I’m trying to be more intentional about sharing my own original fiction here on the blog. This story is one of my personal favourites, but it’s too long to share in one post. So, I’ve decided to give it to you in two parts. Part II will come next week. I hope you like it…all feedback welcome!
Two Sides (Pt. 1)
I knew a Birdman would turn up eventually, but it was still a shock when I found one at the Lantern.
Tariq, the barkeep, caught my eye when I entered and nodded towards the table where my friends were sitting. I looked over and the breath caught in my chest.
Jim, George, and luckless Ed, they were all there, and one of those creatures was with them. To their eyes he would seem an ordinary person, but I knew better.
His blue coat was faded and torn, lapels shiny with use. Despite his down-and-out appearance, he sat like an eagle among the chicks, claws ready to rend and tear. His eyes met mine, and I saw laughter in them. Not fresh, clean laughter. More like the throaty chuckle of a raven on the roof.
The sight of him snapped all the tiredness out of me, the shock of it quickly turning to anger. It had been four years since I encountered one, in a town far from here. My faint hope that I had seen the last of them evaporated.
Jim saw me, and his face split in a grin.”Hey, Chris, c’mon over. Got someone you oughta meet!”
Steeling myself, I sat down at the table.
“This here’s Jack. He’s new in town, just came today.” Jim had been at the liquor long enough for his limbs to be loose, his smile goofy.
He needn’t have bothered with the introduction, for the Birdmen were all named Jack. This one had black hair flecked with grey, a five o’clock shadow darkening his chin. The picture of a scruffy, middle-aged down and outer.
Which was odd. Normally they didn’t look a day over thirty.
He put his hand out across the table.”Pleased to meet ye,” he said, a friendly smile stretched on his face.
I nodded back, but there was no way I’d take his hand. I’d seen men snared by a Birdman by just one touch. Doubt it could happen to me, but I wasn’t taking any chances. “Likewise.”
His hand hung there a moment, and then he drew it back, that smile easy on his face.
George looked embarrassed at my apparent lack of manners. “You had a bad day today, Chris?”
I just shrugged. He couldn’t know I was being far more polite than I should be. I should be kicking that jack-a-daw’s head in, so I figure my restraint was pretty good manners.
The waitress appeared, thumping a pint of my favourite brew down in front of me.
I looked up at her, to say thanks, but she only had eyes for the Jack. She smiled at him, a dimple flashing, never mind that she was fifty if she was a day. “Any more for you?”
His eyes twinkled as he hoisted his still-full mug.”Nothin’ more for now, lady-luck.”
She just about giggled, I swear. “Well, just let me know, will ya?”
He’d snared her, alright. And as I glanced at the men around the table, saw the way their eyes shifted to that Jack, drawn like iron to a magnet, my anger deepened. Not just Linda had been caught.
That’s what the Birdmen do. They draw people into their traps, and they take. They go through their lives and poke, peck, and steal, uncovering all the garbage, leaving it strewn and stinking behind them once they’d had all the fun they wanted.
Just like a crow through the dump, my gramma used to say. But not nearly as loud. It’s why I called them the Birdmen.
Gramma had the gift of seeing them for what they were, and she knew right away that I did, too. It was the birthmark that gave it away, the small dark shadow etched on my skin just under my right ear. Hardly noticeable, except to those who know what to look for. A mark shaped like a star.
Gramma taught me all she knew about them. It was her that had named me, encouraging my mom to lay on me the name of Christian, after her father.
A good, strong name, she told me, once I got old enough. It will help. The Jacks are sensitive to that kind of thing.
When I see a Birdman my insides give a bit of a quiver, and I feel cold and hot all at once. Minor imps, Gramma used to call them. Those words are too cuddly. Nothing minor about the damage they cause, the lives they ruin. And nothing impish about the way they go about it.
They call us the Watchers, and can spot us just as easily as we spot them. Makes for awkward situations, sometimes. Like now, sitting across from one with my friends all around, oblivious.
“And you are—?” Jack turned his beady eyes back on me.
I smiled back, just as easy as he had smiled at me. “Christian.” I enjoyed the slight twitch of his shoulders on hearing my name. “My friends call me Chris,” I added, before he could comment.
He twitched again, with a cold flash in his eyes that no one but me saw. He got the message, though. The Birdmen are sensitive about names. Gram thought that it was because they all had the same name. And so they had developed elaborate and arcane rules about names, ways to control and manipulate someone else by understanding what their name meant.
