New Rourke Unmasked
The Walkabout: Show & Tell
We All Get Old, But We Never Grow Up| The Kitchen Table of Fate
”I need your help.”
”That’s what I’m here for.”
Summer ushered Gabriel unceremoniously into the front room of the little house. It was dark, as was customary for the home of a blind woman in the middle of the night, until she turned on the lights and revealed one of the most densely accessorized places Gabriel had ever been, apart from that one time in Atlantic City. The room took up what must have been a third of the house and was sectioned off into areas; a cluster of pillows on the floor here, a fainting couch there, an over laden rolltop desk, a large, round, table with an audacious mandala tablecloth draping to the ground, rugs of varying patterns and textures overlapped on the floor. The walls were lined with shelves, some chest high, some taller, lawyer cabinets, and wicker cabinets, and a very dramatic armoire, all of them loaded with books and…things, things Gabriel was unable to identify and in some cases reluctant to look at. There was a chubby Buddha, an African tribal mask, a Kachina helmet, and even a flamboyantly gaudy cross.
Gabriel cleared his throat. “I think I should say something here, but I have no idea how to react.”
”Oh, don’t mind that.” Summer said, cinching up her bathrobe. “It’s all just theatre. People expect it, but it’s mostly all for show. Really there are only a handful of effective methods of divination, and I can fit the stuff I need in a shoebox. But when you’re a fortune teller, stereotypes pay the bills. Kitchen’s this way. You’d probably be more comfortable with less weird.”
The kitchen, behind a beaded and draped archway, was indeed more like what one would expect to find in the small house of a woman spiraling towards inevitable spinsterhood. Everything was neatly ordered; clean counters and floor, the usual appliances, a small, square, kitchen table with a spill-resistant tablecloth, and two chairs.
”Sorry to wake you.” Gabriel said as the spectre of the social contract reared its head.
”Not your fault.” Summer answered, with a yawn as she took the kettle off the electric stove. “Probably. I was already up. I get people coming in at all hours. Although, I usually know several hours before hand so I know when I can sleep. You gave me a nice ten minutes to drag myself out of bed and splash water on my face.”
Summer’s hair hung down, unset, and missing the raccoon tail she usually wore. There was no make-up on her face, even though she rarely wore much because of the hassle, so her natural mixed complexion shone through. She bore the marks of crow’s feet, and worry lines, and the ever present hint of dimples. She moved around with practiced concentration as she navigated the unseen obstacles of her home, never moving faster than a steady walk. And even though she was tired, her back was straight, her head balanced, and she carried with her the weight of experience along with a wily spirit that was straining to age slower than her body. There was a dignity to the woman Gabriel had completely overlooked before, and now in such intimate quarters he a twinge of guilt.
”Sorry.” Gabriel said again, meaning it this time.
”Don’t worry about it. Coffee?”
”So…” she said, putting two cups on the table and inviting him to sit across from her, “what brings the great Theta, hero of New Rourke, bearer of the Mark of the Trickster, and consort to the earthly embodiment of Time, to visit little ‘ol me? The lady he thinks is nothing more than an insane con artist.”
”That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”
”Honey, you got me up at four in the morning. You’re gonna get snark. Besides, it’s what you think.” she shrugged. “You were never shy about it in New Rourke.”
”I admit, I was an asshole.”
Summer shrugged again. “All I was trying to do was help.”
”Help me‽” Gabriel shouted. “You were…Okay. I didn’t come here to argue with you.”
Even though Summer’s eyes no longer worked in the conventional sense, she still maintained muscle memory of certain facial ticks and squinted accusingly at Gabriel. ”If you were going to apologize you could have just called.”
”I wasn’t—” Gabriel started to yell again, but caught himself and sighed. “I didn’t even know this is where I was going.”
”Ah.” Summer said, with a knowing nod. “You were led.”
”I was looking for…something. I don’t know what.”
”Problems at home?”
”How can you tell?” Gabriel said sarcastically.
”Usually when I get someone in, acting like you are now, that’s the issue. Uncertainty with a relationship, blah, blah, blah. I‘ll tell you the same thing I tell all of them. This is just a step along your life path. What you need to do is open the lines of communication, and things will sort themselves out. In the long run, it will all be for the better.”
Gabriel grimaced. ”Is that the kind of vague bullshit that you pedal here?”
