The Sad Man is talking.
I am talking.
So hard to stay focused and
Hank sighs as he gets out of bed. “Time to make the doughnuts,” he mutters. The joke isn’t funny anymore, but it’s all he’s got left. He kisses his fingers and presses them to Allison’s picture. She looks strange this morning. Harsh. Cold. Dead. Must be the light. Awfully bright. Awfully clean. Awful. It’s making everything in the house more… stark. Real. Hank blinks once, twice. Then he makes up his mind. Takes a shower. Shaves. Gets dressed. Then he picks up the pistol and
The Sad Man keeps talking. “I’m sure you’re feeling disoriented, Agent Matthews. It’s the Osceola. If you’re not used to its effects, it can be overwhelming. For a man of your capacities, especially. Different minds, different places. Even time distorts. Sometimes I think that riding is harder than being ridden. Depending on which of the Ahtunowhiho is doing the riding, of course.”
I look at myself dumbly, and look back with sympathy in my ancient eyes.
“I’m speaking in riddles. My apologies. It’s just so refreshing to speak with someone who shares the gift. Someone who’s not a snake, at least. Poor Oscar. It’s unfortunate what we’re going to have to do to him. But again, I’m speaking in riddles. We should start at the beginning.”
I blink, look around. Pause politely as I get my bearings. “Liar’s Path,” I hear myself say. My voice sounds strange, thick. Clumsy. “Can’t believe you.”
I smile sympathetically at myself. Already, I’m annoying myself. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to believe me. I know the urge to lie here is strong. But I’ve long since learned to fight it. Besides, it’s…” I trail off, give myself a measuring look and
Helen screws her eyes shut tight and punches the pillow. The baby’s crying. Again. She’d just gotten back to sleep from the last time, and it’s crying again. All she wants is some rest. Some respite from the constant round of feeding, shitting, changing, crying. She rolls over. Bob’s sound asleep. Or pretending to be. That peaceful, self-satisfied face is just too much for her, so she makes up her mind. She gets up, dragging her pillow behind her, and presses it down into the crib. The crying stops first, and when the motion follows suit, she lets go and walks to the kitchen for a knife. Picking out a big one, she takes it back to the bed, raises it over Bob’s smug snoring face, and
“Do you know why this place is called the Liar’s Path, Agent?”
I shake my head to confirm my own suspicions.
“It’s all Truth out there on the Wambli Waste. Harsh, cold Truth, shining down from the Mountain. Warm, comforting Truth, emanating up from the Lake. Both are Truth. Pure Truth. Reality is somewhere in-between. But Reality isn’t an option when those warring Truths are in play. And so the Nukpana seek refuge in Lies.”
I reach past myself and put one hand on the shoulder of the Owl-Headed Man who’d carried me out of the fire. “They’re sensitive creatures, Agent. Half spirit, as I’m sure Heyoka told you. The Truth of the Mirror Worlds overwhelms even we creatures of dumb flesh. Imagine how much worse it must be for them. So they retreat. Give themselves the heads of owls. Live like animals instead of the luminous beings they are. They are our children. The children of the Alo. And they are both blessing and curse.”
I smile and wait for myself to respond. I open my mouth to do so and
Franco turns off the main road toward the lake. He’s due at the Stop n Go, but what’s the point? Old Edna will keep on keeping on whether he brings her the milk or not. Delivery driver. Milk man. Not the life he’d wanted at all. He was going to be an artist. Do great things. But he had to eat. The delivery job was supposed to be temporary. Something that would give him plenty of time to draw and paint. But somehow, somewhere along the way, he didn’t take that time. He’s always so tired. The milk crates are heavy. It’s easier to watch some TV, have a beer, and not strain himself lifting that paintbrush. And slowly, all that talent he had in his hands got poured into the steering wheel. So to hell with it. He’s going to drive the truck straight into the lake and be done with it all.
The trees are so beautiful in the soft light. The birds. The lake. Yeah, the lake. He sees it in his head. The lake, with a door at the bottom. And out of that door pouring all the good things, all the beauty, all the love, all the art, everything. Everything.
Franco stops the truck just shy of his destination. Gets out of the cab. Grabs a stick. Starts sketching his new work in the dirt. It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be great. The milk calls to him from the truck. He pauses, stick in hand. Edna can’t make those biscuits without it. Maybe he better…
Nah. Edna’ll be alright. Some other poor sucker can bring her the milk. He’s got more important stuff to do. He kneels, lays stick to ground, and
I hear myself say “Why?”
“Why what, Agent?”
“Why do the Nukpana retreat into lies? Why do they stay on the Mountain, if the Mountain is turning them into animals? If they’re your children, why do you let them?”
A sad smile this time. I feel my lips making it, watch it form on my own face. “It’s their role, Agent. We all have one to play. I am the tribe’s leader and protector. Its sin-eater, too. I do the things our Rangers are too good to do, the things our friend Heyoka holds in such contempt.”
“You hold them in contempt too?”
I sigh. The sad smile fades. “I very much regret them. But they’re necessary. So, no. No, I don’t feel contempt. Just disappointment that the Grey World demands them of me.”
“And the Nukpana?”
“The Nukpana make their sacrifice knowingly. It’s a mistake to think they’re simple, Agent. In the spirit world, they’re cunning, magnificent creatures. It’s their flesh half that gives them trouble. But they understand what they’re doing, and they do it happily.”
“What are they doing?”
“I thought that was obvious. They’re our barometer. They monitor the Door in the Mountain, make note of its openings and closings, the strength of the light shining from it. And when something comes through it, they let us know.”
“Even when you’re summoning it?”
“Summoning it? Who the hell would be stupid enough to summon something out of the Black Mirror World?”
I stare at him open-mouthed as the case swirls and reshapes itself in my head. A piece that had been hanging loose drops, falls into place. My eyes widen, and
Teddy Patton stands on his front porch, looking out across the town, sipping his coffee, and waiting for the phone to start ringing. Something’s not right out there this morning. He doesn’t know what, exactly, and he’d never tell anyone about it. Wouldn’t do for folks to start thinking the High Sheriff was crazy. But he can feel it, just the same. Only a matter of time.
He’s heading back in for a second cup when it happens. He snags it on the second ring. But it’s not who he was expecting.
“Sheriff? Sheriff, this is Clint Matthews. Listen. It’s very important that you listen. I’ve had a bit of trouble, but I know what’s happening now. I know what’s happening, and I hope we’ll be able to avoid any more deaths. But that’s not why I’m calling you. I’m calling you because it’s been a terrible night. Another body up on Mount Pannawau, and unless I miss my guess, a lot more besides. The West side of the Mountain’s going to be a real mess. Your phone’s about to start ringing off the hook. But, please. Before you do anything else. Get an ambulance out to the Stop n Go. I think Edna’s tried to kill herself.”
“I’m sorry, Sheriff. I have to go. I’m about to make a deal with the devil. Matthews out.”