The voices in the woman’s head were so loud that Jakob couldn’t hear himself think. Three of them, maybe four, badgered her with an endless stream of insults. Dumb cow. Ugly. Useless. Oh so fat, fat, fat!
Eyes bruised with sleeplessness, hair frayed and face pallid, the woman sagged into her commuter-train seat like a marionette with no one at the strings. Her red coat and black pants were designer-made, expensive, but also badly wrinkled and speckled with discoloration, simultaneously hinting at money and a fall from grace.
Jakob resisted the impulse to cross the aisle and hug her. She was worse off than anyone he’d ever encountered. One voice was common, sometimes two, but three or four? He’d never heard anything like it. It was too early to make his approach, though. If he frightened her off, he’d never be able to help her, and he’d certainly been scaring people away rather quickly ever since he’d run out of money. The inability to shower or wash his clothes had done a number on his appearance and aroma. One look at the empty seats surrounding him on an otherwise crowded train said all that needed to be said about the matter.
Still, he couldn’t resist psychically projecting a warning to the creatures berating the woman. “Enjoy your fun now, worms,” he thought. “Your fun is about to come to a very definitive end.”
The voices went silent. Jakob smirked to himself as he imagined the Shadows conferring amongst themselves fearfully in the dark, trans-dimensional space that they occupied.
The woman blinked and looked around in relief, left alone for probably the first time in months, maybe years. Out of the silence, the name “Megan” entered Jakob’s mind. It was fitting, he decided. She looked like a Megan.
The train stopped in downtown Seattle. Megan picked up her purse, weakened body bending to the side with its weight, and shuffled off the train into the drizzling city.
Jakob followed from a distance. It was always best to wait for a heavily traveled area before approaching potential clients. People usually feel safer conversing with strangers in public places.
He made his move as they reached a section of Pioneer Square brimming with tourists and shoppers. At the corner gathered a crowd of people listening intently to a tour guide talk about the underground city beneath their feet.
Jakob saw his opportunity and walked up alongside her. “Excuse me, ma’am?” His Czech accent often intrigued Americans, so he laid it on thick.
Megan turned to him, looking too exhausted to be afraid, as if she wouldn’t even care if he did try to rob her.
“My name is Jakob Rezek.”
“Okay.” She kept walking.
“There’s really no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it. What would you say if I told you I can get rid of the voices in your head?”
Megan stopped. Pedestrians flowed around them as they faced each other. “Was I talking to myself again?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then why do you think I hear voices?”
“Because I hear them, too.”
Megan widened her eyes and laughed wildly, though not unkindly. The bizarre conversation seemed to have brought her personality to the fore for a moment, revealing the strong, confident woman hiding underneath all the fatigue and misery. It must have taken the Shadows one hell of a long time to beat someone like her down, Jakob thought.
She looked up and down his dirty trench coat, slacks, and sooty sneakers. Her humor changed to a look of pity. “Good luck with whatever issues you’re dealing with, Jakob. I have to go.” She continued on her way.
Jakob knew he was about to lose her, and desperation forced boldness. “I can hear them because they aren’t your thoughts. They just pretend to be.”
She quickened her pace.
The name stopped her in her tracks. She turned, looking a little frightened. The Shadows sensed their opportunity to undermine the situation and dove in. He wants to hurt you. Why else would a good-looking young man talk to an ugly old cow like you, forty-five and jiggling with cellulite?
“She doesn’t look like a cow to me,” Jakob said, “and I am talking to her because it is my job to help people get rid of worms like you.”
The Shadows fell silent. Megan still seemed frightened, a heartbeat away from fleeing. Normally Jakob wouldn’t show his hand so quickly, but he had no choice. The situation was slipping out of control.
“Megan, I have helped people like you many times before. I was once in the same situation myself, in fact. I’m the only chance you’ve got. Walk away now and you will live with those things eating at you for the rest of your life.”
Megan stared at him through her bleary eyes before shrugging in surrender. “You know what? At this point I’ll try anything.” She flashed a debonair smile. “Do you take plastic?”
The rain became heavier as they walked through the city. Jakob offered Megan his coat to cover her head. She just laughed.
“I’m a Seattleite, sweetie. Rain is our version of sunshine.”
She offered to buy him a sandwich from a deli. He waved her off. “I’ll take a coffee, though,” he said, counting change in his hand and sliding it over the counter. “A small one.”
“You look hungry,” Megan said, “and I really don’t mind giving you an advance on services rendered.”
“Well, I mind taking it.” He smiled to take the edge out of the anger in his voice. There was no reason to talk that way, of course, but the bitterness of those born into poverty does not die easy.
Megan ordered a latte and they continued on their way, ducking a short while later into Pike’s Market where a crowd applauded longshoremen flinging enormous fish at each other and catching them theatrically in white paper.
Megan watched Jakob’s dirty fingernails as he raised his cup to his mouth, apparently thinking he wouldn’t notice her doing so. “Are you a psychologist?”
Jakob shook his head. “I don’t know what to call what I am.”
She looked up and down his ragged clothes. “Does it pay well?”
“It pays whatever clients are willing to donate, which isn’t much sometimes. Sometimes it isn’t anything.”
“You’re like a starving artist, then. All talent and no business sense.”
“No, not like that. I just have a code.”
They walked down stairs to the lower levels of the market.
“Well, what’s the code?”
Jakob sipped. “Never take anything I haven’t earned.”
The bitterness had crept back into his voice. Seeming to sense it, Megan changed the subject. “So, how did you come to do this job that you have no name for?”
Jakob felt the eyes of the shoppers and tourists on him, their suspicion and disgust. The words homeless scum broke psychically through the background chatter.
“Five years ago,” he said, “I was worse off than you are. I walked right to the edge of a bridge and everything.”
“I’m sure the voices were very supportive of your decision.”
“Oh, yes. It was like having a demonic Tony Robbins in my head.”
Megan squealed with laughter at the success coach’s name.
Jakob smirked. “I’m glad you find humor in my suffering.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been living alone with this for so long, it just feels good to joke about it.”
Jakob waved her off. “No need to apologize. Gallows humor is essential in this line of work.”
They walked into a magic shop. Jakob set his coffee on the floor, took three balls out of a bin, and juggled. His form was perfect, mastered through years of performing on street corners for pocket change.
“Right before jumping I decided that, if I was just going to commit suicide anyway, I might as well figure out what was wrong with me so I could help others in the same situation. I started with Western psychology, moved to Eastern, and then to things more esoteric. I pieced parts of it all together and realized what kind of world we’re living in. That’s when I found the Shadow.”
Megan pulled the lid off her coffee and drank from the open mouth. “What did you do you then?”
“I killed it.” He caught one ball in each hand and then one on his forehead. He balanced it there for a moment and then dumped them all back in the bin.
“So you’re going to kill my Shadow, too?” Megan asked.
“No.” Jakob picked up his coffee. “You are.”
Megan’s cup trembled in her hand. “I can’t do that.”
“You have to. Everyone has to kill their own, or else new ones will just come along to replace them.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Jakob put on a pair of glasses with enormous fish eyes painted on them. “Very.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t make light of all this.”
Jakob flashed his best coy smile. “It always helps to act like a bad ass before going into battle, Megan. Always.”
She lived in the top floor of the highest apartment building in the city. Jakob kept his back to the glass wall of the elevator as they rode, hoping Megan wouldn’t notice. It wouldn’t do much good for her to know that her supposed savior was terrified of heights.
“Are you surprised to find that I’m rich?” Megan asked without a tone of arrogance or false modesty. It was an honest question, perhaps even a bit self-conscious. “I made all the money myself.”
“Not too surprised, to be honest. Lots of people try to beat the voices that way.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“Did it work for you?”
Megan sighed with playful melodrama. “At least I had an amazing view while I toiled away in futility.”
Jakob laughed, but the talk of money made him feel self-conscious. He examined his unkempt himself in the metal elevator door’s reflection and smoothed back his hair. The greasy texture left on his hand only made him feel worse.
Megan hadn’t been exaggerating about her wealth. Her apartment wasn’t just situated on the top floor. Rather, it occupied the entire thing.
Jakob refused to show how impressed he was and immediately started moving the furniture away from the center of the living room and against the walls. “We need some space,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the task at hand and away from the windows.
Megan watched him suspiciously as they slid the couch over the floor. “Don’t like heights, do you?”
“You kidding?” Jakob chuckled. “I love them. Barely resisting the urge to hang off your balcony as we speak, in fact.”
