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A Guest Quarters story
The smell of barbeque, biscuits, and beer perfumed the air of the Back 40—the best steakhouse in town, providing you didn't want your meat well-done, and you didn't mind your meal coming with a side order of potential future heart attack. Half a dozen people were crammed into one of the roomier booths at the back of the restaurant, the table in front of them littered with denuded dinner plates and empty glasses.
"A toast!" John grabbed a beer bottle that still contained a few inches of liquid, hoisting it over his head to general cheers from the group. "To Angela, the last one to leave college, and the first one to actually finish her doctorate instead of dropping out!" The cheers increased in volume while Angela—a diminutive brunette with a conical paper party hat perched precariously atop her head—reddened and did her best to disappear into her drink.
Mary laughed, a sound like a grackle cawing. Angela threw a napkin at her.
"Come on, Angie." Tara elbowed her sister amiably in the side, clinking her own beer bottle against Angela's glass in the same motion. "It's a party. You remember parties, don't you? That's where we sit around being social, instead of sitting around studying until our heads explode."
"I had a social life in college," said Angela defensively.
Everyone else laughed. "You had a social life when someone picked you up and dragged you, maybe," said John. "But it's okay. We love you anyway."
"I hate you all," muttered Angela.
"Liar," said Tara, fondly.
One of the other girls—Laurie, who worked with John at the Starbucks next to campus, and had come half as a date, half as a favor, since their reservation was for six—asked, not unkindly, "So what did you major in, Angela?"
"Folklore and mythology," said Angela, a little more confident now that she was on familiar ground. "My specialization is in the modern folklore of the United States, beginning with the colonial period and moving forward from there."
Laurie tilted her head. "So what, like, Cherokee legends and stuff?"
"No, not Native American folklore. That's a whole other area of study. My area is what most people call 'urban' folklore, going back to when the first European settlers arrived in North America. "
"Oh." Laurie said, still looking baffled.
Michael, who was sitting on the other side of her, patted her on the shoulder. "Angie has that effect on people. But she tells great stories."
"Thanks, Mike," said Angela. Her tone was dry.
Michael ignored it, beaming at her. "No problem. Hey, why don't you tell us a story? Now that you're all graduated and everything."
"I don't think—"
"Please?" said Mary, with what was clearly meant to be an ingratiating smile. She folded her hands beneath her chin, knuckles pressed against her jaw, and fluttered her eyelashes. "Pretty, pretty please?"
Angela threw another napkin at her, laughing. "Stop! Stop that. Do you really want me to tell you a story?"
"Yes," said Tara firmly. "Tell us the one you wanted to do your thesis on. The one your advisor said was too much of a reach."
"Really?" Angela wrinkled her nose. "Are you sure you don't want something more fun, like phantom hitchhikers or formaldehyde-soaked prom dresses?"
"We're sure," said John. "Tell us this mystery story."
Angela sighed. "Oh, fine. This is the story of Uncle Sam, and the founding of the United States of America, and why girls always go to the bathroom in groups..."
The restaurant was still loud around them, but the table went quiet, listening to Angela speak.
"The first thing you have to understand is that the United States isn't a democracy. It's a constitutional republic. The second thing you have to understand is that in the long run, constitutional republics don't work. They're wonderful for short-term governance, but they depend on a certain unity of purpose and a degree of selfless intent that doesn't usually last more than five or six generations after the revolution. People get complacent. Corruption slips in. The population grows too large to have a truly uniform outlook and becomes divisive. Eventually, there's another revolution, and the government falls, to be replaced by a new one—another republic, an actual democracy, a dictatorship, sometimes even a monarchy. It doesn't matter. What matters is that this form of governance, by its very nature, is a fleeting thing. It wasn't designed to last.
"When the men who would become our Founding Fathers planned their revolution, they knew that they wanted a constitutional political system. It was their platonic ideal. The thing is, they also knew that no constitution—no matter how fair and even-handed it was—would endure more than a few generations. Some of them even thought that was a good thing. That their mistakes would be forgiven by history when a new regime replaced the one they had created, and they would be remembered like Rome was: as a shining example of its time."
Laurie frowned. "I thought this was going to be a story, not a history lesson."
"I'm getting there," said Angela. "Not all the Founding Fathers thought it was a good thing that constitutional republics don't last. They wanted something that would endure. So they decided, in secret, that the only way to guarantee the country's survival was to find someone who could protect it no matter what happened. Someone—or something."
"Dun dun dun," said Michael. Angela glared at him.
"You asked for this," she said sharply.
"Just kidding!" He put his hands up. "Chill, Angie. You're going to stress yourself into an early grave."
Angela, who was out of napkins, threw a wadded-up straw wrapper at him. It bounced harmlessly off the back of the booth. "In the dead of night, at the height of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers gathered together and made a sacrifice in the name of the Archangel Samael, begging for him to hear their pleas."
"Where have I heard that name before?" asked Laurie. She was starting to look faintly disturbed.
"Samael is the angel of death, and a tempter of men," said Angela. "He still dwells among the hosts of Heaven, but he's not the sort of angel you make deals with. Not unless you're willing to pay in blood."
"And the Founding Fathers were willing," guessed John.
Angela nodded. "They offered Samael a deal. Blood for protection. As long as the republic endured, he would be free to choose his sacrifices from among its people—and more specifically, from among its women. Originally, the bargain was for one sacrifice a year. On the anniversary of the agreement, he could walk the Earth, and claim one woman from the country he had helped to found as his own. But there was a catch."
