The Bird And The Worm
by Chuck Wendig
Edited by Brian J. White
The Bardo Bar, Kathmandu: December 25th,2010.
The big bastard is already at the table, drinking a Godawari Lager, greedily eating momo dumplings by hand—pinching each dough pocket between two tree-grubby fingers, tilting his butt-white head back so the rolls of neck fat bunch up like a rug made rumpled by the heel of a boot, then dropping each dumpling into his mouth from above. As if by helicopter. Then he licks his fingers of chili sauce and giggles: a high-pitched warble.
The girl, who looks like a Korean teenage backpacker, walks up and looks down. She sneers, lip curling over a hand-rolled cigarette whose cherry glows like hot coal.
Her right arm is inked with black birds of varying sizes.
Her left, a spider’s web. The spider visible at her elbow.
The bloated man’s neck is wound with a tattooed collar: a coiled dragon. A worm, of sorts, which makes sense if you know him.
She does know him. She has known him for a long, long time.
“You disgust me, as usual,” she says in Korean, pouting.
“And your very presence makes me feel unsettled, as if perched on the peak of a very high mountain, my sphincter clenched so hard it could bend rebar.” He titters, then licks a little sauce from the corners of his wine-dark lips. “Can we speak in English please?”
“We speak all languages.” That, in Chinese.
“Yes, but English is the most fun, and I am lazy.”
She nods, and pulls up a stool.
A few backpackers and ex-pats mill about. In the corner, a Sherpa, going over an Everest ascent list with a couple climbers. Otherwise: the place is pretty empty. The bartender is a raggedy strip of rope, an older woman with skin like sun-baked yak hide.
The plump grub pushes the momo toward her. “Dumpling?”
“You don’t look like you ate.”
“Are you my mother?”
“Maybe in some life.” His lips tug upward as if drawn by fishhooks. A joke, of course. He, even in his female forms, could’ve never been her mother because that’s not how things were set up.
“Don’t be the fool. I don’t have time.” She stubs out her cigarette in the middle of the table. “I’m going to climb Everest in three days, I have to prepare, you see.”
“Mm. So, I understand the Cochineal Box is once again in play.”
“So soon after the stockbroker found it.”
“His choices were poor.” She stiffens, already defensive. “But they were his choices.”
The big man—whose name is lost to time, a name that like hers is an epoch-long hymn of sounds (his hard with brutish consonants, hers soft and long with ululated vowels). His true name is forgotten, probably even to him.
But she knows him as Charu.
And he knows her as Vanth.
“Died in the street, that one,” Charu says.
“Died in an alleyway off the street,” Vanth corrects. “And, in a way, it was those two, not that one.
“Mm.” He turns his arm and uses the back of his arm to push the plate away, then takes a swig from the beer bottle. The bottle looks small in its rubbery white mitt. Vanth sees a line of names tattooed along the length of his arm, written very small, almost like a track of ants carrying their larvae: Morquin, Hyor-Ka, Vithra, Uthuthma, Mathokor, Pelsinade, Lith-lyru. “So, I suppose it’s time to wager. You being so… impatient. Time is a rock, you know. Unyielding. Functionally immortal.”
“Time is a bird on the wind. Fast, fleeting, soon out of sight.”
“That’s not how time works. Time is long.”
“Time is the moment we have. So short it can barely be measured.”
He smiles, his eyes pinched, his lips unhappy.
“I regret knowing you,” he says, plainly.
“Regret is of little value. A house does not regret the bricks that make its foundation.”
“Well, it damn well should if they’re shoddy bricks—”
She sticks out her tongue, picks a nit of tobacco off of it. “Fine. Whatever. I’m bored. The wager, then.”
“I bet I can guess your bet.”
“I’m betting on the keeper.”
“Of course you are. Blech. Ugh. Despite all good evidence to the contrary, even! I mean, he’s a drug addict. A lifetime of poor choices—or worse, choices deferred. He’s got regrets stacked to the ceiling, that one. Never mind the fact that nobody yet in the last hundred years has made a good choice yet with the Box. This test in particular works against you, my dear. Woefully, wildly against you. You won’t win. You never win this one.”