But there were some names that were immune to their charmings. Names like mine.
“Unusual name, these days,” Birdman said.
I raised an eyebrow. “Named after my great-grandpa,” I said, and took a small sip of my beer. “How ’bout you, Jack? Who you named after?”
I couldn’t help it. They think they are so smart, the way they sneak in the shadows, tangle up anything that’s good. Lord it over all those poor people who don’t even know what happened to them, once they’re gone. Don’t even remember them, for the most part, except in their nightmares.
Oh yeah. If I get a chance to get under a Birdman’s skin, I take it.
His eyes darted fury at me. “Not sure,” he said, smoothly, and tried on a smile again. “My daddy never tol’ me much about my family. It was just him an’ me, and he’s gone now.”
Stricken looks flashed around my friends, sympathy for that cuckoo. It just about made me sick.
I wanted to needle him some more, but as I glanced around the table, I relaxed my clenched fists.The Jack had already caught them neatly in his claws. From now on, until he had his fun and left, all of these guys would want nothing more but to please him.
If I pushed him too hard, he would take it out on them.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. There was no sorry in my voice, not at all, but my friends relaxed.
“Sorry,” Jim mumbled from beside me, his hang-dog eyes looking even more mournful as he looked at the Jack.
“Yeah, man, sucks,” George said, pulling deeply on his beer.
“These things happen,” Jack said, lightly. He slapped the table then, jovial. “Well now, friends, it’s been real convivial gettin’ to know ye. I was a-gonna move on from here tonight, try my luck down the road, but I think maybe I’ll stay awhile. What ye think, then, boyos?”
And as they all chorused their assent, piping around the table like hungry chicks at their mama, the Jack just sat and smirked, his beady black eyes hard on mine.
I tossed and turned that night. At 2 AM I gave up, heading for the kitchen, and was stopped by a sharp knock on the door. The cold curdle in the pit of my stomach told me who it was.
I clenched my fist, and turned to the door. Despite my revulsion, I was curious. Usually the Jacks wanted nothing to do with us Watchers. Like I said, they preferred to operate in the shadows, in secret.
“Waddya want?” I asked, my voice low.
“Let me in. Let’s talk.”
I snorted. “Come on. Let’s not waste time. Tell me what you want, or leave.”
Silence fell, profound and deep, and then he cleared his throat, coughed once. “Neutral ground, boyo? Across the street, in that old park?”
I almost assented, but fortunately my brain kicked into gear before I opened my mouth. Obeying a Jack gave them power over you. It’s one of the ways they did their dirty work.
“Nice try.” I said, “The pier. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
There was a low chuckle, another cough, and then I heard the creak in the floor as he walked away.
I hurried to the living room, pulled the curtains back a notch and scanned the street below.
A lone figure strode purposely away from the building, coat tails flapping, and disappeared into the night’s shadows as he turned the corner. What kind of trap was this?
I had no fear there would be any more of them. The Jacks were always alone. Just like Watchers. Only one of us to a place. Two sides to a coin, Gram told me. Heads or tails. Just make sure your side always lands up.
Just the way it was, a mystery I had yet to understand. All I knew for sure was that when a Jack showed up, it was my job to deal with him. My mission from God, or that’s what Gramma used to say. But she had more faith than me.
It didn’t take me long to get ready. Pulled on my jeans, a hoodie, my black bomber jacket. It was the middle of summer, but I knew it was going to get colder. It was part of the effect they had on a place.
I stopped at the door and looked at the icon that was hanging there, the one Gram had sent me, when I met my first Jack. St. Michael the warrior angel. I touched it briefly.
“Look after me, won’t ya?”
The serenity in his eyes gave me some courage, and I quickly pulled open the door, shutting it softly behind me.
It got progressively cooler as I neared the lake, and soon I was zipping up my jacket.
Traffic was light, and what cars I saw were heading away from the water. You might think that was a coincidence, but I knew better. A Jack mesmerized people up close, but repelled them from a distance.
Who knows why. Cancer took my Gramma when I was 15. She didn’t have long enough to teach me everything I needed to know. We couldn’t live in the same city, she had moved soon after I was born. Our phone calls had been sporadic, letters few. Not for lack of trying, but the odd rules that governed us made it so that letters were lost, phone calls dropped, e-mail addresses broken.
