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  • Malorie Nilson

READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Vampires of Portlandia by Jason Tanamor



ASWANG

aswang (noun): as·wang /ahhs·wahng/us·wong/: A shapeshifter in Filipino folklore, such as vampires, ghouls, witches, viscera suckers, and werebeasts



Get ramped up and vamped up because in just a few short days Vampires of Portlandia by Jason Tanamor will be unleashed upon the world. Dive into the story of Marela Leones and her family of aswang vampires as she uproots the whole of their lives and imposes strict rules to try to keep them safe from exposure. Immigrants from the Filipines to Portland, Oregon, this novel is deeply tied to both Filipino folklore and all that is weird and wonderful in Portland.


Read the first two chapters today, and be sure to pick up your copy to follow this extraordinary family to the very end! Vampires of Portlandia is out TUESDAY!


Preorder your copy now:

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CHAPTER ONE


Now


The crows arrived each season to roost, usually around late fall, when the weather dropped and the daylight reduced into long evenings. They congregated in murders, packs of hundreds if not thousands, to join in for a giant slumber party. It was as if there was an unwritten agreement between downtown Portland and the crows to arrive and to cast shadows and to sing their lullaby to locals who were brave enough to show themselves.


For the first several years the family resided in the Rose City, Percival paid no attention to the crows. With the seasons turning, however, it was difficult to not notice. They were everywhere.

The holiday season was upon Portland. Merriment was in the air, and the rush of Christmas was around the corner. It was approaching December, which meant the days were short, while the nights tended to run forever. Pioneer Square had erected the seventy-five-foot Douglas fir. People from all over the city ventured to the square to catch a glimpse of the tree. It was a tradition for residents and tourists alike, staring at the enormous tree as they stuffed their faces with sweets and such while purchasing gifts for their loved ones.


Percival pedaled his rickshaw with great force, thrusting his heels into the pedals as he scaled the slight, yet never-ending, slope of a street away from the river. As he reached level ground, a young child ran out in front of him.


He jerked the handlebars to the left, riding down a flight of stairs, each step causing a slight vibration in his wrists. He bunny-hopped a curb and then ricocheted off the side of a building to clear a right angle just to avoid a homeless tent. Percival, discomforted by the sight of a homeless woman screaming at passersby—one who, he’d noted, had misplaced her shoes and was standing in bare feet—pedaled a bit faster.


With the influx of people, the vampire had learned to navigate the streets of downtown with ease. His bike had become an extra appendage—strong and sturdy—something he could control gracefully no matter the circumstances.


Percival’s physically fit body also helped. His muscles were tone, and his hair often fell to his shoulders or blew through the wind as his speed increased. He didn’t exercise traditionally, the only workout coming from the continual bicycling. But try pedaling through a brutal wind that had appeared out of thin air, dodging people nonetheless! It was the most challenging workout you could stomach.


He was only in his early twenties and working full-time while his brother, Roger, and the twins, Geena and Marco, attended high school and grade school respectively. Although Percival knew that his siblings could care for themselves—they were vampires just like him, after all, and had extraordinary powers—he took his role of “man of the house” seriously. It was something his Lola taught him at an early age: responsibility.


As the saying went, with great power came great responsibility. The vampire didn’t have the “power” just yet; rather, he was next in line to inherit the amulet that would enable him to reign over the aswang vampires.


For now, that luxury fell on Marcella Leones, the kids’ grandmother for the last twenty-plus years. It was because of her that Percival had learned what it was like to have supernatural abilities.


Percival delivered food for a small courier company called Portland Pedal Power, riding a rickshaw up and down the streets of Portland.


With nearly seven hundred thousand residents in the downtown area—more if you counted those who commuted in—it was one of the few jobs that Percival could work that gave him a blueprint of the city. It gave him a sense of direction. It gave him the lay of the land.


He didn’t like working as a courier, but having the freedom to come and go as he pleased was much more desirable than sitting in a classroom. When they had relocated to Portland, he had done that for a good portion of his life, and suffice to say, Percival didn’t care for it.


