Chapter 19 from the Ama audiobook
Jason’s head jerked up and he looked towards the top of the dune. This was one of the steeper ones he’d climbed since leaving his house and he’d made it halfway up when the voice broke his concentration. A man with wild shoulder-length hair stood at the top and looked down at him. The man’s hair stuck out from his head in all directions, like jagged black sparks, while his wild eyes fixed on Jason with apparent delight.
“Hello,” Jason said. Congenial pleasantries between two men in hell struck him as comical. He spat out an abrupt laugh.
“That’s it, friend, don’t let it get to you,” the man said. “It can’t get any worse, hey, can it? Come on up, come join the fun that is my illuminating abode. Many wonders lay within.” He disappeared over the other side of the dune.
Don’t follow him, Jason told himself. Stick to the plan and avoid all interactions. But, he may be able to help in some way. Traversing these dunes and navigating this damn desert is proving harder than I thought. And anyway, even if he is a dangerous screwball, what could he do? I’m already dead. He’s not a caretaker, and he’s not Lilith. As he said, it can’t get any worse. Caution spoke once more. Don’t follow him…
“You coming or not?” called the man from the other side of the dune.
Jason’s muscles screamed with fatigue as he pulled himself up onto the crest of the dune. His eyes widened in wonder as his gaze fell upon the surreal site of the building standing in the valley between this and the next dune: a castle complete with four towers, gatehouse, and a dry moat. Corrugated steel sheets bridged the narrow gap across the moat, leading to a large arched stone entrance. Familiar grey statues surrounded the castle—one hundred or more that Jason could see—all facing the castle’s granite walls.
“Not bad, hey? Welcome to my pad,” said the man, gesticulating to the castle. “Oh, shit, where are my manners. My name is Xavier Smith. Stupid name, I know, but what can you do?” He snorted a short burst of hysterical laughter and then continued. “At least the unusual balances the mundane, as dear old Nana used to say. Come, come, check it out.”
“This is your home?” Jason asked.
“Well, yes… I suppose it is.” Xavier turned and looked at the castle. “Whatever a home can be in this place. This was where I—in life, I mean—this is where I did the business. And when I came here, the castle followed me. Not a bad deal. The moral of the story, I suppose, is if you’re going to kill someone, do it somewhere nice.” More hysterical laughter. The laughter came to a sudden stop as he turned to Jason and jabbed a finger at him, asking with stern seriousness, “What did you pay?”
“Yeah, you know, what did you do? You didn’t get sent here because of a parking ticket. Lilith’s grand ride has an entrance fee. What did you pay?”
“I killed my wife.”
“Bedroom dancing for another man, was she?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
“Fucking whores. You got to jump on that shit. Can’t have the little woman with her slut mouth sucking on another man.”
“No. She… She…”
“Twelve-gauge up her promiscuous juicer, that’s how you sort that shit out.”
“No! Look, I’m just trying to get to—”
“The mountain,” Xavier cut in. “Yes, I know. I know. Everyone is trying to get to that bloody mountain. But, why would you want to leave this place? I don’t get it. You all say the same thing: must get my life back; must play the bitch’s game. Why? Hell is a complete trip. As long as you stay away from the sandmen, you can do anything you like. You’ve been given a free pass to a wonderful fantasy land for the weird and seriously fucked up, if you ask me. Okay, so you can’t shag anything, which is a bummer. Found that one out soon after being dumped here. Like trying to jack-off with a piece of my old Nana’s Sunday afternoon jelly. But hey, fun can be had in other ways.”
“I’m glad you like the place, but I want out. Is the whole desert like this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are other people… well… living in houses like mine, and,” Jason flashed his eyes towards the castle, “places like yours?”
“Yep. Scattered all over. Walk in any direction for long enough and you’ll find someone,” Xavier sniggered, “or something. Like I said, weird and wonderful. Never know what you’re going to find. Loads of freaks out in the sandy wilderness. Got to watch out for that shit, though, or you won’t get very far.” He studied Jason for a moment. “If you’re serious about getting to the mountain, you need to know a secret. You won’t get there unless you know.”
“Know what? What secret?”
“Come,” Xavier said, while making an exaggerated ushering motion with his arms towards the castle. “‘Come into my lair,’ said the spider to the fly.” He looked at Jason’s stony expression for a moment. “Just a joke. A joke. Jeez. Come, and I’ll tell you how to get there.”
“You’ve got a secret that could help me, that’s great. I’d appreciate any help, but tell me here.” Jason let the rucksack fall from his back, catching the shoulder strap in his right hand as it fell. If this meeting was about to turn sour, which the voice in his head seemed to think it might, he wanted something to swing at this guy.
