Irene "Sweetums" Birnbaum had a dirty little secret and it went something like this: on each of her shifts at the Chick-N-Fry she spiked her customers' potatoes with volcanic-tinged waters from the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha and mixed it with an uneven teaspoon of free-range lime juice, a culinary combination that generated heart-pounding glee of a spontaneous nature, even in the most dour of human specimens.
At 4' 10", Sweetums was too tall to be a little person and too small to be anything but diminutive, which meant people underestimated her on a continual basis. One tint shy of albino, she derived her power from a passionate knowledge of clandestine herbal medicine found in the book Obscurum per Obscurius, that she'd obtained at an East Indian flea market.
Sweetums first knew her mystical calling at the tender age of five, when she offered her brother, Eagle Eye, a pungent blend of rosehips and snail's breath before a neighborhood Big Wheel race. He pinched his nose and sucked the brew from a teacup. His burp wilted Mama's prize orchid. The playground trail blew alive with the flair of his spinning tires and Eagle Eye giggled past his competitors, skinnied through the spokes of the wrought iron exit, and zipped his way cross country on the back roads to Memphis.
At eighteen, Sweetums joined the Air Force, sure she was born to energize the troops. But the short-sighted master sergeant stuck her in a helicopter instead of the kitchen and Sweetums was relegated to delighting the crew with acrophobia-defying unguents of wren's eggs and toenails.
At the Chick-N-Fry, Sweetums finally found her home. After hours, she mixed batches of herbs in her two room loft, experimenting on her five-legged cat, Tiptoe, as she searched for the perfect blend of euphoria and contentment to offer her customers. Was it wrong, she asked, to serve up happiness, to sneak bliss into the food of her unsuspecting clients? The thought came with only a slight twinge of guilt and she set aside her reservations with the promise that, should she ever have second thoughts, she'd confess her sins to the closest priest and then run like a bat out of hell.
When Tiptoe's purr clogged the kitchen sink, Sweetums decided the day had come to bring her elixir to the world. She called her masterpiece the Great-a Potato-a. It was a bad rhyme, she knew, but verse had been her second language so it was the best she could do.
The first batch of customers to whom she fed her concoction flung themselves against the drive-through window, begging for more. The second group fainted in a heap of self-indulgent hippie love. Sweetums scaled back, applying her handiwork with an eyedropper. Delight, good will, outstretched hands, the perfect pitch of human excellence contained in a toothy grin and accompanied by ad-lib joy. Life, all-around, was pleasant. And this is where the story takes an unfortunate turn.
The flash mob entered the Chick-N-Fry on Thursday, October 17th at precisely 1:22 and four seconds p.m. If it had been an hour later, no harm would have been done. Sweetums would have been home, feet tucked up on Tiptoe's back and a ham hock roasting on the radiator. Or if they just hadn't been dancers. But they were dancers, especially bad ones, and their clandestine, hip-grinding escapade was to be their final performance.
Sweetums knew something was up the moment the crowd sauntered through the front door, she could tell by the shifty flicks of their eyes. They tried to be nonchalant as all shifty-flickers tend to do but she could read the anticipation in the scuff of their sneakers and the sweat stains that ringed their puffy necks. No one said a word, because strangers on a mission don't chat, but they checked their watches as they bunched up, single-file in line. A snub-eared man in a Hawaiian pineapple shirt mouthed directives to himself—steady, ten minutes, stay in line, wait for the music—and Sweetums followed the slap of his credit card as he paid for a double serving of the Great-a Potato-a. When he picked up his order, he winked and blew her a kiss, a token that would have made Sweetums swoon, except she didn't know how.
The customers ate in a flurry of compostable bowls and blue napkins while Pineapple man kept a silent countdown on his fleshy lips…five minutes, four, three. At the stroke of 1:32 p.m. the flash mob threw down their potato-stained forks, faced southeast towards the Holy State of South Carolina, and raised their arms in Hallelujah.
With a flick of the boombox, the hip hop thumps of Will Smith's Gettin' Jiggy Wit It pulsed across the Chick-N-Fry. The crowd circled into an amorphous blob and boondoggled their way through a series of elaborate b-boy moves. Outside the restaurant, squirrels formed towering ladders from which they peeked into the windows, their furry tails gyrating to the beat.
Then the Great-a Potato-a hit the dancers' systems.
As Sweetums watched, a flush entered the room. The dancers downrocked across the overflowing space, their limbs twitching with spasmodic elation, pupils colliding in satisfaction. They grooved faster, whirling into a 6-step that howled against the wooden frames of the doors. Sweetums cried out in alarm, warning the mob to slow down, but they ignored her and threw down their best power moves in a final burst of frenzy.
When the dancers broke into synchronized laughter, Sweetums knew it was too late. She wrestled her way across the restaurant and pressed the kill switch on the boombox. Pineapple man gasped and reached for her but the mass kept moving and swept him overhead in a crowd-surfing surge of hilarity. Then, in one hypersonic clap of jubilation, the flash mob froze.
It took forty-two days for the smiles to wear from their faces, another twenty for their limbs to become limp. By the time the flash mob had regained full consciousness, the press had forgotten their dilemma and moved on to the political consternations of eggplants.
The owner of the Chick-N-Fry fired Sweetums and the police assured her she was lucky the judge assigned to her case had a soft spot for little people. Sweetums didn't bother correcting him about her height because the shame of her act had shrunk her two inches.
It wasn't until a year later that a knock came at Sweetums's door. She peeled herself off the wall and slunk flat-footed to see who it was. Tiptoe curled his extra leg in trepidation.
Her first sight was of a bulbous belly decorated with faded pineapples. Before she could blink, a pair of beefy arms had swooped Sweetums off her feet and snuggled her against a robust, fur-lined chest.
"I've found you. At last!" Pineapple man shouted and, in the rapturous heat of his aromatic embrace, Sweetums discovered how to swoon.
BIO: Mureall Hébert lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in >kill author, Short, Fast, and Deadly, The Citron Review, Soundings Review, and StereoOpticon (Drollerie Press: 2008.) She was awarded Honorable Mention in Bacopa Literary Review’s 2012 short fiction contest. She’s an editor for Soundings Review and an MFA candidate at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.