Literary Fiction

The Devil Fears Nigga Jones

By

This book will launch on Jul 29, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

Buster is a survivor of a demonic cult, and his journey is awe-inspiring. From the age of five to twenty-six, from the eerie hills of Woodstock, New York, to a stint living inside of a decommissioned billboard in the South Bronx, and finally landing in Brooklyn where things take an unexpected turn. Buster connects with a circle of friends operating a holistic Cancer treatment center out of a worn-down Brownstone. Filled with shock, heartbreak, evil, suffering, kindness, healing, romance, graphic passion, love, and salvation, readers experience things and places never imagined before, and characters they will never forget. A gripping and unordinary multi-narrative novel that extends the boundaries of thought and expression, and rings with a sense of place and realism while touching on the deeper meaning of life, family, friends, and the enemies of humanity.

CHAPTER 1

 

Don’t follow your dreams. That there is good advice if you’re pursuing a pitiful life. It could’ve been Buster’s motto if he had one. His dubious disposition wasn’t a personality flaw. It was more of an affliction. Born ingenuous didn’t help matters, and raised by a bent intent added a thorny burden to his unfortunate cause. Try to grasp his situation. There was no escape from years of abuse-induced angst. Weary glum had sunk deep into his reflexes, torturous trace elements lingered as mucus in his lungs, and mess and grief rested naturally on his breath. Without warning, the bunch of it could surface in his touch. Now and then, acne flared with red blotches head to toe. Wrathful body odor might bloom in high-stress situations. Not many ever got a whiff of him. Engagement with others was scarce. It’d been like that for far too long. There was never a grumble about it, ever, mostly because all the time Buster spent alone transformed his soft and harmless, high-pitched voice into nervous head nods, shrugs, and a mumble laden tongue. It also made sure smiles were lost and forgotten. A desperate pout or a mugged plea for help could hardly be detected anymore. At best, his smallish, tender face conveyed the hapless look of a wreck.

Laid out good, Buster stretched close to five feet three inches. A substantial meal in his belly, unlike how it was most days, would push the scale near ninety-five pounds, and that’s with his old black boots, a shoddy flannel shirt, his brutalized work-gage denims, his one set of sullied Union suit long johns, and worn wool socks. That was his everyday attire, no matter the weather. Keeping up a fair to middling appearance hardly ever crossed Buster’s mind. He hadn’t looked into a mirror for more than a decade. The occasional glance into a muddy puddle reflected a grisly aberration more than a recognizable human being. That sort of confusion sometimes overwhelmed his mental faculties and weighed down his itchy feet with extreme caution. It’d have him strutting around like a chipmunk with bowed paws and a sore tooth. A chopped and crooked mullet of grimy blonde hair and a scared look buried deep in the cracks of his airy blue eyes didn’t add a shred of strength or density to his demeanor. It did show off his childlike neck to the sun and clouds and made his troubled persona hard to miss. There was a runty ray of hope in that look. Blessed sympathy can land on anyone noticeably in need.

Buster had lived through a difficult period with the Family. By the time he reached twenty-six, familial stains had hardened, and he was still at risk. Most damaging was Daddy’s disturbing effort in turning him into a makeshift man when he was thirteen. It’d been far from encouraging, closer to obscene. Buster was forced through scurrilous maturation trials instead of the more acceptable process of stunted development. That’s not saying Buster wasn’t backward. His infatuation with rainbows was very odd and childish. Colored promise, wash my tears away. He’d mumble that soft and quiet to himself every time he’d see one of those fanciful things up in the sky or in a stream or on any color capable greasy muddle. It was a devout practice of his for more than a decade.

A stronger belief involved in his thinking was that direct sunlight allows anyone within sight of him to see his full load of faults. The outside and the inside ones equally. By slim chance, if he was ever caught in a crowd under a threatening glare, he’d hunt down a shadow like a right good rat. Shadows were safe, but they weren’t a guarantee. Turn invisible, that was a finer heap of sugar. It was something Buster had actually done once. It had nothing to do with an exotic meditative blend into the background. Instead, it was a commanding, self-directed banishment from reality. It happened only the one time. He’d think about the experience often. Despite everything, Buster was a real good thinker.

Buster’s thoughts, specially the imaginative ones, regularly raged at bedtime for an hour or so inside an end of the day jamboree. Then he’d always turn deader than an opossum. His busy thinking provided an excellent distraction from nighttime hunger pains. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it makes a big noise. That’s how his knackered brain assessed the age-old conundrum. Someone out there in the woods listening, or no one out there listening, couldn’t change sound itself. Buster felt the same way about life. Even if it was close to nothing life, you don’t need anyone to confirm you’re living. An impossible belly full of good food couldn’t mess with that sort of thinking.

The biggest nighttime thought he ever had revolved around the idea of Missing People. The Free Ones. Lived Lives Lost. People You Never Knew. Those were some of his other titles that didn’t hold up longer than the time to mention them. It’d be a great life to be born and then live somehow utterly unknown to all others, then die. The birth of that lonely idea happened inside a genuine radiating moment. Buster considered it his noblest vision. Disappear like the sound of one of those fallen trees that no one ever hears or sees. Untouched. A most pure life. You’d certainly have no scummy chains on you. You’d be absolved from this mean old world.

The thought of Missing People had indeed erupted inside a sense of magnificence. But then nearly as fast it collapsed down to horrible. “Why’d I think it!” Buster shouted that out angry and loud to the moon and stars a minute or two after the big thought had popped into his head that very first time. He’d just emptied out his lower internals in the field behind the barn, ten yards short of the outhouse. A rotten piece of pork had woken him from a sound sleep. Rancid ingredients and the violent chorus that the human body produces during foul and insalubrious episodes likely had his mind on edge. That dangerous spot where views can sometimes be too encompassing. According to his wide-open reckoning, Missing People have existed over the ages. By recognizing them, well, it meant that Buster snagged all of them by their heels and latched them back onto the depraved world. He killed their ancient and aloof spirit with dumb ol’ reverence.

The notion of Missing People would continue to come to mind now and then over the years. Buster would always be thrilled for a moment. Then he’d go on hating himself for thinking it again. That sort of behavior was part of Buster’s peculiar nature, and it was as evident as the morning sunrise and his rowdy red rooster’s exasperated temperament. Less apparent was that Buster had lived through hell. The real one. It was remarkable that he survived those treacherous times, let alone turn into a verifiable farmhand. The fact that he could still sustain deep thoughts and appreciate distinct qualities or environmental conditions, doozies or itty-bitty ones, was nothing short of a miracle.

Buster would swear he knows the exact number of corn kernels in any given bowl of grits. It was his one meal a day most every day, so his expertise might be indisputable. With one good look at a sow, he’d know if she was gestating and how far along she was. He’d also guess the correct number of piglets in the coming farrow. He could gage the air temperature to a degree with the tip of his nose. There were countless times on the Family compound when the outer bounds of cold comfort or heated relief were choice. On a frigid night, he’d sometimes sleep tight in an open field. He could rest just as easy up in his haystack nest during stifling hot summers. Either way, the notable severities kept him in place, motionless. It’s the way he liked things best.

Like the sensitive tip of Buster’s nose, his ears were exemplary. His eccentric mother, dead for a long time, attributed it to a pedigree of minimal wax producers with ear canals deeper than Laozi. Buster didn’t buy into the mysterious concept of a dual reality like his mother, but that’s how he’d’ve liked to explain it to anyone who might’ve asked about his fine hearing. No one ever did. His listening ability was one of the reasons Daddy moved him out of the main house to the small barn at the far end of The Family compound. The other side of 300 acres. There wasn’t an argument about it.

Buster had just turned thirteen only the week before, and Daddy was, after all, the boss. The decision was just as firm as the old man’s rule surrounding all of his decrees, arbitrary ordinances included - obey and hush. Unless a Family member heard otherwise from Daddy himself, no one questioned anything he said. That’s the way things were. Worse than giving lip to Daddy was a potential death sentence levied against anyone that dared listen in on one of his important conversations. Everyone was kept away from the inner workings of the Family’s real business. That included most of the Elders. It made no sense to Buster that crooked words about ugly affairs stumbling their way into his good ears could be his responsibility.

At an age when most young people start to use their deciphering capabilities as a means to chart out a fruitful future, Buster was given no choice. He had to adjust to a life of working and sleeping with livestock. He left behind in the main house a real name and his near royal status with The Family. All in all, the big change was good. But there were parts of living in the main house that Buster surely missed. For one, a giant bed and a big bedroom with a private bathroom. It was right next to Daddy’s massive bedroom. He also never had a chore to contend with. There were always plenty of toys, dolls, games, coloring books, reading books, writing pads, pens, pencils, and boxes of high-quality crayons and paints. Never was there a shortage of passionate adoration from Family members. He even had private tutors and studied worldly subjects. He had clean clothes and new clothes, baths with bubbles, wholesome meals, and an endless supply of his favorite powdered pillow puff pastry.

All of it was replaced with hard work. Unlike life at the main house, at the barn, Buster was up and at it right before sunrise and finished very late in the day, every day. He’d start out scraping hardened pig, and goat saliva melded with unidentifiable matter from the troughs. He’d sweep out the big chicken coup every afternoon and fill up his lungs with more poultry ammonia than a man should be permitted to handle in a month of Sundays. There was always endless hay to pitch and no shortage of heavy buckets to carry. Knee deep in manure most of the time made it the sort of job not many would look forward to. Tending animals was busywork. Sometimes it was scary. It was always strenuous. Somehow, Buster managed it.

Grunt work took its toll over time. More than being forever hungry as a horse, Buster’s small body turned into one big hurt. Twelve long years of living in a barn without a bed meant he could crack his skinny little back six ways from Sunday. Rations for one meal a day and anything he could glean from scrap feed for the pigs was his version of a balanced diet. It wasn’t appetizing, but a visceral understanding of hunger helped him feel fortunate for it. He also felt lucky about maintaining a notion of peace and decency at the start of every morning. It was a tiny sensation that wouldn’t last more than a minute, but it was always there right after that angry red rooster finished his crowing. Things certainly could’ve been better. Buster couldn’t tell you what that “better” was. He’d only tell you that any time spent away from the dark heart of the main house, with all that happened there, it meant his life was good and only getting better. Unlike his life with its little conveniences and creature comforts back at the main house, which was dearly missed, day by day, the sinister elements were slipping closer to obscurity.

As sure as God made little apples, Buster came to understand that his grubby barn existence was indeed a blessing. He rarely left his bestial domain. Aside from a Family member dropping off or picking up animals, or one of them delivering supplies and maybe a few throwaways now and then, the outside world was something he didn’t have to think about. His simple sweaty universe was less than a square acre. It was enough. Everything beyond that perimeter made him more nervous than a rabbit with her bunnies hid under a leafless bush. He didn’t have all that much time set aside for thinking about the big world because most of his day was spent tending the animals. Any stretch leftover, and there was some, he’d dedicate to little piddle thoughts. Small but fine thinking reserved for entertaining himself.

Buster’s buoyant thoughts could be about anything he liked. Ants with steel guts swarming a heap of spoiled food. If I only knew their secret. He loved rain-soaked and then dried and swollen paperbacks. They look alive. He was pleased with how flipping a page was as easy as a breeze. Anytime a tractor tire or a wheelbarrow went flat, the round and level aspects of it were a consuming paradox. Then there was the dependable shine of dead stars. How long can a ray of light be? He never figured out the answer. He couldn’t get enough of anything rusted. The color is so rich, and the action is so awfully poor. He found the patience and politeness of trees to be deeply gratifying. As was the casual attitude of an upright stick stuck in the mud. The amount of transparency in his small hands when he held them up to the sun was always good ol’ fun. Lumps on his noggin or on animals’ heads were curious things worth all the prodding. What went through his mind whenever he found a lost tool was sometimes the most stupefying thought. It’s right where I left it! Thinking about those sorts of things helped provide a sense of place in the world for Buster. They were the things that needed him, needed his thinking.

Not nearly as pleasant as Buster’s trifling ideas was the very start of his twelve years of drudgery and toil at the barn. The brand-new little man was thunderstruck that first day away from the main house. The experience was very much like suffocating from sun up to sundown. It was because he didn’t know what to do. The days that immediately followed were just as confusing and overwhelming. He learned right quick that he was no longer the Family’s restful charm. He was expected to do a lot for the collective. His problem was that being pampered right up till he was thirteen years old meant he lacked work skills. With the types of tasks that were expected from him and the sheer amount of them, along with Daddy’s initial threat to skin him alive if he failed, the inaugural farm-hand tension was immeasurable. It set a grave tempo for his new pastoral life, and it hung over his head like a broken lantern for all his remaining days in the hay.

Buster made it through that first week alone at the barn. To his surprise, it took only a couple of months for him to become an integral part of the isolation and clockwork. Garnering a sincere appreciation for his dependable effort was a little slower going. It happened when he realized anger and frustration were heavy and voluntary things that he’d been carrying around day in and day out on top of everything else that he was required to carry. With his eyes opened to the truth of his situation, his intimate relationship with the state of exhaustion bonded with his famished heart, and sweat and fidelity fused with his bones. It was the formal acceptance of his enslavement, and it happened on the very evening his haystack asylum was penetrated for the first time since leaving the main house. Daddy stopped by the barn to deliver a troubling message.

Six or seven months must’ve passed since the old man laid eyes on Buster. He didn’t stay longer than necessary. The message turned out to be the same one that Daddy would repeat every couple of weeks for years to come. Buster didn’t know what to make of it that first time he heard it. The proclamation made little difference other than how Buster grew to depend on it. He could also depend on a wicked chill up his spine anytime he got a look at Daddy stepping foot near his little animal haven. It was never an up-close and personal encounter. It didn’t have to be, the presence of evil was most evident. The oddest thing, there was always a gap between Daddy and Buster. A bedeviling space. Twenty or thirty feet. Some days more. The old man would stand there out of reach and yell his startling message awful and ferocious. He’d always cap the one-sided interactions by throwing a rock, a big stick, or anything at Buster in place of goodbye.

That strange distance between Buster and Daddy was very different when guests were being entertained at the compound. Daddy would need a vessel for pain. The Family raised special children for torture, but certain days Daddy sent for Buster. There was no taboo gap between the two of them on those occasions. Buster could be close enough to guess the weight of Daddy’s hot breath. Those hurtful interactions would happen most often during the lead up to a high holiday. Three or four times a year. That’s when the most important visitors arrived at the compound. Almost always, it was an old man with dungeon master yearnings or acts of bestiality on his mind. Woman, old and young, indulged now and then. These women could contend with the men and the merciless theme of the encounters. Buster preferred the men to the women. Strapped down to the floor naked and having a lady dig her way inside of him with a cattle prod just seemed more unnatural.

Torture was consistently horrible, but Buster always hoped for any sort of human hurting more than having animals coaxed into doing their carnal business on him. His status was low, but beasts were supposed to be beneath him, even when they were on top of him. As abominable as it all was, there was something more than injuries to take away from it. Buster always felt he’d been blessed with a scrap of grace. During the holiday misery sessions, Daddy never once put his hands on him. That meant a lot to Buster. The old man simply directed those disturbed guests through the rough action, giving them tips and pointers. Buster liked that the twisted get-togethers almost always took place on Daddy’s turf and not out at the small barn. Buster’s homestead could remain a sanctuary for exhaustive work and ordinary rest.

