Last week’s column ended with high school football coach Tod Clark and I leaving a triumphant, standing-room-only signing in Phoenix, and climbing into his truck to head for Albuquerque. We’ll return to that in a moment. But first, I need to tell you about the bomb I was carrying with us.
Back in the eleventh installment of this column, I wrote: “A fellow Navy veteran gave me a Chief’s badge and a trinket taken from around the neck of a dead ISIS fighter (more on that a few columns from now), both of which I was very touched by.”
Well, here we are at “a few columns from now,” still in Phoenix. Tod and I have not yet gotten into the truck. Indeed, we haven’t even made it to that triumphant Phoenix signing yet. Instead, we are sitting in a hotel room with author Weston Ochse and publisher Paul Goblirsch of Thunderstorm Books.
How is that possible? Well, right now, we are traveling through time, you and I. That is what life is like out here for me. I have spent the summer hopping back and forth across this country’s different time zones—sometimes crossing three or four zones a day. At this point in our narrative, I never know what day it is, let alone what time it is. My phone automatically adjusts the clock to whatever state I’m in, but I am not a fixed point in time. Far from it. I am rocketing through time, and my two sons and my girlfriend, author Mary SanGiovanni, are the fixed points.
So far, I’ve been playing phone tag with those fixed points because when they are awake, I am traveling or sleeping, and when I am awake, they are sleeping. I get in a quick couple of texts with Mary before signings. A few FaceTime calls with my youngest son after stumbling out of bed. A lone phone conversation with my oldest son while waiting to be served in a diner. But none of these are in person. I can no longer remember what my girlfriend’s hair smells like. Instead, I smell the perfume and aftershave of strangers. I can no longer recall the strength of my oldest son’s handshake. I remember the first time I felt it, sure. The first time I felt it, that was when it really dawned on me that my first little boy was no longer a little boy, but a man. But I can’t remember it now. Instead, my palm carries the impression of hundreds of handshakes with strangers. And as for my second son, my pride and joy, known to listeners of my podcast under his on-air pseudonym of Dungeonmaster 77.1? I can see him on FaceTime. I can hear him and talk to him and tell him I love him and listen while he tells me about what he did at science camp and his latest creation in Minecraft and how he and his mother found a rare Pokemon while shopping at the Amish market. But all of these things are taking place through a video screen, and you can’t hug an iPhone and feel it hug you back. An iPhone doesn’t bury its face in your shoulder and squeeze you tight, letting you know how much it missed you. Instead, I am left with the hugs of strangers.
Time travel is a lonely occupation.
That is what life is like at this point in our narrative. That is where we are, one month into the end of the road. That is where I’m at, hurtling through time and space. I carry all of this with me. And I carry you with me, as well. I carry your well wishes and your delight and your excitement and enthusiasm. I carry the nice things you say about my books, and your accolades, and your personal stories of how Ghoul or Dark Hollow of The Girl on the Glider helped you in life, or how The Rising got you suspended in eleventh grade, or how Dead Sea felt like I wrote it for you. I cannot carry my loved ones with me, so I carry you with me instead.
Something else I’m carrying with me, according to Weston, is a bomb.
In the hotel room in Phoenix, Weston asks me how the signing in San Diego went. I tell him how awesome it was. He wonders how many people brought me bourbon. The four of us share a good chuckle over that. But then I tell him about the charm from the dead Islamic extremist that I was given, and Weston grows pale.
Here are some things you need to know about Weston Ochse: 1. He’s one of my oldest friends in this business; 2. He’s one hell of a writer; 3. He doesn’t scare easily. The public knows that Weston is retired military, and that he used to work in Intelligence (with a capital I). And some of you might know that he continues to work in Intelligence as a civilian. He doesn’t have to. He could instead have a very nice life as a full-time writer. But once that world is in you, it’s in you for life, and it’s very hard for some men and women to walk away from that. I say this without hyperbole—Weston Ochse is a real-life Jack Bauer, and he’s always my number one pick when my friends and I play “Draft Your Zombie Apocalypse Survival Group.”
“Are you carrying that thing with you now?” Weston is visibly shaken.
“Yeah,” I reply. “It’s in my kit bag, down in Tod’s truck. It’s pretty cool. A little leather cord with this red leather triangle on the end of it. There’s something sewn inside the triangle, but the dude didn’t know what. Want to see it? I can go get it.”
“No,” Weston shouts. “I don’t want you to get it! Jesus Christ, Brian, you’ve done some insane shit in your life, but this might be the craziest. What the hell were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that it was a very cool present for somebody to give me. He said the Taliban and ISIS fighters wear them as charms to keep away the Djinn.”
“Oh, I know they do,” Weston says. “I’ve seen my fair share of them. We call them do-rags.”
“Do you have any?”
“No, I don’t have any. And neither should you. Yes, they wear those to ward off the Djinn. But they’re also supposed to bring bad luck to anyone else who takes them. You should send that thing to Rainy right now. Rainy can tell you if it’s bad or not.”
