Close Encounter of The Third Kind
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen half-lay on the couch, feeling like some sort of god emperor, hosting mere mortals who have come to plead with him for better crops or maybe an end to the mysterious deaths of their newborns. Maybe a plague. Or somesuch. Blaise was sitting in an armchair nearby. And opposite to them, in two separate armchairs, sat two cops. One younger, with glasses on his big nose and acne on his worried face, and the other older, Middle Eastern and much more robust-looking.
Yen watched them through half-lidded eyes, feigning pain and exhaustion. He actually felt pretty normal and energetic, but Blaise had a point — his swift recovery could make the cops suspicious, so he had to act sicker than he felt. He did, by grimacing and moaning between his sentences. It worked miracles on the younger anxious cop, but the older one did not seem to buy it. One out of two was not bad.
“And then,” Yen drawled melodramatically, “I heard a loud boom, that, from what I was later told, was my beloved, my dearest, most precious motorcycle exploding to pieces.” He genuinely teared up. “And from what I understand, Luke threw himself on top of me and shielded me, but some of those guys were set on fire. I was hardly conscious at that point, so I don’t know more than that.”
The nervous cop just stared at him and his clipboard in turns, making notes. He said nothing for a while after he was done writing. The older cop watched his partner with an expectant look. He cleared his throat.
“Very mindful of you to give him a moment to mourn his motorcycle, Jeff, but perhaps we should carry on with the questions. Like how he got here…”
“Oh. How did you get here? And why?” the younger dude echoed urgently.
“Well, I don’t remember much, like I said. I think Luke got me a cab and took me here. Because he knew that Father Ivers would care for me. And he did.” Yen smiled at Blaise. The priest smiled back.
“And how do you know this Luke?”
“We rub shoulders at work.”
“With a homeless man?”
Yen frowned a little, but caught the competent cop staring at him, and focused on saying what he had rehearsed with Blaise. “Sometimes I run errands for Father Ivers in the community. And sometimes that involves hobo- I mean, the less financially fortunate. That’s how I met Luke.”
“Indeed,” Blaise confirmed. “It is incredible just how helpful Yen has been in the recent months. Thanks to him and his handy motorcycle we could urgently deliver articles of faith to people in need. You know how it is with parishioners, people want to give their priest gifts, but often the only thing they can think of is to get me a Bible or a rosary. As a result I have so many of those to give away. Speaking of which, would you like a Bible or a rosary, officers?”
The younger cop looked like he was about to request one or both, but a single look at his partner prevented him from saying anything, and he returned to nervously taking notes instead.
The Middle Eastern cop watched Yen and Blaise with narrowed eyes. “I wonder, could what you were transporting on that day have contributed to the blast…” he mused.
“Uh, what were you transporting?” the younger cop asked.
“I don’t remember exactly,” Yen said. “I don’t think I actually checked that time. Usually Father Ivers just packs stuff in brown paper, and I remember handing the parcel to Luke before the whole ordeal started, so whatever it was, it couldn’t have contributed to the blast, and that was the only thing I was delivering that time.”
“I assure you officer, that it was nothing explosive,” Blaise added calmly.
“Who was it for?” the older cop asked, turning to Yen again.
“Someone in touch with Luke. Some kind of guy that runs a hobo community, El, or something.”
The older cop looked unimpressed, but did not comment further.
“Those people sure need all the faith they can get,” Yen blurted. “I mean have you seen them? You must have, if you questioned the witnesses. It’s the Rat Trap, for fuck’s sake, pardon my French, everyone there needs a little Jesus.”
Something that he said must have ticked off a checkbox in the older cop’s head, because he looked begrudgingly satisfied and did not ask further, instead he prodded his partner again. “Any thoughts on how this matches up to the other accounts we have heard?”
The younger officer scratched his head with the pen. “I dunno know, Ash. Sounds about the same, but many more gaps.”
“Duh, I was almost knocked out.” Yen shrugged. Then caught a glare from the older cop and added in the most polite tone. “I was almost knocked out, officer.” He offered a pained smile.
“You’re lucky the man you initially fought did not want to press charges. In fact, him and the one survivor from among your assailants refused to talk to police altogether. You did not. Thank you for your cooperation.” The Middle Eastern cop nodded. Then he smiled. “I suppose the only good that came out of this, is that this should get the Undying off your backs for good. I won’t have to look out for you, Pharaohs, anymore.”
Yen stared at the guy questioningly. Then he narrowed his eyes. “Oh, you’re the guy who stopped those fuckers the time they tried pulling guns on me and Sammy! And then at the diner! Are you our guardian angel?” Yen laughed. “Kudos, man!”
“You can express your kudos by signing the transcript of this interview.” The older cop nodded, and his younger counterpart handed the clipboard to Yen.
Yen skimmed through the transcript, took the pen, signed, then passed the records to the younger cop.
“Thank you for your cooperation, and we hope you make a swift recovery!” The younger cop nodded sharply, then almost tripped over the coffee table on his way out. The older one caught him, sighed and guided him outside.
“Daddy, those are some very decent cops. I thought they would swing a lamp above my head, or like handcuff me to the couch or something.”
“You watch too many movies.” Blaise shook his head, then reminded him that he had a phone call to make. He’d reminded him about that yesterday too, but this time he also brought the phone from the hall and placed it on the couch next to him, leaving Yen no other choice. “I’ll go prepare us something to eat.”
Yen grimaced at the phone and reluctantly dialed Nana Riley’s number.
“Sam Riley speaking.”
“Don’t yell at me!” Sam sounded annoyed.
“You started it!” Yen laughed.
Sam grunted. “Why didn’t you call before? I tried calling Nakhti multiple times! Why didn’t you pick up the phone?”
“Because you weren’t there to nag me about it, genius!”
“Point taken…” Sam sighed. “I was worried sick, you know.”
“I can imagine.”
“Why do you not want me to visit?”
Yen began to laugh. “Seriously? You don’t know?”
Sam said nothing.
“Oh I know that look,” Yen said. “The ‘I told you so’, angry mother hen look, dated back to the late seventies. Let me mutilate myself in peace, ok? I’m not that hurt, I just don’t want you babying me.”
“Does it look very bad?”
