BACK to the Main Index
BACK to Here and There
BACK to the Previous Chapter
The stash looks more distant now that I've actually come to use it. I always thought of it when I shifted back, when I landed in the hot yet somehow light and stony California desert. The brittle, low, piercing heat of the Spire's desert seems to be repeated in a sort of concrete, dusty distance here, not so real and yet more down-to-Earth.
I always opened and carefully resealed one of my painstakingly hidden and treasured bottles, pouring the needed dosage into a secluded tiny cup so that my stash was once again secured before I drank and disappeared again.
I've wondered about what it's like in the spot where I disappeared. I can never see it. No matter how many times I come back here, I can never see the dust and air as it was when Justin ceased to be. It's always settled and the stash is as if it were left for centuries in the ghost town of Calico.
The money for busing it back to wherever I might need to be has crossed my mind in a playful fashion. Its existence has been clear and important as a fantastical link to a place that seemed to mean little to the Bennu-bird I would become with the slightest drop of alcohol from the accompanying glass bottles. Now it is just money. It is more distant the more I know I will use it, and the bottles fade completely behind the utterly ordinary paper money that I retrieve from my cache. It's what anyone here uses to get from place to place, to buy necessaries, and no one here barters Divinity for the flesh of huge, lumbering insect-like beasts. I know my way around here so well that its more magical details fade once I am again part of it. But that will change. Things will become clear, the greys of Milwaukee will rival the flashes of color from my imaginary wings.
"Millie..." I say into the whistling, inattentive desert. I swear for a moment that she can hear me. I'm so used to everyone necessary being close and my voice's range being all that is needed for a message to reach its target. Well, on with it, now. The drudgery will be different, it must be for those with a companion to care about. "Friends." I haven't been much of one, I suppose. But I had to find myself in the shape of a creature from another reality. She knows all that. She'll understand. Or maybe she won't. But my newfound understanding will guide us. Both. I shudder, and I don't know why. I put on the hat I left behind and make my way to the nearest tourist's station.
"Justin?!" Millie seems about to make a motion to hug me, but steps back as though sparks flew out of my hair. "In... human skin. Clothing and the whole works. God, what happened to you?"
"Nothing!" I beam, perhaps a bit maniacally, but she set me off my perfect timing. "Absolutely fine." I sweep into the room, her room, in the same apartment she used to live in before I moved. "God, Millie, don't _you_ ever change? You were even easy to find."
The slim, short-haired and long-limbed woman moves back to make room for me, still holding an eyebrow up in an uncertainly perturbed expression. "I wasn't going to move with you swigging magic brews and disappearing into parallel realms, dear Justin. _One_ of us has to provide some stability in this relationship. Besides, now my mother always wants to know where I am. And she pokes through my knickknacks every time she stops by here. I'm glad I kept those weirdo drugs you gave me at the bar. She'd probably throw a little more than a major fit."
"Oh, they're harmless. Sort of."
"Right. She'd probably be relieved to know they just turn you into fantastical creatures. I mean she'd throw a fit to think they were some sort of illegally smuggled drug. I don't know what she's so frazzled about. I've never done more than get a little smashed."
"I know. So, aren't you going to ask me to work with you? We can play pool. I probably haven't forgotten how."
"Fine. What is it you need to ask me that we can't talk about here?"
"Um..." I shuffle around on her medium-depth carpet.
"Come on, Justin, I'm not that fierce in my home territory, am I?"
"No, no... of course not."
Millie folds her thin arms in their short sleeves. I try to conjure up some passion about the smoothness, but I'm too exhausted. Anyway, she's as impressive as ever, whatever that means. I've never been much able to fathom her. We'll change that, but it doesn't seem right to walk in her front door after such a long time and ask her to marry me.
I wait until I'm across the pool table from her, after her shift. My hands and arms, shoulders, spine, everything are clumsy. "I'm used to lighter bones," I say, weakly attempting to sink a solid in a pocket.
"What? 'I'm too heavy-boned to play pool'? That's a new one."
"And you have stripes." The only semblance of a rainbow left on the table is in solid spheres. Typical.
"Look," she says, perching her skinny rear end on the polished frame of the table, holding her cue up like a spear, "let's get it over with, whatever it is. Why the hell did you come back now, Justin? I thought you had a 'friend' in your glorious new home. I thought you'd set me up with whatever it'd take for me to try out this acid trip of a visit, myself, and I thought you were having a wonderful time. That's rare for you, to say the least. I don't hear words like 'friend' out of you but once a year when you mention me to your mother in my hearing, and now that you've moved to another plane or whatever I've just presumed that's where we stand. I'm amazed you made another friend, frankly. Nothing against your charm as a companion, you understand, it's just that you sure seem to like to hate people."
