Short Story: Then What?

Sounds and smells of hammered and welded steel emanated incessantly from the garage. Edwin Malcolm’s neighbors had long since resorted to ear-plugs, letting come what may. Even in the middle of the night– or rather, especially in the middle of the night, Edwin found need to be working on something. The middle-aged inventor was a spitting image of a mad-scientist: his hair wild, white, and clothing appropriately frumpled. He fell short at evil genius, thus was left merely a lonely, sad man pitied by even the local police.

That had not always been the state of things. Edwin was once a prominent, high-school science teacher. He inspired even the laziest students to sit up, take notice. His enthusiasm and unparalleled respect garnered him more than one “Teacher of the Year” award. The transition to reclusive hermit obsessively working nights had come about tragically. Indeed, his first night that rolled over into day– and set his diurnal hibernation in motion– had been the same his wife was hit by a drunk driver. She lasted all of twelve hours. By noon the next day she was dead, along with any hope for Edwin’s sanity.

He took indefinite sabbatical, hadn’t returned since. No-one had the heart to cut off his benefits– not even the state-people that managed to rouse him from sleep during the day. He was less than half a man now. Even when others came for condolences, they found a slowly disintegrating husk of a man. The clean-shaven, well-groomed man was now a scruffy, stinking, Gollum-like creature with little to say, let alone teach.

His tragic demise spread so far and wide most of his former students came to console him. Always he was awoken from sleep, looking paradoxically as if he’d not had any in weeks, and stinking of sweat and day-old whiskey. Contrary to revulsion, both host and guest settled in for short, tired conversations. Such moments made Edwin’s change most obvious. He was not the razor-honed, one-track mind his students had known. Rather, he was scatter-brained, anxious, always accommodating but to a point where nothing deep could ever be broached. Guests invariably left dejected, and Edwin lapsed back into exhaustion until night when work began again.

One, former-student sought to change things. It had taken ages for news of his state to reach her, but she found it best to seek him in his natural habitat. Over a decade had passed since he’d impacted her life, but to discredit it over that missed the enormous contribution he’d made to her life. Denise had been a student whose school-life was an escape from her hellish home-life. Instead of using that time wisely, she made trouble, fought, failed classes, and everything else such kids did at her age. Years later, she’d become the first to agree she’d been one.

Edwin’s house appeared as night set. Winter’s early darkness hung heavy overhead. Denise was used to the cold. Her most recent job had been in a harsher clime, but somehow this cold felt excessive. Negative temperatures in the midwest? Who’d ever heard such nonsense? Still, she wouldn’t leave without seeing him.

She thunked a triplet on the door. The sound should’ve been lost in the garage’s clatter. Somehow, Edwin heard it. Or perhaps, he sensed her shivering presence, rushed to its aid. The door cracked. Edwin’s wild eyes peered out beneath wilder hair. He squinted, surveyed her up and down.

“Mr. Malcolm?” Denise said solemnly.

Edwin always had a good memory for faces, but he was admittedly lost until he heard that voice. It contained a perforated, angelic quality that had only ripened with age. True she was taller, leaner, better dressed and groomed, and more pale, but Edwin knew Denise’s voice. It was difficult to forget: he and most of her peers had become experts at manufacturing excuses for her speak. Its gentleness had been so rarely employed then that its innocence was superbly comforting. It always lulled him into a trance– he and everyone else that heard it.

“D-Denise Collins?” Edwin said, easing the door open. She gave a small nod. “C-Come in. It’s freezing out there!”

Denise thanked him, completely oblivious this was the most lively Edwin had been in years. His changes were soon evident as he rushed back and forth preparing coffee, mindlessly preening the house, and inviting her to sit on a couch. With a cup of coffee before each of them, he set down to speak as lightly as possible. Denise allowed it, for now.

“Tell me everything,” he said, hoping her voice might lull away his pains.

She began with her most recent field of study; the arctic. She and her team had been researching global warming effects on polar ice via extracted core samples. By deducing CO2 content over the various eons, she said, they hoped to better understand just how great an impact humans had made. Edwin was enthralled, both by her discipline and ever-lulling voice. She reached present day and gave a short explanation of what had led her to him.

“I spoke with Melody Parsons. She was in your class with me. I’d heard a new driller was transferred out to help nearby, and that she’d come from my hometown. I met with her and saw it was her. That’s when I heard about your wife.”

Reality smacked Edwin in the face. He was suddenly up, refilling the coffee cups, wiping down the coffee-table, straightening things that didn’t need it. Denise saw the acts for what they were, allowed them until they passed their logical conclusion. It was then that she stood beside him at a kitchen counter. The situation was delicate, required a transference of his madness from one subject to another. She engaged him with a simple question that tempted his natural exposition.

“I heard you working in the garage,” she said carefully. “What is it you’re doing?”

“Hmm?” Then, more dismissively, “Oh that. Nothing. Nothing at all. Just a fever-dream.”

“Really? May I see it?” She asked, knowing she had him by the extensive whiskers.

