(Art by Todd Whitehead)
If one looked from a vantage point inside the meat locker, then the four of us probably looked like Mr. Blonde, Mr. White, and Mr. Pink opening a trunk in Reservoir Dogs (or maybe we looked like Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction). Either way, the point is we were, for whatever reason, wearing matching black suits and sunglasses.
Before I go on, I should probably backtrack, and, before I backtrack, I should probably tell you the freezer contained neither a cop taken hostage nor a briefcase.
On the plane ride to Houston, I sat next to Grant Hill. It was my first time flying first class ever, regardless of destination. Also, at this time, we were not yet wearing matching suits. That would come later.
Sitting next to Grant Hill on the flight felt like sitting next to any stranger on any flight--you wondered who would ask the questions and who would do the answering, you wondered how much of yourself would you have to reveal in order to pass the time, but without becoming too vulnerable. You hoped one of you would fall asleep, and you didn’t care whom.
Neither of us fell asleep.
When the plane reached its cruising altitude, Grant Hill asked me, “You’re an English teacher, right? Have you ever read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities?”
I told him I hadn’t, but that I had read a summary of it in a book, The Domino Diaries, by Brin-Jonathan Butler, where Fidel Castro’s grand daughter asks Butler the same question: have you ever read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino? In that book, too, the individual receiving the question answers no. But, whereas Fidel’s grand daughter summarizes the Italian novel for Butler, I did not wait for Grant Hill to intervene on my lack of reading. Instead, I repeated the summary as best I could:
“She told Butler how in the book several men from around the world had an identical dream. She said they all saw the same girl from behind, running through an unknown city. They hunted after her, twisting and turning down streets and alleyways, but they could never find her. After the dream passed, all these men set out after that city where they’d seen her. But she had vanished, and they never found the city. Instead, they found each other and decided to build a city like the one from the shared dream. They, then, laid out the streets just as they were in the dream, hoping to find her.”
Grant Hill listened with his chin in his fingertips. “Yes, that is what happens, and what do you think this means?”
“In Butler’s book either he or the girl says the dream and the execution of the dream is a trap.”
“What do you think?”
“Well, it seems like they’re building the pathways that led to the loss in the first place.”
His eye glistened with something akin to having seen a wish fulfilled. “And that is how it is with the NBA. We all chase some phantom in dream to these strange cities and, once there, we find that very few, if any of us, will hold more than a vision.”
He said this, and I did not respond. We flew in silence for a time.
“Not really. I’m still not even sure if I understand it or what we’re doing on a flight to Texas.”
“It came to you because Mandeville had already been rejected by every publisher, by every news source, by every other respectable journalist.”
“I’m not sure I’m any of those things.”
“You’re right. You’re not, but The Baller Ball had shut down and no one else responded to Mandeville’s inquiries.”
“You talk about him like he’s a person.”
“Is he not?”
“He seems more like an idea.”
Grant Hill nodded. “Perhaps those two words are not too far removed from one another.”
“Does the Fifth Codex even exist?”
He looked out the window, through the clouds, at the particles of people and places and things moving in smooth circuits down below.
“Have any of you even been to Mexico?”
“I did go hunting there during a rehab stint. A trainer in Phoenix mentioned the jaguar’s blood as some sort of magical cure all, so I went.”
“The jungles were all hunted out. The world only has the time and the resources for so many empires.”
“You mean Jordans.”
“I do. He and Phil had depleted those jungles sometime in the 1990s, slipping over the border as if they were agents of NAFTA, and maybe they were.”
“Did no one else know about the blood magic yet?”
“Not really. And it could also be that they were not the first to use it, but isn’t it strange that so much of the NBA’s history includes the same men over and over, only they appear at different times in different places. It’s really all quite incestuous.”
“Rings in New York. Rings in Chicago. And Shaq surely didn’t win it all in Orlando.”
“And he didn’t win with Del Harris either.”
“He surely didn’t.”
I thought about the chronology of the NBA. Compared with other sports, its timeline did read rather simplistically.
“What about the Celtics?”
“I don’t know. There’s still a great deal of work to do in explaining all this.”
“That’s the thing. You drink synthetic blood, from a lab. It’s not nearly as potent, yet it’s also not FDA approved, mind you. Anyway, it wasn’t real. It tasted like Gatorade. It will wear off.”
“Do you think Phil is the only one with a supply of the real?”
“I don’t. He’s parceled the secret out to too many players and in too many places. It would be impossible to trace all those supply lines and family trees.”
“But Mandeville tried.”
“And you’re still not going to say who he is?”
“I’ve only spoken to him once, briefly.” He thought on what to say next. “I don’t even think I could speak to that question, not really.”
“Where was that?”
“On a tarmac in Orlando. He was tall. You could even say expressionless. A heavy fog filled the air; it was like the last scene in Casablanca.”
I pondered who that could possibly be, but then we hit turbulence and my thoughts began to jumble.
After we landed, I somehow twisted my ankle on the way to the car. In a strange way, it made me feel as if I belonged in the company of these three cursed athletes. They walked with a grace that signified they knew what it was like to bear their pain in public. I limped along, just trying to keep pace.
Penny sat in the driver’s seat. T-Mac occupied the passenger seat. Grant Hill and I sat in the back. However, before the car started, they did blindfold me. For these reasons, I cannot describe Houston’s sprawling streets and how the city skyline fell behind us, only the cloak and dagger of humidity and oil that choked the air, as we drove towards some abandoned pit stop on the edge of the Gulf. In a way, my journey then and my telling of it now have rendered me the anti-Ryan Lochte.
When they lifted the blindfold, my eyes looked out on a shabby building beside what I assumed to be the Gulf of Mexico. A sign labeled the building: MOSe’S PLaCE—DowN by thE WaTER YALL.
As I squinted in the sunlight, T-Mac removed a briefcase and some items from the trunk of the car. We approached the building. Penny tried the door. It was locked. A heavy voice from inside demanded, “Password.”
I recognized the password as the name of an Aztec god who, despite being crippled, sacrificed himself in the fire when all the other gods stood still. Considering the health of my playing companions and my own swollen ankle--yes, I was still liming--the password seemed most fitting. Also, the password worked: the door opened. On the other side, a tall man, and by tall I mean almost seven-feet tall, greeted my three companions with what I assumed to be a secret handshake, connoting some sort of secret alliance. When he stared me down, I half-expected him to teach me this gesture. Then, I half-expected him to eat me. Then he spat his disapproval at my feet.
“Who’s this? Worm didn’t mention him.”
“Worm?” I asked.
“Shut-up,” hissed the large man.
“We need a journalist,” said Grant Hill. The large man appeared to concede the point, and I exhaled a sigh of relief.
Inside, we walked through what had once been a dining area and into a neglected kitchen. There, we stopped in front of a large freezer.
“Well, Tree,” said Grant Hill, “show us the contents.”
Tree Rollins grimaced at me, obviously still not sure if he could trust me, and I must admit I studied him, too. After all, I had not seen him in quite sometime, and the last time I had was from the nosebleed section of the old Omni in Atlanta. Reflecting on his slow, lethargic stoop from the building’s front door to its kitchen, I thought about how I wanted to say, Tree Rollins? More like Ent Rollins, but, instead, I just stared back, doing my best not to be intimidated. In hindsight, it all seems a bit wrought with foolish pretension.
He looked away. He undid the combination lock on the freezer, and there we all stood like gangsters in a rehashed Tarantino flick.
“What is that?” I asked.
“What does it look like?” responded T-Mac.
The fur lay stiff and frosted over the curled midnight body; and the head was tucked under a large paw; but there was no mistaking the species--it was a jaguar.
“Is it real? I thought you said they were all hunted out.”
Tree Rollins laughed, “Is it real?” Then, speaking to the corpse curled in the fetal position: “Do you hear that, ‘Nique? He wants to know if you’re real.”
The dead cat did not respond.
“What’s with his spots?”
“What do you mean?” asked T-Mac.
“They look like faces.”
I leaned in for a better view. At first, I thought maybe it was a trick played by my imagination, but a closer inspection of the jaguar’s spots told me my inclination was correct. Not only were the spots shaped and shaded in the contours of a human face, but they were shaped and shaded with the details of a face I recognized.
“Yes,” said Grant Hill, and I could hear the twist of a wicked smile in his voice. “Indeed each one is, and so it is with men and cities and the stars above our heads.”
Tree Rollins looked up, as did I. Above us there was only duct work.
I stepped back from the freezer.
“So you want me to report on this?”
“Yes,” said Grant Hill.
“But I don’t even know what this is. Who is going to care about a jaguar’s corpse covered in Crying Jordans?”
“They will care,” started Grant Hill, “because you will explain to them what this is.”
“But what is it?”
Grant Hill sighed; my questions were clearly exhausting his patience.
“The Crying Jordan is a gateway into all the possible worlds we do not know and, moreover, could never know. It is the darkness and the chaos beyond the order and the light. It is everything.”
“But it’s just a dead cat.”
“It is not,” said Tree.
“Listen to Tree,” added T-Mac.
“You all believe this?” I asked. And even Penny shrugged in agreement.
“Well, what do you plan on doing with it?”
Tree held up a large knife he’d obtained from God knows where in the kitchen. “Skin it,” he said.”
“And then distribute the blood,” added T-Mac.
“Jesus,” I translated. “Holy--”
“Exactly,” concluded Grant Hill. “We will make new worlds.”
Penny and T-Mac worked together in order to lift ‘Nique from the freezer. I watched them lay the body on the stone table of a kitchen counter. When they were done, Tree Rollins lifted the knife above his head. He stood at the ready, like some executioner long-restrained. And then, I could not shake the shape of the world Grant Hill had depicted earlier.
“I thought you said Phil and MJ had hunted out this species of jaguar.”
“They did,” answered Grant Hill.
“Then, how did this one get here?”
“I brought it,” said a hoarse whisper that wormed through the darkness. “Read the writing on the freezer.”
I didn’t know whether to obey the voice or search the shadows for the voice’s identity. In the dim light, I searched the side of the freezer’s wall and, engraved there, I found characters in a language I did not know.
“Is that Chinese?” I asked.”
“No, journalist, he makes synthetic jaguars. He makes pathways.”
“Why doesn’t he just make food for his people?”
“Because he so loves basketball, he gave his only jaguar, or one of his only jaguars. Actually, he has the means to start mass-producing, but first we have to introduce the blood at street level. For people to drink the kool-aid, they first have to drink the Gatorade, which really isn’t Gatorade, but is jaguar blood. Can you dig it?”
I looked around the room to see if anyone else was buying any of this, what to call it, bull shit. “You guys realize we’re probably on the wrong side of history.”
“What is history?” asked the man with multiple piercings and dyed hair. “But a construct.”
I looked at the players huddled around me. They had all at some point either lost time due to injuries beyond their bodies’ control or had just missed out on a chance to win a title. For example, Tree Rollins arrived just one year after the Bad Boy Pistons won the last of their two championships. Penny made the NBA Finals early in his career, but never returned. He became less and less himself. Grant Hill wasted years as a bystander in Orlando. Tracy McGrady wore down his body waiting for Grant Hill to walk again. The former retreated to Houston; the latter resurfaced in Phoenix. Each year the expectations grew both heavier and more distant. Even if they did not break, they became phantoms of a promise; some prophecy of a second coming that haunted the league in the turn of the century.
He had five rings. He had ties to the 1980s via his days with Isiah Thomas. He had ties to the 1990s via his nights with Michael Jordan. Somewhere in the dusk he brushed shoulders with David Robinson and what the San Antonio Spurs might become in the 2000s. He was, it seemed, everywhere. A world traveler and go-between, he even crossed the waters that marked the end of Hernan Cortès’ violent vision.
The epiphany struck me cold.
“Dear God,” I said, “is this Naismith Mandeville?”
“Who the fuck is Naismith Mandeville?” croaked Rodman.
Loud crashes sounded from the dining hall beyond the swinging door to the kitchen. Shouting and footsteps flooded the vacuum.
“Shit!” laughed Rodman. He was still grinning as he lifted a hand to stroke his beard. “That might be check mate.”
From outside, a voice yelled, “This is Agent Silver! You are surrounded!”
“Will somebody at least block the goddamn door?” asked T-Mac, and Tree Rollins commenced to rolling some cart full of dishes and cooking utensils in front of the doorway.
“You think they have men out back?” asked Grant Hill.
“What do we do with ‘Nique?” asked T-Mac.
“I’m not leaving him,” said Tree.
“Can you carry him?” asked Grant Hill, and Tree responded with a grunt as he hoisted the jaguar up and laid the dark silhouette across his shoulder blades. The Crying Jordan faces glistened as if sewn into the fur with a gossamer thread.
They were all holding guns, loading clips, and removing the safeties. Grant Hill tossed me a phone. “It’s all written,” he said.
“Mandeville’s translation. He hacked your system.”
“You mean the site?”
“Whatever You Can’t Eat the Basketball is, he hacked into it and uploaded his third act. He texted me the Codex is complete when we arrived here.”
“I thought you hadn’t spoken with him.”
“I said I haven’t seen him since the tarmac.” Then Grant Hill turned to the guys around him. “When we rush out of here, we make for the water. Doc should have the portal waiting.”
“What about Rodman?” asked Penny.
Everyone but Grant Hill looked around the kitchen.
Agent Silver yelled something from outside, but it was difficult to hear him.
“Let him go; he’s not part of the Order.”
“But we have his jaguar.”
“Exactly. He’ll find us.”
“Ready?” And they all were.
Tree opened the backdoor, slowly at first, inching his large frame out onto the wooden planks. They exhaled under his weight, and underneath the boards, the marshy tide of the warm Gulf waters baptized the polished sand. The moon hid behind a net of fraying clouds. Tree looked back at us one last time, but the jaguar’s head eclipsed his face, giving him the appearance of some strange and human hieroglyph.
His large frame sprinted for the gap in the railing. He didn’t make it. A shot shattered the escape. As he fell in mimicry of his name, ‘Nique flew from his shoulders, with his paws sprawling at the moonlight. And, for a brief moment, this silhouette of a black cat aligned perfectly within the moon’s bright circumference. The sign appeared and disappeared like some ancient token lost in the crucibles of time. Serenading the glorious flight was a symphony of gunfire, and anyone else daring to run out that door knew it was a suicide mission before they even crossed the threshold.
But the other men, too, attempted escape, guns ablazing.
Shots echoed back from in front of the building. A great cloud of gray nothing accumulated in between the darkness and the moonbeams, until finally the gray tangle consumed the entire visible world.
I approached the doorway. I poked my head out into the confusion of gun smoke. I looked in the direction of where Tree had fallen and the others had run. I looked to follow the sprinting bodies, but in the fog, it was like they no longer existed.
I walked out slowly, tracing what I imagined to be their steps. And filled with caution, I held the phone close to my heartbeat.
Then, towards the shoreline, I saw what must have been the bursting of a flashbulb, like the wink of an exploding star. Sparks rained onto the watery reeds and melted into nothing.
As they died, I thought I could see two men. One held what may have been a camera, while the other scribbled something in a notepad. Behind those faintly written bodies , a withering wafer of moonlight clung to the vanishing night as an orange ball of sunlight rose on the horizon, over the water’s smoking mirror. In that light, the outlines became full-fledged silhouettes, and they stood in the crux of change like archaeologists in the vanishing mist of a dream.
They did not see the dawn through the shock of something new, but with the awe of being exactly what they had expected the night to become; the shapes and forms of some game written in the eternal matrices of the human condition, pumping its way from the heart into the tides of ancient waters.
(Art by Todd Whitehead)
Act 3: Through the backboard
The Bootleggers from Denver
The other Los Angeles
David Stern, Pieces of the pie
Phil Jackson, the Great & Powerful
Visions of Harden
Pat Riley & the Miami Book Club
Brad Stevens, Questions from Outer Space
Lance Stephenson, the Color of Money
Chris Paul meets an escape artist
Donald Sterling’s Inferno
Chandler Parsons, Rumors kill
And Myles to go before I sleep
Kobe & MJ, a Prison Cell
LeBron & the Ocean’s Carnage
Dirk’s sermon to Harrison Barnes
David Stern had seen their ilk before, creeping like shark fins through the breakers. And, as he would with an actual dorsal fin, he assumed there was something more sinister lurking beneath the surface, so he watched with a stone face and a cold glare, waiting for the men in the boats to validate his worst suspicions. He even left a light on, so they would know he was watching. Deep down, however, he was relieved that their interactions never went beyond a staring contest. Because, in all honesty, he was not too sure what an old man should do about a bunch of contraband runners. His laws and their morals did not align, and he often found himself thinking, it’s better to be a statue in the garden than to risk being nothing at all, noting that paradise was often lost by men who stepped outside their norms and overreached their natural boundaries. He did not want to be another man feigning the ability to smuggle wisdom in the words that crossed his lips. He stared out over the waves of the liquid prairie, wondering what old Ed Tom Bell might do—and the truth was: not much of anything.
Tywon’s voice idled like a carburetor, “Who’s that old man watching us?”
“We call him the vulture cuz he jus’ sits, stares, and waits,” responded J.R., slowly, like his voice was a tattoo artist’s needle, using the ocean’s breeze to trace Queequeg onto his young companion’s flesh.
“Do you think he followed us all the way from Denver?”
“Most definitely. His jurisdiction is everywhere, bro. Didn’t you see him tailing us in Mexico?”
Tywon didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t remember much of anything about the trip to Mexico.
J.R. continued, not really to anyone, but for the sake of the story: “Every mouse needs a cat. Otherwise, there ain’t no game.”
Tywon stared at the old man on the shore, eventually withdrawing his eyes from the contest. Then, as if pricked by a needle: “Should we be worried?”
J.R. let out a laugh as deep and mocking as the waves smacking the the boat. The two sounds blended together until one could not be separated from the other.
“I’m serious, man, should we be worried?”
The boat rose and fell on the lapping waves.
“Worry about yourself, worry about your crew, and worry about the cargo. Everything else is just footnotes,” Carmelo instructed Tywon, not even looking at the newcomer, but out toward the ocean, the waves, and the sharks. If Carmelo were to turn around, he would see Billups nodding his approval, while confidently steering them around the bend into a fortune carved by their actions against the sea.
Beyond the beachhead, Los Angeles twinkled in a haze of lullaby and deception.
Tywon felt the boat’s change in direction. He watched the lights recede in his periphery. He watched them blur entirely into nothing, and then the S.S. Karl disappeared into the night, like skin, underneath black ink.
“But Sol, who loved the orange, grabbed it and ran in circles.” --Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange
Chris Paul first realized he had the gift as he sat in the principal’s office.
His crime: having punched another student in the nuts. While inexplicably talented in this department. locating another boy’s testicles with his fist was not the gift. His ability to transcend the laws of physics, however, belonged in a category on its own.
As he waited for his guardian to arrive, he sat in a school office hallway. One side of the hallway was lined with plastic blue chairs, interspersed with wooden doors to offices that existed mostly as rumors in the minds of the student population. Adults shuffled by with one complaint or another. Chris watched the clock. He waited. He grew hungry.
With his stomach growling, he started rocking forward and back in his chair, his legs barely scraping the carpet. Eventually, he stood up and crept with ease, as if this were his daily routine, to be trapped inside the office lounge.
He snaked his head around the door frame. No one was there. The table in the room’s center was entirely vacant, except for a few crumbs. He walked up to the snack machine with no money in his pockets. He stared at the items with a hunger that only grew more and more ravenous in the vicinity of candy bars and artificial fruits. His eyes swirled in great Milky Way spirals, until finally gravitating towards the last package of Reese’s Pieces.
His stomach rumbled. He pressed his palms against the glass. The wrapper started to twitch. Then to vibrate. Then to shake. Orange and brown and yellow pellets exploded from the wrapper. They chipped and shattered against the glass and crashed into the metal trough at the bottom of the machine.
Chris stepped back, staring in disbelief.
He rested his hands on his knees. He concentrated on a package of orange peanut butter crackers. He predicted crackers might be less likely to behave like bullets when summoned. The package twitched. The package vibrated. When it started to shake, he relaxed. The package fell into the trough amongst the broken candy shells and splinters of Reese’s Pieces.
He pushed his hand through the swinging plastic door. He grabbed the crackers. “King Arthur ain’t got shit on me—”
He looked this way and that, like a kid crossing the street. He stashed the crackers in his pocket.
“Chris, we need to talk.”
The voice belonging to his principal sounded softer than he’d expected. Maybe she hadn’t heard him cussing about pulling snacks from a stone.
His principal entered the room, shutting the door behind her. Why weren’t they going to her office? She took a seat and asked for him to do the same.
“Chris, it’s your grandfather. There’s been—”
She looked away from him. She pulled her chair closer to Chris and started again.
Chris interrupted her: “I didn’t start it. He started it. He called me a fucking refugee. Those are his words, not mine.”
“Chris, I heard about the incident and that’s important, but you have to listen—this isn’t about that. Your grandfather is dead, Chris.”
“He called me a refugee.”
“You’re not listening to me—”
Chris stuffed both fists into the pockets of his blue jeans. He closed his eyes. He trembled. He felt himself in two places at once. He could hear the howling wind. He could feel the rain drops cutting his face. But he could still smell the principal’s perfume and feel the faint heat of her breath.
“How did he—”
“Your aunt’s driving up from Houston. She’ll tell you.”
“That’s so far. I need to know. He was my best friend. What happened?”
“His car crashed on the way here, Chris.”
The glass plate on the snack machine began to vibrate. Chris’ fist shook in their pockets. The glass crashed to the floor in pieces. Tears rolled down Chris’ cheeks. He wept.
He could conjure a quarter from just about anywhere and make it appear just about anywhere else. The same with dimes, nickels, pennies, paperclips, keys and anything else that might fit inside someone’s pocket or behind an ear. And that’s how he started.
Chris Paul ran away from the Oklahoma City group home within weeks of his grandfather’s death. One second the keys to the facility were at the end of a chain inside an adult supervisor’s pocket. The next they vanished, appearing in Chris’ hand. Of course, he dropped them; the suddenness with which they materialized shocking even him. He had prepared for the moment of his exodus by sitting in a bathroom with a Clue board on his lap. He would see Colonel Mustard in the kitchen. He would see Professor Plum in the study. He would concentrate on each, envisioning one in the other’s place. Each piece would quiver, vibrate, and shake. The yellow became purple. The purple became yellow. When another boy knocked on the door and make crude jokes about what might be talking so long, he would growl back, “just a minute.”
The morning after he transported the keys he was well on his way to New Orleans, to live with an estranged aunt. He sat on a bus, having bought a ticket with a stolen credit card, and envisioned the keys back on the house grounds. Within moments they appeared on the bathroom tiles as if they had been misplaced like any other lost item just waiting to be found.
When he arrived at his aunt’s, he realized there were some things that could not be conjured in this world. He walked down a sidewalk from his youth. Dandelion weeds sprouted in the cracks. He ran his fingertips along a metallic fence. He peered through the spaces in the metal wiring. Nothing but cinder blocks. The house was gone, obliterated by the storm. He pictured its return, but the only vibrations moving through the scene resulted from small his hands clinching themselves into fists in the holes of the chained linked fence.
A couple nights of sleeping in sheds and near dumpsters prompted Chris to start performing magic tricks up and down Bourbon Street. Sleight of hand was more convincing with no hands required.
Millionaire George Shinn ran his Voodoo Circus the way a man might run a non-unionized textile mill. He hired local kids, especially orphans in possession of special talents, by promising them the world. After a few nights of red carpet treatment, they awoke in cages, like kidnapped wooden puppets trapped on Pleasure Island, and joining the circus meant they had become part of a freak show.
And Chris Paul’s tenure was no different.
He awoke on a bed of hay, feeling woozy and with a stiff left arm. When he moved his legs, he heard a chain drag across the floor of his cell. When he lifted his head, he felt the weight of an electronic collar. And, upon close examination of his shoulder, he found a pin prick and a faint red blemish.
In the adjoining cells were other boys not much older than him. Each was special in his way. Tyson’s arms and legs softened and stretched like rubber. David could cast himself in steel. Peja could never miss with a dart or a dagger. Of course, they all wore collars like the one around Chris’ neck, so he took them at their word. A man name Byron arrived every morning and evening to feed them, and he never referred to George Shinn by his given name, but as the Collector.
Chris Paul lived under these conditions for four years. At times, Byron would arrive with Mr. Shinn’s guests. At these times, the red light on the freak show’s collars would flash yellow, and they would be able to demonstrate some sampling of their rare power and abilities. Often in these moments, they would hear Byron state: “Now, if the light on the collar flashes green, then they would obviously have unlimited access to their talents.” And then in a whisper: “But, if such were to happen, I doubt we could hold all of them in such a primitive setting.” The guests would then look at the caged creatures in a moment of horror. Then Byron would chuckle. The tension in the holding are would relax, and all the rich men and women would laugh like royalty at a court jester.
After one such showing, Chris noticed an X engraved on David West’s steel skin.
The man shook his head. “Comic books. Shit, man, I went to the University of Xavier.”
“Oh,” said Chris, feeling rather stupid. “I just thought—”
“Man, if this were a comic, we’d of broke out by now. Or seen something. But this—this is just a waste of everybody’s goddamn time.”
David’s voice drew in the attention of the other captives.
“Yo, Tyson, you a Mr. Fantastic?”
Tyson responded, “Sure, boss.”
David grabbed the bars firmly. “So, CP, you do anything other than make tiny objects appear and then reappear?”
“You ever tried to teleport your own self?”
Chris had thought about it, but never attempted it.
“Maybe that’s what you should do. That light flash yellow on your collar. You vanish. See where you wind up.”
Peja laughed, “Don’t put silly ideas in the boy’s head. He may end up somewhere worse.”
“Like where, man? What’s worse than here?”
“Maybe he end up in the wall and can’t get out.”
David grinned, “Maybe that would be better. Who knows?” He turned away from the bars, flexing into the shadows. “Then again, maybe this is it.”
Days later, Chris stood before a panel of Mr. Shinn’s guests. Byron Scott introduced him with the usual accolades. The pomp and the circumstance. Then the red light changed to yellow. Byron Scott wanted Chris to focus on a Turkoglu bird. Chris could see the bird on camera inside its cage. Byron Scott told everyone that the cage sat in a room somewhere in Orlando, Florida. Chris held out the palm of his hand, closed his eyelids, and tilted back his head.
However, he did not attempt to envision the bird’s purple and blue feathers and their softness in his outstretched palm. Instead, he pictured himself inside the Orlando apartment, next to the bird’s cage. He could feel the atoms making up his muscles and bones begin to vibrate. He felt himself start to shake.
He heard David yell: “Holy shit!” He heard Tyson second the response. And Peja exclaimed: “His fingertips are starting to fade!”
And then, well then, everything went blank.
When Chris awoke, he was not in his cage, but he was also nowhere near the bird’s cage. He still wore the collar, its red light strobed across his face. He could not lift his arms or legs. He had been strapped firmly to a laboratory counter. The walls of the room were lined with computers. A voice spoke to him.
“You know, Chris, you could have done it.” Byron Scott stepped out of the laboratory shadows. “You have the ability. Mr. Shinn and I have known that for a long time, and I suspect even your caged peers know it.”
Chris jerked against his bindings.
“Relax, Chris, I actually want to help you.” Byron took a seat on stool near the head of the counter, almost as if this were some routine doctor’s visit. “If the light on your collar were green, or let’s say you weren’t even wearing it, then you would be Orlando right now. Instead, you tried something very stupid—”
Chris jerked and grunted.
“Trying what you did could have gotten you killed. Here, look at yourself.” The man held a mirror up to Chris’ face. Blood stained his upper lip and nostrils. “That bleeding’s from your brain. You almost short-circuited yourself. That doesn’t happen if the light’s green.”
Chris tried again to break free.
“Do you know who decides when the light’s green or not? The first answer is Mr. Shinn. But the alternative answer is, well, me, Chris. I decide that.” The man took a great deal of pride in his delivery. “Did he give me the codes? Not exactly. But then I’m not exactly in this business for the sake of Mr. Shinn.”
Chris looked at the man in all his madness.
“We live on a continent of sun kings, Chris. Oh surely you’ve heard about the great Ometeotl, the first god who created himself and was both male and female.”
“Actually, Byron, can’t say that I have.”
“He was Mayan.”
Chris stared blankly.
Byron Scott grinned. “He was a god of dualities.”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“He gave birth to four children, oft referred to as the four Tezcatlipocas. Each was associated with one of the four cardinal directions. They were all associated with the forces of creation and destruction.”
“I’m really not following you.”
“That’s fine. I know some of us are visual learners. Here, let’s watch the video.” Byron Scott walked across the laboratory, to the far wall. He reached for a cord dangling against the wall. He pulled it, lowering an old screen like the kind involved in showing film strips to elementary school students in an old and forgotten past. “I know what you’re thinking, Chris—why this old technology? Well, I can’t tell you the lengths I had to go for you to see what you’re about to. The footage itself is an artifact. And, given this lab’s technological capabilities, normally I would convey a message via a microchip in your brain, or at least a hologram.”
Chris scowled in worry that this mad scientist might have implanted a microchip in his brain. The mad scientist started the rare recording.
As The Five Suns, a Sacred History of Mèxico (a program made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities) played in all its neon Meso-American glory, Byron Scott mouthed every word spoken by every character and narrator alike. In the laboratory’s dimmed setting of filmstrip and shadow, Chris eyed his captor’s phantom lips twitching in the rehearsed darkness as much as the main event. And fifty-six minutes and thirty-three seconds later, the screen turned blank, the lights returned to their former glory, and Byron Scott pivoted on his stool: “Well, what do you think now? Have you heard of the Yellow King, Chris?”
“From True Detective?”
“No, Chris, I’m talking about a lineage of assassins. I believe I can trace their line from George Mikan to Shaq and, more presently, to Kobe Bryant.”
Chris glimpsed the names with a remote familiarity.
“You may have heard Kobe referred to as the Black Mamba. I had always thought the Yellow Kings were one thing, but his moniker revealed them to be something else. You may recall just before the three minute mark through the four minute mark in the presentation. It was the section that named the four Tezcatlipocas. I now believe the Yellow King is an inheritance within a much larger game.”
Chris found what Byron Scott was explaining slightly more interesting than the National Endowment of the Humanities presentation.
“In Mayan and Aztec cultures, creation and destruction were both considered equal players in a single act—an act of being. While everyday life included honoring the natural, godlike elements of the universe through ritual and sacrifice, everyday life merely mimicked the rituals and sacrifices that larger spirits had themselves participated in for all time. In many ways, life and existence were a game played, for the most part, between the two primary Tezcatlipocas, Quetzalcoatl and the Black Tezcatlipoca, also known as the smoking mirror. These two forces, the white and the black, work both in opposition and cohesion, shaping the world through all time. According to the legends recorded in the Codexes, we live in the age of the fifth sun—an age of movement. And this movement centers around a great dancing orange sphere.”
“You’re losing me again.”
“I do not know if these gods and spirits exist. I do not know if the world ended in 1492 or 2012. For all I know, the sun of movement could be a basketball. Maybe Naismith is Ometeotl. He invented the game in 1891. Maybe the world ended fifty-two years later, in 1943. Maybe it started up again immediately after that and ended again in 1995. Or, maybe it took a brief hiatus and started again in 1947 and ended again in 1999. Notice anything about those two years? In 1995 Michael Jordan returned for the first time. In 1999 the first NBA season that would never see MJ return to being a champion occurred.”
“Are you talking about basketball?”
“I may be getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I’m discussing more than one world.”
