My name is Zachariah Hoodenpyle. I am on a quest to return the lost ring to my beloved, Anna Maria de los Vasquez. The ring, which was handed down by her grandmother, came to me through Fate disguised as a crow. My first attempt at reuniting my loved one with her treasure failed. In my rush to deliver this precious token, I had left it at home. That was Fate’s doing as well. The time was not right. I must first prove my love to Anna Maria. Only then will Fate deem me worthy enough to return my angel’s ring.
Determined to win back my amore’s heart, I set off to see my old pal, Ishmael McHemingsburgfurter, at the Wayward Traveler’s Tavern. Ishmael does not speak to me often, but what he does say hold great wisdom. Normally, I would not dare enter his establishment at such an early hour. It has been my experience that he is only around for the evening shift. My mission is much too important to wait that long. I must seek out his wisdom now. If Fate is with me again today, then maybe, just maybe he will be tending the bar as usual. I tucked Anna Maria’s ring in my sock drawer and headed towards my destiny once again.
The Wayward Traveler’s Tavern looked like a ghost town at this early morning hour. Not a single automobile was in sight. My hopes for an early start seemed to fade like an echo, until I spied a familiar creature perched on the sign that adorns the building, my crow. I slowly walked up to the creature, careful not to startle it into flight. Its dark eyes followed my ever step. I stopped right under the sign, suddenly unsure of what to do next. The crow let out a single squawk as if to say, “Quit fooling around.” I nodded and tried the door. It was unlocked. Once again, it seems, Fate was on my side as I entered the cool darkness of the tavern.
I stood inside the entrance for several minutes, momentarily blinded by the sudden darkness after the bright morning’s sun. As my eyes adjusted, I realized why it was so dark, only a single light was burning over the bar. It was right over my usual seat, so I did the natural thing and made myself at home. On the counter was a shot of whiskey. It is a bit early to drink, but what the hell. Following your destiny is thirsty work.
As I downed my shot, I surveyed the room around me. It was strange to see the darkness of this place. Unnatural shadows pooled here and there, cloaking the pool tables and booths. As I turned to set my shot glass down on the bar, I had quite a fright. Ishmael was standing in his usual spot behind the bar, wiping out a glass with a white rag. His eyes were unreadable as he watched me gather myself. I never heard him enter the room. He must have materialized out of thin air, as crazy as that sounds.
“Ishmael, you gave me quite a startle, my old friend.”
“As it was, so it shall ever be.” He replied as he poured me another shot.
Drinking it down with a grimace, I continued, “Ishmael, I need your guidance. After failing Anna Marie so utterly, I have come to realize that I must win back her heart. Only then, can I be worthy enough to return her ring. I need your help desperately. What am I to do?”
Grabbing a small glass, Ishmael filled it to the halfway point and slide it my way. Trusting him completely, I began to sip on his offering, waiting patiently for him to divulge some much-needed wisdom. I nearly drained my glass, when he refilled it and began.
“The way is clear. Seek out the cold of blood, yet gentle of heart.”
“But I must win her heart!” I exclaimed.
Giving me a droll look, he began again. “A beard must flow down like water trickling over the rocks.”
I waited but he said no more. I had no idea of what he what speaking of, but knew that it was of great importance or he would not have divulged it to me. Draining the last of the whiskey from my glass, I gave him a curt nod before starting on today’s quest.
Upon exiting the Wayward Traveler’s Tavern, a sense of vertigo hit me. All of that whiskey went straight to my head. I leaned against the door for several minutes until it passed. Finally, the world steadied itself and I began to walk aimless around town, pondering Ishmael’s words. What in the world was cold of blood, gentle of heart and had a tiny beard? I was so confused.
I eventually wandered into the downtown district. People were out and about, window shopping and enjoying the warm sunshine. An elderly lady was waiting on the corner with an armload of groceries. The traffic was scarce yet she looked too frightened to cross the road. Being a gentleman, I went to escort her.
“Good morning my lovely young lady. May I escort you across?” I asked.
