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1. And That Puppet’s Name Was Pussy 

Benjamin August Weller was beat up pretty bad. He was sliced open in a few places, slick with blood in spots, bruised here and there, and shaking with panic all over. His toes were stuck out over a drop-off, and he was about to lose his balance and tumble over the edge. No telling how far he was going to fall. It was the middle of the night, too dark to gauge depth of any sort, be it shallow or bottomless. Not knowing what he might glom onto, he reached to his left and grabbed onto a handful of shrub, hoping it might help anchor him. He felt thorns puncture his tender palm, and he thought, for a moment, that he’d been bitten by some beast. His eyes twitched in blind panic as he searched for an alternate lifeline more durable than the prickly berry vines he’d grabbed. Beneath his boots, the receding cliff edge crumbled away, and he began to plummet toward deeper darkness, the kind of darkness in which creatures and monsters of all sorts were known to hide and ambush. He knew the vines he’d grabbed weren’t going to hold, knew he was going to tumble a few dozen feet at least, knew he’d land roughly, and so he released his grip on the blackberry vines, figuring that was what a brave hunter of monsters should do. 

      Benjamin counted himself an accomplice among the rogue monster hunters that roamed the earth, knowing there was more than likely no such brotherhood outside his make-believe head, knowing he might very well be mad believing in monsters. He was young and impressionable. And he’d read a lot of comic books over the years. He’d grown up in Bingly, a small town, secluded from reality in a way. Who could blame him for making things up? 

      He felt each thorn unsheathe from his palm as the vines pulled free. Each thorn? He wondered at this unsheathing sensation, and then he realized that he had time to wonder. Time, apparently, had slowed. Crisp night air replaced crumbling earth beneath him, and he marveled, those next few airborne, slow motion moments, that he did not scream.

      Minutes earlier, after he’d crawled from the wreck and promised Brenda he’d bring back help pronto, he’d run as fast as he could down Hog Hill. He’d stumbled past Bingly’s Southern Baptist Church, past Macey Walker’s Bronco that was parked behind the church along with the other vehicles his friends had parked there prior to making the hike up the hill. Deciding to straight-line it from the church to town, he’d forced his way into the bramble and weed-choked lower slopes of Hog Hill, staying off the winding gravel road to save time. As he’d plowed through the razor-sharp pampas grass and the spore-heavy fern fronds that teemed from the dark soil under the birch trees, he’d had a thought that despite all its switchbacks, the gravel driveway might have been quicker.

      He’d swung his arms at some low-hanging branches, bullied his way around a glut of razor grass, and then he’d tripped on a rotting log and face-skidded through a patch of slimy horse mushrooms, cursing whichever god lorded over obstacles. That was when he’d heard the snapping of deadwood, twigs and dried leaves that carpeted the slope to his rear—the advance of some heavy-hoofed beast. And he’d heard the snorting of a horse.

      Devil’s Ride was pursuing him down the hill. After years of searching for the legendary beast, perhaps not wholeheartedly but certainly with intention, in the fields and woods surrounding Bingly, the giant horse had picked this night of all nights to play role reversal, and the pursued had become pursuer, with its slick, sweat-frothed black body, its eyes of fire, its guillotine teeth

. The monster was toyingly keeping its horrific image hidden in the bramble and weed at Benjamin’s back.

      Devil’s Ride was not a mythical creature, not made up, at least not as far as Benjamin and the dozens of people who had made known their encounters over the years were concerned. Benjamin had dug up a dozen written accounts of Devil’s Ride sightings, and he’d interviewed many people, including two old codgers who’d claimed to have seen the monster. One of those old codgers had been old Netty, and she was known to bend the truth a bit, so that interview might not count as an actual Devil’s Ride sighting. Benjamin wasn’t too solid on the rules that governed paranormal encounters and the chronicling thereof. He didn’t much care for rules to start with.

      Over the last few years, Benjamin had filled the majority of his spare time researching indigenous bogies. And seeing as how he was unbridled by any pesky grownup responsibilities—he was seventeen years old, a free spirit, as a friend of his, Nancy Turnkey, would say—he tended to have a lot of spare time to fill up. He’d collected Bingly lore, old wives’ tales, whispered bedtime you-be-good stories, and local legends, and he’d chronicled them, filling weighty notebooks with the mythical tales, which to him, of course, were not fictitious in the least. He was a mythologist who’d erased the line between his subjects and the real. After the collecting and the chronicling, he had, on a few occasions, adventured out into the vast wilderness that surrounded Bingly and hunted down these monsters. Or rather, he’d fully intended on hunting them down. He became easily sidetracked at times. Needless to say, he hadn’t caught any monsters yet. There were no trophy heads on his wall.

