At first, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. What I was hearing and smelling.
I was home. I was back in our apartment in Detroit.
Grandmother was in her favorite chair, book in hand, comfy bunny slippers on, feet propped up on the coffee table. Mother was over by the big window, dusting and misting her plants.
That … wasn’t right. The coffee table had been replaced several years ago. The plants were long gone. Mother hadn’t been able to care for them after increasing her hours driving her cab, and had given them to Aselolla. The couch was wrong, too.
This was all old. The way the apartment had looked when I was a child.
Before Father had disappeared.
He came through the door of the kitchen, balancing several plates of pancakes and bacon on his arms. His fingers were curled awkwardly through the handles of a jar of Oscirian syrup and a jug of Pohjolan milk.
“Breakfast is up! Get it while it’s hot!”
My breath caught on a sob.
He looked exactly the same. Almost twenty years, and he hadn’t aged at all. Not so much as a day. Same curly black hair, same dark skin, same wide smile. Same scar on the left side of his forehead, where he had tripped chasing me around the living room and fallen against the coffee table.
“Father?” My voice was barely above a whisper. “Father?”
No reaction as he set the plates down on the dining room table.
I watched as Mother smiled and tucked away her mister and duster to take her seat. Grandmother just hummed, laid her bookmark in place, and set her book down on her chair.
Down the hallway, I heard a door bang open, and eight year-old me skipped into the room.
Me. The exact age I was when Father disappeared.
“Pancakes!” other me squealed in delight, and scrambled into a dining room chair. I stabbed a fork into a circle of hot, fluffy dough and dragged it onto my plate.
Father cleared his throat, settling in beside me.
Other me dropped her fork with a clatter, tucking her chin against her chest.
Father smiled with affection, winked at Mother, and turned to Grandmother. “Mom, care to do the honors?”
Grandmother nodded. “I would love to.”
She held out her hands and we formed a circle, fingers intertwined. “Gracious Hermes, loving Ganesh, and all you Gods who watch over the roads and those who travel upon them. We thank you for those who produced this fare, and for those who walked the roads to bring it to us. We thank you for protecting Jeremiah in his travels, and for bringing him home to us safely, as you have guided home so many others.”
A moment of silence, and then other me and this other family dug into the pancakes, chewing happily.
I took a hesitant step forward and tried again. “Father?”
Still no reaction. No one looked up or so much as twitched in my direction.
I moved around the table, edging past my eight year-old self. At that age, I had just started to grow out my hair, the long strands held back by a series of pink barrettes. I would keep growing it for several more years, convinced that if I cut it, Father would never come home. A childish superstition that I finally abandoned when I went off for my first formal apprenticeship.
I stopped beside his chair and waved my hand in front of his face.
He blinked, seemed to hesitate as he lifted the fork full of pancake.
My breath caught and I leaned closer, snapping my fingers.
“Father!” Flexing my hand, I tentatively reached out and touched his shoulder.
He flinched and looked around, then squirmed and rolled his shoulder.
The other three people at the table — Grandmother, Mother, little me — stilled, forks paused.
I squeezed. “Jeremiah!” I yelled, leaning towards him. “Jeremiah Allendale Brown!”
He flinched again and the room around us wavered, like a snow globe that had been jiggled.
This time I grabbed both of his shoulders, shaking him so hard that he dropped his fork. Syrup splashed on his shirt. The bag rattled against my back. I was yelling, screaming “Father! Jeremiah!” over and over again.
He gasped. His eyes widened and he blinked, gaze slowly coming to focus on me. A terrible sound, horrified, anguished, ripped up his throat. He fell back, his chair tipping. He landed hard on his back and scrambled awkwardly to his feet, hands held out in front of him as if to ward me off.
“Father? Father, no, don’t —”
His eyes were wide and panicked now and he was shaking his head. He pressed his hands over his ears, muttering, “No, no, no. You can’t. Good thoughts. Keep good —”
The room around us disappeared, splashing away like watercolor paint. The walls, ceiling, window, furniture. The other me and the other Grandmother and other Mother. All gone. For a moment, we were inside a rainbow, light and color coming from every direction.
Then it all changed again. We were … I looked around … twin full moons high in the sky. Rolling hills of tropical forest and cute little cottages of wood and grass.
