Christopher Fish just wasn’t built for a normal life, though he did his best. He tried to ignore the stares his pale skin, white hair and faded gray eyes earned him. He learned to stop following certain people around whenever he caught some strangely familiar scent of decay clinging to their skin. He pretended in conversation that he slept like regular folks do, knowing better than to tell people that he had never lost consciousness in his entire life and wasn’t the worse for it.
But there were times that it was just so clearly not working and he would lose his temper and spew such rage that he soon had a reputation for being cruel as well as ugly and weird. It was probably for the best that three weeks after his twenty-second birthday, his attempted life, the time wasted sweating at Chester Cheese’s and lurching around campus and just the whole charade, came to an end.
It was one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, so of course Chester Cheese’s was a prepubescent madhouse. Fish nimbly weaved his way through the schools of darting, shrieking children in the dining hall and shouldered through the kitchen’s swinging doors into the reassuring smell of burning cheese and grease. Nobody in the kitchen greeted him or even looked up as he passed through to the rough little lounge in the back room.
There, lying draped across the stained couch like some cartoon-world hunting trophy, he found the Chester Cheese costume it was his job to endure. He would wear the suffocating, sweltering mouse suit and serve birthday kids their pizza and try not to run away when he saw the resentment in the parents’ eyes, the hatred they had for their own offspring. Christopher Fish lacked that part of the mind that shields the heart from what people truly are and was, as a result, something of a hate detector.
He dressed with morbid resignation and was prepared to heft Chester’s bulbous, grinning head over his own when a metallic squeak sounded behind him. He turned to see Jared Gladstone struggling free of one of the lounge’s rusted lockers. Fish could only gape as the little man jerked his second foot free and then stood there staring back, swaying slightly.
“There you are, Christopher.” Gladstone’s voice wasn’t the nervous hum it usually was; in fact, he sounded a little raspy, almost parched.
“Were you hiding in that locker?” Fish had to fight the urge to slap the restaurant’s assistant manager. “Have you lost your mind? Spying little creep. This is too much even for you.”
“Why did you leave home, Christopher? I planted you, like a little banzai tree, in Chicago but here you are in Denver. What were you thinking?”
Fish was nonplussed all over again. Gladstone was a hectoring little jerk who made far too many off-color comments, but he didn’t usually talk nonsense.
Gladstone took an unsteady step towards him and continued, “I was delayed, distracted. But now I’m back and I’m going to need you in Chicago.”
“What are you talking about?” Fish asked, noticing now that the other man’s name tag was on upside-down and that his shoes were tied in strange, ugly knots instead of bows. “Jared, are you feeling alright?”
Gladstone awkwardly crammed a hand into his pants pocket. “Oh, don’t worry about Jared, he’s a happy whore-hopper. It’s Mr. Nine who needs special consideration now.”
Fish’s world went quiet; the clanging in the kitchen and the distant music of the animatronic animal band fell away. Fish clutched Chester’s hollow head like a child does his teddy and couldn’t speak.
Gladstone yanked his hand from his pocket and haphazardly brandished a snub-nosed .38. “It’s mostly my own fault. I should have been back for you years ago but there was this shaman, the memory of a shaman really, with sand for skin and reef for bones. He chased me across a chain of islands that ran a ring around a world; he chased me until we reached a living tar pit and there I undid him, finally.”
Gladstone paused expectantly, as if waiting for congratulations. Fish managed a weak, “No. Don’t do this.”
Gladstone scowled and took another two steps closer. “Yes. We do this now.”
Gladstone pressed the gun against his own temple. “Come back to Chicago.”
Gladstone shrugged. “I don’t want to have to do this again.” And then he pulled the trigger.
Fish lowered Chester’s head over his own and instead of suffocating, the suit felt safe, like soft armor. He would go and serve birthday kids their pizza now. He walked through the kitchen and ignored the questions from the cook. What was that noise in there? It was a gunshot, silly.
He walked out into the dining hall and waved to the kids watching the unliving figures twitch onstage. He heard a high little voice say, “Look, Mommy, it’s Chester! He spilled pizza on hisself!”
Evening was creeping into the city by the time Fish finally wandered home, his mind still a numb jumble. It was heartening then to walk through the door of his absurd little apartment filled with paper maché oddities and see Daryl, his roommate, embedded in a green beanbag chair, playing a video game on the hulking television that dominated their living room. It was regular, if not completely normal.
“How was work?” Daryl asked, without turning around.
Fish finished throwing the three locks on their door and kicked aside one of the capering figures he made in the silent night hours. “Gladstone killed himself today.”
Daryl maneuvered the little character on the tv screen right off a cliff. “Wow. But that’s probably how managers of Chester Cheese’s usually die.”
Fish grunted appreciatively. Daryl used to be shocked by Fish’s own displays of black humor but he was coming along nicely now. He kicked off his shoes, padded into the kitchen and started rummaging around in a cupboard. There was no mention of Mr. Nine as he narrated the day’s events while microwaving a bowl of Spaghetti O’s. When he finished and the steam from the bowl was wafting pleasantly around his face, he saw Daryl walk his game character over the edge of a lava-filled pit.
“Man, you suck tonight.”
“My eyes are a little sore,” Daryl admitted, turning around so Fish could see his face, see what was done to it.
Fish dropped the bowl, splattering his feet in tomato sauce.
“Come back to Chicago, Christopher,” Daryl said, mild as can be. “Come back or we can just keep doing this.”
Fish found his voice and his rage at the same time; Daryl was as close to a friend as he had. “What the hell do you want from me?” he snarled and snatched the toaster up as if to use it as a weapon, a faintly ridiculous move considering the problem.
“One favor. Just one little favor and then we’re forever done with each other.” Daryl held up a straight-razor and said in a squeaky voice, “Golly, Mr. Nine, I’d sure love to open Daryl’s jugular. Can I? Can I?” Then he answered in his regular voice. “Not yet, my little friend. Let’s give Christopher a chance to do the right thing.”