“No, not really.” Yen winced. “Listen. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, ok? If you need company at home other than Nana, get yourself one of those naked cats, I hear they’re like fine for allergies, Sphinx even has one, so you can ask him. You can make it sweaters, hats, scarves, maximum pizzazz. It can even sleep on my bed for now.” He could almost see Sam rolling his eyes and shaking his head. “I’ll be back soon. Enjoy your Yen-free vacation while it lasts.”
“I hope you’re not as hurt as I fear and will actually survive.”
Yen blew a raspberry. “Oh, please, I’ll be good as new when I come back. Just give me those two weeks to marinate without any surprise visits or unsolicited phone calls, mkay?”
Sam hesitated for a moment. Then caved in. “Fine.”
“You’re the best, mom.”
“No, not in my present state, but get back to me on this when I return and arrangements can be made.” Yen smirked.
“Rest well. And don’t make me come over and force feed you chicken soup.”
“Don’t worry, Sam-Mom, and say hello to the rest of the gang.”
“Rest well, Yen.”
Luke coursed around the kitchen, moving between a stew he was watching over and vegetables he was cutting for a salad. Arthur and the other actors were coming for dinner tonight, and so it had to be a pretty big meal. Luckily he had help from Amalka with the stew, she really was great at cutting things, he had to give her that. But now her job was done, and Luke was alone with his restless thoughts.
The police had visited him about the bikers that attacked Yen. Three of them were dead. Because of him.
Luke thought he would feel guilty about it. He wanted to feel guilty. But he felt nothing. He had caused so many deaths over the years, he remembered each one and felt terrible for all of them. All but these three. He knew it made him a terrible person. He was a murderer. He had known those men could be killed by his curse, and he used it against them anyway.
And it had seemed like the policeman that visited him knew that as well, even though he did not arrest Luke or try to argue with his account of the events. One man slipped and fell. Two others were hit by ice falling from a rooftop. That was what had happened. But it didn’t just happen. It was Luke’s fault. It was Luke’s will. He killed those men.
Then why did he feel absolutely nothing about it? When had he grown this ruthless? Had the morally repugnant company of Wilma and Betty rubbed off on him?
Luke put down the knife and stared down the vegetables on the cutting board.
How did he stray so far away from the Ordnung? And where was his divine punishment? Would Hell be even more terrible than living with his curse? But the curse mostly made other people suffer and die, not him. It simply wasn’t fair!
He had felt so good after that trip to the desert! His curse had finally helped someone! And almost no one was hurt. Except that pilot. Luke prayed that he had recovered, but had no way of knowing. And now the relief brought by that surreal trip across the globe was gone, replaced… with nothing. He didn’t feel anything about the deaths of the bikers, and he felt horrible for not feeling guilt. He didn’t deserve a peace of mind! He was a murderer, he caused so much destruction, he had aided criminals and ruined an innocent family!
Perhaps he was doomed now, doomed all along, a cursed sinner with no remorse, who built his own happiness on a foundation of human suffering. He had strayed away from the light, and for all the misery he had brought upon others, he had nothing to show. He’d achieved absolutely nothing.
But even if he could not be redeemed, he had one obligation. He had to find a way to bring David Mance back. He had to. Even if it killed him. David Mance had to go home.
A small pop shook Luke out of his reverie. And that was followed by a massive bang. Luke was thrown across the kitchen and hit a wall. For a moment he didn’t see anything but black and red. Then he smelled the smoke.
“Oh no…” Luke struggled to get back on his feet, but before he managed, a smudge of bright pink dashed through his vision, and he heard Neha curse loudly in a language he could not understand. Then things came into focus, and he watched terrified as the old woman stood in the burning kitchen, struggling with something in the blown-apart wall. As if the fire all around was just an annoyance to her, Neha turned on the tap and began drinking from it. Or so it seemed until she turned around and spat out a current of water worthy of a good fireman’s hose, putting out much of the fire on the counters and the table.
Luke did not stay to watch her, stumbling over his own legs, he ran outside. But even as he did, one of the TV-sets blew up and then the whole building began to creak and moan. Luke ran praying desperately to God, and perhaps that was what helped him make it outside and to the emptiest corner of the alley where he sat huddled and shaking, trying to keep his mind as blank as he could.
He didn’t want anything. He didn’t want anything!
He reached under his clothes and pulled out the amulet. It seemed unchanged. But why did it stop working? Was it because of him protecting Yen? Or something that happened in that desert? Or his fixation on helping the Mances?
As if in answer to his question a gritting sound came from above, and Luke barely managed to scramble away before a massive piece of plaster landed where he had sat. Luke curled up into a ball and began to purposefully think about nothing. He wasn’t sure how long he spent that way, with his heart hammering in his ears while he purged all and any thoughts from his mind.
“Luke. Luke! Luke! Buddy?” Penny waved to him from a distance, standing in the middle of the street. He crouched and tilted his bald head, looking at Luke with a sympathetic smile. “Can you hear me, boy?”
Luke shook his head on instinct, then realizing what was asked of him, nodded.
“You don’t have to worry, the fire is out. Neha will deal with the mess. Or someone else will anyway. It’s all under control.” Penny showed two open palms, spreading his bony fingers in an all-encompassing manner. “What is up with you today? I thought you were supposed to be safe to keep in a home.”
“I’m not,” Luke croaked. “Apparently.” He shuddered as he looked at the talisman. He lifted it on the string, showing it to Penny. “I think it stopped working.”
“It looks plenty functional to me.” Penny shrugged.
Luke grimaced. It looked normal to him too. He didn’t know what to do.
“Say, doesn’t your curse manifest when somebody wants something? And you were alone in the kitchen, weren’t you…” Penny reasoned. “Is there something you want this badly?”
Luke shook his head again. Then he frowned. He tried not to feel it as he said it. “I want to return David Mance to his family.”
“Oh, the missing guy, from the news. Well, that’s very noble of you. Wait, aren’t you him?”
“Uh…” Luke winced. “Well, I am, after a fashion. But mostly I had been placed into his body against my will. And I would very much like for him to be back with his family.” Luke tried not to really think about it as he said those things, he tried to detach himself from his own narrative, imagine he was speaking about someone else. “But I don’t know how.”
“Well, then you are in luck! No pun intended. Maybe. Ok, maybe a little bit of a pun intended.” Penny chuckled at his own joke, then looked very smug. “You are talking to someone who specializes in deals and trades and the like. You want one David Mance delivered safely to his family’s home, I can arrange that. But it will cost you more than that one sock you tried to sell me when we met.”
