What goes around comes around
But no one knows
What transpires during the course of
THE COMPLETION OF THE CIRCLE
CHAPTER ONE: THE TRAVELER
Only moments ago, he was alone in the mist-shrouded mountains. He did not mind being alone. In fact, he had become quite used to being alone. Being alone gave him a chance to think things that he usually would not think. Being alone gave him a chance to realize things about himself that he would not consider while in the presence of others, for they always tended to try to make him see things about himself which were not always factual or realistic—things which may have been true once, and things that he may even have been once, but was no longer. Being alone gave him a chance to see him for what he really was: pathetic, forlorn, hopeless. An indigent. A lost soul.
He hated being alone. He hated to think those thoughts. He hated remembering. He hated not being able to forget. He hated everything he had become. He hated everything he had ever been.
But the ghostly gray image of his wife’s face in the mist made him forget those things. It made him forget that he was alone, that he was poor, that he had, save for the task of at long last returning home, nothing to live for. It made him forget that he was on his way home, as it made him stop dead in his tracks. It made him forget everything. Everything, that is, except for the fact that she, too, had left him alone. She had deserted him in favor of death a long five years ago, but it seemed just like yesterday that she was with him. He had never really realized how much he needed her until she was gone. Until it was too late. She was everything to him. She was he. Everything that Warren Jötunheim was was because of her. And without her, this was all there was: a nothingness. Without her, this was all he was: nothing.
Yet she had returned. At least her shimmering image had. And he was alone no longer. He saw her three times on this day alone and each time she appeared, she looked more life-like than the previous time. Could it be that she was coming back to rescue him from the wasting that his life without her had become? If so, he noted somberly, she was in no apparent hurry to do so, considering the brevity of her appearances. Perhaps their reunion was to take place on her side of life? All things considered, he did not mind that prospect either. Anything to be with her again. To hold her and cherish her.
Yet even before he could resume his march, as his heavy eyes could no longer gaze to the sky, forever in vain search of her, in spite of what he thought he wanted to think about, he went rigid. Another image filled his eyes, blocked his way, urged him to stop. One that was stranger than the image of Ellyssa. Stranger by far. The image holding him back this time was the image of a man leaning against a glowing sky-blue automobile stopped dead in the middle of the otherwise deserted highway.
But it was not an image.
When he blinked his eyes, the image remained. More resolute than before. A Black man of medium build in a chocolate colored suit, his legs crossed at the ankles and his arms folded across his chest, who never once looked to or otherwise acknowledged the other man's fixed and gaping presence. His wild, lush Afro stirred in the damp and biting breeze carving its way through the rolling valley across which the man stared. It was a beautiful if surreal looking valley, for the mist within it was so thick that not a tree was visible beneath it. It looked as if an entire cloud of cotton balls had settled into it.
But it held no fascination for Warren. The strange man and his strange car, although unusual, held no fascination for him either. He had a one-way journey to complete. That was all that did and could interest him. So when the man failed to move or make any motions whatsoever, Warren started forward again, only heedful of the fact that the images of Ellyssa had already slowed him too much. He would not allow the man, the car—one strangely labeled The Judge on its rear quarter panel—nor the cloud-filled valley to do the same.
He was mindful enough to peer about the roadway to see if others were about, perhaps traveling with the man, perhaps waiting to ambush some lone and hapless traveler such as he, but he and the car’s owner were apparently the only two people around.
He veered well behind the man, hoping not to alert him to his presence, while watching him for any signs of movement. The man appeared oblivious to everything but the misty valley, and did not move a muscle—until Warren was just on the far side of The Judge. Then, just as Warren was about to quicken his pace and distance himself from the man and his car, he watched in near terror as the man turned dark, deep eyes at him and spoke.
“Strange weather, eh?” the man said, then chuckled.
Warren froze as if apprehended in some felonious act against all mankind. Strange as the weather had been, it was not nearly as strange as the sound of the man’s voice. Its silky smooth baritone resonance pierced through the silent mists like a steel blade slicing through water. The seemingly superfluous chuckle made it seem as though the man were sharing a personal joke with himself about something not necessarily humorous—about something ironically deadly. And it was strangely powerful to be but a murmur.
“Yes,” Warren finally muttered in response. “It is very strange weather.”
The man, smiling peculiarly and for no apparent reason, turned toward him again. “Vett’r?” he guffawed. “Where the hell you goin’, my friend? Back to der Homeland?”
