Edith heard a whisper from the pixels in her computer screen.
“Is the coffee ready yet?” she pleaded to the small office walls. No reply. Oh, right. It’s just me.
Edith didn’t understand why a small town like Harvest, Oklahoma needed a boat rental store when the nearest lake was a good four-hour drive away. She also didn’t understand how she’d allowed herself to become burdened with business ownership.
Anything for family, right?
This is what happens when your family leaves you behind with the opportunity of a lifetime, quote-unquote. “You’ll be a business owner, Edith.” “It’s the American Dream, Edith.” We probably won’t ever see you again, Edith, and that’s the real reason we’re peacin’ out, Edith. They didn’t say that last one.
The coffee continued to drip into the pot, and the computer screen whispered again. It wasn’t a sound — more like a feeling. Hairs on the back of Edith’s neck prickled, an uncomfortable sensation. For a moment, just a moment, she understood the whispers — I’m coming to town tonight. Rejoice!
“Ugh, I’ve been listening to Reverend McKenzie too much,” she said aloud, again to no one. Her sleeping pills had run out a couple of days ago and the insomnia had been working overtime. Edith buried her face in her hands and scrunched it into what she imagined looked like a cubist painting. Maybe I should have been a painter. No one tries to pawn off a failing business to a starving artist.
Edith slid off her chair and shuffled toward the still-dripping coffee-maker. She pulled the pot from its resting place and let the coffee drip onto the hot carafe — sizzle... sizzle... sizzle. She grabbed a mug she’d “borrowed” from Oz’s Diner and began to pour the beautiful, dark-brown liquid. Outside, the sky shone bright blue without a cloud in sight.
“We could really use some rain,” Edith mumbled to herself as she finished pouring what she hoped would be the first of many cups. A whisper responded — Don’t worry, I’m bringing a big storm with me tonight!
In her drowsy stupor, Edith’s hand had drifted just enough that the hot liquid had spilled over her wrist. Traitor, she thought as she stared down at the pool of liquid and ceramic shards on the floor. With a heavy sigh she looked up and out the window — “What the shit?”
Outside, chewing the husk of a corn stalk, stood a fluffy, white llama. It took Edith’s thoughts a few seconds to catch up before she concluded, I think I’ll close up early today.
She grabbed her coat and left the office without even cleaning up the mess on the floor.
Edith pulled up to Oz’s Diner in her powder-blue Chevy truck and parked in her usual spot. She still needed that coffee.
“Is that a llama?” a grating voice said as Edith shut her driver-side door.
“What’s it look like, Jeb,” she responded in a tone that had zero hints of being an actual question.
“Where’d you get a llama?”
Edith had no idea where the llama had come from. She’d loaded the animal into the back of her pickup, a problem to worry about at another time. Harvest had nothing close to a zoo (the nearest one being a three-hour drive away in Oklahoma City), and no one in these parts kept livestock like... llamas. But if they did, she would find out.
“You got wax in your ears?” Jeb followed up with an attempted good-natured chuckle.
“I don’t know, Jeb,” Edith said as she walked past him, b-lining for the entrance. “He just showed up at the office.”
“Maybe he wanted to rent a boat,” he said, followed quickly by a self-aggrandizing laugh. No one else laughs at his jokes, so he might as well. I wish he would go away.
“Didn’t think to ask him, Jeb. But thanks for the advice.”
“I wasn’t being seriou—“
“I know.” The jingle of a bell and the closing door provided an end to the conversation.
Oz’s Diner was... fine. You could do a lot better, you could do a lot worse. Locals swore by it as the best food in the state, but everyone knew they served the coffee burnt, the burgers dry, and the fries just flimsy enough to fail the crisp test, but not mushy enough to be gross. Edith took a seat at the counter. Damn it, I hate that these seats don’t have a place to rest your feet.
“You bring my mug back?” a stern voice asked.
“I don’t have your mug, Simon.”
“That’s funny. I distinctly remember you walking out of here with one last Tuesday. When Stacy called out to you about it, you ‘didn’t hear’ her, if I recall.”