The vampire pedaled by the square several times per day. It was a large courtyard that hosted various events—one of them being the lighting of the Christmas tree. The tree lighting was the official start of the shopping season. And it was because of this event, Percival had begun to think about presents for his family.


He’d spent days wondering what his grandmother would want. Not jewelry, he’d determined, since his Lola was immersed in Capiz shells year-round. Briefly, he’d considered a nice sweater or even a pair of fuzzy socks. But in the end, he always came up empty; what, he wondered, could he possibly give to someone who had taken care of him for his entire life?


Percival pedaled across Sixth Avenue, toward the food cart block that surrounded a public parking lot one block east. The food cart block was one of the largest ones of its kind in the area. He had just distributed his final meal of that delivery’s load—to a souvenir store for tourists—and was heading back to pick up another stack. One more delivery should do it.


The sun had set, and the night was becoming cool. The darkness glowed underneath the streetlights and store-lit displays. The temperature had dropped a few degrees, but Percival kept warm from the continual pedaling.


He had studied the patterns of the light rail train that traveled to the university and beyond, committing the train’s schedule to memory to assist in his time management. The Orange Line ran every fifteen minutes, so he used the schedule to track the time of day. Working as a delivery boy seemed to run together. Watching the trains kept him at bay. And with the night coming sooner and sooner, he managed to use the timing of the trains to mentally calculate how many hours he had worked each day. It was because of the long hours that he still hadn’t found a shop that was open late enough to find a good gift for his Lola.


Percival swerved around the stationary cars until he arrived at the food cart stalls. The huge bulbs on the top of each station illuminated the small spaces around the carts, giving customers the ability to read the menus that ran along the front of them.


A woman reading the menu of an Asian-styled food truck stood in front of the vampire, so Percival had to wait to pass. Once she placed her order, he gently nudged her. “Excuse me,” he said.

The woman addressed Percival. “I’m sorry,” she said with a blank stare. She made room for him, inching in between two people scanning the menu.


Percival flashed a smile and then wheeled the rickshaw up to the cart, walking the delivery bicycle toward the owner. Cellophane wrappers blew past him, and a couple of patrons parted to accommodate the vampire’s oddly shaped bicycle.


“Excuse me,” said Percival. “Sorry.” Embarrassed, his chin held tightly to his body, he apologized each time he passed a person. He bit down on his teeth, pushing out a smile as he approached the owner.


Amazed at the vampire’s perseverance, the owner scratched his head. “Still working?” asked the cart owner.


Percival nodded. He sighed deeply to convey how long he had been on the clock.


“This must be your, what, eighth or ninth delivery?”


“Something like that.” He was short with the owner, not because he didn’t enjoy the conversation, but because finding a present for the woman who’d raised him was burning in his mind. Shops stayed open a little later, but his work consumed much of those hours. But as always, Percival made the time for his customers.


The owner, impressed by Percival’s endurance, shook his head. He placed his fingertips on his chest in disbelief. “I don’t know how you have so much energy.” He looked around the crowded streets. The vampire followed his gaze.


Drivers in stationary cars sat hopelessly in the middle of intersections, waiting for people to cross. Shoppers walked in and out of stores and restaurants, enjoying themselves, and hungry patrons waited for dishes at the row of food carts.


The man stopped to watch a group of people stroll down the block to another store. “Just watching them makes me tired,” he said.


A group of crows cawed at the people as they flew out of the way of the hoard of foot traffic. Amused, the owner chuckled. “Even the birds hate how busy it is.”


Percival smiled. “It doesn’t really bother me.” He shrugged. “I guess the only thing that’s bothersome is the overcrowdedness when I’m trying to maneuver a rickshaw. Especially when I’m in a hurry.”


The courier observed his surroundings. One man stared at him with grand curiosity. Each time the vampire looked out into the streets of downtown, the amount of people, like the crows, multiplied. He started to see his opportunity to purchase a gift fading. He laughed to himself. Just his luck.


He returned to the entrepreneur who was staring at him. “Other than that, though, I actually sort of enjoy it. It’s much better than being in school.”