I miss a shot and Millie readjusts her lithe frame to make hers, and the next and another after that. "So... hrm..." She concentrates, wins another round, and looks up at me under her blonde bangs: "What's up?"
I take a deep, gasping breath, feeling a lot like I did those last several days in the village and the Oasis. Something isn't settling in me. I'm not used to my human form anymore, and I've begun to remember why this place is so dull, except for Millie to talk to. But that will all pass. I got used to the Bennu form, didn't I? I probably threw quite a fit about that in the first place. "Millie, I..."
Millie stands and stares at me. Neither of us has begun to casually rack up the next game, as though she senses the impact of what I have come back for.
Millie's eyes shift in what almost appears to be an amused fashion. She even shifts her weight onto one hip and foot, completely casual. I close my mouth, having forgotten to when I was done speaking.
"This, too, is new, Mr. Nygaard," Millie tells me, now reaching for the triangle. Hasn't she really heard me? There's nothing casual about this. "So that's it. You going to out with it and tell me who it is?"
"Whu-- it's-- you, Millie... what do you mean?"
Millie collects clicking billiard balls in her slim fingers. "Who you're in love with. I wouldn't have believed it on my own, but here you are. And of all things." She clicks her tongue and gives her head a little shake.
"Marry me," I say, desperately, reaching out with the fingers of my cue-holding hand, balancing the cue on my palm.
"Justin. For Heaven's sake. Who are you in love with?"
"You. It's you, Millie."
"And don't tell me it's that Mina chick, either. I'm sharper than that."
Now I roll my eyes. "Look, I think I _know_ that, all right? Don't you get it? Don't you realize? I need someone and you're alone, and we've been apart and I've figured it out now. I know what I'm supposed to do. I'm sorry I haven't been better for you, Mil."
"Riiight... Going to play? Or are we past that and into the real discussion?"
"Oh fuck it. The real discussion. You're obviously not listening to me. Coffee shop or something?"
"A'course." Millie helps me put the cover on the table and we go out, arm in arm. I try to kiss her on the cheek. She ruffles my hair in response and then shakes her head at me, in a matronizing fashion. I begin to feel a new surge of desperation.
I pick a place that used to be open late, and it's still there and it still is. I clench my fist that's not holding Millie's arm or hand, on the way there, repeatedly gritting my teeth and wondering why she can't see what I can. Does she need time in a place in the desert, for awhile, too?
"You could come with me," I suggest as we sip our earth-toned beverages. "You'll see it then, too."
"I'll tell you what I see." Millie licks her lip. For once I feel a little something familiar, although I'm not sure what it is before the conversation goes on. "Justin, you're like a fish struggling up onto a pier and begging to be saved from the water. You're gasping for air, it's obvious you're trying desperately to escape your own natural environment, and any kind-hearted person coming upon this pitiful sight would kick you back into the lake. So that's what I'm doing. Never thought I'd say this, but drink whatever the hell drug turns you into that pink flamingo thing and go back."
"It's not a flamingo."
I almost feel tears rise into the rims of my eyes. "You don't want me. I asked you to marry me. I don't know what else to say."
"Look. Justin." Millie reaches across to my hand, which is rolling a napkin into sweaty peaks. Her pale fingers stroke mine, gently, but I just keep my reproachful frown and darken my gaze at her. "I love you. In fact, I was glad for you when you went on this mad trip to another world, once I knew it was, of all incredible things, the real deal. You're so frightened... I've never seen you so frightened. You have another girl friend, Mina, to talk to. Yet you're so desperate that you had to come back here, to me. It's not about me, or wanting to marry me. It's about you. There's no question of my marrying you, and you know that. If you'd think for a minute, you'd remember quite clearly that we never loved each other like that."
"But we _will_. And we _can_ and we _will_. Just because we haven--"
"Haven't had sex, right, get in bed with someone and that changes everything. No it doesn't, Justin. I won't do that with you, because it would let you stall for more time. And I'm certainly not going to commit myself in marriage to a person who wouldn't enjoy himself enough to really respect me as a spouse."
"You're suggesting I'd just be using you!" My voice is more than adequately shocked.
