THE PLUG AND PLAY LIFE
by pat worden
Something about the landscape gets into your dreams.
If you believe in such things you might blame it on vibrations. Terror, maybe, and maybe some kind of emotional residue of old massacres and more recent human cattle-drives.
If you hold no such beliefs you might just remember the one last glance around you took before closing your eyes, and assume that the bleakness of what you saw stayed with you. It stayed with you and in the course of the night, grew worse.
Stephanie opened her eyes to the bleached-out landscape, looking harsher still in the light of the rising sun, and realized that as bad as her dreams had been, this reality wasn’t much better.
She yawned and stretched, and wasted no time thinking about vibrations or massacres. Instead she checked her weapon, blew dust from its action, then stood up and nodded g’morning to The Runaway.
He was already long awake. He always rose first, sometimes by hours. He was kicking his toe around in the embers of their campfire, which had burned down to nearly nothing. Then, in a way she could discern that he’d been waiting to display, had been waiting for her to awake and see, he unzipped his fly and pissed the embers to death.
“God,” she said. “Really?”
He laughed and smiled at her. Then he spun a quarter of a circle and pointed to a raptor that was circling the cloudless sky. It was a hawk or a falcon probably; almost impossible at this distance to tell which.
“Two hundred yards, amiright? That’s an impossible shot, ask anyone.” This too, was something planned and practiced, something he’d been waiting to say and act out even while she slept. Nothing mystical in the way she knew this. They’d been traveling together for a long time, is all.
He drew his pistol, a long-barrelled semi-auto, and aimed casually. “Impossible shot, and there was a time I wouldn’t bother to try,” he said. “But I’m gonna tag him through the eyeball. No prob. Because that’s how things are now.”
He lowered his aim a little and turned to her. The intent of his question was so plain that she answered it before it was asked.
“Because it’s alive. That’s all. It’s alive, and there are enough bodies falling as it is.”
The Runaway shrugged and reholstered. No way of telling if he accepted her argument or simply didn’t care enough to press it.
She thought again about asking him his name. She’d asked him nearly every day they’d been traveling together. He’d always answer by saying he was running away from everything, including his name.
She decided not to ask. This would be the day she accepted him as The Runaway. He could have that name, even though she was running too. But she’d keep her name, if nothing else.
Stephanie Kimball rolled up her blanket and prepared to travel.
The Runaway pointed back the way they’d come, to the barren east. There was nothing to see, nothing on the horizon, but still he said “They’re coming.”
“Yeah, I know. Let em.”
He liked that. He let it show.
She nodded toward the remains of their fire. “They’ll smell what you did there.”
“I figured. Will that slow them down or hurry them up, you think?”
“Could go either way. Doesn’t really matter, I guess.” She’d stowed her few belongings and stood ready to continue their long walk.
But not The Runaway. He’d been thinking about this. “What about blood?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“My blood,” he said. “They know it, right? So…will it slow them down or hurry them up?”
Same answer. “Either. Both. Don’t matter.”
He’d just about made up his mind, though. He pulled a bowie knife from the sheath on his belt and held it to his palm. He’d just about decided to leave them more of his blood, but at that last moment he found it hard to break the skin. He bit his lip and tried to steel his resolve.
He never saw her move. He just felt the smack then the sharp bite as she darted in and smacked his palm up against the blade. It cut deep. He curled his fist and dripped blood on the pale, blasted dust.
“Dammit, Steph,” he said.
“Hesitation never got anybody anywhere.” She laughed. “Come on. They’re on the move. So are we.”
They began walking toward the west.
As they did, he asked her another familiar question. “How much further, you think, before things change again?”
Everything changes. Or as they say, the more things change the more they stay the same. Except that’s not true. Nothing stays the same, everything changes.
Those two, poor Stephanie Kimball and her poor Runaway sidekick, they’ve forgotten this. They’ve walked and walked and accepted some illusion of stasis and have forgotten: everything changes.
So I pick them up and give them a good shake, and after they finish vomiting and weeping and holding each other they can figure out how to deal with this new change. Or these new changes.
But don’t think me cruel. I don’t do this arbitrarily. I’m dealing with my own changes here. If I could talk to them I’d tell them: just hang on. Just hang on and we’ll get through this together.
“It’s the eighty-twenty rule,” she told him. They were the first words either of them had spoken for hours, for miles. He had no idea what she was talking about but he was game.
