Run through the doorways, Whiskey Chile, to daddy’s doorknobs golden-dipped,
where blood is a corn mash river running wide and deep.
Run through the doorways, Whisky Chile, your momma’s wings been clipped,
where wrath and fury are cradles that rock the chile to sleep.
—a bullfrog’s lullaby
Momma died when he was eight—something about a slip off the front porch during a fierce thunder storm that disappeared just as suddenly as it had arrived, a flash of quicksilver light above the shrouded plains of Fallen Cain. Daddy was a weirdoo hexer long before the folks of Jubilee had fallen under his dark whiskey curse. Long before Jubilee was even a mote on the map of this desolate plane.
Brady Nokes learned all he could from his daddy. How to stoke a fire from a bullfrog’s belly (that’s how we first became acquainted); how to draw water from a cactus crab without getting stabbed in the jugular vein; how to tell the difference between a solid path to tread on and a crack in the fabric of time.
Daddy worked a mirage almost as well as he mixed the finest corn mash this side of Fallen Cain, when it wasn’t bent-up and twisted and flipped upside down after his distillery went up in a great big ball of blue flame. That’s how Brady’s daddy became the Whisky King of Jubilee, and how his momma took a spill that ended her life long before she ever got a chance to see him brood the way he does. Both accidents, I suppose, if you’re apt to believe in tall-tales and chicken bones.
Oh, they held a respectable funeral for him, alright, Father Clyde Tessier reading from the book of Babylon while Daddy’s coyote runners, seedy grunts who’d transported his fine spirits in all four directions (up, down, left and right, as far as their lackluster minds could comprehend), pillaged what was left of the distillery when the afterglow of his botched weirdoo waned. It still burned bright, though, a blue ball of flame about the size of a chile’s angry fist, an eternal reminder of the Whiskey King’s ambitions to set the world’s throat on fire with eighty-proof delight.
But young Brady refused to lick on the pond scum, the suds above the liquid gold, particularly because the casket was empty; no one had ever found the body, not even a charred finger bone to toss inside the brittle pine box they’d buried some pony ashes in. Hexers like daddy didn’t take a dirt nap that easily; there was always an angle, a hidden pocket, an ace up the sleeve. And that ace has put the folks of Jubilee into a mindless stupor ever since.
He’d stuck with the runners until he was old enough to put Wrath and Fury through their foreheads, a score settled with gunsmoke and blood in the wee hours of the night—until he grew up and got to searching for something more than pony ashes to put in Daddy’s pine box, scratching at old scabs until they’d bled again.
Where he’d executed the coyote runners in their sleep that night, a ramshackle shed no more than a weeks’ journey by horse from Fallen Cain, a doorway appeared, framed in white paint and sealed in solid oak the color of silt on the bed of some forgotten stream.
The doorways were a sore spot for Brady, digging deep into his guilt-ridden heart. They looked like the front door back home in Fallen Cain. They looked like Momma’s entrance on the porch where she’d call him in for supper when the sun was falling asleep. They looked like a slip off the front porch because he’d taken too long to answer her calls. Only, instead of the golden knob that Brady had known as a child, there was an unblinking eye staring dead ahead, pronged in throbbing red veins.
The doorway’s where we started.
Brady galloped through on Trudie’s arthritic back and ended up at the top of a hulking mountain that had no right being there. Daddy’s idea of a good ole time. The path ahead was skewed and steep and winding, like the good lord had run a fickle finger down the remnants of a mudslide. Trudie whinnied and yanked on the reins, hooves sliding nearly half way down the mountain path until it plateaued, where Brady decided to take a load off and a gander, sizing up the route suspiciously.
At the bottom of the mountain, off in the distant sunbaked plains, was the Whisky King’s old distillery, a gutted, blackened shack with a faint blue light glowing somewhere inside its scorched remains.
“A carrot,” Brady said, “a poisonous, good-for-nothing carrot dangling out in the middle of nowhere for us to chase, Jeremiah. You see that, don’t you?”
I wondered if Brady knew I could understand him.
He must have thought I was special, showing up the way I did right after that horrible thunderstorm—must have thought his momma sent me from above. I was only following the rainclouds, though (not to trivialize divine intervention), hoping to find some wet spot to hole up for a spell, when I found him crying and mumbling something about not being able to make fire the way his daddy had wanted, and that his momma had earned her angel wings too soon.
He was always chasing the Whiskey King, I think, searching for approval, for the shine of a rotten tooth. I burped out a ball of fire to cheer him up, and we’d been inseparable ever since. Yeah, I could understand the man called Whisky Chile from day one... only, he couldn’t understand me, so I croaked and hoped he got the message: one for yes, two for no, three for only weirdoo knows.
He patted his front pocket, my home on the road, in silent agreeance and jumped down from Trudie’s back.
“Trudie, old friend, I hate to say it, but this is where we part ways,” he said. “Go with the birds, be the prey, stay on the weirdoo path with hooves calling thunder and rain. I’ll make it quick.”