Luke decided not to point out it was rather Penny who had been trying to purchase his own sock from him back then. Instead he asked, with a measure of caution. “What is your price?”
“Hm, price… This isn’t a standard trade. I mean, normally one would trade like for like.” Penny stood up and started pacing back and forth across the alley, keeping his distance from Luke. “But what could be an equivalent exchange for bringing a man to his family, memories intact and back where he belongs… And it’s not an easy thing to do either.”
“I’ll pay any price.”
“Very well.” Penny stretched, then looked at Luke in an unfamiliar predatory manner. “I want your soul, your being, your power, the whole shebang.”
Luke stared at him, taken aback. “What?”
“That.” Penny nodded. “David Mance gets back his body, what’s left, belongs to me.”
“Seems a little steep…” Luke felt uneasy. The demand reminded him of something, and his eyes darted to where Penny’s long baggy trousers draped over his shoes. For a man who tried to buy a single sock, Penny seemed to never show his feet. And they’d been living together for months.
Seeing his hesitation, Penny stopped leering and his expression softened. “I suppose you are right, that was rash of me. How about a contest then? You bring me something of value, harvested in a limited amount of time, as per the agreement, and David Mance gets home to his family, no souls required. If you try and fail, I’ll get both your souls.”
“I cannot gamble with another man’s soul,” Luke said sternly.
“Fine, just your soul then. But also your power. Oh, and your life. I could always use another life.” Penny rubbed his bald head. “And new hair.”
Luke watched him with thinly veiled terror. “What… do you want harvested?”
“Oh, nothing sinister, nothing like that…” Penny laughed at his frightened expression. “I only want a little bit of dust. From each of the seven main stars of Ursa Major. The Big Dipper, you know. The Plough. However your people call it.” Penny counted to seven on his fingers and nodded. “And I would like it collected and delivered in one night.”
“That sounds impossible.”
“It should be easy as pie to you, you’re the star guy after all. I’m not asking you to bring me the actual stars, just some dust. Doesn’t have to be a lot. As long as it’s from every single one of them. That part is important. And in one night. It has to be fresh.”
Luke stared at him incredulously. “Can I think about it?”
“Oh, sure, sure.” Penny looked like a cat who had been presented with a jar of cream. “Think as long as you need to. And make sure not to catch a cold out here as you do. I’ll bring you your coat and a blanket. El knows of your trouble, help is on the way. And the David Mance thing, totally doable. Just say yes to my offer, bring me the stardust before the rooster crows the next day, and David Mance can go home.”
“I will think about it.”
“Good.” Penny went inside the tenement, then came back a few minutes later with Luke’s jacket, hat, shoes and a thick blanket. He tossed them over to Luke, followed by one of the plastic chairs that stood next to the pile. “If you get hungry, thirsty or cold, yell. We’ll catapult meatballs into your mouth from the kitchen, it will be fun.”
“Aha. Thanks.” Luke watched him go. He was starting to think he knew who Penny really was. Or at least he was guessing.
* * *
Luke sat huddled with a blanket wrapped tightly around him. His feet were freezing, but he was afraid of doing more than occasionally getting up from the chair and marching in place to warm up. Like this, he was sufficiently far away from either of the buildings to affect the wishes of the people inside, and as long as he kept himself in check, nothing terrible happened. It was hard not to wish for warmth, feeling as cold as he did, but he managed to distract himself well enough, fear was a great motivation.
Anxious and trying hard not to think of anything he could want, Luke whiled away the minutes and maybe even hours just studying the alley. He counted the bricks and the number of distinct item types in the pile. He kept score of how many people he saw passing at the far end of the alley. He saw movement there and increased that count. This person entered the alley and came running.
“Luke, catch!” Xenia yelled and threw a package at him.
Luke let go of the blanket and eagerly caught the brown paper parcel.
“It’s a new talisman from El, this one should do better,” Xenia assured him.
Luke hastily unwrapped the talisman, it was bigger than the previous one, but looked similar otherwise, a black polished surface surrounded by fur. Luke put it on. He didn’t feel any different.
“I also brought you gyros, but I don’t think I should be throwing that.”
“You can try to slide it on something from the pile. I’m not sure if you should come clo-” Luke didn’t finish, because he found himself nose-to-nose with Xenia.
She was wearing several large sweaters one on top of the other and on top of them an open winter jacket. Her hair was partially covered with a flowery shawl and a hat on top. Even so, she still looked lovely. But he didn’t want her dead, and Luke instinctively stepped back, wanting her to be further away, wanting her to stay safe.
Nothing happened. Luke exhaled.
“Oh, don’t worry, silly, your crashing balconies and exploding pipes can’t hurt me, I’m too fast.” Xenia tapped him on the nose with her index finger and offered him the paper-wrapped gyros. “Eat up, while it’s still hot. You don’t look too comfortable in this weather.”
“Yes, I’d love to go inside,” Luke admitted.
“You can do that now with the new talisman,” Xenia said, but did not move from place.
Luke gave her an odd look. Well, if she did not want to go in, he decided he could linger outside with her for a moment longer. So he unwrapped the gyros and took a bite. She smiled at him, then looked curious.
“Penny said you were making a deal with him.”
“Well, I haven’t decided on it.”
“You don’t want to turn that one down, trust me,” Xenia said in a conspiratory manner and leaned closer. “The old guy loves his deals, but he is gullible, it’s almost like he’s looking to be cheated. Just like his cousin that went down to Georgia and gambled away a precious musical instrument.”
Luke watched her through narrowed eyes. “A golden fiddle?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I am no fiddler, and I cannot say I am much of a cheater.” Luke shook his head. “And collecting stardust, that sounds impossible.”
“It isn’t, though.” Xenia grinned and continued in a whisper. “I can help you. There is always a loophole, and I think, I know the one for this deal.”
“Sh!” She shook a scolding finger at him. “Not here. Not so loud. If you are decided on getting the Mances back together, then this is your chance. Just agree, and be at Bethlehem Park two hours after midnight, and I will take care of the rest.”
Luke chewed, frowning. “Are you sure you know what you are doing? It’s my life on the line.”
