There were a lot of things I discovered in my research for yesterday’s story, “The World’s Largest”, that simply didn’t fit, but they were too good not to include elsewhere. So, they were put together here in a patchwork. Then, I dropped in an antihero and ran him through his paces.
This is the end result. Maybe Paris finds redemption. Maybe he doesn’t. Either way, he certainly has never experienced anything like this before.
Paris of the Plains
by Curtis A. Deeter
Paris learned early how to deal with his wife early on. He loved her once, maybe, but his nerves couldn’t handle another conversation about the laundry or where the new lamp was going to go or what color they should paint the guest room. He couldn’t stand another story about her best friends—the sorority sisters who put her through hell and helped her gracefully into womanhood at the same time—or about the time her middle school custodian pushed her down on the playground with a single sweep of his broom. First, she skinned her knee. Then, she broke her wrist. The twelfth time she told the story, the sun exploded and pigs flew.
One more and he might lose his mind. Drowning in mundanity, Paris needed to find a way to escape, something to help him float through the muck.
Ella’s disembodied voice, garbled and grainy through the speakers of Paris’s Cadillac, rose several octaves. He gripped the steering wheel harder, knuckles clenched and paling three shades whiter than the snow that was falling in a vortex all around him. When she got like this—when his actions forced her to primal anger—Paris tuned her out. If he’d known this was the last time he’d hear her voice, he’d have listened more closely. He’d have let the coldness of her words caress the feeling-less gaps within his cerebral cortex.
You never consider my feelings, Paris. We always do what you want to do, Paris. Your mother treats me like some common whore, Paris.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Paris muttered, turning his wife’s voice down.
In the left lane, riding a bit too close to avoid the drift of snow on the narrow shoulder of the Heart of America bridge, a young woman passed by. He turned to her, his brown locks outlining the face of the prettiest man on Earth, and winked. She smiled back, winked, and blew him a kiss that changed his life.
Suddenly, she veered to the right, nudging Paris’s Cadillac with the front of her SUV. Then, she overcompensated, slamming into the concrete partition separating converging travelers—those coming into Missouri and those heading to the place where time stopped and technology reverted to the Stone Age. She—that smitten woman who, before crossing Paris’s path, had been going somewhere important with her life—found herself tumbling across two lanes of oncoming traffic and then flipping through the air in a shower of glass.
Paris slammed on the brakes to avoid colliding with the twisted metal that was once her existence and hit a patch of black ice. He too began swerving, failing to regain control, until he hit the partition on the opposite side, flipping exhaust pipe over front windshield. His speed and the slipperiness of the highway ensured that he cleared both the snow-smothered pedestrian path and the short chain-link fence protecting commuters from the frozen waters below.
Everything blurred together. He saw Missouri. Then Kansas. Then Missouri. Then the bottom of the bridge. Briefly, he wondered how anyone could possibly graffiti that down there, but then Missouri came back into view, followed by swirling snow. And, finally, there was Kansas and the ice shattering all around him and foamy water pouring in through broken windows.
All Paris could hear was his wife, no longer yelling, but asking him in that patient, resigned tone, “Are you gonna be home for dinner, at least? Sammy’s asking about you.” Then, he heard nothing. Felt nothing—not even the cold.
The dual smoke stacks of the Veolia Energy Company watched indifferently as the river sucked him in. A group of homeless people, cold and high and unamused, heard the horrible cries of metal on concrete and the desperate honking of a dead women in her SUV, but were too tired to care. The Kansas City skyline that overlooked the river missed the whole ordeal, but wouldn’t have cared anyway.
Paris awoke to hot breath on his neck. He was shivering uncontrollably, and his fingers were covered in blue, crystalline, snowflake lattices. Curled up on the bank of a river with the soothing lap of water just behind him, he almost allowed himself to fall back into sleep. Then, he sat up with a start.
Where am I?
