Three shapes surrounded them as they approached the ice cream truck. In the uncertain light from a distant streetlight and the multicoloured whirl of the ice cream cone on top of the truck, it was hard to make out their faces. All three wore black coveralls with some sort of red symbol on the breast pocket, the same outfit as Doof’s. One of them might have been a girl.
I’m dreaming, thought Will. This is a dream, so don’t worry, just go with the flow.
“Blaze, Pyro, and Ember,” said Doof, pointing to each of them in turn. “This is my friend Will.”
“Another new hand?” said Blaze. He pushed his face close to Will’s, close enough that Will smelled something like hot motor oil and saw a tiny tattoo on the boy’s cheek. Three points joined at the bottom. A trident, same as the symbol on their uniforms.
“N-no! Not me!” Will backed up a couple of steps. “I was just talking to Doof.”
“Doof! That’s not his name. He’s Ash.”
“I got a new name. That’s part of the deal.” Doof was still wearing that goofy grin.
“Okay, Ash, how about we get your friend a treat? What would you like, Will? Popsicle or ice cream cone?” Ember was a girl. She had a trident tattoo as well.
Remember, you’re dreaming. “I’ll have an ice cream, please.”
Ember jumped into the back door of the ice cream truck and appeared in the sales window. “I recommend Cinnamon Glow. It’s one of our starter flavours. You wouldn’t be able to handle Sulphur Surprise, never mind a Brimstone Sundae!” She popped a scoop of bright red ice cream into a black cone. As she handed it to Will, her sleeve pulled up, revealing an iron bracelet that looked too heavy for her wrist.
The ice cream glowed like a live coal, but tasted cold. As Will swallowed, his sinuses filled up with hot cinnamon, like he’d just swallowed a handful of red heart-shaped candies. He shuddered and took another lick. He couldn’t stop.
“Who do you guys work for?” asked Will.
Blaze, Pyro, and Ember looked at each other. “The Boss,” said Blaze.
“The man downstairs,” said Pyro.
“Mr. Phlogisto!” said Ember.
A sharp snap-crack sounded nearby. “Heya, heya, kids! Time to pack up! Nothing doing here.” That buzzing voice again. Blaze, Pyro, and Ember scrambled toward the truck and the figure that stood near it. It was freakishly tall, probably because of the two upward-pointing projections on its head.
“I’ve gotta go, Will.” Doof’s head swivelled back and forth between Will and the ice cream truck’s driver.
Will threw the remains of his ice cream cone on the ground, where it burst into flame and vanished. He turned to Doof.
“Do you know where this ice cream truck comes from?”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Not as much as coming home and seeing my dog hung up dead.”
“Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you at school anymore,” said Will.
Doof nodded again, with a smirk.
“Do you get paid? Like a real job?”
“Room and board,” said Doof. “But that’s not all—”
A sharp snap-crack sounded nearby.
“Hey Ash! Time to go. The Boss is getting impatient. ‘Bye, Will!” Will wasn’t sure who said what as the three piled into the truck.
“Okay, I’m coming!” Doof’s voice broke Will’s trance. “Not just room and board,” said Doof, “They grant wishes! I wished for a dog and—” He glanced at the truck, whose engine fired up, shooting flames out both tailpipes. “‘Bye, Will. Maybe I’ll see you again someday.”
Doof held out a hand. As they shook, Will saw a bracelet just like Ember’s on Doof’s wrist. “C’mon Gryph!” Doof ran to the truck and jumped in, the dog hot on his heels. The doors banged shut and the service window slammed down.
The driver stood near the truck. A pair of glowing red eyes focussed on Will. He felt their heat moving around his face, exploring it, memorizing it. The figure lifted a hand and pointed at him. A grin appeared below the eyes. A whip cracked, shooting purple sparks into the air around it.
A dream, it’s only a dream. But something curled around Will’s ankle, hot and stinging. He turned and ran until his chest was about to explode and he tripped and fell.
The truck rolled down the road, leaving Will lying there, quivering, alternately hot and cold. That frenetic music floated back to him, slowly fading into the distance. Lullaby and good night. Did we give you a fright? We’ve got fire and ice. You don’t have to be nice… The music turned into a siren. Now the ice cream truck was an ambulance from hell. Its mission was hurting, not helping. Only those that deserve it.
Will turned and shambled in what he hoped was the right direction. It seemed a lot farther than he remembered. A patrolling policeman spotted him and took him home.
Will’s Mom kept him home from school the next day His head ached and his stomach roiled queasily. When he felt well enough to get up, it was almost supper time. Putting on his socks, he noticed a narrow red line around his left ankle. It tingled when he rubbed it.
His dad was in the living room. The newspaper he was reading descended a few inches when Will came in. “Feeling better, son?”
“Ready to tell me what you were doing last night?”
Will shrugged. “Not really.”
Will’s dad folded his newspaper and stood. “Answer me properly. You were with that lowlife kid, weren’t you? Harold somebody. Am I right?”
Will stared at a headline. Fire at Shady Grove Trailer Park. One Man Dead.
“Actually, Dad, you’re wrong.”