“So this is the wizard,” Neil said.
“Supposedly,” Jim said.
Six feet tall, the statue had been carved from wood that retained most of its whiteness, even though the date cut into its base read 2005, seven years ago. Jim thought the color might be due to its not having been finished—splinters stood out from the wood’s uneven surface—but didn’t know enough about carpentry to be certain.
“Looks kind of Gandalf,” Neil said.
He was right. The wide-brimmed hat, long beard, staff and robe, all suggested Tolkien’s character, an impression the squirrel at the figure’s left foot, fox behind its right, owl on its shoulder did little to argue.
“I know,” Jim said. “It’s like that statue of William Wallace—did I tell you about that? They wanted to put up a new statue of Wallace—somewhere out near Stirling, I think—so what did the artist come up with? Mel Gibson in Braveheart.”
“No wonder there’re so few Jews in Scotland.”
“Apparently, the real guy was much stranger.”
“Gibson? I know,” Neil said, starting up the hill towards the dirt path that would take them into the nature preserve.
“No, the wizard.” Once he had caught up to Neil and they were walking under the tall pine and oak, Jim continued, “In one story, the King of France was causing some kind of difficulty for the local merchants—an embargo, I think. Michael Renfrew mounted his iron horse and in a single bound crossed the distance from Kirkcaldy to Paris. When he showed up at the French palace, its doors flew open for him. The King’s guards found their swords red hot in their hands. Needless to say, Louis-the-whatever changed his mind, and quickly, at that.”
“An iron horse, huh?”
“Legend says you can still see its hoofprint on the cliff it leapt off.”
To their right, separated from them by dense rows of pine, a stone tower raised its crenellated head above the tree line. “See?” Jim said, pointing to it. “Over there—that’s Renfrew’s keep.”
“Which has seen better days.”
“It’s like seven hundred years old.”
“So’s Edinburgh Castle, isn’t it?”
“Anyhoo,” Jim said, “Renfew only stayed there part of the time. He was the court astrologer for the Holy Roman Emperor.”
Neil grunted. No longer angry about the Rose incident, neither was he all the way over it. Had he been familiar with Scotland, he might have gone off for a few days on his own, left Jim to worry about what he was up to, whom he was having long, heartfelt conversations with over steaming mugs of chai. The trip, however, had been Jim’s baby, a chance to share with Neil the place in which he’d passed the summers of his childhood while also promoting his surprisingly successful book. Neil could not make sense of the time tables for the trains or buses, and as for driving on the other side of the road, forget it. He had no choice but to remain with Jim and his revelation about his affaire de coeur with Rose Carlton, which he had dealt with from inside a roiling cloud first of anger, then pique. Jim met this change in their personal weather the way he always did, the way he always had, by talking too much, filling the charged air with endless facts, opinion, speculation.
Not for the first time, the irony of his book’s title, The Still Warrior, struck him. How often had he urged his students at the dojo not to be afraid of their own quiet, of remaining in place, controlling their sparring bouts by forcing their opponents into committing to action first? It was a perspective he’d spent one hundred and forty-eight pages applying to a wide range of activities and situations, and based on the early sales figures, it was a viewpoint in which a significant portion of the reading public was interested. Look at his life off the dojo’s polished hardwood, though, and he might as well have been writing fiction, fantasy rooted in the deepest wish-fulfillment. Especially when it came to Neil, he was almost pathologically unable to leave things be, let the kinks and snarls in their relationship work themselves out, as the vast majority of them likely would. Instead, he had to plan excursions like this one, a walk along a nature path that was supposed to bring them . . . what? Closer? “You can’t make a scar heal any faster,” Neil had said, which Jim wasn’t sure he believed but which Neil certainly did.
Ahead, the path was intersected by a secondary trail slanting up from the right. The new trail was little more than a disturbance in the forest’s carpet of needles, but Neil turned onto it. “Hey,” Jim said.
“I want to see where this goes.”
