by Autumn Hayes
Wait a minute, buddy – don’t go so fast. We don’t mean no harm; just asking, is all. Just asking. We been lugging this thing around so long, through this park, and in this weather. Feel that wind kicking up? It’s gonna rain soon.
Yeah, it’s sunny now, but trust me – it’ll rain. Might as well step under this tree, pal, and give us a hand. Quit your bustling home. That subway ain’t coming no sooner.
Ahh, come on, man. Just for a second? My partner here, Verne, he’s awful tired. We need a break. Help us out for a second, friend.
Not even for an old man? Look at him. Don’t he deserve a little mercy in his old age? Wouldn’t you want some, too, if you were him? If you’d been charged with what he’s got –
No, not sick, but tired, as he ought to be. You’d be broke-down, too, and hunched up like a gargoyle, all twisted and gray and knotty – don’t look like that, Verne; it’s true – if you’d been through what he’s been through. If only I could show you my hands! And my back? It’s killing me. I can’t imagine how he’s hurting. Poor Verne, all these years, hauling it around –
Can’t, mate. It ain’t that easy. The rules state clear and firm: carry the box over your head, or at least five feet off the ground, at all times. No setting it down. Ever, or else.
Ah, hell, partner. You don’t want to know. We’d never get it closed again, and we’d never – well, let’s say it’s messy, friend, and involves a lot of demons, and the world as we know it would shed its skin if people knew what we had here.
Don’t look like that, man. I’m not nuts. Ask Verne here; he’d tell you if he talked – which he don’t – but if he did, he’d tell you what we got here is important. Mighty important.
What’d you call it – a chest? Now, that’s a funny word for it. Never looked at it that way. Huh. But what’s in it – now, that, my friend, is a complicated answer. I couldn’t tell you as well as I’d show you, and you wouldn’t believe me, anyway. Would you?
It’s pretty confidential, man. You’ll keep quiet? If you didn’t –
Okay. Just don’t laugh, and don’t ever tell nobody. Promise?
Well, it’s the Book of Eternal Secrets.
Don’t laugh! It’s the Book of Secrets. It is! All the knowledge there ever was, or will be, or is now – or never was, but should’ve been – here in this box, and we carry it.
Yeah, stuff like that. And what killed the dinosaurs, and what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, and –
Come on, man. The Mafia killed him. Everyone knows that. Walled him up in Giants stadium. The rumors are true.
No, of course not. Sinking logs and drunken Scotsmen are all that is. A myth. How could only one of them survive for four million years, without breeding? Sheesh. That’s common sense.
Okay, okay, wait. Don’t go. I didn’t mean that. I’m just kind of kind of crabby, you know, from carrying this box around, and waiting for this replacement, this third guy.
Yep. Supposed to be a three-man job. Not that it’s so heavy. Not when you first pick it up, at least. But after you’ve been at it a while, like we have, it gets a tad… weightier. Old Verne, he’s about bagged. Been freighting this box around a long time. We need a hand, till the third guy comes.
I hope so, pal. We were supposed to meet him right here. Yep, under this maple tree. He specifically told us, “The gnarled one by the duck pond, right across the foot bridge from the playground.” Yet here we are, and there’s the bridge, and I don’t see nobody but you.
What’d you say? Have we been waiting long? Buddy, you don’t know the half. Verne over here, he’s been waiting sixty-some-odd years. A shame, really; a crying shame. Old man like him needs a break, don’t he? Look at him. He’s probably G.D. seething underneath that calm exterior. Yeah, I know, he don’t seem like it. But he is, and he’s got every right to be.
I wouldn’t call them “glowing.” His eyes probably look that way because of the light, you know? The sun’s going down, and plus, that storm’s coming. The one I mentioned earlier. Remember? When I asked you for help? No, of course not; you were so busy being businesslike…
What? Oh, nothing. Just wondering when this third guard’ll come. Gotta keep this cargo safe, you know.
Not “read” it, per se. More like “absorbed” it. There’s all these possibilities, see, floating around all noxious-like, on a cloud. And that’s the future, right? But the past, on the other hand, is much more –
Never heard of her. But she’s probably in the book, and I clean forgot her. Can’t keep up with everything. But I tell you what – if you’d help us out, you’d know yourself. All you gotta do is touch it, and –
Wait! Where are you going?
Hey, pal, look. I’m sorry I don’t remember more, but if you’d help us out – hey –
Come back here!
Yeah, I said your name. And yeah, we know all about her – and you. Okay? It’s all in the book: where she lives, where she’s been, her whole life without you, how she disappeared and why, and how you disappointed her –
Hey, man! Hands off the clothes! Lay off. I told you, I know – and you could, too. No need to get all bent out of shape. We’re offering the chance of a lifetime, man. Besides, you wouldn’t want to upset my balance and make me fall down or anything… right?
Now, that’s more like it. It’s simple. We need a hand – or two. I ever tell you what happened to Verne, friend?
