My dear, sweet Malice,
I hope this note finds you well. I’d like to reassure you that, yes, I got your last note. Yes, I appreciated the imaginative death threat included in the postscript. And yes, I did particularly enjoy the brownies you sent with the hidden razor blades in them. <3 You should know, however, that I’ve seen every possible trick by now and am quite impervious to them.
Dear, dear Malice…do you remember that couple whose affection you tried to sabotage last week? They’ve just announced their engagement! Old age is slowing you down, my friend. I think a good measure of gloating is in order. You can’t see the dance I’m doing right now. But it is a victory dance, rest assured.
I do hope to hear more from you soon. Reading your notes is a great source of entertainment and sadistic pleasure on my days off. I wish you would reveal yourself, though. Don’t be such a stranger! Not knowing your address, assumed name, or human identity makes it hard to send notes such as these. I end up having to leave them wherever I’ve been, so that you’ll find them when you try to undo my work. And those astral carrier pigeons have proved unreliable. Write more later…keep in touch! <3
Sincerest wishes for continued health and happiness
After reading the newest correspondence from her nemesis, Malice pushed up her glasses with a wrinkled hand and glowered. At least she still had one advantage over that puerile cherub: she knew who he was and how to find him. Her stealthy machinations had guaranteed that. She was tempted to scowl in celebration, but the gesture just seemed…indulgent. There was still the problem of her falling behind lately.
Malice lived at 33 Highcrest Circle under the assumed name of Edna Bardenheuer. She sat in her small, modest house, in an armchair made of jagged glass, and wished there were someone nearby she could whack with her cane. Preferably a certain chubby, cherubic individual.
She supposed she should write a response to the latest note. It was only polite. With a resigned grumble, she pulled a sheet of parchment from the ether, stabbed herself in the wrist with a sharpened quill, and dipped her implement in the flowing, crimson “ink:”
How are you? You are a stupid, sissy dumdum. Eat cement and die. The end.
A sigh came out as she finished writing. Even her put-downs were slipping. This simply was not acceptable. Not for the queen of all things libelous; the person who set the bar for maligners and political candidates everywhere. But today the queen was in an especially lazy mood.
In fact, she was debating whether it was worth the effort to send the message when she heard a loud, sputtering motor and a screeching of brakes from outside. Through the window, she saw that the mail truck had arrived. A weatherworn, sixtyish man with an iron-gray pate got out and shuffled up the long driveway toward the mailbox. Malice had purposefully set her mailbox at the end of the driveway, as far from the street as it could possibly get. Directly behind a thornbush, but elevated so it could be seen easily. The man kept his head down as he walked, cursing all the way before completing his task and tearing off in his rickety vehicle. His loud expletives could be heard long after he vanished from the spot.
Malice watched with interest. This was the new mailman, if she wasn’t mistaken. The one who was rumored to tear up all Valentine’s Day cards that entered his care. But thinking about the previous mailman made her feel an inexplicable sense of loss. She realized suddenly that in all the years he’d made his rounds to her house, she had never once abused him properly. Barely even noticed his existence. She’d been so busy hating the people in the surrounding community that she forgot to hate the ones closest to her. And in her case, the mailman was the closest person. Really, she thought, if a person can’t hate those within their own personal sphere…well then, that person’s got no business calling themselves a misanthrope!
Her regret over those wasted opportunities lent her a sudden resolve. She could not squander her resources again! And maybe a little scheming at home would give her the practice she needed to get back into real-world mischief with vim and vigor. Now…she contemplated. What would a new mailman hate worse than anything else?
It wasn’t long before she wandered over to a different location: down the street, where she stopped in front of a sign on a neighbor’s lawn. “FREE PUPPIES,” it said, with the “S” written backwards in a nauseatingly cutesy manner. “To a good home.” She barely paid attention as the owner cooed nonsensically at the box of yipping beasts in the open garage.
“They’re adorable, aren’t they? Aren’t they precious?”
“Diamonds are precious,” Malice snorted. “Coal is even better.”
The perky woman was unfazed. “D’you know which one you’d like?”
“That one.” Malice pointed without looking. A warm, furry bundle was lifted from the box and pressed into her hands. It turned out to be a tiny Doberman pinscher with twitching ears and soulful, brown eyes.
“They make good attack dogs, don’t they?”
“Oh, yes.” The woman laughed nervously. “But—”
“Tell me, then. What’s a good, proper name for a dog?”