“Eighty-twenty rule, yes. I have heard of that. Always thought it was BS.”
“Well it’s not.” She was quiet for a moment while she reconsidered. “Well okay, it is, but only if you think of it as a rule.”
“So the eighty-twenty rule isn’t a rule?” His name was The Runaway and he didn’t like rules. So he was starting to like her redefinition.
“It’s a guideline. Maybe a rule of thumb. Eighty percent of your results come from twenty percent of your efforts.” She slowed her pace for a moment and looked around, realizing she had no idea where they were or where they were headed. Long walks and nonsense conversations had that effect.
“Or maybe vice-versa?”
“Sure, why not. Twenty percent of our walking gets us to eighty percent of our destinations.”
The Runaway nodded slowly. “Eighty percent of the questions we ask apply to only twenty percent of our reality.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie agreed. “Twenty percent of what we remember accounts for eighty percent of what never happened.”
They stopped walking. They looked back to the east, then forward again to the west.
“Can’t remember where we’re going,” Stephanie said. She couldn’t remember if she’d mentioned that before.
“Me neither. Do you think that represents eighty percent of something, or twenty percent of something else?”
“Who cares? It’s not like it’s really a rule.”
The Runaway laughed and nodded. Then not knowing why, they walked on.
Came a time in their travels when conversation stopped, when coherent thought stopped, when the walking itself became interminable and delusory.
They passed without knowing from the blasted desert, through a stunted, twisted forest, and at last into a faded, forgotten town. Some long-ago shock had laid the town low and sent it to ruin. Whether survivors or stragglers lived there yet wasn’t evident to the travelers. Whether they were watched or shadowed, or even if they elbowed through crowded streets, went unnoticed. They saw only their own footfalls.
She realized then she hadn’t slept in days and nights uncounted.
She glanced to her right, to The Runaway walking beside her, lost and slack in his own tenuous trudging. Not for the first time, she thought about killing him.
She assessed the likelihood of getting the drop on him and of completing the deed with minimal fight and fuss. Still unsure if she’d do it, she decided that if she did, she’d use her knife.
And all that while, on successive levels, she wondered at her own motivations. There was pity; of that she was sure. The Runaway wasn’t made for this world. It was best he leave it.
Deeper still, it was all selfishness. He whined. He was erratic. He talked when she wanted silence and was silent when she would talk.
She wanted to walk alone.
He didn’t deviate, didn’t react at all to her calm appraising sideways glance. He just trudged on.
But she knew with a certainty unverifiable that he was lost in an identical reverie, and was wrestling likewise with thoughts of killing her.
How sad it is to be lost and not even know it, to be walking toward something or away from something, and not even know that.
They try to compensate with their brand of high-brow philosophy, and while away the peripatetic hours with religion, with chaos theory, with a studied roster of serial killers that were good with pets and nice to children.
Doesn’t change a thing. Because at night the very agents of their chaos invade their campsite and stroke their cheeks. They try to clamp their eyes but sometimes peek and that’s when they remember that philosophy counts for nothing.
It’s not my fault. I didn’t set this in motion. I could stop it if I chose, but that’s not going to happen. Not for miles and miles and miles.
Stephanie Kimball was in a different place now, now that the changes had come in full force. She slipped seamlessly into a normal existence, one filled with poverty and hopelessness, but one with less guns and knives. Less walking.
She sometimes thought of The Runaway, even though she was yet to meet him in this timeline. She let her thoughts dance ‘round memories of landscapes she knew didn’t exist and of adventures with people that couldn’t be real. She accepted parallel explanations, that it was all happening, or had happened, or was going to happen. And that it was all madness. This did not torment her. Craziness, after all, is the cheapest drug.
Poverty and hopelessness are, finally, all about waiting. Being a stooge to change is about waiting. Stephanie waited. There were facts and requirements of existing; minimal ones perhaps, but necessary, and she attended to these. She attended to her poverty and she nourished her hopelessness and she waited. She thought The Runaway might be coming soon (again?). She wondered without caring how long, and she wondered with more sincerity how many guns and knives she should steal to be ready.
She captains her own plague ship, crashes her own course.
You try not to think about the things you’re running away from. You left not just bridges burning back there, but also farmhouses and villages and all the tracts and rows and acres you’ve ever known.