The man covered his mouth with his palm. He couldn’t believe what Percival was saying. His eyes widened, astonished at the enthusiasm of the young man. “Some of the other couriers only come by twice at the most.” The owner piled a stack of takeout boxes into the back compartment of Percival’s rickshaw. “It must be nice to be young, I guess.”


Percival blew off the statement. His face still had a faint trace of a smile. If only the man knew. “I don’t mind the long hours or hard work,” he said. “I love the tips even more.” He patted the front pocket of his pants.


The owner nodded, eyeing the rectangular bulge of money. “Oh, I bet.” He chuckled under his breath. The man then secured the load and patted Percival on the shoulder. Grateful, the cart owner smiled. “Well, just remember one thing,” said the man. “The tips are worthless if you don’t find the time to spend them. Once you have a purpose in life, you’ll find that working becomes secondary.” Once again, the man glanced out into the city, and his bottom lip curled into a frown. “I don’t want to see you working all day long, you hear me?” he threatened. “I better be seeing you inside these stores like these folks. If you know what I’m getting at.”


The vampire affirmed. He then whipped out some loose bills and paid for the meals. After the exchange, Percival wheeled his rickshaw out into an open area.


“Say hello to your Lola for me,” the man said. “Oh, and tell her that my wife loves the necklace she made for her.”


Percival nodded, bid adieu, and then pedaled up the hill, weaving around pedestrians and homeless people who crowded the sidewalks. This would be his final delivery of the long day.


The young adult continued toward his Lola’s retail outfit. His grandmother’s store was a few blocks up from Powell’s Books, just off the main thoroughfare of Tenth Avenue. There were people still milling around the neighborhood, but at this moment, none of them were in Leones’s store.


“I’ve got dinner,” Percival called out upon entering the accessories store. Geena and Marco scrambled out from behind the back room.


Geena was a petite young girl, her hair was pin straight and thick like balls of yarn. Her face was flat, and it maintained a seemingly permanent smile that stretched across her wide cheeks. The young girl was a naturally happy child.


Marco, on the other hand, was lanky and tall for his age. He towered over his sister and, at the rate he was growing, would surely tower over his brothers. Marco’s lips always seemed pursed, as if his curiosity, or criticism, was his best teacher.


The twins reached for the boxes; they were both anxious to eat, having waited for their brother since they had returned from school. Percival raised the meals high above his head. “What do you say?”

Marco gave his older brother a look, his one eyebrow raising high up his forehead. Instead of responding, he flew up off the ground, his head now even with the container, and collected the Styrofoam package with ease. His premature wings—rounded on the edges, unlike his elders who had sharper ends—uncurled like a lizard snatching an insect in flight. He hovered in the air, his wings flapping, and pulled back the lid of the box. Marco leaned in with his nose. “Thai rice with shrimp,” he said. He clicked the back of his heels together in delight. Then he faded backward in the air in happiness. It looked as if he was wading in a swimming pool. Only he was flying, and his wings were fluttering like waves on a river.


Impressed, Percival pointed his lips. “I see you’ve been working on your powers.”


Geena stood patiently, anxiously tapping the ball of her right foot. The younger vampire flashed her teeth, a large smile beaming from her face. She was smiling so much her eyeballs shrank in size. The young sister reached out her hands, palms up, and cleared her throat. “Ahem. May I please have some dinner?”


Percival bent down close to Geena, his nose a couple inches from her face. “You may,” he said. “And thank you for being so polite.” Then he cut a look to Marco, who was shoveling food into his mouth as he glided in the air with ease. Percival kept his stare, hoping for his younger brother to notice him, but Marco never did. Rather, the twin inhaled bites until the food was gone.


“Don’t eat so fast,” said Percival with an icy stare. He looked around to an empty store. There was a maze of glass display cases filling the square footage. “And quit flying. We’re supposed to act like normal people.” His voice was threatening, patronizing, and loud. It was as if he was preaching to his kid brother for the umpteenth time. Which it was.


