The strangeness of a minotaur working at a burger joint wasn’t lost on Helen, but she’d needed a summer job. If she’d applied herself, she probably could’ve found something better, but it was only a few months until she started college, so why bother?
Fortunately Mr. Whiteleaf had been pretty cool about it. He didn’t make her flip burgers, and he didn’t make her stand out on the curb with a sandwich board as she’d feared he might. She usually ran the register, and while some customers might give her funny looks before placing their orders, that was their problem, not hers.
Full-blown minotaurism was rare in this day and age. Last time she’d checked, there had been thirteen recorded cases in the last hundred years. All the others were male. The enchantment or curse or whatever you wanted to call it usually didn’t take with girls. Not all the way.
The last full female minotaur, Gladys Hoffman, aka Minotaur Minnie, had made a name for herself as a strongwoman touring with P. T. Barnum’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome. Gladys had made the best of her circumstances, but that was 1880. The world was different now, and Helen had more options. Or so she liked to believe.
She was still a seven-foot girl with horns and hooves, dozens of case studies in various medical journals, and her very own Wikipedia page. But she’d learned to roll with the punches.
The family waiting to be rung up right now was giving her the Look. A lot of people didn’t know what to do with Helen, what category to throw her in. Civil rights had made a lot of progress for the orcs, ratlings, ogres, and other “monstrous” races. But minotaurs didn’t have numbers. There had been no protests, no sit-ins, no grand moment in history when the rest of the world saw them as anything other than anomalies, victims of lingering curses from the days of yore carried along rare family bloodlines.
The father squinted at her as if she were a traitor to her kind.
She didn’t even eat meat. Not that it was any of his business.
Helen rubbed her bracelet. She did that whenever she felt self-conscious. Jewelry wasn’t allowed on the job, but Mr. Whiteleaf had made an exception since hers was prescription to deal with her condition.
The little girl stared. Kids couldn’t help it.
“Are you a monster?” she asked.
Helen smiled. “No, sweetie. I’m just an Enchanted American.”
The mother pulled the girl away. Helen was going to say she didn’t mind, that kids were only curious, and that she preferred it when people talked to her directly about her condition rather than pretend they didn’t notice.
“I’m sorry,” said the father.
“It’s OK,” replied Helen. “Kids, huh?”
He placed his order. She rang him up, gave him back his change and his number.
“We’ll call you when your order is ready, sir,” she said with a forced smile. “Thank you for eating at Magic Burger. And we hope you have a magical day.”
Helen leaned against the counter, but she didn’t allow herself to slouch. Working the register was, from a fast-food perspective, a dignified job, but it also came with responsibilities. Mr. Whiteleaf didn’t expect much. Look as if she were happy to be there. Or, if not happy, at least not ready to clock out and go home.
She jumped. Mr. Whiteleaf was like a ghost sometimes. The small, pale elf was past his prime by a few hundred years. Middle age wasn’t a pretty thing for elves, who went from tall, regal figures to short, potbellied creatures with astigmatism in a very short time. And then they were stuck with another six or seven centuries walking this earth as creaky old men with tufts of green hair growing out of their drooping ears. But Mr. Whiteleaf was a good boss.
If only he wouldn’t sneak up on her like that.
She craned her neck to peer down at him. As she was very tall and he was short, he only came to her lower abdomen.
“Hello, sir,” she said.
He adjusted his glasses. “Quitting time.”
She made a show of glancing at the clock on the wall, as if she had just noticed it and hadn’t been counting the minutes. “Yes, sir.”
Whiteleaf said, “I hate to trouble you, Helen, but would you mind working late tonight? I need some help giving the place a thorough cleaning. Word through the grapevine is that there’s a surprise health inspection tomorrow. It won’t be a problem, will it?”
“No,” she replied.
“Excellent. I’ll see you around ten thirty, then?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Whiteleaf.”
The sudden obligation left her with a ninety-minute block. It was just long enough to be inconvenient but not long enough to make it worth her while to go home, change out of her work clothes, goof off for a bit, then come back. She grabbed an expired salad (they were free) and went to the break room.