Neil knew he wouldn’t argue. Prick. Jim followed him off the main path . . .
. . . and was seized by a vertigo so extreme he might have been standing at the edge of a sheer cliff, rather than a not-especially steep trail. He leaned forward, and it was as if he were on the verge of a great abyss, an emptiness that was coaxing him forward, just one more step . . .
A hand gripped his arm. “Hey—you all right?” The voice was high, familiar.
Vision swimming, Jim said, “I don’t,” and heard the words uttered in a different—in what sounded like the voice on his and Neil’s videos of their old vacations, his voice of ten years ago.
The hand steadying him belonged to a young man—to Neil, he saw, Neil as he had been when Jim had met him at a mutual friend’s Y2K party. His hair was down to his shoulders and, as was the case when he let it grow, both more curly and a shade closer to strawberry blond. The lines on his face were not cut as deep, and his skin was pale from a life lived in front of the computer. Mouth tucked into the smirk that had first caught Jim’s notice, he said, “Steady,” and released Jim’s arm.
Jim raised his right hand and brushed the half-dozen earrings that climbed his ear. He could feel his own hair ponytailed along the back of his neck. “Oh my God,” he said.
“What is it?” Neil said.
“Maybe the mushrooms weren’t such a good idea.”
“Mushrooms?” Jim said, even as he was thinking, Yes, mushrooms, because that’s the kind of shit you do now, at twenty-five, psilocybin and pot and occasionally hash and once in a great while a little E, because you’re still five years away from the ambush of turning thirty, when you’ll throw away all this stuff and more besides—soda, fast food, desserts—in favor of Shotokan karate seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. That’s the future: right now, you’re pursuing your private version of the systematic derangement of the senses.
“Man,” Neil said, “I guess those things were strong. I’ve never seen you like this before. Wish they would do something for me.” He waved his hand in front of his eyes. “Nada.”
“We—how did we get here?”
“No, I mean Kirkcaldy—Scotland.”
“How did we get here?”
“Easy, there, easy,” Neil said. “Work exchange, remember? I’m over here six weeks, that guy—Doug Moore, right?—is enjoying life in NYC. You tagged along because—well, because you’re cute and I like you. Okay?”
Of course that was the case. The moment Jim heard Neil’s explanation, he realized he already knew it. Cheeks burning, he said, “Okay. I’m sorry, it’s just—those were some strong mushrooms.”
“Yeah. I was having this whole fantasy that you and I were here, only, in the future.”
“The future, huh? What were we like?”
“I had written this really popular book. We were here promoting it. You were . . . still programming, I think.”
“Oh, so you’re the famous writer and I’m just some computer nerd. Very nice.”
“Hey, you were my computer nerd.”
“It’s gotten me everywhere.”
“You’re feeling better.”
“Good.” The expression on Neil’s face looked as if it might portend sex, a quickie amidst the trees, but he turned and continued down the secondary path. As Jim followed, he said, “Before you went all freaky, you were talking about the wizard, old Michael Renfrew.”
“I was? Yeah, I suppose I was. Look to your right, ahead and you’ll see Renfrew’s keep.”
“Where? Oh, yeah. What part is that?”
“Must be near the base. That’s—I think that’s a doorway. Hard to tell through the trees.”
“So what about Renfrew?”
“Did I tell you about the iron horse?”
“And the King of France, yeah.”
“There’s a story about him and the Devil.”
“Or a devil: I can’t remember which. At some point, he summoned a devil. I’m not sure why. Maybe for knowledge, or maybe to prove his power. It’s one of those things magicians do all the time in old stories. Anyway, dealing with this guy was more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill evil spirit. If Renfrew could name a single task the devil could not perform, then he could make whatever use of him he wished for a year and a day. If not, the devil would pull him down to hell.”
“Renfrew took him to the beach, and commanded him to weave a rope out of sand.”
“Not bad. What did he have the devil do for him?”