“Uh—” The babbling fool was caught off guard again. “Well, there’s the usual—Spot, Fido, Max, Rex…”
“Wrecks!” Malice echoed. Now that was a name that held interest. It was wonderfully, deliciously…evocative. And hopefully portentous of things to come.
“And…” Malice wanted to know, “he’ll grow bigger than this, won’t he?”
Her peppy neighbor nodded uneasily.
So it came to pass that the once-independent malefactor acquired her very first henchman. The next afternoon, she was waiting, ready to release Wrecks into the driveway at a moment’s notice. Just waiting for that truck and its ornery occupant to arrive. After all, weren’t canines known as Mailman’s Worst Enemy?
Unbeknownst to Malice, however, she was being observed. Word from Mother had been handed down. Edna Bardenheuer of 33 Highcrest Circle was reaching the age where finding love was nearly impossible. Truth be told, Cupid contemplated, she was past that age. All of the opportunities for love, and even the agents meant to secure those opportunities, Mother had sent her way during the past fifty-odd years had done nothing except make Edna meaner, harder, and more jaded. The past score of years had seen such a hardening of her tough, leathery hide that love’s missiles bounded right off. Mother was determined to conquer this woman, who was seemingly impervious to Love, the almighty force she wielded at will.
Their audience yesterday had been succinct, brief.
“I want her brought down. She has to fall in love within the next three days. My birthday is coming up,” Mother had reminded him, with a smug smile settling back into her plump, cushioned throne.
As if he didn’t know. Hadn’t he been working overtime to secure a new record of heart flames—living reflections of those he’d caused to fall in love—to light not only the grand chamber in which her celebration would be held, but also the entire mountain villa, the courtyard, and the driveway leading up to the villa?
“I want her vanquished by that day. Her heart flame will be the centerpiece of my table. Anyone who has used so little love during her lifetime must have a great deal stored up; her heart flame will burn exceptionally bright. I am confident of this, and I wish its glow at my birthday celebration.”
Back on Earth, studying his prey, Cupid wasn’t so sure. From what he had observed of Edna Bardenheuer, there was no great store of love in that wrinkled, withered old heart dammed up from disuse. From what he’d observed, the woman had no heart! Not the physical, blood-pumping kind; not the spiritual, love containing kind; not even the paper hearts cut out of red construction paper kind.
“Making her fall in love by Valentine’s Day will be no easy task,” he decided, watching silently as she kept a firm hand on her new pup’s collar. “Although perhaps her deciding to purchase a sweet, cute, cuddly puppy does betray a certain recognition of a need for affection. “
It was the most hopeful glimmer witnessed to date. And as he espied the new mailman’s truck pull up to her block and park, an idea struck. Reaching into the quiver behind his back, he withdrew a super-penetrating, spiral headed arrow made for tough cases like Edna. These arrows, nobody had ever been able to resist. Yes, no doubt about it. Edna Bardenheuer was about to fall in love…
With her new mailman.
A breathless hush hung over the neighborhood, one speaking of anticipation, as if all of Highcrest Circle was leaning forward to watch the impending skirmish. The twang of a bowstring sounded, and Malice felt the shock of an impact. Even so, she knew she hadn’t been hit directly. Instead, she watched as a particularly deadly-looking arrow ricocheted off her invisible “love shield” and flew toward the next closest person: the mailman.
With a sickening thump, the arrow struck target. The grizzled man looked stunned for a minute, though he didn’t seem to have felt the impact. Regular humans couldn’t perceive Cupid’s arrows, but that made them no less susceptible to their effects.
Malice dropped her head in her hands. Another fine plan ruined! She forced herself to look up again, dreading what she would see. The mailman was staring at her with his mouth hanging open. Pure adoration and awe shone from his face, disgustingly more handsome than his earlier scowl. One might even say that it was aweful.
Wrecks ran up to him, yapping gleefully, but the man took no notice. Instead, he tiptoed toward Malice and stood before her, unspeaking. He looked like he might get down on one knee and present the mail to her, then thought better of it and simply handed the envelopes over. Malice growled under her breath, but accepted them. She couldn’t keep her eyes from drifting toward the arrow shaft sticking out of his chest.
He continued standing there with a stare and an inane half-smile, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his hands, or even his face. Malice was quickly fed up, and wanted to wipe that silly look off his kisser. With both hands, she grabbed the arrow, tugged it out of his chest, and heaved it as far away as she could. Wrecks barked excitedly. The mailman gave no of noticing any of this, although he watched her tugging-and-throwing movements with interest. As if he found her miming skills endearing.
“You may go now,” she said, voice dripping with caustic acid.
He seemed taken aback, but nodded his head. “As you wish, ma’am.”
