Stalled Out

Photo: Horwin.
CC0/Public Domain license.

As the old RV pulled onto Interstate 205 Former Coroner Ron was about to rattle apart from palpitations. “A traffic jam?” he screeched as the RV dropped into a lower gear and muttered into the slow line of traffic leading to the onramp.

It was, indeed, a traffic jam, the likes of which Former Coroner Ron had never seen in all his days upon the easy-breezy roadways of Oregon. Halted bumper to bumper, strings of immobile cars wound down and around the southern bend of the road as far as he could see. He slammed his fist against the bench cushion and swore.

If Former Coroner Ron didn’t have two of their ilk piloting this particular rusty deathtrap, he’d be convinced the Gods themselves were conspiring to keep them from their destination.

And maybe they were.

Two miles to the south of their position and about an hour beforehand, the weary driver of a lone semi hauler hefting a payload of liquid nitrogen, his last dose of no-doze and truck stop coffee metabolized out of his system, had drifted across the center line, angled into the two oncoming lanes and collided with a panel truck and four-door compact. The wreck caused a chain reaction that sent traffic in one direction careening into the other, concluding in a twelve-car pile up that left thirteen people dead. The carnage would take upwards of five hours to clear and at least another hour after that for the flow of traffic to resume normal speed.

Why the Gods would want to delay the sport to be found in the coming conflict of two demigods, an acerbic former forensic specialist, a journeyman mechanic and closet poet, his bird-woman lover and her de-deceased daughter, only they could say. Time was standing still for no one and as Rusty, Carri and Dawn sat down to a crisp and hearty lunch of grilled cheese and Campbell’s Chicken and Noodle, the Razor Baby took a long look at the span of its forearms where the blisters once more retreated into its hide and felt the urge to pace up and down the bows of the old black walnut tree until dark resumed and the little family slept.

In the meantime, Former Coroner Ron contemplated getting out and walking. As the minutes crawled from the sea and evolved into hours, the notion became more and more appealing. Snorting like a bull, he rose from the bench and made for the prow of the RV.

“I’ll be disembarking here,” he grumbled, stepping down onto the RV’s little gantry step. “Pick me up once this cluster-fuck starts rolling.”

“I never took you for the peripatetic one, Doctor,” said Paulus.

“I’m not, but only crap thoughts come from sitting still.”

As the RV door swung wide, allowing Former Coroner Ron and his sizable girth egress, Paulus and Castro exchanged looks only best described as knowing.

“Nietzsche was keen on the benefits of walking,” said Castro, “Walking and thinking…”

“Nietzsche said ‘God is Dead,'” said Paulus.

“Nietzsche was never caught in a colossal traffic jam with a deeply aggravated former forensic specialist,” said the other.

“Walking is good,” said Paulus

“Walking is good,” said his brother.

“Ah, to fly.”

“Word,” said the other.

Castro rested his head on the steering wheel and let out a sigh.

Wending his way through the column of idling cars, Former Coroner Ron trudged to the shoulder of the onramp and pointed his nose south. The sun-baked grasses and weeds carpeting the narrow shoulder crunched beneath his feet and the sounds of idling motors, FM Top 40 and the occasional epithet uttered by an aggravated driver drifted out to meet his ears. The sun was starting its slow slide into the west and the air would soon cool. Former Coroner Ron moved at a pace brisk enough to ward off the dropping temperature for some time.

Walking was a frivolous venture, thought Former Coroner Ron, traffic will surely unfurl in the next half hour and next I know the RV will be pulling up beside me.

Yet, for some reason the notion of getting out of that dank, musty rattletrap and simply moving, albeit foot-by-foot, toward his objective made Former Coroner Ron feel better.

He soon began to feel a bit winded, but aggravation became the propellant that kept him plodding on. He also began to feel a strange sense of trepidation about his return to the Little Gray Town. He’d called the place home for a decade at least, but when his life hit the wall and he awoke to a whole new perspective on this World of Hurt, he left and never once thought to look back.

Trudging along, Former Coroner Ron allowed himself the luxury of reflection. He’d sent no one a card, no one a letter upon his exit. He imagined most people in his place would, but there was no one with whom he felt that sort of connection. Nothing he’d ever felt the urge to share. And he’d encountered some amazing things…at least, in theory. What would his life have looked like if there had actually been someone there who wanted to hear about the four seconds of muddied EVP recording he’d made of a distinctly human voice made in an empty room in Missouri? The night he’d chased a glowing orb on his Flir heat sensor through a 19th Century horse paddock in West Virginia? The night he set his alarm so he could catch the echoes of an ancient jazz quartet, its members long dead, perform with lifelike gusto in the ballroom of Milwaukee’s old Pfizer Hotel?

