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THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HAPPENING
A NOVEL IN STORIES
By MARK STEELE, Connie Gabbert
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Mark Steele
All rights reserved.
oz. of God
He stood at the peak of the dune, the thing she had surrendered to him clenched in his blood-soaked hand. He was panicking now. There was no undoing what he had done. Until he skidded into the fresh sand to gain his balance, he had not realized the ferocity of his sprint. Sweat suddenly burst in a torrent from his hairline, his temples feverish. He had expected to wash in the waves, but of course there were night swimmers. His knee-jerk reaction was to thrust his palms deep into the meshy granules, allowing them to scrub the evidence raw like steel wool. He buried the item deep down where the sand was saturated. Calling it a mere item seemed disrespectful; he was still in shock to have it in his possession. When his hands emerged, the bloodstains had dried and darkened, the look of soil.
He remained on all fours, scoping the horizon, a deep bestial cough bullying its way out his burning throat. The sunset peeked through the rainclouds like the iris of an old man fighting off sleep. He had minutes—mere minutes—before he would be found out. Before they would give chase. After the discovery, the roadways would be blocked for miles. He would not get far unless he traveled by sea. He began to make his way toward the boardwalk.
The stretch of the dock, normally abandoned, was awake with a small crowd of revelers due to the carnival. There should have been more, but the majority of regulars were gawking at the building collapse downtown. It gave him slight hope that the authorities would be short on men, distracted from this additional manhunt.
He staggered his way down the planks, between the booths and tents, rides and freaks, simulating drunkenness so no one would approach. Each excited scream startled him, reminding him of the earlier part of the evening.
And then, at the end of the pier, he discovered that the schooners and yachts normally residing here were gone, having abandoned this bacchanalia of merriment. He turned aghast, trapped amid the crowd, having lost precious minutes of escape. His eyes darted, conniving. A rope was coiled on the edge of the dock. He could fool them, he thought. He could gather food from these merchants, enough sustenance for days. He would lower himself down the rope into the maze of wooden support beams underneath. He could camp there for a week perhaps, though eventually, they would come. There wasn't a place to hide that would go unsearched. But among the chum and flotsam, the dogs would lose his scent, and those officials who would eventually venture underneath would be sloppy, deeming the location a last resort, nothing more than a no-stone-unturned. They would not see him, for they would not truly be looking. And then. Then. When the sailors returned, he would seize a vessel. The authorities would send very few men after it because they would deem the pursuit a distraction from the real crime, the one, ironically, of his own making at the church.
He had his plan. He glanced at his hands under the pale glow of the gaslight. Blood still under the fingernails. He must be swift. The crowd lurched twenty yards up the boardwalk. It made him uneasy; perhaps a fight was breaking out. Perhaps not. The ruckus was tumbling toward him like a reckoning. It could be the police.
Instinctively, he slipped under the cuff at the rear of the nearest tent, the only one from which he heard no voices. It had a rural scent about it: horse urine upon hay bales, the fermentation of rotten vegetables. He eased inside silently. There was very little light, save one lantern on the far end. It swung upon a limb growing awkwardly over a tree stump serving as a table. On either side of the stump set a rock large enough for sitting. On the stump itself, a very small bottle, the sort belonging to an alchemist, filled with a dark liquid.
His instinct told him to remain in the murkiest portion of the shadows, unmoving. But something intangible tugged at him, a distraction from his urgency. The tent was small. He could not approach the lantern too closely without concern of casting a shadow. And yet, there was something about that bottle. Something to that liquid. It was more than a simple yearning to inspect the bottle. There was a necessity.
It was only after he made up his mind to begin stealthily making his way toward the stump that he realized he was already halfway there, his arm outstretched, his fingers involuntarily forming the grab. Within six feet, he was stopped cold by a voice.
The words startled his heart into a new section of his chest where it did not normally reside. He gasped louder than he intended. He dared to speak, though hushed still.
—You want what you see and yet you hesitate. I am surprised.
—Who is there? I'm not trespassing.
—Surprised and impressed, said the voice from the darkness.
—I should say the same to you. After all, you are the trespasser.
—This is a public place.
—This is a ticketed attraction. Until I see your ticket, it is not for you to decide what is or is not public.
—I don't have a ticket.
—Then, how do you ride the rides, play the games, et cetera?
—Et cetera? I don't believe I've ever heard anyone say that out loud.
—It's pleasing to the tongue. One of many things people think but do not say. For instance, you. You do not say anything that you actually think.
—I don't have a ticket.
—Ah. Then, you have a need.
—I don't understand.
—Mine is neither the most intriguing attraction at this carnival nor the most publicized. There are only two reasons someone enters my tent: happenstance or desperation.