“I don’t have your mug.” A pause in the conversation settled as rummaging and hissing from the kitchen filled the silence.
“What’ll you have?”
“Coffee first. I’ll get back to you after that.”
“Coming right up,” he said with a grin on his face, as though the previous conversation had never happened.
Edith buried her face in her hands. I. Need. Coffee. The entrance bell clinked and she heard the footsteps of whomever had entered walking closer. She swiveled her stool, expecting to go another round with Jeb, but instead a friendlier face stood before her.
“Oh, hey Joni,” Edith said with relief.
“What’s up, Ede?” Joni sat down on the stool next to Edith. “You sell out of boats already?”
“Ha, very funny.”
“I’m serious! Why else would the hardworking Edith Boyle be sitting in Oz’s at ten in the morning?”
“Joni, please,” Edith said folding her head down among her arms on the counter. “I habit een ma coffer yep.”
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Joni said, playing it up as she leaned in closer with her hand cupped to her ear.
Edith raised her head and repeated, “I haven’t even had my coffee yet!” As though summoned by magic, a hot cup of joe slid across the table and came to rest in front of her. “Coffee!”
“Something happen this morning?”
“Something... yeah,” Edith said as she began to slurp the coffee down. This is the best coffee I’ve ever had! When did Simon learn how to make coffee? Edith could feel what she called the “warm-fuzzies” start to cascade throughout her body.
“What happened to your wrist?” Joni said with a sudden tinge of concern.
“Oh, this?” Edith said, lifting up the wrist she’d scalded earlier that morning.
“No, Ede, the dumb look on your face. Yes! Of course your wrist!”
“That’s why I’m here. Spilled coffee on it this morning.”
“That’s not like you. You didn’t even treat it?”
Edith almost said something about how her thoughts had returned to her family for the first time in a long while, but only managed a disheartened mumble. She decided to change the subject.
“You see that llama back there.” Edith swirled her stool around and pointed out the window to the fluffy creature standing in her truck bed. “Blame that thing.”
“I wondered where you got that.”
“Just showed up after I burnt myself and dropped my coffee.”
“So it wasn’t the llama’s fault. What’s really going on?” — and then the whisper quieted Edith’s “warm-fuzzies” — You didn’t tell her about me. I’m what this is all about. I’m coming to take all your burdens away. Rejoice!
“That wasn’t my computer screen!” Edith blurted out.
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what, Ede?”
“I have to go,” Edith said, dashing off her stool.
She was out the door before Joni could respond: “Bitch, pay your bill!” Joni let out a heavy sigh as she watched Edith scramble into her truck and drive away with the llama in tow, still chewing on its corn husk. She flagged down Simon. “I’ve got this one again, Simon.”
“Edith’s coffee. She ran out again.”
“Uh... but I’ve got her coffee right here,” he said holding up an empty mug and a pot full of steaming (most likely burnt) coffee.
“Then what’s that,” Joni said pointing at the half-drunk mug sitting on the counter.
Simon shrugged, “Probably stole it again.”
Joni glared at Simon, “Give it a rest. She’s had a rough time lately.”
“Yeah, yeah... you’re right,” Simon said as he turned his attention to another customer.
Joni looked back out the window, with concern in her eyes, at the powder-blue dot growing smaller on the road. Her focus switched to a red Ford truck still parked out front. Huh, she thought to herself, I didn’t see Jeb when I came in. Wonder why his truck is here.
Regret and uncertainty make for a surprisingly potent cocktail. What first seems like a tiny shadow grows into a ravenous monster, threatening to devour you whole.
Family had meant a lot to Edith growing up, even after her parents divorced. While her relationship with her parents had ebbed and flowed, she had always felt close to her siblings — two sisters, two brothers. As the middle child (literally), with a brother and sister on either side, Edith often felt insulated. There had been pros and cons to this insulation. On one hand, Edith had been able to dissolve into her family — she wasn’t often blamed for things and she had ample opportunities to pick up tips, tricks, and getaway schemes from her siblings. On the other hand, Edith often felt lost in a storm, shouting within a gale from which no one could truly hear her. There were a lot of choices she wished she could take back, and there had been many moments of paralyzing uncertainty about what the next day would bring, but she had always stopped herself from becoming too caught up in these emotions — what kind of life is worth living without a few regrets, after all? At the end of the day she always had her family. Until she didn’t.