      And now he was the one being hunted.

      As he’d been sprinting down Hog Hill, whipped by pampas

blades and scraped by low branches, he’d been remembering a Note of Fact he’d written in one of his notebooks quite some time ago about the jaws of Devil’s Ride: the fantastic horse could allegedly pop skulls with its teeth the way a common horse could bite an apple in half. He’d stumbled down the slope doubly quick after reviewing this Note of Fact, keeping his head low, just out of biting range. When he’d exited the bramble near the bottom of the hill, he’d skidded to the edge of a drop-off, his arms flailing wildly. With his toes teetering on the cliff edge, he’d gained a general idea where his efforts had landed him; he’d come up on the backside of Bingly’s residential row. But this minor geographical achievement hadn’t helped repress the flailing-armed balancing act, or the grabbing of the blackberry vines. And knowing where he’d landed himself had not miraculously annulled the plunge he was taking over the crumbling cliff. He was falling, and there was nothing he could do about it. He decided to go with it and not struggle overmuch....

      The fall into the Turnkeys’ backyard took on a syrupy feel. He guessed he might be experiencing the slow-motion pull of shock brought on by the car wreck, although he’d never experienced shock before, so he couldn’t be sure. Along with the numbness of his torn flesh, this deceleration was what kept the panic tamped down to a minimum. He felt removed, and he figured this displacement was the main reason he wasn’t screaming his head off like a little girl while his body twisted, slammed, and rebounded off the steep decline of dirt to the yard below. He rolled to a stop in a patch of weeds. Directionally challenged for a moment, he reached out and located the wall of dirt and roots to his right. Black night poked and whispered at him from all other directions. He could smell compost coming from somewhere not too far off, probably Mrs. Hobbs house across the street; that old bitch was keen on gardening. The dark and the stench felt like something physical pushing up against him. Why in hell hadn’t he brought a flashlight? And a gas mask?

      Benjamin hated the dark and all it might contain. His agitated imagination was prone to populate shadows with all sorts of creatures; it always did, even if the darkness was the familiar stuff in his own bedroom. He was acclimated to this territory, this darkness, and his senses picked out things that no one else seemed to notice. And so, as he was fond of exclaiming to anyone who brought up the subject, he did oh so hate the dark, but he sure as shit was not afraid of it.

      He dug his fingers into the brittle weeds surrounding him, pushed himself up onto his feet, and then he took indecisive steps in the direction of the shadow-draped edifice that he was guessing might be the Turnkey house. Benjamin had landed in the shrub and scrub and weed of the throwaway piece of land behind the house. Along with the twelve-foot tall embankment at the rear, a regiment of plank fencing to either side bordered this sliver of property. If he kept moving away from the embankment and stayed off the side fencing, he should eventually slam up against the back of the house. Once there, he’d be able to lean his shaking body against the wood siding, gather his wits, whip his energies into a froth, and then, finally, he could get help for Brenda, who sat in a heap of twisted metal—she’s still breathing, he assured himself—on the bald crown of Hog Hill.

      He knew, however, there’d be little rest once he reached the house. Monster hunters can rarely afford such luxuries as rest. He’d have to get in the house, get the Turnkeys to help him, or use their phone to call someone who would. And there’d be an obstacle. Always something in the way. Expect one thing, the opposite will happen. In his mind, he saw himself sitting in the driver’s seat prior to the accident, expecting the kindest of smiles on Brenda’s lips, expecting the warmest reassurance of Brenda’s handhold.

      One knee jerked forward like a piston to take another step, and it slammed against the wood siding of the house, spider-webbing pain up his trunk, sparking electric agony in nerves from head to toe, and he did scream this time, or rather, he barked, bracing his palms against the chilled wood. He snapped his teeth shut and grimaced. He was dizzy, which in the darkness brought on nausea, and the two warm beers used to chase the whiskey he’d drunk earlier began to geyser up his throat. Not bothering to bend aside, afraid he’d lose his fragile balance, he shot a hot pailful of vomit onto the back wall of the Turnkeys’ house. He remained motionless then, no urgency tensing his muscles, his outward cognizance on standby. He waited in this stasis until he was sure which way was up, which way was down—waited until his stomach settled.

