“I’m calling this meeting of the Happy Farm Friends to order!” Esme gleefully slams the pepperpot down on the rough wooden tabletop to a crescendo of groans.
“I don’t remember agreeing to that name,” Ben says, wincing. The old farmhand slips off his hat and runs a sweaty palm over his silver hair.
“Can I remind you all that there was a vote on that very matter at the inaugural AGM,” Esme says smugly, adjusting her dancing headscarf with her free hand. “It’s not my fault if you all decided that you’d get hideously drunk and just cheer every proposal. With that in mind, I’d like to note my thanks to the members of the club who supported my nominations as Chair, Vice Chair, Treasurer, Vice Treasurer and Secretary. It’s good that we have such motivated people in the key roles!”
“Pierre, help me out here,” Ben moans.
“Sorry,” I say. “I got nothing.”
No one else has anything either. Both of Claude’s sons, sent along as official representatives of the Piaffhomme clan, are lolling over benches, as hungover as everyone else. God only knows how much moonshine you have to get through to stun a pair of rude Gallic half-stags, but they’d managed it regardless. Balanced on the table next to them, Milky, Priest, and Princess Noodles all seem alert but her bodyguard detail—which consisted of two other chunky rat-beings the size of badgers—look decidedly sluggish. As for me, the last thing I could remember was chugging my eighteenth can and telling Fred not to mourn me before trying to take down the woodchipper singlehandedly with Esme’s mop. When I came to, I was lying in a heap and Macie was sleeping on my back.
A pair of warm arms wind their way around my unresisting shoulders and tousle my hair. “Don’t worry, mon amour. No-one else knows that you were bested in combat by an inanimate object.”
If she’d been anyone else, the hot breath on my ear might be enough to wake me up, but Rosaline was still Rosaline. “My head feels like there’s a whole other person inside it trying to get out.”
“Mon chum, you drank three six-packs and spent the night lying on your garage floor,” she coos. “You can’t expect to feel…’ow you say…tip-top!”
It’s Fred who breaks the strangled misery by appearing on the patio with a tray of steaming mugs. “Tea’s up, guys! And don’t worry about the bill. Mike’s agreed to comp these.” Fred’s old boss was now his new boss. As I look back through the door to the kitchen, I can see Mike cheerfully working the expresso machine, not a care in the world. There’s a man who’d always wanted to run his own business, and thanks to a happy accident involving a fifty-foot spider woman who happened to breathe fire, his wish had come true.
“The Wet Whistle Beverage Shack is delighted to have your custom!” Fred says, expertly juggling the mugs into position, spilling not one drop in the process.
“There’s some real magic, right there,” I say. Fred smiles bashfully.
“Thanks guys, but I think it’s for the best if I stick to serving coffee instead of doing magic right now.” For a brief second, his eyes glaze over, and then he whisks himself away, grumbling to an unheard voice in his head. “Haitius, will you get off my back? I already told you. I don’t want to be a true magician. I want to be a rollerskating barista-DJ!”
After he’d gone, everyone falls gratefully onto their mugs, except for Ben, who’s face—if possible—is even longer than usual. “I don’t know about this whole tea thing. I kinda miss my double-double.”
“Sweet sugar,” I say, sipping thankfully at the steaming surface while Rosaline nuzzles me.
Esme taps the pepperpot again. “I’d like to note our thanks to Mike for the refreshments. We’re all incredibly lucky that this wonderful new hostelry opened up in the immediate aftermath of the loss of our previous meeting place, and also that it has this amazing sheltered seating area that backs directly onto the forest. Let’s be honest – it’s astonishingly convenient!”
Everyone mumbles something appreciative. “C’est chanceux,” one of Claude’s sons says.
“Now,” Esme continues, “we have a chance to welcome our newest member to the group! Stevie came to Earth only very recently with the Siren invasion, but they’re doing their best to make a new start for themself here. Let’s all give a big hand to Stevie!”
There’s polite, if half-hearted applause. Stevie’s extremely thin and pale, with heavy-lidded eyes and a dark bubble perm. I’m not too sure if it was all part of the form they’d chosen or whether they’d only started experimenting with make-up since arriving on Earth, but they’d filled in the spaces around their eyes with dark thumbprint smudges, giving them the appearance of a teenage Goth who’d not slept during the work week.