Daddy never once entered the barn during Buster’s thirteen-year stay there. He’d usually stop by late in the day to deliver his profane message when Buster often was up in the loft amid his imaginative thinking and getting ready for sleep. Mean-spirited, Daddy would stand outside and holler up to him. “Buster! You’re a plug-ugly boy unworthy of all that’s begotten!” Then a rock would whiz through the hayloft door or pelt the side of the barn. It was the same thing over and over. That simple crooked chant carried on for Buster’s entire enslavement. He knew well from his time at the main house that Daddy was a hurtful man with plenty of bad things to say. But over those twelve years, almost the longest part of Buster’s life, he only heard, “You’re a plug-ugly boy unworthy of all that’s begotten!” Hear that as often as Buster did, like hearing any words repeated too many times, interpretation becomes unpredictable. Repetitive words will lose bearing and meaning. They’ll inevitably become only a sound. That’ll start loosening up the meaning of other words and other things that should never be loosened. Guaranteed, it’ll give you a headache that messes with your thinking. For stability of his mind, Buster figured it best to accept that he was a plug-ugly boy unworthy of all that’s begotten, and never dare question it.

Buster’s heart beat best when he was buried in barn work. He’d routinely push himself close to the point of depletion. His big pen of pigs progressively produced more and more quality meat. His chickens and their eggs were commendable. The buck goats were healthy and rotated with visiting does fruitfully. The roaming cats were scratched and motivated, and rats were exterminated. Dogs always got their food and water. The bull Buster was responsible for wasn’t the Family’s prized stud, but the old beast remained firm and fertile. Being a plug-ugly boy unworthy of all that’s begotten turned out to be something Buster could oddly connect with day in and day out. It motivated him, provided stability, and nourished his limited aim over the years. It was a minimum to have and maintain. Like bathing, regardless of your precarious condition, you need a dip in the creek every once in a while. Being a plug-ugly boy unworthy of all that’s begotten meant Buster was something, not nothing.

Good hard work and a barn to myself, it’s more than I deserve. That conformational axiom was like a genuine thread of gold weaved through the tattered fabric of Buster’s life. He knew other things too. There was a murky spell held over his head. A sneaky one. It was a strange thing more chimerical than Daddy himself. Buster imagined that spooky thing could be stretched to a radius of a hundred miles or more beyond the barn. That bugger spread far and thin or close and dense was something downright terrible. Buster knew it as a hex you could never prepare for. You could only hope that you’d have it in you to run fast and far away the moment it decided it was time for doom and gloom. Buster knew that the same way he knew there was a remnant of defiant intelligence inside his head. That sneaky spooky was only waiting for the day when Buster would turn completely dumb. Then it’d have the easy chance to get inside of his head. If it did get in there, Buster could be born again into something that he indeed wasn’t. That mean ol’ apparition might have him do things outside the realm of his good intentions. It could be enough to have him unwind the harmony of the righteous end of the world and bundle up the remains in the grip of poisonous tendrils. It’d certainly be enough to turn every one of Buster’s days into a dark and wicked dream.

Buster wasn’t a complete worrywart. There was one night when he had a simple benevolent dream. He stood on a shimmering bridge, and a strong wind cast that spooky spell far away. The reprieve was momentous. But it was only a slumberland illusion and provided no help to matters in the real world. “Dreams are a mean bag of tricks.” Buster would say that out loud every time he woke up from any sort of dream. After scratching his head and rubbing his eyes and catching his breath on a big yawn, he’d also say, “Dreams are dangerous.” Like a spell, dreams can transform you and transport you. They come and go as they please. They can introduce a new point of view as quickly as put an end to everything. There was no telling which way things might turn out. Dreams could go as far as to land Buster in Timbuktu. He wasn’t prepared for that. Except for his daily work routine, Buster wasn’t prepared for anything.

 

***

Some days Buster could put an outstanding effort into avoiding dreams. Like today, one of the most impossible days in all of his experiences. At this particular moment, his barn life was already far behind him, never to be seen again. He was inexplicably in New York City. He’d just been thrown out of his billboard abode on the side of the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx. How did he get there from the foothills of Woodstock, NY? Only a harlequin could know. There was no mystery in how he was removed from that big placard in the sky. It was brutal and swift.

Buster had managed to live out ten days in a row up in the air above the traffic before he was discovered. Most of that time, he’d been tucked away in that signage board’s cantilever base, inside the giant open-ended pipe anchored to the thick steel vertical post. To go unnoticed, like a city squirrel, he was climbing up and down the ladder welded to the big steel support in the predawn hours or the darkest of night. It was like living inside a giant handgun, and he was a hidden bullet in the barrel. Buster was unquestionably a dud. Just the same, he felt it was the most perfect place to be.

Buster had fished out a couple of dirty blankets and a sullied pillow from a nearby Salvation Army donation container. Something sticky on one of those blankets managed to drag along a little gray, pitiable stuffed donkey with long droopy ears and no tail. With those small comforts, Buster turned that big billboard pipe into a snug and comfy center of the universe. The most beautiful result was sleep, it became something new again. Curative and heartening. It easily overwhelmed the noisy traffic of the Major Deegan Expressway under his nose. Finding some paperback books added to his hopeful situation. Devices and Desires. Outlander. The Girl Who Played with Fire. Rebecca.

In the afternoon, when the sun was appropriately lined up with the pipe for a few hours, the open end of it was a surprisingly agreeable place to read. If solid food and water were readily available, it would’ve been a tunnel-visional paradise. One lucky time he found a half-eaten candy bar on the sidewalk, and that big pipe turned into a right good clangorous scrap piece of heaven fallen from the sky. He flipped pages of Rebecca and savored the chocolate while Maxim settled things with her. “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” Buster repeated the line from the book a hundred times that beautiful afternoon. With the small echo of the metal pipe, it sounded off a hundred times more.

Far from his life with Daddy on the Family compound, Buster was living well inside that billboard in the Bronx. The lack of nutrition didn’t interfere much at all. He slept more than a barn bat. When he was awake and not down on the street looking through garbage cans for sustenance, his long and narrow metal pipe provided a simple and direct perspective on the world. Out there, it was violent, chaotic, dark, and grim. His long and focused viewability was better than a microscope. It enabled him to see an incredible element of falling-apart embedded in everything he laid eyes on. Inside that marvelous pipe, every inch of it, the air was filled with insight. It helped him comprehend that something else was out there in the world. It might’ve been an ultra-thin sheen of positivity covering things. Or it could’ve been a sporadic mist of fortitude and virtue in his general vicinity. Whatever it was, it was something authentic, and it was just waiting for him. His face couldn’t show it, but deep within, a long-forgotten smile started to grow.

The only upsetting thing about Buster’s new billboard home was being removed from it. That early morning kick to the head while he slept was packed with as much force as a wrecking ball. It hurt something terrible. A hurt that didn’t have as much to do with being booted down a ladder in a hurry as it did with losing his hidden roost. From a spellbound barn in upstate New York to the hardened pavement of the Bronx in little more than a week, it’d been a whirlwind adventure. It left Buster dizzy, worn down to the bone, and in a new world of trouble. Any positive energy that he had gathered up during his billboard stay was transformed into titanic heartbreak the instant his little body crashed to the ground. He would’ve laid there in sorrow the entire day if he hadn’t seen those men that dragged him out of the pipe coming down that ladder faster than fat raindrops fall from the sky.

Buster jumped to his feet. Quick, he went to mumbling, “Get right! Get right! Get right!” Sounding more automatic than natural, he repeated it again and again. The big pipe in the sky was the last thing he needed to hold on to. Live or die was the matter on the ground. His evictors were upon him. Reasoning with three brutes wouldn’t help his inner instinct of self-preservation. He also didn’t dare look at them as they punched, kicked, and shouted: “Get the fuck out of here, scab!” “Jump off a bridge, crackhead!” “Move it, or I’ll bash your fucking head open!”

Accustomed to torture as Buster was, the fall and the follow-up beating didn’t slow him down. He squeezed through a hole in the chain-link fence like a dirty breeze onto the sidewalk. He stumbled along fast as he could and continued mumbling, “Get right! Get right! Get right! Get right!” He managed to escape those mean men, but he had a new problem. His skull was bleeding. He also had planned on living in that billboard forever. At the moment, he didn’t know where to go. He was mighty scared. As always, there was an ache in his belly. The best plan Buster thought of was it to keep walking and get as far away from the roughnecks as possible.

“Get right! Get right! Get right!” Keeping at it faster and faster and slowly louder and louder, it was all Buster could do. He was walking somewhat sideways and much too fast. His arms swung like a wild wind was in charge of them. His head looked like it was connected to a spring. Something dislocating in all the commotion appeared very possible. Buster never had a problem with his body actions before. There were always buckets to carry, gates to open, trowels to fill, hay to toss, manure to rake. Bovines, pigs, goats, chickens, cats, rats, and dogs were one thing. Keeping a firm hold on his perspicacity while trying to devise a survival plan in the unknown territory of the Bronx was another thing.

Providing no help to his rambling cause, suddenly, there was a malicious intent inside of him. The surprising sensation filled his shoes. Self-destruction developed more and more under each one of his fiendish steps. The jumbled momentum of his hurried and anxious strut made everything around him turn loopy and scarier. His familiar little country acre more than 100 miles north popped into his head. A muddy field. A tree. A drafty barn. A mean old goat. A wheelbarrow full of muck. Small mountains and streams. Those yearnful and agitated visions appeared all at the same time. The muggle world and the big city were pulling him apart.

Buster’s lucky break of being hidden away inside a decommissioned billboard for more than a week was over. The calamity of the real world was in front of his face, and it was too big and too fast. It was like nothing he ever imagined. I’ll be lost in all of it. Cars and trucks were racing by, and unknown people were coming too close. Horrified faces. Dropped jaws. Pinched noses. Hands waving him out of the way. Bulging eyes looked directly at him. Desperate for a lifeline, Buster tried to remember something easy he could grab on to. Mental escapism was tried and true relief in the past. It was nothing fancy. Buster had no cerebral safe place on a beach or desert oasis. He could not exist in time-defying astral realms. He had no imaginary superpowers. Buster’s go-to gimmick for two-bit solace in an emergency was looking at his worn-out paper butterfly. It was hardly a pretty thing. He kept it pressed in his wallet. It had the capability of putting an instant, delicate winged balance in flight between his ears. It could keep him above oblivion.

He had drawn and colored the little creature with a couple of broken crayons. A thin slice of tranquility preserved for twelve years in his pocket. He drew it because Daddy had hurled a hammer at him, walloped him in the head. Buster had been at the barn doors at the time. The old man had just finished yelling, “You’re a plug-ugly boy unworthy of all that’s begotten!” Buster was out cold on the dirt floor under high eaves, exposed beams, and the tall hewn timbers. The little winged wonder appeared out of thin air while Buster laid there amid a daylong torpor. It stayed with him until he came back to his senses. Afterward, Buster hurried to draw a picture of the flying critter. Since then, whenever he needed a peek at salvation, he’d take out that paper butterfly and say to himself, “Love is real.” It never failed him.

“Get right! Get right! Get right!” A surge of perspiration turned his effort to stay alive in the Bronx into a slippery struggle. All the wild noises in his head made catching a healthy rhythm to his monotonous pledge impossible. He stumbled along faster and faster on East 135th Street. On the underside of the Major Deegan Expressway where dense and dirty air always finds its way. “Get right! Get right! Get right!” It was cold outside, but a salty sweat started running down his face. It was mixed with blood coming from the crack in his skull. His desperate craving for cadence came up short as the chaotic noise in his head started backfiring. A week’s worth of quelled worries, aches, and chills finally took over. A wild vision of a new burrow where he could hide away from it all exploded. Where is it? That compelling question punched against a yearning for a moment when he could stop for a peace-giving look at his cherished butterfly. But he needed a place to be alone, hidden away from everything. He pushed forward. He hit the corner of Third Avenue at near tumbling speed with stinging vision, a frantic heart, and limbs out of control. There, the fiery idea of a dismal den of solitude coupled with his paper butterfly cradled in his loving hands fragmented to smithereens. It was too much to handle. Blinding. He turned right hard and fast.

Under that first step, a rumble. Tiny waves of seismic destruction. It was the vibrations from East 135th Street traffic and the trembling from hundreds of vehicles on the Major Deegan Expressway above his head. With his next step, the engine growl of those cars and trucks deepened. A threatening oscillation coming and going with an industrious purpose. The frequency was strong enough to prevent his boots from making solid contact with the ground. It poked and pounded like hundreds of Daddy’s dark-minded guests swirling around him. Airborne grime filled his eyes. It mixed with a blurred image of countless windshields shattering to a certainty of cutup smallness. All of it was speeding toward him. Then a huge gasp. With it, he breathed in a heavy load of expressway exhaust. Suddenly, sheer panic pulled him back from the overload of fear about to crash land on his face.

A very large and very brown UPS truck filled with packages of online shopping happiness racing against green lights had swerved out of his way. The big dark brown thing almost tipped over with the maneuver. A long and loud screech ended with an extraordinary swinging stop. Buster had been a split second and a speck away from being roadkill. He hadn’t entirely escaped. The near-death shock put him up on his toes. Eight tons of brown force had swiped him hard, and Buster was miraculously spinning like a top. The driver, fearing the worst, had already hopped out of the truck. He stopped where he landed. The ragged blur of Buster whirling around like a derelict ballet dancer was a sight to see. Heads inside of cars turned. People on the sidewalk stopped. In Buster’s head, he was stiff as a pitchfork. Motionless. Everything other than him was spinning. A universe of energy circling, closing in and ready to crush what the truck had failed to do. The driver ran toward him, shouting, “Oh my God!” Easy enough asphalt did its job with friction, and Buster came to a stop. He was dizzy. He was also leaning westward on Third Avenue, pointed under and on through the Major Deegan underpass toward the bridge to Manhattan. Buster took off in a wiggly snap.

Things became worse by the second. All the wild whirling around must’ve loosened Buster’s brain. The extra space inside of his skull was filled with threatening reverberations. His rallying cry, “Get right! Get right! Get right!” cracked louder and went mercurial. “GETRIGHTGETRIGHTGETRIGHT!” Other never-before known things that shouldn’t be in his head, one after another piled on. Meenowanago! Infernum sceleratis. Please! Meenowanago! A man walking pass yelled, “Watch were you’re going!” A dog with its head out of a rolled down car window barked like hell. A baby strapped in a car seat screamed. Strange and alarming pops and crackles in the air around him were building toward an explosion.

By the time Buster reached the bridge, it was impossible to slow the shakes and jitters. The chain-linked fence in shambles and barely attached along the outside of the walkway was the only thing keeping him out of the Harlem River. A low concrete guard rail separated him from the speeding traffic. Bounce to the left; please stop! Bounce to the right; shut your mouth, little bitch! Bounce to the left; please stop! Bounce to the right; pain is a gift for the gods! Bounce to the left; please stop! Bounce to the right; all suffering is for Daddy! Bounce to the left; please stop! Bounce to the right; I’ll bite your pretty little face off you fucking cunt! Bounce to the left; please stop! Bounce to the right; swallow it!