      During this lull, he heard an abrupt intake of breath, muted as if from behind a pane of glass. He forced his head to turn toward the sound, standby mode over, his muscles tensed, and he could just make out the Turnkeys’ bedroom window to his right. He saw the smudged meteors of mirrored starlight on the glass. He moved that way, positioned himself directly in front of the window, and peered in, trying to discern detail, see if anybody was inside.

      Inside the bedroom, a lamp snapped on, and its nova hit Benjamin full in the eyes, slamming into him like a sneaker wave. He shot back from the window, skidding in the dirt and weed on his back. He lay there trying to pull air into his lungs, staring at the window from behind his lifted hand, and he wondered wildly how this exact scenario, of all other possible scenarios of a less outlandish sort, had pulled him into its sultry folds.

      It was rumored that Benjamin August Weller had a mad crush on Nancy Turnkey, and what with Bingly being a tragically small town, this rumor had become rather widespread. Getting caught peeping in her bedroom window would certainly earn Benjamin another write-up in the county newspaper. Nothing Benjamin wasn’t used to. He’d lost track of the number of times he’d been mentioned in the police report, which was printed on the back page of the paper beside the obituaries. If he had a dollar each time he’d been listed in that tawdry peepshow of a newspaper column, he’d buy himself a junker from Elvis, the local mechanic and used car trader, and leave town. Being caught peering into Nancy’s bedroom window also had the downside of attracting the scowls and fists of Gilman Turnkey. Gilman was Nancy’s husband—her no-good rummy-drunk asshole of a husband.

      Benjamin’s breath came back in trickles until he could finally fill his lungs. He lay in the weeds, framed by the soft light beaming from the bedroom window. They’d seen him, hadn’t they? Gilman Turnkey’s face should be glaring out the window, screaming for Benjamin to vacate the premises, telling him he was trespassing, waving one of his big hunting rifles around.

      The weedy ground under him trembled. Was it his bones shaking or what? Was he cognizant enough to realize the natural event of earthquake? He bet it was an aftereffect of the car wreck, and shuttering to the forefront of his picture gallery memory, he saw the tearing of metal and the screaming mouth and battered body of Brenda as she’d been tossed around the interior of the car like a rag doll in a paint mixer.

      Benjamin scrambled to his feet, eyeing the bedroom window. He wanted to sneak into the shadows at the back of the yard, but he had to get help for Brenda. And he so wanted to look in the Turnkeys’ bedroom window.

      My God, he thought, I am a Peeping Tom.

      He also wanted to run home, crawl through his own bedroom window, and dive under his blankets to hide. His foster parents might pound on the door and demand entry, grill him on where he’d been, and remind him he was their responsibility, blah-blah-blah, but he’d learned a long time ago to put locks on his bedroom door. He was guessing this frantic desire to run and hide that had bloomed inside him was something akin to what heroes overcame before standing their ground in front of whatever dragon they’d sauntered in to slay.

      Spotlighted in the glow beaming from the bedroom window, he could see himself for the first time since the accident. His right arm was covered with blood. His shoulder was ripped open, some flesh was missing (misplaced somewhere), and he could see dirt-crusted meat in the folds of the wound. His black T-shirt was ruined, ripped from his wounded shoulder and hanging toga-like and blood-soaked across his chest. Bringing his hand up to primp his haggard appearance, he noticed his pinkie was bent sideways. He used his good hand to check for gashes on his face and scalp. Seemed intact, nothing ripped from him, no deep holes. He tugged at the tip of his pinkie, tried to get it lined up. Gritty pain pulsed up his arm, as if his finger had been packed with tiny glass shards and tugging at it had set the shards on the move, seeking his poor pitiful heart. He thought it odd that he wasn’t whimpering, weeping, or screaming. He was thankful for the dull awareness of the pain during this evaluation. That he was alive at all impressed him immensely. “I’ll be,” he said, and then he focused on the window in front of him, focused on the softly lit bedroom within.