“Let’s just say that in our world four individuals—four Tezcatlipocas—are given a list of names. Let’s say these lists include 360 names taken from the general citizenry. Let’s also say that this list of 360 names is divided into sets of twelve and that each set of twelve names occupies a different city. Are you following me?”
“Okay, then let’s say that the four Tezcatlipocas are responsible for slaying the other Tezcatlipocas.”
“And the other Tezcatlipocas are names on the list.”
“But the Tezcatlipocas have no way of knowing whose name is just a name and whose name is a rival.”
“Exactly.” The man leaned back on his stool and allowed this game of life and death, of rising and setting suns, to ascend and descend in the mind of his pupil.
“There’s more to it, though, Chris. Each Tezcatlipoca must prepare an apprentice to assume his role upon his eventual death. Otherwise, the game cannot survive.”
“Have any of the Tezcatlipocas ever not died?”
“Think about it.”
The lights in the room flickered.
“We need to hurry, Chris. Mr. Shinn will return soon. He will not want you knowing all this. It is time we make our escape.”
“To where? Are you not one of the Tezcatlipocas?”
Byron Scott laughed. “I am not. I am something between a Nanahuatzin. Perhaps a Xolotl at best. I do, however, think you could be.”
Chris absorbed this last statement. He also wondered if he believed a single word of what this man—correction: this mad scientist—was telling him.
“I believe you could be the next Yellow King, after the Black Mamba. In other words, Chris, he has no apprentice. He is in danger of losing the game.”
“Okay, so what happens next?”
“I remove your collar, and you teleport the both of us to Los Angeles.”
Dead trees, gnarled and leafless, lined the horizon. Beyond their alabaster branches sloped a jagged range of crooked teeth. Conch shells curling into useless French horns dotted the sandy wasteland. A clipper ship with butterfly wings for sails ran aground in the distance. When Chris walked towards it, the ship moved, taking up space behind him. His footsteps disappeared. Over his back shoulder, too, he witnessed the evaporation of bright sails. The butterfly wings transformed into a moth’s—they clung to the mast in sepia tatters.
He gave up looking for Byron. Byron was somewhere else. Bottles washed ashore, with messages written in ancient tongues Chris failed to understand. The sea was salty and dead. He could not drink from it. Nothing lived in it. The sun rose as an eyeball and set as a melting clock.
When Chris attempted to teleport himself, with Byron Scott, from Shinn’s Voodoo Circus, he had wanted simply to escape. Now he wanted simply to live again. How long would he be trapped here? Had he arrived before or after Los Angeles? Where was he? When was he? His stomach felt sick with the thought of bad science fiction. He feared there was no plot, no Yellow King, no Tezcatlipocas, only a timeless void and a sea of salt.
In the morning, he stumbled upon a corpse. Make that what was left of a corpse. Crisps of brown hair still clung to the skull. The skeleton wore a jumpsuit. The patch on the left side of the suit read: Gervin Ice, INC. When Chris found the man’s wallet, the name on the license read: Vinny Del Negro.
Chris dragged the man to one of the empty conch shells. He placed the man inside its pink crystal walls. He broke a branch off a tree. He dug a hole with it. His sweat blurred the line of demarcation between his body and the atmosphere.
He had, in the time since appearing here, tried many times to teleport back to New Orleans, to Oklahoma City, to a Los Angeles he might recognize. But each time the effort reduced him to a violent seizure and a nosebleed trickle. He still wore the laboratory collar, but the light was not shining. His powers should have been available to him. He thought about these troubles as he dug. After all, these troubles were all he ever thought about.
While digging, the branch clanged against something metal. He carved out the perimeter of its shape with his bare hands—it was a lamp. He rubbed it and nothing happened. He finished burying the shell, with the body of Vinny Del Negro inside it.
He roared in anger and a mysterious cloud climbed the slope of his throat and exited his lips. The cloud took on the shape of a man’s head. The head, as large as a rising eyeball or a setting clock, spoke to him:
“Chris, I am Doc Rivers. I am here to rescue you from Area X and take you to Lob City.”
Chris didn’t know what Lob City was, but anything was better than here. When the man’s jaw dropped to the sand and his tongue unfolded like steps, Chris approached them. He rose two steps. He stopped. He deliberated for a second. He kneeled and touched one of the steps—the man’s tongue felt like a red carpet at a Hollywood premier. He continued to climb. He walked into whatever dark mysteries the universe sat before him.
Byron Scott materialized in the middle of a smoky haze. He could smell the dying embers of what must have been a great and roaring flame. He shuffled through the ashes. He made his way to a hidden staircase. He descended its briny, sulfuric steps. As he walked into the dungeon setting, the layers of soot grew heavier. He felt himself approaching a mighty epicenter that had imploded under its own force and power.
He reached the back wall and stopped. Before him was a chair. He could see the familiar pose of the man he’d come to see.
“You’re alone Byron.”
“He was with me, I swear.”
“That was nearly five years ago, man.”
“We can find him, Black Mamba. He can’t be far. He was with me in the lab.”
“I needed him then. I’ve already made the sacrifices. I lit the fires. What now?”
“I don’t know, sir,” he stuttered.
“You have left me without an heir.”
“What about the one called D’Angelo Russell?”
“You really think he’s a Tezcatlipoca.” The man leaned forward, resting his head on one palm. His elbow founded on his knee. “I’m not sure I see it.”
“Just give me more time.”
The man rose from his dark throne and walked by the kneeling scientist without saying a word.
When Byron turned to where the man had retired, he saw nothing but the ash and shadows of a burned out kingdom; an obsidian knight with no yellow prince to replace him.
He saw a jaguar with no anointed twin.
The pie came at the end of the meal, as desserts typically do, but Billy Hunter wanted none of it. When the waitress placed a snow white plate in front of him, Billy nudged it toward the center of the table with the heel of his palm and looked out the window of the diner, disgusted.
Most of the protestors and picketers had dispersed after the Molotov Cocktail through Mr. Stern’s Wall Street window disrupted negotiations, bursting whatever progress had been made via spreadsheets and manila folders into flames.
And now, hours later, the streets were lined with women in tight dresses and men in sports jackets hailing cabs to drunken destinations.
Billy looked at the pie in the center of the table, its crust brown and flaky, its blueberry core venting steam like a volcano underneath a national park. Perhaps, even if he didn’t want any for himself, he could take some home for the kids. Maybe, after fifteen straight hours of stagnant negotiations and a Molotov through the window, going home with a pie wrapped in tin foil might leave him feeling something other than tired and empty handed as he walked through the front door, hung his keys on a metal hook, and slid into his Sunday morning slippers.
“Not gonna have any, Billy?” asked David Stern, stubble sprouting from his jawbone.
Billy looked at his adversary, whose sleeve was singed from the rage of a Molotov Cocktail. “No, David, you ordered it. If there’s some left, maybe I’ll take it home–-give it to the kids.”
David shrugged his shoulders, picked up a silver knife, and cut into the pie. Then he traded the knife for a fork like he was switching scalpels and carved a piece out for his mouth, and as he did so, the filling spilled from the crust and covered the porcelain beach in a tide of navy blue oil. He lifted his fork to his mouth and took a bite. The warmth of the pie nearly burned his tongue, and while the blueberries overran his taste buds with the sweetness of a fading summer, he couldn’t help but to detect a hint of smoke in the dryness of the crust. In fact, the whole late night dinner meeting he had tasted the smoke of their failed negotiations, in his tea, in his tuna melt, in his fries–even in the ketchup.
“Mmmhmmmmm, this is good pie, Billy,” he said, not looking at Billy, his mouth still full and oozing juice at the corners of his mouth.
He looked like a pie sucking Dracula, thought Billy.
David did not mention anything about the ashtray aftertaste.
The two men sat in silence, the only sounds coming from David’s mouth and the diner’s other patrons. Billy ordered a cup of coffee with a nod, desperate to stay awake, and was ready to ask for his share of the pie to be put in a box when David cut another piece and started eating it.
“Just delicious,” he said in between bites, and the hollowness of his grin as he said it made Billy wonder if what Stern so enjoyed was not the pie but the wasting of Billy’s time.
“I have to use the bathroom.” Billy excused himself from the table.
When he returned, David was stabbing his fork into the entire bulk of the uncut pie and eating right off the serving dish. Pressure mounted inside of Billy and, for the first time in what had been a very long night, he’d had enough. Fuming, he watched David butcher the crust of the pie: cutting here, hacking there, flakes of crust falling to the table, and blueberry blood everywhere.
Billy looked for the waiter, raised his hand in despair like some geyser exploding into the sky, hoping somebody might come by the table and stop the heedless violence.
“Good pie,” said David. “Sure you don’t want some–”
He extended his fork to Billy, its prongs jutting through the dripping husk of a blueberry’s skin, and while eyeing the sagging bruise of a berry’s skull, something in Billy snapped—and he cried out like some fictional character. Like the antithesis of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo he signaled that yes! yes! he did want a piece of the pie! and grabbed the plate, still hot from the stove. With his hands blistering he sprinted headlong for the door.
He spun around the waiter, sidestepped a drunk woman in a pink dress, but he couldn’t dodge Derek Fisher as the flunky scooted back his chair. And like all thermal activity that gets jettisoned into the air, Billy Hunter came splattering back down to Earth. There was the sound of breaking glass underneath his sternum, and he wondered if he had been stabbed as what felt like warm blood seeped through his shirt and onto his skin. When he rolled over, he couldn’t help but think how much the purple stains on his blue shirt gave off the impression that his heart had burst wide open.
Behind him, over the sounds of Derek Fisher apologizing, Billy Hunter could hear David Stern’s dry sense of humor: “Ma’am, we’re gonna need a box for that.” The man always had the first and the last word. The man always seemed to win. Either that, or he played an entirely different game than his opponents.
He would be in California by the weekend, perhaps even down to Mexico, executing law and order and whatever else he and his backers deemed the world needed.
(Image by Mike Langston)
The hookah glinted gold in the Pink Floyd chords sifting through opium den smoke, and Melo felt sluggish. Sluggish and yet somehow determined to not be sluggish, which somehow made him even more sluggish.
He let the hose and its baroque chess piece knobs slide through his fingers, the braided hose coiling with the curve of his leather bean bag. He got up and walked to the aquarium. A gold fish swam up to his eyes, made contact, and--he swore--winked.
Do fish even have eyelids?
He turned around to ask his friends. But Amar’e was asleep, his leg twitching like he was running from a train. Tyson wouldn’t care; he didn’t care about anything outside of Dallas. And J.R. was smoking from two hoses, exhaling a double helix of apathy.
Melo turned back around; the fish was now blue.
“That’s a fish of a different color,” he said, but the words penetrated the glass like condensation, and he walked around the ring of bean bags, feeling the thick shag of the carpet through his socks. A cash register rang. Coins clang together. And a bass line led into a voice singing out, “Money—”
“Damn straight,” said Tyson, smoke veiling his eyes. He took a sip of champagne.
They had been here forever, thought Melo. “Do you think he’s going to see us?”
“Does it matter, bro? It’s not Dallas, but what else do we need?” Tyson gestured toward the caviar buffet with a black hat in one hand and to the aquarium with a champagne glass in the other. The fish inside had turned green. J.R. snapped his fingers to the beat while Amar’e slept on.
Melo approached the door, started to knock, and backed away. Since delivering the results of his Denver collective’s last foray into Mexico, he felt not necessarily misused by his benefactors in New York, but strangely forgotten. He also knew better than to ask questions as to why a live jungle cat might be of any value to New York entrepreneurs. In his head, he pictured all of them pretending to be Mike Tyson, collecting white tigers and God knows what for the arks of their souls. Surrendering to the malaise, Melo slumped back to his beanbag chair, where a Tyson other than Mike passed him a champagne glass and toasted to leer jets.
Melo stared off into the distance, dreaming of mountains and snowfall, dreaming of worlds outside the city. The champagne tasted too warm. He thought of that night off the California coast, an alternative timeline just barely beyond his grasp.
He looked for his shoes. When he found them, their ruby color reflected the spinning light of the room’s disco ball. Someone had tied the shoe laces together. The fish in the tank turned purple. J.R. kept snapping. “I might get another tattoo,” he said.
Melo walked across the room. This time he knocked on the door. A portion of the door swung outward, and a man named Dolan poked his head through the porthole and, in a high-pitched voice, he screeched the words: “Can’t you read? There’s a note.”
“There’s no note.”
The man twisted his head around like an owl’s looking for the note. There was no note. He told Melo to wait a minute. Then he came back with a note.
The note said: Ring Bell.
The head then disappeared, and the hole in the door closed back into a solid surface. Melo looked around, then he saw it: a thick rope descending from an eight-ball sized hole in the ceiling. He pulled it. The music stopped mid guitar solo, and the door opened to a room shrouded in darkness.
Varicose veins of light interloped through the blinds. Melo didn’t know whether to proceed or stay where he was. He turned around expecting to see his three companions still seated in their beanbags, smoking, but they stood behind him with their arms interlocked like a trio of square dancers. Then came the voice.
“Melo, I say we run,” quivered a normally masculine voice. Melo looked back to see Tyson squinting through his cobwebbed hands. “I’m sure Cuban would take me back. You guys too.” Amar’e and J.R. each bit their lips; foreheads wrinkled in fear.
“No, we’ve been here too long just to run away now.” Melo locked arms with them, and they all trespassed into the darkness.
Fire shot up out of nowhere, in two great bellowing columns, and a great and mighty voice enveloped them called: “I AM OZ, THE GREAT AND ZENFUL! WHO! ARE! YOU!”
“Isn’t that what the caterpillar says?”
“Shut up, J.R.”
The fires continued to burn, but did not light the shadows. Melo admitted to himself that maybe Tyson was right--maybe they should have run, hauling ass back down the yellow-lined highway that brought them here. Maybe a place like Dallas would be more suitable. But he had no time to finish the thought when the room flashed green and a cloud of purple smoke erupted from an empty office chair behind a rather large and imposing desk. The room was not as dark as it once was.
“WHO ARE YOU?!”
Melo swallowed. “I’m Melo.”
“I KNOW YOU, BUT WHO ARE THESE THREE CRETINS YOU HAVE BROUGHT BEFORE ME? YOU, TALL MAN, WHO ARE YOU?”
Amar’e stepped forward in a manner that suggested his joints were nothing more than rusted tin. “Yuh-you see,” he started, “a while back I came from Ari-Arizona and DiAnton-DiAntoni--”
“QUIET! HIS NAME WILL NOT BE SPOKEN HERE! I WILL MELT YOU DOWN UNTIL YOU ARE NOTHING BUT BLOOD!”
“Yes, sir. . . .”
“AND YOU, TYSON!” The voice paused. “BOO!”
And Tyson responded in kind by fainting into a bearded heap on the floor.
“AND YOU, J.R.! YOU THINK I HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU! CONTEMPLATE THE CENTER OF NOTHING AND THEN NOTHING THE CENTER OF CONTEMPLATION. AFTER ALL, YOU ARE NOTHING.”
“Huh? When do we take our shirts off? When’s the parade? I came for the parade.”
“YOU HEARD ME--” The voice’s authority cracked apart in splintered coughing as another purple plume of smoke rose from the altar of the mighty desk. “Cuh-Cuh-Cuh!” The sound grew worse and worse. “Just a minute.” More coughing. The smoke dissipated, but the sound continued.
The lights clicked on and seated behind the desk was a man who would have looked rather dignified in a professorial sort of way, except with one finger raised in the air he sounded like a man choking on water.
“Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson, are you alright?”
Mr. Jackson continued to cough.
“You boys may have to come back and see him another time. He’s, well, he’s allergic to to purple smoke, but he just loves the effect--he’s a fan of effectiveness you see--”
The coughing persisted.
“You’ll just have to leave your requests with me for the time being. What was it now? Oh yes, a heart for you, perhaps courage for you, and um was it a brain? Yes, that’s exactly what I believe it was. It’s all written down here in Dr. Jackson’s notes. He’s not a doctor, but I call him that sometimes. He’s a great man. A magnificent man. He’s got ideas and plans and ideas of plans and plans--you’ll see--he plans to inject all of you with jaguar blood!”
“What the fuck?”
“It’s true. He believes it will help you link up with your true warrior self. It’ll help with the sacrificial rites. I was doubtful myself, but then he--”
“And who are you?” asked Melo with an air of defiance.
“Me? Well, I’m Mr. Woodson,” said the man pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose. “Yessir, Mr. Woodson is what they call me.”
Dr. Jackson pounded on his chest with an arthritic fist. “Remember the procedure Woodson--” COUGH! “Just like we--” cough! “. . . rehearsed.”
“Yo, can he even get out of that chair?” asked J.R.
And Melo had to admit he had been wondering the same thing himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he could still see the aquarium—what color was the goldfish now? A part of him swore it had spots, and then he forgot all about it. The record skipped, and he was stricken with a sudden fear of needles.
(Art project by Bryan Harvey)
Russell Westbrook wasn’t much into mystical bullshit. His partner, on the other hand, said he was intrigued by the possibilities. Hence, Westbook sometimes had to entertain the man’s opinions on other worlds beyond this one. This slight difference in concern was at least one of the reasons Durant sat in a booth with an island reporter and his quiet photographer, while Westbrook sat two booths away pouring salt into tiny mounds on the table.
“Need anything, sir?”
Westbrook looked up at the waitress through his red-framed, glasses (with no lenses) and said nothing. She walked off and he opened a packet of Sweet ‘N Low, commencing to pour sweetness over the foundations of salt. He kept doing this—alternating the geological layers of sugar and salt—as he haphazardly listened to the conversation two tables down.
What the hell did anyone from The Admiral-Constitution know anyway? The last time Westbrook had read a copy of the famed newspaper he found it to be postmodern bullshit. When he told Durant, Durant had asked him: “What the hell’s postmodern?” “It’s this effing self-sustaining system of a newspaper,” Westbrook had responded, and adding: “N
one of the stories are even plausible.” “Oh,” Durant had said, “so you don’t like magical realism.” “No, I don’t.”
And now here he was listening to his partner go back and forth with two of the lost media’s most narcoleptic raconteurs.
Durant spoke with a stern calmness, “I just want to know how you know the stories before the events even happen. I mean, even as a kid who grew up watching Early Edition on NBC, I find it a bit difficult to believe, wouldn’t you?”
The tall reporter went all bug-eyed as if he’d been accused of some heinous and unimaginable crime; an expression that infuriated the on-looking Westbrook.
Then the tall man asked, “Have you ever played D&D? Every game works off a script prepared by the Dungeon Master. My bylines aren’t even news articles—they’re editorials. Moreover, they’re simply a cloak of perception by which readers begin to see the world. I’m simply an arbiter reigning in the choices. ”
“That’s some coincidence then, isn’t it?” Durant stirred his coffee with a small spoon, pinkie extended like a lightning rod. “I mean, you write an editorial about how flawed the Boston shuttle launch is, that the Perkincinerator Valve 43-5 will be unable to sustain the necessary energy production and that’s exactly what happens, only it happens after you write it. What choice did the four men on that shuttle have?”
“That is exactly what happened,” answered the editorial arbiter. “That was the preexisting module. Everything else--the what came after--contained the choices.”
As he spoke, the quiet photographer held up an outstretched palm, as if to signal the number five, or to swat a fly. Westbrook couldn’t tell: he went back to layers of salt and sugar.
“Okay, so the shuttle goes down. Maybe that’s a lucky guess, but your column also suggests that the only crew member who could survive the loss of the Perkincinerator Valve would be the ship’s pilot . . . and, sure enough, when that shuttle crash landed, the only body on board was its pilot. That leaves three guys not having a choice.”
“That is exactly what happened.” And again the quiet kid held up the number five. “Do you like jazz?”
“Just that there’s more to that story, but it wasn’t worth writing.”
“So you withheld part of the story?”
Westbrook flailed his leg in anger. His shin struck a table leg. The salt shaker toppled into one of his white mountains.
“Is your partner alright?”
“He’s fine. What about the dog walker profile you did? Wasn’t the last line that old cliché: all dogs go to heaven? He died shortly after.”
“What?” Detective Durant cut him off. “Exactly what happened.”
“Exactly?” nodded the reporter. “I don’t know. He could be dead. There were lots of rumors swirling around that one. Dallas came up, but I think that one got crossed out. He might be in Atlanta. It’s most likely some sort of witness protection deal. I don’t think he’s really Order of the Hawk material.”
“Maybe we should have started with what you know.”
Durant leaned back in the booth, stretching his arm along the back of his seat’s upholstery. Westbrook watched carefully; he wanted to escalate the intensity of the situation. He wanted to test that old maxim: the pen is mightier than the sword. Instead, he poured another layer of salt on the homemade Sodom and Gomorrah before him.
Durant continued, “What’s your process?”
“Yeah, so these are just editorial hunches about what could happen. Well, how do you arrive at them, even if they are just guesses? After all, they’re quite visionary. I feel like if you were truly guessing--just chucking up hero guesses, then you’d be a lot less accurate. Don’t you?”
“Well, I don’t know if there’s a process.”
“C’mon, everyone’s got a system—some mechanism that helps things tic along at a nice even pace.”
“Have you read any of my novels?”
“Novels? I want to know about these so-called editorial scripts.”
For the first time in the conversation, Durant appeared frustrated.
“Look, do you do research? Do you have sources? Maybe you receive translucent visions. Hell, maybe you’ve got a magic news ticker in the office that has a bead on the entire universe, from Argentina to France to God knows where. I have no idea, which is why I’m asking questions, because I admire the body of work, really, I do. But I also have a job to do and right now you’re interfering with my investigation.”
Westbrook whispered, “Our,” as he blew waves of white particles so that they gathered like Salvador Dali dunes in a miniature desert.
“Well, maybe you should ask Kawhi.” The island reporter turned to the quiet photographer beside him. The kid held up the number five again and then smacked his palm on the table, holding it there, stretched out like a flesh and bone cobweb. Coffee cups rattled on their saucers.
“Does he even talk?” asked Durant.
“I don’t know, but before he showed up, I actually had writer’s block.”
The detective turned towards the quiet kid. “Mr. Leonard—is it okay if I call you Mr. Leonard?”
“Call me Kawhi.” The syllables weren’t so much spoken as they were brokenly rehearsed, like fossils from some earlier interaction.
“Okay, Kawhi, how’s this system work? His editorials show up and then your snapshots appear as soon as the event happens. But how are you always there?”
Kawhi didn’t respond. His palm still stretched across the table.
“C’mon, we all read comics, right? We know Peter Parker always gets pictures of Spider-Man because he is Spider-Man—what’s your secret?”
In a cloud of white dust, Detective Westbrook erupted from his booth—as if suspended by strings in a classic Kung Fu film—and stabbed a steak knife down on the table, pinning Kawhi’s arm to the board by the sleeve of his shirt.
“Enough with the goddamn questions already! Kobe burned himself up in a fire, but the bodies keep piling up from Memphis to Texas to Portland! And you’ve taken a snapshot of each corpse.” His eyes pulsed like collapsing stars.
Kawhi rolled his wrist ever so slightly and a fly buzzed into the air from underneath his palm, escaping like truth.
“If you want him to answer, he’s going to need that hand,” said the reporter, pulling the knife out of the table and tossing it aside. “Go ahead, Kawhi, you can tell them. Tell them exactly what happens. Tell them what you told me. Tell them about the monk in the desert.”
A waitress passed by and Duncan lifted a finger to her. “Ma’am, we’re going to need a box of crayons and one of those placemats with the mazes for children.” Then he looked back at the rest of the table. “Gentlemen, Kawhi is about to show you where you can find this Yellow King of yours, at least, that is, according to our sources.”
“The what?” questioned Westbrook. “Kevin, man, you’re not believing this fairy tale hocus pocus shit are you? This is exactly what I warned you about. Let’s just take our badges and our guns, and let’s do some real fucking work, man.”
A waitress arrived with a place mat and a box of crayons, and responded Durant to no one in particular: “Is this the system?”
Kawhi opened the box, took out the black crayon, and began waxing his way through the labyrinth. When he arrived at the center, he began sketching what became the face of a bearded man.
“Is that who I think it is?” asked Durant.
“No way! This is not happening!” uttered Westbrook. “Nuh-uh. No way that’s James.”
“But it is,” said Durant, mesmerized. “Holy shit, it is.”
Then, Duncan looked from Durant to Westbrook and back again: “Everyone he’s killed lives as a rumor in that town.”
“What town?” asked Westbrook.
“Houston,” said his partner. “Houston.”
And underneath the bearded man’s face Kawhi had already written, and only written, the letters H-O-, but Durant knew what was to follow: “U-S-T-O-N. Houston.”
When the two detectives left with the map, Kawhi put the black crayon back inside the box. “How long before they realize that’s not the real story?”
“Not long enough,” said the reporter. “Not long enough.”
Out on the sidewalk, the two marshals headed for the parking lot.
“You buying any of that?”
“Russ, I don’t really know what to believe anymore.”
“Man, you haven’t been the same since the fall.”
“The fall has nothing to do with how I’m doing. It’s this case--we should have solved it by now.”
“And we would have if we didn’t keep talking with wack ass reporters and searching for mentors.”
Durant stopped in the middle of the crosswalk. “Russ, can’t you see it? This is bigger than us. Yellow Kings? Order of the Hawks? This is beyond--”
“Beyond what? You? Me? Man, ain’t nothing beyond us. This is the world.”
“There’s--there’s more to it than that.” Durant looked off into space the way he sometimes did--the way he had underneath the pile of bricks.
“You still having those dreams?”
“We still alive in any of them?”
Kevin started walking again. When they arrived at the car and the car belonging to Marshal Adams, they noticed his driver’s side door was open, but they didn’t see him in the car.
Russel moved his hand to his gun holster.
Kevin called out: “Steven, man, you there?”
The man’s voice answered from behind the car. He sounded like a paper bag exhaling. They each rushed around a different end of the car. Steven Adams lay hunched on the asphalt, in the fetal position. His hands tucked between his thighs.
“What the fuck, dude?”
“It was these kids. I was just reading the newspaper.” They noticed pages of The Admiral-Constitution scattered about the scene, rippling in the breeze. “One of ‘em just ran up and kicked me in the balls.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” said the man through the thick of his dated mustache.
With their guns out, the two marshals started laughing. “Ain’t that some shit!” “You want to run a report.” “Yeah, why don’t we ask that Kawhi kid to sketch the suspects.” “That fuckin’ reporter probably wrote it this way.” Steven groaned again, and the joke ran its course. They climbed in their cars. They headed for Houston.
(Image by Mike Langston)
Navy silhouettes adorned the snowy porcelain of the tea kettle; a rooster standing on a dog standing on a bull. The kettle itself sat on a tray that sat on a table cloth that someone had draped over a coffee table that naturally sat on a rug that covered the hardwood planks of the floor.
On one side of the table was a loveseat. And on the other were two wing-tipped chairs. The chairs were empty, but an old man, skin stretched thin over his skull and hair slicked back, took up half the loveseat. He crossed his legs at the knee in a manner that some might call womanly, but he was not womanly at all. He was masculine; all leather and bone and perseverance.
Some may have called him a slumlord, but he was also the founder of a fraudulent online law school. And, where some might have said that handing out fake law degrees was somehow both corrupt and unseemly, he saw it as an effective method for parceling out opportunities to those who might otherwise achieve less than their potential permitted. In other words, he helped individuals in the art of the win.
And, needless to say, such opportunities also protected the slumlord’s own self-interests. Somehow, someway, by moving assets here, and moving assets there, he had made a killing in the Florida real estate game, even as everyone around him hit rock bottom. He was the largest reptile in a swamp full of reptiles.
His liver-spotted hand lifted the porcelain lid away from the kettle, allowing a humid weather front to rise and escape. He watched it go. He could have stopped it if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. He pulled at the string draped over the kettle’s edge, the bag at the other end moved, and he watched shades of brown twist and turn into new ways of being. He watched the future take shape in the space he allowed. His name was Pat Riley. He was always pulling strings. Always brewing. Always sifting. And now he waited for the other three members of his book club, who also happened to be graduates of Riley University’s Mourning Law Center, to arrive.
They showed up at a quarter to three; all three wearing three-piece tweed suits and thick-rimmed glasses. They had each come a long way under his Armani tutelage--no longer resembling kids from Midwest playgrounds and the plains of Texas.
Outside the quaint beach cabin the temperature was hot and humid. Nevertheless, inside, Riley had set a fire in the cabin’s stone hearth. After all, he was a man who lived in heat. And yet, all three members of his book club began to perspire before even taking their seats: LeBron next to him on the loveseat, Bosh in one of the chairs, and Wade in the other.
For a second, just as he sat down, the left side of LeBron’s face quivered as if possessed by a possible stroke, or, perhaps, it was nothing but a slight cramp after a long night of reading. Riley said nothing, but turned the tray on the coffee table at an angle to make LeBron’s reaching the pitcher of water a more natural maneuver.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” said the book club’s leader, his fingertips pressed together as if to cage a canary. “Shall we begin?”
“Well, I enjoyed the book—was it a book? It seemed more like a play or a drama with all the dialogue, monologues, and soliloquys.”
“Well, I’m glad you recognized the difference in mediums—it was indeed a play, LeBron.”
“Yeah, well, I enjoyed it. I rooted for Hamlet.”
“You know I thought you might,” smiled Riley.
“I thought Claudius was a punk.”
“I was fine with Polonius getting stabbed. I feel a modern day equivalent might be a member of the media getting what they deserve from a celebrity.”
“I just didn’t like that Hamlet had to die, too. Why couldn’t he and Laertes be best bros and run Denmark together?”
“I’m intrigued that you looked for resolution in relationships rather than through conflict.”
“Actually,” LeBron felt moved to open the floodgates of his reactionary reading, “come to think of it why couldn’t those two and Fortinbras all just bond over being fatherless and run all of Scandinavia from Denmark to Norway. Shakespeare’s alright, but the people in his plots are too petty. They think too small.”
Riley nodded his approval and turned to the other gentlemen in the room. “So now that LeBron’s shared his thoughts on this month’s text, what did you two think?”
Bosh looked towards Wade in what appeared to be an initial act of deferment, but Wade said nothing. Instead, he turned away from Bosh and stared coldly at Riley, as if seeing the man’s scales for the first time.
“Yes, Wade?” asked the man who had prepared the tea and stoked the fire.
Wade did not respond, but moved his hands into a position mirroring Riley’s. He shaped them into a bony cage.
Riley turned back to Bosh: “Chris, why don’t you tell us a bit about what you thought then.”
“Sure,” said Bosh, not noticing the tension in the room, “although I’m a bit perplexed. Did you or LeBron say we read Hamlet this month? I’m only asking because I read this. . . .” He held up a thin paperback titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. “I’m sorry if I read the wrong book, but I thought we were all reading this book. . . .” He raised his copy of Tom Stoppard’s play in the air again. Riley didn’t respond. He only grinned as Bosh continued,”In my version Hamlet doesn’t really seem to be that big of a deal. I thought Guil and Ros were intriguing though. They each had a lot of lines. Hamlet was in it, but he really didn’t seem like that big a deal, at least not compared to the other two.”
“Did they seem heroic?” asked Riley, still grinning.
“Hmmmm. . . . In a way they did. I think anytime someone resigns him or herself to a particular role or a particular role’s fate that takes courage. I just wish I knew what happened exactly.”
“Should they have known better? Did they diminish themselves?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Bosh said, looking worried that there was some hole in his understanding of the play’s plot. “Should I have read Hamlet first? I would have, you know.”
