Part One: Vince
“I’ll pray for you. Be safe.” The man snorted derisively at the old woman’s words as he sauntered away, keeping his balance despite his current state of inebriation. He didn’t give a damn about her prayers.
“Do yourself a favor mom,” Karl said, “Save your prayers for someone who needs ‘em.” His words came out fine, not slurring, but he couldn’t help feeling that he should quit talking. Looking back over his shoulder he could see his mother silhouetted in the doorway, her features hidden in shadow as the lights of the warm bar behind her glared at her back. The interior of the R&R Tavern looked so welcoming, so peaceful that maybe, just maybe-
No. This time his brother had gone way too far.
“Please son, just be safe.” His mother was pleading now, actually begging him to do as she said. It almost broke his heart, but Karl kept on walking. He even snorted in disdain, knowing it would hurt her that much more. A part of Karl, a part he had long forgotten about, railed at him to stop, to just goddamn stop and listen to her, but the problem was, he didn’t want to listen to himself. She already knew he wouldn’t do whatever she suggested if only to piss off the family and distance himself even further from them. If his father, who was also inside with the rest of the family, couldn’t talk sense into him then no one could. Well, there was one person who could, but she-
No. That wasn’t a good thought to have right now.
“Whatever,” Karl replied before turning away. The night around him was cold as his boots struck against the pock-marked parking lot, but not uncomfortably so. He could hear the door squeal close behind him as his mother went back inside, no doubt in tears or well on her way to such a deluge. He didn’t care; he’d meant every last goddamned word he’d said before leaving. Zipping up his jacket Karl blew out a long, frosty plume of air. This was going to be a long walk home.
* * *
“I said I was sorry goddammit! What more does he want me to say?!”
“Please don’t use the lord’s name in vain again Gary.”
The middle-aged, pot-bellied man gave his gray-haired stepmother a long-suffering look as he tipped back his pint of beer, taking a deep swallow before setting it back down on the beer-soaked wooden table between them. All along either side of the table was his family, or least a good deal of them, and none of them looked happy. Gary kept his eyes upon the littered wooden surface, his eyes darting first to a crumpled napkin with barbecue sauce on it and then to a twisted drink straw, its slender form bent into a jumble of confusing angles. All the glassware from the shot glasses to the pints to the wine glasses were either empty or getting there. The plates and utensils that had been used for the feast had already been taken away by either his stepmother or other family members. They had the run of the bar tonight since his uncle happened to own the place, which was the only reason why the underage kids were allowed in here right now. Washington didn’t allow minors into a bar for any reason, but Uncle Jack didn’t care when it came to family, especially with private parties such as this.
Despite the size of the group that sat on either side of the scarred tables that had been pushed together no one seemed too eager to speak. After another few awkward moments however one of the older men, Gary’s father, stood up to speak.
“You didn’t need to bring his wife into the discussion Gary, that was uncalled for and worse-“
“But-“ Gary tried to protest. His father held up one hand quickly in a gesture that Gary knew too well. It meant shut up and listen, or God help you if he had to go further than the hand.
Gordon glared reproachfully at his eldest son as he continued to hold up his hand, which was beginning to develop a few telltale signs of liver spots, “What’s worse is that you knew, you knew that it would rile him up. Dammit Gary you should have known better!” Gordon slammed his palm down hard on the table, still fixing Gary with his hard stare as Gary could see his father’s eyes misting over. Glasses rattled and the sauce-covered napkin jumped slightly as Gordon’s hand met the table. Even a few of those seated around him jumped just a bit at his vehement act. No one seemed inclined to step in between father and son at that moment, no matter if they were all family in one way or another. The subject at hand had been a tender one for nearly three years to this day and remained so.
“He’s just so goddamned sensitive!” Gary protested, still holding onto his glass of beer. The two young faces his eyes suddenly alit upon tore at him as their wide eyes and frowning lips seemed to accuse him without words. The six-year old twins, Tina and Jessie, loved their father very much, even if he was emotionally distant to them at times. Nothing had been right since their mother had passed away it seemed, and Gary had no doubt just made things that much worse.
“Gary!” his stepmother, Ellen, scowled at him as she said his name. The twins huddled close to their grandmother, no doubt hearing the severity in her voice. Gary decided just then that he’d had it, he was done being sorry. He scowled back as much as his blackened left eye would let him, not backing down an inch.