“The story doesn’t say. It’s more concerned with him outsmarting the devil than with Renfrew using him for his personal gain.”
“Maybe that was how he got the iron horse.”
“Not really. He’s supposed to have had something to do with this book, Les mystères du ver, but I’m not sure what.”
“Les mystères du ver: The Mysteries of the Worm. It’s some kind of evil book, Satanic Bible, witch’s spell list, that sort of thing.”
“The Mysteries of the Worm, huh? No wonder you’re interested in this guy.”
“Worm? Try snake.”
“Merely stating the facts.”
Neil did not answer, and Jim could not think of a way to extend their banter that did not sound forced, banal. It’s all right, he told himself. Silence is all right. You don’t always have to be talking. Wasn’t that one of the things that had attracted him to Neil in the first place, his ability to be comfortable in his own quiet? Even in the length of time they’d been together, hadn’t he learned that Neil’s sometimes prolonged periods of silence rarely had anything to do with them, that he was usually turning over some work-related problem? He didn’t feel the need to fill the air with words, and if that made Jim anxious, that wasn’t Neil’s fault, was it?
Plus, the sex is fantastic.
Maybe fifteen feet in front of Neil, the path leveled off and was met by another, slanting down from the right to join theirs at an acute angle. When Neil turned at the junction and started up it, Jim said, “Hey.”
“Come on,” Neil said. “This should take us back to the main trail.”
No arguing with that. This track appeared clearer than the one they’d just descended, more sharply-defined. He followed onto it and it was as if he’d tried to walk up a wall. The path rose above him, impossibly high; he staggered backwards, dropped onto his ass. The path loomed overhead, a dark strip of ground about to fall on him, and—
A silhouette leaned in front of him. “What happened?” The voice was flat, familiar.
Struggling against the urge to throw his hands in front of his face, to protect himself from the collapse of dirt and rock, Jim said, “I don’t,” and was shocked to hear the fragment delivered in a voice whose underlying tones were his but which had been roughened, broadened.
The outline before him resolved into Neil, but a different Neil, a Neil whose face might have received the attentions of a makeup artist instructed to advance his age by twenty, twenty-five years. His hair was crew cut short. His skin was grooved across the forehead, beneath the eyes, to either side of the mouth. Under the open collar of his shirt, a faded line of green ink scaled the left side of his neck, the edge of a tattoo, Jim knew—remembered. Were he to look into a mirror, he would see its twin on the left side of his neck, a memento of the aftermath of the Rose Carlton incident, when he and Neil had sought a way to reaffirm their bond. The eclipse had been Jim’s idea, a symbol that, whatever events might darken their relationship, they would pass.
(Except that he’d developed a staph infection, which the tattooist, a mutual acquaintance, had spent days insisting could not be happening—he ran a clean shop—until Jim had wound up in the hospital, tethered to an IV antibiotic drip for a week. Nor had Neil moved past Rose, not really: Every time an argument escalated to a certain pitch, he reached for her like a favorite weapon.)
“You all right?” Neil asked, the words tinted with something resembling concern.
He’s worried about my heart, Jim thought. The infection affected my heart, weakened it. (What the hell is happening to me?) “Fine,” he said, climbing to his feet. “I’m fine, just . . . a little lightheaded.” (Is this some kind of long-term after-effect of being sick? Did it mess with my head?) He gestured at the path. “Go on.”
“Take it easy,” Neil said. “This isn’t a race.” Nonetheless, he hurried to keep in front. “Okay?” he called over his shoulder.
After a minute of trudging up the thick, rocky earth, Neil said, “Do you feel like continuing the story?”
“Story, chapter, whatever you want to call it. ‘Renfrew and the Giant.’”
Almost before he knew he was speaking them, Jim found the words at his lips. “Having endured Renfrew’s displays of power, the Giant was less than impressed by his offer of an alliance between them. He said, ‘Little man, you have already shown me that I have nothing to fear from you. Why should I cast my lot in with yours?’