Marco lowered to the ground, planting his feet into the linoleum. His body stiffened. The young vampire lengthened his torso, his wings recoiling into his body until they disappeared into his shoulder blades. “Relax,” said the twin. His eyes scanned the area. “There’s not a single person around.” His attitude was arrogant, to say the least, a know-it-all if you asked Marco.


Geena, taking small bites of food, never took her eyes off her twin brother. “People can see us from outside the store,” she said in a snarky tone.


Together, Percival and Marco craned their heads and peered out the large glass windows of the storefront. Their eyes widened in horror. People walked by in groups, some cocking their heads to look up at the signage of the store, but none of them entered. Percival pointed his finger in a forceful manner.


“See?” Percival said, feeling like a fool. “People can see you.” Marco rolled his eyes and then shook his head. “Don’t be careless.”


“Or what?” said Marco. Percival was always threatening his brother, and this time around, the younger vampire had had enough. “You’re always ragging on us. You’re not the boss of me.”


Geena observed the entire exchange as she swallowed bites of her broccoli and beef.


“Or else,” said Leones, who appeared from out of the back room. She had an authoritative voice and a cool conduct. It was as if the voice of God was speaking. And in the children’s case, it was.

In an instant, Percival and Marco ceased their bickering.


Leones stepped in between the two vampires. With a closed fist, she covered her lips. She cleared her throat loudly, and then a coughing fit ensued. It sounded like a smoker’s cough, raspy and deep, as if she’d had the condition for some time. The coughing lasted a few seconds, and shortly after, she was back to business. “You,” she said to Marco, “listen to your brother. I won’t be around forever, and he’ll be in charge when I’m gone.” Her voice was stern, yet calm. She softly closed her eyes, breathing in deeply to compose herself. Her palm grazed the front of her body, pressing into her chest.

Percival stared at her with narrowed eyes as she caught her breath and took a minute to herself.


Leones’s long, black hair had strands of white and hid most of her face, so Percival couldn’t see how sick she was or if the coughing was just a fit. He only saw almond-shaped eyes water and her cheeks flush from the effort.


The matriarch then addressed Percival, her head slowly turning to the eldest child. “And you, take control of the situation and do not let your emotions get the best of you.” Percival stared in horror, his eyes frozen open. “Do you understand?”


“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded, his voice deflated. The young vampire, in fact, still had a lot to learn.


“You never know when you’ll need to control the situation,” instructed Leones. She eyed him intently, nodding her head in a serious manner. “There are many…let’s just say ‘bad’ things out there.” She returned her gaze to Percival. “You must always be alert.”


“Yes, ma’am.”


For Leones, this was a time to teach both of her grandchildren. They were growing older, all of them, and they needed to perfect their powers and skills. Her time was ending, as in her mind, she had lived multiple lives—one in the Philippines and the other in Portland—which both had taken their toll on her.


Leones turned toward Marco. Fearful, the twin’s eyes widened. His face turned pale. He stepped back to gain separation, visibly displaying the distress throughout his torso. Inching toward the young vampire, Leones’s brows lifted. “And what do you have to say?”


“I’m, I’m sorry, Percival. It will never happen again.” Geena giggled a little girl laugh, loud enough for her twin brother to hear. “Shut up,” whispered Marco. This only made Geena giggle even more.


“Very good,” said Leones, ignoring the slight teasing from Geena. “Now, let’s close up and clean so we can go home.”


A television mounted on the wall barked the news of three murders in the Portland area, and Percival’s attention drew to the screen. He watched with great interest. One of the murders had occurred in nearby northwest Portland. A reporter was on the scene, broadcasting the information to the viewers.


Standing sternly in front of the camera, the reporter stated, “At this stage of the investigation, police are saying that there doesn’t seem to be a motive for the murders.”


“Where is Roger?” Leones asked the room.


“I haven’t seen him yet,” said Geena.


“Percival?”


Percival answered simply with raised shoulders, his eyes never leaving the newscast.


“What time is it?” she asked. “It’s getting late.”