Xavier gave the bag a glance and then looked back to Jason. “What are you, hitch-hiking across the outback or something?” When Jason didn’t respond, his head and shoulders slumped. “Look, I’m sorry if I come across as… well, you know, weird. I’ve not seen anyone in a while, apart from those sandmen, and they don’t say shit. You end up going a bit screwy, you know?”
Jason relaxed his grip on the rucksack.
Xavier continued, “Not much to do. Time is a fucker. Most people you meet here are fucking creepy, kinda like in life, but with the gloves off—if you know what I mean. Nope, just me and the bats.”
“There are bats here?”
“No. Made that bit up. You better lose the gullibility, friend, or you’ll get fucked up worse than a blind man with a chainsaw.” His face lit up. “Wow! What about that Lilith? She’s something else, don’t you think? Holy shit… She’s out there, on another fucking level, in fucking orbit. What did she do to you?” He didn’t wait for Jason to answer. “I think I pissed her off big time. She brought my gran and gramps back to life. Fuck me! Looked like a pair of worm-ridden jizz bags, but then so would you if you’d been in the ground for ten years. I ain’t going to tell you what she made the oldies do to me. Let’s just say that it was fucking wrong… just fucking wrong. Like two gorillas on acid. Sort of thing that’ll turn your therapist’s hair white. She likes to play, that girl Lilith, likes to play her weird fucking games. Sure would like to tie her down, though, and play some of my own games, if I could just get my jelly dick to play ball.”
As Xavier had been relaying his thoughts about Lilith, Jason had just watched the man’s agitation flare. His eyes were sparkling like simmering embers, a sleeping heat that could burst into flames at any moment. Jason was trying to work out what was going on behind those eyes. Something had slipped off the man’s plate at some point, that was obvious, but then everyone was missing a screw or two. Of more concern was whether he could be dangerous? Xavier had admitted that he was a killer, Jason continued to reason, but then, we’re in hell. This place will be full of them. Some whom circumstance made into reluctant killers, while others had become murderous pleasure seekers still addicted to their craft. What was Xavier? Jason couldn’t decide whether he was mad Mary the eccentric cat lady, or Ed Gein—I want to wear your skin—crazy. And then there was the secret he mentioned. A lie? The cheese to trap the mouse? Xavier was a mountain of a man. Jason thought he might have a problem if he had to fight the guy.
Jason had faced several physical confrontations with other inmates during his time at the hospital and had quickly realised his lack of fighting ability. He’d learned that avoiding those situations, as much as was possible, was the better tactic. Cowardice and bravery were things to contemplate later, from the safety of hindsight.
Xavier turned and descended the dune, heading towards the castle. Without looking back, he said, “Hey, I won’t force you, friend, but I hope you decide to come in. We can shoot the breeze and play some cards if you like. Be good to talk to someone new.”
A simple test might appease my paranoia, Jason thought. “How long have you been here?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Xavier replied. “Seems like years, but I can’t tell.”
Jason dropped his bag. “I’ve just got here… least, I think I have.”
Xavier stopped, turned and asked, “How many dunes have you gone over?”
Jason open his rucksack, feigned thought for a moment, and lied, “About five, I think.” It had been more like ten. He removed a bottle of water, making sure he gave Xavier time to see what he was doing. He unscrewed the bottle top and then lifted the bottle towards his lips.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Xavier advised, pointing to the bottle.
Jason lowered his head and poured water over the back of his neck. Okay, he thought, so he didn’t stand by and watch as I burned my mouth. A possible freak, but not a sadistic one.
Xavier laughed. “Fuck me, glad you’ve already worked that one out. Life’s a bit fucked up now, as twisted as a prostitute’s knickers. So many things to get used to. Dick’s as useful as a politician, and you can’t drink or eat. You could smoke, I suppose, if you could get fire to work.”
“I’ve got matches,” Jason said. He rummaged around in the rucksack for the box.
“Have you tried to light one yet?”
“I’d chuck’m. Excess baggage.” Xavier resumed his walk back to the castle.
Jason removed the small box of matches from the bag, slid the cardboard draw open and pulled out a match. He struck it against the rough side of the box. Nothing. Not even a spark or sizzle. He struck it again, still nothing. On the third attempt the end of the match snapped off. He tried to light two more, with the same result: no fire. He threw the matchbox away.
He watched the crazy-looking man walk towards his castle and then removed the penknife from the bag and opened the main blade. He picked up his bag and followed Xavier down the dune and into the castle.