The man clambered back into his truck, glancing over his shoulder at her again and again. Then, with a puff of oddly perfumy exhaust, he was gone.
Malice stood hugging herself, uttering angry nonsense syllables at no one in particular. From now on, she would have to start egging her own mailbox. Maybe putting letter bombs (fake, of course) into the outgoing mail. Anything to make his job miserable and keep him away.
And she would hunt Cupid down and make him pay for this.
She squinted at the spot the arrow must’ve come from, but saw no signs of him. Apparently, he’d been hiding in the trees to begin with, but was probably long gone by now. A pang of alarm struck her as a thought popped into her head. Did this attack mean that Cupid had finally uncovered her true identity? But she had been so careful! Was it just coincidence?
She heard the sound of a dog trying to bark with its mouth full. “Rrrhghgrrrrrf!”
Wrecks sat in front of her, wagging his tail. He set the arrow down and waited for her to throw it again.
Malice gaped at the dog. “What are you bringing me this for, stupid?”
Wrecks, of course, replied not except with a slobbery grin, a mush mouthed, “Woof, Woof!” and a happy little dance consisting of him jumping up on his mistress with two big, damp paws.
“Get away from me, you nasty beast!” Malice shrieked, reeling backwards to keep from being bowled over. With a hand, she caught herself on the pine tree behind her, preventing a fall.
Wrecks, undaunted, surged forward as if to force his gift upon his aged mistress. Malice, remembering the worshipful gleam in her mailman’s eyes, eyed it like a coiled cobra prepared to strike. “Take that thing away,” she hissed. “Or I’ll ram it through your heart and make you fall in love with a cement mixer! That’ll make your chipper attitude fall a bit flat.”
“Woof!” Wrecks gleefully assented to the terrible pun.
Which set Cupid’s opponent to thinking. Shoot arrows at her, would he? Make her fall in love, would he? She, who’d always despised love, lacy red hearts, boxes of assorted chocolates, weddings, We’ve Only Just Begun, chubby cheeked drooling babies, sticky fingered (and faced) toddlers, and fuzzy yellow chicks.
An idea—a nasty, terrible idea wriggled its way to the forefront of her malicious, conniving mind. A bitter smile twisted one corner of her permanently puckered mouth, revealing a yellowish, too-sharp canine.
“That’s it!” she breathed. “I’ll shoot Cupid with his own arrow. I’ll make HIM fall in love with the first thing he sees—hopefully a cement mixer or a raging bull or the pavement below a ninety story skyscraper! Either way, he’ll have to embrace the object of his affections, and when he does—” A terrible cackle. “I’ll be rid of that nasty cherub forever!!!
“No more love, no more weddings, no more blushing brides and stammering grooms! No more barfing babies, chubby children, lust, or love! Finally, I’ll be free from all those annoyances to live my life in perfect peace.”
Wrecks’s ears perked up as Malice walked back to her house, humming to herself in a rare moment of good humor. Had he possessed a basic knowledge of American pop culture (and an intellect sharper than that of the average canine), he would have recognized the tune as “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch.”
Highcrest Circle was miles behind before Cupid felt safe enough to land. Breathing heavily, he went over the newest development in his conquest against Edna. She had actually seen his arrow! Not just seen it…she had physically interacted with it! And she had seemed none too pleased about its existence or intended aim.
No normal human could perceive any of his missiles. And it stood to reason that someone who could see Cupid’s arrows could also see Cupid himself. It was a good thing he hadn’t shot the arrow from close range; his stratagem had been mostly hidden by a clump of bushes. He was fairly sure he hadn’t been seen.
This bothersome Edna was obviously more than just another human. Could she possibly be a minor demigoddess? Or some meta-human mythical creature in disguise? A Fury?
Then he remembered how his arrow—his most powerful arrow!—had hit an invisible barrier and oriented itself on a new target. Very few magical barriers could withstand that kind of assault, except—
Edna was known for being amazingly hateful. This fact explained why all his previous efforts had failed in the first place. Was it possible that her hate was the reason for…? No, but that would mean that this was supernatural hatred! It couldn’t be! Was she really…his old enemy?
“Malice,” he whispered in a stupefying moment of revelation. “Have I found you at last? All this time, were you right in front of my eyes?”
There was one way to confirm this. If Edna really was Malice, he was pretty sure what her next move would be. As tentatively as an independent voter, he snuck back to her house and risked a peep inside the window. Edna was absent, but a shining rectangle the size of a full-length mirror floated in the middle of the living room. It was all the evidence he needed.