“Absolutely!” Xenia looked at him accusingly. “Do you think I would come here offering this, if I wasn’t entirely sure this was going to work? Have I ever failed to keep you safe?”
“Sorry.” Luke conceded. She really did have a great track record of keeping him out of harm’s way. Plus, Xenia was actually much older and more experienced than he was, even though she looked younger than him. And so much prettier. Luke blushed, suddenly aware of how close they were standing.
She smiled at him. “You can trust me.”
“I do trust you,” he said and timidly smiled back. He glanced towards the tenement. “I guess I’ll go accept Penny’s deal.”
“Perfect,” Xenia purred. “Just don’t mention me to him.”
“See you at the park!” she said and ran away with her usual superhuman speed.
Luke cradled his gyros and hurried indoors. He did not know what he was getting himself into, but an instinct told him that he did not have much time. Who knew when the new talisman could fail? Something had changed, but he did not know what. And he did not want to find out. If there was a way to at least remove David Mance from this hazardous mess somehow, he had to try and do it.
* * *
The hours flew by in anxious anticipation and overthinking. In the end, Luke still didn’t know if he was doing the right thing, but there was no backing out of it now. After coming back inside, he had told Penny he accepted his deal and that this night he would collect the stardust. Or fail and forfeit his soul and his life. And suddenly, there was so much to lose.
He had friends now. He had a place to stay and call home. It was not the home he had longed for, but it was home nonetheless. And while the people around him did not follow the Ordnung or even qualify as Christians, they were all in all good and decent people. Maybe except Penny about whom he was now having second thoughts. But he still hoped the other man had enough decency to keep his word.
Then again, Xenia wanted to cheat him, and Luke let her talk him into it.
Lost in these thoughts and doubts, Luke zoned out for half of the dinner with the actors only to violently come back to reality with the realization that it could be his last dinner with them. Then he took in every little detail he could absorb: Neha’s grumbling, Alena’s carefree smiles, Amalka’s young but very serious face, Anezka’s wide range of accurate impersonations — as he had learned recently, she had played not just most of the numerous women he had helped on his venture, but also the trader who sold him the flashlights before his turkey vigil. When she did the trader’s voice again, he could hardly believe it was coming out of a woman’s throat. Arthur was also there, and the baker, who aside from truly being a baker was a theater dropout, and there was Mrs. Balodis, the old lady with the pigeons, and many others. Luke watched them all with growing fondness. And sadness. It could be that he would never see them again.
Penny was unusually silent at dinner. He watched Luke like a hawk or maybe even a vulture. And Luke found himself hoping desperately that Xenia knew what she was doing.
Night fell, and the darkness accentuated Luke’s worries. The guests left, and the inhabitants of the tenement gathered to clean up together. When that was done, everyone dispersed to carry on with their own evening routines. Luke wanted someone to ask him why he wasn’t going to bed, so he could talk to someone, hear another person’s opinion, but Alena and Neha were arguing over TV as usual, and everyone else had left the common area. He wished El was there, but he didn’t make it to dinner and was nowhere to be found.
Luke went back to his and Penny’s room and dressed warmly. To Luke’s relief, Penny was not there.
Luke left the tenement soon after midnight and walked briskly to his far away destination.
Bethlehem Park was empty, as expected on a cold January night. Snow was falling slowly around him as he walked, covering the tracks he left in the mostly undisturbed white carpet. As he began to wonder if he should have asked Xenia for a more precise meeting spot, Luke noticed movement in the corner of his eye and saw her standing in one of the bare trees. Xenia waved to him, and he waved back. She ran up a leafless tree branch, which didn’t bend one bit even as she stepped on its thinner end, then she jumped effortlessly onto the next tree. Luke followed on the ground. That way they reached the edge of the park, and Xenia landed like an acrobat on the snow-covered sidewalk. She spread her arms and looked at him triumphantly.
“Very impressive… But why didn’t you just walk?” Luke asked softly.
“We don’t want Penny to know I’m meddling.” Xenia shook a gloved finger at Luke. He noticed there was a mitten on her other hand.
Luke smiled. “Very well. Lead the way.”
She did. They did not walk very far. Luke knew the place they seemed to be headed for — a peculiar round building with a dome, standing at the edge of the park. It was a student bar called the Big Dipper, also known as the Constellation — a name that could still be seen imprinted on the faded paint on the wall behind the new neon sign. The lights were out inside the bar, but the side door by the dumpsters was slightly ajar.
Xenia headed for it and waved for Luke to follow.
He stood frozen in place. The Constellation, no, the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. This was what they were going to trick Penny with. Luke’s stomach sunk. Was it going to work? Were there really seven stars somewhere inside the bar, that could count as those of the Big Dipper? Could any seven star shaped objects they found inside the bar count?
“Come on, Luke, come on.” Xenia waved impatiently.
Luke followed her inside, through the back rooms, then the kitchen. Xenia seemed to be perfectly content in the dark, but was kind enough to bring a flashlight, which she mostly shone a little behind herself, for Luke’s benefit. After crossing the kitchen, they walked through swinging doors into a large round room. It was mostly dark, but some light was streaming from a circle of narrow windows in the bottom of the dome. Xenia raised the flashlight to point out something to Luke. Above them on the domed ceiling, seven star-shaped lamps formed the Big Dipper.
“I’ll bet you those are dusty.” Xenia grinned.
Luke stared up at the stars with a sense of dread. They were just lamps. Was this going to work?
Instead he asked. “How did you get the door open?”
“The cleaner left it for me. He’s a nice guy, very friendly,” Xenia chirped. She handed Luke the flashlight and went to the side, then returned, easily carrying a very long ladder. She set it down at the center of the room, positioning it so that it would provide access to one of the stars.
“Well, here you go,” she said and offered Luke a small pouch and a piece of paper. “I’ll hold the flashlight, and you go up there and collect your dust.”
“Is this really going to work?”
“What did Penny say?”
“He wanted me to collect the dust from the seven stars of Ursa Major in one night, before the rooster crows.”
“Well, let’s not risk any roosters waking early then, up you go!”
Luke could not argue with that.
He climbed the ladder without further questions, and as Xenia had predicted, the lamps were very dusty. Several trips up and down the ladder to reach all of them, and he had a nice pile of dust in his bag. He was extremely careful not to lose any of it or sneeze while up there. In the end, he had the dust from all seven stars. He stared at the little pouch in disbelief. Well, either this was his salvation, or he just made a complete fool of himself and was going to lose his soul come sunrise.
