It's dicey being a speculative fiction writer in Florida as current events often move at FTS speeds. What--you've heard of FTL (faster than light) travel but not FTS? It stands for Faster Than Satire. This story hinged upon my poking fun at Florida's ridiculously easy process to obtain a permit for concealed carry of a firearm. Several non-Americans who critiqued the story for me asked if it was intended as horror. No, the parts they found terrifying were the actual law up to 2023. Now, Governor DeSantis has signed HB 543, which allows for concealed carry without any permit whatsoever. And this makes my story historical fiction and thus unsellable. Too many people enjoyed it in the Codex contest in which it originated and in subsequent critique for me to just leave it inaccessible, and I hadn't posted a freebie in a long time, so I hope you enjoy this comic fantasy story.
Chatting on a Moonlit West Florida Night
An essay Eric had written in tenth grade hung above his bed in the studio apartment he rented twenty miles outside Pensacola. To the prompt "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he'd responded, "You know, like, help people and stuff." Even though he’d gone on for four more whole sentences, the paper hadn't earned an A (or even a passing grade), but still, ten years later, these words guided his life. Totally.
Good afternoon, he typed into the laptop perched atop his lap. I'm Eric, your live chat operator. With what may I help you? The client's name was Melanie. Eric rarely encountered women online. He seldom crossed paths with women in person either, aside from a few female Winn-Dixie cashiers. Sure, he enjoyed taking his mom out to the Tastee Freez, but otherwise, it had been a while since he'd spoken with a lady. Most women (and men) in West Florida were old and didn't hang around with young folks.
I'm having trouble with the application, and I need to finish it before the full moon.
Before the full moon? Could it be one of those woman things they'd taught him about in health class? Or maybe Melanie was a spiritual sort, and the moon messed with her aura, whatever an aura was.
Eric leaned against the headboard and adjusted the pillow behind his back. Why don't you enable remote access, and I'll guide you? He added the standard line to address customer privacy concerns: This chat will not be recorded for training porpoises. He’d always wondered whether the last word had been a spelling error in the training manual, but fear of replacement by a marine mammal had dissuaded him from asking.
Remote access enabled. It allowed Eric to see what a client was entering in real time. Melanie hadn’t filled in anything on the application. Not a problem—he’d help her line by line.
His gaze drifted to the corner of Melanie’s screen. She’d left her webcam on—a total babe. If only Eric could speak with her. Unfortunately, his company’s tech guy had disabled voice chats on their VPN, hoping to enhance productivity by allowing simultaneous help sessions. They hardly ever happened, but Eric liked the feature because it kept a help session from interfering with a video game. Or with simultaneous video games.
Melanie’s cursor blinked on the form’s line for her phone number. Score!
Sure, she might not want to go out with him. He’d never asked a client before. His mom had told him women would find it creepy. On the other hand, it wouldn't be weird if Melanie told him to phone her.
I don't plan to ask you to call me, Melanie typed. And yes, you're creepy.
Huh? How did you know what I was thinking? The webinar that had shown him how to navigate the company's bargain-basement VPN hadn't mentioned a mind-reading functionality. It didn't even support conference calling.
Just help me with the damn form. My first problem is where it asks for my name.
Her name was Melanie. Did she have a last name? She couldn’t leave it blank—the form wouldn’t let her. Hmm. She could write Melanie Blank. Maybe she could spell it Blanc, like in French. French women were so classy, so chic, so…
Are you still there?
Yes, you were asking about names.
I change my name a couple times each century, she typed. Will it matter?
This was Florida, and she was applying for a concealed carry permit. Not at all—use whatever name you like.
She wrote in Lupine.
Not Smith? Nearly everyone getting a gun license had the last name Smith. Melanie's false name must have been a clue to her identity. But she didn't look like a spiky, purple flower.
Could you explain the conditions that might make me ineligible for a license?
Not a stumbling block Eric had anticipated, but he'd roll with it. Sure. We get inquiries about this all the time. Many of our clients have ex-spouses or ex-bosses or ex-government officials making bogus accusations against them. Eric glanced at the cheat sheet his boss had given him to make sure he phrased things correctly. The liar who falsely accused you of—A peanut butter smudge obscured the next word. He should have gotten the paper laminated—uh, stuff. The judge never proved you did the stuff, did he?
None of the victims—Melanie deleted the last word and replaced it with accusers, which she also deleted. She hesitated before continuing. None of the liars ever got to say anything.