"She had to be peeing?" guessed Tara.
"Not quite. See, the Founding Fathers—who weren't Christian men, for the most part, no matter what some people will try to claim today—knew that having an angel show up once a year to devour one of their citizens wouldn't go over very well. So Samael had to choose his tribute from among the unseen. He could only take a woman who was completely outside the view of anyone else, and whose disappearance could be explained by mundane means. No snatching sleeping mothers from their beds, or prisoners from their cells. He had to take the ones that no one was watching."
"This story is sexist," said Laurie.
"This story pre-dates women being considered anything but property," countered Tara. "Go on, Angie."
"The original bargain granted Samael—whom they were already beginning to call 'Uncle Sam,' to acknowledge his paternity over America, and to distance themselves from the idea that they were commanding an angel, something that even the atheists among them recognized as dangerous and blasphemous—the right to claim one woman a year. As the population of the country, and the borders of the country itself, grew, that bargain was revisited. One woman a year. One woman a season. One woman a month. Until we come to today. The bargain was revised after Hawaii joined the union, and here and now, Uncle Sam is granted the right to claim one woman a night. Always taken from American soil. Always taken unseen."
"Samael—Uncle Sam—has to follow the rules. Angels and demons always follow the rules. Oh, but he loves the luxury of choice, the freedom to select his payment from the population. So every time America is endangered, he finds a way to strengthen the republic. Every time the country might fall, he's there to prop it up. And all because of the women. You can spot their cases in the police records, if you know what to look for. There's never an official investigation. The authorities do the bare minimum, and then they let it go, one more cold case for the files. It's not that they know, exactly. It's just that they serve the state, and Uncle Sam serves the state, and somewhere deep down, where the dark things live, they recognize the hallmarks of their own."
Angela looked around the table as she continued: "The most dangerous places, ironically enough, are public restrooms. Haven't you noticed how almost all 'American' restaurants position them around corners, near doors? Your sister, your daughter, your mother... once she's in that room, you can't say for sure that she didn't leave on some errand she forgot to mention. You can't be sure she ever made it to the restroom at all. Restaurants opened by people whose ancestors immigrated after the bargain was set put their restrooms at the back, where someone will be able to see the people come and go. Most of them don't realize why they do it, just like most of us don't understand why we always want to go to the bathroom in groups. They do it all the same. Chinese restaurants save a hundred lives every night."
Nervous laughter greeted her final statement. Laurie frowned. "That's a fucked-up story. You say you went to college for this sort of thing?"
"Folklore is important," said Angela, sounding stung. "Stories tell us where we come from."
"I always thought women went to the bathroom in packs because they were having hot lesbian sex in there," said John mournfully. Tara hit him with her spoon. The laughter that followed this exchange was less nervous than relieved, like some film of tension had been shattered.
"You asked me to tell the story. So I told the story." Angela pushed her way out of the booth. "I'll be right back. I need to pee."
"Watch out, or Uncle Sam might get you!" caroled Mary.
Angela stuck her tongue out at her and turned, walking away into the crowded restaurant.
"Maybe someone should go with her...?" said Tara.
John laughed. "You don't believe that junk, do you?"
Everyone laughed. Tara sighed, sinking down into her seat, and waited for her sister to come back.
After twenty minutes passed, no one was laughing anymore.
The waiter brought the check, which Mike and Tara paid, having agreed to this arrangement before the party began. Angela didn't return.
The busboys came and cleared the table, giving puzzled looks to the group of people who sat there in frozen silence, none of them meeting one another's eyes. Angela didn't return.
Minutes turned into an hour, and began piling up again, looking to repeat their temporal alchemy. Tara started to stand, and John pulled her back down, shaking his head. If this was a prank, Angela would lose interest; she would come back. If this was a prank, the best thing they could do was wait. Angela didn't return.
At closing time, the manager came to speak with them. They left, quiet and puzzled, in their cars. Three days later, when enough time had passed, Tara called the police. They took her statement willingly enough, but there was a strange detachment in the way they handled her, like the process was somehow just a formality. When the call ended, she couldn't help feeling like nothing would be done.
Angela didn't return. Six weeks after that dinner, neither did Mary. Two weeks after that, neither did Laurie.
Tara began eating Chinese food for every meal, sitting in narrow, safe restaurants, visiting the bathroom only when a dozen people could see her passing by. One woman a night. Angela had been too willing to share her stories, too happy to tell people the quaint little bit of folklore she'd uncovered. One woman a night. Tara burned her sister's notes, spoke to no one, and avoided being alone. One woman a night, out of the millions in America.
The odds were in her favor. She kept telling herself that.
One woman a night.
Seanan McGuire was born in Martinez, California, and raised in a wide variety of locations, most of which boasted some sort of dangerous native wildlife. Despite her almost magnetic attraction to anything venomous, she somehow managed to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two. The fact that she wasn't killed for using her typewriter at three o'clock in the morning is probably more impressive than her lack of death by spider-bite. Her upbringing left her with a love of rattlesnakes and a deep fear of weather, which explains a lot.
Seanan is the author of the October Daye series of urban fantasies, the first seven of which have been purchased by DAW Books; the InCryptid series of urban fantasies, the first two of which have been purchased by DAW Books; and the Newsflesh trilogy, published by Orbit under the pseudonym "Mira Grant." She's working on several other books, just to make sure she never runs out of things to edit. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies, and she was a 2010 Universe Author for The Edge of Propinquity.
Story by Seanan McGuire, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011