As Edith’s focus returned to the moment, she found herself driving about town on routine errands.
She stopped by the Post Office first. Edith always mailed things from the Post Office — for some reason she didn’t trust letters would make it to their destination if she mailed them from home. Next, she ducked into Complete Food and picked up groceries. She didn’t need anything that would go in the fridge, so she wasn’t worried about making it home anytime soon. Pharmacy (that was the store’s name) followed next. She picked up her prescription of Zolpidem, and tried not to let her imagination run wild about the judgmental looks crossing the pharmacist’s face. You try having insomnia, she thought but didn’t say. Her favorite used bookstore, Wanderstorm, was next-door to Pharmacy, so she spent some time there afterward to take her mind off the previous interaction.
After her time in Wanderstorm concluded, she stopped by one of the town’s stranger curiosities — a Blockbuster. She’d heard tales of the chain going out of business a long time ago, but that didn’t seem to affect the store here in Harvest.
She wandered the empty aisles. Worry gnawed at her that the whisper would return to comment on her possible selections, but it never came. Did I imagine it? Are the sleeping pills finally getting to me? Maybe I’m a little bit psychic? Edith peered over the shelf and glared at the single employee sitting at the checkout to see if she could read his mind. Give me your secrets...
Her sisters would have found this hilarious.
Moments pass — nothing. Well, nothing but an uncomfortable expression on the attendant’s face once he noticed her. He’ll get over it.
Edith returned to her mundane task. She considered renting something new, but instead went with a classic standby: Attack of the Reapers. She checked out and tucked the video case under her arm on the way out the door.
In the back of her truck still stood the llama, chewing away at the same corn husk he had been gnawing since he showed up this morning.
“You don’t have to keep chewing the same husk, you know. I can get you a new one. We’re kind of known for corn around here.” The llama paused his chewing briefly. She found it difficult to get a read on him with his eyes hidden beneath tufts of fur. He seemed content, though, and went back to chewing — chomp, chomp, chomp. “All right, have it your way.”
Edith wasn’t sure what to do next, so she got in her truck and just drove. Guess I have a llama now?
The animal had been a point of conversation every place she’d been today. The Post Office worker had been worried that Edith was hoping to post the llama, and had launched into a diatribe about procedures and costs for shipping a live animal — he was relieved when Edith had assured him she had no intention of mailing the creature. Edith had inquired if any undelivered mail awaited her, just in case something hadn’t been delivered to her house. “Nope, nothing else. Sorry, Edith,” had been the answer — the usual answer. It’s what Edith had expected, but she could never stop herself from checking every time... just in case.
Harv, at Complete Food, had said he’d never seen a llama in person, and that he’d always wished he could have seen Machu Picchu and a whole herd of llamas beside. Edith had reminded him he always had time to make the trip, but Harv had laughed it off saying he had duties in Harvest that he couldn’t leave unattended. Edith had faked a smile and moved on.
At Pharmacy, the pharmacist (when he hadn’t been giving her judgy looks) had eyed the llama over Edith’s shoulder as if he were worried the beast would burst in at any moment and contaminate his store. She didn’t particularly like the man behind the counter, but she couldn’t get her prescription sleeping pills anywhere else, and so had endured the face-to-face interaction as she did every month.
At Wanderstorm, folks had kept coming up to her and asking where she had gotten the llama, or what she was planning to do with it. Edith feared a rumor had started that she was looking to sell the boat rental store and start a traveling circus. She hadn’t the energy to squash it, though, and left empty-handed, content to have simply browsed the musky aisles.
The Blockbuster attendant had been too worried about the psychic looks she’d been giving him to notice the llama, but she was sure he’d have offered some comment as well had he the chance.