“It’s fine, Chris, really it is—”
“Is it though? ‘Cause I didn’t read either of those books,” complained Wade. “I didn’t even read a play. I read a whole novel, which seems like I had to do a whole lot more reading than either of them.”
“With great talent—”
But Wade wasn’t hearing Riley’s explanation. A book club reading different books was not his idea of fun. In fact, it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
“Is this Updike book—“ He had to double check the cover in order to state the title. “—Gertrude and Claudius a prequel or a sequel to whatever play LeBron read?”
Riley looked over at LeBron, whose face appeared to be suffering another stroke, or perhaps another cramp. “Is everything alright, LeBron?”
“Yeah, I just need some—“ LeBron reached for a pitcher of water, but his arm went stiff as a board and fell to his waist. “—nothing. I’m fine.”
“He needs water! It’s gotta be over two hundred degrees in this Hell you call a home!” Wade swung the water pitcher in LeBron’s direction—dousing him with its contents.
LeBron, spitting and twitching, said, “Thanks, Wade, but you missed my glass.”
“That reminds me,” said Bosh, “are Ros and Guil dead at the end of the play or are they dead for the play’s entirety? I got the impression they might be ghosts or something. Then again, the setting wasn’t exactly of this world.”
“Damnit, Chris!” yelled Wade. “ Can’t you see that we don’t know? We’re reading different stories! Riley’s pandering to us!”
“Yeah, but I liked mine,” said Bosh.
LeBron continued to twitch, his muscles suspended between the act of leaving his seat and a man being poisoned. Bosh looked ready to follow anyone’s lead, his hands now making a cage, too, by coming together at their fingertips. Wade brooded in murderous contemplation, as he paced back and forth in front of the sizzling hearth.
Meanwhile, unnoticed by anyone, Riley poured four cups of tea, emptying a spoonful of sugar in each one. He then lifted his own serving to his lips with one hand on the teacup’s handle and the other supporting the saucer: “I think today was very productive. Shall we meet again next month? You don’t have to answer now, but as you think about it, perhaps I should recite the story of Amleth from Saxo Grammaticus.”
LeBron writhed in his seat, looking like he might start foaming at the mouth.
“Please do,” said Bosh, his hands still meeting at the tips of their talons.
Sweating more than ever, Wade seated himself and continually shifted his weight beside the fire.
And Riley began: “Horwendil, King of Denmark, married, Gurutha, the daughter of Rorik, and she bore him a son, whom they named Amleth. Horwendil’s good fortune stung his brother Feng with jealousy, so that the latter resolved to waylay his brother, thus showing that goodness is not safe even from those of a man’s house. And behold when a chance came to murder him—“
“Actually,” LeBron interrupted, “I’m tired of stories about murder and betrayal—what else can we read?”
He looked much more himself as his body grew quiet and Wade handed him a glass of water.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to anyone in the room, Riley rotated the tray, keeping everything, for the moment, exactly where he had planned from the very beginning. Now which cup contained the jaguar blood? And which one Cipactli’s tears?
(Art by Elliot Gerard)
As if clinging to the gargoyled ledge of a monolithic skyscraper, the boy held onto the glass counter top, smudging the protective barrier encasing all the priceless memorabilia of the Marvel and DC universes with his nervous paw prints.
He climbed onto the tips of his toes; he descended entire stories flat footed; he bobbed between existing and not existing. Eventually, his chin came to rest on the counter’s edge, and his eyes skimmed the nearby shelves as if watching someone surf a plethora of television channels through an open window; drapes quivering in the light evening breeze of his imagination’s urban landscape. When he finally saw what he wanted to watch, his right hand shot up and pointed with its index finger, like a lowercase i, and shouted, “That one! That’s the one!”
Brad Stevens, the boy’s father, looked at the price tag. “You sure? I mean, what about one of these out here?” The man, who looked like a hero’s secret, albeit nerdier, identity, gestured to a folding table loaded down with milk crate after milk crate of comic books and graphic novels, the cheap dreams of childhood archived for no other reason than to make childhood a thing of artifacts, to render it important through the acts of collecting and cataloguing, to make it eternally attainable.
The boy looked around at all the world’s narratives, their edges turning crisp and brown in the sun, but his hand maintained its grip on the counter’s edge. He had journeyed this far and was not willing to throw it away for just any grail; he wanted something holy. “No thanks. I want that one.” He pointed again, his finger stretching from lower case to all caps.
“Yeah, but who’s paying for it?”
“I got piggy bank money.” Yeah, a regular Rockefeller, thought Stevens, and how do you think money gets into the piggy bank?
“Ready?” asked the store’s owner, a man named Rasheed, his hair featuring an ever present ringworm-like crater and an unsmoked cigarette tucked behind each ear. On a wood-beaded necklace, hanging dark against his white t-shirt, was an Egyptian ankh.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Stevens turned to his son Marcus. “Go ahead, tell the man.”
“I want that one.” The boy pointed at issue #252 of The Amazing Spider-Man. Stevens took in the black costume the hero was wearing and asked his son, “Why isn’t he wearing blue or red?”
To which Marcus gave a rather obvious response, “Because the black looks cooler.”
Rasheed leaned over the countertop, bearing down into the protective glass with the knuckles of each fist, “You know what happens with that black suit, son?”
“Nuh-uh,” said Marcus. “I bet it’s cool though.”
“It’s out of this world, but I don’t wanna spoil it for you,” the store owner took the comic book, still in its slip cover, and laid it beside the register. Then, turning to the boy’s father, “Alright, Pops, let’s see you CTC.” While Stevens adjusted his glasses and pulled out his wallet, Rasheed handed Marcus his new copy of Spider-Man’s “Homecoming.” “You like that one, come see me about Thanos. That’s when you know you’re on a whole ‘nother level, gettin’ them rings and what not in outer space.”
“Can we?” asked the boy, turning to his father.
“How much you got in that piggy bank?”
“We could take out a loan.”
“I think that’s it for today.” The father and son walked out of the store and into the summer heat, but Stevens found the sunlight and even the humidity to be a welcomed relief after the store’s cramped quarters and their strong odor of stale cigarettes and sweaty newsprint. “Have you read that one?”
“No,” said Marcus. “But Jeff Green told me all about it. He says Spider-Man comes back faster and stronger and better than ever because of the black suit.”
Stevens tried to recall who Jeff Green was; he struggled to keep track of all Marcus’ friends and acquaintances—do kids even discern the differences? After all, how was he to remember every kid from every birthday party and playdate when he had enough trouble keeping track of all the friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and patients in his own social circles? “Anything else?”
They walked the half block to The Big Chief’s Scoop ‘N Cone. They each ordered a waffle cone with two scoops of flavors that probably didn’t exist when Stevens was a boy. Stevens finished his before they reached the car, but Marcus took his time, as if waiting for the two scoops to multiply into four.
On the drive home, Marcus was still working on his ice cream as green and pink rivulets began to drip from the bottom of the cone. As the waffle cone dam showed signs of future failure, the boy struggled to open the plastic slip cover around the way-too-expensive comic book he’d just bought with his father’s money. His main nemesis in this objective was a piece of scotch tape until his father said, “Why don’t you wait until we get home to open that.” And, in proof of his father’s wisdom, the universe placed a half-melted scoop of ice cream on the plastic slip cover, right in the path of the black-dressed hero swinging over the city by a strand of spider web. Stevens nodded his approval, told you so.
They pulled up to a green neighborhood with white picket fences. Green shutters. Green leaves. Green lawns. Green money. Everything was green. Marcus sprinted around in the yard with his comic book in one hand, yelling, diving, rolling in the green, green grass. Stevens couldn’t tell if the boy thought he was flying, swinging from a web, or teleporting. Anything was possible. The entire universe of their household had opened itself to comic possibilities. Everything was still at the beginning, still incubating in the warm myth of origin narratives.
Everything was still green. Brad Stevens had closed on the house just over a year prior and Marcus, his son, had joined him for the summer, from Oklahoma, where the boy had been living with his mother. So, like so many heroic narratives, this father-son duo had migrated from the gentle Midwest to the action-packed East Coast.
While Marcus continued to treat the front yard like Professor X’s training room, or a Manhattan skyline, Stevens opened the green door to the house, which, even after a year of doing so, still felt like turning to the proverbial next chapter in his life.
Stevens placed his keys and wallet in a clay saucer of some sort that Marcus had made and brought as a housewarming gift, probably an idea dreamed up by the kid’s mother. He hung his suit jacket on a hook and was rolling up his sleeves when he noticed he was not alone. A man was sitting on his couch.
The man stood up and walked to the bay window facing the front yard. “Yours I’m assuming? He looks tall.”
“The height’s on his mother’s—” Stevens stopped himself. “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”
“The day you took the job you were told you would hear from us. I’m part of Auerbach Enterprises. We oversee the A.I.N.G.E. taskforce. They handle national operations. They dabble in global issues. But we, we have universal concerns. And not as in everything that lives will die and that all humans have feelings. No, I mean universal as in. . . .” The man rolled his eyes upward and looked through the ceiling and roof to the heavenly skies above, all the while making bee-bop bee-bop doo-dah doo-dah noises similar to what Marcus surely must’ve been making as he dodged fake lasers in the yard. The man pointed out the window, “Vivid imagination that one. Is he always this feisty?”
“Wh-what do you want?”
“We want you to do the job you were hired to do, Mr. Stevens. Very few people can do what you do. Here, let me show you something.” The man placed what looked like a solid black Rubix cube on the tan seat cushion of the bay window. He pushed in two buttons on either side of the cube and a quarter-sized hole opened in the top. Green, star-filled light projected out from the cube as the surrounding room and the outside neighborhood dimmed. It did not take long for Brad Stevens to realize what he was watching as he observed four familiar faces donning space helmets. He was watching classified—no, make that beyond classified!—footage of the Celtic 08 mission, a mission that while daring to travel at light speed had ended in mystery and disarray: only Rajon Rondo had made it back to earth after the Perkincinerator failed.
“I still don’t know what you want me to do. Have you spoken with my predecessor?”
“Dr. Rivers? I’m afraid he’s pre-occupied. You see, he lost his way after the tragedy. He was rather close with KG and Pierce and took their disappearances to heart; turned his back on science even. He now wants to understand the world of magic, and I believe he’s working with a magician or trapeze escape artist in California. He’s out of pocket and out of mind and of little consequence to what we’re trying to do. We need you.”
“Yeah, but to do what?”
“Rondo hasn’t spoken since the Incident. We want you to change that. We want you to find out exactly what happened.”
Stevens looked beyond the green light emanating from the black cube and to the world dimmed outside; Marcus leapt from a stone wall, trying to make it appear as if he’d been tossed aside in some epic battle between good and evil. When the boy landed on the ground, he rolled around in the grass, possibly feigning unconsciousness. But who understands the things children do when they think no one is watching? Stevens turned to the stranger sitting in his living room. “Someone will have to watch Marcus.”
“Don’t worry,” the man said. “He’s coming with us.”
The distance from planet Earth’s surface to its core is 3,958.8 miles, and, as Brad Stevens endured the longest elevator ride of his life, he began to wonder just how few of those miles remained between him and the planet’s 10,832°F center. He had no way of tracking to what floor they were descending; the elevator’s control panel consisted of only two buttons: an arrow up and an arrow down. Currently, the down arrow glowed green against the metallic panel.
“Where do you think we’re going?” asked Marcus.
“To tell you the truth, son, I have no idea.” And he didn’t. The only answer was down. They had stepped into the elevator from the main lobby of a normal looking office building in downtown Boston, a sign outside the brick edifice had read Bill Walton Insurance Operatives and featured a black knight and white rook as part of its logo. A man named Dennis Johnson had shown Stevens and Marcus to the elevator and told its operator, “Take them to the eighteenth floor.” Imagine Stevens’ surprise when the elevator dropped rather than rose. The downward motion stopped, the door opened, and the elevator’s operator motioned for them to step into a room that appeared as sleek and sterile as a Mac desktop. And so they did.
Once in the room, a robotic voice instructed them to change out of their current attire and to put on the hazmat suits before them. As the voice said this, two suits descended by cable from portholes that opened in the room’s blinding white ceiling. And so they did as they were instructed once more. After changing, the wall sighed smoke and a door-sized rectangle opened to a metallic corridor, the floor of which lit up through a steel grate.
When the father and son reached the end of the corridor, they came to a doorway that opened up into a large cylindrical cavern, the top of which featured a metallic dome, at the base of which were glass rectangular windows like what one might see on an air traffic tower. However, they could not enter the cylindrical space. Before them was a darkness that appeared to drop below them forever, possibly closing what was left of the 3,958.8 miles to the Earth’s core.
In the middle of this abyss was a transparent cell lit up from within. Stevens could not tell what prevented the transparent cell from falling into the darkness—it appeared to be levitating. Inside the space was a man in what appeared to be a black wetsuit. Seeing this man made Stevens think of Marcus’ comic book. However, this thought was interrupted by the sounds of metallic grates opening every twenty or so feet around the chamber’s circumference. When the echoes in the chamber ceased, water poured forth. It was then that Stevens realized the panel of flooring on which he and his son stood was moving towards the aquarium-like cell at the heart of the chamber. The panel locked in place on the roof of the cell and then descended: they were now standing within feet of the man in the black Spidey suit.
The insides of the transparent cell contained equally transparent living room furniture, all made of the same plexi-glass-like material as the cell itself. On the transparent end table, next to the transparent sofa, were a couple magazines. The more noticeable of the two appeared to be an old copy of Time Magazine. Stevens couldn’t see the entire date in the upper right hand corner, but the year was 1960. The blue picture, inside the red border, featured the face of an older man amidst schools of fish and sea coral. Stevens remembered hearing that Rajon Rondo had always been fascinated by the ocean, that his imaginings of the sea had sparked his desire for space exploration.
“Still in love with the sea?” Stevens asked, but Rondo did not respond. Stevens continued taking in his surroundings. In one corner of the room was a pair of roller skates. “For exercise?” he asked, but Rondo did not respond. In the space outside the transparent cell, Stevens felt the passing of a shadow, as if something were swimming in the waters that continued to rise in the immeasurable chamber that encased the transparent cell that encased the surviving pilot, a father, and a boy.
“Aw, man! Is that a comic?” Marcus tossed the Time Magazine aside and started flipping through the second magazine, which apparently wasn’t a magazine, but a comic book. Stevens leaned in so he could see the cover. Huh, he thought, Amazing Spider-Man #300.
He had a knack for taking in details at a glance. He also couldn’t help but notice that this Spider-Man was also wearing a black suit instead of the traditional red and blue. “My son’s a fan of Spider-Man’s black costume also. Aren’t you, Marcus?”
“Sure am.” Stevens wondered if the boy had really even heard him; he was immersed so in the pages of the Marvel Universe.
“How are you feeling, Rajon?”
The young pilot, whose intense glare gave him the weight of more years than he had lived, turned to face the man who had been sent to gather answers. “That wasn’t a shadow earlier.” The man stood with his arms behind him, his right hand holding his left wrist. He had stood in this manner even before the father and his son entered.
“I beg your pardon.”
“You felt the passing of a shadow. You swore to yourself it must be a shadow, but it wasn’t. Ever since they placed me here, ever since they decided I’m infected, having seen things they can’t even imagine, they’ve filled this chamber—this holding tank—with a temporary ocean, thinking that the passing sharks, the giant squid, the piranhas, all of my favorites, will comfort me, but they won’t. They would like to keep me here, but I’m only willing to waste so much more time.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because, Dr. Stevens, you’re the go-between, am I right?”
“Go-between—well, I don’t know if that’s what I’d call it—”
“Then what would you call it?” Hands still posed behind his back.
Stevens moved to take off his glasses—they were smudged—but his hazmat suit prevented such deliberate habits. He looked around, somewhat puzzled, and noticed Marcus lacing up Rajon Rondo’s roller skates. “Marcus don’t—” He felt a shadow overhead. He craned his neck and this time he saw it—a squid—counting what he thought were nine tentacles. “Rajon, I’m just here to find out what happened and to help build a program that lasts. That’s all. You’ve clearly experienced something that no one else has even come close to experiencing—”
“I think the story they’re going with and what I was told to go with is that the Perkincinerator failed, that the part was too expensive so the company they bought it from had actually outsourced the job for cheap. In other words, the Perkincinerator wasn’t what we thought it was, which means when I stirred the tanks at certain velocities the ship was doomed to fail. They want me to say the part was broken and that I pushed it too hard. Whatever. But that’s not what happened.”
“What did then?” asked Stevens as Marcus orbited around the room on skates.
“The part they dropped in Oklahoma City or Houston or wherever was a set up. The ship didn’t crash and burn. I landed it. Then they chose to take it apart prematurely because when I landed it I was the only one on it still alive.”
“What happened to the others?” Marcus gathered speed as his father asked questions.
“I don’t know.”
“C’mon, you kind of know.”
“I don’t know where they are now, but I know the equipment on the ship was giving us some out of this world energy readings, like some Phoenix-force shit!”
“I’ve never been a fan of the X-Men. Talk me through it in layman’s terms.”
“The readings went off the charts, suggesting extraterrestrial interference. Then Ray said on the radio, ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ Then we got nothing, but his bio-readings were still all coming through. He’s alive out there, and he knew what was happening when he was ‘taken.’ In fact, he seemed pretty comfortable about the whole thing.”
“What about KG and Pierce?”
“What about ‘em?”
“C’mon, just tell the truth.”
“They left too, but their bio-sensors reacted differently, going dead for a minute or so before flashing back on. That means they were dead and then they weren’t.”
Marcus was a comet flying around the room. Stevens had to think about what he was being told. “What else? You’re clearly not telling me everything.”
“You sure about that?”
“Think it through, Professor.”
Stevens closed his eyes to think. Doing his best to rub at his temples through the constructs of the hazmat suit, he didn’t see Marcus trip over Rondo’s extended leg. “DAAAAAaaaaaddd!” The sound of a body crashing into furniture and then a wall. And then a thud. Rondo’s still stood with his one hand holding his wrist behind his back. Stevens rushed to his son’s aid. “You alright?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Let’s get you out of those roller skates. I should never have let you—”
“My suit’s torn.”
“I’m sure it will be alright. How’s everything else?”
Marcus patted at his arms and legs. “Fine, everything seems to be fine.”
Rondo stared at the shadowy waters outside the cell; a detached tentacle floated by the glass. “There was one other thing, Professor. . . .” Rondo finished the sentence, but Bradley Stevens couldn’t hear him: a siren was going off and the water outside the transparent cell was being drained.
Marcus’ room for the summer still looked like an adult guest room. His clothes were unpacked and in a dresser, but the dresser had formerly been in his parents’ master bedroom before they divorced. The book case was loaded down with unpacked boxes belonging to the boy’s father rather than toys and books and trophies. Nothing hung from the walls, marking the room not only as an adult’s room but an adult male’s room. Currently, no one was in the room, but Marcus was down the hall in the bathroom scrubbing his teeth with a Batman toothbrush—he would’ve preferred Spider-Man—harder than he probably should.
He spat in the sink, rinsed down the foamy mint residue, speared the toothbrush into the solo cup his dad told him to use as a dispenser, and sprinted down the hallway. When he jumped to avoid the highway pile-up of toy cars in the middle of the carpet thoroughfare, he landed with all fours on the wall. He stayed there for only a split second before bounding to the other wall and landing, eventually, in a crouched position at the top of the stairs. Something in him had changed, and he knew it. He stood up slowly, becoming the Marcus of old again. To do so, he tugged on the hemline of his orange t-shirt, trying to stretch it, to make himself appear smaller. Just a few days prior, his Oklahoma State shirt had been a few sizes too large, but now it was a few sizes too small.
“Dad! I’m ready for bed!”
Brad Stevens, the boy’s father, cupped the mouthpiece of his phone with his hand. “Be there in a second!” He then went back to his phone conversation. “What do you mean he’s escaped?”
“The symbiote was no longer registering as being in a relationship with his body—it wasn’t even registering as being in the cell anymore—”
“Okay, well, did he escape or did you let him go? It sounds like you’re trying to have this both ways.”
“We’re not trying to have this anyway, Mr. Stevens. We’re just stating facts.”
“But why are you stating them to me?”
“Because, before his cell was evacuated, you and your son were the last individuals to speak with Mr. Rondo. You were his only visitors.”
“Are you implying something? I already gave a full report of everything I know.”
“We’re not implying anything. We’re just keeping a watchful eye on the situation.”
Brad Stevens looked at the number of the person who had called him: ID UNKNOWN. “What was your name again?” No response. “Are you with Auerbach Enterprises, the Taskforce, the Institute?” He thought he could hear a thousand clicks like static in the background. “Hello? Is someone there using a typewriter?” The screen on his phone flashed red; whomever he had been talking to having hung up on their end. “Huh.”
“DAAAAaaaaaddd! Come on! I’m ready for bed.” Stevens placed the phone on the table and walked up the stairs to his son’s bedroom. Halfway up, he noticed a large cobweb in the spokes of the bannister. He poked at it with his fingertips; it felt damp and sticky, like drywell worn thin by a leaky roof. He looked up and down the bannister and at the corners of the stairwell. He expected to see the world’s largest spider, but nothing was there.
“Alright, what are we reading tonight?” Marcus was already in bed.
“I don’t know.” Marcus shrugged. “You pick.”
Brad Stevens sorted through a pile of comics on the dresser. They were the only items in the room that suggested it wasn’t occupied by an adult. “Spider-Man?”
“No, I don’t think so. I might be over Spider-Man?”
“Over Spider-Man? Never thought I’d hear that,” he said, but in some way the father was relieved as he thought about the glob of webbing he’d found on the stairs. “Alright, well, how about one of these—” He held up two comics, each one’s cover blazoned with an imposing red-haired woman. In one image this red-haired woman appeared destructive while in the other she seemed redemptive. The latter image held more sway over Stevens’ instinctual drives to heal and be healed. “Let’s go with ‘Enter: the Phoenix’.” He looked at the three figures in the comic book cover’s foreground—a blue creature, a woman with shock-white hair and shock-white eyes, a man with a red visor over his eyes, all drowning. He wanted to see if they could be saved. “Have you read this one yet?”
“No, just flipped through it a couple times. Jeff Green says it’s good, but that ‘The Dark Phoenix’ is way cooler.”
Stevens reflected on his phone conversation just minutes before coming up stairs. “Let’s stay away from darkness right now.” He started to read. He liked the story enough. The images were all rather striking, human beings altered into more perfect, albeit more persecuted, versions of themselves. At the end of each page, he found himself full of a dozen questions: who’s this character? is this foreshadowing? what’s her power? how many nicknames can a character have? do they get along? what’s the backstory? is the continuity here always retroactive? what matters more the words or the images?
However, he let all the questions lay comatose inside his head as each turn of the page rendered Marcus evermore drowsy, until the boy fell asleep.
Wind blowing through the screen unfurled pages of the comic book, transmuting the still colors into live action sequences. The pages turned over one another in the graceful arc of a rainbow, and then gravity hypnotized the entire magazine into falling off the nightstand and onto the floor, waking the boy.
He looked at the window, its long curtains reaching with the wind towards the foot of the bed. He didn’t remember the window being open when he fell asleep. Maybe dad opened it, he thought. He shivered. He threw the sheets aside and sprung towards the window and, using the ceiling fan as playground equipment, he landed on the windowsill, where he peered out into the backyard’s midnight. In the tree outside his window, he saw something move. Or, maybe he didn’t see anything at all, but merely sensed it. The two activities, seeing and sensing, seemed inseparable these days, like his brain was wired to a surveillance system that scanned all 360° around him. But that didn’t make sense, did it? That was impossible, wasn’t it?
He wanted to open the window’s screen. He wanted to hop out onto the branches of the tree, to see if what he thought he saw was truly there, in the sense that he had sensed it. The screen slid upwards. He looked at his hands; they were still inches away from the screen. The screen defied gravity as if propelled by magnets. He leapt into the tree.
Marcus stared into the eyes of what felt like a reflection, like the inverse of himself, only maybe not quite so different. It was hard to explain. When he first met Rajon Rondo in the underground bunker, he had been intimidated. He had put on the roller skates and circled the room not out of daring, not like a shark hunting, but out of fear, like a timid goldfish, or a mother protecting her nest. But now he looked into Rondo’s eyes and recognized something, the way in which one might recognize an old familiar haunt, like a neighborhood of emotions, like a schoolyard full of memories. He had a sense of having once been Rajon Rondo and that Rondo knew what it was like to be him.
“You took something from me,” said Rondo, “and I want it back.”
Marcus couldn’t see his own eyes, but if he could, he would’ve noticed they were glowing green, like infected emeralds, or pieces of Oz. Somewhere in the vast spaces of the night’s blackness, church bells rang from a shuttered steeple, and the two of them on the branch, like fish out of water, gasped their excited panic. Haunted by the past and startled by the future, they each knew what the other was thinking.
(Art by Todd Whitehead)
A retreating fluff of faded yellow hair crowned the top of the man’s wrinkled skull. His forehead sloped ever so slightly away from his nose, like the dome of an egg shell acropolis. His expression never changed, his lips drawn in a thin line, tight like the hinges on a metal safe. His glacial eyes, cold and blue, carved out the room. His elbows rested on the lacquered bar, beside him a single malt glowing with a deep amber, resilient to the feasts of decay surrounding it. He owned the place, but no one knew that. He kept his mouth shut. He walked in every night and perched--watching, looking miserly and distant, lost in a sea of antiquated abuses. And when he did talk, it was about Wild Turkey labels and the details of life for which no one else had either the character or the talent to understand. No one knew he was the living embodiment of the name on the neon sign outside the pool hall. No one, in truth, knew he was alive.
“Hey, can you spot me?”
The bar’s namesake looked over his shoulder. The hall’s best player was asking Big Roy for more cash. This request had been made several times on the night. The owner kept a ledger in his head.
“I don’t know, Paul. That kid’s hot.”
“Come on, I’m hustling him.”
“You sure? Looks like he might be hustling you.”
The single malt disappeared down the namesake’s throat.
“I think you should give it to him.”
Paul glanced towards the nameless voice. “You heard him. That’s a man who knows a player when he sees one.” Paul lifted his beer in praise of his new benefactor.
“Yeah,” said Roy, “but who is he? You act like he’s the boss of something. I got my orders.”
The nameless one walked slowly along the side of the bar, losing the rust of years with each step. “Actually, I am the boss, Roy. My name’s on that sign outside, and whatever it is you’ve got in this life, you pretty much got it from me. Reggie’s just a face.”
Roy swallowed the toothpick in his mouth. “Oh shit! You’re Mr. Bird! I swear I didn’t know! You never told me who you was before now! Here, man, have a drink on the house.”
“But it’s my house.”
“Right you are there, sir.”
“So go ahead, Roy, give the kid some dough.”
Big Roy did as he was told, and Larry Bird followed the Paul kid over to where a small crowd in a small town had gathered to watch small talents collide. Strange enough, the smallness of it all rendered it all rather large.
“Ready for another game?” Paul asked a man whose back was towards him. The other man was playing the bar’s lone pinball machine. He spun around, crowing with overly intense eyes, like softballs lodged in his skull.
“Vince is it?” asked Larry, reading the white letters printed across the kid’s black shirt.
“Oh, no, I’m Lance.”
“Close enough,” smiled Larry.
“My break,” asserted Paul, lining up the cue to strike.
“How ‘bout you let the kid break.”
Paul started to object, but Larry patted the wallet in his coat pocket.
“You break, Lance,” conceded Paul with an air of deflation.
Lance twirled his pool stick over his shoulder, spinning it like the blade of an airplane propeller. When he bent over the table and pulled back, Larry responded to the resounding crack of thunder, “Kid’s got a sledgehammer of a break.”
By the end of his turn, Lance was a richer man and back to spending it all on the bar’s lone pinball machine. He wanted all the high scores to read Born Ready.
“You eaten yet? Larry asked Paul.
“Meet me at Smit’s, the steakhouse down the street, around ten or so. And bring the kid.” He nodded towards the player lighting up the pinball machine.
The metal wheelchair struck both sides of the door with a clumsiness revealing how unaccustomed its operator was to its confines (like a blind man waking up one morning at the helm of a whitewater rafting trip). When the apparatus cleared the doorway, its occupant raised his hands in welcoming triumph, “LeBrooonn! My favorite Miami real estate lawyer!” LeBron James, however, responded with much less enthusiasm, veering his eyes up from his desk without the slightest tilt of his own head. He eyed Danny Granger’s presence not so much with disgust, but with indifference. When finished, he returned to annotating a used copy of John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius.
“I truly did it this time, LeBron. I tell you--even got them to lay hands on me.”
LeBron was unmoved, bored even. He had heard this story before--told it even, in court, before a sworn jury.
Danny Granger, a man convicted of trespassing, fraud, embezzlement, and accomplice to just about anything, was a master at swaying the hearts and minds of the average Joe. It felt good to root for Danny. It felt good to root for a man in a wheelchair who had simply fallen on hard times--times too large and indecent for the average man. His large posture crammed into wheeled birdcage personified American sentiment in the 21st century. His crumbled body concluded: the game is rigged, folks, so you might as well play along.
He had also, at one time, been one helluva ringer in any pool hall con, and should not have been allowed access to even the shittiest of south Florida’s billiards rooms.
That is, until recently, when the pretense of the scams and the violence of getting caught had finally seemed to catch up with Danny. His natural talents long diminished, he was finally losing the way of the lie, and both he and his abuser knew it. The Danny that slumped before LeBron now was nothing at all like Fast Danny Granger. This man couldn’t even hold a pool cue without shaking.
“I rolled up like I always do to one of these swamp rat bars that have yet to realize they’re existing in the twenty-first century, find they don’t have handicap accessibility, make a scene, and this time they went so far as to put their goddamn hands on me. Can you believe it?”
“I can’t even imagine,” LeBron sighed while picturing Danny’s body plummeting all twenty-four stories between LeBron’s office window and the sidewalk. “What was the point of being there?”
“I was scouting potential properties for you guys--for you and Mr. Wade.”
“Times are changing, Danny. We can’t run the old scams forever. As our own boss says, the end used to come every 48 years, but now it’s every 48 minutes.”
“I even got McBob to take pictures and everything.” Danny pulled several Polaroids from his coat pocket and scattered them like so much feces on LeBron’s desk. However, he did so with the confidence of Gambit performing an explosive magic trick. LeBron gathered them into a disordered stack just as quickly as Danny dispersed them. Still, he could not help seeing their contents.
Two men, one Danny’s height and complexion and the other shorter, could be seen arguing with a seated Danny and then in subsequent photographs taking command of his wheelchair and dumping him in the gravel parking lot of the bar, where the weeds struggled weakly to reclaim what had once been theirs. The confrontation looked as old and clear cut as a prehistoric food chain.
“Okay, so what do you want me to do? File suit? Fix an eviction?”
“Actually, my man, I had something else in mind. The courts take too long.” The man’s eyes twinkled with lost youth. “Besides, this is about vengeance--they personally insulted me! I’ve got a vendetta against these fuckers!”
LeBron sighed, leaning back with his hands on his head. “Danny, our ventures are all legitimate.”
“Man, y’all ain’t shit. I know about the banana boat vacations. I went to Turkey. I met that guy all of you just call K. I know he’s the man behind the man behind the man.”
“What do you want, Danny? You want to know how all this works? You want a great revealing--to be part of the inner circle?”
“What is it? Tim Hardaway Tech or some bullshit like that. Puh-leaze. If I wanted to know all that, then I could just talk with someone at The Admiral. Ain’t like this story includes aliens and shit. It ain’t bigger than Miami. No way. I just want my revenge, and I just want you to help me with it.”