Nonsensical thinking and radical limb waving carried on to the peak of the bridge when Buster suddenly stopped. It was time to halt the runaway madness. He struggled to gather the necessary strength, it was a battle that he could win. He’d beaten it before, many times. The big challenge at this moment was a potent magnetic interference under the bridge, it was comprising his leverage. Nothing else could have twisted and held his feet to the walkway like they were. Ignore it. It’s another experiment. The battle ate away heartbeats. His focus was on suppressing manic thoughts, it confused his breathing. Buster knew things would get a lot worse if he didn’t get a hold himself. Then a small miracle happened. The times in the past when Daddy buried him alive appeared in his mind. Being underground inside a small box for two or three days at a time with only a tiny vent to the surface had helped Buster master getting the most from the shallowest breaths. He remembered the method of lowering his chin, unlocking his jaw, and drawing down his cheeks to open a wide passageway to his lungs.

Buster grabbed hold of the bridge railing, stood steady. He looked down at the river. Blood vessels in his eyes burst in silence. The sorrow of the world was flowing. The magnetic force under the bridge was growing. He tried pulling on a heavy breath very slowly. It was like dragging a bucket tied to a rope filled from the water below. He needed a small current of promise. If he could get one good one up and over the rail, then the rest would come. Focus… Relax… Splash! Gasp! Gasp! Gasp! Focus… Relax… Splash! Gasp! Gasp! Almost there... Splash! Gasp! He kept at it until one small breath returned. Then again deeper and deeper until one big, fulfilling breath settled everything. He lifted his head and closed his sore eyes. He resisted the urge to fight the magnetic action that was still pulling underfoot. It’s not real. He commanded himself out loud: “I will not go through this bridge.” He shouted with half a squeak in his voice, “This is not the end of me!” His face almost lit up. My butterfly.

The little drawing had been untouched in his wallet for a long time. It was because of his great respect for the scrap. Leave it in peace till disaster strikes, it’ll last longer, that was his thinking. Relatively calm periods back at the barn would go on for months at a time. Years of physical labor had stifled much of his mania. It also helped him move on from tragic experiences and learn to expect nothing out of life. Physical exhaustion was proven medicine. It numbed Daddy’s hurtful rituals and showed Buster a deeper understanding of what pain truly is. It’s only a belief, and you don’t need to believe in things that make a situation more sensational than it has to be. There wasn’t much left inside of him to bruise. His convictions were already pared down to what could only be useful when he was beyond tired and still with a mountain of work to tend. But now, there were no barn duties to finish. Buster was on the Third Avenue bridge into Manhattan. No twisted man or lady holding a blood-lusting hickory switch was in sight. With the way things turned out, with a magnetic river monster underfoot and dark spell still entangled in his head, Buster reckoned this day was a certifiable disaster most worthy of a visit with his butterfly.

A sinful gray sky was wrestling with a pack of thuggish clouds descending on Buster. A lifeless smell climbed up from below. Any decent outlook that might’ve come from a week’s worth of deep and dreamless sleep inside of his billboard hideaway was pulled through the deck of the bridge. A relentless, cold, and heartless spirit was moving into him. He looked down again at the blackened river. The hideous filth buried deep in the bottom was perceptible. It seemed to be craving contact. A cluster of sticks floating by vanished into a small whirlpool in front of his eyes. Truth is truth for Buster. On his own in the real world for the first time without a chance at anything was consuming him. The big hole in the chain-linked fence framed the river below like a piece of dark art. He didn’t have a fear of falling off that bridge. It was the alluring emptiness telling him to come along that iced his bones.

Buster summoned a staggering amount of energy to turn away from that river. There was a strange look twitching away on his face as he managed to do it. He pulled out his pigskin bi-fold. It’d been Daddy’s wallet at one time. The old man had crafted a new one for himself and passed on the worn one to Buster. It wasn’t a gift of endearment. It was a saved trip to the trash and served as something else to throw at him. There was never cash in it, no credit cards, only Buster’s life possessions. A driver’s License. Daddy required all Family members of age to have one. There was a fancy lenticular business card with an animated red rose opening its petals. A small, dirty copper medallion with a ship and the word Calypso imprinted on it. A rudimentary poem he wrote about a beautiful baby when he was 12. An old picture of a little girl’s birthday party ripped from a magazine. It had faded to almost nothing. And, of course, his little butterfly.

The leather wallet was worn so thin that you could see sheer through parts of it. Many of Daddy’s darker lace hand-stitches had already come undone. The once metallic-looking Powerpuff Girls sticker that Buster used as a patch on the outside of the wallet was somewhat intact but colorless. Pressed with sweat in Buster’s pocket for so long made it difficult to open the old thing. He pulled on the wallet’s sleeves till finally, it gave way with a small tear. At the same time, a small piece of metal was dislodged. The bullet, Buster thought. He quickly bent down to pick it up. It was smashed to the size of an angry Half dollar. He looked it over fast. Without more thought, he tossed the flattened slug to the river below. He then fingered the hole in the wallet left by the lead. He felt the deep dimple in the copper medallion caused by the blow of the bullet. Then very carefully, he pulled out his butterfly. It, too, was shot.

Very still and quiet, Buster stared at his little creature. Queasiness bloomed in his belly, and a blunt and heartless lament took control of his bones. The crayon-colored paper was in ragged halves. Crying might’ve helped, but bygone rainbows had blotched tears from existence long ago. Easy enough, the pair of wounded wings slipped from his fingers, and an anxious gush of air snatched them up. Buster quickly grabbed at them. They got away. Drifting, falling, and colliding. It was like watching cows and goats bumping into each other while feeding on grass. A fleeting existence together inside of a minor blow, void of meaning, and neither one hurt or offended, and both content to move on with their separate lives. It was as if the once unified drawing of love in flight without end had never existed. The two pieces floated down and down until the river pulled the papered nothingness in with no sign of a splash.

Eyes peeled. Brows raised. Nostrils flared. Jaw locked. Fists clenched. Elbows lifted. Toes curled. Back stretched strong and long. Buster blasted off. Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! He headed toward Manhattan, pounding the bridge with his own quakes and vibrations. If it wasn’t for his paltry size, others might fear him coming their way. He could breathe now. Big breaths. He could taste the bile lurching up his throat. “I’LL HAVE YOUR HEAD PIG!” Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! “I’LL PISS IN YOUR ASS AND DRINK YOUR BLOOD!” Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! “I’LL PUT A HOLE IN YOUR HEART LEADING STRAIGHT TO HELL.” Buster’s fearless strut and the scary weight of his words had cars slowing down for a look at a comical threat not anywhere close to tough enough. Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! His vile hollering continued a little further until his true strength and durability came through. At the end of the bridge, a set of steps leading to a pedestrian overpass appeared just in time for him to drop down on them.

Buster sat back and looked up to the sky with a huff. The troubled color gray above had turned darker. The air was more muddled and seemed to be either taunting him or begging for help. The hulking clouds were circling their prey. The wind grew and blew more dust. The passing cars coming off the bridge kicked up roadway grit. The tip of Buster’s nose let him know the temperature dropped fast from 43 to 40 degrees. His fine ears were clear and tuned into arrhythmic motors revving from the nearby Harlem River Drive. It was agony. Rubbing his eyes, Buster sat up and looked at the empty basketball courts to his left. He looked up at the pedestrian bridge crossing over the roadway to Lexington Avenue. He considered the stairs. A little climb, he thought. The steel cage enclosing the span was domineering and hostile. He looked over his gnawed fingernails for a shard or a cuticle to chew on. He noticed something green and fungal living there. What troubled him more was not knowing where he should go.

Buster dropped his face into his dirty hands and tried again to rub out the mess. There was no relief. A big shrug of his shoulders was pointless. He mumbled, “I’m thirsty.” It sounded like verification of vital functions more than a real need for hydration. A way to check for any worthwhile life left inside. But he was thirsty. It was the start of the third day in a row without a drink. The scratchy wind picked up some more, and Buster felt grimier and more sunk. He was also starving. Without a nickel in his pocket, he’d spent the better part of the last week trying to extinguish the notion of food. A bit of luck helped him survive. He’d found a half a case of ready to use baby formula. There were diapers and toddler outfits too. He’d used the tiny clothes to fill in his worn-out pillow. The taste of babies’ milk was unfamiliar but served its purpose. Exchanging his dank underpants that hadn’t been changed for heaven knows how long for a clean, dry, and severely stretched diaper was necessary but felt wrong.

“I need water,” he said out loud, hoping anyone could hear him. That same moment he spotted a drinking fountain at the far end of the basketball courts. Don’t waste the walk, he thought. Being the end of December, his workman experience assured him that the fountain was turned off to avoid frozen pipes. He was smart to save energy. He had big problems that needed all he could give. He was desperate to find a new hole to crawl into. He also had to figure out how to get out of New York City because the sheer size of it was sure to crush him sooner than later. He had nothing in his life, no place, no one. He leaned his head back on the stairs, surrendered a mealy-mouthed sigh up to the awful sky, and wordlessly pleaded for anyone out there in the universe to give him a little dose of clarity and confidence.

Someone answered.

Buster lifted his head up and took a quick look around. Not a kind soul in sight. “Awe... Just my dumb head talking bunk.” It wasn’t the first time he’d heard an imperceptible voice. He shook his head hard to cut it off. He then dropped back onto the steps again. POW! POW! POW! Buster sat up straight. That wasn’t a gun or car engine in lousy shape or any sort of a traceable noise. It was the combustible rebirth of fresh and arable action at the inner core of his mind. I cannot fail! The thought hit him like a crystalized bolt of lightning. First water! That was another bright and crisp idea. Then I’ll find a place.

Having a few stabilized notions lined up, simple as they were, delivered a touch of tenacity. At the same time, in brief bursts, a misty rain started. It initiated an aching for a downpour. Buster opened his mouth to the sky for a hazy taste of deliverance. It wasn’t nearly enough, but it didn’t go to waste. The sprinkle of cold and moist air helped him realize that he was sitting in the same spot where he was sitting over a week ago. Buster jumped to his feet. With a surprising and severe snarl on his upper lip, he started rolling back and forth on his heels and toes. He eye-balled the curb like a killer. It was the very spot that the fat lady with green hair, tattoos, and the unimaginably stretched and ripped earlobes had dropped him off. Better put, it’s the exact spot where she pushed him out of the car.

“Get in!” was what she’d told him when they first met. That was on the shoulder of Onteora Road, outside of Woodstock, NY. It was the afternoon of December 21st. Buster knew the date because it was the first crack of winter. The solstice. A curse. He was on Onteora Road because he’d been in the woods right next to it. Buster was hunting with Daddy. The forest outing was an impromptu addition to the old man’s first day of winter routine. What wasn’t routine was that there was no distinct distance between the two of them as they hiked through the trees.

Daddy enjoyed hunting. The walls of the main house were festered with the heads of beasts from all over the world. Horned creatures were especially represented. But hunting trips were more typical when the weather was polite, and never happened if it might interfere with essential solstice events. Daddy was a heathen zealot. December 21st was traditionally a solemn day. Something unforeseen had to have changed the old’s man thinking that morning.

A whitetail buck wasn’t Daddy’s solstitial target. A lesser critter that pissed his pants was the game. Buster had been hunted down before. He often served as forest entertainment for Daddy’s guests. Buster’s memory of those times wasn’t altogether bad. He’d have a belly full of bacon, eggs, and biscuits to start things off. Famished prey brought down in less than fifteen minutes would be a limp thrill for Daddy and his associates. They also used high-powered pellet guns to sustain excitement. Buster would run half the day, take a hundred shots, or more before falling into a bush or a ditch all tuckered out. He’d lay there in a lot of pain. A swarm of mosquitoes would keep him company while he waited for Daddy and his party to track him down. After they’d snap their trophy photos, they’d leave him be. Buster would eventually make his way back to the barn where he’d get to work with a dirty tweezer pulling out every pellet he could reach.

Hunting near Onteora Road on December 21st was very different from previous winter solstices. Daddy’s solemn routine being disrupted or Buster’s empty stomach had little to do with it. From a sensible and seasonable point of view, December 21st was the advent of blest rest and recovery, and from the fatuous side of things, it was the start of a hundred days of depression. For Buster, the winter mark was something altogether different. The day was pure fear and loathing. He detested all pagan celebrations because they were aberrant. With enthusiastic hearts, Daddy and the Family celebrated every last one of them. The way Buster saw things, the heretic culture was an unnatural fabrication. Into the woods for puffed up theatre was more than mountains, trees, the moon, sunrises, and sunsets could genuinely care for. He figured they preferred to be looked at with simple awe and wonder, not maniacal worship.

Buster’s sentiment for pagan holidays was different when he lived at the main house. They were significant, and he was naïve. The adults were always very excited. Those erroneously sacred days would animate a preternatural character inside all of them, and little Buster would be treated extra special. He’d be the only tiny one at the ceremonies in the woods. Child-free rituals weren’t to protect the innocent. It was to prevent innocence, both natural and good, from seeping in. Pint-sized, naked and eminent, little Buster was laid out on a chaise lounge carved from a single tree. A multitude of animal furs cushioned his tender bottom. He’d be at the right hand of an imposing open-air altar made of stone and wood. In front of that altar was a very large fire pit. In warm weather, flowers topped the tiny enchanter’s head of thick and curly blonde hair. On the winter solstice, little Buster’s crown was blood red ilex berry branches, and a luxurious red velvet blanket trimmed in winter ermine fur would be casually laid upon him.

The congregation of a hundred or more in their dark robes gathered around the fire pit in an organized triple ringed circle was a fright to see. The curly-haired blonde child laid out on that carved tree that was lined with furs looked like a living cherub. He was drugged to a near-sleep state to create a quiet, ceremonial gem on display. A tiny piece of pure harmony and beauty on the verge of a ring of fire, and left helpless at the feet of the depraved and faithful. It was staged that way to enhance a beguiling atmosphere. As the new wintertime sun set on the tree-covered foothills of the Catskill mountains, the lax babe stirred disorienting tension and fanned a creeper’s desire. Daddy liked things intense and off-kilter. He wanted nothing capable of standing firm in the way of him preaching an eruption of disturbance and darkness.

The curly blonde-haired child with plump cheeks and moon blue-eyes had been Daddy’s favorite charm from the start. The one and only time a smile, vile as it was, appeared on the old man’s face, was the morning little Buster and his mother arrived on the Family compound. Daddy was sitting in a big chair on the front porch of the main house. He gestured for the child to come to him. The heavens went black when Daddy called the tiny one, “My Love Song.” He promised the child, “You’ll be mine forever.” The dark maestro of seduction was planning to cultivate the little one. He was driven to grow his business and satisfy his lustful loins. The old man must’ve figured tiny Buster was the key to his expanding success in the Family’s worldwide organization. He took it upon himself to personally groom the Family’s future top breeder and performer. The wee babe was to be trained intellectually and corporally for esteemed sex partnerships and rituals. Some of Daddy’s most important clients were heads of dynasties with curious needs. Daddy had a shiny mystical lure for legion capable of satisfying all of their desires sitting right in his lap.