Troy was there. She liked him. He was easygoing, smart, handsome, physically gifted. These qualities should have made him annoying, but whereas most people with Troy’s gifts would’ve considered them a license for arrogance, he seemed to know how good he had it. He was always pleasant, always friendly and helpful. Nice to everyone. He was too good to be true, but with billions of people out there, there were bound to be one or two perfect ones.
Smiling, he nodded to her.
She nodded back. She wondered how many girls would go mad for a chance like this. One-on-one with Him. Him with a capital H, though not in a blasphemous way. Although there were whispers of demigod in his family tree.
Helen was never nervous around boys. One of the advantages of her condition was that she knew where she stood from the beginning. She liked to think of her figure as curvaceous. Like Marilyn Monroe’s. Except gentlemen preferred blondes, not brown fur with white speckles. She had yet to find a pair of heels that fit her hooves. Troy was tall, with wide shoulders. She was taller, with shoulders just a smidge wider. And then there was the whole cow-head thing.
In short, she avoided butterflies in her stomach by knowing she had absolutely no chance with Troy, especially since he was rarely single in the first place.
“Hey, did Mr. Whiteleaf ask you to work late too?” she asked.
Troy looked up from his book. “Didn’t mention it. Why? Does he need help?”
She sat, popped open the plastic salad container, and jammed her plastic fork at the wilted lettuce with little success. Either the fork needed to be sharper or the lettuce crisper.
“Guess not,” she said.
“Shoot.” (He didn’t swear either.) “I really could use the money.”
“Since when do you need money?” she asked. “I thought your parents were loaded.”
“I’m saving for a car. Dad won’t buy it for me because he says I need to learn responsibility.”
“Don’t you volunteer at the homeless shelter? And the senior center? And the animal shelter? And weren’t you valedictorian and prom king?”
“Dad thinks I can do better.”
“Well, if that’s what Dad says, who am I to argue? I can see now that you’re a young man in serious need of personal discipline.” She stuffed a few leaves and a cherry tomato in her mouth. “What’cha reading there?”
“T. S. Eliot,” he said.
That he read poetry was almost comical to Helen. It was as if he were trying to spontaneously ascend to some higher plane of perfect boyness, some sacred dimension birthed from the philosophical union of Aristotle and Tiger Beat editors.
He caught her smile.
“What? Don’t like him?”
“Haven’t read him,” she replied.
“You haven’t read him? One of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century, and you haven’t read him?”
“He isn’t that guy who doesn’t capitalize, is he?”
“That’s E. E. Cummings.”
He slid the book across the table. “Do you want to borrow my copy?”
She slid it back. “No, thanks.”
He pretended to gape.
“I don’t like poetry,” she said. “I know I’m supposed to because I’m a girl and all that. I tried. I really did. But outside of Dr. Seuss, it doesn’t do much for me.”
“I’ve always found The Lorax to be a little preachy.”
“‘Don’t burn the earth to the ground’ always struck me as more common sense than preachy,” she replied.
Troy chuckled. “Well, I’d love to stick around and chat about all the metaphorical implications of Hop on Pop with you, but I’ve got stuff to do.”
“Giving blood, saving kittens, running from throngs of adoring young ladies,” said Helen.
“I’ll have you know I only save kittens on the weekend. Later, Hel.”
He bounded from the room like Adonis in jeans. She was glad she hadn’t been born five thousand years before, when, instead of being friends, they would’ve probably had to fight to the death in an arena.
She tried reading the poetry book, but it didn’t do anything for her. She hid out in the break room, watching its tiny television, because she didn’t want to get stuck helping to lock up. Whiteleaf would get her when it was time to clean up. Or so she thought, but everything was quiet at eleven fifteen.
Helen poked her head into the kitchen. The lights were on, but it was all shut down. No sign of the other employees. Her hooves clomped on the tile. They seemed especially loud with the Magic Burger so quiet. The silence was eerie.
The tables and chairs in the dining area, the ones that weren’t bolted down, had been pushed to one side, and boxes of frozen hamburger patties sat in their place.
Whiteleaf spoke from behind her. “Hello, Helen.”
“Oh, hi, sir. Should those burgers be out like that?”
He smiled, adjusted his glasses. “They’ll be fine.”
“Are we cleaning the freezer?” she asked.