“Although obviously exhausted, Renfrew stood straighter and answered, ‘Because you have everything to benefit if you do, and everything to lose if you do not.’
“At this, the Giant laughed, and it was the sound of an avalanche, of boulders crashing into one another. ‘Little man,’ he said, ‘your boldness does you credit. I will eat you quickly.’ He reached one enormous hand toward the wizard.
“Renfrew did not flinch. He said, ‘I know your name—your true name.’
“The Giant’s hand halted, inches from Renfrew. His vast brow lowered. ‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘I hid that where no man—no one might find it, ever.’
“‘Yes,’ Renfrew said, ‘in a cavern under a lake watched over by three mountains, locked inside a brass casket guarded by a basilisk. I have been there.’
“The Giant’s hand retreated. He said, ‘You read of this in one of your wizard’s books.’
“Renfrew said, ‘The sole means to open the casket is the tooth of a hydra, which is in the basilisk’s stomach. The casket contains a pale blue egg resting on a white pillow. To touch the egg is like touching a furnace; to hear its shell crack is like hearing your own death. Within the egg, there is a stone into which has been carved a single word.’
“The Giant’s hand had retreated all the way to his great mouth.
“Renfrew said, ‘That word is Mise.’”
Neil said, “Meesh?”
“I think that’s how it’s pronounced. It’s Gaelic, means, ‘I am.’”
“Yeah. The original story doesn’t say what the Giant’s true name was, only that Renfrew had discovered it and used it against him. I thought about making it something like ‘stone’ or ‘mountain,’ but that seemed too obvious.”
“Well, giants are big, you know; if you were going to associate them with anything, it would be a mountain.”
“Anyway, it made sense to me that the Giant’s name would be his life, so, ‘I am.’”
“If you say so. Just as long as this one brings another big advance.”
Jim said, “Karen’s pretty optimistic. Post-Harry Potter, wizards and magic are big business in kids’ publishing,” even as he was thinking, Karen Lowatchee, your agent, who repped you on The Still Warrior and, when the heart thing made you scale back karate, suggested you try fiction. She’d liked the chapters on karate for kids, said they showed a real grasp of tween psychology. She was the one who came up with the Jenny Ninja series title, and got you the big advances for the last two. Neil calls her “Glenda the Good Bitch”; she calls him “Microsoft.”
“What happens next?” Neil said.
“In the chapter? Renfrew turns the Giant into his keep.”
“That’s what happens in the original legend.”
“Yeah, but—couldn’t he have used the Giant, first?”
“Invaded England with him?” Jim said.
“I don’t know. I kind of like the idea of Renfrew living inside the Giant, wandering around him, listening to the echo of his thoughts, his dreams.”
“Sounds pretty creepy, if you ask me.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Isn’t this book supposed to be for kids?”
“It’s YA,” Jim said, “Young Adult. Older kids.”
Over the tops of the pines to their right, Renfrew’s keep raised its ragged crown. “See,” Jim said, pointing at it, “the windows look like eyes.”
“What has eyes like that?”
“It’s supposed to be a monster.”
“Aren’t giants big people?”
“Not all of them. The ancient Greeks described giants with a hundred arms.”
“Where do you get this stuff?”
“Depends. The ancient Greek stuff’s available all over the place. Information on Renfrew is harder to come by. Mostly, I use that website, Blackguide.com.”
“The one that crashed the computer?”
“I told you, it wasn’t that: It was all the porn you’d been looking at.”
Neil’s pace slowed. In front of him, their path intersected another sloping steeply down from the right. As he stepped onto it, Jim said, “Hey.”
“I’m pretty sure this’ll lead back to the beginning of the trail,” Neil said.
