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Meet Lea Tillim, aka Cadaver Dimples, Star of Morgues and Emergency Rooms. Scarecrow thin, with a sharp crew cut and a dead face, Lea’s a girl with a talent. She can think you into a heart attack if you cross her—or, if she’s feeling kind, just a bad case of indigestion. She has only one friend in the world, her cat, Tule. You see, a girl like Lea can’t be too careful whom she shows her talent to. In her experience it only leads to troubles and tragedies.
Now it’s led her to Jack Konar, who’s secretly building something strange and wonderful in an abandoned section of the local Sears and Roebuck. According to Jack, it’s all part of a master plan to rescue the Chosen from this godforsaken planet. But the agents of the Evil Ones–cleverly disguised as ordinary people and sometimes even cats–are trying to stop him. Jack needs a girl with Lea’s special talents. It would all sound just too crazy for words if the most dangerous and unexpected thing of all hadn’t happened. After years of the best poker face grief could buy, Lea finds herself slowly coming back to life . . . and falling in love with the savior of the world.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Breakfast with the Ones You Love
The Yid Paints the Ceiling of Our Spaceship Gold
If you want to be safe, a person like myself, you have to kill your face. Otherwise people get their hooks in you, which, who needs it? I already killed my face by the age of twelve. Problem is, my tits invaded. I tried not eating, which I hear stops tits in their tracks, but I couldn't keep it up. In spite of everything, there is something in you that wants to keep you alive. It's like a disease that you just can't shake, no matter how hard you try. At least you can kill your face, see? Me, I can kill people, too. I can kill them whenever I want to.
My cat doesn't like me killing people. The ones I murdered, I figured, they're better off. Tule said no. I said, what, don't you like the blood, pussums, is that it? She said, no, even when there isn't any blood it's bad for you, it's just bad for you, honey baby, and I don't care about anybody else.
I'm no psycho. I know if somebody else had been there, all they would have seen was blinks and rubs, and all they would have heard was meow. It wouldn't have made them almost cry, like it did me. When you understand an individual, it makes you almost cry.
Like this one night that I was standing outside the kitchen door of this restaurant where I worked. Across the street some bag lady was slumped by a flophouse door–"By the Day and by the Week"–all bundled in rags and booze and snoring her death-rattle snore. My sleeves were rolled up; my arms were all wet and sudsy and steaming. The moon was steaming too, it looked like, playing peek-a-boo through this moon steam; maybe it was the souls of my dead victims, if they had any.
I don't know what I was thinking about, but I was crying, and it was starting to sting my eyes, so I went back inside. Tule rode my shoulder. Sarge was in the kitchen, arms akimbo, nodding and tapping his foot and twisting that sausage puss of his and eyeballing Tule.
"Lea! Plates! Silverware!"
He acted like a sarge, so that's what they called him at the Wee Spot, but his name was really Serge. He was a Uky guy, big guy, the kind where you can't tell what's muscle and what's fat.
"You ever hear of health code?" he said.
"You ever hear of 'mind your own business'?" I said.
While he was chewing on that one, I pulled open the dish-washing machine–a cloud of steam rolled out and I piled a stack of plates onto a towel on my forearm faster than most people can deal cards. Tule jumped off my shoulder and disappeared under the butcher block. I grabbed the silverware tray and walked right past Mr. Openmouth to the waiters' station with the clean stuff.
I didn't kill him. I didn't maim him. I didn't knock him onto his knees or terrify him inside his own mind. I didn't do anything. I just put out the goddam dishes and silverware like he wanted. Like Tule told me to.
At 2:00 a.m. when all the tables and bus trays were wiped down and the floors were clean and steaming and the mop bucket was upside down in the sink, me and Tule slammed out the back door into the alley and hustled to the Sears and Roebuck, blowing white breath by moonlight. I mean, I was blowing the breath–Tule was inside my shirt and my leather jacket, where I held her curled up against my stomach, keeping the both of us warm. I climbed us up the fire escape onto the roof. I hated that dirty rust that made your hands red and gritty–it stung in the cold–but I was damned if I'd wipe them off on my leather.
Up top, my associate, the Yid, had stuff to wipe your hands on. He wasn't there yet, but I knew where his stash was. I wedged up the tar-papered plywood on top of the old elevator shaft and shimmied under. It was pitch-dark in there. The Yid always said, drop the feline down first, in case they ever move the elevator car–then you'll know not to jump and kill yourself.