“We’re moving towards legitimacy.”
“Bruh, you think I don’t know. You’ve said that like three times now. Besides, you don’t want to play, I’ll just roll with that Bosh fellow. Where’s he from? Mexico City? Toronto? Hell, I could get this done with that tattooed blond motherfucker, used to bootleg in Denver. You see, I understand the whole operation.”
“And you think I don’t know about your chair and how you landed in it.” LeBron leaned forward, both hands flat on the desk. “We’re both extortionists, Danny.”
Danny laughed through an expression that was all contorted plastic.
“Which is exactly why I’ve come to see you.” He was leaning back in his wheelchair again, eyes shining and doing his best to stretch a big grin across his face. “Those two boys in the Polaroids. They think they’re hustlers, but they’re not.”
“Then what are they?”
Impossibly, the grin seemed to stretch for another mile. “They’re losers.”
“And how do you come by that conclusion?”
“Man, don’t make me say it.”
“Say what, Danny?”
“Man, don’t drag me through some takes one to know one bullshit. That’s low.”
“So what do you want me to do, Danny?”
“I just want to play some pool, man.” He choked up, tears in his eyes and everything. “I just want to be back.”
LeBron laughed. He felt the tension leave the room. He also felt pity. “Danny, aren’t you pretty much banned from all pool halls in the continental United States? Hell, you wouldn’t even be allowed to play in the rec-room of a college dormitory.”
Danny stretched his grin wide again, like a canyon ripped open from a sudden torrent, and LeBron worried it might split into the Grand Canyon of South Beach.
“Seriously, though, where are you gonna play? You can’t even set foot in a pool hall.”
“That’s all true, but I never had your kind of money back me before.” He licked his lips. “I never had that Riley currency to just dive into and wash all over me. That can make even a guy like me come out clean, ready to slide all up in some DMs!”
“And you got that now?”
“We’re still talking aren’t we?”
LeBron chuckled. Shook his head.
“Just look at those two boys in the photos and tell me what you see.” He paused. “I see an opportunity to be forever young, my man.”
And with that, Danny stood up from his chair, letting it roll backwards against the closed door.
“I’m telling you there’s big money on the table. Tax free money.”
He smiled that earth-shattering grin again and walked out, leaving the chair in the open doorway, whistling as he went.
The restaurant was an antique store, old lace curtains and Dutch paintings. A person felt older just squinting in the dim light, to read the small print of the menus. “I couldn’t help but to notice you playing a lot of pin ball back at the Pool Hall.”
“Yeah,” said Lance. “It’s cool.”
“Seems a bit chaotic. We used to play darts in my day. Pool and darts. Two games that require your eyes and your hands. No need for flashing lights and loud noises.”
“Can you make money off a dart game?”
“Oh, sure. Can you make money from pinball?”
Lance missed the question as his eyes darted around the room, his attention span seemingly captivated by an imaginary fly. The effort it took for him to follow the phantom buzz reminded Larry, for some reason, of a young Forest Whitaker. Larry tilted his head towards Paul, “That’s why you want him to be the unknown.”
Lance’s eyes followed the invisible fly.
“He’s a natural flake.”
“I’m not a flake,” objected Lance. “I’m born ready.”
“I bet you are,” said Larry. “And I mean it.”
“Then what’s my role?” asked Paul. “If he’s the unknown, then what am I?”
“You’re Paul George,” Lance said, doing his best to offer clarification on the matter.
“I’m still figuring that one out,” said Larry. “It might work better if you were a woman.”
Lance moved his eyes up and down Paul’s torso.
“I’m no woman,” objected Paul.
“I know that, but it would be better. In a way, I guess you’re both unknowns. He’s the flake, though.”
“Is that some sort of compliment?” asked Lance.
“It’s not an insult,” said Larry.
“Yeah, but what am I?” The question sounded as much about Paul’s identity in the world as much as it did about Paul’s role in Larry’s scheme.
“I guess you’re the face of the franchise—the sure thing.”
“So what you got in mind? A bunch of Midwest towns and some Rust Belt cities. Is that where we make our money?”
“We can start there, sure, but that’s not our end goal. Chicago’s nice, but have you ever been to Miami?”
Paul was surprised. He thought he had the old man’s scheme all figured, that is except for the part about him, but he had definitely thought he knew the geography of it.
“There’s a tournament in Miami a few months from now.”
“You think one of us can win that?”
“One of you maybe, sure, but then one of you has to lose too.”
“I don’t lose,” interjected Lance. “Did you see me tonight? I didn’t lose tonight. I never--”
“Lose.” Larry finished Lance’s sentence. “The real money’s not on the floor; it’s in the green room. Because of that, it doesn’t matter whether you lose so much as when and where you lose and to whom. You have to recognize the details within your contextual situation without ever removing yourself from your context.”
Lance’s eyes roamed around the green room in loops of infinity.
“The green room?” asked Paul, his eyes basking in the light of his education.
“The green room,” nodded Larry.
“Is this fly bothering y’all?” asked Lance.
Larry and Paul looked at one another and then at Lance and the darting nature of his eyes. “What fly?”
“This one.” Lance reached back into his molars and clawed at a place of discomfort. “It’s been buzzing around all night, but I got it. See—”
He showed them the dead fly in the shape of a bloody tooth.
“Told you, I don’t lose.”
“Born ready?” asked Paul.
“Born ready,” said Larry.
“Maybe it wasn’t a fly at all guys.” Lance rolled the bloody tooth around in his palm. “Yep, not a fly, more like a hornet.”
Larry and Paul’s eyes made a secret pact over a single, but very large question: How much of a flake is too big of a flake?
The stairwell’s wood paneling creaked with claustrophobia as LeBron carried Danny up the sagging of cedar steps. He felt like he was climbing into a musty attic. When he reached the top of his climb, he plopped the man down in the first available chair of the second floor pool hall, that smelled hot and felt humid from years of cigarette plumes, and then descended the stairs for the man’s clunky metal wheelchair. Somewhat out of breath, LeBron felt a slight, but familiar, twitch in his left cheek.
“How’d you get it up here the first time?”
“I carried the chair myself.”
“Jesus!” said LeBron, fully disgusted by his client’s foolish audacity, his willingness to be desperate.
“You plan on using a house cue?”
“What else would I use? A Balabushka? This isn’t a movie, King; I gotta be smart.” He tapped two fingers to his temple, not in the manner of a gun, but more like a distorted Scout salute. “There they are.” He wheeled his way towards the two gentlemen LeBron had seen in the photos.
“You shoot good, but you also shoot lucky,” said the taller of the two men.
“Come on, Paul, you know this ain’t luck,” said his partner and sometimes adversary.
“Nine ball’s not even real pool; it’s a banger’s game.”
“Who says?” asked Lance, as if all opinions hinged on the individuals who spoke them. Also, he wondering whether or not to be insulted.
“Screw Larry,” said Lance, slamming a shot into the corner pocket.
“What? You don’t like Larry?”
“I love Larry, but I still say screw Larry.”
LeBron listened intently, watching the two perform this semblance of a stage act over Danny’s head.
“Hey, look who it is,” said Paul. “You know, you’re not allowed in here, Fast Danny Granger.”
Lance perked up, “Do we get to throw him out again?”
“I don’t know; seems he brought a friend this time. What are you—his mentor?”
LeBron stood silent behind Danny’s chair, allowing the scene to unfold. His cheek may have pulsed—a tremor always on the horizon—but he stilled it into insignificance.
“He’s better than a friend; he’s an ATM machine.”
“Huh. I think you would’ve been better off with a mentor. You can lose what an ATM gives you, but the wisdom of experience that’s forever or some shit. Wish I had a mentor.”
“But we do, Paul,” Lance interjected. “We got Larry.”
“Thought you said screw Larry.”
“I also said I love Larry.”
“But does Larry love you?” asked Paul. “Does he love either of us?”
“Does a mentor have to love you in order to teach you?”
Danny, in a burst of frustration: “What is it with this mentor shit? Which one of you is gonna play me?”
Paul turned to Danny, “You goddamn crippled ass-has been- motherfucker.”
“Impatient too,” chimed in Lance.
“Impatient too,” added Paul. “But sure, we’ll give you a game. How much we talking?”
“Depends on which one of you is playing,” said LeBron, breaking his silence.
“I’ll do it,” said Lance, his eyes doing that thing they do when no one else sees what he sees. “I’ll do it, for sure.” He puffed his chest out and began to clench and unclench and clench his fists over and over again. No one really knew what to make of this squat, bug-eyed hornet of a man, so they just waited for the next moment to arrive.
Lance started to gather the balls on the table in order to rack them, and as he did so, Danny stood up from his wheelchair, making a greater show of his metal rod limp than was actually necessary. Most of the pain he felt was in his jaw bone, where a wire made from the same metal as the rods in his legs, held his face together.
“My break,” he said, and Lance handed him the ivory shaded cue ball. He moved the ball over the green felt, absorbing that feathery resistance into his fingers and arm, into himself. He had waited so long to be back, ever since those two dudes had held him down to a table at Larry’s and taken everything from him. But now was his chance. He was back, and he was going to take everything from these two—and then Larry too.
Danny lined up his shot, using an open hand bridge because his fingers refused to bend, and pulled back on the stick. About to strike at the heart of it all, he felt a hand close on his shoulder. He lifted the stick off the bridge of his hand and looked over his shoulder. LeBron was staring down at him.
“How ‘bout letting me play this one, Danny.”
He wanted to explain how he’d learned his lesson, that he knew when and how to speak now, that the cocksure and careless rooster he’d once been was no more. He wanted to say that he could be trusted, that surgeries and time had served as his mentors. But LeBron’s eyes told him to keep his mouth shut and sit down. And that’s exactly what he did. He walked over to his wheelchair, limping this time without any theatrics, because this time his bones really did hurt, and he sat down with his chin tucked into the pocket of his hands. He hated the pool hall. He hated everything about it.
“Hold on,” said Paul. “The deal we struck was for Lance against Danny, not you.”
“Come on, Paul. I got this.” Lance snorted. “Born ready, man. Born ready.”
“A moment with my thoroughbred?” Paul put his arm around Lance’s shoulder and walked to the far end of the table with him. He whispered, “You’re going to dump, Lance, and you’re going to dump good. You hear me?”
“But I don’t lose.”
“Look, this isn’t part of Larry’s plan. Whatever we make or lose today is our money. Do you understand that? It’s not Larry’s money.”
“It’s just one game.”
“Will you listen for a moment? This could cost us.”
“Paul, this is a pool hall, and pool is a game. Games got winners and games got losers. I’m a winner. What else would I be doing in a pool hall?”
“You could be making money,” answered Paul. “And lots of it.”
“Come on, Paul, he’s white collar. He’s not like us. He ain’t from nowhere.”
“Which makes him an unknown. Haven’t you learned anything?”
“I’ve learned there’s a line, and I best not be on the wrong side of it.”
“Then dump, Lance. That’s all you have to do.” Paul had both hands on Lance’s shoulders and bent his forehead toward the man until their faces were touching. Lance could feel Paul’s breath on the bridge of his nose. “You hear me, Lance?”
The tree of life split asunder in the splintering of ivory on the felt table, and even Danny found himself thinking, kid’s got a sledgehammer of a break. Lance was dancing and twirling. He was doing everything other than dumping. He may have been dumping balls into pockets, but he wasn’t dumping. Paul was furious. He didn’t understand how after all the miles and all the pool halls and all of Larry’s lessons how Lance still didn’t understand the long and the short of it, that there was always more to be made than what was visibly on the table. And the other thing about it—what really stuck in Paul’s craw—was that he couldn’t tell whether Lance was talking trash to his opponent at the table or to himself, for Lance kept going into a two-bit monologue that seemed to target him as much as anyone else:
“Thing is, even if it is just for bangers, everybody’s doing it.” Grin. “If everybody’s doing it, there’s a lot of guys doing it.” Grin. “Lot of guys doing it.” Grin. Sinks shot. “But only one guy can be the best.” Sinks another shot. Wins game. That stupid motherfucker, thought Paul, and then out loud, “Born ready?”
“Born ready,” said Lance, with no shame and no hesitation.
“I want in on the next game,” said Danny, grabbing at LeBron’s indifferent sleeve.
“What? Like you wanna play?” mocked Paul, needing someone beneath him.
“No, meaning I want money on the kid here. They’re playing again, right?”
“What money have you got?” Paul asked in disbelief.
“Told you, I’m a winner, Paul. Never lost and never gonna. People recognize that about me. Doesn’t take long and then, sure enough, they all see it, smell blood,” he twirled his stick and then stabbed it like a samurai warrior into the floor, “and, then, they want in on the kill.”
“Sure, you can be in on the next game,” said Paul. “How much?”
Danny laid out what must have been his life’s savings on the table.
“Alright, sounds good,” said Paul, as he counted the money. “But I’m betting on the King here.”
“The King? But I just whooped his ass!” blurted Lance in disbelief.
“I know,” said Paul. And LeBron said nothing, letting it all play out before him. When Lance took the break without asking anyone whether it was his to take, that familiar sound of worlds ending resounded through the pool hall’s chambers like a bullet released from a gun, but the table’s pockets all remained empty. He had failed to draw first blood.
“What was it you said, Lance? There can only be one?” asked LeBron, his eyes suggesting he knew something that Lance could never understand. “Yeah, I think that’s exactly what you said.”
LeBron lined up his shot, started to pull the cue back, and then stopped all movement: Lance was blowing what looked like kisses in his ear. LeBron eyed the nuisance, like a fly buzzing in his ear, and tilted his head ever so slightly, before proceeding to call and sink every shot on the table. “Think I’m thirsty. Let me buy you a drink, Lance.”
Paul grinned, even slapped hands with LeBron, as he eyed Lance down, I told you to dump. And Danny, Danny just sat in his wheelchair drowning in poverty’s thirst.
“Come on. Set ‘em up again,” growled Lance. “You’re into me now.”
They played again, and LeBron won again.
“Come on. Set ‘em up again.”
Lance was well into a bottle of brown, so was LeBron. But only Lance was sweating. He lost again, finished the bottle, and asked for another. LeBron did too. Paul stood in the corner, watching, neither grinning nor frowning, just growing rich sipping Gatorade as his partner continued to play and continued to lose.
“Come on. Set ‘em up again.” Lance swayed as he said it; he was clearly on the ropes.
LeBron prowled around the table’s edge, leaned in to take his shot, and there was Lance, once again, blowing in the man’s ear.
“Cut that shit out, Lance,” said Paul. “If you’re gonna lose, then lose like a goddamn man.”
“I never lose.”
“The money says otherwise. In fact, everything says otherwise. I’m not even sure you’ve been hustled. You’re just losing straight up.”
Lance closed the space between him and his partner with two quick whirlwinds of his stick, high over his head, and then he landed the stick into Paul’s leg for one huge sledgehammer of a break. And Paul staggered to the floor. Gatorade spilled everywhere, and Paul slipped as he tried to pull himself up by his elbows on the pub table beside him. The table fell too, and Paul was on his back.
“What the fuck, Lance.” Paul was more hurt than excited.
“What! That wasn’t part of the plan?” Lance turned to LeBron and barked with a dog’s rabidness: “Set ‘em up again!”
“I think we’re done here,” said LeBron, picking up the pile of cash that teetered on the edge of the table. He counted out his share and pocketed it. Then he walked over to Paul on the ground and dropped his share on the wounded man’s chest. “You coming?” he asked Danny.
Danny turned his eyes to the far end of the hall, and LeBron walked out into the sunshine, leaving the three men from Indiana in the dusk of the upstairs pool hall.
“Anyone else wanna play me?” The few regulars in the hall put their hands up and backed away in premature surrender. Paul gathered himself up, using a stick with a solid brass bridge for a crutch. He spat in Lance’s direction, “You’re a loser,” and then hobbled towards the door, leaving the money on the floor, to soak up the Gatorade.
“Come on, someone’s got to play!”
Danny noticed the stick in Lance’s hand for the first time. “Is that a Balabushka? No one’s coming near you with that.”
Lance raised the stick level to his eyes and, in a blink’s time, snapped it over his thoroughbred thigh. “How ‘bout now?”
Danny rose slowly from his chair and took a few arthritic steps towards the table. “Your break or mine?”
“You think I’m a loser, Danny?”
“Only if you think I am,” said Danny.
“Shiiiiittt!” said Lance. “You can have the break.” And the two played each other in the quiet of the hall, no longer concerned with the world around them, just playing to play, until the next person to be hustled walked up the stairs and through the door. Somewhere in the room a fly even buzzed, but they heeded it no mind.
After entering the mouth that appeared before him in Area X, Chris Paul walked across a glassy plane that reflected the endless sky above. With each step, the glass rippled like water. In the distance, he could see ballerinas and cowboys appear and then disappear. They flickered in and out like lost signals from distant satellites.
Chris noticed that with each flicker his body vanished and materialized almost simultaneously, as if he could stand in two places at once. With each quarterback tossing a perfect spiral or break dancer transforming himself into a gyroscope, Chris felt his body fade into static. While thrilling, he felt his atoms getting away from him.
“Do you feel less than what you are?”
The voice sounded from within and without Chris in a way that made him feel he existed inside its sound waves.
“That’s not too far off, Chris. You’re in a place that some people refer to as in the zone.”
“Who are you?”
“We’ll get to that? Right now, I need you to find the chess board.”
“But I don’t—”
“Just find the board, Chris. And, think about harnessing your powers. Otherwise, you might find yourself existing here, but in a million different pieces.”
Chris did not feel comforted by any of this.
A bicyclist appeared out of nowhere—arcing through the sky. Chris appeared next to the cyclist. He squeaked out a hello and then felt his body consumed by gravity. He began to fall. He managed to suspend himself in the air.
“Very good, Chris. You’re simultaneously vanishing and reappearing, just like before, but now you’re doing it all in one spot. Clever. Now locate the chessboard.”
Chris’ brain multi-tasked like never before: he destroyed and created himself in the same act. He scanned the horizon. He saw a weather map and a television camera. He felt himself slipping through the sky. Beads of sweat threatened to appear on his scalp.
“Hurry, Chris. You must hurry,” called the voice from the desert.
He heard a crash. His atoms thrashed against his brain. He appeared screaming on the glassy plane. He jumped up. He saw smoke rising from the direction of the crash. He could just barely make out the shape of chess pieces in the distance. He vanished for a better view.
A pawn lay encased in the shattered windshield of a KIA Optima. Other pawns lay scattered behind the car like body bags.
Chris approached the silver car, smoke billowing from its crumpled hood. The driver’s side door lay ajar. He leaned into the opening. The car flickered like a static poltergeist.
The steering wheel was clearly covered in smudges of peanut butter.
“Chris, we’re too late. You can’t stay in the zone much longer. A doorway will appear a football field’s length from the chess board in twenty-four seconds—be there!”
Chris started a count in his head. He saw an oaken door appear. He vanished. He appeared, his nose bleeding. He lifted the door knocker. He banged on the wood three times. He heard an iron click unlock the door. He placed his hand on the knob. He hesitated.
“What are you waiting for?”
“Why should I trust you?
The most spectacular bolt of lightning ripped open the seam between the glass plane and the sky. Chris watched the heavenly clouds evaporate at their edges, shredded out into the exposed nothingness.
“Do you see it? I know you see it. Soon that nothingness will be here. Now open the door.”
All he could hear were ticking clocks of all shapes and sizes, as if he were walking into a 1980s movie about time travel.
As the door opened, a warm yellow light welcomed him into what felt like a very cramped library. He saw shelf after shelf stacked with books from all antiquities. Some were leather bound. Others were held together with brass and gold hinges. Some required keys. Some tomes weren’t even books with paper pages, but stone tablets written by an ancient, philosophizing wizard named Naismith. Another set of shelves contained strange crystals. Some spherical. Some not. Another shelf contained aquariums full of strange colored fish. Bones sat as artifacts. Dinosaur skulls next to elephant tusks. A tiger’s skeleton vacillated in a tank full of wine. The door continued to open at an arthritic rate.
He saw the wall of clocks. Cuckoo. Grandfather. Digital. Even a sundial rotating around a miniature ball of fire. The door continued its pivot. A man in a red cape with a high, gold-bordered collar sat in a leather wing-tipped chair.
“Welcome,” he said, and Chris started to answer, but was distracted by a chicken over the man’s shoulder. It burst into flame, collapsed into ash, and then appeared as a yellow fluff amongst the soot, ready to embark on a lifetime in miniature all over again and then some.
“Okay, I stole that idea, but everyone has to find inspiration somewhere.” The man extended his hand and a chair materialized before him. “I think you’ll want to have a seat—we have quite a bit to discuss.”
Chris sat in the chair, or where the chair should have been, but felt no substance supporting his body’s frame. He felt like he was floating on air.
“I’m more of an illusionist, Chris. Where you move actual particles, I create images.”
Chris looked beneath his legs and saw no chair. He fell to the floor.
“And there is the downside. The illusion fails to matter once the audience fails to believe in it. There’s a real chair in the corner. Feel free to remove my pet armadillo, Austin, and have a seat in it.”
Chris did as he was told. However, before he removed himself from the floor, he was caught staring at what appeared to be a bizarre chandelier hanging like silver mist from the ceiling.
“It’s the entire known universe, Chris, and I’m glad you noticed it. It’s as good a place as any to start.”
“Where am I?” asked Chris.
“Have you ever seen a magician’s magic trunk?”
“Well, this room is the equivalent of that trunk’s false bottom. You will not find it on any map. It does not exist. If it did, neither you nor I would be safe here. We would be—how should I put it—found out.”
Not quite following, Chris decided to backtrack: “Where was I?”
“Just now . . . the zone. Of course, before that you were in Area X. In all honesty, however, the zone and Area X are different sides of the same mirror.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not speaking literally there. But Area X was once The Zone. However, every time I create the illusion of The Zone, my arch-nemesis finds it, exposes the seam, and kills it from within. You saw the start of this when the lightning tore at The Zone’s horizon. You also saw the aftermath when you stood on the salty beach. You have already seen the alpha and the omega. Of course, who is to say which is the Alpha and which is the Omega?”
“Okay, so you’re saying there are infinite Zones and infinite Area X’s?”
“Something like that.”
“Are you responsible for all of them?”
The man laughed. “I wish I could take such credit. No, there have been many illusionists before me, and I doubt I’m the only one in existence today. That’s the thing, though, to know one’s contemporaries is to divulge all the right information—therefore making it the wrong information.”
The man paused. A tea kettle levitated before him, as did porcelain cups. The kettle poured its contents into each cup. The man pushed his hand towards Chris, and the cup floated his way, along with its saucer.
“Is this real or is it like the chair?”
“That’s real. My levitation skills are solid. I just can’t conjure, except for doorways. I am a master of doorways, yet even that skill comes with limitations. I can construct a doorway—which is to say I can build a portal—but I cannot myself walk through them. In fact, few can.”
Chris sipped his tea. It burned his tongue.
“Sorry about that. Anyway, I studied Mikan’s theorems, but they no longer applied. Auerbach’s physics moved in the right direction, but seemed irreplicable, unless in a vacuum. I was part of the A.I.N.G.E. initiative, but found the confines of science, of the physical world, to be a limitation. I also grew impatient for dynasties and continuity I could believe in.”
The room darkened, except for one constellation of stars—the O’Brien Goblet—hanging from the mystical chandelier.
“You see, I came of age in the Order of the Hawks. My mentor was an individual named Dominique Wilkins.”
“Excuse me, sir—”
“Um, what’s the Order of the Hawks?”
This question elicited a wide crescent grin over the cape’s red and gold collar.
“In some other timeline, you yourself might have been part of this Order. Then again, who is to say that timeline does not exist outside this one. In your formative years, did you ever study the large and mysterious mounds of the Mississippi River Valley?” He did not wait for an answer, but continued the tangent within the lecture within the tangent. “No one knows who built them or really why. Maybe they were to honor the gods. Maybe they were to honor the dead. In some they found silver, in others human skeletons. God knows, but even those descended from the Order do not. I am one of those descendants, before Horford, and before Mookie. The Order descends from forgotten men and women, only to be forgotten also. No one knows the Order, and, in some ways, maybe that’s the point--an evolution towards the position-less.”
“And you think it’s possible I’m of this Order?”
“Not in this world, no. But in another world perhaps you are, and perhaps a man named Marvin sits where you do now. Have you ever watched a science fiction movie?”
Chris shrugged, “Sure.”
“Well, imagine a sheet of notebook paper folded in half. Got it? Then punch a hole through that paper with a pencil. Okay? If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand time travel and wormholes. Now, have you seen Stranger Things?”
“I’m not sure that comes out until 2016.”
“What about Interstellar?”
“What year is it now? I don’t think we’re there yet.”
“Okay, well, in 2016, Netflix will release a show that is really just a collection of all that came before it rehashed and sanded smooth so to feel new again. Anyway, the show will feature an episode called ‘The Acrobat and the Flea.’ The world we’re used to living in will be compared to a tightrope. We walk on one side, and on the other side is a world most of us are not privy to. The flea can walk the tightrope’s circumference. Now imagine not just one tightrope, but cobwebs of tightropes. The possibilities are endless. A flea could potentially jump from strand to strand. So I imagine somewhere in all those tangles, yes, you could be part of the Order.”
“What about the Yellow Kings?”
“I’m sure somewhere in that tangled web—yes.”
Chris heard the voice of Byron Scott speaking to him in his head, and he wanted to ask his current mentor about the Yellow Kings. He decided against it. He watched a yellow chick rise from black soot instead, and he asked a different question than the one left silent.
“What about the Tezcatlipocas?”
“What, the theory about there being four demigods hidden amongst a list of names to be sacrificed? Sounds like a whole lot of blood for very little in return.”
“You don’t believe in it?”
“I believe that to some people such a game is their reality, but I think they might be playing the wrong game. If I place Colonel Mustard on a chess board, what is he? If I place a white queen on a Clue board, what is she? I think those going to great lengths to find a Tezcatlipoca have constructed a narrative that is not natural to the board on which they play.”
“But haven’t you ever played a game where perhaps some of the pieces are missing so you borrow pieces from one game to use in another?”
“Yes, but everyone agreed on the pieces and what to call them beforehand. Also, certain games do not work on certain boards and, eventually, that friction will reveal itself.”
“Well, could it be that the Tezcatlipocas are already agreed upon?”
“If that’s so, then why is the game necessary? Why all the death? Why all the life? If the rules dictate the end results, then why play? Is it for theatrics? I think these individuals chasing after jaguars and serpents are on, well, how should I put it? I think they’re on a wild jaguar chase.”
“Aren’t you a master of illusion?”
“Ah, you do have me there.”
Chris stood up and walked around the small room. He perused the books on the shelves. Most of the titles meant nothing to him. He eyed a shelf full of different colored potions in glass beakers and odd shaped bottles. Most of these were either corked or sealed with wax.
“My mentor, Dominique, possessed the ability to walk through doorways, but at the time I couldn’t conjure any. You, on the other hand, I’m not sure you need a passageway as long as you know what exists on both sides of the frame already.”
The man sipped his tea.
“I need you to rescue someone, Chris.”
Chris lifted a finger to the waxen seal on a glass filled with a blue bubbling liquid.
“It will require you entering another illusion, and this time the illusion will exist in someone else’s mind. I can open a door, but I cannot go with you.”
The chicken clucked. The chicken caught fire. The world turned to ash.
“Would you be willing to do it?”
“I don’t understand. Wouldn’t rescuing an illusion be a matter of theatrics?”
“Not if there’s a body.” The man floated past a table with Dungeons and Dragons set up on it; the Demogorgon’s white silhouette stalking back and forth and waving its wild tentacles in the claymation light of the O’Brien Goblet.
The man floated towards the bookcase. He tugged on a worn title by Yago Colàs. Post-its appeared like peacock feathers. The shelf turned inward to reveal a winding staircase.
“Another false bottom?”
“Another false bottom.”
They descended the stairs. In the middle of the room, on a lab table, lay a body. All sorts of wires and cords and tubes ran in and out his skin and veins.
“His name is Blake Griffin. He’s been like this for quite some time. The Perkincinerator never malfunctioned. What they saw was the story’s seams—they saw, out there in space, a tear in the universe and a rupturing of the human narrative. We are not alone, Chris. We’re on a board, but there are players and entities moving beyond its edges.”
Chris stared at the man on the table. The man’s skin resembled a sky’s pale blue efforts.
“And you’re certain there are no Tezcatlipocas?”
“Chris, I’m telling you I’m not certain of anything anymore. Why do you think I left the A.I.N.G.E. Institute? Why do you think I took up the Dark Arts?”
“What does this man have to do with those astronauts?”
“What do any of us have to do with the Truth, other than we are all a particle of it?”
“No, seriously, what do you need him for?”
“He’s an escape artist.”
Chris looked at the still body hooked up to an endless number of computers. As a former street performer and self-proclaimed magician, he thought the man’s act needed some work.
“I don’t see it.”
“He’s under the illusion that he’s escaping endlessly from a water tank, a strait jacket, handcuffs, a chest—you name it. I need you to enter the world of his mind, which is not under his control, and teleport his consciousness without his cells, his atoms, his body.”
Another man stepped forward out of the shadows.
“Chris, I need an escape artist so that I can enter the tear in the universe witnessed by the crew of my ship. I need to search for the Truth. I need to find out what happened to Ray Allen, because whatever happened to him I doubt is an isolated occurrence. I think a war’s being waged, but I won’t know until I’m there.”
“Sounds a lot like the Tezcatli—”
“It’s bigger than that, Chris,” interrupted this second man. “You gotta see that. It’s all connected, my man.”
“Chris, this is Magic. He’s going with you.”
“If you have him, why do you need me?”
“Magic’s there to be your conscience, to make sure you don’t lose yourself inside another man’s head. He has experience with this sort of thing.”
Magic smiled as if they had just won some journey aboard a cruise line. “Ever been to the Forum Club, kid?”
The caped man continued, “Also, in case our enemies already know you’re coming, we’re issuing you a disguise.”
Creating the illusion of the orange and black caterpillar as a stationary equator, Earvin rotated his hand until the critter crossed into the valley of his palm. He closed his fingers around the string and its infinite number of legs, but he did not squash it. He merely cradled it in hands that were placid, yet powerful. When he opened his palm, a butterfly’s wings flickered like flames.
“How’d you do that?” I asked. “I can’t seem to teleport anything in this place.”
“I never reveal my secrets, Cliff,” said Earvin,” but if you check behind my ear, you’ll find the caterpillar sure as a dime.” He winked. “They need a cocoon to transform. All I did was sleight of hand.”
I felt diminished in the presence of this man. I was brought here to do something, and yet I’d lost the ability to do that one thing. Moreover, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson could also do this thing. I felt redundant. I felt angry. I felt absurdly dressed in a sweater vest.
We had been in the meadow since dawn, having ridden our horses south and west from the lake country, following the rivers and creeks along the way; the places where life gathers and breathes. Since the journey began, we had tracked a herd of buffalo, identified all different species of bird, and come face to face with a mighty buck, its pebbled eyes studying us from the other side of a slow, cool current.
Now, we were in a field of green, surrounded by the bouncing wings of orange butterflies. Transformation was not a miracle here, but a natural process of time and biology. We were witnesses to the process. Earvin bent down to the ground and unrolled his long fingers like a gangplank for the caterpillar, and in a journey that stretched to eternity and back, the orange and black slouched its way millimeter by millimeter back to the good earth. I grew impatient with the slow march of progress—the length of a finger—but Earvin just smiled. He was much more patient than me.