As Edith finished running over the day’s events in her mind, the orange light of the setting sun caught her attention as it reflected off her truck’s dashboard. Damn, she thought, where does the time go? She glanced down at her gas gauge. Need to stop by the Dino Station on the way home. She looked out over the flat horizon toward the sunset. Her brow furrowed. Is that a storm rolling in?
Edith pulled into the Dino Station. Darkness enveloped the evening sky. Wind sliced through the field across the road, conducting a rustling chorus of corn stalks. The llama remained unfazed in the truck bed, chomping on the same corn husk. Edith began fueling, locked the pump to auto-fill, and went inside the convenience store.
“Nice llama,” a friendly voice said in greeting.
“Haven’t heard that today,” Edith replied.
Claire, the middle-aged store attendant, chuckled in reply. A jungle of beads and rings jangled with every move she made. Above the cigarettes behind her hung a faded tie-dye banner with the image of an eye. “I’m sure you haven’t. Sell any boats today?”
“I don’t sell boats, I rent them,” Edith said as she perused the aisles, scanning for snacks. “But you knew that already.”
“Still don’t believe me, huh?” Claire said with a smile on her face.
Edith snatched a bag of Fungo Squares and brought it to the front counter where Claire sat. “I’m just not a big believer in supernatural mumbo-jumbo.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Edith said as she pulled a plastic soft drink bottle from a small, adjoining refrigerator.
Claire began to ring up the items. “You know, that llama you’ve got — that ain’t a llama.”
“What do you mean?” Edith asked, suddenly intrigued.
“Llamas are kinder creatures than that one. That one’s got power, and power can be terrifying.” Edith glanced back at the llama in her truck bed, still grinding away at the corn husk. She laughed out loud.
“Are you kidding me? That thing? It hasn’t done anything but chew on that corn husk all day.”
“That’s how it manifests,” Claire said, expression unchanged. “It’ll be four fifty-six.” Amused, Edith shook her head and tossed a five dollar bill onto the counter.
“You can keep the change for that one. I like you, Claire.”
“I like you too, Edith.”
Edith collected her drink and Fungo Squares. She opened the convenience store door with her shoulder and could instantly feel the storm in the air.
She dropped the snacks through the open passenger-side window of her truck and looked over at the llama again. There it stood, still chewing.
“Are you manifesting?” Edith asked jokingly.
“You really shouldn’t leave your vehicle unattended when fueling.” Edith almost jumped out of her skin. She wheeled around, relieved to find the voice belonged to Joni.
“Shit, Joni! You nearly scared me to death!” Edith said as she keeled over in painful relief. Joni laughed and patted Edith on the back.
“What’s gotten into you today, Ede? You don’t normally scare this easily.” Joni peered inside Edith’s truck and caught sight of the Blockbuster video case. “Attack of the Reapers! Nice!”
Edith straightened up and leaned against her truck. “It’s been a day.”
“Yeah, I gathered that at Oz’s. You doing okay? I’ve been worried.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just this stupid llama.”
“She didn’t mean that,” Joni affectionately said to the llama.
“Why are you here?”
“Why am I at the Dino Station? That’s a weird question to ask. Dropping off some parts: filters, hubcaps, and whatnot, for Claire. Not everyone wants to come by the garage for the small stuff. It’s a convenience store, after all.” A silence fell between the two. The corn stalks rustled in wind. “That and, you know, I might be worried about my friend.”
“It’s hard to explai-,“ a gust of wind blasted between the gas pumps, forcing Edith and Joni to brace themselves to keep their balance. Quiet lightning flashed in the black sky. “I’d better get home, figure out what to do with this one,” Edith said gesturing to the llama.
“All right,” Joni relented. “Call me in the morning?”
Edith hesitated before saying, “Sure thing.” She got in her truck and drove away as Joni stood and watched for a long moment. Joni shook her head. As she was about to turn away, a figure emerged from the cornfield.
“What the hell?” Joni muttered to herself. The figure looked around momentarily until he saw Joni, who froze in weird fascination. The man tipped his hat toward her, replaced it, and then walked off down the road.