Brysbyland. And everything was on fire. The cottages, the trees, the grass. Thick smoke obscured the moons. The heat from the fire rapidly warmed my skin. I would start to blister soon, and the smoke was already clogging my nose and lungs.
Father was moaning, hands still wrapped around his ears. “Bad thoughts, bad thoughts.”
A dark shape loomed up in front of me and I lurched away in surprise.
Baldy. But a monstrous version of him: his eyes too big, his smile sharp, his long arms reaching for Father.
“No!” I lunged around Baldy, putting myself between him and Father. The flames roared higher, loud and hissing and crackling, and the smoke thickened. I started coughing. “Father! Focus! Focus on me, Father!”
He shook his head, backing away. “Good. Think good. Happy. Happy happy happy ….”
I followed after him. “Home! Think of home.”
Baldy grabbed me from behind and squeezed hard, cutting off my scream.
And then he was gone, and so was burning Brysbyland. It sloughed away. For a moment, we were floating inside a rainbow again. And then the apartment reappeared around us. Mostly. It was off-kilter, the angles weird; like a child’s drawing. And still filled with old furniture and plants.
Father was on his knees, rocking back and forth, his eyes squeezed shut. “Good good good happy happy happy ….”
I carefully dropped down in front of him, and gently laid a hand on his shoulder. I remained quiet and still, waiting.
Eventually, his rocking slowed and his eyes cracked open. He blinked when he saw me. He drew a ragged breath. “You’re real. You’re really here.”
“Yes. Yes, I am.” I spoke slowly, clearly, softly. “We used to camp on the roof and you would tell me stories about the stars. You hate Mother’s pancakes, but you never told her, just said that you liked to make them yourself. Grandmother loves Cervithian fudge, and you would go there every year and buy a box for her birthday, and she would share, and we’d spend the whole day eating it and then complain about our stomach aches …. I’m me. Bertha Mazarine Brown. Your daughter.”
He flinched, but didn’t pull away.
And then he grabbed me, yanking me into a bone-crushing hug. I could feel the strength of his hug through the ridged backpack. His tears were running into my hair, and I was crying, too, as he chanted, “My beautiful girl. My beautiful baby girl.”
Found him. I found him.
“My beautiful girl. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that I missed you growing up. I’m so sorry.”
After all these years, I had found my father. I was crying so hard that my chest and throat hurt.
“How long? How long have I been gone?”
We could go home, be a family again, I could just see the expression on Mother and Grandmother’s faces, hear the joy in their voices —
Blinking through my tears, I realized that the living room had changed again. The angles were correct now, not off kilter. The plants were gone, and the coffee table and the couch were the new ones we had just purchased a few years ago. This was the home that I knew, the home of my adulthood.
And Mother and Grandmother looked exactly as I had left them, Mother with her braids and Grandmother with her fuzzy slippers. They were smiling and weeping, and Grandmother was just shaking her head. Mother kept whispering between her sobs, “You found him, oh Bertha, you found him. Just like you promised.”
“Yes, I did.” I smiled back at them. My cheeks still felt wet. I lifted my head from Father’s chest. “I told you that I would find him —”
Father’s voice was firm, edging towards panic.
I frowned at him. “What? Father, we’re home! I brought you home!”
“No, baby girl.” He shook his head, fingers squeezing tight around my arms. “Not yet. We need to leave. Now.”
What was he talking about? I gestured towards Grandmother and Mother. The front door opened, and Aselolla came in, her skin the deep blue of delight, her four hands clutching flowers and balloons. Branson followed, smiling, hat tucked under his arm, the brass buttons on his long jacket winking in the sunlight. “But —”
“No, daughter. Do you hear me?”
“I don’t understand. No. We’re finally home — no — we’re not leaving!” I jerked, pulling myself free.
Grandmother and Mother were talking, crying, joy turned to confusion and pain, asking Father why he wanted to abandon us again. Why? Why did he want to leave them?
The light coming through the windows faded, and I heard thunder. I could hear running footsteps in the hallway, too, a horde in black business suits carrying guns and knives and hooks. Aselolla had changed colors again, this time a sickening orange, and Branson was dead on the floor, beaten and bloody. Grandmother and Mother were yelling now, furious with me, screaming that I was a disappointment. Fear and shame made my heart pound.