Daddy rewarded his golden child with rural indulgences. After the first few days on the Family compound, arrangements were made for Buster to move into the main house. He had a private room with a canopied bed, a fireplace, and a luxurious private bath. Buster’s mother was most proud of that. She was moved into one of the better houses on the property with her very own bedroom. A maiden cared for the child, bathed him, dressed him. Many of the other children had minimal nourishment. Buster ate fresh and healthy meals every day. Most children received a remedial education, schooled in a ramshackle workroom. Children raised for torture, sacrifice, and leather learned nothing. Daddy’s little blonde cherub had private tutors teaching him math, reading, Latin, science, and philosophy. The most talented Family members made the child’s clothing. Daddy brought home flashy and fancy outfits whenever he returned from business trips from around the world. The little angel was the only one ever permitted into the master bedroom. Even the Supreme Elders couldn’t go in there.

The Family’s official business was meat and leather production. Goats, chickens, pigs, and cows. The invisible end of the Family’s affairs was involved in the production of wickedness and grisly services. Daddy ran his dark and sinful sanctuary with a covenant of hardliners. They were established in Woodstock, New York, an outpost for a global network of occultists. Under Daddy’s care and guidance, more than a hundred people lived, worked, and worshiped according to infernal rules. Never look Daddy in the eyes, that was the most awe-inspiring decree. On high holidays, like the winter solstice, an additional rule applied. No one was permitted to be within a hundred feet of the old man. Get caught sneaking a peek in his general vicinity, you’d miss out on the nighttime ritual and be locked in a stockade. If Daddy was in a foul mood, you might be excommunicated. That could mean death.

Ceremonies were grave and momentous. Important people would arrive from every corner of the world. Invoking evil was not an improvised affair. It didn’t matter where you came from, everyone in the congregation had a role. Tasks were assigned. Arrangements were to be intently finished by midafternoon. Daddy, the Elders, essential guests, and Family members needed the open time to mentally prepare for the ceremony.

Nighttime was best for channeling livid blackness. Before the holiday action started, in the afternoon, Daddy would go to the top of the big hill to be alone. A fire pit would be stacked with enough wood to last hours for his needs and comfort. It’d be set burning. From afar, you could see the old man up there by himself in his imperial purple hooded cape. He’d stand facing eastward with his back to the setting sun. For hours, he’d gaze into that fire until it died, and darkness was fully confirmed.

Family members wearing robes with varying dark colored sashes and belts gathered at the bottom of the hill in rigid silence as they waited for Daddy to come down to address the congregation. The followers were divided into three circled flanks surrounding the giant fire pit. The inner circle, where the intensity was best, was reserved for heralded guests and the Elders. The middle sphere was filled with females, and men made up the outer ring. The fire master would start the action. He’d wear the head, hide, and tail of a bull, and direct the blaze with a large ornate stick and a swaggering dance.

That big fire would get set to crackling like a skillet full of the Family’s finest bacon. It’d grow and change into strange forms and turn out stranger gestures. At the fire master’s command, a merciless shriek, the group would start to move. The inner-circle walked slowly toward the east, the middle circle moved westward, and the outer flank rotated back to the east. The alternating procession was unified in their side to side sway. The speechless tree tops listed in the wind above their heads. Back and forth. Round and round. Back and forth. Round and round. When flawless synchronicity was achieved, the fire master would let out a blood-curdling scream. Daddy would then begin his descent from the hill.

The old man would firmly step into his place at the altar. The rotating circles would come to a silent stop, and worshipers would stare reverently at their demigod. Daddy wasn’t big nor short. An embalmed grace in his limbs and posture made him appear taller than he was. A slim and retained physique helped him look plenty younger than his seventy-three years. Taut, pale skin and thin lips with a hint of blue suggested a dark and macabre element in his diet. Wispy and fine, ear length black hair framed his narrow face. It was a face that you wouldn’t notice in almost any normal situation. Unless you somehow got close enough for a look into his eyes. If he caught your eyes from the altar beside the palpitating glow of that bonfire, it’d be near impossible to look away. His large and grey orbs were a perfect pair made in Hades. They were irreconcilable with his ordinary face. A hardly hidden ferociousness prevailed in that dark and isolated gaze of his. Lush lashes surrounded his eyes and could conceal or reveal them with zeal. Frightful, freakish pupils were shaped more like miniscule daggers than typical tiny telling circles. In them, a black glint instead of the reflection of light. It was the absorption of the essence of his victims that had fallen into his stare. After some time looking at you, imperceptible claws would clinch hard and dig in deep. You’d be a made disciple under his command.

Spellbound players took gulps of a gamey brew from large tankards passed around at the start of the ceremony. One of the Elders would bring Daddy The Book Of The Law or Kabbalah or The Equinox or MAGICK or another esoteric piece of writing. The old man would flip to a page, lift and point an index finger high in the air and bring it down directly to a passage. It was nothing but a theatrical illusion of destiny that feigned a reverent starting point. Daddy didn’t need a cursor. He could recite entire passages from memory with the well-practiced projection of a necromancer. From the altar, the natural tone of his voice would evaporate as he talked. It transformed into something unidentifiable in the wholesome world of sound. It came from the below. Heavy. Slow. Loud. Shout not.

A force was activated to find a hidden soundwave across the threshold to demonic possession. Daddy’s face would move through its own transmogrification with bursts of contortions and horrifying spasms throughout his sermon. Blisters and facial eruptions might appear. His eyes would bulge to frightening proportions. A minutia of pain in his odd voice creaked along the way. It stemmed from his jaw, which he would dislocate to enhance particular phrasings. Daddy’s blasphemous oration was filled with unpredictable commentary, odd sounds, and incomprehensible words. Scattered throughout the horrid homily, he’d exclaim, “Do as thou wilt!” A lit-up rage would levitate the entire spirit of the congregation above that dangerously majestic inferno as the mass moved toward a fearsome crescendo.

“Behold, the meaning of darkness! We are the defiance of natural law, morality, and rational justice. We are back biters on our way. A conspiracy of respiring, perspiring, and aspiring disciples keeping the dark spirit alive. Sons and daughters indulge in violence. Invert everything right and lovely. Proliferate. Agitate with gamma force. The world’s frequency will be turned to our likeness. Seek out others at every turn. Impassive cheats. Common criminals. The spineless. Scoundrels. Money grubbers. Stuff them with liquor and mind-loosening drugs. Provide them with abnormal pleasures. Fecal fantasies. Glorious pain. Delight their clits. Swallow their cum. The sins of the flesh must be amplified. Born again and again, and dark and darker by the day, our growth will show the minions the splendor of murder. Put the knife in their hands. Let them learn to draw sacred power from torture, rape, and ravenous sex with a corpse, or a beast, or anyone and anything. Share the brutal death of a brand-new child. Together, lap in the immaculate energy of fearlessness embedded in that newborn’s flesh. Rip out the holy grail, that little heart, the place where life itself is birthed. It is the center of all senses and where Christ conciseness is grasped. It is the sacrificial meat of our gods. Sink your teeth into it and utterly destroy it. Know this, blood is a singular fluid. Through its warmth, the righteous ego is delivered. Blood is the violet realm of humanity itself, where depravity is denied and restrained. I tell you, seize the sovereignty of blood and the human heart. Spill it. Defile it. Embrace and enhance it with everything that is wrong. Deliver unto it toxins and impurities. Put it before our fire, the light, the heat, our means to knowledge. We will be born again. Born of fire like the phoenix. For you, Danu, no higher, no hotter. Let us sow the seeds for a forthcoming, grander, and far more glorious race than any of those we know at present. May the religion of the ancients become the religion of the future. Bring every man to his knees to bow before the prince of darkness. Connect every ego to lord Lucifer. May our expansion be immutable. Let us demand it in our prayers.”

Those mystical sounding words would land on you like a slab of beef and stay put. The raging ring of fire would cook the meaning into you. When the words were entirely devoured, the Family members would have an irrefutable responsibility to carry them on. With the blessing from hell consecrated, the blood sacrifice would begin. Sometimes it’d be a gagged goose or pig. More often, it was something other. A warm-blooded thing strapped to the altar or to the thick, tall plank of wood sticking up out of the ground. The culmination of Daddy’s malevolent preaching would’ve primed a collective instinct with quintessential timing. On the old man’s telekinetic mark, the adherents would rush the altar to pummel the living thing with fists and hundreds of blows. They’d take wide open bites into the flesh. Tumultuous pounding would accelerate to the point of rhythmic convergence. A Borg drive and hive mind for hatred of compassion and care would sound off like a staggering and indestructible drum. The unholy ground would shake. Then a sudden depletion. The Elders would rip the heart out and toss what remained into the fire. The entire group, scorched with heat, seasoned and entranced, would huddle around the fringe of that pit and watch the final kicks, squeals, and screams of a panicked spirit trying to escape the holocaust. The mass would then retreat to the main barn for royal abandonment. Food, wine, and drugs. An orgy with beasts. Vomit, piss, and shit. Do as thou wilt.

 

A life of decency for little Buster was near impossible while being raised by a perverted mother with a blood fest belief system. Laced daily with narcotics to the point of perpetual delirium will keep the honest world far out of touch. Buster had no other reality for comparison. His childhood of violence and disturbance had blurred into a regular experience. It appeared it was going to carry on like that, and Buster might’ve become no better than the rest of those dark-minded fools. But things don’t always go according to plan.

Buster’s natural charm was incapable of absorbing total darkness. His harmonious beauty only grew brighter inside and out day by day. His steadfast nature began to affect things around him. Daddy’s fortune turned, and the atmosphere at the Family compound became noisome. The old-man tried his best to snuff out the good light. But with every inch made toward bringing little Buster to the dark side, Daddy met greater misfortune. A remedial sacrifice of a valuable newborn that was burned at the stake only made matters worse. Daddy reached his limit with great frustration and anger when a powerful political client hung himself from a tree behind the main house. That swinging corpse severely diminished Daddy’s standing in the Family’s worldwide network. When Buster told one of the Elders he heard Daddy threaten to kill that political-man before the hanging, things changed dramatically. Buster attended his last ceremony at twelve years old. The child was excommunicated and exiled to the little barn at the outer recesses of the Family compound. He was branded a jinxed slave out of favor and out of sight.

Over time, Buster settled into his new home. The years of forcefully fed drugs wore off. He did the best to imagine that he was never a part of his past. Hard work would help that goal. Buster knew his new life was pathetic and futile, and he was withering away, slow and sure. Still, he was always determined to stay at it. It wasn’t because he had high hopes. It was merely to keep out of the clutches of the devil himself. No matter how much you struggle for a virtuous life, once you’ve looked straight into the bowels of hell, not just a glance over the rim, you’ll be remade one way or another, far from safety. Flailing about in a fiery sea of excrement will have forged a hook in your soul. Wailing and gnashing of teeth will have assured it. You’ll be forever fingered as a viable source for an eternal wicked fire. That was the brutal reality that Buster worked and struggled hard to forget.

There is a chance in a trillion to climb out of the abyss. It’d be like surviving a shipwreck, only to wash up on a deserted island where you waste away with hunger and thirst. At 26, Buster was truly parched and diminished. It was true that he’d moved away from that pit of agony and violence. Buster went in the other direction. He shrunk toward lonely emptiness and could see the end of his rope. It might take ten years more to be finished, maybe less. But until that final day, Buster took to practicing a new ritual to avoid the ongoing holiday hell at the Family compound. He’d skip sleep for a couple of days before an equinox or solstice. On those unholy mornings, Buster would start work before the sun rose. He’d work doubly hard to finish duties early in the afternoon. If his plan worked, Buster would be asleep deep under a stack of hay before the sun went down. It was the most accessible place he could go to avoid what was taking place on the other side of the big hill.

It didn’t always work out. High holidays always meant extra chores. Buster lost his race against the scary night more than once. One particular time with the sun far gone and rituals well underway, Buster was in a dire panic. He feared those demons would come kicking on his barn door and find him awake. He dragged out from the back of the barn, the dreaded discipline box. Getting into it was a struggle without someone to jam him into it. He had to shake about best he could, so the lid slammed closed on top of him. Thick-walled and sealed tight, save a pinhole vent and no padlock, it was his best chance to avoid the bonfire’s billowing glow and the far-off sound of ghouls and death filled screams.

Buster’s last winter solstice at the Family compound started the same as every other one. Rise and shine in the cold. A big race to finish work. The constant fear of the coming dark. A day-long prayer for sleeping tight later that night. Buster had one leg up on the ladder to the loft when he noticed a silhouette standing between the big barn doors. The slim shadow breathed in heavy. It was enough to suck the air right out of Buster’s lungs. Daddy looked more phantom than human. The setting sunlight highlighted a gravid burden on his back. Daddy took one small step into the barn for the very first time. A long and lost look in his eyes said it simple. Time was running out on him. Daddy was old. A slow and stubborn perversity rolled off his shoulders like fog onto a cold black river. The light making its way into the barn went dim. A small and hesitant sense of permanence emptied from Buster’s exhausted heart. Daddy exhaled, and his breath dropped to the floor. It transformed Buster into a barn house draft. A doomed effort. Failed hope. A mutilated yearning. Insignificant. Buster’s cheeks turned hot and glowed red. Daddy told him straight and easy, “Get in the truck.” Buster’s winter dried lips cracked. Fire gushed in his veins. He kept his eyes peeled to the ground and followed Daddy’s command.

Outside, Buster opened the passenger door and saw the 30-30 Winchester rifle lying across the front seat of the cab. A shiver raced up his spine. Buster lifted his head for a glance at the villain behind the wheel. Daddy told him, “Get right!” Buster sat tight and looked straight ahead down that dirt road leading to ruin. When Buster stepped out of the car, he took a deep breath of the woodland air. It was crisper and cleaner than ever. Not a word was muttered as they walked among the trees. Daddy marched out front, and his footsteps on the frost-covered ground were unmistakable. They had Buster craving necessary goodbyes. They also brought back memories.

A surprising image of his birth father came to Buster’s mind. A face hardly held together. The man who named him. The man his mother used to describe in colorful terms. “Failed Intelligentsia.” “Limp dick faggot.” “A bleeding heart gone to South Africa to support the Anti-Apartheid Movement instead of raising his child.” He was the unknown man with the footsteps that Buster often dreamed he could hear from across the ocean. They were very unlike Daddy’s footsteps, which Buster knew intimately. Daddy’s steps would plunge into the ground and pull any crunch, snap, or crack in deep with them. They were unambiguous from the first day they walked into little Buster’s life.

Buster’s mother was in love with Daddy. It was the same for most members of The Family. Men and women alike. Buster had just turned five years old when they first moved onto the Family compound. His mother was a covenant newbie and never happier. She was always more concerned with her wants than the needs of her child. Buster’s birth father was missing for more than two years by then. That first night at the Family compound, mother and child stayed in a first rung communal home. Buster was assigned the only single room in that house. He was upstairs alone in his bed. Buster was scared as only a small child can be. His mother and others were downstairs watching television as he waited for sleep. He was confused. Buster didn’t know why they moved from their apartment in Manhattan. He missed his bedroom, his toys, his little friends from preschool. The new group of strangers lumped together with his mother downstairs bothered him.