He leaned his bald, sweaty head against Trudie’s ribcage, gently stroking her rusty coat in small circles with a callused hand, then reached for the hunting knife strapped to his thigh.
Midway down the mountain, with a heavy heart and an itching suspicion that the Whiskey King had tampered with the terrain, Brady Nokes cut Trudie’s belly open and piled her entrails at a fork in the mountain path. She went down without a sound, a sacrifice the weirdoo way for the temporary gift of second sight.
“Show me the way to Jubilee,” he ordered the steaming, dust-caked guts. They squirmed a bit, then foundered. Brady wrinkled his brow, perplexed, as any chile who thinks he knows it all looks when things get lost or misplaced.
It wasn’t lack of daylight that would fail the trick; though evening was fast approaching, the sun was still dead-center overhead, burning the back of my neck like a lye-slathered slap. It was something else Daddy had taught him that he’d failed to remember; bottled-up bad memories. Tumbleweeds bounced down the mountain alongside us, their eyeballs ogling, then disappeared; dropped right through the path into nothingness. I burped a ring of smoke to jog his memory.
“Fire then smoke—ass-backwards if you ask me,” he said. “Showtime, Jeremiah.”
He pulled me from his pocket.
I croaked and groaned, belly flat then pregnant as I sprawled out on his open palm. He approached the pile of guts, crouched, and slapped me on the back. “Out with it,” he urged, “quit your belly-aching and burn, bubba.”
My belly roiled a mixture of oil, flint, and sulphur, and I spat out a ball of fire onto Trudie’s bloated insides. They crackled and hissed but didn’t dance yet, not the fleshy jig Brady’d hoped for. He placed me back in his pocket and grabbed his pipe, a three-foot-long hollow of briarwood, from the satchel affixed to Trudie’s saddle.
He dipped the pipe-bowl packed with evil-eye weed in the pyre, took a step back, and inhaled like it was the last breath he’d ever take.
What came out was a cloud of white smoke in his own likeness, a doppelganger, a spirit double that hovered while his body, a few feet behind, quivered in a frozen trance, pipe in hand. A puff from the evil-eye’ll get you seeing things veiled by a hexer’s hand. But you gotta look quick, before you can’t hold it any longer and keel over like a hollow log in the wind. That’s when the trick is spent.
With the evil-eye upon his spirit, he must have seen through the mirage; seen the trail ahead truncate to a death-drop not thirty paces out; seen the Whiskey King’s eye in the form of a menacing storm cloud, wincing as Brady’s face went a bruised shade of black and blue; seen that the town of Jubilee was a half day’s journey to the east, across a sweltering terrain of dying trees and spiraling cacti and horned roots burrowing in and out of cracked earth where nothing natural should grow; seen the entrails dance, charred horse-meat like a bloody hand, wet carrion pointing up to a sky of emerald green, that sickening, dome-shaped horizon undulating in the distance.
With a start, a shuddering jiggle like falling through a frozen lake, his true body’s lungs expanded, funneling his spirit back inside through parched lips, thin and blistered, back to the dull droning ache of a weary heartbeat and an empty stomach. Back to a thirst quenched only by the Whiskey King’s demise.
Trudie’s fly-encrusted carcass called out to birds of prey overhead, circling vultures and red hawks whose passing momentarily blotted out the sun as they looped and dove in a dance of ruffled feathers, and crows as big as wagon wheels perched on the crumbling cliffside ahead, waiting to strike a bargain. They’d be his way in, as the entrails foretold, over the snares and woes laid out to keep him out of Jubilee forever.
“Ga-zaaww, ga-zaaww!” he called out, tossing kernels of maize at Trudie’s frazzled mane. “Come and get it!” A favor for a favor was the weirdoo way. Food for safe passage to the next doorway.
After Trudie was picked apart, we soared high on crow’s wings, the shadow of a man spread-eagle like a sacrificial stick-man between two sets of crooked talons roving over twisted trees that swatted with brazen claws at Brady’s boots, cactus-needle volleys arching then descending harmlessly out of reach. Twice I saw those crows wink at me, hoping to pluck dessert from Brady’s pocket before we landed at the second doorway, and twice I turned their hungry eyes away with flame, singeing Brady’s shirt as I panted nervously.
Night had fallen, swaddled us in its cold embrace, a thousand opal eyes below twinkling treacherously like torchlight on jagged shards of glass.
Brady let go of their knotted legs as we neared a cave hidden by bramble and wild sage, a smooth plate of white granite palming its yawning maw politely. Had the Whiskey King grown bored of Brady’s parlor tricks, feeding him just enough rope to hang himself?
Behind, from the misty thicket borne of thorn and dying branch we’d passed over unmolested, a sound like churning gravel grew louder.
Heaven forbid I’d ever get Brady to run from a fight; he was too hard-headed, too proud to lay his guns down and talk his way out of a pickle. But as that churning sound began to multiply, a dozen shovels digging at a single grave, I felt his heart pound against my pocket, and I thought, for once, he’d know the odds were stacked against him, know he’d end up being picked apart by those same crows he’d dangled from if he didn’t turn tail and run.