That’s when it hit him—a clear blast of higher déjà vu. He’d experienced the sensation a few times since waking up to the real nature of the universe. Each one had turned out to be prophetic in some way, though he had not yet learned how to anticipate what they meant. He just had to wait and see.
Jakob sat cross-legged in the middle of the room and motioned for Megan to do the same. He kept his gaze fixed on hers, softly but continuously, and compelled her to relax.
“Our brains are like antennas that pick up consciousness,” he said. “The problem is that there are bad things floating around out in the ether, things that can hijack lines of psychic communication and terrorize us. That is what is happening to you.”
“Brains like antennas?” Megan squinted her eyes to see if he was joking.
“Words won’t convince you of anything. When it comes to this kind of knowledge, direct experience is the only way. Just relax.”
Megan did as he asked. As her breathing steadied, a golden light surrounded her, like a luminescent egg. After that, a blue, filamentous tube appeared, stretching from the heavens and entering the crown of her head. Within that tube, a red and green thread coiled around one another.
“Can you see the light around me?” Jakob asked.
Tears welled in Megan’s eyes. It was the only answer Jakob needed.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.
“It is, and there will be time to explore all of this later. Right now, though, I need you to focus on expanding your light so that it touches mine.”
“Envision it. Gently. Don’t try to force it. Just softly visualize it being done.”
Jakob followed his own instructions and bent his spirit towards Megan’s. Gradually, Megan responded. An instant exchange of information occurred when the lights touched. Fragments of Megan’s life filtering through to him. She’d been born to wealthy but abusive parents, had wanted to be an astronomer, had started a business at seventeen and left her family forever.
The receipt of her past experiences was only a byproduct of the communication, not the intent. What mattered most was sharing the truth of reality with her in the only way that a person could truly comprehend.
The lesson unfolded in a mandala of fire and ice in the space between them. It expanded and morphed, a model of the universe and of themselves, fractal reflections of the same infinity. The lesson was only supposed to be an introduction to a much longer education, but just after they began, a sound like static electricity filled the air.
Megan looked around frantically. “I know that sound. I’ve heard it when I had really bad nightmares.”
“Those weren’t nightmares,” Jakob said, keeping his tone as calm as he could. “This is what happens when the Shadows manifest.”
Four creatures materialized around Megan. They were shaped like the three-dimensional shadows of human beings, no facial features, no clothes, just lightness silhouettes.
Jakob scrambled to his feet to protect Megan. Before he could take a full step, he realized that they weren’t after his client. Not this time.
We’ve heard a great deal about you, Jakob Rezek. The creatures hissed and rushed.
The whole thing caught Jakob off-guard. He’d seen them materialize into semi-physical states many times before, but this was different. They smashed into him and blasted him back through the air and crashing through the sliding glass door onto the patio.
In a daze, he pulled himself up by the railing and found himself looking down fifty stories to the city below. His head reeled with vertigo as the creatures dragged him back to the ground, biting and clawing.
The Shadows fed off of fear, and he desperately tried to contain the terror he felt at being so high, but couldn’t. They bit into his neck and he shrieked in pain.
He didn’t fear death. In a way, he welcomed it. His only concern was for Megan. He pulled himself up by the railing again and closed his eyes. If he jumped, perhaps he’d be able to take the Shadows with him.
Before he had the chance, blue light sent the Shadows scurrying to the corners of the patio and hissing in pain. Jakob looked up to see Megan standing just inside the doorway. She didn’t look tired or fearful anymore. Not at all. Instead, she looked wide awake wildly alive with energy.
One of the Shadows leapt over the railing and out of the light to cling to the building wall. It seemed to melt inside and disappear. A moment later it pounced on Megan from behind and tackled her to the floor.
The other Shadows immediately jockeyed for position. Megan’s attack had given Jakob time to recover his wits. He summoned the light within and focused it into three photons in his hand. He threw these, one by one, into the bodies of the Shadows. The illumination expanded within the darkness and vaporized the beasts.
The last Shadow left stood up from Megan’s back. The woman’s clothes were tattered and her back bloody.
Jakob stepped inside to confront the creature, but it leapt forward suddenly, knocking him aside, and squatted on the railing of the patio. This is only beginning, it said. You have no right to interfere in our way of life. We will return.
Megan got to her feet and pushed past Jakob, drawing her own light around herself. “Sounds marvelous,” she said. “Please do bring more friends.”
The creature hissed and leapt off the railing. It fell for a few yards before scattering into the wind with wisps of shadow and the sound of static.
Jakob pressed his hand over the wound in his neck and smiled at Megan. “Bring more friends, eh?”
Megan flipped her hair back dramatically. “It always helps to act like a bad ass before going into battle, right?”
Megan insisted that Jakob shower and dress his wounds. After a long protest, he finally acquiesced. The water felt good, and he turned it up just a shade lower than burning temperature. The dirt and sweat rolling off his body just kept coming, no matter how much soap he used or how hard he scrubbed.
He thought about what he’d seen just before the Shadows materialized. Strange as it seemed, he never actually believed that the rich could suffer, too. He’d always abhorred them because he’d never forgiven them for teasing him and his family when he was a child. It was strange to realize they could be haunted, too.
When he stepped out of the shower, he found that his clothes were gone from the top of the toilet where he’d left them. He wrapped a towel snugly around his waist and walked out into the hall to catch Megan on the phone. She thanked whoever was on the other line and hung up.
“You’ve got new clothes coming,” she said. “And my doctor will be here soon, too. I don’t know exactly what I’ll tell him yet, but we’ll figure something out.”
“I have to go,” Jakob said. A feeling like panic was beginning to settle in. She had his clothes. He was at the rich woman’s mercy.
Megan opened a bottle of spring water. For the first time, Jakob realized the smell of cooking food was in the air.
“I worked very hard for a long time building my business,” Megan said as she poured a glass. “But, some part of me always knew that the business was a means to some other end. I just didn’t know what it was.”
She handed him a glass. “I saw things about you while we were communicating. You were a poor kid. Very poor. You swore you’d never take handouts from anyone. Knowing this, I’m still going to offer you the resources to do your job properly. An office. A home.” She sipped her water. “A partner.”
Jakob wanted to slam his glass down and demand his clothes so he could leave. Yet, the fact was that he’d felt the higher déjà vu earlier. He also could not keep living as he’d been living. Now that he was clean, he realized how filthy he’d been before the shower.
“This is the work that my life was meant to build towards,” she said. “It isn’t about a rich bitch helping a slum kid, Jakob. It’s about two equals entering into a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Jakob drank. The water tasted good. Being clean felt good. A warm kitchen felt good. He drank again.
“You’ve got natural power,” he said. “More than me, even. That’s probably why so many of them attacked you. But you’ve still got a lot to learn.” He set his glass down and walked out to sit on the living room floor. He motioned for her to do the same. “We should meditate for a bit.”
Megan sat down. They smiled at each other across the illuminated space between them.
“Close your eyes and relax,” Jakob said. “This is the fun part.”
Debbie was five minutes into the job interview when the restaurant manager’s mustache winked at her. Impossible, of course, but it happened, just the same. She’d asked the prick if there were any open waitress positions and he’d answered, “Well, that depends on what positions you’re willing to get into,” and then his mustache winked. So help me God, Debbie thought, the fucking thing winked.
Ron, the aforementioned prick with the aforementioned mustache, noticed her looking at his whiskers. He leaned back in his chair, took a comb out of his breast pocket, and ran it through five times through each side. Five times exactly. Then he put the comb back in his pocket and puckered his lips to give the mustache a better platform. It was enormous. The biggest mustache Debbie had ever seen.
“What position did you have in mind?” Debbie asked, disbelieving the words even as they came out of her mouth. The great Dynamite Deb, who’d spent half of her life getting the upper hand on the best chauvinist assholes in the business, now being played by a goddamn amateur. What a son of a bitch life is, she thought. What a bastard.
She’d been a headliner once. Her name had been in lights. She’d danced every club on the strip and was practically royalty. In fifteen years, she never bought herself a single drink. Not one. Men lined up at the doors on the coldest nights and paid twenty bucks just to see her, and not one of them ever complained about the price. There wasn’t a man alive who saw Debbie dance that wouldn’t look you straight in the eye and tell you that nobody can close a show like Dynamite Deb–nobody.
