Chapter 12 of The Stone of Tantalus is live!

Sorry it took so long.  Been busy working on the new novel and getting the last one out.  Go here to read the latest installment.

Here’s a sample:

You never could tell about a person.  How their childhood affected them later in life, or the choices they would make based on how they were raised.  Miles, for instance, knew early on that his father was an asshole.  For years, though, he believed the sadistic treatment from the old man was his fault.

“Why do you make me do this to you, boy?” he would ask, lashing Miles with the wide belt gripped in white-knuckled hands.  “Stop cryin’,” he’d say.  “My daddy beat me almost every day, and I turned out just fine!”

If the old man taught him anything, it was that you had to be hard to make your point—and a weak man was a powerless man.

Miles pulled up to the mold-stained little building, paint peeling from every surface, and killed the motor.  The engine block popped and snapped as it tried to dump its residual heat into the noonday air.  As he pulled off the dark sunglasses, he opened the door and stepped out.

Evil men don’t they’re evil, Miles thought, closing the heavy door with a satisfying thunk.  They showed strength in the face of fear, or were decisive in the face of uncertainty, or doled out “tough love” to an unruly child. Looking back on his life, Miles knew—in his head if not his heart—his father thought of himself as a good man who needed to train his son right.  Especially after the death of the boy’s mother.

And after every beating, Miles retreated to the rotting tool shed behind the house, where the weeds grew tall to hide most of the canted structure, and practiced his art.  At first it was just small animals caught in homemade snares—a bird, a mouse, or a small kitten—but he soon graduated to the neighbor’s pets.  Dogs were his specialty, and the little wood behind the house was soon filled with a scattering of unmarked graves.  Sometimes, in those hot and humid summer days before he left home for good, he would venture out, spade in hand, and exhume an old subject to see what state of decomposition it was in.

Did the suffering he inflicted in life show in death?  Did their weakness in the face of his anger follow them—haunt them even as his own anger haunted him?

One dull gray day, his father caught him examining an old kill—one of his first—and angrily slapped the blue jay’s moldy bones from his hands.

“What the hell are ya doin’, boy?”

The young man, still on his knees over the little grave, calmly turned his face up to his father, eyes wide and unafraid.  He said nothing, anticipating the beating he knew would come.  Miles remembered closing those eyes and smiling as he waited for the man’s fist to connect with the side of his head, the usual beginning to a rain of hammer blows that ended only when the big man grew tired.  It was an overture that never sounded.  When he opened his eyes, there was something never seen before on the face of his tormentor.  Fear.  The man shriveled to insignificance then and there.  A boy of sixteen, almost a man, always confused that look with the one he truly hoped to see—respect.

He knew now, as a man with more than one lifetime’s wealth of experience, that for all practical purposes the two were one and the same.  Life—both with and after his father—taught him that without fear there is no respect, and without respect there was nothing.

The Miles from this reality had nothing of value before his body was appropriated by a true predator.  There were friends, a job, and the love of a woman, but from the first moment after the new Miles jumped into him, he saw in the faces of the others what was lacking.  No fear.  No respect.  He jettisoned those anchors almost immediately.  The people in his life, and the feelings he had for them, were a barrier to his greatness.

This body was one of the rare few he encountered over the years of his trips sideways—a submissive.  This one took what his father dished out and became weaker for it.  His choices were all about “ending the cycle.”  Anger threatened to overtake him as he thought about the times he encountered such broken men; the times he was forced to share a body with them when they refused to step aside and go wherever it was the others always went.  He didn’t understand how a man could have the strength of will to stay while another mind invaded his brain, yet couldn’t fight hard enough to keep control of their own body.

I would never allow it, Miles thought, hot blood burning his cheeks.  But this was Miles.  They all were.  Even the weak.

In this reality, his father was still alive.  He was weak.  Pathetic.  When Miles realized the man was still breathing, he arranged to visit him in the cheap little retirement home where he lived.  This reality’s Miles came to terms with his father’s abuse years ago—at least on the surface—somehow forgiving him and forging a tenuous relationship.  The new Miles wondered how that was even possible.

Standing over Frank Henderson as he sat in his wheelchair, Miles felt nothing but disgust for the empty husk seated there in the sterile common room.  The hopelessly cheap chandelier tinkled quietly overhead, the footsteps from the floor above vibrating the fixture.  Even as the man’s face brightened when he saw his son, some of the old fear started to fray the edges.  Somehow, the old man knew.  Miles smiled inwardly seeing that fear.  That respect.