“I win others.”
“But not this one.”
“It only takes one to break the cycle.”
He chuckles. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, little chickadee.”
_Little chickadee. _What an asshole. As for sleep—well, she hasn’t slept in a decade. That troubles her, but what can be done? Nothing at all.
Charu goes back for one more dumpling. He plops it on his extended tongue, a tongue whose end splits for a moment like a serpent’s, then reforms into a normal—if long, and overly foamy—human tongue.
“So, what’s your bet?” he asks.
“I’ll give you my torch.”
He stiffens. But then tries to play it off like, _hey, no big deal. _He offers a weak, wilting smile. “Oh. That old thing.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t want it.” That’s not precisely fair. He probably doesn’t want it. He damn sure doesn’t_ need_ it. But he doesn’t want her to have it, either, nor anybody she’d dare to give it to.
“Fine, it’s a good wager,” he mutters. “Foolish, though, as you’ll most certainly lose it. Which is lovely by me, but I’d feel so guilty.”
The puckish look on his face suggests the opposite.
“What’s your offer?” she asks, peeling out a crumpled rolling paper. She pulls out a little bamboo cylinder hanging at her waist and opens it. With a few taps of it against the table, crumbs and threads of tobacco fall out onto the rectangular paper. She begins to roll it up.
“Some dust from one of my sarcophagi,” he says.
“Bullshit.” She licks the edges of the cigarette, tightens it up. “I’m offering you the torch, and you’re offering me dust.”
“My horse, then.”
She snorts. Vanth tries to contain it, but can’t. She cracks up. The more she tries to stop it, the harder the laughs come. Soon she’s laughing so hard she’s crying, the crooked cigarette stuck to the inside of her lip, waggling there as she raps on the table with her knuckles.
Eventually her laughing jag dies back.
“Done now?” he asks.
“Your horse, Huth, is a beaten old nag who can no longer bear your weight. Long and sad like a car-flattened snake. I don’t want that… beast.”
“But he can traverse the worlds!”
She rolls her eyes so hard they almost rattle back into her head. “That’s why I have my key, dumbass.”
“So wasting my time. Your wager? Or do we just walk away and let the knuckle-dice roll?”
“No!” he barks. “That is never an option and how dare you?”
“Everything is an option.”
“My wager…” Here, he inhales sharply. “Is my hammer.”
The hammer. Now that’s something.
“Well. Now you’re cooking with gas.”
“Your torch. My hammer.” He offers a hand.
She takes it. She gives a vigorous shake. His hand is spongy and sweaty. It’s like shaking some goblin appendage.
Caught in the throes of his palm-slick grip, Charu beams. “He’ll lose, you know. The Box is a trap. Elegant and perfect and utterly proves the truth of my ways. It confirms the pattern. Mine is the way.”
“All patterns have to break. All sweaters pull apart at the edges.”
“I despise your metaphors.”
“I despise the way you eat dumplings.”
“Remember,” Charu warns, “you can’t get involved.”
“I never do,” she lies.
He smiles. “Ta-ta for now.”
“Later, big man.”
And then she leaves the bar. He remains behind, ordering another plate of momo and a beer as she leaves.
14. THE APARTMENT
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: October 21st, 2011.
The old crooked stick named Stankieiwicz stands in the door, hands on his hips, eyes alive and dry purple lips working like he’s arguing with himself or complaining in the silent pocket of his own mouth.
Walter says, “You say he moved out when?”
“Last ahhh, you know, I think it was New Year’s Eve.”
“You kick him out?”
“Yeah.” But the way the old landlord says it, Walter’s not sure. That word has the sound of a lying child trying to sound tougher than he really is. Petulant and afraid.
The apartment isn’t much to look at. Still empty and unrented. Not surprising, with the water stains on the ceiling, the tinking radiator, the striations of mold on the walls looking like fingers trying to pull down the half-rotten drywall. It’s one step up from a tenement.
