The Tower was alone and held audience with rows of his many in the low light of his haunt. Calm born through fastidiousness, his bowie knife scraping round the ethmoid, eyes peering from his study through the dark toward the trail outward. Like beckoning call, the jingle and the rattle, past the rows of yellow dogs hung crucified, distant in the smokefall.
The sheen of his brow was a mix of sweat and oil, and he looked upon his trophy, not yet perfect for him, but his eye was more discerning than that of any other. That distance, the piercing from within. Sight or sound, both garish and annoying. Rhinestones. Not alone. Wild West vaudeville scum the lot.
Was there a rattle? An expectant gurgle in the midst of swaddle?
So soon, The Fool.
Was The Tower but some passing visage or was he an intended everything? Little shimmies of success create expectation. The curse of wanting.
Ignorant of where he intended tread.
And so, The Dance.
September 14, 2023
You ever come around us again…I’ll kill you.
Huff and puff, not because of the words as they were intended, but from the tensing of muscles hoarding the oxygen through Cody’s blood as he paced up the sidewalk and over the driveway home. No truck or sedan. Both his real parents were away, stuck at work. Good. No need for hellos and exchanges, how was your day, anything new at school, excited because the game against Hudson is tomorrow and you’re both undefeated and–
The door slammed shut behind him and he spiked his bag on the tile, only to just as quickly grab the shoulder strap and lug it alongside him in a growl. Adrenaline and racing thoughts creating micomoments of action, only to be reversed, undone. Flip the light switch on, then off. Kick his shoes off and then put them back on until he took them off in the hallway closet, where they were supposed to be. A rifle through the fridge, something, anything, baked ziti and sweet sausage leftovers and half a breadstick and no, no, no. The fridge door nearly burst at its hinge from how hard he flung the door shut, the rattle of glass jam and salad dressing jars a violent eruption. Nagging bother. Is there a mess? Really, right now, of all the times?
No. Because every sense feels so sharp, so vibrant, that they are boosted. He closes the door, traipsing from kitchen and into the hallway, rounding the corner where three doors down is his bedroom, but before, the bathroom, open, exposed. He stops in his surge, looking inside, toward the mirror and his throat. So stark the garrote, the raggedness of his wheeze under every exhale. Within the light, he sees what he’s been feeling between bouts of prejudice; bright red bruise with licks of purple spanning his Adam’s Apple to carotid arteries.
His fingertips brushed faintly along the streak, so ginger across the line where his other father had braced him down and stabbed him width wise with his forearm. And was there betrayal wrapping around his heart? No, because what pulsated across his neck was the true nature of the man who had helped give him life.
Unlike the first time Brandon had tried to kill him, he was conscious of this one.
In his room, he sank onto his bed, his bag nestled underneath his computer desk, his shirt and socks off, and despite the sweat and all the doors inside his head open with thoughts sprinting, he was tired. His hand on his phone, eyes cast across the glow, he searched, searched, and there she was. Chloe. Not Andy. Despite knowing him longer, never Andy.
Because out of everyone, Chloe was the only one who knew.
His fingers cut across his screen, but like before, he was moving without thinking. He stopped, switching to his camera, trying to face himself, the flash such that the resulting photo of his neck was mostly blinding exposure.
If the visual wasn’t enough, his words would manage to get the message across.
A clash of wills is but a competition.
The pair of piebald horses lead the prairie schooner with even gallops over the parched terrain of terracotta and sagebrush, and from the fires of the horizon rose clouds of bloodred. The contents within the canvas were painted tarpaulin, the lot used to tell the story of The Rhinestone Cowboy and his many amorous and maudlin adventures. The Fool played his part well because he lived it, glitter spackled across his entirety, his manner raffish against his usual audience. So was the way of the showman. The entertainer.
On the way to another town, and yet, his mind wandered, as it had since crossing the salted foothills of this country, of the bounty and The Tower, and just how silly such as it was to fear the old. Of color as well were the schemes from behind the scenes, the ways to pocket something extra while on the way to another play.
At his own behest, of course.
