Mark put the phone down and ran.
He didn’t run out of the front door to his car. He ran out the back, across his small yard and flung himself over the fence. He ran across the muddy field, lit only by moonlight because the sky was clear. His heart beat like a drum, pumping acid and sorrow around and around, into his head and back again. And suddenly, he heard the footfalls of shadowy pursuers behind him.
They couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be true.
Mark ran anyway. He could no longer tell what was real, and what was not.
The field began to tilt down a grassy incline to the dark ravine. Mark’s legs absorbed the harsh impact as he bounded half-blind down into the to darkness and across the narrow twisting creek at the bottom. The seeping, sucking mud and loam-scented water soaked his shoes and pant-legs. The sound of his own breath rasping, drinking in the night air in desperate gulps was like primal music, blending with the drone of hidden legs and wings in the tall grass. The moon shone through the black branches of the trees. And the shadowy footfalls were just behind him. He had been reduced to a child, no longer a man with the wisdom of years to anchor him.
Scrambling up the other side of the hill, suddenly all was unfamiliar. A vast desert, an expanse of cool grey lit up by the moon as the grass on the slope dried to dust at the lip of the incline, stretched out to where the land met the dark sky. The impossibility of this didn’t even slow him down. Mark’s stuttering steps pushed him into the dry waste, his wet shoes imprinting the virgin sand. The moon above him was like a racing skull. And Mark pressed on, stumbling, tired, sad. The shadows fell in behind him, and he let out a whimper as he pumped his legs beneath him. He must find a place to hide. He could not run forever. He needed sanctuary.
The desert was bitterly cold. Mark’s legs became leaden as they do in dreams when the monsters who live deep down in our darkest imaginings creep from their gloomy warrens, sniffing the perfumes of our fear, the scent of our weakness, and fall into the chase. And so did the shadowy footfalls behind progress, only a few steps behind, with hungry and unseen mouths and clutching claws stretching out toward their quarry. Mark didn’t dare turn. He didn’t dare face his pursuers.
Then, it appeared out of nowhere; a house. Or was it an inn? A chapel? A trading post? Perhaps it was all of those.
Mark did not know. But, he raced toward it, his energy nearly spent entirely. It seemed oddly familiar.
The door opened, and Mark stumbled in, his clothes in rags, and hanging off of a body that was not his own. He really was a child, naked and cold. He was suddenly the boy he had been when he was eleven. Something terrible had happened then, too. He could not remember. There he stood in the dimly lit room, one that was much smaller than he would have suspected from the size of the building he’d entered.
He was not alone.
There in the cluttered room of shelves that sagged under the weight of a hundred thousand books, bottles, trinkets, objects, curiosities, chests, baubles, crystals, and more and more than he could take in, was a large oaken countertop. The young-old man stood behind it expectantly, hardly showing any signs of surprise at a forty-seven year old boy of eleven standing naked at the front door, the scraps of his adult clothing in a pool at the boy’s feet.
“Wipe your feet, boy.” said the young-old man, not unkindly in a gentle, sandpaper voice.
The man’s face that was lined with years still had something boyish about it. He smiled a cracked smile, his tiny eyes twinkling. A shock of russet hair was the first thing Mark noticed beyond that kindly expression. His strange dress was the next, with a sort of threadbare jerkin that included rusted shoulder pads of some kind of metal. It looked as though it had once been a part of a suit of armour. Over that, he wore a long, sleeveless coat, and an ancient silk scarf around his neck.
“H-hello …” said Mark, his own eleven year old voice sounding entirely alien to him. “Can you help me? I’m in very bad trouble.”
“Come closer, boy. And don’t be afraid. No one and nothing can do you harm while you’re in this place. I am the proprietor, and have been these many years. Parsefal is my name. And this is the Errant Shoppe, a one-stop, go-to, never before seen and never to be seen again trading post for all self-respecting questing heroes like yourself.”
Mark stepped forward tentatively, trying to hide his nakedness.”I’m not a questing hero. I’m lost. I’m being chased.”
“Pull the robe off of the door, boy. Clothe yourself. Stepping through my door has set your clock back, it seems. Don’t worry. It’s common. It’s very common.”
Mark turned and put his hand on a soft velvet robe covered in stars and planets that hung near the door. He slipped it on and it fit him perfectly. It was only after it was on that he remembered that it had been his. His parents gave him that housecoat during Christmas 1978.
Parsefal sat back in his chair and put on a pair of half-moon reading glasses, and looked down them, his nostrils flaring and his mouth forming an “o”. “That’s better. And you are a questing hero alright. But, you’ve been tangling with the powers of darkness. Anyone can see that. But, like I said, you’re safe here. This is neutral ground.”
“Yes. Nothing can hurt you here. Which means that you can stay for a while. But, then it’s back out again after you’ve found what you’re looking for. You can’t stay here forever, you know.”
“But, I’m being chased. I think there’s something out there that wants to devour me. I’m looking for help.”
“Devour you? That seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”
“But, it’s true!”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t true, boy. Oh, I can’t keep calling you that. What should I call you?”
“Mark. Mark Litton. I’m … well, I’m not really sure who I am beyond that. I am not a boy, either. I’m forty-seven years old, not eleven. ”
“How old you are depends on where you happen to be at the time.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Well, maybe not where you’re from. But, this isn’t where you’re from. This is the in-between place, or at least one of them. There are others, of course. ”
“How did I get here?” asked Mark.
“That’s a funny question. You came through the door.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
“Well, it’s a literal response to your question, at least. I suppose it’s a figurative or symbolic answer, too. But, the real question you should be asking me is what I have here in this shoppe that you might need to go out that door again. Everyone has something they need at any given moment, with the scale of that thing being pretty relative, I suppose.”