Denise had never been stupid. In fact, once she’d applied herself and her home-life faded into the background of strife adulthood brought, she’d become an honor-student, a Dean’s-Lister, and an Honor Graduate. She’d been accepted into MENSA, spent time as a researcher at MIT, then formed her own team to study the Arctic Ice. Needless to say, she knew exactly how Edwin would react. Edwin likewise, saw exactly how he’d been manipulated, but for wishing to hear her speak further, allowed it. They stood just inside his garage, Denise stared at a concoction of piping and bits of steel intermingled with gauges and a myriad of other instruments. A sort of cage enclosed a van’s rear-bench seats half-crowded by pipes running around them.

Denise was breath-taken, “What is it?”

“Take a seat,” Edwin said calmly.

They twisted and turned, slipped through the pipes. With a thrown switch, a loud hum grew to a deep grumble. The device thrummed. Something sparked. Light descended in a dome. Denise reached out to touch the field of blue, her hand repelled by a power anti-magnetism.

“A force-field?”

“To protect us… and them.”

He threw another switch: bright light flashed. The pair were suddenly sitting before an open garage door in bright daylight. Denise’s brow furrowed. A car rolled into the drive-way, oblivious to their presence. Its door opened. A duplicate Edwin appeared from one side. He looked as he’d been when Denise knew him. He jogged to the car door and a beautiful young woman there. The Edwin beside Denise teared up, sniffled quietly. His duplicate embraced his wife for a moment before thgey walked, hand-in-hand, out of view.

A second flash replaced the closed door. The blue force-field sank away. All went quiet, still– including the two travelers. When noise finally returned, it was Denise building to amazement.

“Woah.” She swallowed hard, “You built a time machine?

Edwin sighed, his body deflating with a sad nods. “Every night, for years, I’ve come here to watch them– us– to see her again. Each time the trip’s a little longer, but I can only maintain the connection for short bursts. It’s why I am always working, trying to squeeze even a second longer from the machine to see her come down the road… or anything else.”

Denise’s heart ached, but reality was painful. “Mr. Malcolm, I know it’s harsh, but this isn’t real. It was, but it isn’t now. You can’t effect it. You can’t change what happened. All you’re doing’s lingering, wallowing. These things happened, sure, but they’re supposed to remain inside you, to remind you life is worth living. Not to be the focus of its dwindling time.”

Edwin was quiet for a long time. The look on his face said he’d taken her words to heart. She knew she’d had at least a partial impact. She needed to make it stick though. There was only one avenue she saw to do so.

“You’ve inspired so many lives in your time. You could inspire infinitely more. You’ve done something no-one else can do, and there’s fodder in that to hide the truth if you need, but you have to ask yourself: is this really what she’d want for you?”

His eyes were teary. They rose to meet hers, “I know you’re right.” He hesitated a long time, then, “But I’ve become numb. I don’t know how to go back to what I was.”

She frowned, “You don’t. You change, grow, incorporate it into you. Adapt and evolve.”

“How?”

She managed a small smile, “I owe you a lot. I’ll help. Whatever you need.”

He gave a desperate laugh that mingled with a sob. It incised both of their hearts. “I need sleep.”

“Then go and get it,” Denise insisted. “I’ll be back in the morning to wake you, I promise.”

They climbed from the time machine. Edwin headed into the house. Denise followed. He glanced back at her, “So you’ll be here? Then what?”

She shook her head, “One thing at a time.”

He felt weight lift from his shoulders. Simultaneously, Denise felt some settle on hers. It wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. After all, she owed him. He’d put her life on track. That friendship was worth the weight and more. Now, she’d just have to show him as much. Then what? Who knows? Maybe life.

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Bonus Short Story: One May Change Everything

He was stoned– baked out of his mind actually. He’d been smoking weed for near on four-hours straight from a two-foot water bong. It gurgled every few seconds with heady hits. The stink of skunk was as pungent as the smoke was visible. He’d chonged out the room long ago, was only keeping the rhythm going now so as not to dissipate the fish-bowl haze that had replaced the room’s O2 content.

Most would have said he was a burn-out; that living on a modest inheritance and legal settlement from a hit and run wasn’t living at all. He disagreed. He’d been run over by a car, had all of his ribs broken, both his legs, and one of his wrists. At the time he was nineteen. By twenty, he’d been in traction six weeks, spent another year learning to write, walk, and jerk-off again. The only thing that had gotten him through the boredom was the legal work and bowlfuls of grass. He’d had it hard, and defied anyone whom said otherwise.

He liked his life, enjoyed what he had, and never took more than he needed. He was grateful for all he was given, wanted only to get baked, play video games, and “keep on keepin’ on.”

He was at his latest boss-fight when the air around him began to stir. He didn’t notice it under the darkened lights that kept his aching eyes from throbbing; he’d beaten the game three times already– a seventy-hour epic saga of the life of a former bounty-hunter turned vigilante– but he’d also played his entire library two and three times over too. With a minute budget that only allowed for one game a month around necessities like rent, food, and an ounce of Hawaiian Green, he had to stretch each game as far as it would go, and did.