“Oh go on and defend your little baby boy, Ellen.” Gary spat, not meeting his father or Ellen’s heated stares in that moment.
“Be careful Gary, you’re crossing a dangerous line.” This came from just down the table, the eyes of another older gentleman, his Uncle James, pinning Gary as he locked gazes with the man. Uncle James wasn’t the type to back down to the glare that Gary now gave him, in fact none of his family were that way. His throbbing left eye attested to that fact. It was a damned good thing his younger brother hadn’t aimed lower, Gary might not have been able to speak up in his defense just now. Unfortunately it wasn’t like he was doing any good.
His little brother, well actually he wasn’t so little really, was the one that everyone seemed to be defending at the moment. It wasn’t fair, the family always sided with his adopted brother, even if he was in the wrong like now. Gary’s eye hurt like hell dammit! And here they were, ready to defend the over-sensitive bastard that had done it!
“So what, you’re all against me now?” he asked in an accusing tone.
His younger sister Sarah spoke up at that moment, “You had no right to mention Anna, Gary, especially not in that context.” Gary’s jaw dropped as he glared at his sister, his real sister. Out of all the people here he’d expected to understand his side of this, she’d been numero uno. Of course she also thought their little brother had been fully entitled to the cheap shot he’d gotten in. Gary had known the punch was coming, but he would swear up and down to end of his days that his adopted brother had sucker-punched him. And there was no way he’d ever admit to being put on his ass, even though he had been.
The notion of calling the cops that were stationed just down the road to arrest the bastard had been tempting, but Uncle Jack wouldn’t have allowed it. Plus, seeing as most of his family was here, no one else would have allowed it either. He was convinced now that he would have been tackled before he hit the door if he’d tried to run to the station. Hell, even if they didn’t stop him Gary would probably have a coronary before he got halfway there. Despite being a healthy runner in his youth, age had taken away much of that vigor and spirit. These days he was lucky if he could weed his own flowerbeds. What he did wonder was if the family would have pulled Karl off had the asshole decided to keep going. Gary almost suspected that they would have just let him go, wailing away until he was nothing more than a bloody smear. Wouldn’t that have been fun to explain to any customers? Oh sure, don’t worry about them strange stains, we just had some plumbing problems, or maybe Uncle Jack would come up with something equally ridiculous to explain away the faded bloodstains.
“You’re damn lucky he only punched you once Gary,” his father said.
Gary slouched sullenly in his seat as he replied, keeping his eyes turned away, “I could’ve taken him.”
“Dad, he would have flattened you.” Gary looked to his right to see his sixteen-year old daughter, Beth, raising her eyebrows as she sipped at her drink. It was a non-alcoholic drink, he knew, he’d watched Uncle Jack make it. As his daughter looked at him squarely Gary saw that she too was against him at the moment, his own daughter. Great, now absolutely everyone was against him.
* * *
It was damned cold as Karl began the long trek home, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his heavy Carhart jacket. The thick material was designed for heavy duty labor and protection, but it didn’t do much against the cold. Of course it probably wouldn’t with the zipper halfway down either. He didn’t care about the cold, it was actually helping to keep him awake and cleared his thoughts just a bit. He was still plenty angry, but no longer felt even the slightest bit remorseful.
For years now half of his family had been dying to see him take down his older brother, while the other half had always warned him away, telling him to be the bigger man. In truth he was a bit surprised that things hadn’t come to such a head like this years earlier. His brother had been tormenting him for years now, even when he’d finally grown bigger and stronger. Gary had few reasons if any to be the arrogant asshole that he was, but for some reason he was just that way.
Karl’s home was all the way back down Mill Plain, a good ten miles, probably more since he’d never calculated it. Vancouver wasn’t the biggest city around, in fact some folks still considered it a town. The ‘couv, as it was called by so many, lay sprawled over a wide terrain with more than a few outlying suburbs that tried to be their own little townships. His home was set just off of Franklin Street, along where Brandt and Mill Plain intersected. It was a simple place, a single-story, three-bedroom house with one and a half bathrooms and a nice-size yard both front and back. He expected that the yellow Labrador that had been around since Tina and Jessie were babies had already gone inside via the doggy door he’d installed early on during her potty training. Luna was a good girl, she’d been easy to train and even easier to raise. His kids on the other hand, well, maybe that wasn’t such a good subject to think of just now. They were good girls, but after what had happened three years ago, Karl didn’t really want to think about how he was failing them.