The Fool was rarely alone, and with him was his fawn, nestled against him, head resting on his shoulder. With flicks of the wrist, he drew closer, the posts of yellow dogs and the strips of snakeskin hanging near, at least at first. “Keep your head down, my lil Magpie…” his voice trailed off, and she groaned and adjusted in her nap. No need to startle her as her heart now pumped for two, and no woman needed reason through the shifting horrors along the pikes before the massive ranch home with mesquite flaring from its borders as deviled horns. Bloatflies and vultures, chewing away at mounted scalps. Who was he trying to impress? Always a bark and bellow, these olden figures with their appeals to their own vanity.
Lawton and the others had gone on ahead, and it was just as well, because unlike he, they weren’t built for this. Easing on the reins, the horses settled, and as they did, he rose, cradling his fawn’s head onto the cushion of the bench. “Don’t take you too long…” she slurred in slumber, “got to rest for church an’ the revival.”
“I know, honey, now shush,” he snickered, patting her belly. “If you hear something loud, don’t you worry none. You know your daddy is the only one who can walk the line.” Amen and hallelujah, though they didn’t come, but rather, the light squeaking of a snore.
He thumbed back the hammer of his pistol as he made approach to The Floor.
There was no door to the ranch home, the windows long since blasted out. This homestead was mere husk, transitory, worn wood and sand and earth collecting across creaking floorboards, paintings stripped of their signature from the erosion of time. Yet, as a fellow wanderer, The Fool sensed the warmth of another, despite its waning. At the ready, his hand on the handle of his gun, his eyes skimming and scanning, the acrid scent of tar and whale oil, the musking rot of carrion, and he rounded the steps, wondering if his next step would send him plunging below.
Why seek out and visit such a place on the whispers of drunks and tall tale telling soothsayers? Because a piece of The Tower brought with it much. The Fool had fallen into a delicious pot of wealth, a happenstance unearned and pocketed, but now his all the same. Legitimacy. Something to raise the stature of a prodigy with an endless appetite. The old are meant to die, and their marrow was there to feed the young. It wasn’t as though he would be dealing with the quickest draw of the west.
Just someone important for reasons he hadn’t taken the time to understand.
Were The Russian or The Financier aware? Did it matter? At the top of the steps, his eyes caught glimpse of something so odd it made him shudder. Like stones, the collection of skulls, tossed aside from some greater place. Inside, he stepped and beheld the first signatures of character in this lifeless place. An ornate workbench. Shelves upon shelves, wrapping around the room, extending to the ceiling ten feet high.
The throne. Crimson upholstery for cushion on a cathedra of bone. Skulls. So many skulls. And their eyes, where they would be, from all ends of the room, were now pointed at him, looking through him, a miasma of otherworldly fear and gut wrenching hysteria impacting at the same time, and with a quick flick, the pistol went off, and all was silent again, especially his own heart. He laughed. He laughed and he laughed, and fired another round through the walls, through the hallway, and then, at random spaces in the shelves.
Load the chamber and spend the rounds and sing a song, Fool, because he walked upon His land and He wasn’t man enough to show. Breaking down husk of bone, sand and dust, and he was merry, until he heard her belching screech from down below, and he stared toward her from the window of the study.
“You done had yer fun?” Her frock was frumped and her hands on her hips.
He swirled his pistol, and then clutched some faceless head, pantomiming with its jaw. “To be or not to be? That is the question!” Whatever her response, he wasn’t aware. He holstered his pistol, skipping the skull down the hall before driving the heel of his boot through its front and leaving for the next hole in the wall.
The son was anger, but the Father was agony.
All shifts of complicated emotion, of cognizant thought, were sliced through with a branding blade, serrated, stirred violently through the fullness of Brandon’s elbow and tricep. Burning was too tame a descriptor, and as his body ran through its supply of adrenaline, all he was left with was an excruciating pain.
You know well the licks of such searing flames. So close to the car bombs in Lyari and–
Right hand clutching his left wrist to his stomach, pinning the arm in place. This was an emergency. His limbs, the dropping in his stomach, he was in shock. Cold. So damn cold. He hissed as he reached the bathroom, fishing through cabinets, medicine bottles and over the counter remedies for heartburn and insomnia, vitamins, razors and shave butter, flicked away, violently, seeking, searching…relief…somewhere within, relief.
“–Brandon, how’d you tear your–”
“Too much weight. The bar…Amy…FUCK!” he lied, his head peeking from the doorway, shouting toward his phone. RAPIER:BATTLEARTS, Rebellion Absolute, was mere hours away. It was why she would miss UltraViolence.