But he was content in the notion– even as the smoke swirled and a shadow began to encroach on his vision. His mind was focused, mouth-half open and droopy eyes centered ahead. The smoke snaked in front of him from the ingress of something through its presence. He swatted the thickest puffs away with a quick dismissal, unaware of the shadow that phased in and out beside him.

The faint flicker of a reflection caught his eye. Had his head not turned to see himself flicker in and out of form on the adjacent couch, he might not have believed it was real. Instead, his doppelganger solidified with a curious look at his hands. His mouth fell open as the “You Are Dead” screen appeared beside him.

His doppelganger relaxed back into the couch with a heavy sniff of the air, “Wow. Man, I haven’t smelled that in years.”

His eyes focused through the smoke at himself while he involuntarily swallowed, “Wh-what the fuck?” The continue screen appeared but he was too focused on himself, “Ar-are you… me?”

The doppelganger laughed, “You wish.” He took another deep whiff of the air, “Or maybe I do… Anyway, we’re not the same person, not really.”

“B-but, you’re… me, right?”

The doppelganger, “In blood and name– Curtis J–”

“Porter,” he said with a breathless finish.

He replied with a nod, “Right, but you should know better than anyone, a person’s more than their name and DNA.” The double sensed perplexity across the television’s beam of light. “That’s just where we start. We’re all born ninety-percent the same, but our experiences as we grow are what define us.”

The real Curtis’ eyes glazed over. He blinked hard, unstuck his tongue from his dry mouth. “S-sorry, I’m not… what’s this all about? Why am I– we, here?”

His doppelganger leaned toward him across the coffee table, “Because something went wrong in this place. Here and now. Something inside us changed. And with it, the world changed too. Now, I’m here to ensure things go as they’re supposed to.”

He shook off his dull ardor for complete disbelief, “You’re nuts. What could I possibly do, or not do, that would change the world?”

He watched himself from across the table as his left eye squinted with familiar skepticism, “There are people and places that rely on you to be present in order to nudge future events toward their destined path.”

Real Curtis’ eyes were flat-out wild now, “You’re nuts.” He stood to piss, followed by his phantom self toward the bathroom. It stood in the door jamb as he relieved himself, “Christ dude, invade privacy much?”

“You don’t understand,” he said with a shake of his head. “But how could you? You’re baked out of your fucking mind all the time and all you think about’s fucking video-games.”

He shook out the last few drops, flushed the toilet, “Hey man, fuck you. Don’t go blaming me for your nut-job fantasies.”

He made to walk past himself, was frozen by a cold hand that clasped his shoulder. His own eyes looked at him with a fury he wasn’t sure he’d ever possessed. “You have no fucking idea how important you are.”

Curtis’ vision suddenly went black. Images of rallies and protests outside corporate buildings and state houses appeared.

His doppelganger growled through his teeth, “You’re supposed to be there when it starts to crumble.” Crowds marched, pumped fists in the air rhythmically with distorted chants. “You’re meant to be on the front-fucking-line of a war for freedom– the final war.” Tanks began to roll forward from close, wide angles along city streets packed with protesters. “You’re supposed to be the voice of logic and reason in a new world.”

Curtis was ready to pass out. His head swam as names and dates, and countless vids and images flooded his brain from places and events that had yet to take place. He swayed on his feet.

His own voice was muddy through waters of confusion, “You are meant to be the General in a war that will end with one side eradicated or the other enslaved, forever.”

People rioted in the streets, attacked the tanks en-masse. Their guns smoked. Explosions shook the silent movie-reel. Some people managed to climb atop a tank, wrench its hatch open to drag out its crew. The vehicle turned on the others. More explosions, shaking scenery. Jets rocketed past over head.

“You’re meant to be there,” he said as his vision went black. “To lead the free against their oppressors and take the world back.”

He fell backward, head spinning. His head hit the floor as his vision narrowed to a black cone. His face loomed over him from his doppelganger. Its last words struggled to breach the static of his waning consciousness, “You cannot fail. A thousand men may never change a thing, while one may change everything. You are one.”

His vision went black. Silence engulfed him. In a blink he was once more awake, face hovering over the bong for another hit as the boss-battle began again. He swallowed hard, hit pause to slide the bong across the table. After a moment of aimless steps he found himself before the sliding glass doors of his twelfth floor apartment. They opened, gave passage to his balcony in the sun of a rising morning he once more saw from the wrong side.

He stepped to the balcony’s edge, breathless. Beneath him, the city sprawled outward like a patchwork quilt of humanity composed of all grays and whites. The bits of color were few, far between.

He wasn’t sure what the hell had happened. He’d been baked before, but somehow this was different, more than just a stoned daydream. He felt a tickle at the back of his skull, pulled his hand away to see blood.

“One may change everything,” echoed through his head like a whisper on wind.

But where to begin, and how?

He looked from the crimson on his finger-tips to the drab city. Color seemed as good a start as any. However he was meant to change the world it would start there. He swallowed hard, relaxed, and turned away to begin.

Short Story: Desert Man

How he survived no-one was sure. They only knew that he emerged onto a stretch of I-40 just south of the Mojave National Preserve. He was a ratty, shell of a man, emaciated and parched to bleeding from an indeterminate amount of time in the sun without water. One of Nevada’s National Park Rangers had found him wandering the highway a few miles from his shack. Richard Powell, the Ranger, found the John Doe just before dawn.