Now, there she was, sitting across the desk from a drooling manager in a cheap suit, begging for a job. Christ, the things that time does to us, she thought. It isn’t fair. She didn’t feel any different from that twenty-year-old kid that used to bring the house down. She still had all the same moves, her body just jiggled more when she made them. The worst part about getting old is that you’re still young inside, but nobody would believe it if you told them.
Ron locked his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, kicking his feet up on his desk. “What would you say is your best position?”
“I was hoping you had some waitress shifts open. I could bus tables. Look, I’ll wash dishes if you need me to. If I don’t come up with rent money in about five days, I’m going to be sleeping on a park bench.”
Ron smiled. Tiny wheels turned behind his beady eyes, “My, oh my, Debbie. That sounds like a very tight spot. Is that right? Is it a...very...tight...spot?”
Debbie dug the nails of one hand into the back of the other to keep from losing her cool. “Yes, it is.”
Ron's mustache bounced excitedly. “Well Debbie,” he schmoozed, leaning over the desk. “I’m willing to help you with your tight spot, if you’re willing to help me with mine.”
"You want me to help you with your tight spot?" Debbie asked, feigning confusion.
Ron’s face went blank as he realized the mutually penetrative implications of what he'd said. He stammered, “I mean, I can help you with your problem if you can help me with mine.”
“And what’s your problem, Ron?”
He leaned back in his seat and sighed. A faraway, wistful look filled her eyes. “I’ll tell you Debbie, people think it’s easy, running a restaurant. All they see is the nice car, the power, but I’ll tell you, it gets downright lonesome sometimes.”
Debbie covered her mouth to stifle her laughter. “What can I do to help?”
Ron raised one eyebrow. “We’re both adults here. Use your imagination.”
“Look,” Debbie snapped, “just tell me what the hell you want me to do, already.”
Ron's smile disappeared. His face flushed red and his mustache bristled. “Listen, I’m trying to keep things pleasant. If you don’t like it you can get the fuck out of here. Do you think I don’t know why you didn’t put any work history on your application? Do you think I’m stupid? You’re a whore. Not even a whore. You’re too old even for that, anymore, aren’t you? You think you can throw some makeup on and cover that up? You’ve got whore written all over you. So, if you don’t like what I’ve got to say, then you get right on out of here, find something somewhere else. It’s one hell of a job market out there, though, and from what I've seen you don’t have much of a resume.”
The last time a man had talked to Debbie like that, she’d broken a beer bottle over his face. But that was a long time ago and a different world altogether. She’d been somebody else, then. She’d been Dynamite Deb, hottest act on the strip. Now, she was just Debbie. Middle aged, soft around the edges, one week away from being homeless. She couldn’t afford to be picky, anymore. There were worse ways to make money than this, and if she wasn’t careful she’d find out all about them.
The moment the decision was made, something inside of her turned off, as though she'd flipped an autopilot switch in her mind. “I’m sorry. I do appreciate your help, Ron. What do you want me to do?”
Ron’s rage disappeared. The blood drained out of his face. It wasn’t difficult to guess where it was going. “I’ll have you working tonight if you kiss it. Right here, right now.” His mustache seemed ready to leap off his face, like a dog on a chain, and he calmed it with long, soothing strokes.
In Debbi’s mind, she went back to her first time on stage. She'd been eighteen years old. Not an uncommonly beautiful girl, not as beautiful as the other girls on the strip, anyway. But she had chutzpah. Moxie. A fire in her belly that never faded and never quit.
Family and friends laughed when she told them she was going to be a dancer. You’re pretty, they said, but you’re not that pretty. They said she’d make a fool out of herself. They said she'd be laughed off the stage. She listened to every word and swore that she would not only become a dancer, she’d become the greatest dancer that city had ever seen–a fucking diva.
On the night of her eighteenth birthday, she stepped onto the stage, threw her top into the crowd, and blew the whole goddamn house away. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. When it was over, the audience was left paralyzed in their seats in a desperate sweat, cocks so hard that they throbbed in pain. Nobody ever laughed about Debbie dancing again.
“Take your pants off,” she said numbly in Ron’s office.
Ron shot up from the desk, fumbling with his belt in excitement. He got tangled in his pant legs and almost fell over. Finally he wrestled them off, tossed them on the desk, and stood gaping at her in blue boxer shorts with white flowers on them. When Debbie glanced down at the undergarment, he grumbled, “My wife buys me this shit.”
Debbie shrugged. In her mind she was driving home from that first night on stage, Bob Seger cranked to full volume, pounding her hands against the roof and whooping it up. Goddamn, is there any feeling like that? Showing the whole world that they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, after all? Proving once and for all that you’d been right the whole time. You really were a star. A fucking diva.
She glanced at Ron's underwear. He followed her gaze down, pulled them off, and tossed them atop the pants on the desk.
Eventually, she thought, time gets its hands on everything, and it never gives them back again. Eventually, the best parts of your life become stories nobody wants to hear. The best days of your life nothing but blank spaces on job applications. Eventually, the manager's and their mustaches always win.
Debbie stood up from her chair and walked to Ron. He closed his eyes, mustache quivering in anticipation.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"Yes. Fucking hurry up, already," Ron growled, sweat beading on his forehead.
"Okay," Debbie said. She gripped Ron's shoulders to get her balance, brought one foot all the way back, and kicked him in the balls with every ounce of force in her frame. It was the first time in her life that she was glad for the extra weight she'd put on.
Ron's mouth shot open. His eyes bugged out like a cartoon character whose foot had been crushed by a giant anvil and his mustache launched from his face, twisting and twirling through the air before hitting to the floor.
The mustache scurried for cover beneath the desk. Before it could escape, Debbie impaled it upon her heel and ground it beneath her foot. The mustache let out a little squeal and died.
Ron collapsed to the floor, clutching his genitals, mouth open in a soundless scream. The moment his knees hit the floor he fell over on his side, quivering in shock.
Debbie grabbed his pants and underwear from the desk and left the office. Out in the hallway she pulled the fire alarm. As the employees scrambled outside, she stopped a waitress and told her, "Ron's locked inside his office. Make sure the firefighters know that they need to break the door down." The waitress nodded and bolted outside.
Debbie tossed Ron's clothes in a dumpster in the parking lot and walked to her car. She got inside and turned the radio all the way up. The fire trucks were pulling into the parking lot just as she was pulling out. She slipped into traffic and hit the gas.
Eventually, she thought, time will take it all. You can't hold it off forever. But on this day, at least, there was one thing that time couldn’t get its hands on, and that was the fact that there wasn’t a man alive that ever saw Debbie dance that wouldn’t look you straight in the eye and tell you, without hesitation, that nobody closes a show like Dynamite Deb–nobody.
The moment I heard it was at the park, I raced my car to the scene.
Sure enough it was in the parking lot, tentacles clanging cymbals, mirror-ball head spinning, disco beats blaring from its stereo mouth.
A woman pulled me close. We danced with reckless abandon.
I finally understood real joy. I finally understand what true love means.
The woman smiled at me ecstatically and shouted over the cheers of the crowd, “They don’t call it Pfralashemgrat for nothing!”
“No, they most certainly do not,” I said, laughed, and pirouetted with her into humanity’s new and beautiful future.
After a lifetime of work, the physicist finally invented a telescope that could see the very edge of the universe. She joyfully high-fived her robot assistant, Darwin.
Would she see God at the edge of the universe? Would she see nothingness? Or some space with physical laws so different from our own that merely gazing into it would drive her mad? All were thrilling possibilities!
She peered through the eyepiece and froze in confusion.
There, at the edge of the universe, stood a sandy haired woman in a lab, watching her through a telescope.
1. My little brother Clayton always complained that he’d been born in the wrong time. In an older era, he said, he would have been a great explorer or an adventurer. No matter how many times I encouraged him to focus on making a living in the real world, he spent all his time embroiled in either his daydreams or his self-pity, drifting from one dead end job to another. Later, from petty crime to another. I spent half my life trying to keep him out of trouble, so I can’t say I was surprised when my fiancé Dezzie walked into the workshop and announced that Clayton had joined the Wolfpack. That didn’t make the news any less heartbreaking, though.
I looked up from the brass clock wheel I’d been filing teeth into. Bits of wood dust floated like infinitesimal planets through the beam of morning light streaming through the window between Dezzie and me. The ticking of forty-nine clocks reverberated through the room.
"Has he turned all the way?" I asked, relieved that my voice didn’t tremble.