He frowned momentarily, not certain as to what the man was referring, but then the realization of what he had spoken emerged in an even shorter moment of retrospect. He shook his head with utter exasperation. He thought most assuredly that it had dissolved with time, but it was more than apparent that his assumption was incorrect. The old native language was still present—dormant, yet willing to manifest itself at any desired moment, willing to divulge a part of himself that he wished to leave in the past: his homeland, his heritage. It was only a wish: to forget that which he had so grieved not to desert.
But the voice spoiled it—drew his attention from his speech, lulled him into self-betrayal. Damn the man and his silky smooth voice of strange seduction.
“I’m heading up to Vermont,” he said, consciously enunciating every English syllable and staring into the unfathomable depths of the man’s dark brown eyes. Hollow eyes which seemed as unwavering as those of a blind man, but which he knew saw everything. Eyes which surrendered nothing yet took in the world in a second. An abyss is what they were. Dark, consuming, ultimately inescapable. With no soul. No life. “The White Mountains.”
“A little far from home, aren’t you?”
He nodded sharply, compelled to remain stern, hard-eyed in the face of this curious, unpredictable stranger, yet he had to yield a meek smile at the thought of where he wanted to be and where he would be soon: home.
The man returned his gaze to the misty valley. “I’m not going quite that far north, but seeing as I am going in that general direction and that it’s a bit too dangerous for pedestrian travel, I’ll take you with me.”
Warren shook his head respectfully, but the man could not see this gesture, for he was looking in the opposite direction. Now, he did not know what to do, because he could neither see nor even attempt to judge the man’s facial expression and, therefore, his real intentions were lost into the range, assuming that he could have torn the truth or any other intentions from those creamless coffee-colored eyes. And that voice was an austere lack of emotion and conviction.
“It’s not really necessary,” he refused politely, backing away once again. “I’ll be fine, thank you.”
“Oh. Well—I must insist!”
The man looked, if not displeased, at least annoyed, freezing Warren with a glare. “I’m sorry, but you can’t refuse.”
Warren wanted to flee—just turn on the spot and run until he could run no longer—but he found that he could not. He was not quite so afraid for his life that his body failed to respond to his own demands, and the feeling of intimidation gripping him was not such a new experience for him that he wished to see how it played itself out. It was an odd feeling to say the least, but he could almost sense that it was the man himself who would not allow him to desert his station to preserve the life that he felt was being threatened. The confidence he radiated. Almost enough to make one wish to face his fears and better them. It was almost a challenge that he felt from the man. Can’t refuse... Like one’s destiny. One’s fate.
Even so, Warren balked. “But I have no money...”
“I’m charging you nothing more than your company.”
With that particular declaration, Warren hesitated as the reality of the situation halted, mid-thought, all his quests to find an excuse not to travel with the man. Against all better judgment and against all instinct, he found himself actually considering the man’s offer. A ride north, no matter how far, would hasten his journey to Vermont to a degree that he could never hope to achieve on foot. That was a given fact. And any risk, he reasoned, was worth getting back home and back to his mother for once and for all. Had he not already risked much just to get as far as he had, including, already, his life? And against even greater probability, he found himself nodding with the true belief that the offer was not only one worthy of acceptance, but that acceptance of the offer was crucial.
“Very well, then,” he said at length, drawing himself up, his resolve steeled and his decision inalterable. “I accept your invitation most graciously.”
Nevertheless, the man frowned, noting the vacillation if not in Warren’s voice then in his soul. “It’s for your benefit, I can guarantee,” he said while redirecting his gaze squarely into Warren’s eyes. “You gotta understand the circumstances surrounding this vicinity if you’re gonna realize why I’m doing this for you.”
Warren nodded once, matching the man’s stare. The man was a rock. However, a brief squint of his eyes—a brief sparkle in the dark depths—betrayed something which Warren could not discern for the otherwise illegible nature of the man. Yet something had almost upset the calm. Perhaps a painful memory concerning this region had caused the man’s eyes to flinch, to falter, to finally cause the man to betray, if even in the most obscure way, a fraction of his emotionality. Whatever had caused it was most definitely unsettling to the man, as he passed his hand before his eyes in what might have been a vain attempt to re-mask the true depths of his well-concealed anxiety.
“So what is it?” His fascination mounted. What did the man find sinister enough to cause him to feel it necessary to rescue a lone and strange traveler from this unimpressive little locale, even at the risk of his own life, considering the state of affairs in the world nowadays? What? The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to know.
The man sighed and turned away from the burning blue eyes of his enthralled audience. “Werewolves,” he whispered hesitantly, as if with the fear of conjuring them up should he speak of them too loudly, “abound in this region.”
