h2>Dating : The Prophet on Mission Street
It happened on a Saturday night. Malia had stacked the chairs and mopped, but she had a date to go out dancing that evening, so I told her I would take care of the trash and the rest. I put the Bay City Rollers on the shop’s speakers, and I scrubbed the place down better than I had in months. When that was done, I emptied the till, counted the little cash it contained, and locked it up in the safe. Then I sat at one of the empty dining tables with my computer and balanced the books.
All of that to say, it was well after dark when I finally boarded the train home. I settled in for a long ride and planned the rest of my evening. I would go home, open a beer, plop into my favorite chair, and fall asleep to the sweet voice of Mr. Otis Redding on my RCA. I smiled and closed my eyes for a few minutes.
When I opened them again, I saw him.
The bone man was hardly more than a boy to my eyes, twenty or twenty-one I supposed from his slim, boyish build. He wore black canvas sneakers, black jeans that were too tight, and a black sweatshirt with a hood that zipped all the way up so that it covered his face. A human skull was printed on the front of it, and it had thin black fabric at the skull’s eye sockets through which, I assumed, he could see me. A bulky black backpack sat at his feet, and his gloved fists clenched it tight.
I did not at first realize that this was the bone man Mr. Boles had prophesied. I just thought he was a young man who, like so many other kids these days, feared normal human interaction. As is my habit, I smiled at the young man and said, “hello.”
He didn’t reply. He sat there, still as a statue, his hooded face aimed my direction. As I said, I couldn’t see the bone man’s eyes, but all the same, I could not shake the impression that he was staring at me.
“Fine night,” I said. “Headed home?”
“Where is he?” the bone man said in reply. He had the strangest voice I had ever heard — flat, low pitched, unmuffled by the fabric of the hooded sweatshirt as it should have been, and lacking in the breathy quality that gives speech so much of of its character.
I glanced around at the other passengers before I said, “You talking to me, son?”
“You. You know him. Where is he?” he said again, and this time I realized that neither his chest nor his zipped hood moved as he spoke. It was unnatural how still he was.
“I’m sorry. Who?”
“The anzilu,” he said, “The prophet. He is a criminal, Mr. White — a traitor. Tell me where he is.”
I started to say, “Look, I don’t know who you’re looking for or who you think I am…” but before I finished, his hand flashed, lightning fast, the backpack disappeared, and he suddenly held a can of water to my face.
“Drink,” he said.
It was one of those fancy flavored sparkling waters that all the startup kids drink. I sell it at the restaurant. I never liked the stuff. Right then, though, I don’t know how to explain it, but the instant he told me to drink, I felt desperately thirsty. The can he held dripped with condensation, and it seemed to fill all my vision. It seemed the most delicious, most thirst quenching thing in all of God’s creation, and I wanted it. Badly. I reached for the cursed thing, and I was just about to take it when Mr. Boles’s words cut through my fogged mind. “He gon’ lead you to water, if’n he can, Mr. White,” he had said, “but don’t you drink none of it. No, sir. Don’t you drink it.”
“No, thank you,” I managed to say despite my dry and swollen tongue.
“No?” The bone man said, and the can transformed right before my eyes into a bottle of locally brewed steam beer. My favorite. Normally, seeing a can of water magically transform into a bottle of beer would have scared me half to death, but at the time it seemed perfectly natural, like in a dream. All I knew was that I was thirsty. With an effort of will, I shook my head.
“Drink,” he said again, more insistent, and once again I was hit with an overwhelming thirst.
“No,” I croaked, and I stood to find another seat, my heart pounding. But before I could take a step, he moved in front of me, blocking my way. I looked to my fellow passengers for help, but everybody else seemed to have fallen asleep. I turned and ran.
It seemed a stupid thing to do at the time, and maybe it was. There was nowhere to run on the crowded train. But I ran all the same, pushing unconscious men and women and children out of my way as I went. It’s what Mr. Boles had said to do. Run. The train car went on further than I would have believed possible, as if it were growing before me, and always the bone man was just behind me, slipping between the other passengers like water through a drain.