Mil sighs, lightly, and frowns meaninglessly at the rim of her coffee cup. She takes a sip while letting her eyes wander off towards the dark and mirroring shop windows, then brings her glance back to me. "No... Justin, you'd be 'just using' _yourself_. Your body, whatever it has and can give." She responds to my immediate half-disgusted snort with, "Yes, your body has something to offer, whatever shape it's in. It's alive, you're alive, and you're in there. But I don't want to use your body and I won't be party to this whole marriage in fear thing. I'm certain that's what it is, and I wish you'd see it once from a less selfish view. You're so selfish in your fear that you'd steal from yourself to stay with me, and I won't let your ultimate disinterest steal from _me_. I love you, as I said. I also like to think I have a bit of affection for myself."
"You're beautiful," I offer. The lights in the dark-surrounded shop are buzzing down into my ears and coffee and brain. Nothing is right with the world. Either world.
She sighs out through her nose, not a snort, but certainly showing a bit of a lack of patience with me. "You'd have come back sooner if my looks were that appealing to you. Oh, no-- don't protest. I believe you think I'm beautiful. Thanks... thanks for telling me so, Justin. But why _now_? Why not sooner?"
I squirm in my chair. "Mating season?"
"_Who_ _is_ _it_?"
"There's no one. I need someone. Please, Millie, I'd do anything to be with you."
"To hide in a relationship with me. Like you hid in your bed before this whole bird thing came up. Look around you, Justin. You're back in Milwaukee. This is my place, remember? You hate it. I appreciate your offer of taking me to see your brilliant desert, but I like my job and I often enjoy living in Milwaukee. What could have scared you so much that you bypassed your lovely perfect new world to come back here and actually try to propose to me?"
"You don't understand. It's real. I just didn't know it until the feelings built up and I needed someone and I knew it had to be you, Mil. It has to be you. There's no one else for me."
Millie regards me like one of my more critical history professors from back in school. "How do you know? How do you know it is me? Through what process of deduction?"
"I wish you could have felt what I felt, then you'd know," I almost stand up out of my chair, and do push at the edge of the table with my palms. "It has to be you. There's no one else and there was nowhere to go, no one I could possibly be with. And I _need_ someone. I know I do. In my guts and brain and everywhere I know it."
Millie takes a long pause for running a fingertip around the rim of her white unbreakable coffee mug. She looks up at me once, twice, then takes another pause. The hum of lights is louder than late-night cars on the street. "Through... God, Justin, this is just so you. Process of elimination. I must be the one. Why not Mina?"
I pause, now, myself, somewhat startled. I don't know, exactly, why not Mina. Sometimes she and Millie seem a lot alike. What about her isn't Millie, to the extent that I'd leave it all to come back here? Mil sees me looking startled and confused at the tiles, and taps my knuckles lightly. "She's there, that's the problem, Justin," she answers for me. "Get back in the water. You're not made for this place. I was glad to see you actually excited about something for once. I'd be curious to see who it is that can make you act this way. I'd like to meet the person, when you come to your senses and actually invite me out there for the right wedding."
"This is nuts, Millie."
"Seems to be, yes. But nothing's as nuts as the very idea that we'd be satisfied in being married to one another." She finishes her lukewarmed coffee in a final swig. I lick half-heartedly at mine, forgetting in my distractedness just how to work my mouth. Then, even though I realized what I was doing just then, I tilt my head back to swallow. Millie refrains from laughing at me, but I can feel her about to start. I try to glare, but the energy to argue just isn't there.
"It's not working, Mil. Nothing is right. And I thought you loved me."
"How often do we have to go over this? Of course I love you. But you're not and never will be attracted to me in the way that you desperately wish you were. If it were war, or another sudden and certain threat to your life and limb, you'd be back here screaming bloody murder about this thing that had driven you out. But you're so deathly afraid of whatever it is that you can't even let yourself see it. And I daresay you'd stay for a war. You seem to get off on that stuff."
"Probably," I admit, wearily. "Millie, please..."
"Justin..." Mil stands up and takes my arm, coaxing me out of the chair and out to the clammy grey walk. "Justin." Her skinny arms wrap around my waist, all strangely proportioned in comparison to the body I have in the Oasis. "Go home."
"But I have no place to--"
She eyes me so I'll shut up. "Go _home_. If I promise to be happy here, and visit you when I can, will that help you at all?"