Dezzie opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again. Her lips pursed together the way they always did when she felt sorry for someone.
"They don’t always turn all the way," I explained. "Sometimes they just ride with them, but don’t completely turn."
Dezzie stepped through the swarming particulate worlds and took my hands in hers. "Jim, he’s one of them," she said. "All the way."
I tried to pull away from her but she held my hands, simultaneously gentle and firm in that way only Dezzie could manage.
A pickup-truck-full of emotions hit me. My lower lip quivered. Whether it was from rage or grief, I couldn’t really say. "Did he hurt you?"
"He didn’t do anything wrong, Jim." Dezzie held my gaze in her hazel, amber-flecked eyes. "He was the same old Clayton, to be honest. Joking and laughing." She attempted to smile but instead made a choking sound, like she was about to cry, and turned away from me. "That was the worst part. He kept trying to play around, but whenever he smiled I could see all those fangs. And his hair, Jim. He’s covered in red hair and he’s got his face all done up in little rubber-band braids and it just looks so freaky."
Her body shuddered. Now it was my turn to comfort, and I hugged her from behind. One of the reasons we worked so well together was that we each knew when to pick up the other’s slack. I loved that woman more than I ever knew I was capable of loving anyone.
We were going to have a life together. Not even Clayton would stop that.
"Did you tell him where I was?"
"No. He asked where you’d moved the workshop and I told him you were still out shopping for a new place. He knew I was lying."
"Then what did he say?"
"He says he’s leaving tomorrow morning for the Triple Six Highway. He doesn’t know when he’ll be back, and he wants to say goodbye."
"What the hell is he thinking? Nobody survives the Triple Six."
She turned to face me. "He wants you to meet him tonight at Damon’s Pit. Eight o’clock."
"Of course he’d pick that dump." I went back to the brass wheel, blew some metal dust from it, and filed away at the teeth. Bad news always filled me with the need to occupy my hands. "Maybe you should stay at your mother’s house tonight."
"Not a chance. I’ll be home in bed, waiting for you. And if you don’t come home, I’ll find that werewolf brother of yours and strangle him with his own braids."
"Not werewolf," I said. "Wolfman. There’s a difference."
Dezzie smirked. "Yea, he won’t never change back to regular Clayton after the moon goes down."
I stiffened up uncontrollably at her words. She rushed over and kissed my neck. "I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny."
"You failed miserably." I kissed her back. "It’s okay, but I think I need to work alone for a bit."
She patted my hand and left, saying she’d be waiting in bed when I got home.
I lost myself in the soothing, familiar routine of my work. At that time I’d made precisely three hundred and fifteen clocks. Every single one was identical to all the others in both functionality and appearance. The challenge of maintaining that uniformity appealed to me, and I lost myself in the pleasant distraction of my labor. I couldn’t hide from the inevitable forever, though, and as dusk arrived I knew I had to face the facts, so I locked up the shop and went to my car.
I drove around Before and Afterville for a while, thinking about the past and dreading the future. The ticking of the clock-shaped houses and stores that filled the town, normally so comforting, only worsened my fear and aggravation. The entire place suddenly seemed like one gigantic reminder that nothing can stop the future—not even the past.
I finally worked up the courage to swing my car into Damon’s parking lot. My headlights fell on a motorcycle parked out front, all black and chrome with spikes running along the fenders, handlebars flailed out like bat wings. It was a Wolfpack bike. No doubt about it.
All the nerve went out of me. I pulled right back out of the lot, bought beer at a gas station, and headed up the backroads to Cherry High. From atop the wooded hill I looked out over the Stranded Void. Both moons were half-full, bright enough to reveal the edges of the Triple Six Highway running right down the center of the desert.
I drank my beer and thought about the day I’d taught Clayton how to administer purple nipple twisters. I laughed like a loon thinking of the time I tied his feet together and left him hanging from a tree branch for half an hour. Then there was the day we explored the entire length of Firewinder Gulch, something no other kids in town had the guts to do. We almost died of dehydration in the process. It was the best memory of my childhood, and front runner for best memory of my life.
Damon’s was closed by the time I drove back from Cherry High. The city was still. Only the turning of hands in the faces of a thousand giant clocks disturbed the peace. I was both relieved and saddened to find the bar shut down and Clayton gone. After close to thirty years of being brothers, the kid still had a way of mixing up my emotions.
I pulled into my driveway to find the motorcycle from Damon’s waiting at the bottom of the porch steps. I slammed the brakes and remained frozen in place, staring. Only the realization that Dezzie might be in danger snapped me out of my paralysis. I jumped out of the car and ran towards the house.
Halfway there, the sound of laughter coming out through an open window stopped me short. Clayton’s guttural, savage chortling was unnerving, but that wasn’t the thing that startled me. Rather, it was Dezzie’s high-pitched, girlish hoots.
I hadn’t heard her laugh with such carefree abandon in years.
2. I didn’t need to smell the beer on Dezzie’s breath or see the crushed cans covering the coffee table to guess that she was drunk. The way she tittered as she ran up to greet me told me everything I needed to know. The fact that she didn’t say anything about Clayton lounging on the couch with his dirty, cracked leather boots propped up on the coffee table said a lot, as well.
"He’s finally home!" Dezzie nearly bowled me over with a hug. "We’re having a party."
"Hey, bro." Clayton grinned with a wink. He was a wolfman, alright. Six feet of red hair and pointed teeth, leather jacket and grease-stained jeans. The silhouette of a wolf with bird wings was impressed upon a patch on his chest. High and wild, their motto went.
The whole scene was so strange and unexpected that it made me angry. I’d always responded to uncertainty that way. I didn’t like things that disturbed my sense of predictability. "What the hell is going on here?"
Clayton stepped towards me with his hand extended. "I just came to hang out with my bro and his fiancé before I headed out."
Dezzie rubbed the small of my back and smiled one of those smiles that says come on, smile back. "Same old Clayton."
"That’s what I’m afraid of," I said, looking at his hand without shaking it. "You need money? Is that it?"
My brother laughed. Dezzie was wrong about him being the same old Clayton. He’d changed in more ways than the obvious. The subtle, nervous awkwardness that had affected him his whole life was gone, replaced by an easy confidence.
"I’ll never turn down free money, bro," Clayton said. "But that’s not what I’m here for. As much of a crotchety old fart as you’ve turned into, I still love your geriatric ass."
Dezzie laughed. "Come on, Jim. Just relax. There’s plenty of beer."
I had no desire to relax, but I did want a beer, so I sat down on the recliner. Clayton took his place on the couch and Dezzie sat cross-legged on the floor.
Clayton cracked a beer, caught the foam and suds in his mouth, and handed it to me. His eyes hadn’t changed at all. They were the same fragile-porcelain blue as always. Boyish and wounded, they were a big reason he never got punished as severely as he might otherwise have.
Dezzie grabbed the can from my hand. "Oh, you big baby, I’ll drink it." She downed damn near the whole thing in one swallow.
Clayton cheered and howled. The sound set my hair on end, but Dezzie squealed with laughter. "I love it when he does that," she said.
"Well, you two are certainly getting along well," I said, my tone implying no end of depravity between them.
Their laughter stopped. Clayton had the nerve to shake his head and look disappointed. Dezzie’s eyes turned to angry coals.
"Unlike you," she said, "Clayton has been an absolute gentleman since he got here. It’s an insult that you would imply anything else was going on. An insult to me, and to him." She stood and headed for the adjoining bedroom. Before disappearing inside the door she added over her shoulder, "It’s good to see you again, Clayton. I had a lot of fun before your asshole brother showed up." She closed the door firmly behind her. Not a slam. That would have been too obvious for Dezzie. No, just precisely hard enough to say everything she wanted to say, and not a hair more.
"Somebody’s in trouble," Clayton said in a singsong way.
I resisted talking to him, but old habits won out in the end. "You’ve always been good at pissing my girlfriends off."
Clayton smirked. "Annie Davies."
He didn’t have to say anything more. Both of us broke up laughing. The more I tried to resist, the worse it got.
We brought the beer to the back porch and sat on the railing, side by side. Bell-crickets chimed in the warm darkness. Clayton took a deep breath. "Why did God invent any smells other than summer grass? That’s the pinnacle right there, man. No need to go further."
We talked about the random little things that had occupied our lives since I’d last seen him. As long as I didn’t look at him, I could almost forget that he was a wolfman. So I kept my gaze fixed straight ahead on Franklin’s Tower rising about a quarter mile away with its key-shaped hands turning over a blue, illuminated clock face.