It was, in fact, getting late, well after school let out. Roger should have been at the store by now. And at the very least, he should have checked in.


“No worries,” said Leones with a sigh. “I will deal with him later.” She then clapped her hands in a futile attempt to expedite the duties of closing. “Now, chop, chop. Let’s get cleaning.”


Percival continued to stare at the report on the screen. A strong sensation hit his blindside until the uneasiness became unbearable. The eldest child turned his head toward his grandmother, only to find Leones staring at him. Without saying a word, she reached up and pushed the power button on the television. The picture disappeared to blackness.


“Please do not watch that stuff,” she said with a concerned voice. “It will only consume your mind.” Percival bit down on his bottom lip, nodding slowly. Leones kept her gaze deeply into the eldest child’s eyes. So much so it caused Percival to look away. “I don’t like the message the news projects onto you.”


“Yes, ma’am,” said Percival.


“Now, let’s get back to cleaning so we can go home,” said Leones. “I don’t want to be here all night.”

Marco began to levitate, but Percival stopped him.


“We must remain normal,” he said. This time, his voice was relaxing. It had a soft disposition, just like he had learned from Leones.


“Fine,” sighed the young vampire, falling softly to the floor.


Leones’s store was an accessory outfit that featured items constructed from Capiz shells, such as jewelry, curtains, pendants, hanging lamps, and miscellaneous items used for home decorating.


Manufacturing Capiz shells into accessories was a multimillion-dollar industry in the Philippines. Tourists ate the items up, and when Leones introduced them to Portland, she became a hit downtown. She wasn’t big like multimillion-dollar big, but she made a decent living, especially for residing in the highly priced Pearl District.


The children divided and conquered, cleaning every square inch of the store. As they tidied up, Leones counted down the register. She pulled out the bills and placed them into a fabric envelope.

The family continued its duties when Roger entered. The bell above the door rang. Percival stopped all action and turned toward the entrance. Roger’s face was slightly disturbed, almost depressed. He didn’t look himself.


The teen was built like an athlete, tall and slender. He had broad shoulders and muscular arms. The sides of his head were shaved, and his hair was long and combed back on top, feathering down the back of his head. As weird as Portland was, Roger didn’t fit in for some reason. He put people off. To sum up, he was a loner, and his entire family knew it.


“Where have you been?” asked Leones. She patiently waited for a response.


“You’re in trouble,” Geena sang. She dusted off the final display case without looking. Her eyes were on Roger.


“I was at the arcade,” said Roger. His eyes were looking everywhere but Leones’s. “Some friends wanted to go after school.”


“What friends?” berated Percival. “You don’t have friends.” Percival didn’t wait for a response. Instead, he ignored his brother and returned the cleaning tools to their proper homes. He did, however, continue to eavesdrop on the situation, his body staying within earshot of his brother.


“I don’t mind that you hang out with your friends, if, in fact, that is what you’re doing,” said Leones with a sly smile. She cut a quick shot to Percival, stared at him, and then returned to the teenager. “What I do mind, though, is that you let me know ahead of time. This is not the first, or the third time even, that you’ve been late.”


Roger nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said matter-of-factly. “It was last minute, and I forgot.” His voice trailed off. “I was going to.”


Leones flicked her wrist. “Do not make excuses. Take responsibility for your actions. People will judge you on your behavior and not your words.” Roger stared blankly. To calm the situation, Leones smiled in an upbeat way. “Your friends must be something special.”


With a faraway look, Percival observed her demeanor, taking note of her approach. He knew Roger didn’t have any friends, so seeing how she handled the matter was extra important. If his brother was going to lie to her—Lola, of all people—he knew that Roger would lie to him too. He stayed out of sight, leaning back against a glass counter to watch, with a keen interest, the confrontation.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Roger. “They are.”


“What are their names?” asked Percival.


His Lola shushed him and then pinched out a smile for Roger. “Now, for the final time, let us close up and go home. It’s been a long day.”


The twins stood by the front of the store with their belongings. Percival joined them shortly thereafter. “And Percival?” said Leones.