"You're just playing hard to get or... something."
Now she does laugh. "Justin! Justin, Justin, Justin. I'm glad you don't have any other girl friends in this world, in this version of whatever's become real to you. I'll stick with my bar and my apartment, for now. At least you can't cycle through anyone else before you have to come to some level of sense."
Desperation rises like gorge, but there's no hope for any of it and I let it weakly fade. I do feel a lash catch a tear before I let out a rattling sob and lean on Millie's shoulder. I just don't get it. Her of all people.
"Come back to my place for the night. Have you got your ticket home, so to speak?"
"Yeah." I listlessly finger the bottle I brought in my pocket with as little thought of using it as I had of my money in the stash in Calico. I guess it's time to use it again. I'll go sulk in the tower with Mina, although it's admittedly hard to claim Mina is actually sulking even if she is pensive. I'll play checkers and die an old bird with the Kiri-ahn children telling stories about me in my roost in the Spire.
"Good. Come on with me. We'll get you a beer, too. Coffee just wasn't good enough. It's good to see you human again, that much I admit, but it just doesn't suit you the way that goofy pink thing does."
"It's not goofy."
"Of course not. You know what I mean. You seemed silly-happy."
"Whatever." My eyes haze over, the city blurring willingly beneath my feet. It doesn't matter where she leads me since I've lost the only aim I had.
"I needed direction, Millie. For one _moment_, for one _tiny fucking moment_ I had it. How could you not feel this with me? How could you not see it?"
She stops, an arm around the small of my back. "What are you feeling, Justin?"
"Tired. And afraid."
"Have you felt anything else this whole time? Since you came to see me?"
I think about it. "No. But I didn't have your answer yet, so why would I?"
"You'd have some hope, at least, if you had an ounce of the kind of passion for me that you've somehow convinced yourself you have."
"Well, the world is sinking out from under me. I hope you're happy."
She resumes walking, her small shoes scraping on the pavement. "I have been, a lot of the time, Justin. I don't intend to stay worried about you for long. Maybe you'll finally let your instincts take over."
"That's just it. You don't allow for 'whatever'. You have a solid set of rules and anything outside of it terrifies you. Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a man who'd allow himself to live as a big pink bird."
I smirk, but it's a suppressed smirk. Beer sounds good, maybe I'll get good and smashed and get a hangover before I leave again. "I'm sorry I didn't have a more _pleasant_ visit with you, Mil. You know, being utterly uncared for and rejected can kind of dampen my social skills."
"I'll take that into account," my heartless girlfriend chuckles, rumpling my hair for the second time tonight. "We'll catch up with each other, Justin. It's not like this is the last time you'll see me. But give me a chance to come and visit you where you've really found a place to be."
"Mm. Yeah. Whenever. But what if I want to come back with you _then_?"
"Oh for... We'll talk about it _then_. For both of our sakes I hope you've been waked up by then."
I'm still not sure just what she thinks there is to wake up to. I intend to get thoroughly drunk so I won't even remember sipping the potion that will end my final chance to make things right.
I wake in a familiar ring of grass, to the familiar chirp of smug little frogs and a fainter, whuffling sound, just as familiar. I stagger to my feet, able to balance but habitually unsure when I've suddenly filled a different form. My legs twist slightly to let my talons span enough bent, bunched grass that I won't sink in, and I extend my neck to see across the clear pool to the other side, and a rock with a rocklike, heaving shape next to it. This I have seen before, although this time he is not as still and that whuffling, which I know to be Joss's most despondent weeping, is carrying from his hunched brown form in steady waves.
I almost speak to him, but something makes me come closer, waiting, not certain about just calling out when he's obviously in a groove of sadness. His excited sounds and his quiet weeping are almost one and the same; I know one from the other by the pattern of the noise and by his posture. He still does not see me, but with one step and my leaning out towards him, although I am yards away, he startles instantly up into a kneeling position.
"Bennu!" Jossu'wa begins pawing at his teared eyes. I feel ashamed at having interrupted him.
Joss clambers up, dragging a pack and the fringes of his burlap clothing in the water as he stumbles into it and makes the closest semblance of running in an upright position that his people seem capable of. He reaches me and bows his head, dripping, scratching anxiously with a now half-dusty half-muddy claw at his scaled cap. "Bennu."
"What's up?" Everything else is sort of fading away, at least, my constant irritation and anger is somewhat alleviated by the distraction of the trip to see Millie and the emotional exhaustion of its outcome. It comes creeping, slowly at first and then with sharply reproachful force, that the last thing I said to my Speaker was pretty darn mean.