“You have something here that can help me get rid of the shadows, and help me get home again? I really want to go home, but I think they may have eaten my home just like they want to eat me.”
Parsefal smiled his kindly smile again, slightly grotesque and jagged as it was.
“Hey, maybe you need a torch; something to light your way in the desert. If you’re up against shadows, sometimes it’s best to throw some light on the subject. Just a second.”
Parsefal stepped out from behind the counter, and began to scour the overburdened shelves in his store. Mark watched, mesmerised. “Ah, here it is!” he said finally. “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, they say.”
The strange proprieter reached up and brought down a strange object and turned to Mark with a satisfied smirk. The object was an orb that looked organic, as if it was grown rather than crafted. It was odd and ancient, like the shoppe itself. But, it had been alive, or a part of something that had been alive.
“This, Mark,” said Parsefal in a reverent tone, “is an under-gland of a Great Fire Beetle, a scourge of the desert wastes of Zaan, a couple of dimensions over from the dimension you live in. When the beetle is killed, which isn’t easy to do mind you, their underglands can be harvested , using specialized tools, of course. Right under their lower mandibles. they cast an impressive amount of light. How about it, kid?”
Mark stared vacantly. “I …”
“No, maybe not. You’re right. No, you need something a bit more substantial, maybe. Something with a wider range, maybe? Huh. Yeah, that’s probably what you need.”
“I don’t know what I need. I’m scared.”
“Scared? That’s because you don’t have the right tools for the job. That’s all. I can help with that.”
Parsefal turned again and scoured the same shelf again. “Ah. Wait. Here.” He reached up again and brought down a tall glass cylinder. A cold blue flame hung in the center of the cylinder.
“This is raw soul-stuff. Just a scrap of material that makes up a soul. Not sure if this is a soul of a person or of an object. When it’s this raw, it’s hard to really tell. I forget who traded it, or maybe I’d remember. But, it might be helpful to you, if you’re interested. The Shadowkind love this stuff. It’s like a single malt whiskey to them. You throw this one way, you run the other. Easy.”
Mark stared again, not understanding. “I don’t think that will help. They will still want to get me. They will catch me.”
Parsefal grunted in agreement, putting one hand to his chin. “OK, OK. That makes sense. After all, why settle for a mouthful when there’ s a whole meal to be had, right? Maybe you want to take a more direct approach to this dilema, huh? Just wait, just wait …”
With that, he disappeared into a back room behind the oaken desk. There was the sound of shuffled feet, and the clatter of objects being moved, re-arranged , and replaced. He came back into view, carrying with him a long scabbard under his arm, with an elaborately arranged pattern of small jewels studding its length. A long ivory handle jutted out, with a large green gem serving as the pommel of the sword which the scabbard contained.
“I can personally vouch for this piece. It belonged to a former workmate of mine. Yes, I wasn’t always a shoppe keeper, you know.”
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s a sword. It’s for, you know, poking things with. Like dragons, and such. This one was used to kill the biggest, greediest, and most malevolent dragon in twelve dimensions; Ku-Akradron The Light-Eater. If the sword can dispatch Her, then a couple of shadows won’t stand a chance.”
“I don’t think I can use that. I don’t know how to use a sword.”
“Are you kidding? It’s a breeze. You stick the pointy end into the thing you want to kill.”
“I can’t kill anything.”
“And I don’t have the money for anything like that anyway. I don’t have any money to pay for anything you have here.”
“Money? Oh no. There’s no money exchanging hands here.”
“Then, what do you take instead of money?”
“Well, usually it’s the most valuable thing a patron has when they come in. What’s the most valuable thing you can think of, Mark?”
“I-I don’t … I don’t have anything.”
“It’s your experiences, Mark. It’s your memories. They make you what you are. Even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones, sometimes.”
“Because the bad ones make you stronger. And they make you better for other people in your life. It’s a stupid catch-22, I know. It’s absurdly circular. But, they do make you better. Not just for yourself. But, for others. I mean, like the ones back where you came from. Back where you’re a husband, and a father.”
“A husband? A .. father?”
A powerful surge of energy seemed to well up inside of Mark that he couldn’t identify, as if the full weight of adulthood could not be contained in his eleven year old body. And suddenly, the tears burst forth as the surge of energy pushed itself from Mark’s bowels, up through his stomach, and outward as if something had been born, finally.
“But, I am a child!” he sobbed. “My Mummy died …”
Parsefal’s eyes softened. And for a minute they too held glistening tears. “Yes. Sometimes that happens. And no one knows why. No one anywhere across all the known dimensions knows.”
“So, what do I do now?”
“Well, you don’t need anything from my shelves. That’s for sure. I see that now. You walked in here carrying what you need.”
Mark took the call just as he’d started dinner, and as the Tom Waits song began. He got into the police cruiser that took him to the city morgue. He saw her there, in the basement, the windowless room. It was her. They’d built a life together, and now hers had come to an end. And she someone else’s mother, too; someone who was equally precious to him, standing where he once stood when Mark himself was eleven, calling out to his own mother, answered only by the sounds that a quiet house makes at night, and the eventual footsteps of his father coming down the hallway to his room. It went beyond a simple common perspective. It was the undeniable love of a child given by a father, bursting through a cloudbank of confusion and disbelief. Even the crushing shadows of his sorrow seemed to shrink in the face of that radiance. There would be no more running. It was time to stay, and to fight.
Mark opened the door to the bedroom down the hall from his own, thirty-six years after his own father had done the same. Jason sat on the bed looking as lost as a boy traversing the desert by moonlight, pursued by forces that he could not understand. He looked up to his father who stood in the doorway.
“No one knows, Jason, my big boy. No one anywhere across all the known dimensions knows.”