Previous: Episode 9
The plastic bag on the passenger seat crackles with the beating heart wrapped inside it. Between the nursing home and Penny’s house, I see five police cars spread at irregular intervals along my route, a dragnet for some heinous criminal. I wouldn’t describe myself as heinous. Like a driver who has had a drink or two at dinner but is not drunk, I’m paranoid of being pulled over for some dubious reason. I verbalize the impending incident, again and again:
What’s in the bag, sir?
I’m going to ask you one more time. What’s in the bag?
My friend’s grandmother’s heart.
I’m not sure what my rights are, if I have to tell them or not. They may not even ask about it. And another thing—I still don’t know if Cruz is my friend.
Before long, I’m home. I sit in Penny’s car and wait for an ambush. I’m that nervous. I make a 360-degree check of my surroundings before I get out of the car, lock it, walk up to the house. I almost unlock the front door when I remember the heart is still in the car.
My jaw is clenched so tight, skipping to the car and back reminds me of teenagers sneaking out of the house on a school night. I never did that because there was never anyplace I wanted to go. It’s not that late; I don’t know why I’m being sneaky. Sure enough, before I can open the door, Penny opens it for me.
“Oh, hey,” I say.
“You are here.” She looks at her car in the driveway and shuts the door. “I was just walking by and saw the car.” She looks at the bag. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Gross! Okay, whatever.” She hits me in the arm. “Do you like my car?”
“Yeah. It was pretty good. Thanks.”
“Did you leave the radio on a weird station?”
“You know? I didn’t mess with it.”
“I have satellite, Abe. There are all kinds of stations with that crazy noise you like.”
“Man,” I say, “next time.”
“Yeah. Next time. Did you eat?”
“I did. Thanks, Penny.” I ate some beer in a seedy hotel, hours ago.
I descend into the black basement and head to the furnace room to find a box for the heart. Just as I pull the light on, Bergdorf says, “Time is running out, Abe.”
“Je…!” I’m able to stifle my exclamation, but I leap into the doorframe, bashing my knee. I wait for Penny’s footsteps, for her voice yelling what’s happened? It’s quiet.
“My associates and I have a very important, I dare say critical, strategic planning meeting in two nights that requires the instrument you have been conscripted to procure.”
“I’m working on it.”
“Believe me, at this juncture, if we could reassign the task to another, we would.”
“I’m taking care of it, I said.”
“There’s no reason for the salt, Abe. I acknowledge this is a great deal of pressure for you. Keep in mind, we report to a higher authority, as well.”
“I understand. I will uphold the covenant.”
I turn away to the shelves and find the box I was envisioning: a deep cigar box. Inside is a collection of postcards. I take it all to my room. This is how my magic works, one ingredient at a time.
I put the postcards on the voodoo box and transfer the heart from the bag to the cigar box. The heart beats steady in a type of stasis, oblivious to its condition and place. Next, I search the voodoo box for something useful and the old deck of cards immediately stands out. It’s from a casino, the same as my poker chip, Seventh City Resort. I study each card, paying close attention to marks and damage, to the faces of the high cards, to the shape of each suite. The queens, specifically of spades and diamonds, are full of power, releasing an energy that gives me pins and needles in the backs of my eyes. The two of spades has a tiny notch in one of its long sides that pulses in rhythm with the crone’s heart. I’m giddy with the experience. And queasy.
Finally, I retrieve the silver pocket watch, wrap the chain around my right wrist, hold it tight. I sit on the floor with the cigar box on my lap and the three cards in my left hand. My nose is bleeding before I can get into position over the heart, blood drips on my crossed legs, the cigar box. Then I aim. A few drops of blood hit the side of the disembodied muscle. I lean forward a touch and drip directly into the widest blood vessel, maybe part of the aorta. Instantly, my entire being chases the blood, tumbles into the pulsing red tunnel, depositing me on a white sandy beach. I recognize it as the place our mother always wanted to take Penny and me.
