A Time Without Roads

Eric Stever

 

 

Leo trudged down the waterlogged road, jumping over the deeper puddles where the garbage had settled after the previous night's torrents. His knees started to wear after only a mile, and his spry jumps turned to awkward lurches and finally, a numbed, sloppy, acceptance. By now, he was immune to most of the diseases the water carried anyway. His Uncle took care of that.

 

Leo passed the MiniSuper store, waving to the owner, Soledad, as she swept the trash from the previous night's rain into the puddled street. Each movement of the broom was a hurricane in itself, a sharp jab against the natural disorder of the universe.

 

"Bueno," he said as he walked by, but there was no time for idle conversation. The Coordinator was waiting for him.

 

Leo turned left, off the main street, and began to edge up the hill with short stuttering steps. He caught sight of his gangly reflection in a car window. The beginnings of a salt and pepper beard dotted his sun reddened cheeks; grey tufts of hair sprouted from beneath his neon green painter's cap. He wondered who that old man thought he was, staring back at him from the reflection.

 

Leo adjusted his paint-speckled purple t-shirt, smoothing the wrinkled cloth over his bulging stomach, and then continued wheezing up the hill. His legs began to tremble and he wondered if his body would have enough juice to get him back home in time to finish his work. During the rainy season, time seemed to slip by him, almost unnoticed.

 

At the top of the hill, Leo approached the Coordinator's small house, breathless from the exertion, and a tinge of nerves. He rapped twice on the door, which pushed open on his last knock. Coordinators never locked their doors.

 

"Leo my man, what are you up to?" asked a voice from behind the half opened door. "Come on in."

 

Leo pushed open the door, smelling the damp, incense laden air inside the small house. A fan turned reluctantly on the ceiling.

 

The Coordinator sat in an old rocking chair, a sun-faded book in his lap. His tied-back grey hair and reading glasses gave him a scholarly appearance, offset only by his stained tie-dye shirt. A cup of tea sat on the table in front of him, untouched.

 

"Nothing worth crying over," Leo said with a shrug. "How's your week been?"

 

"Can't complain, can't complain. It'd be nice to see the sun again though."  

 

Leo smiled his agreement, then said, "It's the hand we were dealt." The words felt forced.

 

Jim looked up at him, over his lowered glasses.

 

Was that the encoded message that they wanted him to give, Leo wondered? He could never tell what they really wanted, what his Uncle really wanted.

 

"Have a seat Leo, you're making me nervous."

 

Leo obliged, sitting down on the damp blue couch directly across from Jim's chair. He had to squeeze by the table in between them, jostling the cup of tea.

 

Jim took off his glasses and rubbed his nose, then continued. "We have a lot to talk about, and I'm sorry about this, but it might take quite a while. Just so you know, I'm fully On today, so you're talking to both of us."

 

Leo stiffened. It wasn't often that he saw anyone On anymore. There wasn't much of a need. But to be in the presence of a fully aware Coordinator was... overwhelming.

 

"I don't feel the urge to turn On, is that all right, man?" Leo asked, his hand rasping back and forth on his chin.

 

"If you needed to, then you would. Your Uncle is doing fine by the way, he wants you to know."

 

Leo nodded, suppressing the urge to ask how the message was passed. "How'd our boy do—or did the 'Snoops' pick up a she this time?"

 

"The new subject failed every one of their tests," Jim said grimly.

 

"Every test, every single one. That's—"

 

"Great? That's what I thought at first too. But my Uncle disagrees. I got this bad indigestion all of a sudden," Jim said. He flexed the fingers of his right hand.

 

Leo wondered if that was another encoded message or just the effect of the rain.

 

"So here's the problem my man," Jim continued, his hand now resting in his lap. "It's getting too easy. The Snoops aren't stupid. They've saved hundreds of civilizations, and nudged thousands more into destruction. It's pretty rare they sit back and do nothing. So what's up? Why are they letting us pull the same old tricks on them, over and over again?

 

"Man, I don't know," Leo said, drawing out his words for emphasis. "We can't get off the planet half the times we try to. How is that a threat to their galactic empire?"  

 

Jim shrugged but said nothing. He scratched his left leg absently. "Tell me about your walk over here," he said.

 

Leo gave Jim a wry smile. A conversation with a Coordinator could be maddeningly random at times. But it was still easier than turning On each time you made a report. No one likes a bright light in the face, even if it's pitch black outside. So the Uncles relied on indirect methods of communication to talk with each other; body language, misplaced turns of phrase, even pictures or poetry. It made the conversations sometimes nonsensical.

 

"The roads were pretty bad from the rain. My knees were bothering me after about two seconds of jumping over the damn puddles, so I just slogged on through. I saw Soledad too, that was nice. Such a happy women for a pobrecita, don't you think?"

 

"Why do you say that?" Jim asked. Leo had a good idea it wasn't Jim's question.

