A Pilgrim’s Tale

A Pilgrim’s Tale

by Bruno Lombardi

     Lost gods were the worst hitchhikers.

     I was somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when a god flagged me down.

     For a moment – for a brief moment – I contemplated just leaving them behind in the desert. Look, I’m busy. Have a schedule to keep, you know? But a pang of conscience made ephemeral contact with what passes for my soul. It’s bad luck to do something like that. Screws up your karma or messes up the chakra or some shit like that. Besides – it was a long drive to where I was going and I needed the company. Plus gods tend to have cool stories, even though they’re horrible hitchhikers.

     So I came to a stop.

     “Thanks!” shouted the Asian woman – well, teenager – as she got into the car. I grunted, nodded vaguely in her direction and then hit the gas.

     “Been out there for ages,” she continued, strapping herself into the Jeep’s seat. She smiled and offered her hand. “Niang.”

     I shook her hand for the briefest of moments necessary for politeness sake. “George.”

     She smiled again and turned to look at the road.

     I took advantage of that distraction to get a closer look at her.

     She was petite – barely over five feet tall – and probably 120 pounds soaking wet. If I had to take a guess, she was either Chinese or Japanese, but that means absolutely nothing cause a) I suck at guessing ethnicities and b) I gods are notoriously noted for being shape-shifters. She had the obligatory and boring black hair and brown eyes. Age wise, she looked like she was barely old enough to drink but – once again – that means nothing, cause of the aforementioned shape-shifting. Her name sounded only vaguely familiar – and I’m good at placing names – but gods tend to like going with false names anyway. A pair of dusty black jeans, a white t-shirt, a Camo army jacket one size too big for her, and black cowboy boots completed the package. Her jacket had a faded Chinese dragon embroidered on its shoulder, which made me snicker out loud for a brief instant.

     She didn’t seem to clue in that I knew she was a god. That or she was really good at hiding that she knew that I knew.

     Well, either way, this was going to be an interesting trip.

     “What’s your story?” I asked, as I nosed the Wrangler onto the I-15.

     “Nothing special,” she replied. She had a really weird – and kinda cute, to be honest – accent. Like a bizarre mish-mash of every accent thrown together. “Just… wandering,” she said, and for the briefest of moments she looked incredibly sad.

     Huh. Well, okay then.

     There was a rather awkward long silence before I broke it with an “I’m going all the way up to Canada.” I turned to see her reaction. “How far you’re going?”

     “Is there snow up there now?”

     “Niang, it’s fucking Canada in the end of fucking December. Of course there’s snow.”

     She grinned. “Then I guess I’m going to Canada.”

      Oh joy.

     We were just around the Mojave National Preserve when my hitchhiking god suddenly shouted “Stop!” Thinking that I had run over something or that she had spotted some dead body or some shit like that I came to a tire-scorching halt.

     “What?” was my astoundingly intelligent response.

     “The famous phone booth is about ten miles that away!” she squealed, pointing down a path that could, if you were very generous with the terminology, be described as a ‘dirt road’.

     My response was, as you would imagine, not very coherent. I believe the phrase I used was a variation of ‘what the hell you talking about’ but with rather more confused cursing and swearing.

     “There’s a phone booth,” she repeated, very unhelpfully. “Ten, twelve miles that away,” she continued, pointing. “I read about it on the ‘net.” She looked at me with eyes bright with joy and reminisces. And when I mean ‘bright’ I really mean ‘bright’. They were glowing. Red, if you were curious. The glow vanished in an instant – and I’m certain she wasn’t aware that she had done so – and she turned and looked at the road and continued talking. “It was set up about fifty years ago – back in ’48 I think – for some miners or some shit like that. There’s no other phone booths around for miles. There aren’t even buildings around. It’s literally a phone booth smack dab in the middle of the desert.” She turned back and stared at me, smiling a big beatific smile. “They call it the ‘loneliest phone booth’ in the world. “ The smile faded, like a flower exposed to an oven, withering away to nothingness. She continued staring at me, with eyes ten centuries old.

     I stared back at her in silence for a very long moment before I spoke.

     “You’re buying me a burger at the next diner,” I grumbled, as I turned and drove down the dirt road.

     Fuck me; it really was a phone booth in the middle of fucking nowhere.

     Aside from the road and the phone booth, there was a lone Joshua tree, conveniently located right next to the booth for maximum aesthetic appeal. All around us, stretching as far as the eye could see, was desert and rock.

     Okay – that was worth the trip just for the vague surreal image. And I’ve seen more than my share of surreal images.