He slammed his back against the stone plate covering the cave, bramble cracking and snapping under his weight, and reached for Wrath and Fury, twin-sister revolvers, hexed to hammer through the trunks of trees so long as his mind was in the right place, steeled against doubt, and fear, and suppression of his third eye, which came from drinking too much hooch. Spear-length needles cut through the mist, chipping chunks of granite, pinning Brady’s gallon-sized hat to the stone plate as he dropped to the ground with a phlegmy grunt.
I leaped from my pocket, afraid he’d crush me like a sweaty grape.
Cactus crabs—deadpan succulents—mostly mind their own business, stabbing rattlers and rabbits if they get too close to the mother-patch, crawling on all fours and fives only during mating time to mount their queens or croon for their beaus, or when bands of wasteland scavengers wage war against them, poaching their prickles for the sheer hell of it, draining all that life-sustaining water from their tummies. It takes a lot out of them to mobilize; kills some just to uproot themselves. Something sinister was influencing them, riling up the patch, something hidden behind that covered cave where Brady quickly rose to his feet, a scatter of blood spurting as he yanked out a needle lodged in his thigh.
“I can’t see a damn thing. Light it up, Jeremiah—light the whole thing up!” He rolled to his side, propped himself up on one grinding knee, and pulled Wrath and Fury from their leather dresses.
I didn’t envy his size, he was too big to hide in the cracks like I was fixing to do. So long Brady, it’s been fun! Hope you find your daddy at the bottom of a bottle. I’d be more than content, a bit guilt-ridden, though, to light some desperado’s half-chewed cigars for the rest of my life if it meant saving my own slick hide. I had tadpoles to tend to, schools of them neglected because I chose to make my home in the pocket of a crying boy too blind to see that no one really wanted him around. He wasn’t much of a hexer in the weirdoo way—never bathed or washed that ragged shirt of his—and couldn’t understand a word I said. Communication’s crucial for such an unlikely pair as us.
Brady and his bullfrog...
But he’d always treated me well—kept my belly filled with flies from every rotting carcass, shit pile, and creek we’d stumble upon, like a pesky little brother with a burning gift almost as awful as his own unrelenting fury to purify, with fire, what the Whiskey King had tainted. I respected that.
But mostly, I didn’t want to see him die before facing the man who’d taken his heart, all soft and squishy from Momma’s magic touch, and crushed it with an iron fist when he’d grown tired of all the crying... the mourning for the dead. But when he was still, focusing his weirdoo through gleaming long-barreled sights, damn could he blast his way through all that pain and suffering. Brothers burn together, I thought. The weirdoo way or bust.
Seeing him bleed the way he did stirred a fire in me I’ve yet to know the equal of. I braced myself, belly buried deep in the cold soil, and spewed a song so vengeful Mephistopheles would dance. It caught the thicket, the brush, the spiraling roots, the knuckles of wood, looming, nightmarish fists manacled in wreaths of thorn, ablaze. My war cry even singed needles still whizzing through the air. Through smoke and mist, cactus crabs collapsed, imploded, sloughing steaming green hide that hissed and popped like corn in a cast-iron kettle.
And that’s when Brady lost it.
“I’ll bury you, put you in that pine box and watch you suffocate!” Blam-blam! Wrath barked back a chorus line. Blam-blam! Fury remarked.
He trudged towards the burning thicket, tears wobbling in his angry eyes, squeezing thunder from the sisters’ thighs, a deafening cacophony of lead and powder, hammer and pin.
“Give me back my momma!” he screamed as he fell to his knees, emptying his burden in a flurry of gunfire that left the crabs crippled and leaking, scuttling back to their darkened patches. His fingers pulled on empty chambers now, a click-clicking tap-dance, like metal raindrops, drowning out his wailing grief.
For the first time in weeks, my belly was empty. I was running on the last of my steam. Brady was shattered, his weirdoo seeping out through physic cracks. It was just what the Whisky King wanted, I figured.
“Croak, croak.” Not this way, not before you face him, Whisky Chile.
He wiped his eyes and put the sisters back to sleep. Still, he didn’t move from his spot, kneeling, half-way buried in the soil like a starving seed praying for rainfall to come.
“Croak, croak.” This time with a bound in his direction.
I’d seen him break before, most times in his sleep. He’d twitch and lash out, flail to push away at something which wasn’t there, the shadow of a dream always sleeping beside him. “Run through the doorways,” he’d mumble, “run, whisky chile;” figured it was Momma speaking to him.
I jumped in his pocket and pissed. “Croak,” with a smile.
“Son of a horny-toad,” he mumbled.
Son of a drunken skin sack.
“Cold-blooded, cactus snack.”
He began to smile, breathing deeply again.