The oldest boy turned to address his Lola, but her back was to the young man. “Yes?”

“It’s not proper to eavesdrop.”


Percival swallowed hard. He frowned. “Yes, ma’am.”


Leones spun around to face the group of children. “Now, let’s close up shop.” The children obliged, and when they were ready, the vampires headed toward their apartment in the Pearl District.


The elderly grandmother led the way, walking alongside a street car carrying tourists. Roger followed closely behind minding his own business until a crow squawked from above, distracting him. The twins held hands, swinging their arms between them, playfully enjoying the short trek home. Percival, however, lagged behind the group, thinking about what to get his family for Christmas.


A couple of crows flew overhead, passing the family and positioning themselves on top of a building. Their eyes stared down on the vampires as they walked below them, following them up the street toward their home. When the family disappeared from their sight, the crows cawed at one another and flew off into the distance.



CHAPTER TWO


The twenty-something-year-old sensie sat at a table watching a checkers match played by two men who had situated themselves well before she’d even entered the restaurant. Her name was Penelope Jane, and she had a gift. She could feel other people’s emotions.


The condition, known widely as highly sensitive people syndrome, was something she was born with. It was like having extrasensory perception; she’d had the condition since she was a child.


For work, she tended bar at the one place in Portland where the most unusual groups of people hung out (her people if you asked her)—Lovecraft Bar. It was a goth and industrial bar decked out in horror-themed decorations. It hosted various events, and the owners appropriately named the establishment after the horror writer.


Penelope Jane, PJ for short, had felt the gamers’ energy upon arriving. She had no idea how long the men had been sitting there. By what she could discern, the patrons had been deep into the action for quite some time—they’d both had a ton of emotion invested.


And like the two men who were emotionally invested in the game, you, dear reader, should become emotionally invested in PJ.


There were several empty glasses of beer stacked beside the men and a couple of empty plastic boats with discarded napkins thrown onto the adjacent table. A crumpled napkin was on the floor, and frequently, one of the men’s toes would kick at it. The bartender in her wanted to retrieve the piece of trash, but instead, she just sat and watched.


She’d first become intrigued with the duo when each time one of the patron’s checkers reached his opponent’s side, he screamed, “King me!” It was quite the ordeal, this shouting, almost as if the men had wanted the attention. But not only that, she felt the energy emanating from their bodies, more so from one of the men versus the other. Deep down, she knew that he would win more matches.

She watched casually as she waited for her friends to arrive.


“King me!” one shouted.


The sensie smiled and then checked the time, her head often wandering toward the large glass window that spanned the entrance of The Nerd Out—a comic book, board and video game themed restaurant in Southeast Portland.


A chorus of sirens sounded in the distance. The sirens weren’t unusual; it was Portland after all.


PJ tried to follow the sound, but they were a couple blocks away. With no luck, she returned to her position, waiting for her friends.


Panels of comic books were splashed across the walls like wallpaper, and Stormtrooper heads were used as light fixtures, the eyes glowing when the bulbs inside them were shining. Random action figures of various movies and comics were positioned around the restaurant.


The establishment was one of the many places that the sensie could let her hair down, both figuratively and literally. Her hair was always a different color—one month it could be bright pink, another it could be purple—so knowing that the restaurant catered to individuals like her was refreshing. PJ’s skin was pale, and although she didn’t have any tattoos, the sensie covered her body with homemade jewelry: necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.


The players next to her were betting on drinks, the loser of each match having to purchase a beverage for the winner. PJ was randomly watching the game (rooting for the longer-haired guy in private) as she repeatedly checked her phone. Before she could become too invested in the board game, her friends Celie and Jean entered.


Celie was an old soul in a twenty-something-year-old body. Her skin was olive and smooth; it was difficult to tell how old she was. She was very laid back, fun-loving, and found joy in the simplest of things. She reminded PJ of a hippie, which boded well for her as PJ herself took life as it came.

Neither one of the two had long-term plans. If you asked them, they were just fine with that.