This place isn’t that big. I’m sure if I kept on a straight line, I’d come out on a side street, eventually. However discouraging the prospect of an even more strenuous climb was, though, the inevitable spat that would result from him not following Neil, not to mention the two or three days after that before the situation returned to normal, prompted him up the new path. As he did, his vision went dark. He had the impression of something huge in front of him, something vast hanging over him, like a wave, only solid, ready to crash down on him. He wanted to cry out, but his tongue was dead in his mouth; his heart lurched like a racehorse stumbling mid-stride.
Somewhere close by, an old man’s voice said, “What is it? What’s the matter with you?” The words vibrated with rage, barely-controlled.
What’s Neil’s father doing here? Jim thought. He tried to speak. “Mr. Marshall—”
“Don’t Mr. Marshall me. I know who I am. I’m still lucid.”
The host of the questions the outburst raised was silenced by the clearing of Jim’s sight, which revealed Neil’s face inches from his. Its angry expression was almost parodic: eyes wide and staring under lowered brows, top lip arched, teeth visible, chin jutting forward. It was also the face of a man in his mid-seventies. Neil’s hair was white, as were his eyebrows; both hair and brows were thick, bushy. The lines across his forehead, to either side of his mouth, appeared cut right down to the bone, while his skin looked loose, its grip on his skull slipping. His gaze was fierce yet unfocused, as if he were unable to pinpoint the source of his rage; already, his lips were retreating from their snarl into the tremors that shook them incessantly.
The Alzheimer’s, Jim thought. That was the first symptom: before the memory loss, the mood swings, that spasm was telling us what was on the way.
“What happened to you?” Neil said. “Is it your heart? Are you having another heart attack?” The emotion under his words was sliding into panic.
“I’m fine,” Jim said. “Just caught up in . . .” What? What do I call whatever’s happening to me? (And, by the way, what the hell is happening to me? Is this some kind of stroke?) “In a rather vivid day dream, I suppose—a memory, really, of one of our past visits here.”
“Oh? Was that before or after you fucked Rose?”
“Yes, yes, that’s what you always say; what you’ve always said.”
“But you’ve never believed me, have you?”
“I don’t know what I believe. I’m the one whose brain is disintegrating, remember?”
“It isn’t,” Jim started, then stopped. Technically speaking, Neil’s brain wasn’t disintegrating, but there were worse ways to describe what was happening to his personality, to the aggregate of memories and attitudes that composed Neil. Anyway, Neil already had turned his back on him and was striding up the path. The disease might be wrecking his mind, but so far, his vitality was undiminished. Jim labored not to fall too far behind.
Neil said, “Do you remember the end of Renfrew’s story?”
“Do you mean my book, or the legend?”
“Which was which?”
“My book ends with Renfrew entering the cave at Wemyss in search of the path to the Graveyard of the Old Gods. He leaves Thomas, his apprentice, in charge until his return, which doesn’t take place during Thomas’s very long life, or that of his apprentice, or that of any of the men and women who have come since. However, the book says, that doesn’t mean that, one day, the old wizard won’t emerge from the mouth of the cave, squinting at the light, and begin the long walk back to his old home.”
“That wasn’t it.”
“You want the legend, then. That ends with a group of the Covenanters coming armed to Renfrew’s keep in order to arrest him on charges of sorcery. When they arrived, though, they found the place deserted, as if no one had lived there for decades, or longer.”
“That isn’t it, either.”
“I don’t—there’s a tradition, a kind of afterword to the legend proper, that if you follow a certain course through the woods around Renfrew’s keep—and if certain conditions are right: the stars are in alignment, that sort of thing; I think an eclipse is supposed to figure into the equation, somehow—then Renfrew himself will appear to you and offer to teach you what he knows. Is that what you were thinking of?”
“Yes,” Neil said.
Jim waited for Neil to add something more; when he did not, he said, “What makes you ask?”
“About Renfrew’s course?”
“What about it?”
“You just asked me to tell you about it.”
“I did.” Neil shrugged. “I don’t remember that.”
There was no point in anger; though buttressed by his meds, Neil’s short-term memory was far from perfect. Jim said, “You know what I was thinking?”
