Xenology: The Stranger

The automatic doors make their distinct whirring sound as they slide open. I turn my swivel seat around, hoping it’s her. It’s not—it’s Ralph James.

Not just Ralph, or James, but Ralph James. You have to say it all at once; otherwise, no one will know who you’re talking about. There’s something about him that can only be contained by his full name, and when people hear it, you can see the flash of recognition in their eyes, and you know they’re also picturing that too-thin, too-weird teenager in the olive drab military coat. The guy whose parents kicked him out of the house for having other gods before the capitalized Christian one. The guy who works at the Burger King on hamburger hill to make the payments and repairs on that piece-of-shit silver Mitsubishi he lives out of.

I respect the hell out of the guy. I wave at him. He nods back and walks towards me.

See, most of the homeless kids his age are more or less bums of their own volition. They’re druggies and junior scam artists in a bad place who would rather study the streets or a really nice ass than any book. That’s not to say that they’re bad people. They’ve got good hearts and damaged minds. Or is it the other way around? Point is, they’re just taking advantage of a system they were never allowed to be a part of in the first place.

But Ralph-fucking-James is different. He got kicked out for sticking to his guns, his beliefs. And as a recovering Mormon who had the luxury of not getting kicked out, I have a deep respect for the guy. It’s not that I think more of him than the other homeless kids, but the respect I have for him is built on a particular kind of empathy. It’s different.

He walks up, smiles off into the distance, and says, “How is your night going?”

“Pretty good. Super slow. Quiet.” I notice he’s holding something close against his ditchcoat—which is what I always call his coat in my head since it’s not really long enough to be a trenchcoat—some kind of small square plastic thing with a pentagram and some numbers on it. “Whatcha got there? Some kind of pagan spell thing?”

He shakes his head, smiling. “No. It’s Rush’s magnum opus: 2112.”

“Ooohhhhh. Sounds cool.”

“Indeed, it sounds very cool.”

I’m pretty happy with the opening theme song to the Great Teacher Onizuka anime that’s playing over the sound system right now, so I don’t offer to put the CD on. He doesn’t bring it up.

Then I get that uneasy feeling. I don’t know if it’s the way he’s always looking off into the next county, or how he likes to slant his head like a pigeon eying the tossed-off butt of a street hot dog, but the guy kind of weirds me out. So I tell him.

“Hey, Ralph James.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s something kinda weird about you.”

His eyes go wide and he whispers, “So you can feel it? My aura?”

“Uhm…”

“You have the power, then! Same senses same, friend! Join us!”

“The hell are you talking about?”

“No, no, I must ask the others first…”

“Join what, Ralph James?” I have to know. “What others?” I have the same feeling I had the time Paulie and I made up superhero backstories for ourselves and were so high on the blue pills we believed them. Or the time I missed a call from the smartest kid in school and made up stories in my head about how he was going to invite me into some secret hacker group he had formed, and I had this same feeling up until I called him back and he just asked if I knew anybody who could sell him some Ritalin.

Ralph James pulls up his coat sleeve and there, on his forearm, is a stretched out S next to a crescent moon. “This is the tattoo of my ancient clan. We call ourselves the Fianna.”

“Wait, Fianna? Sounds familiar. Clan of what?”

“Werewolves.” he says, deadly serious. “I…am a werewolf.”

I immediately recognize the tattoo and clan name from the Werewolf: The Apocalypse pen-and-paper rpg I played a few times. But I never tell him.

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