”Hey, nine times out of ten it’s all people need. Sometimes they stay together, sometimes they don’t. They feel better about themselves if I push them in the direction they need to go, not give them the specific details. If they are going to stay together, it’s better for the relationship if they work it out. If I tell them they are doomed, I usually don’t get repeat customers.”
”What happens the tenth time?”
Summer made a stabbing motion with her hand and went, “Ree! Ree! Ree!”
”But we have talked, and I’m pretty sure the problem is me.”
Summer put her hands up to indicate she would refrain from commenting.
”She’s pregnant and—“
”Whoa!” Summer interrupted.
”Yeah, I know.”
”Gabriel, I haven’t got a clue on the cosmological implications of that, so I’m pretty damn sure you don’t either.”
”That’s beside the point!” Gabriel growled.
Summer rolled her head in a fashion, because people tended to be unnerved when she rolled her foggy eyes. “Then what is the point?”
”I don’t—can’t supply any amount of stability. This whole luck thing—and no, I’m not making excuses, believe me. Everything around me is constantly changing. How can I help raise a kid if I can’t even guarantee that I’ll be living in the same place next week.”
”There are no guarantees, Gabriel. There are choices.”
”Says the fortune teller.” Gabriel said snidely.
”Says the messenger. Don’t shoot her. I only tell people what I’m told. I don’t decide their fate.”
”See, I have no fucking clue why I’m here! I leave home trying to find something that can help, and I end up here. Don’t you see? I try to improve or get anywhere and luck shits in my face!”
From behind her cup of coffee, Summer asked, “What if I could help?”
”Then fucking do it.”
Summer’s eyebrows lifted and she took another sip of her coffee. “Mind you I said help with your problem, not solve it.”
”At this point I’m open to anything.”
”Remember you said that.”
Summer stood up from the table. “Give me your cup.” she said, and he handed it over. She put both cups on the counter behind her then placed her hands on the kitchen table and leaned across it toward Gabriel.
”Are you sure?”
Gabriel, still sitting, looked at Summer with her face aimed roughly in the direction of his. Her hands seemed poised to grip to table firmly, the belt of her robe was loosening again, and, from what he saw of the angle, Gabriel suspected that she didn’t have any else on besides her slippers. His brow furrowed.
”Just what are you suggesting here?” he asked.
”I can give you a path. Open a door. You can find some answers, but what you do with them is up to you.”
Gabriel was still unsure if Summer had flipped her lid again or was attempting the oddest seduction technique he’d ever witness. “Where are you going with this?”
”Oh, you idiot!” Summer slapped one of her palms onto the table top. “Gabriel you have been marked by forces beyond your control and without your consent. You can either let them dictate your life or you can confront them. It’s up to you. Now do you want my help or not?”
Summer stood back up. “That’s three.” she said with a slight nod. “Let’s get to work.”
Summer lifted the tablecloth, and the Plexiglas topper underneath, away and leaned them against the stove. Lines and symbols had been roughly cut into the wooden tabletop. There were characters that looked to Gabriel like kanji and Nordic runes along with odd markings he had no point of reference for. A brass ring that reached the edges of the table as well as two small porcelain blows and a cage of silvery mesh were inlaid among the script. Deep gouges in the wood, filled with some kind of dirt, connected the carvings and inlays.
”The fuck is this?” Gabriel said incredulously. “Some kinda Indian voodoo?”
”Um, no.” Summer said as she poured water from an earthen jar from her fridge into one of the bowls. “This is sort of a patchwork job. Took years, but I figured out what works best.”
”Works for what?”
”Getting answers.” Summer said hurriedly, and then lit a burning taper and placed it in the other bowl. “Do you see the carving that sort looks like a big triangle?”
”You mean the only thing on here that looks remotely like something I could identify?” Gabriel answered with mounting annoyance.
”That’s it. Put your left hand there.”
”Okay.” Gabriel did so, although he wasn’t entirely sure why he had. The wood under his palm had a series of worrying scratches and nicks.
”Don’t move that hand. It will keep you sane.”
”What was that?”
”Nothing! Just don’t move that hand. Back in a jiff.”
Summer puttered out of the room and returned with an oblong box in one hand and something small clutched in her other. She put the box on the counter, then dropped a live cockroach into the cage, and closed the hatch.
”Summer?” Gabriel said slowly.
”Yeah?” There was a slight giddiness to her voice.
”What’s with the cockroach?”
”That’s…technical. Try not to think about it.”
Summer turned back to the counter and opened the oblong box. From within it, she withdrew a long dagger. The triangular blade was silver with minute etchings along the edges. The handle was polished bone.