“I’m not going to let you make the same terrible mistake that I did.” Father grabbed my arm, latching on tight. He spun me around, locking eyes. “We need to leave, while we still can. You found this place, deliberately, not accidentally. You found it, you can unfind it. You are a Walker, Bertha Mazarine Brown. It’s in your blood, your brain, your soul. Say the name, and walk.” He drew a breath, his other arm around my waist.
I focused, blocking out the fear and the shame and the shouting. I inhaled, breathed the name —“Amkhira” — and stepped forward.
We walked. We walked for a long time, though for how long I couldn’t say. Amkhira Street was solid beneath our feet. We kept our course, avoiding the other roads that criss-crossed and branched in every direction. That strange script, the history/biography of Amkhira — of everyone and everything that the street touched, the story of creation — swirled and circled, and the reddish embers that were embryonic roads floated in the darkness all around us.
We talked. We talked for a long time. Father wept when I told him how long he had been gone, how much he had missed, how we had never stopped loving him.
We fell silent, my arm curled through the crook of his elbow.
The road stretched ahead of us and behind us, forever.
“How did you end up there? How did you get to … um, the beginning?” I asked.
“The beginning?” He hesitated. “Yes, I suppose that’s as good a name for it as any.”
“That’s what the God called it. The beginning of everything.”
Father peered down at me. “Met a God, did you? Which one?”
I just shrugged.
“Well, to answer your question, I was running. Some individuals whom I had no interest in interacting with were following me. They were … persistent. I eluded them several times, but they kept finding me again. So, I thought I would be clever. Tricky. I did what you did, though consciously instead of by instinct.”
I tilted my head to look up at him. “You found an unknown road.”
“Ehn,” he grunted, an unhappy sound. “Walker instincts fueled by desperation and arrogance. I didn’t find just an unknown road. I found a Forbidden Road.” He hesitated again, then lifted a hand, gesturing at the swirling script and the embers hanging in the air. “It didn’t look like this. It looked like every other road. But it was quiet. Empty. Only me. I walked until I ran out of breath, and I found myself at the end — the beginning — whatever you want to call it.” He squeezed my arm. “It changed. It kept changing. Responded to every random thought that went through my head, conscious or unconscious. Good — and bad. Whatever I imagined became real. Raw potential shaped by my mind.”
“You imagined home.”
His smile was more of a painful grimace. “I couldn’t figure out how to leave, how to save myself. Eventually, I figured out to keep my focus, how to hold that one good thought in my head. After lots of … very bad things. And then, I don’t know how much later, for a single terrible, lucid moment, Amkhira appeared. They were there … fractions of a second, maybe less. They were being torn apart, they said. Ripped loose and set adrift in creation. The Gods had tired of mortals finding their way to the beginning, a place we were never meant to be, shouldn’t be. Amkhira was already becoming confused when we spoke, losing coherence, forgetting who and what exactly they were. I knew that, if I had any chance at all, any chance, of escaping that place, the road had to be restored. I created the pink dolphin with a thought, gave it to Amkhira, told them to find you, and ….”
“Then you forgot.”
He scrubbed the back of his hand over his eyes, wiping away the tears that had begun to form again. “I had to. Kept my sanity intact by imagining myself home, safe and sound.” Father looked around. “And I know I’m not trapped there anymore. I know I’m free. My head is whirling right now, but nothing … nothing’s changed.” He kissed my forehead. “Thank you for finding me.”
“Don’t thank me.” I shook my head. “This is all Herbert’s fault.” Then I groaned. “We should probably make a stop before we head home. I have a delivery, and it needs to be made clear to certain parties that my pass into Zerzurrah is no longer valid.”
Father frowned. “Why did you have to go to Zerzurrah?”
“Because that’s —”
The road lifted in front of us, a ripple like an earthquake. The ripple curved into a half-circle, curling around us. We side-stepped quickly, moving to the right. The semi-circle tightened, corralling us towards a narrow path that branched off Amkhira Street, stretching out into the darkness.
The ripple rose higher, the strange swirling golden-red circles and words stretching and undulating. Something glimmered, tumbled through the air, and plinked to the asphalt.
Father bent to pick it up.
The pink dolphin, the tiny cetacean Father had created from raw potential with just his mind and will, and which Amkhira had used to entice me into helping them.
Father shook his head, his smile almost wistful. “I wonder if this is a thank you or a you’re welcome?”