A skeletal buffalo coated in bronze patina grazed nearby. A smaller, orange reflection of the beast, perhaps the calf of the elder, licked Paris’s face. Steam shot out of its nose with every huffy breath. Where the steam caressed his body, Paris felt warm relief, and his skin returned to its youthful paleness.
“Go on,” Paris said. “Yah! Get away.” And the calf retreated back to the protection of its mother.
He stood, feeling stiff and sore. How am I not dead? he wondered, then fumbled through his wet coat to find his phone. It was gone, probably at the bottom of the Missouri River sleeping with the longnose gar.
Wits regained, Paris surveyed his location in vain for anything familiar. Kansas City was nowhere to be seen. There wasn’t a bridge or a road or even a person in sight, just the frozen river of which he plunged into and, miraculously, emerged, along with an empty field, two skeletal buffalo, and the edge of an endless forest.
“You probably deserve this,” his wife said through the wired jaws of the mother buffalo. “I told you not to go out drinking. I told you to stay home with us. Just wouldn’t listen, would ya?”
Paris grunted. Even in this hell or purgatory—wherever this place was—he couldn’t get away from her constant nagging.
“I’m guessing you want help, right? Follow me before I change my mind.” The buffalo turned, its grotesque skeletal body bending in on itself in all the wrong places. One shoulder blade retracted into its rib cage, while the other jutted out at a weird angle. Its legs crossed and intertwined, before righting themselves. It huffed and said, “Quickly now.”
It stopped three times on the short walk to the forest’s edge. Once to graze on some grass, once to rest, and once to frolic after a family of butterflies. Paris rolled his eyes and sighed. He’d wanted to find familiar ground to stand on and had gotten his wish in this air-headed, four-legged satire of his wife.
Finally, she continued towards the forest, slowly at first, with the calf dancing circles around the elder buffalo. Paris kept his distance, holding his hand over his nose. The stench and the buzzing of flies was too much for him. He’d be sick soon if he didn’t find a way to lose the beasts.
When they reached the threshold, they turned to him in unison and spoke in a singular, monotonous voice. “Here is where we leave you. The rest of your path you walk alone. May you find mercy for your soul.”
“How will I know where to go? Aren’t you supposed to guide me or something?”
“I’d love to be there for you, Paris,” the mother said in his wife’s voice. “I’d love to be let in, too, but you won’t give me access. Won’t show me how. Just like your iPhone, I’m blocked from crossing that line with you. What are you hiding, Paris? What don’t you want me to find out?”
He didn’t answer at first. He was too angry. With clenched fists, he let that anger boil up until he almost exploded, and then freed it to the world. It took on a form of its own–a shape like fire and then like glass and then like nothing.
“I told you,” he said to the buffalo, hoping to get the message through to his actual wife wherever she might be. “I have nothing to hide. I wish you’d trust me and drop it, already.”
“Wish granted,” the buffalo bellowed. The calf emulated its mother, but the sound that it made was more of a scream than anything.
And then they were both gone, as if they were never.
Alone and annoyed, Paris pulled the collar of his jacket up around his face and entered the forest. When he broke the plane of ancient pine trees, each leering and reaching out towards him, the river and the field and the memory of the buffalo faded. Behind him, only a thick purple-gray haze remained, which also faded the deeper into the forest he got. At first, he followed a faint path, but even it disappeared, leaving him vulnerable to the will of the trees and the croak of the frogs.
Paris never learned how to navigate or read a map. Why would he? The position of the stars meant about as much to him as the opinions of the senile, old lady downstairs. The orientation of moss on tree trunks meant even less. He had GPS on his phone and his Caddy told him where to go at the command of his voice. Besides, he only needed to know how to get to work, the club, or to his girlfriend’s house. His little world didn’t extend much further than that. And he’d never be caught dead anywhere without a proper wireless signal. He wasn’t a savage, after all.
The ground beneath him seemed to slither and writhe every step he took. The trees throbbed. Their leaves sung to him, desperate to lull him into complacency. When he looked closely, it was almost as if sap flowed through the trees like blood in its veins.
