Welcome to the New Normal

Sneaking into The Gutter

A Stolen Respite Yields a Surprise

A Denny McCloud Story

Friday, 16 Apr 2027
The Gutter Comic Store
Alamy Falls
1530hrs

Denny whizzed right through her history test, the unit coinciding with the Italian Renaissance she was currently covering in Spencer’s class. Ten minutes after sitting down she was done. She was free to go. Denny gave her test to the grad student with a silent nod and smile and hustled out of there. If she pedaled fast, she could bike over to The Gutter and still make it home as if she’d put in a full class.

I’d rather a straight fight to all this sneaking around, she thought as she jumped the curb and braked to a stop in front of the shop. But if it came down to a fight with Mom, I’d lose. It’s just so totally unfair. No art, no comics, no real social life to speak of. Just one night off from the grind. Geez. I might as well be a nun. At least they get to pray to a guy. Although I suppose Mom would find something wrong with hanging out with Jesus, too. Bummer.

Denny knew she’d aced the history test—mostly it was a matter of regurgitating everything the professor had said in essay form—but her mother’s injunction against her art was chafing more and more. Now that her origami was coming to life, to say nothing of other items from her stash still cropping up in odd places, that injunction was harder and harder to obey, the big secret harder to keep. Case in point, she’d already told Miriam. Denny believed Miriam would never betray that confidence, but given how stuff kept happening behind her back, how long did she have before the secret got blown wide open? She still wasn’t sure how Kitty came to life at the coffee shop, other than the fact that Denny had been extremely worried and wanted the cat back and safe. She really wished that she knew how that trick worked.

As long as you’re wishing, why not origami up a jet and fly out of here? Go somewhere Mom can’t tell me what to do every blessed waking minute of the freakin’ day? Denny’s hands froze on the tumblers of her bike lock. Why not? If the jet were an origami jet, it was possible she could make it real. Just like the cat.

Right?

Growling softly to herself, Denny scrambled the tumblers and shoved through the door of the shop. She still had nearly all the money that her father had slipped her last week on the sly. He wouldn’t mind if she didn’t spend it on pencils and paper but picked up a few issues instead. Comics fell under the loose category of art reference materials anyway.

It was Friday and already there were gamers at the tables in the back of the store, setting up for the Friday Night Magic. Several of them looked up as she came in. They waved. She waved back, recognizing several from high school. It had been ages since she’d done a game. Most days now, she merely kibitzed from the sidelines on her one night out. Denny turned for the counter and as she’d hoped, Rick was manning it.

“Hey, Rick.”

“Denny,” Rick said, stretching her name out in a near-croon. He pulled her bag from the other subscriptions behind the counter. “Long time, no see, chica. Gotta lotta issues waitin’. How’re you doin’?”

“Calc is bustin’ my butt. Mom’s riding me hard on the schoolwork. And if she asks, I was never here.” Denny got her wallet out and sighed. “Same old, same old.”

Rick McGee scratched his beard and a frown knitted his brow, but he said nothing while he pulled up her subscription file on his tablet. He logged her purchases, reset the pull list for the next issues, and rang her up.

“You got a place to stash that?” Rick asked. “It’s a pretty big haul.”

“Yeah.” Denny hefted it. She’d missed last month, not having had a chance to get away, and there were fifty issues waiting for her. “Not for long at this rate though.”

“You could leave them here. I was thinking of setting something up like those smokers bars, you know? Instead of humidors, I’ll be offering long boxes and shelf space. Already got a few takers. Mostly kids who don’t have the space to spare at home. You know?”

By the inflection, Denny knew Rick wasn’t being entirely truthful. He might or might not have the space as described, or he might be trying to help her out with her situation at home. She knew he offered up the store on Thursday nights for literacy tutoring. Many of the people involved were kids from less fortunate circumstances and for some, comics were their only gateway to literacy. And for them, Rick set aside space to store their reading materials. Denny didn’t want to encroach on that valuable real estate and she also didn’t like dragging Rick into being an accomplice in some grey-area wrongdoing. Like you haven’t done it already just by being here?

“I think I’m good for now,” she hedged. “Thanks, Rick.”

“Okay. You know what’s best.” Rick shut the drawer with a ka-ching. He tapped the counter with one broad finger. He was a broad man but not fat, with broad features under a curly mop of brown hair and beard. “You still looking for the last issue of The Dreamhunters?”

“Heck yeah.” Denny froze mid-turn, her hand already in the bag. “You actually found one?” And at his smirk. “No waaaay. Really?”

“Here you go.” And bickety-bam, out it comes from under the counter.

“Whoa.”

Denny glanced at him for permission and at his nod she carefully slid it from its bag. She’d stumbled across a description of the story when browsing the internet and for the past year had been slowly acquiring the mini-series. The last issue had proven especially elusive, being around twenty years old. But Rick knew just about everybody in the business and a lot of people out of the business and he liked the challenge of hunting down the rare and obscure. The Dreamhunters had proven to be both, despite its justifiably famous author.

The art was Oriental, the story bittersweet, the ending perfect. Denny was sniffing when she returned it to the bag but she managed not to wet the comic with her tears.

“How much?” she asked, wallet in hand.

“It’s mint …,” he warned her with brow raised, Spock-style.

“The story’s worth it.”

Rick named his price. It was more than she had. Denny did the math in her head, judged what she held in her hands, and put her bag on the counter.

“I’d like to return these,” she said and tapped the vintage issue. “For that.”

“Works for me.” Rick smiled, adding, “You’ll have a little left over. You might want to pick some issues back from the bag and take them with.”

“No.” Denny shook her head. “It’s cool. Just keep the change and put it toward the Thursday night program, okay? I’m sure the kids would get a kick out of buying something with it.”

“Seriously?” That made Rick pause, her change in hand. It amounted to nearly thirty bucks.

“Way.” Denny nodded once and slid The Dreamhunters into her pack, sandwiched between her binder and Biology textbook.

“Thanks, Denny. The kids’ll really appreciate it.” Rick pulled an envelope from under the till and added the money to the reading fund. He tapped the bills even and slid it back under the till. “You staying to browse?”

“Can’t.” Denny hefted her pack and waved at the guys in the back. “Mom’s expecting me.”

“Okay.” Rick leaned against the counter, looking serious. Denny had once been a fixture about the place, reading, gaming, and drawing characters for the players on the side. Nowadays, she rarely stepped in. Her enthusiasm back then had been infectious and it didn’t match the subdued young woman in front of him. Rick recognized stifled longing when he saw it. Like the kids he hosted on Thursday night, the shop was an escape, a haven, much wished for but rarely achieved. It bothered him that he could do nothing more than say, “Take care, Denny. We’ll be here when you come back.”

“I’ll see you then,” Denny promised and pushed out the door. If she hurried, she’d make it back home and get the precious comic hidden in her stash without raising any suspicion. Even so, she wondered how much longer she could keep up the subterfuge. Sooner or later, her mother would find out and when that happened … Denny wasn’t looking forward it.

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