintings of some small village in Mexico, dated Formica flooring and corrido music blaring through some speakers.
However, what La Olla Cobre lacked in updated décor and ambiance it more than made up for with hearty, savory authentic Mexican offerings.
“This is what I smelled the other night- I’m certain of it.” Perri almost marveled as I held the door open for her.
“Now- have you even had Mexican before?” I ask as I follow her into the restaurant.
The raptor harpy shakes her head ‘no’.
The dining area is empty save for the two of us and the only immediate signs of life is the blaring of horns and tuba from some corrido song playing on a pair of tinny speakers mounted in the corner by the doorway.
“Hello! Be with you in just a minute….” an accented voice calls out from the kitchen.
“What were you thinking of getting, Mr. Host?” Perri asks me as she looks at the menuboard above the counter. There are a few pictures to illustrate the portion size of some dishes, but there’s more items than pictures on the menu.
“Well- I think I could demolish a burrito after today. You might want to get one of those, too….you got your choice of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, breakfast or bean and cheese.”
I know that she’s a carnivore at heart, so I could probably rule out the vegetarian option.
“I’ll try the beef one.”
“And something to drink, maybe?”
“Do they have any alcohol?” she asks- the disapproval evident in her voice.
“Heh…yeah. They got some Mexican beers in the cooler back there.” I began, although I always maintained that I could get more variety and bang for my buck at the Spur. “They also have soda pop, lemonade, ice tea and horchata.”
“Whore-shot-uh?” she looked perplexed.
“Yeah…um…It’s this kind of rice milk blended with cinnamon…” I feebly explain.
“I’ll try that.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting, what would you like this……….evening?” a younger, heavyset latino male with a hairnet and apron said as he emerged, clearly losing his train of thought once he saw Perri.
I nearly forgot that the only public places I’ve taken Perri so far is the Spur and Culberson’s. I suppose that I should expect reactions ranging anywhere from mild curiosity to genuine shock and astonishment for each ‘new’ place I end up taking her.
“Let’s see….can I get two burritos- beef and pollo asado, one cup of horchata and a large Dr. Pepper?”
“Will that be for here or to go?” he asked, regaining his composure.
“All right- total’s going to be $12.72- salsa and napkins are over there.” he nodded to his left as I handed him a $20 bill.
“I’ll have that ready for you in a little bit.” he said, handing me my change and stealing another glance at Perri before heading back into the kitchen to work on our order.
As I’m pouring my drink from the fountain, I can hear the sizzling of meat and our cook/cashier talking to somebody else in Spanish.
“….un paraja grande.”
“Bueno….un mujer con un par de alas grande!”
It sounded like as though was talking about a ‘big bird’ or ‘woman with large wings’ to somebody else in the kitchen.
Perri seemed to be warily handling the machine that dispensed horchata before the two of us made our way to one of the little tables up against the wall.
“How is it?” I ask, nodding at her cup of cinnamon flavored rice milk.
“Rich and sweet.” she said before taking another sip with something in the neighborhood of approval on her face.
After a few moments, our cashier emerges from the kitchen with two plates and a burrito on each of them.
“Pollo asada.” he said setting down a plate in front of me.
“And for you, the beef burrito…” he continued, turning to Perri.
I thanked him as he excused himself and headed back to the kitchen.
“What sort of device is this?” Perri asked as she held the burrito aloft- as though examining it for possible reverse engineering.
“It’s not a device, it’s a burrito. Your burrito, to be precise”. I can’t help but chuckle. Even though Perri appears to be fairly well-traveled, I’m finding her bewilderment at traditional Mexican fare like burritos a bit entertaining.
She sniffed it before looking back at me. “Bore eat oh?”
“Yeah- you just pick it up and dig in…..like this.” I lift up my pollo asada burrito and take a hearty bite out of the top corner.
“You don’t require utensils to eat this?”
“Mm.” I didn’t have to embellish or play act that I was enjoying it- I had been ready for this all afternoon. Wiping a corner of my mouth with a napkin, I continued. “Not really. I mean some places you can order a burrito ‘wet’- it will be covered in sauce….maybe some cheeses and your best bet is to use a fork and knife for those. But here-” I nod towards the little salsa bar up by the cash register “You can just get a little thing of salsa and dip it in there as much or as little as you want.”
Perri cautiously holds up her burrito before following my lead.
After chewing a few times, her eyes widen and I can detect a faint smile on her lips.
“It’s good…” she beamed as she took another bite.
The harpy nodded enthusiastically as she glanced at the inside of the burrito.
Out of the blue, I realized something.
At home, I’ve seen her fumble with the silverware when she tries to eat. When we were at Culberson’s, she couldn’t get a good grip on the glass her malt was served in and that ended up taking a tumble.