I unsnap my sleeves, push them up high on my arms. I take my shoes and socks off and stand on the cool, wet sand. Waves break, cover my feet and wick up my pants. I look at the sea and sky, waiting. I clean the blood from my face with the saltwater and tuck the watch in one of my shoes, the cards in my back pocket.
“Okay, you two,” I say, “come out. We need to talk.” I look over my shoulder, but the twins aren’t there.
I stuff my socks in my shoes and walk into the conifers that line the beach. “You know I’m not angry. And you certainly know I’m not going to hurt you. I made my way here because this is how it has to be. You know this.”
“Yes.” They speak as one, but they are drastically different in this place, appearing as adult women. Holly, in black, is stern. Ivy, in red, is diplomatic. They are both intimidating with their gravity. “You have come to our place of your will and we shall accommodate you by the laws of hospitality. You must forgive us, uncle, for being guarded—it is our intention to keep you safe, only. However, you are on a wheel now that cannot be hindered. Listen to our story.
“In the span of known time, there are missing periods, swaths of millennia stolen from record. The one thing present at each of those lost periods is the fungal bloom at the heart of your labor. A being escaped one of these cataclysms by entering a space like this one. This being was an impossible shape, a three-sided pyramid that rotated on its apex and communicated to us with a black light. It claimed to have perfected what it called praxis, and transformed into this shape, which in turn transported the being away. The catastrophe felled its world through what the being described as plague and fire that was unleashed by experiments conducted on the fungoid, ancient to even them. This thing is the prime catalyst, the key to all things, the Sefirot. It is said, In the Beginning was the Word. This object you seek, encased by a capsule of blue time, is the Word.”
Like pieces of a puzzle recovered from between couch cushions, the big picture takes shape. In one corner, there is Bergdorf and associates. With regards to their strategic planning meeting, they are either the forerunners of the next great leap in evolution, or the instigators of the next mass extinction. Rayne is in the diagonal corner, harnessed by her unchecked sophomoric power and driven towards the role of demiurge. I’m one of the incomplete corners, and the last could be Cruz’s grandmother, my Uncle Sy or a total unknown.
“Did you stop my dad from talking?” I didn’t intend to scold them, but when they don’t answer, the furious parental figure in me comes out. “Shame on you,” I tell them.
They are still children behind their avatars. They drop their heads and say, “We were protecting you.”
“Are you really protecting me, or something greater? Am I just a pawn? Even to you?”
Ivy looks up, but they both reply, “No.”
“Well, thanks. Thanks for finally letting me in on what the hell is going on.” I can’t be frustrated, not with them, but it would be easier if they were the little girls I’m familiar with. “And thanks, girls, really, thank you for protecting me.”
They smile and I see my nieces in the bow of their mouths. “Your welcome,” they say.
“Uncle.” It’s Ivy speaking alone. “I offer this space to you to complete your task.” Holly frowns and nudges her. “Can you find your way back?”
“I think so, Ivy. Thank you.”
“Be careful,” Holly says. “Please use your brain.”
“I will. I really will.” I blink and the twins are gone.
Leaving of my own accord is not so simple, but it gives me time to do as Holly asked. I walk the shore towards an outcropping of volcanic rock. Maybe because of this place, what it symbolizes even if it isn’t real, I reflect on the months of my life I’ve wasted.
The rest of my childhood, I could ignore the shame, mostly; it was a scar on my back. As a teenager transitioning to adulthood, I was able to date, to share small intimacies. Then the civil suit developed, was put into motion. A kid from Camp Shalom, a former member of the Boys Club—under the direction of another charming pedophile—spent his whole youth becoming a top lawyer for the sole purpose of claiming reparations for his abuse and the long tolerated abuse of others. I should have felt vindicated. So many of us should have. Instead, several of us, like me, were only hurt again, the shabby justice of time collapsing, burying us in guilt and embarrassment. The settlement payments were a constant reminder that I was damaged and I didn’t want to be reminded anymore. Bergdorf said he could help. I guess he has.