The neighborhood he and his daughters lived in was called Harney Heights, which was really an absurd name he’d always thought. At least the homes in his neighborhood didn’t have names like they did over in Aurora, Oregon, where his parents lived.
As Karl continued to walk forward the air surrounding him became just a bit colder as he shuddered in response. Huddling a little deeper into his jacket he could hear his teeth chatter until he clamped them firmly together, stifling the noise as he frowned. Winter was always an uncertain time in the pacific northwest, it could range from a sunny, warm day to a blinding snowstorm on any given day. The weathermen were rarely correct and when they were it was normally a wide-eyed, “how did that happen”, moment that was shared by all. As he continued walking Karl grinned, thinking to himself that it might very well snow this winter. Tina and Jessie would like that at least.
“Hey buddy, I need a dollar.” Karl jumped slightly at the gravelly voice that came from the shadows just to his right. Wait, that wasn’t right, why would someone be walking in the street? Karl had crossed the four six lanes of blacktop only a few hundred yards back, preferring to walk on the left side of the street since the sidewalk ran for far longer on this side. He knew enough of Vancouver’s streets to know that he didn’t want to be caught walking on the edge of the road at this time of night. The drivers around these parts weren’t always that considerate to pedestrians.
Looking over to the right he saw a bearish man walking up to him from behind, his features mostly obscured from the street lights overhead. Karl could see though that he was a brute, his long hair and facial hair bushy and just barely kept within his hood. The man’s voice as almost like a growl, though Karl didn’t pay much attention to this.
“Sorry man, I’ve got nothing.” Karl didn’t even think it too strange that the man was walking upon the short width of concrete that separated the sidewalk from the street, some people didn’t care about the laws of traffic or even physics, meaning that a car outweighed a person by thousands of pounds. It didn’t even take a high school physics student to know that the car would always win.
“That’s too bad,” the man said, his voice continually rough as he kept his hands huddled into the thick woolen jacket he wore. Karl was about to move on, though he’d never stopped walking he realized, when the man spoke again.
“I still need a dollar.”
The stranger was pacing him, Karl suddenly realized, those big legs, clad in what almost looked like coveralls, pumping as Karl tried to speed up without being noticed. Still the man kept his pace.
“I told you man, I’ve got nothing.”
“I told you man, I’ve got nothing.” An almost girlish chuckle came from his left then, startling Karl so that he almost forgot about the man to his left. Looking over in that direction quickly he saw a woman, obvious from her voice and her build, as she came across a grassy sward that was part of a front lawn that sat in front of an AM/PM gas station and convenience mart. He felt his heartbeat increase in tempo just a bit, though he kept walking. Karl knew that crime in Vancouver was sometimes as prevalent as anywhere, but muggings on the street didn’t just occur now and then, if at all. But for some reason, he didn’t get the feeling that these two were interested in his polite company.
“Maybe we should let this guy go Dio,” the woman said, her own features hidden away within the shadows of a hood, except for her eyes. Karl could see the manic, brown orbs from the light shed by a street light as the three of them continued to walk forward, the two shadowing the one. He could only make out hints and bits of her face, though that seemed enough to know that she was rather striking. But the ill light he could see in her eyes was more than a little unnerving. Suddenly he wanted to be far away from these two, and was thinking that he should have stayed at the bar.
Such irrational fear wasn’t like him, nor was thinking that he might be in very real danger from two strangers he’d just met, but Karl felt it all the same. He’d said before that he feared no one, no matter if they could kill him with barely any effort. Fear was something he didn’t like to admit, though it happened just as it did with most other folks. He denied it as much as possible, but when his heartbeat betrayed him it was hard to put aside.
“He’s got something,” the woman said, pacing Karl on his left even as the big brute of a man continued to do the same on the right. Karl was feeling just a bit nervous now, so much so in fact that he didn’t notice that there wasn’t a single car on the road, nor even a single person to be seen on the streets. While Vancouver wasn’t exactly a city that never slept, there were gas stations and other businesses that didn’t close, remaining open all day and night so as to offer more convenience. But in his current mood, he didn’t notice that not a single person seemed to be present. If he had it would have been just another curiosity anyway.
