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.”
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.
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.