 

"Well here she was, waking up early in the rainy season to clean her store. Nobody was coming in today, you know that. But still, she was singing to herself as she swept the garbage off the porch. That's just... her, you know?"

 

"And that's significant to you?"

 

"Significant? No, just...nice."

 

"What else?" Jim asked in a clipped tone.

 

"That's about it. I was thinking about the rain, no surprise there. I got a new idea for a painting, and I'm anxious to get back to it to be honest. Other than that I just walked up here and knocked on your door. You've been the supporting actor for the rest of the play."

 

Jim nodded. "You seem like you want to get going, my man. What's up?"

 

"When 'Our Lady of Inspiration' calls you up, you don't keep her waiting. I've learned that much after 25 years."

 

"So what's the new idea?" Jim asked. "Or maybe you don't want to spoil it in the open air just yet?"

 

"No no, nothing like that. Besides it's already copyrighted. I sign all my canvases before I start painting," Leo said. "Then I just paint around them."  

 

Leo resisted the urge to stretch his long legs out before him. His knees were throbbing now from the long walk up here. "It's gonna be a volcano piece, no surprise there. I'm in a dry spell right now with sales, so I can't do any real work until I get this painting sold. But I have a new twist on it, something I haven't seen before."

 

Leo sniffed twice, then continued. "It'll be a picture of the volcano just before the explosion. That's a tough sell to the tourists, you can imagine. But if I push, and give it a stupid title like ‘The Demon Awakes', I could pawn it off on someone. Then I can get back to my other stuff."

 

"The Demon Awakes," Jim said, his eyes squinting even in the low light. "That's pretty rock-n-roll."

 

"But I haven't gotten to the good part yet." Leo leaned forward. "In the forefront will be two images. Off to the right will be a howler monkey, the big kind that keep us up at night. It'll be watching the volcano, its body kind of tensed up and waiting."

 

Again Leo felt an irritation in his nose, as if he wanted to sneeze, but couldn't. He sniffed again, and said, "Then, way down in the left corner will be a small child, probably a local. He'll be watching the volcano too, waiting for the explosion. Only the backs of the monkey and the child will be visible, so you can't make out their expressions. But their posture, the tilt of their head I mean, will be similar, almost the same."

 

Jim's face paled. "You say their body language is the same?" He clutched his stomach.  

 

"No doubt," Leo replied. He cleared his throat in the awkward silence. "That's the whole concept, that relationship between the two. Their heads have to be tilted in the same way too. I see that over and over again. That's the key to the painting."

 

"Their heads—" Jim said. The book dropped from his lap, and Leo could see it was a book of poems by Pablo Neruda.

 

"Excuse me," he said, "I've been burning the lamp a little too long here. I need to turn Off."

 

"You gotta take it easy, brother." Leo had meant it to sound casual, but his words hung in the damp air.

 

Jim smirked. "When the lady calls, you answer." His face seemed less tense now.

 

"Tell me about the Snoops' last subject," Leo said. Tell us.

 

"The kid failed the Snoops' usual tests, mathematics, politics, geography, basic science. We interviewed him afterwards too, just to be sure. There's no way that guy could find Ecuador on a map. Shit, he couldn't even find New Mexico."

 

"So he wasn't scrambled," Leo said.

 

"The Snoops stopped doing that about 3 years ago. Scrambled people were just too messed up to be accepted back, they were obvious. I could do as much with a sledgehammer, or a scalpel."

 

"Where'd they pick him up from this time?"

 

"Ohio State University," Jim replied. He shook his head, as if trying to free himself from some inner thought.

 

"The Snoops sure like the big ones, don't they?"

 

"Well they're scientists, after all. I guess they're going for an average specimen," Jim said. He stood up and walked to the small fridge. "Well enough about that—I got the good Uncle what he needs. How about a beer?"

 

"Beer would be good," Leo said.

 

Jim walked into the kitchen and grabbed two bottles from the fridge. He sat down with a sigh and passed the beer and an opener to Leo. "How you doing for money," Jim asked.

 

"I'm good," Leo said. "For now at least. Once this rain lets up, I should get a few paintings out and then I'll be doing just fine."  

 

"You know if you need—"

 

"I know," Leo said, holding up his hand.

 

Jim smiled, embarrassed. "Just doing my Coordinator-type duty. You know if you'd ever be interested..."

 

"Late hours, no pay? No thanks," Leo said. "I'll stick to hustling tourists."

 

"I hear that," Jim said. "Haven't written a damn word since I started this job."

 

The rain picked up, tapping against the roof. Both men sat in silence sipping at their before noon beers.

 

"Want another one?" Jim asked, some time later.

 

Leo looked out the window as the water poured off the roof into the street.

 

"Might as well," Leo said. "I'm not going anywhere."

 

 

By the end of the third hour, both men were thoroughly drunk. It had not stopped raining, but Leo decided he would walk home anyway. The mud wouldn't bother him now.