“There’s obvious signs of dehydration,” Powell explained to a doctor over the phone.

The John Doe sat in the tiny, air-conditioned Ranger’s shack across the room from Powell. His eyes were focused straight ahead, his shoulders and back slumped in a hunch atop the leather couch. He wore a suit, clearly tattered from his tenure in the Mojave. He’d yet to say a word, and a small trickle of blood still leaked from the cracked skin in the center of his bottom-lip. Every few moments, almost mechanically, he would lift the chilly, tin cup in his hand to soothe his sandy throat with cold water. As if autonomous, only his arm, mouth and throat moved. His eyes stayed focused ahead. His body never flinched but for the occasional shallow breath.

Powell hung up the phone, lifted his wooden chair from behind the desk, then set it down before Doe on the dusty rug in the center of the room. He sat slowly, considering his words with care and taking a long, droll look at his charge. He shook his head with confusion.

“I dunno’ how you done it, son,” Powell said. “But you clearly got your feathers ruffled over sumthin’ and I’m not sure how to go ’bout fixin’ that.”

The Doe’s eyes shifted to stare into Powell’s, but he remained silent. His eerie stillness was only normalized in the few, human movements that comprised his drinking. Either oblivious, or altogether too concerned to address it, Powell steered the conversation with glances here and there that gave more humanity to his charge than he may have possessed.

“Now I called the Doc, ‘n he’ll be here soon, but ’til then I’mma need you to tell me whatever you can remember, alright?”

Doe looked straight through Powell, a gaze that froze the desert-man’s blood. It wasn’t an easy thing to do– like most desert people, Powell was used to the two extremes of the desert; the smothering heat and the unbearable cold. Doe’s piercing look though? Even antifreeze couldn’t have kept his blood flowing. There was something alien about him, inhuman– like he’d come from another planet and could see everything inside, outside, and through a man just by looking in his eyes.

Powell’s discomfort began to rise, but he powered through it for the sake of his charge, “Look, I understand you’re prolly not in the talkin’ mood. I ‘magine your throat’s mighty soar, but you gotta’ tell me what happened to you, else I’m not gonna’ know what to tell the Doc.”

Still Doe sat there, eyes fixed ahead, mechanically drinking. Powell scratched his five-o’clock shadow with a grating of stubble on nails. He pushed himself up from the chair with both hands on his thighs, began to step away when Doe’s mouth opened with a rasp. Powell stopped in his tracks, looked at the man in anticipation.

Doe’s mouth was slacked like he’d stopped mid-speech, a word still ready to roll from his tongue, but all of his movements had ceased. Even his breath seemed to stop, likely to help muster this bizarre state of being. Suddenly the hand that held the water dropped its cup, seized Powell’s wrist.

There was a flash like a mortar’s exploded, but Powell was unharmed. He recoiled from a blinding light, suddenly found himself standing beside the man in the middle of the desert. It was near dusk, the sun swollen on the horizon as though the Earth ended somewhere in its direction and it began there. For a moment Powell swore he saw the dividing line where Sol and Earth were separate entities. He shook off the thoughts in favor of a rubbernecking back-step that included a full-circle of his feet.

He came to a rest on the face of Doe. It stared at him, more animate and human than he’d seen it yet. Powell was awestruck, ready to accuse the man of sorcery, but he raised a hand slowly to halt him from speaking. For some reason, it worked. A trickle of complacency coursed through the Park Ranger all the way from his chest to his brain. Something flooded his body from its presence, and he felt content.

For the first time, Doe spoke; his voice was old, hoarse, as though it came from a man hundreds of years older than the vessel that possessed it. “I… do not know my name. It has been… far too long since I began my journey.”

Powell’s breath weighed on his chest, “Wh-what’s going on ‘ere?” He whipped his head left to right, “We’re… Where are we? Where’s the shack? What’ve you–”

Doe’s hand went up again, and Powell felt endorphins leak from his brain, “You… don’t worry. I… won’t harm you. Something… wonderful. I wish to show you.”

He presented his hand to Powell, as if to take it to be led somewhere. Indeed, once more compelled by the curious force, Powell took Doe’s hand. The land around them began to morph, by the looks of it, to a late-prohibition era town. The distant sunset disappeared to form brick and mortar buildings. Trees and freshly-paved street intermingled with the fanciful colors of painted homes in the distance. Long, hand-molded steel fenders and chrome bumpers appeared on exquisitely manufactured Fords and Chevys along the streets’ edges.

Doe’s voice sounded over the change in scenery, “It began here, when I was a young man. Though my appearance does not reflect it…. I have been here a long time. On this Earth.”

Powell glanced around to see a couple step from a nearby speakeasy. The woman was clad in a fur stole. Enormous diamonds glittered around her neck above a flashy, red dress. Beside her, Doe was unmistakable, truly unchanged since the era. Powell watched as Doe maneuvered to the vehicle to open the door for his mistress, his gray fedora and suit freshly-pressed. The angle of his head, and the loud laughter of the woman covered the sound of a slowly approaching vehicle.