—Then, it is happenstance.
—We both know that isn't true.
The source of the voice emerged, quickly and silently straddling the farthest rock. A thin man, his left eye taped shut with gauze, a fresh scar originating from under the bandage streaking up his face. His hands were also wrapped like a burn victim's.
—You, my friend, are not attending this carnival, he said. —You have entered my tent ticketless from the rear in silence. You are not here at random. You have been drawn here.
—I don't believe in that sort of thing.
—I wouldn't expect you to. If you believed in that sort of thing, you would not be here. You would, instead, decide for yourself where you have been drawn. It ruins the whole process, really. Shame. I would now like one of your cookies.
—That I smell. Give me one of your cookies that I smell. It is a small request, I think, in light of the fact that you are trespassing with no ticket.
—I don't have a cookie.
—Are you certain?
—Unfortunate. Then, it must be the scourge settling into my brain. Upsetting. I would have never thought it would smell like cookies. All the more timely that you have arrived.
—What happened to your face?
—What happens to any of our faces? Time takes a boot to it. But I would imagine you mean the scar.
—It is a very unpleasant scar.
—I could say the same for you.
—Mine wasn't all that unpleasant. I didn't even feel it until well after it happened.
—I didn't mean unpleasant for you. I meant for me. To look at.
—As is yours.
—Yes—well—mine is new, the scarred man said.—So tell me. Euphoria or rage?
—You didn't feel the scar when it was made. That can only be because of euphoria or rage. Or numbness. Were you at the dentist?
—Of course rage. If it were euphoria, you would not be here.
—And why is that?
—Because you are here to escape, and if you had ever known euphoria, you would have escaped there.
—Unless it didn't work.
—Touché. What is your name?
—I would rather not ...
—If my assumptions are right, then I am probably going to save a life here. I suggest we become acquainted.
—How could you save my life? I am in no danger.
—A criminal and a liar. This is unlikely to end well.
—You accuse me ...
—Let's review: ticketless, silent, rear entrance, evasive, impersonal, no cookie, rage scar, and standing in the shadows when the police march by my tent. If you are not a criminal, you certainly wear the burden of one.
He stood in silence. Something inside urged him to flee, but he found that he couldn't. He literally could not.
—What exactly do you believe is the significance of me being drawn here? he asked.
—You have not answered the first question.
—du Guere. My name is du Guere.
—Is that a name? That's not a real name. Or a fake name. Isn't that a French breakfast cereal?
—My mother was French.
—But now, she is suddenly not French?
—Dead. She's dead.
—If giving birth is sudden, said du Guere.
—I couldn't tell you. I was preoccupied with being born.
—Now, we're getting honest. Why do you believe you have come here?
—I have no idea. Why do you believe I have come here?
—No, you aren't. That is precisely the predicament.
—You are scourged. At the moment, you are at the most dangerous stage.
—What stage is that?
—When the scourge begins to eat you, but you cannot yet feel it.
—You are mad, du Guere retorted.
—Probably. But I know scourges. And you are curious.
—What if I don't want to be fixed?
—I said nothing about being fixed.
—You said redemption.
—Clearly you have not experienced the word.
—I believe you know how.
du Guere allowed his eyes to drift downward to the small glass container, its contents shimmering.—That.
—You disrespect with your impersonal pronouns.
—I don't know what that is.
—So you spit out something meaningless? "That?" It's profane.
—What is that?
—An ounce of God.
The next words forming on du Guere's tongue were choked out of existence. Certainly, he had heard incorrectly.—An ounce ... I beg your pardon?
—Save the begging, said the man with the scars.—You'll need it later. One ounce. One concentrated, unadulterated ounce.
—I wouldn't say "God" if there were several.
—I don't understand.
—Yes. That is expected.
—You're saying that in that bottle ...
—... is an ounce of God. My goodness, is there an echo in here? One sixteenth of a pound. Are we clear?
—How can that liquid be God?
—This liquid is not God. This liquid is one ounce of God.
—You're a liar, du Guere said.
—I don't have to explain myself to you—because you know it is true. You feel it. That rising in your rib cage. It is reverence and fear. You are hungry for and afraid of this. You are certain, think what you will of me. And you will think many things of me before sunrise.
—How did you get it?
—I will give you one more free answer. The rest will cost.
—How did you get—
—One free answer. Consider it carefully.
—What ... What does an ounce of God do?
—Given the proper circumstances, it could bring you redemption.
—Redemption from what?
—You tell me, Sebastian.
—I didn't tell you my name was Sebastian.
—No, you said your name was du Guere.
—You said the proper circumstances ...
—This is a rare item, interrupted the scarred man.—There must be a price.
—But, I have told you; I do not have a ticket.