“Lady, I don’t know what to tell you but-“ Karl didn’t get the chance to finish as the woman interrupted him with a barking peal of laughter, the sound grating on his nerves as he instantly thought of nails screeching across sheet metal. It was a vivid mental image, and one that he didn’t really enjoy.
“You can tell my friend that you’ll give him a dollar, that way we can both get across the river.”
Now that made no sense. Get across the river? Images of toll booths and small metal and wooden boxes where people sat and made sure that the toll for passage was collected entered his mind, and Karl couldn’t rightly remember the last time when he’d seen such a thing, apart from movies and television of course. Many films shot in New York, New Jersey, and even further to the west of the nation showed toll bridges and roads that collected money in order for one to continue onward, but here in Vancouver there was no such thing as a toll bridge. And to cross the river, one only had to choose between the I-5 and I-205 bridges, and neither of those demanded a toll.
In fact, he could remember at that second the only toll bridge that he and his family had seen had been in Astoria, when he had been a child. Every weekend and holiday they’d been able they had gone to the beach, and crossing over from Astoria to the Longbeach Peninsula had required a toll. But that toll booth had been taken down years ago, after it had been decided that it was a service no longer needed. He could recall that there was apparently talk of it coming back however. And there was talk of an addition to the I-5 Bridge, one that would require a toll booth. For people who traveled back and forth between Washington and Oregon for work and other pursuits, that would be a real bitch.
“Hey stupid!” the woman called, her voice almost shrieking as Karl jumped just a bit, “Stop daydreaming and give my buddy a dollar!” He almost yelled right back at her, not appreciating the tone she was taking. That seemed just a bit ridiculous since she and the man were obviously trying to force him into something he didn’t want, but all the same Karl didn’t like being yelled at.
“Bite me you screeching bitch.” Karl had no sooner spoken the words when he heard footsteps coming up from behind him. Before he could turn he was struck soundly upon the back of the head with something very hard, something that forced him to stumble forward as the world tilted crazily in his vision, the street lights almost blurring into long, orange lines as the shadows crept into his sight just a little more. Sound seemed to distort in that moment as the woman and the first man converged on him, each one of them grabbing an arm as Karl tried to fight. He was rewarded for his efforts by a vicious kick to the balls from the woman, who was wearing pointed shoes he soon found out.
Karl didn’t even have the wind to yell or groan as the man socked a huge fist into his stomach, folding him instantly as he went down. They let him go before his arms would have been wrenched painfully in their sockets, to crash hard upon the cement walkway as he thankfully turned to the left, not landing on his face and breaking his nose or anything else. That was a small thing at least.
“Check ‘im,” he heard a deep, masculine voice say, and then he felt as the woman and the first man rifled through his pockets, turning out nothing but an empty wallet with a few pieces of plastic, namely his debit card from Wells Fargo, a FUNLAND card from the coast when he’d taken his girls, and a battered and beaten USBANK employment debit card. He’d not needed the card since he’d gained a job several months back, but the letter it had come with had advised him to keep it, and so he’d tucked it away and forgotten it was there.
The rest that came out of his pockets was nothing more than a few pieces of change, pennies and a few dimes really, and a couple pieces of folded up paper with notes and phone numbers written on them. He heard a snort of disgust as the two stood up, the crumpling sound of the papers being wadded up and thrown aside abnormally loud in his head.
“Punk was right, he didn’t have anything.” The woman sounded almost surprised.
“The boatman won’t accept this little,” the first man said, his voice just as rumbling and disturbing as Karl continued to listen, cradling his injured manhood as the lights continued to dim.
“It doesn’t matter,” spoke the third voice, the one that Karl hadn’t seen yet, “We’ll find some other chump, someone who’s actually got something. Let’s go.” He thought that would have been it, that they would have left him alone, but hey, that would have been too simple.
The woman looked down at him as the trio began to move back in the direction they’d come from, her insane gaze making Karl’s skin crawl as he looked up at her. He could almost envision this woman laughing at the scene of a horrific car crash, or dancing a jig when 9/11 had come about, or doing something equally perverse during some other unknowable tragedy. The madness he saw in her eyes didn’t allow him to think anything less.