Author Rain Graves is a dear friend to us both, and an expert when it comes to real-life supernatural shit.
“Oh, come on.” I pause, shocked by the dismay and concern etched into his face. “Do you really think it’s that bad? You really think I’m going to be cursed?”
“I think whoever gave that to you could have unwittingly given you some terrorist shithead’s version of a psychic suicide bomb.”
Before I could respond, Paul and Tod noticed that we were out of bourbon, so I headed down to the truck to retrieve another bottle from the stash. Weston’s words weighed heavily on me. I’m not a superstitious man, but I’ve also seen a number of things in life that I cannot scientifically explain—things that are therefore, by definition, supernatural. Did I believe that Weston was right, and that I could be cursed? Well, I wasn’t sure. I don’t generally believe in curses, and I’ve been told by people who know about these sort of things that I have “a powerful energy” and that I unknowingly seem to “repel curses back on the people who cast them.” Whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, you’ve gotta admit, it’s a useful skill set to have.
So, even if Weston was right, and I was carrying the rudimentary equivalent of a psychic suicide bomb, how could I, in good conscience, send such a thing to Rainy? I know there’s a portion of the Internet who think I’m an asshole, and yes, sometimes I am, but come on. Not even I would do something like that. Send a cursed trinket from the wasteland battleground of the Middle East to a dear friend? Include a letter that says: “Dear Rainy, Weston thinks this thing might be cursed. I hope it’s not ticking. Thanks. Love, Brian”
No, I decided. There’s no such thing as cursed Taliban charms, and even if there is, that shit won’t work on me. All magic, regardless of the school, is about projecting ones will over everything else. I may be getting older, but I’ve still got one hell of a lot of willpower.
Which brings us back to the conclusion of last week’s column. You’ll remember that Tod and I were driving through the desert at night, and something large and hairy and bestial ran across the road. My first thought was to glance into the backseat, and make sure my kit bag was still zippered shut, and that the charm wasn’t glowing or floating in mid-air or some shit.
Any other time, Tod and I would have stopped and investigated, but there was a signing to get to, so we drove on into the darkness, chalking the sighting up to someone playing Pokemon Go. We crossed another time zone in the middle of the night. About two in the morning we stopped at a motel and grabbed four hours of sleep. Then we climbed back into the truck and headed for Albuquerque, where I was supposed to sign books starting at noon.
The signing was a bust. There are number of reasons why. First of all, from what I can tell and based on the accounts of others in the area, the store did little to market or promote it. There was a big sign out front advertising another author’s signing for later that night, but no mention of me. Another factor is the fact that the signing was taking place at noon on a workday, and most people were probably, in fact, at work.
At no point did I chalk the attendance up to the cursed psychic suicide bomb in my kit bag.
In the end, four people showed up, and one of them had been at the signing in Tucson, and I’d signed for two others at the World Horror Convention back in April. Still, I was happy to see them. That’s what this tour is about. I’ll be honest—it was kind of a kick in the ego to go from a series of extraordinary signings with great turnouts and high sales to this, but at the same time, it was awesome to get to spend that extra time with these four folks. I didn’t want to do a reading, in case other people arrived, so I opted instead for a Q&A. I was pleased to talk to them for as long as they wanted. Then I signed their books, and signed the store stock, and Tod and I climbed back into the truck and started traveling through time again.
Tod and his wife own a ranch on the outskirts of El Paso. We spent the night there, drinking and talking—taking a much needed break from traveling. I’m a country boy. I’m used to the wide outdoors and dark nights and being able to see the stars. One of the reasons I’ve never lived in a city or suburbia for too long is because you can’t see the stars at night. Until that night, the best stargazing I’d ever done was out in the middle of the North Atlantic. There are no lights there, and you can see stars you never knew existed. But sitting there at Tod’s ranch, in what used to be an old-timey saloon, drinking bourbon and looking up at the stars…
…time stopped. That whirlwind I’d been on for the last month came screeching to a halt. I relived the entire tour—everything that had happened up to that point—in a second. In another five seconds, I’d relived my entire twenty-year career. Above me, the stars began to spin. I missed my sons. I missed Mary. Stars have always been our personal thing, and while I love Tod like a brother, and would gladly give him my kidney or take a bullet for him, I wished Mary had been there to share them with me. At that moment, it felt like she was a million miles away, and out there in the middle of the desert, there is no cell phone service. I was alone. Except for Tod. And the stars. And a feral desert cat named Millie who apparently hangs around the ranch, and who decided to be my friend for the night. I was glad for her company. The stars stopped spinning. So did my head. I sat there, petting Millie and talking with Tod, and enjoying for one brief moment the stillness of time.
The next morning, I was back in the whirlwind, crossing another time zone, when I began to wonder if Weston hadn’t been right.
More on that next week…
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.