“How much longer you have to wait before you can put me in a home?”
“What? No, I told you, I’m not going to put you in a home.”
“That’s what you say now.”
“That’s what I have said—what I’ve been saying ever since you were diagnosed.”
For a change, he hoped the silence that greeted his reassurance meant the subject of their debate had slipped through the sieve of Neil’s immediate recollection. His quiet seemed to imply that it had, another moment caught in the plaque crusting his neurons, then he said, “I hope you and Rose will have the decency to wait until all my things have been moved out for her to move in.”
“It would be nice if you could wait until I’m in the ground, but I’m guessing I could hang on for a while, and you certainly aren’t getting any younger. Neither is she; although she isn’t as old as we are, is she? Maybe she’ll be inclined to do the decent thing, but you won’t, will you?”
“I’m sorry: I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.”
Neil lengthened his stride, mountain-goating up the path. Jim didn’t bother chasing after. Better to hang back and hope that, by the time he caught up, Neil’s thunderstorm of emotions would have passed; though he wasn’t sure what he rated the chances of that as. It had been years, almost a full decade, since he and Rose had seen one another, and that had been by accident, a chance encounter at the Union Square Barnes & Noble that had led to nothing more than the occasional e-mail. If he hadn’t told Neil about the meeting, or the correspondence, it was because, long after his whatever-you-wanted-to-call-it with her had receded in his memory, in Neil’s mind, it was a flame only recently and poorly extinguished, whose smoldering embers might yet ignite again. He would have made too much of the e-mails in which Jim told Rose about his visit to the set of the Renfrew film, Rose told him about her recent trip to Paris with her ninety-two year old mother, mountained the molehills into a secret, ongoing affair. In the wake of Neil’s illness, he supposed he had been writing to her more frequently, but his correspondence with all his friends and family had increased as his communication with Neil had grown more erratic.
He was almost at the top of the path. He had climbed higher than he’d realized; to his right and over his shoulder, he could look down on the roofless top of Renfrew’s keep. To his relief, Neil was standing waiting for him. “There you are,” Jim said—panted, really.
“Here I am,” Neil said. His expression was almost kindly. “Need a minute?”
“Half a minute,” Jim said, leaning forward. “Neil—”
At Neil’s feet, their path formed an acute angle with another climbing up from the right. As he started down it, Jim said, “Hey.”
“I can see the place where we started,” Neil said, pointing.
Jim squinted. Was that the white of the wizard’s statue? They would have to descend from here somehow, he supposed, and this new path, crossed by tree roots that formed an irregular staircase, was probably the best option he could expect. He stepped down and it was like dropping into a well. There was the sensation of falling straight down, and the impression of everything flying up all around him, and the sound of roaring filling his ears. Terror swept through his chest, his head, made them sickeningly light. He flailed his arms. There was nothing under his feet; he was falling.
Something crashed into him from the front. He heard an, “Oof!,” felt his direction change. Now he was moving forward, his arms and legs caught with someone else’s, tangled, the pair of them thudding and scraping against rock and dirt. He rolled over and under, over and under his companion, then landed hard on his back, his right kidney shouting at the rock it came down on. Above him, the sky was a blue bowl someone had set spinning. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, Neil was leaning over him. There was a cut high on his forehead leaking blood onto his brow, but aside from that and some dirt, his face was the same as it had been at the start of this strange walk, thirty-nine and looking it. “You klutz,” he said. “Karate master, my ass.”
Jim flung his arm around him, flinching as his back complained. “I’m sorry,” he said into Neil’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“You mean, aside from the gaping wound in my head? Yeah, I’m peachy.”
Jim released him. “I am so sorry,” he said as he struggled to his feet. “I just . . . I slipped.”
“And you couldn’t miss me on the way?”
“I didn’t want you to feel left out.”
Fighting it, Neil smirked. “You are such an asshole.”
“But I’m your asshole.”
“Enough shit comes out of you, anyway.”