Clapping came from behind his back. Luke spun around, so did Xenia.
Penny walked across the room towards them, then sat on the edge of one of the tables, between two upside down chairs.
“My my.” Penny clapped one last time. “Cheating an old man of his well-earned soul, body, power and youth with a pile of exceptionally mundane dust. How unlike you, Luke.”
Luke held the pouch close to his chest.
“It is as you asked,” Xenia said. “Dust from all seven stars of Ursa Major, collected in one night. Give it to him, Luke.”
Luke felt guilty and uncomfortable as he walked between the tables to where Penny sat. He made sure the pouch was tied closed, then offered it to Penny.
Penny did not take it. Instead he tilted his head back and laughed. “Oh, Luke… Don’t look so sour. Or maybe do. Because you know what? I was also cheating.” Penny got up and started walking across the room, gesturing as he went. “I don’t have the power to return David Mance to his family. Never had. But hey, free stardust, I thought.” He hopped over the bar like it was nothing, then leaned on it, resting his head on his hands, looking at Luke with a very amused expression. “So, no harm done, and no hard feelings, m?”
Luke watched him with a frown. What goes around comes around. They cheated, and Penny cheated too. But a deal had been made. He held out the pouch towards Penny. “This dust, collected from seven stars in one night, as requested, is yours. The deal is sealed, keep your end of the bargain.”
Penny sighed. “A deal’s a deal, I suppose. Like I said, I don’t have the power to bring back David Mance.” He stood straight, then reached for something behind the bar. He flicked a switch. “But you do.”
A projector went on somewhere in the dark room and suddenly the ceiling was lit up with hundreds of bright white dots that started to slowly rotate. Luke gazed up in horror. The stars danced in front of his eyes, they moved faster and faster. His heart began to hammer in his chest. He stared at the stars above him, but instead saw lights of sleepy towns below him. He saw a field.
He saw a frightened young boy standing in the middle of that field, looking up wide-eyed as something shone on him brighter and brighter, dispersing the darkness of the night. The boy was so far below, but he could see his face perfectly. He could see his own face.
Luke fell to his knees, grabbed his head and screamed.
“What did you do to him?!” Xenia yelled accusingly at Penny over Luke’s screams. “You were supposed to grant his wish, you bastard!”
“I’m granting it now.” Penny gestured towards Luke. “But he’s helping. Saving the drowning is the job of the drowning, as they say in your country.”
“We had a deal, Penny!” Xenia screamed back at him. “This was not part of that deal!”
The electric lights began flickering on and off, the speakers buzzed and the small objects began to shake and rattle. Then the chairs began to sway on the tables, and all of a sudden the furniture flew in all directions away from Luke.
Xenia nimbly jumped out of the way of a table.
“What are you doing to him?!”
“I’m not doing anything.” Penny grinned and caught a bottle of wine that was flying away. He set to uncorking it, watching Luke with great interest as he did. “He’s just having a moment there. Remembering who he really is, I guess.”
“You promised me the David Mance thing would be resolved, and Luke would be able to put it behind him! He was supposed to be free of that! He wasn’t supposed to become David Mance!”
“He won’t. He’s not becoming anything he isn’t already. I figure he’s just reminiscing home, maybe that’s how they talk up in the heavens, I mean it’s big and empty, maybe it’s normal they would all go ‘AAAAH!’”
“Heavens?!” Xenia looked at Luke in terror, then turned to Penny angrily. “This is not funny! You said if I convince him to take you up on your offer, he’ll be done with that thing and won’t leave permanently! Now he’s dying!”
“Bah, he’s not dying.”
“He sounds like it!”
Penny rolled his eyes.
Xenia tried to approach Luke, but the furniture had begun flying in circles around him, lifted by hurricane winds, and Xenia was forced to stay back, closer to the wall.
“He’ll be ok!”
“You’re so full of shit! I’m never making a deal with you again!” she screamed with wind in her hair.
Penny laughed. “Never say never.”
All the lights suddenly went on again, shining brighter than mere lightbulbs could, then the furniture whirlwind exploded, sending tables, chairs and broken pieces in all directions. Xenia dove behind the bar beside Penny, pulling him down with her. As both of them looked out to see if the furniture apocalypse blew over, Xenia made sure to slap the old man angrily on the back of his bald head.
Luke stood in the center of the empty room staring at the ceiling. Tears were running down his cheeks, but his expression was completely blank.
Xenia jumped over the bar, then hesitated, before slowly approaching him with one arm outstretched. She stopped midway, watching him sadly.
Penny drank some wine, then noticed the pouch of dust lying on the floor next to him. He arched an eyebrow at it, then pocketed it.
“Luke?” Xenia asked with worry.
“That’s not… my name.”
Xenia frowned, alarmed by his cold, lifeless voice. “What is your name then?”
For a while he said nothing, then turned at Xenia with a tired, world weary look that she had never seen before. “My name…” A light, like an aura, shone around him, flashing bright and growing dimmer in turns. Luke stared at her for a moment through the light, then the light died out. He sighed. “My name cannot be spoken. Not with sound. But that doesn’t matter. The Amish boy is dead and gone, and yet imprinted in me so deeply… you might as well keep calling me Luke.”
Luke looked at his hands like he saw them for the first time. He did not make eye contact as he spoke. “Penny, you promised me the return of David Mance. Why am I still in his body?”
“Yeah, well, see, thanks to me you know you can leave it. So it’s just a matter of timing. You decide when you are done with it, and you can exit it gently, and that should leave the guy behind safe and sound.”
“When I do, will you make sure he makes it safely to his family?”
“W-what? Luke, if you’re going to abandon this body, you will take on a new one, right?” Xenia clasped her hands together, needing something to hold onto.
“No. I must go back. I’m almost done with what I was sent here for. I should have been done with it long ago. I see it now.” Luke’s expression grew distant. There was no hesitation in his eyes or voice. But there was also very little life.
Xenia looked at him miserably, then turned to glare at Penny. “This was not our deal, not at all. You old snake.” Tears welled in her eyes.
Penny waved a hand at her, his attention was focused on Luke. But Luke was done talking, he turned around and headed outside the way he came. Xenia tried to follow him, but Penny was suddenly beside her. The old man grabbed onto her sleeve.