“Enjoy your stay asshole,” she said, and then she kicked him, hard, in the temple. And for a little bit, the lights went out.
* * *
Reason suggested that someone should have called the cops, that someone would have seen a man lying upon the sidewalk, curled into the fetal position, and thought that something was wrong. But of course, reason wasn’t always reasonable, especially in an age where a lot of people figured it was better to mind their own damned business. Karl might have been an oddity lying there on the sidewalk, or he might have been seen as a disgusting bum, a drunk who’d gotten so passed out on his ass that even walking down the street hadn’t been something he could accomplish without needing a place to rest. All that might have been possible, but at the moment, as his eyes began to slowly open, it hurt just to see the light of the street lamps at the moment, Karl figured that it didn’t matter. The only thing he was worried about at that second were the overgrown, throbbing melons that had once been his balls.
Pain was his only true sensation right now, the swelling in his pants making a rather persuasive argument that it should be the one and only thing on Karl’s mind at that second. Unfortunately he couldn’t disagree.
“Hey, hey pal, time to get up.”
He wanted to tell the anonymous stranger what to do with himself, but the words wouldn’t come, making him wonder if the three muggers had done something to damage his windpipe as well. Karl was conscious enough at that second that he could feel no pain in his throat and neck, but the agony in his head and his crotch was more than enough to make up for the apparent lack. Good G-, wait, why couldn’t he form that thought? How hard had the damned woman kicked him?
“Hey, get up man.”
Karl managed a groan this time, though that was about it.
“Get up man, I’m not gonna drag your ass up on my own.”
Opening his eyes Karl expected to see a cop, or another citizen of the town intent on doing just a small bit of good. Or maybe someone who just didn’t want to take the second or two to walk around him.
Instead he saw a tall black man hunkered down next to him, left knee upon the pavement and the other raised as he balanced on the ball of his right foot. He was no doubt taller than Karl, and yet he instantly decided that the man couldn’t have weighed more than a buck eighty or just a little over. He was lithe in the way that a lot of tall people were, all bone, muscle, and skin, hardly any fat. Of course, that was a crude generalization, but at this moment Karl’s capacity to think straight wasn’t firing on all thrusters.
“Did you see them?” Karl groaned, feeling as though the question was a bit ridiculous. It was like asking someone if they’d knew what was happening in an undetermined location to people they’d never met.
“Nope, but I can guess who did it,” the man said, his face betraying nothing more than mild irritation, “The three I can assume did this have been waylaying people for longer than I care to admit.”
Karl frowned, the small gesture paining him greatly as he closed his eyes again. The three people? The muggers had been doing this before? You would have thought that such a thing would have been on a local newscast once or twice. But maybe they were quiet about it, taking out people that wouldn’t dare say a word. Or maybe it was just one more screwy part of the world that seemed to slip in and out of its many cracks.
“Who are you?” Karl managed to ask.
The black man issued a long, bored-sounding sigh that immediately made Karl think of his brother, and how the prick had always seemed irritated with him for no reason.
“Are you gonna ask a bunch of questions or can we get going finally?”
What had he just said? Karl wasn’t quite sure, in fact he was as confused as he could be in his own opinion, but at the moment all that really mattered was the pain he was in. With another sigh the stranger stood to his feet, where Karl was almost sure he would either just leave or kick him and then leave. For some reason he didn’t feel like he could expect a great deal from this man.
“Get your ass up man, we need to be going.”
“Call me a damned ambulance or something,” Karl groaned from where he lay, still cupping his crotch as he was almost certain he could feel it bleeding.
“Is that all?” the man asked, “You’re worrying about your tenders? Oh for crying out loud. I’d forgotten how big of babies guys can be about their equipment.”
Without warning the man hunkered down again, and before Karl could protest or even try to move away, the man’s large hand was upon his crotch. It lasted only a second, but what came next would remain stuck in his memory until the day he died.
Karl was about to move, or try to at least scoot away, when the man took his hand away. He didn’t know what to say or expect, but in the next breath he found himself unable to do anything other than squeak as his mouth opened wide in a horrified O of agony. It felt like someone had shoved a steel spike into his privates and twisted, the wrenching pain lasting for only a moment but still incapacitating him without fail.
And in the next instant, it was over.
