3 MONTHS EARLIER
Rain bounded off the windshield like marble on a glass table as roaring winds rapped against the tailgate and the strong smell of diesel mixed with vomit tainted the air. An orchestra of uncharted decadence a Centaur would find grim but somehow, here I am, having survived the entire trip from Rembrandt to Sphynx Spring with an excessively cautious driver behind the wheel of a 1972 Chevrolet pickup truck.
Bloody murder! Once again, I’m dragged on yet another one of Boris’ lousy adventures. I’d like to think Daniel and I outgrew our place here in Sphynx and that Uncle Micah and Baushavik—Bas for short—would have been maggot food if Boris hadn’t offered them our old house for another one a lot smaller back in Rembrandt. But that’s our life, always on the move.
“How’s school?” Boris asks. We’ve been making small talk since the genesis of our trip in Rembrandt. After an hour the conversation gradually steered towards adjusting to life in our new home and the neighbors encamped around us.
“It’s okay, I suppose.” I sigh. Moving from one place to another is never easy, especially having to revisit our old house to unearth forgotten memories.
“Have you made any friends?” Boris presses, hope in his voice. He means good, but to be frank, we haven’t been living in Rembrandt long enough to make any new friends, coming up on two weeks now.
“Why bother when we’re just gonna pack up and leave like before.” I snort.
“Don’t be so sure,” Boris says calmly, “I think things will be different this time.”
“You said that the last time.” I mutter.
Boris scratches the bristles of hair on his chin then eases back in his seat calmly. “You’re as stubborn as your mother; persistent too, I’ll certainly give you that.” He socks me in the chin playfully then roughens my hair after. “Cut me some slack, Jasin. I’m doing the best I can for the three of us, you and Daniel are all I have left now.”
I stare out my window. Aside from the rain, it’s not such a bad night for a walk. It’s neither too cold or too hot, but just the right temperature. I’ve always loved the night life. For unforsure reasons, I feel much more alive when the sun sets than I do at the break of dawn.
Since mom died, we’ve been on the run. Not literally, but at times it feels like someone really is after us. The second Daniel and I get comfortable with school and making new friends, we’re packing up and heading for the next town. We’d start settling-in and slowly rebuild just as we’d done so many times before. I’m sure one day we’ll start going by different names. I don’t bother with introducing myself anymore, it’ll just make things more complicated when the time comes for us to move on.
“Wouldn’t you like that?” Boris smiles.
I blink dubiously, “Uh…yeah!” I tell him.
“My brother and I used to go there every summer.” He commences. “Aside from the threat of dad one day quitting his job in search of better opportunities, we made the best of what little we had. To think, I actually promised Norah I’d be better than he was.”
“It’s not the end of the world, Boris.” I furor confoundedly.
“Not yet, at least.” Boris adds. I run my fingers through my hair and ponder the outcome of all this if mom hadn’t died. Maybe things would have been better for us. “For what it’s worth, you boys deserve a break from all this.” Boris says with a rebellious sigh. By the look on his face, I can tell that guilt is weighing him down. I wish he trusted me more with the truth and not having to carry the burden on his shoulders.
“It’s alright, Boris—like you said—you’re doing your best.” I commend. I want to ask him but I don’t want to push him any further than what he’s comfortable with sharing.
“I know.” Boris grieves before spewing around the corner. Two blocks down, a billboard above a traffic light reads, “I-10 E to Sunnyvale St.” We’re in the city of Sunnyvale and have only a half-hour left before we arrive in Sphinx. Boris punches the gas and merges right onto the freeway heading west on the 10, Sphynx Spring is a straight shot, approximately 26 miles then we’d exit off on Pandora.
2 blocks down, just before reaching the cemetery, we make a right turn on Hillside Crevasse for a steep climb. Our old house is capped at the top of the hill. The entire journey is two hours without any breaks.
Boris looks me over perspicaciously then deters his focus back on the gravel road. “Tell me the truth, you don’t like Rembrandt do you?” He says breaking eye contact with the road once more.
“I...think it’s a little ominous…but every place has its secrets, I suppose.” I tell him, reaching for my ears. It makes me feel untroubled when I fiddle with them.
“Well, it does have a bit of a dark history.” Boris agrees. “When we get back, you and Daniel should poke your noses around town, maybe uncover a few of its fascinating secrets.
Not a lot of people live in Sphynx, the population is somewhere around 1,467. A total area of 4.13 square miles, most of it owned by farmers. Its earliest land case entry file dates back to 1817 and was founded by Sakahgi Natives. Ironically, Sphynx is home to Timberwolves, the reason it’s named after a furless cat is because in 1971 a feline became the town’s mascot after saving a boy who fell into a dug well. Before that, the town was named Blackwater. By ‘saved,’ I imagine the cat probably recruited some help.
