TAKE A LONG STEP
The Walker had been a god once. He would soon be one again, these things tending to be cyclical. He was already hearing voices. Not the average, everyday kill‑strangers‑for‑no‑good‑reason voices. Real voices. Real people.
Soon he would even know what they were saying.
Now the voices were only murmurs in the distance, but they were getting louder by the day. Soon he would know what they wanted, dreamed, felt, were. What had happened before was going to happen again. He wasn’t particularly happy about it. Walker did want to be ready, as far as possible, but there just wasn’t a lot one could do to prepare for divinity.
Homeless, unemployed, he waited for his new time by walking the streets of Canemill on a regular route, almost never varying, his long skinny legs covering ground much faster than was really possible. His parents had thought him slow in the head, but he wasn’t so much slow as quiet, listening to things they did not hear, not inclined to talk though he knew how.
Now his shoulders were always hunched, eyes looking at the ground as if he did not wish to see anyone, but he saw everyone. Sometimes he would break into a run for no reason that anyone could tell, but there was always a reason. Always.
Take a long step from trouble, take a long step from pain. Walk the streets forever lest it catch you up again.
Walker wasn’t satisfied with the rhyme. The relationship between “pain” and “again” only worked when he twisted the accents in a way that sounded unnatural even to him. Too many things about the world were unnatural as it was, and that without considering sex at all. No reason for him to deal with that particular can of omelets and sperm before necessary. He just kept walking as long as he could. When he had to stop, he stopped, and waited until it was time to walk again. Not that he thought it mattered. Sooner or later divinity was bound to catch up with him.
I wish it was up to me…
Walker turned onto Liam Street. It was good street, narrow, but there were few homes and too much traffic. Large water oaks shaded the asphalt from the August sun; the air was cool and still and smelled faintly of earth. The hint of wildness in the overgrown lots alongside it made him almost want to stop, but he didn’t dare. Not yet.
As he walked past Strangfellow’s Funeral Home he stumbled, then felt a sudden cool breeze where there shouldn’t have been one. He looked down, saw the tattered remnants of his right sneaker lying a good two feet behind him. The last scrap of cloth holding the laces together had finally given out. Walker looked at the ruins, sighed deeply, and started walking again. His pace was a little uneven now that his legs were no longer quite the same length, and he found himself watching the ground even closer than before, keeping an eye out for glass.
Her arms aching, Liddy Ashford loaded the last of the laundry into the camper on her husband’s pickup, then slid behind the wheel. She reached for the keys, then looked at her husband’s hunting boots sitting on the passenger floor of the pickup.
Oh, no, Mel. Not this time.
Mel always started this way, weeks before the season. First the boots casually left on floorboard. Later there would be a box of Remingtons in the glove compartment, followed in a few days by the camo vest draped over the seat. By the time deer season was officially open he would be all packed, then it was off to the deer camp for three days or more, using precious vacation time to drink beer in the woods with his buddies, away from her.
Does the silly bastard actually think I wouldn’t notice?
She’d borrowed the pickup to go to the laundromat. Washed his dirty clothes, just as she cleaned his dirty house and had for twelve years now. If there was any free time to be had, she wanted her share. And this year, damn his hide, he was going to give it to her, and if he thought otherwise he was going to get that fight he was always trying to avoid by sneaking in his packing a little at a time. Unless…
It’s not too bad a plan, to tell the truth. Let’s see if I can use it too.
Liddy looked at the boots. If both disappeared, he’d accuse her of taking them. That was both. What about one? One was an accident. One boot left was unfortunate. One meant Mel shopping for a new pair with Liddy, because he was worse than useless when it came to buying clothes of any kind, including hunting attire. A pair of boots was trouble of the right sort. Liddy felt ready for a little trouble, but one boot was better. One boot was fraught with possibilities. One boot seemed‑‑there was no other word that fit‑‑right.
Liddy started the truck and pulled out of the laundromat. When she passed the corner of Liam and Lee, she reached down and tossed the right boot out the passenger side window. She was still grinning when she got home, but Mel didn’t ask. He didn’t want to know, which was really too bad; he was soon to discover that he didn’t have much choice.
Walker considered the piece of footwear lying beside the road with dread. Was it happening already? He didn’t know. The boot could be just that‑‑a boot that someone lost. But…what if it hadn’t been lost? What if it had been placed there, specifically placed there for him. Not so simple as a man without a shoe finding a shoe. Providence, or luck, was all that amounted to. What if this was a chain of effect that, unlike blind luck, specifically had him in mind? That would be something else. That would be something very serious. Still, there wasn’t much he could do about it one way or another. And he did need a shoe of some kind.
Walker tried the boot on. It fit perfectly.
Johnnie Ray was a walker too, but that’s not all he was. There was no virtue in his variety so far as he could see, and there was a purity about Walker that Johnnie lacked. He wasn’t jealous of Walker, exactly, but he felt a connection that he didn’t like. A contrast, as if Walker were one thing and Johnnie was a mere shadow of it, no more. Or less. A shadow that was, however, growing stronger. He would go where Walker went, because, being a shadow, he really didn’t have a choice.