Doe opened the door, and the car’s engine revved up. It skidded to a halt just as two men popped out the passenger windows. A hail of Thompson machine-gun fire exploded through the night. The sounds were so loud and near that Powell jumped in fright. One of the men yelled something about Timmy the Fish “sending his regards” as Doe and his mistress were gunned down.

The scene suddenly changed to Doe once more in the desert. This time, he wandered through the Mojave alone. As if Powell followed him with each breath, he kept pace with Doe’s past-self in real-time.

The man’s now-disembodied voice spoke to him over his aimless wandering, “I’m not sure how I survived…. alas, I did.” The walking Doe fell to his knees, exhausted and panting while the elder one continued to speak, “I had been shot four dozen times by Timmy the Fish’s wise-guys. They murdered my beautiful Mary, but I survived… I didn’t even bother going to the hospital. I … I think that was why I wandered out into the desert. I wanted to know if I could die.” He seemed partially amused by his next thoughts, “I left because there was nothing left to stay for. My Mary was gone, and Timmy didn’t trust me anymore. If he’d known I was alive, he’d’ve tried again. If I didn’t die then, he’d’ve just exchanged my shoes for cement ones and I’d be stuck at the bottom of the ocean– maybe for eternity.”

The images morphed back to Doe standing before Powell. The sun sat once more on the horizon. Doe was now animated in response to Powell’s insane look of scrutiny. The former managed a weak smile, his eyes tired and glassy with tears and cataracts from the desert sun.

“I’ve not aged a day in almost a hundred years,” he said with a heavy heart. “And I think on the day my Mary died, I did too… or a part of me did.” He heaved a dreadful sigh infected with grief, “Problem is, the rest’a me’s never quite gone with it.” He took a step toward Powell with the sadness of a man long-past his expiration date, “I started walking the day she died. First, to escape the police, then Timmy. Then, ’cause I didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t stopped… not really anyhow, ’til you picked me today. Somehow, I’d managed to wander for ages, never dying, never stopping. I like to think that… now, I’m more desert than man. Like a dune in the wind that’s just carried between locations, but never really leaves the desert.”

Doe went quiet. Powell was flabbergasted. He wanted to call the man a crook, a liar, but he couldn’t. He had a peculiar effect on the Park Ranger, reminded him of something from home. It was as though he was part of the desert, somehow had managed to embody it in all those years he’d supposedly wandered it. Being a desert-man himself, the Park Ranger felt at home, couldn’t help but be placate the bit of that Doe embodied.

He shook his head again, focused on the task at-hand, “I dunno’ what’s goin’ on here, but I’d appreciate it if we could return to the shack now. Otherwise, we’re gonna’ miss the Doc.”

Doe gave a few, solitary nods– they were small, presided over by a sad smile. In a blink, the Ranger’s shack re-materialized around them. Powell found himself standing just as he’d been, ready to return to his desk. Doe’s arm retracted back to his body.

He cleared his throat with a slosh of water, then rasped out a few words, “I just wanted you to know my story, Sir.” Powell turned to eye the man as he continued, “All those years I been searching for death, but it still ain’t come. I dunno why. After today, I almost glad it didn’t, ’cause now you know my story.” He took a long, slow drink from his water, then smiled with teary eyes, “She sure was somethin’, my Mary, wasn’t she?”

Powell couldn’t help but be affected by Doe’s sorrow, be it from one man to another, or one desert-man to another.

Powell gave a small nod, his voice quiet, “Sure was.”

Doe nodded back, relaxed on the couch and closed his eyes. Powell sighed, stepped for his desk to lift the phone. He gave Doe one last look, and as if he were a dune, a wind kicked up and the man blew away like grains of sand. What was left of his body after the gust dissolved into sand-grains.

Powell lunged for the couch, felt around it. He drew his hand up with a pile of sand that leaked through his fingers. Powell’s eyes were wild, but somehow he knew: the desert-man had returned home.

Short Story: The Power

The Power

Harlan Mackie was the thirty-five year old front-man for Twisted Ballistix, a band that had already seen its hay-day and obligatory fifteen minutes of fame. Like Most, Harlan and the rest of the group had squandered their fame in their youthful lust for money, drugs, and women. Now, pushing forty, they’d done and seen more than most, and tired of the scene. But none of Ballistix was quite so burnt out as “Mac” Mackie.

He’d done all of the things the others had and then some; blown cash, toured foreign countries and waters, and soiled his share of women. Through it all, he’d aged each day with more weariness than the last. Long before Ballistix was featured in No Moss, the counter-culture music rag that dribbled on everyone’s reputation, he’d seen their decline on the horizon. Only Mac predicted their shift from 80’s glam-rock to blues-inspired jams and graveled crooning would see their popularity wane. Even when it did, he was the only one to mind– maybe, to notice.

While Shift (the drummer), John, and Jake, (bass-guitarist and guitarist respectively) had taken to the change with ease, Mac still clung to the delusions of the high vocals of the Glam-era. His voice begged to differ, had dropped octaves since his youth. He knew what was happening, couldn’t stop it with all the fame in the world; he was getting old, washed up.