—No worry. I need something much more important, of far more value than a ticket.
—And that would be?
—The thing you buried.
Sebastian du Guere was not known for being rattled. He had spent twenty-eight months building toward the thing he buried. Slightly over two years of his life devoted to deception, manipulation, the gaining of trust. It required commitment and absolute confidence that in the end, she would willfully give him what he was after. But, the thing he buried, he did not want that at all. No one had seen the exchange—and no one could have foretold of its role in the con. Nonetheless, he had held it, warm and dying in his hands. As this stranger made mention of it, something acidic lodged near Sebastian's esophagus.
—I buried no thing.
—The item? I believe you called it an item? Though item is a touch disrespectful?
—Who are you? Who exactly are you?
—I smell the sand, the blood, the salt in your fingernails, the scarred man continued.—There is no use in debate, and there are no more free questions.
—I ... I never called it an item. I thought it. I only thought it.
—I suggest you bring me what I have requested. Or run away. That would also be nice. But, do so without an ounce of God.
—I have no idea what you ...
Sebastian did. He stopped midsentence, his mouth hangdog. Something shifted inside of him. He found himself pivoting about-face, slipping out the tent the way he had entered, this time scraping his knee on a spike. He faced the ocean and then walked toward the dunes.
The authorities were there, faster than he had calculated. Perhaps a quarter mile from the spot in question. Sebastian debated whether their location was downwind as he dragged earth slowly away in palmfuls. The wet sand gathered in the creases of his clothing, a small well of seawater being created between his knees. And then, the water began to bubble. Sebastian knew he was close to the thing, for it was still hot. So hot it was heating the water around it. Peculiar—and yet as Sebastian grasped it and it oozed amid his fingers, it did not scald him. It merely pulsed dark and struggling just as it had when it first emerged from her mouth.
* * *
It had been his third substantial con.
Sebastian had never stood for anything. Never believed in anything cerebral or spiritual. His uncle had repeatedly illustrated to him that the only authentic force is manipulation and that truth is whatever the most powerful people decide is truth. When his uncle disappeared, eleven-year-old Sebastian ran away from the foster home and made his way from fishing town to fishing town on the currency of his imagination. Little fibs fed him. Larger deceptions landed him floors to sleep on. In the late teen years, full-on scams acquired him the cash to move onto larger cities, though he never strayed far from the coast. The ocean sang an unending lament of escape. Inland meant commitment, and a grifter can't have that.
Upon adulthood, Sebastian decided to make a habit of the con, and eventually not a career. He had stowed away enough to disappear for a decade but found life morose and degrading if he wasn't focused on the next mark.
His first gave him the scar on his cheek. Ironic, because the scar on his cheek had been used on every mark since as proof that he was sincere. It was the classic misdirect: the scar gave a frightening first impression, an impression that Sebastian had to remedy over time with unexpected kindness. The common man believes that first impressions are next-to-impossible to change. Sebastian knew this was hogwash. It is the second impression that sticks because marks never make room for a third. To be proven wrong once is perceived as enlightenment; to be proven wrong twice is foolery—and no one thinks himself capable of that. The marks never detected the manipulation again after accepting the scar.
In that first con, he befriended a blind codger worth a fortune, serving as his guide and confidant, skimming off of every payment he made on the old man's behalf. The man told Sebastian he loved deep-sea fishing, and Sebastian had obliged him. Once they were twenty miles off shore, the old man chided Sebastian, saying he knew of the scam. He himself was once in the con game and had made a small killing grifting the women in his retirement condo—nothing, he said, like he would have made had he ever been able to pinch the Cymbeline, but, living near it these three decades, he had convinced himself that it was an impossible mark. When Sebastian told the old man he didn't know what the Cymbeline was, the old man laughed an ugly laugh, revealing the scum affixed to his dentures. He was, he continued, fully aware of all the finances Sebastian had taken from him over the past month, and a few young goons were back at the dock, waiting for them to return and to take recompense from Sebastian's hide.
Then, he laughed more. He laughed and laughed just the way Sebastian's uncle used to laugh at him. The old man made a quick off-handed comment about Sebastian's failure in life—his inability to pull off a single illegitimate caper on a feeble mark. It was the exact sort of thing Sebastian's uncle would say, and without thinking he beat the man with a decorative oar that adorned the inside of the ship. When Sebastian swung it in rage, he did not even feel the fishhook fly off and embed itself in Sebastian's own cheek. Sebastian had never spoken of the incident again, but recollected it foggy as if from something he had read, hardly feeling as if he were the character in the story. His fury detached him.
Excerpted from THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HAPPENING by MARK STEELE, Connie Gabbert. Copyright © 2013 Mark Steele. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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