So…Malice had opened a portal to the astral plane, had she? It would remain active for a few hours yet, since there was no way to close it from the other side. Very interesting. Cupid hovered there for a moment, staring through the window and contemplating.
Sprawling, pastel hills sparkled in the soft, rose-colored sunlight as Malice approached the mansion of the Eros estate. Her enemy’s home turf. It had been a long time since she’d last stepped through the portal and left the human world. She found that an earthly environment was harder and less fanciful than this up-in-the-clouds business, and she liked it that way. Already, she was missing the concrete weight of the physical world as she was bombarded by a cloying display of palpable abstractions that made every step seem lighter. Or maybe it was just the fact that gravity had less influence here.
Wrecks followed, yapping at her heels the whole way. Try as she might, she hadn’t been able to keep the little nuisance from coming through the portal after her. Only now had it occurred to her that she should have locked him up in another room before conjuring the entryway.
She fumed until she reached the mansion’s gate, occasionally stopping to scream, “Will you shut up that ear-splitting, cacophony-spewing snout of yours?”
With a whimper, Wrecks plunked down on his haunches, eyeing her sadly. Perversely annoyed, she then leaned into the attendant’s booth and screamed, “Will you shut—I mean, I’d like an appointment with your proprietor, if you please, bootlicking manservant!”
The attendant looked confused, but replied, “Certainly, ma’am” with an extra dash of customer service cheer. After all, nearly everyone who wanted to see Master Cupid had good intentions, and it wasn’t in love’s nature to refuse entry to anyone.
He pressed the button to open the gate. “In you go. Have a pleasant stay! The master is out on business right now, and Mother is getting her beauty sleep, but make yourself comfortable in the waiting room! I’m expecting him back any moment now.”
“No thank you! I mean, you’re not welcome!” She hesitated and scowled. What was the proper way not to thank someone?
Leaving the friendly fool behind, she made her way to the front door and observed the demesnes as she went. All the architecture was frilly and loaded down with ornamental curlicues. The walls and rooftops were soothingly rounded; not a single hard edge anywhere in sight. Malice grumbled about this as she finally entered the waiting room and plopped herself onto a too-comfortable, cushioned chair.
She must have dozed off, because the next thing she noticed was Wrecks yapping even louder than usual and a familiar face staring into hers.
Cupid? No…it was… She convulsed in her seat. That dratted mailman!
He was leaning over her, staring at her with unmistakable goo-goo eyes.
Malice exploded. “How did you get here? Don’t tell me you…no, you didn’t! You went back to my house, broke in somehow, found the portal, and followed me through it, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”
Something like a sheepish smile crossed the mailman’s face.
“Well, get out!” She slapped him across the cheek.
Again, the man said nothing. Great goobers, the idiot seemed to be perpetually tongue-tied ever since being hit with the arrow. It had been an awfully potent arrow, after all.
“How long have I been asleep anyway? I can feel the stench of this froufrou place rubbing off on me by the minute!”
She glanced at the clock on the wall. Almost forty-five minutes! Surely Cupid had to show up sometime soon. Crossing her arms, she passed the next ten minutes sitting in her chair and glaring at the mailman, who kept trying to touch her hand. She batted him away every time.
At long last, the door cracked open and her nemesis himself stepped through.
“Yes?” Cupid smirked. “You wanted to see me about something? Oh…Edna! You’re the last person I expected to be calling on me. But how did you even get…?”
“Yesss!” Malice sprang out of her chair and screeched in triumph. She approached him and pointed at the flames in the waiting room fireplace. “Look! Look at the pretty fire!”
He did, with a confused look on his face. “All right, but—”
“Ahaaa!” She pulled the arrow out of her clothing and jabbed him in the chest with it. “Eat this, moron!”
“Ohh!” Cupid staggered for a moment, clutching his chest. The arrow clattered to the floor. It hadn’t penetrated the skin—non-corporeal bodies were made of sterner stuff than that—but the weapon’s tip had already begun to work its magic, nonetheless.
His eyes swiveled back to the fire at which he’d been staring when stabbed. “Oh, my love! What has my life been all this time, without you in it? Naught but a hollow shell!” The firelight reflected in his eyes as he slowly walked toward it, arms outstretched like a hormone-driven zombie.
“Yes!” Malice congratulated herself. “Victory is mine! And he never even found out my true identity. He still thought I was Edna when he saw me! Ahh yes, revenge is sweet indeed. I wonder—oogh…”
To her disbelief, she felt the sharp sting of an impact. Something with a pointed tip was pressing between her shoulder blades. What could possibly…?