I crushed an empty can and threw it out into the yard. "Why’d you do it?"
"This?" Clayton twisted a braid between his fingers. "I don’t know. I just feel better like this."
"Things were that bad?"
"Drop it, brother." He punched me in the arm and nearly knocked me off the railing, which sent my brother into hysterics. He was still laughing when he swung his feet around and offered his hand. I ignored it and stood on my own.
"You were the best big brother I could have asked for," Clayton said. "I never fit in to the straight world, man. That has nothing do with you. I thank you for everything you did for me growing up."
I considered punching him back but didn’t want to deal with the indignity of breaking my hand in the process. "Pretty cheesy, Clayton. Doesn’t sound like a wolfman-like thing to say."
Clayton shook his head. "That’s where you’re wrong, man. Being a wolfman isn’t about what people think it’s about."
"Those Wolfpack guys that beat Sam Briar half to death out by the gas pumps last summer?"
Clayton shrugged. "I don’t know, man. I wasn’t there. I’m guessing it was a complicated situation, though, like everything else."
I cracked open another beer. "You remember that day we went up Firewinder Gulch?"
"I think about it at least once every day. There were rattlesnakes freaking everywhere, remember? And those old mine shafts? That was the day I knew that I’d never be happy living a regular life in Before and Afterville. I was meant for open air." He leapt over the railing into the yard and grabbed a baseball from the grass. I followed him out and he tossed it to me.
"So, you’re blaming me taking you into the gulch for you becoming a wolfman?"
"I’m not ‘blaming’ you for anything, man, because that would imply that I regret the results. You might not love what I’ve become, brother, but I do."
The ball slipped out of my hands and went high and wide. Clayton leapt effortlessly five feet up and snatched it out of the air like it was nothing. "You know what I remember just as clearly as how I felt that day? I remember the look on your face. I never saw you smile so much. Not before or after. That’s the real reason I’m here." He winked and threw the ball high into the air.
I caught it. "You were lying?"
"Yea, I suppose I was. I want you to come with me on a three day ride."
I turned the ball in my hands, pretending to inspect it as I hid my fear. "I’d have to ask the warden first."
"Dezzie? She never struck me as the warden type, man."
"You don’t live with her."
"I don’t know, man. I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit."
"I give her plenty of credit. She’s an excellent warden."
"No offense, brother, but you’re starting to sound like a stereotype."
"Look who’s talking," I said, with no real idea what I meant by it. "What’s on the Triple Six, anyway?"
"Trouble and stuff." He smiled. "It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s a little different for everyone."
"People who go out to the Triple Six always wind up dead."
"Everyone who goes anywhere eventually winds up dead." Clayton shrugged. "But the rumors you hear about the Triple Six are passed around by people who’ve never actually been there. They don’t know what they’re talking about."
I deflected the subject with some jokes and talked about lighter things. After a few minutes I told him I was heading to bed. He said he’d be up a bit longer taking in the night and drinking beer.
Part of me shrank back in terror at the thought of the Triple Six, but another part was caught up in the moment. An adventure with my little brother, no matter how dangerous, stirred my blood. I was too old for all that, though, I told myself. I had too many responsibilities.
Dezzie was on the couch when I got inside, book opened up in her lap. "I wanted to listen to the two of you laughing," she said. "It’s been a long time since I heard that."
I sat down and took her foot into my lap.
She closed the book and set it on the coffee table. "Well, are you going with him?"
I held up my hands like an arrestee. "I had nothing to do with it, warden. I’m innocent."
Dezzie folded her hands in her lap and looked at me with one of those expressions that said she’d been waiting for a long time to say what she was about to say. "When have I ever bossed you around?"
I shrugged and smiled like a moron.
"Well, if you ever figure it out, let me know so I can stop doing that. I don’t like those kinds of women."
"So you want me to go with him?"
"That’s irrelevant, Jim. The question is if you want to go with him. Do you know why I agreed to marry you?"
"Because I’m the best clockmaster in the city."
"No." She ran her fingers through my hair. "You had a passion for life. When I laughed with you, I felt high as a cloud. But you’re losing that, Jim. You’re getting farther and farther away from that person every day, and that’s scary, because you’re still young."
"Not that young," I said, managing to be completely unfunny. I wanted to tell her she was wrong, but it was hard to do that when I knew she was right. "I’m scared, Dezzie," I said. "Of the Triple Six. Of the clocks. Of us. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore."
Dezzie wrapped her arms around my neck and brought her face close to mine. "I’m going to tell you something, as your friend. I think you need to be honest with yourself. Are you letting your fears keep you from doing something you want to do? If so, then you need to ask yourself, seriously, if you’re going to be able to live with that ten years from now. I love you, but I don’t want to marry a man with regrets."
She kissed me on the forehead. "Most importantly, if you do decide to stay behind, don’t use me as your excuse, okay?"
She went to the bedroom. I picked up a can of warm beer from the coffee table. The giant clock on the face of the house sounded in harmony with and the cricket sounds from outside.
After staring into the dark for a while, I laid down on the couch to sleep. I wondered if there were many rattlesnakes on the Triple Six, and guessed there probably would be.
I always hated snakes.
3. Clayton turned the corner from the road leading out of Before and Afterville. The moment his tire touched the black asphalt of the Triple Six he opened the bike up. Against all my manly instincts, I grabbed him around his waist and screamed for him to slow down.
Clayton hit the brakes and skidded to a halt. He looked over his shoulder with a smirk.
"Too fast!" I yelled, as if the wind was still rushing past our ears.
"That’s how I always ride."
"Slow down a bit."
"I can’t go anything less than full boar, brother. It’s just not in me. Maybe you should drive."
I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a teenager, and even then I was never very good at it. Clayton knew this, of course. "Just keep your eyes on the road," I said.
Clayton smiled and rode on.
Scattered throughout the red sands around us were multicolored geological oddities and yellow cacti covered with round flowers that looked like flashbulb bursts going off. The entire Stranded Void looked different than it did from atop Cherry High. Stark, yes, but not barren. Wildly alive, actually. Even the open spaces bristled with an invisible energy. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Diners and bars popped up now and then along the roadside. We pulled into a place called the Joyful Hooligan. It was built entirely of colored glass and rusted tractor parts welded together. Dune buggies, race cars, and motorcycles filled the dirt lot.
The beer tasted like lighter fluid. That’s how they promoted it, anyway. Having never consumed lighter fluid before I couldn’t say with any authority how accurate they were, but after my first sip I decided to take their word for it.
Wild characters filled the place, some dressed in mismatched leather and rags and corduroy, others in even stranger combinations of styles and eras of clothing, top hats with stiletto heels and kimonos with tribal masks. No other wolfmen were visible, but there were plenty of other odd sorts around—semi-humans with mirrors for faces, moth antennae, playing-card eyes, reptilian tails.
Raucous laughter filled the place along with smoke and music. Slowly I settled into the scene. My fear faded. The whole thing was bizarre and uncertain, two qualities I’d never felt comfortable with, but something more lurked underneath it all. The people of the Triple Six were authentic in a way I’d never seen before. A sense of easy freedom filled me and next thing I knew I was jumping up squawking and flapping my arms like a bird.
Two women with purple faces and ivory eyes jumped up and flapped with me. Cheers and applause broke out from the crowd. I was roaring with laughter and feeling more than a little high as Clayton and I walked out slapping high-fives on our way back to the bike.
The wind felt good on my face as we rode. I found myself wishing Clayton could go even faster, fast enough that we could break free of gravity completely and never fall back to the ground again.
When darkness fell, we camped atop a small rise. We built a small fire and laid down to look up at a sky absolutely bursting with stars.
"That can’t be the same sky as the one over Before and Afterville," I said.
"It’s all the same sky, brother."
"No," I said. "It’s two different skies." It was the kind of irrational sentimentality that I would scoffed at the day before. I recognized it even as I said it, but I didn’t care.
In the morning we rode to an abandoned drive-in movie theater. More than twenty Wolfpack members milled around in the empty parking lot. Many were wolfwomen, which I’d never even known existed. Upon seeing us, they roared their army of bikes into action and formed a circle around spinning at high speed, a howling cyclone of fanged, furred faces and savage eyes. They slapped both of us on our shoulders, none of them seeming to mind my non-wolfman status.