“So, yah,” Steve says, acknowledging the applause with a nod. “Thank you all for having me here. I just wanted to share my story with you, but before I do, I also wanted to be clear about a couple of things.
“I don’t really think of myself as a Siren. Sure, we all know that quite a few Sirens stayed behind after the invasion because they fell in love with humans-” and at this point, all eyes move to the other side of the patio to a large, bearded man in a faded suit sitting with a tiny woman with a cropped, pixie hairstyle and the most excited grin ever.
“Hey Seb,” Ben says, giving him a weary wave.
“Gentle Ben!” Seb Barnes waves back like a kid at a clown convention. “Have you met the new future Mrs Barnes?”
“I seem to remember her trying to claw my face off before the Tim Hortons burned down, but don’t worry about it. I don’t hold grudges,” Ben says. Still, his fingertips resting on the edge of the tapas plate in front of him twitch, where cubes of crumbly feta cheese are nestled among olives and slices of chorizo. Coincidentally, the tapas plate was the first item on the Wet Whistle’s menu.
“Yah, anyway, the Siren community is obviously looking to integrate as soon as possible, but I never really felt much like a Siren anyway, yah know? Ever since the Queen first vomited me out and I ran blind into that burning building and knocked myself out on a fallen beam, I’ve been wondering what my true, true form really is. I’ve decided that for now, I want to spend my time really using this group to help my find myself. Is that okay with everyone?”
There’s some general nodding and more well-meaning applause. Stevie smiles like death, or maybe like an exhausted panda that was off its bamboo.
“I’ve decided that maybe I want to be a vampire, yah know?” They mime sweeping a cloak and show off an imaginary pair of sharp incisors.
I leaned close to Ben. “Do vampires-“
“Son, trust me, you ain’t seen them, but they’ve seen you and already decided you ain’t worth their time.”
“Should I be worried that they’re gonna seek me out and suck my blood?”
“If they wanted to do it that badly, they would have done so already. Truth is, to the Methuselahi, you’re less tasty than the rats and a darn sight more annoying.”
“I think what I like most about you, Gentle Ben, is your ability to put things in the appropriate context.”
“Right now, context is the only thing keeping me upright.” Ben pops an olive in his mouth and rests his chin on his arms.
Esme continues talking while we whisper. “Thank you Stevie! It’s great to have you with us. So, just a quick reminder about all the other important club matters this month. First of all, there’s the annual Labour Day Lobster Throwdown at Gabes-Across-the-Water. A few people have suggested that we go along to this. I don’t have a car, but I know a couple of you have trucks. If people are still keen, maybe we can arrange a minibus or something? Anyway, let me know if you’re interested. Princess Noodles has asked me to remind you all not to tie the bags too tightly when you put your garbage out! You never know who might be passing by your house at night and be in need of a snack, so be considerate. I printed off a few copies of the new newsletter I’ve put together, there’s even a sudoku on the back! I got it off the internet, so don’t blame me if it’s too hard for anyone.”
With theatrical flourish, Esme sweeps up all her loose notes in a single movement, rolls them up, and taps them once on her knee to bring them evenly together. “Is there any other business?” she adds.
For a moment, the world stops spinning on its axis. There’s the briefest of seconds where the air seems like it’s been sucked out of the universe; the sky dark as treacherous fates align.
Ben stops drinking his tea mid-sip.
In this nebulous moment, the largest piaffhomme I’ve ever seen strides majestically out of the woods and aligns himself directly opposite me. His perfectly smooth copper chest barrels out of haunches that ripple with muscles many times the size of my own. His shoulders criss-cross with lengthy scars and intricate tattoos, winding around each other. More eye-catching than the creature himself is the wicked looking barbed spear that rests under his arm and runs the length of his flank. It’s the colour of ebony.
Claude’s sons struggle to pull themselves upright, but even when they do, they barely reach the newcomer’s massive shoulders. He brushes them aside without casting them a glance, staring past them—past me—to the piaffhomme girl at my back. As his smouldering looks register, I feel her fingers tighten involuntarily around my hair.
In a voice as rich as honey and as deep as the sea, he speaks.
“It’s not too late to join your little group, n’est-ce pas?”
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