“I guess you’re right, bubba. Can’t let it get to my head. Gotta reload the girls and get to moving this stone. Strange,” he said, rising to his feet, “never thought he’d hide a doorway like this, most are out in the open. You think he’s scared?” he asked.
“You think I’m scared, then?”
He went pale for a second, his grizzled jaw dropping defeatedly.
“We get what water’s left from the crabs, and keep it pushing. Fear or no fear, weirdoo be damned, we’re going through that wall.”
Wrath and Fury sung again, a dozen scattered notes across the wall, falsetto chips and baritone chunks. “It ain’t moving. The hell you want from me now!” he barked, pounding his fists against the cracked granite wall. Two chicken-scratched lines appeared on the stone, questions for the Whisky Chile to answer. He leered at the blue lettering, no doubt Daddy’s drunken scrawl.
WHO LOVES YOU?
It was a cruel joke, even by a hexer’s standards, answered only in a manner befitting the King himself. I swallowed hard, hoping any number of accolades he’d never earned, words of encouragement he’d never heard, phantom limbs which had never rocked him safely to sleep, somehow lessened the pain of the two words he was about to speak. I wiggled a bit, mule-kicked his heart to soothe him in my own twisted way. He patted my pocket and spoke.
The line vanished. Only one left.
HOW WILL YOU DIE?
He held the sisters tight, and grinned.
“By the Whisky King’s hand.”
The line vanished with a cackle, and the stone rolled free, revealing another doorway. Brady filled his skin with cactus water, and in we marched.
“You full yet, Jeremiah?”
His voice was a haunting echo, unanswered from the end of the dark tunnel he waded through, up to his knees in something wet—hooch, by the whiff of it. The air seemed to carry it, blow it at our faces in breath-like intervals, then stagnate, a sour stench of mash and rye mixed with cotton mouth. I was used to it, of course, living in the most deplorable conditions for most of my life, licking up leftovers from all sides of the pond, dead or alive, but Brady trembled, memories of Daddy’s breath peeling back his steely rind.
His legs stopped moving.
“Jeremiah, you there?”
My belly was still raw from that devil’s dance I’d spewed. The cactus water would need more time to work its recharge.
“Croak, croak.” Not there yet, Brady. Cool down the pace.
“Could use some light right about now,” he said with a sigh. “Smells like Trudie’s backside in here.”
With each breath of stench the tunnel took, water—or what seemed like water at the time—rose and fell, to and fro like a frothy tide at midnight.
“We’re not going anywhere until I can see what we’re working with here. Let sister Wrath light the way.”
He pulled Wrath and ran two fingers along her barrel. “Keep it down,” he said. “Bright like a star, got it?” Her hammer slid back, easy. He pointed her up at an angle and squeezed, her bark silent as a weirdoo prayer; her cool lead lodging in the ceiling fifty paces out, a bright bullet lit up like a diamond in the sky. “Atta-girl,” he said.
I peeked out my pocket and saw the tunnel was a long massive throat held up with arches of bone every so often, lined in pink saggy flesh with throbbing varicose veins like purple snakes writhing along the walls and ceiling. What I’d thought was water turned out to be a river of red corn mash, three feet deep with human skeletons floating on the surface. Some were only half-dissolved: farmers clenching pitchforks with three-fingered hands, gunfighters petrified in quickdraw poses, poachers caught red-handed and still back-strapped to gunny sacks crammed with contraband; a sea of wayward hexers seeking out the glory of Jubilee.
“Supper’s ready, son,” a wee voice tinkled from somewhere in the darkness ahead, either the mouth or the belly end, I couldn’t tell. But if that putrid breath was blasting us frontside, it meant we were headed for the skull, the heart of Jubilee, where the Whiskey King ruled unchecked.
“Croak, croak.” You really think that’s your momma, Whiskey Chile? Wake up and smell the death. He’s baiting you.
Now the rapid twang of a wrought-iron triangle called out. “Come and get it, Brady. Supper’s getting cold.”
“Croak, croak!” Check that phony voice, Whiskey Chile. My pea-sized brain was boiling, aching to speak that rough, warm-blooded tongue. Don’t let it rattle you. Concentrate!
“Momma. Sit tight, Momma, I’m coming to get you!”
That chile’s voice, filled with hope and cotton candy dreams, nearly broke my shriveled heart. Weirdoo wasn’t enough to keep him tied down. As much as I bucked and kicked at his chest, croaked out double no’s like buckshot blows, he still ran to the mannequin’s voice, chest heaving as he kicked through red ripples and floating bones to the source.
His body was wilting, heart thrumming a funeral drum—his own funeral if those old memories were stronger than his will to make it to the other side of Daddy’s throat.
Bright eyes beamed at us through the darkness ahead, shimmering gems disguised as Momma’s baby blues. Sister Wrath’s bullet-light was far behind us now, pulsing a cautionary tale that Brady ignored. He was in a trance only fire could wake him from. Bouncing nearly out of my pocket, I mustered what little flame I had and sent it twisting up his jawline.