“Ah, I’m sure a little single malt will help.”
“First sensible thing you’ve said all day.”
They had rolled almost halfway down the path; no surprise, given the bruises Jim could feel ripening under his shirt, his jeans, the scrapes visible on Neil’s arms, his neck. He supposed he should be grateful neither of them had broken a limb, or been concussed. At least Neil had been right about this path returning them to the entrance to the nature preserve: through the trees, the wizard’s statue stood a pale beacon. As Neil stepped from tree root step to tree root step, Jim weighed telling him about his . . . what would he call them? Hallucinations? Visions? Waking dreams? Maybe “experiences” was the best word for them. Whatever: it was on the tip of his tongue to say that he had just relived their life together when they’d first met, then seen them at points another twenty and forty or so years in the future. When I’m the author of a series of successful children’s books and he’s in mid-stage Alzheimer’s, not to mention still obsessing over Rose Carlton: yes, that would go over splendidly.
Neil was drawing away from him. Strangest of all was that, now that the two of them were their proper selves, he was not more upset by what he had just been through, his experiences. (That still wasn’t the right word, but it would do for the moment.) While he had been at each of those other times, the moment had been as real as anything—that he had been wrenched from this specific point in his life had seemed as odd, as disorienting, as any other detail. Returned to the age at which he had entered the nature preserve—the age he was supposed to be—Jim found his and Neil’s alternate selves suddenly distant, novels he’d read years ago, their plots dim weights resting in the depths of his memory.
So what was all that? Some kind of projection? Easy enough to trace the roots of at least some of it to the current state of his and Neil’s relationship. Future Neil’s fixation on the Rose business arose from Jim’s anxiety that, as time went on, he wouldn’t be able to relinquish it. Jim’s continued success as a writer was simple wish-fulfillment (although his agent had praised the sections of his book dealing with kids). Neil’s grandfather had suffered from Alzheimer’s, which his father was showing early symptoms of; from there, it was a short jump to imagining Neil eventually overtaken by it.
The vividness of everything, though, he could not account for. He had indulged in enough hallucinogens in his younger years; could this have been a delayed consequence of that? It seemed unlikely, but what was more likely? The place was the site of a ley-line that produced brief time-distortions? Funny how all the tourist info fails to mention that.
To his right, the lower stretch of Renfrew’s keep was visible through the trees. Ahead, Neil was already at the statue. Legs protesting, Jim picked up his pace. Neil had stopped in front of the sculpture, and appeared to be speaking to it. That can’t be good. Did I say neither of us was concussed?
Jim did not see the man with whom Neil was talking until he was next to him. Standing on the other side of the statue, the man had been obscured from Jim’s view by it. A head shorter than either of them, he wore his reddish hair short and a dark suit over an open-collared white shirt. Jim wasn’t much for estimating the cost of things, but even he could recognize the quality of the man’s clothes, which made the stains on his jacket cuffs, his shirt, all the more conspicuous. The man raised his eyes to Jim, and their green notice was a physical thing, a heaviness passing over him. “You’re Jim,” he said in a voice that was soft, accentless.
“Yes,” Jim said, extending his hand. “You are . . . ?”
The man’s hands were in his trouser pockets; he kept them there. “Renfrew.”
“Like—” Jim gestured at the sculpture.
“The very same,” the man said, “though the likeness is a poor one.”
“Wait—what?” Jim glanced at Neil, who was watching the man intently. “I’m sorry: I thought you were saying—”
“I was.” The man withdrew his hands from his pockets. Blue flames licked the unburned skin of the left; while a slender emerald snake coiled around the right.
“Jesus!” Jim leapt back.
“What is this?”
Neil said, “We completed the course.”
“You did.” The man—Renfrew?—nodded. “Per the terms of a contract that is older than any of us, I am here to offer one of you my tutelage.”
“One of us,” Jim said. “What about the other?”
