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The Far Bank

by Bret Tallman

 

David Bell stood at the muddy cusp of the Mississippi River, gazing out to the far bank, looking for any sign of hope. But it looked like just more of the same, more moonlight, more fallen wet leaves, more menacing forest.

He turned to Tommy Hale, took in everything with a sweep of his hand and demanded, “Well? I don’t see anything. If you’ve wasted my time…”

“You’ll what?” Hale sneered. He leaned back against the trunk of a dead tree and waved away the mosquitoes congregating around him. “Why don’t you shut up until you know what you’re talking about, okay? It’s not quite midnight yet. Timing is important when you’re crossing borders. Do you have the compass?”

Bell fished the old thing out of the back pocket of his jeans and ran his fingers over the sigil freshly etched onto its back. The needle spun wildly. “It won’t even hold still. How is this thing going to lead me to my son?”

Hale didn’t bother to answer the question. “Time to pay up, Mr. Bell. My services aren’t free, you know.” He reached into his coat and produced a cheap plastic lighter and Bell’s own driver’s license marked with yet another sigil.

Bell hesitated as he looked into the sallow eyes of this stranger whose indifferent façade was occasionally pierced by moments of jitteriness, and he instinctively knew that this was a hunted and untrustworthy man. “So I burn that thing and what, you get to be me?”

Hale nodded and tapped the driver’s license impatiently. “Pretty much. The people who know you will see me as you. It’s a little late to change your mind.”

“Oh, I’m not changing my mind. It’s just hard to imagine my father is going to think some scrawny white boy is his son. Why would you want to wear someone else’s life?”

“Why are you so willing to throw yours away? We’re both driven, I guess.” Hale held out the license and lighter again, expectant.

Bell took the lighter, flicked it and held it up against the license. The two men watched the small flame lick it gently a couple times before the edges blackened and the flame leapt up onto it. Bell felt no remorse. Let Hale have the ex-wife, the ex-friends, the ex-coworkers. Bell had systematically torn his life to shreds since the death of his son and giving away shreds seemed no great loss to him.

Hale gently placed the burning card in a small glass bowl. “I’ll need to keep the ashes, put them in a phial or something and wear it around my neck whenever I want to be you,” he explained. He grinned and pointed. “Looks like your ride is here.”

Bell turned and saw that the river had stopped, simply stopped, the dark water as still as a pool’s. The far bank was enshrouded in fog, the land beyond it smothered in dirty gray mist. Gooseflesh broke out on his arms; it was all so sudden and unnatural.  “It’s real. My god, you were right. How can it be completely clear over here but—”

Hale gave him a little push. “You really don’t have time to get fazed by things like that. Now hurry up and remember to get back across the river before sunup. If you’re not back by then, David, you probably won’t ever get back.”

And with that, Hale turned his back on David Bell and the Mississippi River and whatever would happen there and was swallowed by the forest.

Bell approached the water’s edge and knelt, finding his reflection in the water and moonlight. He still had his own face. Same dark skin, blunt and wide features, lined and altered by recent years.

Bell straightened and stepped into the water. It flooded his sneaker and bit his foot, surprisingly cold on such a warm night. He breathed deeply, braced himself, and waded into the slumbering river.

• • •

The first thing he encountered made it clear. This was not home.

“Go back, man alive, go back.” The creature’s voice was a distant exhalation, a message on a breeze.

Bell staggered, looked back not five feet to the river he had just left, dripping and panting. The fog now shrouded the other bank, the land of the living, but the swim had been easy enough, he could escape. He shook his head.

The thing among the leaning trees, the man made of oak leaves and mud, brown and mournful, took a step forward. The wind spoke again, “You will be harmed and do harm here.” It came closer and now Bell could smell it, rain and earth and deep night. Suddenly, he wanted to let this thing catch him, bury him somewhere people would never reach.

Then it burst, a detonation of swirling broad leaves, and the air gasped.

Standing where it had been, hefting a great black sledgehammer, was Lionel Sinclair. He was still a gangly scarecrow, as he had been in life, but he no longer wore prison blues or the horrific gash across his throat another convict had given him with a sharpened metal ruler. He was intact and animate, dressed in a lime leisure suit and smirking with satisfaction. His color was strange though, as if he reflected moonlight like the river itself.