When he caught up to me, he touched the back of my head, and then — now, I know you aren’t going to believe this part, but it’s God’s honest truth — the train disappeared. Just like that, the people and the plastic and the fluorescent lights were all gone. I flew forward with all the velocity of a man running on a moving train and fell onto damp, leaf covered earth. I tumbled and rolled and finally stopped when I slammed into a tree, shoulder first. All was dark and cold and so, so quiet. The air was heavy with fog. My nostrils filled with the scents of nature.
Every part of my body should have hurt, especially my ribs and my shoulder, but they didn’t. I got to my feet and walked away, hands extended so I wouldn’t run into any more trees in the dark. I glanced over my shoulder, and there stood the bone man, silhouetted in the light of a full moon.
“You cannot run from me,” he said, his flat voice clear and unaffected by the distance.
I froze, terrified.
“You cannot hide. The shadows are mine. I know them all. Habannatu do not see. Habannatu do not want to see. You see only what you wish, and so we let you live — ”
“What do you want?” I screamed.
“You know,” he said. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I shouted back.
“So be it,” he said, and he began walking toward me.
I turned and ran as fast as my old legs would carry me. My eyes must have adjusted to the moonlit darkness because I could see just fine, so I sprinted until my lungs should have burned, but again, they felt fine. I ducked into a clump of slender trees with smooth white bark and tried to calm my pounding heart, and glanced back behind me. And sure enough, there he was, still walking slowly, no farther away than he’d been before. I cursed under my breath.
“You cannot hide,” the bone man said again. “Come. You are tired. I will give rest. You are thirsty. I will give water. You will never thirst again.”
He shouldn’t have done that, twisting the Lord’s words like that. I’m not the most religious man on Earth, but my mama raised me in church, and I’ve gone most every Sunday of my life. That sort of blasphemy riles me right up. I made up my mind. A fallen tree branch, about the size of a baseball bat, lay on the forest floor near my feet. I picked it up and waited, resolved to give him a first-hand lesson in turning the other cheek.
A moment later, the bone man walked past. His footsteps made no sound at all — no crunching of dead leaves, no snapping of twigs. I felt the adrenaline coursing through my veins like it hadn’t done since I couldn’t remember when. As soon as the bone man’s head was in view, I stepped out from the trees and swung at it like Barry Bonds, swinging for the cove.
Unfortunately, though, my makeshift bat never hit its mark. I can’t know for certain, but I think the bone man must have known it was coming, because he reached up and caught the branch in his gloved hand, stopping it dead cold. The momentum threw me to my knees, but I held on to that branch for dear life, afraid that if I let go, he would bring it down on my skull. I had caught a tiger by the tail for sure, despite Mr. Boles’s warning.
The bone man said, “Tell me. Where is he? Where is the abomination? I must cleanse my city.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about!” I screamed.
“Lies.” the bone man said. “He has touched you. I can feel it. His napistum is inside you. It changes you. It eats you. Slowly. Until it is all that is left.” He paused and cocked his head to one side. “How? Did he prophesy? Did he give you advice?”
Suddenly I realized that he was talking about Mr. Boles.
The bone man must have read my expression, because he nodded and made the most awful laughing sound I’d ever heard. “You are doomed,” he said.
“Listen, friend,” I started.
He cut me off. “I am not your friend,” he said, “but we share an enemy. He has doomed you. Help me stop him.”
“I…I don’t know where he is,” I said, honestly. I had no idea where Mr. Boles slept or what he did when he wasn’t around me and the restaurant.
The bone man jerked the branch backward so that I flew toward him. He caught me by my jacket and lifted me off the ground, ripping the makeshift weapon out of my grip as he did. He was so incredibly strong. He held my face an inch from the skull printed on his hood and spoke. There was no scent, no moist air rising from his mouth, only the same, flat, breathless voice in my ears. “Do not lie. He is a danger. I must kill him. Where is he?”
Mr. Boles’s words came back to me: “If’n he catch you, you grabs him by the horns, you hear me? Just like a bull. You grabs him by the horns, and you gives him this.” And I remembered the iron spike. It was still in my back pocket. “You gives it to him good,” Mr. Boles had said. “And then you run.”
