Leave it to an ancient god to ruin a perfectly good afternoon.
The day started off like any other Seattle day. The rain lightened up, leaving a broken sea of clouds and almost forgotten blue sky. The bite was gone from the wind, and the denizens of the city came out from their hidey holes to stare at the strange yellow orb in the sky.
As for me, well, I looked up from the blank pages of my notebook as a VW bus roared up like an angry rhino and coughed into a parking spot on the side of the road. Canary yellow gave the vehicle its base, but a collage of hand-drawn symbols obscured most of the color. The side closest to me sported a detailed cross on the passenger door, right in front of a peace symbol that claimed its territory over most of the rear wheel well.
Yet there was more. I leaned forward to see the stickers that covered the van’s side windows. An old Reagan/Bush campaign sticker, faded with age, shared the window with a dozen NRA slogans and a large sticker proclaiming “If you can read this you’re in range,” next to a picture of a particularly nasty handgun.
The dichotomy should’ve been my first clue to run like hell.
Instead it was simply a curiosity in a neighborhood known for its eccentrics. Hell, my throne, so to speak, that I currently resided on was the hand of a particularly large troll statue that looked like it was climbing its way out from under the struts of the looming freeway bridge above. The Fremont Troll had one hand on the ground and another crushing an actual Volkswagen bug, while a single eye made from a hubcap looked out over the world. As I said, a neighborhood of eccentrics.
Not like this, however. A man stepped out of the VW bus and stretched like a cat in the sunshine. Short and lean, he sported clothes that would’ve made Wyatt Earp envious, complete with a dark cowboy hat faded and torn with age and a pale duster that whispered around his ankles. Dark jeans, ratty and stained, disappeared into snakeskin boots, and his button-down denim shirt fit neatly behind a belt buckle inlaid with an enormous turquoise oval.
The skin of his face brought to mind the sun rising on an endless horizon of dark red sandstone. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, but I knew better. His mere presence spoke of long and dusty roads.
So maybe this wasn’t just another hippie coming to visit the troll. I slowly closed my notebook and stood up. A nasty wind clawed through my jean jacket and threatened to tear the backward baseball cap, a dark purple one with the “Super Friends” logo on the front, right off my head. My plan was to escape quietly up the stairs that led to the freeway above.
I should’ve known better.
“Hello there!” the strange man called as I started to turn. “Are you Nicholas St. James?” His voice held a slight accent, almost South African, although it shifted like oil on water.
“It depends,” I answered.
A lean smile flitted over his face. “Depends on what, exactly?”
“On whether or not I owe you money.”
The man laughed and his whole body shook as if he was having a seizure. I didn’t think it was that funny.
“Well, I’m looking for the one they call ‘the Sundancer,’” he said as he stopped about twenty feet from me, “which I could never understand, since it’s so off the mark.”
I crossed my arms and let a thin smile stretch onto my own face. “Oh, that Nick St. James,” I said. “I killed him years ago. Buried him under the troll, if you care to take a look.”
He laughed again but didn’t move. “I love it when you people talk like that. I knew someone once who tried to break his teeth and shave his tail, but in the end he was still a beaver, albeit one who couldn’t make very good dams.”
“Well then,” I said, “he should’ve bought a bulldozer.”
“But that’s the point,” the thin man said with a waggle of his finger. “He could’ve dressed up as a cow, or a bird, or a turtle, but deep down he would always be a beaver. Just like you can wrap yourself in all the borrowed words you want, but it won’t change who you are.”
OK, so witty repartee wasn’t going to make this stranger leave me alone. I also didn’t want to provoke him. I like most of my limbs attached to my body, thank you very much. So it was time to pull out the last resort. You know, the one I really hated. The truth.
“Look,” I said, dropping all pretense of sarcasm, “I don’t know what you want, or need, or what people told you. I can’t even begin to fathom what someone of your obvious…stature would want with someone like me. My name might be Nick St. James, but I’m not that guy anymore. I’m just a writer.”
“That’s your problem, my friend,” the thin man said. “You can run all you want, but the game’s in your blood. And blood never forgets.”
The stranger waved a slender hand and began to twirl in a slow dance. His feet thumped hard on the ground, raising tiny dust devils in his wake, all the while saying, “People think ‘all I need to be happy is to get a good job,’ or ‘see that car over there? That’ll make me a better person.’ My personal favorite is ‘if I hide long enough, I can forget who I am.’ Sound familiar?”
The dance reverberated deep into my bones, like the roar of a lion or the shock of a mortar round. Pressure built behind my eardrums as images came to mind. Images of hot desert nights with stars bright and clear, like diamonds cast out by a petulant god. A memory of my mother and me sitting in lawn chairs at the reservation, as men and women pounded their drums and beat their feet on the sandy ground.
The images faded, but my heart raced as the tiny lizard section of my brain screamed at me to run and hide. The street around me dimmed, as if the sunlight itself had grown afraid.
“Take that woman over there,” the man spoke while slowly thumping the ground with his feet. I tore my gaze away from him and looked to where he gestured. The pressure in my head deepened.
The woman was no more than twenty-five. She walked along the street opposite, completely oblivious to the freak show happening at the base of the troll. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, she walked with a smile on her made-up lips, her manicured hands pressing the wrinkles out of her suit.
“She has a boyfriend, a frightfully dreadful man,” the stranger told me with a laugh. His voice echoed like a man talking down a well. “He slaps her around every now and then, and then breaks down crying afterwards.”
The woman came to the light and started across the crosswalk. She came right for us, never wavering, never stopping to wonder about the events happening in front of her. “She thinks she’s changing him, making him a better man, but we all know how the play ends, don’t we?”