     “Wow,” said Niang, clearly awestruck as well. It was the first word she had spoken since I had pulled off the road.

     I was about to ask her a question when I was interrupted.

     By the phone ringing.

     The hell?

     Strangely, Niang wasn’t surprised by the ringing. If anything, she seemed… expectant. She saw my confused look and answered my unspoken question. “I told you. The phone is famous. It’s all over the ‘net. There’s even a weblog about it.”

     “What the hell is a weblog?” was my first question but she didn’t hear me – or ignored me – and ran to pick up the phone. “Hi!” she shouted. “Who’s this?” There was some distant murmuring and then Niang laughed – for the first time since I picked her up – and put her hand over the mouthpiece.

     “I’m talking to a guy from France!”

     Niang switched to French and spoke for a minute or two, nodding and laughing and smiling the whole time. When she hung up, she had barely enough time to grin at me when the phone rang again.

     One hour and eight phone calls later, we finally left. Behind us, I heard the phone booth ringing, all alone in the darkening desert afternoon.

     “They’re planning to get rid of it.”

     “Come again?” I had just pulled back onto I-15 when Niang had spoken her first words to me since we had left the phone booth behind.

     “They say it’s too ‘disruptive’,” she said, staring out into the desert again. “’Too annoying’. ‘Too many hassles’. ‘Resource reallocation’.” She snorted and for a second – just a second – there was a smile on her face. It faded as she continued speaking. “Victim of its own success,” she said, turning to look at me. “They’re all denying that they’ll do anything but the writing obviously on the wall.” She turned and looked out into the desert again. “The phonebooth will almost certainly be gone come the new year.” She smiled a weird half-smile and shook her head and turned her gaze back to me. “Rather appropriate, wouldn’t you say? New millennium, new changes, clean slate.” She grunted and turned away from me and stared at the road ahead. “It’s what they always do with us useless people. Right?”

     I shrugged my shoulders. “I wouldn’t know. I always find a way to keep myself busy and useful.” I turned to look at her. “But I understand how you feel.”

     “Thanks.”

     “We need some music.”

     “Oh, hell yeah!”

     “No way!” I shouted to Niang, trying to keep one eye on her and one eye on the Las Vegas Strip. The infamous “Spaghetti Bowl” interchange was coming up in a few minutes and I wanted to be careful that I took the right exit. Even long-time Vegas residents sometimes screw up, so I was understandably a bit nervous.

     My exclamation to Niang was in reaction to the culmination of an hour long conversation I have had with her. Seems like the phonebooth excursion was a good influence on her, as she hadn’t shut up since then.

     As for why I had shouted “No!” – it seemed like Niang was quite the world traveller. Name a continent and she had hitchhiked across it, often several times. And take a guess at which highway was the very last highway in America she had yet to hitchhike across? Go ahead – guess.

     “Sounds like you’ve got yourself the last item on a bucket list,” I said, carefully. I eyed her reaction.

     She either played it super-cool or didn’t catch my tone.

     “That’s an interesting way to put it.”

     “Accurate?”

     A shrug.

     The two of us drove in silence for a few seconds. Then out of the blue –

     “What are you planning for New Year’s Eve?”

     I shrugged back at her.

     “Nothing special. It’s just a day like any other day.”

     The look she gave me you’d think I said that Hawaiian pizza was the One True Pizza, the Pope is Jewish, Perry Como is a rock and roll legend, and the Easter Bunny was real and running for president.

     “What?” I asked.

     “It’s going to be the year 2000! The new century! The new millennium! And it’s ‘just like any other day”? Seriously?!”

     I shrugged again but deep down I was smiling. I was enjoying messing with her.

     “By one calendar. By another, it’s 5759.”

     “You’re not Jewish.”

     “No, but I spent a lot of time in that region.”

     “C’mon! You have to have something planned!”

     “Not a thing. Sorry.” I turned and looked at her. “You?”

     “Yes,” she said, very quietly. She didn’t say a word for a long moment and then turned to look at me. “Wanna hang out with me?” she asked and there was an almost hopeful – no, pleading – tone to her question.

     Bingo.

     “Sure. Why the hell not?” I replied, as cool as an Arctic winter. She smiled at my response.

She was still smiling when I took the exit and started driving out of Vegas.

     “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody!” shouted  Niang. “I’ve got some money cause I just got paid!” I shouted back. “Now how I wish I had someone to talk to!” shouted Niang, as she waved at the ‘You are leaving Arizona sign’. “I’m in an awful way!” I shouted, as we blew over the Utah border, Cat Stevens singing along with our own bad singing on the radio.