“You kicked him out because…”
“Because he was a little prick motherfucker!”
“Probably not a real good legal reason to evict somebody.”
“Eh. Should be. Should be!” The landlord waves a crooked hand like an old cat swiping at a moth with an arthritic paw. “He was broke. Out of work. He ahhh, used to be one of those fancy coffee drink counter monkeys. Baritones or baristos or—”
“You know where?”
“Sure, sure. Near Reading Terminal. Place called Long Black or something. Not a place I’d ever get coffee, tell you what. A cup of diner coffee is all I need to get the short and curlies standing long and straight.”
“I saw him down there, you know.”
Walter cocks an eyebrow. “When was that?”
“About six months ago.”
“Six months ago, Dale Gilooly was not among the living.”
The landlord’s face freezes, eyes wide. “Huh? Whaddya mean?”
“He’s dead. That’s why I’m here. Dale is dead.”
“Oh. Oh, jeez.” The landlord shuffles from foot to foot, looking guilty—again, like a child caught kicking rocks or burning ants. “You know, I didn’t mean to say those things, I… I’m a good man, I don’t like to talk ill of the dead, that’s a good way to invite disaster. You shoulda said that from the get-go, I just figured he was a criminal like I thought he always was—”
“But you said you saw him six months ago.”
“Yeah, sure, at the coffee place.”
“You said you don’t get coffee there.”
“I don’t! But I walk by there sometimes if I’m heading to Reading, ‘cause there’s a couple Pennsylvania Dutch places down there, and it’s cheaper than you think to buy a jar of jam or chow-chow or—”
“So how’d you see him?”
“Through the, you know, through the window. As I walked past—” And here the landlord mimics walking using his two fingers as little legs. “He was sitting in there with a girl—a woman, I guess, I shouldn’t call them girls but I’m old so that’s how they are to me, just girls.”
“And this was six months ago.”
“May. Yeah. Ehhh, coulda been April. Spring had springed up.”
“Like I said, Gilooly was dead by then.”
“Oh, this was him. I’d know that squirrely motherf—” He clears his throat, coughs in his hand, looks suddenly ceilingward as if Saint Peter and Jesus and God himself were all up there judging him. “I’d know him anywhere that that was him.”
“Maybe it was a brother.”
“You know, he has a brother, but that brother—William, I think—he’s a bigger fella. Dale’s… you know, he’s average.” Way the landlord says that word: _ad-vur-edge. _“But the brother’s like a football player-looking guy.”
“You know where the brother is?”
“No, I—” But then the landlord’s eyebrows arch. “You know, I got contact information for him. The brother co-signed all the papers when it came time to rent this place out.”
“I’ll need those.”
“No problem, officer.”
On the way toward the door, Bard pauses, turns to the landlord:
“You know, Gilooly owed you money, you could’ve gone right to the brother. Since he co-signed and all.”
“Oh. Ehh. Yeah. You’re right.” He laughs, faux-embarrassed.
Not a great actor, this one.
“Gilooly didn’t owe you money,” Walter says. A statement. Not a question.
“Did you really evict him?”
The landlord sighs. “I was gonna. Woulda made me feel like a million bucks kicking that… ehhh, whatever. He paid. He paid up, paid in full. Walked up to me with a bag full of money and then walked away. Left most of his furniture here, too. Helluva thing.”
“This was cash?”
“Uh-huh. Lot of it, too. Usually he wrote checks. And usually, they bounced.”
“Thanks. You mind if I see that application now?”
15. ON THE SUBJECT OF REGRET
Glenside, Pennsylvania, July 4th, 2008.
Outside, the pop-pop-pop of noontime fireworks: bottle rockets and black cats and whistlers. Dale hears it but almost like he’s hearing it with someone else’s ears, like he’s only half in his body. That’s Oxy for you.
His father’s over there in the recliner. Watching a Phillies game but not really watching it. The old man’s nervous. Tomorrow he goes in for a procedure. Cancer. They’re gonna take part of his bowel.