He held up a small wand with a chunk of blue stone on the end. “Stand over there.”
“By the meat?”
Whiteleaf frowned. “Damn it, this thing must be wearing out. It’s barely two hundred years old, but once the warranty expires…” He shook the wand until the barest hint of a glow flashed in its stone.
“Are you feeling OK, Mr. Whiteleaf?”
“Look at the wand,” he said. “Feel its power wash over your mind, numbing your will, robbing you of all resistance.”
Helen stepped back. “This is getting kind of weird. I think maybe I should go.”
He threw the wand aside. “Fine. We’ll do it the less subtle way.” He reached under the counter and removed a sword. She wasn’t familiar with weapons, but it looked like an ornate broadsword with runes carved in the blade. It didn’t glow, but it did sort of shimmer.
She didn’t freak out. An advantage of being taller and stronger than nearly everyone was that she’d developed confidence in her ability to handle physical violence. She’d never been in a fight precisely because she was bigger and stronger than everyone. If someone ever did attack her, she’d probably freeze. She wasn’t sword-proof. And the blade could do some damage in the right hands. But Whiteleaf was a frail little creature who was barely able to hold the weapon. He certainly couldn’t raise it above her knee, which meant he might be able to nick her shins, which would probably hurt but wouldn’t be particularly life-threatening.
“I’m very sorry about this, Helen.” His arms trembled, and he sounded exhausted already. “But when the Lost God manifests in this world, he must be offered a sacrifice. Preferably an innately magical virgin. And you’re the only one I could find who fit the—”
“What makes you think I’m a virgin?” she asked.
Whiteleaf lowered the blade. The tip scraped a gash in the tile floor.
“Ah, damn. Wait. You’re not a virgin?”
“I didn’t say that. I just asked why you thought I was one.”
“It’s just…I guess I just…assumed you were.”
“Why would you assume that?”
He chewed on his lip for a moment. “Well, you’re a very responsible young lady. It’s one of the things I respect about you.”
She glared. “It’s because of the way I look, isn’t it?”
Whiteleaf shook his head. “No, no. You’re a very attractive young lady. You are!”
She moved toward him. He lifted his sword a few inches off the floor.
“I don’t need this,” she said. “I quit.”
“You can’t quit,” he replied. “I need you. For the sacrifice.”
She removed her name tag and set it on the counter. “I’ve never gored anyone before, Mr. Whiteleaf. But in your case, I’m considering it.”
The Magic Burger’s lights flickered and a low, guttural cry echoed from the center of the room. The aroma of sizzling meat filled the restaurant as the boxes of hamburger patties burst into flames. The ground chuck collapsed in a mound of brown-and-pink cow flesh, and it formed a giant gnashing mouth.
“At last, at last!” shouted Whiteleaf. “He has returned to us!”
Helen studied the twisted meat deity.
“You worship a hamburger god?”
Whiteleaf sighed. “He is not a hamburger god. He is a god currently manifested in an avatar of flesh that just happens to be made up of, for convenience, hamburger. Now, we haven’t much time. So I’m going to need you to throw yourself into his jaws. I assure you it will be fast and quite painless.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, Helen.” He advanced on her. “In my youth, I was a warrior to be reckoned with.”
She used one hand to push him down. He fell on his ass. His sword clattered to the ground. The noise drew the attention of the hamburger god. It probed the floor in their direction with its twisted limbs.
Helen immediately regretted knocking the old elf down. He was intent on sacrificing her, and that was a pretty lousy thing to do to a girl. But his lack of ability rendered him harmless, and she could’ve handled it better.
He struggled to stand. His knees weren’t very good, though, and it was painful to watch. “Please, you must do it. If the god isn’t given his sacrifice, he’ll never be able to focus and he’ll never give me the sacred command. I’ve waited too long to blow this opportunity.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Whiteleaf. I’m not going to let a monster eat me for minimum wage.”
She moved to help him up. He slashed at her with a butcher knife he’d had hidden behind his back. The blade sliced across her forearm. The cut was shallow, but it triggered a rage within her. Perhaps it was the wound. Or perhaps it was something buried in her minotaur id, the collective memory of untold billions of bovine in pain and fear.