She looked at me cautiously, but finally accepted. “Thank you. That is very kind of you. My arms are growing a little tired from these heavy bags.”
“Let me take them off of your hands. It is the least that I can do.”
She smiled and handed me her bags. They were quite heavy. How she had managed them with her frail old arms is a mystery to me. Taking my elbow, we crossed as there was a break in the traffic. While walking across the street, she asked if I could manage to walk her home as well. I agreed. Truth be told, she reminded me a bit of my grandmother.
Her apartment was only a few blocks away. She lived on the ground floor and had the only outside access doorway. I followed her inside and placed her bags on her small kitchen table.
“Son, may I offer you a bit of a suggestion?” she asked.
“Of course! I would be delighted to hear your words of wisdom, my dear.”
“You seem like a nice young man, so that is the only reason why I wanted to mention this. Well, it is a might early to be hitting the bottle. Don’t you think? I just hate to see a fellow like yourself get caught up in that nasty habit is all.”
She started to look like my grandmother at this moment as well. I felt a bit ashamed to have partaken this early in the day. My head was a bit fuzzy as a result.
“You are right. Honestly, I am already dreading my decision to do so for I am on an important quest for love.”
“Wait here.” She said as she turned to leave.
A few moments later, she came back with an ancient brown bottle. She grabbed a spoon from the silverware drawer and poured a dark brown substance into it.
Hesitantly, I did. The taste was awful. It took all of my will to force myself to swallow the muck. The back of my throat was instantly on fire that erupted into lava as it hit my stomach. I bent over in agony determined to do no more than grimace. Tears ran down my face in streams. Snot bubbled out of my nose. The fire ran like electricity throughout every nerve ending. I thought my head would explode. Just as the pain reached the crescendo, it went away. It did not fade away slowly, but stopped all at once. I was afraid to move for fear that it would return. I realized the old woman was laughing. I cautiously looked up and saw that she was holding out some tissues.
“Bathroom’s down the hall. Wash your face, son.” She said with another hearty laugh.
I made my way down the hallway, slowing standing upright as I went. The bathroom was small and just how you would expect it would look when in the house of a delightful little old lady. Well, delightful was a stretch for me to say at this point. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was a mess. I splashed cold water on my face. The taste of that vile liquid stuck to my mouth like flypaper. I tried to rinse it away to no avail.
When I returned, I found my host placing several large cookies into a plastic bag. She smiled and handed them to me.
“You did good, my son. Most men would have been brought to their knees or puked their pathetic guts out all over my rugs. I am proud of you.”
“Thank you ma’am. It did the trick but I must say the taste is one that lingers.”
“Yes. It does taste like you have just eaten the ass end out of a rotten possum. Here, eat a cookie. It will help.”
I nibbled on a cookie and to my astonishment, it did indeed work.
“So, you are on a quest for love?”
“What are you supposed to do?”
Swallowing the last mouthful of oatmeal deliciousness, I replied, “My friend Ishmael, said that I am to seek out the cold of blood, yet gentle of heart. There was something about a beard and rocks too. So far, the only thing I have come up with is a moss-covered river rock. I am not sure how that would win the heart of my beloved.”
The old lady laughed once again, this time until tears streamed down her cheeks. I could not for the life of me figure out what was so terribly funny about river rocks. It must be an old person thing. Finally, she managed to speak.
“River rock, that is a good one. Oh, dear me! No son. You are not looking for a mere rock. What you are looking for is a Bearded Dragon.”
“A bearded what?”
“A bearded dragon. They sell them at the Reptile House. You know what they are right?”
“Of course! How silly of me! Thank you, my lovely gem. I shall head there right this very minute and acquire said dragon for my lady. Thank you so very much for all of your kindness this day.”
“It is my pleasure, son. Now you eat those cookies. They are best when they are fresh.”
I left my new friend’s house munching away on those tasty treats. The Reptile House. I had no idea in the slightest what a beaded dragon was, but I am sure that it will come to me when I see one. I began to hum as I made my way to my next destination.
