“Wake up, you idiot.”
I opened my eyes to see the same old man glaring at me under bushy eyebrows, his nostrils flaring in his equally bushy nose. I squeezed my eyes tightly, gripped my pillow and tried to ignore him.
He jabbed me with his staff.
“Ouch. Stop that, you old bastard. You poke me again and I’ll shove that stick up your ass.” I pulled the blanket over my head. My teddy bear fell on the floor. Don’t judge me.
Throwing back the covers, I landed my feet on the cool floor and stood akimbo. Respect for the elderly be damned. This old fart was going down. Why I dreamt of this guy eluded me but I was more concerned with continued shuteye.
“You’re not dreaming, Ethan.”
He stood a full head taller than me, even with a hump. “How do you know?”
On the top of his stick, the mounted alarm clock ticked and tocked. “We don’t have time for this,” he said and looked at one of the three wristwatches on his left arm. I could see another four on the arm holding the staff.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Time is serious business, boy. We’ve got to hurry.”
I sat back on the bed and looked around my room. It didn’t look right. Too bright. Faded somehow. “I ain’t going anywhere,” I said and folded my arms. I didn’t care if it made me look like a snotty kid. Screw this guy. He could go straight to Hell– “Owwww!”
The old bastard twisted my ear further and pulled up, forcing me to a standing position. “Let’s go, Ethan,” he said and tugged me towards the door.
“Hey, where are we going?” I asked as he let go and pushed me through the door.
He didn’t answer so I rubbed my ear and stepped into the grey misty murk that replaced my hallway. I turned around and my bedroom had also vanished.
“What’s going on? Where are we going?”
He laughed deeply. It shook his thin frame so much that I thought it about to break. “Why, straight to Haitch-Eee-Double-Hockeysticks, as requested,” he said.
“That’s not funny, coming from a mind reader,” was all I could think to respond.
He led the way through the fog, his clock-topped staff lit up and showing the way. Stairs. Then an elevator. One of those old fashioned kinds with the hinged lattice gate instead of a sliding door. I watched him fiddle with the latch and longed for my bed.
“Get in,” he said and I complied in resignation.
There was only a down button and he pressed it with a dry wrinkly finger. My stomach leapt to my throat as we descended, no, plummeted. Musak started playing. Acoustic prog rock. We were already in Hell.
“Not quite yet,” he said and turned to me. His eyes shone bright and sparkly in the cabin dim as he spat on his hand and shot it forward in offer. “My name is Father Time and my game is fighting crime.”
I looked at his hand warily but shrugged my shoulders and shook it anyway. The elevator continued its freefall. It didn’t bother me as much. Unsurprisingly, the air grew warmer and I sensed a red tinge seeping through the cracks in the floor.
“Crime fighting?” I asked. “What does that have to do with me?”
“You’ve been deputized.”
“Yeah. I stopped the clock before the carbon monoxide pickled your brain while you slept. You should really check those batteries.”
“I really should,” I said and looked at the rock pass by through the grate. Definitely redder. I looked back at the old bird. “Why me? Don’t you have other deputies?”
“Not any more. Plum out,” he said and leaned on his staff. I read Timex on the clock face. Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. I hoped that was true.
“Human Resources kept sending me angsty teenage girls more interested in making duck lips selfies than helping save the Universe.”
“Yeah. Heaven’s a bitch and God’s a bureaucrat.” He bent over and tapped me in the chest with his Time Stick. “I chose you, Ethan.”
“Thanks. Better than death, I guess.”
He nodded his head making his ancient eyes bug out. “Certainly. That guy is terrible.”
“Death. A real hard case.”
My head reeled with the absurdity. I shook it clear and stifled a chuckle. “So, Father T, who we battling?”
“Father T… I like that. You’ll do fine, Ethan. You’ll do fine. To answer your question? Time Demons. We’re going to pick a fight with Time Demons.”
“Cool. What’s my job?”
“All in due time, my boy.”
The elevator dinged and stopped.
The grated door of the elevator opened and I immediately closed my eyes against the stinging wind. As hot as it was in the elevator, the cold bite of the gale outside filled the car, making me shiver.
Father T poked me with his stick. “Move along, Ethan. There is much to accomplish.”
“What is this place?,” I asked. “I thought we were going to Hell. You know, fire and brimstone, dude with horns.” I made little horns above my head with my fingers.