A tree branch cracked behind him. Another to the left side, somewhere far off. Then to the right, much closer this time. His heart quickened. The leaves of the trees pulsed to its beat. Above him, from all around, the boughs snapped and shook. Acorns showered down from the canopy all around him. Without even thinking about it, Paris set off at a dead sprint. He had no idea which way to go or where he was or where he needed to be. He just ran and ran and ran, the forest nipping at his heels.
Sweat and tears filled his eyes. His vision blurred. Soon, his stringy legs, once strong but reduced to twigs after years of cocaine and working at a desk, began to give out. The monsters slithering at his feet would have him. They’d wrap their slender bodies around his, squeeze the life out of him, and pull him deep into the earth. No one would look for him. No one would even weep.
Suddenly, he tripped over an exposed root and tumbled headlong into the trunk of the largest tree in the forest. Paris gasped when he finally came to his senses. The tree was wider than a house, taller than a skyscraper, and harder than bone. An entrance, carved thousands of years ago, was the only imperfection on its smooth, obsidian facade. Creep-covered silver branches hung all around him, creating a protective barrier between him and the dangers of the outside world.
Paris ran his hand up the smooth trunk, and pressed his face against the warmth of its flesh. Up close, he saw amber ichor flowing through the tree’s interior. He felt the thrum of its heartbeat as if it were his own. He pulled away and his eyes followed it up to where he could see no longer. At the absence of his touch, the ichor inside lit up gold. About two hundred feet up, the heart of the tree radiated the same light, so bright he had to shield his eyes.
He felt a warmth in his leg, too—a sort of secured pinching feeling like he was a cub being carried by the scruff. At first, he thought nothing of it. His awe at the brilliance of the tree superseded any other sensation. Then, Paris began to feel woozy and downright dizzy.
Attached to his leg was a long, barely perceptible proboscis jabbed into the muscle of his calf. From deep within the heart tree, he heard the gulp of a satisfied monster as his blood left him through an opened vein. Though he could not see the beast, he imagined in horror the giant mosquito-like creature dwelling within—filamented thorax, mothish antenna, and two transparent yet pearlescent wings.
How big was it? The size of an eagle? Larger?
He didn’t wait long to find out. Paris ripped his leg violently loose from the sucker. Blood spurted, but he’d have to deal with that later. Dropping to his stomach, he wiggled out from under the tree. Its branches ripped into his spine like razor wire. On the other side, ten or more giant mosquitos awaited him, each the size of an Andean condor—three meters from wing to wing. Their buzz shook the pebbles resting on the soil at his feet. He could feel the force of their wing beats inside his chest.
They swooped. He ducked, dipped, and tripped to avoid their needle-like ends, managing a few narrow shaves in the process. One tore through the sleeve of his jacket. Another pierced the tip of his winter cap. Another stuck in the ground beside him, its host flailing angrily to break free. There, Paris saw its face for the first time and recognized it immediately.
“Gregori?” He said, stepping back. “What the fu—”
The mosquito with the face of his ex-roommate, a man who he felt deep sympathy for and allowed to bleed him dry both financially and mentally, sprung lose. Dirt kicked up around the insect as it rushed Paris. He grabbed it by the antepronotum and stared into the vast lenses of its domed, buggy eyes. Gregori’s smirk—his face when he was pulling one over on someone—was still there, and the wrinkles on his forehead, but it had morphed back to its buggish nature. Its antennae felt for him, tickling the skin of his cheek. Sweet resin spilled from its gaping mouth.
Paris remembered the saving grace attached to his keychain and hoped it was still there. In one fluid motion, he let go of his attacker and unclipped the carabiner attached to his belt loop. Finding the metallic, cylindrical device attached, he twisted the lid and sprayed the mosquito full in the face with a healthy stream of capsaicin. It squealed and flew away, blinded by pain. The wind of the fleeing mosquito’s wings blew mace right back into Paris’s eyes.
But the others had seen his Sting.