“Damn it!” He stopped, clutching patches of beard burning like long curly fuse lines. “What’d you do that for, bubba?”
The sound of a train horn boomed ahead. Below Momma’s bright eyes, a menacing, cow-catcher smile peeled back the darkness. Two rows of iron teeth screeched open, swallowing gulps of hooch and bone as it barreled towards us. “Never late, the endless train arrives again, the fare is always free!” Momma’s voice, now taunting, shrieked like grinding steel. “Next stop, the GRAVE!”
Move your ass, Brady!
As he sloshed to the side of the tunnel, toward thick strips of skin raised up like steps on a station platform, a foot or two above the river of hooch, I noticed that the embers of beard he’d wiped away had made sparks in spots where they’d fallen, red puffs of lily pad trailing far behind.
Why hadn’t I seen it? A river of hooch. Sister Wrath praying silently, without a spark. Chunks of Brady’s beard flaring where they’d fallen. The path ahead, now lit up on all sides around the train with wisps of fire curled back from the corners of its mouth, white-hot coal shining through its mangled teeth. The whole tunnel was a powder keg, a barrel of Daddy’s finest stock, waiting to explode.
Brady made it out of the river and onto the platform, his eyes nervously darting back and forth between a concave wall of flesh and the whoosh of flame and steel rushing up Daddy’s throat, but he was still soaked up to the knees in it—he’d burn. I panicked, leaped out of my pocket, but Brady caught me with a steady hand.
“Croak, croak,” he said, placing me back in his pocket. “Don’t you worry, Jeremiah, we ain’t crispy critters yet.”
The flaming train was a hand-toss away when Brady pulled his hunting knife and dug it into the wall. Cutting down with a single, violent stroke, he opened a skin slit big enough to fit through and dove inside, holding the flaps shut tight around him like a butterfly’s cocoon.
We watched the train blare by from the cool, sticky safety of our paper-thin skin sack, courtesy of Daddy’s fire-hardened throat. It was almost transparent. Passenger windows flashed by like the pages of a chile’s flip-book, lending action to a still scene from Brady’s past floating in the center of the car isles.
Momma eased the screen door open, stepped through the doorway of Brady’s old home, a two-story monstrosity with chipped green paint and a wrap-around porch where you could swing idly and watch your tea steep in the sun. His heart raced as she strolled to the edge of the porch and lifted her hand to block the sun’s glare, a look of quiet desperation on her face when she called out to him. She inched closer to the edge. Brady held his breath.
Through the doorway behind her, a shadow stretched across the porch, seeped out like spilled pitch on the boards. Daddy emerged. He didn’t speak or make his presence known. He crept, holding up a finger over his pale lips, as if he knew we were watching.
“Brady!” she called. “Time to come inside.”
He squirmed in our skin sack.
I thought he’d open the slit he was holding closed while the train surged by. Daddy lifted his knee, as if preparing to long-step over some unseen obstacle, planted the sole of his boot on the small of Momma’s back... and kicked.
Off the edge of the porch she went. The sharp crackle of brittle bone snapping. A gleaming smile in the darkness. The deep, quaking whistle of the train’s horn trailing off, mixing with a woman’s scream as the caboose slid by into nothingness, through the doorway we’d entered from. The fire died down, and Brady stepped out cautiously from the flaps.
The train hadn’t run on tracks but on the soft, writhing surface of a tongue stretched the entire length of the tunnel, visible now that the river of hooch had sublimated. I expected tears or a tantrum, Wrath and Fury once again emptying his burden, knees dug down in frustrated prayer, a primal scream after seeing what the Whisky King had done to his momma.
I saw none of that. It was as if he no longer carried that burden—like the train and the burning hooch and the scene on the porch had lifted it from his shoulders. His heart calmed, and he patted his pocket like he always did when his mind was clear, when he was finally resolved.
“So, that’s the truth of it,” he calmly said, shaking off the stickiness.
“Croak, croak, croak.”
“You don’t think so, huh? I suppose it could be a lie—another one of Daddy’s tricks to keep me guessing, throw me off the trail. Though, he always did have a sly grin on his face when he’d tell me about how Momma died. Slipped...”
There wasn’t much left to say. He could turn tail and make his way back to the runners’ shack, build a new life for himself with the knowledge—true or false—that Momma had been murdered. He could live with it. He’d lived with the deaths of the coyote runners, not that they were close.
“Only one way to find out, bubba.”
He sat with folded legs in the center of the tunnel, his face drained of all its color, and the giant tongue pulled us through that final foul doorway to Jubilee.
The runners had spoken of Jubilee from time to time. Sitting in front of their fires, cozied up together in loose packs, they’d ramble on about bar counters stretched for miles; women of the night pawing at pockets of silver and gold, soothing the harshness of the wild with wet kisses and fever dreams. They’d lick their lips at mention of spirits flowing down the walls, endless barrels and taps of whiskey and beer that warmed the belly and set the mind wandering in a sublime reverie. None of them knew what they were talking about, though. Jubilee wasn’t a destination just anybody could get to. It existed on another plane. Only the doorways could get you there. And why the doorways appeared? Well...