”Summer?” Gabriel said again, the annoyance in his voice being replaced with worry. He knew she was blind, but she had made it clear that she could easily spot the magic of his aura. He was bigger than she was, but even with preternatural luck a lot of bad things could happen in a knife fight.
Summer approached the table slowly. ”Whatever you do, don’t move your hand till you come back.”
”Where am I going?”
”Hell if I know.”
Gabriel’s brow sweat. Why didn’t he move his hand? Why didn’t he stop this? ”Summer?”
Summer paused next to the table and steadied herself. Things tended to get messy at this point, and she needed to focus. Her grip on the dagger tightened.
”What are you doing?”
Summer took a deep breath then exhaled slowly. “Getting its attention.” she said then stabbed the knife down at Gabriel’s hand.
* * *
These things never go the way one would expect.
From the outside, the vastness of the cosmos looked like a free-floating pudding of questionable flavor. Gabriel looked at it and knew that if he just reached in, he could be anywhere at any time. He felt eyes upon him; eyes of soul fire and frozen movement, eyes of thought and permanence, and eyes of nothing becoming all. For the first time Gabriel knew with perfect clarity what being alive meant. He also knew that it meant here, in this place, it was the worst thing he could be. Things reached for him. He was an unwelcome variable, a slipped cog, and unprotected as he was he wouldn’t last long.
Everything was a brownish orange. Gabriel’s body wasn’t present, but his mind itched and squirmed like a mouse anxious to run down its hole and hide. There was a drawn out rhythmic thumping as if someone was banging a drum underwater in slow motion. His normal methods of perception were disjointed and slurred; sight mingled with smell, taste and hearing were one, equilibrium and the passage of time told him that he was a spec of sand, thirty minutes to the side, facing Tuesday. His only point of reference was the sensation of wood pressed to a left palm he wasn’t sure he’d ever had. He focused on that feeling, making it an anchor to his reality. Cuts and ridges in slightly warm wood rubbed against skin under which was muscle and flowing blood vessels. The grain of the wood was perpendicular to his outstretched fingers. There was a small wood knot where the knuckle of his middle finger connected to his hand.
There was another presence here, or maybe it wasn’t in this place, at this time, rather a sliver of the entity allowed this plane to exist. Thousands of the beings coalesced into a point, and Gabriel perceived a chained tome, a triple-headed goddess, a nine-legged spider, a cloaked figure who was also a singular ebony hand and countless others overlaid in one instance of consciousness. It was all of these things, and none, and more, and Gabriel was as much a part of it as it wasn’t a part of him.
You should not be here.
”I get that.” Gabriel said…sort of.
If I had not created this space, you would have ceased.
”Thanks?...Are you god?”
Your concept of god is simply a matter of perspective.
”Is that a maybe?”
There are aspects which claim the mantle of god. Such interactions are not my concern. I function to order events that must be.
”So you’re one of those primal forces Summer talks about?”
That character possesses a great deal of information, but lacks context. She has been given what is necessary to fulfill her function.
The order of events must be choreographed. Every event builds on a prior one, seen or unseen.
”Cause and effect.”
Without continuity or context there is no meaning. Even chaos is only valued in comparison to order. Every character exists for a reason.
"You mean humans?"
Organic life is a miniscule element of the equation. The totality of which serves a function. Individual value is relative. Redundancy in biomass reduces errors.
”What is that supposed to mean?”
Existence expands beyond your interactions. Events happen. All choices bear consequence. What you are and what you choose is not always the same.
"I don't understand."
That is your problem. Your level contextual comprehension is irrelevant.
"Hey, fuck you!"
"...Are you still there?"
I persist with autonomy. Your presence in this place is forced.
You persist until resolution.
"I don't understand this. I don't want to be here. I want resolution!"
I will calibrate appropriate authority.
Gabriel felt himself grow very thin and then snapped together like a rubber band. He was back in his body and his senses had returned to normal. At least it felt that way. He was sitting at the table but it was floating in some sort of nebula. Atoms and stars and quarks and planets danced around him in swirling orbits. Across the table sat a severe looking older man with golden eyes in a tweed suit.
"You've made a mess of things haven't, you?" the man said, glaring at Gabriel.
"Who the fuck are you?" Gabriel sneered.
"Watch your tongue. I'm a doctor."
Gabriel raised his eyebrows. "Who?"
The doctor shook his head. "I know you don't think that joke is funny. But it's a defense mechanism, like the cursing. That at least shows you haven't become too unraveled.”