Fish hurled the toaster just inches past Daryl’s head, hitting the television screen smack in the center. The game’s repetitious guitar soundtrack cut off with an explosion of glass and crackling sparks. “You win. Go ahead and tell me how to find you but you’re not going to like it when I do.”
Daryl frowned. “Perhaps. You are immune to just about anything I can do but I bet you’ll lose interest in harming me when you see what I have to show you. Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Be there or I kill this square.”
It was nearly a solid day’s drive to the Windy City, even for a driver who didn’t need to sleep. The entire way there, Fish brooded on how to kill his enemy; he had never before taken a life but he knew himself, knew that murder could fit his soul reasonably well. By the time he parked his car, a dented and dinged old Saab, two blocks away from the hospital; however, the vague scenarios he had concocted dissipated like smoke.
Late spring was already hot in Chicago and he hated the city year round anyway. Only a handful of memories from here warmed him and they all involved a woman and her unexplained interest in an orphan; her visits always meant green jell-o salad, tenderness and seemingly outlandish tales. The rest of his childhood was a collage of savage children, vaguely hostile adults and periodic encounters with a madman.
The madman in question was waiting for him outside of general admittance. He still dressed the same in unremarkable dark clothes, a long raincoat and fedora, like a man trying so hard to be inconspicuous that he was instead completely the opposite. A collection of bone flutes still hung from a thick leather belt around his waist. He leered enormously when he spotted Fish, revealing the same ivory teeth, each engraved with a different sigil; these were the tools that sent his voice across leagues and made his words move like quicksilver, liquid and lethal.
He had aged, though, had become thinner and a bit more lined. And as they moved towards each other, Fish noticed a discordance in what had once been the most assured stride he had ever seen, a slight limp in the right leg.
So Fish greeted the other man with a lunge, hoping to inflict some quick damage to whatever injuries he had, but Mr. Nine hopped back, narrowly escaping Fish’s grab for his collar.
“No more of that now. No more,” he laughed, unhooking a long ivory pipe from his belt and twirling it like a baton. “Made from the femur of a will-o-the-waves, knight of the ocean lost and the spiny sunless. On this, I could blow a single note of such despair that every tumor would will itself malignant, every strained heart would burst, every patient balanced between life and death would double back flip into the next world. Keep your hands to yourself, please.”
Fish angrily returned some of the stares they were getting from passersby until the scrutiny passed, then asked, “Why am I here?”
Mr. Nine flashed his nightmarish smile again. “Good. Look at you, so tall but so washed out. I didn’t see that happening. Did you bring those books I gave you?”
“Nope. I didn’t bother to take them when I left the foster home.” This was a lie; he had sold them for several thousand dollars to an eager, twitching little occultist whom he never saw again.
Mr. Nine looked stricken. “But you remember what we talked about? What I taught you?”
“You didn’t teach me anything. You would just show up and rant about magic as mathematical systems and music as equations. I remember a whole bunch of garbage about language as keys. . . ”
“Garbage!” Mr. Nine spat. “After all the things I have shown you, you doubt?”
“No, but what good has it done you? What do you have to show for yourself? You —”
“Shut up!” Mr. Nine roared and the ageless voices of the Ravenous Thousand roared with him. A momentary hush fell over the city. Fish went silent too but only because he chose to.
Mr. Nine turned abruptly and began limping towards general admissions. “Follow me,” he muttered over his shoulder.
He produced another instrument, gray and barely longer than his hand, and played two alternating, undulating notes all the way to the elevator and then again from the elevator to the sixth floor room that was their destination. Nobody stopped them or even noticed their passage.
The room’s lone occupant was a sunken relic of a man, old and still, a lifeless mass under stiff white sheets. In the slack, jaundiced features of the patient’s face, Fish saw the bluntness of his own nose, the sharp slope of his own jawline and the brevity of his own mouth.
Mr. Nine watched Fish watch the old man, eyes shining with eagerness. “Well?”
“Who is he?” Fish whispered.
Mr. Nine waved a thin hand. “You can be as loud as you want, he’s not waking up.”
“No. He’s sleeping. He’s been sleeping for the past twenty-two years and he’ll sleep till the day he dies; I’ve seen to that.”
Fish felt as if the room were suffused with some strange cloud of possibilities and wondered if this was hope; a world that made a little more sense seemed just around the corner. “This is my father, isn’t it?”
Mr. Nine swept all that away with a flippant shake of his head. “Nope, not at all.” He removed his fedora and ran a hand over the swirl of symbols and numbers branded and scarred into his bald scalp. “He’s you, actually. The real you. His dreaming mind is the engine that generates you.”
Fish blinked. The he laughed in disbelief. Then he stood there gazing at nothing until his expression collapsed in anguish and Mr. Nine grinned like a half-moon.
“I don’t really need to convince you, do I? Truth is a knife that slips so easily between the ribs.
“His name is Christopher Fowler.” Mr. Nine’s lips curled downward in amused chagrin. “You know, I had some kind of witticism in mind when I named you, a specific line I was going to say on this day of days. But twenty-two years on I can’t remember how it went, the exact wording of it.”
“Why?” Fish slumped onto an aggressively orange plastic chair and gazed at the slumbering wreck in the bed. “Why would you do this?”
“Because he betrayed me and did something only he can undo.” There was no trace of humor in Mr. Nine’s voice now. He put his fedora back on and pulled it low over his eyes. “No matter what I did, he wouldn’t undo it, wouldn’t even acknowledge that he had cheated me. Insufferable, arrogant bastard. I couldn’t force him to; we were too evenly matched.
“But I could give him something he wanted, deep down in the polluted pool of his mind. It’s not even that unusual, though. Who doesn’t want a chance to live their life all over again?
“So I put him to sleep and conjured a dream that leaves footprints in mud and snow and ash. A simultaneous reincarnation. You don’t want to know about all the sacrifices the magic required — not a project to be undertaken lightly.”
Fish held his head in his hands. “So am I real? Do I even need to eat?”
“How the hell should I know? I’ve never done anything like you before or since.”