This storm is out of this world! Edith thought as she continued her drive toward home. It was an odd storm. Gusts were frequent and strong, but Edith did not feel the thickened weight in the air that was a telltale sign of a tornado (tornado warnings were a common occurrence to the residents of Harvest). Lightning illuminated the clouds, but no thunder could be heard. It felt all too surreal, a bad omen creeping up on you in plain sight. Through all of this, the llama remained as stoic as ever.
Maybe Claire was right.
Before her thoughts could tumble further down that rabbit hole, she came upon Oz’s Diner. The parking lot was empty (as it should be at this hour), except for a red Ford truck, one that Edith knew belonged to Jeb.
“What the hell is that knucklehead doing here at this hour?”She didn’t care much for the guy, but people in Harvest looked out for one another, regardless of how they felt. Everyone except my family, I guess. She hated herself for adding that thought, but she didn’t know how to stop it from bubbling to the surface.
She turned into the diner’s parking lot and pulled in her usual spot. Getting out of her truck she said “Stay there,” to the llama, as if she had any authority over the animal. A sense of dread grew in Edith’s gut as she approached Jeb’s truck. She cupped her hands over her face and peered through the passenger-side window. The dark interior made details hard to distinguish. Wish I had a flashlight, Edith thought. No sooner had the thought crossed her mind, she felt something bump against her foot.
Slowly, she looked down — and there, on the ground, lay a flashlight. That definitely wasn’t there before. She picked it up and examined it: durable, tactical plastic with webbed articulation across the grip — she tested turning it on and off by pressing on the butt of the handle (which could also be twisted in place to lock). I’ve always wanted a flashlight like this! These are expensive. She looked back at the llama in her truck bed. He stood still, no longer chewing, staring (as best Edith could tell) right at her.
“Did you do this?” she called, holding up the flashlight.
All of a sudden, a spear of lightning grew up over the horizon... and kept growing — Edith had never seen anything like it. Like a massive world tree, the lighting expanded across the sky, brightening the landscape. Edith noticed a figure walking toward her from the far side of the parking lot. The lightning-tree silently extinguished and darkness fell, concealing the figure. Except for a cone of pale, green light coming from the parking lot’s sole light post, the night remained black.
Edith shot a concerned look at the llama, but could now barely see her truck — the darkness had somehow become thicker, like a physical substance. Use the flashlight, you rube! she pleaded to herself. Edith raised the flashlight above her shoulder in a tightly gripped fist, and held the butt with her thumb to turn it on. The light beam traveled barely ten feet before the darkness swallowed it whole.
“Jeb? Is that you?” Edith said in a shaky voice. She knew it wasn’t him, but she didn’t know what else to do. She swore she’d never actually behave like the characters she scoffed at for acting “irrationally” in the horror movies she loved, yet here she stood.
The sound of footsteps emanated from the darkness: clomp, clomp, clomp. A strange man stepped into the pale spotlight. He wore a dapper tan suit, buttoned-up, with a black porkpie hat that obscured his facial features.
“Who are the hell you?” Edith asked.
“Are you serious?” a sandy voice replied. “It’s not my fault you’ve been ignoring my calls.”
“What are you talking about?” she replied at the same time the truth dawned on her. “Wait, those whispers weren’t from the sleeping pills?”
The strange man answered in a cryptic tangent, “There are forces in this universe with a compulsion to seek. What we seek changes from being to being and the compulsions differ, but they are always a constant... persistent... hunger. You are a universe, Edith Andromeda Boyle, though you fail to see even a sliver of this truth. I’ve come to make a bargain.”
“Yes, a trade. To relieve you of the burdens that torture you so. It’s a much fairer arrangement than some others would give you, I think.”
The man removed his hat and bowed. His graceful pose had an insufferable pomp to it. The pale light now illuminated his head. He had no hair. In fact... he didn’t seem to have much of anything on his head. That can’t be right. As the man raised his gaze, Edith met the visage of a human skull. His eye sockets, pitch black, seemed to consume the space around them.
“Did you send the llama?” Edith asked.
The skull man cocked his head, “Llama?”
