It started at about eight that night. I had been reading to occupy my mind. I would guess Guardian. Maybe Shadow. I was sixteen, laying in a bed in Milwaukee in my aunt’s house in the attic where mice used to terrorize me, when the first pang of pain hit me.
It felt like the fang of a saber tooth tiger had just punctured the top of my skull. I gritted my teeth and felt it again. The pressure increased and with it, more pain. It was not long before I was weeping. Not long before I was off the bed where I was reading my book and stumbled down the stairs. I passed the wall heater that had once spit flames at Grasp. I barely made it down the dangerously steep stairs, and by the time I made it to the living room where Rose, Mumble, and my aunt sat, my vision was blurry from the agony of the headache. I dropped to one knee and Rose rushed to get me.
I took a few aspirin but it did nothing—not one thing—to curb the pain. I laid on the couch with my head on Rose’s lap, sobbing and trembling, and I heard her soothing words.
“This is a stress headache. This is because of the strain on your nerves that tomorrow is bringing you. I can hold you. But I can’t ease this. You’re going to have to try to settle down.” She kissed my head and ran her fingers through my hair. “You’re going to be okay. You are stronger than him. He can’t hurt you. We will both be there. Char can’t hurt you. I won’t let him.”
The next morning we were up at eight. I had slept almost none, and what sleep I had gotten was fitful and angry. Guardian stood and looked into the full length mirror on the wall. He pulled on his shirt. He belted his torn-up jeans and stared down at his scuffed boots. He looked at the kid in the mirror and gritted his teeth.
He heard a voice in his head say, “You’re ready,” as the room caught fire with a blue and purple flame, and the ceiling ripped off to show a night sky with diamonds for stars, and Smear Lord of Ire hovering above breathing flames.
Guardian turned, and off he went to face Char for the first time since the man had been released from prison a year ago.
He waited in his parole officer’s waiting room for about half an hour before I noticed on the same wall as me sat a man with dark brown sandals, no socks, white pants and a gyrating foot. The foot was shaking with nerves and I instantly knew I was in the room with Char.
“That is him,” a cold voice said from within me. Assassin reached his hand to his left pocket, looking for a knife but not finding one. He leaned out, trying to see around other bodies blocking the way, and he drew in air as Teth smelled fear and weakness.
Rose’s hand reached down to massage my clenched fist. “He can’t get to you, honey,” she said. “He can’t hurt you.”
“No, Mother,” Assassin looked at her with his dead eyes. “I can’t get to him.”
Char went in to see an attractive woman with comfortable dress clothes on. She came out of the door a few minutes later. “I’m sorry that you had to be in this room with him. I was busy and he came late. That should not have happened.”
“Is he in there?” Assassin asked.
She looked at me with an appraising eye before she nodded. “He is waiting.”
“Take me to him.”
As a group, the four of us entered the door, rounded a hall, and into another room that didn’t look like it belonged. It was filled with couches and comfortable chairs and tacky paintings on orange walls. The room was large but stuffy, and as soon as we walked in, I saw him there.
Char was dressed in all white. Comfortable, loose fitting clothes hung on his slightly portly body poorly. He wore his long black hair in a ponytail, and when he looked at Assassin, when he saw those cold eyes staring at him from the door, Char’s body went rigid. His hands gripped the armrests of the chair he sat in, and the smile he pulled across his face was a grimace of fear.
“Hi, kid,” he said with a croak. “Been a while.”
Assassin looked around for a weapon and couldn’t find one. Guardian stepped forward and stared at Char for a long time.
“Let’s take a seat, honey,” Rose said. “Let’s sit down.”
Guardian stepped across the room as the carpet burst into flame and the walls began to scream. He dropped into a chair and looked at the woman sitting across from him.
“We have a half an hour. If you have anything you want to say to Char, now is the time,” she said. “If you are uncomfortable, we can leave.”
“Question,” Guardian said.
“Shoot, kid,” Char said with a chuckle.
“The kid thing stops now,” Guardian said. “No more with the kid stuff.”
Char’s face smeared with a look of fear and he nodded. “Okay, I get it. I’m sorry.”
“Call me Jesse. I am not a kid.”
“You sure are big, I can tell you that. You have grown like a—”
“Yeah, you shot right up.”
“Excuse me?” Char said.
“I grew like an oak,” Guardian said. “Not a weed.”
Char took a deep breath and Mumble chuckled.
“Yeah, okay, whatever you say, Jesse.”
“I’m bigger than you now,” Guardian said.
“By a little, yeah.”
“Can we keep things a little lighter?” the parole officer said. “We need to make sure that this is a productive meeting. Do you have any questions for your father?”
