Part 1: Before
Death is coming for me, but not for a few more weeks.
The truth is I’ve died more times than I can count. I don’t know how I keep coming back. I just do. Each time I’ve leapt from the edge of physical existence, traversing the void, hoping to disappear into that great unknown, I’ve managed to find myself again. One moment I’m lying in the road bleeding to death and the next, in the hospital or back home. Sometimes I’m perfectly healthy; others, not so much and I’m not sure what it was that made the difference in each scenario.
But it’s been a while since the last time I passed. I’m old now. And slow.
My adventures have caught up with me in the form of rheumatism, a hip replacement, psoriasis, bone spurs in the tops of my feet, cancerous lesions in my esophagus, and of course, brain damage that’s looking more and more like dementia. None of that is what’s going to kill me though, so I don’t worry too much about it.
I don’t know exactly what it is that keeps me from meeting my Maker. I don’t subscribe to theories of reincarnation or collective consciousness or any other crap being peddled this century. Although, experience has taught me that believing or not believing in something doesn’t change the facts. Truth is not subjective, but unchangeable; anyone who thinks different is a fool.
These days I’m writing everything down. Everything that’s important, anyway. There’s a lot more to my story than I’m able to pen, so some of it I have to record. That’s what the discs are for. What comes after that, I have to leave up to the boy.
He has to know everything. Every bit of information I can offer, so long as it leaves him clueless. He can’t know the specifics or he’ll make the same choices, repeat the same mistakes.
“Knock, knock.” A pleasant voice follows a quick rap on the open door. I don’t need to look up to know its Abi. She’s a welcome interruption to my bleak planning.
“Come in, sweetheart.” I fell asleep in my clothes again. My pants uncomfortably furl as I work to sit up. “I’ve got some things for you to do.”
“I figured you would. I heard Jeanine’s got the day off and G isn’t up yet. I brought you some coffee.” She’s got two foam cups and a warm smile.
“I could kiss you.” The Joe around here’s all decaf. “You are too good to me, girl.”
“Heaven knows you don’t deserve it,” she snickers placing a cup on my nightstand. “I thought I’d check-in on my way to work. What do you need, Gerry?”
Her sweet eyes stare with fondness, as if she sees the heart inside this decrepit shell. And for a small moment, I wonder . . . What if I told her everything?
She wouldn’t believe me. Nothing would change.
“Abi, grab those discs over there,” I point towards the dresser, “put them inside the brown box under my bed. See that Jeanine gets it. They’re for the boy.”
“Why don’t I just take the box? I can hold it for G.”
There is strained silence when I don’t answer. She’s well-intentioned and already knows how events must play out. To a point. If I told her everything she should know—as a friend would—she might change her mind about the boy. Then that decision would affect his decisions. It’d be the same ripple effect all over again and I can’t have that.
Sipping my coffee with morning meds, I wiggle my feet into orthotic shoes and grab my cane. “Is Burbank too far?” I know Abi will take me wherever I need to go, even if it makes her late for work. That’s just the kind of soul she is. But her generosity doesn’t ease my having to ask.
I wait until her car is out of sight before entering the studio lot. The security guy at the front gate lets me pass. His Granddad was a good friend of mine. I walk up the main road, cane in hand, trying to ignore the pain in my hip as I swerve through the witless crowds.
Getting closer, I can feel the shifting forces in my bones; the familiar power of the stones already at work. The earth groans beneath my feet.
Today is important and if I’m not mistaken—which I’m not—three streets over on the corner near the potted Palm trees will be the place.
I hate being here. I don’t want to see him again. I don’t want to remember.
Regret is the most difficult and probably the worst part of getting old. Through all the things I’ve seen, the cyclical mistakes I swore I’d never make again, I’ve come to accept it is my legacy—this regret—for there’s more of it than anything else.
As I come upon the last corner, I spot the potted grouping of Palms. And it’s there. The humming as familiar as my own hands. Not an audible noise, no, but a slight vibration in the inner ear that I’ve learned to recognize because of those regrets I mentioned. This is numbered among them. It is the sound of the gateway opening.
I move off to a side street and try to disappear behind another pluming cluster of trees.
No one sees him coming. They only see him burst onto the road—hands out in front like he’s been flung from a moving vehicle. He probably was. For them, the ones blessed enough to be ignorant of this man and his secrets, the burst is instantaneous. For me, it’s like a scene from my own life playing out at half speed and I don’t miss a thing.
The energy overflow makes gravel of the pavement. I imagine the pain of pebbles digging into his skin, lodging under a fingernail. It hurts when that happens. It’s petty, but I hope that’s what’s happening to him right now. I hope dozens of pebbles get lodged under his skin so deep, he can’t pry them out. And I hope they swell with infection.
This man who’s flown through unseen portals, seemingly appearing from nowhere—he’s wearing the same tattered trench coat I’ve come to identify him by. I watch his shoulder blades slam together as his body meets the ground, grating bone against bone. The plastic guards strapped to his legs slam against the man-made street. The sound is like shattering glass. Despite his efforts in deflection, the man’s chin hits next. I smile a bit seeing his neck snap back, knowing his mangled beard is no help against impact—only road rash and hiding scars. When you travel this way, one of the first things you learn is how important it is to keep your face away from the impact. My teeth nearly sliced clean through my tongue once. After that I started using a mouth guard. Either this guy was in a hurry or he’s new to the game. He’s not even wearing a helmet. Seconds stretch like minutes as he meets terra firma and remnants of intemperate energy pitch him into a roll.