Excellent. Then you don't have to mention anything the liars never said. A woman of mystery—she must have been a spy, like a character Angelina Jolie would play in movies. Lady spies were sexy. And if she'd already betrayed her target, he wouldn't be around to be an excuse not to go out with Eric.
Melanie stared into her webcam and rolled her eyes. I'm not a spy, she typed.
An assassin, then? Or someone the mafia sent to break kneecaps? Those jobs went to swarthy guys named Guido or Vinnie, didn't they?
You're awfully nosy, but since I still need your help, I'm going to pretend you didn't say any of that.
I didn't say any of that. You're reading my mind again.
Oh, right. Anyway, next issue: the photograph I submit has to reflect my current appearance. Is it a problem if I look different in the moonlight?
Eric longed to see Melanie in the moonlight. No biggie, I'm sure. Your eyes would still be brown—no? And your hair would still be lush and full?
It took a moment for Melanie to respond. The texture of the hair on my head doesn't change much, but it gets lusher and fuller on my face, back, and rear end.
Now, this was a turn-off. Not a problem, Eric typed. As far as completing the form went, at least.
Melanie pressed submit, and the program advanced to the screen asking for her credit card. So, once I've applied, will I get the permit by email?
Uh-huh. Fifty to fifty-five days from now.
Even without sound, the horror-movie expression on Melanie's face suggested the news hadn't pleased her. You didn't tell me this. The moon rises in an hour. Isn't there a way to make things go quicker?
Eric's clients often faced the issue—he'd memorized the next set of recommended questions. Are you new to Florida?
Yes. I just moved here after the stuff that didn't happen.
She probably didn't have a boyfriend yet. Do you have a car?
Seriously? I live in Milton—a tiny town on the Panhandle--how else could I get anywhere?
She lived in Milton. A local girl. Unless she was reading his mind and messing with him. He'd test her by asking her proximity to one of the town's cultural landmarks. How close are you to the McDonalds?
Just down Caroline Street. You know the town?
Eric placed his driver's license on the scanner attached to the computer, copied it, and pasted the image into the chat session.
Well, what do you know? But why did you ask about a car?
It hadn't been so he could daydream about kissing Melanie in the backseat, but as these thoughts now precluded any others, he did his best to shift focus. Hair on the face, hair on the back, hair on the… Why did he ask about the vehicle? Oh, yeah. In Florida, if you own a car, you don't need a concealed carry permit. You're allowed to buy a gun, take it home in your car, and drive it anywhere you want. Then, Florida Statutes section 790.25 says you can use it for target practice, hunting, self-defense, or sexual role-playing games. You only need a concealed carry permit if you want to walk around and hide your gun.
So, I could just go into the gun store right now and purchase one?
Sure. Eric had helped Melanie solve her problem. He smiled and glanced up at his framed essay. He should email his old teacher—how dare she to have said Eric would never make anything of himself? A steady job, his own place to live—sure, in part of his mom's house—but he had his own entrance and kitchen, and he paid his mom rent every month. He could even afford cable with two premium networks. Now that he knew Melanie lived nearby, maybe he should invite her over to watch TV some time?
Is at least one of those networks not porn?
Forget I asked. I do have one more question before I let you go. What type of gun would be best for firing silver bullets?
Silver bullets? They could get expensive. Most West Florida women wouldn't waste money on silver teeth unless they ate a lot of gator. And silver nose rings were for folks too uppity to wear a safety pin.
Why wouldn't Melanie use lead ammo? Who do you want to shoot?
I can't handle it anymore. I've destroyed too many lives.
Eric fumbled through the manila folders in the milk crate beside the bed where he kept his work stuff, unable to locate the emergency procedures card. He did find a handout from his job orientation with the Winging-it-When-You've-Lost-the-Emergency-Procedures-Card procedure, so he went with that.
Melanie, this is solely my personal opinion, and the Sunshine State Concealed Carry Helpline is in no way legally responsible for what I might say… The following line told him to "make up shit and keep talking until the cops arrive," but Melanie hadn't filled in her credit-card-billing address yet. Eric wasn't great at making shit up, so he spoke from his heart. I don't think you should shoot yourself. The last time I got depressed and thought I was worthless, you know, someone nobody could love, I bought a bottle of pills, but then I realized how much it would hurt my mother if I died. Don't you think your mother might miss you?
I clawed her throat to pieces and gnawed on her arms and legs until they came off.