“When he dies —”
“The dream ends. Something to keep in mind, yes? If you cooperate, I won’t hold a pillow over his face and you might live for another twenty years.” Mr. Nine paused a moment, letting that sink in. “I planned on raising you myself —”
“But you couldn’t be bothered,” Fish interrupted. “Thank God for that much, at least.”
“I was busy,” Mr. Nine corrected. “There were other worlds to walk and other projects to run.” He knelt before Fish and his next words were unnaturally earnest. “Christopher, that life back in Denver would never have worked; my return has saved you from wasting your few years trying to be something that you’ll never be.
“Tonight, you’re going to return the favor. You’re going to untie the Knot your older self tied.”
The moon hung high and white amidst bruise-colored clouds, illuminating the deep green grassy mounds and winding gravel paths stretching out before the two men. Fish had been in Garfield Park as a child and never cared for it, but night and lonesomeness made it beautiful. They had entered from the west side, the east being far too exposed to the street.
Mr. Nine was so excited he was practically skipping and Fish had to work to keep up.
“This is it,” the older man babbled, “the heart of the city that is the heart of this land. We’re on the continental divide, you know. Men have always settled here, this place of power, of transition. It’s the center of movement within your great American empire but even before —” He froze suddenly, his feet and his tongue coming to an abrupt halt at the same time.
He stood there, his eyes wider than Fish had ever seen them, until he spun and dove behind a mound, hissing frantically at Fish to follow him. Fish let out a grumbling, exasperated breath and did so.
“I can’t believe he’s still here,” Mr. Nine muttered as Fish crouched down next to him.
“Who? I didn’t hear anything.”
“This place was once prehistoric marsh and shades of those things that ruled here still linger deep in the layers that remember them. Years ago, when I tried to force the Knot open myself, the land spat something up and drove me off.” He cautiously crept up the slope of the mound and peeked through blades of grass.
Fish heard him gasp and had to look for himself. He saw a barely discernible naked figure standing in the center of an unbelievably thick cloud of insects just thirty yards away. It strode towards them with stiff, inexorable purpose.
“Yet another enemy,” Fish murmured. “Everywhere you go.”
Mr. Nine glared at him. “I’m the victim here. I’m the one betrayed.” He leapt to his feet, stood atop the mound and lifted the largest, ugliest instrument from his belt; it was oily gray, twisted and jagged. “I’m ready for you this time.”
But apparently the creature had also given this encounter some thought. As Mr. Nine brought the flute to his lips, the swarm surrounding it surged forward and closed the distance in an eye-blink. Mr. Nine all but disappeared in an onrush of mosquitoes and dragonflies that stuffed themselves into the flute’s airways and his mouth. Mr. Nine gagged and thrashed until his right leg failed him and he tumbled down the green slope.
Fish spent a few seconds waving his own arms, trying to fend off the attack, until he realized the swarm had avoided him completely. By then the creature had joined him on the moonlit hill; it may have once been a man, but now its skin was a bilious yellow and its eyes an endless black. An enormously engorged, strawberry-red tongue lolled and lunged from its gaping mouth.
It gazed vacantly down at the struggling, sputtering Mr. Nine, seemingly unaware of the man standing right next to it. Fish felt a macabre thrill as he watched fat, full mosquitoes return to the creature, alight soft as air on its eager tongue and kiss the red, wet surface with their tiny needle-mouths.
The thing smelled like an open doorway to death and it made Fish feel more alive than he ever had and though he could not recall Fowler’s memories, he could feel the empty spaces they had left.
Without giving himself any time to rethink it, Fish hit the creature with as much momentum as he could pack into an uppercut. Its jaws snapped together and its tongue ruptured, falling to the grass in plops and patters.
The ancient thing saw him then and looked on him with such confusion that Fish would always be haunted by an inexplicable guilt whenever he thought of it. It took a faltering step back, then slowly raised a hand and drew its own eyelids down. All at once, it fell limp and rolled lifelessly down the mound where the grass swallowed it like the waves of a jade sea.
Fish turned in time to watch the swarm dissipate suddenly, blown away by an intangible wind, leaving behind a gasping Mr. Nine whose skin was an appalling white with tiny red speckles.
Fish tromped down the hill and dropped a knee across the supine man’s throat. Mr. Nine went bug-eyed and tried to buck him off but Fish didn’t budge. “You’re going to unbuckle that belt and take out your teeth and give them both to me or I’m going to kneel on your neck until you die, okay?”
Mr. Nine opened his mouth but no sound came out. He hesitated a moment but as his face started to turn crimson, he frantically did as he was told. Fish hefted the belt triumphantly and accepted the teeth with a bit less enthusiasm, then got off Mr. Nine, who exploded in a fit of gasps and ragged wheezing.
When this had subsided, the older man, exhausted, toothless and beaten, rolled over on his side and began to cry silently. Fish watched for a while, fascinated and pitiless.
Finally, he said, “Stop your blubbering already and get up. You’re still taking me to the Knot. I want to know what all the fuss is about; I want to know what my life is about.”
“Alright, which one do I use?” Fish rattled the bones hanging from his belt.
Mr. Nine scowled at his ignorance. He had been mopey and silent for the remainder of the walk to the west entrance of the Garfield Park Conservatory. Even his fedora looked defeated, bent and as encrusted with crushed bugs as his coat was. He pointed a thin finger at a stubby little flute etched with spirals.
Fish unhooked it, vigorously wiped the mouthpiece with his sleeve and blew a note that made Mr. Nine scowl even harder.
“Don us play anying!” He sounded like an angry toddler without his teeth.
“Thanks for the tip,” Fish whispered with a grin, “but it would be easier if you just showed me what fingers to use.” A bit of a risk but under current circumstances he figured Mr. Nine wouldn’t be too hard to fight off if he made a grab for it.
Mr. Nine reached over and tapped Fish’s fingers in a short sequence. Fish played through it three times before the door softly unlocked. “It worked. Magic is handy.” He took a step back and searched the dark space within the glass for any sign of movement, but all he saw were the looming, prickly silhouettes of desert plants.
