All Things that Matter Press
An ex-con with an identity crisis and a sociopath with delusions of divinity search for a missing girl who will lead one of them to a Divine encounter.
Redemption in a gun,
Divinity in a bullet!
Darren Thayne stopped expecting greatness for himself long ago. Out of prison, trying to make amends for a crime he doesn’t fully remember committing, Darren is faced with his own mortality following the death of his estranged brother, Stephen, the circumstances of which leave more questions than answers. Darren falls into a feverish existence where he is tormented by his Other, a horrid apparition that desires the one thing Darren has given up on: his life.
To further complicate things, Darren is tasked with discovering the whereabouts of a missing child and, as a means to finding his place in the world and helping a distraught mother reclaim her only daughter, Darren agrees to do what he can to find the girl. His search takes him down a dark path, into the sick underworld of child slavery, and into the company of Colson, a madman with delusions of divinity, who Darren suspects had some involvement in his brother’s death. Colson takes Darren on a bleak journey through a desert of nightmares, making him confront the demon that resides within and bringing him closer to a reality that feels more like a dream.
Caught between his desire to save a life and find meaning in his own, Darren learns that, sometimes, the only person you can trust is the one holding the gun.
PART I THE BEGINNING OF BEING, THE END OF BEING
Dusk: The start of a new night that might never come to fruition but remain in a perpetual state of deep evening, dream-like in its endless possibilities. A picturesque scene of pastel shades; pink over the horizon, rising to purple and deep blue, hardly a cloud to blemish it; the first glimmering stars and the hollow crescent-shaped outline of the moon seen at the hazy meeting of purple and blue.
A two-lane highway stretched for miles in a straight line to the east and west. A parched black-top path of cracked pavement cut through a vast desert prairie, mostly void of organic life. But to gaze deeply into its endlessness and to fight off the thirsting dust and bitter sand-pebbles thrown by an indifferent breeze, was to see the depths of its misery and anguish, the life behind its dull sanity that, at any moment, might crack, as the long dusty road had long ago succumbed. Any sane person would if not properly maintained by moral structure and self-awareness. The breeze bided its time until the moment it could roar and blow its chaos freely and, in the meantime, stir up small but erratic mini-tornadoes that rose, swirled, fell, rose again.
Darren Thayne had been on this stretch of forgotten highway before. Some time ago. He stood in the road's center, a foot on either side of the faded median line, which was nearly lost beneath drifting layers of desert soil. It flurried all about him, not strong enough to consume him, not yet. Just bothersome enough to distract his thoughts. It nicked his long face and pattered against the front of his button-up, denim shirt. He felt the sharp pricks against his cheeks. His eyes stung from the tiny assaults. He felt the weight of gathered dust on his clothes and in his hair, which reminded him that he should get a haircut. The mop of darkish-brown on his scalp was starting to get unruly. His feet ached from the miles he'd already walked. He didn't remember his travels, but he had been walking a long time. Hadn't he?
Am I even really here? Is this a dream? He thought, maybe, it was. Like the others. Always the same dream, but different, somehow. That didn't make any sense. This must be a dream. But should I know that? Should I have any sense of my dreams? Should I be aware?
The dream was different. He didn't know what had changed. It was the same road, he believed. Same desert. Same feeling of longing, same nauseating feeling of disappointment. So what had changed? Was it that he felt there was a presence there beyond his own? Was there someone with him in the dream?
The colors of dusk gave him chills and the desert remained bleak. The road was empty and derelict. His surroundings, his very being, all vibrant, yet surreal. The way his dreams often were, but ... different. He wasn't alone anymore. Someone, maybe some thing, had invaded his psychosis.
Who's out there?
His stinging eyes stared along the road that reached out before him, unable to ignore the angry rock-dust pelting his face, but able to maintain sight, and what he saw was the place at the horizon, where the road narrowed to near non-existence and lost substance at the blurred, hazy line where earth met sky.
And then he knew.
The boy sat in the corner of the room, head cocked to the ceiling as he howled and yipped like a feral, but injured, coyote pup. He'd been in the room a long time, regressing mentally as the ceiling cracked and filled with moisture and mildew-mold, and cobwebs filled the corners. Rats scurrying about behind the walls, in the attic, beneath the floor, scurrying, scurrying, in the depths, always scurrying. The boy was howling at them.
He was a frail, emaciated boy of eleven. He was shirtless, his bald chest speckled in grit and bruised from self-abuses. One of his nipples bled afresh through an old scab. His skin was red. He itched. He scratched. The pants he wore were his only pair, too small for him, now, crusted in filth, tearing at the seams. He paused from his animal protests to scratch a spot beneath his mess of tangled, blond hair, so unclean it was gray, hard and matted, hanging in ugly clumps down to his jaw line. The boy took up his protests once more, his throat hot and scratchy. He'd been doing this for hours or days or years, he didn't know, didn't care, couldn't comprehend. The room stank of age and sweat and disease. The musk and the dryness filled his snot-crusted nostrils. He was only partially aware of the corpse lying on the floor in front of him. There were rats everywhere, scurrying, scurrying, scurrying. He howled and yipped. He was starving to death, but he didn't know it.
