Manny lived in a small cabin behind the church, consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. The latter contained a back door which opened onto a view of a landscape that went on forever. Not a single building or tree interrupted the dominion of sand and rock. The desert rose and fell as it stretched to the horizon. Almost lost in the distance, hazy and indistinct, stood a wide mesa, toasted orange in the sunlight, providing the only landmark. Looking out through that back door, Brian had the impression that he stood on the very edge of the known world. The impression made him sad.
He stepped off on the old milk crate that served as a doorstep, walked a few feet to where a boulder lay on its side in what constituted Manny’s back yard. He’d made himself a sandwich and grabbed a soda from the refrigerator, and now sat down in the late evening warmth to have his makeshift supper. The boulder still felt hot through his jeans.
Brian took a bite. The sandwich tasted good. Only in the past few minutes had he started to relax, realizing as he did so just how tense he had been. Now the reality of his recent experiences began to settle in his mind, to coalesce. The degree of his emotional response surprised him.
He finished his sandwich and sat looking out across the desert, sipping at his cola, lost in his thoughts. Sometime later—Brian couldn’t say how long—Dave came outside to join him.
“You look like old Atlas,” Dave said, leaning on the boulder.
“Who?” Brian looked up.
“You know, the guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Dave said. “You okay?”
Brian fingered the little medicine bag hanging around his neck. “You know the first thing to pop into my mind when you gave me this?”
“What’s that?” Dave asked.
“When you said it would protect me, keep me hidden from whatever’s out to get me,” Brian said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Great, now I’m free to go.’ Immediately followed by the realization that I have absolutely nowhere to go.”
Dave nodded, waiting.
“I mean, I don’t have any family left, you know? No real friends. I haven’t had a girlfriend since I was sixteen. And the house has been sold off by now. Even if I weren’t still a wanted fugitive, I’d be on the street.”
“I’m sorry,” Dave said.
“It just hit me. I mean, really hit me. I have no place to go. No place where I belong. I’m not Atlas, I’m the Wandering Jew. Except even he knew why he was cursed. I don’t have a clue.”
“You know that story?” Dave said. “I’m impressed.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Brian said.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Dave asked. “If you could rub a lamp and have a genie appear to grant you one wish, what would you wish for?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Brian said. “How about a normal life?”
Dave sighed. “But you’re not normal, Champ. Sorry, but it’s true.”
“Okay, then how about some straight answers. Does that count as one wish?”
“Seems to me you can’t get the answers if you’re always avoiding the questions,” Dave said.
“I’m not talking about your speculations,” Brian said. “I’m talking about the real story. The facts. Why the hell won’t it leave me alone?”
“You mean Ahriman-slash-Satan-slash-whoever,” Dave said. “Or Destiny?”
“Both. Either. I don’t care,” Brian said. “It’s all the same shit to me. And I’m sick of it.”
“I know,” Dave said.
“I never asked for any of this. I don’t want it.”
“My whole life, I’ve felt like some goddamn puppet dancing on strings that I can’t see,” Brian said. “And I never get to know who’s pulling the strings, or if anybody is, or why I seem to be the only one dancing. Well, I’m tired of dancing. I’m not gonna be the puppet anymore.”
“Technically, Champ,” Dave said. “It’s a marionette that’s manipulated by strings. A puppet goes on your hand.”
Brian turned his head, an unpleasant epithet ready on his lips, but his snarl collapsed into a smile. “I stand corrected,” he said.
Dave grinned. “I don’t have the answers for you, Champ,” he said. “Things just are the way they are. I don’t know why.”
“Some guru you are,” Brian said.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Dave said.
“Go away and let me sulk in peace,” Brian said.
“As you wish,” Dave said. “I noticed Manny’s got a TV. I’ll check and see if we made the evening news.” He stood, paused, then squeezed Brian’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad our respective lifelines intersected. You’ve made it all a lot more interesting.”
“Thanks,” Brian said. “Maybe my great purpose in life is to keep you entertained in your old age.”
Dave chuckled. “Sounds like you’re past the denial phase. At least you recognize that your life has a great purpose.”
Brian drained the last of his cola and crushed the can in his fingers. “Yeah, some milestone. Throw this away for me.” He tossed the can to Dave.
“Manny recycles,” Dave said. “We all have to do our little part to help save the world.” He turned and walked back toward the cabin.
Brian waited while the sun dropped lower in the sky, disappearing into the sands. He thought of a story he’d heard in kindergarten, the teacher reading from a book of myths. Something about the sun dying every night, only to be reborn every morning. The memory suited his mood. Then he saw the panther.