No one.

Former Coroner Ron trudged on. He became conscious of his thick thighs and the way they rubbed against one another. He became conscious of the way his shoulders kept a hunch while his chest wanted more than anything to lead the whole of his anatomy. He became conscious of how very little room the road’s shoulder afforded him between the ill-kept ditch on his left and the rickety mesh fence to his right.

He became conscious that he was on a walking a little spit of dry earth and grass to nowhere…

He paused and looked back, noting how the sky was beginning to turn dark around the edges and the headlamps of a legion of idling vehicles began to slowly wink to life. Just up the freeway he could see the Itaska, where it sat on the nape of the onramp. For a moment he wondered if he should turn around and head back, and then thought better of it. The notion of humping all the way back to the RV covered him in a dreary cloud. Best to move forward.

Former Coroner Ron’s people didn’t spring from the Little Gray Town but from a county or two to the south. The third of five siblings, Former Coroner Ron’s family was spread to the four winds and spoke little to one another, even at holidays. Goltry seldom felt moved to send out even a Christmas card. But his youngest sister, Anna, was very regular at sending out her season’s greetings, regular like clockwork. It seldom occurred to him to send a card back in response. Work kept him busy, and then his pursuit of the paranormal. He wondered if any of his siblings knew he’d even quit his job and become a vagabond. The thought simply had never occurred to him.

He wondered why Anna even bothered. It puzzled him a bit. Always had. And then he wondered why he was so keen to bother…about any of it, about the little dead girl and her mother, the creature and the red plain?

Easy, a voice rose from behind his corpus callosum. Easy.

Because somewhere out there…somewhere under that red sand or in the grip of your fat fists about the neck of that hideous clawed thing is the answer, a resolution to stop the constant turning of this fucking World of Hurt.

I no longer need to prove anything, thought Former Coroner Ron. I no longer need to prove anything because it’s all already been proven to me.

The Thelema Child, the little dead girl come to life, they were like silicon or gold or lapis lazuli. Precious elements that, until that right person came along to figure out how to put them to use, sat inert in the earth, waiting.

Former Coroner Ron kept walking, and the night kept painting itself over the sky. Heavy patches of sweat spread over the front, back and sides of his baggy sweatshirt, sweat ran in runnels down his trunk-like thighs, sweat pooled up in the toes of his shoes and soaked into his threadbare brown socks, and he paid it no head. He just kept walking, over crinkled Coke cans and through brittle yellowed newspapers, wads of McDonald’s and Arby’s bags, he just kept walking.

That child killer was a cancer to this world, thought Former Coroner Ron. Ending that thing would end a rhythm of death and destruction that’s gone on for God only knows how long.

These gods had little influence over human beings anymore, Former Coroner Ron thought to himself. Their influence was feeble, their ranks few and far between. Good lord, he thought, they were an endangered species. The Thelema Child was once a vital link in the food chain of the gods, crucial to their chain of being. Then something went wrong. Links in the chain began to unhook and fall away. Destroying that thing would mean one less magical entity hindering the posterity of we pitiful little humans.

Destroying that thing could be the first note in the dirge of the gods.

Destroying that thing might very well mean the final dawn for this World of Hurt.

Former Coroner Ron shuffled on. He glanced to his left and eyed the columns of cars. They reminded him of a mass exodus, anxious refugees fleeing a war zone or a great plague…or the end of the world.

Plodding on, Former Coroner Ron noted the sound of crunching dry grass beneath his feet had ceased. Shifting his focus from the idling mass of vehicles he glanced down and saw his feet scuff up a cloud of red sand.

Former Coroner Ron’s senses tilted and he saw the sky was now black and dappled with stars. Looking ahead, he saw the great tower standing before him. He smirked and nodded. Now he’d finally get the chance for a good, long look at it.

Looking down, he noted that he was, again, naked–not one of his most favored states of being considering his age and physical make up. He sighed, resigned to the notion that nudity, here on the red plain, was a status quo and wished deeply otherwise. A millisecond later hediscovered that he was, once more, fully clad.

Raising his brows just a hair and pursing his lips in a manner more becoming someone of European descent, he pondered the possibility that he had more power over this particular reality than he previously reckoned. He would have experimented further with conjuring a BLT sandwich and some sweet iced tea but something about that damn tower beckoned and so he began a steady trudge to its base.