I want to take a moment, just a little one, to not think, to undress and jump in the water, embrace the freedom from despair. A wall of storm clouds driving like a bulldozer across the sky keeps me moving and I decide that when I complete this task for Bergdorf, I’m going to use some of the money, the money I’ve been collecting for a few years now washed of shame, to bring Penny and the girls to the real version of this place.
When I get to the rocks, I brush the sand from my feet, put my shoes and socks back on. The silver watch has stopped at three minutes to twelve. It won’t wind. I put it in my pocket and scramble onto the sharp rocks. The volcanic ledge curves away from the beach. It’s slick from high tide and bright red crabs scatter from the large pores. There are tide pools occupied by starfish and purple sea urchins. The illusion is near perfect until I come to a large crater sheltered by a high cliff. Waves crash against the ledge, and from somewhere below, the water surges into the crater, fills it to the rim, then empties, like a perpetually flushing toilet. The thing that confirms it an illusion are the trilobites scuttling around the crater, slate grey, a little bigger than my shoes, with furry antenna twice the length of their bodies. I hope they are an illusion.
Except for their size, they aren’t much different from pill bugs. I think this over and over as I approach the glassy rim. I can’t remember what pill bugs eat, but I imagine them to be carrion feeders, and since I am very much alive, presently, I have nothing to fear. But these are not pill bugs, and the way these creatures express with their antenna, it makes me question whether they are really trilobites, or illusionary, at all.
I can’t get close to the crater to see inside because there are so many of the armored things. And then suddenly, I’m surrounded. Since I can’t avoid it, one scurries over my foot, pausing midway, exploring my ankle with its ticklish feelers. Its antenna becomes erect, then all the brood stop and follow suit. They clear a path to the crater’s edge.
Standing on the rim, as the water flows out, I see the hint of my bedroom at the bottom. The ancient things go back to their own business except for one that lurks at the edge with me, its feelers hanging over the side. Without any indication, it tumbles in and I jump after, afraid of what it will do to my stuff if it goes back to my room. I’ve jumped when the water is low, and just when I expect my spine to compress as I hit the bottom, water rushes in, nearly tossing me from the hole. But then it recedes and the pull is irresistible. I gulp as much air as I can before I’m inhaled by the tide.
I wake just as I start pissing my pants and run to the bathroom. The morning sun pierces the window well. I’m jetlagged—what I think people mean when they describe jetlag. My bedroom door is open and to no surprise, the trilobite is missing. I’ve got more important things to worry about.
First, the old witch’s heart is exhausted, expired, a black stone in a pool of tar. I close the cigar box lid, thinking of what I’ll use instead. My dad’s watch is still stalled; it may never work again. I put it back in its place, trying not to panic. Just because Holly and Ivy have given me permission to use their…outside place, doesn’t necessarily mean I must. Or that I can.
I can’t over think these things anymore.
Of course, that’s the whole point: don’t think. Using one’s brain does not always require a plan, previous knowledge, logic. I know this and it’s time I fully embrace it. I arm myself with what my heart directs me to.
I loop a belt around my waist and attach the bayonet to the belt. But that won’t be enough. I snap my fingers with an idea and sprint down the basement hall to the cedar closet, a time capsule of our mother’s garments. She never wore the coat after the divorce, but she wouldn’t get rid of it: a black, full-length mink. The sleeves are short, but not so tight as to cut off the circulation in my arms. I shuffle the three cards back into the casino deck and put it in the fur’s left pocket; the spirit bottle fits perfectly in the right. For good measure, I grab my trusty snake rattle and head to the bus stop. There is no other way to make this journey.
When I pay my fair, the bus driver tells me I look like Prince. Just the fur coat, I guess. But a man like me, on this bus, is not out of place. The route runs along a ley line constantly traversed by bokor and root workers, brujas and druids.
Cruz and his grandmother are waiting for me in front of their shop.
“Do you have my heart, pendejo?”
“Gramma!” Cruz delicately smacks his grandmother’s hip. “Come on in Abe, we have a special today. Just for you.”
The three of us go inside. Cruz locks the door. Cruz’s grandmother strokes my arm. “Nice coat,” she says.
Next: Episode 11