Running away isn’t as solitary an occupation as it’s advertised to be. In its beginning, at least, it gathers participants both willing and unwilling. You can run away with plans of utter silence and night-time stealth, yet still the act, or its aftermath, touches upon the entire universe you used to inhabit. You might not be there to see it but the vacuum of your exit nonetheless shifts the gravity of all those other lonely orbits. Even people who thought they hated you still find themselves missing you.
So do it right. Do it right. Leave behind a swathe of devastation and char and stumps. Let them cheer your egress. Let them compete to hurry you along.
There are miles of asphalt ahead of you and nothing at all behind. There are places you need to get to and camouflaged dragons to fight. Stephanie’s waiting for you and she’s already packed your kit.
So run. Run now. Everything depends on it.
Drizzle turned to steady rain, and then to a driving downpour, then was punctuated by blinding flashes and ground-shaking rolls of thunder.
They zig-zagged across a cratered street, trying out semblances of shelter but turned out from the better ones by stronger, better armed, and more desperate parties.
They settled in a shell that was almost precisely half a house; the rest of it was scattered around the yard or long carted off. It was hideous and verminous but somewhat dry, and when something stirred in the dark dripping recesses within, The Runaway spun and drew and fired just once. Nothing else stirred. They’d proven strong and desperate enough to claim this spot.
Earlier in the day, before the microbial rain began to fall, they’d tried to enter the city but were turned away by pikemen – actual pikemen – guarding a newly erected gate.
DC was walled now, it seemed, with the wall thrown up quickly but solidly, to guard against something the pikemen wouldn’t talk about. Stephanie and The Runaway had spent long revelous weeks in DC during their last circuit through the east. The city was open and lawless then, but travelers could hunker down for business or pleasure and sleep with only half an eye open.
However long their circuit had taken – a long walk beyond the lawless cities of the east, and into and through all the insane ‘ocracies of the interior – it was enough for everything back east to change. DC had sealed up its own siege.
“Did you hit that, whatever it was?” Stephanie asked at last, hours after The Runaway had fired his shot.
“Is it eatable?”
He snorted, and let that stand for an answer.
Another hour passed, without a cessation of rain. Stephanie spoke up again.
“You want some?”
He took his time in answering. “I don’t trust you, Steph.”
“So,” she said. “So you’re not stupid. You can still have some.”
“I don’t want any.” He settled back deeper on the moldy remains of a couch he’d claimed. He feigned relaxation but let his hand settle on the butt of his right-hand pistol.
Stephanie noticed the gesture, and smiled. “Lack of trust has served us well,” she said.
The Runaway stared at her through slitted eyes. He shook his head slowly then pushed the dripping hat back off his forehead. “I’ll storm the walls of DC with you,” he said.
“Tomorrow. Yeah. Then I’ll walk another circuit with you. One more.”
“You’re welcome,” he closed his eyes. “Just one more, that’s it. Sorry, but this just ain’t working for me anymore.”
There was a grove of trees. It was like nothing they’d ever seen before.
They found it after a long walk. Thinking back on it, they could remember nothing about the walk, only that they’d stopped walking, looked up, and marveled at the trees.
The grove was uniform in a way that was only evident from a distance. Standing close they could see variance in shapes and textures and in the colors that ran through the bark and leaves. Stepping back a bit all they could see was a silvery and green grove, somehow a unit, that with expectation. The grove, clearly, saw them too.
They didn’t speak but both realized they’d slipped into hyp-gnosis again, and had let the walking define them for who-knows-how-long. There was blood splashed on their shoes and The Runaway’s pistols were empty so the ‘gnosis time hadn’t been without incident. They could only hope and assume they’d acquitted themselves adequately.
, the grove begged them. And rest is what they craved.
Stephanie took a step forward, nearly entering the shade of the canopy where all would be lost. Just a hesitant touch on her shoulder was all that stopped her.
“Not yet,” The Runaway said.
A few thousand miles on this road would take them far beyond the grove, through the deserts and mountains and along the coast of the far sea, then back again. The road was a circuit. They’d walked it before.
“Just keep walking,” The Runaway said.
And they did. Every circuit brought changes and much of the road became unrecognizable from one passing to the next. Some things stayed the same though.
They craved rest but needed to walk. When they came this way again, if the grove was still there, perhaps then they would rest.
It’s easy, too easy, to name yourself a plaything of fate.
And funny, now that I think of it, how you name yourself such only when fate’s grim.
There’s much to scorn of Stephanie and her Runaway sidekick;
they’re children. They’re dangerous. They’re going to destroy each other.