The wind outside settled but it sometimes whistled to him, and he sometimes howled back, yipping in excitement of the company it offered. He forgot about the rats and stopped his cry, stood from the floor and stepped over the rotting corpse, not really seeing it, but sensing the obstruction. He walked across the room to a small window. Outside was desert. There was a highway out there, hard to see. No cars ever drove by. The boy would have heard them. There was a man standing on the road. The boy ducked down, afraid. He hesitated, peeked over the bottom of the window's frame. It was okay. The man wasn't looking at him. He was looking down the road. The boy wondered what he was looking at, dismissed the thought. It didn't matter. The man wasn't real. None of it was. This was all just a dream. Even the boy knew that. He'd had this dream before, many times. He was actually a man, not a child. He hadn't been the boy in a long time. He still heard the rats sometimes, though, even when he was awake.
The boy turned from the window and walked over to a chair—the only piece of furniture in the room—and sat. Had the dream changed somehow? He wasn't sure. He knew the room from a memory that was not entirely clear to the man he was sure he was. The memory was of a boy that could have been him, in a room like the one he was in now, sitting in a chair like the one beneath him. And there was a man in the room with him. The man was not his father, but had taken care of him since he was a little baby. The man was Cooper; Crazy Cooper. Cooper scared the boy sometimes. Cooper had seen things and couldn't explain them and it made him crazy. He had done something really bad, the boy thought, and was being punished by having to stay in the room forever.
Cooper ignored the boy, mostly, but sometimes wanted to play games. He had something behind his back and the boy wanted to see but was too afraid to ask. Cooper knew the boy wanted to see what he had. He looked tired and old and afraid, and the boy was scared when Cooper told him they were going to play his favorite game.
Most times, the dream of that little boy ended before Cooper showed him what he had behind his back. Then the boy would sit in the corner and howl at the rats until his own dream came to an end and he became a man again. Now, it had changed and everything was all mixed up. The boy playing games with Cooper and the dirty boy in the chair were the same person. Cooper was showing him what he had; a gun behind his back and he was smiling, but it wasn't a happy smile. Cooper said, “Only one thing that matters.” The gun was a revolver. The boy had seen it before. It was shiny and had writing down the side of the barrel. Cooper thumbed back the hammer slowly, and it made a tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick sound.
The boy bit down on his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin.
A shape, long, narrow, and fuzzy in the low light, moved toward Darren. He squinted against the blowing sand, tried to shield his eyes with one raised hand. The approaching figure was miles away but, like in a dream, arrived and stood before Darren within moments. It was a man that emerged from the haze of the desert. He wore the same clothes as Darren, dusty denim shirt, jeans, and the same worn-ragged work boots. His hair was the same shaggy mess. He wore the same face. The man standing before him was himself. The two Darren's faced one another on an endless monotony of blacktop. Only, it wasn't Darren standing in front of Darren. Not entirely. The man looked older, but only by a few tiresome years. And he was dirtier, unhygienic, with flaky skin and glossy, yel-lowed eyes. Darren could smell him; bad meat, wheat and barley, and whiskey. The odor oozed from this other him. The man's grin was foul, and it mocked Darren, telling him that one of them knew exactly what was going on. Darren questioned himself again, Am I dreaming, or am I awake?
The Not-Darren, as Darren wanted to call him, was starting to laugh. He ran a dirty hand through his greasy hair. His fingernails were yellow and badly maimed from being bitten obsessively; mangled the way Darren's were when he succumbed to stress.
“Remember,” said the Not-him, the Other. His voice was rougher than Darren's, and had a mean-spirited lilt. He'd only spoken that one word, but Darren heard the malice and cruelty in it. Remember. It was a vicious ploy. To remember was to forget, but Darren knew that to really remember was to never let go of the thing that ate a man to pieces and left nothing but the bitter husk in its place; a soulless carcass, forgotten.
The Other grinned obscenely. Darren knew he was about to speak, this other side of him. He didn't want to hear the words. He didn't want to remember.
“Remember,” said the Other. “Remember who we really are.”
It stung some part of Darren, deep within, to hear those words. It stung worse than the pebbles and grit bombarding his flesh, pricking at his eyes. But he was unable to shut out any of it, and so he closed his eyes to deflect it all.
And he saw ... What was this place, exactly? A cathedral: dilapidated, empty, holes in the ceiling, letting in cool rays of moonlight, illuminating the dusty floor in blue patches.