Jean, parenthetically, was the opposite. Like Celie, she too had darker skin, both hailing from a different country. She was well spoken for her age, often enunciating each word as she spoke, very mature, and knowledgeable in an array of subjects. The one thing she did have in common with the two was how she dressed; long skirts and flowing blouses were her primary choice of wardrobe. And that, in fact, was why the three bonded. They had met at a night fair in one of the city’s quadrants, a collection of pop-up booths that had displayed vendors’ creations.


The movie “A Christmas Story” was airing on the big screen that spanned a quarter of the wall. With the holiday approaching, the restaurant had begun its Christmas theme well before even Thanksgiving. According to the calendar taped on the walls, the restaurant had already aired several Christmas classics, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” and “Home Alone.”


“You guys made it,” said PJ in delight. Her eyes lit up, excited to have finally connected with her friends. With her hectic lifestyle, mainly due to her working at a bar and with an inconsistent schedule, PJ didn’t get to see her friends as much as she’d wanted. Oftentimes, they would go days or weeks before each get-together. “Yay! I’m so excited!” PJ stood and hugged each friend, one at a time, as each collected a seat at the table.


“King me!” one of the players called out. The slight distraction forced each of the friends to look toward the players’ direction.


“Don’t mind them,” said PJ. “They’ve been kinging each other well before I arrived.” She giggled to herself. “So, how have you two been?”


Sirens screamed down the very street that the restaurant was on. They became louder as they approached, and the three friends stopped to check out the scene. Once the commotion had passed, they returned to their seats.


Jean cocked her head, subtly gesturing toward Celie as she made herself comfortable. “Sorry we’re late,” she said. “We missed our train because somebody didn’t leave her house early enough.”


“That was not my fault,” explained Celie. “There was some police issue on the way to the park and ride.”


The server swung by to take orders. “What sounds good, ladies?”


The two latecomers quickly scanned the drink menu. But not the sensie. “I always get the same thing,” said PJ to no one in particular. Her friends did a quick inventory, each selecting her drink.


“I’ll bring those right out,” the server said and then moved on to check on the other guests.


“We waited for a few minutes,” said Celie. “But after a while, just ended up driving down to the next park and ride.”


Jean glared at her friend. “Eventually, we ended up missing our train and the next.”


Celie sighed, explaining that the police disturbance was the reason of their tardiness. “Seriously, it wasn’t my fault.” She looked at Jean with a sad smile. “You know how Portland is. You have to drive fifteen minutes just to ride a bus or train for another thirty.”


“If you’d left your place at the right time, you would have missed the police cars altogether,” accused Jean. She was very calculating in her actions. “Everything has an effect.”


PJ interrupted. “That’s all right. I’m just happy you two made it.” She sensed tension between the two, a strong sensation that made her feel slightly uncomfortable. “There’s no need to bicker about it. The most important thing is you’re both here.”


The server returned with their drinks. “Here you are,” he said, dropping down the glasses on the table, one at a time. “The George Romero, the Joker-Harley Quinn, and the Fantastic 4.” He smiled. “Enjoy, ladies.” Then he was gone.


PJ salivated at the beverages. “And our drinks are here!”


The three raised their glasses and clanked them together. “To being here,” the well-spoken Jean toasted. “Something we can’t often find time to do.”


“Hopefully that’ll change,” celebrated PJ.


“To being here!” Celie said.


On the screen, Ralphie and his friends were walking through the snow. PJ stole a look and watched the scene until it faded into the next one. She always loved this movie, a tale about a boy who only wanted one thing for Christmas—a BB gun.


Jean sipped her George Romero. Her face squeezed into itself. “Ooh,” she said. Her forehead wrinkled. “That’s super sweet.” She pushed it toward Celie. “Here, try this.”


Celie took a drink, her eyes closing from the overly sweet flavor. “You want to try?” she asked PJ.


The sensie returned to her friends. “From the look on your faces? Not really.” She raised her Fantastic 4 and smiled. “I’ll stick with this.” Then she sipped, smiling sarcastically at her friends. “So, I wonder what was going on with the police?”