     We were having burgers and cokes in a late-night diner just outside St. George when she asked me the question.

     “So who are you?”

     “Told you. The name’s George.”

     “No,” she said, and her voice changed. It was dark and gravelly and brought forth unpleasant images of vermin of all shapes and sizes speaking with human tongues. An afterimage of shriveling red flowers exploding and falling off human faces completed the picture.

     I laughed.

     “That the best you can do?” I asked, nonchalantly wiping burger juice from my mouth. I took a long slow sip of cola, enjoying the cavalcade of different emotions crossing Niang’s face.

     Anger, of course, was the first emotion. One never laughs in the face of a god, after all. Confusion and bewilderment was up next, followed almost immediately by a brief – all too brief! – moment of shock. Then we rapidly went through embarrassment, resignation and, finally, sadness.

     Never gets old.

     I patted her hand, like a parent comforting an upset child. In a way, that was the case.

     “I think you know very well who I am,” I said.

     “Yes,” said a whisper.

     “But you suspected since the beginning, right?”

     “Yes,” came the whisper again.

     I was impressed. Really I was. Been a while since a god impressed me.

     I smiled. “But I did promise you to travel with you.”

     She blinked in shock at that, tears falling from her eyes. The beatific smile was back on her face.

     I took another sip of cola. “And you’ll be able to ask me for a favour when we get to the end of the road.”

     The ‘thank you’ I got from her almost brought me to tears.

     We were watching the sun rise over the mountains of Zion National Park.

     I had been driving for a good 600 miles or so nonstop since picking up Niang. I don’t need sleep all that much – and neither does Niang, for that matter, obviously –  so it had been an enjoyable, albeit tiring, half day or so of driving,

      But even a god needs to stop and watch the sunrise every now and then, and this was one of those times.

     The two of us were chilling on the hood of the jeep in silence. She had snuggled up next to me (“It’s cold and you’re warm,” she had pointed out) and was just staring at the horizon.

     “The stars different from where you’re from?” I asked.

     A nod. “Stars changed a lot since I was born.” She sounded…nostalgic? “Everything changes. Everything needs to adapt. If you don’t adapt, you have no choice but to be run over.”

     “Lots of people adapt,” I pointed out. “I adapted.” I turned and faced her, watching her breath in the chilly damp air. “Even gods. Especially gods. Hell, I heard rumours that there’s a god of television out there somewhere.”

     Niang just shook her head. “Not all of us can adapt. Some of us are too…specialized.” She sighed and rested her head on my shoulder in silence for a very long time.

     The sun poked itself out behind a mountain when she finally spoke.

     “How long until Canada?”

     I shrugged. “Roughly 700 miles or so. Why – you in a rush?”

     “I want to be there at midnight on New Year’s Eve.”

     I blinked. “You do know that New Year’s Eve is today, right? Cutting it close, are we?”

She just stared at me with sad brown eyes.

     I let out another sigh. “Fiii-iine. I’ll get you there by midnight. But we gotta move our asses now.”

     We hit our first snow squall just outside Idaho Falls. Wasn’t too bad – been in a lot worse in my time – but it gave Niang a good scare.

     “Relax,” I said. “We have a few hours wiggle room. We’ll get you there in time.”

     She just nodded her head silently. She’s had been doing that a lot since we left Utah about two hours back. I haven’t been pressing her on details of her past – kind of rude actually, in a way, to ask people personal questions even if they’re gods, you know? Besides, I’m sure she’ll tell me when she’s good and ready. I already had a sneaking suspicion what she was the god of but I’ve been wrong before, so I was keeping quiet.

     The radio had a weather report about more snow and cold air coming down from the north, so it looked like when we finally got across the Canadian border and into Alberta and I did the favour for Niang, we were going to be surrounded by your obligatory howling frigid wilderness.

     How… dramatic.

     I switched the station to a blues station and drove on, the silence in the jeep deafening.

     It was a little past one pm when we crossed into Montana. The  I-15 takes a very meandering 400 mile long route through Montana before it hits the Canadian border. Normally a drive like that, if you just blow through and not stop for anything, would take about six hours or so. But this was Montana in the winter and during New Year’s Eve, so between the snow and early darkness and crazy traffic, I figured nine, ten hours just to be safe.

     Cutting a bit close but looked like we’ll be able to fulfill Niang’s wish. I told her as much.

     She smiled, patting my shoulder, whispered a quiet thanks and curled up like a cat and took a nap.