 

"I have at least one other pair of shorts, I am sure of it," he had slurred before leaving, not knowing if that was a final communiqué from his Uncle or just a garbled attempt at humor.

 

The walk down the hill was not nearly as bad as Leo had feared, though he knew the beers were dampening his pain. Leo slogged on, enjoying the suction of the mud as it grasped at his feet. Passing Soledad's store, he saw her son Manny stooped over a puddle, his hands clad in thick yellow gloves. He was fishing out garbage that had pooled in front of the store. The fresh rain splashed around him, unnoticed.

 

"'Morning Manny," Leo said. He hoped the rain would muffle his slur.

 

Manny grunted, not looking up from a particularly large puddle he was digging around it. He brought out an empty soda bottle and slapped it into large plastic bag.

 

"I said, 'morning'," Leo repeated.

 

"It's not morning, it's afternoon," Manny said in his stiff English. He sniffed the air and smirked. "Smells like booze, too."

 

"So it does," Leo said, ignoring the remark. "I see you still got that cloud hanging over your head."

 

"Don't we all," Manny said. "You got a little wet yourself, friend."

 

"How's your mother?"

 

"She's good, happy, always happy," Manny said. He reached behind him to drag the garbage bag as he straddled another puddle. "When she sweeps the garbage, she's happy. When she cleans up after the tourists, she's happy. When my Dad don't write her, she's happy. If she got run over by the bus, she'd be the happiest person in the world."

 

"Well, one of you should be happy at least," Leo said. "That weed you been smoking, does that make you happy?"

 

Manny stiffened at the word, then relaxed. "Not as happy as yours does. But I'm not a rich tourist like you."

 

Leo fidgeted. He felt a twinge of panic as his Uncle suddenly tried to rise up, to grab control. But he suppressed him and was able to speak. "And Tomas, how's his new business?" he asked tightly.

 

"Good as ever. There'll always be drunks in my country."

 

"So that's it then," Leo said. He breathed in deep, trying to fight it, trying not to turn On. His Uncle had been forceful in the past, but never this persistent. He wanted to turn, to run back to the Coordinator, but his legs did not move.

 

"That's what?" Manny said. He shoved a plastic wrapper into his bag.

 

"This is how you want it, miserable all the time?"

 

Manny turned to look at him, and spoke. "Don't talk to me about happiness old man. Some of us have to work around here."

 

Leo felt another surge and felt himself slipping away. His Uncle made him splay out his feet, open his hands wide, a formal greeting. He watched as Manny turned clumsily toward him, his hands and feet pointed the same way, the awaited reply. But Manny's face showed no sign of understanding what was going on, only bitter resentment.

 

Like a gust of wind, the Uncle's urge subsided, and Leo became aware of the rain again. The young boy in front of him was openly showing his dulled anger, but nothing else. Perhaps Leo was imagining the whole thing, and Manny had not responded to the formal greeting. Perhaps Leo's Uncle was as affected by the alcohol as he was.

 

"So I'm a tourist now, is that right? 'Me gusta mucho-mucho' yeah? I talk like that right?" Leo said. "I've lived here 15 years almost. That's one more than you." Leo touched his ear, and Manny did the same, mimicking him. But his Uncle remained silent.    

 

"But you can leave," Manny said. He set aside a glass bottle for his brother Tomas's fledgling brewery. "You can leave whenever you want."

 

The soft rain splashed down around Manny, and just for a moment Leo saw the next great painting he would never finish.

 

The boy was right. The artist's community newsletter was full of articles on how much of a difference they were making in the lives of these locals, how they were improving the community. As artists they claimed to seek the truth; but not this kind of truth.

 

"Jesus, Manny I'm sorry." Leo said. "I know some people in the States. You could go to university—"

 

"And leave momma here by herself? And what about Tomas, you gonna send him too? What about the rest of the kids here? You going to transport them all to the U.S.? An even swap maybe, so you can steal our country from us? No thanks.

 

Why don't you go to the States? Maybe you can teach them how not to throw garbage in the streets. Maybe then my mom wouldn't have to clean up after you invaders every goddamn day, and smile just for your cameras." Manny stood up, his yellow gloved hands balled into fists. Mud oozed between his fingers.

 

Leo turned to leave, shaking his head. He walked down the road, away from Soledad's store, then turned around and walked back. "If I said I was sorry, and that's all, would that help? Can I say just that?"

 

"Is your money gonna soak up all this rain too."

 

Leo said nothing in reply. The darkness on Manny's face softened.

 

"All right," Manny said. "It's not you Leo, geeze I know that. It's not you. You've been good to us, I know that. Even a stupid moron like me, a pobrecito, even I know that. You helped momma get started, she tells us that. You gave her the money for the store."

 

Leo's chest constricted at the word, the Uncle's word for the unenlightened. Pobrecito. "It wasn't much—"

 

"Take my gratitude, old man," Manny said. "Take it, ‘cause I don't know when it will come around again."