That would be a no, then. Is your job rewarding?
I do online customer support.
Another no. Eric gulped hard. At the risk of preempting amazing fantasies and daydreams, he typed one more question: Do you have a boyfriend?
If you could just recommend a brand of gun.
She was single. You like me?
A few minutes passed before Melanie's response. You do realize I'm a werewolf, don't you? I'd turn you—you'd be a wolf every full moon. And the rest of the time, you'd be reading other people's thoughts.
No way! But would he want to hear his mom's thoughts? Or those of men at the bar? About his mom?
Your senses would assault you—whispers would scream; glimpses in the shadows would sear your retinas like the midday sun. Even mild smells would be overwhelming.
Eric spied his dirty-sweat-sock pile in the corner—they were already overwhelming. Sounds kinda cool.
The webcam showed Melanie throwing her hands up in the air. I haven’t driven you away yet? You're a complete doofus with no idea how to act around women, but I'm not going to leave you with romantic notions about werewolves. Hold on, and I'll be back with you soon.
Five minutes passed without any further activity in the chat window. Then, a woman's voice spoke to him. "Eric?"
That wasn't possible. The VPN didn't allow voice chats. "How am I hearing you? Are you talking through my screen?"
"Yes, but not your computer screen—the one around your patio. You've got the window open. Look behind you."
When Eric turned around, Melanie—well, a somewhat furrier version of Melanie—was indeed standing there. A real, live … well, maybe not woman, but at least female. At his house! "Did you drive over?"
"The moon's almost full. I won't finish my transition until it does, but it’s easier to run on all fours once I lose my opposable thumbs. And just as fast."
"I should invite you in."
Melanie tore through the wire mesh with her fingers, or claws, or whatever they were. She bounded across the patio and through the window. "Do you feel safe? Do you enjoy having your boundaries violated?"
Saliva dripped from her, err, fangs.
It wasn't the date Eric had fantasized about. His heart raced. "Are you going to kill me?"
Up on her hind legs, foreclaws poised menacingly, she edged toward him. "Tell me why I shouldn't.”
Without averting his eyes from Melanie, Eric scrambled for the kitchen and rummaged through the drawer with the good cutlery. "This fork is made of silver." He held it above his head and pointed the tines at her throat.
Melanie put her paws on what was probably her hips. "Who has silver flatware these days? I can't imagine you have women over for formal dinner parties."
"I most certainly do."
"Women other than your mother?"
Well… "You're making me feel bad about myself. You're mean."
"I wouldn't be if you’d respected my privacy. And then been willing to take no for an answer."
So, she was usually a nice werewolf? "I'm sorry. I'll never do it again."
"To any woman?"
"No." Nor to any female … whatevers, either.
With that, Melanie bounded out the window and into the night.
Hands shaking, Eric returned the silverware to its drawer and poured himself a glass of water. He stared through the window into the black night—clouds had covered the moon. Would it prevent Melanie from going full wolf tonight? Would she be able to get back into her house without thumbs? He should check the Internet to find out. Surely, the first couple hits on a Google search would provide scientifically accurate information on werewolves.
He found a few videos worth checking out, but before he could watch them, an alert chimed on his computer. It was Melanie, typing hello. Her webcam winked on.
He should respond. Wow, I thought I'd never see you again. Much less without all the extra hair. That must have been how the change worked—no moon, no wolf.
You never turned the remote access off, she typed.
But I wouldn't mind talking some more.
So much for checking out the werewolf research he'd found on the Internet. Or maybe, Melanie would like to watch with him. I'd planned to watch a couple videos. I think they're documentaries about werewolves. Both blurbs included a name found in almost every other link from the Google search—Lon Chaney. The guy must have been a professor or something.
The Wolfman and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman?
Yeah, how did you know? Oh, the mind-reading thing again. I could screen share through Facebook, and we could watch them together.
You're looking for an expert to explain my kind to you?
She was offering to explain women to him. That would be super-helpful.
Without giving Eric a chance to reply, Melanie resumed typing into the chat box. Sure, why not? We can forget the application. You were right—I was feeling lonely, but I also needed someone I could be around, without, you know, feeling compelled to disembowel and dismember them. You need so much help that it brings out my human side.
For the first time in his adult life, a woman his own age wanted to hang out with him. Well, she looked his age. She might have been thousands of years old.
In West Florida, it wouldn't disqualify her from "babe" status.
And you're actually rather sweet.