Figures on stilts scissored between fuming lampposts lined along the walkways, lighting them with torches as they swayed above a motely crowd of onlookers. Some cheered the act, looking up with drawn, eager faces. Most passed by indifferently, pushing through throngs of folks in animal masks, and pinstriped suits, and long trailing dresses trampled now and then by children darting through dark alleyways. The sky was pitch black, pocked with only two stars, bursting with fireworks that rained down on tin roofs. The whole place was surreal. It was the very core of the Whiskey King’s twisted mind.
“Over there,” Brady said, pointing to a large building that teetered drunkenly. It seemed to be the place most folks were heading to, the end of a long line of shops and parlors and saloons. “That has to be it.”
It was the only place anyone seemed interested in, if you called blind obedience interest. We pushed ahead with the crowd. They smelled of whiskey, all of them, stumbling along the dusty street through town to the Whiskey King’s sprawling castle. Sounds of uproar and cheer came from the double doors of the building, punctuating the bustle of the crowd.
“Make way! Everyone, make way. Move it,” barked a woman surrounded by small cactus crabs. They poked at feet and ankles, thinning out the crowd around her as she traipsed through the doors. She cleared her throat. “The king has arrived!”
All around us, applause broke out. Gloved hands patted Brady’s back and shook his shoulders approvingly. His heart raced as the crowd encroached. They lifted him up on a sea of groping hands, washing him towards the woman in the doorway. She twirled a white parasol propped against her half-covered shoulder, trembling with excitement as the crowd dumped Brady ashore onto jutting floorboards where the crabs made room for him. I held tight to my pocket, hoping my flame had been renewed.
He ran his hands over empty holsters, patting his pocket, also, to make sure I was still there. “They’re gone.” He turned back and pushed against the crowd, his chest desperately heaving. But the crowd bottle-necked, forcing him inside while the woman held the doors open. “No need for violence anymore, Mr. Nokes,” she purred. “You’ve arrived, at long last. Your throne awaits.”
He dove back into the crowd, only to be lifted off his feet by two lumbering figures. Clad in long dusters and hats pulled down over their eyes, they hooked him around the arms on both sides and pulled him to the room inside.
“Do something, Jeremiah. Light it up!”
I was overwhelmed with fear.
Masked faces watched and cheered from high banisters that ran around each successive floor, all the way up to the dark sky above. They tossed maize and empty beer bottles down, as if tossing flowers on caskets hundreds of feet in the ground. The crash of brown glass smashing, kernels pelting tables and piano tops, torn clothing drifting in the acrid air, all pounded my brain as Brady called my name, urging me to find the sisters in a sea of chaos.
Bartenders zipping behind bartop along the walls called out, “Drinks are on the house tonight, citizens!” Fiddles and banjos screeched through the air, twanging a procession march for the prodigal son—for the Whisky King, they called him. Strange.
“Where is he?” Brady said to the tall figures as they slid him across the floor to a throne in the center of the room. “Where’s the one you call Whiskey King?”
They shoved him on the throne; long bundles of barbed wire looped around his hands and feet, tying him down. Where the wire tightened on wrist and ankle, he bled. The woman with the parasol stood before him, smiling still.
“Bring the king his chalice,” she said, waving a dainty hand at a bareback waiter stumbling through the crowd. He handed an unmarked bottle to the woman and cartwheeled out of sight, back to an act of tossing daggers at a woman spinning on the wall. The bareback had tagged her with two daggers already, but she just laughed like she didn’t notice the pain.
“To sins of the Father,” the woman toasted.
“...sins of the father,” the crowd cheered back.
Brady clenched his jaw, taut lips receding into his dark mustachio.
“You will drink,” she said, her smile wavering as her face flashed a portrait of Brady’s momma, then back to a pale, indifferent stare.
Brady’s head slammed back into the cushioned throne.
The wranglers approached and gripped his jaw with iron fingers, slowly prying his mouth open. “Take your medicine.” She poured a steaming green concoction down his throat. “Make sure he swallows it,” she said. A sharp punch to the gut from one of the wranglers and Brady had no choice but to drink.
The woman looked me square in the eyes and reached inside my pocket. She pinched my legs with one hand and pinched her own nose with the other. “Do you know this... fellow?” she asked Brady. Dangling upside down, I looked to Brady. The wranglers had retreated into the crowd around us, and Brady was smiling. He looked different. The boy I’d known was a man now, and the man seemed to be enjoying himself. He slumped down in his throne, a shit-eating grin pasted on his face as he looked at me like I was a stranger.
“Nope,” he said. “Toss ‘em.”
He waved his hand to the woman, and she tossed me to the green felt table in the center of the room. I sloshed in a sea of dice, dollars, and painted chips. Three children wearing vulture masks took seats around me. They pulled forks and butter knives and titled their masks up, salivating as they stared at me with wild eyes. “Best to sit still,” the card dealer said to me, “they’re always hungry.”