 

Leo nodded and now he sought his Uncle, to get a reading on the boy. But his Uncle was slippery, avoiding his attempts at contact. It was the alcohol, he thought, and he dearly wished he could believe that's all it was.

 

"It's not right," Manny said. "This garbage, this goddamn mud." He picked up a handful of mud and threw it across the road. "Where does all this mud fit in, huh? You tell me, what good is all this rain? There'll always be more mud, and there will always be mommas to sweep it away."

 

Leo nodded again, but his uncertainty had given way to something more powerful. His Uncle was roiling beneath his surface, but it still pushed Leo away.

 

"Tell me," Leo said, his voice soft. "Tell me what you think we should do."   

 

Manny grunted, but did not answer. The rain had picked up, and was now blowing almost sideways into his face. He did not move, his gaze was fixed on the growing puddles. Leo wondered if the boy was On right now. People did spontaneously develop their connection. Was Manny's Uncle trying to communicate with his own? Was Leo's Uncle hiding the conversation even from Leo himself? Leo felt the urge again to run back to the Coordinator. But his feet failed to move.

 

"She's sick," Manny said quietly.

 

"Who's sick?" Leo asked. But the tears in his eyes showed he already knew.

 

"She's got cancer," Manny said. "Momma, the rock of our town—she's rotting on the insides." He smiled. "She's just like us after all."

 

Manny picked up his bag of garbage and tossed it on the porch. He walked inside, stomping his feet to remove some of the mud. From inside came the slam of two boots hitting the floor and then nothing.

 

Leo stood outside, the rain beating down on him. He stayed there for a long time, staring at the ground, watching his feet sink lower into the mud with each drop of water. He wanted to rush back to the Coordinator, to reach out to his Uncle, to return to his painting... to move. But he did none of these things. He stood in the rain and waited. When it came time to move again, Leo hoped the mud would set him free.

 

 

Leo's cap rested on the sticky barroom table, haloed by a sprinkling of dandruff. His head lay uncomfortably on the crook of his arms, as if it had decided to sleep without notifying the rest of his body.

 

"Hey, jackass, wake up," a voice said.

 

Leo stirred but did not wake. His head wobbled on his thin right arm. 

 

A finger poked Leo in the ribs and this time his eyes creaked open. He winced at the sound of cracking pool balls.

 

"Oh," Leo said, licking his lips. He could see a blurry version of Jim standing over him.

 

"Oh," Jim replied, smirking down at him. "Did you want some company?" He took a sip from the coffee cup in his hand and sat down.

 

"When in Rome," Leo said. He lifted himself up from the table with a sigh and looked down at his cap as if he had never seen it before. Smoothing down a few sprouts of frizzy grey hair, Leo placed the cap back on his head.

 

Jim reached across the table and straightened the bill of the cap. "Having some creative troubles?" he asked. "Or have you moved to this bar permanently?"

 

Leo drained the remains of a beer bottle, swishing it in his mouth. He licked his lips. "Something like that." He smacked the bottle down and bits of his dandruff jumped up and off of the table.

 

"We missed you last meeting," Jim said. "We need to talk to you about—"    

 

Leo waved his hand, cutting Jim off. "Not today."

 

"Some big stuff is going down—"

 

"Is that you talking Jim, or somebody else?"

 

"It's me, you bastard," Jim said. "Don't pull this stuff all right? You know both of us are still me." Jim softened his tone and looked around the bar. "Don't pretend you don't know that."

 

"Well I'm here," Leo said, "so lets talk."

 

"You're here, but I need all of you. Not just Leo the drunken artist."

 

Leo laughed. "You're full On right now aren't you?"

 

Jim nodded, but did not share in the laugh. "Just now, all of a sudden—I had to." His hand traced a line through the spilled beer on the table.

 

"It's about the Snoops," Jim said.

 

"They making another run at us then. So what if they are? We can handle it."

 

Jim shook his head, and continued playing in the stale puddle. "They left us. I mean they just took off and disappeared. Nobody knows what to think."

 

"Nobody knows? What about the Scanners, what do they say?"

 

"The dreams stopped coming," Jim said. "Just like that, no dreams, no drawings, no strange words popping into their heads. Nothing."

 

"So the Scanners here are drawing a blank, so what? That's happened before."

 

"Listen man," Jim said. "It's not just here, it's everywhere. I got my—I got the damn man upstairs just about running me into the ground doing analysis. We got nothing."

 

"So they're gone." Leo licked his lips. "Shit man. I don't know what to say. That's awesome, right?"

 

"Does it feel awesome to you Leo?"

 

Leo shook his head. "Maybe they're on a hiatus or something."

 

"You know what it means," Jim said, taking a sip of his coffee. "They've decided. That's all we can guess. The other Coordinators have run it through too, and that's what they're coming up with. A decision has been made. But they can't tell me which way the damn coin flipped."