But she got a call through to me, near the end. Don’t be afraid, she said, her voice weak. Your name will guard you, but be careful. The Jacks will destroy you if your courage is weak. You’ll fall sometimes, but you have to keep getting up. Don’t let them win. Please.
I had to blink sudden tears from my eyes, remembering. I curled my hands into fists and kept walking.
Mist was rising from the lake as the cold presence of the Jack met the sun’s warmth radiating from the earth. The water was black. No moon, tonight. Clouds were blotting out the stars. Soon the summer’s heat would turn to rain.
The wooden pier stretched over the water. At night, lights affixed to one side in regular intervals lent it a festive air. But tonight, with their warm glow only dimly showing through the fog that shrouded the pier, it was no longer festive. Eerie would be a better word, made even more so as I glimpsed the black silhouette of the Jack, standing at the end of the pier, waiting.
He stood perfectly still as I approached, my steps echoing off the wooden pier. The water lapped and sloshed against the pilings.
The fog rolled around me as I walked, caressing my skin with clammy fingers. I tried to keep my fears under control. Birdmen could sense fear from a mile off, and would exploit it in a second.
It’s why most people would call me cocky, arrogant even. But I have my fears just like any man. I’ve just learned to bury them.
The Jack’s coat was unbuttoned. He didn’t feel the cold. “Evening,” he said, pleasant-like, nodding his head. His words vapourized into steam as he spoke.
“What do you want, Jack? Tell me, and be gone.”
His nostrils flared in distaste, not liking the sound of his name from my lips. “I come to warn ye, and to deliver a proposition.”
I eyed him, skeptical. “Warn me about what?”
“Something bad’s comin’,” he said. He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. “But you and me, if we work together, we can stop it.”
I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that. “Stop what?”
The Birdman shook his head, emphatically. “I will not name it, and call it closer. I have told ye as much as I can. It’s coming, Watcher. And when it gets here, you will rue the day ye refused my help.”
I snorted. “Really. Cute.”
He stood there, glowering at me. Rain started spattering, the wind gusting against us. I was impatient now, wanting this meeting over.
I took one step closer. “I’ve got a warning and a proposition of my own, Jack. You and I can go through the dance our kind always does, and in the end you will leave this town, considerably worse for wear. Or, you can leave now. Tonight. Make your choice.”
My hands balled into fists, and I held myself ready.
But he just sneered at me. “I will not leave. I canna. And neither can you. We are in this until the end, together. And if ye will not help me, the both of us will be destroyed, and your precious town an’ all.” His eyes were black holes of wrath. “You know how to find me. Ye change yer mind, come to me. But I tell ye true, I will be running the show, then. No partnership.”
Despite my anger, a tendril of fear was uncurling in my belly. He seemed to believe what he was saying. And no matter that for the Jacks, lying was as natural as breathing, I was almost believing him, too.
We eyed each other a moment longer, then I turned on my heel to leave. Though the rain, I heard him again, his voice raised. “Test me words, Watcher. Try to leave. And when you canna, come to me. We’ll talk again.”
I hunched my shoulders at the words and kept walking, into the worsening storm.
The next day dawned grey, wet, and cold. The radio was full of chatter about an unexpected summer squall that looked to be settling in for a few days. Typical. As long as the Jack was here, summer would be but a memory.
My boss called to say I wouldn’t be needed that day. Too wet to work on the house we were building. Fine by me. I had preparations to make.
To rid yourself of a Jack was a tricky business. So much of it depended on when you first discovered him. If he hadn’t been around long, his influence was much less, and it was easier. Their magic only went so deep. But if he had time to weave his way into a community, to establish friendships, to start to glean all the nuggets he wanted from people’s lives, well, it became much more difficult. Almost impossible, in fact. Just depended on his experience, and the people themselves.
Physical force was a method of last resort, but sometimes that was all I had. There was a reason I did manual labour for a living, a reason I took boxing and martial arts training. I wanted to be ready.
Thing is, weapons were useless. Knife, gun, whatever, had no effect on a Jack. So if it came to it, it was a knock-down, drag-em-out fight, ’til someone surrendered. Killing was the last resort, even if it was possible. Gram said it was hard to kill a Jack. I hoped the same would be true of me, but I had yet to test either theory.
The easier way was to cut off his circle of influence. Get to the people he had started to charm, and better yet, the people he had yet to meet. If I could warn them about him, then he was out of luck.
