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Spring, Part One
A Solstice story
Start at the beginning of the Solstice series
Blue smoke curled from thick, squared-off lips, melding into the chill breeze of nighttime in April. Its ribbons tickled at the eyes above, grey and blue and crossed with tiny red veins. Barely visible at the streetlight's edge, Duncan Wane observed the Bridgehouse. He watched the thrumming red of neon signs and the tarnished glow of false Tiffany chandeliers, listened to the dull thump of the jukebox pounding uselessly against ancient clapboard walls.
From across the river came the staccato sound of two bells - the municipal clock atop city hall, ringing out the hour. Duncan smiled to see the lights rise in the Bridgehouse, to hear the groans and cries of its patrons wincing from the assault. Far above the Fox River, it brought to his mind the realms of Tartarus, and the ferryman of wicked souls. None of his late family was far from his mind these days.
The doors opened, and two by two the patrons stumbled forth into their dark, cool world, paths lit only by the burning ends of cigarettes, moving to the parking lot to gamble life and limb against their fleeting pleasure. It charmed Duncan for a moment, thinking on their games, recalling a time when he, too, had thought himself immortal. That reminiscence - that spell - was broken as the last rat swung open the doors of his sinking ship, lit a cigarette of his own, and moved unsteadily toward the bridge. He was a stork-like man, weaving on his too-tall legs and setting a long but thinning ponytail to dance, his arms marked in the blues and grays of artwork long past its prime.
Duncan set his lantern jaw and started across the street, head swiveling to ensure his privacy, cautious enough despite the anger in his soul. His frame, however, was scarcely made for silence. The stork turned, his dim eyes brightening with recognition.
"Dunc! Wondered where you'd be . . ."
He was close now, close enough to see - even by eyes blurred with drink and evening - that all was not well. His smile dropped, and sucking in his cheeks, his pale face took on a skeletal expression.
Duncan reached out with both hands, saying nothing.
"Fuck!" He turned and lurched into a run, old shoes slapping against the concrete walks. Duncan rolled along behind him, neither man made for such a race. The night air seized their rasping breaths and condensed them into spirits, pale clouds skipping toward the river as their arms pumped, elbows flailing, looking for all the world like children playing at catch-as-catch-can, or some long-forgotten comedic team putting on a show for an audience unseen.
"You knew!" Duncan called, reaching forward to clutch at flapping shirttails. "You son of a bitch, you knew, you knew, and you never told me!"
The stork made no reply, his breath too labored for even a short denial, focused only on escaping his former friend. They reached the bridge's edge and he launched himself into the street, falling flat on his face as his foot missed the curb.
Anger was replaced by panic as Duncan cried, "John! Look . . ."
John heard the screech of brakes, saw the flash of headlights, and suddenly felt the full weight of Duncan on his back, all the man's fat and muscle combined to both shield and crush the sprawling drunk.
"Jesus Christ!" Doors slamming as two young men leapt from their Impala. "I didn't hit him, I swear, I didn't even come close!"
"I saw it," shouted his friend, "we were nowhere near him, he tripped! We had the light, what the hell is he doing?"
"It's okay, boys," Duncan said. "I know. He's safe." He lowered his head to John's ear, nose wrinkling against the ripe smell of gin. "For now, anyway."
John, for his part, retched into the gutter and was still.
"You know, I've seen this scene in movies a thousand times. Maybe more." Duncan turned from the hot plate in his tiny apartment, two steaming cups of coffee in his hands. "First I'm supposed to half drown you in cold water. Then I'm supposed to half scald you in hot water. And then you're supposed to sober up and break down in apologies."
"Please, don't." John took the coffee between trembling hands. "It doesn?t really work, trust me."
"I can't believe you."
"Dunc, I swear . . ."
"Don't call me by that name, ever again." Duncan shook his head, fingers drumming against the scratched top of his folding table. "Duncan is nobody. There never was a Duncan, understand? I was a god. A god!" His hand, wrapped in calluses and the road rash from their wrestling match, took in the dirty blankets he had turned into impromptu window shades. "Why would you let me live like this if you knew that?"
He laughed, head rolling back. "And I live in a mansion on the hill, surrounded by groupies, just like the old days? Knowing doesn't change a thing . . . Vulcan. If anything, it makes it worse." He ran one finger around the rim of the mug with exaggerated care, allowed his once-beautiful voice to rise into a chant. "Swill to wine . . . swill to wine . . ." He squeezed his eyes shut, lifted the cup, peered inside, and shrugged. "Sanka, not shiraz. Every time. It doesn't change a thing."
"It does. It has to." Vulcan reached forward, wiping a thumb across Bacchus's cheek. "You've got some dirt right there. It can change things, you know. Once you know about it."
"Maybe for you. All it means to me is that this liver's not going to keep up with my old one."
"So let's look up Prometheus and see if he's founded a transplant business."
Bacchus squinted across the table, then managed a weak smile. "So you did keep some sense of humor. I swear, I thought you were going to kill me back there."
"I thought about it." Vulcan nodded. "You deserved it."
"For not telling you?"
"And for more. For the old days, for the drink and the donkey; and for the endless lost days of this meaningless life. You've cost me so much time, Bacchus. There's so much to be done."