It wasn’t enough to scare them away completely, but it was enough to keep them at arm’s length. Paris stumbled towards what he hoped to be the light at the end of the tunnel, bumping into trees, tripping over roots, and walking face-first through thorny vines. Out of his peripheral vision, he was ever aware of the mosquitoes’ presence. Their faces, despite being blurry, were all familiar.
Ex-girlfriends who used him and abused him. Old business partners. His parents. All of the people in his life who had done him harm for harm’s sake.
Oddly, his wife wasn’t among them, but his girlfriend was. Every other face was a mirror image of his own. They were all laughing at him and waiting for him to slip.
He let the images go and sped up, squinting through the pain in his eyes. The drone of the mosquitoes lessened and the light grew brighter until, after a brief struggle with a thicket of saplings, he fell out into the open. To his relief, the mosquito-ghosts from his past didn’t follow. To his chagrin, his jacket was in tatters and his pants were soaked in blood and mud and something else he would rather not admit.
What greeted him on the other side of the forest chilled Paris to the bone. A steep hill, lined with tombstones and surrounded by a rotting picket fence, led up to a crumbling stone mausoleum. Some of the markers stood higher than the others, with crosses reaching towards the sky; others laid on their sides, half buried in putrid soil. All of them were ancient—forgotten. People’s names from a make-believe history. A dule tree, covered with lichen and leafless, stood next to the mausoleum. Under the sporadic shade of its gnarled branches, a bench awaited Paris, offering a moment of respite.
The climb up the hill was arduous. Before braving it, he’d wrapped his leg wound with strips of his pants, but it throbbed and ached with every step. The path, or what remained of it, snaked around burial plots. It was wet and hard to get a proper foothold in some spots, but Paris determined to stay the course. Maybe if he could close his eyes and sleep, he’d wake up back at his apartment.
After what seemed like an eternity, he arrived at the apex of the hill. The single tree was much more menacing, gnarled and scratched with the initials of a thousand long-dead couples, and the bench much less appealing. Weather and neglect had stripped the stain from its slats and spiders had woven their homes into the spaces in between. A crusty splotch of gray bird droppings took up most of the center of the seat. Weariness prevailed, however, and Paris brushed off the end furthest from the tree and sat down, taking up as little space as possible.
A hand caressed his shoulder from behind. A cold tongue ran from his earlobe to his temple, leaving a slug’s trail of saliva across his forehead. Petrified, he daren’t move a muscle.
“Welcome, Paris. It’s nice of you to visit me,” a haggard, feminine voice said. “Please, do make yourself at home.”
“Leave me alone.”
“We’re all alone, Paris.”
A thick fog settled at the bottom of the hill, shrouding most of the tombstones. The crumbled mausoleum transformed into a magnificent representation of its former glory. Marble cornice along the eaves. A Gothic spire to die for. Stain glass windows around the entrance.
The woman stepped around from behind the bench, showing Paris a glimpse who she really was—wrinkled, hunchbacked, pallid with sunken cheeks and cavernous eyes—before she too transformed. She kneeled before him a goddess, her head down in reverence.
“This is what you like, isn’t it? Superficial characteristics. Large breasts. Pouty lips. Am I starting to scratch the surface, Paris?”
“What do you want?”
“What do I want?” She stood, drawing a slender finger across her nose and slightly open mouth, which stretched into a frightening smile. “You’re the one sitting on my bench. You’re the one who’s here uninvited. What do you want, Paris?”
He thought about that as she circled him, occasionally stopping to examine at his teeth or tease his hair or blow into his ear. What do I want? Mostly, I want to be somewhere else, far, far away. Away from the witch woman currently smelling the fobs on his keychain.
Finally, after she’d thrown his keys over her shoulder into the fog, which now had a life of its own, she said, “It’s of no matter, anyway. You’re here. I’m here. And we’re going to have a bit of fun. How does that sound, Paris? You do like to have fun, no?”
“I’d rather not.”
She sat down cross-legged, her thigh pressing up against his. An orgasmic shiver danced up his spine. His teeth chattered, but he forced them back together.