I said, I'll drop you down first, Yid. I figured they would never move that old service elevator. It was probably rusted in place. The security dicks didn't even go over to that part of the building anymore. As far as me and the Yid could tell, it was walled off. Somebody had just drywalled off that whole section rather than deal with the shit and rot, probably before whoever sold it to Sears and Roebuck. That elevator wasn't going anywhere. I didn't even use a flashlight. I just jumped. My legs knew when to bend for the landing. The Yid always used a flashlight. He said, that's because of Auschwitz and Treblinka, where his folks had been, and he didn't trust anything anymore.
I said, I could take care of Auschwitz and Treblinka, no sweat, I could make those Nazis wish they had never been born if I half felt like it, and he said, I know, that's why I let you stick around, but I still gotta use the flashlight–for my nerves. I allowed him that.
I held Tule tight. "Don't claw me this time, pussums, okay?" I jumped. She clawed, like always, and I petted her special, like always. "Who loves you?" You have to reward people after they do bad; otherwise they just keep on doing bad; is the way I see it, because they stay unhappy. Cats too.
She relaxed. I felt around for the sliding plate on top of the elevator car. More rust and grit. I found the edge and pushed it aside. The scraping sound echoed in the elevator shaft. I still couldn't see anything but my own mind–red and blue points swimming around with that weird antiglow, as if there were another kind of light, the opposite of daylight, and the darker it gets, the brighter that gets.
Then I scooped Tule out from under my shirt and my jacket. "Hey! It's a girl!" I said, and I tickled her. The shaft said, it's a girl, it's a girl, girl, girl. Tule played at biting my fingers. I held her down the hole as far as I could without dirtying my jacket too much, and I dropped her into the elevator. She was okay with that routine. I heard her scratch around down there, smelling for mice. She'd find mice now and then. I don't mind mice. They keep the rats away. Then I lowered myself down a little and jumped the rest of the way.
It always gave me a kick to feel the car shake when I jumped in. Sometimes I'd imagine the cable breaking and the whole thing plummeting down to the bottom. Everything would get crushed, even if you jump and you're in the air–did you know that? The Yid explained that one to me; it's because your jump is falling too, like everything else. So you still wind up with your skull shooting down through your rib cage or whatever. Not Tule, though. I'd cushion Tule. I'd hug her, even if she scratched like hell. I'd be her shock absorber, see? She wouldn't starve, either. She could eat me till somebody shoveled her out. That would be okay by me. If the Yid was there, and she ate him too, and he didn't like it, well, that would be just too bad.
I went straight for the telephone box because the Yid always kept some wet-and-dry's in there with some rags that he called schmattes. I picked up the receiver and said, "I'm stuck between the seventh and eighth floor here. Can you send up a schmatte?" I grabbed a couple schmattes, said thank you, and hung up. I wiped off the grit–I wiped off the feel of the grit, is what I should say, because it was still pitch-dark, and I was doing everything by the feel of it, which is my normal mode anyway. Sight is an extremely overrated sense, in my book.
Tule was watching me. I felt her rub my calf. That's right, wash up, she said. You gotta take care of yourself, keep yourself clean, keep yourself pretty. You know how to do it. When people see you, it will make them alive, instead of the other way.
I said, "Aw, what do cats know, huh? 'I love you,' doesn't mean I gotta listen to your crap, Tule." But it got me thinking. I closed the phone box and wiped the metal casing with one of the Yid's schmattes. I knew what I was doing–no need to waste batteries yet. I polished it all up; I wanted it cleaner than what the Yid shaves by. Then I reached down to where I knew a flashlight was and I shined it up at my face to see if I was still pretty. You never know from one minute to the next. You think you do, but you don't. Especially if someone just died in front of you because you twitched a certain muscle inside, you want to check to see if you still look the same; sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. But now I was checking just for vanity or curiosity, like normal girls do who don't kill people. Tule meowed. Yes, that's the kind of thing she wanted me to do.