She seized him by the collar and lifted him in the air.
“Drop. The. Knife.”
He did. It clanked against the floor beside the broadsword.
“You crazy old man,” she said. “It would serve you right if I offered you to your own hamburger god.”
He trembled. His feet dangled limply. “It isn’t personal. It’s just that my god only appears once every three hundred years, and this is very important to me.”
The Lost God lurched slowly around the dining area. If this blind and clumsy thing was any indication of the gods of yore, no wonder they’d mostly been forgotten. It gnawed on the corner of a table.
The glass door swung open and Troy entered. It took only one glance for him to see something was wrong.
She had yet to figure out how the god perceived the world, but there was something about Troy that drew its attention. The mound of meat squished its way in his direction.
“Troy, get out of here,” said Helen.
But it was too late. The god opened its mouth, and out shot a tongue of the same flesh. It wrapped around Troy’s leg and pulled him toward its jaws. Yelping, he latched onto a table bolted to the floor.
She didn’t think. She didn’t have time. She certainly hadn’t rehearsed this scenario in her mind. But by instinct she dropped Whiteleaf and grabbed the sword. A leaping blow chopped the tentacle. The god shrieked and leaned backward.
The meat coiled around Troy’s leg whipped and writhed. They pulled at it, and the greasy flesh broke apart in their hands. But it kept moving, crawling on their arms like living snot.
The god charged. Helen drove the sword into the monster’s lumpy body. The blade flashed and the thing recoiled. It sputtered and bubbled and squealed, swaying erratically through the room until it fell apart into a smoking pile in the middle of the room.
“What the hell was that?” asked Troy.
“A god of yore,” she replied. “But I think it’s dead now.”
Whiteleaf ran to his broken god’s corporeal remains. “What did you do? You destroyed it. Now I have to wait another three hundred years. Do you have any idea how annoying this is?” He stuck his hands in the hamburger, pulled them out, and scowled at the rancid meat. “You’re fired. Both of you.”
“I already quit,” said Helen.
Troy grabbed some napkins from a dispenser and cleaned the burger from his hands. “What the heck is going on here?”
“I’ll explain later. But we should probably call the police or something. I’m sure it’s against the law to sacrifice employees.”
Whiteleaf screamed as his not-quite-dead god grumbled. It surged up his arms and swallowed his torso. His short legs kicked as they were drawn into the mass. Whether or not Helen would’ve tried to save him given a chance was unimportant, because his god devoured him whole in a matter of seconds. He struggled within the fleshy thing. A limb would break the surface, only to be drawn back in. At one point his face appeared. Half the skin had been eaten away, and he screamed, his cries muffled by mouthfuls of ground beef, before vanishing within.
“Quick and painless, my ass,” said Helen.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” said Troy.
The Lost God sprouted a skull. Most likely Mr. Whiteleaf’s skull. Though the flesh had all been eaten away, the eyes remained. It turned those eyes on Helen and Troy, and its jaws parted.
“Ah, that hit the spot. Nothing like a little ritual sacrifice to get the juices flowing. Your god is pleased.”
“I’m afraid there’s been a mistake,” said Helen. “We aren’t your worshippers.”
The god scanned the room. “Well, you’re the only ones here. Someone summoned me, didn’t they?”
“Yes, sir. Someone did.”
“Where is this mortal that I might reward their loyalty?”
She hesitated to answer. If this god was a wrathful sort, he might not take the news well.
Thunder cracked as he impatiently waited for her response.
She said, “You sort of…well…you kind of…ate him.”
The god writhed. “Ah, damn. That is embarrassing. If I had cheeks, they’d be red right now.” He scanned the room. “Are you the only ones then?”
“Yes, sir,” said Helen.
“And neither of you worships me?”
“No, sir,” she replied.
A shudder ran through the god’s flesh. “Get banished for a few thousand years and the whole operation falls apart. Damn the gods and our petty feuds.”
“We’re terribly sorry for the mix-up,” said Troy, as they edged toward the door, “but we’ll just be on our way—”
“No need to apologize. Not your fault. But you can help me just the same. A couple of strong young mortal specimens.”
The god focused his gaze on them, and they were immobilized by his supernatural power.