“Too bad,” she said, cackling. “I want you to tell me a story. A good one, too. None of this fairy tale nonsense your kind cherishes so much. A real one.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.”
“Sure you do. What about the time you drove that young man to kill himself? What was his name? Samson, I believe. Such a lovely young man. Intelligent. Handsome in a goofy sort of way. So much potential. So much life. Tell me about Samson, Paris.”
He was no longer sitting on the bench. The witch and the fog and the graveyard were gone, too.
He was back in the fourth grade, playing what passed for soccer over recess. They’d pick him to be a team captain, again. He’d picked the same strong, agile, alpha people. Cody Henderson. Sally Lovette. Zack Porter. Ironically, all three were dead now. Two from cocaine overdoses, one from a fatal stabbing in an alleyway behind a club. They’d found Sally’s body lazily stuffed in a dumpster. They’d found Zack and Cody, former NBA basketball stars, in a hotel bathroom, naked and covered in white powder.
None of that mattered, though. Not to Samson’s story, at least.
It started out innocent enough, as far as these things go. A jab in the rib cage here. An insult there. Maybe, under the immense weight of peer pressure, Paris would flip Samson’s lunch tray or step on his Warhammer figurines. Everyone would laugh and cry themselves to adolescent tears, all the while knowing their miserable home lives would be easier to tolerate once the bell rang because of Samson’s pain.
When Paris got his hands on Samson’s phone number and found his Facebook page—cleverly hid under the pseudonym Swiftstrider Greenleaf—Paris and his friends had a field day.
Paris sent him fake nudes from a girl who “had a crush” on Samson but didn’t exist. Samson had never been happier in his life.
Finally, someone who liked him. And good looking, too! She shared in a lot of interests. Video games. Lord of the Rings. Miniatures. She hated the things he hated. The sun. The mall. Sports. She even dreamed about a world removed from the real world in which they could battle dragons and drink cider by the warmth of an open-hearth fire. Paris’s fake woman was Samson’s ideal match.
A meeting was arranged. Paris and his basketball buddies showed up with eggs and water guns filled with sour milk.
Two days later, Samson shot himself in the head with his father’s service revolver.
Paris never meant for it to go that far. He was only having a bit of fun. They were only jokes. How was he supposed to know Samson was depressed and all alone? How was Paris supposed to know he was waiting for someone to give him just one good reason?
The world turned black. Time turned itself back and Paris was once again sitting in the graveyard, stuck fast to the bench. Tears ran down his cheeks from red, puffy eyes.
“I’m so, so sorry. I never—”
“Hush,” the witch hissed, grabbing him under the chin and clamping his mouth shut. “You don’t get to feel sad. You don’t get to be the victim. Samson could have done great things with his life. And you… What about you? All you’ve done is drink and blow lines off the backs of toilets and neglect your family. Shame on you, Paris. May your spirit forever wander this plane. Now go. Be gone with you. Even though I won’t, maybe Samson will forgive you.”
At that, she slunk off and disappeared behind the mausoleum. The graveyard returned to its original, dilapidated state. Paris was freed from the ephemeral bonds of the witch. She’d done what she came to do. She’d broken him like she had been broken so long ago.
For longer than acceptable, Paris remained on the bench. Not because he was still frozen, rather because he didn’t know what to do next. He’d never felt so drained, so hopeless in his life. How could he come back from the things he’d done? How could he be expected to keep going?
Just when he decided to close his eyes and die under the dule tree, a chipmunk hopped up onto his lap, its chubby white cheeks working overtime on an acorn. Its tail flicked as it spoke, words garbled by its full mouth.
“Excuse me?” Paris said, rubbing his eyes.
“Get up. Your family needs you.”
“I don’t even know where to go.”
“You’re so close. Dust yourself off, get up, and stop being a baby. I’ve seen pups bigger and braver than you.”
“Tisk. Tisk. Oh well, can’t say I didn’t try,” the chipmunk said. He leapt off the bench and disappeared into the tall grass.