His head still ached fiercely, and his neck was a bit stiff from having lain upon the sidewalk at an angle, but as to his crotch, well, it felt normal. Karl couldn’t think straight as he suddenly sprang to his feet, fully intent on showing the man just what he thought of such treatment. His palms were abraded slightly as he pushed himself to his feet, but he didn’t care, standing up quickly as he swung one fist at the black man, only to discover that the bastard wasn’t there.
“If this is how we’re going to start out it’s going to be a long trip.” The voice of the stranger came from behind him, though Karl could have sworn the man had just been in front of him. How the hell had he moved so fast? At that moment it almost felt as though he were inside a badly written movie, something where strangers who just showed up helped in the most strange ways and had supernatural abilities that defied any mortal reasoning. It was almost like something his daughters might have read or watched on television.
“I’d keep those kind of thoughts close to the vest, if you catch my meaning,” the man said as Karl turned around, “Stuff like that can get you twisted faster than you can blink where we’re going.”
Karl did blink, turning around just as quickly as he stepped away from the stranger.
“Who the hell are you?” He barely noticed as the man winced. Instead of answering right away however, the stranger looked around, almost as though he were nervous, which Karl of course did not understand. Was he running from someone? Maybe the cops….but no, no that was an essentially racist thought, or at least had the possibility of being one, and Karl didn’t entertain it any further.
“Keep that kind of talk down big guy, especially when we cross the river.”
“What river?” Karl asked, growing more exasperated each second he stood there talking. A large part of him just wished to keep going, to marvel about how his nether regions no longer ached and what it meant, whether or not he’d met the real life equivalent of John Coffey or not, but his feet wouldn’t move. He wondered if the character in Stephen King’s stunning novel, The Green Mile, had felt the same way when the big black man had touched him in the certain spot. Of course, Karl hadn’t been suffering a urinary infection before now, just a painful kick from a very pointed toe. He wondered briefly if either pain would feel the same, and decided quickly that he didn’t want to find out.
“The river you were heading towards, without knowing it of course.”
Karl rolled his eyes, “The only river I know of anywhere close to here is the Columbia, and I wasn’t planning on crossing it tonight.”
The black man gave him a look that suggested he was being quite tiresome, and to be honest Karl didn’t like it, but then, he didn’t like the stranger all that much either right now. Something about him just didn’t seem natural, and it was more than just the strange healing touch he’d exhibited. He was grateful in a way, but it wasn’t every day a guy just reached out and grabbed you, unless you batted for that team of course. No, even gays had to have a sense of propriety, they were human after all, aside from what the cartoons that slammed them might believe.
“Have you always been this thick? Or is tonight a special night?”
“What in the hell are you talking about?!”
“Watch the word man!” the stranger spat, looking around once more as though in fear that something might soon present itself. Karl was more than a little confused right now, but he didn’t care. He wanted an answer, he wanted to get on his way and leave this crazy black man behind, and he wanted all of that within the next five to ten seconds. Of course he wasn’t likely to get it, he knew this. Crazy people often took a little longer to get to the point.
“Just tell me what the-“ the man narrowed his eyes at him, “-heck, is going on here, who you are, and why I shouldn’t just keep walking my happy ass down the road, towards home and company a lot more stable than your own.” Karl felt his hands clench into fists, and he knew that he would throw down soon if the man didn’t get to talking. The black man looked at Karl’s fists, almost amused it seemed, and then took a deep breath.
“Fine. You want to know? I suppose you’re entitled, it wouldn’t be against the rules to tell you at least something.”
Karl just frowned, not understanding but at least willing to listen to something approximating an answer. It was a start at least.
“My name is Vince, and I’m your guide. As to the river I keep mentioning, as in the one we’ll have to cross to get on to where we’re going, it’s not the Columbia, or the Willamette, or any other river in the vicinity that you might or might not know about. Those rivers have gone bye-bye my friend. Well, they’re still there, but the names are going to be different if you’re unlucky enough to be sent that way.”
Karl kept listening, though he knew that he would regret it.
“As much as you might think we’re still on Mill Plain, in Vancouver, WA, in the great US of A, and located on the world known as earth, you’re wrong.”
Karl blinked, “And where are we then?”
Vince shook his head, rolling his eyes again as he replied, “Welcome to the first step before Hell Karl. Feel free to throw up before we head out, most people do the first time.”