“Hasn’t been my father for a while I think,” Guardian said. “But I have questions for Char.”
“Okay, let’s hear them,” she said.
“Why?” Guardian said. “Why did you molest Less? Why did you take those pictures?”
And in the furthest reaches of the Wasteland of my mind, I heard the mournful cry of Shush. A scream, a sob, a whimper that had no mouth and could not be heard. A child too traumatized to come forward, who could smell the sweat of his rapist and hear the voice that once whispered harshly in his ear.
“Well, that is a complicated question.”
“We have time,” Rose said.
“At the time I was an alcoholic. I was drinking all the time back then. I have cleaned that up, haven’t drank a drop in years.”
“You weren’t drunk while we were visiting you,” Guardian said.
“Well, you didn’t see the drinking because I kept it hid. I would every now and then go up to the attic and take a sip of a bottle of whiskey I had up there. I was good at hiding those things back then.”
“Drinking? Is that what you have for me today?”
“I was also very lonely.”
“Two girlfriends that I remember. One of them bailed you out of jail when you were arrested. She called us later and apologized. She said that after she got you to her house, you confessed everything. That you bragged about it all.”
More screams echoing across the Wastes as the roof ripped off the room and the night sky lit with the flames of Smear and his bellowing, belching, flaming breath.
“I don’t remember doing that. I blacked out. Next thing I knew, she was kicking me out. See, I might have had girlfriends but they didn’t understand me, and I needed to feel as if someone understood me.”
“So your daughter?”
“I was mixed up. I am better now. I mixed up fatherly love with romantic love, but I am straight now. I’m better.”
“We’re not,” Guardian said.
“Tell him the rest,” his parole officer said.
“Well, um,” he coughed. He looked up and sighed. His leg jumped a little and he looked at us with a different gaze. A weaker man sat before us now. A younger one. “Um, yeah well see,” he gritted his teeth and wiped sweat from his brow. “See, it happened to me, too.” He shook his head and blinked a few times.
“What happened to you?”
“I was abused, too.”
“Abused how? By who?” Guardian said.
“My father. Your grandfather. He abused, I mean, that is, I mean, he molested me since I was a kid.” The man before me wearing Char’s face chuckled nervously. “I never had the courage to face him, though. Not like you are facing me.”
“How old were you when he had you?” Guardian said.
“I don’t remember when it started. I was—”
“Yeah. I guess. But when I was seventeen I told him to stop. I said I wouldn’t do it anymore.” He nodded as if for approval. “And he just walked away. He just stopped that day. Hasn’t been a problem since.”
“Yes, Char. It has,” Guardian said.
Char looked up at the sky and rubbed his face. He sighed, his leg twitched a bit, and he looked back down at me.
Now I was looking at a totally different man.
“Tell him about the trip you are planning,” the parole officer said.
“Yeah well, I am going to take that bastard out to White Creek. You remember White Creek, don’t you?” he said.
More screams and now I can feel ragged breath on my neck and a crushing hug from behind. I get a flash of gaudy van customization and a sharp and terrible pain.
Guardian stutters, “I remember.” But he can’t. He just can’t picture any of it. The image is gone faster than it appeared.
“Well, I am taking my dad up to White Creek and I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.”
“When?” Guardian asked.
“In about a month. In about a month. Just me and him.”
Guardian fell silent. He looked at the flames at his feet, heard the swooshing of Smear’s wings. In the distance he heard the mournful howl of one he did not know, and he fought to get himself under control.
I don’t remember much of the rest of the visit. I don’t remember what Rose said to him or what he said back. I do remember that he thanked Mumble for raising his son. When we left, the three of us walked out first, and Assassin turned back at the door.
“Don’t come looking for us. Never visit. You’re not going to like what you find. There is only pain for you at my door.” Assassin turned and walked out. He took the look with him. There is, out in his desert, a statue that Smear has made for him of that man in that chair and the look on his face when Assassin gave him warning.
But Assassin has not seen it in so long. He has not had to go back. And most think that the wind and the sand have buried that man’s look of panic.
Sometimes when I walk that Wasteland and look out at the sands of Assassin’s desert, I wonder if I could find it. I wonder if that look of fear will bring me any rest. Would it piss me off? Or would it just make me sad?
I saw Char two years later when Less moved to Milwaukee and Guardian went to check on her. Guardian asked him about the trip he had with his father and what had happened.
“Well, we got up there and I realized that it was so long ago and it was not happening any more, and it best to leave that sort of shit in the past.”
“Still a coward then,” Guardian said. The expression Char made then, we have all seen. It was a mixture of fear, panic, shame, and a great amount of hate.