“Sooner than you’d like, young Ethan. You’re not ready for the Demon Lord, the Godfather of Time Banditry.”
“So what kind of bullshit place is this?”
“Just a stop along the way. Lesser creatures to test your mettle live here.”
“Again, where exactly is here?” I repeated, slowly.
The old man didn’t answer and I turned to him but he’d disappeared. I wandered alone in the wasted land, trees uprooted and debris gathered at the base of each. The wind swirled in every direction. Sometimes it was cold and icy, others humid and warm. Every climate was represented; the only constant being the pounding howl of the wind.
I’d stopped calling for Father T after the first fifteen minutes. At least I thought so. Ironically, this hand-picked warrior against Time Demons wore no watch. What a joke.
I dashed from deadfall to deadfall, letting the eddies and currents guide me. It was forever twilight here, but I could make out shapes hanging from the reoriented branches. Wraith corpses and skeletonized people, always in groups, usually pairs.
What was this place? Now and before? I added that to my building list of questions for the Good Father T.
“Over here, Ethan,” called a voice carried by the wind. A woman’s voice. “Come to us, Ethan,” said another female voice. It sounded so close, but all I could see was the swirl of dirt, garbage and bone dust. I didn’t want to think much on that last part. Forget I mentioned it.
I spun and spun, finally picking my best guess as to the direction of the voices. I didn’t know how long I wandered. I grew lonely but strangely calm, as if immune to fear.
At last, a green glade opened up in front of me, such a stark contrast to the greys and browns of the wasteland. As soon as I stepped under the canopy, the air grew still and quiet even though I was still outside. The path I followed led me deeper into the forest. I could no longer see the border. Was the other land a dream or was this? Was I dying huddled against a tree root using rotted clothing as a blanket? This couldn’t be real.
Giggling, then laughter, further down the path. Did I recognize those voices? I almost ran. Maybe I did.
For the life of me (ha ha), I couldn’t remember their names. All there was were drunken memories, faces and naked body parts. I drank too much back then. I still do. God, I’d kill for a drink right now.
But there they were, seated on a log, nude and touching each other in front of an inviting fire. A silky smooth brook ran lazily between them and the fire. The blaze reflected against the blackness of it, making both look fused like glass. I hopped over it and stood in front of the ladies like a stupid teenager.
The smiled as they pulled me down between them; their hands running the length of me. I was paralyzed by wanton memory. I tried to speak but the quieted me with a pair of fingers to my lips.
“We remember you, Ethan. We will help you remember us. Enjoy us.”
My mind thickened as the rest of me. I couldn’t think. Their fingers. Their lips. Breasts. Touching. Breathing.
And then they stopped. Helen and Cleo. I remembered their names even if I could no longer remember mine.
“Ethan, you must purify yourself. Quench your thirst and desire in the dark brook. It will clear your mind. It will soften your flesh and make you ready for us to devour in love.”
I nodded numbly and dropped to my hands and knees. Helen lay along my right and Cleo on my left. They guided me to peer at the glass surface of the water. I saw my reflection.
But it wasn’t me. What stared back was a wraith-me, gaunt and spent. A wind-ripped corpse, desiccated by the wind and something else. Something hidden in my mind. I almost fell in.
“Drink, Ethan,” said Helen. I looked to her. Were those canines? Would she literally devour me?
“Purify yourself,” said Cleo as I turned to face her. Her eyes shone black and reflected the flames. Twin pools mirroring the water.
My brain screamed at me but I couldn’t move. I was in their spell. It wouldn’t be long before I, too, hung outside on a tree branch. Tears crept down my face as I fought for control.
Their hands and lips kept sliding all over me. They felt cold and slithery as snakes but I wanted them just the same. My mind repulsed but my body betrayed. Drums beat in my head and I passed into oblivion.
I opened my eyes and stared up at the roof of the elevator. I lay on my back, prostate. We were moving again. Ever downward. Ever deeper. I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
Father T spoke from the corner of the cabin. “Don’t sweat it, Ethan. Everyone fails that Circle. Your training continues.”
“Third level, Ethan. You got this, dude,” said Father T, holding his nose as the elevator opened. “I’m sitting this one out.”
The rancid odour of shit and sleuce hit me in the face like a punch.
“What the Hell?” I asked and started to gag.
“Not in the elevator. Christ on a cracker, we’d never get the smell out.”