There was a loud knock on the front door. Before one of the adults opened it, Buster had heard the steps coming along the footpath. He knew who it was. Someone sinful was climbing the narrow staircase to his bedroom, and those steps foretold bleakness. Buster could only pull the covers over his head and shut his eyes. Daddy didn’t say a word. He stood beside the bed, looking down at the blanket-covered child and unlatched his belt. The old man sat at the end of the bed, and the two of them sunk deeper. The smell of burnt sausage, mustard, and old sweat crawled under the covers and straddled over the child. The weight of the old man shuffling on top was the black stuff of nightmares. Daddy pulled his trousers below his hips and pinned the little one under his forearm. He ripped the small cotton bottoms off in one abusive stroke. A grown man’s force brutally spread the child open. He plunged himself inside like a hot and bloodthirsty knife into the tender meat. Instant agony beat out any thought of what was happening or why it was happening. Ravenous grunts like the driven weight of a running bull pounded into little Buster’s skull. Slobber covered his tiny face. Pain and more pain ripped into him. Blood and agony. Then it was over.

Dark steps and the refuse inside of them trampled a healthy five-year-old child out of existence that night. The tiny life was torn to pieces and set off to grow up inside a tornado. A delicate tone of goodness forever knocked out of sync with the glorious music of the universe. A little ghost was born. After that night, Daddy followed his original plan, the one he made the moment he set his eyes on the child that first afternoon on the front porch. He went on to train little Buster to perform and swallow everything. Eventually, when things didn’t work out like Daddy thought they would, he banished the child. It happened days after Buster’s thirteenth birthday. For Buster, nourishing human contact was all but eliminated. By twenty-six, he was a scrambled, ragged husk of a human being and filled with worry and excruciations.

A cold and hardened hysteria consumed Buster’s state of mind while he walked behind Daddy’s footsteps in the woods on that last wretched December 21st. Buster’s eyes locked on the 30-30 Winchester rifle swung over Daddy’s shoulder. He was careful not to get too close or too far away. He took a loose glance at the back of Daddy’s head and noticed an outbreak on his neck - big red-rimmed boils. Buster struggled to keep his eyes off of them. They were on the verge of bursting. They pulsed as if something trapped a lifetime inside the maniac needed to get out. After an hour’s hike and still not a drip of puss, Daddy stopped by a muddy ditch. It was the hole next to a mosquito-infested marsh that Buster was assigned to dig a few days before.

Daddy put a foot up on a fallen tree covered in moss. He took the rifle off his shoulder, laid it across his leg, and reached into his jacket pocket for ammo. He was very calm, batted his eyes. He told Buster, “I deserve a longer life. I’d have a chance to correct the failures you were responsible for.” Buster stood there, shaking in his boots with his head down and his chin buried into his chest. Daddy yelled, “Plug-ugly maggot! Look at me!” Buster tried to look up, but the will to move was lost. Daddy continued, “There are no consequences for a dying man. Do you understand! You will not have power over me in my final days.” Daddy looked down at the dirt with utter intensity. “Tonight will be my last and blackest profanity. My final celebration before I unite with my malevolent maker.” Daddy lifted his eyes to Buster. “I’ll be clear of you before then. You will be buried out here. Nowhere. Natural beauty will be snuffed out. No one will ever know your exquisite heart existed. This is how it is. I get the final word. Not your good God in heaven. My redemption comes through sin. Now take your last run, little lady.”

Buster heard the lever action of the rifle lock and load the first round. A prick and tick snapped inside of him, and a rocketing reflex ignited. He was off and running. With the crack of the gun and a bullet blowing through branches near his head, he heard Daddy scream, “FUCK!” Fast, another shot exploded into the trunk of the tree Buster had just bounced off. The third round blasted. Buster transformed into a streak of woodland brown and gray. The fastest creature in the forest. He leaped and tripped over bushes, rocks, and fallen trees. He’d crash and crawl and barrel through small mounds, scurry up and down hills, then run again. Whenever he slowed, another bullet whizzed by his head. He kept going and going, and after more than an hour on a madman’s push, he popped out of the woods onto the side of Onteora Road.

Buster’s eyes were open more than he ever remembered. Mucus hung from his nose, and saliva drooled from his mouth. In one fast sweep, he wiped it all clean with his shirtsleeve. Every tiny hair on his little body was standing. A car was coming. His thumb wasn’t out, but his rescue ride stopped in front of him. Feeling more nervous than lucky, he looked into the car. A big lady with short green hair was in there. He opened the door. A dominating smell of fried food spilled out. The big lady with green hair turned toward him. A small, peeved nasal expression was crimped upon her big face. Her jaw hung open. Round, thick-rimmed purple eyeglasses sat crooked on her squat nose. The corners of her mouth were red and sore. Her earlobes were most unsettling. They were long and torn. She didn’t look young, and she was far from old. One of her chunky hands held the steering wheel tightly. In the other was a long, thin burning cigarette. The car was packed with transparent trash bags filled with clothes and belongings. A mess was everywhere else. Grease stained paper bags. Empty beer cans. Food wrappers. Crumpled napkins. Empty bags of chips.

A light snow had started to fall. Buster was jittery, and he didn’t look back into the woods. He pushed a bag of clothes to the floor, brushed away some junk from the passenger seat, and climbed in. Silence didn’t last longer than fifty yards down the road. The big green-haired lady let out a belch louder than any cow Buster had ever heard. It reeked of beer, but Buster didn’t dare complain. He peeked over at her. She’s got more of them inside - that was his first impression of her. She went right to talking. Big huffs and puffs on her smoke didn’t interfere with her jabbering. She didn’t ask for his name. Buster didn’t mumble a word because there was no need. The big green-haired lady liked talking.

In no time at all, Buster’s entire universe had been transformed from a life of inescapable misery to a strange state of safety inside of a noisome chamber lit up by dashboard lights. The big green-haired lady jumped from one outlandish point to another like a hounded jackrabbit. Buster didn’t know where they were going. He understood some of what she was going on about but far from all of it. Buster was grateful and content enough to listen to anything she had to say. Sneaking another peek at her, he figured he’d never seen a person quite like her. Her head was bigger than a proper pumpkin. Her stretched and torn earlobes were longer than her green hair. She was squeezed so tight behind the steering wheel it was a wonder she could drive at all.

About an hour after the big green-haired lady picked Buster up on the side of the road, an eye-catching sign for fresh hot pizza was too much to resist. She let out a rabble-rousing, beer induced holler, “UGH! I’m fucking hungry and tired.” She then quickly turned off the road like a loon. State Farm Insurance, Motel 19, and Pilate’s Pizza shared the small parking lot. It took a bit of finagling for the big lady to get out of the car. She looked back in at Buster and told him, “Get out!” The two of them stood side by side at the small Motel counter. The desk clerk was as dumbstruck as Buster. The big green-haired lady grabbed the room key, and then she and Buster walked over to Room #11. The big lady explained the reason she needed to stop for a rest was that she wasn’t able to drive more than two hours at a time. “Hypercholesterolemia.” That was her blunt summation. Buster never heard of such a thing. The way he understood it, she got tired fast because of slow blood. As she struggled to open the lock on the room door, she also explained her activities from the night before. “Tequila fucked me the way I like. Hard.” She told Buster, flat out, “I’m fucking beat.”

The big green-haired lady tossed her backpack on the bed like she owned the place. The unzipped bag bounced, and the contents spilled out. Most of it landed on the floor. She belted out another loud, “UGH!” She barreled over to the side of the bed and started collecting items. She pointed to a bunch of silver pens and other things scattered near the bathroom. She told Buster in a poisonous tone, “Pick that shit up!” Buster did as he was told. The pens were curious. HEADDIES in bright, bold gold lettering was embossed on every single one of them. She yelled, “You little mother fucker! Where the fuck are you?” Buster was scared. She looked at him, howled again, “My fucking thumb drive is lost! All my fucking music is on it!” She gave Buster a frozen, menacing look. He thought about how that very expression was the exact look dogs have the moment before a fight over food. “Don’t stand there. Look for it!” she yelled. “It’s a little fucking rainbow!”

The big green-haired lady pulled out drawers from the dresser for no reason and tossed them to the ground. With one hand, she yanked aside the mattress, left it half hanging to the floor. The heater in the room was making noise and too much heat. With all the violent action turning the room upside down, Buster felt the safest place to be was next to the front door. He squatted down. A familiar feeling was coming over him, sure a beating was coming his way. He considered making a run for it. Then he saw her backpack on the floor next to the nightstand with a cluster of colorful knick-knacks dangling from the zipper. Fear retreated a step. He reached over for the pack. He held it up for her to see the rainbow thumb drive attached to it. “YES!” she screamed. “FUCK YES!” Without hesitation, she told Buster, “Get up! Go next door. Get beer, and a large pie… A 12-pack. Whatever is cheapest.” No response was expected. She reached into the back pocket of her overalls for her wallet. It was attached to a steel chain connected to the hammer loop on her big hip. She handed him two credit cards and told him, “Try this one first.” She pointed out the light blue one with a unicorn prancing on top of a cloud. She snapped, “Go!” Buster was stiff with fear. She leaned in close to his face and jiggled her jowls. “UGH! I’m so fucking hungry!”

Buster stood near the front door of the pizza parlor, looking out the window. He was waiting for the food. The place was empty, and he was okay with that. It brought a small sense of comfort and earned him a moment to get his bearings straight. Wet snow was coming down hard. The oven’s warmth spread an amazing smell like an easy listening song. Right then, he realized he was free from Daddy. He didn’t know what to think about it. It was a lot to get a hold of. He wished he could cry. The sun had set, and the moon was out. The tops of leafless trees across the road on a small uprising ridge looked like somebody sprayed them a sorry colored blue. To the left, he noticed a structure resembling a big igloo. It seemed more out of place than him. It took his mind off his situation. For minutes he went on wondering what the heck it was. It started him thinking about Antarctica, icy seas, whales, and walruses. He imagined eating a lot of pizza too. He remembered fresh milk, the cream that rises to the top.

“Your order is ready,” said the man behind the counter.

Buster trembled in his boots. He’d have to bring it back to the room where Holly was waiting for him. Holly O’Donnell, she’d already told him her full name. From the side of Onteora Road all the way to the motel room, the only thing Holly asked Buster was, “You got any K? Benzos?” She had a lot of things to tell him. She was a graduate of Ithaca College with a major in Child Development and a minor in Gender Studies. She also told him with pride, “I’m a diabetic.” She went on to explain that she needs to eat all the time because of it. Buster figured that was the reason for her size. He hadn’t questioned her, but she told him, “It’s a fucking disability. I can sue anyone that tries to call me fat.”

Holly was recently hired to teach preschoolers in New York City, Harlem. It was an excellent thing for her career, but Holly was more excited about jumping into the City’s nightlife. “I like girls,” she told Buster. “I like them a lot!” She also mentioned with a sassy gleam in her eye, “I mean, I won’t turn down a hard cock. Boys can be fun, and they’re a helluva a lot easier than working yourself with a beer bottle.” She turned to Buster. “I’m susceptible to yeast infections. A genetic thing.”

Buster walked back into the motel room with the pizza and beer. Holly was sitting on the bed, pulling bong hits, and music blared from a small red box sitting on the nightstand. Buster noticed her little rainbow thumb drive sticking out of the top of it. She was listening to a soft song moaning romantic angst to a heart strung melody. The mattress was crooked on top of the box spring, and sheets were half off the bed. Drawers were perilously stacked atop the dresser. Most of the contents of her backpack were still on the floor. When she opened the box of pizza, the entire room turned delicious.

Buster was hungrier than a horse. Holly didn’t offer him a slice, and he didn’t dare ask. She devoured that first slice in two bites and then cracked open a can of beer. She started in on the next slice and went right to talking about her dream goal of moving to Seattle to start a coffee shop. Holly spoke with her mouth full of food, and crusts were eaten. She yapped plenty about the Harry Potter book series. How it helped her through hard times. “I’m real fucking angry pissed” she griped. Holly had accidentally left her fantasy book collection back in Ithaca. She forgot plenty of stuff back there. She turned and looked at Buster, sitting on the floor by the door. “Mom and dad weren’t gonna pay my tuition if I didn’t get my GPA up to 2.0. My Harry Potter essay saved my fucking sweet ass!” Buster had no idea who Harry Potter was or a GPA. So much of what she talked about was foreign and strange.

Holly continued eating. She knocked back more beer. Her bong was a ventilator more than a bubbling piped up passageway to a flowering highland. The pink acrylic tube filled with smoke was in her face at all times, except when pizza slices or a can of beer switched places with it. Then a brief lion’s roar came out of her little red music box. An upbeat song started to play. Holly waved her filled hands in the air. Beer splashed everywhere when the can slipped from her hand. She wagged her tongue and shook her head of stringy green hair. Her long, torn earlobes swung wildly. She yelled at the ceiling, “I want to fuck you, Katie Perry!” She reached for another can of beer. Cracked it open. She shouted along with the song. “I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath. Scared to rock the boat and make a mess…” Holly’s music act had startled Buster. He inched closer to the door. The room quickly grew hotter. She was bopping happily on the bed, and it shook the floor. Then she got up for better-expressed movement. “I let you push me past the breaking point. I stood for nothing, so I fell for anything.” Holly was scream-singing. Her enormous hips moved with remarkable flexibility. She consumed all the free space at the foot of the bed and then some.

Holly dance-stepped into the bathroom. “You hear that voice. You hear that sound. Like thunder, gonna shake the ground.” The door was left open. Holly put her beer can on the sink top, and bad singing continued as she stripped off her overalls, her shirt, her bra, and big underpants without missing a beat. She was covered in a mess of tattoos. Buster had seen tattoos before, only not that many on one person. He was stunned by the overall shape of her. She was wider than she was tall. She stepped into the bathtub. The shower curtain was useless. Turning around in there was near impossible. She turned on the water, and her song and dance became a sloppy slip and gargle. Water was everywhere. She wasn’t bathing, she was getting wet.

Holly continued to sing. “I’ve got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through fire.” When the song ended, a slow R&B song started right up. She was finished singing and stepped out of the bathtub. She slipped but didn’t crash. The little sink saved her, it almost came off the wall. She chugged the rest of her beer. Naked, dripping wet, drunk and high, Holly stepped out of the bathroom. Buster was still sitting on the floor with his back against the front door. She moved closer to him. Her eyes were droopy and spooky, and she was breathing heavily through her mouth. Buster was scared. With a slack and sly grimace on her face, it looked like she discovered something else to eat. She told him bluntly, “I’m gonna sit on your pretty face now.”

The next morning, Buster was in New York City. After living inside a billboard pipe in the sky for ten isolated days in the Bronx, he’d crossed the Third Avenue bridge and then dragged his feet over that steel enclosed pedestrian bridge onto Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The misty cold rain coming down gained momentum as Buster walked south. No one was shooting at him or smothering him, and no one knew he was alive. He was nothing more than a lonely, dull, and damp ambition going for broke. His feet shuffled onward. By the time he reached the crowded corner of 125th Street, collapse from hunger and thirst was near. He looked in the window of a place selling hotdogs. The signboard out in front read, The Works for a Buck! Not having a dollar made little difference. The smell of cheap toppings pulsating out of the busy doorway was lousy. It didn’t mix well with the wet and agitated gang of homeless men crowded in front of the place.