I looked to the sun peaking overhead, “Shouldn’t we be on our way?”
“In good time, my friend, in good time.” He watched the caterpillar disappear underneath a brown leaf, before donning his hat again. “You ready? “ he said. He had a way of controlling the pace.
We cut back through the field, towards the riverbed. Life faded as we rode. Greens became brown and then gray. Shade turned to darkness, and the spectral light sifting through the leaves became the thick weavings of a spider’s web. The trees, which once were strong and solid at their trunks, were now half-rotten; their bark resembling the makings of a hollowed skull with a cracked jaw. The power of the river slowed into a crawl, moving much like a worm through sand and mud. The meadow was a swamp.
“Are we going the right way?”
Earvin said we were, but hesitation lingered in his answer.
I asked why don’t we just teleport to where we’re going. He said it doesn’t always work that way. He said we were technically teleporting every moment we existed in this place, whatever it was.
The sun was nowhere to be seen. Bearings were not lost so much as they didn’t exist. Howls, off in the distance, broke the silence that lived in the darkness of conjoining shadows. An owl hooted, and wings beat the darkness down upon us. We bowed our heads in defense, feeling the journey’s length in our sagging shoulders. I swear, we became old between the meadow and wherever we were headed.
“Can you sense that?”
“No,” I looked around.
“No, you want see it—you’ve got to feel it.” His smile faded, and the hesitancy from earlier became a wall between his words. He ground his teeth and the sound was like a brick being edged out of a prison wall. “Death is in these woods. You’d have to be desperate or corrupt to survive here.”
A laugh escaped my throat, and then I looked down in shame, not caring to where the moth’s wings of my words flew. I was scared, and I was ashamed. Then I was unable to think about myself, for a cry, much like a baby’s wailing in the night, except filled with the experience of being hated, filled my ears and drowned my melancholy thoughts.
Earvin got off his horse, and I mimicked his every movement. I lived these moments through him, plagiarizing the style and delivery of sentiment.
We led our horses by their bridles through thorn and vine, sinking into the sandy mud up to the calves of our boots. The cries continued, sounding like a creature being rendered less beautiful through its pain, through its experience of the real. The water, which had been brown, was now streaked with crimson stains that congealed as we grew closer to the cries that were bluntly incoherent in their vivid expressiveness of a world gone black.
Earvin reached his hands into a bed of scattered pine straw, thorns, and hemlock. He winced in pain, and I could see blood from a cut on his hand seeping into the crimson mud, mixing with the swamp. But he was not deterred and from the underbrush, underneath the archway of a gnarled root, he pulled out what looked like a kitten, or rather a small cub. And yet, when it moved its head, I realized this creature was no cat, but a bird’s head attached to the body of a small lion. Its wings, slicked with blood, were matted to the slow tremble of its ribcage.
“It’s missing a front claw,” said Earvin. “I think I can help it, but I’ve never seen one this bad. We weren’t intended for the swamp.” He extended the worn body to me in a manner that displayed the wound. Earvin’s eyes were filled with pain, and I wanted to ask him when and where he had ever seen such a creature. What I blurted out instead was: “Holy shit! A griffin!”
Across the front of his saddle the half-bird, half-lion creature looked much larger than it had in the swamp. And, at times, in the strange slanting of the swamp’s thinning light, the small mass could be mistaken for a boy’s body. Eventually, we stopped. We had come to a desert that in its starkness resembled a plain of white, alabaster snow, minus the cold. Blood dripped like wax from the griffin’s limb and down the side of Earvin’s horse, and the wolves that trailed behind us licked at the sand, barking.
“I think there’s a farm near here where we might seek shelter for the night, if we’re lucky.”
I didn’t say anything. I trusted Earvin. I trusted the horses. What I didn’t trust were my eyes—was that really a griffin? Did such mythical creatures even exist? I allowed the question to evaporate in the pale desert. We came to a rusted iron gate bookended by two stoic gargoyles; griffins carved in white stone.
“How’s he doing?”
Earvin looked down at the weakened creature. “He’s been through a lot, but, you know, that isn’t always a bad thing.” Earvin possessed a magic for optimism. The body, to me, appeared lifeless.
“Did you stop the bleeding?”
“For now. He’s got at least another day.”
“Couldn’t we just climb over a broken place in the wall?”
“We could, but we won’t. She’ll be here soon.”
I wondered how he could know such a thing. I looked to the stars in wonder at how they spoke to some and not to others. I took in the moon’s flame, and then a vibration came from Magic’s saddle bag. He reached into the leather pouch and took out a device I didn’t recognize; a rectangle of glass and flashing lights.
“Yep, like I said, she’s here now.”
The key could be heard in the arthritic lock, and the gate creaked open.
“Magic,” said a voice belonging to a woman. Although I could not see her face, I imagined it to be as pale as the stone griffins.
Earvin greeted her, and his voice was full once again of the meadow’s promise. And then quickly emptied.
“No, Magic, he doesn’t want you here.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t want me here? I built the damn house. My blood and sweat are here.”
“He doesn’t care. He says you’ve been gone a long time.”
“Gone—my ass—” and then Earvin got quiet and resigned himself to the situation. “Alright, then we’ll go.”
“Donald will, however, see your friend.” She reached out a hand and pinched at the wool of my argyle sweater vest, then letting it go with a gesture full of judgment. “You can use the back entrance,” she winked at Magic.
I could feel the furrowing of Earvin’s brow. “Nah, I know what lies in there: just more swamp.”
And Magic turned his horse back towards the howling wolves and a path that led to both the past and the future. As he went, he held a fist in the air. I took the fist as some sign of solidarity and a signal to continue as best I could with the mission, even if I didn’t quite understand the mission. I, too, raised a fist and held my chin up proudly.
However, I should also mention how I wanted to follow him and how, in hindsight, that’s what the fist actually signified. Magic was telling me not to be fucking idiot. He was telling me to get the hell out of hell.
He made this point even more clear when he yelled back to my ignorant ass: “You coming?”
To which I responded in a swath of ignorant cockiness: “No, Earvin, I think I’ll see if the man’s as bad as y’all say.”
“You’re an idiot,” he mumbled.
And we parted ways.
Riding up to the big house that rose like a white skull in the darkness, I marveled at the majesty of the place. Everything was white and still. Unicorns grazed in the lawn, nibbling on the sugar-coated sand. I followed the mistress of the house between their silver bodies. In her hand swung the key’s chain like a pendulum. An eagle’s claw—or was it the hand of a child?—swayed from the last link.
I followed her up the steps, still unable to see her face. She opened the door. “Have a seat at the table. He’s expecting you.”
I walked in. The house felt cold. My breath crystallized in the air before me. Dust lay on everything, like snow.
A table of mahogany took up a great deal of the hallway. Silver bowls of waxed fruit and platters of meat were on full display; a bed of thick eagle feathers in place of a table cloth.
“Welcome,” said a voice at the far end, sitting in the flicker of an orange flame.
When I leaned in, I noticed that the same orange burned like coals buried in the man’s skin. He was, to be honest—orange. A dead sun in a cold, cold world. I pulled out a chair and sat down. I also wondered if it was too late to catch up with Magic.
Watching me with a bored intensity, the orange man’s eyes twinkled with a proud daring, like he existed in a world with a different set of rules than the rest of us. And, perhaps, he did.
He lifted a fork to me in a gesture of threatening communion. “Go ahead, try some.”
I looked at my plate, smooth as bone, and then at the silver platter of what my host referred to as griffin meat. I reached for the platter. The meat was cool to the touch. I pealed it apart like cold chicken. As it passed the threshold of my lips, the baby griffin from the swamp, its missing claw and bleeding stump, swung like a key chain through my brain. The morning and the day that followed were forever ago and fading. The meat tasted not of blood. I swallowed and took another bite. I did not think of the griffin anymore.
We ate without conversation, listening to the sound of stringed instruments sift through the cobwebbed corners of the vast corridor.
I picked the platter clean, washing it down with a glass of red wine. When I dabbed my lips with the cloth napkin, droplets appeared like the faintest signs of an open wound, perhaps even as large as a paper cut. I reflected on my previous discussion with Doc Rivers about seams in the universe, their openings and closings; the scar tissue between worlds.
“Have you seen the trophy room? Magic’s seen the trophy room.”
I wanted to tell the man it was ridiculous to think I’d seen the trophy room--that I had very little to do with such a place as this, that I was merely a fan of spectacle. Instead, “No, sir, I haven’t. But I would love to see your trophy room.”
He stood up, holding a cloth napkin, and gestured toward the French doors behind him. I followed. The candles trembled from the table, and then we were standing in a room that unlike the cold and drafty space of the main hall was filled by the heat and the light of a hellish looking hearth.
And then, for the second time that day, all I could muster in terms of language was, “Holy shit! A griffin!”
Only this time there were too many griffins to count. Every inch of every wall was covered with the heads of eagles. Beaks springing forth like mighty yellow daggers. Eyes piercing from beyond the pale! I said it again, “Holy shit! Griffins!”
“I’m glad you can see that. You’re a perceptive man. Most people just think they’re eagles.” He cackled to himself. “But why in hell would I mount a thousand eagles’ heads on these walls? Eagles are mundane. Griffins are regal. But I tell you something—it’s quite difficult to tell an eagle from a griffin when you’re only looking at the heads!”
Then he leaned back in the wing-tipped chair that served as both the room’s throne and its only piece of furniture (aside from a genteel table with stone Demogorgon on it).
His face disappeared in the blackness of the chair’s shadows. “You know why I remove the bodies?”
I looked down at the floor, which seemed to be carpeted by golden pelts, stitched together like galaxies.
“I remove the bodies because I hate the mixing of the blood, but I tell you what—a griffin beats an eagle any day! But, seriously, I hate hybridity. You’re not a mulatto are you? If you were, I don’t think anyone could tell. I have a hard time telling. Ever considered turning yourself orange?”
The man kept talking, but I quit listening. One of the heads appeared to be much different than the rest. I stepped closer to it. “Did you get all these heads from griffins?”
“Okay, you got me. Those two are really eagles’ heads.”
“No, I mean this one. . .” I stopped speaking and leaned closer to the head. No beak. No feathers.
But lips and skin. A nose even.
Nah, I know what lies in there.
The head belonged to Earvin. In fact, the head was Earvin’s. I had no doubt.
“Sir, are you aware that one of your griffin heads might be human?”
“I don’t think I’d make that kind of a mistake. No, these are griffins.”
I stared into Earvin’s eyes. I stared into the eagles’ eyes on either side of him. Could I not tell a human from a bird? “Sir, I really think you’ve made a horrible, horrible mistake.”
“Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the proof.” He led me through the kitchen where the meal from earlier, I could only imagine, had been prepared. Had I really eaten griffin meat?
We walked across the cold yard, sand sifting under our feet. The terrain here unsettled with every step. I then noticed the unicorns possessed no horns—they were merely horses! The man Earvin had called Sterling led me to the edge of a dark pit.
“Look down there, son. That’s where I put the bones. I cut their heads off on that stump, skin ‘em from that tree branch, and drop the bones in that pit. Take a look. ‘Nothin’ but birds and cat bones up to the neck. You’ll see.”
I could not believe how high reached the mountain. Towards the top, meat and muscle still clung to the ribs and the spines. The skeletons were neither lion nor bird. They were human. The legs and the hips and the spines all reflected a need to walk upright, with dignity. But I saw not a single skull. The heads were elsewhere—mounted!
“You know I’m in need of an heir.”
I vomited my shame and everything I’d eaten in the dry, sifting soil, which I now realized contained no sugar, but salt and despair. Like the beach before it, this place was another zone corrupted. And yet, despite my notions of epiphany, the bones were still bones, alive and running as they always were.
The moon lit the highway like a spotlight, and Earvin’s foot fell heavy on the gas. A boy lay in the backseat moaning, unconscious, the stump at the end of his wrist wrapped in an unwashed Clippers jersey.
How did we arrive here?
A half-Asian woman in the passenger seat said, “He’s ruining your upholstery with all that blood.” She lined up candy by color on the screen of her smartphone.
Earvin looked over at her lap: How could you trust a woman like this one? “He needs a doctor,” he told her. The needle on the speedometer rose to eighty.
“We know a Doc.”
“No, I mean, a real doctor. Shit is serious. No one loses a hand playing basketball.” Earvin pressed harder on the gas. The engine roared like an angry cat. The needle pushed just shy of 87 mph. He still needed just a bit more speed. He was determined to escape, but tired of it all the same. Man, was he tired of driving. But victory is a relentless beast and requires a constant pursuit.
“Ever been to The Forum Club, kid?”
“Well, I doubt it’s any safer.”
Then, a cough from the backseat, and a weak voice bragging: “What’d you guys think? Not a bad trick, eh? I call it deus ex machina.”
The dashboard was set to 1979, or 2079, it didn’t really matter--this story was a wreck, always.
(Image by Mike Langston)
“Dwight and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets. The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.” —James Harden
The smaller scorpion’s tail dropped like a scythe into the larger scorpion’s backside, causing the its victim’s abdomen to dip into the sand. When the scythe returned a second time to harvest a member of its own species, the belly sank into the sand for good, dampening it. The legs writhed. Claws opened and shut. And then shut no more.It was like many of the endings before it. It would be like many of the endings that came later.
“That’s too bad, Jeremey. He was a big one. Big as a keystone. What’d you say his name was? Omer Asik?”
Jeremy didn’t respond to Chandler. Instead, he waited on his scorpion’s resurrection.”
“I guess you’ll just have to pay me. Dead is dead.”
“Man, how does that even happen?” Jeremy shook with a fury. “You could at least respect me enough not to mention money so soon after Omer’s death.”
The boy, with hair like black ink, reached into his pocket and pulled out four quarters, and Chandler, with hair like a blonde paper route, was about to take it when a long shadow fell over the two boys and their two scorpions; the one living and the other dead.
They each looked up, and there was a man, his beard flecked with the desert’s thirst for gold—its famine and its uncertainty. His body was draped in the burlap robes of a Sherwoodian friar, but he lacked the jolly disposition. Rather, he appeared as the kind of stern believer who might have accompanied the conquistadors as they used steel and gunpowder and small pox to kill off the Mayans and the Aztecs. Behind the man was a pack mule, worn and beaten. A mercurial pairing at best. He smelled like stale death. He smelled like a vanishing fart.
“You been travelin’ far, sir?” asked Chandler.
“Yeah, you need any help finding your way around?” offered Jeremy. “I know what it’s like to move, just got in from back east. I was living in Manhattan, that’s New York, and they threw a great, big parade in my. . . .” The boy’s voice trailed off as he was made to feel small and insignificant in the shadow of this bearded monk, this conqueror of the trail. What would this man think of a parade?
The man didn’t say anything. He just stood before the two boys, staring them into a quivering silence. He took out a canteen and poured a draught of brown, sandy liquid into his throat. Then he sighed. And after that he belched.
Jeremy turned back to his scorpion. With a glass jar, he aimed to scoop up the creature, when the man leaned in close, baring his teeth, and asked, “That one yours?”
The man’s breath conjured buzzards out of the desert air, and Jeremy gulped, “Yessir.”
The man grabbed the ancient monster by the tail, its seven legs and two claws swarming mad in the sun. He lifted the crippled specimen above his head. He dropped it into his black hole of a mouth.
The two boys could see his tongue wrestling the beast into submission. The outline of its claws and tail made shapes underneath the gaunt flesh of his bearded cheeks. Blood and other juices ran in the cracks of his chapped lips. After he swallowed, he put his dust-coated fingers in his mouth, pulled out the scorpion’s tail, and dropped it in the boy’s glass jar. The sound of the stinger hitting the glass was like a plastic fingernail against a windowpane; soft but distinct. A faint tapping on the barrier between one world and the next.
Jeremy stared at the motionless tail a long time. “Did you see that?”
“What?” asked Chandler. And sure enough the tail began to contract and release despite not having a body or a mind. “Holy shit.”
“I’m looking for Hakeem,” said the man.
The boys looked at each other like there might be trouble.
“You seen ‘im?”
“His shop’s over there, just down the road, but he ain’t been around. . . .” Jeremy felt embarrassed for not having a beard, of still being an adolescent.
“What Jeremy meant was he ain’t been around since the meteorite.” Chandler feigned enthusiasm, perhaps even confidence. He puffed his chest out and nearly stood on his the tips of his toes.
The beard raised one of his eyebrows as if to ask, what meteorite?
“It fell out of the sky,” said Chandler, but he quickly looked to the ground with his share of Jeremy’s adolescent shame as he realized that all meteorites fall from the sky.
“What Chandler meant to say is that some people think it weren’t a meteor at all, but a part of that spaceship from Boston.”
The eyebrow now said, tell me more.
“Something called a Perkincinerator just plumb gave out, sir, and that’s why all them astronauts died.”
“Dead is dead,” muttered Chandler, but not as strongly as he had before the bearded monk and his shadow appeared.
“That’s true,” said Jeremy, “but a man named Brooks snatched that thing up quick and said he could make the thing work alright still. So it ain’t here either. Some folks don’t think it never was.”
“But dead is dead,” said Chandler.
“What Chandler means is something definitely happened ‘cause a man died that night in the road by Hakeem’s shop. But we didn’t see no body, just like we’ve never seen Old Ralph or Young Tracy. All those stories are just talk. A person can’t believe all of them.”
“Rumors of dead men,” Chandler added. “Some coming. Most going.”
“Show me,” said the man.
They led him and his miserly mule down the road, and as they walked, Jeremy took notice of the crucifix that danced in the light underneath the strange man’s beard. Then he looked at the man’s brown robes. “Are you a priest,” he asked. “Do you believe in a higher power? You killed my scorpion, you know.”
Jeremy took careful note that the man didn’t bother to say in what. He could hear the spinning of spurs underneath the man’s desert-stained robes. The donkey’s flanks were scarred and crusted red. Its hind quarters bore a brand; it may have been stolen; the boy was afraid to ask.
When they arrived at the old butcher shop, they all looked at its busted up windows and dusty corners from the middle of the street, as if they were waiting on Edward Hopper to paint their silhouettes in the twilight. Chandler picked up a rock and threw it at one of the remaining window panes. But he missed, hitting nothing but the old brick façade.
“He hasn’t been here for a long time,” said Jeremy, and Chandler added, “We don’t know who did all this.” Someone had spray-painted the words CLUTCH CITY on the brick exterior.
The man didn’t respond. He turned back to his mule, grabbed an ear with each hand, and kissed its forehead. He whispered something to it through the crusted flakes of skin hanging from his lips. The beast responded by wandering back down the road and back into the desert.
“It’s fine. My conscience says wait.” And the man sat down. When the boys walked away, he began playing a reed flute as the sun set over the dead red town.
“And that’s how you left him?” asked Marshal Westbrook, his voice doubting the story. “That may be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever—” He turned to his partner. “They’re describing him like he’s a Sergio Leone cowboy. You believe that shit?”
Durant continued questioning the boys: “And the shop was just like it is now?”
He wrote everything they reported back to him down in his notepad. Ever since meeting with the two Admiral-Constitution reporters he’d taken to writing everything down. It was, you could say, his system, and he’d recorded the two boys entire story, word for word.
“Seriously, you’re buying this shit? A scorpion-eating monk who plays a damn flute. Shit! Maybe this is a spaghetti western.” He turned away from the dilapidated brick storefront with his hands on his head and his feet kicking up dust.
“Did you see him go in?” asked Durant.
“I don’t know,” said Jeremy.
“You want to show us?”
“Maybe, but I can’t stick around long. I gotta pack for the West Coast--I’m always moving.” And the boy ran off in a manner that confused who was responsible for the miscommunication.
Durant turned towards his partner, pointing at the boy’s legs with a pencil as they kicked up a trail of dust, “Kid’s establishing a pattern. . . say and do anything ethos of the journeyman—”
“What about you?” Westbrook asked the blonde-haired boy still standing in the road with a sour look on his face.
The boy held out his hand.
“What? You want us to pay you?”
“Somebody ought to. We lead him here. We lead you here. You know he had a badge just like yours. A tin star. Seems to me that star doesn’t figure out much without people like me.”
Westbook to Durant, “This kid’s a real smartass.” But Durant just nodded for Westbrook to hand over some money.
The base of the door looked like it had been struck by a dull, hefty object, perhaps a sledgehammer. Broken glass, feathers, and dirt littered the concrete floor. On top of those ruins rested a second sedimentary layer of beer cans, cigarette butts, and a few cans of spray paint.
“What do you expect to find here?” Westbrook asked, pivoting on his heel in slow motion, looking around without a clue.
Durant crouched low to the floor, his long limbs making him appear as a tarantula sifting through the debris.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I don’t know. . . a sign perhaps. . . a trace. . . a compass. . . direction.”
He walked behind the broken counter. Thousands of dead flies filled the old display cases where the meat used to sit. A faint, but distinctly rancid odor crept through the air.
“Something like this—” He whipped out his notebook and started sketching.
Westbrook walked towards the counter and his partner’s open notebook.
On the floor, behind the counter, where Hakeem used to hawk the carcasses of dead chickens, spray painted on the floor in red and yellow, were what looked to be Chinese characters and what was clearly the number eleven.
“What is it?” asked Chandler.
“I don’t know. . . yet.”
Westbrook snapped pictures with a Polaroid camera. “You think it has something to do with this Hakeem fellow or the Yellow King?”
“It might,” said Durant. “It seems to lay claim to a territory, perhaps a tradition.” He sifted the sedimentary layers around the letters through his fingers. “Notice the circle of ash around the characters. This is a place of ritual.” He stood up and looked towards the ceiling. “And that’s not all. . . .”
The other two individuals, the other detective and the boy, looked also. Hanging from a taut noose was a reed basket, but behind that was a crude drawing of an individual with tied hands and antlers for a crown.
“A McGrady stag,” Durant muttered to himself as he hopped onto the rickety counter. He stood with his feet shoulder width apart, bracing themselves on the bent metal framework. He took out a knife handle and unfolded its blade. He sawed at the rope holding the basket.
“Not quite like a net-cutting ceremony, is it?” joked Westbrook. Durant ignored him.
When he cut through the last strand, the reed basket fell to the floor, landing in the painted area, inside the ashen arc.
“Anything in it?” asked Chandler.
Westbrook peered into the basket. “There’s nothing here but a black cowboy hat with an egg inside it.”
He lifted the egg (its shell gone gray with age) and threw the hat to the ground.
“Is this what we came all this way for, Kevin, an egg?” He shook his head. “And an old as fuck egg, too.”
He cracked the egg on the edge of the counter and let the broken pieces of shell fall to the floor; the crusty yolk crumbled like chalk.
“Well, I guess we know what came last,” said Westbrook as he started to walk out, but Durant called for him to wait.
He was crouched behind the counter again. When he stood, he unfurled a tiny scroll of paper, like what one would find in a Chinese fortune cookie. “It says ‘And for the seas Moses parted’.”
“That mean something to you?” Westbrook asked Chandler, but the boy was out the door and running fast.
Following in pursuit, they rushed into the alleyway, where supposedly a meteorite—or was it part of a spaceship?—had landed the night Hakeem disappeared. They heard a scattering of footsteps and spotted a shadow on a brick wall. A conical headlight strobed over the passing figure, and then the street returned to darkness. In the silence, they followed. Rain started to fall. Kevin asked, “Remember in Seattle?” Russell told him, “No, I never worked in the Seattle office.” “I guess that came first,” said Kevin. They continued the chase.
Arrhythmic footsteps littered the city streets, and the two detectives ran with their ties fluttering in the breeze like stray parade streamers. Crowds cowered outside club doors. Crowds waited like refugees in the streets of Houston. Accents churning in the wake of a mounting storm, of the two detectives (their badges and their guns):
“You seen a boy run through here?” “Nah, bruh, but for a dolla I tell y’all where he might be, ya dig?” “Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Skinny.” “You gonna gi’ me money fo’ a bus ticket.” “Just tell me where the kid went.” “Ain’t from here? Is yuh, bruh? Well, dat’s alright, we all from somewhere.” “The kid? Did you see him?” “I seen lots of things. I waited on a bridge for days. Saw bodies in duh water dere. Saw faces ripen for de buzzards. Seen boys and men, women too.” “Did you see a kid named Chandler?” “He a Florida boy?” “Might be.” “You might fin’ him by de water. Everything wash up eventually, man. And, I mean, ev-e-ry-ting.” “You heard the words ‘And for the seas Moses parted’?” “Maybe. Maybe not. Where you hear dem words?” “Who’s Moses?” “Moses gone. Yeah, he been gone de same way Hakeem gone too. Dey out on dat water waitin’ like spirits in a storm. You go down to duh water you see.”
And the faces themselves were a sea swirling around Durant and Westbrook as they looked for answers, as they looked to follow the footsteps of some insignificant Florida boy who had washed up in the streets of Houston and mistaken them for home. Or, as the two reporters had said in the diner: Houston is a town for dead men and rumors. Words were all they had, so they went down to the water for answers to riddles like: what came first the chicken or the egg?
The land leveled out from flat to flatter as they approached the Bay. The green grass swayed silver in the moonlight. The air thickened itself with the smells of shrimp and salt. They turned onto a gravel road and stopped where the gravel road became sand. They parked the car. They walked along the edges of the swaying grass, smelling the salty, corroded sea life of the Gulf with their guns drawn. They approached a wooden shack of a building. At one time, it may have been a restaurant or a bar. It had a faded sign out front and a wide dock that ran out over the water. The sign, from what they could tell in the patchwork glow of the rain-splattered night, read: MOSe’S PLaCE—DowN by thE WaTER YALL.
Westbrook broke the silence: “What makes you think this is the place? Seems like you’re forcing the narrative you want here.”
“Why would I want to come out here? Call it a hunch, or a guess, but I did check the phone book. And . . . did you read the sign? It’s exactly like what the clue said.”
“Remember when the whole first season of True Detective turned on someone somehow remembering a man having green paint on his ears, and we were like that’s the dumbest shit ever.”
“That’s this. How would the kid even have made it out here?”
“I don’t think the kid matters all that much. Let him run all the way to Dallas if he can. We’re after something much bigger.”
“That Yellow King bullshit?”
“That Yellow King bullshit.”
They crept up to within yards of the rusted front door. A sign hanging crooked in the window stated the hours of business. And again, the words CLUTCH CITY blazoned a building’s abandoned facade.
“They need a new sign,” said Westbrook, “This place ain’t been open in a while.”
“You wait here.”
“Nah, Kevin, I’m done waiting. I’m going with you. Remember last time. You can’t do this without me.”
Kevin looked for a rebuttal, but Russ continued, “If you fall off another roof, I’m falling with you.”
The two walked along the outskirts of the building until they came around to the backside, which stretched out over the water. Through the floorboards of the dock surrounding MOSe’S PLaCE, they could hear and see the water’s tide trembling through Trinity Bay. When the moonlight struck it, the water shone like gun metal.
“What do you think? Should we go in? You want to go first this time?”
Westbrook stood up straight, his arm holding the gun relaxed at his side. “Seems a bit too easy, doesn’t it? Like there’s no reason for us to be here, together, finding exactly what we need to find via hunches.”
“Told you, man, I checked the phone book.”
Westbrook eased the screen door open with his foot. He slid into the building’s shadowy interior. He took a small flashlight from his pocket and shone it across the room. He saw a kitchen stripped clean of all its useful parts. He felt suddenly alone.
He looked back over his shoulder and saw that his partner had not followed him through the door.
“Kevin, man, you alright?”
He heard the clanging of a metal pot. A shot rang out and blew a hole through the paper thin walls. A slant of moonlight probed into the room. Westbrook dropped his flashlight and crouched, waiting. He heard the floor creak. He took aim. The back door hinged open, and he fired. The man fired back at him. He fired again, and the man fell on the deck, just outside the kitchen.
He walked slowly to body. He felt the man’s pulse. Nothing. He searched the man’s pockets. He found a wallet. The man’s name was Kevin Martin.
“Hey, Kevin, man, you out there?”
“Yeah,” Kevin panted in his ear.
“Where were you? This fucker almost took me out.”
“I thought I heard something. Didn’t want anyone sneaking up behind us.”
“You find anything?”
“Nah, it was just a hunch.”
“You sure are having a lot of those lately.”
“You still doubting we’re on the right trail?”
“Yeah, maybe. The message in that egg could’ve meant anything. And that drawing the Kawhi kid drew—how can Harden be the Yellow King? Think of all those times in the field or at the range where he couldn’t make a damn shot when it counted. How are we supposed to believe he’s a serial killer? No way that cat on the rooftop works for James. Think about it. What real police work have we done? We’re just here because we think we’re supposed to be.”
“And why shouldn’t that be enough? I feel like we’ve been here before. I’ve seen this place. I know its scent. The salt. The shrimp. The goddamn oil bubbling up from the depths of a corroded sea bed. It’s sulfuric. This place isn’t clean; it’s dirty for a reason—“
“You gonna write that down in your journal?” Westbrook spat towards the railing. “Something ain’t right.”
The sound of a gun’s hammer being pulled back and cocked suspended the dialogue.
As Durant and Westbrook had become engrossed in the existential fabric of their police work, the bearded man they’d tracked via hunch, or phone book, or even kids’ place setting was standing on the dock too, ready to end both their lives.
“I kill you two. . . offer your blood to Moses in the name of Yao. . . then they’ll all come here. . . all of them. . . Dwight and Love and Bosh and ‘Melo, just as Clyde and Charles and Scottie did for Hakeem. . . but I have good news. . . you will not have died for nothing. I have a list of names.”
“James, you don’t have to do this,” Durant responded. “All we wanted to do was talk. Just a few questions.”
“Aw, did you miss me?”
Durant heard Harden’s question one way; Westbrook another. Durant’s chin moved from side to side as if pulled by a thin string. However, Westbrook’s response was stronger: “Hell no! We didn’t miss you.”
James turned his head towards Russ, keeping the gun on Kevin.
“Did he tell you, Russ?”
“Tell me what?”
James turned his head towards Kevin, and the gun shifted towards Russ.
“Morey gave me my list of names. Guess who was on it and who wasn’t.”
Russ looked at Kevin.
“You were on it, Russ, but your partner, well, he wasn’t. What do you think that means?”
Kevin spoke calmly: “No, I don’t. Do you?”
The flash and the sound roared with natural violence, and the bullet ripped through James Harden’s cheek in an explosion of bloody skin and beard fragment.
After his body fell across the deck, the blood leaked into the Gulf, through a slit in the dock’s wooden boards.
Bearded, not bearded, he was just another refugee dead where the boats harbor the cursed blessings of the old and the new. The oil cut the blood thinner and thinner.
“Go ahead, Kevin, ask your questions.”
Westbrook’s partner stood disbelieving in the moonlight. The body gurgled underneath them.
“Go ahead, man, ask away.”
The tide lapped against the dock’s foundations.
“Not interested. Okay, well, let me ask some questions then.” Westbrook looked up from the body and stared coldly at Kevin. “James, is it true that Kevin gave Morey the list?” He mimed listening to a response that no one else could hear. “Okay, then here’s my follow up: did he conspire with those reporters to get me down here?” He paused again for the dead to answer. “And one more thing, James, did he want me killed?”
At the end of that last question, a hairline fracture trembled through Westbrook’s voice. Whatever this had been it was not a partnership.
He asked the corpse another question, “What would you do, James, would you kill him?” He raised his gun at the other marshal. “I could kill him for wasting my goddamn time.”