 

"Maybe it stood on its edge. Maybe it was a draw, and we get left alone."

 

"Or maybe they come back and raze the whole place to the ground."

 

"We could fight them though, right?" Leo asked. "I mean, if we could turn everyone On, we could take them out."

 

"Maybe we could. But it takes time, you know. We only have 100,000 people who can do it now. How are we gonna train everyone else? And how are we gonna get the rest of the world to accept what we've been doing to them?"

 

"You mean dumbing down the world?" Leo said.

 

"I mean distracting them, yes. Half the time I expected the reports to come back showing the Snoops preparing for war. How could they believe what they were seeing? The mental decline on Earth in the last 40 years?"

 

"Shit man, who knows what a Snoop thinks? Who's even seen a Snoop ship? We only know about them because of the Scanners, and we only understand because of the Coordinators. And bastards like me, well we just make sure everyone stays real peaceful. Real lazy." Leo adjusted his cap again. Another message, he thought. Goddamn them.

 

Jim lowered his voice. "But what if they can tell? What if the Snoops found out we've been hiding from them? Distracting humanity so people don't turn On spontaneously... what if that was wrong, what if we crippled ourselves?"

 

Leo shrugged. "It's not like we decided it, Jim. You and I bought into the system, yeah, but we didn't freakin' invent it. It's just... the hand we were dealt." 

 

Jim was quiet for a moment. "When's the last time you were On?" he asked.

 

Leo rubbed his nose and looked over Jim's shoulder. "Who knows."

 

"You know, and you dodge that question whenever I ask you it. That's meaningful."

 

"To which one of you?"

 

"To us, Leo. To all of us really. Jesus, I know you're goddamn conflicted right now, but can't we talk about it some other time. The Uncles have kept us around for this long."

 

"You think I don't know that, man? That I was supposed to be dead by now?"

 

"We'd all be dead by now without them," Jim said.

 

"I'd be dead for sure, I don't know about everybody else. My damn liver should have given out 10 years ago. I can tell. I don't know how, but I can tell." Leo shook his head, disgusted, then continued, "Everybody else, they might have made it through. You don't know for sure. The Scanners and the Coordinators, they talk about the damn Snoops like they're the Devil himself. But they help some worlds too. They don't destroy every one they find."

 

"That's not exactly reasonable," Jim said.

 

Leo fumed, but said nothing. He tapped once on the table, then became enraged at his own gesture. Another message, he wondered, or his own impatience?

 

"Are they really gone?" Jim asked, more for himself than Leo. "Or have they found out about us?"

 

Leo remained silent.

 

"But the Coordinators found out something else," Jim said. "Our distractions don't just affect humans. The Snoops were affected by it too. We could use that—to defend ourselves."

 

Leo smirked. "So I'm spreading stupidity throughout the universe, instead of just on our lonely old planet. Fantastic."

 

"Leo, I don't want to... I need you to turn On. It's important."

 

"That's my decision," Leo said. "That's the setup we all agreed to. I decide when it happens." He felt the familiar constriction in his chest, the whitening of his vision. His Uncle was surging forward now, and Leo doubted he had the strength to stop it. But why now? Why had it hid from him for the last week?

 

"I think there's a reason for your getting drunk," Jim said. "I think you're just hiding from it dude."

 

"I won't," Leo said. "It's too big man. It freaks me out, all right? It's not me anymore. I get lost in the wash."

 

"But it's still you Leo, we're not taking your mind away. It's all you in there. This is just a different version of you. A bigger version."

 

"The extended version?" Leo smiled. "The double-album?"

 

"Your paintings man," Jim said. "We need to know more about your paintings. We need to understand them."

 

"You think I don't know about my own paintings?"

 

"Where do they come from Leo, did you ever ask yourself that. Where do those damn paintings get their start?"

 

"From me," Leo said. "I make them up, I paint them."

 

"What did you do before you came here?" Jim asked.

 

Leo shook his head. "Lot's of people start late—"

 

"Answer the question. What did you do?"

 

"I worked at a college," Leo answered.

 

"You weren't a professor," Jim said. "What did you do?"

 

"I was on the grounds crew," Leo said, staring out the door. "I picked up... garbage. I drove a truck and picked up all of their garbage."

 

"Were you a painter then?" Jim's eyes bore into Leo's.

 

Leo looked away. "Goddamn it, you know I wasn't. I was just a drunk, same as now."

 

"You're holding us back Leo. We need to know about your damn paintings man. If you could tell us about them, then I wouldn't be doing this. But you don't know shit about them, no more than those tourists do. Tell me about the kid in the painting Leo. Why was he there?"

 

"He was the same, like I said. The same as the monkey."

 

"Keep going man," Jim prodded him. "We already knew that."

 

"I don't know, maybe I didn't get it right. He was supposed to hold something, the kid I mean. But I couldn't decide what it was."