He sat in the green room of the Tower-Blade theater in Chicago, hometown of the Blues. The others of the group had already left for the side-stage, there gear waiting for them on-stage. Mac knew the way there without having to be directed. They’d played Tower-Blade twice before, once during the glam-era, and once immediately following Ballistix’s reincarnation. He’d been left to his warm-ups, as usual, given privacy to psych himself up.

Instead, he psyched himself out. He hunched over the lighted bureau back-stage to stare at himself in the mirror. His eyes were deep purple, baggy. His long-hair, already peppered gray, was ratty from more restless nights than he cared to recall. There was nothing more to be done about it, he was finished, through– not even willing to finish out the Tower-Blade gig. Don Mclean had been right; there was a day when the music died, even if Mac couldn’t quite place it anymore.

He tore a scrap of paper from a pad, scrawled over it. The words themselves weren’t important, but the gist was that he was finished, gone. He grabbed a roll of duct-tape from a road-kit, tore off a strip, slapped it atop the note and smacked them both against the mirror. He grabbed his leather jacket, long a staple of his life– even before the Glam-era of eye-liner and finger-less gloves that had accompanied it and helped to make him a star.

He hesitated. He wasn’t a star anymore. He was a has-been, a burnt-out caricature of himself that he doubted anyone would miss. The music was gone. What else could matter to him?

He tossed the jacket over the back of a chair, turned away. He made it to the door before a deep baritone called out to him.

“’Ey Mac, you forgot your jacket.”

Mac whirled ’round, petrified at the lanky figure of a black man, roughly his age. Mac blinked twice. His mind swam. If he’d been stoned, he’d’ve sworn he was hallucinating the legend of John Robertson, Blues-God of Chicago that’d been one of the tour-de-force performers during the genre’s creation.

He took a few steps over room, his black suit-jacket and tie pressed and loose beneath black fedora. He had the deep-set eyes of Robertson, even the gravelly baritone, but it couldn’t have been him– Robertson’d been dead for thirty years, maybe more. He’d had a mishap with an especially potent strand of Heroin, made it to the hospital just in time to die in the ER. Everyone one that’d played the Tower-Blade– indeed, anyone that played the Blues– knew of Robertson’s death. The OD’d started in this very room, at an after-party for one of Robertson’s “Welcome Home” performances. It was the last time Tower-Blade had let anyone throw after-parties in the building.

Even so, the very reflection of Robertson in his prime seemed to make its way toward Mac. The latter’s jaw was slacked above his stony muscles and bones. Robertson extended a hand to the leather jacket, lifted it off the chair, presented it to Mac.

“Can’ go on without’cha your threads, man,” he said. The Robertson look-alike– as it had to have been– met Mac’s eyes, “You ain’t lookin’ so hot, Mac-Knife. What’s the digs?”

Mac’s mouth closed just enough for him to shake his head, “You… You’re…”

“Dead?” He asked under the brim of his fedora. He laid the jacket back over the chair, “Yeah, I s’pose I am ’bout now. What is this, ninety-eight?”

“Oh-three,” Mac said.

“Damn,” Robertson said as he removed his fedora, began to traipse the room with an upward gaze. “The new millennium. Never thought I’d see it.”

Mac blinked, “You didn’t. You were dead in seventy-three. OD’d in…”

Robertson met his eyes again. His words were slow, a serious rise to one of his brows, “In this very room.”

“You’re a… a ghost then, right?” Mac said, in disbelief of his own words.

Robertson’s signature, crooked grin appeared for a moment. He put a long, chocolate finger to his lip, looked to the floor as he stepped over to Mac’s chair. His hand fell to the chair-back, and he crossed his feet in a lean, began to gesture widely, then in small sweeps, with the hat in his other hand.

“Whad’ya know about science, Mac-Knife? Physics, Biology, space-time ‘n all that?”

Mac shrugged, shook his head, too torn between disbelief and utter shock. Robertson straightened enough to step past the chair, set his hat at the bureau in front of it, then lean against its side with a hand in the pocket of chinos, the jacket draped around it.

His other hand illustrated as he explained, “Ya’ see Mac, there’re these moments in time, in our lives, where we just sorta’ fit into place. Physicists call this a Nexus, it’s a point where a bunch of things coalesce– sort’a snow-ball together, to roll down hill in one big conglomeration together.”

Mac blinked, swallowed, “Uh… okay.”

“I can see your confused, but I’ll simplify it for ya’,” he drew the other hand from his pocket, gestured wide to the room. “There’s three events in my life that occurred in this room, that changed its course forever. Bein’ the man that I was, it also changed history. At each’a those events, you can trace that snowball’s path through history to the present, through all the people that were effected through me– My death was one’uv ’em.” He dropped the extra hand again, “Now, the other two, were quite a bit more subtle. They weren’t the kind of thing you see too easily, ‘less you know what to look for.”

Robertson hesitated, slid his other hand in his pocket, scratched at a heel with the opposite foot.