We used to live in an ancient medieval mansion owned by a self-proclaimed black magician named Leis Van Guhl who jumped from the loft tower window in 1868. The place hadn’t had occupancy since Boris bought and satisfied its debt seven years ago.
The Fray Manor—is what I like to call it—is as intimidating as a castle standing over 239 feet, a 660 square feet stretch across 20 acres of land complete with surrounding crypt fencing and skulls on the heads of Indian prayer sticks. There’s also two leafless trees that stand adjacent from one to another in the far back of the manor. Boris says they were once used for lynching.
The lawn is seeded with wildflowers and an assortment of sleepy daisies. Perfect all year round, weeds and pest free. Along the banks of the manor there’s an Ivory garden. Courtesy of the late magician who probably used them for rituals of some sort, which was very common during those times.
Ivories are some of the most resilient and burly plants normally found near ponds and lakeshores. The roots are as divine as Methuselah and stretch miles beneath the ground. During the summer, when they sprout, they look like lilies. A beautiful bronze color.
The corollas can be brewed into an oily sweat tea. The tea stimulates telomeres, which slow the genetic aging process your body undergoes. It also strengthens your immune system, rendering infrastructure more omniscient. The taste, however, is just as potent as its side effects, kind of like earwax and is as thick as honeydew. The bitter taste can lasts up to 1 hour depending on how long it’s been brewing on stovetop.
After the black magician’s death in 1868, the manor went up for auction several months after. But no one wanted anything to do with it, so eventually it fell into the hands of the treasurer. After 140 years, it was put back onto the market.
“I know how hard this is,” Boris tells me, “Understand that I hate having to put you and Daniel through this.”
“It’s alright,” I remind him, “Let’s just…get this over with,” finishing with an uneasy breath. The sooner we get this stupid book, the sooner we’ll be out of here.
“I won’t be long, I promise. We’ll book it out of there the minute I get my hands on the Shin-Shanti.” Boris presses.
“I don’t understand how come you can’t just order another one online or something? I mean, don’t you think it’s kind of silly to travel all this way for one lousy book?” I fuss.
“You don’t understand, Jasin, this isn’t some lousy book. It was handed down to me from my father which his father had given to him, passed down from his father and so forth. This book has survived hundreds of generations of Frays.” Boris explains seemingly.
“Big deal. I know plenty of books that have outlived their purpose.” I utter, it almost comes spitting out of my mouth.
“Perhaps. But this is no ordinary book, Jasin…” A brief pause as he searches his thoughts. “There’s little I can say that’ll sway you to understand.”
We finally pull into the graveled driveway and screech to a choking halt as Boris turns the truck off. My mind’s going at top speed and my stomach’s trying to keep up. We’ve never revisited places we’ve lived before and for good reason. Boris says it brings bad karma. I’m fixing to hurl when Boris nudges me and says it’s time to go inside. I take another deep breath and slip out whispering under my breath, what’s the worst that could happen?
“So…what brings the shepherd and his lamb back into the fathoms of their old home?” Micah asks from across the dining table, his nose twitching after he says it.
“The Shin-Shanti.” Boris rationalizes. “Is it still here?”
Micah warmly smiles. “Of course, it has never left its place of rest.” He corroborates, nose twitching once more. I don’t know why he does that each time he speaks.
“Good, I must have it.” Boris sniffs bluntly.
Micah scratches the hairs of his chin while he studies us a moment, playing his cards carefully. Having unexpected guests so late in the evening was a large red flag and I’m sure Micah probably thought our business here lies deeper than some lousy book, that’s for sure. But the disgusting look on his face lead me to believe, he wasn’t prepared to hand the book over so soon. After he takes another sip from his mug, he retires further back in his chair and search our wondering eyes some more.
I haven’t been here in weeks and the place looks completely opposite to my vision of the Fray Manor. There are cutouts about the floor big enough for house rats to venture, bedroom furnishings and torn soily pillows stacked on top of dirty dishes. More savage findings in the far back room as tears start to sting the corners of my eyes at the sight of such horrors, and the Spirit Gods only knew where that awful stench was coming from. Daniel and I used to chase each other through these halls and wrestle like angry bears on these floors. The nerve of such…ignorant Mongkees boils my blood beyond reconciliation.
Boris, on the other hand may have been scouting for fissures or insults to the late Leis Van Guhl’s illustrious gothic taste. Stalling, Micah takes a sip from his mug and gently places it back on the table. “You should drink your ivory while it’s still hot.” He utters.
“I must apologize but I don’t plan on staying any longer than I have too. You know just as well as I do, that I’m putting both our lives at risk by coming here.” Boris presses. Now the uneasy feeling really sets in as I quickly resort to fiddling with my ears.