 

Jim sighed. "Was it a gun, a rocket, what? Jesus, we need to know what he was holding."   

 

Leo felt a lightning strike of pain in his chest. His vision blurred. "I feel strange," he said.

 

"Your Uncle wants to come On," Jim whispered. "He has something to tell me; something you just can't know. Please Leo, it's important. Just let it happen."

 

"Just let it happen," Leo said. "Whispered in backseats throughout the world, always the same result. Even here."

 

"That's it, you gotta go loose man. Try not to think."

 

"You could have at least bought me dinner first," Leo smiled.

 

Leo passed through his Uncle, saw him rise up and take control. What Leo saw in his Uncle was not the usual solemn enlightenment, but something else, a new emotion. The familiar smile was replaced by a superior smirk, one Leo used when hustling tourists. The Uncle's eyes had a glint of greed that Leo sometimes saw in himself late at night; an unspoken urge that usually led him first to the bar, and sometimes the brothels.

 

He wanted to cry out a warning to Jim, to tell him to be careful, but the words did not come. And then Leo was lost in a wash of white light. His Uncle spoke through him.

 

"Ok," Leo said. "I'm here."

 

The two men talked for over an hour before Jim rushed out the door. Leo could hear the Jeep's engine scream as it roared down the road, plastering some of the houses with mud. Slowly his own personality bobbed to the surface, pieces at a time.

 

Leo sat at the table, creaking back and forth in his chair, unable to move. His Uncle had retired, and now he enjoyed the familiar emptiness, the constraint of his own normal mind. It was like coming down from a pretty good high.

 

After a long while, he put a large tip on the table and walked out into the street, trying to forget what his Uncle had just done.

 

As he walked, Leo wondered where Jim had rushed off to, what fools errand he had been sent on. His Uncle had hidden that part of the conversation from him. And he doubted Jim, for all his insights, would have expected what had just happened. No one knew that an Uncle could lie.

 

 

Leo spent the next two sleepless nights locked away in his house, waiting for word on Jim's whereabouts. Occasionally he would get a wild rush from his body as it demanded a drink, that he weaken his resolve. But Leo was on to his Uncle's tricks, and he was able to get some painting done. He'd thought that drinking confused his Uncle, but now he knew: it was the other way around.

 

The picture of Manny in the rain was now taking shape on his canvas. Leo had stalled on the outline of the main figure; he wasn't sure it had the right posture. It didn't feel right. He stared at the canvas, looking for an answer.

 

Maybe Jim was right, Leo thought, that the paintings really had come from his Uncle. But Leo didn't reach out to his Uncle for guidance, as he had in the past. It was too dangerous. 

 

A knock at his door broke his focus. Leo walked across the room and opened the door.

 

"Manny, hey it's good to see you."

 

"You drunk?" Manny asked.

 

Leo smiled. "C'mon in man. I got some coffee brewing if you want some..." His smile faded when he saw the burning in Manny's eyes. Leo felt his Uncle stir, warning him.    

 

Manny walked out of the rain. His eyes darted around the house, but he said nothing.

 

Leo busied himself in the kitchen and tried to quiet his Uncle. What was it telling him? And could he trust it?

 

"Well, what's up?" Leo said finally, handing a cup to Manny.

 

"Your distraction campaign is up," Manny said, his eyes pouring over Leo's startled expression.

 

Leo felt a cold spot growing in his stomach despite the gallons of coffee he had consumed.

 

"Manny, I—What's going on with you dude? Are you sleeping all right?"

 

"No," Manny smiled, touching the dark smudges under his eyes. "Not for weeks now. Even before I found out about momma... I have these dreams."

 

"So why tell me?" Leo said, turning away from the boy.

 

"Because you know about it too. I can tell that. There's a few people in town who know. At first I didn't understand it. They would signal me somehow. The way they walked, or smiled. I could tell that they knew."

 

"That's crazy," Leo said. Since their distraction campaign, Uncles rarely developed on their own anymore. That was the point. But that day in the rain, Manny had seemed close. "Is this about your mom?"

 

Manny shrugged off the suggestion. "Still trying to distract me? Give it up man."

 

Manny stood up and walked over to the unfinished painting. "This is me right? This was our fight?" He picked up a brush lying on the counter. "You missed this part though."

 

Leo watched in shock as Manny applied four deft strokes to the canvas, to his canvas.

 

"What the shit man?" he said.

 

"You had it wrong," Manny said. "Now it is real."

 

Leo looked at the painting. The figure had not been altered, only the garbage it was fishing out was different. A dark smudge had replaced the feathery touches Leo had put there. He felt his Uncle stir again, pressing up against his consciousness.

 

"I didn't know you painted, Manny."

 

"I don't," he said, grinning. "And neither do you really."