The doctor reached over and put his hand through the top of Gabriel's head as if it meant nothing. It tingled.
"Let's see what we have to work with." the doctor said, as he sat down cupping a ball of amethyst light. With two hands he pulled on the ball and it expanded over the table. Gabriel looked into a cloud of ornaments floating in a web of iridescent lines he could barely make out. Most of them he instinctively linked to a memory, others felt extremely important, but he couldn’t tell why.
"You're not in too bad shape, but...Ah, there's your problem."
The doctor reached in and pulled back what looked like a golden Möbius strip.
"This shouldn't be here." the doctor said examining the improbable curvature. "Someone threw this in and it's gumming up the works."
"It's a joke. A very bad one."
"Can you get rid of it?"
"I can." the doctor nodded. "The odd thing is...oh."
"What?" Gabriel felt like he should be sweating. That would be the right physical response to this, right? He pressed down harder on the table feeling the wood, but that was all. Oh god, I can’t feel my limbs! My heart! I can’t feel anything!
The doctor cleared his throat, snapping back Gabriel’s attention. "Let me see if I can explain this in a way you would understand. There was a plan. Certain individuals were—never mind. You wouldn't understand. Suffice it to say, you were tagged. Then you stumbled into proximity of a Keynote Event and ended up taking on a role that was reserved for someone else."
"What does that mean?"
"Not much now." the doctor shrugged. "What little effect you were originally meant to have on the universe was done already. You just picked up another destiny along the way."
"Destiny? What about free will?"
”You’ve got that too.”
Gabriel looked incredulously at the doctor.
”Yes, you do.” The doctor said. “You chose to come here. The fullness of what you would call reality is too large and complex to dictate every tiny aspect. Your coming here nearly caused a great deal of damage. We would never have organized something like that.”
”Then what is my destiny.”
"Like I said, it doesn't matter. You've already fulfilled your purpose in existence. Someone just gave you a second time around. Either way there's nothing to do about it now. The damage is done and you have run your course."
"What?" Gabriel scowled. "Are you saying I don’t matter?"
"Not at all. You were important. You were allowed to be more important than you were originally supposed to be."
"But now I'm useless?"
"Well...I wouldn't go that far."
Gabriel slammed his head down on the table. He couldn’t feel it. "Shit."
”However, there is a—how should I put this—a complication.”
Gabriel looked at the doctor. “What? You gonna tell me I’m dying now?”
”Oh no. You are not dying. Not yet anyway. You still have several years left.”
”Then what’s the complication?”
”This is.” he said waving the strip. “It introduces an unstable element into any event it comes into contact with. Left to its own devices, in a contained area, it would not be a problem. But whoever slapped you with it, did not take into account fundamentals of your nature. So, I have to remove it in order to reduce further disruptions to the Pattern.”
The doctor held up a hand for silence. “Removing this Mark is simple and necessary. It will not change the outcome of your life. Unfortunately, it has integrated itself so much into whom and what you are there will be rather…unseemly side effects. Mental schisms mostly. Most people will disassociate you regardless of what effect you had on their lives. It is unpleasant business, best avoided. But as I said, removing this is not optional.”
”Is there something you can do?”
The doctor smiled for the first time. “I’m glad you asked that. There have been occasions when adjustments to the Pattern were called for. I can do these adjustments myself, but that is all rather above the table and some of the others raise a fuss, complaints get thrown around, it is just too much of a bother. I prefer to have agents who can carry out these adjustments subtly.”
Gabriel looked doubtful. ”And you want me to be one of your agents?”
”Admittedly, there are some downsides, but the perks can be quite nice.”
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. “What’s the downside?”
Gabriel lay in a hospital bed. There was an IV tube in his arm and a repetitive beeping in his ear. He felt heavy but at ease. His hands were thin, liver-spotted, and the skin hung loose. Someone was sitting in a chair beside the bed, but they looked fuzzy; their voice began to fade. Gabriel tried to remember. There were a jumble of memories, years and years of faces and names. He could almost grasp them, but they blurred as a seductively soothing sleep took hold.
”What the fuck was that‽” Gabriel shouted. He was still at the table, still in the nebula with the doctor.
”That was your death. At the moment it is guaranteed. It is an easy death. More dignified than what some get.”
”That’s the downside?” Gabriel asked, anxiously confused.
”No.” the doctor shook his head again. “The downside is that guarantee would go away.”
