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Benjamin D’Angelo was practicing his wood carving with a small, boy-sized knife alongside his “Uncle Tal” when a lean young man, impeccably dressed, with black-framed glasses perched on his nose, reflecting a ray of afternoon sun off the pristine lenses, jingled the bells on the front door before walking into Dark Dreams.
At the sight of Benji, the man paused uncertainly just beyond the threshold, as if he didn’t really want to enter the trinkets and dessert shop after all.
“Hullo,” Benji greeted, barely sparing the visitor a glance, all of his attention focused on the stubborn block of wood.
He was trying to make a leopard for Mama Bear, AKA Estelle Martin, the owner of the shop, just like the ones his Uncle Tal made. But right now, Benji would be happy if he whittled the wood into the semblance of a ball.
Or at least scrape away the square edges.
“If you’re looking for Mama Bear, she’s taking a catnap,” he told the visitor, keeping his eyes on the carving at hand and sticking the tip of his tongue out the corner of his mouth in added concentration.
The young man shifted closer to the door, his hand going to the knob to turn it.
“Please do come in and sit with us,” Tal invited from his seat on the work bench beside Benji, his unusual aquamarine eyes appearing to look directly at their visitor, even though he could no longer see through them.
“I can put on a pot of coffee,” he offered, his tone low and gentle, soothing to the young man’s ears. “There are still a half dozen cinnamon rolls waiting to be eaten.”
Finally, the visitor found his voice.
“I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“We’re just whittling,” Benji chirped, as if he wouldn’t mind a distraction. “Uncle Tal has been showing me how. He’s the best!”
“Binu, am I right?” Tal said as the young man tentatively drew closer. “Or have I recalled the wrong name?”
The visitor stared. There was something in Tal’s words that pricked his awareness. The young man felt as if Tal could actually see him.
Not the disguise he wore, but the real him.
“Yes. Binu,” he answered belatedly. “You can call me by that name.”
“Have a seat while I prepare our snack.” Tal gestured to a corner booth surrounding a large rectangular table right beside the woodwork area.
“It won’t take but a few minutes.”
The young man sat down directly adjacent to Benji, facing the front door of the shop. He had a perfect view of anyone who might come inside.
And a perfect beeline to the exit should he care to flee.
“How come you ran out the other time you visited?” Benji dropped the conversational bomb at the young man’s feet as if they were well acquainted and had already gotten pleasantries out of the way.
Startled enough to visibly tense, Binu adjusted his glasses to stall for time and formulate a response.
“When was that? I’m sure I don’t recall any such thing. But if I did rudely rush out, there must have been an emergency.”
Benji didn’t look at him as he continued to scrape painstakingly at the wood block.
“It was a long time ago. You probably don’t remember. I remember everything, but Mommy tells me it’s because I’m a boy. When people grow old, they tend to forget. Mommy and Daddy are always forgetting things. But I think they do that on purpose sometimes. Like where they put my Playstation 5.”
Binu regarded the boy closely.
“Your Mommy was the tall, blonde one?”
Benji slid him a sly look.
“So you remember when you visited and ran out after all, huh?”
A strange noise gurgled from the young man’s vocal cords, as if he was caught between a laugh and a gasp.
Benji acted as if nothing happened.
“Yep, she’s the blonde one. The other one you saw is my big sister Sophie. No relation. I just call her that, since I’ve always wanted a big sister and she isn’t old yet.”
“And that gentleman who just went to prepare us some afternoon treats, he is your Uncle Tal?”
“You talk funny,” Benji commented pleasantly. “Yeah, that’s my Uncle Tal. Except he isn’t really my uncle. He’s my Mommy’s papa. But my Mommy isn’t the one who carried me in her belly either.”
“And who is that?” the young man asked, his voice deceptively soft.
If Benji turned to look into Binu’s face, he might have been taken aback by the sharp intensity of his gaze, as if every molecule of his being was focused on the boy’s reply.
“Olivia. My birth mother’s name was Olivia. She’s dead and gone to Heaven. Mommy says she’s happier now.”
“And you, Benjamin? Are you happy?”
A great big carefree grin spread across the boy’s innocent, open face.
“Of course I’m happy!” he pronounced loudly, in the excited way eight-year-olds tended to do without warning.
Benji faced Binu fully for the first time since the young man walked through the door, his bright blue eyes shining with unfettered joy.
“I’m the happiest boy in the world! I have the bestest Mommy and Daddy and Mama Bear and Uncle Tal. And Sophie too! I live with Elves and Vampires and Vampire-Elves! I even have a magic leopard!”
“Goodness, that’s quite a lot,” Binu said, slightly breathless in the face of the boy’s ecstatic recitation.
“What about you?” Benji asked suddenly.
“What about me?”
“Are you happy?”
Binu lowered his eyes and turned up the corners of his lips, but his attempt at a smile felt fake even to himself.
“I’m happy to be in the presence of so much happiness,” he answered without really answering.
Benji nodded, accepting his response at face value.
“Which one are you?”
Truly, Binu had the most difficult time following this conversation. Not that it was anything surprising. After all, this was the first time he could recall that he’d ever engaged in a tête-à-tête with an eight-year-old.
“I don’t take your mean—”
“Are you a vampire, an elf, or a vampire-elf?” Benji clarified.
The young man let out an awkward chuckle.
“Whatever would make you believe I’m anything other than an ordinary, boring human, my dear boy?” he asked somewhat nervously. “A dull, retiring corporate litigator. My life in no way resembles your charming fantasies.”
His existence was all nightmares instead.
The boy cocked his head at him.
“But you can change shapes.”
Binu drew in a breath and held it, truly appalled.
“You always look like you on the inside, but the surface of you change,” the boy continued, unaware that he was venturing into dangerous territory.
“I’ve seen you in two different forms now. Can you do more? Does that make you an elf or a vampire? Or are you more like my magic leopard?”
The young man’s mouth parted to speak, but no sounds came out. His head was emptied of all coherent thought as the boy cavalierly exposed his secrets one by one.
But he was saved from having to formulate a believable explanation or convincing rebuttal, because Tal returned just then with a tray of freshly brewed coffee and steaming hot cinnamon rolls.
“My favorite!” Benji enthused, forgetting the young man’s very existence in light of mouth-watering dessert.
“Can I have two, Uncle Tal? Please? I’m growing, you know. Mommy always tells me I need to eat more.”
“She says that when you haven’t touched your greens,” Tal returned calmly.
“But cinnamon rolls have cinnamon, Uncle Tal.”
Tal compressed his lips to hide a smile.
“I’m sure you’re about to explain your logic, Benji.”
Benji rolled his eyes even though Tal couldn’t see, as if his logic was so straightforward it needn’t be spelled out.
“Cinnamon is a bark. Barks protect the stems of plants and roots, which means they are close cousins to vegetables, which are synonymous with greens. Ergo, cinnamon rolls which are made of cinnamon are practically vegetables, Uncle Tal. Even if they aren’t green. That means I should eat more of them every chance I get. Mommy would certainly approve!”
Tal was rumbling with laughter even before Benji had finished explaining, while Binu watched the boy in utter fascination, his almost exposed secrets forgotten.
This boy was positively diabolical!
Ridiculously smart. Brilliantly astute.
This was a boy after his own dark heart.