As he approached, the familiar shadow-play of even more familiar silhouettes began in earnest. Shapes of a young mother and her daughter, now very clearly the resurrected forms of Carri and Dawn Cromwell shifted, and resolved into view. And a new figure, that of a young man, or minstrel, with his ever-present guitar, strode into view. Again Former Coroner Ron raised his brow a hair and gave a gentle outward thrust to his lower lip. A man. A young man in the picture, this was good. Former Coroner Ron had learned from the tussle in Minnesota that a young man in the picture meant a break in the Thelema Child’s eons-long routine. But it might also mean the death of said young man. Former Coroner Ron scanned the boll of the tower for a sign of the little killer and found it, in the crest of a tree. Even though the images were flat and black, Former Coroner Ron could sense the creature’s hesitance. Was it simply wary of the young man, or was there something more?

The tower’s images slowed and became still, though every once in a while the Thelema Child would shuffle and shift its balance upon the shadowy branch.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re thinking, boy,” came a crusty voice from directly behind Former Coroner Ron. Former Coroner Ron gave a start. He knew that voice, all too well. Turning around he saw his father, weathered, old, and just as Goltry remembered him in the last few years of his life. He was slouched down in his ratty recliner save that this version of his father was formed of red sand.

“Pop, you’ve looked better,” said Former Coroner Ron to the visage of crimson grains.

The slouching figure representing Former Coroner Ron’s father at the lowest of the man’s mortal days scowled and lifted a can of PBR to his sandy lips. Former Coroner Ron couldn’t help but marvel at the likeness. The details were all there; the pattern-less work shirt buttoned over a t-shirt, the baggy workman’s pants—right down to the tattered old socks with holes exposing his father’s ragged old toenails. The details were perfect beyond the obvious crimson color tones and granules that drifted and sifted as the figure moved and tipped the beer can to its lips.

“I don’t know what the hell you were thinking, boy,” the sandy old man repeated. “You had it all, a good job, people looking up to you—respect. And what did you do? You threw it all in the crapper.”

Beyond the physical details, the facsimile had something else down pat, that gravelly, tone of contempt his father had mastered over the years–a tone that drove his children far and wide, and his wife to the brink of divorce.

Former Coroner Ron couldn’t help but feel a certain degree of bemusement. The figure before him was not his father. His father had hit a low lower than this and came out of it, but only after his family was in wreckage. He lived, he overcame and, as best he could, threw off the bottle, but only after he’d done an exceptional job of inscribing the major tenets of a World of Hurt upon his family.

Former Coroner Ron smiled the shadow of a smile. He rarely missed the old man and looking at the creature of sand representing his father filled him with a tincture of sadness and regret.

“I did, Pop,” he said, “I did throw it all away…but I also learned that something so easily thrown away wasn’t worth having in the first place.”

“Your mother and I had such hopes for you—all you kids.”

“Yes, I’m sure you did, but the disappointment you had in us was nothing compared to what we felt for you.”

The sand father paused, contemplated the beer can in its mitt. The sand father released its grip upon the can and it became a stream of sand that spiraled to the ground.

“That’s not going to work, is it?” asked the sand father.

“Nope,” said Former Coroner Ron.

“It’s an old tactic, my apologies,” said the sand father. “It’s worked on creatures of weaker minds for a millennia,” said the sand father.

“I’m not that guy,” said Former Coroner Ron.

As the mopey old eye of the sun slowly slid below the western horizon and a coverlet of deep dark blue began a slow spread over the heavens, Rusty rotated the old wooden spoon about in the saucepan, turning over the creamy macaroni and cheese within.

Condemned prisoners are allowed their favorite foods for the final repast on this Earth. What meals do you give the recently resurrected? Evidently it wasn’t going to be a crisp toasted cheese, much to Rusty’s chagrin. No, Rusty would tell you Kraft Macaroni and Cheese out of the box–with potato chips on the side–arw what little dead girls come to life crave most.

Summer was growing old and days were drawing shorter once again.  The light gradually dimmed about the little bungalow and over the quiet neighboring streets of the Little Gray Town. High in his perch, the Razor Baby sat, quietly skulking in the thick branches of the black walnut tree.

“No,” said the sand father. “You weren’t raised to be a creature of doubt.” Lifting and sifting itself upright, Former Coroner Ron watched as the recliner sculpture collapsed upon itself in a speedy hush of grains. A miniature sandstorm coalesced before him and the figure that once represented his father became vague and fuzzy. Narrowing at the shoulders, lengthening in the legs, the being of sand gathered in height, stretching up and over Former Coroner Ron. He watched patiently as the quintessence of sand resolved itself into a towering being of seven feet or more.

Maintaining his best poker face, Former Coroner Ron observed as a long, narrow face came to life as though sculpted by invisible hands. It was not an unpleasant face. As he watched, a long, solid nose sprung from the concave plane and was immediately supported by a sturdy chin, curved and smooth and just shy of heroic. Beyond those subtle details, the being was devoid of hair or angular lines, leaving it looking neither male nor female. It looked down and spoke again.

“Just when I think your race has reached the edge of the plateau and is about to fly screaming over the precipice, someone like you appears.”