“It worked,” he drawled and gave the hammer a twirl. “Sister Smiles said it would and it did. She’s a witch and a fortune teller; she told me you’d be here.”

Questions crowded Bell’s mind and it took a moment to pick one. “What was that thing?”

“Just a puppet, the Borderman’s puppet. He puts them along the river to keep folks out. We should get moving, the real him won’t be too far away.”

“Thanks for the help, Lionel,” Bell said and meant it, amazed at how unamazed he was to be talking to a dead man.

“Hey, you were nice to me in the joint.” But this wasn’t really true.

Nobody had been nice to Sinclair, not the other prisoners who had raped and beaten him more than any other two inmates combined, and not Bell’s fellow prison guards, men who were eroded by the environment and became swaggering, brutal bullies. Maybe Bell had been the only one to have sympathy for the man and it had somehow seeped through his few words and motions, but that’s all.

Bell produced the compass and waited for the needle to settle into position.

“Watcha got there, chief?” Sinclair took a step closer and the light clinging to him subtly changed, becoming minutely warmer as if Bell were a candle.

Bell forced himself to look away, to look at the compass and saw that it had chosen a direction. “This is supposed to lead me to my son.”

“He’s dead? How old was he?”

“Only eleven. Just up and vanished one day. Somebody snatched him on the way home from school. They never found a body but I knew he was dead.” He watched the arrow, still and steady now. “And I was right.”

“You here because you miss him? You’ll be with him soon enough, someday.”

“Danny must have seen his killer’s face and heard his voice, maybe even knows his name. I’m going to return to the living, find the man who took my son and kill him. “

Bell set off into the forest. Sinclair rested the hammer on his shoulder and followed him.

• • •

“He’s in that house.”

Bell and Sinclair peered out from a cluster of trees. The balefully lit windows of the three-story hulk, a brooding mass of indigo boards and azure slats, seemed to stare back down at them from the hilltop. A trio of pale women in antiquated ankle-length dresses silently played poker in a gazebo not thirty yards away. They paid no attention to the two men creeping up the hill to the house’s front door.

Sinclair boldly twisted the iron doorknob and pushed the door open. “Beyond life is beyond fear, chief,” he chuckled and walked on in.

The foyer was empty but for empty picture frames and the living room held deep red leather furniture that looked never used. Sinclair led on and Bell followed, reaching the dining room and the conclusion that the dead man seemed too familiar with their surroundings at the same time.

Sitting at the far end of a long mahogany table, dressed in clean pressed whites and black suspenders, was a plump, vaguely familiar middle-aged white man with an oily crown of dirty blond hair. He peered at Bell expectantly.

Sinclair slapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to sting a little.

“Come on, chief! Don’t tell me you don’t remember Mr. Mills. He ran your neighborhood drugstore when you were a little kid.”

“Right,” Bell nodded slowly, “I do remember you. But what are you doing here?”

“Cut me some slack, chief,” Sinclair interjected, slapping his shoulder again, harder this time, “He and Danny were the only ones I could find for this little intervention. Everyone else with any connection to you has moved on to the Other Countries.”

“We locked your little nigger in a room upstairs but he’s alright,” Mills huffed and then cocked his head when he saw Bell’s expression. “Oh, that’s right, I was always afraid to talk like that in life. But one day you’ll see, David, parts of us fade away; the masks we wore don’t last here and eventually you forget why you ever bothered with them.”

Bell remembered Mills as the most easygoing adult he had known as a child, a man of gentle amusement and patience, and was so nonplussed by what he was hearing that he didn’t know the hammer blow was coming until the lower right side of his ribcage caved in. He crashed to the floor without the time or breath to scream.

Sinclair stood over him and snarled, “You really thought you were the best of them, didn’t you? But you were the worst. Because you knew better.”

He raised the hammer above his head and brought it down just above Bell’s right ankle. The bone snapped instantly and this time Bell could scream. He shuddered with agony as Sinclair bent down, reached into his back pocket and retrieved the compass.

Rage sent tremors through Sinclair’s voice as he said, “Just those animals and me and you. Every day. Every day. And you knew it was wrong. I could see it in your eyes and you did nothing.”

He dangled the compass just above Bell’s face. “So I'm taking this from you and I’m taking your son and you won’t be able to find him in time. Not fair, is it? Not as unfair as a car thief being… but still unfair. Yes.”