I didn’t see or hear anyone give a command but, like migrating geese responding to some secret cue, all the bikes turned at once out onto the highway. I didn’t know where we were going and wasn’t sure they did, either.
After a couple miles, another group of bikers appeared, heading towards us. The demeanor of the Wolfpack members intensified. The talking and clowning ceased.
Clayton looked at me over his shoulder. "Sidewinders," he yelled. "Hang tight."
Terror hit me for the first time since we’d first taken off. Sidewinders? I had no idea what they where, but it couldn’t possibly be good. Images of Dezzie flashed through my mind. Something else also brewed, though. Something I had a hard time admitting. I wasn’t just scared. I was excited. It hit me then how similar those two emotions actually are, two sides of a single coin. Without consciously intending to, I whooped and hollered challenges right along with the other riders.
Neither the Sidewinders nor the Wolfpack slowed as the two columns rode into each other. Riders zipped by at top speed, scaled skin colored orange, red, and yellow, slanted eyes, forked tongues. Some bikes actually collided with others and sent their riders skidding over the ground or tumbling under wheels.
The rage between both sides seemed authentic, but there were also hints of smiles on the snarling faces. The whole thing was confusing as much as it was discomforting.
After the column of Sidewinders passed, both gangs turned at once in the same direction and headed off the highway into the Stranded Void at top speed.
I shouted to Clayton, "What’s going on?"
"We’re racing to the Blue Key."
He glanced back at me with a smirk. "Why not?"
The bikes raced perilously close to one another. Now and then a member of one side bumped into the other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally, causing a rider to lose control and spill their bike. Strangest of all was the crazed hilarity and glee of the fallen ones, as if it was all just good times for them.
I looked aside and caught the golden, slanted irises of a Sidewinder watching me. Yellow stripes crisscrossed his orange face. He smiled at me and cut through the crowd in our direction. I shouted a warning to Clayton.
My brother swept with one massive, clawed hand at the Sidewinder. The challenger slipped the blow and countered with a spit of green venom that narrowly missed Clayton’s face. Drops of it fell hissing on the handlebars. Both of their attacks would have seriously wounded or even killed the other, yet both men roared with laughter and shouted rough encouragement.
A towering blue spire of stone jutting out of the ground appeared head. Only three Sidewinders remained. Of the Wolfpack, Clayton was the last representative.
Clayton booted the back tire of one bike and sent it fishtailing into a cloud of dust. Another Sidewinder moved to cut us off, cutting her wheel into Clayton’s so that the bikes became entangled and flew out of control.
I soared a few feet and skidded over the face of the desert. When I got my wits back and looked up, Clayton was howling with laughter and clutching his shin. "You crazy woman," he yelled to the Sidewinder. "You broke my damn leg!" He guffawed wildly as the Sidewinder laughed in return a few yards away, wincing at her own pain.
Miraculously, I’d escaped without any serious injury. Everything hurt and I bled in some places, but nothing was broken. My blood was up. The rush of the race was still in me. Without stopping to think, I picked up the bike, hopped on, and rode. Clayton and the Sidewinder cheered as I sped off in pursuit.
I caught up to the last Sidewinder just as he reached the Blue Key, my sheer, reckless speed making up for my lack of driving skill.
The path winding up the side of the spire was barely wide enough for two bikes. If I tried to pass by the right, I might fall over the side, which would mean death. It was madness to try it, which meant, I reasoned, that the Sidewinder would never expect it. Not from me. Not from a regular clockmaker from Before and Afterville.
I faked an attempt to pass by his left side. When he moved to block me, I cut to the right. My arm brushed against his as I sped by, but I made it.
Once clear, I opened the bike up fast as it would go. By the time I reached the flat top of the Blue Key, the only thing behind me was a cloud of dust.
I skid to a stop, stood at the edge of the Key, and howled. The sound that came out of me was deeper than my normal voice. It felt different, too.
I touched my face and felt patches of long, coarse hairs growing there.
4. That night Clayton and I built a fire from dried cactus husks.
"The hair looks good on you," Clayton said.
I rubbed the luxurious coat covering the back of my arm. "Feels pretty good, too."
He smiled and kicked some cinders around in the fire. Sparks rose up in the sky and burned out among the stars. "We’re all riding out tomorrow."
"West." Clayton shrugged. "Maybe east."
"Don’t forget north and south."
Clayton uncorked a bottle of cactus wine the Sidewinders had given us. He took a drink and handed it to me. "You coming?"
I pulled at the wine and picked thistles off my tongue. "I need to go back home. Dezzie will be waiting."
"You really think you can go back to Before and Afterville after this?"
I thought about it a minute, took another drink, and handed the bottle back. "No," I said. "But I don’t intend to."
5. And, well, that was how I came to live on the Triple Six.
I still make clocks for money, but now I work under open sky and sell on the roadside. Unlike before, each clock’s design is completely original. They all still keep perfect time, though. My work has become a bit famous. Once a month I meet a guy who sells my stuff in Before and Afterville. Demand keeps increasing.
Clayton rides in every now and then and we’ll go on a tour for a couple weeks. The little shit still likes to challenge me, and I’m constantly having to prove myself. Whether it’s racing, wrestling, or drinking, he’s always trying to get one up on me. He hasn’t won yet, though. I’ve got that big-brother power over him. He’s just too stubborn to see it.
My one complaint about being a wolfman is that all this hair can get awfully hot in the summertime. I’ve mentioned trimming it more than once, but Dezzie always says she wants me to keep it long and wild. I can’t really argue with her there. I prefer my wolfwoman’s hair long and wild, too.
In ninth grade, Toddy told everybody that Don Romeo had unleashed the rancid-egg-salad fart of death in history class, when actually it had been me. Every sixteen-year-old needs a friend like that, but such allies were doubly indispensable for Lords and Lairs role playing game enthusiasts in 1994. At that time, we geeks were like early Christians, persecuted for our beliefs. Without Toddy, I never would have survived it.
All of that changed, though, the day that Sir Drexler Impaler came along and ruined everything.
It was a Tuesday. Toddy and I had gotten word that Mark Trunlo intended to dunk both of our heads in urinals after gym class, so we decided to forego school attendance for the day. We didn’t admit to each other the real reason for our truancy, of course. We just acted as if we were tough guys who refused to assimilate into the scholastic machine. It felt a lot cooler to quote Nirvana lyrics about rebellion than it did to discuss our aversion to getting our asses kicked.
Cops often parked at the bottom of the hill near the school in order to catch skippers, and that day was no different, but Toddy and I were no mere amateurs at the craft of truancy. With the danger spots already mapped out in our minds, we used the baseball dugout and bleachers to conceal our escape route, cutting across a tract of woods to the Ransom Green neighborhood. Once there, we were out of sight of the teachers and police and had only five blocks to go to reach the train tracks.
We were joking and shoving each other around when Toddy stopped abruptly in his tracks. I followed his gaze to a garden gnome standing at the edge of a well-manicured lawn a few feet from the street, grinning.
"Look at you, you pretty thing," Toddy whispered to himself. "You pretty, pretty thing." He walked over and fell on his knees before the statue, caressing its face tenderly.
Toddy had a deep affection for garden gnomes. He had no less than ten of them stashed in his bedroom already. I often wondered how he slept with those creepy ceramic eyes watching him.
I laughed nervously, scanned the windows of the houses, and tried my best to sound cool and indifferent. "Somebody’s going to call the cops, man. Let’s go to the tracks."
Toddy sat back on his haunches and cocked his head to examine the statue. "You know, Sean, in all seriousness, this may be the ugliest garden gnome I have ever seen."
He was right. The statue’s hat, pants, and coat were all painted an identical lime green. The face was cobbled and cracked. I was in no mood to joke about it, though. Toddy had been acting increasingly erratic in the previous weeks. His volatility put me on edge, especially in broad daylight during school hours.
I pulled at the back of his shirt. "Come on, man. It’s time to go."
"Yes," Toddy whispered to the gnome. "It is time, isn’t it, old friend?" He stood and I thought we were about to leave, but in one swift motion he hoisted the statue over his head and smashed it in the street.
I looked up in shock to see a woman’s wide-eyed expression in a big picture window. A moment later, a police siren blared in the distance.
"The truancy cop," I said, as if it mattered.
Toddy took off running down the street, hooping with laughter all the way. I looked to the woman in the window one more time, trying to appear apologetic, and followed him.
Three blocks later we crashed into the foliage between two houses and slid down a leaf-covered hill to the train tracks. The siren sound neared and tires skidded to a screeching halt. We ran harder.