The Reptile House is part science museum and part pet store, or so I have heard. I have never been inside the place personally. I guess I should admit that reptiles freak me out a bit. Okay, they freak me out a lot. Their slimy, scaly skins make mine crawl. Plus, they eat bugs and mice. That is just gross. I bet their breath smells like death. Oh, and their tongues. Freaky little things those are. Just thinking about it is almost enough to unnerve me. If it were not for Anna Maria, I would never, ever set foot in this spook house of horrors. True love makes a man do insane things. Alright, Hoodenpyle, time to be a man!
My plan was to enter the pet shop side of the building, get the pesky dragon and get out quick. Unfortunately for me, I chose the wrong door and soon found myself surrounded by all sorts of slithering exhibits. Before I could run out of the door, I was ushered along with a tour group. An overly-chipper guide began babbling about how this snake was really cool for these really lame reasons. I tuned her out. Shuffling around with the others, I frantically looked for a chance to sneak away.
The tour seemed to drag on forever before my chance finally arrived. A door, marked “Employees Only” was in between two of the Asian something-or-other and the Brazilian whatcha-ma-call-it. As the others obediently followed Susy Sunshine to the next set of exhibits, I snuck like a ninja through the door. I could not believe that it was left unlocked. How silly of them! Anyone could come along and walk through. Tsk. Tsk.
Inside was a series of monitors set above a long control panel. A single chair sat at the middle of the console. Since no one was around, I made myself at home. These screens were exactly what I needed to find the quickest route out of the museum and into the pet store. Each monitor was labeled. I quickly scanned them until I found one that said dragon. Bingo! The one I was looking for was only a short walk away. I must have been closer to the pet store than I originally thought. The disgusting creature was much smaller than I thought it would be. That suited me just fine.
I did not want the tour to see me again, so I surveyed the room a bit more closely. I noticed another door across the room. I have no idea how I overlooked it. I placed my hands on the control panel and pushed myself away. I hit a few of the buttons and saw them turn from green to red before blinking rapidly. I hit them a few times. It did not seem to work. You would think this place made enough money to ensure that their equipment worked properly. Giving up, I went through the second door, leaving the lights to blink on and off on their own whims. Besides, whatever employee whose job it was to man this station will come along and put everything in order.
The new room was really a long corridor. There were several man-sided doors with labels on them. I figured out quickly that these were access doors to the different exhibits by poking my dead through the first doorway. I was greeted by several hisses and quickly slammed the door behind me. It bounced in the jam and stayed ajar. I was much too worried about getting as far away from that place to go back and shut it. They should have better locks on the doors anyway.
I checked half a dozen rooms before finally coming to the one that I had been looking for. The label read, “Komodo Dragon”. Dragons are dragons, right? Beard or no beard I was going to score this little fellow for my beloved. I could always stop at the Barrels of Laughs Emporium on the way to her place to purchase the little guy a fake mustache. Maybe I will spring for a top hat as well.
I slid open the door cautiously. The room was only fifteen by thirteen but I could not see the booger anywhere. The stink was amazing! Through the glass of the exhibit, I could see people from the tour group. They were running around wildly. I guess they decided to spice things up after I left. I almost wished I had stayed. It was my luck that the fun would happen after I left. Oh well. I had enough to worry about right now.
There was a boulder on the far side of the room. That must be where my target was hiding. I crept along the other side until I was able to poke my head around the other side. To my utter surprise, this was no little fellow. He was a very large fellow. It seems that the cameras in this place worked about as well as everything else, poorly. Now that I had located him, I had no idea how to get him out of here. Originally I thought I could carry him out, but after seeing how large of a specimen he truly was, that was out of the question.
I left the exhibit just in time to avoid being seen by the perky tour guide who was running around with a large snake rapped around her shoulders. I don’t know what weird game they group was playing but she really needs to work on her acting skills. That was the worst display of terror that I have ever seen. I guess the employee training is about as high quality as their equipment. I honestly don’t know how this place stays in business.