Micah quietly finishes his glass of warm ivory. There’s a mug in front of Boris and me as well but neither one of us are as eager to gulp it down. I’m shaking so badly, I can barely keep my thoughts afloat. After the warm liquid had been spent, Micah clears his throat before pressing the matter further. “Of course, the council and its Lord Primal.” He grins under the faint scrutiny of light from the chandelier dangling above us and his eyes transcend to a darker shade. But I could have been mistaken. Traumatized. Shaking like a leaf, I can barely keep still. My nerves on edge. I’m worried that there are possibly people closing-in on us. My eyes dart towards the front door every-so-often, most especially when the wind raps against the screen.
“The Maniac…” Micah starts but Boris quickly cuts him short.
“…I’m not sure how but I suspect a Native Chuantere found out I was living here.” Boris speculates.
“So the legends are true?” Micah responds intriguingly.
“As much as I’d hate to believe it….but neither one of the boys have shown any of the signs.”
Micah laughs nonchalantly then settles back in his seat. It doesn’t take long before his eyes come darting over to me. “Maybe you’re not looking in the right places.” He says.
“I don’t want to be here anymore.” I gasp.
“You’re scaring him.” Boris retorts.
“I’m merely teasing.” Micah chortles back.
“I want to go! Now!” I rant.
Silence a brief moment when Baushavik comes storming in. “Dinner, Micah?” He says in a disgruntled low-pitched voice.
“Fetch me more tea, my appetite has been spoiled.” Micah grunts.
Baushavik cocks his head over at me, eyes glaring with hate. “What’s he doing here?”
“Mind your chores, Bas. Leave our guests to me.” Micah warns.
“It is nice to see you too, Bas.” Boris retorts.
“You and Jasin don’t live here anymore.” Baushavik protests.
“Would it hurt you to show a little hospitality?” Micah asks. “They are family, you need not to forget that, boy.”
“I sense bad blood between us, perhaps you care to enlighten me. I would be more than willing to nurture our relationship back to full health.” Boris reasons.
Baushavik looks from him to me then storms out of the dining room and into the kitchen. Baushavik had always been jealous of me. He hadn’t told any of us why such envy exists, but I’m almost certain it’s jealousy. I’ve tried to deduce reasons why anyone would be jealous of my weary life. Only a very short list of things come to mind. I do mean, ‘a very, short list.’
“Well, then.” Boris says. I’m still dreading over what Boris had said earlier, how he didn’t want to put neither one of our lives at risk. His sympathetic voice violently thrashing around in my head.
“Very well…I shall see that you find this book.” Micah excuses himself from the setting and makes his way towards the kitchen door.
Boris settles me before I stand to go after him and his brother. “It’s alright, Jasin—I won’t be gone long.”
“Why can’t I come with you?” I press.
Boris looks at his brother warily who in return calls for Baushavik. Sluggishly like a zombie, he comes stomping into the dinette. “It’s best if I go alone, Jasin. I must have a word with my brother in private.”
My eyes feel with quivering tears. “What’s really going on, Boris? Are there people after us? Why are you and Micah talking in circles? I can’t stand to be here anymore. Please let’s just go, we’ll worry about that stupid book in the morning.”
“You worry too much, Jasin.” He whispers. “No one is coming for us, I assure you. There’s no reason to fret.”
“Then what about this, council and Lord Primal business? Are you in some kind of trouble with the law?” I press.
“They are very, very, very far away, you have no reason to be afraid. NO! I am in no trouble with the law.” Boris assures me.
“Then it’s settled, Baushavik will sit with the boy while we handle our own affairs.” Micah reckons. The tension between Boris and I was as thin as a sheet of shallow ice. Despite my father’s assurance, I can’t help but feel uneasy. So terrified that I pinch my right earlobe. It stings a little at first but the pain gradually dwindles away just as my troubling notions.
“To be clear, the book is all I’m after. Once I retrieve it, I will be on my way. I have no means of holding on to memories here.” Boris clarifies.
“Of course, please accompany me down to the edifice so that I may restore that which is rightfully yours.”
“I’ll be back.” Boris says as he quickly drifts away from the table.
The welcome sign to Rembrandt reads, “Welcome Brat,” when it really should read, “Welcome to Rembrandt. Some idiot took it upon themselves to tape over some of the letters. The ride home from Sphynx was quiet, aside from the static coming in through the radio. Boris hadn’t offered any explanation for the things he’d said back there. I’m still a bit shaken up. He’d assured me we were safe and I forced myself to believe it was the truth.
The Shin-Shanti’s enormous. Boris carried it all the way to the car and sat it in the back. I don’t remember it being that big when Boris used to read it to Daniel and me, but that was a while ago. I’ve long forgotten what it was about by now.