      Where were the Turnkeys? They must have heard him out here. They’d flicked on the light to look outside, hadn’t they? Benjamin put some basic facts together as he fingered the flap of flesh dangling from his shoulder. People don’t turn on inside lights to peer outside. They’d just be looking at themselves, the black glass of a mirror. Some serious pain dug into his shoulder, threatening to tear apart his entire body, and he decided to stop exploring his wound.

      And still no one appeared in the window.

      What was he doing standing here? He told himself to move. Told himself Brenda was counting on him. Told himself not to be such a goddamned pussy, to step up and pound on the window, to scream for help, to do something. Anything.

      He stepped up to the window, his movements seeming overly waterlogged. Was he moving slowly, he wondered, or had time crept to a crawl due to the aftereffects of the accident? He’d have to concentrate on gearing up his body, try and move faster. Through the window he could see the Turnkeys’ rumple-sheeted bed. The head of the bed was shoved up under the windowsill, out of sight. Nancy Turnkey was sprawled on the bed’s length , her head out of sight beneath the sill, her naked body covered here and there in an untucked sheet. Benjamin found himself immersed in the voyeuristic thrill that would not be calmed in a seventeen-year-old boy, even though he was in the midst of a dilemma, even though his girlfriend of two years—a girlfriend who arguably could be considered his ex-girlfriend seeing as how, if he remembered right, she’d broken up with him seconds before the accident—was lying near-dead in a wrecked car, waiting for his return. Benjamin shrunk away from this unavoidable thrill, escorted the Peeping Tom from his head, and stepped back from the window.

      He shook his head, reexamining a mental snapshot of the scene he’d just glimpsed. What was that unkempt fur ball he had seen sitting on Nancy’s wondrous bosom? Had he really seen it, or was he imagining things? And what the hell was he doing now? Step up, he told himself. Do not be a pussy.

      He stepped up to the window again, fully intending to pound on the glass, roust Nancy, somehow get help for Brenda. He saw that the fur ball was a kitten with a scruffy black pelt, looking a bit wild. It had weepy eyes, probably sick with something or other. Nancy was stroking the underside of the kitten’s chin with her finger, the bracelets crowding her wrist chiming softly. Nancy: one breast uncovered, one bare thigh exposed, one hip broadcasting its definitive womanliness straight out the window into Benjamin’s hungry seventeen-year-old head—and all this warmly lit skin did not affect him in the slightest as he peered in at her, her head still out of sight. He was fascinated with the kitten, strangely enough. The cutest of creatures it was, its tail beginning to whip about playfully.

      Gilman Turnkey was nowhere in sight. He could be off in another room or maybe out at Dodd’s Bar. Benjamin put his money on Dodd’s Bar. That’s where men like Gilman spent their evenings, drinking and bottom dwelling with other men of their ilk. The bedroom was just on the clean side of tidy, clear of Gilman’s stumbling, drunken bull’s wake, but not nearly pristine. Benjamin knew Nancy tried to restore order after her husband would nightly nudge this or that out of whack, spill stinking booze on the carpets and the furniture, rumple any good vibes with his aggressive remarks. And as Benjamin looked in on this peaceful scene, he felt a pang of wrongness. Was it Nancy lying there waiting for a husband Benjamin knew she wished were someone else, anyone else? Was this wrongness he felt jealousy? No, that wasn’t it. Was it pity for a woman he knew and admired for her brave mind, caving in under the responsibility she’d been burdened with, waiting on the return of her drunken husband? No, that wasn’t it, either. Benjamin figured out what the wrongness was, one of those light-bulb-above-the-head moments.

      Nancy did not like cats, and she certainly would not have taken on the burden of caring for one, which made this kitten a stray, which made it manipulative and agenda’d. The kitten’s weepy eyes were focused on Nancy’s eyes or maybe her mouth. Hard to tell. The little bugger must have somehow hypnotized Nancy. Although Benjamin couldn’t see her face, he imagined she was cooing to the cat; that’s what people do to cute little kittens, provided, of course, they’re a person who likes cats! Benjamin became deathly afraid that the kitten was going to shift its gaze and aim its mesmerizing stare out the window at him.

      The kitten’s tail froze in an arched position, its tip pointed down at Nancy’s belly, twitching, as if aiming for just the right spot. The tail went ridged, elongated, and a protruding shard of bone eased from the tip. The kitten bulleted its tail tip into Nancy’s stomach.