Johnnie wasn’t homeless. He got a small check every month from the government, though he didn’t know why. Something to do with service in a war he did not remember. Perhaps it was a mistake, but Johnnie didn’t question. It paid for a small place in the less posh side of town. He did not work because that was not possible. He walked because there was nothing else to do. He bummed cigarettes when he could; he wished for them when he couldn’t. The wished cigarettes hadn’t appeared yet. Soon, he thought. Very soon.
These damn things are killing me.
John E. Waller had said the same thing every day for the last ten years. At forty‑seven, he found himself involved in the common pursuit of men his age‑‑explaining his mortality. He didn’t sleep well more and more often; morning brought aches and stiffness that used to need a hard day at the mill to explain. It was as if pain had just found and a home and settled there. He wasn’t that old, he told himself. He exercised, he ate right. Mostly.
John stared at the cigarette pack when he stopped at the light on Northridge. Unfiltered, the same brand his grandfather had smoked. Matthew Waller was a great old guy and John had loved him more than any relative before or since. But maybe he’d taken the adulation too far.
He died of a massive everything, according to Doc Patterson. “Couldn’t have done a damn thing if I’d been right there,” he said. Hell, he was only fifty‑three.
Once that had seemed ancient but now, as John came within spitting distance of that age himself, it didn’t seem old at all. Certainly far too soon to be finished with a life. There was still so much to do. See his own grandchildren, for one. His son Estes had given them the news barely a week before, and John was still trying to get his head around it.
“I’m going to be a grandfather,” he said softly.
If he lived long enough to see it. John took one last look at the pack, balancing the need for one thing with the need for something else and suddenly, for the first time, the balance turned. The light changed and John turned right on Broken Elm, watching the traffic. He was only vaguely aware that he’d thrown the nearly‑full pack out the window somewhere between Liam and Meadowview; he only knew that he didn’t have it anymore.
Which was fine with him.
It didn’t help. Johnnie Ray swore with more invective and color then, rising to a crescendo of profanity that was something close to art. Little changed. He felt a welling anger that he did not like but could not stop. He knew it did not come from himself and that made it worse.
The pack of cigarettes‑‑his favorite brand‑‑still lay on the grass beside Liam. Johnnie Ray didn’t kid himself that the pack was empty, mere litter. He knew better. Johnnie Ray started to walk away, but there was no point. He could refuse them if he wanted to; that was a separate thing altogether. He couldn’t change the fact that they were there.
Johnnie Ray picked up the cigarettes and noted with disgust that the pack was almost full. He pulled one out and lit it. He pulled in the aromatic smoke, sighed with a mixture of content and despair as the nicotine and all the little carcinogens danced in his lungs. He savored the taste and scent of it for a moment and then blew one perfect smoke ring.
Try as he might, he’d never been able to do that before.
“The Wheel is turning. Time to talk to the Walker, I do reckon,” Johnnie said, and sighed again. It was inevitable now, but that didn’t mean he was looking forward to it. Probably futile, too, but that didn’t mean he was excused from trying. Regret was coming for him one way or another. No reason to add to the burden.
Walker noticed the man following him, mostly because the man was silent. Not that he didn’t make the ordinary noises: he whistled a tune that Walker almost recognized; his shoes crunched on the rocks and dried leaves on the shoulder of the street. No, it was the vast and profound silence of him amidst the babble in Walker’s head. From the man following him, Walker heard nothing. It was almost enough to make him stop. Instead, he started singing again. Aloud, this time.
“Take a long walk from trouble, take a long walk from pain, walk the streets forever lest it catch you up again.”
“That’s wrong, you know. Trouble will catch you no matter how fast you walk. I know, Walker. Better than you.”
Walker went faster. His legs moved in impossibly long strides, as if he wore seven league boots from the fairy tale. Huge old trees loomed to left and right to disappear behind him in a blur of green and shadow, cars and people flashed by at random, oblivious. Walker walked faster than he ever had but the presence that followed kept right on his heels.
“We need to talk,” his shadow said.
There could be no talk. Especially now. Walker stretched out. Cities flashed by, then rivers and oceans. Walker was afraid of how fast he traveled now, but he did not stop. He was afraid to stop.
“You’re only making it worse; don’t you know that?”
Walker had trouble with words that weren’t a song. Songs were incantations of a sort, ritual and fixed; easier to deal with. As a human he needed it little, but now he was becoming something very different. He forced something like communication through his brain, arranged the neurons just so, watched the interesting patterns for a time that could not have been long, fractions of a second perhaps, then pushed the words out onto the crackling, howling wind that was the mark of their passage.
“The mess we’re in,” Johnnie Ray said. “You know what’s happening, don’t you?” When Walker nodded, and Johnnie Ray went on. “Do you know who I am?”
“I’m your Shadow. That’s why I’m here, why I’ll be here, no matter where you go or how fast or how far. Hide in the light and I’ll be there, hide in darkness and I’ll be everywhere. Whenever your time comes, so does mine. I hate it.”