People knew on some level, Fish realized, that this was where places met and paid tribute to that convergence by surrounding it with handfuls of environment from around the globe. He cast a suspicious glance back at Mr. Nine, wondering what, of all the doors between worlds the older man knew of, made this one so special.
The moon peered down through the glass ceiling as the two men crept into the Desert House and followed a walkway past a row of hedge cacti into the Children’s Garden, where moonlight and shadow made the giant-sized flower and bee displays menacingly surreal.
Fish was so on edge as they entered the Sweet House that he almost cried out when Mr. Nine grabbed his arm and hissed, “Guard. Come.”
Fish allowed himself to be dragged off the path and into some sugar cane. He lifted the small gray flute Mr. Nine had used at the hospital and his companion nodded his approval. The focused glare of a flashlight rounded the coconut trees further along the path; it paused as Fish falteringly started playing the two alternating notes, then began moving in their direction again.
The security guard, a swarthy and squat specimen, swept the flashlight right over them and seemed not to notice. As the man continued on his oblivious route, Mr. Nine motioned for Fish to pick up the tempo. Without thinking, the younger man complied and was shocked to see the guard stumble and fall.
Fish threw Mr. Nine to the ground and pinned him with a forearm across his throat. “What did you make me do?” he growled.
“Sleep,” Mr. Nine forced out, “us sleeping.”
When Fish had checked and was satisfied that the man was indeed sleeping, the two continued through the Palm House, where they had to repeat the spell on another two guards, and into the Fern Room at the center of the conservatory. Centuries old cycads rose to the ceiling in a continuous leafy green mass and bordered the artificial lagoon at the center of the room.
Mr. Nine took a long, challenging look at Fish as he shrugged off his coat and tossed aside his fedora, then silently began wading into the water. Fish kicked off his shoes and followed, trying to remember every stupid New Age calming mantra he had ever heard as he submerged himself in cold darkness. He spent several moments completely blind underwater, until he spotted a faint red luminescence, a large object below, backlit by some unseen source.
He swam down and saw great black roots that broke up through the bottom of the lagoon and wound around each other in a tangle. Beneath the Knot, something burned red. Vaguely aware of Mr. Nine drifting beside him, Fish ran his hands across one root’s cold, coarse surface and felt symbols there. Something that wasn’t quite an equation, a sequence of notes or a riddle bloomed in his thoughts and coiled itself around his mind, awaiting his answer.
Fish surfaced from an ocean of red voices and woke with a wave of disorientation and a burst of fear. He jerked himself upright, realized he was sopping wet and covered in grit, and found himself in a vast spherical cavern. Glittering pools of still water dotted the landscape around him and, impossibly, above him. From each pool rose a black tree with vast, meandering branches and broad green leaves. Each bore fruit but no two the same and none Fish recognized. Vast swarms of fireflies drifted and swirled through the air and the light they cast was both frightening and beautiful.
“The pool next to you is the way home,” said the familiar, nasal voice.
Fish turned to see Mr. Nine squeezing excess water from his socks, smiling in his wolfish way. “I see you’ve got your teeth back.”
Mr. Nine pointed at the belt around the younger man’s waist. “Yes, while you were away in your mind. But I let you keep the flutes; you’ll need them to play your way out of the conservatory when you go back. Consider them payment for a job well done, Christopher.”
“You’re not going back?”
Mr. Nine cackled giddily. “Oh, I am but I won’t need such tools anymore. Things are going my way from now on.” He pulled his socks on, reached into his pocket and produced something that looked much like an apple core. “I’ve already eaten the fruit of our tree. Now all I need is to get the Ancient to write my name in his book and the world will truly be home.”
Fish began to wonder which of the flutes would be effective against the other man if it came to that. “And what does that mean?”
Mr. Nine sighed as if he was dealing with the most obstinate child who had ever lived. “Christopher, countless beings may be born into a particular world but it is never home to them. Who is happy? Who is at peace? Which of the countless worlds is not an enemy to the men walking it? I have been to so many and my educated guess is none.”
“So, what? Whatever your doing will rewrite reality to your benefit?”
Mr. Nine tsked him. “Nothing so melodramatic. There won’t be fiery pits full of my enemies and statues of me as far as the eye can see but events will subtly shape themselves to give me the best possible life. Look, before the real you tied the Knot, many men had found this place and lived flawless lives as a result.”
Fish shook his head. “That can’t be without effect. Who knows what kind of ripples those changes made? And do you seriously think you deserve this?”
“Nobody gets what they deserve,” Mr. Nine snapped. “The very existence of that word is shear absurdity.” He stalked away, apparently done humoring him.
Fish lifted his eyes to the fat red spheres dangling from the low-hanging branches overhead. He leapt, snatched one and bit into it before he even had a clear idea of what his plan was. It was crunchy and very tart and somehow vacillated between being delicious and unpleasant. He ate the rest of it as he hurried to catch up to Mr. Nine.
It was a long walk and Fish knew they must be climbing the curve of the chamber but felt no change in gravity’s pull. They seem to come upon their destination all at once; the Ancient was nowhere to be seen until they passed a thick cluster of the world trees and suddenly there it was.
It sat on a stool next to a table, both of intricate ironwork, pouring over a huge volume that a man would have trouble even lifting. A black, hooded cloak hid most of its body except for the taloned hands, the long segmented tail curling and uncurling idly behind it, and the massively jawed snout sticking out of its hood. If standing, it would have been nearly nine feet tall.
Fish cried out and turned to run but stopped when he heard Mr. Nine’s howling laughter. “Oh Christopher, I forgot what it’s like to be so provincial. This is the Ancient, the slithering shepherd of man, the angel of the cold-blooded; he is a facilitator of history and believe me when I tell you he is a friend to man. He stands between us and much that would harm us.”
Despite these assurances, Fish couldn’t keep from jumping when the creature fluidly rose from its seat and disappeared into the large domed hut behind it.