But not once has she fumbled or dropped her burrit. The flour tortilla that was wrapped around the finely chopped beef in Perri’s burrito was perfect for the falcon girl to sink her claws in. It wasn’t by design on my part, but I may very well have stumbled upon the perfect human food for an apex predator like Perri.
Almost as if she had been reading my thoughts, the falcon harpy spoke up.
“So hearty and savory! This soft, edible casing makes holding onto it so much easier.” she muses happily before taking an even bigger bite.
“Yeah- just the thing after a long day at work….”
She nodded in agreement. “Or familiarizing myself with your ranch’s property lines by flying in a rudimentary grid pattern all afternoon.”
Something seems different about her, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
“Is something wrong?” she asks me.
Oh shit….I’m staring right at her.
Right then I realized what it was that seemed so different about her. For the first time since Perri arrived at my home, she looked genuinely happy.
“Do I have something on my face, Mr Host?” Perri asks.
“Don’t worry. I…it’s gone.” I reassure her.
This is a bit different from when she’d swoop down and take my Stetson before flying away with a smirk on her face. Sure- when we first met, there was no denying that she’s gorgeous. Still- ever since our introduction, it seemed as though she could barely tolerate me. Smith and the others assured me the change of scenery would do her some good, yet she usually seemed moody or isolated. However with just that earnest little smile, she looked absolutely radiant.
“I gotta warn you, the closer you get to finishing up, the messier it will get.”
Perri eyed her burrito- now more than halfway gone.
“That’s a chance I’m willing to take, Mr. Host.” she replied with a wry grin.
“You were warned- although I appreciate that can-do attitude of yours.”
As we were getting close to finishing up, the cashier returned to our table accompanied by an older latino man with graying hair and a moustache. The younger one seemed apprehensive about something while the older man’s attention seemed to be focused on Perri.
“If the two of you have a moment…” the younger man said to both of us.
“Is everything all right?” I ask.
Right away, I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. After what happened in Culbertson’s the other day, I wouldn’t be surprised if the two of us weren’t welcome back anytime soon.
“My father has something he would like to say to the two of you.” the younger man said, although the apprehension and skepticism were evident in his voice.
“En mi puebla natal en Nayarit.…” he began.
It was pretty clear the son was acting as interpreter and would rather be elsewhere. Although neither father or son had any indication, I actually spoke and understood conversational Spanish. Having his son as translator wasn’t necessary.
“My dad originally is from a village in Nayarit along Mexico’s Pacific coast….and he wanted to let you know of a local legend.”
“Las Doncellas de Xochiquetzal.” the older Mexican said, with a hint of reverence.
“The handmaidens of Xochiquetzal….” his son said.
“Xochiquetzal- She was…an Aztec goddess of fertility and said to take the form of a woman with eagle’s wings.” the son explained after listening to his father. “Some say the handmaidens predate the Aztecs- but after the conquistadors and missionaries arrived from Spain, the legend was…..modified by the locals so that she was an angel….one who would bless the village’s harvest.”
Oh shit- I’m not sure I need to hear this, but I know that Perri sure as hell doesn’t. If I thought she was being difficult before, just wait until she got it into her head that she was the reincarnation of an Aztec goddess. She’s no angel, that’s for sure.
“Cada otoño….” the older man began.
“Each fall, the village would celebrate their harvest and leave an offering of maize, sweets and homemade alcohol for the handmaidens of Xochiquetzal.” his son translated.
Well shit- considering some of the earlier offerings the Aztecs left their deities, I suppose maize, sweets and homemade booze was pretty good in the grand scheme of things.
“Tengo un pregunta…..” the older man continued.
“My father would like to know- do you happen to know of any harpy tribes that might be from the old country?”
Perri looked as though she was pondering her answer for a moment before speaking up.
“I’m afraid I don’t know of any handmaidens and I’ve never been to Mexico.” she said quietly, looking at me as well as the father and son standing before us.
“Ella dijo que nunca viajado a Mexico y no sabe las doncellas.” the younger man almost reluctantly spoke up.
“Ah…Bueno. Gracias para tu tiempo…” the older man nodded before excusing himself, although it wasn’t lost on any of us that he looked more than a little disappointed as he left.
“Is there anything else I can get for you two?” the son asked as he stood by the front window and switched off the neon ‘OPEN’ sign.
A quick glance at my phone indicated that it was indeed closing time and that we should be on our way.
“Thanks for the great meal, as always.” I said to him as I dug around my pocket and threw about a dollar’s worth of coins into a worn-out paper cup next to the cash register that said PROPINA on the side.
“Don’t mention it- thanks for stopping by.” he said as he began wiping down the counter with a dishrag. The boisterous cacophony of tubas, accordions and cymbals accompanied by Spanish lyrics that was playing on the speakers abruptly stopped.
Perri said nothing, but quietly nodded at the son as he was tidying up on her way out.
I held the door open for her as the two of us made our way out of the restaurant.
