“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.”
Part Two: Control
“Come again?” Karl felt his eyebrows rise with the question, though he didn’t realize it was happening. Something the stranger, Vince, had suddenly caused a mass disassociation between his mind and body. Had he heard right?
No, surely not.
“You heard me just fine Karl. Welcome to Limbo, the last vestige of hope before the final plunge.”
Karl blinked again, grinning slightly as he cocked his head at Vince, if that was indeed his real name. “Yeah, right, and I’m the high and mighty prince of evil. Excuse me.”
Karl made as though to step around Vince, and the black man didn’t stop him, which was thankful in that second as he kept moving, seeing Mill Plain stretched out in front of him for as far as he could see. The street lamps still burned brightly, the road was still smooth and black, with patches here and there that he could see, and intersection lights turned red, yellow, and green according to the timers they ran on. There were no cars that he could see, but that wasn’t too strange.
He got to walking, seeing a cross street coming up not too far away as he tried to gain some distance from Vince, thinking that this had been a rather odd night, or a bad night, or a bad, odd night. Either way, it was one that he surely wouldn’t remember fondly, despite Vince’s little trick in healing his wounded privates. His skull still felt like someone had used it as a bongo drum, but that would pass too, he could only hope that he didn’t have a concussion and would find out later on.
“I wouldn’t walk that way without me if I were you,” Vince said, his footfalls coming closer as Karl sped up just a bit.
“Yeah, well you’re not me,” Karl bit back, not turning around as he continued forward. He didn’t want to talk to the man, didn’t want to be in this vicinity any longer, he just wanted to get home. But Karl could hear Vince following him, and his frustration began to grow.
“I’m warning you Karl, not threatening you, keep on going towards that road and you’ll be making a mistake. I need to be with you and you’ll need these.”
This time Karl did look back, seeing that Vince was almost right behind him, holding out his left hand with two small, shiny discs resting in the gigantic palm that he was presented. He saw a pair of coins, half dollar coins as a matter of fact.
Karl didn’t even realize how close he was to the road, though as he heard the sudden revving of an engine he paid closer attention, the seemingly massive headlights of a growling truck bearing down upon him and Vince as he stepped out upon the blacktop.
“Get back!” Vince yelled, yanking Karl forcefully backward, onto the pavement. He hit his butt hard as the rumbling truck, an old beat up thing with a lift that was just short of ridiculous, growled its way up to the curb, cutting him off from the street just as it had almost cut him down upon it. Karl could feel his heartbeat thumping madly away within his chest, his breath coming in short gasps for a moment as he rose slowly, shakily, to his feet, glaring openly at the closed passenger side door of the vehicle. Finally he found his voice.
“Hey dickhead!” he said forcefully, stepping up to the vehicle before Vince could reach out to him again, “Watch where you’re going!” He reflected in that moment that a guy who drove this kind of rig, it was impressive to look on save for its many rust spots, a few dings and dents that marred its otherwise sturdy look, usually was pretty big and mean or wiry and just damned tough. Karl almost expected to hear the other door slam as the occupant exited the vehicle, fully intent on giving him a pounding for daring to touch his truck. What happened was a bit different however, and again, something he would not forget.
“Get back from the truck man, trust me on this one.” Vince’s voice was sincere as the man reached out for him, gaining Karl’s attention as he looked back. He could see the trepidation upon the black man’s face, even what seemed like a hint of fear within his eyes, but he didn’t understand. When he looked back he kind of did though.
The owner of the truck was glaring at him over the side of the passenger door, an image that instantly burned itself into Karl’s mind and had him reeling in the same moment, backing away as he felt the sudden chill from that baleful look. His eyes widened at the death-like image of the driver, his face almost featureless save for his burning gaze, which was almost completely black he could see. Karl’s mind, seeking to defend its precious hold on reality, quickly insisted that this was due to the darkness, that the shadows were painting the man’s gaze as something it really wasn’t. But another part of him, the more rational side, said that yes, he was seeing something that shouldn’t have been possible.
“Get back man, get back from the truck.” Vince’s voice had not changed, though the black man had not stepped any closer. As the gaunt figure in the truck continued to glare at Karl, its gaze shifted just barely to Vince, as though in accusation of some sort. The figure shook its bald head just twice, and then, so quickly that Karl could barely notice, the strange figure was behind the wheel of the truck once again, the engine firing up with an unearthly roar before it sped away without another thought.
Karl was speechless for several moments, his mouth opening and closing like a landed fish as he stood there, watching the tail lights of the truck recede down the road before they disappeared around a corner. He came out of his stupor slowly, shaking his head just a bit as he turned to Vince. This night was getting stranger and stranger, and he’d be damned if he could understand it. For some reason that thought resonated more than any other.
Turning to Vince, “What was that?”
The black man shook his head, as though reluctant to answer for the moment, but Karl would not be ignored or dissuaded. Turning back to the street he made as to cross again, though this time Vince managed to reach for him.
“Don’t man,” was all he said.
Karl wasn’t inclined to listen, though as he neared the street again, readying himself to take a single step upon the blacktop, he heard a familiar rumbling noise. Looking to his right, he saw headlights appearing from around the corner, shining brightly against the darkness as though searching for something. Searching for him perhaps?
“Step back man, I’m serious about this. The boatman isn’t having it right now.”
Karl frowned. “The boatman? That guy was driving a truck.”
Vince sighed as he shook his head, “If you try to cross he will run your ass down, and then where will you be? Matter of fact, where will Tina and Jessie be?”