“It’s impossible not to get the cold sweats around him, isn’t it?” Mr. Nine murmured, mockingly. “There is a story that tells of a world completely taken by a plague of madness. It says he walked in that place and killed everything he found there, by himself — simply emptied the world out.”
He fell silent as the Ancient returned, sat back down on its stool and placed a large birdcage under a satin cloth on the table. A voice, high and reedy, called from the cage, “You have eaten the fruit?”
“I have,” Mr. Nine answered.
The Ancient lifted a large, sharp quill and held out an open hand. The voice in the cage asked, “And what is your name?”
“Mr. Nine,” he answered, gingerly placing his hand in the Ancient’s.
“But what kind of name is that?” Fish cried out. “Who gave it to him? Is that even his real name?”
“Shut up!” Mr. Nine roared at him and turned his attention back to the Ancient, only to find the creature motionless, waiting. “It. . . is the only name I have ever known. It was given to me by the man who taught me the worlds and the arts. It’s real, I swear it.”
“What was the man’s name?” Fish asked.
Mr. Nine looked pained when the voice in the cage repeated the question. “What was the man’s name?”
“Mr. Eight! But what does it matter?”
Fish approached the Ancient warily, looked into the shadowed hood where he thought its eyes were and was glad he couldn’t see them. He said, “He set this in motion over twenty years ago and he still needs it. What’s he been doing with all that time? Why can’t he change?”
Mr. Nine flew into a rage. “Enemies keep thwarting me! People like you who won’t just —”
The Ancient’s sudden motion was faster than any living thing Fish had ever seen. The great jaws snapped and Mr. Nine was gone from the shoulders up. His body tottered and fell.
“And do you know yourself?” the voice in the cage asked Fish.
Fish forced his gaze away from the corpse and thought a moment. “Sometimes I think so but I get surprised an awful lot.”
The Ancient held out its hand. It was warm and dry and when it pierced his palm with its quill, it didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. The Ancient leaned over the tome, poised to write, a thick droplet of blood falling from the quill.
“What is your name?,” asked the voice.
Fish wondered on his short, unhappy life and thought there probably wasn’t a power in the universe that could make him fit with people, that could make him happy. So he said, “Christopher Fowler. Put down Christopher Fowler.”
It took a couple weeks to find her, but he did, living in a trim little blue house on the outskirts of Chicago. She was meditating in her back yard when he first approached her, sitting in a circle of small stones, burning incense. She still had the waist-long iron gray hair he remembered.
“Emma Fowler?” Fish asked.
The old woman opened her eyes, gaped in surprise and then smiled broadly. “Christopher! Figured out who I was, eh?”
He sat down, cross-legged, next to her and nodded. “I found out who I am or was or whatever. There was a wedding ring on the old man’s hand and I remembered one on the woman who took such a strange interest in me way back when. So I looked for you under his name.”
She pursed her lips and asked gently, “Are you okay?”
“Well, one of the stories you told me came in very handy. You could have told me a lot more, though.”
She took her straw sunhat off and fanned herself with it. “Not without deciding your path for you. I wanted to help you without destroying your second chance.”
“But don’t you care that your husband is sleeping his life away? You know. . . I ate the fruit and put his name in the book but he’s still sleeping and I’m still here.”
She reached out and touched his face. “I remember when he looked like you. For some people, though, time erodes more than just their bodies. Sometimes we move away from our best selves. Towards the end of our time together, I loved Chris more for who he could have been than who he was. I would look at him and see something beautiful marred in ways I couldn’t repair. Nobody could.
“And now there’s you; so maybe he’s getting what he wants.” She withdrew her hand, set her hat high on her head. “You do what you want to, honey, but let the old man sleep.”
Beyond the Veil is a regularly appearing column featuring fiction, including occult, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. If you’d like to contribute a story, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to review your submission.
©2009 Bret Tallman
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Folks passing through on the naked rock under the high sun would joke that Stonehenge had somehow gotten moved to Arizona. But if they walked closer to the double circle of what they thought were stones, they would see that each marker was actually compacted metal, the crushed carcasses of motorcycles and cars. Intuitive travelers wondered what kind of man would build such a place and what kind of magic he worked there.
There were two men standing in the circle at noon of that day, the day the Red Engine ran wild. The man wearing only cutoff jeans, tattoos and scars, the one who had built the place, was called Spur, not without a sordid story behind it. He was hairless, middle-aged, muscles still working but starting to sag under his sun-cracked skin.
The scruffy young man with the black hair and gray eyes was Grief Tanner. He patted dust off his riding leather, glanced around, taking in the dilapidated tent and grimy Winnebago sitting on the far side of the circle as well as whatever lurked under a dusty tarp a few feet away, and shook his head. He didn’t belong to any bike club but he was a member of the Hallowjacks, the men who walked the borders, the cheaters supreme. That meant he didn’t want to be here.
“This is a real nice setup you’ve got here. Maybe you should have a realtor out to appraise it. It’s missing a bean bag in the center though. That would really complete it.”
Spur didn’t smile when he rasped, “It’s safe here. Nothing can get me in this place, my Steelhenge. I’m glad they sent you. I asked for you. The others aren’t riders.”
Grief shaded his eyes. “Yeah, well the others aren’t exactly itching to come running whenever you cry for help. Why don’t you just get to the point before I die of heatstroke, okay?”
The older man bent his head and cleared his throat of what sounded like gravel. “I rode with Mad Frank Madison, kid. I was part of his crew. The things we saw on the haunted roads of America. . . the things we did. . .
“I would take the Throttle Wolves over your Hallowjacks any day of the week, kid. We all of us had the skills, you know? But old MF was the powerhouse. Never seen anyone like him.”
Spur was silent a moment, lost in time, unaware that his desert-dry lips had cracked and started to bleed. He went on. “Didn’t save him though. Not when we ran into the Red Engine.”
Grief took a step closer to Spur. “Are you telling me you’ve seen it?”