“Now listen close, Mac-Knife, ’cause one’a these concerns you directly, and the other’ll make you understand why. The first, is somethin’ that’s brought me here to ‘ya today.” Mac gave a small blink as if prepared for Robertson to continue. He drew his left hand from his pocket, began to gesture between them, “Good. You’ll be needin’ that curiosity.”

He went silent, sank into memory that brought on an old vernacular that immediately swept Mac into the past with it. Robertson began, “Ya’ see, I was a Blues-man, one’a the first. I knew all the other boys when they were the firsts too. Me ‘n the Kings, Muddy, and John Lee, and more than you could name; we was the soul– the heart of a poor-folk taught all their lives they wasn’t worth nothin more’n the sweat on their brow. But ya’ see, we disagreed with that notion, ‘n like the ancient troubadours, we didn’t know nothin’ more than to sing about it with screams ‘n cries from the only instruments that knew it better than us.”

Mac suddenly felt the sweat bead on his brow, heard the distant sounds of wailing guitars that cried out over the throaty shouts of young blues-men trying to find their place in the world.

As if Robertson felt it too, he commented to the effect, “Ya’ see, thing is, back in them days, we didn’t have a place. Nobody’d heard’a the blues, and no-one gave a thought to the poor-folk ‘less they’d had to step over ’em in the street. ‘N all of sudden, here we were– ‘fore the Brits and their invasion, the rock-pop scene, hell, even ol’ Chuck ‘n his duck-walkin’– screamin’ for someone to help us find our place in the world.”

Mac finally found his words over the sounds of past Blues-men that wailed in his head, “But you’re a legend, John. You always were.”

Robertson gave a giggly laugh, his pearly whites bright as ever in his brown mug, “Maybe I was, but no one starts out that way, Mac-Knife. Hell, you know that better’n anyone. Me ‘n the boys? We was trash, not fit to shine the shoes’a the folks we made rich with our suff’rin’.” He nodded to himself with a look at his feet, “Hmm… yeah. Yeah. That’s what we was. ‘N you see, that’s where the first of the events’a my life comes to play. Year was… uh.. ’63, I believe,” he did a mental calculation. “Forty-years to the day, if I’m not mistaken.”

Mac knew the year, “’63? That was right before all the marches and protests.”

Robertson was pleased, “Tha’s right. One’a the first times black-folk rose together, said they wasn’t gonna’ take it anymore. ‘N you know what happened here, that night?”

Max shook his head, “I know you were here.”

Robertson’s brow gave a buck, “I was. ‘N I wasn’t.” He removed both hands from his pocket, “Ya’ see, we was just workin’ on carvin’ ourselves out a spot in the world when it went ‘n got crazy on us. All’uva sudden, people were risin’ in the streets, throwin’ their own cries and pleas. We didn’ think they needed us no more. Or at least… I didn’t.” He put a finger to his mouth again, waggled it outward for a few turns, “Nah, I was wrong ’bout that. ‘N I knew it then. Ya’ see, me ‘n one’a my guys– cat by the name of Tempo-Jones– called ‘im Jonesy in those days– had a sit before the show. ‘N all we could hear in the background was the roarin’a the crowd.”

Mac heard it too. It wasn’t in his head this time, it was the audience waiting for Ballistix to take the stage, start a night of screaming blues. Mac shuddered, ready to bolt.

Robertson held him in place with a smile, “Yeah, that was how I felt. See, I didn’ think then, what I know now: It takes a legend to lead a crowd, be their… their representative. ‘N the best man to do that’s the one that can be heard over their own roar to scream for ’em.”

Mac’s eyes narrowed, “I don’t understand.”

Robertson nodded, “I ‘spect not, but you will.” He slid his hands back into his pockets, wiggled a foot along the heel of his wayfarer, “It was ten years to the day that I shot-up a dose a dope that made me soar so high I didn’t come back down. Thirty-years to the day, as it is now. Those are two’a three events that I was talkin’ about. The first, ‘case you missed it, was me realizin’ that the people needed me to cry out for ’em. The last, was me havin’ done my job. The Brits’d already invaded. Chicago was a Blues town. ‘N the poor, black-folk’d had their say ‘n now people were listenin.’ They didn’ need me no more, ‘n I didn’ need to be creatin’ what me ‘n the boy’s’d created anymore. I was finished with the world, and it in turn’d finished with me.”

Mac shook his head, “That’s not true, John. People still love you. You’re still a legend. Your work still affects people, it changed the world.”

Robertson waggled his finger at Mac with a smile, “See, now you’re catchin’ on, boy. You’re getting’ there, but you’re not there yet. Ya’ see, cats like me, we got somethin’ more in our veins– more’n blood, more’n soul, more than anything you can think to name. I always called it “The Power.” The power to get up on that stage, ‘n wail the blues with my git-box, ‘n echo the cries’a of the people for them– ‘n I did it louder’n meaner than any other man could’a.”

Mac nodded, “That’s what I mean. You are a legend. The people still need you.”