“No. He will be back. But you have to let him go.”
“I don’t believe you anymore.” Xenia sobbed.
“When did I ever not keep my end of the bargain? In some shape or form at least.” Penny smiled softly to her as she turned to him, tears rolling down her cold face. They embraced.
* * *
Luke strode through the city as quickly as the human body could without getting damaged. He ignored the traffic lights, hopped over fences and trespassed where he knew he would not be caught. There was no point in waiting. He’d wasted enough time. He had one goal now — locate the guardian, find out if he needed assistance and return with a status report to the ones that sent him here.
It was supposed to be such a small errand. Instead he had been stuck on this world for almost two centuries and killed hundreds of humans. While he had been sent here to help one person and one person only.
Luke saw him now, the guardian, standing still in the falling snow at the edge of a road, staring intently at a sprawling villa behind a tall gate in an equally tall wall.
Bile rose in Luke’s being at the sight. The guardian was too human. His expression was human, his interest human, even his obstacle — a pathetic material barrier of no special power — was insultingly human-oriented. A wall and a gate couldn’t possibly contain him, yet there he stood, blocked from entry.
“Guardian!” Luke called out.
He saw the creation of the Divines turn towards him with wide open eyes.
“How goes your vigil?” Luke called out. “The beast is loose in this world, but does not leave its constraints. What is one to make of it?” His voice was cold and commanding, but he did not notice it. All his attention focused on the very human guardian gaping back at him. It was driving Luke mad, but he restrained his temper. “Do you require assistance?”
The guardian continued staring at him with the most ridiculous and disoriented expression.
“Wha-a? W-who are you?” He formulated his thoughts at last, then blinked. “Wait… have I seen you before? You were the guy in the helicopter, bringing me some mineral water on the Sahara, weren’t you?”
“Yes…” Luke hesitated, the memory causing a sense of confusion in him. He shook his head and continued. “I am a messenger from your masters, I was sent here to get a report from you and help you if needed.”
“No!” The guardian looked at him even more wide-eyed, this time it seemed, because of dawning understanding. He took a few steps back. “No, I mean, no, thanks, I don’t need any help! I mean, I appreciate the mineral water aspect of it, but I’m under control of this situation, I mean, I have it all under control! I mean, you just said it yourself — I’ve contained the beast to this planet, and as you can see, I have it under constant surveillance.” He gestured desperately towards the villa.
Luke sneered. “You are in a human body. Your pathetic human eyes cannot even see the beast from here.”
“What do you mean I cannot see it, I can see perfectly.” The guardian argued sharply. “Just look, the business car is there, and the recreational car is there too, so the aspect of the beast is home. If it leaves, it will leave through here. It’s the same situation, nothing changed. I keep watch next to the cage, and I observe it through the bars.”
“To me it looks like you’re in the cage with it.”
“Well then, look at you trapped here with us!” The guardian’s eyes shone gold as he sneered back at Luke. “Who are you even? Just some entitled bum in a scarf. Don’t interrupt me when I’m doing my job!” He fixed his own scarf around his neck.
“You have no right to address me this way, construct! I was sent here to check up on you, and I find you like this, entrapped in humanity and clearly ‘under control of the situation’, as you so accurately described.”
“Oh really?” The guardian glared at him in annoyance. “Because it looks to me like you’re not in control of anything either, and that’s a human body too, isn’t it? Looks to me like you’re the same amount of trapped! And why is it that you show up now, when I’ve taken care of everything? Where were you when I actually needed help? I mean, I didn’t ever need help, but where were you?”
The day dimmed around them, white snow faded to gray ash, as color and light withdrew from the world. Luke glowed in the darkness, pulsing like a distant star. But he was not distant at all. He grabbed Ocher by the lapels and lifted him up with one arm. He gave him one good shake.
“I don’t need excuses. I don’t need lamentations. Tell me, do you need help or not, so that I can go back and report on your incompetence!”
The guardian’s smug sneer was wiped clean off, and he looked at the shooting star with scared golden eyes.
“Please, please don’t report me to my Creators!”
Luke held him for a moment, then blinked a few times and let the light seep out of him and back into the surroundings. He set Ocher back down.
“Please… I’m trying my best here,” the guardian pleaded. “I’ve run into some difficulties related to the nature of this place, I’ve been confused by the reincarnation cycle… but I’m back on track now, I swear. The beast isn’t going anywhere. It is peaceful, and it is asleep, except for its small human aspect that likes to move around. It is fond of this place, incredibly so, and it has settled inside it… even became fused with it somehow. You can see it all around if you really look. The beast is not how it used to be, it’s not even nameless anymore. And it is so focused on its human aspect that it seems to have forgotten it ever was a beast! It’s easy to keep track of it, and I’m doing the best I can, I promise… So please, please don’t tell the Divines…” The guardian looked at him miserably. “If you do, they will unmake me and create another guardian in my place. Have mercy, messenger, you’re clad in a human shape too, surely you can relate at least a little…”
Luke felt foolish and guilty. The little guy seemed desperate. He said he was doing his best. And maybe he was. The beast wasn’t loose, tearing galaxies to shreds, so that was within reasonable expectations of the performance of its guardian.
Luke reached out and tidied Ocher’s jacket. He studied the guardian dressed in human form. No, he wasn’t just wearing it. He was it. He was changed in more ways too, Luke could see it now. “You love the beast,” Luke stated plainly. “I suppose that means you will watch it closely then.”
The guardian looked at him even more scared than before. “Please, don’t tell them that either, I beg of you…”
“Don’t worry. I won’t. I’m sorry I snapped.” Luke sighed, and his expression lost its cold detachment, instead becoming sad and weary. His shoulders sagged. “I’ve also been drawn into the cycle, and I lost touch for a couple of centuries. I’ve killed so many people by trying to help them, and I wasn’t there for you, the one person I was sent to help.”
The guardian still looked cautious. “Were you really sent to aid me?”
“Not to punish me, or destroy me?”
Luke shook his head.
The guardian seemed to relax, if only a little. “How much time has passed? How does it look like from out there? I’m still not even sure how exactly we got here.”
“Nothing changed. Not much anyway. Time flows differently out there. I don’t really know why I was sent to you when I was. It seemed a time like any other.” Luke shrugged. “Out there hardly any time passed, since I arrived, but here it felt like forever. This world surely is confounding for beings like us.”