A few doors down from the dragon exhibit, there was a small utility room. Inside was a bunch of travel cages, leashes and old boxes. On one wall was a series of levers and switches. Next to that, was a row of cabinets. It seemed that in order to open the cabinets, one had to pull the correct lever. I found this a strange system but after everything that I had seen thus far, it did not surprise me much. I pulled the first lever. From somewhere in the distance, I heard metal scrapping on metal. None of the cabinet doors opened. Must have been the wrong one.
Lever after lever I pulled. Every time I got the same result. All I wanted was to find something to put the dragon thing in. This was proving to be useless. I tried the switches next. I heard clicks. This sounded promising. I switched them all to the off position. This must be the trick I needed. I had to first pull the levers then flip the switches. The cabinets should open now and they did.
Just as my luck so far would have it, there was nothing but a bunch of clothes in all of them. I was no closer to finding what I needed than when I started. I went back to the rack with all of the leashes on it. It was not what I had hoped for but it would have to do. I hope Mr. Dragon face is up for a spot of exercise. I found the biggest harness and set off back to his exhibit.
When I entered the hallway, I noticed all of the doors were standing open to the exhibits. I know I closed all but the first one. What a dump this place is! Shaking my head, I returned to find Mr. Dragon still behind his rock. He regarded me with an expression of boredom as I slipped him into the harness. My fingers touched his skin. It was smooth to the touch. I was mystified. I began to pet Mr. Dragon.
“I need a name for you my scaly friend as Mr. Dragon simply will not do. I think that a creature such as yourself needs a more dignified moniker than that. How about Sir Walter Fitzgerald the third? No, that will not work. Anna Maria needs a creature embodying strength of character. Your name needs to reflect that. I’ve got it! Sir Xavier von Beardsman! That is very fitting. Now come Xavier, my lady awaits!”
Xavier came willingly enough. His pace was more of a stroll. As I passed each open doorway, I closed them so that we had room to pass side-by-side. Xavier’s tongue tasted the air on occasion. I found that this did not bother me as much as I originally thought. Actually, it began to please me. It was as if he was testing the air for danger. My heart swelled with pride for this mighty protector. He will make Anna Maria a fine gift. Her heart will be mine by the end of the day.
We left the hallway and entered the control room. On the monitors, people were running all over the place. I was puzzled. It seemed that there was no rhyme or reason to any of their behaviors. That tour must really be something when you reach the end. All of that running looked exhausting. I saw that they even had the reptiles participating in the madness. I guess the animals need the exercise but you would think there would be a better way of accomplishing this. It is a wonder none of them were injured the way the people were running around with no care in the world. The Reptile House is a strange place. The sooner I leave the better.
Xavier and I went back along the way I had first come with the tour group. All of the action must have been in other parts of the museum for we had the place to ourselves. I could hear people yelling in the distance. I could not tell how far away they were for sounds bounced around strangely in here. I shall say it again, the Reptile House is a weird place, indeed. Leaving the madness behind, Xavier and I made our way to the Barrels of Laughs Emporium.
We made our way across the square without incidence. No one commented on Xavier. They were too busy staring at the Reptile House. I honestly have no idea why people find that place fascinating. The Emporium was empty of customers so I brought Xavier in with me. I had to fit him for his mustache and hat anyway. I might as well save us the time of having to walk in and out of the store. The owner did not seem to mind as he was standing at the front window, staring at the Reptile House. Everyone seems to be captivated by that place today.
I immediately found the perfect mustache for Xavier. Unfortunately, it would not stay on his face. I tried everyone on the shelf but none would stay in place. Disappointed, I turned towards the miniature top hats. It was a difficult decision process. Xavier was a trooper and patiently waited for me to choose the perfect one. I managed to narrow it down to two choices. I tried the first one on.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
To this, he shook the hat off his head.
“Not your style, huh? I respect that. I guess we are left with this one. It has a band we can secure under your chin. That should keep it in place. It is flexible so it should be comfortable too. Now, hold still and I will try it on you.”