We continued at top speed, almost tripping every time we looked over our shoulders. After a solid mile we finally felt safe enough to slow to a walk.
"Why the hell did you do that, Toddy?"
"I couldn’t help myself." He clutched at the air over his head like a mad scientist in ecstasy. "The sight of that lime green garden gnome drove me mad with ecstasy."
His pointless daytime destruction of the ornament aggravated me, but his refusal to take it seriously annoyed me even more. "You’re a real asshole sometimes," I said.
"Watch it, skipper. I don’t want to have to smash you like I smashed that poor gnome." He shoved me so that I tripped over the train rails and almost fell.
I pretended to laugh, just like I always did when Toddy threatened me, which was something that had been happening more and more frequently.
"So, what have you been cooking up for Lords and Lairs, oh great Lair Guide?" My flattery was basically sincere, though my use of it to dispel the tension was probably more than a little cowardly. Toddy really was the best Lair Guide in school and, far as anyone knew, the world. "The party is getting pretty powerful, slaying dragons like they’re nothing. Pretty soon you’ll have to throw Nexus Darks at us."
Toddy scoffed. "Nexus Darks are nothing. You guys are going to have to fight Don Romeo’s egg-salad-fart of death."
"No one’s going to survive that." This time my laugh was authentic.
The hypothetical presence of the cop pursuing us acted like a force field pushing us farther down the tracks and away from town. Pretty soon, we were farther than we’d ever been before.
The woods lining the tracks thinned out and revealed a pothole-covered street with a row of old storefronts. Only one of the businesses seemed to be occupied. Cracks spider-webbed through the building’s exposed foundation, and a sign over the door read “Tempest Gate Games.” Like ants responding to an identical chemical command, Toddy and I hurried towards the store.
The interior was crammed full of board games and toys, all looking very old and alien. Dust-covered Jack-in-the-Boxes marked with esoteric symbols, decks of playing cards with otherworldly suits, board games with dice that looked like they’d been carved from bones. Somewhere inside the store a radio played one of those witchy old Delta Blues tunes that sound like they’ve been fermenting inside the bayou for a thousand years.
We drifted apart from each other. A museum-like silence filled the place, so pristine and delicate that a single word might shatter it. No signs marked off the sections, but the items were collected into categories. Without consciously looking for it, I found myself in the area with role playing games.
Most of the gaming systems were foreign to me. Half of them weren’t even in English. But as I picked through the tomes, I found one Lords and Lairs gaming book. It was an entire module dedicated to a figure named Sir Drexler Impaler, Beheader of All That is Good and Innocent. On the cover, a blonde-haired man with blue-fire eyes and black sigils tattooed on his neck and emblazoned in his plate mail armor hoisted a sword into the stormy sky.
"What’s that?" Toddy asked over my shoulder. Without waiting for an answer, he snatched the book from me and opened it. Handwritten red words filled black pages. Picture after picture showed Sir Drexler Impaler massacring elves, dwarfs, and humans, always with the same malicious sneer on his face. The artwork was disturbingly graphic and gory, and twice I had to avert my eyes. Toddy just whistled. "Bad ass."
Some instinct compelled me to grab the book from him. It was that same reflex that takes over when you see a child about to stick their finger in an electrical socket. But, before I could reach it, a woman’s voice startled me. "Can I help you?"
I spun around to see a stocky, bearded woman watching us. As if sensing the discomfort I felt as I tried not to react too overtly to her facial hair, she started combing her fingers through the whiskers in long, thoughtful strokes.
"How much is this module?" Toddy asked. His eyes were still glued to the cover. I didn’t think he’d even actually looked at her yet.
"It’s not for sale."
Toddy scoffed. "You might want to consider refraining from putting things on your shelves that aren’t for sale. I’m no businessman, but I do believe that’s how businesses are usually run."
The woman tipped her head aside with a cocksure smile. "Smart mouth little punk, aren’t you?" For the first time, I noticed that her eyes were two different colors. The right was hazel while the left was blue. She snatched the book from Toddy’s hand. "This particular item doesn’t like being kept out of sight. That’s the only reason it’s out here."
Toddy scoffed again. Scoffing was sort of Toddy’s trademark move. "You talk like it’s a living thing."
The woman studied Toddy through her mismatched eyes. "Be careful the games you play, kid, or else the game might play you."
Toddy snickered. "Thanks for the bearded-lady wisdom, bearded lady."
"You’re welcome." She set the book back on the shelf.
Toddy nudged my shoulder. "Didn’t you want to check out that satanic Jack-in-the-Box?"
No, I had not, actually. The satanic Jack-in-the-Box actually creeped me the hell out. But Toddy knew that, too, and was really asking for a distraction. I knew it instantly. Best friends develop a psychic rapport with each other over time. A single flick of any eyelid can communicate worlds of information. Because I wanted to be a good pal, I asked to see the satanic Jack.
The woman led me over and took it down from the shelf. I turned the box’s crank until the monstrosity sprang out with its smashed pumpkin head and jagged teeth holding a pair of bloody garden shears.
"That’s the most terrifying toy I’ve ever seen," I said.
The woman belted out a deep, good-natured laugh. It was infectious, and I laughed a little, too. "Well, you’re the one who wanted to look at it."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Toddy tuck the book into his jacket and walk around us to the front door. I honestly didn’t know that that was his intent upon manufacturing the distraction. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t suspected the possibility, but I had hoped I was wrong.
"This place smells like dusty pee," Toddy said over his shoulder. "I’m out of here."
Shoplifting was the most serious crime I’d ever experimented with, and the guilt I carried over that bag of candy fish still affected me, almost a full year later. So, my first instinct upon seeing Toddy actually stealing the book was to shout at him. But of course I didn’t do that. I was sixteen years old, and he was my best friend.
The woman watched Toddy’s exit intently. She took the box out of my hands and pushed the Jack back inside. "Don’t go opening a monster box unless you’re ready to deal with the monster inside."
I started to tell her that Toddy wasn’t such a bad guy, but was frozen in place by the sight of her eyes. The right was blue, and the left was hazel. I could have sworn they’d been opposite just minutes before.
"The Jack is a hundred dollars," she said.
"That’s too expensive for my blood." I backed casually towards the door, fighting the instinct to run. "Thank you, though."
"De nada. My name is Olga, by the way."
I stopped at the door. "Mine is Sean."
She twisted her beard between her fingers and smiled. "We’re open seven days a week, Sean. Stop by any time."
It was a regular enough invitation to hear from a store owner, but the way she said it seemed to insinuate something deeper. I nearly asked her what it was, but then I remembered I was an accessory to shoplifting and decided to just get the hell out of there.
Toddy stood in the middle of the train tracks with the module in hand.
"Great, man," I said. "You’re a thief now. That’s cool."
Toddy shrugged. "I would have bought it if she was selling."
"It’s not up to you to decide."
"Excuse me, fan of Bearded Lady, but you stole worms once, if I do recall."
We headed back home, not saying much. Toddy held the module loosely in his hand. It swung back and forth beside me like a scythe, Sir Drexler’s blue-fire eyes holding relentlessly on mine.
The girl’s hands wrestle nervously in her lap like blind, albino spiders as she watches us from the rear of a crowded audience. Her eyes follow us hungrily. She’s going to join us after the show. I know it. I’ve learned to spot girls like her almost immediately. It’s not difficult to do, really. I just look for the ones that remind me of myself when I was her age.
She looks sad and afraid, like most kids in dreamless coal towns. She sees a troupe of vibrant young women dancing in a world more beautiful than anything she’s ever imagined, and she sees a potential escape from her bleak destiny. There’s no way for her to know that it’s all a lie. Every last thread of it.
Pietro’s Shimmering Veil hangs before us like a wispy curtain as we dance. Colors ebb and flow in the deviled material as it visually transforms everything happening upon the stage. To the audience, it makes us dancers look like glowing, angelic ballerinas pirouetting through a world of soft fire and blossoming stars. The illusion is perfect. The truth it conceals is undetectable.
The audience doesn’t know the reality of our exhausted eyes or emaciated faces, nor the rags that ornament our bones. They can’t see the rats scuttling through the dank darkness around us. And, of course, they cannot see Pietro standing against the wall with his whispery seven-foot-frame, his surgical teeth, his silver medallion eyes gleaming as he gleefully plays at the air like a puppeteer pulling strings.
