The Cold Inside (a serial novel) Chapter Twenty-nine part two
The Cold Inside
By AL BRUNO III
Wednesday January 11, 1995
“What in the Hell have you been doing?” Phil’s voice was everywhere and nowhere.
Tristam was lying on the floor in his room, doing homework and listening to his Nirvana mix tape. his sister was on a date and his Mom had downed two beers and fallen asleep in front of the TV. That was fine by Tristam, he didn't know how loud this was going to get. “How is Lucille?”
“Dying. Now let me ask again, what the Hell have you been doing?”
It was as though Phil was shouting through his skull. Tristam didn’t flinch, instead the kept talking as casually as he could. “I decided to deal with a few things that needed dealing with.”
“Oh, is that all?” A shadow floated into his field of vision, gray and churning with anger. “What did I tell you?”
Sighing with exasperation Tristam set his pencil down and glared, “You told me not to go anywhere or do anything without you.”
“Exactly. Now give me one reason why I shouldn't have you shit in your hand and eat it.”
“Because if you do I won’t help you.” Tristam stood, passed through the specter and sat down on the edge of his bed. “Besides, I don't think you can.”
When the old man attacked Tristam was ready. The attack was like a vise crushing his spine. Tristam felt an invading presence try to push aside his thoughts but he pushed back. It hurt. It hurt more than anything had ever hurt before but he held his ground.
“Little bastard!” Phil's voice echoed in his mind, “That runestone can't protect you forever.”
“I don't have the runestone. It's not even in the room.”
Tristam launched his spirit out of his body. He dove into the shadow that was Phil, propelling them both up through the roof and out into the sky. The world retreated beneath them, the stars rolled.
“Get offa me! Get offa me!” Phil fluttered and pushed back with all his might. “You'll regret this you little shit.”
Tristam let the uneven grid of Albany's lights become a little more distinct before he spoke. “I've been thinking about this whole deal of ours. It turns out there is a lot you're not telling me.”
“Seems to me boy, there is a lot you're not telling me either.”
“So now here is where we come clean to each other. Yes, I've been out and about. I've used what you've taught me to see every girl at school naked and now I’m using it to get some revenge. And you know what? It's been terrific.”
“There's things out there that will notice. Things that can make you worse than dead.”
They rocketed through the clouds, the dark between the Earth and the sky seemed endless, it seemed to swallow them whole. “Maybe, but maybe I'm a lot more powerful than you let on. Because if you can do what I can do, why haven't you done it already?”
“Done what? What are you talking about?”
“Why haven’t you taken care of Victor yourself? What are you afraid of?”
“If you knew Victor you'd be pretty goddamn afraid yourself.”
They broke through the clouds, the stars streaked past. The old man squirmed in Tristam’s grip like an eel. “Have you ever met someone who could just slip out of their body naturally, with no training or ceremonies?”
“Yes, his name is Victor Kovach. Maybe you've heard of him.”
“Just him? No one else has been able to do what I do?”
“There was one other guy I knew but that's it.”
“Sounds like I'm pretty special.”
For a moment they glared at each other, glared without bodies, glared without truly seeing; then Tristam pulled Phil from one layer of reality to another. The world became too distinct, starlight flared like the harsh brilliance of an acetylene torch. The caliginous sky seemed to stir in discomfort.
“What do you want from me?” Phil asked.
No matter how high above the clouds they were Tristam could never shake the sensation he was being watched. “No. The question is what do you want from me?”
“I think that should be pretty damn obvious by now.”
Tristam pulled again. The familiar night sky bled away to be replaced by a pandemonium of memory and sensation. The wind was full of half-understood whispers. Images alien and familiar lingered at the edge of their perceptions. “You've said two things to me that I can't quite make sense of. You promised you were going to teach me everything you knew once I took care of Victor for you but you also said you and your wife were going further out and deeper in.”
It had become impossible to judge direction, up from down, east from west. The realm of dream pulsed and undulated, incorporating their struggle into its own rhythms. How many people would have a restless night of tossing and turning as a result? “That is a figure of speech you little half-wit.”