She wasn’t there to know the truth etched across his face from the gashes and swelling the blows from his son had left behind. “–you got to go to the emergency room–”
“NO!” For moments, silence. “We gotta…we gotta have…something–”
“We don’t do painkillers. We keep ourselves accountable. We made that promise to ourselves. Remember?”
“Yeah…” he trailed off, sweating, so profuse, he clutched at his arm. “It’s bad, Amy. This is real bad–”
“You have to go–”
“Ivan can’t take this.”
“Do you know how stupid–”
The Universal Title. In the midst of everything, his son, their fight, choking him, threatened with his life…and it was Ivan Stanislav front and center? He knew Amy was right, but the truth didn’t matter. The moment he went to the emergency room at Marshfield, the UltraViolence Cage Match was off. Do not pass medical clearance, long live The Praporshchik and The Red Era for long as he reigns.
“–and you know how much more damage you’ll do–”
Cheddar was at his feet, circling as best as he could, butting his head against his ankles. Whining. He knew his pop was in pain. Such a smart pup. Thankfully, he too didn’t know the why.
All that mattered was the forward. And as Amy kept trying to talk sense an ocean away, Brandon had already resolved to further cloud the truth. “Alright, Amy. You’re right. I’m going to get it looked at. Talk to you later. Bye.”
It didn’t matter if she was still speaking. The moment he hung up, he went to their bedroom, ripping the drawer from her nightstand open. The Red Raver always had a vape handy. Without a moment’s hesitation, he took a drag, holding it in his lungs as long as he could. This wasn’t a good relationship. Bad trips were more the norm in the embrace of Hell’s Harvest.
Pain ate away at him, but over time, his eyelids grew heavy. With his arm braced and raised against his nightstand, he found sleep.
Realize that to the one you sought, victory means more than simple competition.
“Ooooooh! But Rhinestones! My heart!” Lawton was old and his bellows wide as he grabbed for his chest with both his hands, staggering step after staggering step drawing him ever closer to The Rhinestone Cowboy, his expression that of bewilderment as he stared out to the audience, fingers sheepishly failing to cover his greasy mouth.
“But Lawton, I couldn’t ever intend–”
Upon the stage, a bed, and with a turn of the heel, the villain of the story fell onto the mattress, and as he did, as though shot with spring loads, waxen fingers, red at the stump, flew to the crowd. Shock and awe, and from the side of the stage, the fawn, reassuring, “Don’t be shy. Take a bite. They’s tastes like cherries!”
The Fool glittered in his whites, his silver spurs, skipping as the show continued. Enraptured were the legions watching, and so sat The Tower, unassuming despite his size, eyes cast upon the muttly, morally impoverished thing as he began to harangue about his own mettle, that he was the greatest to cross this land, just wait and see.
The Tower hadn’t paid much mind, as the paths of those led to him mattered not in the afterglow. He’d spent his time in study, and in truth, had hazarded this arrival much sooner than now. Like a babe overstaying its welcome in the womb, now forced out and sniveling, crying. His bowie knife rounded the parietal, shaving through the bone, artisan, though it made for shorter lasting.
When his eyes cast upward, The Fool was on skies, trailing behind some riverboat casino, firing off his pistol as those before him slapped their knees and laughed. “Ain’t I just the darnedest thing you ever done seen?”
He wasn’t, and he made his leave of him until The End.
“And I appreciate yall, and you and you and yall–” The Fool’s finger lingered as he pointed toward the throngs of faces he would forget because he’d soaked them through performance. The night was not so young, and there would be blackjack and a few chances to flourish as he was want to do, and then, lay down with his fawn or perhaps another while she rested somewhere in the caravan.
And he took to his recital room, letting a load off his haunches, whiskey with glass, a resting steak, and a young server girl with a pitcher and a hearty roll of bread. “I’m sorry Sir, but I only got so much room with my hands–”
“Oh don’t you go worrying none…” his voice trailed as he hooked around her hip and drew her close, and she gave a yelp of joy and thrill, curls framing her painted face, and ever the valentine, their mouths embraced. On this night, he would leave the fawn in the caravan. “What’s yer name?”
“Oh it’s Desiree–”
“Ma’am, have ever I seen such beautiful eyes–”
“Oh you kid!”