Edith turned to demonstrate the creature that had lived in her truck bed the entire day, but when she looked, there was nothing there. The llama had disappeared! Now that llama has left me too.
“Edith,” the skull man said, chattering his teeth in disapproval. “Don’t you think it’s time to stop with all the lies?”
Suddenly, Edith felt exposed. Memories and emotions rose to the surface of her mind — images of her family appeared... images she’d spent years trying to smother. She felt more numb than sad, yet a tear escaped her eye.
“There it is,” the skull man said with graveled satisfaction. “That’s what I came to bargain for.”
“Who are you?” Edith gasped. She could feel her grip on sanity slipping. Whoever, whatever this person was... they were unnatural.
“You don’t recognize me?” said the voice of her eldest sister from behind the skull man’s teeth. “Why did you chase us away, Edith?”
“I didn’t! I didn’t mean to...”
“Typical Edith,” said the voice of her mother. “Always thinking she’s supposed to be at the center of attention.”
“No! That’s not what I meant!”
The voice of her younger brother continued the psychic barrage, “I trusted you, Edith. We were counting on you.”
“Stop,” a last gasp eked out as she crumpled to the ground. She tried to speak again, but the words caught in her throat. It felt as though she had been drug to the bottom of a lake, with the pressure of all that water bearing down on her. I’m going to drown, she thought and resigned herself to her fate.
And then she looked up.
Edith stood in a field of tall, green grass. A brilliant sea of stars decorated the firmament above. Fireflies danced across the surface of the meadow — their pockets of warm light flashed in and out. The weight of the lake disappeared, and Edith felt light... lighter than she had in a long time, possibly ever.
A rustling sound caught her attention in the grass behind her, but it neither startled nor scared her (she couldn’t have told you why). Edith turned and found herself face-to-face with a fluffy, white llama. He stood before her, chomping on his corn husk. Manifesting, she thought. Edith closed her eyes and made a wish.
Then she opened them.
Instead of the llama, her family now stood before her. Certain details jumped out to Edith about each of them. Her two sisters smiled at her — one wore paint-covered overalls, the other had on a one-size-too-big Yellowstone sweater Edith had coaxed her into buying when the family had gone there on vacation. Her younger brother towered over her older one — the younger had his arm draped around the eldest’s shoulders in affectionate serenity. Her father, with his salt-and-pepper hair, wore round, overly-large glasses. Beside him stood her mother, who stepped toward Edith.
Her mother appeared as a vaporous cloud, but as she came closer Edith could smell... hot-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies and... freshly cut springtime grass. When her mother reached her, neither said a word — her mother simply hugged her. Edith felt the “warm-fuzzies” cascade throughout her body. She closed her eyes and took a deep inhale, held for a count of three, and then exhaled.
She opened her eyes and found herself back in Oz’s parking lot, where the skull man still stood before her. He pitched his head at an unnatural angle, “What did you just do?”
Edith said nothing.
Thunder rolled over the landscape encompassing the small town of Harvest, Oklahoma. Except it wasn’t thunder.
A white mass of fluff cut through the darkness from across the road. The skull man turned to face the unknown threat. Edith did not — she knew what it was. A herd of llamas, one-hundred strong, crossed the road and filled the space between Edith and the skull man. The herd encircled him and continued to run faster and faster. The skull man shouted something at Edith over and over, but she could not hear his voice over the thunder of llamas.
Edith closed her eyes and made a final wish.
All anyone could talk about the next day was the herd of llamas that had appeared outside of Oz’s Diner. Opinions varied on where they had come from. Edith was an immediate suspect, due to the llama she had toted around the day prior, but the consensus blamed Jeb, who had been found among the flock that morning in nothing but his underwear.
Edith didn’t pay the hubbub much attention. She sat back in her chair at the boat rental store and sipped freshly brewed coffee. A thought dawned on her, and she pulled out her phone. Edith didn’t like talking on the phone (she preferred to text), but she made an exception for this. She waited as the ringback tone repeated one, two, three times — until the other side picked up.
“Hey, Joni!” Edith said. “Wanna come over and watch Attack of the Reapers tonight?”