NaNoWriMo Day 9

When Amir saw Phil come out of the bathroom, he noticed that he seemed different. Not drunk anymore, standing taller than usual and walking with aggressive purpose. He watched Phil stride right past him without a second look nor acknowledgement, and then saw him walk right out of the bar. Amir never saw his roommate again in this life, and he never got any kind of explanation as to what any of it was about. He just kind of protruded into someone else’s narrative, never realizing that fact, and it came to be unfortunate for him in the end. No answers for him, nor for anyone to whom he was a significant figure.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s up the road a bit, and there’s business at hand.

For Phil’s part, he wasn’t at the reigns, as might have been guessed. Phil Warner, tech support drone, was getting some learning done, borne upon a dreamlike wave of experiences that weren’t his. Working a plow, breaking a horse, bringing in the sheaves, watching from an upper-story window as a fierce-eyed man and his grim followers dragged his father out of their house in the moonlight and cut him down with a sword, then riding off. Learning to shoot a pistol, putting on the guerrilla shirt his mother made for him, riding off to find Captain Quantrill’s boys and settle accounts with the Abolitionists.

Phil hadn’t ever in his life known just where Lawrence, Kansas was on a map, but now he stood in his ancestor’s boots and watched it burned to the ground, feeling his ancestor’s satisfaction and tasting the liquor that burned in his belly, nostrils full of the smell of arson, ears full of screaming and gunfire. Not one male of age to hold a pistol and mount a horse had been spared, not as far as Quantrill could help it. The brought an Old Testament reckoning to that city, and Phil knew the feeling of having a revolver kick in his hand to put an unarmed man down in the muck.

He felt Harry Branson’s fury at knowing everyone else was packing it in. The Union had them over a goddamn barrel, and their teeth were pulled. The Youngers hooked up with the James boys before too long, them and a few others, and they went back to the old ways, except now they were outlaws instead of soldiers. Same tactics, same targets, same bloody end. They weren’t the only ones. Branson was just one of the sons of Missouri who couldn’t stop fighting just because there wasn’t any more war. Like most of the others, he drifted to the Indian Nation, then down into Texas. Mackeson and Woodrell, Ewell and a couple of the other boys rode with him, for want of any better plan.

There was a woman, pretty in a hard-faced way, daughter of a rancher whose Confederate sympathies had him more than happy to help anyone who’d give trouble to the reconstruction government. Phil felt a shock go through him when he looked at her through Branson’s eyes and saw that his own features echoed the shape of her mouth and eyes.

There was that last bank job. Then the shootout that ultimately followed. Finally, with a terrifying finality, Phil got to feel what it was like to have your lungs quit on you for good, five hours after a lawman plugged you, two hours before your partners could get you to any kind of shelter. It was a tremendous opportunity for him, after a fashion. Not many men get to find out what dying bloody in the Texas desert feels like, and of those who do, almost all get the knowledge first-hand, and don’t get any aftermath to contemplate the knowledge in.

All that is what the descendant was about, getting to know his family history in the back of his own head. That was keeping him occupied while Harry Branson set to work at the task of getting used to living.

Jeans he was used to, the T-shirt and boxers and keds were not. As far as the shirt went, Branson also had no idea what a Battlestar Galactaca was, and decided it was not something worth wasting much thought on at present. He was accustomed to longer legs, and more powerful lungs, but he was pretty happy just to be able to walk on solid feet again, the true earth underneath him.

Leaving the bar behind him, the fleshed ghost stepped out into a strange new world. The clothes, the crowds, the pavement, the people, all the smells and sounds and sights of the place took him with a comparable force to the bullet that had once ended him. This was all marvelous, and he grinned wildly.

He walked into the radius of some fast fiddling, a tune he’d known long ago, and he stepping into dancing to it, purely for the joy of it. His borrowed limbs tingled with the excitement of life, and he took hold of an unsuspecting girl walking past and swept her round in a rapid two-step, twirling and dipping her before she knew what was about, then planting a kiss on her mouth and dancing off as she and her friends stared stunned at him.

He wound up by the river, walking underneath the Congress Bridge from which bats pour out at sunset like an eruption of blackness. It was about three AM, as dark as night can get, and Harry Branson still couldn’t get over the joy of being in the flesh. He was staring at the dark water and wishing he had a cigarette when he realized someone was coming up behind him. He turned some and got a bead on the mid-sized man in an oversized hoodie, one hand jammed menacingly in the right pocket. Branson had been on either side of the gun often enough to know a stickup when he saw it, and gauging this comer’s body language it seemed likely that his pocket really had a gun in it. Branson went still.

“Hey, motherfucker, give me your fucking wal-” said the mugger. He’d have said more, but he’d closed to much distance and put his gun barrel out of line for a crucial instant. Enough time for Branson to step in and over, taking himself even further out of line and putting himself in grabbing distance, punching to the throat in what seemed like the same motion. His body flowed like water being poured out of a pitcher, rippling the blow up from his heel to his hips and up through his shoulder and down his arm, fist snapping like a bullwhip as it took the unwary thief in the neck. That motion was followed by another, though any watcher would have had trouble marking them as separate. The striking left hand swept down to take possession of the thief’s gun hand while Branson’s right came up to take hold of the back of his neck.