      “I’ll be,” Benjamin whispered, his fingers vised on the outside sill.

      He watched the rippling muscles along the kitten’s spine, and he dumbly fantasized that the tail tip was piercing flesh; it was tunneling through Nancy’s gut, and then it was digging through the mattress, forcing its way through the carpet, the floorboards—then there was a dull thump, followed by foreboding silence as the kitten’s tail tip landed in the dirt beneath the Turnkeys’ house.

      Ridiculous, he muttered to himself. His overactive imagination may well populate darkness with numerous monsters, that was fine, and it may well infest events with the most repulsive (nay—Impossible!) outcomes, but this? This kitten and its corkscrew tail? This had to be the most fantastical thing his imagination had created yet. And if it had really happened, why wasn’t Nancy screaming? Her finger had stopped rubbing the kitten’s chin. Her hand hovered in front of the kitten, jerking slightly, but it hadn’t gripped the tiny neck and twisted, as it surely should have done if the cat had indeed skewered her stomach with its tail.

      What was he doing? Brenda needed help, and he was standing here like a little boy outside a pet shop display window. He was captivated by the kitten, by its tiny pink lower lip, and he watched as its mouth opened in a yawn, revealing its cute little teeth, hardly fearsome. But its mouth kept opening wider.

      Benjamin’s fist hit the glass, nearly shattering it. “Nancy!” he yelled.

      Neither the kitten nor Nancy paid any attention to Benjamin’s window pounding. The kitten’s jaw widened, its soft pink snout tilted toward the ceiling. Benjamin hit the window again, but it was a weak hit, more a nudge. The unhinging of the kitten’s jaws, a cute little kitten yawn that had gone way too far, had unnerved him, clogged up his mechanism. The kitten’s mouth kept opening wider and wider. Its front claws must have extended; Benjamin watched the tiny paws knead at Nancy’s partially sheeted belly, where a pool of blood had begun to gather.

      The first grinding hint of a squeal leaked from the kitten’s gullet, and Benjamin, furrowing his brow at the needling pain the faint catcall stabbed into his brain, brought his hands up to his ears. The outstretched neck of the kitten tensed, and an unbearable scream sprang from its throat and filled the bedroom, vibrating the pane of glass that separated Benjamin from the fantastical scene. Nancy’s quivering hand, the one that had been stroking the kitten’s chin, lowered from Benjamin’s frame of sight beneath the windowsill, and then both of her hands sprang to the edges of the bed, her arms shaking like gelatin molds, and she grabbed handfuls of the mattress as her body began to quake. The bedside lamp, attacked by the kitten’s vocal bombardment, burst, and this sudden detonation broke Benjamin’s gawking stare. He dove to the weeds under the window, thinking the exploding light bulb had been a gunshot, thinking Gilman Turnkey had come home, thinking the darkness that followed that pistol blast was something that signified his own death.

      The bedroom window exploded, shooting shards of glass over Benjamin’s crouching form. The kitten had quieted its scream, and a new sound poked at Benjamin’s tender brain: a piercing throb that had walked right into his skull without even knocking first; a high-pitched ring that refused to alter its pitch, hardly natural in a world as imperfect as this. He felt like a broken-legged duck sitting under the shattered window, at the mercy of tintinnabulation and pitch darkness, deaf and blind.

      He found himself unknowingly pulling at the weeds, sifting through the dirt of the yard, and wondered what in the hell he was up to. Was he trying to bury himself, trying to shut himself off from what was happening a few feet away in Nancy’s bedroom? This reaction to calamity was something heathen, a base action, so unlike what he wished he was. He’d become a puppet in a child’s cardboard theater. And that puppet’s name, he told himself, was Pussy.

      He had dragged himself across the backyard, putting distance between himself and the Unbelievable, between the wannabe hero and the gut-skewered damsel in distress. This had not been his intention at all. A panic as high-pitched as the ringing in his head hit him as he realized he’d lost his bearings. He wasn’t sure how far he’d dragged his wounded, battered body through the weeds, and wanted desperately to get his back up against a wall, didn’t like being out in the open. He couldn’t see anything, what with the sudden shifting from soft-lit bedroom to harsh, pitch-black glass-shard terrain. The ringing in his head had risen in volume. A quick, pistoning reach jarred his senses as his left hand punched the Turnkeys’ back wall—he was closer to the house than he’d thought—and his broken pinkie finger crunched into a brand-new position, making him sob heartily. He’d been moving to the left, and now he had no idea how far away the bedroom window was. Benjamin sat up and leaned his back against the wall.