"Bennu, I know it was because of me that you left. I was going to come for you in case you were in danger, you do not know the relief I feel at seeing you return. I do not want-- want--" he crackles through a breath with leftover tears, then keeps on as I watch, "want you to be without your place here, your rightful place, I promise not to be so casual with you, not to be so familiar, I promise to remember my respect and not to make you leave again."
Joss stops for another half-weeping gasp, and I turn my head to think for an instant. I suppose the only thing to do is apologize. "Look I... I shouldn't have said the things I did. I'm sorry if I took your God away from you. I should've kept that to myself, maybe. You know, I mean, my beliefs and all that."
Joss wipes at his eyes and looks directly up at me. "Oh no," he says, mildly surprised. "You take nothing from me, Bennu. I know you think there is no God, but there is, and it is part of you to be Godlike. I have understood what you have said, that you are not a god. I understand this. But I will not be so familiar with you from now on. I never-- wanted-- I never meant to make you leave to show your irritation personally with me. I will not touch you, even though you are not a god."
"So you... you don't think there's not a God? How much sense does that make?"
"Just because you tell me... you know, that you are not, that means nothing about the Gods that are. And you are Godlike, Justin-Bennu. And I do not mean ever to keep you from the respect that you should own. It is yours. I am so... so relieved you came back today... I made myself promise I would go tomorrow, if you did not come home. I know you like it here. I could not ask you to stay away because of me. I would be broken in my soul if you had been hurt because of me."
Something occurs to me and I beak at the pack that Joss has half-folded up behind him. He tightens his jaws, but lets me see. Sure enough, a few supplies for waiting out here at the Oasis, but also the California white. The image of Joss in a city almost makes me laugh out loud, but the sobering expression on his face quashes that damn quickly.
He nods. "I... I am so relieved you came back. I was terrified to go. But there was no one else to be responsible."
"Did you ask anyone else?"
"Look, Joss, this is what gets on my nerves, all right? If you get it with the Bennu-not-god thing, what is with all this worshipping shit? You make me all on edge."
"I know Bennu, I am so sorry, but you... I do understand you. I understand you as I have said I do. But I can only stop treating you as the Bennu-god, and that I will stop doing, since you ask. I have stopped since you asked me before Ssayre-Mina came down from her Spire. But I cannot stop worshipping you. It is hard for me not to show this. But I will try. I did not mean to make you leave because of me."
I sigh, arcing my neck back and ruffing out my wings. "So, it's not about the religion. It doesn't matter what the fuck ol' Justin tells you about God or whathehellever. So. What's the problem? I don't get it. Just drop the subject and there we are, right?"
I try a sneering sound. It doesn't make much more than a sigh.
"I am sorry," he turns more fully towards me in his earnestness. "I do not know what _not_ to do. You do not want me touching you and do not want me not touching you. And lately before you disappeared it was all wrong, everything was wrong, and you are godlike but you would not let me say what I mean. And I did not want to say it... If you would hate this place because of me."
"So." I scoff as best I can, turning away to maybe seem more aloof, but it all lacks the power of any real conviction.
We are both silent, and the animal sounds of the Oasis seem muffled. Wind blows the tufted feathers of my crest and the loose fitting of burlap around Joss's torso. With my eyes scanning the desert, it occurs to me that there is little or no more color here than in Milwaukee.
"Well, Hell," I say, pawing a little in a shuffling kick at the grass. "Something made me stay in the first place."
"To be important?" Joss says triumphantly, raising his head and hands in his most praising expression for my benefit. "To fulfill your destiny?"
"It... might have been the destiny thing. It might... might not." I kick at the grass again.
"I am so pleased you stayed, for whatever your reason was. I am certain it was good."
I nod, trying to peer over the desert towards the village. It's not visible from here.
"Well, better start walking me back, I guess, unless you want to hike behind while I fly."
"I will walk with you, Justin, or I will watch you fly and then meet you there. Whatever pleases you. I'm so glad you came back..."
"Yeah, you said that. Good to see you, too. Let's go, shall we?"
"Yes, of course, Justin. I'm so..."
"Pleased I came back, yes, I know."
I almost take flight just to avoid the inevitable repetition of this inordinately warm welcome, but it feels right to stay grounded and walk with the priest. So we go back to the village together.