I placed the hat on Xavier’s head and fastened the band under his chin. I slide my fingers between the band and his neck to make sure that it was not too tight. It felt just right. Xavier seemed to like it as well. He held his head up a little higher. I do believe he strutted a little as we approached the checkout counter. Anna Maria was going to swoon when she saw him.
“Excuse me, sir? I would like to purchase this hat for my friend Xavier.”
“Hmmmm?” the proprietor responded as he turned around, clearly distracted. When he realized that he had a paying customer, his daze broke.
“Oh, yes of course, sir. My apologies. I was so busy watching the mayhem at the Reptile House that I did not notice that you came in.”
“Everyone seems to be fascinated by that place today. I just left there myself and I have no idea why anyone would care about the place, personally.”
“You are one lucky man, sir. All of the locks on the cages malfunctioned this morning. The animals are running amok inside the building. A poor tour group got caught in the chaos and were terrorized by several of the reptiles. The fire department is over there with animal control trying to clean up the mess.”
“You say the locks on the cages malfunctioned?” I asked as the first butterflies of panic started to set in.
“I sure did. It is the strangest thing too. It is almost as if someone let all of those critters out on purpose.”
Recovering myself quickly, I replied, “I don’t see why anyone would do that. So, anyway, how much for the top hat?”
The proprietor rang up my purchase and I left quickly. The last thing I wanted him to see was Xavier. I had nothing to worry about for he was back at the window, watching the scene unfold across the square.
I made my way to the park down from Anna Maria’s house and stopped to nibble a few more cookies. Xavier curled up at my feet and looked up as if begging for a bite. I had three left. I saw no reason not to share one of my treats with him. He ate it happily and then laid his head on my feet. It was the cutest thing in the world. As I ate, I imagined Anna Maria’s face. I just knew that her face would light up the moment she saw Xavier. I finished my snack and gently urged Xavier to his feet. Together, we made our way to what I just knew, was going to become our home.
I did not make it fully into the driveway when I heard my name, “HOODENPYLE!!!” I had caught my beloved on her way out.
“My beloved, I come baring a gift for you.”
“I have heard all of this before. Be gone! I do not have time for your foolishness today.”
“Please my love. Let me at least show you what I have brought.”
She stared at me shrewdly and folded her arms but she did not protest further. I took this as a sign to proceed.
“Anna Maria, my love, I am proud to introduce you to Sir Xavier von Beardsman.” I said, as I walked closer up her drive, Xavier at my side.
Anna Maria’s eyes opened widely. She looked from me to Xavier then back to me. I could tell that she was a loss for words. My gift had to be perfection. I reached where she was standing on the front steps. She took a tentative step backwards.
“Wait, my dear one. Do not retreat. I have brought Xavier to you. He is a gift, a token of my love for you. Please take him and accept my love.”
Her mouth worked but no words came out. I waited, grinning for words of adulation to come spilling from her plump, kissable lips. None came. She took another step away. Xavier crawled up the first step and she screamed, freezing him in place.
“Keep that thing away from me!” she cried.
“It’s because he does not have a beard, isn’t it? I tried to get him a mustache but none would stay in place. That is why his last name is Beardsman. Anna Maria, please. I have done what I was set out to do to win your love. I brought the one cold of blood but gentle of heart. So, he does not have the beard. Big deal. Lots of people do not have beards and there is nothing wrong with any of them. Well, except the guy who runs the deli on Fourth Street. He is super creepy. A beard would probably do his some good in that department, but otherwise everyone else is ok. Please, Anna Maria, give Xavier a chance.”
“What in hell are you babbling on about? What do beards have to do with that thing?!! I want you and it off my property or I will call the police!”
“LEAVE HOODENPYLE AND TAKE THAT DISGUSTING THING WITH YOU! NOW!”
Defeated, Xavier and I slunk away. I was so sure that I had finally done the right thing to win her heart. Who knew that beards were so important to women? I decided to head back to the Wayward Traveler’s Tavern and speak to Ishmael of my failure. After the events of the day, I could use a drink.
Interested to see how the story began?