But you can’t, you mustn’t, scorn their scorning of fate.
Because I’ve placed them on a ruinous road. I’ve bound their hands to their guns.
And they decry nothing, bemoan nothing. They lace up their boots and walk on.
The road was altered. It cut much more to the southwest than ever before. This circuit took them to desert scrublands that Stephanie at least had never seen.
For miles The Runaway had been pensive. He’d nod occasionally, or stop and stare at some feature of the landscape. But it wasn’t until they came atop a windswept box canyon that he finally spoke.
“Yeah. Yes. Here.”
“You’ve been here?” Stephanie asked.
“Worked here for a season. On that ridge above the canyon.”
Another ten minutes of walking brought them to the lip of the canyon. Stephanie placed a foot on the pebbly edge and leaned in for a look. The valley was filled with bleached bones; she judged that most were animal but some human.
“Worked here, huh? Hunter? Executioner?”
He chuckled. “Both, sort of.” He lowered himself and sat in the dust, his knees and hips and back creaking with the effort. They’d been on another walking jag, without stopping or sitting or resting for a week at least.
Stephanie sat beside him. She dangled her feet into the canyon and asked, “Games? Some kind of gladiator games? I heard that’s been coming back.”
The Runaway stared down into the canyon. “No, bullfights. Used to be feral bulls all through this country. They’d lure them in with a string of cows then seal off the canyon with wagons. Turn the whole thing into a .”
“Bullfights. Wouldn’t think that was bloody enough for folk around here.”
“Well, it could get bloody. Especially with ferals. Besides, this whole country was occupied by Espaa then. Hell it still might be for all I know. Anyway, bullfights was what they wanted, so bullfights is what they got.”
Stephanie was kicking her legs as she listened. She shifted the ground just a bit, and started a localized landslide that nearly swept her to her death. She threw her head back and laughed, then scooted back a few feet and lay down. The Runaway watched her for a moment then lay beside her.
“You were a bullfighter?” She asked at last.
“Oh hell no. I was a plinker.”
She turned her head and squinted at him. “Plinker?”
“The ferals would jump the wagons sometimes. Go after the crowd. The organizers didn’t mind a little bit of that. Kept things exciting, I guess. But if the bull killed more than three or four spectators they’d have me plink him and put him down.” He pointed again at his ridgeline. “From there it wasn’t always an easy shot. Sometimes I’d have to shoot through a wagon canopy. Sometimes I’d have to shoot through people.”
Stephanie looked back up at the sky. Then closed her eyes. “Plinker. Makes sense. Good job for you.”
“Actually it sucked. I snuck away one night. Probably still a bounty on my head.”
“They’d pay me extra, sometimes, to put down the bullfighters. Sometimes for an injury but usually just so they didn’t have to pay out their contracts. No big deal, that was the life those guys chose, but it got old.”
“So you took the extra pay but didn’t put somebody down. Right?”
“Something like that.”
She elbowed him. “Come on. Tell me. How long has it been since you told me a story?”
He laughed. “Okay. It was a little guy named Pico. I got to know him, and he was okay.”
“What was it you liked about him? Why couldn’t you kill him?”
“Oh, I could have killed him. Probably should have, for his sake. I just didn’t, is all.” The Runaway folded his hands across his chest. “He walked into camp one day, begging for a contract. They laughed at him. You took one look at this guy and could see he’d never fought a bull.
“They gave him a try though, and he didn’t do too bad. Not as bad as you’d think. So they gave him a contract, figuring the bulls would finish him off, or I would, but either way they’d get some use out of him.”
“But he did better than expected?”
“Yeah.” He turned on his side and stared at Stephanie. “He was motivated. He watched the other fighters, figured out the and the – the moves the crowd liked and the ones that would kill the bull. He got better and better.”
“And what was it? The motivation?”
“Well that was the thing. He told me about it one night. His family, wife and kids, got grabbed up by slavers when he was out hunting. He tracked them to the farm they ended up at, but too many guards. He couldn’t fight them free, so he talked to the farmer and agreed on a price. That’s what his contract was for.”
“Ah,” Stephanie said, with just a touch of irony. “Sad.”
“Yeah. He was one fight away from having his contract paid out. They told me to shoot him but I’d already decided I wasn’t going to do that.”
“So you skedaddled.”