Darren was there, but not completely. Not absolutely. He was a pres-ence, unseen, nowhere and everywhere. He was the floating particles of aged debris swirling within the moon's glow, the stale, warm air.
Voices. They carried through the sanctuary. Two men. They sat at a table constructed from stainless steel, brilliant under a particularly fat ray of sky light. The legs of the table were bolted to the hardwood floor. Two steel chairs on opposite ends of the table, where the two men sat, also modified to the floor. An altar beyond, made of stone or marble, chipped and blemished, cleared of the spiritual idols and knickknacks that would have been common once. Darren saw it all, and saw none of it.
A gun lay on the table between the two men. A silver-plated revolver, six-round chamber, long-barrel. Darren moved in for a closer look, read the inscription along the edge of the barrel: Redeemer. One of the men, the older of the two, but not by much, ran a finger along the barrel over the word. He smiled, as though touching the weapon gave him comfort. He was in his twenties, no more than thirty, and handsome. He looked like a model with his boyishly chiseled features and his styled blondish hair. He sat with a very easy, careless posture, though the chair must have been uncomfortable.
“Feel it?” the model said to his companion, who was hardly more than a boy. “It’s not power. It's somethin’ ... somethin’ else.”
The other man was, indeed, young. Late teens, early twenties. A troubled look about him. His back was to Darren but the ghost could sense the feelings emanating from him like a rank odor.
The kid, Darren knew, wasn't there for himself. He’d come in place of another.
The model repeated the question. “You feel it, Stephen?”
Darren filled with a sudden horror as he came to realize who the young man was. God, no. Stephen. He confirmed his suspicion a moment later when he floated around the table and saw that, yes, his little brother was the other man.
Run, Stephen! He wanted to shout, but he wasn't there. Not really. Still, he tried, knowing it was fruitless. Get out! This place is bad. You've got to listen! It's a church but it's not a good place anymore. Stephen, please, get out of here!
He wished he could materialize and grab his brother, get him out of the church, away from that man, whoever he was. But he could do nothing but wait.
He knew what came next. Knew it was unstoppable. Darren knew because somewhere else, at some other time, it had already happened.
He picked up the gun and turned it beneath the natural light that poured in from the rotted ceiling, watching as it glimmered. The kid sitting across from him looked nervous. Maybe he knew that this was the last time. Maybe he knew that this was the night he was going to die. Too bad. He liked Stephen. Kid had guts. Played like a god.
“First time I saw Cooper put a gun to his head, I was seven,” he said to Stephen, hoping a little conversation might relax him. He should be at ease for the end.
Stephen sat quietly, rocking slowly in his sturdy chair. Whether he was listening was anybody’s guess, but it didn't really matter, not to Colson.
“Last time I saw’m put a gun to his head, I was ten. Never forget the important things.”
Colson had forgotten that, for a time, but like most things, the memo-ry had returned. He remembered biting his lip. Tasting blood. Cooper took out the very gun he now held. The anticipation and the fear made that boy's head spin. Cooper, that old fuck, pressed the barrel to his own head. He remembered reading the inscription on the barrel, that one word which said so much and was fitting, under the circumstances. Still was today. He’d followed the narrow lettering until he’d met Cooper’s eyes.
Now he set the Redeemer on the table, pushed it across for the kid. Stephen stared at it for a long time before picking it up. His hand trembled. There were two bullets loaded into the cylinder. The other slots were empty. Those were decent odds for the average gambler. But they weren’t playing for money. They played for something else. Something most people could never understand.
He stood from the table and gave the kid a reassuring nod, even a lit-tle smile. He liked him, after all. The kid’s eyes dropped to his waist, most likely checking out Colson’s belt buckle and wondering to himself what would be waiting for him after this night. The buckle was made of titanium, and was shaped into letters that read: JESUS. There was no shame in wearing the buckle. Some people laughed. Some muttered obscenities. Some just stared, not getting it. It wasn’t necessarily an ego thing, or a religious one. He was simply expressing himself.
It was time to leave Stephen to his destiny. He thought to watch from the shadows, but knew he wouldn’t. This time, it wasn’t a show. He wasn’t some freak on display. Give the kid some privacy. Death is a personal thing. This was an important step, for both him and Stephen. He felt good about what he’d accomplished with the kid, felt a little giddy about the next transition.
“Love you, kid,” he said then walked away from the table and from Stephen, stepping outside of the old church to have a smoke.
Stephen sat there for a long time, feeling the familiar weight of the revolver in his hands, knowing what he had to do. He raised the gun to the side of his head and held it there, and holding his breath, his finger added pressure to the trigger. And when he could hold it no longer, he sucked in a final breath of musty air and made the transition.
From somewhere far away but very close, someone began screaming.