“I know you, boy.”  The man’s voice was pure gravel, a lifetime of smoking and drinking having taken their toll.

“Yes, sir, you do.”  Miles smiled thinly, the old deference surfacing instantly.  I’m a trained dog, he thought.  A lot of years at the end of a leather strap went into that training.  “Do you know why I’m here?”

The old man looked up, searching Miles’ eyes.  He laughed hoarsely, the laugh turning into a coughing fit.

“You here to kill me this time?”

“Excuse me?”  The question confused him, knowing the Miles of this universe.

“Show up around here every few months.  Every time talking about killing me.”  The man smiled at Miles, a hint of a sneer at one corner, and said “I don’t s’pose you got any more balls than the others.”  He waved a palsied hand dismissively, “Go on, boy.  Get it over with or don’t.  I don’t care anymore.”

Miles, surprised, realized his father understood his talent.  And then he understood something else, as well.

“You’re trying to provoke me.”

The old man snorted once.  “Ya catch on quick.  Most of the others take a bit longer.”  He motioned to a nearby chair, and said, “Sit down, boy.  Yer killin’ my neck with me havin’ ta look up at ya all the time.”

Miles pulled the chair closer and sat.  “How do you know about me?”

“One of the smarter versions explained it to me once a while back.”  He shook his head slightly, “Thought he was nuts, but you guys kept showin’ up, and each one with a different personality and holes in their memories.”

Miles’ rage flared at the dig at his intelligence.  His father always could cut him with a single word.  What interested him was the presence of so many others in both this universe and this timeline.  That was unusual.  He knew there had to be other versions of himself who could do what he did, but why would so many be interested in this one universe?

“One of ‘em gave me a note for ya,” he said with a slight grin.  “Wanna see it?”

A note?  For me?  That’s not likely.

“How do you know it’s for me?”

“Not sure, myself.  The other one said I would know… and he was right, I guess.”  Frank reached into his shirt pocket and produced a faded piece of paper folded into a tight square.  He held it out for his son and waited, the smile never leaving his face.

Miles reached for it slowly, and asked, “Have you read it?”

“Buncha times.”  He pulled his hand back to his lap as Miles took the paper, “I still don’t understand it, though.”

Miles unfolded the note, the cream-colored paper’s texture rough in his hands.  He realized with a wistful smile that it had been torn from an old Big Chief tablet—the kind he used as a kid in elementary school.  The scent of it drifted up as he opened it and rubbed his hand along the surface.  Unable to help himself, he held the paper to his nose, inhaled deeply, and was instantly reminded of the time long ago when he loved school.  A time when learning every new thing was a wonder to him.  When learning meant freedom from his father.

“Keep that up, boy, and people are gonna think you ain’t too bright.”

Miles froze, tamping an anger that would destroy them both if he allowed it, and narrowed his eyes at his father over the paper.  “I don’t think you’re in a position to judge anyone’s intelligence, old man,” he said through gritted teeth.  Still, he lowered the note and looked at his own handwriting, or at least what passed for it in his usual tight-printed scrawl.  There was only one sentence:  Stop before it’s too late.

“That’s not helpful,” he said out loud before he caught himself.  He frowned, angry at himself for giving the man more ammunition to use against him.

“Damn.  I was hopin’ you knew what it meant,” Frank said as he shook his head.

Oh, I know what it means, he thought.  It’s just not helpful.  He folded the paper and placed it into his shirt pocket.  Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his legs and watched the old man.  He was sure his father knew more than he was telling, but in the end it didn’t really matter.  It wasn’t what he came for, anyway.

He leaned in, looked the man in the eyes, and said, “Tell me about your son.”  Where did this Miles go wrong?

It was a simple thing, really.  When he was seven years old he told the right teacher about his life with an abuser.  After a medical exam and a CPS investigation, Miles was taken from his father and placed with a foster family.  It wasn’t quite that easy—nothing in Texas ever is for children—but that was the short version.  Frank never recovered from the loss of his son.

Confident the demon from his childhood couldn’t hurt him, Miles rose and left him there.  He had already put the man out of his mind by the time he reached his car.  The morning’s revelations left him in a charitable mood, and he decided to let his father live this time.  Besides, he thought, why give him what he wants?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s