He rose and vanished around a corner. Running footsteps thumped up a flight of stairs. Bell struggled to lift his head, locked eyes with Mills and gasped, “Why?’

Mills held up his plump hands. “Oh, this is all Lionel’s show and you don’t say no to him while he’s got that hammer. But relax, I m actually here to — wait.”

Footsteps descended the stairs, then the front door slammed shut.

Mills continued, “There he goes. I actually agreed to be here because I owe you and not the way Lionel does.”

He pushed himself up out of his chair and waddled over to a large mirror hanging on the wall behind him. “Do you remember the time you stopped those two other kids from stealing — what was it — I don’t even remember. But I remember what an honest boy you were, for your kind.”

Bell shifted minutely and groaned as his broken ribs stabbed him. Still, he managed to growl, “They were white. Those two boys.”

“Well, yes,” Mills admitted. He hoisted the mirror from its hooks, faltered and almost dropped it, but righted himself at the last second. “And I would think of you whenever I tried to fight these feelings my daddy and his friends put in my head but Lord did they make sense.”

He brought the mirror to Bell and carefully set it down in front of him. “David, look.”

Bell did and saw himself but without his injuries. Then he realized he didn’t have any. He sat up slowly, ran his hands over his calf. “Wait, it was some kind of trick?”

“There are things here that can kill you and worse, but a weapon can’t do anything its wielder can’t live with.” That strange candlelight flickered across Mills’s hands, close as they were to Bell. “My but the living bring life to dead, don’t they?” He rose nervously and took a step back. The mirror thumped flat to the floor.

Bell rose to his feet and not a shadow of pain lingered. “Where did Sinclair take Danny?”

“I have no idea.” Mills thought a moment. “But you can find him the way he found you. Go see Sister Smiles.”

Bell’s jaw clenched and he just barely resisted the urge to strike the dead man. He figured he had maybe three hours now before sunrise. “How?”

“The Lone Road is not far to the east. Find it and go south. Other travelers on the road won’t be able to harm you, but never let anyone lead you from it until you reach her home.”

Bell offered his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Mills.”

Mills hesitated but Bell didn’t retract his hand or look away. Finally, Mills shook it quickly and tried to pull away but Bell held on. Warmth and color seeped into the flesh of Mills’s arm and as it did, his face went through a wave of anguished expressions until it settled on shame and he dropped his gaze.

Bell released him just as the front door banged open. One of the women from the gazebo came running into the dining room, crying, “Borderman!”

“Out the back, David,” Mills stammered, fear returning his voice to him. “Get to the Road and you’ll be safe.”

The woman led him through a spotless kitchen to a small door. As she unlatched it and swung it open, Bell could hear bootsteps, absurdly loud ones, sounding all the way from the foyer.

“Never let him catch you!” the woman called after him and he ran eastward.

• • •

On the long trudge down the Lone Road, Bell passed a tuxedoed man whose facial features swam around his bald head like guppies in a fishbowl, a nude black-haired woman riding an enormous alligator and moaning softly every time its lurching step jostled her bare pubis against its rough hide, and a half-dozen confederate soldiers chained together by the neck. These last eyed him with a burning, desperate intensity but made no move against him. He was glad when his steadier stride left them behind.

 The Road itself was a simple gray streak of stone winding between thick banks of looming trees, rising and falling along the dips and swells of the land. Occasionally some strange shape would keep pace with him among the shadows of the forest but he refused to acknowledge them.

As he followed the Road up and over a steep hill, a stone lighthouse came into view. It towered unlit and unloved over the clawing branches of the surrounding forest, not a drop of water nearby much less an harbor. To reach it, Bell would have to leave the Road.

The moonlight that had lit his path so far didn’t follow him into the forest. He navigated by touch through the crowd of thick trunks and over treacherous roots, moving as quickly as he could though it cost him several small cuts and a couple barked shins. Several minutes passed before he began to panic, almost completely blind and disoriented.

Then something heavy dropped from the branches above, he heard its landing among the leaves just behind him, smelled a rank odor like spoiled meat and felt a hot exhalation wash across the crown of his head.

He froze, locked in animal paralysis, until it began whispering obscenities to him in his mother’s voice and he screamed, “Help!”

“Alright,” came the even reply from a few yards in front of him. Suddenly there was illumination.