Paris waited for a while, too stubborn to succumb to outside influence, and finally stood. He knew the path all too well. It had been there all along, dormant somewhere in the cobwebbed recesses of his mind.
The path led him down the hill, away from the graveyard, and, after a time, to an abandoned parking lot. Barbed wire fence surrounded the area. In the distance, he could just make out the remnants of an old factory. A horizontal, rusted smoke stack. Moldy pallets. A fossilized Ziploc bag left over from a line worker’s bologna sandwich.
This was the sort of place he avoided like the plague. His father and brothers had been line workers. His grandfather had died with the old Kansas City slaughterhouses. Paris was born for bigger things. He refused to be one of the faceless many laboring away their youth. He longed to create, as he had since he was a little tike drawing murals in chalk on the sidewalk in front of his childhood row house.
Under a low, gray sky, Paris crossed the parking lot. He stepped over the cracks like he had when he was a kid. He never had a mother, but he wanted her to be safe. Engrossed in the task, he missed the shadows closing in around him until it was already too late.
A can skittered past his view, and a cat hissed from behind some rubble. Paris looked up right in time. A headless man made out of rusted iron creaked towards him, arms extended. Three more followed in toe. A half dozen or so were approaching from the other direction. He read the name tag on the man’s jacket, screamed, and ran.
Despite his exhaustion, the iron men couldn’t keep up. They persisted, but fell behind until he could no longer make out their features. His feet screamed, too, as they fell on the cracked pavement one after another over and over. He ran into the scavenged body of an old Jeep and found himself face first in a pile of tarpaulin. The wound on his leg split open as he fought to break free.
The headless iron men kept coming. If he could only reach the other side of the lot, find another hole in the fence, maybe they would get tangled. Maybe they can’t go beyond the boundaries of their concrete jungle, like the mosquitoes couldn’t leave the forest.
After shaking the fence in an attempt to convince it to open for him, Paris ran back to the tarps he’d wrestled with, the iron men closing in. He scooped a tarp up as one of them reached out to grab him; a single cold, metallic finger grazed his cheek. It was the same one that almost had him earlier, wearing the same name on his tag—the name of his father.
His foot grazed a piece of rebar. Paris let go of the tarp and wielded it. He couldn’t bear leaving his father in such a state. He held the rebar like a baseball bat and swung. His father crumbled into a pile of dust from the heart outwards and Paris let the rebar clang on the concrete, his mouth quivering.
He didn’t dwell on it long. He grabbed the tarp and tossed it over the fence to cover up the barbed wire and climbed. He dropped over the other side and left the parking lot behind, bending his knees to absorb the impact.
Suddenly, he came to a dead stop. Some invisible barrier barred his path. He turned in time to witness the iron men tear through the fence like it was wet spaghetti. Paris watched in horror, still sprawled on his back, as they passed through one at a time. Blood and oil was smeared across the surface of whatever he had made contact with. It was all he could do to stay conscious. He felt warm blood running from his nose and tasted the metal of it.
Paris stood on wobbling legs. The blood rushed to his head and spots skipped across his vision. When he regained his senses, Paris ran his hand across an invisible surface. Where he’d made contact, it was cracked in a web and sharp to the touch.
“Glass,” he said, fascinated, “but why?”
With his palm flat on the surface, he followed the pane until it gave way to air. He stumbled where it ended, almost ending up back on his face. He moved in close, but couldn’t see anything. About ten feet further down, the glass started again and kept going indefinitely. It might have ended eventually, but the iron men were close on his heels. He was forced to brave the gap.
Step by step, slowly at first but then with a renewed sense of confidence, Paris negotiated the gap. He held an arm out, letting his hand slide across the pane to his right for reassurance.
As soon as his pace quickened to a jog, he slammed into another unseen wall and laid in the grass for far longer than he could afford. He got up, cursed his lack of vigilance, and thought about what to do. There was no going back. The iron men were mere yards away from the start of the glass labyrinth and closing fast. Is this the end?
