M a r c h   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

At last he found what he wanted
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 34:

el barely dodged the huge fist as it whizzed toward his head. In fact, his evasion was so drastic that he fell over and landed on his kiester. That was a bad thing, because the Frank Burley to end all Frank Burleys was trying to knock his block off.

Oddly enough, Frank wasn't taking advantage of Mel's blunders, even ones that left him as vulnerable as this one. What should have been an opening for a fatal blow instead became a chance for Mel to frantically leave ass-whupping range for a few moments. But no matter how fast he ran, Frank kept catching up with him.

Mel hopped up and got out of the way of Frank's next punch, but he didn't avoid the backhand that followed. Mel's head exploded with pain and his vision had a rolling blackout. This particular Frank was hitting him harder than anything he'd ever felt. Just not enough to kill him outright.

"Why are you doing this, Frank?"

Burley had so far failed to respond, at least verbally, and this latest round of battery was no exception. Before the last syllable was out of Mel's mouth, Frank had grabbed him by the belt loops and tossed him in the air. A flurry of punches connected before Mel landed miraculously on his feet.

This is it, Mel thought, the end of the journey.

Mel was a bent nail about to be pounded down by a hammer named Frank Burley. Frank pulled back, and Mel could see his next move as clearly as if there were Arthur Murray dance steps laid out on the floor. Burley was going to quickstep forward and send the tip of his moon boot into next Tuesday, with a layover in Mel's face. There was a finality here that Mel could sense, and he doubted his ability to resurrect himself here in this other world.

The boot started rocketing toward him, and he resigned himself. There was a lurch in his stomach and Mel saw that time had stopped. The Machine Mind, in its silvery humanoid form, had interposed itself between Mel and Frank.

The silvery being showed something akin to embarrassment on its reflective face. "I cannot intervene directly, but I have already helped dislodge you from space and time, and I can give you a moment of respite. Please solve your problem here so we can continue to our destination."

"Hmmph. Well, alright." Mel stepped around the figure and contemplated Frank, still frozen in mid-kick. Feeling the pain from his prolonged beating, as well as the fatigue of his three-hour tour, Mel began searching the debris on the floor of the hangar. At last he found what he wanted.

Hefting the I-beam, Mel took a strong stance and nodded at the Machine Mind. Time slipped back into track and Frank completed his kick into empty space. Frank paused in confusion, until Mel spoke up. "Hey Burley, think fast!" As the bewildered Frank spun to face him, Mel let loose and beaned him in the nose.

"Sorry, chief." There was a satisfying crunch as blood spurted from Frank's nostrils. Surprisingly, he didn't go down. He just stood there, swaying uncertainly.

"Finish him," hissed the Machine Mind. Mel shook his head.

Instead, he grasped at the one thing that had been bugging him about this whole affair, which was the nature of the Ma Yuan ring and the "Frank Project" that Dean had mentioned. He reached out and snatched the ring off Frank's finger.

"Frank, get in the ring!"

Suddenly, Burley was gone. The ring seemed heavier, and that was that.

He turned to the Machine Mind. "I think that went well, don't you?" The silvery figure blinked inscrutably, and suddenly they were elsewhere. It was a hallway, dark and hot and stifling. Mel got a quick glimpse of some other people in the room, but his attention was drawn to the Machine Mind, which was glittering and shifting its shape.

It changed into Anne, who winked devilishly. "Wrong. That never was the Machine Mind. And your fulfillment of destiny, aided by Didymus and the Impaler? Guess what?" She laughed and then wheezed like a hippie releasing a bong hit. Her voice became that of a man's, and familiar. "I played you like a drum!"

Anne's eyes sunk back into her head, leaving only dark sockets, and her forehead shot skyward, taking the red hair with it. Her cute black T-shirt and skirt became an antiquated suit. Jeuss Rucker. Mel was speechless.

"This is Hell's vestibule. You'd probably like to end this affair before I make things really unbearable for you, and that's fine. But first I'd like you to sit and ferment with the other failures here. And just since I'm so nice, you can bring one of them with you for a chance at redemption. If you ever find your way in!"

With that, Rucker stepped into the wall, leaving a residue of smoke and reeking oil and black fire that spelled evil.

Mel grabbed the bridge of his nose and held on tight, because that feeling of finality was so strong he wanted to cry. When it passed, he turned to face the "other Failures."

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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