“It’s Portland,” said the laid-back friend, Celie. “Probably a murder of some sort.” She chuckled under her breath, half joking, half serious.


“Or a man wielding a machete,” joked Jean. The three women shared a laugh. Portland was infamous for men wielding machetes. Nobody knew if it was the same man or several men. The headlines, in general, just read “Man wields machete at passersby.”


“It’s so depressing,” said PJ with a sigh. “Portland was never like this when I was growing up.” The sensie had spent most of her life in the Rose City, having relocated from California with her mother.

“The homeless,” blurted out Jean, kissing her lips on the top of the glass to steal a sip from her fruity drink. “There are so many homeless people here.”


“I just figured it’s always been like this,” Celie proclaimed. Of the three, she hadn’t been in the area as long. She’d only been in the Pacific Northwest for a few years. Her family had wanted a better life, so they had left their home country for jobs. As far as she’d known, homeless and Portland went together like sugar and spice.


Outside, on the block adjacent to the restaurant, police sirens buzzed by. Even though this was Portland, three police emergencies in one neighborhood were slightly unusual. And that didn’t include the police incident that caused Celie and Jean’s tardiness.


“What is going on out there?” asked PJ. She glanced out the window but saw nothing. Then she returned to her friends. “There were never this many homeless people before. Probably in the last five years or so.”


“Portland is a sanctuary city,” explained Jean, who’d found herself traveling by train from Seattle about a decade prior. “All the rules benefit those coming into the city.” She shrugged. “It’s not a bad thing; it just is.” She raised the glass to her mouth once again, but this time, her long flowing sleeves nearly knocked over Celie’s drink.


“Whoa,” said Celie, saving the beverage just in time.


“Oops,” Jean said. She adjusted her blouse, laughing. “Almost had our own crime here.”


The door opened, and a family of four entered. They took a seat at the table farthest from the friends. PJ’s eyes trailed them, when one of the checkers players jumped from his seat.


“Game over!” screamed the player. He jumped from his chair and said, “You owe me a drink.” Then he danced the Cabbage Patch, circling his arms in front of his body. He was awful at it, his arms uneven and moving at different speeds.


The three friends laughed. PJ especially, who found brave and weird individuals appealing. “I wish I met someone who wasn’t afraid to be weird.” She turned to her friends. “I love that Portland accepts all different sorts of people. That’s why I chose this restaurant.”


“Clearly,” said Jean, gesturing to the man. She then hollered at him. “Woo!”


The man stole a look toward Jean’s direction and only danced more. The sensie clapped. Celie just laughed to herself.


“I guess I have no room to talk,” said PJ. She twirled the ends of her hair—her bracelets jangling down her forearm to her elbow—which was a fading blue in color today, displaying it to her friends. She squinted her eyes to get a better look at the ends. “Oh, God. My hair is so gross.”


“It’s kind of losing its color,” pointed Celie. “I think you’re due for another session.”


PJ continued to examine the handful of strands. “Yeah, the color is almost gone.”


In the distance, sirens began to grow louder, the sound becoming increasingly more annoying as they neared the restaurant. Soon, the sirens were so overbearing, the three young women did nothing but stare out the large front window, waiting for the noise to pass. At this point, two police cars, lights rotating and sirens blaring, flew past the establishment, en route to what the friends suspected was another crime scene.

“See, other people right now are late because of a murder or something,” Celie said.


Jean chuckled. Then she raised her glass. “To Portland. We just lost another resident.” Her shoulders bounced heavily from her quip.


Celie joined in on the joke. “Instead of ‘Keep Portland Weird,’ it’s ‘Keep Portland’s Population Down.’”


Next to them, the two men had started another game of checkers. But, before that, the winner enjoyed a free drink.


The restaurant was beginning to fill up, and the three friends were starting to reconnect. They toasted their glasses and drank. “Maybe we should all get guns for protection,” said PJ, as she swallowed the alcohol. “You never know how bad Portland is going to get.” She smiled.


On the screen, Ralphie’s mother was explaining to her son, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”


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