Former Coroner Ron said nothing.

“You came onto the plain raw and unformed and full of such potential beyond your peers,” it said. “Sadly, you have no point of reference, no guidance. You’re forced to make up your own rules, build your own tools and survive beyond your reality’s normal rigors. I love and hate you so.”

“Why?” asked Former Coroner Ron.

“Because you remind me of the great potential we fail to pursue in ourselves,” it said.

“Then why am I wasting my time talking to you?” said Former Coroner Ron.

The sand being stuck its sandy fists to its sandy hips, threw its head back and laughed. Not the response Former Coroner Ron expected. When the ringing peals laughter faded away, the sand being tilted its head and regarded Former Coroner Ron with an expression oddly affectionate.

“Because, Doctor, this is your last stop on the road to Damascus,” it said.

“I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing,” said Former Coroner Ron.

“Yes, yes you do,” its said. “You’re going back home. You’re going to stop a cycle of death and violence that we’ve allowed to go on too long and then you’re going to do what heroes do.”

“What do heroes do?”

“They change the world.”

“You can’t simply change the world, that’s absurd.”

The creature gave a chuckle. It was the kind of chuckle Former Coroner Ron hadn’t heard in a long time. It was the chuckle of someone who knew you well, who was your worst critic and your best friend. It was a chuckle devoid of judgment and laced with fibers of genuine fondness. This creature, thought Former Coroner Ron, this creature cares about what happens next, regardless of what Castro and Paulus said. It cares and it’s invested in my success.

“No,” it continued, “You can’t change the world. But you can change the path and that path ultimately leads to change.”

“Killing the Thelema Child will change the world?”

“Perhaps.”

“It will stop the cycle?”

“Perhaps.”

“Am I the tool of its destruction?”

“Perhaps.”

“Am I going to die?”

The creature’s smug rhythm broke. “Yes, no—maybe,” it sputtered. Taking on a flustered expression it worked its lips of sand before speaking, “There is no word your ears can hear that adequately describes the opened-ended potential of a thousand different possibilities. They are what they are. You will be what you will be.”

“Crap,” spat Former Coroner Ron, “That means nothing to me. Why did you bring me here, I need to be home, I need to be stopping that thing!”

“And you will,” it said, “Just remember, you cannot do it alone. You cannot expect yourself to do it alone.”

“I haven’t been,” muttered Former Coroner Ron, “I’ve had to deal with those two idiots, offspring of yours I take it?”

“They were once so much more…”

“You’re gods, at least, I’m assuming that’s what you are…”

“For all intents and purposes, yes.”

“You have power over and above all of us and you just stand here in your little red desert and watch our lives played out on your tower is that it? Is that what you do, is this how you get your kicks?”

“It’s not that simple…”

“Well, explain it to me, I have a PhD. I can handle it.”

“It’s not that simple…”

“You are a fucking god. You’re omnipotent.”

“No. No we’re not.”

“Why not.”

“No one is left to believe.”

“You’re powerless because no one is left to believe in you?” cried Former Coroner Ron. “How can that be, every god since the Greeks taught themselves to paint on clay jugs has been represented through thousands of years, all the way to the present. You are part of the popular consciousness.”

“That is not the same as belief,” said the creature of sand. “We are the ethereal. Our presence is no longer felt because we no longer reside in the hearts and bones of a people. We’re like wind over the water—seen but barely noticed.”

“So you can’t help me?”

“Not in ways that are obvious.”

“No sword or magic shield?”

The sand being chuckled again and shook its sifting head.

“You’re just going to hang here and watch the play-by-play on your big tower over there?”

The being ceased the shaking of its great, sandy head. Its eyes, smooth orbs of cinder red belied little emotion but the tone of its grainy voice was most grave. “You lost your faith in us long ago…but we never lost our faith in you.”

“Please,” groaned Former Coroner Ron.

The being’s expression remained unchanged. It stood looking down on the hefty old forensic specialist, unblinking, saying nothing. As the seconds lapsed, it occurred to Former Coroner Ron that this was a creature that could more than likely stand and stare for longer than Former Coroner Ron cared to fathom.

“So you’re telling me that if I succeed, the world will change,” Former Coroner Ron, terminating the long pause. “It will change and move on into something else, something—what, something better?”

“Perhaps.”

“I’m really starting to dislike you,” Former Coroner Ron sighed.

The sand creature said nothing.

“Will it bring an end to this World of Hurt?”

For an instant, Former Coroner Ron thought sure the sand creature nodded its head just before the entirety of its form collapsed into a large heap of sand. As the sand rushed down upon itself, a hushed sound rose from the growing heap, the sound of a single whispered word.

“Perhaps.”