Colin and Balaam burst past the dark creatures, knocking them over, and raced back down the lane. The serpents coiled and chased after them.
“They’re following us!” Colin yelled as Balaam veered down a narrow alley of gravestones. The demons flung themselves around the tombs and closed in to pinch off their escape.
“They’re cutting us off! We’re dead!” Colin shrieked as he kicked at Balaam’s sides frantically.
“Yes, wonderful! Keep saying such helpful things!” Balaam yelled back and veered again, running up the sagging side of a crumbling tomb to its roof and hopping to the next one and the next like they were stones on the water. The serpents hissed and raced forward at the bases of the tombs, slithering parallel to the donkey’s course.
Colin clutched Balaam’s mane as he stared, wide-eyed, ahead. They were charging towards the cemetery’s wall, several inches higher than the tombs themselves.
“Wall! Wall! Wall!” Colin screamed and pulled back on Balaam’s mane.
“Let’s see them try this!” Balaam yelled back as he ran across the last roof and, with a mighty jump, hurled them into the air, barely missing the wall’s ledge and crashing into a thatch cart on the other side. Colin held tight as they smashed through the cart and onto the street. Guards nearby ran forward, brandishing spears. “Halt!”
“New problem!” Colin yelled as he clung to Balaam, who darted past the guards, knocking them over in his wake.
“Always!” Balaam snorted as he careened down an alley and onto another street, then veered again onto the King’s Way leading to the royal courtyard.
“Okay, slow down!” Colin called. “We lost them.”
Balaam slowed his pace as they entered the great market. Stands, overhangs, and shops were littered with random goods. Crowds of people moved about, and merchants carried baskets of wares. “Let me have control here. Subtlety is key,” Colin whispered to the donkey.
A group of guards on horseback turned onto the street before them. The captain’s face went sour. “You! Boy! Halt!”
“Oh shit,” Colin moaned.
“Wonderful leadership, very subtle,” Balaam said and rushed to the right, knocking over a cart and sending pottery flying.
“After him!” yelled the captain, and his men gave chase.
Colin spun his head around as Balaam charged down another street. The guards rushed closer and closer. One soldier grimly eyed Colin, pushing his mount ahead to match Balaam’s speed. He thrust his spear at Colin, and Colin grabbed it. The two struggled with it as they hurtled down the lane, their mounts neck and neck. The onlookers screamed and ran as the two riders knocked over merchant carts and crates between them.
Without warning, a merchant pushed a cart out from a side alley in front of Colin’s opponent. Both man and horse collided with it and fell away. Two other guards replaced him within seconds.
“Go faster!” Colin yelled as he kicked Balaam’s side.
“I’m a donkey! Not a race horse!” Balaam called back.
The lane split to the left and the right ahead. “Pick one, great leader!” Balaam demanded.
“Uh, right! No, left!” Colin screamed.
Balaam dashed ahead, down the left lane, and into a caravan of garments.
Reams of fabric went flying, covering both Colin and the donkey.
“I can’t see!” Balaam screamed.
An unending ream of silk covered Colin’s face. He could hear the guards’ horses behind as he fumbled with it. “Just keep going!”
Balaam flew past scattering crowds, past screaming merchants, and right through a thatched wall.
Here and now, he was living a nightmare so surreal he could barely process it. There were no clear-cut answers, no reasoning that would come close to touching what he’d witnessed, and sinking below the mire of the bizarre he’d seen was his mother—now dying. He clutched the arms of his chair as if his body were waiting for a sudden drop. He’d be totally alone. How could anyone understand it, let alone explain it? How could God let this all happen?
The few times Colin had been to church as a child, he’d heard stories of God breaking through the heavens to save his people, pillars of fire and smoke, prophets that could wash away an army with the flick of a hand, and a savior who could lead humanity to an eternal paradise. But if God allowed for those miracles, where was Colin’s miracle now? Maybe the man upstairs had given up on them; perhaps it was all a pipe dream brought on by some desperate wish to find meaning in all the madness. Colin’s mind veered to Mr. Potter. Madness. The old man, the damned old man! Could that stupid deal have been real?
Colin realized the puzzle box Mr. Potter had given him still bulged in his pocket. He pulled it out. The ashen wood box was still closed.
He said it had everything I needed. Is this what he meant? Colin again looked for some seam. Nothing. He pried at it with his hands until his fingers cramped. Nothing.
The doctor approached—a woman who’d seen too many late shifts. She sat across from Colin in another chair.
“Are you her son?” she asked.
“What’s your name, hon?”
Colin gagged as he tried to speak it, and his voice fell silent.
“No, it’s all right.” She took his hand. “I’m sorry to have to say this . . .”
“Sh-sh-she’s dead!” He stuttered, his eyes filling with tears.
The doctor shook her head and put her hand on his knee. “No! No. But she’s very sick. She has a severe stage four cancer. It’s spreading, spreading faster than I’ve ever seen, and it’s caused her to have an embolism—an obstruction in her heart,” the doctor continued gently.
“B-bite on her neck,” Colin said.
The doctor paused. “No, no spider bite would cause that.” She searched his eyes. “We will do everything we can. I promise.”
He shook his head no. She didn’t understand. She hadn’t seen it. How could he explain what he felt to be true? What he knew to be true? Hers was a world of empirical data, not monsters in the shadows and deals with the devil.
“I’ll have an orderly drive you home,” she said as she took the forms in hand.
* * *
The sun had risen only an hour before, and the marina was still cloaked in fog. Colin stepped out of the car, nodding at the orderly to assure him this spot was as good as any. The car pulled away, and Colin went down the sea walk, heading back to where the madness had begun.
Mr. Potter can have the stupid box. This deal is bullshit. Colin started to run. He’d make the old man explain what was happening. The world was falling apart around him, and it had all started when they had met.
He raced to the curio shop, pausing a few feet from the door to catch his breath. The lights were out. A Closed sign hung from behind the display.
“Mr. Potter!” he yelled as he banged on the door and pulled on the handle. “Th-this is n-not . . . you can’t—” he tried, but the words were trapped in his throat. Colin kicked the door hard, but it held. He threw the puzzle box at the door, and it bounced off, landing flat on the sidewalk. He turned to face the railing and the water beyond, burying his head in his hands. The old foghorn again echoed across the bay.
I can’t stand up to anyone; I can’t save my mother, can’t even talk. The brutal truths echoed in his mind. God, if you’re there, give me something to hold onto.
The box clicked.
Colin slowly turned. Taking shaky steps, he picked it up. Something had triggered it. He traced his thumb along the lopsided A on the top, and with another click, the box opened.