“I imagine,” a voice boomed from the second-floor banister, “you’ve come for my head.”
He walked briskly to a winding staircase and made his way down, dragging a golden-knobbed cane across each carpeted step. The bustle of the crowd waned in anticipation of his entrance. He wore a white suit bright as day, a white hat with the symbol of the evil eye in the center. He was much taller than I remembered, towering over the onlookers as he slunk down to the first floor. He must have been eight feet tall, at least. His pointy black goatee was oiled to a shine, and his face showed no signs of that yellow pallor prone to folks who partake of hooch. Starts in the liver and works its way up to the cheeks and eyes.
“Not your head,” Brady said, leaning forward in his new throne. “I’ve come for the story. Maybe a few rounds of truth or die.”
“Blood of my blood,” the Whisky King said. He parted his jacket, hitched up his pants, and sat down across from Brady’s throne. I was right in the middle. Those hungry kids scattered when he sat. I finally took a breath.
“Bring my son a drink.”
“Of course, Whiskey King,” the pale woman said.
“I want it quiet in here,” he ordered. “Understood?”
“To the Father,” everyone cheered, then settled down into silence.
“I’ve got some truth talking to do, huh? Well... let’s start with introductions. You’re Brady, right? I must say, you’re a persistent little cuss. You get that from me. Welcome to Jubilee, Brady Nokes. What do you think so far?”
“The old house was cozier... more comfortable,” Brady said. “Mind loosening these wires up?”
“Full of demands, and baby shit. I can still hear you crying and moaning from time to time. Just as annoying now as you were back then. You were always demanding something. Milk. Momma. A song on the fiddle. Do you still drink milk, Brady? Still cry in your sleep?”
“Still kick helpless women off porches?”
“Touché. No... that was a one-time deal, no returns. An offering, you might call it. But don’t say I didn’t love her—don’t let that thought cross your vengeful little heart now. The price of bliss goes deeper than anything you’ve ever felt in your short life.”
“You could have used me instead.”
“Like I said, you have to love your trade-in for it to work. Besides, every king needs an heir. Isn’t that why you’re here? To steal my fiefdom, take my crown, redecorate my saloon with baby bottles, bullfrogs, and old-bastard odes. Where’d you find this one anyways?” He pointed to me. “Do you talk to him?”
“Something like that.”
“What do you want, Brady?”
“Then get! Go on back home and take the frog with you. This is my world. There’s no room for guns and cowboys clinging to the tit.”
“I don’t owe you a goddamn thing.”
Brady wobbled in his throne, completely overtaken by whatever’d been shoved down his throat.
“In the clouds, the ground... whatever makes you feel better about the accident you caused.” He smiled impishly, golden teeth shining through.
“Me!” Brady said, a small red circle forming on his forehead. “I saw it with my own two eyes. It was you pushed her off the porch. Why? For what!”
The Whiskey King removed his hat and handed it to the pale woman. She filled a glass for him and set it on the table, twirling her parasol as she walked back into the crowd.
“Tell him why,” she echoed back.
“You see what I want you to see,” the Whiskey King said. “The only thing you’ve ever done without my help is open those doorways. Cute, by the way. They look just like the doorway back home. The sisters, my coyote runners, hell, even the crows I gave to you. The weirdoo that got you here comes from Momma’s broken neck. How else do you think it gets passed down?” He took a gulp and licked his lips, rolled his sleeves up.
“I didn’t ask for this,” Brady said. “Take it back, take it all back and put Momma on the porch.” White smoke began to rise from Brady’s forehead. Either the Whiskey King didn’t see it or didn’t care. He was getting too much pleasure from the truth of things.
“A favor for a favor,” the Whiskey King said, “that’s always been the weirdoo way. I gave you a little of what I got when I was a boy. In return, your momma had to go. Don’t tell me you don’t like what I gave you, Brady my boy. I dreamed up the hardest mash in history and bottled it. And when that distillery went up in flame, I opened my own doorway—built Jubilee from ash and bone. I can do anything here. Just ask and it’s yours, if I feel like it.”
“Whiskey King,” the pale woman said. She looked worried.
“I see it,” the Whiskey King said dismissively. “He’s blocked, don’t worry. My mash’ll clog up just about anything.”
Now, I’d never seen more than two eyes on Brady’s face, and I had no idea what the Whiskey King was referring to when he told that pale woman not to worry, but whatever wicked mash he’d shoved down Brady’s throat to keep him from fighting back wasn’t working. Like a cactus crab playing possum, Brady had bought enough time talking truth or dare to finally use the gift his momma’d left behind for him.
“The runners,” Brady said. “The doorway opened when I killed the runners.”
“Now you’re catching on. Someone loosen-up that chicken wire. I want him comfortable when he makes his request. A building of your own, a bullfrog’s paradise. You want the sisters back? There’s room enough in Jubilee to build anything you want. But you can’t have my throne. Sound good to you? It’s the least I can do after pitching your momma off the porch.”