The poor little coal town girl suspects none of our deprivation. She sees only the dream that Pietro’s Veil creates. Just as I predicted, after our performance ends, she mills around waiting for the other villagers to leave.
Pietro senses her. He waits until the scene is clear and moves out the side door. As soon as he’s gone, we dancers turn to the floorboards.
Three of the girls grab the planks that we’d pulled free over prior months and set back loosely in their places at the fringes of the stage—our secret arsenal. A single nail juts out from the end of each one. I get to work on the fourth and final board.
The plank remains lodged in place, loose but refusing to come free. I worry that pulling too hard will alert Pietro. I’ve been punished once before, and I don’t know if I can survive that again.
No, that’s not true. I can survive anything. I will. Not only for me, but for the coal town girl and all the other dancers. I take a deep breath, brace my foot on the floor, and pull. This time, the plank gives.
Pietro doesn’t hear. He’s too busy charming the new girl. In the hypnotic gleam of his silver medallion eyes, her dreams are already growing from dancing to being wholly possessed by him, just as mine had. I look at the nail protruding from the end of my board. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Fear and excitement fight for control of the dancers’ faces as we take our positions. More than either of those emotions, though, is a rage that lights their exhausted eyes like pagan’s bonfires.
Two of the girls pad over to each side of the doorway. Sonjita and I move to stand directly in front it, boards concealed behind our backs. The rest look on anxiously.
It would be easier to run, of course, but then some of us might not get away. Even if we did all manage to escape, Pietro would move on to find other girls. That is not an option. No one will ever be hurt by him again, neither friend nor stranger.
Pietro leads the newcomer by hand towards the stairs. Blood pounds in my ears. Bitter dryness coats my mouth. Through the terror, a grin forces its way onto my face. For a second, I wonder what Pietro’s corpse will look like wrapped up in his own Shimmering Veil. Can the cloth make even him beautiful?
We crouch in readiness as he nears the doorway. Two nails for the back of his knees. Two more for the silver medallion eyes from which he draws his power. Four nails in all.
Four nails for our beloved Pietro.
Sunday morning and Olympia, Washington’s Batdorf and Bronson coffeehouse is packed full of politicos in sharp suits pecking absently at laptops amidst a crowd of hipsters slouching with flair into leather recliners, flaunting the fact that they have nothing better to do.
I order a vanilla latte that is decorated with a floating cream heart by a surly girl who leaves my thank you conspicuously unacknowledged. I take a seat near a window. Beside me sits a large man in a navy blue suit and a young woman in business formal. The man has the biggest mustache I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on the face of a porn star or drug dealer. He doesn’t wear the mustache, I thought. The mustache wears him.
“The people in this country have lost their complex reasoning skills,” he grumbles. “People don’t know how to goddamn think anymore.” He jabs his finger at the side of his head over and over again as though trying to drive it through his own skull, but always at the last minute pulls himself back from the brink of self-destruction.
He realizes how loud his voice had become and lowers it, but soon works himself into a new diatribe about healthcare, taxes, and all of the dimwits in the country – by which he means, apparently, everyone but him.
The classically pretty young woman asks the mustache question after question, leaving her notebook open on the table before her but never writing anything down. She just grins and nods.
He doesn’t mean me when he talks about stupid people, her grin says. No, not me.
She has the look of a heady idealist just out of college, caught between the worlds of school and career. Her outfit is standard professional fare, but she still clings to the last vestiges of her tie-dyed integrity with a love bead bracelet, no makeup, and hair pulled back in a bun.
With the mustache raging on, I finish my coffee, scoff loudly, and walked out the door.
I look through the window as I pass to see him still talking. He watches me through the glass. I stare back until his eyes divert uncomfortably, and I feel a rush of petty victory.
As far as the young woman, all I can see is the back of her head as her brown bun bobs up and down with eager nodding, almost as if she's giving fellatio.
I feel sorry for her and head to the bus station.
My friend texted me the news. "Sit down and brace yourself," his message said. "I’ve got something very difficult to tell you."
A pause followed, probably only seconds, long enough at that point to have me ready to start hammering out demands for clarity. Or, perhaps, to even actually dial his number and call him!
"There’s a new bar where the Own Lee Place used to be."
My legs quivered. The world seemed to warp and bend around me. I fell to my knees and looked to the stars and howled. "Why, God? Why? Is nothing in this world sacred? Is nothing beyond death’s cold embrace?"
Okay, I didn’t really freak out that bad, but it really did suck. The Own Lee was more than a bar. It was a landmark, an murky oasis for ne’er-do-wells from all around the Clarks Summit area. People in town knew it universally as the Only Hole or, more often, just the Hole.
Turns out the bastards (by "bastards" I mean "new owners") had torn out the Own Lee’s smoldering, nicotine-stained heart and replaced it with something clean and fashionable. It was like hearing that a childhood friend had gotten a brain transplant. Yea, the body might be the same, but he’s not the person you once knew anymore. His soul is gone.
The Own Lee sat in the shadow of a clock tower at the corner of Depot and Spring Street, not far from the train tracks. Generation upon generation of cigarette smoke was soaked into the walls, giving the place an ancient aroma. You knew who had been there on any given night just by the smell that followed them. It lingered in clothes and hair for days. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in that place, but I swear I still sometimes catch whiffs of the Hole coming out through my pores. The new owners had to gut the whole interior of the bar just to get rid of the stench.
You want to know what kind of place the mighty, mighty Own Lee was? Every summer night when the carnival was in town, carneys would fill the bar. Dozens of them. There were many bars closer to the carnival grounds, yet the carneys always wound up there. That’s what kind of place the Own Lee was: carneys flowed there instinctively like salmon returning to the place from which they’d spawned.
And perhaps they did spawn there. Who knows, really, what manner of man or beast was born from the Hole's smokey redds.
People routinely got into fist fights over the Eagles and Giants in that bar. Cowboys jerseys nearly got multiple men killed.
The pool table, for some completely inexplicable reason, had blue felt with a rainbow strip around the edges. We affectionately called it the “gay pride pool table.”
The jukebox had W.C. McCall’s “Convoy” and, on many a night, the song could be heard filling the air.
There was no stage for the live bands. The musicians just stood and played on the floor, democratic as hell, eye to eye with the crowd.
Yea, maybe it was just another small town dive bar, but no matter how hard I try to keep this piece humorous and absurd, a bit of real melancholy keeps sneaking into my belly.
Some damn good people had some damn good times there. The Own Lee produced a lot of laughs. It produced a lot of friends.
Plenty of the nights I spent there were ones that I wished I could take back the morning after. I left many hours of embarrassing dancing in that place. It was, without a doubt, a house of bad decisions. Looking back now, though, knowing that it’s gone, I wish I could have one last hurrah at the Hole.
It would be one of those bitterly cold Northeast Pennsylvania winter nights. I’d open the door and see the Foot, that giant of a man, standing there. I’d take my wallet to show my ID and he’d just laugh.
In the backroom Wade Rose is singing “Friend of the Devil” while pool balls crack together in perfect tune to the music. Kevin’s there behind the bar, stoic as always, unreadable. Happy, sad, or mad, his face just saying, “meh.”
I’d order a Jack and Coke and take it to the end of the bar, back by the pinball machines and dart board, and I’d sit down and look out past the neon sighs in the window at the clock tower standing in the snow like Time itself looming over us all. People'd flow in through the door, old friends and strangers, everyone smiling, everyone having a good time.
I’d just sit there for a long time letting my buzz settle in. There isn’t any hurry. There’s a whole night ahead, and nights like that last as close to forever as any mortal man’s ever going to get. And that's how it would end, poised forever on the razor's edge of infinity, the warm promise of a night full of madness and bad dancing.
Of course, that one more night is just a fool’s dream. We can never go back. Things that die stay dead.
The Own Lee’s hours were numbered from the moment the foundation was set. All our lives are. The clock starts ticking the second we’re born. The only thing that really separates any of us is how many rolls of the dice we get before both sides come up blank.
Every moment we get is a blessing. That sounds like some Hallmark Special bullshit, but it’s true, and we all know it.
Of those many finite moments of my finite life, more than a few were spent laughing in the Only Hole. And you know what? It was time goddamn well spent.
So, here’s to everyone I ever shared a drink with at the Own Lee. Here’s to everyone I ever head-butted there (sorry about that, by the way). I liked most of you and loved a few. Some of you I truly despised, but this isn’t the time or place for all that. Only an asshole argues at a funeral.