Phil’s body wasn’t as quick or polished as Branson was used to, and the mugger retained his grasp of the pistol. He tried to twist loose, scared and breathless. His breathing apparatus was on hiatus and his mind was shaken, hands weak and legs wobbly, but the lizard-parts at the base of his skull knew better than to let go of the gun, and remembered it’d be best to get it pointed at the thing that was causing the hurt.

Branson would have none of that. He drove Phil’s left knee into the outside of the mugger’s left thigh, where the nerves are bundled together, dropped his right hand in a vicious short chopping punch to the man’s left kidney, and snapped his left back up to the throat, shoving with a twist to cast him down on the sidewalk.

The mugger wasn’t functional in any sophisticated way, but his baffled fingers were making a desperate last-ditch effort to get a gunshot off. Branson put paid to that business using Phil Warner’s left heel, which produced some wet snapping sounds between the sole and the pavement. The outlaw had no intention of dealing with anything like a law-abiding citizen in a context of explaining gunshots.

In addition to the gun, a short-barreled .357 that Branson liked the heft of, the mugger also had a pack of cigarettes, and a Bic lighter. Branson was no slow thinker, and shortly determined how this latter worked. He walked away along the riverside, smoking cheerfully and whistling “Rose of Alabama.”

Round Rock

The landmark that gives the town of Round Rock its name is a flat cap to a stone pillar rising up from the water of Brushy Creek like a giant nail. The Chisholm Trail once crossed here, and the stone is just about the right size to serve as an altar for presenting a child to something with appropriate tastes. No one records whether this has ever actually been done on the esteemed landmark, but the world is full of secret and hidden deeds that history does its best to forget. In any case, whether from old innocent blood or the fixed attention of some god or devil, of the interaction of Earth and Water in that place, there was power to be had there, and it was this that drew the Driver and his passenger to it.

He shed his boots and jeans at the edge of the creek, set aside his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing the jagged lines and whorls of powerful meaning tattooed across his body. When he was naked, the passenger perched upon his shoulder in the body of a whippoorwill and began to sing a song that had been assembled from a long-lost invocation from the earliest edition of Solomon’s Key married to the chant of a Navajo skinwalker, and snatches of tune heard at the Voudun ceremony that some said initiated the Haitian revolt, when bloody offerings were made to the most terrible of the Loa to buy their aid. The thing that had once been Nathan Haverly had learned this song at the age of fifteen, from a teacher who had done horrible things to him as fee for the knowledge. This song was a sure charm to catch the attention of the Black Man of the deepest woods, and it had never failed to call him forth to bargain.

The Driver entered the water, not noticing the cold. He was being reborn. He made his way to the rock, climbed up to stand upon it, and took up the song himself, chanting in harmony with the abomination on his shoulder. He chanted until his body went entirely numb,and then he climbed out through his mouth and left his meat standing there, and continued the chant truly naked.

Headlights cut past, and some late-night driver shuddered and assured himself sternly that he’d seen a figment of moonlit imagination. That man’s sleep was uneasy, and remained so for three months. After that point, he snapped during a trivial argument with his wife, cracked her skull against the kitchen counter, and eventually found himself in Huntsville, where he was said never to sleep at all. When he tried, he dreamed about the pale naked man over the water, and the hungry blackness that enveloped him. The teeth that formed from it, and the eyes. The night before he killed his wife, he heard those mouths call his name.

The Driver never knew about any of this, nor would he have cared a whit. He was caught up in a black gust of frozen wind, the ten thousand eyes of shadow regarding him, the thrice-hundredfold tongues tasting his soul to the marrow. Every atom of his being was chewed by a thousand teeth, and he felt it forever, burning pain and revelation. He was unmade, then remade, then cast into endless fire.

In the midst of it, he heard the voice. SO. YOU WOULD HAVE POWER.

yes, he screamed, which came out as nothing at all.

POWER. I HAVE THIS. I CAN BESTOW THIS. THERE IS A PRICE.

name it, he begged. please.

SERVICE. EVERY DAY OF MY STRENGTH IS VALUED AT A YEAR OF YOUR SERVICE. WHEN YOUR SERVICE ENDS AS YOUR BREATH STOPS, EACH YEAR WILL BECOME A CENTURY, IN WHICH I WILL DO WITH YOU AS I PLEASE.

good. only give me the knowledge i seek.

KNOW, THEN.

All the agonies of revelation that had come before, all the pain and struggle and realization of his life before and his ancestors’ lives before, all that could have been compressed into a single point, and that point would have been the tip of the lancet of cold fire that rammed itself through his eye and into his soul. All the books were opened, and he saw the sea giving up its dead.

Then it was gone.

He was cold. Naked, and alone.

“Get up, ye cocksucker,” his teacher hissed at him. “Get up and put yer kenning to use.”

He stood. He let his flesh ripple and twist. His boned exploded telescopically under his skin, and with one stride he was back on the shore.

“Good. Now let’s feast. We’ll need all our strength, tomorrow when we settle all affairs.”

This next part was easy. The Driver had prepared for it in advance, doing his research. Within two miles was the home of a faith healer. Her faintly sensitive husband, who could hear whispers of other peoples’ thoughts sometimes. Their three children, each of whom had likely inherited some gift.

Traversing the distance, the Driver paid no heed to form, stalked as a roiling mass of too-long limbs, cloaked in shadow as a mercy to any eyes that might have beheld him. Beholding his wake was bad enough; bad enough to shatter a man’s heart. But that would be for the first responders to learn after the morning came.

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