Gabriel felt that an inrush of breath and a pregnant pause should have happened, but again what he thought was his body didn’t respond normally. So he starred back at the doctor. “You said something about perks?”
”You would be divorced from the Pattern. You would have no destiny, and no one else’s destiny would hamper you. I would have you perform three tasks, and until those tasks were completed, you would not be…made incapable of performing those tasks. After which, any ultimate end you come to would be solely the result of your own actions.”
”I’d be immortal?”
”For a time.”
”I have not yet decided.”
”What about probability?”
”Being effectively removed from causality, probability would not hold any bias towards you. You would no longer be under the effects of any skewed luck. There may be a higher quotient of randomness to your life, but such things would be difficult to gauge.”
”Can I think about this?”
The doctor waved the strip again. “I am going to remove this regardless. It is a one time offer. Either you accept or you do not.”
It was a chance to start again. Hadn’t this been what Gabriel had set out to find? The Mark of the Trickster would be gone, and he’d be able to make some actual improvements in his life. No more being dragged into other people’s fights. No more waiting on things to turn around when he could enact change himself.
Gabriel set his jaw. “I’ll be your agent.”
”Are you sure? This cannot be reversed.”
”I’ll do it.”
”Three times and done.” The doctor grinned, but Gabriel suspected there was no joy in it. The doctor reached out and grabbed a passing star in one hand then a comet in the other.
”Summer said something like that. What does it mean?
”The Rule of Three governs much of reality.” The doctor said. He plucked a slivery hair from his head then, with the star and comet, cupped his hands close to his face. “There are three spatial dimensions of the physical world. Triangles are very strong. The third time is a charm. A three-legged table does not fall. An agreement stated three times is a pact. Three strikes is an out. Three wishes. A single instance is a fluke. A second instance is a coincidence. A third instance is a pattern.”
”But I didn’t say anything three times!” Gabriel protested.
The doctor looked up from his work and parroted Gabriel’s words in his own voice. “Is there something you can do? I’ll be your agent. I’ll do it.”
”You asshole, you tricked me!”
The doctor frowned. ”I used rules that have been in place since before this cosmos formed. Your ignorance of them does not grant you exemption.”
”Fuck you! You should have told me.”
”I owe you nothing except as described in the terms of our contract. I will give you the tools you require to do my work.” With a flick, the doctor severed the Mark of the Trickster from the web and replaced it with the thing he had fashioned in his hands, then he gathered up the web of Gabriel’s being. “Perform three tasks and you are free.”
The doctor condensed the web back into a ball of amethyst light and held it up to Gabriel’s face. “Watch your hand.” he said and shoved the ball back into Gabriel.
Gabriel’s skin lit up like fire and a freezing core stabbed at his insides. A delirious sensation of vertigo assaulted him as his consciousness expanded infinitely into a pinpoint. The knife in Summer’s hand charged toward Gabriel’s hand. He pulled it back with such force that he fell over backwards in his chair.
”Ow.” he said.
”Gabriel?” Summer asked, scanning with her blind eyes. “Where’d you go?”
”The floor. Wanged my head.”
”When I said I’d give you a shove, I didn’t think you’d take it literally.”
He got up and angrily snatched the knife away from her. “Warn me next time!”
”You wouldn’t have agreed then.” Summer protested.
”You think? GoddamnitSummer!”
There was a cloudy viscous gel on the blade of the knife slowly wafting away. It smelled like the type of dream that gripped like a vice. The tip of the blade had what looked like blood on it, but Gabriel’s hand wasn’t cut.
“What is this stuff?”
Gabriel noticed that Summer was peering at him, but less directly than she normally did.
”What?” he asked.
”I can’t see your aura anymore. What are these?” she said reaching to his wrists.
Gabriel looked and saw that around each wrist he now had thin bracelets about a half inch wide. They had a single jewel inset; the right one was a bright amber, the left was a blue-ish diamond. Both seemed to be illuminated from within. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the metal of the bracelets hovered away from his skin and the jewel insets held stationary over the back of his wrists regardless of how he turned them.
”Tools, I guess. You can see them?”
”Yep.” Summer said, failing to elaborate that she saw heavy shackles flaming red and white with three silver links suspended between them. “Clear as day.”
”I guess this is round three then.”
”So…” Summer trailed, but Gabriel didn’t pick up. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
”It’s…better than the alternatives.”
”What are you going to do now?”
Gabriel thought hard about this for a long moment. “I really have no idea. But there are going to be some changes.”