“No. I don't think it is. I think you're up to something else.”
“Maybe you're just nuts.”
“That’s entirely possible.” It was easy enough to pass back into the Realm of Matter. Everything felt familiar again, but oddly sterile. The skyline, the clouds below them and the stars themselves all had a flat quality, as though the world around them was nothing more than the makeshift backdrop for a school play, “I think the reason you haven't tossed Victor into the Heart of the Maelstrom yourself is because you think he might have a little fight left in him. I don’t think you care what happens to me.”
“You think I'm going to care more after this?”
“I think that while I'm wrestling with whatever is left of your old friend you and Lucille are going to make some kind of a getaway. Maybe you and her will hop into my body.”
“Dream on you little pubeless wonder.”
It was easier than Tristam expected to push Phil from the realm of Matter to the realm of Energy. The pigments bled from the world but all around them the air seemed to thrum. “Then maybe you're going to escape to the Husk Worlds. You said some people think they're Hell.”
“And I said that was bullshit.”
They were both exhausted by now. The Husk Worlds began to flash past them, a cascade of shattered windows each one offer a glimpse of a reality more impossible than the last.
“Because you think they're Heaven. Or the closest a mean old son of a bitch like you is ever going to get. What was it you said? You would be in Heaven before the Devil knew you were dead”
“You don't give a damn what happens to me, all you need me to do is distract the great and powerful Victor while you two escape.”
A rift in the darkness appeared before them, what he saw reminded Tristam in some ways of the Realm of Dreams but the chaos he saw frothing here was too large, too alien to be any kind of human nightmare. They moved through the haze that marked the border between the Husk Worlds and the Maelstrom, floating across the surface of it like a bubble on the tidal surf. Tristam let the old man stew for a while.
“You're-” Phil's voice was a shout for one word only then it became tinged with a kind of resignation, “You're smart. The Heart of the Maelstrom is supposed to tear Victor apart. It will tear anyone apart.”
“Is there a ‘but’ in this?”
“Yes. I've tried to dispose of Victor myself a few times but he's… He's anchored.”
“Fuck if I know how he did it.” Phil snapped, “He only taught me what he thought I should know and that didn't include pages from his 'How To Be A God In Ten Easy Lessons' book.”
“Why didn't you just un-anchor him?”
“He's not anchored to a place he's anchored to a being. At first I thought it was John, he was the strongest of us and he had been with Victor from the beginning. At least once every few years I checked John over, without him knowing it.”
Tristam asked “You mean his aura? You read his aura?”
Phil shifted uncomfortably in place, “Yeah but it was more than looking at it from outside. It was more involved than that. It was the kind of thing that took a lot of preparation.”
“And he never knew?”
“If you showed him any kindness John could be a trusting soul. It was his one fault. Listen Tristam, we should have this conversation someplace else?” They passed into the Maelstrom itself, moving though the burning gyre of colors and shapes; the madness of it was mesmerizing. Things not quite matter yet not quite spirit flailed and thrashed against the strange current that was drawing them ever deeper. “Can we please get the fuck out of here?”
“You'll get us both obliterated. You want that?”
In the distance, but what did distance mean here, the Heart of the Maelstrom fulminated incessantly before them, consuming everything that came within too close of an orbit. Occasionally a shape would emerge from the Heart’s boiling surface to be sent tumbling back through the layers of reality, some of those shapes were as small as a pebble, others looked large enough to cast an entire world into their shadows and still others mewled like newborn animals.
“Is Victor anchored to you? Did you ever think of that?”
Phil replied, “Only two hundred times a day and I checked about twice as often as that.”
“So that leaves Lucille then.”
“Her name isn't really Lucille. It’s Zara. And I checked her too, same way I checked John.”
Tristam had to laugh, “You're a real prize you know that?”
“And you're a fine upstanding citizen yourself. So what are we gonna do now Tristam?”
In uneasy silence they stared into the Heart of the Maelstrom, feeling the relentless pull of its alien gravity.