Buster’s stomach was empty and shrinking on the spot, but the scary shape of the vagrants, along with an acidic revolt in his gut, forced him to move on. His head was still sore. His hip pain was particularly awful, a constant reminder of his big fall from his beloved billboard sanctuary. His lower back ached. His brain was strained with dehydration. His heart was nothing but a small beating cramp. Every hurt competed with each other for his attention. Buster’s trouble laden journey lasted about ten blocks more, then kaput. He squeezed himself in between two parked cars for a seat at the curb. He rested his head against a cold, wet, and dirty bumper. A perfect fit. He licked up raindrops and closed his eyes. He might’ve slept a minute or two. There wasn’t a dream or thought capable of staying alive in his head.

“Why don’t we head downtown.” Someone was speaking to Buster. The voice was clear and identifiable. Along with it, there was a recognizable stink in the air. He opened his eyes. With some trepidation, Buster blurted out, “Scale, is that you?” He lifted his head off the car bumper. The curious voice answered, “Food and something to drink.” Buster heard it for sure but couldn’t see Scale, where was he at? It spooked him and racked his whittled nerves. He made a few flimsy head-shakes to clean sweep his mind, and a trace of life-affirming blood trickled again. Buster needed to put two and two together. Why is Scale here? How did he find me? How do I get rid of him?

The cold rain turned heavier. Buster got a good taste of it. It was enough to moisten his lips and throat and tease out a bit more revival. He was ready to do whatever it takes for something to eat and a big mouthful to drink, only his will to move had slipped to the bottom of his empty stomach. Buster tried best to size up the new situation. He knew Scale was capable of remarkable things. He could climb a ladder, a fence post, even a small tree. Scale was quite proficient at turning the well-pump on. He loved hiding tools. He could pick up rocks or a stick with his mouth and give them a good toss with a decent aim. Scale loved letting pigs out of the pen. He never once helped get them back in. He could stink up a barn better than any creature. Plain to say, Scale could do a lot. Buster figured without a stretch that Scale was capable of providing food and drink. What Buster couldn’t get his head around was how in the world did that long-haired, dirty old billy goat make a hundred-mile journey to New York City.

Buster heard clicks and clacks. He turned and spotted that old goat trotting across the street, shaking his tail. Buster rubbed his eyes to clarify that it was his hollow-horned animal and not some other nagging buck. With a shallow breath, Buster got to his feet. He squinted and caught a fleeting glimpse of Scale and the possibility of a meal and something to drink, disappearing around the corner. Buster made it to that corner fast, and he looked right and left, down and up. The street signs read East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. The ne’er-do-well beast was nowhere to be seen. Scale loved tricks and games, and hide and seek was one of his favorites. Buster scoured the vicinity again with no luck at all.

Buster began to wonder if all this ruckus was his imagination. He was aware of his damaged state. Going hungry for so long wasn’t the best recipe for sharp thinking. Then a familiar, “Maaa Maaa,” settled the matter. He heard hoofs trotting down the subway stairs behind him. Buster didn’t hesitate and followed his ears. Being down in the subway system for the first time in his life, he felt like he’d stepped into an aggrandized and highly developed rat trap. Scale was nowhere to be seen. Looking at the turnstile, Buster didn’t know what to do with the thing. He’d seen something similar at the entryway of the New York State Fair the one time he attended it as a child. Buster was reluctant and tried telling himself, Walk through it. Not seeing or hearing Scale anywhere nearby gave him an excuse to question the contraption more. It also had him thinking about the fetid creature’s motive again. Buster had known Scale for more than a decade. That old goat is a chronic liar, he doesn’t have food or water. He probably wants something from me.

Coming from the other side of the turnstile, around the bend on the platform, Buster heard, “Hurry! The train is coming.” At the same time, he heard heels clicking loud and fast down the subway stairs behind him. It sounded like someone coming to get him. Buster pushed fast into the turnstile. It stopped short, and it punched hard into his hollow belly and pushed the little wind he had left inside of him out. Some sort of coagulated and infected hunk of breath, a blob of phlegm or something also popped out. It landed on the turnstile and rolled onto the floor. The thing, whatever it was, it looked up at him. It tried to leap back into his mouth. Buster snapped his jaw closed and dodged it. The thing scurried away out of sight. Buster took a fast step back from the turnstile.

A young lady, a pretty blonde, was right next to Buster. She was petite, wearing a black trench coat and carrying a red leather tote. She shook a colorful wet umbrella fast and careful like she’d done it a hundred times before. She swiped a yellow card on the turnstile and rushed on through it. Her coat tail got hung up, and Buster reached out, unsnagged it. The pretty lady turned quickly. “Thanks,” she said. She paused and looked into his eyes for half a second. She’s in love, was what Buster thought. Then he heard Scale holler. “Don’t wonder!” Or was it, “Slip under!” Or did he say, “Her blunder!” Whatever was said, it worked. Buster got through that turnstile just in time. He went right under it. The downtown # 6 train pulled into the station, and he jumped on board.

The pretty blonde-haired lady wasn’t in his train car. That old billy-goat wasn’t there either. They couldn’t have been lost in a crowd, there were plenty of empty seats. Buster felt feeble, could barely stay on his feet. He plopped down on the bench and sprawled out. The doors closed. The six or seven passengers on board covered their noses and mouths with their hands. They stood up and made a beeline to the far end of the car. The man out in front slid open the door connecting to the next car, and they started scuttling out. The lady at the end of that exodus yelled back at Buster, “You’re disgusting!” The sliding door slammed shut with a bang. It must’ve shaken some wires loose because the interior lights of the train instantly began flaring. One end of the empty car grew brighter. The other end went dark. Then it went the other way. Back and forth. Blinking lights. Over and over. The big word “disgusting” had stayed behind to bounce off the walls. It hit its mark again and again.

The train rattled through the tunnel. Buster rubbed his eyes to counter the blinking lights. The idea of being a public stink was knocking around in his head. At the next stop, another petite and pretty blonde lady got on board. She was wearing a black trench coat, carrying a red leather tote and a colorful wet umbrella. She looked over at Buster. She is in love, it’s all he could think again. Buster wasn’t sure if it was the same lady. The twitchy lights were screwing with his thinking. He took his eyes off the pretty blonde for a moment to squeeze the bridge of his nose and give it tweak. The young lady didn’t hang around long enough for Buster to confirm anything. She vanished. Before the train doors had closed, the fresh pack of passengers boarding quickly covered their mouths, turned around and made a dash for the next car in line.

Buster was alone. The blinking lights continued to aggravate. He tried to get his nose around the stench that had bothered everyone. He sniffed under his arms and ran his hands through his wet and dirty hair and took a whiff of them. It wasn’t the smell of daisies, but it was nothing to cry about. He bravely dipped one hand into his pants for a swipe at his crotch to retrieve a belligerent balm. There was nothing harmful there. Maybe his senses weren’t in the best working order. At the next station, more passengers got on the train. They, too, covered their mouths and ran to another car. He’d seen that pretty blonde lady among them again until she disappeared into the thin air right in front of his eyes. The train continued to make its way downtown. It was the same routine with the crowd getting on and off and the disappearing blonde at every stop.

The pretty blonde mystery was a lot to handle. The pain in his gut added a dreadful weight to the mental challenge. The idea of smelling like a putrid beast made him very upset. Buster felt guilty. The worst of all his troubles was the desperate need for something to drink. A foul old billy goat playing hide-and-seek certainly wasn’t helping things along. Then the train stalled between stations. The blinking lights didn’t last more than a minute. The entire train down the line went dark.

Being trapped in a pitch-black box was a minor setback. Unlike other dark boxes that Buster experienced in the past, here on the subway, there was space to stretch out with plenty of air. He wasn’t in a rush to go anywhere. It turned out to be a paltry moment for peace. Things turned better when he heard, “Why aren’t you eating?” Food! The thought blew up in his head. He asked into the dark, “Is that you, Scale?” Buster heard steps trotting away from him. Then he listened to the sliding door at the end of the car open and slam shut. Buster could barely see two feet in front of his face. He did notice something. It was faint, a white plastic shopping bag on the seat across from him. He wondered if someone was sitting there in the dark next to it. On an impulse, he leaned over and grabbed it. He had two hands on it, held it safe and snug in his lap, and could smell cooked beef. Then he put it back. It wasn’t his to take.

That moment, the interior lights of the train snapped back on. Buster was all alone, and the white plastic shopping bag was on the bench. Inside of it was a couple of stuffed paper bags. He figured somebody left it behind. The smell of food compelled him to reach out and grab it again. Inside the paper bag was an unwrapped burger with a bite out of it, a pile of fries, and a handful of ketchup packets. The train still wasn’t moving, but the lights were back on, and back to acting odd. First, they clicked on bright and then dimmed. It happened again and again. The pace picked up fast. It wasn’t a minute before they turned into strobe lights. Buster looked down at the food. It appeared animated. There seemed to be a plethora of fries in the bag. In another blink, the lights went out. Then a diminished glow at the other end of the car came on and stayed on. Buster didn’t waste another moment for the perfect light to eat and smashed the greasy bun and burger into his mouth. His parched tongue robbed him of tasting any flavor. It didn’t matter. A look of gratification that hadn’t been on his face for a long while puffed up his cheeks.

Buster chewed fast. Inside the other paper bag was a can of something called Red Bull. There was also a bottle of water, and he guzzled it straight away. As the water washed everything down and moistened his mouth and throat, a divisive thought entered in his head. He wondered if he was out of his mind, and maybe everything in his world was a powerful figment. How can I know?  - he couldn’t say. But at that moment, reality wasn’t a priority. He ripped open ketchup packs and squeezed them into the bag. He proceeded to gobble down every last French fry. Satisfaction sunk in, and some of the pain went away. It wasn’t necessary to keep his eyes open any longer, so he didn’t.

At the other end of the dim-lit car, the sliding door opened and slammed closed with a bang. Buster opened his eyes. That old billy goat was standing there. The small look of content on Buster’s face disappeared. His upper lip snarled as Scale came closer. The old billy goat stopped just beyond Buster’s reach.

“Maaa! Maaa!”

Buster wasn’t in the mood to project kindness. “What are you doing here, Scale?”

“I’m here to take care of you, like I promised.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, Buster, you remember. You were in dire need like you are now.”

Buster told him straight, “You best clear out of here.”

Scale shot back a smirk and an exaggerated, sarcastic look of alarm.

Buster pointed his finger at Scale with anger. “How did you get here?”

Scale snapped, “Maaa! Maaa!” He shook his small horned head. “Does it matter? I’m here, and by the look of you, just in time.”

Buster got very loud. “Listen up goat, I’m warning you!”

Scale shook his head, feigned a chill across his back. “Buster, you know very well I keep my promises.”

Buster tried switching to a harsher tone. “Did Daddy drive you here?”

“Promises,” Scale told him. “That’s our bond.” He lifted up his bearded chin and broadened his animal smile. “Maaa! Maaa!”

Like a bolt up out of hell, Buster’s voice moved pitifully into a hysterical tone. “You said you’d leave me alone. Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

Scale smiled again. He waited a moment for Buster to settle down. “You’re wrong, Buster. I told you that I’d take that awful little thing out of the fire. In exchange, you promised I could take care of you. Maaa! Maaa!”

Buster pleaded, “Please leave me alone!”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Please!” Buster begged. “Leave!”

“The train is stuck. We’re not going anywhere.”

Buster was at the bottom of an exiguous hole. His mind had already surrendered, and his body was broken, but something in his heart was activated. The buildup of years of corrosion mixed with desperation and unknown compounds in the subway air formed a residue. A source of energy and force cured on the spot and took control. Buster stood up abruptly and took an aggressive step at Scale. “Go to the next car!”

“Maaa! Maaa!” Scale took a few steps back. “Get a hold of yourself,” he told Buster. Slowly, Scale stepped further back and let off another, “Maaa! Maaa!”

Buster was up, on his feet, planted strong and straight as could be. He felt taller than before, and swear his legs stretched longer that instant. He could feel the lively growing in his bones as his chest inflated. There was significant new heat inside him that needed to get out. His shoulders broadened. He felt like big hammers were in both of his hands. He shouted at Scale, “Leave!” Spit and phlegm were in that command. It wiped the grin off of Scale’s hairy chin and face.

That old billy goat took a few more steps backward. With grifter’s scowl spreading across his fuzzy cheeks, he told Buster, “Look in the bag. You missed the peanut butter cups.”

Buster was triggered, the idea of food was irresistible. It deflated his aggressive attitude instantaneously. Buster grabbed the bag. He pulled out the can of Red Bull, stuck it in his hip pocket. The candy had been hidden under it. He ripped open the wrapper and stuffed the two mushy pieces of brown into his mouth. The stalled train, the flickering lights, the bit of food and water, his anger, all of it brought his taste buds back to life. Chocolate and peanut butter were a chewable miracle. A small fancy of devouring hundreds more quickly filled his head. He sucked on his tongue so hard that he nearly swallowed it. Ketchup and chocolate were smeared on his face, and Buster licked his lips for every bit of that sweet and salty fantasy. He told Scale, “Fine. Stay if you want. Just stay clear of me!”

“Maaa! Maaa!”

“And keep quiet!”

Scale averted his eyes and hopped up on the bench where the plastic bag of food had first appeared. With a small “humph,” he settled down on his knees. They both remained silent on the dim-lit train. Buster wasn’t concerned about the train not going anywhere. Being motionless helped his thoughts focus on consumption. The lingering taste of chocolate in his mouth faded into thinking about the can of Red Bull in his pocket. He imagined it was a different delicious. He liked how the slim can fit easily into his small hand. A good sense of responsibility got in the way of cracking it open immediately. Best to save it for later. He was sure that he’d be desperate for a drink again and convinced that drinking it would disrupt his ability to conjure up the taste of French fries. That’s what he wished for most, more French fries. He picked up the paper bag from the floor, and he tore into it, hunted down holdout crumbs in the folded crevices, and licked the ketchup clean. Then suddenly, the full set of interior train lights came back on. Scale hopped off his seat fast. He was holding back a flimsy smile as he stood there on all fours looking at Buster with the ripped bag in his face.

The train started to roll. Right off, it was a bumpy ride. Scale leaned against a pole for balance. He kept his head down, pretending to ignore Buster. That little smirk on Scale’s face had been replaced with an exaggerated look of dejection. Buster noticed it but steered clear away from it. The small dose of satisfaction in his belly kept his interest in food. Cheese sandwiches were in his head, along with cookies, pastries, cake, bacon, eggs, and milk. They were his best-kept memories from childhood. Reminiscences from the time before living in the barn, when Scale wasn’t a part of his life. Pulling into train stations didn’t disrupt the food fantasy express. His eyes were closed, and luxurious calories continued the parade in his head. Warm bread and butter. Ham sandwiches with tomato and cheddar cheese. Salted corn on the cob. Corned beef and cabbage. Mashed potatoes with gravy. Fried chicken. Brussel sprouts and carrots. Ice cream. When he couldn’t fit any more food into his head, he snuck a peek at Scale to make sure he was keeping his distance.

