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CHAPTER 2 ~ GUNTHER
You wish to meet Gunther, but I have a better suggestion. Here, take my hand. No, no, do not be afraid. It is not a bewitchment; merely a simple glamour that will allow you to see his world through his eyes.
Now, look at me. Gaze into my eyes. Do not flinch, my friend, for I will not hurt you. That's it. Breathe in slowly, smell the warm summer afternoon air of Sunset Valley. A light breeze is tickling your face and a feeling of dread is gnawing in the pit of your belly. You have finished your day's work and now you have to return home. And home is no longer where your heart lies...
It wasn't late enough. The sun was still peeking above the clock tower of the Town Hall as Gunther left the office, even though he'd put in an extra couple of hours in a vain effort to try and delay the moment when he would have to drive home.
Home was the last place he wanted to be these days, and he felt both heartsore and guilty about that fact. Heartsore that his marriage was all-but over, and guilty that his young son Mortimer was witness to the blistering arguments that echoed more and more frequently around the large rooms of Goth Manor.
He stood outside the office in the warm afternoon sunshine, watching as Sunset Valley went about its daily business. By the park a young woman was wrestling with two large bags of shopping and a recalcitrant, grizzling toddler, and across the street one of the town's police officers was emerging from the grocery store with a warm, moist paper bag clutched in one hand and two cups of coffee stuffed into a cardboard tray in the other. Gunther watched as the cop's sidekick opened the car door for him, taking the donuts and coffee as his partner drove them around to the back of the theatre to expand their bellies in sugary peace.
Gunther sighed. He could do with a drink himself, although not of coffee. And it was that thought that galvanised him, as he jogged across the parking lot and slipped into the leather-lined comfort of his car. The door closed with a reassuringly solid thunk behind him and he rested his hands on the wheel, closing his eyes for a moment. Yes, he knew exactly where he could finally shake off the constraints of his life, if only for a few hours.
Waylon's place was on the edge of town, high up in the hills. It had been built in the strangest of locations: right by an idyllic fishing lake. Local gossip had it that the land was being sold on the cheap for shady reasons, and Waylon had snapped it up at a bargain price to open up another of his Waylon's Haunt franchise dive bars.
It didn't take long to get there - at least not at the speed Gunther was driving - but he could afford to step on the gas with the knowledge that Sunset Valley's finest would be stuffing their faces with sugar and java for the next half hour or so.
He parked up at the end of the lot, away from the sloppy old jalopies that tended to populate the cracked ashphalt outside Waylon's. It was always safest to park well out of the way and take the longer walk to the reinforced metal entrance door. Gunther loved his car and was loath to exit the bar one night to find the side panels had been scraped or - God forbid - keyed by some jealous bastard who, just because he couldn't afford a Yomoshoto Evasion, thought nobody else should be able to enjoy one, either.
The music was loud, the air was a fug of cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes, and the place was already buzzing as he walked in. Gunther raised an eyebrow as he spotted Geoffrey Landgraab already playing darts and well into his cups, but hey; that was one reason why Waylon's was so popular. It didn't matter who the hell you were. Nobody judged you (unless they were the ones who had to drag your drunk arse out onto the pavement) and nobody gave a shit about what you did for a living.
"On the house," the bartender said, tipping Gunther a wink as he slid a glass of something yellow, sweet, and sticky across the equally-sticky bar. "You look as if you need it."
"Fuck, do I ever," Gunther said with feeling and a wan smile as he picked up the glass. "Thanks."
It was cold and it was wet and, initially, that was all Gunther wanted. But then the kick hit the back of his throat and he purred softly. "That's gooood," he said, looking up at the bartender in surprise. "Is this new? Not seen it on the list before."
"New mixology class." The bartender grinned. "Up in Bridgeport. Waylon's had all his bar staff attending in groups, and I got to go on Monday. Got quite a kick, huh?"
"Hell yes." Gunther took another sip, waiting for the bite and burn. His eyes were watering slightly, but he was a little more braced for it this time. "Damn, what's in it? And, whatever it is, I'm buying a round of it."
The bartender preened. "Glad you like it." He raised his voice to be heard above the din of music. "Hey, folks! A round of Sticky-n-Sweet is on our good friend here, so roll on up and I'll mix ya up a kicker of a sticker!"
Gunther rolled his eyes and finished the drink, choking as the dregs crawled their way down his throat. "Holy shit," he rasped as the bartender served his drink from the round first. The empty glass went down on the bar and the full one found its way to Gunther's lips within seconds as hands slapped him on the back and several voices slurred their appreciation of him.
"Good man," he heard Landgraab drawl. "Good... *hic* ... good man."
Three hours, and seven more Sticky-n-Sweets later, and the moment dreaded by every guy in every bar had arrived. It was time to break the seal, and Gunther weaved his way unsteadily through the crowd to the gents. If he stayed here much longer, he'd be pissing the night away, quite literally.
He zipped up, but not before looking down with a sigh.
"When was the last time you had a bit of friendly action, huh?" he muttered. "Well, apart from your old pal here." His right hand patted the zip pull into place and...