She turned around to see the mailman grinning at her, holding the arrow’s shaft in both hands. He had thrust the tip against her back with all the force he could muster. She crumpled to the floor. How could this have happened? Surely the man couldn’t be that smart!
The sound of mocking laughter rang in the air, but it wasn’t from her attacker.
“Now that was thoroughly entertaining!” Cupid cried, hopping about like a sugared up two-year-old. “You really thought I’d fallen in love with the fire, didn’t you? How sad that you don’t even know the basics about my chosen trade after all this time! The love spell on my arrows only works on living things! It’s physically impossible to fall in love with an inanimate object! And besides that, I’m Cupid. I’m immune to my own arrows.”
A haze of warm feelings surrounded Malice’s consciousness, trying their best to work their way into her body. She fought them with every iota of will she possessed.
“But how…?” she gasped. “I should be immune as well! I have my love shield! My barrier…”
“Your good friend the mailman here got a little bit of coaching from me. I tracked him down and convinced him that if he wanted your affections for himself, he should follow you through that portal and stab you with the arrow when your guard was down. I had a theory, you see. Your love shield appears to be like a bubble of personal space around you. But what would happen if someone were to get close enough? What if they were to get inside that personal bubble and then hit you at point blank range? After all, the shield doesn’t repel human bodies, and if someone could conceal the arrow on their person…” He giggled. “I can see that you’re battling the feelings right now. I’m still not sure if this plan will work. Your body and your will might prove too strong for that. But I just had to experiment.”
“You…you chauvinist pig!”
Malice didn’t have much idea what that meant, but from what she gathered, it was something a woman was supposed to say when a man was trying to tell her she needed romance. Anyway, her delirium was making it hard to think clearly.
She concentrated, focusing hard on trying to sweat it out like a fever. She channeled all her feelings of hatred into one focal point while Cupid and the mailman watched with the utmost attention. Finally, the positive emotions began to gradually fade and Malice knew the worst was over. She had beaten it! She was stronger than love after all! A hearty round of self-congratulation would have been called for, if she hadn’t felt so weak from the struggle.
Cupid and the mailman both looked disappointed.
“I suppose it didn’t work after all,” Cupid sighed. “Oh well. No harm done. You may show yourself out of my estate now, madam. Rest assured, now that I know your true identity, I’ll be keeping a close eye on you.” He winked.
Malice picked herself up and hobbled out the door in silence. She didn’t even have enough energy to shoo Wrecks and the mailman away as they followed her out.
Weeks passed. Malice’s glee over Cupid’s crestfallen appearance a few days after the debacle at his family manor was short-lived. Whatever trouble he’d been in—a chewing from Mother, perhaps?—like a rubber ball, he quickly bounded back. The level of activity between Cupid and Malice declined, although they both made halfhearted attempts to keep up the old rivalry. It was just harder to fight with the same fervor with each one sensing the other couldn’t be beaten; that each one was as constant and certain as death, taxes, and the periodic reemergence of horrid fashion trends.
Malice still hadn’t been able to get rid of her two newfound henchmen. When she tried to send them away, they’d just stare at her. When she tried to run away or avoid them, they always caught up somehow. Once they’d each had a chance to imprint on her, there was no changing it.
Every so often, she’d pass Cupid as they were each out doing their work. Neither one bothered to hide anymore. Their interactions were always the same. He would say, “Good day,” and she would respond with, “Oh, go and put yourself out of our misery.”
Was it Cupid’s imagination, or had she started using the word “our” when Wrecks and the mailman were around?
Over time, Malice developed—not an appreciation—but a grudging respect for the single-minded devotion that her two henchmen showed toward her. She started to wonder…as long as she was stuck with these two boneheads, wouldn’t it be advantageous to use them as a means to her ends? Wouldn’t fighting Cupid’s work be easier with three instead of one? The mailman would go along with whatever she asked him to do; she’d figured that out by now.
Around the time she started sharing plans with her co-conspirators, her zeal for conquest came back. She began implementing the two as part of her plans, and they cooperated without much complaint. Soon she would be back to her old self again, said a cheery voice in her mind. Then she realized she didn’t have cheery voices in her mind. Ever.
Did she?Unbeknownst to Malice, her love shield had developed a chip in its defenses, which gradually widened into a crack. Nevertheless, she carried on, blissfully unaware. Cupid, smirking, watched and waited. Maybe Edna’s heart flame hadn’t adorned the table at Mother’s birthday celebration this year, but there was always next year. And he had plenty of time…