Warren paused, not sure he had heard the man correctly. “Beg pardon?”
“I said: ‘werewolves abound in this region.’”
“Werewolves?” Warren choked out incredulously.
He turned to face Warren squarely and resolutely. “Lycanthropes is a more elegant and meaningful word, don’t you think?”
He was silent for a moment, carefully studying the other man’s face, which was, much to his dismay, stonily serious. “You are referring to crazed men who think themselves wolves, aren’t you?”
“I most certainly am not! I’m referring to the bona fide, man-to-beast werewolves of ancient legend and folklore.” He watched Warren’s droll-less disbelief grow in magnitude, then guffawed at last, shaking his head on the threshold of incredulity also. His face eased. “Or at least that’s what the locals claimed. But whether you believe it or not, something most peculiar murdered and disemboweled eleven men, women and children over a two week period starting about three weeks ago and the last two occurring about four days ago.”
Warren, too, relaxed when the man laughed, if only slightly. “And the witnesses said that the victims had been murdered by werewolves?”
The man shook his head stiffly, half-shrugging. “A local psychic and the unnatural markings left in the area was all the evidence that the locals needed. Not to mention healthy, or unhealthy, imaginations. As far as I know there were no survivors of the attacks. If there were, they haven’t surfaced yet.”
He opened his mouth to beg another question, yet he could not find the appropriate words to convey what he wanted to know, so he said nothing at all. Did he even actually know what he wanted to know, he wondered to himself. He continued to study the man’s face, but no signs of deception had found their way out. Not the least little bit. For all intents and purposes, Warren reluctantly admitted, the man was telling the truth about what he knew. Nevertheless, he could not honestly bring himself to believe in werewolves, regardless of who was speaking of them, or how, but as his host had alluded, lycanthropes was a much more elegant word with a more abstract and malleable meaning. He could conceive that crazed men suffering from the psychological disorder which makes men think of themselves as wolves had murdered the eleven people, but actual werewolves were totally out of the question. And a psychic? That was too much!
Determined to maintain a logical perspective, he proposed to the man that the motorcycle gangs reportedly rampaging across the country could have been responsible. “That’s possible, yes?”
“Nope. They don’t usually operate this far into the mountains and they've never mutilated their victims. There’s nothing profitable to be gained by such actions.” He paused to sigh, then checked his fabulous golden wristwatch for the time. A scowl momentarily covered his face when he saw that it was not the time he had expected. “Well, Mister—” he started.
“Jötunheim,” Warren filled in, quickly moving closer and extending his arm across the hood of the car. “Warren will do fine.”
The man smiled when he saw the hand reaching across the hood and extended his hand to meet it. Their hands interlocked at the half-way point. Warren grinned, too.
“Pleased to meet you, Mister Jötunheim,” the man said, withdrawing his hand to settle his Afro from a gust. “It’s most unfortunate that we couldn’t have met under more agreeable circumstances, but the pleasure is mine nevertheless. I’m Erwin Overton.”
“Thank you for your most generous hospitality, Mister Overton. I’m in your debt.”
Erwin Overton smiled and moved toward the driver's side door. “That’s true! You are in my debt, but as I said before, I’m charging you nothing more than your company. All you have to do is travel with me and we’ll be square.”
“I suppose I can afford to do that,” he said, moving to the passenger door in response to Erwin’s motion. “I believe I’ll enjoy keeping you company. My trip has been overly lonesome so far.”
Erwin opened the door and claimed his seat. “As has mine, Mister Jötunheim. But you’ve been traveling longer than I have, undoubtedly. And on foot besides. The solitude must have been excruciating.”
Warren chuckled at the correct assertions as he closed the passenger door in unison with the other’s slam and reclined in the soft, velvety bucket seat, groaning in the embrace of unimaginable comfort. “The solitude was killing me, especially along this nearly deserted road and in this dreary weather. I can remember being alone for long periods, but I can’t seem to recall being so lonesome. It felt as if I were the last person alive.”
The car’s engine came to life in a low rumbling rush of exhaust. It was a magnificent sound. So much like thunder, albeit tamed and controlled and without the deadly menace that usually accompanies such a sound of fury. Now it was the sound of salvation.
“Perhaps you are the last person alive, my friend. It’s not impossible in our world, if you know what I mean.”