With that, he pushed me ahead and closed the iron gate. I stumbled to my hands and knees and vomited. I couldn’t help myself. Wasn’t I supposed to be dead?
“I saved you,” the old man said. “You’ll thank me later.”
Syrupy spittle hung from my bottom lip as I stood and gave the miserable bastard the finger.
“What am I supposed to do in this place?” I asked.
“That’s up to you. Be back in an hour. Try not to die.”
Father Time retreated to the shadows of the elevator’s rear and fiddled with his watches. I turned around to take in my surroundings. My eyes agreed with my nose and that didn’t help my gut settle.
I waded shin-deep through the grey slush. It reminded me of my grandmother’s chicken coop. I hated g
Granny. That fat old bag always looked hungry, like she wanted to eat me. Remembering the appetites of the girls ‘upstairs’, I shivered.
Something large swam near me, barely under the surface. A snake? No, a worm. Earlier, Father T asked me if I read Dante. I said no. He shook his head in disdain for lost literature and asked me if I saw the movie ‘Seven’.
“Brad Pitt? What’s in the box? Yeah, I saw that. Fucked up movie.”
He nodded. “This is kinda like that.”
I kept pushing my tired legs through the thick soup. Steam rose constantly and it felt like it was raining. An umbrella would be nice, I mused. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurdity.
The stench permeated everywhere without mercy. I’d vomited so many times I only heaved. I was so thirsty.
The worm swam ahead of me and I followed. It guided me. To where, it didn’t matter. Onward I followed. I named him Bob. Bob the Shitworm.
A massive lump came into view and Bob made a beeline for it. I had to jog to keep up, filthy fluid splashing my face. We drew closer and I could tell it was a logjam of corpses, all swollen with being in the water. They were face up with their mouths agape, filled with scoops of slush. Their skin was so tight, it looked like it would burst.
Bob surfaced and I regarded him for the first time. No eyes, only a giant round mouth with teeth like an eel. He smiled at me and twirled around to attack the presumably juiciest body. This one was naturally fat and wore a suit coat and bowling shoes. Black goop oozed from his substantial belly as chow time commenced. I found something else to puke up.
Bleary eyed, I left Bob the Shitworm to his dinner and slogged away. Through the steam I spied a black and white checked wall. Granny’s bathroom had this tile. I know because she died on the crapper with a tub of ice cream in her lap. My sister was eight and me nine when we found her. Rebecca wanted her rubber duck she’d left in the tub and begged me to go in when Granny wouldn’t answer her knock.
It was just like the yellow rubber duck that floated by in this murk. I gave up trying to explain this place. Was this my Hell or someone else’s?
“Save Ducky,” screamed Rebecca as I stared at my grandmother. She pulled my shirt and I bent to get the toy. It was stuck in the drain. We couldn’t get it out. Mom and Dad hurried us out of the bathroom and sent us back home up the street. Rebecca cried. We never saw Ducky again.
Ducky bobbed as he floated and I noticed he moved in an arc, always to the left. Counter-clockwise. We walked in circles ever tighter, ever closer. A current developed and I stumbled. It carried Ducky and I around and around in smaller and smaller orbits.
The drain whirlpool gurgled and sputtered as it sucked the slush down its eye. I was so tired, so dizzy and thirsty. Around and around we spun.
Ducky disappeared down the centre with a ploop. I wanted to laugh at the cartoonish sound, but the black and white tile raced around me in all directions before turning grey then black.
I landed in a deluge of slushy floodwater within sight of the elevator. Father T waved to me with a big grin on his face.
“Did you learn anything, Ethan?” He asked as he produced a towel from fuck knows where.
I took it from him and wiped the crap off my face, stuck my finger in a clean corner and cleaned my ears.
“I didn’t die.”
“I can see that. Very good,” he said and pressed the elevator button again.
The elevator continued its descent and I shivered with the chill of the slushy sea above.
“Did I pass?” I asked Father T.
The old man turned his head and spat before resuming his leaning stance.
“What do you think, Ethan?”
I stared again at the rock face whizzing by through he grate, thankful for the warmth of the soiled towel wrapped around my shoulders. I thought fondly of a slumbering death in my comfy bed.
I noticed movement on the rock, slithering up. Squirming fleshy things. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “Do you see them, Father T?”
TO BE CONTINUED…?