The train rattled on, and the conductor announced: “Last stop, Brooklyn Bridge.”

Scale couldn’t stay quiet. “Maaa! Maaa!” His tone was friendlier. “Buster, weren’t you born in Brooklyn?”

Buster’s semi nourished and hydrated brain cells rung like a bell. It’s true, he thought. His mother had told him plenty of times that they’d lived in Brooklyn. It was before the two of them moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan after his father left them for Africa, and before they moved to the Family compound in Woodstock. Buster was Brooklyn born and bred until he was half-past three years old. Brooklyn was also where his real father grew up. For a time, it’s where Buster and his parents had lived with his grandparents. A hazy memory of looking out of a window over a snow-capped park appeared in his head. His mother complained many times after leaving Brooklyn. “Park Slope was a dreadful place for a woman of my taste.” There wasn’t anything more to it than that. Easy enough, the train doors opened, and Buster got off. He stood on the platform and looked around. He couldn’t figure which way was out. The gnarly billy goat pointed with his hairy chin toward people climbing some stairs. Buster didn’t have it in him to go another way, so up he went.

Outside, the rain was thick, unkind, and noisy. A harrowing and virulent sound bursting with bluster, enough to fill the inside of Buster’s heart with a tremendous hush. It was pure and capable of destroying old meaning and creating something new. The rapid repetition of rain loosened his imagination. The force behind a million raindrops smashing and exploding outside the Brooklyn Bridge City Hall subway station was like a renegade chorus performing at Buster’s feet. Scale didn’t like getting wet one bit. He ran off for shelter without a “maaa.” Buster stood in the big and open public square like an awe-inspired, deluge loving tourist taking in the sights. It was cold and invigorating. His cruddy clothes were quickly soaked, and some scabs washed out from his hair and scalp. A pool of grimy water grew at his feet.

In front of Buster were two massive buildings from another time. He turned around to look at a smaller building similar to old-world design. It was a grandiose mansion behind a tall wrought-iron gate. The big square he was standing in was like a shallow public pool holding an inch of water. Small packs of opened umbrellas hustled and splashed their way in and out of the subway station. Big drops crashed and pelted out a pathological pattern on the surface of that shallow pool in all directions. Countless ripples were playing out an encrypted code. Buster tried to take it all in, wondered if he was listening to hasty and indiscriminate musical instructions for the production of a big city. It was indeed a plan for building something spectacular. He looked up at a tall skyscraper under construction with its steel heart rising fearlessly into the spirited weather above. He opened his mouth and filled it with life-affirming rain.

Buster spotted Scale huddled under the back end of a newsstand. He was trying to stay dry and out of sight. It was colder than it was on 116th Street. 39 degrees and slipping. Soaked down to his skinny bones, Buster shivered some. He tried making sense of the sign above the street beside him. It said Brooklyn Bridge. It had multiple arrows pointing to the left, up high toward a dark and dense cloud front coming his way. There was already a swarm of clouds directly above unleashing their genius on his head. Those traffic arrows were pointing in the last direction Buster thought he should go. A drenched and blurry line of yellow taxis blowing their horns and heading for the bridge made him rethink the matter on the spot. Maybe something was waiting on the other side that could be worth the effort. But he turned away from it just the same. The rain was coming down too hard. Then an impulse quickly took control. It was the same way he felt when he first laid eyes on his billboard asylum in the Bronx. It was for him alone. Buster turned back around to the bridge, ready to step to it.

Jab! The spoke of a rainbow-colored umbrella poked into his head. “Pardon me,” a woman said. She lifted up her snappy canopy. Another pretty blonde, and she was wearing a black trench coat with a red tote over her shoulder. Buster was very close to her smallish face. Her lips were red like a summer rose. He held back the surprising urge to reach out and touch her smooth and glossy cheek. Buster was mesmerized with the way a trickle of water rolled off her nose. Her eyes were blue as lush Morning-glories on a vine. Her eyelashes held onto little bits of rain like tiny babies. She wasn’t much taller than Buster. She’s in love, it’s all he could think. She stepped closer, got him under the umbrella with her. She smiled and told him, “It’s cold. You need to get out of the rain.”

Anyone that close to Buster should’ve caused him to fall to pieces. It’d been years since one appeared on his face, but suddenly he was trying hard to hold one back. A toothy grin might scare her away. She told him, “Days like this make getting anything done impossible. Don’t you just hate it.” An unexpected pause. Free-spirited honesty mixed with the raindrops. It made the dimples in her cheeks look like jewels shining with wonder. The two of them looked into each other’s eyes. Buster mumbled a polite little, “hate?” She smiled. “No, not really hate. Can’t let the rain rule your life, that’s all. Everyone knows it can’t last forever.” A nervous reflex made Buster point up at that roadway sign he’d just read a minute before. He asked her, “Is Brooklyn that way?” She turned to look up at the sign. “Yes, it is. Brooklyn is over the bridge.”

“I need to go there.”

“You need to be very brave if you plan on going there today.” She smiled. She seemed to be telling Buster something meaningful with the way she was looking at him. Something he should trust. She then said, “If you are as courageous as I think you are, you’ll definitely need this umbrella.” She passed it to him before he could say anything. She told him, “I won’t take no for an answer.” It was loose in his hand. She smiled again and told him, “The idea is to keep it above your head.”

Buster followed her instructions while containing his smile was near impossible. It was good that she ran off before he burst into a big wet happy mess. She was at the subway entrance. Before heading down the stairs, she stopped, turned and hollered, “I hope you find her!” That’s what he thought he heard. He might’ve been wrong. There was so much water in his ears. He didn’t know a single person she could be referring to, and he didn’t know anyone more than her. She disappeared down the stairs. He then noticed Scale was still tucked under the back of that newsstand. That old goat’s head was down to the ground, chewing on something. It was Buster’s chance to make a break for it.

The few times in the past that he wondered about the Brooklyn Bridge, people were always on it. He’d seen the massive stone and cable span once before from the window of a helicopter. He was nine years old. Daddy drove him to the City and put him on a flight from downtown Manhattan to the end of Long Island. Remembering the face of the rich old man he was to provide deviant delight for was obscure. The memory of the crowded bridge below on a blue-sky, sunny warm day was more explicit. The bridge was an honorable and agreeable thing to behold that day. At the moment, the giant stone silhouette appeared different. The serious downpour and wild wind whirling above his head made the bridge more poignant and agonizing. It seemed to be a rock and steel bastion of despair. But he couldn’t think more about it, holding onto his colorful umbrella required all of his concentration. With his best foot forward, Buster pressed on.

The first half of the bridge is a steep and exhaustive climb for an able-bodied person. Buster reached the first bridge tower tired as he ever was. Visibility was diminished. He didn’t see a soul in front of him. He then turned to see if Scale was following him. There was only rain and wind in every direction. Awful as it all was, it didn’t discourage Buster’s march to Brooklyn. Nearing the middle of the bridge, and a good way over the water, the wind turned fierce. That’s when he noticed a small and strange cloud. It wasn’t up in the air. It was down on the surface of the water. It appeared to be coming from outside the harbor, gliding in fast. It was an ominous little thing, undisturbed by the wind. That cloud was coming straight toward the bridge with purpose and passion. Then suddenly, a savage gust ripped that rainbow umbrella right out of Buster’s hand. It was sent sailing high in the air toward Brooklyn. He would’ve been mad if it hadn’t looked like a fearless flower prepared to defend beauty and color against a tyrannical hurricane. With his arms and bare knuckles huddled around his head, Buster trekked on.

At the dead center of the bridge, there was a worrisome noise like barren old banshees tossed into a fire. Buster stopped and lifted his head up to inspect the vicinity. There were hundreds of padlocks attached to the railing, rattling violently. So many of them were in the shape of little red and pink hearts. Why are they here? He took it as a warning. A moment to reconsider his journey. Buckets of rain quickly swept away any second guesses. He looked at that padlock-filled railing with the best hope he could drum up. “Hearts,” he said, “you have it in you to contend with this tempest on your own. I’m on my way.” It was a self-inspiring bit of lyric. Head down, he pushed forward. At the second bridge tower, on the Brooklyn end, he had a new awful feeling. He turned around again to see if Scale was following him. The old goat wasn’t there. He looked out over the water for that strange cloud, it was below him. It had stopped moving, lingering near the underside of the bridge. That cloud and Buster were both close to the Brooklyn shoreline. The little cloud was beginning to swell.

Buster shook off some of the wet. He stood tall and straight to assess the weather. Another violent gust forced him to tuck back down and grab hold of the railing. Nervously, he took a peek toward the southwest end of the harbor. He was looking for the end of the storm-line. The clouds were thickening. The water below was churning violently. He could see the tip of a torch and a hint of patina in the midst of it all. Without seeing the entirety of it, he was sure that it was the Statue of Liberty out there. Instantly, he recalled an imposing painting of that big green statue with her bellicose spiked crown in Daddy’s bedroom. It was the old man’s favorite work of art. Buster remembered the first time he saw that painting and how he told Daddy he didn’t like the lady holding the torch. Daddy looked proudly upon the art and corrected him. “Child, you got it wrong. That there is a man.”

Daddy was very informed about the Statue of Liberty. He talked about it on many occasions. “Attis, the ravishing heretic. A self-castrated Ishtar priest. There’s no truer light on the world.” That was Daddy’s Statue of Liberty lesson in a nutshell for little Buster. Buster also remembered the closet full of women’s gowns in Daddy’s bedroom dedicated to Attis. Buster had always admired the quality of them and often imagined wearing them. But the violent wind and cold hard rain on the Brooklyn Bridge put an end to that fanciful thought. That emasculated, crossdressing cleric was right in its place, out there in New York harbor. The defender of the carnal world of conglomerated profit posing as a flaming lure for servitude. It was very unlike Buster’s place, lost in the rain and clouds, and with his purpose quietly yearning to come to the light of the setting sun hidden behind it all before it vanished for good.

Buster heard a fog horn blow loud. He noticed a white boat near the underside of the bridge. It was moving away from that strange cloud in a hurry. It was on a straight and narrow course to the outer boundary of the harbor. Looking at the boat and its wake in all that choppy water made Buster very sad. He wished he had a natural ability to float in any sort of weather. A worry-free, deliberate life. He’d be out in front of everything, heading straight into the wide blue yonder. That foghorn blew loud again. It sent a reverberation up through the bridge to his feet and spine with a message. His life was worthless. Misspent. A big loss. The immense volume of the water in the harbor appeared to get involved in that harsh judgment. It was looking up at Buster with grave disapproval. There was too much of it to contend with. He could almost hear the water say in a condemning tone, “I know you.” It was the same with the dark mountains in the sky pouring shame down on him. Buster was experiencing a great confrontation with the elements. Mother Nature was calling him out for what he was, a timid and deplorable simpleton. Then a thin and fleeting fissure appeared in the clouds further to the west, low on the horizon. A sliver of the departing sun was right on the mark. There was only a minute or two left in the day. That big ol’ ball of fire peeked through the muck just in time for a farewell condemnation for Buster, “I know you, too.”

Face to face with his dark and dismal surroundings, Buster’s size diminished. That strange cloud below the bridge continued to swell. It was changing into something more than condensation, he could feel it under his feet. It was becoming another presence with its own heat, force, and gravity. It seemed to be focused on Buster with a mysterious and impenetrable mental power. Its intense presence dissolved away the idea of other people in the world. Any potential human companionship was wildly dispersed into the wind. It sent vibrations into the water and stirred up twisted currents. Then a more torrential rain burst and filled the air. Sheets of water wasted no time in beating Buster down into the bridge. He was plastered into the harbor scenery itself and that judgmental sky above. His urge to cry out was wetter than a downed and drowned bird.

Filled with wallow, Buster was spread out from the shores of Manhattan to the heights of Brooklyn. Ebb and tide sunk the last prayer inside of him. He was the flood, and no time, no place, no distance could measure up. Everything at one end of him was a rippling dark blue haze. The other end of him was a vapor, the color of violets creeping closer. There was a wall of water between the two. The spiteful jibe of river, sea, and rain. The white wake of wind-whipped waves replaced the whirling wet wheels of fading twilight. Indiscriminate brutality showed itself in a billion drops. That strange cloud below had grown and transformed again into a shadowy layer of rings spinning around a darker growing sphere. A giant head was taking shape. Buster could feel the age of the earth, it showed itself inside glistening silver and blue-lined, slow-rolling bubbles in his mind. That growing cloud was an ancient entity of destruction. It was the bottom of the sea itself, and it had rolled into New York harbor to stick its head up out of the water for a once in a millennium look at a repugnant pariah standing on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Omnia deorsum. Buster knew its name. It puffed up its cheeks, puckered its lips, and blew. A clap of thunder smacked Buster’s head and smashed his feet. Unfathomable dark patches fell from the sky. Buster uttered, “baal blah blah baal.” A streak of lightning close enough to grab hold of cracked and burned his breath. It set his face aglow. Vanity. Lies. Hot want. “Say nothing!” Buster yelled out to the growing cloud-head below the bridge. The temperature dropped again. 36 degrees. Another bolt of fire. Stink filled the air. “Custos carceris, relinquo!” Buster shouted it loud. Dark spirit came back at him from within. Old knot. Lost coward. He spat out against it. It spat back. Intruder. Jinx. Wretch. Buster cried out, “Sleep is all I need.” He intended for his words to be louder, enough to reach past the clouds. They simply fell off the bridge. He felt a warm hand on the back of his neck. Frightened, he turned. A dreadful voice spoke, “Nowhere to go but deep below.”

Buster started laughing to himself. He began spinning in sick little circles. Giddy with fright, Buster turned and turned again. Then he stopped. Something was there in the rain behind him. A moving silhouette heading his way. It was Scale. That old goat was running, Buster quickly turned to Brooklyn. He spotted headlights. There was slow-moving traffic along a stretch of road with a long promenade cantilevered above it. I’ll go there! The rain was relentless. He shuffled along as fast as his two feet could go. He needed to get a safe distance between him and Scale. Never wetter in his life, he navigated his way down from the bridge through a stone stairwell. He crossed a small park. He went down streets filled with fine homes and gas-lit lanterns at their doorsteps. He landed in front of a short wall with a gathering of trees behind it. A sign attached to the wall read Brooklyn Heights Promenade. There was an arrow pointing down a sloped and curved walkway. He needed to get out of sight before Scale spotted him. He followed the arrow on the sign down the walkway. He stepped out onto an expansive overhang. Buster had a murky view of the dim-lit City across the water. Then everything changed in an instant. The hard rain turned into a scattered icy mist in an easy breeze.

33 degrees.

Buster stood at the north end of the long Brooklyn promenade. The sun was gone. It was dark, but with the City lights refracting through the muck, he could see that sizable ugly cloud-head lurking over the harbor. It was searching for him. Buster was exhausted, cold, and trembling, his right hand was holding on tight to a wrought-iron sculpture for support. The metal piece was a little bigger than him. An aspherical frame of interlocking rings, with lines of longitude and latitude. It formed a hollow globe. There was a fixed rod piercing through it. An axis of power, touching it was numbing.

