Pete and I have walked for days now. We stopped talking at a certain point. Even with a peg leg he is faster than me and I struggle to keep up. The dream world is causing hell in the real world. I am so tired and distracted. I have taken a disgusting turn in my eating habits, too much cheap pizza; I’ve gained ten pounds; I feel sluggish.
She showed up on the corner of the road three nights ago. Oh yeah, Pete and I came out of the forest and hit the concrete. Strange stuff. You know how our roads are lined and dotted, yellow and white, right? There it’s an intricate red and purple floral pattern, roses, squares, diamonds, things like that. I wish I could draw it.
Anyway, we pick her up on the road. She got right in my ear. “Tell me you didn’t agree to be his assistant?”
“No,” I said, “of course not.” I took the chance on a lie, mostly out of embarrassment, but also because I’d never seen them talk.
“Hey Pete,” she yelled. “Did Austin swear to be your Assistant in the Fire Tender ceremony?”
“Yes, Ma’m” he said, back over his shoulder. “He’s very brave.”
“You fucking idiot,” she said in my ear.
I walked away from them. She ranted for a second behind me to Pete and then walked the opposite way. There were two more nights of walking, and by then it was night over there. Nighttime is the worst. Reality gets very slippery and things come out of the dark and wake me up startled.
Sometimes I’m downstairs by the brick. Sometimes I’m in the bathroom. One particularly horrible night I woke out on the deck. For a minute, I was totally unable to distinguish between the two worlds. The glittering stars of this world seemed so unreal.
My wife definitely knows something is up now. I don’t even need to tell her. She tried to get me naps and arrange the schedules, so I can get more rest. She is an angel. She can sense there’s something serious going on here, lurking below the surface. Maybe it’s fear that drives her. Is there anything else?
The road turns to gravel at some point and gets hilly and winding. We take a random turn down a dirt road and then Pete made an abrupt turn down a small side path. It lead us through the prairie grass and down to a river. I think this might be the same river that separates me from the Forgetting Forest, but I’m not sure.
There are torches lighting the path, and fresh hay laid out on the walkways. Everything was very pastoral and put away and I had the sensation I was walking back in time. When we approached, there were two large pavilion type things set up, but everyone was cramped into one. People on the edge hovering saw us, but everyone got right out of way, as Pete marched us in.
There was an elevated platform and a woman was speaking into a microphone, with a small, antique PA system. The whole place looked like a rich kid’s summer camp from the 1960s. Everything was clean and new and organized. Over all, the place gave me the creeps.
I tried to listen to what she was saying, but Pete began muttering next to me. “They’re planning a replacement ceremony. Think I wouldn’t have come. Didn’t think I could find an Assistant!”
“What’s that Pete?” I asked. “Why didn’t they think you could find an assistant exactly?”
“The wolf, Austin. The wolf. With all your superior inter-dimensional knowledge, you still sure seem dumb sometimes.”
“No reason to be insulting,” I shot back.
“No, no,” Pete said. “Don’t thank me. I am sure it is because of your great level of courage, that your behavior seems so strange to me. Cowardice makes men intelligent.”
I thought that was maybe nice. Someone saw us and screamed out. “He’s back!” There was a large bustle as all the people descended on us. I got caught up in the melee and pushed to the side. Suddenly I felt very awkward in my pajama pants and A-shirt, but everyone was too engaged in the scene to really deal with me.
The crowd parted for Pete’s father. He was an old, tiny man, not much taller than Pete himself. Slim, and sharp, like he was slagged off of a chunk of marble. He wore jeans and a checkered shirt and held his hands in prayer. “Oh Pete, I told them you weren’t a coward.”
Pete ignored his initial comment, and tried to look away, but his eyes were already welling up. “Listen son,” His Dad pushed on. “I believe you. Your Ma doesn’t. Took you for dead. That’s why she’s not here now. Says there’s no point. I told her she was wrong. I know you’re a strong boy. I could feel it in my heart. There was no way you were gone. You were just off, just doing exactly what you said you were gonna do, you were getting that assistant.” He tried to find me in the crowd, but I had made may way around the side, and was considering running off. It was hard to hear his words, but the crowd’s murmuring and gossip kept me in the loop.
“Listen son,” he said, “I knew you were still alive out there. And then two nights ago I heard it, the wolf, you understand?” At the mention of the wolf, I crept closer.
Pete and his Dad were eye to eye now. Pete was no longer crying and all the color had gone out of his face. Panicked and overwhelmed the mention of the wolf had put him into space. “I heard him howling the first night,” his Dad said. “You’re Ma tried to pass it off as a dog, even after I reminded her there were no predator species in this sector, she still said it had to be a wolf, and broke down and cried. The next night it howled, waking us both up. I think it was looking for you. We could hear it bouncing off the house as it made its rounds. None of these folks believed us, of course. Administrators assure everyone everything is fine, but I knew it Pete and look at you now!”
“Wanna run?” She asked, whispering in my ear. I turned and she was smiling. “It’s an actual werewolf, like from the movies, but real as shit. Claws like a bear. Blood thirsty hormonal rage? It’ll tear poor Pete here in two, finishing the ceremony, and ensuring another hundred years of peace for this village. Sick shit.”
“What are you talking about?” I snapped. “They know the wolf is going to get him?”
“These yokels? Hell no. They don’t know their assholes from their elbows. You’d do well not even to think of them as people. There more like the animatronic robots which play down at Billy Bob’s Pizza joint.”
“That’s twisted,” I said.
“No Father,” Pete screamed, breaking our talk. “I am not a coward! I have found my Assistant Fire Tender and he will protect me and kill the wolf!”
The crowd gasped, shifted and everyone was staring right at me. The Muse giggled. “Oh shit,” she said.