Watchers had some help with this. Sparkle, I called it. I could turn on the charm myself, get people to listen. It was more than just personality, it was a little magic of my own.
Like my Gramma said, two sides to a coin.
I used it sparingly, for it came at a cost. It fed the arrogance I needed to win. Frightened me, if truth be told. Luckily us Watchers didn’t encounter the Jacks very often. One every few years was the norm. Good thing. It wore on me.
My town was small, around 7,000 people. Everything was close to everything else, no place too far to walk to. It meant that nowhere in my town was off limits to the Jack, and the thought brought a cold shiver to my gut.
I touched St. Mike again on the way out. I was going to need all the help I could get.
I started at Second Best, a Thrift store at the end of Main. The owner was a good friend of mine, and his store far enough away from the Lantern to have escaped the Jack’s interest, for now.
I told Ben the Birdman was a con man and a thief, and to show him the door when he came in. Ben listened carefully, and by the time I left I knew I had convinced him, and that he would warn others about the Jack, as well.
But the rest of the day was a draw. Mike at the Cafe had already met Jack yesterday, and was lost to him. Same result at the travel agent, and a few other places. But I had better luck at the burger joint, and the jewellery store, and at the pharmacy and the liquor store.
So I was feeling pretty good when I got to Happy Tots, the daycare at the opposite end of Main from Second Best. But soon as I brought up the Jack, Celia, the cute twenty-something that ran the place, screwed up her face in a frown.
“Why, I met him this morning! Nice guy, he was. Real nice. He brought some apples for the kids, and everything! They just loved him!”
I tried to warn her, used a little sparkle, but she was having nothing of it. I left there with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, all my previous successes like ash in my mouth.
I had made a tactical error. I should have came here first. The kids had no chance against a Jack, and through them he would get the parents. Some of those parents I had already talked to, but I may as well have not bothered. My warning would dissolve against the eager endorsement of their kids.
The rain beat against me as I made my way back along Main, kicking myself for a fool. Before I knew I looked up and I was back at the Lantern.
Cars lined the street on both sides. My fists clenched. There was no point in my going in, none at all, but I was angry. I shoved the door open and stepped inside.
Tables were filled, the waitresses hustling. I saw him right away, at the same table as last night. My friends were all there, circled around him, and a couple strangers, besides.
I pushed my way through the crowds to the bar, ignoring their table. It took a couple of minutes for Tariq to notice me, but when he did he hurried right over. “Chris, welcome! Sorry, I did not see you there.”
“No problem. It’s busy.” I couldn’t quite hide the bitterness in my voice. I nodded at Jack and my friends. “He been here all day?”
Tariq looked over, a frown crossing his face, and then looked back at me, and shrugged.”On and off. What can I get you?”
Interesting. The Birdman had been in the bar long enough that Tariq should be fawning at his feet. But there are a few people, other than Watchers, who are immune to the Jacks and their charm. It looked like Tariq was one of them. “Just a Coke tonight. Got some work to do later. I’ll go sit with the guys. Can you bring it over?”
”Jenna will bring it,” he said, with a small smile of apology, gesturing at the packed room. “I’m a little busy.” He hurried off, and I watched him go, wishing I could explore his aversion to the Jack, maybe use it to my advantage. I’d have to talk to him later.
“Chris! There you are!” Ed waved at me to join them, and with a sigh, I pushed myself away from the bar, ignoring the grinning Jack and nodding at the guys as I sat down.
Jim raised a mug at me. “Cheers, bud!” he said. “Bout time you showed up. You weren’t working in that crap today, were ya?”
I shook my head. “Nah. Had some other things to do, though.”
My eyes met the Birdman’s, briefly. He nodded at me, imperceptibly, raised his glass at me, and then hacked a cough.
“Ya know, this Jack here, he’s quite the guy,” George said, eagerly. “Tell ’em, Jack, what you’ve been thinkin’.”
The Jack coughed again, into a dirty handkerchief he pulled out of a pocket.”Well, now, yer friend here, I don’t think he’ll be interested,” he demurred, waving a hand.
“C’mon, Jack! Sure he will!”
“Alrighty. Y’see, I’ve got meself a wee business.” I could see the amusement in his eyes. He loved this, playing for an audience, the real story one only he and I understood.
“You don’t say,” I said. “And what kind of business would that be?”