“I don’t think I’d do that if I were you.”
“And why not, James?”
“I ain’t James. In fact, from the looks of it, I don’t think James will be saying much of anything anytime soon.”
Keeping the gun on Durant, Russell craned his neck towards this new voice on the deck.
“And who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the one who drop kicked your boy in the parking lot.”
Russell stepped back so that he could hold both Durant and this stranger in his eyesight. It was then that he saw another, shorter man standing with this newcomer.
“From the hospital? Yeah, that was me. You wanted me out of your seat.”
Russell could see that both of these newcomers had already drawn their guns.
“What is this, Kevin?”
The larger of the two strangers answered for his partner: “Think it’s called an ambush.”
“I get that, motherfucker, but why?”
“It’s a way out, Russell,” spoke Durant.
“From the job.”
“From the job?”
“The responsibility. The duty. The weight. Yeah.”
“To do what?”
“To be better.”
“Man, you sound like you’re joining a fucking cult.”
From the tall grass tapering the water’s edge, a light burst forth. It remained open, like a yellow doorway floating over the shoreline.
“What was that?” asked Russell.
“That’s our entrance into another world, man,” said the larger stranger.
“Kevin, do what you have to do--make sure he doesn’t follow,” said the shorter man.
The blast and the bite of the pain were simultaneous, and Russell dropped to the deck, holding his knee.
“Sorry, bro,” said Kevin, before he turned to walk after the other two men and into the rectangle of light.
The last thing Westbrook heard before they all vanished was something about a man named Jerry West and obnoxious, schoolboy laughter.
Russell limped along with blood soaking into the rags of his pant leg. He trudged towards the spot where he’d seen the Patronus-like flash of light, but it was all dark, as if an entire solar system had erupted and then collapsed in a constellation of moments. The going was slow; he was dragging James Harden’s body.
“I’m sorry, man. We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he said to no one in particular. “What else was I going to do? Yeah, I get it. Maybe that was a little rash.”
He wrestled the body into an old canoe floating in the high grass and still water, in the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. He guided the patchwork canoe--its bottom soft with rot--out into the water. When the water ebbed at his chest, right against his heart, he pushed it out from his body and away from the land. He watched it drift. In the darkness, he could not tell whether it floated or sank, maybe it lingered somewhere in the ether between the two choices. His leg bled into the water, out into the world and into nothing.
When the young photographer showed the photographs to his editor, his editor said, “I think you’ve done something quite impressive here. The way you’ve captured the light, I can’t tell if they’re moving away from the body or each other. Well done.”
Kawhi didn’t reply.
“Have you shown, Timmy?”
“Yeah, the carrot cake I left outside his door hasn’t been touched. It’s like Día de Muertos, but the ghosts are on a diet.” Pop fell quiet, as if lost in meditation, or smelling a rare wine.
“What’s that?” asked Pop, startled from the daydream.
Kawhi placed one last photograph on the desk.
“Wait, I thought he got shot.”
Kawhi shook his head.
“How? Was it fake blood? The photograph showed the exit wound.”
“Who would do such a thing?”
Manu poked his head in the door, “What’s happening, guys?”
Kawhi answered by tapping his finger on the photograph. It landed on Harden. It landed on the man with the beard.
“Is the beard fake too?” asked Pop.
“What’d the other guy--the marshal--do with the body? You said he dragged it out into the Gulf.”
Kawhi shrugged again.
Pop laughed, but the laugh didn’t last long. He fell quiet. The room grew heavy with sadness. The editor didn’t say anything for a long time, and then he looked up at Kawhi: “Do you like carrot cake, Kawhi? Timmy loved carrot cake.”
Manu held the photograph up to his own face and stroked his bare chin. “How do you think I would look with a beard?”
“Like a corpse,” said Kawhi. “Like a lonely corpse.”
The car sat on the side of the road, in the gravel between worn asphalt and dry, yellowing crops. The owner stood beneath the car, in a ditch. His pants unzipped, he was taking a much needed piss. He had been driving through postcard shaped states for days, living off trucker food, coffee, and Cliff bars. His fluff of yellow hair sprung from his eggshell of a forehead like the down of a newborn chick. He ran a hand through it, zipped up his pants with the other, and climbed out of the irrigation channel. He would need to make up for lost time, he thought, climbing back into the car. He turned the key in the ignition, screeched the rubber against the loose gravel. He unfurled a dust storm and burned up the road like a goddamn Apollo. Outside the dark shadows of his bar, he felt much more himself—like a house on fire, he sucked in as much oxygen as his lungs could hold.
County lines passed under the steel body of his Detroit-made chariot, maybe a state line as well. He found himself in the nowhere land of Texas. Creosote scrub lining the highway. “Damn, if this ain’t the driest place on earth.” He kept on driving. The sun melted purple on the horizon, breaking like some LA junkie’s vein. He thought about a trip to Hollywood or two, and then he thought how those were a long time ago and no longer part of the landscape. The sky went black. He kept driving. He had a destination in mind, but he was taking a roundabout way of arriving. He was searching for something—for someone—he would recognize whatever or whomever when he found them. This is how the New World worked. Carnivorous creatures roamed the forests that emptied into prairies that rose into mountains. Wildcats and coyotes followed in the footsteps of dinosaurs, and so did men. He drove through the night.
In the morning, he watched the meter hover about the capital ‘E’ for nearly an hour after dawn broke yellow behind him. He pulled up to a gas station so covered in dust he wondered if such was the building block of everything. He popped the lid of his gas tank. He sat the metal nozzle in the car’s dark throat. He pulled back on the trigger, not once, but three times. A memory from the west coast, from the east coast, buzzed in his brain and then fell silent and dry like Indiana cornmeal. He gritted his teeth. He went inside, looking for someone to pay. No one was at the register. He eyed the John Deere calendar, sun faded on the back wall, next to a poster of some forgotten basketball team: The Triple J Ranch. Dear God, he thought, when will some people join the future? He wandered in the aisles of snack food trinkets. He picked up a mousetrap. He set it down. He found himself standing in a short hallway with two closed doors and one open door. He walked by the rubber stopper that propped open the door and out into the sunlight that baked the blood and water of that ancient land into something like a ghostly haze. And then he heard it—the sound of a plastic ping pong ball bouncing in a steady rhythm against a flat, hard surface. He turned to face it.
A bottle of Coca-Cola sat on the corner edge of the faded green table, sweating bullets. The kid was all gangly length and bug-eyed glasses. He rocked awkwardly on his hips, like he was made up of pieces and bones that didn’t quite fit. The boy carried the asymmetry mostly in his hips, but, boy! could he whip that ball around!
“Morning,” said Bird to the boy.
The boy caught the ball in his bare hand and rested the paddle on it with the other. He answered back: “Morning.”
“You got a name?”
“To go before I sleep?”
“No, just Myles.”
“Well, Myles, lower that table’s other half and let’s play a round.”
At first Larry felt queasy in the bright light of the Texas heat, but, eventually, his thoughts dissipated in the rhythm of the game and he found himself enamored with the boy’s effort and length. The ball would careen off the side of the warped table at odd angles, and the boy would be there. The ball would plop in a dead spot of the table’s rain soaked memories, and the boy would manage to keep it alive. In the end, Larry was impressed enough to up the ante: “If I win, how ‘bout you give me a free tank of gas?”
Myles stared at the man for a long while. “Okay.” He repositioned his red stained shoes in the dirt. He leaned in as if to serve. “But,” he started, “if I win, you take me with you.”
Larry grinned at the boy and laughed, “If you win, sure.”
The old man started strong, but, in the end, his game melted. When he needed to mount a comeback the most, he double faulted twice.
“I guess that’s it,” he said, “Let’s go.” He dropped his paddle in the dust and walked back down that short hallway of locked doors and through the aisles of useless items. He left eleven dollars on the counter next to the dust-covered cash register. He made the short stroll to his ride. He opened the driver’s side door. He climbed in. He waited. When Myles came out the store’s front door, he had not a possession on him. Before he climbed in the passenger’s side, he filled up the tank with what Bird assumed to be eleven dollars-worth of gas. And then the two rode off into the hot day and, eventually, the sunset. The next day they would do the same.
By week’s end, they had traversed several county and state lines and found themselves on the edge of a Florida swamp. Bird pulled off on a secluded road and popped the trunk. “Go around back and pull that black bag out of the car. When you get it out, start dragging it into the woods. I’ll be with you in a second to help.”
Myles did as the man said. He went around to the steel bumper. He lifted up the trunk door. The odor was unpleasant, cooked and yet not. He hoisted the bag out of the trunk and plopped it on the ground.
“Be quick about it, Myles.”
Myles looked towards Mr. Bird, and it looked like the man might be smoking a cigarette. Then the boy smelled gas and noticed the man emptying a can on the front seats. Myles wiped the sweat from his brow and started to tug harder at what felt like a body inside the bag. He was some ways into the woods when Mr. Bird joined him and lifted the other end of the bag. A shock of red flame exploded behind the man. The car was on fire, lighting up the dark road like a bonfire!
“Won’t someone see the car?”
“I hope so, but . . . either way, we won’t be here when they do.”
Moving the bag went much quicker with help. In some time, they came to a clearing and Mr. Bird dropped his end of the bag. Then the man reached around a tree trunk and pulled out a shovel. He tossed it at Myles, and Myles had to drop his end of the bag to catch it.
“Dig!” barked the man. “I’ll be back soon.”
Myles started to dig. The earth was soft, and water trickled into the spaces stabbed and emptied by the shovel. He dug with a fury that was on the edge of panic, mostly because he didn’t know where Mr. Bird had gone to and if he would return. He could see the glimmer of the car burning out past the tree line on the edge of the darkness. He did not want to be caught with whatever it was in the bag. He assumed anything worth burying must be worth trouble, too.
When he deemed the hole wide enough and deep enough, he walked over to the black bag. He stood over it like the Colossus at Rhodes, but he was just a boy from Texas lost in the dark swamps of the Florida woods. He held a shovel instead of a spear. He leaned forward, grabbing hold of the black bag’s zipper. He moved his arm slowly. He undid the mystery.
Inside, a bloated, white face stared back at him. The man’s lips were like purple slugs. His hairline had receded tremendously. The smell was horrendous. Myles stepped away from the body and threw up a trucker’s serving of meatloaf. Then he walked back to the body and did as Mr. Bird had ordered—he buried it. When he was finished, he heard the man’s voice: “You about done, Myles.”
“I—I think so.”
“Well, we’ve still got miles to go. Bring that shovel with you.” And the man was off sprinting through the woods, and Myles felt he had no choice but to chase after him. Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed around his head. His shoes often sunk into the murk. At some point, he lost the shovel. They climbed over a mound of knotted tree root. They waded through bogs. He had a hard time believing the old man could move as he did. Then they came to a small pier. At the end of it, a man stood waiting, switching a flashlight on and off.
“Took you long enough.”
“I brought you some help.”
The man shone the flashlight in Myles’ face. “He’s too young.”
“He’ll do just fine, Paul—trust me, he just buried Vogel all by his lonesome.”
Myles wiped his mouth with his forearm. He watched the two men climb into the motorboat waiting to take them all out of the swamp. “Well,” said the man Mr. Bird had referred to as Paul, “You climbing in or not?”
Myles didn’t see where he had the choice. He climbed in for the ride. He watched the moon disappear and reappear through the branches of the swamp’s canopy. He figured there was no map for where they might be headed—one just had to guess and pray that he was right, and so that’s just what he did.
Cicadas and tree frogs filled the night air. A symphony of crickets.
(Image by Mike Langston)
“Someone here to see you, Mr. Jordan,” said the Mexican security guard with a bit more fear and respect than he should have. After all, it was only a few days prior when he had finally built up the courage to ask Mr. Jordan for his autograph.
Mr. Jordan bit down on the end of his cigar. Bits of brown leaf and spit slipped out his teeth and onto his lips, before fluttering to the floor. “When I’m done here.” He then peeked at his cards and raised the bet.
“Sì, señor . . .” the guard trembled, blood invading all the capillaries in his face, “. . . but this hombre is awfully anxious to see you.”
“Then he can wait ‘til I finish this hand.”
The guard scurried from the doorway like a mouse from a broom handle.
“Dammit,” hissed Jordan through his clinched teeth. The cigar’s tip glowed orange. “I hate interruptions.”
A gruff looking man in need of a haircut sat beside Jordan in the Mexican prison. He laughed with an empty sort of laughter, and the fake-ness of it all was enough to make one wonder whether or not the man even knew what funny was. “Yeah, boss,” he said, as if this pattern had been repeated many times in their days together.
“Awww, shit,” said Jordan standing up from the table, “I ain’t got shit anyway. Oak, pay me out this hand, and if you take extra, I’ll cut even you.”
The man in need of a haircut nodded and then turned to the other two men at the table, one with a long Roman nose and the other one bald, “You heard that, Ronnie and Scott, Mr. Jordan’s out,” which they knew meant they were supposed to lose on purpose to Mr. Oakley, who would later split his earnings with Mr. Jordan. The whole game, as long as they had played it, was rigged to maintain a particular pecking order, and anyone new to the game was told these rules in secret, or they didn’t last very long.
Jordan tossed the still lit butt of his cigar into a waste basket, causing a flame to smolder in the paper remnants before going as still and dark as it had ever been. Mr. Jordan had always lived this way, giving fire where there was none and leaving what had been nothing with nothing once again. It was his way of doing business; his way of existing; his way of living; his way of reckoning that he was better than all these other wayward cons, cartel members, and cutthroats, inside of a Mexican jail, reminiscing about how things used to be. It was, for lack of a better phrasing, just how he was.
On the way down the hall to the visiting room, Mr. Jordan stopped and checked his reflection in the curved metal of a nonworking water fountain. He rubbed his head, shaven that morning with a straight razor, and pulled on his nose. Then he bent down for a drink, but all he could do was lap his pink tongue at the space between his mouth and the faucet. He gave up, lifted his head, and finished his prowl down the rest of the hallway. This was his domain; his Savannah; his empire.
When he arrived in the visiting room, it was empty. A gray counter split the room, and the counter was split by a pane of plexiglass that ran the length of the room. The counter was then divided up by three pieces of plexiglass that cut across the width of the counter, making four places for prisoners to meet their loved ones. Each spot had a stool and a phone receiver on each side. Mr. Jordan took a seat at one of the middle stools and waited. He could see the glint of his earring in the plexiglass like some star refusing to wink out.
A green light went on by the door, and, as it opened, a buzzer sounded. In walked a slim looking fellow whose gait reminded Jordan of his younger self. The younger man’s hairline set back on his forehead like it was receding, but it wasn’t. Meanwhile, his lips stuck out like he was pouting over the hand history had dealt him, like he was upset that he would never receive credit for being the first man to ever live.
This younger man sat down at the table and took in the moment. Having imagined this moment of convergence for almost his whole life, he stared at the mythic figure squeezed into flesh as if eyeing a famous painting that wasn’t quite so large as he had imagined. If not for the plexiglass, he could have reached out and touched the man and found nothing other than skin and bone at the end of his fingertips.
Mr. Jordan looked impatient. He had known this visit would come, and he already wanted it over and done with. He grimaced like a man eating leftovers that have already started to turn.
The two men reached for the telephone receivers simultaneously, in a manner that made it impossible to tell which was the shadow and which was the body.
“I can’t believe I’m here. . . . I’ve got so much to ask you. . . so much to say,” started Kobe.
Mr. Jordan just stared through the glass, his dark eyes still and frozen–he was a viper on display at the zoo–and he spoke in a fanged whisper. “Cut the bullshit, man. I know you’re not that inocente.”
Kobe swallowed. He worked his jaw in and out. “They cut off my supply. I need to know where I can get more.”
“Do you not see where I am? Look around you--I’m not free to do business.”
“Weren’t you arrested for poaching?”
“What? You want me to draw you a fucking map?”
“That was the idea.”
“Then what? You kill off what’s left of the species?”
“Isn’t that what you were going to do?”
Kobe started to grow impatient. He stroked the stubble on his jawline with nervous fingertips. “At least give me a starting point.”
“Kobe,” he waited for the younger version of himself to look him in the eye, “I’m not your father.”
Kobe sighed a hollow yeah and dropped the receiver. He could shed this skin of the innocent offspring, just as he had shed all those prior skins to get here. Those disguises of just who and what his life’s pursuits had shaped him into being were just that, a masquerade. He knew that now. He and this man were both one and nothing. They were an eclipse. A particular moment could see one, but not the other. And still, he felt some primal connection to the man, as if in the veins of each flowed the same killer instinct.
“I guess that’s it then.”
“I guess it is.”
Kobe rose. As he turned to walk away, Jordan asked, “How much of that stuff did they have you drink?”
Kobe paused. He wanted to say enough, but all he could do was scowl in silence.
“That shit will make you crazy. It’s like drinking history.” Jordan laughed. “Ain’t no good gonna come from that.”
As he walked out the prison’s doors, Kobe dreamed of a different encounter with the older man behind the glass, where they were not separated by anything other than ten paces. He dreamed that they each wore a gun on his waist and that the quickest to the draw would be the only one left standing. But time and circumstance had deprived him of the only thing he’d ever wanted: to kill or be killed by Michael Jordan, his father or not. And it was that need and the impossibility of ever satisfying it that had set every fire he’d ever lit.
He sat in the parking lot of the prison for a long time. The key was in the ignition, but he hadn’t turned it. The steering wheel was in front of him, but he didn’t touch it. He looked through the windshield at the prison wall. If he drove straight and true, he could break through the barrier, but what good would it do him? Breaking through the barrier would only land him in prison, literally and figuratively. It would not change the time of his path.
Between the car and the wall, in a small dark mound on the pavement, was the body of a bird. How long had it been there? It didn’t move. It just was.
He remembered the night he burned down the club. When he walked out into the middle of the night—an inferno burning behind him—no one noticed. Down the street, and over the useless flapping of the flames, he could hear the lone howl of a car’s horn. It didn’t break and it didn’t crack. It was constant. He had turned towards its blaring madness: a crowd had gathered by the car and the noise. He had approached both. When he got there, he, like everyone else, had noticed the woman in the front seat: a bullet through the back of her neck.
“Who was she?” he remembered himself asking.
The man closest to him, a cop, shrugged, but another man answered: “Think she worked at the club down the street.” It was then that Kobe had looked back over his shoulder and seen the pillar of black smoke hovering above the city’s sprawling lights and spreading out over the desert’s wide emptiness. It was then that he had first understood California as he watched the smoky silhouettes rise together and disperse.
“You need some water? You look parched.” The man who had identified the girl as Stevie Nash handed him a canteen. He lifted it to his lips, took a sip, and it had poured through him like an ocean of salt. His thirst, he had come to realize, would never be quenched.
A man who looked a great deal like Jack Nicholson in an old film then turned to no one in particular and said, “Well, if no one else is going to say it, I will. It’s only Chinatown, Jake.”
A horn blared for what felt like forever.
“I was always the ‘liked one’ and to be on the other side—they call it the dark side or the villain or whatever they call it—it was definitely challenging for myself. It was a situation I had never been in before, and it took awhile. . . it took a while to adjust to it.”
The Admiral-Constitution broke the story: “Dangerous symbiote disappears from Boston lab.”
LeBron turned down the corner of the paper, so he could better address the two men sitting with him at the outdoor café, “Either of you know what a symbiote is?” He had to squint; the sun was riding blindingly high over their shoulders.
“A what?” asked Dwyane Wade, the well-dressed Sherpa who had led LeBron from his Midwest roots to the sandy shoals of Miami’s beaches—beaches that would probably rest underwater within their lifetimes.
“Are you reading a newspaper or a comic book?” Dwyane Wade asked, looking up from his deconstruction of an umbrella straw, which had been delivered to him in a fluorescent drink; one part alcohol, the other part sugar. He turned the umbrella inside out and then picked it apart like a weapon in need of disarmament. As he did so, a woman in neon heels and a bright bikini transformed the sidewalk into a runway. His eyes moved effortlessly with the sway of her hips. He licked his lips. “When I found you in Cleveland, did you ever imagine—”
“A symbiote. Seriously, what is it?” LeBron tapped the fingers on the table’s glass top. “Where’s your iPhone? Look it up.”
“How do you not have a phone? Don’t you have your own app?”
LeBron folded the paper along its creases. He gave Dwyane a look that he could not have given him four years prior when the man had appeared like a guardian angel outside an Ohio bus stop. The look said, you will do this for me. Dwyane complied, his fingers melting into the touchscreen like raindrops of flesh. When he finished searching, he laid the phone on the table as he stood up from the table. “Where are you going?” asked LeBron.
Dwyane walked away from the table, leaving LeBron alone with the phone and Dwyane’s silent acquaintance, an in town guest of Mr. Riley’s, a man who had said nothing, not even hello, since LeBron had been introduced to him.
LeBron reached out his hand and closed it not around the phone, but around a glass of ice water. He raised it to his mouth and started gulping. The eyes across the table blazed before him. The power of the stare streaked in jet fuel. LeBron started to put the glass back on the table, felt a sweat bead clinging to his hairline, preparing to invade the slope of his forehead. He took another sip.
“You here on business?” asked LeBron. “Is Mr. Wade handling your properties?”
The eyes continued their laser-like focus.
“Alright, then, how ‘bout I guess where you’re from?”
The waiter poured more water into LeBron’s glass. The Midwest migrant continued, skin glistening in the sun: “How ‘bout the northeast. . . maybe Connecticut? Nah. Alright, then how ‘bout Milwaukee or Seattle?”
The man didn’t respond and LeBron began studying the contours of his skull, his expression one of constant disgust, as if the world insulted him in its progressions through time and space. The man looked like he hated existence for its very right to exist.
“Jesus,” LeBron said, “do you ever talk?”
The man opened his mouth, and LeBron swore he saw a serpentine tongue lash behind rows of razor-sharp teeth.
“Jesus,” said LeBron, shuttering in his diminished understanding of the human organism before him. “Jesus.” He downed another glass of water.
When he picked up Dwyane’s iPhone, it was locked and he didn’t know the passcode. He left the phone alone and looked towards the street. He thought about his early days in southern Florida, when he had sped through the streets in a bold red convertible; champagne corks popping in the fog of cigar and marijuana smoke.
Dwyane Wade had taught him how to be bulletproof, to be forever cool, to never compromise and to never defer. Traditions, laws, ethics, these were things that came and went, changing shape in the sun-kissed air of South Beach like exhaust from a speeding car. LeBron had sped through this very intersection in those early days, as a large man walked a pack of yipping dogs across the street. The dogs had tried to chase the car and ensnared their own master, tying him to the road like a man in need of a rescue. “If you want,” Wade had said, “do a U-turn and run his ass over.” The statement had been the first hint that Riley’s machine was about something more than playing games with real estate investments—it was about life and death, or creating a separate peace from both.
LeBron thought often about that thin line now, between what is and what isn’t; what could be and what could never be. He reflected a great deal these days, sitting outside cafes with a newspaper rather than speeding by in his best Miami Vice impersonation. In short, he was changing, shedding a part of himself whether he knew it or not.
He turned to the silent man beside him, “You ever wonder why we’re here and not somewhere else.”
The man said nothing, but flames contorted in the dark pupils of his eyes. LeBron reached again for a glass of water on the table; he was drinking liquids as if trying to flush his system for a drug test, as if he could wash away the past.
“Are you a lawyer?” Why did he keep trying to talk with this man? “Sometimes, when I’m representing someone I know is a criminal, I resent the words that cross my lips. Sometimes, when I’m questioning a witness on the stand, I think the only confession that matters is my own.” He picked up another glass from the table; he was drinking not just his own water but the whole table’s water. He drew water through the straw until the plastic choked on air. He was beyond thirsty, and the whole world seemed to be running on empty. “How do you know when you’ve been somewhere too long?”
The stranger bared his teeth, and his forked tongue slithered in the gaps.
“Did you see Mario?” Dwyane seated himself at the table again. He had come bearing gifts; he placed three shots and three beers on the table. “These are courtesy of Mario. He’s appreciative of our services.”
“He’s a crook,” said LeBron.
“Or a client,” corrected Dwyane.
“You say Mario; I say Wario.”
They downed the shots and chased them with beers.
LeBron noticed that the stranger had never reached for his, and yet his glass was empty, as if he had consumed the spirits by way of evaporation.
“Alright, well, I’m due in court. The Beas once again needs my full attention. A waiter placed three more shots and three more beers on the table as Dwyane said this. He took the shot, stood up, and chased it with a beer. “When’s your meeting with Sir Riley?”
“Not ‘til later.”
“From what you told me, you were brilliant—you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
“What about the tremors? I keep feeling them in my leg—even my face.”
“You’re young. It’s probably nothing.” He sipped from one of the beers. “Or it’s everything.”
“And what about—”
“Did you pull the trigger?”
“Then shut the fuck up about it. In fact, I bet you end up representing one of ‘em, either in court or as a realtor. Whatever you need to do, just make that money.”
And with that Dwyane slapped LeBron on the back, but not before downing one of the other two shots at the table. He nodded towards the stranger among them: “Mr. Shuttlesworth.”
The stranger, who up ‘til then had only been referred to as Sir Riley’s guest, or Sir Riley’s client, or as a VIP customer, exited at the calling of his actual name, and they headed down the sidewalk together. Mr. Shuttlesworth walked just off Dwyane’s fine-stitched shoulder as the two made their way down the sidewalk. When the guest looked back at LeBron, LeBron saw his eyes blaze red, exploding like two bloodshot grenades. And then, somehow, they materialized anew, as if they had never been blown apart in the first place.
LeBron waited for the two men toclimb into their car, a red convertible, and drive before flipping the folded newspaper over to its back page. There was no denying it: Lance Stephenson had been charged with the murder of Danny Granger.
The news was not new to LeBron; he had already spoken with the police, telling them that he had never met either of the two men. They apologized for calling him so early and told him that obviously they had been mistaken, that they had a list of names and were reaching out to all of them.
LeBron felt his jaw sag and hum with the guilt of muted responsibility. The temperature was rising, and there was no more water on the table. He took the last shot instead. When he pushed back his chair and started to stand, the white out occurred—everything in his life jolted into the sterility of Harry Potter’s King’s Crossing. He waited in the hereafter for an old man with wisdom to instruct him on what to do with his life, but no old man came to his need. Rather, when the waiter arrived with the check, he found LeBron shaking on the concrete, with white spit bubbling on his lips. The waiter chirped for help: “Bird-Man! Bird-Man!” Or maybe it was just a chant made by the locals at the rising of a new sun. Whatever it was, pure emotion or dogged ritual, LeBron couldn’t hear it. The wisdom of the moment arrived too late, or was somewhere else, migrating on that tightrope between what’s north and what’s south: Bird-Man! Bird-Man! The world turned with a magnetic pulse, with or without LeBron’s regaining consciousness.
He awoke in a quiet room. He could hear waves licking the land low and flat out an open window. He could smell the salt. He at first thought he must still be asleep. But he blinked and blinked some more and then his eyes stayed open, taking in this corner of the world. He threw back the bed sheet and felt the biting tug on the inside of his forearm. An IV line ran from his arm to a bag atop a metal pole near the headboard. Apparently, someone had decided his body was in need of fluids. He watched the intravenous drip. He watched the crystal shine of the liquid. He felt it blend with the migration of his own blood. He noticed his mouth still felt dry and thirsty.
He stood up and wheeled the IV stand beside him, its wheels letting out little yelps, thirsty for a WD-40 drip of their own. He walked to a sliding door and pulled back the curtains. The ocean shone blue in its tropical brilliance; white sand between him and the water. He slid back the door, ripped the tube from his arm, and walked out across the soft, warm grains. The breeze filled his thin gown, impregnating it with the full form of a ghost in limbo. Palm trees bent in the direction of its haunting shape. They bent towards him, remembering times and travelers he could not even imagine if he tried.
Closer to the water, the sand became less dry and fluffy. The sand became wet and malleable, molding prints around his feet. He could look behind him and see forever from which way he had come, to this point where land and ocean wrestled with a peaceful passion that seemed always to whisper towards violence in the folds of the horizon, in the turning of the of seasons and their storms. He felt the water engulf his toes and sneak up to the balls of his ankles. He felt like a child of God and that the ocean must be salted with Magdalene’s tears. He thought the seaweed that wrapped itself around his shins must be her hair. The world before him was ripening into parable. Some story of the prodigal, he thought, and sighed into the extreme peace of it all.
He looked out to the waves and the light broke just so, and he could’ve sworn the sea was calling to him. He waded out into the deep and started to swim. His arms churned through the water with his hands cupped like buckets. He moved molecule and atom, until he had rearranged his relationship with the shoreline. He couldn’t feel the land’s slope beneath him. He was in the ocean. He cranked his head from side to side. He needed to find his star in the water, that flash of brilliant light that called to him like a prophecy. He bobbed in the water, searching for that beacon, which had brought him out into the open waters so far from everything, unhinged and unearthed. If he looked towards the shore, he could see the Miami skyline rising in monolith out of the water, as if built from the water’s waves, as if each sky scraping tower were a spire on Poseidon’s trident. But, when he turned away from the land, he discovered that his preference was for the open water. And that was his flash of light.
He swam with an exhausting fury until his hands struck a solid piece of glass. He brought the bottle up by its scrawny neck. He held it above his head in triumph, and then he saw in its belly the scrap of paper bent over on itself like a kneeling Jonah. He squinted in the light beaming off the bottle’s curve, and then he made for shore, to unfold this message in a bottle.
The cork refused to come undone.
LeBron wrestled with the glass and the corked wood, but neither seemed to budge—they were married to one another. As he struggled with it, rested for the next match, and continued the struggle, a hand holding a corkscrew placed itself between him and the bottle.
LeBron looked up and there was a man with spiked hair and many piercings haloed by a yellow sun.
“Thanks,” said LeBron.
“It’s no big deal. The big deal is you staying in my condo.” The man pointed to the building in which LeBron had awoken before his swim. LeBron could even see his footprints leading down to the water.
“You’re from the restaurant.”
“Why was I not taken to a hospital?”
“You were, but I said I was family and brought you here.”
LeBron twisted the metal spiral into the heart of the soft wood. This bit of news should have been creepy, but it wasn’t. There was a familiarity to the man; he knew him from somewhere else. “We met before the restaurant, didn’t we?”
The man nodded in the sun. He may have even winked.
Then it came to LeBron—something about Denver. “You were a witness in Sir Riley’s case—that one involving the bootleggers.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in witness protection?”
“If that’s who I am.”
“What’s it like being a witness?”
“How would I know? I’ve never been a witness.” The man may have winked again, but LeBron couldn’t be sure, not with both the man and the sun staring him down. The metal corkscrew was as far into the wood as it could possibly go. “You might want to start going the other way.”
LeBron stared up towards the sky, with a look that asked, really?
“The corkscrew, man, the corkscrew.” The tattooed man motioned for LeBron to give the cork a twist.
When LeBron removed the cork, he said to himself as much as to the man, “How’d the cork get in there that deep in the first place?” It was corked like no one had ever opened the bottle. He stuck his index finger into the thin opening, but he couldn’t reach the letter, not even when he turned the bottle over. He tried again with his middle finger. “And how do we get the letter out?”
The man handed him a hammer. “The only tool for a proper evacuation.”
LeBron laid the bottle in the sand. He raised the hammer over his head. The glass broke like water. He picked the letter carefully from the shards. He felt lucky not to bleed.