“No,” he said, feeling all around him, “screw that.”
There were two additional gaps heading in opposite direction, both the same width. He chose the left side, putting his fate in the flip of a coin. This time he traversed the passageway swiftly but with caution, knowing it could suddenly end or turn off at any time. When it did, he took the only path available. Then a right at fork. Then another left, right, right, and a slight left; until he could no longer trace his way back if he needed.
The sound of cracking glass interrupted his concentration. The iron men pawed at the outer wall of the labyrinth and threw their bodies at it. Pieces of them broke off, but the glass broke faster. Where it cracked, the wall became immediately defined in spiderwebbing. It didn’t go on forever, but it spanned enough distance to justify his decision to take the gap. They broke through the first layer almost as quickly as they tore through the fence. And they’d break through the next one, too. And the next until they caught up to Paris and bludgeoned him to death, or worse.
Paris’s passage seemed to be narrowing. Imperceptible at first, the glass started to press in on his shoulders from both sides. Then, he had to walk sideways to get through, until it came to an abrupt end. The walls pressed in on him from all sides. His heart race, sweat beaded on his forehead. He tried to backup, but lodged himself in place. He contorted his body, wiggled his torso, and, when that didn’t work, screamed and pounded his forehead on the glass.
The Iron men kept coming. Their pursuit persisted layer of glass after layer of glass. Two or three more panes and they’d be on him. The glass began cracking around him from their efforts. Then, he saw his way out.
Paris braced himself for the pain and drove his elbows back as hard as he could. His force finished the job they had started, and he broke through. Glass showered on him, cutting his face and his neck, but he was free. Like dominoes, the whole labyrinth was coming down. Shards kicked up in every direction. He shielded his face and charge through a dust cloud of tiny glass particles.
“Do you think he’ll make it?”
“He has his flaws, to be sure, but anything Paris wants Paris gets. It’s been that way since he was a boy.”
“Does he want this?”
The trinity sat around an oaken table. Torches planted in between the crenelations of the tower flickered around the edge of the castle that was no more than a single turret. Beyond, moonlight blanketed the world.
An old man, face covered in gray stubble up to the tops of his cheeks, smoked a pipe and chewed on a chicken bone. Directly across the table, a young mother and her child watched him with wide-eyes, waiting. Always waiting.
The old man tossed the chicken bone over the edge of the castle and belched. The little boy giggled, but his mother silenced him with a glare that could turn even a grown man to stone.
“Only time will tell,” the old man finally said. Words have weight and it’s always too early to use them until they’re absolutely necessary. “He seems to come to terms with every turn of the wheel.”
“Did the witch woman really have to do that to him, mommy?”
The old man winked at the little boy. “She was a bad woman. Not all burned at the stake in those days were, but Morgan deserved what she got and so, so much worse.”
“What’d she do, grandpa?” This time his mother didn’t silence him. She too longed to know.
“There was a child, once. Not much older than you. Carliah was her name, a potter’s daughter. Fair-skinned. Hair like the poppy fields. She wore a brooch of sapphire around her neck at all times—a gift from her grandmother. Morgan took a fancy to the child, as she was never allowed to have children of her own. She twisted the child’s mind with treats and honeyed words and books of forbidden knowledge. She entranced little Carliah and took her as a thrall. One day the child was there, the next day no one ever heard from her again.”
“Did she like being with the witch?”
The old man sighed. “Children don’t know what they want. Sometimes adults don’t, either. Shall I tell you what happened, or do you insist on interrupting?”
The little boy didn’t answer, rather lowered his head in shame. His mother accepted his shame as punishment enough and didn’t move to reprimand his transgression.
“In short, she died. Poor Carliah. When the village elders raided the witch Morgan’s humble home, before dragging her off to be hung on the dule tree and then burned in a pyre, they looked for the child. They found nothing, not bone nor flesh, save for the sapphire brooch. They’d been spotted—the witch and the child—in the woods, dancing naked under the full moon and chanting in a dead language. Wolves and coyotes gathered all ‘round them, partaking in their dark ritual. That’s when the villagers knew something had to be done. Too bad it was already too late.”