“Well yes. But I wanted to see the fight first.” He shook his head slowly. “He got tripped up on his own stupid and went down. The bull walked on his head.”
“No, worse. He was out and it didn’t look like he was waking up. They were pissed at me but figured he was done for so they let it go. They laid him out by the camp and waited for him to die.”
“He woke up. It was after a couple days, I think. He woke up knowing his contract was done, and knowing what he needed to do with the money. But he couldn’t remember where the farm was. It was a few days’ walk, he knew that, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember which direction.”
“I know, right? Anyway, I figured they’d have me put him down after all. And that’d probably be doing him a favor, but I said screw it. I got out of there that same night.”
“And what happened to Pico?”
“Who knows. He was still crying when I left.”
They fell into a long quiet. The sun fell deeper toward the horizon. They dozed.
Stephanie awoke to ask, “Did any of that really happen?”
The Runaway considered that. He answered, “Maybe? I think so. There were definitely bullfights here. Anyway, that’s the way I remember it. Maybe it’ll happen next time around.”
They came upon a silent and still murder of crows, darkening the ground with its numbers. A fallout drift, probably, had come over this region in the past few hours and had done for the crows before they knew they were breathing poison. The fallout, be it radioactive or chemical or bio, was gone now without a doubt. Stephanie and The Runaway could tell this by the way they were still upright and alive.
Stephanie veered off the path, without speaking, heading straight for the nearest crow. She crouched over it and began plucking its feathers.
“You can’t eat that,” The Runaway said.
She answered, “Shut up,” and kept plucking. She tore through the bird quickly and reached for another.
“Steph. Stop it. You eat that, you turn into something I can’t stop. I guarantee it.” He moved his duster away from his holstered gun. “My only choice is stop you now.”
She looked up at him. “I’m not an idiot. I’m not going to eat them.”
“The feathers.” She resumed plucking. Reached for a third bird. “I’m making wings.”
The Runaway blinked. He exhaled noisily and put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it away.
“Tired of walking,” she said. “I want to fly.” She plucked another bird clean.
“Stephanie,” he said in a low voice. “That’s crazy. You know that, right?”
“Crazy.” She dropped her bird and looked back up at him. Her eyes were glowing. “Here’s crazy. Three days ago I was cashiering at Costco’s. Did you know that?”
“Three days ago we were skinning the mayor of DC,” he said evenly. “You that.”
“I went to DC when I was sixteen. Field trip. There were museums and a subway. No public crucifixions.”
“Things keep changing, Steph. We both see it. There’s nothing to be done about it.”
She stared at him a moment longer then turned back to her pile of feathers. She spoke so quietly he had to strain to hear her. “When I’m back at Costco’s I think this is all a dream. That you’re a dream. When I’m here—”
He hunkered down beside her, and put his arm around her.
She looked over at him and with effort, found her smile. “I guess I just figure, if things keep changing, who knows, maybe homemade wings will work.”
The Runaway nodded slowly, then reached for a bird and began to pluck.
She woke up screaming, “It’s hollow!” Her scream turned into a keening echo as it descended the desert valley and rebounded through the canyons.
She was awake for good now but there was no way of knowing if The Runaway woke with her. Sometimes he slept through her screams and sometimes they woke him, but he never moved. Never showed whether he was awake or asleep.
In the first few seconds before her mind meandered to other things, she almost had it. Almost remembered her nightmare, what was hollow and what that meant. Almost had that but it darted away like a minnow and then she was thinking of other things.
More’s the pity. She was close, so close, to answering all her own questions.
It wasn’t always bad. It wasn’t forever bleak.
You and your partner walk across enough worlds
you’ll come across everything. Opulence, sometimes,
in place of wasteland.
You’ll spend some forevers happily somewhereverafter.
You’ll die in the gutter in most of your timelines
but in others you’ll soar.
The Runaway spent all night puking. He was no good for traveling the next day which caused them to miss the season’s last ferry across Big River. They were stuck.
And he was sick. All that next day and all through the night he retched and moaned and thrashed in his bed roll, slick with sweat. Whenever Stephanie approached him he’d kick at her and go for his weapon. So she left him alone.
By the time the river iced over she’d carved out her own habitat, a ways up the slope where she could stay out of his way but still keep an eye on him. He was weeks in recovering, coming out on the other side skeletal and raspy.
She did what she had to do to keep them both fed. By the time of the mid-winter ice-over all the other squats had cleared out, for miles around. The Runaway had recovered his shooting abilities by then, and they were both in fighting form.