Warren glanced to Erwin’s stern, expressionless profile, then allowed his eyes to wander off into the depths of the mists enshrouding the dark blue-green hills suddenly rushing to meet the car as it lurched forward, tires squealing, engine roaring, pinning Warren to his seat with a gut-wrenching acceleration the likes of which he had not felt in a long, long time. He did know what Erwin’s statement meant, for he often thought of himself as being the last living person—the last person who attempted to exhibit the humane Human qualities, such as warmth, compassion, empathy, and love for his fellow man. But the cold, callous barrier that others threw up in response to his gentleness was a strong deterrent to proceeding any further in pacifying spirits. Yes, he absolutely knew. He knew, too, that he could not undo what he had done to the world with just words of peace, and probably not even with actions of peace at this late date, but he also knew that he alone was not responsible for what had happened, nor was what had happened alone responsible for the state of decay running like a blight across the world and across the soul of every man touched or even in the slightest way brushed by the war and its repercussions. Something more than the war was responsible for the dissolution of hope and emotions, he knew. Perhaps people just did not care any longer. Perhaps they had nothing left to care for.
A passing thought brought a small smile to his face. Erwin was compassionate, too. The gentleman had offered him safe passage in the midst of what might have been a lethal situation without so much as a second thought, as a true person of righteousness would have done. He could not see that quality in Erwin’s eyes, but his actions were proof enough of his true nature. And the way he had said ‘our world’—as if they had shared in its making—touched Warren deeply. The man felt the same regret that he did, by God! He wondered if Erwin, too, experienced the same fits of apathy that he did—the same feigned moments of not caring whilst slowly being rent and torn to shreds from the inside out by caring too much but failing to act on what their instincts were urging them to do.
He wondered if Erwin, too, burned with the fire of war.
Of that, he had little doubt. The man was a veteran as well, had faced the flaming gates of hell with his very soul only to reemerge as a relic of a once brave, noble, humane world and a living reminder of the consequences of what man’s evil can do to good and innocence. Warren nodded. Erwin and he were one and the same, he had no doubt, with only subtle, pre-war engendered characteristic differences which paled in comparison to what they shared.
Warren sighed dolefully. “Yes, my friend, we are the last people left alive. You and I.”
Erwin smirked. “Perhaps.”
Warren returned his gaze to the mountains. The mists swirling about them and the palpitations in the opaque grayness of the sky immediately enthralled him. It was always this same dreary overcast with gentle precipitation which stirred his memory back to the countenance of Ellyssa: to her long black eyelashes furling and unfurling over large, innocent, caring sea green eyes and to her short dark hair that she used to tint different hues every-so-often and to the smoothness of her fair skin. He loved the fact that she had reappeared for him to gaze upon, for no photograph could capture such raw beauty that she possessed the way the mists could show it or the eye perceive it. Only the mists could show her as she had really been. Dreams were always too murky and befouled with scenes of death, while his memory alone proved totally inadequate. The mists, however, brought her to life.
Rain drops began to sprinkle then explode upon the windshield. The wipers smeared them away instantly.
But why should she return so succinctly? Why could she not appear for always? He could find no reasonable answers. Perhaps she simply returned to him as a foreboding. Perhaps her appearance was a signal for him to be aware that he was about to encounter something dangerous. Perhaps she was watching out for him and guiding him to safety just as she would have done if she were alive. In fact, she, the angel of his fate, had probably guided the brown-suited, brown-skinned, stubble-faced, Afroed, compassionate man and himself together. Perhaps Erwin was her agent in sheltering him from the hardships of the elements—of their chaotic world.
He stared long into the fog-enshrouded mountains, past the slowly sweeping hands of the wipers, noting the airy texture of the panorama—the way the gentle mountains and their densely green vegetation dipped and rose like waves in mid-ocean. The road, serpentine and bathed in The Judge’s amber fog lights’ emissions, followed the subtleties of the rolling mountains perfectly: up and down, over and around, betwixt and between. So perfect, so serene.
His head sagged as the grunt of the wet wiper blades sliding across the wet glass, the mellow syncopation of the car’s finely tuned engine, the splashing whir of wide tires on the wet macadam and the patter of rain against the car’s body mingled in an avant-garde symphony of mechanical and natural sounds: the sounds of a long road traveled against the lonely, whisper-silence of the travelers’ unvoiced words. The sound was a strangely melodic pianissimo—mollifying, just like the now latent voice of the driver so transfixed by the road and just like the churning mountain mists.
The weight of the world and the depths of his exhaustion manifesting themselves pushed and pulled him even more deeply into the comforting embrace of the velvet seat until he finally succumbed to what one could only describe as reflective and inquisitive unconsciousness.
Excerpt from Inheritance of Vigilance by Walter R. Milton