“I don’t know where my friend is,” I said again, “honest to God.” The bone man raised up the branch as if to strike. “Wait,” I squeaked. “He gave me something. Something he said I should give you if you caught me.”
“Show me.” He said this with something like fear in his strange voice, holding me at arms length and tightening my jacket collar around my neck. Unlike my run-in with the tree, it hurt. A lot. “Show me now,” he said.
Now, I was terrified, but I recognized an opportunity when one came my way. I don’t know what he thought I had, but he was scared of something, and I was pretty sure an old rusty chunk of iron wasn’t it. So I screwed up my courage and said the only thing I could think to say: “Or what?”
“I will kill you,” he said, and slammed me to the ground, rising above me, and pinning me down under his unbelievable weight. I would have screamed from the pain if I could have, but I could hardly breathe.
“But then,” I squeaked at last, squirming and forcing my hand around to my back pocket, “how will you find out where he is?”
“Fool,” he said. “I can make you rich. I can give you success. Or I can give you pain. Choose.”
I shook my head and tried to sound more resolved than I felt. “All I want,” I said, “is for you to leave me and my friend alone.”
He stood still and silent for a long time. Then he let go of my jacket, still pinning me to the ground, and unzipped his hood. I gasped at what I saw.
In cartoons, devils are all red with pointy beards and short stubby horns. Now, I don’t rightly know whether the bone man was a devil or something else, but I do know that he didn’t look anything like those cartoons. His skin was like charred wood, black as coal and cracked. In the center of his jagged face, he had a single black eye that was made of a bunch of smaller eyes like an insect’s. He didn’t have a nose or a mouth. No, he didn’t look much like any devil I’d ever imagined, except for one thing: two short, black horns grew out of the top of his head. “Tell me where he is,” he said, somehow speaking without a mouth as he leaned closer and closer to my face. “Now!”
I nodded. “All right, then,” I said.
I pulled the iron spike free and swung it around at the bone man’s exposed face. Just as he had done with the branch, though, he caught my hand in mid air, ending my strike before it could touch him. And when he did, I saw that the spike was no longer black and rusty. It was a dirty white, like bone, and covered in strange markings, like runes or something.
“Iskakku!” he screamed, if you can call it a scream. My insides quaked at the intensity of the sound. Then he picked me up by the collar again and said, “Tell me where he is and live. Refuse and die.”
I have to be honest here, though it pains me. I considered giving him up. I really did. I didn’t want to die, and in that moment, Mr. Boles didn’t feel like much of a friend. He was just some crazy, homeless veteran who had managed, somehow, to get me mixed up in a whole lot of trouble I didn’t even understand. I could tell the bone man to wait at the Embarcadero BART station Monday morning. I could betray Mr. Boles, not with a kiss — he’d never let me get away with that — but with a simple “good morning.” It would be easy. Nobody would miss one homeless beggar. Like I said, nobody even looks at them in this city.
But then I saw something in the black, insectile eye before me, something evil gleaming in the moonlight, and I remembered Mr. Boles’s red, tear-stained eyes, glistening in what little sunlight managed to evade the clouds and the smog and the skyscrapers. I couldn’t do it. Not even to save my own life would I allow this monster to hurt a sweet man like Mr. Boles.
So I screwed up my courage. “No,” I said. As fast as I could move, I grabbed one of the bone man’s horns with my free hand and screamed, “you leave him alone,” right into his hideous black face.
And while I was screaming at him, I dropped the spike. The bone man let go of my arm and pulled away, but it was too late. The strange weapon scraped his wrist as it fell, and he shrieked something awful. His arm began to boil and sputter where it had been cut, like catfish frying in oil, I swear on my mother’s grave, and he dropped me. I grabbed the spike from where it had landed and flung it at the bone man. As fast as before, he reached out to deflect it, but the spike cut right through his boiling arm like a hot knife through butter, and sunk into his charcoal face. With another unearthly shriek, he jumped onto me and slammed his one good fist into my chest. I felt my sternum crack. I felt the air explode from a hole in my left lung. I felt my heart slow, and I watched the bone man hiss and pop until he dissolved into smoke and ash. As he did, the forest faded away too, and my last memory before I died was staring up at the ceiling of an empty train car.