“I make movies. Documentaries.”
“He’s gonna do a movie about our town!” Jim announced, all wide-eyed. “And he wants to interview all of us!”
My stomach curdled at the thought, but before I could comment, Jenna arrived with my Coke.
“Thanks,” I said, looking up at her. Cute girl, with long bouncy black hair. But she had no time for me. Her sapphire eyes were fixed firmly on the Birdman.
He flashed a smile at her. “Ah yes, Miss Jenna here is gonna be in my wee movie, aren’t ye, darlin’?”
Jenna flushed, and shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, but we all saw her “maybe” meant “yes”, and the table erupted into raucous laughter.
Someone called out for another drink, and Jenna reluctantly tore herself away from the Birdman’s gaze and hurried away.
“Ah, a beauty she is,” the Jack said. There were a few ribald comments from the men, and I grew sick of it, suddenly.
I took a swallow from my drink and then stood up, dropping some coins on the table.”Look, fellas, I gotta go.”
“Come on, Chris, don’t you wanna hear about the movie? Jack here says we can all be in it. It’s all about the Trench.”
The Trench, a unique geological feature just outside of town, was a deep fissure in the earth that fascinated spelunkers and geologists alike. Everyone had a theory about what caused it, from a long-ago earthquake to a UFO landing gone wrong. It put our little town on the map, so to speak.
There would be no lack of people eager to invite the Jack into their homes and yammer away into a camera about it. And once in their homes, the Birdman had them. Simple as that.
“I’m sure I’ll hear all about it,” I muttered, and turned on my heel, eager to leave.
No one called after me. I didn’t have to look back to know they would all be pressing around the table towards the Jack, my presence all but forgotten.
I yanked the door open, but before the door shut I heard the Jack coughing again.
It gave me pause. I had never known a Jack to be sick. They seemed above any mortal diseases. He must be faking it, for sympathy, or something. But they didn’t usually need to stoop to such lengths. Yet another thing about this particular Jack that was not quite right.
It was dark outside now, rain still falling. I squinted up at the clouds sourly, and strode around the back of the building, to take the short cut to my apartment.
Just as I passed the back door, it opened, and Tariq stepped out, the security light illuminating his face. “Please, I would have a word.”
I joined him under the shelter of the eaves, the rain dripping all around us, washing away the usual smells of dank garbage and urine that haunted the alley behind the Lantern.
“This man,” he said, distaste in his voice, his shoulders hunching up slightly. “This Jack.”
I eyed him carefully. He was immune, all right, and wary. And as much as I was glad to see it, it worried me. Jacks weren’t too kind to the ones who saw them for what they were.
“What about him?”
“I think you do not like him.”
“You think right,” I said. “He’s bad news.”
“You know him, then?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“I wish him away from here,” he said, suddenly vehement. “But the others, they are excited by this movie—“
“Look, Tariq, you are right to be worried. But just stay out of his way, okay? I’ve got a plan. I’ll deal with him. He’ll be gone soon.” I spoke with more confidence than I felt. The Birdman’s inroad into the daycare had shaken me quite a bit.
“Let me help.“
“No. It’s too dangerous. Just lay low, try to ignore him.”
He frowned up at me. “I am not a child, Christian.”
Resolve filled his face and I remembered that he had come here from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. He was no stranger to evil men and what they could do.
I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know. Look, I appreciate the offer. But you see how he easily he can get people wrapped around his little finger. And if you try to move against him, they will all turn on you. You can’t fight them all.”
His face was grim. “And you can?”
“No. There’s another way.” I paused, unsure how to explain. “Let me deal with him, please. He and I, we have some history. I know what I’m doing.”
There was something in his eyes that stopped my quick answer, and the words died in my mouth.
Just then the door cracked open. It was Jenna, the waitress. “We need you, Boss. It’s crazy in there.”
“Yes, I am coming,” Tariq said, and she closed the door.
He turned back to me. “I will help,” he said, stubbornly. “This is too big for you, I think. That man, he is no man. It is a jinni, come to bedevil us. Your pride will destroy you if you are not careful.”
He turned and pulled open the door, and slipped inside to a burst of laughter and music that faded as the door shut.
END PART ONE
Part two coming next week! In the meantime, if you have missed my other original fiction here on the blog, here are the links:
Chasing the Prize
Life for Life
A Delicious Irony
This Strange Thing Called Fear