“Don’t cut yourself,” grinned the man. And LeBron started reading:
Dear Father (or maybe I should call you Mr. James),
I guess my twenty-two previous letters never reached you. I wrote them and wrote them. I wrote them all by hand, but as you can see, this letter is typed in comic sans. I decided to type this one because it feels like a more formal occasion. I’m going to stop writing. I can never stop being your son. Even if I grow up to be a failure, I can’t ever stop. Your blood is in my veins. I can’t change that, even though I recently found out that you ran out on us and God knows I wanted to. That’s right, I’m saying it formally in this letter, I wanted your blood out of my veins. What kind of man does what you’ve done? After you left, mom got sick. They took her up to a medical facility in Boston, one of the best in the country. But she died. Her doctor was involved in that space shuttle that blew up. He couldn’t get over that and he left her. She’s been left twice now; once by you and once by a doctor. I think I hate you more. As I said before, I hate your blood in my veins. Did you ever love her? She never talked about you much. She only ever said that Kobe was the real love of her life, well, him or some guy named Penny. Once she got sick, she didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I blame you for that. I blame you for everything. After I write this letter, I’m going to burn the only picture of you I own. You may remember it. You’re looking towards the sky with your arms raised. You look like one conceded asshole in it, which seems natural for a jerk like you. Who runs out their home and their family? I hate you.
Sincerely your son,
PS If you ever do want to come find me, which I hope never happens, I’m staying in the Dan Gilbert Home for Lost Children. I share a room with my half-brothers. They’re names are Anthony and Andrew. They’re both younger, but they think you suck more than their dads. Yeah, that’s right, mom got around before she got sick. Anyway, I still hate you, even in the postscript.
LeBron read the letter several times, over and over, as continuous as the waves washing the sand before him. An address, serving very little purpose considering how the message was delivered by bottle, was written in a child’s handwriting on the backside of the letter.
It was an address LeBron couldn’t help but recognize. He remembered the night he left Akron. He had not thought much about how his absence would impact his future child that night. Instead, he had thought of himself and how much life he had yet to experience. Now he felt like he had experienced everything. The former bootlegger in whose house he had awoken was now pacing off in the distance, talking on his phone. LeBron could barely make out the conversation, but he was fairly sure he was its primary subject.
“No, I don’t know how long he’ll be here. . . . You want me to bring him to you. . . . Well, I don’t know what the going rate for that is. . . . Fuck you. How much did Krause give Rodman. . . . Screw that. . . . Yeah, sure, I think so. . . . Yeah, I agree it was a mistake—”
Felling the man with a hammer seemed kinder than stabbing him with broken glass, which is why LeBron chose, without really making a choice, to club the man in the skull. The man froze, his phone dropped, then his arms hung at his side like a flightless bird, and then the body slumped into the sand. Blood trickled. LeBron tried not to think about it. He rushed back into the condo, found his keys and his clothes, and then made for the restaurant.
Lebron headed for the penthouse and not the cottage. But first, and because he knew he was headed for a showdown and not a book discussion, he stopped by his million dollar condo and took out his 2011 Halloween costume, a shiny white jacket with a metallic yellow scorpion on the back of it.
Wheels screeched as he merged lanes in traffic. Phil Collins played on the radio, all eighties synths and airy vocals. This was some Miami Vice shit.
LeBron took his hands off the wheel, reached for his gun in the compartment between the seats, he loaded it. The car drove itself. The car floated on air. He thought of his relationship with Shaquille. It wasn’t real, but the boy who walked away from the illusion of romance was. Goddamn it the boy was real. The drums came in, the fill toppling over itself like gardens in Babylon. LeBron could feel what was real and what wasn’t. He’d been waiting for this moment for so long. In fact, he had come to Miami for this kind of moment. This was bigger than any rigged court case or bogus real estate dealing. This was more true and vital and good than stealing pool pumps and forging eviction papers. This mattered more than Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson. This was his life—all of it—and as real as it would ever be.
He pulled the car onto the curb and left it sitting in front of the Riley Building’s revolving doors. The tires smoked as he stepped out and a fire hydrant burst open in his wake. He could feel the heat of the road and the mist from the water. Unphased and Steve McQueen cool, he walked a tightrope through the middle of it all. He walked a tightrope into the heart of Riley’s building. He rode the elevator up to where the floors no longer had numbers—they just looked down on everything. A rolled up copy of The Admiral-Constitution sat high in his back pocket. He held the gun in his hand. He threw open the double doors that led to Riley’s inner chambers. The doors spread like wings on fire when he shoved them by their golden-clawed handles.
“Whoah! Hold on!” Riley looked up from a mirror in which his reflection failed to appear. “Oh, it’s you LeBron.” The man, looking younger than LeBron had ever seen him, wiped something from his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He stood up. “Welcome, I was just. . . I was just looking over some letters from Houston. Some kid named Chandler wanting representation—”
“I want to know everything!”
LeBron aimed the gun with two heads at Riley’s face. Riley opened his arms in welcome as he strolled around the island of his desk.
“We can’t know everything, LeBron. That’s, well, that’s just impossible.” The man turned towards the fire place that, as usual, was giving off a tremendous level of heat. “You hear that, Dwyane? The kid wants to know everything.”
Dwyane was seated in a leather chair beside the fire. He started to look at LeBron and then into the flames, dodging some unknown element that existed between the two.
“Am I missing something here? How did I miss this? You were my partner. I trusted you. My boy’s been writing me letters. Did you know?”
Dwyane didn’t look up from the fire, and Riley intervened on the brief, yet intimate moment. “LeBron, they all knew. How could they not? What boy doesn’t want to meet his paterfamilias? But how could you have been a father and accomplished all that you have?”
“And what have I accomplished?”
“We built all this.”
Dwyane adjusted himself in his chair, uncrossing his legs, and then crossing them the other way.
“But is this even real? No other firm operates the way we do.” He thought for a moment. “And what exactly is it that we do?”
“No other organization has our talent. You boys, my boys, are each one of a kind.” Riley reached out with open palms, and if LeBron stood closer, the man probably would have embraced his cheeks and kissed him. But LeBron wasn’t standing closer. He stood at a distance still, with a gun aimed at Riley’s temple, so Riley was left embracing each of his hands with the other and shaking them as if a toast had just been give and accepted with kind regards.
“Where are they? I want all twenty-two of them.”
“LeBron,” Riley stepped closer, but slowed as LeBron gestured with the gun. “You can’t have them.”
“Because he burned them, LeBron!” yelled Dwyane. “He burned them and snorted the ashes! He’s a succubus, but he’s made you rich. He’s made all of us rich, so put the gun down and follow the goddamned plan!”
LeBron lowered the gun. “Snorted the ashes? Like I’m supposed to believe that? Like that’s a fucking thing?”
“Oh, shut up, LeBron! Like you haven’t snorted worse.”
“I never tried to erase the past.”
“It wasn’t the past he was erasing; it was the future,” said Dwyane, standing up and moving towards the hovering heat given off by the flames. “He was erasing this moment.”
“Dwyane’s right,” said Riley. “You don’t find the exit and run out of it. This stuff is hard. You have to stay together and find the guts. You’ve got to be a fucking man about this, LeBron. That’s all.” And Riley turned back towards his desk, not necessarily retreating, but allowing the world to spin without his talking.
“It’s not just the letters, though,” added LeBron as he reached for the newspaper in his back pocket. “It’s the bodies! We’re responsible for this!” He waved the roll in the air; it was now his primary weapon.
“Oh, so you’re worried about a couple hustlers from Indiana,” answered Riley. “They wanted to play the game. They wanted to play for big stakes. We’re a law firm and a corporation, yes, but we’re also many other things—” Wade nodded. “—and we’re going to keep being many other things. This will not end here. If you had a heart, if it pumped blood like you’re claiming, then you didn’t have to take the money.” Riley slammed the mirror into a wall. “You didn’t have to take it in that pool hall, in any of those court rooms,on those people’s front porches, not ever! We’ve killed, and we’ll kill again!”
The stranger from the restaurant made his presence felt from the shadowy corners of the room, his red eyes glowing, his tongue lashing around in his jaw like a spitfire flame.
Riley continued his rant: “Fuck! LeBron! That Boston space shuttle didn’t even go down without faulty wiring, a bit of cash, and some dark magic! Winning is killing!”
“Do you ever shut up?” LeBron shook the gun at the old man, whose head was looking more and more like Skeletor’s. Riley’s simmering rage had warped the façade of youth on his brow. His smooth skin wrinkled in the firelight.
The gun popped and hissed like a log in the fire, and the bullet surely would have killed Riley if not for Wade lunging at LeBron’s arm. The shot scattered wide of its target. The two equals wrestled for a bit, but LeBron proved the bigger and younger man. He squatted on top of Wade’s broke down body, beating him with The Admiral-Constitution. Meanwhile, the sith lord duo of Sir Riley and Mr. Shuttlesworth looked on in violent glee, like phantasms from another world.
“Go ahead, LeBron. Make it your inheritance.”
LeBron grabbed Wade’s throat and held the roll of newspaper like an ax ready to deliver the death blow. He was going to crush his partner with the weight of the printed word. And then he stopped.
“Jesus,” he said, and the paper unfurled as it flew in the direction LeBron hurled it, towards the flames. When the paper landed in the hearth’s open jaws, sparks exploded, catching the curtains, rug, and wallpaper on fire. The whole inner sanctum of the penthouse was bursting into an inferno. LeBron looked around, but Sir Riley was gone. Somewhere in the flame and smoke and shadows, LeBron thought he could hear the echo of the man’s voice, calling out to a miserable audience, “This isn’t where we’re headed. I will be here with or without you. I will be here forever.” And then there was only the sound of crackling wood and melting steel.
Mr. Shuttlesworth stepped further from the obscure shadows and into the lit prominence of a world on fire.
As he walked across the spitting embers of the burning room, his skin, bubbling and running with the pink tinges of evaporated veins, ebbed away, revealing not only muscle and sinew, but the ceraceous feathering of a reptilian husk. Its pigments waned in the fire’s light, turning from a golden red to a white-frosted green, to a greenish yellow, and then, finally, to a wooded purple. The colors bruised in the heat as the flames beat the room’s beams, moldings, floors, and drywall into ashen heaps and blackened bones. The world seethed at its mutation; clouds billowed through the gaping holes in the penthouse ceiling. The stars lost themselves in a glooming fog.
And the creature—for the shape and form of Mr. Shuttlesworth no longer existed—stepped forward with its unhinged jaw, like how a python might widen its mouth into a cave’s endless abyss, to swallow an aurochs whole. This two-legged creature did the same.
Dwyane quivered on the floor, shielding his eyes with a singed arm, his sleeve burned to tatters. LeBron stared into the widening throat of the Galactus before him, into the carnage of its stellar body. Its throat, like a black hole, appeared without end, and then LeBron, through its rows of piranha diamond teeth and past the gaping darkness, saw the gleam of an alarm clock, its two rounded bells, like ears, appeared greased with oiled blood. The hands ran backwards, ticking into the past. The ribs, dripping with the same engineered blood, trembled in time, and then the bells started ringing. Scales and flesh and blood erupted from the detonated former body of Mr. Shuttlesworth. But all LeBron heard was the crying of a baby boy; a wail that shattered the night. “Jesus!” he screamed. “Jesus.” And collapsed.
When he awoke, he lay on the white Cuban sand. The sun drew a white line in parallel to the beach on the distant edges of the deep blue waters. The waters drew back their darkness, trading it for brighter shades. The sun rose in its glory, and flamingos, with curved necks, leaned like fluorescent canes into the bearing breeze. It was then that LeBron James decided to return home, or maybe it was earlier; all the past moments felt like one moment. He sighed on the sand. All he needed to go with him was Love. He bought a bus ticket within the hour. He would be leaving in just the same manner as he had arrived. The arc seemed fitting, like a halo’s journey through the sky.
The bus, driven by a man with an Eastern European accent, who in the balding of his butcher-block skull couldn’t help drawing comparisons with a K.G.B. hit man, did not take a direct route from Miami to Cleveland.
North of Gainesville, in the proximity of Lake City, the driver exited I-75 North and entered onto I-10 West, heading out across the miserable pine-swamp forests of the panhandle rather than entering into the miserable pine-swamp forests of southern Georgia. When a sign announced the approaching exit of Route 231 North, into Alabama, the driver took it.
Tolls and road stops passed by in the window that suggested the early decades of the twenty-first century were not of the present but the future, that an entire region of the country, by choice, luck, or misfortune, had missed out on the passing of time. Most of the passengers slept their way through this land of Biblical stubbornness, but LeBron studied it, as if the terrain were the body of some deceased celestial being. He studied the land of nowhere as if nowhere could teach him how to be a god, to resist and turn back time, to never make a hasty decision.
The driver didn’t say much on the journey through Alabama, maybe two comments at most. The first was a statement of identification: “You can call me Big Z.” His cold accent did not invite anyone to approach him with any questions or requests, just to accept his name and his name only. But, as the day lagged on and the heat and humidity grew in stature with the sun’s positioning in the great blue yonder, the threatening ice of the driver’s voice melted away, or at least seemed to, in the latter of his two comments.
As they passed through Birmingham, on I-65 North, he dealt out a random bit of trivia, asking, “Does anyone know who was born just East of here?” People offered up guesses: Civil Rights leaders, authors, and musicians. Rosa Parks’ name was thrown out multiple times, someone kept screaming Oprah, someone else not only said Lynyrd Skynyrd, but started singing the chorus to “Sweet Home Alabama.” Those who didn’t speak up either slept or grew angry for having been stirred awake by the commotion. Big Z just shook his head, “No. . . no . . . no. . . no.” Finally, he said, “The man born just East of here is Mr. Charles Barkley. He started this bus business. Its first route traveled from Philadelphia to Phoenix, then Houston. Now, it’s all over. Nationwide.”
Then the man went quiet, looking at his passengers through the rearview mirror, expecting them to be blown away by his dropping of valuable information.
“Anybody can come from anywhere and be someone,” he added. But no one was impressed. They were bored; they shook their heads; they went back to sleep. LeBron made note that the importance of everything in this world differs from one individual to another. He thought, if I ever come this way again, maybe I’ll go East of Birmingham. If he did so, the town he’d be searching for is called Leeds.
The bus drove on without anything truly happening. Wheels turning. Kids waving up at the bus’ windows. Honks exchanged. Big Z was much friendlier than he first appeared.
They crossed into Mississippi, passed through Tupelo, and then stopped in Memphis. Almost everyone got off the bus. Big Z nodded his granite skull to everyone. LeBron slipped him a couple dollars; Big Z was the closest thing he had to a friend these days. Big Z didn’t say much about it. The bus pulled away, for maintenance. Riders waited for the next bus or dispersed. The waiting area was a parking lot coated in dust; it resembled a desert. The riders huddled in small packs, like modern Hebrews. Conversations were picked up and set down like dishes at a Sunday potluck.
“You’re seriously staying here?” said a man who LeBron estimated was from Texas. “There are better opportunities North of here.”
LeBron heard the man’s comment like a relic from the past, as if the man was part of a Great Migration. Then LeBron remembered that he, too, was traveling North, and he wondered if all that awaited him was A Raisin in the Sun. The stranger went on, “Construction? Is that what you’ll be doing?”
“Not construction, bro,” answered the other man. “I’ll be doing fine finishings, like carpentry and shit.”
“But, Vince, the company’s called Z-BO CONSTRUCTION BROS.”
“But they’re expanding into other areas. It’s called diversifying one’s portfolio.”
“Don’t talk like you’re going into stocks, bro.”“I know I’m not going into stocks.”
“I know I’m not going into stocks.”
“You building shit? You ready to break that back, son? Is that what you’re after?”
“Nah, bruh, I’m telling you, those days are behind me. This is fine finishes.”
“You know, if we had planned better, we could’ve both been retired by now.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” and the two men dapped each other up in an embrace of common experience that spanned the entire width of a bus aisle.
“Did I hear one of you is going North from here?” asked LeBron.
The two men looked at him, but neither said anything: their stares were all judgment.
“I’m headed towards Cleveland.”
“Where you coming from?”
“Miami. Name’s LeBron.” He extended his hand.
“I’m headed to Cleveland after some time riding a Dallas boom. I figure the Midwest’s due for a comeback.” He shook hands with LeBron. “My name’s Shawn. This here’s Vince.”
LeBron reached his hand towards the second man’s, but Vince just turned his head and spat, his saliva and snot thickening like a worm in the dust. “Well, I’m gonna go find this Z-Bo fella.” And walked away.
“What you got waiting for you in Cleveland?” asked Shawn.
“Just gotta take care of some old business. . . something I should’ve done a long time ago.”
“I feel you on that. That’s sort of how I ended up in Dallas.”
LeBron’s hand was in his pocket, holding tightly to the message from Kyrie. He would be home soon.
Brad was the name of the bus driver through Tennessee and Kentucky. His legs, in their skinniness and length, resembled canoe paddles, crammed underneath the steering wheel. He talked nonstop and zipped through traffic as if he were a NASCAR driver. And, when he ran out of useful tidbits of information, he called out play-by-play on his highway driving escapades. The whole effect was rather nauseating.
LeBron sat in a seat by himself. Across the aisle sat Shawn, who mostly slept. In the evening with phantom lights passing through the windows, LeBron thought the man looked much older than when they’d met just hours ago in Memphis. The miles the bus traveled seemed to be rubbing out the youthfulness of the man’s face and posture.
LeBron talked some to a large man in the seat in front of him. The man had gotten on the bus in Louisville, having come from Charlotte. When the man stretched himself out, his feet touched the bus wall of at the opposite end of the seat across the aisle. Apparently the man had worked with Shawn in Dallas. When Shawn was awake, the three men played cards. Shawn mostly won, too.
But LeBron was the only one awake now.
The terrain grew more familiar after they crossed the Ohio River and began moving through the farms and suburbs of LeBron’s home state. However, the day’s light was fading fast, so most of what LeBron recognized occurred as he stared out into the empty darkness and scattered lights and reimagined the world of his past. The world he was going to rebuild.
When the bus arrived in Cleveland, LeBron began to wonder whether or not he was making a mistake. Butterflies flapped their wings at rapid speeds in the pit of his stomach, sending up whirlwinds and hurricanes inside his gut. His blood moved in caffeine avalanches through the limbs of his body, and he couldn’t help shaking with fear at a moment that felt as large and expansive as all history.
“You alright?” asked Brendan, the large man seated in front of him. “Your skin looks like it’s changing colors. You ain’t one of those symbiotes from another planet, are you?”
LeBron looked at his reflection in the window’s moonlight: I don’t think I look any different. In fact, I think I’m as young as the day I left.
He laughed at Brendan’s joke. “You think those things really exist?” But he knew that they did.
The world was filled with inexplicable changes riding the forces of inexplicable causes. He remembered the sight of Mr. Shuttlesworth’s jaw unhinging. The sight had frightened and motivated him. After all, how could a creature such as that not manage to never die?
The bus pulled into a bus lot. The sign guarding the lot read: SIR CHARLES’ DESTRIERS. A fat knight on top of a skinny horse charged brilliantly underneath the arc of the words. LeBron looked at that sign and wondered just how heavy would the burden of fatherhood weigh on his shoulders: Would either he or Kyrie feel like that fat knight’s stallion? The bus emptied out and LeBron, too, realized he couldn’t hide in its cocoon forever. He had to walk its long aisle, venture down its steep steps, and traverse the roads that would lead him to Dan Gilbert’s Home for Lost Children. As he stepped out from the bus as aegis, a voice called to him in what had become that familiar yapping drawl of Brad Daugherty, the bus driver.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the man. “Sorry didn’t catch your name, but I believe you left this behind.”
LeBron looked into the man’s homely eyes and thought this man couldn’t harm a fly. Then, he looked at the object being presented to him by the long tree branch of the man’s arm: a white cowboy hat.
“That’s not mine,” said LeBron, and he looked to leave the conversation.
“I think I’d recognize my own hat.”
“You sure?” asked the man. “I think a fella like you could use a hat like this. Why don’t you at least try it on? How else you gonna know?” The hat moved closer to LeBron, as if the bones in the man’s arm were still growing. “Go ahead, try it on.”
LeBron grabbed hold of the hat’s white brim; it was heavier than any hat he’d ever worn. “It’s not mine,” he said. “I’ve never owned a—” The man stopped him mid-sentence with a Cheshire grin and the pantomimed motion of trying on a hat.
“Just like that, huh?” LeBron asked, staring deep into the hat’s silky material. “It’s not even my hat.” The driver’s body seemed to fade, but that beckoning grin remained.
LeBron placed the hat on his temple and pulled down on the brim; it was lighter than he had imagined, lighter than it had felt in his hands, it felt like he was wearing nothing but a headband. “Really, though, sir, this isn’t my hat. You should keep it.”
“I think it’s time someone other than myself made that hat look good.” The driver reached for the crank to shut the bus’ door, gave it a pull, and drove the bus until it disappeared from sight, leaving LeBron alone with his hat and his duty. The family over the empire.
Harrison Barnes had always been rather bored with magic. When his mother hired a magician for his seventh birthday, he ran up on stage as a white rabbit was pulled from a black hat and interrupted the performance.
“We shouldn’t be making this rabbit appear and reappear,” he had said. “We should be helping it mate, so that it can reproduce more rabbits. With a surplus of rabbits, we might be able to sell them as commodities. We could sell some as pets. We could sell some as food. We could sell some in pairs. We could also sell off the feet for those foolish enough to believe in good luck.” He winked all too perfectly at this last line.
Because of his inability to suspend doubt and stop thinking of anything other than monetary profits, he muggled through school at the Oracle, where boys of seemingly equal talent began to trump his rather pedestrian level of skills.
He would be standing in the Chamber of Rainbows with rabbit gut splattered all over his wizarding robes wondering when on earth they were going to learn about the markets, supply and demand, optimum currency area, and the impossible trinity.
He would raise his hand and ask his dark arts professor, “Doc Kerr, when are we going to learn about rational choice and game theory?”
To which Doc Kerr would respond by encircling Harrison in a circle of white rabbit flames.
“Is this going to be on the exam? When are we going to discuss expected utility theory?”
But, by then, no one could hear him over the roaring flames and through the invisible cone of silence that Kerr had assigned his brighter pupils to create around the young economist.
Harrison’s only real friend and confidant was a tall, brutish student named Andrew, and Andrew was a half giant who moped around saying only one word and one word ever: “Bogut.”
“What do you think of Milton Friedman, Andrew?” “Bogut.”
“I might believe in the Washington Consensus.” “Bogut.”
“Ugh, are you a Keynesian?” “Bogut.”
“Damn it, Andrew, I don’t think you’re listening to me.” “Bogut.”
And so it was on a day when he stood in the corner of the Chamber of Rainbows with cat gut dripping from his wizarding robes that Harrison decided to quit the Oracle. Well, that, and the fact that headmaster Jerry West and professor of the dark arts Steve Kerr had suggested that maybe his application had gotten mixed up with another student’s four years earlier and that maybe he should consider some other route for his development, maybe even culinary school.
So, while West had Kerr conjure a portal from the Oracle to somewhere else using the Eye of Agamotto, Harrison stepped through a physical doorway and into the wooded hills that surrounded the school grounds just as his more talented classmates entered a seam of pure light.
“Who cares about other dimensions?” asked Harrison aloud as he sulked under the prehistoric sequoias.
And, to his surprise, a voice as large as a tree answered him: “Bogut.”
From that moment on, they traveled as partners in search of truer identities.
The Incident was never a singular event, but a series of events. No one knows when exactly it began, although the Matrix’s leaving had something to do with it. And it’s also possible that the Incident is still ongoing. Perhaps the Incident is infinite.
Two years after the Matrix discovered the sleeping Dirk’s whereabouts in the Oracle’s tomb, he told Mark Cuban that he was needed elsewhere, that the computer’s code had once again cracked open before him and revealed a new map. He got on a bus to Cleveland.
However, his leaving was not without friction.
“You can’t just leave, Shawn,” said Cuban, now wearing a Cowboys helmet in place of his rusted Conquistador’s garb. “Your use of the computer is the only thing keeping us all safe.”
“What do you mean? It’s just a computer. It has Wifi. Remember to back up your files, Mark, and you’ll be fine.”
“You’re not hearing me. Without you melding with the system, the system will explode. Why do you think we’re in an underground bunker?”
“I just thought you were into some super secretive, even shady shit.”
“That’s not it, Shawn.”
“Can’t you just build another bunker?”
“You don’t just build another bunker. Plus, I’m talking about an explosion that might endanger the entire world.”
Shawn paused. The two stared back and forth. Eyeballs sizzled between the two of them like yolks on a frying pan.
“I don’t wear this helmet for the fun of it--have you seen my hair? No, this is to keep out the radiation.” He rapped his knuckles on the helmet’s side.
“You see, Shawn, your use of the computer--your intertwining with the system--accomplished two things. One, you were able to locate Dirk and other individuals whose talent the Initiative needed. Two, the huge pocket of electromagnetic energy that was ruptured during the construction of this bunker vented itself through you. Haven’t you noticed that you can’t sleep at night? Haven’t you noticed that you’re having visions without needing physical contact with the computer’s hard wiring? Your constant contact with the machinery has, essentially, made you an indispensable part of the machine. You’re a cyborg, dammit!”
“Are you saying if I leave, then the whole world blows up?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. What did you do before I arrived?”
The man in the helmet cackled. “You won’t believe this, but every 108 minutes, someone would press a button.”
“Well, can’t you just go back to that system?”
“I’m afraid that’s no longer possible?”
“And why the fuck not?”
“Well, it seems that your powers have multiplied the amount of power in the electromagnetic pocket exponentially. The old button can’t harness that level of energy.”
“Can’t you just press the button more frequently? Don’t let the energy build up--hit that shit every eighty-second minute!”
“Huh, I hadn’t thought of that. I guess we could do that.”
Shawn grabbed his rucksack to leave.
“Why? Wasn’t he just here?”
“Well, it seems that in your time packing 109 minutes elapsed.You didn’t tell anyone you were leaving. No one was assigned to pressing the button. Dirk hasn’t been seen since.”
Shawn dropped his bag.
He approached the computer just as he had the first time he used it. He reached into its heart. He took hold of the Perkincinerator replica. He searched the waves and satellites of the known universe. He looked for Dirk all over again. What he found was not Dirk.
While camping on the American plains, Harrison and Andrew exchanged details about their lives. Harrison would say something totally suburban and Andrew would nod his approval and say, “Bogut.”
In his last act for the Initiative, Shawn provided the former astronaut’s coordinates, thinking he was constructing a route to Dirk.
When the Initiative’s hunting party approached Rondo, they were not yet a hunting party.
Then, around the outer rim of their fire’s light, white vapors, faintly human in their phantasmagoric static, flickered and disappeared. The wind picked up, and hail fell from the sky.
The two refugees huddled together, stretching the fabric of their clothes at odd angles, to keep the weather from pelting their cheeks.
“Did you see that?” asked Harrison.
“It had large blue eyes, like ice.”
“Bogut.” A howl of wind. A shiver of tall grass.
“What was that?”
When he awoke in the morning, Harrison found himself covered by a thin veil of ice. So the weather had happened, but he doubted the blond phantom that appeared and disappeared many times in the night’s unrelenting darkness.
In his last act for the Initiative, the Matrix located what he thought to be the coordinates of Dirk Nowitzki. Instead, he located a rogue symbiote host (although no longer active), who, once upon a time, had been the hero and astronaut Rajon Rondo. Now he was something of a ravenous Gollum roaming the Americas.
Thus, while Shawn rode for Cleveland, the Initiative captured Rondo in the Yucatàn jungles. Apparently, he had traveled there with a belief that this ancient crossroads might offer some gateway to alien worlds. They found him yoked to the apex of a stone temple, as if he had offered himself in sacrifice to older worlds. Tar black plasma ebbed from his self-inflicted wounds.
Upon discovering that they had not been tracking Dirk, team leader Raymond Felton radioed Cuban: “It’s not Nowitzki.”
“Hm, imagine that. Bring him anyway.”
The team cut Rondo from the pyramid, placed him in a hyperbaric chamber and returned to the underground bunker somewhere in Texas, near Dallas.
When they arrived, Cuban had them place Rondo’s body into a tank of water, with wires running from it. They placed Rondo’s limp body into a robotic harness that descended him into the chamber.
“You know,” said Felton to Devin Harris, “it’s almost like Cuban never expected us to return with Dirk in the first place.”
Once the robotic harness descended into the water with Rondo’s body, the water glowed yellow before eventually transforming into a nova of white hot light. All of the laboratory observers then donned sunglasses, even though they were miles below the earth’s surface.
“What do you think is happening here?” asked Devin.
To which, Felton responded, “I don’t rightly know.”
During the day, it was announced that Cuban would make a later announcement about the direction and stability of the Initiative. Everyone awaited his talk with great enthusiasm; they all expected very big and wondrous news. They expected pivot towards Genesis and reclamation.
Rajon Rondo’s skeleton hummed inside the burning sun of what used to be nothing more than a water tank. His body became the stick figure nucleus of an artificial universe.
The presentation began with wayang kulit, which translates to theater of skin. Why did the presentation begin with Indonesian shadow puppets? No one really knows. Even more strange, perhaps, was how the puppets performed scenes from Star Wars, or maybe that was less strange. Either way, when the performance concluded and the nine-man band of percussion and wind instruments fell silent, an American man with spiked blond hair seized the stage, wearing a suit, that, in a certain light, caused him to resemble the bro Barney Stinson. And, in that tradition of that particular bro, cheap flames and puffs of smoke shot out his sleeves as he introduced himself to the crowd:
“I’m Chandler Parsons, but first let’s show our thanks for R2D2 and C-3PO. Aren’t they great in any cultural setting? How bout that, folks? Our very own galaxy far, far away and a long time ago right here in our very own underground bunker, and we didn’t even have to subscribe to League Pass or DirecTV. Let’s give them another round of applause.”
He pulled scarves from his sleeves. He released a dove into the air. The dove vanished in a puff of smoke. More applause. Women walked through the crowd offering small bowls and medium saucers of Arrack.
“Perhaps, you’re wondering why I’m here. Maybe you smirked at my age. Maybe my name doesn’t carry as much weight as it should, but it will. I am here because I am from many places. Where was I born and raised? Try Florida. Try Houston. I am a former student of Daryl Morey, where I came to know the world through analytics. For the longest time, my favorite question was: are the right numbers being used? Then I watched Lost, which inspired me to travel. I bought a plane ticket to Indonesia. I met a man named Jack Shepherd. We became best bros--we even received matching tattoos. Then I hurt my knee, which was the truest of bummers, and I knew I would never become the world’s top surgeon--”
A man in the crowd, Raymond Felton, spit out his rice wine: “How does that work?”
The man next to him, Devin Harris: “Keep it down, man, I’m trying to take all this in. Dude’s preaching to us.”
Raymond shook his head and took another sip of blue Arrack.
“--and then I became a student of the Ancient One. You know, ‘cause I was just cruising through the Himalayas and the beauty of our atoms is that mystical bros are just drawn to other mystical bros, and, of course, I’m one of the most mystical bros. And Kamar-Taj, that’s the Ancient One’s name, is telling me about how his best bro as a child was this dude named Kaluu and how they discovered magic together, but couldn’t agree what to do with it. And I’m telling him this is just like on Lost, like when we learn how Jacob has a brother who’s actually the smoke monster. And I tell him about the show, and he’s like having a hard time following, so I draw timelines in the snow. And he’s like why don’t I just use my magic and we beam the show onto the Orb of Agamotto. And we just binge watch and chill right there on this mountainside all covered in snow and ice. And by the time we’re done with all seven seasons, he’s like, you know, I need a Hurley. I totally need an apprentice. And I’m like, bro, I’m totally ready to be a wizarding dude's apprentice.”