“A favor for a favor...”
The wranglers made their way through the crowd to loosen the chicken wire. They moved slower than before. Everything moved slower, like the floors had been covered in molasses. The dealer tossed cards in slow motion; the pale woman’s parasol stopped spinning.
The Whiskey King sat up straight, thumping the end of his cane down.
The floors above, an infinite expanse reaching the starlit sky, began to fade, wash away, leaving only the first floor. The Whiskey King stared intently.
“Yes, tell me!” urged the Whiskey King, leaning into the table, which began to melt like sand when the tide was high.
I took a deep breath, all that fire in my belly now ready to reach out and grab the devil’s hand. Night faded away. The sun rose outside, its rays turning the citizens of Jubilee back to skeletons with puppet strings. The wranglers were skeletons now, too, reaching with boney fingers for Brady’s throne. The pale woman fought to reach the table between them in time, her parasol dissolving.
Brady’s third eye opened on his forehead, its light covering the room, unveiling the Whiskey King’s paper castle. All was bone inside. Brady tore loose from the wire, sunbaked strips of twine that had before seemed inescapable.
He didn’t have to say it. I knew what he wanted me to do. I leaped off the table and unleashed every bit of flame I could muster, turning the crowd to ash and dust, laying them to rest where the Whiskey King had kept them awake for his own pleasure. His fiefdom now purified, freed by fire.
The walls dissolved, and the Whiskey King shrunk back to the man I remembered. Only more pitiful, emptier than before. He looked like a starving waif covered in a funeral shroud, his arms sinew, his face gaunt and gray and horrified as Brady stood and approached him, kicking through the pile of dust that had been the green felt table, all bets at a halt.
“You could have had all of this,” the Whiskey King muttered, butt-scooting away.
“I see everything now,” Brady said. His third eye stared mercilessly ahead. But below that, his true eyes welled. “I’m not going to put you in that pine box, Daddy. I can’t.” His boots thudded across the floor. With each step, Daddy shuddered.
“I’m not sorry,” Daddy said, “if that’s what you want to hear. I’d do it all over again. Only I’d have the runners strangle you in your sleep.”
“I know you would. You’ll die with Jubilee, with the sisters. You’ll die, and I’ll never open another doorway again. Jeremiah,” he called to me.
I made my way over to him. He picked me up and placed me in his pocket. I watched Daddy shrink like a dying tree in the desert. All the hooch in the world wouldn’t fill him up again. His shriveled face was filled with rage. Only his head remained, a white-haired raisin staring up at us through a pile of tattered clothes.
Brady lifted his boot and squashed the Whiskey King. He ground his foot until a golden knob appeared, then a whitewashed frame with a solid oak door the color of silt on the bed of some forgotten stream.
The doorway’s where it ended.
The home was untouched.
Fallen Cain sat pretty, a portrait petrified in time. Brady stood on the porch for a while, taking in the vastness of the shrouded plains. They stretched for what seemed an eternity. Green paint chips swirled in the arms of dust devils sweeping across the floorboards. They creaked as he approached the edge. Trudie’s tail swatted at flies on her back. She was tied to the porch railing, her nose dug deep in a bucket of grain and hay, munching away in the sunlight.
“Are you scared, Jeremiah?”
“You think I’m scared?”
I knew he wasn’t. All his wrath and fury had ended with the Whiskey King. The sisters were lost forever, swallowed up when we walked through that last doorway. They were better off that way. Let someone else find them—someone who twitched in their sleep, flailing to push away at their own ghosts.
“Croak, Croak,” is all I could say.
He crouched on the porch edge, looking down to where Momma had fallen.
“You can go now, bubba. I’ve taken up enough of your time. Go find those tadpoles. It’s tough not knowing where your daddy is.”
He patted his pocket, and I leapt down from the porch.
The sky began to darken, filling up with storm clouds that rolled in like quicksilver light. Those first drops of rain felt like heaven.
I watched him as he jumped down to greet Trudie, tossed his empty gun belt to the ground, and rested his head against her ribcage. “Come and visit some time. I’m sure Trudie would appreciate you eating up all these flies for her. Sun tea and idle time, sound good to you?”
I burped a ring of smoke and made my way back home.
I’m not sure what kind of life the Whiskey Chile led after that day on the porch. I suspected he’d always struggle with how his momma had died to give him the terrible gift of that third eye. How the Whiskey King had forced it upon him. How he never had a choice in the matter. The hooch running through his veins would always be there, itching to flip the world upside down again.
From time to time, I’d hop on over to a cliffside overlooking the plains, where that first doorway had opened, to watch him slowly rebuild the old distillery. I can’t be certain what he was brewing-up there, or why he’d want to breathe life back into the place that had taken everything he’d ever loved.
One thing I do know, though.
That small blue flame, the one about the size of a chile’s angry fist, was gone.