“Probably neither. Amkhira is an inhuman entity as old as creation. I don’t think they understand or have use for human manners.” I turned towards the road that stretched off to our right. “I guess we go this way.”
Father slipped the carving into his pocket. We stepped off Amkhira Street, and kept walking.
The reddish embers quickly disappeared behind us. They seemed to hover only around Amkhira. Everywhere else was darkness, and dark roads.
Eventually we came to another intersection. My hunch that these were crossroads seemed correct. I counted nineteen intersecting pathways, and the area felt … familiar. I could almost hear the drills and diggers, smell the engines and mine runoff.
We just needed to get … down … up … get there. Somehow.
I tried to recall how it had felt when I had fallen into Amkhira, when they had flattened and merged with the matter/mass/energy of creation; how Amkhira’s red and gold highlights had spun and whirled into spheres and then flattened into circles, the road stretching out into infinity.
I needed to … um … reverse that. Flat to not flat, circle to sphere, within to without, everywhere/infinity to somewhere/finite.
Right. I could do this. I had to do this.
Rolling my shoulders, I made sure that I had a good grip on Father. “Ready?”
I started to inhale, hesitated, then said to him, “If I miss, or we fall, or get separated, or … anything. Go to Jerseea. Go to Herbert at Myss Lyla’s. Tell him everything. Tell him I spent my pass, and there’s no reason for anyone to come after you or Mother or Grandmother. Okay?”
“You’re not going to miss. We’re not going to fall or get separated. We’re going home, baby girl.” He gave me a single firm nod. “We’re going home.”
I swallowed and nodded in return. I turned my attention back to the intersection — the crossroads — focusing my attention on the where and the when I wanted to be.
It hurt. It was like intraworld traveling with Amkhira when they jumped from one point to another. This was every color I had ever seen and a thousand more that I couldn’t name, let alone imagine. It was a silence so profound that I could hear my own cells dividing and my synapses firing sparks of electricity. It was moving in every direction simultaneously without moving.
I was on my knees, screaming. My lungs wouldn’t work right. I was screaming, but I couldn’t get any air. Father was hunched over beside me, spitting up blood. His whole body was twitching.
“Fair welcome, one who is Walker Brown. One is grateful that you are not deceased, and that we may continue to engage in stimulating conversations.”
I sucked oxygen, blinking rapidly to clear the spots from my vision.
Craning my head, I looked up to find Peterrmenn looming over us. His expression was solemn, his broad shoulders blocking out many of the street lights that encircled the Jerseea Crossroads.
“And a fair welcome to you, unknown traveler. Walker Brown, the Herbert has instructed this one to escort you to his establishment immediately upon your arrival.”
I held up a hand, still trying to get enough air. My heart was thundering. I turned to Father just as he spat another wad of blood. He wasn’t twitching quite so badly anymore.
He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. “That was … not an experience I want to repeat.”
I could only grunt in agreement.
Which is when I realized that it was quiet.
It was quiet. In Jerseea.
I looked around. The Crossroads were nearly deserted. There were a few Walkers, most sitting or kneeling, a few flat on their backs and sound asleep. Some glared at me, while others looked on in curiosity. Beyond the Crossroads, the drills and diggers and engines and hammers had fallen silent. I could hear the lights humming. The brothels, restaurants, courier stations, grocery stores, bars, temples — all shuttered, their windows dark, their doors closed.
“Shall this one carry you, Walker Brown and unknown traveler?”
I shook my head and pushed myself to my feet, my knees weak. “No, Peterrmenn, thank you. I can walk. May take a while, but I’ll make it.”
The Hemkirish nodded gravely, backing away a few steps.
“What happened?” I waved a hand at the silent city. “Why … this?”
Peterrmenn blinked slowly. “The Families await you.”
Oh. That … oh.
“Father? Maybe you should wait here. Or, if you can’t Walk, get a ride back to Detroit with another Walker.”
“I’m good. Okay.” He pressed his hands to the ground, grimacing, and pushed himself painfully upright. “And, as I said, we are going home.”
I smiled and he grinned in return.
“In that case: Peterrmenn, lead the way.”
The entire city had been shut down; or, at least what I could see and hear of it. Nothing moved. No transports or railcars. No music played. There were no shouts or laughter. There was no one. Just the three of us, moving through the quiet streets.