During a lull in the storms she chipped her way out, went down slope to his place, to talk over with him their options. They both knew they’d drawn too much attention to themselves, and that some of those escaped squatters were talking up the story to whoever passed for local strongmen or warlords on this side of the river. And some of those strongmen had to be wondering what the boy-girl pair of shooters up the slope were fighting so hard to protect.
Best to bug out now. Why not walk across the frozen river.
I know what I’d do if I was set up around here, The Runaway said. I’d set up on the frozen river with skates, or skis, or sleds. Hit everyone trying to walk across, like you just suggested. ‘Less you’re on skates or skis or sleds, you can’t fight back.
As it happened, they learned, the bandits used rookie-machined steel runners, sharpened to a gleam, bolted to the underside of an old fishing scull, the whole rig pulled by four booted dogs. Stephanie and The Runaway scouted out the river crossings downstream, guessed which one would look good to stragglers, which would therefore look good to pirates, and hunkered down near there.
A gunman tried to cross later that night. He was lit up by flares when he was halfway across, and The Runaway was right – just the act of trying to pull his gun was enough to send him skittering down. The dogsled crew had no trouble finishing him off.
They were off their sled, emptying his pockets when Stephanie fired off her own flares, and The Runaway started picking them off one by one. He shot two of the dogs, figuring the other two should be plenty to pull just he and Steph.
The warlords of the region heard about their escape, and their escapade, and sent riders but it was too late. Stephanie and The Runaway hit the east side of the river, fast and back in their traveling groove, and they were gone.
The surroundings were industrial, post-modern, pre-apocalypse. There might have been something depressing about the place, but if any danger existed it seemed to stay only on the margins. How Stephanie arrived there she did not know.
Her perspective was skewed. Everything was tall angles disappearing horizons. She was in a long corridor, bounded by glass, all the walls and fixtures polished and gleaming. A blink to focus, and she realized the place was full of giants, men and women who towered above her, who were rushing to and fro, stepping around her as she stood frozen in the echoing corridor.
No—not giants. She looked down at herself and understood. She was a child again.
The dress she was wearing was familiar. She touched fleetingly on faded memories, of running, rolling, playing, crying – all in this same dress. How old was she? Five, maybe six.
Yet she could remember yesterday, walking on a barren dustplain, a revolver on her hip, a rifle on her back, and bloody destruction in her wake.
She could remember the day before, home in the projects in Philly, getting high and shutting out the world. She could remember The Runaway, in both places, in both slipstreams of time, smiling at her in his lopsided way.
And now here she was, stranded and confused, and so young, alone in a concourse that she now recognized as the regional airport where her mother had once abandoned her. Where she’d abandoned her once again.
The particulars of that abandonment were hazy; she’d grown up knowing it happened, knowing it was the spur that made her a ward of the state. She had some recollection of screaming and crying, of the startled looks on all the giants’ faces.
She felt no urge to scream now. No real fear, either.
It was something more like the recognition of opportunity.
She walked slowly at first, then with gathering speed. The direction she picked was arbitrary. The flow of the crowd might have picked it for her. Still, she headed that way with determination.
She’d arrived back at a pivotal day in her life. She’d see how she could make things better this time.
Patterns emerge. They always do. If you walk that grand circuit, like Stephanie Kimball and The Runaway, you’ll see patterns emerge: in the landscape, in the blasted flora and stunted fauna, in the struggling societies and in the cannabalistic tribes that were once societies.
And because the road is inviting, because others walk the circuit, you’ll see patterns there too. The others walk their own circuits (their own patterns), so the signals emerge from the noise quite slowly. Stephanie and her sidekick once walked a thousand years without seeing anyone. But then they crossed paths with another brace of familiar travelers, and nodded their hellos, and this too was a pattern.
Over time they develop a catalogue of fellow walkers. They come to know who they can barter with, or lay with, and who must be met with gunplay. Over shared campfires they learn tragic stories and are invited into family histories of death and slavery, of searching and disappointment. Of patterns.
A new pattern emerges: that of the ending of patterns. Because sometimes the walkers disappear.
It’s a pattern that’s to be expected. This road is dangerous. It preys. Unless you stumble upon remains (a pattern exceedingly rare), then most often the victim just dies horribly alone and is erased from history.