The guardian breathed a sigh of relief. Then looked at Luke with sympathy. “I’m sorry you also got stuck here. And about the people dying thing. I hate it when people die. Hector likes killing them way too much. But not in like, bulk amounts. He used to stir huge conflicts on this planet, or whatever this place is, but not anymore. He’s wound down by now and I think he relishes in violence a bit less with every cycle. This still beats him rampaging through cosmos… right?”
“Right. Your masters will not care what the beast does, as long as it is confined.”
“Thank you…” the guardian hesitated.
The messenger hesitated as well.
“Luke.” He offered.
“Thank you, Luke.” Ocher smiled, a bit timidly. “So I am… free to stay and keep watching him… I mean, it?”
“Sure. It is your purpose after all.”
The guardian looked extremely relieved. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the golden glow had died down and amber human eyes were looking at the fallen star. “And what about you? Are you really planning to go back? How? I mean, what about your body?”
Luke lifted a hand and looked at it. “It is not my body. I need to return it. I’ve taken too many lives already. When I am no longer incarnate, going back won’t be a problem. I could even leave now, but I do not wish to harm my vessel. He has a family. He is a good man.” Luke lowered his arm. “I like the beings of this world. Overall. There are so many of them. It’s so crowded here. I’ve never been in a place like this before.” He smiled. “The rest of the universe is so empty compared.”
“I… I wouldn’t know. I have never seen it.” The guardian confessed. “Where we had been locked away before we found our way into this place, there was only darkness and sand. Nothing but black and gold.”
Luke shrugged. “You’re not missing much. This surely beats guarding a giant cage in a starry void for all eternity.” He smiled. “And you seem to, well, love your job at this point, so it’s all for the best, I suppose.”
Ocher looked at him with gratitude.
“Good luck, guardian. I’ll tell your masters all good things. Farewell.”
“I really appreciated it.” Ocher nodded. “Thanks again… uh, bye?”
As the messenger walked away, Ocher turned back to the villa. He had come here because after the initial promising phone call following his first therapy session, Hector stopped answering his calls altogether. Wyatt thought that maybe if he came over, someone would let him in, and they could talk. Or something. Anything. He’d buzzed the gate when he arrived, and even though nobody let him in or even responded, he was sure they knew he was here. They just hoped he’d walk away.
He had been determined to wait for as long as it took at first, but he’d been standing here for a very long time. It was cold, he’d just had a close encounter of the third kind, and it was probably really about time to call it a day and go home.
Just as he turned to leave, he heard a creak. A smaller door inside to the gate opened, and a hefty figure ran towards him.
“Wyatt, are you ok?” Barney asked seriously. “Was that hobo harassing you? Do you want us to call the police or just kick his ass? I can still catch up with him fer ya.”
“Ah… no. No need. We figured it out in the end.”
“That’s ah… good to hear.” Barney looked him up and down. “You’re not dressed for the weather, if you don’t mind me saying. You wanna go inside?”
Wyatt’s eyes opened wide in bewilderment. “Like… what… r-really?”
“Really really,” Barney laughed heartily, then grew serious. “That is of course if you want to come in Mr. Brooks.” He tried to look stern and professional, but ended up smiling anyway.
Wyatt smiled back and nodded. As Barney led him in towards the mansion, the guardian shot one last glance behind his back at the messenger who stood far in the distance. Luke waved to him, and Ocher waved back. The messenger really did help him. Barney never would have come out for him otherwise. Even though Barney hadn’t been here when Ocher raided the mansion, and maybe didn’t actually perceive him as dangerous, he always obeyed Hector’s every word. And Wyatt assumed the word was not to let him in. They must have really been worried when they saw Luke grabbing him. If they even saw it, that is. Ocher wondered how Hector would explain this one.
The Man stood in the hallway with a blanket over one arm. His expression was that of intense skepticism.
“What is this supposed to be, Wyatt? Are you trying to get hypothermia and frostbite?”
“No… you weren’t returning my calls… I just wanted to see you.” He couldn’t believe he was really standing in front of Hector. He never thought that he would miss seeing this man so badly. Or well, actually, he’d been thinking about it all the time for the past three weeks.
Hector sighed. “Well, I can’t let you freeze to death while also being assaulted by strangers. Come inside. Tea, coffee, chicken soup? You look like you could use all three.”
“Y-yeah… all those sound pretty good right now.” Wyatt said, as he shivered. His jacket sucked but as he took it off, he felt even more icy cold.
Hector draped the blanket over his shoulders. For a moment they stood very close. The Man avoided looking him in the eyes, but Wyatt couldn’t fail to notice the furrow of Hector’s eyebrows. Once he was sure Wyatt was properly wrapped in the warm blanket, Hector withdrew.
“Come.” He waved for Wyatt to follow and started walking deeper into the house. “We’ve got the fireplace going in the living room. You can warm your feet there, unless you prefer a bath.”
Wyatt felt like crying. It felt like coming home. “Fireplace sounds amazing.” He trotted after Hector, afraid to say anything more personal, even though he wanted to.
Hector did not reply to him. Instead he told a maid to get Wyatt a hot meal and tea. They reached the living room in silence, which was instantly broken by a very outraged teenager.
“Wyatt?! What the fu- I mean what the heck is he doing here?! Dad, what the hell?” Zack, who was lounging in one of the armchairs before they came in, jumped to his feet. He pointed an accusing finger at Wyatt. “Most importantly, how could you?! And already after he let you go! What the hell is wrong with you Wyatt?! I thought you were cool!” The teenager looked angry and hurt. He balled his fists and glared down at Ocher with almost childlike disappointment. If he hadn’t known better, Wyatt could have expected Zack to lash out physically, he had never seen the teen that agitated. But he couldn’t blame him.
Wyatt took it bravely, clutching onto the blanket around his shoulders. “You’re absolutely right Zack. I screwed everything up horribly. I’ve been hating myself for it ever since. I’ve never been more sorry, and if I could undo it, I would. But I can’t. So I… I just hope both of you can forgive me.”
That seemed to work. The teenager blinked in surprise, then looked a little unsettled, but no longer half as bitter as before. “I just don’t get it… Why would you do that…”
“I’ve forgiven you, Wyatt,” Hector said coolly. “For everything. I hope you will recover from what I’d done to you and possibly forgive me too.”