Spur smiled, widening the split in his lips, and his eyes watered. “Oh, yes. I was the only one who escaped. And I never wanted to see that thing again but I have.” He waved a weary arm towards the markers surrounding them. “At night, the stars speak so clearly to this place. They’ve told me of it every night for the past three weeks. The Red Engine rides again and it’s going to be close tonight, to the east.”
“There’s a whole lot to the east. Where exactly?”
Spur’s face suddenly twisted up into fury. “You know damn well it doesn’t work like that! Exactly? Exactly? But I think. . . I think it’s going to be coming down Interstate 17. That’s my best guess.”
Grief turned and began to stride back to his ride. “Then I’ve got a few hours on the road ahead of me.”
“Wait, Grief. Wait a minute, I’ve got a basket case for you to use.” Spur turned to the object under the tarp and revealed it to be the ugliest, most piecemeal motorcycle Grief had ever seen.
Grief squinted at Spur as if he had lost his mind. “Why would I want to ride that piece of crap when my own crotch rocket is right over there?”
Spur stomped right up to Grief until his leathery face was just inches from the younger man’s. “I built it from the bikes of the Throttle Wolves. Went back when I was sure the Engine had moved on and got what I needed. Every single one of them is in this bike. I’ve been working on it off and on for more than twenty years. Every single way I could make this thing a talisman, I have.”
Grief stepped around him, approached the bike and ran a gloved hand across it gingerly. A series of chrome amulets had been bolted to its sides and sigils were etched into every surface. Grief removed the glove, touched the handlebars and felt a deep throb, a dark frequency of magic.
The older man continued, “I want that thing destroyed. I’m not a hero, though. I’ve got a little piece of the damn critter in the center of this circle and I built it so it can’t see inside or enter it. I’m not leaving here until the job is done. But I do want that thing destroyed.”
Grief looked from the bike to the man to the bike again, considering. Something wasn’t quite right and he couldn’t sense exactly what protections Spur had put on the bike. That was troubling but winging it was never a problem for Grief; some people find a little thrill in being less prepared than they know they ought to be.
A minute later, he was thundering away from the circle of steel on that cursed machine while Spur watched him go without the slightest trace of guilt or regret or anything on his face.
Hours passed before Grief found himself flirting with an older waitress in a diner off of I17. He had needed a break, Spur’s creation was only a slightly smoother ride than a jackhammer, and she had a smile he liked, the kind that looked like a chagrined frown with the edges turned up.
She was wearing it when he told her his name and she said, “So that’s your handle, huh? Grief. What’re you sad a lot?”
Grief spoke around a gushing mouthful of greasy hamburger. “Nope, it’s my given name. I’ve got a brother named Lament and my sister is Sorrow.”
She cocked an eyebrow in amused disbelief. “Yeah, right. If that’s true, then your parents need Prozac, big time.”
He shook his shaggy head. “Naw. My parents were mostly just weird on the surface. People were always surprised at how sunny they actually were. You ever hear of Mister Twisted and Little Miss Morbid? They were kind of like Elvira but —”
“Oh yes!” she said, clapping her hands in delight. “They used to host that one horror show! And she was in all those goofy movies! She was your mom?”
“Yep. And those movies are classics, okay?”
She leaned back, crossed her arms and inspected him, looking for signs of insanity. “Man, growing up under them must have been weird. Were they like that all the time? Did they actually think they could do magic?”
Grief shifted uncomfortably on his counter stool, glazed out the diner’s window to see a hulking semi pulling in. “Only the harmless kind. But it did get me wondering, wondering what was really out there, if there was any real power to be had, y’know? Started me on my path.” His voice trailed off and his grey eyes became distant for a moment before suddenly coming back. “But not them. They’re just good people.”
The waitress, whose name tag said Sarah, looked towards the window herself and glowered. “What is this asshole doing?”
The semi was positioning itself across the front of the diner, its trailer completely blocking the window’s view of the interstate. The hairs on the back of Grief’s neck rose and without knowing exactly why, he glanced around the diner, taking in almost a dozen other customers, including one family of four.
“Is there a back door to this place?” he asked Sarah and when he didn’t get an answer, he turned just in time to see her drop down behind the counter, limply flopping across the floor tiles. Thuds and clattering sounded all around him as the cook in the kitchen and the customers at their tables dropped like puppets with their strings cut.
A bell tinkled as the front door swung open and the man from the semi stepped in with a double-thump of his big black boots. Then there was only the sound of heavy breathing as Grief and this man, wearing a flannel shirt in the Arizona summer heat, stared at each other.
When he spoke, the movement of the man’s lips was barley visible beneath the tangles of his wild beard. “I smelled you. I smelled you and I remembered you. You crossed me and escaped me long ago but I never forget. And now I’ve found you.” The man gripped his shirt with both hands and tore it open, revealing a mangled mingling of flesh and metal and wire.
Grief rose slowly to his feet as two realizations hit home at the same time. First, the Red Engine, like a few other predators of the Torment Countries, could take human avatars, which meant the creature was much more powerful than he had wanted to believe. Secondly, Spur’s motorcycle wasn’t built to protect its rider but to tag him as a decoy and a sacrifice.
Grief didn’t have time to be flummoxed by either revelation. He turned and leaped over the counter just as the man from the semi bolted forward in a blur. When the man followed suit, leaping behind the counter, Grief leapt back out in front of it, keeping it between them.
The man laughed, rumbling phlegmatic sound, and the smell of cooking meat wafted from his mouth. “You really should let my proxy finish you. The true me is tearing this way and it won’t be long now. You don’t want to die that way. Some of your kind are at this very moment finding that out.”
Grief felt something try to grip his mind but he sloughed it off easily enough. “Look, I’m not the guy you think I am. You have eyes, right? Look at me.” It was silly, trying to reason with a nightmare like this, and Grief wondered if this was what it was like to panic.
The man plucked a gleaming vegetable knife from behind the counter, his runny pink eyes locked on Grief’s. “Roads. Roads turn a land into a nation, a planet into a world. I have ridden camels and horses and cars and turtles and beetles and men and so many others on so many worlds and the roads between worlds.”