The sound of an engine sliced through the morning. Time slowed as a yellow minivan charged over the rise. The woman barely turned, as if she was pushing her way through quicksand.
The stranger’s dance stopped. His emerald eyes bored into my skull. “So, Mr. Not-Nicholas St. James,” he said, “let’s see what ‘just’ a writer can do.”
The yellow minivan accelerated. Battery acid burned in the back of my throat. The woman stopped like a deer caught in the path of an oncoming predator.
I sprang forward before my brain could even catch up. I didn’t yell, didn’t speak. I simply bolted past the stranger. The world became the woman and the oncoming van.
My heartbeat was the only sound as the world became a collection of moments. The smoke from the minivan’s tires. The smell of ginger in the woman’s hair. Shock on the driver’s face.
Muscles screamed. A fleeting thought passed through the haze. I wouldn’t make it. It had been too long. But the body always remembers.
I tackled the woman, both of us flying. The tiniest rush of air caressed my leg as the bumper of the minivan missed by a fraction of a thought.
With a pop, the world rushed in. Noise bombarded my brain. The woman cried hysterically, her hands clutching my jacket. A frightened screech of tires echoed as the minivan shuddered to a halt.
“My God,” an older man cried as he stumbled out of the vehicle toward us, “I didn’t even see you! Are you all right?”
A hand touched my shoulder. “That was pretty slick for ‘just a writer.’” The odd stranger in the duster laughed as he pulled me up and we took a step back. The old man was comforting the young woman as if we didn’t exist. “You were like Eagle diving from above.”
Adrenaline still flooded my veins and I smacked his hand away. “What,” I exclaimed, “the hell was that? Did you do this to prove a point?”
“Someone had to,” he replied.
“She could’ve been killed! It’s been five years since I pushed myself like that. What if I couldn’t save her?”
The man shrugged. “Does it matter? Live, die, it’s all the same to me.” His brevity had disappeared. “I just don’t like being lied to.”
I stood panting in front of this creature, and part of me wanted to lash out. I wanted to pull all my gifts, all my strength, and send this bastard back to where he came from. A woman had almost died because of this thing’s pride.
Yet while I was angry, I wasn’t suicidal. “That’s it,” I told him. “I’m out of here. Take whatever it is you want and shove it up your ass, because I’m done listening.” I turned and stalked off, back toward the troll.
“Don’t you want your present first?” he called after me.
I kept walking.
“I’m not here because I need anything,” the man continued. “I have something you’ll need, unless you want to retire early to the Hunting Grounds.”
I really hated it when they did that. Would you like a carrot, Mr. St. James? Why yes, but why’s it on that long stick? “Can’t you people ever talk straight?” I yelled back. But I didn’t leave. Instead I slammed myself down on the troll’s hand again.
“We could, but where’s the fun in that?” The man laughed as he followed me back and once again stopped on the sidewalk. “But you’re beginning to bore me, so I’ll get right to it. Consider yourself lucky. Usually I don’t get to the point for at least another hour.”
The man pulled a shiny object from the pocket of his ratty jacket. Wait…my brain shifted gears. The man’s cowboy outfit had disappeared, becoming a sweater that was three sizes too big. His black hair hung long and thick, while a pair of tiny round glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Around his neck hung an ankh, a peace symbol, and a cross that all chimed when he moved.
He held out his hand, and I cautiously looked. A golden coin lay on his palm, the edges sparkling even though the sun hid behind thick Seattle clouds. I reached to take it, flinching like the damn thing was going to bite my fingers off.
“It’s a gift from an old friend of yours,” the man said. “He said a storm’s coming, and this will help in your time of need. He also told me the debt’s paid.” A smile danced under his glasses. “Lastly, he said that if he ever saw you again he’d pick his toes with your spleen. One of these days you must tell me how you pissed off a dragon and made him indebted to you at the same time.”
Damn again. I looked at the object in my hand. It wasn’t a coin, but rather a small golden dragon scale. If that big lizard Oberon sent it, then something particularly nasty was heading my way.
“There are far too many people in the world that feel that way,” I told him. “It’s why I’m up here.”
“Indeed. We are much alike in that aspect,” he said. “Too few people understand our talents.” He laughed like a barking dog. “But now I must be off, my new friend.” He looked around and pulled the sweater tighter. “My cousin is expecting me, although I can never understand why Raven likes it up here. Give me the desert sunset and a good carcass and I’m a happy camper.”
“Can you at least tell me your name? I like to know who ruined my day,” I said, even though I had my suspicions. I just wanted him to confirm it.
The man laughed. The pressure built in my head again and my ears popped. “I’ve had many names, Nicholas St. James, but I prefer what the old ones called me. ‘He Who Laughs at Darkness.’ Has a nice ring to it. But you know me as one without a name at all.”
A sharp wind came out of nowhere, brushing a thin coat of dust across my eyes. I coughed and shook my head, my eyes watering and shut tight against the sting. They closed for only the briefest of moments.
When I opened them again, the man had disappeared. In his place stood a giant coyote, the jet-black fur streaked with swirls of white and gray. The muzzle shook in silent laughter.
The roar of a car’s engine made me jump. I jerked my gaze and saw the minivan driving away. When I looked back, the trickster was gone.
I slowly put the dragon scale in the pocket of my jacket. The wind picked up again, sending a chill deep into my bones. Rain was coming.
The blond woman was nowhere in sight. I wasn’t sure she had ever existed. When one as powerful as Coyote takes notice of you, the fabric of the reality tends to bend a bit.
He told me a storm was coming, and looking at the sky I believed it.
Now, if it was only the weather I had to worry about.