“The price of tuition,” Renfrew said. “A gesture of commitment.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Jim said.
“Take me,” Neil said.
“Very interesting,” Renfrew said.
“Neil what are you saying?”
“The Alzheimer’s: that’s a sure thing?” Neil said.
“Sure enough,” Renfrew answered.
“And you can cure it?”
“I have been this age for a very long time,” Renfrew said. “You need never meet that old man in the mirror.”
“Are you kidding me?” Jim said. “Are you listening to yourself?”
“And there’s no other way?” Neil said.
“There are many other ways, if you know where and how to find them. This is my way.”
“I’m sorry,” Neil started, but Jim cut him off: “This is insane.”
“There was a link,” Neil said, “on the Blackguide site. I clicked on it, and it led to an account by a guy who had walked this course in the 1930s with his brothers. With each new turn of the path, the three of them were at a different point in their lives: younger, then older, then much older. When they arrived back at the beginning, Renfrew was waiting for them.”
“So all that was real?” Jim said.
“Real enough,” Renfrew said.
“I thought if we could follow the course, then I could see how things would turn out—if we’d still be together; if we’d be happy; if Rose would still be around. I didn’t expect—oh, Christ,” Neil said. “Do you have any idea what it’s like—no, you don’t; how could you? Everything—you’re aware that something is wrong, deeply wrong—you can feel it in everything around you—and you’re sure you know what it is, what’s the matter, but you can’t remember it. And then you can remember, and you realize that the problem isn’t with what’s outside, it’s with what’s inside, and you know it’s only a matter of time until you forget again and the whole process starts over.” His eyes swam with tears.
“Neil, honey, it’s okay,” Jim said. “I’ll be there for you.”
“No,” Neil said. “Don’t you get it? I can’t—I won’t go through that. Now that I know—now that you know, how could you ask me to?”
“So instead you’re going to . . . how does that story end, the one about the guy and his brothers?”
“The younger brother accepted Renfrew’s offer. He and Renfrew disappeared, and when the older brother returned home, it was as if his brother had never existed. He was the only one who had any memory of him.”
“Weren’t there three of them? What happened to the other brother?”
“He vanished, too. No one remembered him, either.”
Jim’s mouth went dry. “The price of tuition.”
“Speaking of which,” Renfrew said, “we really need to move this along.”
“You aren’t going to do this,” Jim said.
“What choice do I have?”
“You could choose me—choose us.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to make me an offer?” Renfrew said.
“Me?” Jim said. “I thought Neil—”
“Was here first, yes, but that’s more a recommendation than a rule. I’m curious to learn how your convictions fare when the situation is reversed.”
Neil’s mouth moved, but no sound issued from it.
“Well?” Renfrew said.
His fear seemed outside him, an acrid saturation pressing on him from all sides at once; nonetheless, Jim was able to say, “Fuck you.” The frown that darkened Renfrew’s face was a small pleasure. Jim looked at Neil, who was staring at the ground. “What I had with Rose—it was never as bad as you thought it was, and when I said it was over, it was.”
“For you, maybe.”
Renfrew swept his left arm up and down, blue fire trailing from his fingertips, tracing a seam in the air that opened into something like a door. He nodded at Neil, who crossed to and stepped through it without another word. Jim was as astonished by his lack of a parting remark as anything.
“Now,” Renfrew said, extending his right hand at Jim. The serpent wrapped around it raised its wedge-shaped head and regarded him lazily. The space behind the wizard darkened, full of an enormous shape. Jim thought, How did the keep—and realized that what had stepped closer was not the keep, or, not anymore. It arched towards him, impossible mouth open to consume him, all of him, not only the flesh and bones it would grind between teeth like boulders, but his past, his present, his future, his very place in the world. He wished his fear would leave him, but he supposed it was better than the serrated edge of Neil’s betrayal waiting beneath it. At least he could keep his eyes open; at least he would not turn away from the emptiness, the silence, descending on him.
© 2012 John Langan