The sculpture was adorned with an iron ribbon decorated with astrology medallions, the signs of the zodiac. It wrapped around the circumference of the piece. The faint street lamps above Buster’s head didn’t help him understand the purpose of that big iron object. Buster had learned about astrology as a child. It was an essential topic for Daddy and his clients. He knew all the symbols, and Pisces, the two fishes, swimming in opposite directions, was missing from the sculpture. It’d been pried off that equatorial metal ribbon, leaving cryptic blank, a light-colored silhouette between Aires and Aquarius.

Buster thought he heard “Maaa.” It could’ve been far off thunder. He wondered where to go. Behind the benches was a wall. He could hide back there. He stepped over for a look, it was dark. The drop behind the wall was visible enough to know it was high. He could get hurt in the fall. It was best to move on. He left the circle and that astrological globe behind. His legs were cold, it turned his stride into a hobbled limp. He could feel the chill of the can of Red Bull in his pocket against his skinny thigh. Desperation had him believing anything could help. He figured it was time for a taste. He pulled out the slim can. He didn’t waste another second and cracked it open. One little sip was a great surprise. Odd, the flavor tingled. Buster found it irresistible. He downed the drink in one big gulp. In less than a minute, he burped, and the equilibrium between his ears amplified and moved him to a new and more significant teetering and tottering sort of balance. His toes started to tap inside his boots, his fingers and nose turned itchy, and his ears were ringing. Sweet tartness tweaked the roof of his mouth. It didn’t take long for his heart to start racing, and for his eyes to open wide as they ever could.

Buster looked out over the harbor. That giant cloud-head out there was looking right back at him. The bloated face with a smallish mouth, a pinched nose, and a nefarious stare was startling. Skyscrapers across the way seemed to bend toward it, and even the ceiling of clouds above had come lower. Things grew darker as everything around him was pulled in closer to that big head over the water. The icy drizzle suddenly let up altogether. With his insides filled with sugary effervescence, Buster decided to ignore that giant head out there. He sucked on his sponged fingertips and marched on. His hobbled limp turned worse and stranger. There was a steady pattern of correction in his walk. Three steps forward while veering to the left. Then another three steps ahead while turning to the right. He looked like a rambling, crooked knife randomly stabbing at the world. A hundred or so slashes failed to kill anything or get him too far. Buster was too dull, too tired. His time was just about up, and he knew it. He spontaneously shouted out at that ugly cloud-head above the water, “Te vincere!”

The icy rain started up again. Buster appeared to follow an unsaid command that directed him to the other end of the promenade. He was standing at the edge of another circle, jutting out over the oncoming Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The traffic below was dense and moving too fast for icy conditions. It has to be a truck, he thought. Get one foot up on the railing, that was his first challenge. Buster was dead set on blood. He looked out over the fence for the biggest rig, a doomed vessel. It will carry away the infection, rot, and wickedness that has been hidden away inside of him for years. Buster swore out loud, “Smash me to filth and grit!”

No matter how relentlessly and furiously Buster tried, he couldn’t get a leg up and over the top of the railing. More than five minutes passed. There was too much frozen-rain covering things. He wasn’t tall enough, had no strength. There was no functional space between the bars of the gate for his big boots to squeeze into. Erratic traffic skidded and rolled, and horns blared. Slaps of thunder would push Buster a little higher. But then he’d slip back down. He’d try again and slide again. All the while, he kept an eye out for the most exceptional truck to do his bidding. The blurred glare of noisy traffic confused everything. Then a “craaaack!” filled the air. The motorway transformed into pulsating sprays and dazzling splashes underneath frightening street lights, oil slick rainbows exploded into the glow of headlights, blurry nighttime traffic shapes of vehicles morphed into corpses, and frantic windshield wipers battled with raindrop bomblets. Horns honked louder and glaring glimpses of sneers on the faces of mad drivers flared. All of it attacked.

Buster got a boot wedged into the gate, and shimmied to the top quickly. He stretched his head up higher for the necessary leverage for that last push. He rocked back and summoned the needed momentum for a terminal launch. Alas, the great thrust forward. Whoosh! Newness. Stop. Singularity. Unworldliness. Buster had poked his head through to the other side of the unknown. He had passed the darkest red, he was through the black. The absence of noise. A fixed space. Lifeless. A location with no choices. Permanence itself. The eternal home of nonexistence. All possible action was revolving around it. Buster was inside that tremendous empty, as a violator, a trespasser. No air to breathe. Gasp! He moved. The traffic, wind, and rain became animated again. All of it treaded on fear and anger. The top of the gate poked his waist and tugged on his shirt. He reached out fast, grabbed hold of a fence spike, and held on tight. Buster was pretty much hung upside-down above the traffic like a hunk of meat on a hook.

What have I done?

“Who are you carrying that load for?” Someone was there with him, Buster knew the voice. He looked through the gate. An inverted Scale was inches away on the other side of it. Buster told him, “I’m holding on. I’m still breathing.”

“Barely,” Scale told him. His smile broadened. “What’s the point, Buster. No one breathes in the end.”

Buster worked hard to get back up over the gate.

Scale told him, “Why are you trying, Buster? You know better than me, you are nothing.” There was a look of disgust on his hairy face. “Except for me, you have no one. Look at you. What are you living for? Do you honestly think you can make it in this world of struggle? You can’t even get off that fence.”

Buster mumbled, “I can try harder.”

Scale told him, “Let go, Buster. Go on. This place isn’t for you. You got a raw deal. You know it deep down.”

“Why do you care?”

“Because you’re special, Buster.”

“I am no one.”

“Correct answer.”

“Go away.”

“Let me tell you something important before you leave this ugly realm. I think you’ll enjoy hearing it.”

“I don’t want to hear nothing from you.”

“Just the same, I’ll tell you. It’s like this, Buster. I don’t like human beings. It’s their impulses and their instincts. I especially don’t like the way they pretend to be detached from the truth of it all. The way their faces can be plastered with clueless expressions. They are masterful at feigning ignorance. It’s all theatrics with your kind. Of course, there are those among you who don’t play dumb. A few. They prefer a blank state of mind. They worship absolute nothingness. It doesn’t get more ridiculous than that. Still, whether they’re worshipping nothing or not, it makes no real difference. All of them know the truth. They know the difference between right and wrong.”

Buster felt a sting in his eyes, it was the emptiness cracking inside of his heart.

Scale continued, “That’s why I despise them. Not because they act in the right or wrong way. It’s because they pretend to know nothing about it. You see, I can’t deny my true nature, and my potential is meager compared to theirs. I want to do everything, and I can’t, while people do nothing with their lives. You see, I’m harmless. Sure, I can ram my head into your side. I am good at pissing people off. That’s about all I can do. I cannot force anyone to do anything. I am The Great Excuse. No pun intended, Buster, I am the original scapegoat. People decide what they want out of this world, and most everyone gets what they want. You know what they want? Struggle. Confusion. They love drummed up drama. You see, modernity has made their sense of living dull. Chaos, stress, torment, screwing other people, screwing their brethren, it helps them feel alive. My existence legitimizes their bad behavior. I’m their new world reason to live. They get a little something in return. Some material thrills. But even a small taste of that stuff brings along a strong sense of guilt. That’s more difficult for them to ignore than knowing what is right and wrong. That’s when they love using me. They loosen their minds with poisonous liquids and substances. They lie and cheat. They deviate into pornography and all sorts of reprobate behaviors. Then they blame it all on the devil. I help them vomit their humanity. Their true sickness is that they hunger for that which does not last when they have eternal promise inside of them. It’s a world of dullards. In the end, their lives are a waste. I love it.”

Buster could feel his body shrinking and turning denser as he slipped a bit on the gate.

Scale didn’t stop talking. “I’ve been watching the decay for a long time. Every once in a while, a human, like you, comes along and disrupts the downward spiral of the world. That wasn’t very considerate of you. But you know what really irks me the most about you, Buster? It’s that you never asked for anything more than minimal sustenance. It took a lifetime of struggle and abuse before you even asked for a humble moment of sleep. Now, here at the end of it all, you can see for yourself, you got nothing. And in another moment or two, you will be nothing. Just look at yourself hanging upside down. You sacrificed all of your potential and kinetic energy for a world of self-centered, short-minded, numbskulls. You might ask yourself right about now, what am I? I’ll tell you what you are. You are the summation of a world of fools. Take that into your famished heart. Let it seep into your blood. Take it with you wherever you are headed. Now, go on, Buster. Let go.”

Buster let out, “Why don’t you jump!”

Scale raised his brow high and fast and smiled. He took a step closer. He poked his snout through the gate and looked deep into Buster’s eyes. Buster could smell his putrid breath. He tried to look away but he couldn’t. Scale told him in a deadly serious tone, “I did!”

Buster was choked up. “Get away from me.” He tried to shout it out, but the words came back at him flat.

Scale told him, “Your heart has solidified. Your sensitivities, your feelings, they’ve already departed. A small hunk of iron is in your chest, Buster. It’ll take centuries of weariness and dissatisfaction to rust it all away. I’m here to set you free now. The truth is, I want you to know what it’s like to do as thou wilt! Come now. You don’t need to carry that load for anyone anymore. Enjoy this last moment of your miserable little life. Get angry, Buster. Hate everything. Everything and everyone other than you. Don’t blame me. Just do what’s good for you and you alone. Own it. You owe this world nothing!”

Buster’s head was heavy. He’d been upside down for too long, too much blood filled it, and he couldn’t lift it up. He took another grab at the top of the railing and hit a spike. His depleted palm was no match. It hurt. A bit of blood dripped. Pain, he knew it too well. Torture. Molestation. Small boxes. Pellet guns. Peeling knives. Red hot metal. Fists. Brick walls. Nails. Barbed wire. Open flames. Had he ever healed?

When does a person honestly go numb? Buster spent mindless years tending animals, and pretending he was someone else. Why didn’t I ever run away? If he only knew that answer, maybe things would be different. He made another desperate reach for the top of the fence. This time he got lucky with a good hold. With everything he had, he lifted himself higher. He managed to get to the top of the gate, a balanced point above the traffic that made him dizzy. Spikes pressed into his belly. There was a chance to escape doom. Pushing against the pain moved him toward life again. It was an incredible fight as gate spikes pressed deeper and harder.

“You’re going the wrong way, Buster!” Scale’s words were more than enough to stop Buster’s momentum.

Then it all came back to Buster that instant, it was the brutal truth. Hope was a death spot illusion, and Buster was a coward. That’s why he never ran away, he was a good for nothing, plug-ugly boy unworthy of everything begotten. There was nowhere for him to go, and he had nothing to contribute. Bleary and spent, Buster looked down at the crazed roadway, the headlights ramming through sheets of rain, and the puddles split apart by raging wheels. A voice called out from inside a rip in the world, “Die!” Buster turned for a last look at that stinking old goat. Scale wanted hate, and Buster was going to give it to him. He looked deep into those black animal eyes for the last time, ready to curse that goat to his home in hell. But Scale had turned away, he was moving, leaving the vicinity.

Something had startled that old billy goat. Buster turned to see what it was. There was a racket on the dead-end street butted up next to the promenade. Buster was still hung up on the top of the gate. The commotion was only fifty feet away, next to a large dumpster. The bright blue tarp covering the dumpster had come loose. Rain and ice pelted away at the plastic, as it flapped like a war flag in the wind. Buster zeroed in on it. Was it the ominous end of his world revealing itself? A truck horn below blew loud. Buster turned to it quickly. There was a fierce chrome bumper-and-grill barreling his way - That’s the one! His thinking was crippled. A quick jerk and an awkward bend backward, he started twisting, turning, and shaking fast. He had to get loose. A desperate push sideways, and another shift back. Buster leaned forward. He was too slow, he slipped, it hurt. He went the wrong way.

Buster was hung up, stuck on the right side of the fence with wind and rain in his face. His vision turned magnetic as the excess blood in his head drained, and natural equilibrium returned. The noisome scene on the dead-end-street was unusual. A pile of filled black garbage bags next to the dumpster caught his eye. One particular bag was waving at him. That’s what must’ve scared Scale because that old goat was gone. The animated garbage bag boosted Buster’s energy. Then suddenly, his work shirt ripped, and he fell free from the gate, left standing on the promenade. He wasn’t sure what to do. He took a chance and waved back at the strange garbage bag. It came closer.

There was a human head up and out of the top of it. The head asked, “Could you lend me a hand?” Buster looked into the bag’s face. It was a man. That moment Buster felt as if an invisible drain opened in the area and pulled them together in a wonderous swirl. He and that man were in different areas separated by a fence, but they could almost reach out and shake hands over the traffic under their feet. Buster felt a deep and unexplainable closeness with him. He took a big breath, there was instant relief, and his racing heart slowed, salvation had finally arrived. Deliverance was a black garbage bag with a living prayer inside of it. There was no reason needed to explain it at all. Buster wasn’t afraid anymore.

“It’s important stuff,” the man said. “I’ll come back for it when the rain stops. Right now, I’ve got to get it covered.” The man was locked in a steady gaze at Buster. The man’s face had an air of hardship. “Come around the fence this way.” He pointed to a small curved ramp that would connect both of them. “I can give you twenty bucks. I’ll also get you something to eat. One minute is all it’ll take. I really can’t do it on my own.”

Under the glow of the streetlamp, through the rain, Buster looked into the man’s eyes with confidence.

“You’re very wet,” the man said. “Why don’t you at least take one of these.” He held out a few unopened black garbage bags. “They look funny, but they make a great raincoat. I’ll make you a nifty hood too.”

Buster leaned in an inch or two more for a better look at the man’s face. It was a picture of ordinary peace and projected a kindly sort of gravity. His drowsy eyes were unmatched but a pair, a brown-eyed hard truth, and a mellifluous melody. They conveyed a powerful belief with a glean of survival and happiness in both of them equally. They also mirrored something flawed and pretty. The man’s nose was crooked, must’ve been broken once or twice, but it could still point the way. One of his cheekbones was a little higher and prouder than the other. Together they were a marriage. One was more squared, strong, benevolent, dedicated, and enduring, and the other was graceful, faithful, plump, pleasing, and adoring. There was a tooth or two missing from the back of the man’s subtle smile. It was a real nice smile. His jaw was narrow and slight but appeared capable of chewing on the most hardened meat. His neck was fleshy and covered in shambolic patches of white, gray, and black whiskers. There were curly and coarse hairs in his ears, and he had a big mole on his left temple and two smaller ones under his right eye, and a blotchy forehead. His wet hairline dipped back a lot further and thinner on one side. Altogether it was a face Buster could look at forever. It was better than beautiful, it was the face of a friend. He told the man the only thing he could, “I want to help!”


About the author

A native New Yorker born and raised in the Bronx. While appropriating booze in iconic bars and restaurants all over Manhattan he earned a CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies: Philosophy and Social Criticism - followed up with a Master's degree in Writing: Critical & Creative. view profile

Published on June 09, 2020

Published by

140000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Literary Fiction

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