Raymond to Devin: “Does this sound believable to you? I think there are some holes in his backstory.”
“Raymond, man, I’m really trying to hear this. He’s taking the guys who match his personality score to the Cheesecake Factory afterwards, and you know how I love their appetizers.”
“I just, I just don’t buy that this guy’s some sort of mystic sorcerer.”
“So, anyway, like I was saying, if the Ancient One could take on an apprentice, then I figure I better take on an apprentice . . . so let’s give it up for DeAndre Jordan, the dude I’ve been training in the dark arts.”
“Seriously, if we have Dirk, why do we need this guy?”
“Haven’t you heard?” asked Deron Williams.
“He hasn’t heard,” said Devin.
“You don’t think that’s just some sort of head game being played by Mark.”
“No, I don’t.”
At this point in the presentation, DeAndre Jordan turned on a wind turbine and Chandler Parsons stands before it, daring the machine to defeat his hair gel.
“Seriously, I don’t get it,”
“Will you shut up, man. This guy’s clearly the Millennial Trump.”
“Is that a good thing?” asked Raymond, and, with that, Devin walked away from him and closer to the stage.
Raymond started eyeing the rest of the crowd. He noticed Deron Williams nearby, who was here wanting answers to questions about ghosts. He saw Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva. He noticed Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire. None of these men were strangers. They were all old faces. They were especially old when compared to the youth on stage. What brought them here? Was it an airplane crash? Were they all part of the same karass? Whose will were they fulfilling? What was their wampeter? Raymond didn’t know, but he was willing to bet that this man Chandler Parsons didn’t know either.
Chandler Parsons lifted a thin veil from a crystal ball: “Behold the Orb of Agomatto!”
What the hell is he planning on doing with that? wondered Raymond. But it didn’t take long to find out. Chandler and his assistant ran what appeared to be ordinary jumper cables from the Orb to the water tank in which the body of Rajon Rondo was still suspended. To attach the cables onto the Orb, DeAndre drilled holes into its palantir surface. The Orb flashed electric blue at the touch of the drill and sparked immensely. The lights in the underground bunker trembled in scientific frailty.
“Is that such a good idea?” asked Raymond.
“Probably not,” said Deron.
A special diving suit was brought out for DeAndre to wear. Inside it, he looked like the first ever giant preparing to enter space. He climbed a metal set of stairs up to the tank’s edge. To those watching, the light appeared to consume him. He stepped off the top step. They heard a splash, even if they could not see him against the tank’s brightness. He suctioned the cables to Rondo’s head. The tank dimmed. The tank quit glowing at all. It was nothing more than a water tank an escape artist, with a brass key hidden in his mouth, might use for a dramatic stunt. Chandler Parsons lowered a ladder into the tank, and DeAndre Jordan pulled himself out of the water. Dripping, he removed his helmet and gave a wide smile.
“We should be ready, Mr. Cuban,” said Chandler. “Just have them push the button like they normally would and the surge of energy should run from Rondo’s tank through the cables and into the Orb. And then, well, I’m pretty sure that’s when all these bros will experience another dimension.”
“What’s he talking about?” asked Raymond.
“The Higgs, man, the Higgs,” said Richard.
“It’s the God particle, yo,” said Amar’e, who over the years had come to speak less and less to strangers and friends alike. “If we find it, we’ll be well on our way. If we don’t, well, then we’ve all wasted a lot of fucking time.”
“A lot of fucking time,” repeated Richard.
Raymond watched as Chandler dapped up DeAndre. Several individuals in the crowd appeared to be cheering also. This was a moment so many of them had come to Dallas for: the hope that they could delineate from the status quo, from aging, from destiny, from Zah-mah-ki-bo. In this moment, they were about to know everything, or at least the path to knowing everything (or, and few of them wanted to admit it, absolutely nothing).
The lights cut out again, but this time they did not flicker back to life. The earth rumbled as if throttled with tectonic dysentery.
“How do we know if we’ve found it?”
Once again, Amar’e answered, “It has to do with lightness versus heaviness.”
No one said anything. The underground shelter trembled some more.
Amar’e continued, “At 115 GeV, Supersymmetry is a thing, and we’ll have meaning. At 140 GeV, well, that’s the end of shit.”
Raymond noticed the concrete slab underneath his feet had begun to crack.
“What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Amar’e. “Science isn’t always explicable.”
A fault line started to crisscross the bunker, and individuals had to choose one side or the other (or risk stumbling down a rather large and sudden gulch). The splitting ran from one wall all the way to the tank’s glass casing. And that, too, cracked on a line running no wider than a spider’s web.
The water churned and bubbled into a murky sea of green. Then the water rushed out the back into a black hole the exact same size and shape of Rajon Rondo, as if the entire world might dare to collapse into his silhouette.
The glass shattered. Shards flew into the black outline that really was a vertical abyss gashed into the space time continuum. Monta Ellis was swallowed whole, as were Jameer Nelson and Brandan Wright.
“The key! Who has the key?” The voice belonged to Cuban. “We have to shut it off!” He was pressing the button repeatedly, but pressing the button didn’t seem to be working. It was already too late for whatever plot twist he had in mind.
On a loop of twine around his neck hung an almost golden key. He pulled the key from his collar. The metal trembled like the leg of an insect. Then the key levitated before him, caught in the sway of the electromagnetic field, the black hole, the sway of everything.
Raymond yelled: “Where the hell is the keyhole?” This was exactly the kind of shit that bothered him about Cuban’s Initiative: everyone said there was a plan, but no one ever really knew the plan.
Cuban didn’t answer. It’s possible he didn’t hear the question. It’s also possible he didn’t hear because the same forces tugging on Raymond’s brass key were also wrestling his Cowboys helmet from his head. He clung like a constipated infant to its face mask. He was being dragged across the cracked floor, closer and closer to the ever-emerging fault line.
Raymond, too, found himself being pulled by the key towards the rift in the floor. “Seriously, where’s the effing keyhole?”
A man in a jumpsuit, who looked like Jim Carrey, waved his arms and yelled at Raymond: “It’s underneath the main computer!”
I thought that dude was only a janitor, reflected Raymond, as the world’s particles continued to be sucked into a Rondo-sized abyss by the effects of Chandler Parsons’ presentation.
The key slipped from Raymond’s fingertips. He dove to hold onto it. He caught it by an unraveled thread of twine. However, when he dove, he had no idea how close to the edge he was. He lay over the canyon, peering at the jagged edges of solid rocks. He was just as equally shocked by this x-ray glance at the world’s bones as he was by the sensation of two hands locking around his ankle. He dangled over the ledge, and the key dangled by a thread, pinned between his thumb and his forefinger. And this was the difference between not only his life and death but the life and death of everyone he knew.
“I got you, Ray!”
He looked back, “Thanks, JJ.”
The black hole expanded. Machines unhinged themselves. The floor continued to break apart. Pulled by an invisible hand, Raymond’s body floated over the ravine. JJ struggled to hold on; he, too, slipped towards the ledge. Of course, in the black hole’s surge, the ledge no longer seemed even remotely like a problem anymore.
Then, something magical happened: Deron wrapped his arms underneath JJ’s shoulders. And, as the compound continued to collapse into a hole just larger than a shadow, Devin grabbed a hold of Deron. Then, Richard Jefferson latched onto Deron. Charlie Villanueva did his part. Tyson Chandler grabbed onto a chain with one hand and Charlie with another. Some said, trying to lighten the mood in this moment of impending doom: “Hey, this is sort of like Toy Story.” And, while they all might have appreciated the gesture, no one laughed.
“This is great everyone, but this still doesn’t get the key to the keyhole,” cried Raymond. He could feel the twine slipping through his fingerprints.
“I got it.” The voice belonged to Amar’e.
On the other side of the canyon, he lowered goggles over his eyes. He trudged towards the line of heroes with his back to the collapsing universe. He stooped as if in a heavy snowstorm. Even as he walked over the canyon with nothing but air beneath him, he appeared too heavy to fly. He is a fallen angel. He is an old man in a story by Gabriel García Márquez. He is a lost miracle; a monument to failed expeditions. But he moves. On flesh. And on bone. He walks across the divide.
He grabs the key. He trudges past the line. Each man reaches to touch his sleeve as he goes. They pat him on the back, not knowing if this will be the last time they see him or not, not knowing if this act will be the last event any of them ever see. He makes his way across the flat surface. The key lowers his fist as if it were as large and heavy as a sledgehammer. He is only a few steps ahead of an evaporating horizon. The world turns to dust underneath his heels, flaking into oblivion. He reaches the main computer. The whole world rests on his shoulders, and he stoops like a man posing for an Ayn Rand abomination. He stabs the key into the keyhole. When it turns, the world flashes in a single, detonating blink--and is no longer what it once was.
Harrison looks around at his surroundings. The place is entirely white and lacking in dimensions. There is no far, and there is no near. But there is a tall blond man standing in front of him. The man is about the same size as Harrison’s traveling companion, Andrew.
“Wow, this really makes me think about New Growth Theory or maybe even Creative Destruction.”
“Are you there? I can’t see you.”
“He can hear you,” explains the blond man, “just as you can hear him. He is of this world, but not this place. In time, your connection will wane and life will move on to other places and other things.”
“What is this place? Is it like a metaphor for Comparative Advantage.”
“It’s the backboard, Harrison. It’s a realm between realms. It’s the border. On one side is one thing. On the other, something else.”
Harrison looks around for his friend. “Are you sure he’s not with us?”
“He is exactly where you left him. You are just out of his reach.”
“Can he hear you?”
“He cannot. He doesn’t know me, so he doesn’t know how to start. That does not, however, mean that he could never find me. After all, you did.”
“I’m his lender of last resort. I’m not sure he can make it without me.”
“Have you heard the story about Hunahpu and Xbalanque?”
Harrison shakes his head.
“Are you sure he can’t hear you?”
“It is a long story, and it doesn’t always makes sense, at least not to me, but I am always struck by the twins’ final moments:
‘Then they arose as the central lights. They arose straight into the sky. One of them arose as the sun, and the other as the moon. Thus the womb of the sky was illuminated over the face of the earth, for they came to dwell in the sky.’”
“I think you’ve mistaken us for some other pair of brothers.”
Dirk sighed, “It ends: ‘The four hundred boys who had died at the hands of Zipacna also rose up to become their companions. They became a constellation of the sky.’ Can you imagine that?”
“Well, Harrison, maybe it’s time to start believing without having to think so damn much about everything.”
A man lies in a wide open field. The grass underneath his head is damp, possibly from morning dew, possibly form his own blood. He blinks awake. His eye screaming out in hushed horror.
He opens his mouth. He coughs. He spits up blood. His lungs struggle to resume normal activities. When they do, he calls out to the land and smoke and ash around him: “DeAndre!”
There is no answer. There will be no answer. The man he calls for has vanished from the scene.
“DeAndre!” The man crawls on all fours as he yells the name of his assistant. Dark blook coagulates in roach-like clumps on his scalp. Smoke rises from the blackened crater. “DeAndre!” he yells again. The man searches and will continue to search in vain. He will fall asleep full of worry. When he wakes, he will stand up and pull himself together. He will continue to be the man he has always been. Some things, like this thing, never change.
He will be in Memphis by tomorrow, maybe even well on his way to Miami. He will make one of his many fortunes in Memphis, or Miami, by selling state of the art technology to a land development firm. When he moves on from there, he will probably make many more fortunes, possibly in Miami. He is the truest form of a snake and oil salesman: he never quits and his bank account is never near the blast radius of a pipeline, or electromagnetic field. He will never know what he’s left behind. He will always be looking ahead, maybe even to Mexico, or Miami. The future is wide open for a man like him.
Underneath his yellow hazmat suit, Mr. Anderson will wear a dark suit and sunglasses. For some days, he will quietly gather empirical data--radiation readings and species counts--in Area X. He work for a yet to be named initiative. He will not say much. He will let his work do the talking. To survive the day to day, he will act as if nothing about the world has ever changed. Deep down, he will know his stubbornness is a lie.
Once a fertile plain, Area X will be, in the year 2064 AD, an impenetrable swamp.
In the years after the Incident began and possibly sometime before it ended, cataclysmic earthquakes will have reshaped the Texas landscape and diverted the paths of once mighty rivers, flooding the great Lone Star State. And, in the newly formed marshes, the centuries will roll back into the humid and vacuous kiss of a prehistoric petri dish.
Forget border disputes--this shit was fucked, and yet this shit will be a miracle to observe.
In a territory once familiar with nothing more than cattle herds and oil rigs, Mr. Anderson will observe red-tailed hawks, egrets, and flamingos. In just a few more days, and further into the swamp, he will note the presence of bobcats, cougars, crayfish, alligators, and anacondas. He will observe several species of dragonfly and mosquito. He will check off several different kinds of newt, otter, and nutria. The destruction will, in a sense, have opened a path for these acts of genesis, for mutations, for one paw print to follow another, for a moth’s beating wing, or a butterfly’s unfurled probiscis.
Each day Mr. Anderson will move deeper into the swamp. The puddles will grow deeper and wider. He will need his flashlight more, even though it will reveal less and less in the fog and the mist. When he nears the epicenter of Area X, he will really have no way of knowing for sure, because he will have already lost his equipment for reading the the radiation levels. He will be on the verge of collapse. People will doubt his testimony.
He will part vines. He will wrestle with man-eating Venus fly traps and make awful jokes about how they should be called Venus man traps. Only he will laugh. Submerged in water that holds the consistency and color of oil, his foot will become ensnared inside a helmet with a faded blue star on its side. Two days later he will find an even older helmet, possibly of Spanish origins. He will try to remember a poem about Homer and the Pacific, but he will fail to recall a single word. A bat will flap wildly over his shoulder, untamed and haunting.
Each day he will find more and more junkyard artifacts of a truncated apocalypse. He will find sheets of rusted metal that may have once formed an old barn roof or a grain silo’s walls. He will find keyboards and computer monitors. When comparing these items to his knowledge of hologram technology and teleportation, he will label this trash some bizarre shit. Eventually, he will arrive at an island of slanted concrete. He will walk up the slant, until the surface cracks into a steep ravine and swallows the way before him.
He will toss a metal pipe into the canyon. He will listen for a sound. When nothing happens, he will wonder: How was it not filled with water? A snake will slither close enough for him to sense the danger.
He will shine a white light across the divide. On what was left of the bunker’s walls, he will see shadows linked together and frozen in time. One silhouette will reach out to brace another. And that shadow, in turn, will hold up another. They will all appear to be pulling in one direction, as if fighting the unavoidable suction of some power from the inevitable past. Whatever moment once breathed here will have stumbled in the direction of silent pictographs. Understanding will prove to be a beast with indecipherable tracks.
Mr. Anderson will pause on these images for some time. He will want to embrace them, and he will also want to move on from them. He will start to turn, but one of the shadows will ripple through his flashlight beam. Absorbing the light in the black shine of its dilated fur, it will appear wholly alien, and yet he will recognize the face of god in its sinister shape.
When it bares its teeth, the crescent shape of its mouth will resemble moonlight slipping into black water. It will recall a scene on a bridge, and then the scene will disappear as if conjured by some ancient blood cult. As if swallowed by a passing cloud, the cat and the wonder it produced will recede into an impossible darkness, and Mr. Anderson will not be able to follow it. He will lower his beacon in defeat and behold the unyielding gap between two places in time. He will search the swamp for meaning. He will stare at the red dot of a laser, having not pulled the trigger.
“Before dawn the men went away as usual. He did not go nor did he cease to weep. Then someone, walking in the night alone, approached him and asked, ‘What makes you weep, man?’”
—Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Nights & Days
The ship’s keel plowed through the icy water in the blue crystal light of the moon’s howl. The corpulent waters churned counterclockwise, thick like cake batter from the silt of the glacier’s ancient and migratory thrust, while the rudder parted the slow, gravid tide like a spatula in the liquid ruins of time. No fish splashed, and no bird flapped. Here at the end of the ship’s journey, existence morphed into the frozen, blank slate in which it had first appeared at one of the universe’s many dawns.
The wind blew cold, particles of mist cobwebbing the starlight between the sails.
Tim Duncan stood in silhouette, facing the cold landscape, beyond the wooden bow and the frozen sea. His scruff sprouted forth like dust, sanded from the totem of his jaw. This journey, to the Poles, had been a lifetime of measured breaths and rehearsed wayfaring, a mechanical forgetting of regretful failures as well as an automated remembering that all pain is finite.
His psychological struggle with what he considered a very serious game inched him towards the healing lights of heaven. But the gadgetry of his mind—the pulleys and gears and fulcrums of his research—entertained no one but him and his crew. He had spent years at study, collecting notes in leather skinned journals, drawing religious sketches and spiritual maps, and when no one was around, he would joke to himself, “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne,” commencing to quote Dr. Jones, Indiana’s father, quoting the great Frankish king, quoting an oblivious yet somehow omnipotent past. No one else was amused. No one else heard him. He said such things when he left the office for lunch—the new Kawhi kid at his desk—and went to the library. And this introverted sense of humor was how he had cured his writer’s block.
The ship ran aground just like he thought it would, like a sword striking deep inside a stone tomb. He had arrived, to the place where all his number crunching of orbits and gravity and celestial alignments had projected him to be. He tightened the straps of his rucksack, thumbs hitched around nylon knots. He inhaled, felt his chest rise, lungs testing the expanses of skin and bone. He exhaled and his breath joined with the fog. He was a ghost, and he was alive. He was everything. The ship’s bones creaked, and the water fizzed like so much seasick ginger ale as the glacier hissed and sparked—ice on fire!
Soon Duncan was standing on the ice—alone—listening to the distant thunder of ice splitting into the mourning tides. The crew of The Admiral-Constitution pushed back against the glacier with long, wooden poles, escaping from the icy grip of cascading eons. A pole snapped, and Duncan watched a crew member almost topple over the railing. The man tried to grab what was left of the matchstick staff. Was it Boris or Horry? Did it even matter? The ship’s body receded back into the misty direction from whence it had arrived, and Timothy turned to face winter’s barren bane. He could still hear shouts firing from the ship’s deck, like fireworks in a storm, but soon even these ever-distant sounds of humanity were lost in the crackling moans of the ice and the voracious roar of the almighty wind.
By his feet, harnessed to a thick rope was a pinewood coffin; what the ship’s captain had referred to, upon seeing Timmy board it, as Ishmael’s insurance policy. But that had been a long time ago, and he was no longer in any danger of drowning. The only trouble he faced now was exposure to the cold and the freezing of his blood. He hooked his arms into the loops of the rope and began his snow shoed journey over the glacier’s aqualine surface, dragging Queequeg’s box and its hidden contents behind him like a sled.
As he crossed over the ice, snow fell upon him, swirling like grains of sand in an hourglass, before settling in a frosted desert. In the beacon of the full moon, he cut a rather brave and lonesome figure; a desperado’s shadow, a bored Django of the Poles. His coffin imitated the glacier below it, carving out a small valley in its slow and steady progress.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, having torn it from a copy of the novel he had found in the captain’s library. When he finished each page, he fed the paper skins to the fire’s tongues, prolonging the warm life of each dancing flame. At dawn, he read the final sentence, wadded the page into a newsprint snowball, and tucked it away with the matches in his rucksack—last night’s unborn embers would spark the next night’s flames.
After several hours, when the numbness crept into his core, having spread northward from his ankles and knees, he stopped and built a low-burning fire. He feasted on reindeer jerky and read the “Radio Man” section from Michael Chabon’s
He walked on in the daylight, following the Babylon azul of the ice river beneath him. He ignored the coffin’s weight, allowing the ropes to become an extension of himself. He could not grow tired. He could not even think of the possibility, for he didn’t know how many more days or nights such as this he must walk. His years of study had given him nothing but a direction in which to walk. Snow came and went, and he walked the arc of his life according to a single, unspoken principle of a spiritual world that was alive in its deadness. Late in the day, he mistook the distant ripple of a cloud for a bird’s wings.
Many nights—or was it weeks?— into his journey he sat once again in the warmth of a small fire, its flames pushing stubbornness against the cold, oppressive winds. In his gloved hands, he held the pages to Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” He read an older text each night, burning his way page by page to a beginning of all the narratives that risk sending individuals onto long, unbroken journeys into the cold and the snow, into the trudge and the dread. He and the land emptied themselves of pages and of time. He broke from the story and the word, to watch the smoke embrace the constellations.
Gray curtains transgressed the darkness and the light. He was alone and he was with everything. He felt divisions in the cracking of the flames, their hissing identical to the glacier’s ancient and icy ruminations.
When I run out of written pages, he thought, here is where I will turn, to the sky and its pulsing telegraphs of undead light.
When he finished the London story, he would have only two documents left: a comic book about alien symbiotes that behaved like spiders and a letter written by a child in comic sans to a distant father. He would burn them too in the sacrificial light. He would melt all the world’s acts of imagination on a cold and desolate flame. He would end, and he would begin again. This was a dark magic he felt conspiring between his fingertips and the turning of pages.
A ghost wind ripped through his meager campsite, beating diamond flakes against his face. The coffin’s lid rose against its latches and its chains. A faint knocking sound, like metal on a castle door, rattled from inside there. The fire went black—snuffed out—leaving a dark braid of smoke to twist in the paws of Ursa Major. Tim undid the latches on the coffin with a rusted key and peered into the dark recesses by way of Orion’s Belt or some other shape in the sky he didn’t know, but with which he was made familiar by his time on the icy plane.
Inside the coffin was a skeleton, with gray-yellow bones. The fingers clasped the vacant green glass of an imported wine bottle, the last glass of which Tim had shared with the ship’s captain and its yapping Reverend. The latter had asked Timothy, as they used the coffin for a table, “Did he ever ask you how you ever did anything? Like, how on earth did you even manage to stay alive?” Tim had responded with the obvious answer: yeah. And then the Reverend had said, “That was him showing his love—he wanted you to know that life is more than an idea, that it’s not just a present moment, but a moment riding the past. It is a commitment to carving one’s identity from the shape of what already exists. It is the wine that takes the shape of the cup’s glass.” What does that even mean? he had asked, and he asked the question again—this time to the memory. When he and the Reverend had finished the last of the dead man’s wine, the Reverend and Timmy and some of the crew had gathered around the body—for the casket had been opened—and cursed the life of the man they once loved. Then they put the best bottle of the night in his dead hands and surrounded him with either the pages he had passed onto them or the pages they had written for him—it was no longer possible to tell the difference. All the pages belonged to the same story and the story to the pages. The world divided and converged in these moments of solitude and union.
Tim’s eyes looked down past the knuckles gripping the emerald glass, past the withering ribs and the muscles shriveling round the femurs.
Starlight glinted off the silver spurs of the corpse’s black leather boots. “If you take him,” Kawhi had said, and when he couldn’t finish the sentence, the rest concluded, “bury him in his boots.”
Of course, the man had worn the boots for many years, the material cracking and flaking in proportion to the receding white of his snow-capped hair.
The stones no longer held their places in the wall, and most were blanketed by the drifting snow and the tides of whitewashed time. Timmy might even have passed through them without realizing he had reached his destination, except that the head of the coffin found its path impeded. When it stopped, he stopped.
He tugged as much as his weary muscles could bear. He turned around and pulled on the ropes, as if competing in a tug-of-war against an invisible adversary. The coffin refused to budge. He brushed the frozen snow away from the obstruction, revealing a gray stone in the shape of a larger than life shoe box. He looked around him and soon he was able to make out hundreds of stones lying in a plain of white, sterile snow, that, according to Timothy’s studies—his notes in a leather skin journal—was called by an ancient elder race in a fundamental language long forgotten: The Naismith. It was a place beyond the Rushmore Ice Shelf and therefore rarely reached by man.
He began to uncover more stones. As he uncovered them, he pulled them like teeth from the jaws of the tundra. He rearranged them in an altar. Who knew the last time they had been assembled? The work was difficult; he had lost a great deal of weight, particularly muscle mass, from his long and arduous journey to a place only a handful of beings had ever reached.
When the altar reached midway up to his chest, he walked back to the coffin, harnessed the ropes around his shoulders one last time, and hauled it to the base of the stones.
He positioned the coffin on its base so that the body inside was standing in a vertical position. He leaned it against the stone altar. He threw the ropes across the table-flat ledge of stones. He raised himself on his tip toes and peered at the table, making sure that its hollow core was still empty, that the falling snow had not yet filled it to the rim. He pulled on the ropes until the coffin lay as a bridge from one side of the stone chimney to the other. Then he struck a match and set the flame to the worn wood.
It burned slowly at first, and then the fire threw itself into tantrums, burning unpredictably in wild heat-filled seizures. The stones began to melt like gray ice. Soon neither the coffin nor the altar existed. Instead, the heat burrowed into the layers of ice and snow and, finally, the heat mined its way into the belly of the cold earth.
Duncan followed the flame’s descent into the timeworn chasm that seemed to spiral like a staircase.
When he reached the bottom—miles below the surface—he found himself standing in a room whose shape was held intact by the ribs of an age-old beast, perhaps it had been a mighty and woolly mammoth. Small candles sat in the notches of each rib, their wax running down the dry bone to the stony floor. A pile of gray soot lay against the black stone—what was left of the coffin and its corpse. A couple feet away lay the green wine bottle, stained with ashen flames, but still intact. Timmy reached for the bottle, uncorked it, and began brushing the body’s ashes through its neck, as if doing so might allow the particles to reassemble themselves into a mighty vessel. After this work was done, he searched for a place to lay the bottle. Between each mighty rib was a wine rack. According to all that he had read, this bottle needed to be placed beside the last vintage of ash and smoke. He found a berth for his ship; a bottle to the right, but not to the left. He wrapped the bottle in the letter of comic sans and the Spiderman comic before laying it gently in the cold hearth. He began his vigil.
One by one, the candles went out in what was simultaneously a long time and yet no time at all.
The wine rack where Duncan had placed the green glass then swung backwards revealing a vast passage. He walked through it. He could hear in its depths, which were who knows how far to either side, the dripping of all the world’s waters, running deep in the veins of a bustling planet, that in its inner chambers breathed in the sounds of a hushed tempest. He could hear, in the dark rafters of this dreary, translucent cellar, the continents wedding and divorcing the very valleys and mountains to which they had given birth. He could hear the ending as well as the beginning; the cracking and the freezing. He walked not with sight but with the pure feeling of his heart, as if possessed by a memory that was never his. He reached a door. The door was unlocked. He need only shove it open; he knew this before he ever touched its splintered surface. He knew it as if both he and the idea were nothing.
As the door hinged on an afterlife’s eternity, he wondered what he might find waiting behind it. Perhaps a throne room, or a green room, or a chamber filled with vast treasures.
When the door lay wide before him, all it had revealed was a locker room. In each locker that he passed was a different colored jersey. If he wanted to, he could wear any of them. Even the numbers and the names varied. He walked past a small table on which sat a chess board. He moved one of the pawns, and a voice that was not his own spoke from the hollows of his own throat: “You sure you wanna do that, Bill?” Then another voice, a different voice, again from his own throat, responded, “I think I do, Kareem, I think I do. You know what the great Jerry Garcia always said. . . .” The two voices continued speaking; each one emanating from Duncan’s throat. He walked by another locker. Inside it was a butcher’s cleaver and a jersey. He read the name on the back of it; he could still smell the blood and the sweat of it. He felt everything.
The further he walked into the locker room’s cave, the more archaic the names of each locker became. He walked for some time, passing names he recognized and names he did not. Finally, he arrived at a locker with the name R-U-S-S-E-L-L carved into it as if by the blade of a penknife. A couple lockers from it, was a locker in which hung a professor’s spectacles. Duncan stared at them with recognition. He reached for them and held them before his eyes. At first, his vision through the lenses was blurry and then, with patience, he could see. After even more patience, he somehow remembered the spectacles being his own. In fact, he remembered owning all of these things that were not his.
He returned to the locker with the name carved in it. He paused before the green jersey inside it. A white number six was stitched to the back of it. Underneath it was a pile of gold rings. They were his. And yet, they were not his.
“Where are you going?” asked an old man’s voice that spoke like all the voices in the chamber, through Duncan’s mouth.
But the voice, unlike the ones playing chess, seemed to be addressing him and not some other phantasm. He responded to it with his own voice, without even thinking about what he should say, but as if he understood the game being played within the boundaries of nonexistence: “Who were you expecting—O’Neal?”
The old voice answered, “I was expecting whatever face walked through that door, just as it was written.”
Duncan’s voice asked: “In what? I burned all the pages.”
The aged voice continued, as the body pivoted towards a stack of stone tablets and blank journals—an iPhone seemed to be constantly hovering in a state of luminous vibration above all the other tools—,
And, as the body quit belonging to Tim Duncan, as control and responsibility of his flesh was handed over to some alternative consciousness, that was familiar to him and yet remained of a distance, the old voice, in harmony with the young voice, said, “The narrative goes on. Maybe this time we’ll play with Bias.”
And, as these words were spoken, the arms peeled off layers of clothing, and with the clothing, too, came the skin and the hair and the muscle, leaving behind not a skeletal framework of bones but a white silhouette, like a reflected shadow of the entire color spectrum, or a logo of athletic verisimilitude, that migrated to an empty locker.
On a hook, the silhouette placed the identity that was now nothing more than an empty jersey, to hang for all time.
And a thousand voices, talking that I love you when I hate you shit, played a thousand games at once. And the concrete stones and wooden rafters shook—deep in the bowels of the earth—with the jostled movements echoing from one play to the next, and ran it back, and ran it back, and ran it back
out in the cold, and miles removed from anywhere, a jaguar did growl
Elliot Gerard is a featured illustrator and designer for established sports brands including ESPN, CBS, SNY, The Madison Square Garden Company, The New York Red Bulls, The Phoenix Suns, The New York Liberty, Fansided, and many others. He lives in New York with his wife and baby daughter. You can find him on Instagram, Twitter (@elliotgerard), and at ElliotGerard.com.
Bryan Harvey lives and teaches in Virginia. He has written for Fansided, ESPN TrueHoop’s The Baller Ball, Hardwood Paroxysm Quarterly, The Classical, and SI.com’s The Cauldron. He’s published some poetry, too, and holds a Master’s in Literature from George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_S_Harvey.
Michael Langston founded The Lawn Chair Boys blog. He lives in the sinking city of Norfolk, VA. You can follow him on Twitter @LangstonLCB.
Daniel Rowell is an illustrator and writer for Hardwood Paroxysm and Fear the Sword. His fourth-grade basketball coach described him as a lounge lizard and he’s all right with that. You can follow him @DanielJRowell and ImSorryMarkJackson.com.
Todd Whitehead has contributed words, graphs, and art on the subject of basketball to Hardwood Paroxysm, Nylon Calculus, Fansided, and VICE Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @CrumpledPaperJumper.
A handful of early drafts from Everything That Dunks Must Converge, Act Three: Through the backboard first appeared in or at the Hardwood Paroxysm Quarterly, the LCB blog, The Baller Ball, and The Faster Times. Therefore, a great deal of thanks is due to Sam Apple, Jason Gallagher, and Josh Spilker for their early edits and acts of encouragement. A huge thank you is also due Ian Levy’s way. His enthusiasm was a catalyst in bringing a ridiculous premise to life. And lastly, thanks, Gillian, for entertaining obnoxious questions like: “Do you think Tim Duncan will appreciate being depicted as a benevolent Demogorgon?”