We passed a dark Sleipnir Delivery Services. There was no sign of Chinnis, not so much as a single eyestalk.
On a normal day, it took me nearly an hour’s walk to reach Myss Lyla’s. This trip was less than fifteen minutes, and the logo was visible from blocks away.
The buxom, four-armed blonde smiled down at us from above the front door. We crossed the threshold, leaving the smooth rock of the streets for the thick white, gold, and black carpet. I could hear soft music from the dining area, and the faint clinking of glasses and utensils; but no conversation, no laughter, no feet whirling across the dance floor.
The music skittered to a stop as soon as we entered the dining hall. The musicians on the stage gaped at us in surprise. The people seated at the tables all turned and stared.
I had never met any member of the Seven Families (Hemkirish, Human, Neanderthal, Felinian or Foxin), but there was no mistaking them. Exquisite clothing, exquisite jewelry, and that certain gleam of the eye and tilt of the nose that spoke of deep-seated arrogance and power.
No, I had never met any of the Seven Families, but I had met one of their representatives.
Baldy glared at me over the shoulder of a beautiful Felinian female, a clove cigarette dangling between her bejeweled claws. The Mousekinth bite marks that covered his face were still red and raw, but a bandage now covered his torn ear and his suit had been replaced.
I stopped a few paces from the elegant, cloth-covered tables and looked straight at him.
“Ouch,” I said.
His jaw twitched and he took a step towards me.
Father moved between us. “Hello, again,” he said softly. “You owe me twenty years.”
No one moved.
“Well, as I live and breathe,” a voice full of forced surprise and friendliness echoed across the room.
I dragged my attention away from Baldy and the Seven Families to find Herbert on the far side of the bar along the left wall. He had both hands braced against the sleek surface, the portrait of Myss Lyla peering down from the wall above him. He was smiling, but I could see the wariness in his eyes and the beads of sweat on his forehead.
“Jeremiah Brown. Welcome back,” he continued.
Father turned slowly, his attention moving from Baldy to Herbert. He led me towards the bar, his steps slow and deliberate. He held out a hand and they shook. “Herbert.”
“Good to see you again, Jeremiah.” Herbert tilted his head in my direction. “I trust you were successful.”
There was a fraction of a question mark hanging on that end of that statement, and everyone heard it.
Silence. No one seems to even breathe.
“I was,” I answer, and pull off my backpack. I set it carefully on the floor, lift the flap, and pulled out the ceramic cage containing the three hollow eggshells. I placed it on the bar top in full view of the gathered Families.
There was a collective inhalation. Excerpt Herbert, who breathed a sigh of relief. Some of the wariness left his eyes, and his smile this time was more sincere.
I felt a corner of my mouth twist up into a grin. I leaned towards him, voice low. “So, what’s the plan? Keep one for yourself and auction the other two?”
Herbert snorted, momentarily looking away to motion the band off the stage. “That a joke? They’d never let me out of here alive. No, we’re all going to be very civilized about this.”
He gingerly pressed one hand down on the top of the ceramic cage to hold it in place, wrapped his other hand around it, and twisted sharply. There was a snap, the ceramic splitting neatly in half. A server appeared with three cloth-lined gold and porcelain bowls and Herbert lowered one shell into each.
“They will spend their fortunes to make yet greater fortunes and shame their fellows, and I will happily walk away with their money.”
This time, it was Father’s turn to snort.
With a jaunty half-salute, Herbert walked to the end of the bar, following the server onto the stage. Every eye followed him. I had fulfilled my purpose, and was no longer of any interest. Only Baldy seemed to be paying me any attention; or maybe he was glaring at Father.
“Sirs and Siresses and Beings All, welcome,” Herbert called out, and bowed. “An extraordinary opportunity now presents itself to you: the chance to own and drink from a whole Zerzurrahn eggshell, thus ensuring the continued health, prosperity, and luck of not only yourself, but also of your direct descendants down to the fifth generation.”
I picked up my backpack as Father moved into my line of sight, once again placing himself between me and Baldy. He led me towards the entrance.
“Shall we open bidding on the first shell at, say, ten million?”
Peterrmenn held the door open for us, tipping his hat.
“Come on, baby girl.” Father wrapped an arm over my shoulder. “Let’s go home.”
[Continue to the Epilogue.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]