You don’t? Well, that’s too bad, because, if you ever do want to find your little sweetheart, Paul – or walk through this park, past those kiddos on the swing set, without ducking twenty succubi or picking your dainty way through a sea of rotting bodies – you’d better listen, and listen good. I’m feeling talkative today… and clumsy. You understand me now, Paulie Boy? You get me now?
Much better. Oh, it’s a sad tale! See, old Verne here got chosen a while back, back when there were three of them – three – and it was done proper. When fellas didn’t lose their grip and skip out on you. Had more honor, then, according to Verne; to hear him tell it, everything was better. Simpler, clearer cut. But who knows when “then” was, eh? Sixty years ago, a thousand? Could be any time, any era; Verne’s been here through all of them. But a nice round number will do – easier to swallow – so let’s say sixty-six. Sixty-six years.
So Verne and these chaps are working, carting the book around, keeping it from being discovered, when all of a sudden the third lug’s got to pee, right now, real bad. Dark night – starless, moonless – and he’s got to take a whiz. Huh! Well, where’s our bathroom breaks? Verne here ain’t peed in sixty-six years! Now, how’s that for fairness? No-goodnik… right?
Well, anyway, Verne here’s got him a heart of gold – a heart of gold, mark me – and says, “Yeah, sure. We’ll keep it up a while. You take a leak, buddy,” and the other guy agrees. So this third guy goes in the bushes with a torch and does his thing, and when he’s done, he turns around and smiles real big. Ear-to-ear grinning. Says, “You’re real good guys, you know.” And runs off and never comes back again. Cackling all the way.
Now, I understand. A man gets tired; a man needs a home. He’s got a wife and two kids waiting on him – waiting – and there’s blisters lining his palms, and this box, well, it ain’t what he thought it’d be. He knows everything in the world, but he can’t see his daughter’s face, you know? Can’t kiss his wife goodnight, can’t sit in his armchair and watch the game. Can’t do nothing but carry this box and hope one day to taste a steak, or anything else, again. So I understand.
But Verne’s partner, he ain’t so forgiving. He’s got to bear it around still, with Verne, who don’t seem to care at all. Just smiling along, like nothing’s wrong. So after a while, this other guy gets to thinking maybe he ought to bail. Thinks he ought to up and leave like the other guy, but can’t. He can’t leave Verne alone; the fate of the world depends on this, right? So he’s got to find a way out, but safely.
Well, imagine his surprise, then, discovering all he had to do was ask some schmoe to take a corner one day, while he re-clasped his cloak or something. Things were simpler, those days; so says Verne. Everyone was more gullible, or trusting.
But I don’t even blame the bloke. He’s got places to go and people to see, and who cares about a long life? He might live forever while he’s holding it, but if a man can’t sleep or eat… I mean, you know it don’t matter if he needs to or not physically; there’s more than what we need physically.
So I’m not mad at him for bolting, not one iota, just like I can’t fault the guy he conned for bilking some young lady with a guilt trip about how Verne’s so old and fragile and they’re waiting for backup. Not her fault she had such a tender heart. I mean, you look at that cold, wrinkled visage, with its fissures and folds and wolfish grin – I mean, pained grimace – and you wonder why he never ran, why he never himself left in all these years. But you figure he’s old, right? So old he smells like sulfur and brimstone, but harmless nonetheless, and needs the help. Commendable, right?
Not so much so when she duped me, but I ain’t even mad at her. Curiosity, of course; you know what they say. Her going on about living forever, and the knowledge of a god, and, well, she got me. They were all good men, though, even the women. All wanting to help somebody, or help themselves, or a little of both. No way to know they’d all take off as soon as possible, but I can’t blame them. Who wouldn’t like to see their folks again, to hold them, and not this goddamn box? Who wouldn’t mind some time off, after three years? I mean, when it’s not even permanent, when it’s so easy to pass on to the next guy, who might not even have a wife – or a life at all worth living, but he could, if he just found her – is that so bad? Is that so selfish?
Don’t presume to judge now, Paul. I know all about you; remember the book? Those last couple of trades, they weren’t so A-one, were they? Didn’t quite make the grade? Well, it’s only a matter of time – say, three months – before it all gives way beneath you. All of it, and they’ll be coming. Coming for your houses – yes, the condo and the ranch – and your yacht and your savings and passport. Oh, and your dogs. And once those go, you’ll never see Carlene; they’ll throw you in jail with a cell-mate named Clarence. And then who’ll want to get away, huh, Paul?
Sure you can. It’s easy. Everybody in the world wants to help out old folks, especially old Verne here. And if that fails, they’ve all got a secret they want to know – or hide. Now don’t they?
I knew you’d come through. I knew you were a good guy, Paul.
AUTUMN HAYES is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher, and poet. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Defenestration, Cuento, trapeze magazine, 7×20, and Southern Women’s Review. She prefers to make stuff up, so don’t look for her blog… and if you do, don’t believe a word of it.