by Ally Malinenko
The worms in the barrel, the hangin’ sun
— “Devil’s Arcade,” Bruce Springsteen
“Just one more second,” he said, pulling at the ground as if he could move a mountain. Jakob stood, tugging at his sandy beard. I’m not tall for a woman, but Jakob was shorter than me, hunched, with a twisted spine and a bad leg. He’s not the sort of guy you take into the desert. “Maybe it was the other dune.”
“Should be right around here,” he said, bent over the dune, his hands working like dog paws, knocking the sand back between his legs. I looked up, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun. There was nothing around, nothing for miles but sand and more sand.
“Christ, Jakob,” I said, slumping down on the sand. It was hot enough to burn through my jeans, like sitting on a range that was just turned off, but I didn’t fucking care.
“What did I tell you?” Jakob said. He was easily seventy years old, but he looked a hundred and acted twenty. “Huh?” he said, watching me retie the sweat-soaked bandana on my head. “Jessie, what did I tell you?”
I looked up at him squinting. He seems like a myth, wire thin and sun stained.
“You said when heroes are needed, heroes get made.”
“That’s right,” he said, turning back to the dune. “You gotta have faith. This is your debt.”
But it wasn’t, it was Bobby’s debt, I wanted to scream. Bobby who made the stupid deal in the first place. Bobby who was Jakob’s partner. Bobby who was my brother. Is, my brother.
“Ah ha!” Jakob whooped. From the sand he pulled out a woven sack, beat to hell, and inside was the blunderbuss, more beautiful than I imagined. Silver detail, pirate’s head butt cap, engraved barrel and lock. “This here is my pistol. I call her Anne.”
“Of course.” I watched Jakob bang the dust out of the barrel. Anne Oakley was the first thing we had to fine. The second was the Arcade.
Hunting up the Arcade was no easy matter. I knew Bobby, crazy fucking Bobby, spent years looking for it. Making a pact with Lieutenant Ray wasn’t something you entered into lightly. You had to be prepared and to Jakob preparation meant you had to have a blunderbuss.
From his ratty waistcoat pocket, Jakob pulled what looked like a pocket watch but I had been around him long enough to know it wasn’t as simple as that. In the beginning, I used to ask questions, but Jakob’s a storyteller and I wasn’t interested in hearing about the time he raided King Ahnkmakis the Elder’s tomb out in the Red Lands and nearly died hiding out in the desert all night. I heard too many stories. I just wanted Bobby back.
“Listen when the train pulls up,” Jakob started.
“That’s what I said, ent it?”
“Jakob, there aren’t tracks for miles.”
“How many times I gotta tell you? The Arcade don’t need no tracks,” Jakob said, hoisting a fat lob of spit on the sand dune. I couldn’t fathom how he even had moisture in him. I was dry as bone.
I pitched a shelter, desperate for shade. Jakob stood, unwavering, the pocket watch extended before him, a small spyglass fixed to his eye. He watched and he waited. I slept fitfully, dreamlessly, waking frozen as night dropped.
“It’s coming!” Jakob hollered, rousing me out of my little tent. He was in the exact spot I had left him earlier, pointing at the horizon line.
There it was, a first just speck of light, growing. The sound came later, after the train morphed into life, a giant clattering rusty old steam engine, barreling through the desert in the blue black of the night. It roared and clanked and whistled as it pulled itself to a stop right in front of us, steam creeping out the sides, the whole thing shuddering with a hiss. Behind the engine, cloaked in the black smoke that churned from the stack, were train cars. And painted on the side, clear as day, was Lieutenant Ray’s Traveling Arcade.
“Indeed,” Jakob added.
The car door rattled open and the sound eclipsed the clanking of the engine cooling down. The man that stood there was wider than I had expected, not thin, wiry, or demonic. He was like a fucked up Santa. Fat, hairy, but also dirty – dirty nails, dirty beard. Even his smile was all dirty teeth, a fat cigar plugged in the side of his mouth.
“Ain’t mornin’ yet.”
“Close enough. Nearly daybreak.” He eyed me up. “Boss is waiting.”
“Is that Ray?” I asked foolishly.
“Nope. Ray’s inside, hopefully with Bobby,” Jakob said hoisting himself into the darkness of the train car. Having no choice, I followed.
Ray sat at a card table, fingering the deck of cards, dressed in black leather, a wide brimmed hat on his head. When he tilted his head up, his eyes were charcoal black, pupil-less like you’d expect. He smiled a raw smile around a cigarette and gestured at the table before him.
“Howdy, Ray,” Jakob said, sitting, and I joined him at the table. Ray shuffled the cards and dealt Jakob a hand.
“I don’t play women.”
“She’s got the debt.”
Jakob shooed me away from the table, muttering something about taking care of it. I stood, reluctantly, bumping into the fat man, who pushed me through to another train car. I saw him there, chained, starved, his stomach concave, his face beaten.
“Bobby,” I said, dropping to the floor beside him.
“Jessie,” he croaked. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving you,” I said with a sad laugh and lay beside him. “Jakob’s playing. Everything is okay.” But immediately I knew it wasn’t from the low exhale of breath from Bobby’s body.
The train started with a shutter, a clank and a low, sickening whistle of steam. We chugged through the desert, Bobby at my side, my head on his chest, listening to the low thump of his heart. The train clanked. Thunk. Bobby’s heart thumped. Thunk, thump, thunk, thump, and to calm him, I told my twin the story of our life.
ALLY MALINENKO writes poems and stories and occasionally gets them published. Her second book of poems entitled Crashing to Earth is forthcoming from Tainted Coffee Press. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she keeps re-writing the same novel over and over again.