"Don't dwell on old scores, man." Bacchus sipped the coffee, shaking his head. "It's never what it's cracked up to be. Me, I send Pentheus a fruit basket every spring solstice, and a card on every winter."
He had the grace to look embarrassed. "Well, when I remember. He never writes back."
"Maybe he doesn't remember who he is, either."
"Maybe." Bacchus shrugged. "Either way, it's rude."
"Well, I know a couple other people here in Solstice who don't remember."
Bacchus sat still, only his head turning to take in the apartment - the dark panels of the walls, the pathetic hearth and kitchen, the dirty floors and cobwebbed corners of the ceiling. When he spoke, his voice shook only slightly.
"It is . . . unfair, Vulcan. You're right. But they used to say that about us, too. Remember? The thunderbolts, the lighting strikes, the floods and droughts and stillbirths? This is the way it works. I'm not trying to hide anything from you anymore, and I'm sorry if I hurt you. Really."
"If you hurt me?"
"I'm sorry you got hurt," he continued carefully, "but understand that for me, knowing has been a stone cold curse. I mean, look at me. I'm thousands of miles from the islands I loved, my tolerance has gone to shit since I hit thirty-five, and I wake up alone every morning on a futon that reeks of night sweats to spend another nine hours working at a damned community college.
"Mind you," he said, sipping at the coffee, "that's when I'm lucky, and don?t fall asleep in the park halfway home, dreaming of olive-skinned boys and girls under eternal summer skies, waking to bad weather and MacIntyre's boots. I wish I didn't know. It'd make things easier to bear."
"That's you." Vulcan said, setting his mug down. "I'm done drinking, now. I'll miss the Bridgehouse and the Cottage and the nights by your side, but I remember now, and I'm going to make the most of it. I might not be making thunderbolts any more, but by my old name, I'll make something of my life. "
"Bully for you. Call if you need help cleaning out your liquor cabinet."
"I dumped it already. And by the way, you're staying sober a while, too."
"The hell I am."
"The hell you aren't. I need your help, Bacchus. And you owe me."
His eyes, still bleary despite the adrenaline and caffeine, sharpened to a semblance of wariness. "What kind of help do you figure I owe you?"
"Like I said, there are a couple other people here who don't remember."
"Yeah. See, the thing about that . . ."
"Two of them."
"Staff Sergeant Michael Monroe, and his daughter Victoria. His daughter. My wife. My wife, who left me for him, again, being reborn with him and not with me. Again."
"Okay." Bacchus stood with a wince. "I'm leaving now."
"No, you're not."
"Or what, man?" He laughed. "I'm not buying into anything that has you chasing jailbait from the old days."
Vulcan rose along with his voice. "Do. Not. Call her that!"
"She's as bad news now as she was then. Even worse for old men like . . ."
His face contorting, Vulcan hurled his mug against the wall. It shattered into stars, the coffee spraying itself across wall, ceiling, floor, showering them both in hot liquid and cream-colored shards.
"Hey . . ."
He grabbed the second mug and turned to another wall, throwing with all his might, shattering his meager comforts, thick lips clenched between chipped front teeth, blushing cheeks mottled with the hot purple blood of uncontrolled fury. His leg thrashed out, brought down the folding chair and stamped into its backrest without words, smashing massive dents into its metal face, arms raised in fists above his head, thrust in rage against the silent and uncaring sky.
"Hey, stop! Duncan . . . Duncan!"
He reached for the table to smash it as well, but Bacchus threw his arms around Vulcan's chest and shoulders, seized him not in a lock, but in an embrace. "All right! It's all right! Dunc, buddy, I won't go, okay? I won't. I'm here. I'm not leaving you. I'm not leaving, okay? Honest. I won't go away. Shhhh. It's okay, man. It's all right."
The fit left in a massive shudder, shaking his frame from head to toe. They stood, silent for a moment, before Bacchus carefully lifted his arms away.
"Swear," said Vulcan, his voice choked.
"I swear. I won't go away, okay? I can't . . . I mean, I don't know exactly what we're going to do, but I won't just leave you hanging."
Hushed voices could be heard from the apartment below, the sounds of neighbors trying to decipher what was happening in the mysterious realms above their heads. Chirping, hidden ghosts in an unseen world.
"I don't want her," said Vulcan. "I mean . . . she's beautiful. You can't change that. But she's a child, and I don't want her, not the way you thought. Not the way you said."
"That's good," said Bacchus quietly. "I'm really, really glad to hear it, man. That might make it easier."
"But knowing that she's with him . . ." His face screwed itself into a serpent's knot, fighting back forge-hot tears.
"He's not even here, Vulcan. He shipped off for Iraq like two years ago. He's probably happier than any of us."
"He's coming home," said Vulcan. "It said so in the papers, and he's got a nice big welcome home sign planted outside the Northwoods." He took a deep breath. "I don't want him to be happier than any of us. I don't want him to be happy at all."
Bacchus thought a moment. "Okay," he said. "I think I understand."
He nodded, blowing his sunken cheeks into twin apples. "Hell if I know what we'll do about it. Man's a decorated Marine and now he's a homecoming hero, but I can't say I ever liked him much myself. We'll be able to figure something out."
Vulcan nodded. "I knew you would. You were always the clever one." He turned away, back toward the stained countertop of his tiny kitchenette. "I'll make more coffee."
Story and image by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2009