“As an icon, a legend,” Robertson agreed. “That’s how they need me now.” He scratched at a cheek, presented a few fingers through the air as he explained, “’Ya see, that third event that I was tellin’ ya ’bout? That’s what’s happenin’ right now, right here.” Mac squinted at him. Robertson cocked his head to one side, examined him for a minute. “Lem’me ask you somethin’ Mac-Knife; in all the years you been performin’ how many times you lost time? Been so in the groove you ain’t sure where it ends and you begin? I’d wager it’s more’n you know.”

Mac looked to the floor, thought about it. His eyes returned to Robertson’s with a shake of his head and a shrug, “Yeah, so? That’s what we do, innit? We try to get lost in that groove, take everyone with us?”

Robertson’s smiled weighted his cocked head further to the side, “Yep. You’re right.”

“So, what’s your point?”

Robertson’s head kept its tilt, but his arms crossed and his eyes gleamed, “You know the power I was talkin’ about. I know you do. We all do. That’s why we’re in this business.” Mac made a half nod, as if to affirm Robertson’s words. “And you know, that power, it’s somethin’ none of us can explain. Somethin’ we don’t quite control. It just works through us. Works us over sometimes, right?” Again, Mac nodded. Robertson’s head straightened, “It was ’71, two years before I collapsed from that shot’a dope, that I was leanin’ in the very spot I’m in now. I was ramped up for a gig, ready to scream the blues, when the power overtook me. It was better’n any dope I’d ever had, ‘n I suddenly found myself here, with you, with all’a the knowledge I’d ever need to make my point– like I’d lived more’n forty years in seconds.”

Mac shook his head, confounded, “No, that can’t be. You’ve been dead … and this… I just, I don’t understand.”

Robertson smiled, “This is one’a them Nexus points, Mac.” He finally straightened from the bureau, “Ya’ see, I’m bound to give up my power at some point. No man on this earth can defeat death. He’s a miserable bastard that hunts us down no matter how long it takes ‘im. But the kind’a power I got, the kind you’re gonna’ have; it can’t just appear. It’s gotta’ be handed over.”

Robertson stepped over to Mac. He stepped back on instinct, “No, I’m done. I’m leaving.”

The old blues man met his eyes, “Tell me what’s happening in your world. War, right? Lot’s’a poverty? The sick ‘n dying screamin’ out for someone to listen? Someone to echo, loud as they can, so the others can hear? To use their power for good? Isn’t that why you got in this game? To be the Tom-Cat, loved by all ’cause’a the screamin’ you did for ’em while they were screamin’ for you?”

Mac grit his teeth. He wasn’t sure why he’d gotten into it anymore. For that matter, he wasn’t sure of much, except that he couldn’t keep living as husk, a has-been, a burn out.

Robertson lifted his hand, placed it on Mac’s shoulder, “All you been lookin’ for’s a way outta’ your predicament. ‘N now you have it. Sing the blues, ‘n feel it.” He jabbed a finger into Mac’s chest, “Feel it. If not for you, then for the people that need to be heard. You’ll be a legend. One the world needs. You’ll change history, just like I did. Like the boys did with me. All you gotta’ do’s accept the offer.”

Mac steeled himself with a deep breath; everything Robertson had said, everything he’d felt himself, all of his worries and cares seemed to hinge on his answer now. It was as though he’d been shown the way to revival, all he had to do was take the steps along its path. He wasn’t sure he could. But he wasn’t sure he could turn it down either.

He bit at his lips, took a deep breath, “What do I do?”

Robertson smiled, lowered his hand, “Well, that’s the question, ain’t it?” He turned around slowly to grab his hat, “We all asked it then; what do we do to find our place, our way? Truth is, we had to carve it out. ‘N we did.” He lifted Mac’s jacket from the chair, “I expect, like we did, you’ll figure it out. You just gotta’ get there.” He handed it over, “Don’t forget your jacket, Mac.”

He extended an apprehensive hand, retrieved the jacket from Robertson, their eyes locked, “Wh-what if I can’t do it?”

“My momma’ always said, ya’ never know ’til ‘ya try.” He glanced sideways with a bittersweet look, returned his eyes to Mac’s, “I kept that in my heart, followed it all my life. Who knows– maybe you can too.”

He lifted his hat to Mac’s chest, handed it over, and stepped away. Mac whirled to follow him, “Wait! John! How do I do it?”

Robertson was halfway across the room, smoky and transparent looking. He glanced back with a crooked smile, tipped an invisible hat forward, and disappeared.

“Mac?” A voice called behind him; it was the equally aged figure of Jake, his Paul around his neck, waiting to be plugged into scream. He gripped it in one hand beneath a plectrum, “You warmed up?”

Mac stared for a second, then looked to the hat, “Y-Yeah. I’m coming.”

Jake squinted at him, “Where’d you get the hat?”

Mac was breathless, “John Robertson.”

Jake snorted, “Pft, yeah, alright joker. C’mon, we gotta’ show to play.”

Mac slipped into the leather jacket, took a deep breath, then set the hat atop his head. A rush of power floored him, coursed through his veins as his ears honed in on the sounds of the distant crowd. He suddenly understood. He reached forward, tore the note off the mirror, balled it up, and tossed it away. He turned for the stage, disappeared from Tower-Blade’s green room.