“And daddy met her?”
“Yes,” the old man said, simply.
“Mommy? Is daddy okay?”
The mother forced a smile. “I think he is now. He wasn’t before, though. The witch Morgan only wanted him to learn from his past. She ignored her own, and it drives her mad. We can’t do that. We can’t make the same mistakes over and over again.”
Just then, a loud rapping came from below.
“Our time is up,” the old man said to the child, offering his hand. “Come, I’ll tell you another story before bed. Do you like dragons?”
“Yeah!” the boy said, taking the old man’s massive hand. The two faded out of existence, leaving the mother behind.
Paris pounded his fist on the entrance to the tower. A sign held with a single nail indicated the door opened to the Northmoor Castle. This meant nothing to him unless it could save him from the iron men.
Shards of glass had stripped the soles of his shoes and cut the bottoms of his feet raw. His leg where the mosquito stung him throbbed worse than ever. He struggled to breathe through his broken nasal cavity.
Dejected, he took a step back and peered up. If he squinted hard enough, he could make out the top of the castle through a thin layer of clouds. The door creaked open. Stale air wafted out to greet him as if to say, “Enter if you must.” Paris obliged.
The interior of the tower was little more than a spiral staircase, resembling the inside of a lighthouse. After the incident in the labyrinth, he shrunk into himself as he ascended. Several platforms jutted out along the upwards path. He didn’t stop to appreciate them, but each outcropping housed magnificent stained-glass panels. Shades of crimson and violet and zaffre. Scenes of despair and epiphany and ultimate triumph.
Scenes of tragedy and of death.
At the top, a ladder led up to a trap door, which automatically opened for him. He stepped out into the brisk air and came face to face with his wife.
“Ella,” he said, dumbly.
Clouds passed quickly overhead. One resembled his father, the smaller one following close behind his son, until they both dissipated into shapeless forms.
Tears welled in his eyes. “Can I just say I’m so—”
“You don’t have to. I’ve been watching you. At first, I thought you deserved it all. Why else would you be put through such nightmares? But then…” she trailed off, still unable to admit she might be looking at a different man than she’d known yesterday.
Paris went to embrace her. She flinched before succumbing.
“I’ve been so awful.”
“You were only ever a man.”
“I can be so much more… If you’ll give me another chance.”
“Sure,” Ella said. She tried to say more, but her throat was suddenly dry and she couldn’t swallow yet alone form words.
The breeze that felt so much like the Kansas City breeze he knew so well, but was something else entirely, began to pick up. It whistled, then groaned, and then howled. The couple, still wrapped around each other, shivered.
“It’s cold,” Paris said, letting his wife go. He bent to open the trap door, holding it up and allowing her to go first. “Shall we?”
“Sure,” his wife said to someone she hoped was a brand-new man. She disappeared into Castle Northmoor and Paris disappeared behind her.
Sharp, calcified fingers wrapped around his own. Paris broke the surface of the frigid Missouri River like a torpedo and gasped for breath. A deep inhale burned as oxygen struggled to fill his lungs. The world swirled around him.
He looked into the black, hollow eyes of his savior. They looked back without actually looking. A black cowl concealed much of the rest of the face.
A deep voice filled his mind. It said, “Nah,” and Death let go.
Paris flailed in the water before sinking back down into the cold depths. Faces flashed across the back of his eyelids. The buffalo that almost looked like his wife. The mosquitoes. His old friends. The witch Morgan, her face streaked with mascara and guilt. His father, if his face were made of old iron. Ella. His son, Samson.
The last thing he saw, after all of these people took their leave of him, and the thin, shadowy figure had disappeared from the riverbank, was a sapphire shining at the bottom of the river. He reached out and grabbed it with a fistful of slimy sediment. Holding the brooch to his heart, Paris succumbed to the flow of the river.