“Oh, come on, there’s really nothing for me to forgive here.” Wyatt looked at him skeptically but affectionately. “Nobody ever, maybe except my parents, cared about me as much as you did. You did everything right. I should have tried talking to you instead of freaking out and running the way I did.”
Hector looked at Zack with a tired expression. “See? He’s been like this ever since he tried to kill me. I’m not sure if it’s guilt, Stockholm syndrome, trauma.” He turned to Wyatt. “Please, don’t be insulted. I’m grateful that you’re going to therapy. I just think it’s too early for you to draw any conclusions on the nature of our past relationship.”
Wyatt felt like he was the one being stabbed in the chest now. He guessed he had it coming. A shadow of guilt and sadness crossed his face, but he didn’t try to argue with Hector. He looked at Zack instead, trying to scour for the remains of the top secret connection they once shared, the support that helped him weather through the past year.
Zack watched him with a mix of doubt and confusion. He didn’t seem to fully accept what he heard. No matter what the teenager thought, he did not argue either. Instead he sat back down. “I guess, I should just be glad both of you are okay all things considered.” He shook his head. “What a mess. And you’re supposed to be the adults.” He picked his cocoa from a small table next to his armchair and sipped some of it.
“Yeah… I’m just glad to be here.” Wyatt said meekly.
Hector picked an armchair closest to the fireplace and turned it to face the flames. “Get over here, you abominable snowman.”
Wyatt smiled. Maybe going to the shrink was worth it. If he could at least have some of this back. He felt warmer already. He had realized that while he asked the messenger how much time had passed, the truth was that… he didn’t really care. There was nothing for him out there. There never had been. Since the beginning of his existence, it was always him and the beast. He had been created to be by Hector’s side. It was his purpose, his reason to be. And if someone begged to differ, Wyatt couldn’t care less.
He showed up at the gate of the mansion next weekend as well. And this time he didn’t even have to freeze or be accosted by vagrants before they let him in.
“You miss him,” Zack said.
Hector didn’t look back at him, instead he kept his eyes on the checkers. “What makes you say that?”
“Ugh, please, Dad, you are so obvious.” Zack rolled his eyes. “Whenever Wyatt is around you’re almost your normal self again, but then you chase him away, and you brood like it was you that got kicked out of the house.”
Hector said nothing.
“Come on, admit it. You miss him a lot. And he misses you too. If you’re not angry with him for the dogs or the injury, then why can’t you two get back together? He clearly wants nothing more than that.”
“Wyatt is mentally unstable and can’t make such decisions now.”
Zack groaned. “Ok, maybe he’s a little cuckoo, but why is it such a big deal?”
“Because…” Hector moved his piece, claiming several of Zack’s. “It would be extremely cruel of me to take advantage of him now. After all I’ve done to him.”
“Take advantage my ass!”
“You paid off all his debts, you got him back into college or whatever, and he’s the one being taken advantage of!”
“He had to endure my advances all these months-” Hector started.
“Oh, please! It wasn’t that bad, he complained a little at first, like I told you, but by December he was pretty positive about the whole thing. He told me that you were being very nice to him every time I asked! He didn’t run away and lash out because he was traumatized by your affection. He ran away cause you probably rubbed his face all over your bloody criminal empire. I mean, duh! Anyone would run away!” Zack threw his hands into the air, forgetting all about the game. “Don’t you remember how freaked out I was?! Me, your own son!”
Hector’s shoulders sagged. The normally confident lively man looked dejected. “I always do that, don’t I? Frighten away the ones I love.”
“What? No, come on, Dad, Wyatt and I are still here… And we will be here, no matter what.” Zack reached out and patted his father on the arm. He had hardly ever seen Hector actually sad. It was a sight so unexpected, the teen felt nervous. “It’s not like that at all. You’re just a scary, badass guy. Somewhat on the non-empathetic side, but like… Uh…” Zack stared at his father at a loss for words. He tried to think of something to say, something to dispel his father’s sudden bout of self-hate. Then he remembered. He’d seen Hector act just like this one time before. “It’s just like when mom left, isn’t it?” Zack said softly.
Hector breathed out heavily. He nodded.
“Well, you know what?” Zack said with emotion. “This is nothing like that time. Wyatt came back. Yes, he tried to kill you, and that’s super messed up, but you don’t even care. You think you’re some kind of evil incarnate, and us normies just can’t handle it! Maybe so! But what, would you rather surround yourself exclusively with psychopaths? I don’t think so. I think you like being with us wusses, I don’t know why, but you do. You love me and Rose and Wyatt, ok, maybe Rose is too tough for this list, but she’s very law-abiding and kind, I guess- Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, Dad, you’re not a monster.”
Hector looked up at him, and Zack’s eyes stung. It was just like that time when they’d gone to see Zack’s mother. They never did end up meeting her. And now it was time to remind Hector why.
“Yes, people call you that sometimes, but you know what, fuck them. When you told me the truth about my mom, about how she’d abandoned both of us, you said you could never forgive her for one thing — for leaving me with you, a monster, and I think…” Zack bit back tears. “I think that it makes her a monster, not you! She thought you a monster, and she left an infant with you, she’s the bad guy in this situation! You’re a criminal, and I guess you can be plenty awful, but you’re not a monster, and for us, for your family, you’re a really great guy. And you’ve been that for Wyatt too! Stop trying to project the situation with mom onto all of us, ok? We… we all love you.”
Zack didn’t notice the moment when he began squeezing his dad in a tight embrace and crying into his suit, but he didn’t care for the time being. Hector stroked his hair and held him close. And it was just like so many times before. Just the two of them, being a family.
A minute passed like that, then the teen felt awkward and withdrew.
“Thanks, sonny,” Hector rumbled. There were tears in his eyes.
Zack wiped the corner of his own eye with a knuckle, too embarrassed to look his father in the eye. “Don’t mention it. Just let Wyatt back into our lives. If you drove him nuts, you owe him that, you know.”
“You’ve got a strong argument there.” Hector smiled. A pale imitation of his usual sanguine attitude, but it felt like a victory anyway.
“Also, you swore twice,” Hector said. “No pocket money till the end of the month.”
“Oh, come on, Dad!”