      His thoughts were wild, brought on by panic and shock most assuredly, but also due to the sly juxtaposition of alliances that this situation had created. His physical focus wasn’t all that clear, either; the throbbings and stingings were amplifying. He might be broken or torn in places he wasn’t yet aware of. He didn’t have time for inspection, however. He had to do something. But he needed a few seconds to let the ringing in his head die down and his sight to adjust. He ground his pinkie back into alignment, and then he spat muddied saliva into the darkness.

      What the hell was happening, he wondered. It was the Fourth of July. He should be lighting off fireworks on Hog Hill with his friends, goddamn it! That had been the plan, hadn’t it? But now he was living through this alternate reality. He’d slipped through to some other world, and, funny enough, that’s exactly what Brenda had told him not to do when she’d sent him off to get help. What the hell had happened to trigger all this bullshit? Maybe it’d been the whiskey. And the whiskey had triggered the argument. But, before the whiskey had been the hurt, the jealousy, the trivial romance of youth and the unrealized ideals. Hard to tell what had triggered it all. But, at some point, Benjamin knew, circumstance had taken control, and certain horrific results had occurred.

      The argument with Brenda in the car prior to the accident had been mostly about his inability to grow up, his adherence to those bygone fantastical years of playtime. Brenda’s most recent definition of Grown Up involved relationship advancement, familial surroundings, a career of some sort, white picket fences to corral the children while they played in the yard, and most definitely a lack of interest in or, as in Benjamin’s case, obsession with comic books, encyclopedias of mystical/magical creatures, and monster movies. Over the last couple months, however, Benjamin had had occasion to develop relations with an older woman who had made him feel Grown Up in her casual understanding of the cryptic utterances that had spilled from his mouth, albeit stutteringly, when they’d spoken. Nancy Turnkey had become his friend.

      It’d been easy and natural, seeing as how Nancy did not abhor comic books, was well-read in mystical phenomena, and absolutely loved horror movies. She’d taken Benjamin in, it seemed, admitted him into Nancyland, allowed him to sit at her feet. Any boy in his mid-teens, Benjamin knew, had at least some fascination with an older woman, if not a series of older women. He knew what he’d experienced with Nancy was not peculiar in the least, but he wondered how many boys got to inflate their infatuations with one-on-one flirtations, and how many felt the soft nuzzle of affections nosed their way. Not that they’d ever actually Done It— Nancy would never have allowed that. Nancy, in the way she had of listening to him and responding to him, had made him feel like a larger, more developed Benjamin August Weller than he’d ever felt in the presence of Brenda. Brenda, however, was his girlfriend—or, yeah, maybe she was his ex-girlfriend. She was the girl he wanted around most the time, she was his partner in crime, and when they weren’t arguing, he was sure she was the girl he loved. Loved her madly, unconditionally. Loved the way she pushed him, as if, without her, he wouldn’t have a chance in hell of ever becoming a man. No amount of time spent with Nancy could have changed the golden truth that it was Benjamin and Brenda forever, true love always. He knew that, but he wasn’t sure who else did. He wasn’t the most vocal of adolescents, wasn’t able to magically express his feelings as, according to Brenda, he should be able to, provided he would just grow up a little. He was the first to admit he hadn’t had a chance yet to develop his romantic side, doubted he even had one. He was a monster hunter, after all.

      Visions of these two women—Brenda trapped in the car wreck on Hog Hill, and Nancy skewered to her bed by the tail of a kitten—zigzagged and collided in his mind. As these two forces tugged at him, the ringing in his head began to dull, his sight began to adjust to the starlight, and the thought that he could help both Brenda and Nancy bloomed, the fragrance sobering him, lending strength to his tired bones. Nothing was stopping him from sneaking up behind that freaky kitten and wringing its cute little neck with one hand while dialing 911 on the bedside phone with the other hand. All he had to do was break into the Turnkey house and sneak into their bedroom.

      Benjamin was certainly not adverse to a little B and E