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Guest Writer

The only thing that still seemed solid
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 31:

el could feel a tingle of excitement.

He turned to Dimpe and dropped the gold ring in the pocket of his red hoody. "You know, if I'm going to do this thing, I'd better just do it. While the pump is primed, so to speak."

"But ..."

"Thanks for your help, Faben. And keep an eye on that sweet little thing back there."

"I'm not sure what I can do." Dimpe's whispered reply was almost inaudible. He was shaking his head vigorously. "She's the Angel of Death, Mel."

"Well, see ya."

Mel was all hyped up with the thought of Anne in peril. "Iron Stick Li" sounded like a gangster name, akin to "Metal Leg Bob" or maybe "Icepick Lou." For some reason Mel trusted Dean's assessment of the man, so he knew he had to get going posthaste.

Pump still primed with some good healthy fear for his woman, Mel tried to picture his destination. An image sprang to mind of Alfred E. Neumann holding an aluminum baseball bat. The grinning figure shifted and became a deformed, scowling man with a dull gray crutch supporting his twisted left leg. The phantasm mouthed the words "What, me worry?" and, despite this, Mel felt that the picture was no hallucination.

He hunched his shoulders and strained like a weightlifter. Face red and muscles bunched, he let loose a mighty grunt and stepped forward into the solid wall.

His foot landed and, after a mere moment's dizziness, he saw that the trick had worked. He was in a vast hall decorated in an oriental opulence he had seen only in movies. Whatever potentate had ruled here was long gone, though. Dust covered all the lacquer and jade, and then Mel remembered what Dean had said about the tragedy. There was no time to waste, and he set off looking for footprints in the dust that would lead him to someone.

The only footprints were his own until he left the huge hall and entered an equally vast antechamber. One end was dominated by a towering bronze gate, which was barred and shuttered, and probably fused with rust as well. On either side of the gate were two smaller man-sized doors. Between these were fresh footprints. Mel decided to play Indian tracker and bent down to examine them.

The right print was a clean sandal impression, but the left was only a long scuff mark where that foot had been dragged. A third mark was a round dot the size of a half dollar, which accompanied the prints of the dragged left foot.

"Jackpot," hissed Mel.

He ran along the prints and burst through the door. Mel found himself outside, in a beautiful Chinese garden covered in a few inches of snow. He looked down and saw that the tracks had been covered by the fluffy stuff.


Mel ran out into the garden, and suddenly didn't need a trail. At the far end of the garden was a pagoda, and inside it a hunched figure was warming its hands over a fire. Mel began trotting toward it. Once he reached the pagoda, he drew himself up short. The man inside was the man he had visualized – that crutch of dull metal marking him unmistakably as Iron Stick Li.

"You're just going to start trouble with those good intentions," croaked Li. "Do-gooders always do, like you and that red-haired skank."

Mel clenched his fists. "If you've done anything ..."

"Don't blow a gasket. You've beaten her here. I wouldn't do anything but teach her a lesson, anyway, like I will with you." The swagger in his toad-like voice ill matched his shuffling gait as he hopped down the pagoda's steps toward Mel.

"Listen, Li. I'm just here to stop a catastrophe from happening."

"Sure, sure." Li's eyes bugged out and suddenly Mel found himself floating outside his body. As he watched from some intangible point of view, his body stretched, flexed and began punching itself in the face. Worse, though, were the words coming out his mouth – "Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!" – repeated over and over like some obnoxious schoolyard bully.

All at once the violence stopped and Li began talking again, using Mel's voice. "This is a strong, virile body. I could give it a good workout when your main squeeze gets here, but I won't. I really just want to be left alone. I may seem crass, but I'm one of the last virtuous men."

Mel watched his own finger as it pointed to Li's old, deformed body.

"Just like that body, ugly but very resilient. I lost my old handsome body because of a do-gooder. I was out roaming strange planes of existence with my mind, to bring back arcane knowledge for the good of mankind. My disciple was guarding my body, and I had instructed him to burn it if I wasn't back in three days, so no devils would infest it.

Well, he got antsy in the pantsy and burned it on the second day. I come back on day three and guess what I find. No disciple, no body, just a screwy old bum warming his hands on my funeral pyre! So that's how I became 'Iron Stick.' Good intentions, right Anne?"

Mel's head was looking off to the right, and he turned his bodiless perception there. It was Anne, full of rage. Her coat and hair were billowing behind her though there was no wind, and she held the Desert Eagle in a pissed-off Weaver stance. Mel suddenly remembered that his body was being borrowed, and decided to move fast. He did a bodiless leap at Li's old body, found himself inside it, and yelled hoarsely with his stolen voice.

"Anne, he's going to trick you that way. It's really me!" From the sterner set of her eyebrows he could tell that he hadn't made any sense. She pulled the trigger, a quick double-tap that knocked him to the ground with ruptured insides.

"You fucked up, sister," Li said from Mel's body. "Your boyfriend was in there. He and I did a little switch. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to not be bothered, and –"

He didn't finish because Anne had shot him, too.

Mel felt the rushing sensation and was floating again. Iron Stick Li was back in his own body, seemingly ignoring the gunshot wounds as he limped away muttering. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry ..."

Mel tried to push back into his own body, but it was as if there was no place for him to go. In a second he knew why. Anne was taking his body's pulse, and she let the wrist drop as she started to sob. He had died.

Everything was starting to fade, but one thing still seemed solid. He could feel it. Mel put all his effort into making his ethereal voice heard. "Anne, reach into my pocket."

Her head jerked up. "Is that you?" Somewhere the old Anne had resurfaced, and he heard the loving voice like he hadn't in a long time.

"No time to talk. Just reach into my sweatshirt pocket!"

She did it, seemingly unfazed at being ordered around by a ghost. His pocket divulged its contents, and she held up the gold ring. "What is it?"

"The Ma Yuan. Hold it steady." He was running out of time, and grasped at the ring, which was the only thing that still seemed solid. As his fingers gripped the ring, he could almost feel the touch of her fingers. "When I go, put it on. With this ring I thee wed, et cetera. Watch for me – I'll come back when I can."

"I do ... I mean, I will." The ring loomed large, and it was the only thing he could see. It was growing, and he was being drawn into the center. He could still feel Anne, though, and in the last second called out to her.

"I love you."

Whether she replied or not, he couldn't tell. He had been sucked into the center of the ring and spit out in what appeared to be an airplane hangar. He was surrounded by hundreds of people, all talking and shouting in the general din. He grabbed the nearest person, who turned to face him.


Every person in the hangar turned, and they were all Frank.

"WHAT?" Their simultaneous reply was deafening, but he ignored that for the moment. He reached forward and shook the hand of the Frank Burley he knew.

"It's good to see you. Frank," said Mel. "I need a favor."

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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