The world wobbled, and he slammed his hand into the cold tiled wall. That didn't help much, so the rest of him joined it. No, it wasn't the world that was lurching. No, it was...
He stood up ten minutes later, once he was sure there was no more of his eaten-at-his-desk lunch left to make a re-appearance. His mouth tasted like he'd been licking the floor of a cab at 3am and his head was still spinning, and somehow he still had to get home.
Speaking of cabs...
Gunther let himself into the house as quietly as only a drunk-off-his-arse man could do, dropping his keys twice and then noisily finding every chair and table leg in the kitchen with his feet in the darkness.
Somehow, he managed to stumble into the hallway, just as he heard the sonorous notes of the cemetery coming alive for the night. Oh crap. That was all he needed. Cornelia's parents haunting his sorry arse when all he wanted to do was crawl into bed, pull the covers over his head, and sleep for a thousand years?
Just kill me now.
But it wasn't Cornelia's - or even his own - parents who lit the hallway with their ethereal glow, and as he rubbed his eyes Gunther wasn't sure if he was drunk or hallucinating.
"Lolita?" he whispered into the suddenly-frigid air as she floated towards him. His lips parted as he watched the sparks lighting up her frail body. "Oh God..."
She smiled at him, and he flew back through the years to the time when he first saw her mouth quirk in that very special way she kept only for him: the amused little smile that only he could bring to her face, back when he could still laugh and joke and find fun and wonderment in life.
He held out a hand, hesitating. He'd seen her briefly only once before, floating through the garden in the small hours of the morning before dawn as he'd performed his own nightly haunting of the library. By the time he'd run outside she had gone, only her headstone rattling a few times before it settled. Now, she was here and—
"Can I touch you?" he whispered.
She nodded, taking his hand in hers. It tingled, and he covered the shining, sparking little hand with his other warm and still-living palm, holding it tightly as his vision blurred with tears and the tingles moved up his arms until he thought they'd stop his heart.
"Why tonight? Why, when I don't even know if this is real or just the drink?"
He felt her other hand stroke his cheek, and it was more than he could take. He lunged forward, pressing his mouth to hers, kissing her desperately, knowing she would soon fade and God alone knew when he'd see her again. One of those brief, insane, out-of-nowhere thoughts that he'd been thinking a lot lately crossed his mind: If I use my tongue, will I be electrocuted?
But, before he had the chance to find out...
He tore himself away, body trembling and lips burning. He couldn't bring himself to look at Mortimer, instead pointing his hand in the vague direction of the staircase as he choked, "Go back to bed, son."
"But I heard stuff, and why were you kissing her instead of kissing Mum? You never kiss Mum anymore."
A low, mournful sound involuntarily left Gunther's throat. "Mort," he said, hoarsely, finally meeting his boy's eyes, guilt etched across his face. "Go back to bed. We'll talk tomorrow, all right? Just—"
"We're damn well going to talk NOW!" A shrill voice descended the staircase moments before Cornelia herself. "What the hell is THIS?" She gesticulated at Lolita, who hovered in the room, vibrating with ghostly happiness at being so near to Gunther again.
"It's that slut of yours from years ago, isn't it?" Cornelia howled. "I knew there was a reason why you had her headstone shipped all the way over here! I should have smashed it to pieces while I had the chance! YOU!" She wheeled onto Lolita, jabbing a finger in her face. "Get gone from this house, you sparky little tart. Tomorrow your urn is going to the mausoleum!"
With a soft, pained moan, Lolita faded through the wall, upending a potted plant as she went, and the room darkened as much as Gunther's heart after she'd gone.
"As for you," Cornelia hissed at him. "Look at you. You're drunk, you've got puke on your pants, and you're a disgrace to this family's name. GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!"
Gunther tried staring her down, as he'd done so many times before during their increasingly-frequent arguments, but the small, bewildered figure of his son just behind her shoulder was all he could see, and eventually he hung his head, his shoulders sagging in defeat.
Maybe she was right. What the hell was his life becoming? And how much longer could he keep this pitiful charade going? He'd tried so hard, for Mortimer's sake, but now he'd gone and shot that all to hell, and he trudged upstairs to the bedroom. His own, solitary bedroom, for Cornelia had moved out of his bed and into a room of her own months ago. He closed the door and sank onto the mattress, staring sightlessly at the wall, numb.
"Your father is right," Cornelia said, much though those words galled her. "You should be in bed."
"That's ENOUGH!" Cornelia snapped. "Get to your room this instant!"
"I don't wanna go to bed. I wanna know who that lady was, and why Dad was kissing her."
"Don't argue with me, Mortimer." Cornelia pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to stave off the mother of all migraines. "BED. And tomorrow, I think it's high time we sent you off to Prep School."
Mortimer's wail echoed through the house. "But I don't wanna go to Prep School! I don't wanna! Don't wannaaaaaa!"
"I don't wanna go to Prep School," Mortimer whispered into the darkness, as he curled up in a tight ball on his bed. "I just want Mum and Dad to be happy again."