The thing at Bell’s back fled the light, kicking up a swirl of leaves as it darted into the trees. His eyes slowly recovered from the shock and a woman in a loose crimson gown and veil appeared before him. In one marble white hand she raised an iron lamp that caged a rabidly ardent flame, in the other she held its velvet cover.

“But we have entered into parley now,” she said, “and there is no reversing that course. Sister called will be Sister paid.”

She turned abruptly and he followed.

The wooden door of the lighthouse stood open; she ushered him in and closed it after them. The room inside was a musty riot of possessions. Weapons of every era gathered dust on cluttered shelves and tables alongside bloodstained pottery, broken toys and mounted animals.

“Hearts beat hardest as they break,” she said with a shrug and hung the lamp on a hook dangling from the ceiling where it swayed gently, making the shadows all around sway like kelp on a seabed.

“I need to find my son, Danny. He was taken by a man you helped.” Bell said this without anger; it seemed misplaced against this creature.

“Yes. I told him when and where. I gave him a hammer with a tiny shriveled heart in its great metal head. It beats and beats.”

She rubbed her upper arms, a movement that pressed her white cleavage into a tight niche, and breathed, “I will show you the way, but first you will pay me with your touch, man alive, you will warm me with your pulse.”

Bell absorbed this request and considered. He was both attracted to the form her gown clung to and unnerved by the mystery under her veil, but these weren’t factors as much as the urgency of his search and the moving tension in her supplication. “You need to tell me of any consequences right now.”

She padded up close to him, barefoot and sinuous. “Sister keeps what she takes. After you have lain with me, you will remember me in every other lust you have ever indulged in. Every inner thigh will be my inner thigh. Every navel, my navel. And every face, my face.”

Bell hesitated then. He hesitated for the first time since he had found Hale and hated himself for it, for this intrusion of venal desire into a father’s quest. In the most vibrant chambers of his mind, Victoria Brenner’s tongue blazed trails across his senses, Karen Steven’s breasts yielded in his eager grasp, Aisha Mondale’s thick haunches slapped his hips, and on and on. He had always been successful with women.

He breathed deeply and closed the doors to those chambers, remembering instead the day Danny had tried to make a rocket car out of two skateboards, a lawn chair and a pair of fire extinguishers, the energy in his quick limbs, the inventiveness in his wide eyes.

Bell said, “Agreed.”

She led him up a winding staircase to her bedroom, bare except for a circular, soft mattress, candles and strange, dancing stick figures painted all over the walls. And as events proceeded, her veil, of course, flew off and he saw her rich auburn curls and aquiline features. He saw her smile, almost painfully wide and unmoving, her entire face a mask frozen in a mockery of happiness. Only her violet eyes were alive and they tore at him with everything that swam in them. Her smile never faltered or changed, even as tears slid from her cheek and dropped to his lips.

When it was done, she covered her head again and stood before him in only her veil and beads of perspiration. Her body was now the color of a soft peach. She said, “This tower’s lamp will light your way and speed you on, but it will not protect you from the Borderman. Step quickly, man alive.”

She crept up the winding staircase and disappeared from sight. He rose and dressed, wondering how many pieces of him he could give away before David Bell became some other person, known and remembered but not well.

• • •

The beam of the lighthouse split the night sky in two and walking under it, he soared though his feet never escaped the weak grip of wet grass. The forest flew by in a brown and green blur, his every step covering liquid quickening distance until he was out in the open, hills rolling by him like waves of a green sea.

Then the light vanished and his journey ended outside a little church completely overgrown with ivy, even the slender cross at its peak, and surrounded by a moat of fat mushrooms. Lionel Sinclair, a guiltier man in death than he had ever been in life, was just leaving the dilapidated house of prayer as Bell made his strange arrival.

“No! I busted you all up!” In disbelief and panic, Sinclair shook the hammer at Bell as if to remind him.

“I thought you did too, but we were both wrong.”

“Then I can’t win!” he wailed and collapsed, crushing toadstools beneath him. He hid his face in his hands, the hammer forgotten in the grass, and sobbed, “They were right about me! Why will I always be weak?”

Bell knelt down next to the man. “If there’s some part of you that can’t be infected by all this savagery, then that’s strength. Weakness is knowing something is wrong but not doing anything about it. I’m sorry, Lionel.”

But Sinclair gave no sign of hearing him. He was dead, after all, beyond possibility or change, a moving picture of a man who once lived, every detail of his sorrows caught with ageless clarity. Bell took the hammer and left him there, face in his hands.