 

Leo could feel his Uncle surging upwards, making him woozy. "I'm not feeling so well. I guess we'll have to finish this—"

 

"Leo, sit down. I'll tell you when we're done." Manny's voice cracked when he spoke, destroying the forceful tone he had been trying to use.

 

"You're tired Manny. You're upset about Soledad. I'll come by tomorrow—"

 

"Tomorrow is too late. We'll talk now. Is it true what they said, that you could cure her?"

 

Leo sat down and sighed. "What do you want man, another apology to ignore?"

 

"I want her to be better," he said. "And I want to be better too."

 

"You're sick?"

 

"You know what I mean Leo. Ask your Uncle if you're not sure."

 

"You've got some funny ideas," Leo said.

 

"Yes but ‘where do those ideas come from, man'" Manny said.

 

"You were listening in on us, at the bar?"

 

Manny shook his head vehemently. "No, not me. Us. The bartender is one of us. We've got a few others in this town. We can control the rest that are emerging now, at least in the local area. I guess in a way I should be thanking you especially. You helped to make us better. More refined."

 

"Bullshit man. You don't know what you're talking about."

 

"You mean all about the ‘Snoops', or your distraction campaign? Did you really think it would work; that you could fool them?"

 

"We did what we had to," Leo said. He pressed a fist against his chest, trying to hold back his Uncle by physical force. "We never made anybody do anything they didn't want to. You don't know the Snoops."

 

"And you do? You know shit. Look at your painting. Look at the last few you did. What's the common theme? Are you that oblivious?"

 

Leo said nothing as he stared numbly at the canvas. The dark smudges Manny had added began to take shape in his mind. It was no longer an old plastic bag that the figure was taking from the ground. It was a pistol. He had missed it. More importantly, his Uncle had missed it. Or perhaps the 'old guy' had hidden this message from Jim and the rest of them, Leo included.

 

"You're weak. But we couldn't have done it without you. The Snoops told us that. You made it so much more difficult for the mediocre to emerge, for their Uncles to turn On. Right now, only the best have been able to do it, and once we organize, we'll be the ones with the power."

 

"So what, you'll take over the village?" Leo said. "Then, five years from now, you think you'll be emperor of the earth. Bullshit, man. You'll be dead, same as everyone else."

 

"We have promises from the Snoops, old man. We'll be the ones running things in a decade from now. Then we'll start training the rest. You'll need to stop your distractions though. We don't need them anymore."

 

"You're 14 years old," Leo said.

 

Manny straightened his back. "I'll get older," he said. "And age has nothing to do with it anyway, as long as you're not too old. I'm one of the best though, the Snoops told me."

 

"They tell that to suicide bombers too," Leo said.

 

"Jim is dead, I just wanted to tell you that," Manny said, striking out with his casual words. Leo winced and turned away.

 

"We did it quick though Leo. We had to do it." Manny looked out the still opened door. He softened his tone. "He didn't suffer, I made sure."

 

"Your mother must be proud," Leo said. His eyes reddened. "Jim was a good man. You didn't have to do that. He was reasonable. You could have talked it out."   

 

"Well, I'm not in charge of things yet."

 

"But you will be," Leo smiled sadly. "You're the future aren't you."

 

"Damn right, old man," Manny said, not detecting the irony in Leo's voice. "We've taken out most of your people, all the Coordinators anyway. But you guys are the most important, the Distracters."

 

"And I suppose the Snoops told you that too," Leo said.

 

Manny fell silent.

 

"Doesn't that make you think about anything?" Leo asked. "You must at least understand what we were trying to do here, man. Even if we were wrong, even if the Snoops were using us, as you said, as an evolutionary spur to make your Uncle's develop faster or stronger or whatever the hell... Why would they have you get rid of us? We know so much more about this than you do. We could teach you."

 

Leo felt the words come, some of them whisperings from his own Uncle. His Uncle had been aware of what was happening, Leo now knew. But why hadn't his Uncle told Jim?

 

"The Snoops have left," Manny said quietly.

 

"Left to where? And how do you know for sure. Because they told you? You believe them but not me, because I don't tell you what you want to hear. That you are special and better than everyone else, and you deserve to rule? You're 14 years old."

 

"Look I came here to see if you would teach us," Manny said. "We're not going to kill all the old ones, just because we're told. We can hide you from them, we're pretty sure."

 

"So I can be a slave," Leo said.

 

Leo could see his Uncle laughing at him, at the boy and his infant powers. For the first time, Leo saw his own Uncle clearly, the pride in his face as he stepped forward, brushing aside Leo's consciousness. The old ones won't need to be hidden, his Uncle told him. We will rule once the dirty work is done.

 

Manny shrugged. "You will be an advisor. My advisor actually. I'm the new Coordinator for this area."

 

"Well congratulations," Leo said, his voice hoarse. "A murderer and now a rebel leader at the age of 14. Fantastic."

 

"Making jokes," Manny said, "can be bad for you." His face darkened.