Walker wasn’t convinced. He walked faster. He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he did it. Continents flashed by, then, when the earth could no longer contain his speed, planets and stars. He saw the void and knew it, but felt neither hot nor cold. He walked on what he did not know, but it didn’t matter. He bestrode galaxies and saw the place of his birth reduced to a pinkling of light on the arms of a vast pinwheel of stars, and still the man was there. His shadow.
He stood in darkness with the fires of stars all around, and arranged the part of himself that needed to be changed. Beyond simple speech. He needed to understand, and so he became a being capable of understanding. As a human he was almost feebleminded, or so his parents had said. Not good for anything. He still wasn’t good for anything, to his way of thinking. But feebleminded he was not, then or now. Especially now.
“I know you. What do you want?” he asked.
The man moved closer. “I want to end this thing.”
“It has barely begun.”
The man nodded. “Even more reason to act now. What do you hear?”
“Voices,” Walker said. “What do you hear?”
The shadow man laughed. “I hear nothing. I feel, and that’s far worse.”
Walker increased his understanding. It was a simple matter now, but no matter how much greater his intellect grew it didn’t seem to help. Expand though he did, there seemed little sense in what the other man…Johnnie Ray? said. He admitted defeat. He wondered if he’d be able to do as much so easily later. He even wondered if this was a failing. “I don’t understand.”
“They will sing to you,” Johnnie said. “Your former shell was somewhat limited; the memory may not still be in you, but that is what will happen: they will sing.”
“That does not sound so terrible.”
Johnnie Ray smiled. “It’s not. But it doesn’t end there. It never does. Next comes the prayers, and you’re the focus of all hope. Next comes the disagreements, and all sides will call your name as they pull the trigger or swing the ax. You’ll be responsible, and you will hear every last one.”
“No,” said Walker. It was a weak, pathetic sound.
“Yes,” said Johnnie Ray. “But, bad as that is, let me tell you what’s worse‑‑the anger. You start with songs. How does it begin for me? Rage. Envy. Jealousy. Everything they struggle against in the dark and fail to beat? That’s me. They will blame you for letting them fail. They’ll blame me for making them fail. I’ll be the source of a million troubles and feel every one of them. Feel them. Make your brain as large as a galaxy and you still won’t know what that means. I say no, Walker.”
“It is inevitable,” Walker said. There may have been a hint of despair in his voice as it drifted with the dust of countless years, but there was no uncertainty.
Johnnie Ray shrugged. “So? Does that mean it has to happen now?”
Walker shook his head. “Now, or then? All the same, sooner or later.”
“Not to me,” Johnnie Ray said, softly. “You just walk and wait, but me? I had a life. Oh, I’ll grant you rightly it wasn’t much of a life. I can’t work and I’m barely tolerated but, every now and then, good things would come to me and I had the sense to enjoy them. When this thing happens all that will be gone, and it will be gone for a very long time. All time may be equal, perhaps. All time is not the same.”
“Words,” said Walker.
“Words,” Johnnie Ray conceded. “How else to carry a truth past the moment of its birth? Let’s have some time of our own first.”
“I am nothing but what I will become,” Walker said. “I can’t stop it. If I’m ahead of you in this I have no choice. I can’t stop it.” It sounded like regret.
“Together, we could,” Johnnie Ray said.
Walker looked at the Adversary, then, in that vast empty place between the stars, and he considered. “Eternally opposite. I do not know if it is the same for the other gods, but it is for us. What we become. What they make of us. How can we do anything together?”
“It hasn’t happened yet. You’re very close to apotheosis now, but you’re not quite there. Me, I’m still Johnnie Ray…mostly. I can help you. You needn’t mistrust me, since you know what I will do. You need do nothing but decide.”
“It won’t change anything.”
“It will hold back the darkness, for a time. That’s all you’d do anyway. I want my life; you want to thwart the dark. It will serve both of us. And it won’t hurt a bit.”
After a time that might have been short or long‑‑neither of them could really tell‑‑Walker put out his hand and Johnnie Ray led him back to earth like a lost child.
Later, when they met at the agreed place, Walker was moved to mention that it did hurt a bit, but he didn’t really mind. He was still divine enough to forgive Johnnie Ray that one lie. Johnnie Ray was still human enough to be grateful. Later some people came and cut Walker down from the tree and took Johnnie Ray away. He was locked in a large house with doctors and such who wanted to find out why he had done such a terrible thing, and he would tell them, and then go back to his room, or to take a‑‑short, always very short‑‑walk on the grounds, for a few days until they got bored enough to ask the same questions again. It wasn’t a great life but, as Johnnie Ray said often, it was his.
Sometimes, looking through the fence he would see shoes lying beside the road. Always odd ones, never pairs, and always replaced before they were very old. Sometimes, yes, even cigarettes. New offerings.
That’s what Johnnie Ray liked to think. The answer gave him comfort, even though he knew it was wrong. Or rather, incomplete. Sooner or later the answer would change. It always did. Though Johnnie Ray thought maybe next time he would go up on the tree instead. He wasn’t sure such would work, in the divine pattern of things, but he made a promise to himself to ask.
After so many turnings of the Wheel, it was the least he could do.
©1999 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.