t was the cranky old man who told him to go into the volcano and stick his hand in that stream of lava. In retrospect it seemed like a stupid thing to do, but his judgment was probably skewed by some pretty serious PTSD. After all, a flying castle had just dropped down and massacred everyone he ever knew or loved.
He was supposed to find some powerful weapon, but all he came back with were third-degree burns and a five-pointed star made of plastic. There were some rubies embedded in it. He was pretty sure they were fake. Honestly, it looked like some cheap movie prop, and it said “Made in Hong Kong” on the back, but the old man said it was magic. If he threw it, back it would come. Like a boomerang. He would have rather just found a sword.
The old man told him he wasn’t allowed to use it until the time was right. This happened to be about an hour and twenty minutes later. Then he threw it and waited. It didn’t come back.
Thirty years on, he was still waiting. Divorced. His kids were off ruling their own kingdoms. They never had time for him. Even his friends stopped coming over to play poker. They all landed bigger gigs and had their own fire mares now. Nothing came back to him that he threw away. Maybe he should have held on to the things that mattered.
e’s been working steadily for weeks. Pouring the foundation, putting in the
supporting beams. Lying on his back here, at the end of another sixteen-hour day, he stares up through the girders, dreaming.
It will be three floors when it’s finished. Five bedrooms for the family he would find at last, the place alive with the voices of children. One room at the back for him alone, a den for all the reading he would finally get to in his retirement. Someday it will be the home he’s always wanted, but for now he sleeps outdoors. When he does sleep. He rests little, eats only enough to keep going. Life is work, working is living. He doesn’t find room for anything else. It can wait.
The ground rumbles underneath him.
Then the shriek of rending metal. The wall to his left is torn away, showing the cavern beyond. He watches helplessly as this chunk of his home rises into the dark far above him. He is paralyzed by terror. Then he hears it. The crunching sound of giant teeth.
A fine radish dust settles over him like snow. The final result of all the unending hours he sunk into this place. Already, he can hear others approaching. This place, his home, would be completely gone in minutes. He runs out, screaming into the darkness. Homeless again.
Most would give up. Most had. But as he crouches in hiding, listening to his home being eaten by giants, he’s already planning the rebuild. He can do better. Bigger. He’ll take longer with it and be even more careful, next time.
There’s no time to think about what was lost, or even the warmth of family and good times ahead. For now, it’s work. Work is all there is. There is no room for anything else
t’s like hitting puberty. Everyone around him blossoms into his or her true self: tall, cool, beautiful. All that potential that’s been boiling inside just explodes. Transforms them.
That guy gets to be a Trans Am, that chick is a fully-loaded pink convertible, even the weird smelly dude who sounds like a throat cancer survivor gets to be a giant tape-deck. Ten years ago it would have been lame, but retro is in again. Sure, there are all those foreign exchange students that nobody talks to, but at least they get to become dinosaurs. Giant, world destroying lizards.
And then, or course, there’s the big guy. The one they all look up to, crowding around to tune into that deep sexy baritone. He gets to turn into an 18-wheeler. It’s hard not to feel inadequate.
It’s all about the touch, the power. Everyone’s got it. Everyone, except for him. He never got his growth spurt. His acne won't let go. So, he lurks in his mother’s basement, playing Tunnels & Trolls and dreaming about bigger things.
High-speed jets and tanks and construction vehicles and he gets to turn into a microscope. Like something from a lab. He can’t even move. He has to nag and whine until one of the dump trucks comes and picks him up. It’s enough to just make you want to turn grey.
he sees the girl through the crowd. Even in the dim lights of the club, she can pick her out. It’s that stupid winged Viking helmet that gives her away. Funny how the past can cut through the haze like a razor.
They finish off the set with The Thrill is Gone. She purrs the last words, letting her lips wet the mic, as Al plays out the song. There’s some clapping, not as much as there used to be, and one annoying asshole whistling at the bar. She puts the mic back in its cradle, running one hand down the stand like a lover’s spine. It should be her moment. It is when you really win them over, but the club’s already refilling with noise. She looks back at the guys. Al just shrugs. He used to say “Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” Now he was the first one packing up. She’s not sure if they’ll play another set.
She looks for the girl as she makes her way off the stage. She moves through people like water and puts one foot up on the rail. Pruitt slides a fat ounce of bourbon in front of her, one rock. He’s got a bar towel over one shoulder, bone white and ironed crisp. It takes the attention away from his claw hand. “That’s the last of your rider, Chris.”
“This is my first one.”
He jabs his chin at the room. She knows it, too. It’s a one drink crowd. Even for an old friend.
She scoops up her bourbon and minnows back through the crowd. Nobody high fives. She searches through faces as she moves. They’re all familiar faces but no one she knows. She puts a dart in her mouth but doesn’t light it. All this clear air is just killing the blues.
The steel door bangs open as she steps out into the alley. A deep dish Chicago rain rattling down through fire escapes. She lights the cigarette and leans back against the brick.
And there she is. Long strawberry hair, matchstick legs. All grown up but still a little girl to her.
“You still wearing that thing around?”
Sara snatches the silver helmet off her head and laughs. “I pulled it out of storage. I was at a costume party.”
"What’re you doin here?”
“I came to see you play.”
Nobody she knew came to see her play anymore. Babies and marriage and mortgages and old friendships die in that slow sagging way, so you don’t even notice. But she lets the lie sit.
“How’s your brother?”
“Oh, good.” Sara tucks her hair behind her ears and stares down at the rain splashing off the pavement. “He just got divorced.”
“I thought he was already divorced.”
"Yeah, and now he is again.” Sara giggles. “You should give him a call.”
She tries to laugh with her, so they can share the moment. But the sounds rub up against each other like sandpaper. Then Sara’s laughter puckers up quick and she can feel a shift.
“I was wondering, Chris.” But Sara doesn’t finish the question. It hangs. She’s holding the helmet with both hands, turning it slow. It reminds her of those old cowboy movies her dad used to watch. Men holding their hats at a funeral for the sheriff. When the good passes on.
“And what’s that, kiddo?”
Sara breathes in and her mouth sets into that stubborn line, a posture so familiar that all of a sudden she can see her as that little girl. Her and her brother in their little desert island suburb and all those late nights babysitting.
“I was wondering if I could score some E off you.”
It’s like a punch in the stomach. No. Like a skewer straight through her guts, the guts of all her years, pinning her and every past version of herself against that brick wall.
She leaves the girl there, behind her, and pushes back through the doors into the heat and noise of the bar. Somewhere in there she’ll find the boys and she’ll drag them back on stage. Forget the covers, she’ll sing something that means something. She’ll sing the blues. Maybe they’ll listen this time. Maybe she’ll never leave.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.