The church held rough wooden pews, tapestries of cobweb, a single candle atop a broken alter, and his son, struggling vainly in the grip of the Borderman. Bell couldn’t tell if the enormous bird-skull was a helmet or his actual head. A floor-length mane of black feathers and a brown duster obscured most of his massive body, but the visible parts of his bare chest where pierced by what appeared to be keys of all shapes and sizes, punched into the flesh.

“I am not without resources, man alive,” said the Borderman, every word an angry blast of intangible wind, “and you must be dealt with before you cause a riot of life’s agony on these plains of peace.”

“I’ll go back, but I need to talk to my son first.”

“You would defile the order of things for your own needs, soil the clean and cold with your living selfishness?”

“Just for a moment, please.”

“Should we also put the land above the sky, just for a moment, just for your convenience?” He tightened his arm across Danny’s throat. “No.”

Bell looked to Danny, cold and ashen but still his son, and found the recognition he needed in the boy’s faded eyes; he ran toward the towering figure, against every instinct screaming as loudly as the splintering floorboards beneath his feet, and swung the hammer. The Borderman brought the boy up as a shield but the hammer simply failed to notice him. The creature snarled in pain, lost his grip on Danny and was sent crashing to the floor by the blow.

Bell raised the hammer over his head and roared as he brought it down again and again until the crackling of the floorboards began to cascade. He jumped back and watched the Borderman fall through the floor and disappear into the church’s basement, the darkness there thick with moving shapes.

He hauled his son to his feet and they fled.

• • •

When they at last ran out of breath, or perhaps only Bell did, they stopped at a small clearing in the woods. Bell had no idea where they were but didn’t care right then.

“Look at you, boy,” the father said to the son and choked on too many other words trying to come out.

Danny skin’s was again the color of birch, as it had been when he lived under the sun, and he bounced on the balls of his feet as he had years ago. He was still wearing the Tigers jersey and jeans he’d worn when he left home for the last time. “I knew you’d come, Dad. The lady in the veil said you would, so I waited and didn’t go to the other places.”

Knowing the morning hour was near, Bell went right to the matter. “Danny, who killed you? Tell me everything you can remember about him.”

The boy became solemn again. “It was Reggie Carter and his two friends,” he said as if his father would know who they were.

Bell shook his head.

Danny sighed, “He was that kid in my class, remember? The one who kept making fun of my pants and shoes and stuff?”

Realization dawned. “Other kids did this to you?”

“I don’t think they meant to. They were following me home, going on and on about my pants again. I just got sick of it and started cussing them out.” He grinned sheepishly. “I used a lot of words you told me not to, Dad.

“Reggie pushed me down and I hit my head really hard and then they started kicking me. They kicked me for a really long time and I left my body before they were done. One boy pissed himself when they realized I was dead and the other started crying. Reggie looked pretty worried.

“He told the others they’d have to hide the body, but I didn’t see them do it. I didn’t want to watch anymore, so I got pulled away.”

Bell sat heavily on an old, crumbling log. He knew he shouldn’t be stunned; prison work was a never-ending lesson in how commonplace human evil was, how trite the incitement to violence could be. The boys would be thirteen or fourteen years old by now. Would he go back and kill them? Or go back and wait until they were adults? He didn’t know how to live with the hatred that long or with what he would be afterward.

Danny placed his small hand on that of his silent father’s and said, “Sorry, Dad.”

Bell burst out laughing and pulled his son to him, his path clear as moonlight. “I’m not going back, kid. What kind of world is there to go back to? Let’s you and I get out of here and go see some of those Other Countries people keep talking about.”

“But you’re still alive! The Borderman will come after us.” This was said with the enthusiasm for risking terrible consequences only an eleven-year-old can muster.

Bell stood up, brushed bits of bark from his jeans. “Let him. He hasn’t done such a great job so far.”

• • •

A while later, the Borderman knelt next to that log and picked up the living man’s scent. It led deeper into dead country, toward other borders far from life. He rose stiffly, still feeling his injuries, and set out after them.

 

 

Bret Tallman lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in Aoife’s Kiss, Black Ink Horror, Rending the Veil, Chaos Theory: Tales Askew, Hub, the Martian Wave, and others.


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ISSUE #21

September 2011

FICTION

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