“I wish I could’ve given that man a different answer.” Perri finally spoke up as the restaurant’s exterior lights flickered off one by one behind us.
“But you told him the truth, right?” I ask her.
She nodded. “Still- he looked quite sad.”
“Can’t be helped…” I shrugged as the two of us started our long walk back to the truck. If I had to guess, the old timer probably saw something out of the ordinary back in the old country and was hoping Perri could tell him more.
It wasn’t that farfetched. People who had claimed for years they had seen ‘monsters’ like Sasquatch, Ogopogo or Chupacabra were dismissed as cranks this whole time, but only recently vindicated as the Interspecies Exchange Program sprang up.
A previously undiscovered tribe of bird girls in the jungles of southern Mexico? Stranger things have happened already,
In no time at all, we were walking past where she had tried attacking me earlier to determine whether or not I was really sober. Strangely, it already seemed as though the whole thing had happened months ago by this point.
“Yes, Mr. Host?”
“If you don’t mind my asking, where are you actually from? I mean, I know you spent some time in Japan….”
In the glow of the streetlight, I could see that her face was scrunched up a little. I can’t tell if it’s because she’s uncomfortable with the topic or just lost in contemplation.
“My tribe is originally from a mountainous area that the humans in the region call the Carpathians.” she says after a few moments.
“Eastern Europe?” I ask after a moment.
Wow- she really is well-travelled. I have to assume that her first language is probably Romanian, Ukrainian or Serbian- but there’s no hint of an accent. Plus she’s probably picked up on some Japanese while living there.
I’m so busy pondering this that I almost fail to notice we’ve already arrived back where I had parked my truck.
“Hey Perri?” I ask as I open up the passenger door for her. “Have you ever been mistaken for an angel?”
She slides into the cab next to me and doesn’t even need to consider her answer.
There’s the faintest traces of a smile on her lips as she tells me this. I chuckle as I start up the truck- that was as good an answer as any.
The ride home was uneventful- lacking any of the tension any of the previous trips were fraught with. Perri watched the scenery roll by as much as the headlights and her own night vision would allow her while I hummed and tapped the steering wheel in time to a couple of country tunes. Tonight’s ride home seemed to breeze right by and before I knew it, we were pulling up in front of the house.
“Mr. Host?” Perri asked as the two of us got out of the truck.
“I enjoyed my dinner tonight. Can we go back again sometime? I wouldn’t mind trying another type of burrito.”
“Absolutely…” I chuckle as I look up at the half moon. “Maybe not tomorrow, but certainly in a couple of days.”
“Are you going to bed, Mr. Host?”
“Ah- I forgot to check the mail on the way in.” I just realized. “I’m just gonna get the mail, maybe have a nightcap and turn in from there.”
“Very well- I’ll probably be asleep by the time you get back.”
Perri knew it would be a little while before I returned, since I would be walking and it was almost a half mile each way from the house to our mailbox. Still- I thought a walk under the stars might do me some good and give me some time alone with my thoughts.
The she-falcon headed inside and I checked the glove box. Sure enough, the .45 was still there. I quietly reached in and tucked it into the waistband behind me. I figured the odds of something happening were pretty low, but if it did, I didn’t want to be a sitting duck either.
Well aware of the exchange program’s ‘no fraternization’ rule, I couldn’t shake the feeling that tonight’s outing to La Olla Cobre felt a bit like a date, despite the acrimonious start.
I also considered finding a new favorite food for Perri a positive development after some early missteps on my part.
A thought occurs to me- Should I call Tio?
On the one hand, I don’t want to seem like I’m pestering the beautiful ogress. However, discovering a new favorite food for Perri could definitely be considered some good news, and it doesn’t seem right to consult Tio only when things are going badly or I have my doubts.
The mailbox was surprisingly full- most of it was taken up by a large envelope with a Hawaii return address that had my name on it.
It was rattling when I shook it.
It was from the exchange program.
There was a couple of bills and a bank statement accompanying the larger parcel, but the bigger envelope is what had my attention.
After briskly strolling back to the house, I set the other envelopes on the table and opened up the parcel that the exchange program sent me.
There was a letter and a sealed smaller envelope inside.
The accompanying items are intended for Perri- please make sure to give them to her in the daytime hours prior to…..”
Blah blah blah…..boilerplate crap.
I shook the envelope again, only to hear more rattling.
Must be birdseed. But why does the exchange program want me to give an apex predator birdseed?
To hell with it- for better or worse, Perri’s a burrito harpy now.
Without giving it much thought, I slide open the junk drawer in the kitchen and put the note and smaller envelope inside before shutting it.
I’ll have to ask Tio about that some other time. As much as I wanted to talk to her again, it was going to have to wait. She and the rest of MON were in another timezone and calling right now wasn’t the best of ideas.
Time for a nightcap and some shuteye.