“No!” He rose from his seat. “And if you’d like, I can tell you all about the places I done seen. Let you be the judge.”
“I think I’d rather like that,” she confessed, her footfalls clunking as she backpedaled.
“I reckon I would too…”
And behind her, she closed the door, leaving The Fool to his meal. His stomach rumbled, fork and knife tearing away feverishly at the meal before him in its resting juices. He ate and devoured. Not a drop of whiskey yet, for that was for later. A parched throat. When he heard the door open, he hoped that, this time, she’d left behind the pitcher of water.
When his eyes came to meet her, it was only The Tower’s smile that greeted him. “As royal a meal as any, I suppose. But may I ask, why not savor it?”
Through instinct, The Fool reached for his pistol, drawing it and firing, only to realize it was from the show. All the more, he pulled back the hammer, trying to coax reprieve with rapid trigger pulls. No such luck.
“I have heard your affectations. You know how to speak.”
The Fool’s eyes lingered on the plate below him. “I was hungry.”
“For blood?” The Tower’s chest shook as thunder. “You prepared this. You stood before Her after slaying her son, and you ruminated on the baseness of all man as though you were conduit for their baying. Like you are somehow better.”
Old sins catching up with him. “So the Queen sent you–”
“You dirtied my floors, boasted and bellowed before my beheld and turned it into a shooting gallery. And you think I care what you did to her boy.” From his side, a bag, and he reached within and slammed the skull onto the table before him. “Do you like him?”
The Fool paused, eyes widening, lips drying. “I have a child on the way–”
“You hold the stench of many children.” The Tower’s stare was without escape, and all corners of the room fell away. “I thought you would appreciate him, since you stepped through him before. Or perhaps you are not the gambling type…”
“What makes this one any the more special?”
“‘Cause she’s special–”
His teeth were glimmering and white. “You really are this painfully unaware, aren’t you?”
A fire rose through The Fool. “It ain’t your place to judge her, she ain’t part–”
“Stop yourself before you embarrass yourself any further.”
A spitting snarl. “That’s the way of you, isn’t it? Pick ‘em apart to the studs. Make us feel so small. Like you’re so superior.”
But for such a vaunted attack, all he was met with was an empty glare.
“You think that’s funny? You sonuva bitch, you know what I think is funny? How you think everyone fears you. Waltzing all about like you ain’t ever fallen. But you have. And you keep pressing me, it’s gon’ happen again, and then I’ll be the one laughin’, ‘cause you was too stupid to see it coming.”
The Tower sat across from him. “You spoke of me, not on your lips, but within the greed of your heart. And here we are, what you were hoping for, The Dance, and you think I care about your child or the whore with which you lie?”
“You play games of wager and when the time comes to pay, you run. You run and you borrow and you steal. And you betray everyone around you, yet think you walk the outlaw line. Thinking some glimmers of remorse salve against the sins towards everyone in your useless, meaningless hedonism. You have not earned redemption. Hell’s, you have not even earned a single morsel of your escapes.”
The gun wasn’t at his side, but another one was in the room, and he’d find it, but first he needed to create space, to strike and attack, and in so doing, wildness, anything can happen, and in a game of chance–
The bevel of The Tower’s bowie knife sunk deep into The Fool’s neck, a clean hack, the force so strong he struck bone. The Fool shivered and shook, blood gurgling as he suffocated and died, eyes blinking rapidly, color draining to paleness. “The Rhinestone Cowboy does not draw at high noon. No…he finds his home on a shelf somewhere. Perhaps everywhere. And before your hear nothing again, hear this and know; your absence will disappoint your love…but at least this time, you are not the one to blame.”
Annoying lingering knock of glass. Incessant. A headache surged through Cody’s head as his eyes began to open, and outside the window of his room, her baggy hoodie, her face pressed against the glass. Chloe. She demanded with her arms to be let in. He didn’t grab a shirt as he walked over, pushing the window up.
“Can you answer your phone?” she asked.
Spent and tired, his hands and arms stinging, he still extended toward her, helping her inside. She tried making as little noise as she could upon landing.
“You tell anyone? Your mom? Dad?”
He merely grunted.
“Good.” She told him, and then, the flash from her phone blinded him. “It’s time to go to the cops. Time to show the world…”