And they’re erased from your memory with utmost slowness. You might walk another thousand years, or another, before their absence becomes apparent. Then you begin to look for them, for another aeon or so. And then you realize they’re gone.
So what pattern is this? Is it just foreboding – notification that this is what awaits you? Only one way to tell: keep walking.
Steph Kimball was cashiering at Costco when The Runaway found his way in, all shaded eyes and shady smile and feigned ease.
Because it was Halloween, or nearly so (which was even better from a retail perspective), the place was bedecked with the seasonals you’d expect. And this gave The Runaway entree to say –
“I can help you get rid of a light haunting.”
It was almost enough to make her chuckle. She arched an eyebrow instead. “Oh? How’s that?”
“Pets,” he said. “Dogs or cats. Dogs cats, even better. Solves the problem right up.”
“Yeah, but don’t ghosts make dogs bark and cats hiss?”
He nodded slow. “A light haunting I said. You know, like light thumping and the doors opening all by themselves. Doesn’t work for poltergeists and the like.”
“Or screaming murdered babies?” she asked.
“Right. For that I’d go with an exorcist. Or a moving van. Maybe both.”
Steph turned off her overhead light, enjoying an almost unnoticed thrill from ignoring the pissed-off patrons who were shooting glares at her and The Runaway. She leaned in, elbows on the counter and chin on her hands. She asked, “So, pets?”
“Yeah. Noisy ones. Let em bark, chase each other, whatever. They make enough noise, and you don’t even notice the light tapping and the doors opening.”
“So it doesn’t really get rid of the haunting. It’s more of a coverup.”
“Sure,” said The Runaway. “Good enough, whatever works.” And they shared a laugh.
It was better than a laugh though, it was important preparation. There weren’t many light hauntings where they were going, but there was plenty of call for Good Enough Whatever Works.
A week or so after Steph lost everything, before sleeping on the street lost its exciting novelty, word came down that an occupy movement was breaking loose up north. One of the rich cities, a financial capital, with legions of fatcats blind to the even greater legions of poor and luckless. Steph said why not and headed north. Somewhere along the way she stole a puptent. She had no such luck in stealing food, or enough food, so by the time she set the puptent she was weak and gaunt.
That was a common enough affliction at the occupy so it was quickly enough forgotten. Besides someone began stealing food, almost enough for everyone, so Steph and everyone settled into the occupy, where acoustic guitars were strummed in their dozens, where human megaphones relayed down the line the political discussions and the feelers for consensus. It was good.
The Runaway was there, cooking meth for all who wanted some, but he and Stephanie pretended not to know each other. Stephanie pretended this; she assumed it was pretend on The Runaway’s part, but she’d never be sure. She was all in for the meth so that was something, an introductory thing, so they re-made their acquaintance, with Steph at least pretending it was a first time thing.
She did tell him once that she’d dreamt of him all her life, and had walked the badlands for aeons with him. They were both incredibly high though, and he showed no sign of understanding any of her words.
Summer crept into fall, and fall crept on. The fatcats pissed on them from balconies. The occupy soldiered on, fairly happy, all the acoustic guitars now laughably out of tune.
Then one night someone with a knife slaughtered everyone, save Stephanie Kimball and The Runaway. She would always assume he did it, and he always assumed her.
They said not one word about it; they just headed for the badlands.
hree of her teeth were still cracked from a longago barfight. She had broken bones she wasn’t even aware of. She’d gone through livebirths and stillbirths and ‘bortions enough, without ever making a peep.
Steph wasn’t stoic and she’d chuckle at you for trying to hang such a word on her. She just didn’t mind pain, that’s all.
But I know something about that Steph doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that indifference to pain just draws more pain. I sorely wish I could tell her.
The Runaway still hadn’t revealed his real name. Not to Steph or anyone else, or even to himself in most ways. Never spoke one word about himself or his upbringing, never named his town or said anything at all about closest family or best friends, nor casual friends nor worst frenemies.
He did tell the tale of a second cousin, a removal or two distant, one night when he and Stephanie were deep in their cups with some sour mash they’d distilled over winter.
Cousin’s wife was an artist’s model. And artist’s plaything, which cousin had only suspected until the artist confirmed it, by going crazy in bed with her and obliterating her, unspeakably.
The artist got sent up, as he had no penchant for defending himself, and found himself in a room he could paint in, with plenty of painting time. He’d been middling famous before snapping, now insanely so. His paintings were flying out the prison walls, into galleries and private collections and fetching enormous prices. Cousin, being the only living “victim,” got every penny. The artist didn’t care, probably wasn’t aware of it, probably never even thought about it. He just kept painting.