 

Leo felt a wave of nausea wash over him, bringing him down to his knees. Leo tried to focus on his Uncle, to prevent him from taking advantage of the weakness, but his Uncle was also hurt by the attack.

 

Leo shook his head, trying to clear it. He heard his Uncle yell out in pain and the 'old guy' again tried to push Leo's mind aside. But Leo held fast. His Uncle would cripple this boy, Leo knew. And Manny hadn't the slightest idea what was about to happen.

 

"Did the Snoops teach you that?" Leo winced, trapped between his Uncle and the pain.

 

Manny's face was radiant. "Among other things, yes." He closed his eyes again and the pain returned.

 

Let me out, Leo's Uncle whispered to him. We'll do it together, set the world on the right path.

 

Leo shook his head, whimpering. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was aware of the physical pain, of Manny pressing him. But his own Uncle was the true danger. If Leo lost hold of his Uncle, his life and the boy's were over.

 

'Do you think boys such as these are fit to rule?' his Uncle said to him. 'Have they fought like we have, have they sacrificed their talents?'

 

Leo continued struggling, but his hold slackened. The deed was already done, he thought, people had already died. He knew the Snoops, he knew their weakness. It made sense that he should—

 

'Yes,' Leo's Uncle hissed. 'Now you see. We are a man of action, not like the others. We've been trapped here, static. Waiting, when we should have been acting.'

 

This boy here would rule, Leo thought. This boy, hurting him for no reason other than he could. He or others like him would rule, unless—

 

'We have the experience, the foresight,' his Uncle said. 'We moved when no others would; we made first contact with the Snoops.'

 

His Uncle stepped forward, and Leo felt himself slipping away, back to the white place.

 

'You and I convinced them to leave... they are not devils, but caretakers, pruning off dead limbs. We showed them our power.' The Uncle moved forward inside of his mind, and Leo felt a cold cruel smile form on his lips. His Uncle's smile.

 

"We did it," Leo heard himself say out loud. "We did it together—"

 

Manny closed his eyes, squinting harder, sending out more pain. But its impact lessened and then gradually dispersed.

 

In his mind, Leo fell back one step further, almost to his own oblivion. He thought of Jim, of Soledad's sweeping, of Manny digging into the earth for garbage, an endless task. Leo thought of the mud, of the rain, of the time-without-roads. The time when nothing is clear, except that you must not stop, not even slow your pace, or you will become stuck, until the roads have dried, and the storm has ended.

 

The devil who would rule, his own Uncle—Leo was sure of its intention. Jim was right when he said the Uncle was him, a bigger broader version, but at its core, it was Leo. And Leo knew the man he was, the things he had done.       

 

With the boy, Leo thought, there was still a chance. Some good could be shaped into him, even if the hands that shaped him were tainted.

 

In his mind, Leo ran toward his Uncle, attacking it with the only weapon he had. Acceptance.

 

He welcomed the pain, the hurt; he allowed Manny's attack to flow through him, to amplify, to destroy him. He heard his Uncle give a sharp bark of surprise, and then a howl of anger. And then all was black.

 

Leo tasted blood on his lips, felt a wetness in his crotch. He could feel the cool wooden floor as it pressed against his face. He searched his mind and found that he was alone. For now.  

 

Manny was standing over him, weeping. "I thought I—"

 

Leo was quiet for a very long time. He sat up and then spoke. "Do you think the Snoops are really trying to help you? I need to know."

 

Manny shrugged again. "It doesn't matter," he said. "We're in charge now, soon we'll be strong enough to stop even them."

 

Leo grimaced. He thought that it mattered very much what this little boy thought about the Snoops. But it was too late, he had made his decision.

 

"I'll do it," Leo said. The cold spot flared in his stomach. His Uncle, what was left of it, disagreed.

 

"Is it true, what the Snoops said?" Manny asked. "That you can heal people?"

 

Leo shook his head slowly. "No, not me. Jim maybe could do it to other people." Noticing the dark look in Manny's eyes, Leo spoke quickly. "But we could train your mom to do it herself. Everyone can help themselves." Usually, he thought.
 

Manny frowned, and for a few seconds, Leo saw the scowling boy in the rain, fishing garbage out of a muddy street.

 

"But she's so old. Can she still be taught?"

 

"You'd be surprised what us old-timers can do," Leo said, walking over to the unfinished painting.

 

"It's time to go," Manny said. He walked over to the door and opened it.
 

Leo rolled up the canvas, shoving it behind a bookcase before turning to follow the boy.

 

Manny led him out the door and into the waiting road of mud. It had stopped raining.

 

Eric Stever works in the Mojave desert. He walks through moonscapes, thinks of milkshakes, and lives on the 'Loneliest Road in America'.  To find out about his upcoming stories go to www.ecs-media.com/writer.

 

Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.

 

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Fiction Copyright © 2008 Eric Stever. All rights reserved.