     Sunset in Montana is rather pretty.

     We were somewhere east of Bozeman and about 250 or so miles from the Canadian border when the sun started setting.

     Niang insisted we stop and watch it.

     I didn’t ask why. I already knew why.

     Not sure if it was because of the snow or the mountains or all the sandstone dust in the air, but the sunset was this absolutely gorgeous collection of red and yellow and purple colours.

     We just stared at it in silence until the sun vanished. When the last vestiges of the light vanished, Niang began crying.

     I’m… not good with emotions.

     But I knew enough to know that these tears of hers were necessary. That they needed to be flowed without interruption.

     So I stood there in silence as she wept and sobbed and cried and, yes, even wailed nonstop for several minutes.

     And then – just like that – it was over.

     She stood up, her shoulders defiant and squared and pulsing with… anger? No – not anger. Resolute. Confidence. Fearlessness.

     She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, turned to face me and whispered two words to me that shook the heavens.

     “Let’s go.”

     We got to the Canadian border with an hour to spare.

     Niang didn’t have a passport but it turns out she didn’t really need one to cross the happy little border between our two countries. The Canucks just sighed and waved us through when I showed the border guards mine and said she was my stepdaughter. Look, it’s Montana on New Year’s Eve and they’re stuck in a little booth; they don’t wanna be there and I don’t blame them.

With a shout of ‘Happy New Year’ from the guards behind us, we crossed the border and into Canada.

     The I-15 becomes Highway 4 as it crosses the border. To say that the area around the highway is ‘desolate’ during the 60 mile long stretch to Lethbridge would be an understatement.    If I had to take a stab in the dark, there are no more than 3000 people within a thirty mile radius of us.

     Perfect for our needs.

     I turned to Niang. “You need to find a spot. Make it a good one.”

     It took about thirty minutes or so but Niang finally decided on a spot near the Milk River.    Surprisingly, it was not quite as cold as I was expecting – no insane minus forty temperatures like what normally happens at this time of year. The temperature was just a few degrees below freezing in fact, so extremely mild by Alberta standards. But the semi-warm temperatures of the last few days had turned much of the snow on the ground to slush and then been repeatedly frozen over during the cold nights, making some absolutely delightful jagged and uneven ice on the ground. And yes, there was a howling wind that whipped up whatever remnants of free snow was about and cut through our skins like a knife. Plus we were in the middle of nowhere and it was close to midnight, so it was pitch black.

     Couldn’t ask for a bleaker place for an execution.

     Niang stood by the riverbank, deep in thought and quiet as the grave.

     “You’re going to wait right up until midnight, aren’t you?”

     A silent nod.

     I shrugged. Everyone needs to accept this in their own way, at their own time. Who am I to besmirch that tradition?

      “I’m ready,” said Niang, turning to stare at me.

     I stood up and straightened out my coat.

     “You have to say the words.”

     “Before I do, I have to ask. Why did you pick me up?”

     I smiled. “You looked like you had a story to tell.” I tilted my head and looked at Niang. “Why did you let me pick you up?”

      She smiled. “You looked like you had a story to tell.”

     For the first time in a long time, the two of us laughed. The two of us took a long deep breath and stared at one another.

     I nodded at her.

     A nod from Niang. She took a deep breath and spoke the words.

     “I am T’ou-Shen Niang-Niang, the Chinese goddess of smallpox. I no longer have a role in the world and I wish for the eternal darkness of death. Will you grant me this request?”

     “I have heard your words and have accepted your request.”

     I raised my hand.

     I lowered my hand.

     Except for a pile of clothes on the ground, I was alone. Again.

     I drove aimlessly for a while before eventually turning back to Highway 4.

     I wouldn’t have another ‘client’ for a few more weeks, so I had a bit of time, if you’d forgive the expression, to kill. I hadn’t been to Montreal for a while, so I drove towards Lethbridge to get to Highway 3 eastwards.

     I wasn’t lying to Niang about how some gods are able to adapt. Or for that matter, us beings that are in a more – how shall we say –  interceder role.

     Not many can but those that can – like me – well, we do okay. We find a new niche. New clientele. New jobs. Adapt and overcome, as the saying goes.

     Back in the old days – the very old days – I wore a suit of armor and killed dragons and rode a white horse.

     Now I ride a white jeep.

     I drove onward, into the new millennium.

_______________

Bruno Lombardi is a Canadian author of speculative and weird fiction, it a number of writing credits including a novel, Snake Oil, and stories in Weirdbook and other anthologies.

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