So there was cousin, rich as Croesus, all thanks to the man who’d boned then skinned his wife. The Runaway speculated negatively as to his own hypothetical willingness to accept such riches.
The Runaway had tried stealing from him once, slipping into his mansion when he knew no one was home. There was a dog he hadn’t known about, a big one, and that got messy.
He was irrationally resentful of it, and of the curling, puckered dog-bite scars that hurt like hell in cold weather. More than one cold morning The Runaway had promised himself to shoot cousin dead if he ever saw him again. Part of him always figured he might be doing cousin a favor.
Stephanie was passed out by then, but she was grinning in her sleep. The Runaway guessed that at least some of his story had pleased her.
“I can’t hear that syllable,” Stephanie said.
The Runaway half turned. “Which…?”
“The in,” she said. “In inadvisable.”
He laughed and nodded. “Bold yet inadvisable.” He nodded again. “Well read and sharp of knife. All parameters rather sizable, trading fallacies for life.”
Steph stopped walking. “What are you – “
She paused but then nodded. She started off slow. “Even now it’s inadvisable,” she said. “This tussle with this dream. Standing slack-jawed in the hurricane and drowning in their cream.”
“,” The Runaway whispered. Then – “None were less sustainable, least of all the pause. All the plaudits unobtainable. Sucking cancer for the cause.”
“None of you are understandable, least of all your minds.” Stephanie spoke freely now. Her eyes were closed and her head held high. “A sheen of oil on a sandy beach, an oaken door on the sties that bind.”
And The Runaway finished it. “None but we were unbelievable, as we pulsed before their eyes. Wanton love is disagreeable, and I can hardly still believe their cries.”
That was all it took. Their eyes rolled back, their brains receded and they hit the dirt. While they were out the ground shook then the skies melted…then their world changed yet again.
She would have preferred permanent death. Unending darkness.
As a second option she’d take the very long cycle reincarnation scenario. Earn her way back up from wormhood. Put in her time back in the trenches, using her teeth to kill her meals. She thought there were lessons to be learned in the reincarnation scenario, not least of which was
If I saw a worm or bird or wolf that I was sure was
Last Chapter (FIRST)
Three days after an alleyfight went badly, Steph found herself on a bluff above the dump on the outskirts of town, contemplating her own oozing side-wound and contemplating the buzzard that was contemplating her from a neighboring bluff. The Runaway lay nearby, oozing plenty himself. He’d been quiet and still for a while now.
She passed out and woke up later to find the buzzard closer. The Runaway was gone.
“He took off that way,” the turkey buzzard told her, and that’s when she realized she was dying or dead.
And hell, the same was probably true for The Runaway. He’d run off or crawled off. She could see a pretty wide blood trail, ragged and meandering. Maybe he’d just got over the hill, was probably bled out and dead just over the peak, a couple dozen meters away.
And good riddance to him, and why’d it take so damn long anyway. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d put her own gun up against his head or belly or crotch. Couldn’t guess the number of times she’d strained not to pull the trigger.
Of all their interminable walking, of all the hero times they’d fought back to back, all she could now remember, in terminus, was how much she hated his guts. She was glad he was dead.
“You’re dead too, Sally” the buzzard said.
“Bite me,” Stephanie Kimball said.
Then the buzzard shut up and a new voice, faint and wispy, called out over the bluff. “Don’t matter, Steph. Don’t matter a bit.”
“You can bite me too, dead man.”
“One step to the left or right. That’s all it takes.”
Steph tried to bark at him again but her mouth was suddenly too chalky. Hypovolemic thirst, that tortured parchedness as you bleed to death.
“We ain’t done walking, girl. You hear me?” She heard him. “Dyin’ doesn’t enter into the equation. We step off our path, just a hair to the left or the right, then we’re off walkin another path. A new one. A new one starts tomorrow.”
Suddenly she felt nothing. Nothing. She was emboldened to lift her hand and stick her forefinger into her wound. It was effortless and gory. She tried to laugh but couldn’t.
“You head back to Costco. Steal some supplies.” The Runaway sighed and coughed, then went on, speaking much softer now. “I’ll meet up with you there tomorrow.”
I’ll kill you as soon as I see you, Stephanie thought as she died.
It Never Ends.