They don’t know how much, yet.
Maybe this much. Maybe that much.
Maybe enough he’ll be crapping in a bag.
Dad’s foot goes up and down. Like he’s pumping the brakes on a truck. All the while, he’s saying:
“We add up to certain things. Every choice we make is a part of our equation, like we’re all one big addition problem.” Dad’s an engineer. Always thinking about math. The old man works for a chemical company, designing new ways to—well, Dale doesn’t really know. He built something called an “agitator.” Another something that uses a helluva lotta ball bearings (Dale remembers because he used to pilfer those, use ‘em in slingshots). He starts talking about that, a story Dale’s heard before: “You know, I signed a contract of employment with them? Contract said I had to give everything up. Patents and rights to all my work. All in turn for a steady paycheck, some health insurance. Pension. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But then the health care goes up. Some investor bends our pension over a desk and now that’s less than what it should’ve been. I made choices. You get it? I made bad choices and this is where I am, now.”
Dale’s barely listening. The Oxy is in him like warm water. On his skin, smooth as silk boxers. Normally listening to his father like this would be rough, jagged, an act like chewing glass or rubbing sand in your eye. But Oxy, boy, it rounds all that out. Taking Oxy is like buffing down a rough fingernail, or cutting the scratchy tags off a new shirt.
On the TV, Jason Werth knocks one out of the park. Boom. Yay. Whatever.
Dad keeps talking: “You can’t go back. You can’t undo any of that. Once it’s twisted, it’s twisted. Once the equation is written, you can’t change it. Everything is additive. Nothing is subtractive.”
“Uh-huh,” Dale says, gesturing lazily with a beer.
“I ate badly all my life.”
“Mom was a good cook.”
“Junk, though. I ate a lot of junk, too. Burgers and cookies and what else.” He looks down. Dad always said he was fat but he’s as skinny as a chair leg. He runs the flat of his hand over his stomach. Pooches out what little gut he can manage, grabs a fistful of it. “Now I got the cancer.”
“Dad, it’s just cancer.” Somewhere Dale realizes how horrible that sounds but that’s not how he means it, so he tries to course correct: “I just mean, they’re gonna operate, then chemo, then you’re all good.”
“Your Uncle Dave wasn’t good. And Susan Wayland at work, she had the colon cancer, too, and they told her the same thing, but it was all up in her like wood rot. Dave’s dead. Susan’s dead.”
“Dad it’ll be fine. Just watch the game.”
“You’re high right now, aren’t you?”
“Jesus, Dad.” I am high but you’re starting to knock me low.
“You oughta look at your life, too.”
“My life’s fine.”
“Your life is swirling down the septic system is what it’s doing. You’re an adult. You got nothing going on.”
“I got a new girlfriend. Susannah.”
“She’ll leave you. You’ll screw her up.”
Dale frowns. Waves his hand at the old man as if to say, _bah, what do you know? _But Dad continues:
“Your equation is full of variables yet. You fill ‘em right you might be able to come up out of this okay. But so far every number you put down is a zero. A big fat honking zero. You know what a buncha zeroes add up to?”
“Lemme see—” Dale counts on his fingers, makes a hurr-durr sound. “Four? Eighteen? Eleventy-seven?”
“Always with the mouth on you.”
Dad stands up. “I gotta go make friends with regret.”
For a while, Dale listens to the fireworks outside. Somewhere a few kids scream-laugh at each other. On the TV, the Phillies’ lead evaporates, turns from a big number to a number suddenly smaller than what the Giants are bringing in. Dale likes baseball but he’s only half paying attention to the game. Mostly now it’s the green of the field. Almost nuclear. And the blue of the sky. Dad’s got one of those high-def TVs and everything just pops—
Upstairs, bang. Fireworks.
No. Not fireworks.
Upstairs, Dale finds his father dead on the toilet with a gun in his mouth (the cheek catching the barrel like a net bulging with a dead fish) and a box of .44 shells cradled between his thighs.