More than halfway across the lake I saw, bathed in the flood of the headlights, a figure clamber up the far shore of the lake. My imposter!
“Hey!” I shouted. “Wait!” But maybe I was too far away to hear or maybe Wrench was so over-excited to see me, which wasn’t the real me at all, that he stopped paying attention to much else. Or, and this was one of my fears, Wrench was in cahoots with the Nefarions, leaving me all alone on a voyage that Wrench had, more or less, concocted on his own.
The imposter boarded the van and it sped away. A few minutes later, I washed up on shore, soaking wet and shivering in the chill of the night. This was not good at all. Wrench almost had to be working in collusion with the Nefarions. My imposter looked nothing like me. I was able to make out that he had, indeed, added a beard. But even from my distance, I could tell that it was a false beard so how could Wrench, sitting only a couple feet away, mistake it for the real thing? And if he had mistaken the imposter for me, what kind of danger did that put him in? After all, I was the keeper of the flame. He had appointed that position to me. And now the keeper of the flame was one of the very people who coveted it. If the flame changed hands then it could very possibly ruin our mission.
Or, maybe, as was the case with the book, the imposter would do a better job of it than I would. He had sold my book merely minutes after I had tried. So mightn’t he be able to deliver the flame to the exact location it needed to be, coming back with my father and possibly even my grandfather?
I wouldn’t rule it out. Still, I remembered what Wrench had said about chasing things. But I didn’t see how I could not chase them. If I didn’t go after them then I was the same exact purposeless person who sat on the bench in Central Park. Without the goal of locating my father, it was just me and my beard and, as much as I liked the beard, I’d have to say that Wrench made a better companion.
I found myself walking along a dirt road in the darkness. The moon, nearly full, hung in the sky. Here, I couldn’t really see any stars at all. What was happening to the world? It seemed to be shifting and changing every minute, every second.
In the distance I saw a blue glow from something that looked like stadium floodlights. It seemed as good a destination as any.
Coming upon it, I realized it was a town. A large sign hung at the entrance to the town. It read: GO AWAY. WE ARE FULL. YOU ARE NOT WANTED HERE.
That seemed clear enough but, really, where else did I have to go? Nowhere. I certainly couldn’t lose anything by trying to enter this forbidding town.
I squinted into the light and stepped into the harsh fluorescent glow. It looked like the Main Street of any other small town except this one was perfectly illuminated in the middle of the night and people seemed to move about freely in stark contrast to the dead still of most small town main streets in the middle of the night. An enormous man wearing a grease stained suit and sitting atop a very small motorcycle eyed me sternly.
“Didn’t you read the sign?” he said. “You’re not wanted here.”
“You can’t keep people out of towns. I can go wherever I want to.”
“That’s certainly the right philosophy,” he said, and sped away on his motorcycle.
A building to my right bore some graffiti in dripping green letters. The graffiti read: WE ARE ALL CONTRARIANS HERE and, below that, someone had spray painted in black: FUCK YOU SPEAK FOR YOURSELF.
A wiry man in an apron shot out of a storefront, grabbed me, and dragged me inside. He roughly shoved me into a chair at a table and began going through my pockets. I slapped at his hands.
“What?” he whined. “You ain’t got no money?”
“No, I don’t have any money. Why would I give it to you, anyway?”
“You got your coffee. You got your sandwich. Thought you might like to pay me.” He gestured to the table in front of me. I did indeed have a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
“But I didn’t ask for this,” I said.
“Ain’t you hungry?”
I actually was kind of hungry. “Yeah, but...”
“But what. Choice is for losers. Eat your sandwich. Drink your coffee. In fact, I’ll pay you!” He dug into his dirty black apron and pulled out a bunch of crumpled bills of indiscernible origin and threw them at me.
“I couldn’t...” I began.
“You can and you will. Now eat and get the fuck out!”
He collapsed onto a stool behind the bar and watched a TV filled with static. He was sweaty and breathing so hard it was audible. I looked around at the café or bar or restaurant or whatever it was. There were quite a few people in it. Two guys wrestled in the middle of the floor. Several other tables were locked in what seemed to be very heated arguments. At one table sat what had to be a boyfriend and girlfriend.
The girl was crying. She kept picking up her fork but, wracked with sobs, kept dropping it back on the table with a loud clatter.
“Yesterday you said you loved pie,” the boy said.
“No,” the girl shook her head, staring at the uneaten piece of pie on her plate. “I’ve never said I liked pie.”
“Don’t be difficult,” the boy said.
“You’re being difficult,” the girl said. “I said I wanted meat.”
“No. Yesterday you said when we came back today you were going to try the blueberry pie because you love blueberry pie.”