Karl’s mind snapped for just a second. What had he just said? He was on Vince in that second, and the black man didn’t resist as Karl’s hands clenched tightly in his shirt, pulling him close as Karl snarled at him.
“How do you know my daughters?”
Again Vince sighed, “I know a lot about you Karl, but right now isn’t the time to go into it. Like I told you, I’m here for you, to show you the ropes and guide you through, but it won’t happen if you keep acting all brodie like this.”
Karl didn’t take his hands from Vince’s shirt, though he did frown as Vince seemed not to take offense to the rough treatment, almost as though he was waiting for it to be over, so they could get on their way. What was happening here?
“If you’re ready to listen Karl, then I suggest we get moving. If the boatman won’t let us cross as is, then there’s someone we need to go see. Maybe he can help us.”
“You’re telling me I can’t cross the street because of that bastard?” he asked, inclining his head towards the area where the truck had appeared. It was empty now, no headlights painted the nightscape in their normally bright colors.
“I’m saying that he’ll put you down without giving it a single thought,” Vince said, nodding slightly, “If you keep on the way you are, all that’s going to happen is that you become another fatality in a land where they stack mile high on the hour. Death is a constant and assured thing here Karl, but to tell the truth it’s kind of pointless since most people who die and end up here just have one place to go, and that’s further down, or right back where they were.”
“Are you going to make sense eventually?” Karl asked, his hands still wrapped in Vince’s shirt.
“If you’d dig the wax out of your ears and pay attention you’d find out that I’m making all kinds of sense. You’re in Hell right now Karl, with a capital “H”, and the sooner you realize that fact, the better.”
Karl looked around slowly as he took in Vince’s words, frowning still as he saw the familiar sights, the unspoiled streets that, according to what Vince was saying, should have been torn, cracked, covered in hellish flames, featuring cavorting demons and the like. He saw none of that.
Looking back to Vince, “So Vancouver is hell, huh?”
Vince rolled his eyes as though speaking to an irritating youngster, or a thick-headed adult. “Hell is all around you at all times Karl, some of the movies and stories got it right, but it’s not always the flame-ridden wasteland as it’s been written. Hell is a personal place, and its ruler is the best at what he does, which as you can imagine is deception and lies.”
Karl’s eyebrows rose, “You’re talking about the devil.”
“I do believe he’s catching on,” Vince said, cocking his head to the right as he reached up to grasp Karl’s wrists. With barely any effort he pried Karl’s hands from his shirt, smoothing it out in the next instant as he continued to stare at Karl.
“So, we’re in Hell?”
Vince shook his head, looking both left and right as though seeking the insane truck driver once again. “We’re only a short distance from it, relatively speaking. But the boatman doesn’t seem to want us to pass. I guess we’ll have to get something other than his payment to satisfy him.”
And then it clicked, at least partially.
“The boatman?” Karl asked, “What’s his name?”
Vince looked at him oddly, “What does it matter?”
Karl was tired of this game, but kept his anger in check at the moment. Too much was happening at this second, his head still hurt like a bitch, but somehow it felt a little better he realized quickly, and he was about to throttle Vince if the man offered up another bit of insanity rather than a straight answer.
“Just tell me his name.”
“Charon isn’t a he, but for some reason most people seem comfortable in
assuming that the boatman is a male.”
“Has to have something to do with the title, I’m sure.” Karl didn’t even bother
trying to hide his sarcasm. Vince noticed, but he didn’t give a damn.
“Come on,” was all Vince said as he turned around, heading back in the direction
they’d come from. Karl watched him walking off for a bit, though he turned his attention
back to the road, wondering if he dared to try it. He could see no headlights in either
direction, hear no rumbling engine that would denote the arrival of the boatman, Charon,
as Vince had named him. That name had to be something like a joke, Karl could
remember enough of his lessons from high school about a related subject, but he wasn’t
the type to believe in such things, especially given that this was the twentieth century
they lived in, and not ancient times. Plus, such a legendary figure certainly wouldn’t be
seen driving something as antiquated as an old, beat-up Dodge like he’d seen.
“Are you coming?” Vince asked, turning around to regard Karl.
“I already came from that way,” Karl said absently, still eyeing the street,
wondering if he did in fact wish to dare it. He was a pretty fast runner, he could
likely make it across before the truck could run him down.
“Don’t do it Karl,” Vince said, “The boatman isn’t known for being forgiving.”
“My home is that way,” Karl said, his voice low and just a bit angry. He didn’t
understand this feeling though, no matter that it came so easily.
“Not right now it’s not man,” Vince said, “Where we need to go is back, to find
someone that might be able to help us out. If he can’t help us, then I’m not sure where
Karl felt himself turning despite his own wishes, staring at Vince in stupid
wonder as though he couldn’t understand what the man was saying. He heard the words,
knew that Vince was trying to get him to go somewhere, could even understand that the
man was attempting to tell him that they could find help to get across the road, but it still
seemed ridiculous. It was a road for G-.
Damn, why couldn’t he think that single thought, or even that word? Karl
frowned heavily as he looked again to Vince, who was several steps ahead and waiting
“It’ll get easier to understand soon enough man,” Vince said, “For now just come
on, we need to be moving. People that stick around here tend to get noticed.”
Karl felt his feet moving then, but his mind seemed to stay right where it was, as
though it was in severe denial of what he’d already experienced. Maybe Vince was right,
maybe they should go back. At the very least he could go back to the bar and be with his
family. The sitter with his girls would be there all night if she had to, she lived only a few
blocks down the road from him after all. And plus, moving seemed like a good idea. He
just couldn’t for the life of him think as to why.