He wagged the knife at Grief, his reflection flitting across its blade like a ghost. “Roads carry the men and their dreams just as arteries carry blood and I am the infection chasing you on the arterial tide.”
With savage suddenness, the man dove down and came back up with Sarah gripped by her neck in his left hand. A flick of the knife slit the unconscious woman’s blouse and bra and a rough jerk spilled her heavy breasts, so pale against the tan of her torso. With the flat of his blade, the man traced the contours of her left breast. “I ride the blood straight into the red engine of man. Under here. The most perfect part of you. I sing its praises.”
Grief cocked his head, weighing options, calculating, then bolted for the door. As expected, the man dropped Sarah and leapt over the counter with a joyous snarl. But Grief spun around before reaching the door and tossed a small object, a sliver of glass encased in amber on which an ovoid spiral-like symbol, a word from a language not invented by man, was etched. As he threw the object at the man and himself to the floor, Grief spoke the word aloud.
All of the diner’s windows shattered. Every glass, every light-bulb, every pair of spectacles and even the faces of every watch in the diner shattered. And all of it, every shard, converged on the man from the semi with the force of a hurricane wind. The spray of blood even reached the ceiling.
Grief was appalled to see the man still on his feet, swaying, the shards jutting out from every part him. But then he collapsed with a sickening explosion of crunches. He lay there twitching, still trying to drag himself towards Grief in the slick lubrication of his own blood.
But Grief was already out the door.
He hesitated before the bike and briefly considered ditching it, wondering if it might not be too late, if it had stained him with Spur’s aura so completely that the Red Engine would chase him even without the bike. Either way, it didn’t matter. Spur had betrayed him and that had to be answered. What better way than the lead his enemy to him?
He brought the bike to life with a roar and sped back the way he came.
The sun was nearing the horizon when they caught up with him on Black Canyon Highway dead in the middle of Phoenix. It was a disaster. When the cars finished crumpling and the metal stopped screaming, Grief was amazed to find himself still whole and alive. He couldn’t credit his own skill with his miraculous escape from the pile-up, so the bike must have been good for something.
He sat there, straddling the bike, gaping at the mess he had somehow weaved through, hearing the sobs of the injured, trying to get his breathing under control, trying to figure out how his luck could be so bad that this could happen now, when the driver-side door of a nearby shattered Volvo burst open. The man who stepped out didn’t seem to mind his broken arm, he just kept his gaze fixed on Grief as he limped towards him.
Grief gazed back in dawning horror. Proxies had just caused a smash-up on a major highway, injuring or killing God knows how many, in an attempt to get him. Muttering a non-stop stream of obscenities, Grief spun the bike around and escaped down Camelback Road, then turned onto a side street.
The proxy dove back into his Volvo and soon the half-wrecked car was limping after the Hallowjack. A dilapidated green van disengaged itself from the tangle of cars and joined the pursuit, its driver and passengers all flesh puppets of the Red Engine. The driver of a formerly sleek corvette also tried to serve his master’s will, but his vehicle was a crippled lost cause.
The chase was a darting, reckless one, serenaded by the blaring horns of outraged drivers. Grief cleared his mind of all concerns except speed and gave himself over to the motorcycle, the world tilting and blurring past him. The Volvo ended its run with a brutal collision with an SUV but the van would not be stopped. Still, it was too slow and disappeared from Grief’s rearview after a couple minutes, but he knew better than to think they weren’t still on his trail. They didn’t have to see him to find him.
The place for a stand presented itself: a gas station and car-wash, side by side.
He swung into the lot and skidded to a stop in front of a pump. The green van rounded the corner at the end of the street just as he jerked the gas hose from its holster. It took too many precious seconds to spray a barbell-like symbol on the pavement in gasoline. This was another word of the Omerta Tongue, the language of the Outer Roads.
The van, filled with dark and menacing silhouettes, swung into the lot just as Grief lit a match, dropped it onto the symbol and spoke the word. The match winked out when it touched the gas and the van exploded as its fuel tank ignited. Grief and two other men, who had been filling their tanks and trying to ignore the weirdo with the bike, were thrown to the ground by the blast, eyes burning and ears ringing.
Grief pushed himself into a sitting position, physically exhausted from what he’d done. He didn’t know whether to cry or scream when the van’s two front doors opened and a pair of flame-engulfed figures stepped out. One of them tottered, took two steps and then succumbed to the flame, collapsing to the pavement. But the other kept coming, lurching and flailing.
The horrified screams of the other two men, both of them frozen and disbelieving their eyes, snapped Grief out of his stupor. He wrestled the fallen bike back up to a standing position, mounted it and brought it to life just as he began to feel heat at his bike. The Hallowjack took off with a squeal of his tires and the proxy, so close but now defeated, collapsed. One roasting arm landed in the growing puddle of gasoline from the hose Grief had dropped at the van’s explosion.
The gas pumps erupted and the two stricken bystanders were washed away in tides of flame. Grief was not so far away that he did not hear the thunder and know what it was.
The sun had touched the horizon and lit the sky like an inferno by the time Grief had left Phoenix heading west on I10. The cost of this game blurred his eyes with tears, turned his stomach with nausea but he did not slow down. He had to win this thing now, not just survive it. He swore to himself that he would.
He didn’t know that this bad night for Phoenix wasn’t over yet, that the Red Engine itself would shortly enter the city, following Grief’s path, and triple the carnage and chaos already done. It would be a night of sirens and fire, a night of hell that the newspapers would never be able to explain.
The pale full moon and a crowd of stars lit the desert and witnessed Grief’s return to the circle of steel. He kicked up a spray of dust and dirt as he braked, tried to dismount and just flopped to the ground in exhaustion. But there was no time to rest, no time. The last few miles of his run had passed in terror; he could feel the Red Engine bearing down on him.
And now, a cloud of dust was just visible in the distance as something inhuman tore across the desert.