“No,” she said. “I never said that. I wasn’t even with you yesterday.”
“I’ve never lied. I don’t even like boys.”
I was enthralled. I sipped my coffee and took a bite of my sandwich. It was a pretty good sandwich. I tried to follow their conversation but it didn’t make any sense. Maybe it was all some sort of sex game. Like elaborate foreplay.
“Fine,” the boy said. “You want meat. I’ll get you meat.” He raised his hand up above his head and snapped his fingers. “Waiter!” he called. “Bring me some meat!”
The old guy in the apron resignedly stood up from behind the counter and walked over to their table. He pulled something that looked like a large piece of ham, translucently thin, from the pocket of his apron and slapped it down on the table.
“Can you please take this pie away?” the boy said.
“But you ordered it!” the man shouted.
The boy chuckled. “I most certainly did not. Have I ever ordered pie?”
“Yeah. You order pie all the time. You ordered it yesterday for that other girl.”
“Just...” the boy closed his hand around his head and massaged his temples. “Just take it away.”
“Fine. But you’re still payin for it.”
“We’ll see,” the boy said.
The old man picked up the pie, plate and all, and threw it back behind the counter. “That was our last piece of pie, too!” he shouted before going back to his stool and his static-watching.
The girl picked up the piece of meat and began wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Now they don’t have any pie,” she cried. “Why don’t you ever get me pie?”
I wondered how long they could continue. I didn’t know if I wanted to know. The two men wrestling in the middle of the floor were now both sweaty and exhausted and supporting each other in a bear hug.
I finished my sandwich and coffee. The restaurant, in place of framed artwork, had pieces of cardboard duct taped to the walls. The word ‘No’ was written, in different styles, on each of them.
The Town of No, I thought.
Apparently, my scrutiny enraged the old man. He came out from behind the counter to grab my empty dishes and give me a lecture.
“I see you lookin at my pitchers!” he shouted. “You don’t like em well you can get the fuck out! This here ain’t like other towns! We do what we want when we want and everybody else can just fuck off! You hear me!”
“Do you have a pen and paper?” I asked.
He made a braying whining noise and filched a pen and a receipt out of his apron, throwing them at me rather than placing them on the table. They bounced off my chest. I bent to pick them up from the floor.
“You people think you know everything!”
“I was wondering,” I said. “If you could tell me if you’ve seen two men. One looks like me. The other looks like this.” And I drew a horrible sketch of Wrench on the paper.
“Why?” the man said. “They in trouble with the law?”
“No. I’m just looking for them.”
“’Cause there ain’t no laws here.”
“That’s good. No. They’re not in any sort of trouble. They’re my friends and I was just looking for them.”
He crumpled up the piece of paper and put it in his apron. “I think maybe you should get out,” he said. His eyes were glazed over and murderous, as though I had done something to insult him at his deepest level.
“Perhaps I will,” I said. “Your tip.” I threw the crumpled bills he had given me and secretly enjoyed watching his elderly, skeletal frame wincingly stoop to pick them up. Then I said, just because the environment filled me with such hostility, “I’m going to burn this place to the ground.” Then I turned and left.
“You do that!” he shouted. “You just do that! I’ve been tryin to do it for years!”
He continued ranting but the door banged shut on his voice and I was once again on the fluorescent sidewalk. A man with a hat shaped like a lobster came down the sidewalk toward me. Rather than trying to step out of my way, he purposely stepped into it. I’d move to my right and he to his left. Then I stopped, giving him the passage, and he pushed me. I kicked him and he smacked me in the face and laughed. I moved out into the street and he flipped me off before continuing on his way. Maybe everyone here was just a jerk, I thought.
The street proved to be a dangerous place. No one could decide which side of the road they wanted to drive on. In my short walk down the block I witnessed three accidents. Interestingly, whereas the people of this town seemed hostile in almost every other way, when they ran into someone else, each of the drivers would get out of their respective cars, laugh, have a brief conversation with the other driver before swapping cars and whatever was inside (wives, children, friends), and continuing in the direction they were going.
Back on the sidewalk, I saw a horsedrawn carriage with what I assumed were a bride and groom riding in the back. The carriage drew to a stop and the bride hopped off.
“This is the happiest day of my life!” she shouted at me, grabbing me, pulling me into a kiss and thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth. The groom began making out with the carriage driver. “Let’s run away together,” the groom whispered lustily. They both hopped off the carriage and ran, laughing, down the street. The bride pulled me toward the carriage, took hold of the reins and whipped the horses into action. Before I could say anything, we had left the town behind and were racing through the dawn countryside.