M a r c h   2 0 0 3

Guest Writer

Close enough to the real thing
by Jess Gulbranson

We’ve been following our rumpled yellow-haired hero ever since early 2001, when he lost his motel – along with everything else but the red hooded sweatshirt on his back – in a poker game. He’s been bouncing around through several different dimensions ever since. Here’s episode 24 ...

redictably, it was raining when Mel exited Clay's house. Mel had bolted up the stairs from the laboratory at Frank Burley's suggestion, finding darkness except for the kitchen and parlor.

In the kitchen he succumbed to impulse and grabbed the picture of Anne on the blanket, then he moved to the parlor. It was uninhabited, and he realized that he only had a few moments. He fancied that he could see a depression where little wooden Daniel had felled the giant Ducumber, but it might have been imagination. So many people he had met and befriended, and now he had to run ...

Mel snapped out of his reverie and remembered why he had come into the parlor. On a shelf in the corner was a large vial, and it was filled with a quivering silvery fluid that might have been alive. He had previously had only a moment to observe it, and he didn't even take that this time. The vial was warm and vibrated softly as he slipped it into a pocket. Now he was on his way.

At the front door he was stopped. Hanging on the inside handle was one of Clay's lab coats. It seemed uncharacteristic for the alchemist to leave it out, but Mel searched it anyway. To his surprise, there was a small leather satchel underneath, and it contained four nondescript vials. The first, filled with a light blue liquid, was one he recognized. When they first met, Clay had flung the contents in his face, and it had frozen him in his tracks. The others, red, green and black, he figured would be just as useful for a fugitive. He took them.

If it was just carelessness, Mel was glad, but if Clay had intended for Mel to find the vials, he hoped that the cheating didn't hurt the kooky messiah gambit any. Better equipped than before, Mel opened the door and ran down the stairs. The lawn was still lapping at the house as if it were water. Weird, he thought.

Sure enough, it was raining. The glowing red sky of Clay's part of the Ordeal was unmarked by clouds, but a warm rain fell nonetheless. Mel stuck his tongue out, and smacked his lips as he found the drops very salty. "Tears?" he said to no one in particular, then looked at the street. When people picked a random direction, it seemed, they almost always went in the direction to which they were manually oriented. Mel was right-handed, so he decided to break left.

Not wanting to appear too conspicuous, he made the brisk pace of the lunch hour power-walker, and started whistling. The rain, being warm, wasn't so bad. But he expected that once it dried it would leave a white salty crust on his clothes.

Mel walked a few blocks, then turned right at a warehouse-type building that leaned at a strange angle. He walked a few blocks more, then turned left onto a narrower street, not really knowing where he was going or who he was supposed to be fleeing. As he continued down the narrow avenue of darkened buildings, he heard a noise. Ceasing his whistle, he turned toward the sound.

Shit, he thought, ninjas.

Ninjas or no, they were close enough to the real thing not to matter. The three figures were dressed all in black and were armed with long iron staves. Fighting the urge to put up his dukes, Mel suddenly knew that these were part of his pursuit, and reached his hand into the satchel.

They advanced slightly, staves twirling, as if waiting for him to make the first move. He wasn't about to do that, but suddenly things were decided for him. Two of the ninjas attacked, one leaping acrobatically over Mel's head to land behind him.

The figure in front was the one he was worried about, and as an iron staff arched toward him, Mel leaned in and smashed a random vial into the ninja's covered face. Judging by the smell of mint, he had grabbed Clay's "frigid balm."

The ninja was frozen solid.

Hearing wind rush behind him, Mel dropped to the ground just in time. The staff's end cracked into the frozen ninja's face, releasing a cascade of ice shards that sprinkled everywhere. The result seemed to stun the attacker, and Mel turned from his crouch and grabbed the ninja's legs. He pulled and the ninja fell onto the street. It made a ghastly crunching sound, and the ninja did not stir.

Mel rose and stumbled backwards as a series of blows rained toward him from the final opponent's staff. There was no way to fight the chop-sockey onslaught, and he found himself wishing for help. Not waiting around for divine intervention, Mel decided to haul ass.

Running full tilt, Mel couldn't hear the ninja's footfalls behind him, but felt that he didn't have much of a head start. He ran down an avenue that was full of houses and alleys beneath the red sky, and on his next step everything changed.

Suddenly it was night; dark even. Mel was on the docks and everything was indistinct with a thick, white fog. He could hear muffled bells and the cries of birds and stevedores from elsewhere along the quay.

He kept running, though now it was slick boards thumping beneath his feet instead of stone. He could hear the ninja behind him and getting closer. Suddenly, Mel stopped short as someone appeared before him in the fog.

It was a tall black dude with shaved head and shabby yellow robe. He was carrying a pitchfork, of all things.

"Going as the Master for Halloween, bro?" The man's eyebrows jumped, but he smiled.

"A friend of the exalted Master's!" He was looking over Mel's shoulder. "Are you in trouble?"

Mel spun around and saw that the ninja chasing him had been joined by a horde of others, stretching back into the fog. He turned back to the monk wannabe and nodded.

"For the glory of the Master!" the man screamed, and a mob of similarly robed people erupted from the fog behind him. They rushed past Mel, and began chasing the ninjas back down the docks. One of the vigilantes stopped before Mel, and with a start Mel saw that it was the real McCoy.

The Master, his longish beard glistening with fog, seemed to be in deep relaxation even though he had no pillar to lean against. He winked conspiratorially toward Mel.

"I like to get them fired up sometimes. Worked out pretty well for you."

"It did, indeed," agreed Mel. "Say – Clay said I might get some help from you."

The Master scratched an ear.

"I find the Custodians silly," he said, "so I'll add some uncertainty to their little game. Are you the Messiah?"

The strange old man's gaze made Mel feel as if he had been ice-picked in the forehead. Mel couldn't even stammer a reply before the Master stood up straight. "Let's walk."

Though he seemed to be slouching along without a care, the Master set a good pace, and Mel had to scurry briefly to catch up.

"Well," said Mel, "they say that I am."

The Master cupped a hand to his ear. "Eh, grasshopper?"

"Don't call me grasshopper. You asked me a question, you ass-clown, and I answered it."

"Your answer sucks."

They walked in silence for a moment as Mel digested the remark. "I don't know what else to say."

The Master stopped, facing Mel. "I'll quote you a religious parable that will help you more than anything anyone has ever said to you. Do you want to hear it?"


"Okay then. A serious young man found the conflicts of modern life confusing. He went to many people seeking a way of resolving the discords that troubled him, but he remained troubled. One night a Zen master told him the solution. He was to go to a certain house, sit on a pile of rubble in the corner of a particular room and remain silent until the moon rose the following night.

"The young man did as the Zen master instructed, but his meditation was frequently interrupted by worries. He worried whether or not the rest of the plumbing fixtures from the second-floor bathroom would fall to join the other trash he was sitting on. He worried how he would know when the moon rose in the windowless room. He worried about what the people who passed through the room were saying to him.

"Finally, his worrying was disturbed when, almost as if a test of faith, dung fell onto him from the second floor. Just then, two people walked into the room. The first asked the second who the sitting man was. The second replied, 'Some say he is a holy man. Others say he is a shithead.' Hearing that, the man was enlightened.

"Does that help you?"

Mel thought for a moment. "Not really," he admitted.

The Master shrugged. "Alrighty then. Let's go kick some ass!"

Mel followed the Master into the fog.

Look for Mel's past adventures, check out an interview with our dimensionally challenged hero, and e-mail Jess at j_gulbranson@hotmail.com.

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