This scene is so familiar. Bile rises, coaxing my breakfast into my throat. How I loathe and regret his part in my life. I’m not looking forward to our next meeting and wonder how many collisions he’ll endure before his body breaks down completely. Like mine. We’ve both walked away from things no one has a right to.
This section of road is now a shallow crater—the impact marking his entry into my world. His body limply tumbles another twenty feet before hitting a concrete step in front of what is supposed to be a flower shop. Blood spatters onto the ground as he coughs, turning his head for a look around. I feel the black, like an aura surrounding him as the bearded mans’ face twists into a misplaced grin. He loves a violent landing.
A normal man would be dead, but this one—this Keeper—is like me. We aren’t normal, only men in the classic sense that we were born and one day we will die. But not before I take the thing that keeps him going—those three, precious stones that make him so capable and dangerous.
This man has many names—the one he gave me many years ago was Nahuiollin. As he grew, he began calling himself Serpent and Revenge. His tribe was also called the Keepers, for they were the protectors of the Threestone. His father was Guardian to the Sacred Powers, a title that was supposed to fall to his son when he passed.
To me, this man is Death Incarnate because his purpose is my destruction.
Observations make good assessments and my guess is he’s using the surrounding noise to find his current position, identify any miscalculations on his part. It seems he hasn’t learned much since discovering to manipulate the power of the stones. Of course, there are the memory problems to contend with. Too many concussions and variant times distort a Keepers view. This odd spot for a landing can confuse even the most seasoned traveler. It’s a place of entertainment. They make movies and television shows here. I look around the lot, taking in the wagons on paved roads, the swarms of people dressed in confusing ways, but there are still plenty of clues.
A groan slips as Death adjusts himself.
I know what he’s thinking: the noises don’t match the scenery. Horse hooves smack in cadence, vibrating the burning pavement beneath his bald head. The heat probably stings, but not enough to make him want to move. Travelling makes you sick, like riding the roller coaster a few too many times after a big meal.
I work my way into the crowd gathering nearby. Getting caught is not part of the plan. Not yet, anyway.
Deaths’ scattered thoughts come together at some point. I watch his features sharpen as he tries to focus on the watching crowd. Turn-of-century clothing paired with the casual use of profanity: these are things he will notice. But he won’t see me standing behind a fat man in a lousy hat. Death removes the broken shin guards from his legs. The gathered swarms of people stare, as I do, in a large circle from a safe distance. Some raise small objects to the sides of their heads and speak. Communication without wires—the size and shape of the phones is a dead giveaway to the decade. None ask after his condition but inquire among themselves, indicating a progression in dehumanization—a byproduct of advancing technology. He can put two and two together. It’s the twenty-first century.
A woman presses through the crowd. “What happened?” She kneels near Death, offering water in a bright, metal container and a cloth for the blood on his mouth. “Where’s your crew? What stage are you on?” Before he responds, she’s directing her excited language into a handheld radio.
As Death rises from the pavement to his feet, she tries to assist but is put off by his black stare and subsequent sneer.
When one man asks, “Did he just hiss at you?” Death laughs. He knows this is the right place to begin another search.
The woman seems to freeze, finally realizing what instinct should have told her at first glance: he is dangerous.
Exactly when is three weeks before I die, hopefully for the last time. Precisely where is one of many television studio parks in Burbank, California. People come to these places to watch tapings of various sitcoms and talk shows. It’s a vacation. It’s entertainment. But right now nothing is amusing.
I leave the cover of the crowd. Of all fifty or so people staring at him as he moves, I’m the only one stupid enough, desperate enough, to follow. At a distance. He trails past a tall gate, wherein lies a body of water. I count to five and stalk after him. It’s not a natural inlet, but part of a set. The odor and color tell it’s not safe to drink; still Death shoves his face into the tepid water to wash away the stinging dirt and blood. Odds of infection ever increasing.
I sneak into a shop full of costumed people pretending to be what they’re not. No one understands what they’re heading for. They’re just living in the moment as if there are millions more to be had. What I don’t understand is how generations can ‘cleanse’ themselves of knowledge, seeking to be ‘enlightened’ through pleasure. It’s a binge and purge way of life. Mankind has forgotten that one must remember to learn. But no one cares about remembering or discovery anymore. Nothing new under the sun, as they say.
The paved road continues around the waterway. I follow him along that road until it ends at an iron gateway. As Death raises a leg to climb over, a man in studio uniform begs a request to “please exit through the turnstiles.”
Though my hip is popping, I manage to keep my tail. His habits change from place to place. I need to know how he’s going to get around while he’s here. That will help me figure out how he’ll find us. After that, the rest will happen on its’ own.
Outside the park, a rail-thin man in long boots and mustache holds a sign. “The end is near, the end is near!” He shouts, but this wisdom falls on deaf ears.
“Not yet.” Death leers at the man’s booted feet. “What size are those?”
The poor dooms-dayer hesitates, looking into the face of evil. Plainly, he is puzzled by this question. Until my bearded nemesis yanks him by the collar: in one move, he’s subdued. In the second, he’s barefooted.
On the paved road leading out, Death walks with his new boots heading towards the highest buildings in the distance. He knows exactly where to begin his search. In each ring, I am almost always lingering in the city of Angels.