Coughing, aching, he got himself upright and stumbled towards the circle, calling, “Spur! It’s right behind me!”
Spur met him at the outer edge of the circle and leveled a shotgun at him. “That’s why you’re not getting in here, bro.” His words were ever so slightly slurred and his eyes were bright and glassy. He reeked of alcohol.
Grief dared to walk right up to the barrel of the shotgun. What did he have to lose? The small dust cloud in the distance was now less small and less distant. “You tried to get me killed. I came out here to help you and you tried to get me killed.”
Spur bared his crooked yellow teeth in a skeptical leer. “You came out here to help me? Nah, you came out here for the same thing we all did, thrill-seeker.”
“You got others killed. A whole bunch of folks in Phoenix —”
“People gotta die so that others feel alive, boy. Gas is a fossil fuel, you know. We burn the dead so that we can chase the dream, whatever it may be, so that we can feel alive. And I wasn’t even in Phoenix. You were.” As he spoke, the older man stared out past Grief, mesmerized by what was coming.
Grief turned to look and saw a shape in the dust cloud, a hulking figure on an enormous, jagged motorcycle. It made not a sound but ran silent as a shark. Grief broke out into a cold sweat and felt his knees weaken. If he didn’t get into that circle now he was going to die.
He turned back to the older man and forced himself to speak in a calm, almost soothing voice. “You know this isn’t right, Spur. That’s why you had to get drunk off your ass.”
But Spur didn’t look at him, just gasped, “All those flies, even more than last time.”
Grief spun around again and saw that the cloud around the creature wasn’t just dust. He could hear a low buzz that wasn’t in any way mechanical. It would be on him in a minute.
He turned back to Spur and said evenly, “Just be a man, look me in the eye and tell me this is right. Tell me this is what MF Madison would do.”
Finally Spur locked eyes with him and there was genuine sorrow in his faltering words. “Kid, this is the way the world is, y’know? Everybody’s gotta fight to survive. Somebody’s gotta lose.”
The buzzing sound began to distinguish itself into a thousand insect voices. In the same gentle monotone, Grief answered, “But what about when we met? You had woken the Starving Men and I got the other Hallowjacks to help you. That’s how people survive, by helping each other.”
The buzzing was loud, almost maddening, but Spur was caught in Grief’s imploring gaze and didn’t look away. His words were thick and hard to understand when he said, “I’m sorry but I can’t. I’m scared. I’m bad. Can’t let you in.”
The awful smell of rancid meat wafted over them and the rising hairs on the back of his neck and arms told Grief that he had seconds. He said simply, “Then we’ll both die. You took a step outside the circle, Spur.”
“What?” Spur started and jerked his head frantically, looking to his feet, then to the markers on either side of him, and he didn’t even have time to register that it wasn’t true before Grief had slammed into him, driving his knee up into Spur’s groin.
A motorcycle built of steel and bone and gristle, trailing a comet tail of flies, came skidding to a stop mere feet away from the struggling men. An massive figure clad in a long stitched coat of pale leather that had to be the flesh of men, dismounted and roared, its voice sounding like a lion’s from the bottom of a well.
Grief gave Spur a savage crack across the head with the butt of the shotgun and dove into the circle. Spur had just enough time to realize that the struggle had landed him on the wrong side of the border when a hand made of dull gray metal and bare red muscle landed on his shoulder.
“You lied to me!” shrieked Spur as the Red Engine pressed him down and began to dismantle him. Again and again, punctuated and interrupted by cries of agony, he screamed, “You lied to me!”
But Grief wasn’t listening. He had an oath to keep. He ran to the center of Steelhenge and found a small mound of dirt with a protective circle drawn around it. A few swipes of his hand cleared the grit away from the little glistening fragment of the Red Engine. Grief pulled a pen-knife from his pocket, pricked his finger, and traced the ovoid symbol onto the fragment in blood.
Grief looked back to see that the beast had paused in its work on Spur’s corpse and was peering into the circle, perhaps intrigued by this barrier to its senses. But it wouldn’t cross, couldn’t cross. There were rules that even beings like the Red Engine were bound by. It parted its mismatched jaws, the lower might have come from some kind of dog, and hissed.
Grief spoke the word and then howled in pain, clutching his finger. The Red Engine howled too when it felt itself suddenly jerked forward into the outer boundary of the steel circle.
Grief spoke the word again and the agony spread to his other fingers. The Red Engine struggled mightily but slid a couple more feet into the circle. Its flesh components began to run and sizzle like cooking fat.
Grief spoke the word a third time and felt as if his entire left hand licked by the unfathomable cold beyond death. The Red Engine, its talons dug into the dry dead ground, inched past the inner circle of markers. Its final hateful snarl echoed across the desert as its body erupted, flinging fragments of bone and metal and spraying liquid meat across the impassive faces of the markers.
Grief tumbled into unconsciousness.
The rude insistence of the morning sun’s heat woke him. Sun glinted painfully from the gleaming markers. Buzzing flies explored the remains of Spur and the creature that killed him. Dust and dirt caked his leathers and rained from his hair when he sat up.
He got himself a beer and some jerky from Spur’s Winnebago. He had to open them both using only his right hand. His left was numb and limp. He worked with it for half an hour, trying to get some feeling, some movement. He knew it was pointless but he had to try.
After his breakfast, such as it was, he took stock of his options. His own motorcycle was still in one piece, standing right where he left it, but riding it with one hand wasn’t a smart idea. There was the Winnebago but he didn’t intend on using any vehicle that Spur had a hand in ever again. As long as his right hand still worked, there was always traveling by thumb. He decided to hike the long miles on that unmarked dirt road all the way back to I10 where he’d hitch a ride.
He found a duffel bag in the Winnebago and packed it with some beer and food. He slung the bag across his back, took one last look around old Steelhenge and hit the road.
Beyond the Veil is a regularly appearing column featuring fiction, including occult, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. If you’d like to contribute a story, please contact email@example.com and we’ll be happy to review your submission.
©2009 Bret Tallman
Edited by Sheta Kaey