That's when I heard the board creak up top the shaft. I quick turned out the flashlight. I was damned if I'd let the Yid catch me doing a girl thing like that; I'd never hear the end of it. The Yid's light shone down through the hole in the top of the elevator car, and I saw my face on the phone box. My features wouldn't stay put, though–shadows danced across it like moon steam. And it was so dark, my face was nothing but shadows, so when the shadows changed, my face changed, as if some kid was trying to make a face in a ball of clay, and he didn't like it, so he kept smooshing it this way and that, and he still didn't like it.
That's when for the second time that dumb night, I started to get teary–so in spite of everything, I had to figure, I was still pretty. If you can feel a cat smile on your calf, Tule was smiling, the little bugger.
"Hey, Shiksie, don't I get a hello today, hello today, today, day, day, day?" The Yid jumped down, and I felt the car shake, the way I like. I didn't say a word–that's how to spook him. It got very quiet. I could just see the Yid up there on top of the elevator, wondering what kind of shit he'd jumped into the middle of, if there was some Nazi bull waiting for him down below. I picked up Tule real quiet and held her close and shushed her in her furry cat's ear. The Yid's flashlight did a slow sweep of the places it could hit through the hatch. Real soft: "Shiksie?" I heard him sneak down onto his belly.
By now, with just that little bit of light spilling from the Yid's flashlight, I could see everything pretty well. I saw his curly head poke down through the hole like a rat's head out a hole in the mop board. His scarf hung down a little. His eyes were so big, they looked like skinned hard-boiled eggs. He was shitting bricks, believe you me.
So I said, quiet but with a lot of wind, "Achtung!"
I thought he was gonna blow out of that shaft as if it were a missile silo and he was an ICBM. The elevator shook like crazy. Tule yowled and jumped out of my arms. I'd never laughed so hard in my life. The Yid dropped his flashlight and scrambled back up the shaft. I heard the cover board creak open.
He must have heard me laughing then because the board crashed down again, and the Yid said, "Shit!" and the shaft said, "Shit, shit, shit, shit!"
The Yid was very reasonable, miraculously reasonable. It's all those rabbis in his genes, is what I'm thinking, figuring out if a chicken eats seed through another guy's fence, whose is the meat, or if a guy is born with two heads, which head he has to wear his yarmulke on–stuff like that. Anybody else would have gone ape, and I might have had to do something bad to him. But the Yid, he knew about my abilities, and he wasn't about to provoke me. He stayed reasonable, and he said, "Very good, Shiksie–you know a German word. Now shine up a flashlight so I can climb down."
"Shiksie, be nice, Shiksie. This is my spaceship I let you in on, isn't it? Shine."
"You know where the damn elevator is. Just jump, for crissakes."
"Shine. I'm asking you nice. Am I your friend or what?"
I just sat tight, enjoying my joke like a guy with money in his pocket. Then the Yid turned on the charm and said, "Who loves you, Shiksie?"
It didn't have any effect on me. That stuff never touches me. I would have drawn it out some more, but Tule made me pick up the Yid's flashlight, which had dropped down through the hole, and shine it up the shaft.
"I thank you, Shiksie." The Yid jumped down onto the elevator. He gave me a little size-her-up look through the hole, then shinnied down the rest of the way. He stood in front of me, and Tule stretched up against his leg. He picked her up, and she actually started purring, the traitor. He held out his hand, and I kind of found myself giving him his flashlight. "Thank you, Shiksie. That was a pretty funny trick. You scared the shit out of me."
The Yid wasn't all that much older than I was. He was maybe nineteen years old. I was what–sixteen, I guess. He had curly red hair and hazel eyes and thick eyebrows that looked like they were stitched on, nice eyebrows, and a long face and a big nose like they have, and he was real tall, maybe a head taller than I was, so if I looked straight ahead, I'd be looking at his chest. He was pretty well built, I suppose. He wore granny glasses with stems the color of a root beer float. He wore combat boots and a trench coat except in the hottest months. He had a Guatemalan scarf that I darned for him once even though I can't sew worth spit. When he smiled he had big dimples and his lips curled down at the corners. I liked it all right when he smiled.
Eliot Fintushel has published short stories in Asimov's, Analog, Strange Horizons, Amazing Stories, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Crank!, and in the anthologies Jewish Sci-Fi Stories for Kids, Jewish Detective Stories for Kids, Nalo Hopkinson's Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Polyphony 4. His fiction has appeared in the annual anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction several times. He has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Award and the Nebula Award, and has twice won the National Endowment for the Arts Solo Performer Award.