Burning Questions

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Indecision held Deke in place in the street for a moment longer, and then he heaved a sigh of resignation. No situation had ever been improved for long by ignoring it, which meant that there was really only one thing to do here. Like a moth drawn by the light, Deke walked slowly toward the blazing saloon.

The flames put off no heat and no wind. Deke took his first tentative step onto the saloon’s porch, which was burning feverishly beneath his feet, and still felt nothing. He smelled the char, but it was the scent of old ashes kicked up by a wind, not new-burnt wood. Staring at his feet, Deke experienced a painful tripling of his vision. He could see the dusty wood of the saloon porch, worn but unburnt. He could see the fire eating it, gorging itself on the planks. And he could see the charred remnants, a treacherous blackened platform threatening to collapse beneath his feet at any moment.

These three things could not coexist, and yet they did. The impossibility made Deke’s eyes throb. He looked away from the porch, but the rest of the saloon was no better. The entire building seemed to exist in three states at once: unburnt, burning and destroyed. It did not shift between them. All three were happening at once. Time was as folded in on itself as the sky.

Deke stepped through the saloon doors. Deke passed through a curtain of fire. Deke walked through charred beams framing an empty hole where the doors had once been. All of these things were true. Deke’s mind struggled to process, buckling under the overwhelming onslaught of input.

In desperation and self-defense, Deke zeroed in on the bartender, taking quick steps across the filthy/blazing/burnt floor to cross the saloon as quickly as possible. He raised his right hand to his eye as if shielding it from the sun, closing out the view of as much of the saloon as possible.

“What’ll it be, Deke?” Will was a horror, and yet a relief compared to the rest of the saloon. He was actively burning, his skin crisping and curling away while the muscle and fat beneath popped and cooked. The left side of his face was a shattered ruin, shards of white bone floating in a gristly soup of flesh. Deke could see Will’s back teeth when he talked, his tongue writhing grotesquely within his mouth. Will occupied only a single state, though, and Deke nearly let out a cry of relief as he focused all of his attention on him.

“Whiskey.” Deke’s head pulsed as Will took a bottle from the shelf/from the shelf/from the floor and poured it/poured it/passed it over. The amber liquid reflected the overhead lamps. The blue flame danced merrily on the surface of the whiskey. The bottle was shattered, empty but for ash and dirt. Deke squeezed his eyes shut and pushed aside the glass/the glass/the bottle. He focused again on Will.

“Not to your liking, Deke?” Will grinned knowingly. His left eye rolled unpleasantly in its broken socket.

“Don’t think it’d sit right just now.” Deke waited for Will to say something, but Will seemed content to let the silence grow. The flames raged around them, consuming everything. Will’s face dripped blood and fire.

Deke finally broke the silence. “Will, you’re the bartender.”

“Correct so far. You going somewhere with this?”

“It’s your job to know what’s going on.”

“It’s my job to pour the drinks.”

“Like hell it is. If all you did was pour drinks, you’d end up—” Deke stopped.

“End up what, Deke?” Will looked down at Deke, fixing him with a stare. His left eye was tilted slightly. Flames crawled up the side of his face, igniting his hair. He was still easier to look at than the rest of the bar. “End up letting folks drink too much? End up letting fights start? End up shot? With my bar burned down? That where you’re going with this?”

“So you do know.”

“I know some things, sure.” Will relaxed. “Too little, too late, but ain’t that always the way?”

“I don’t believe it has to be, no. Ask the right people the right questions and you can get ahead of just about any situation.”

Will laughed. “Ahead? Then ask your questions.”

“What—” Deke started, but Will raised one burning finger to stop him.

“Not me. Go ask him.”

Will extended that same finger across the saloon, and Deke reluctantly tracked it. Ray was sitting at a card-strewn table/flaming column/empty spot in the char, bragging with fellow miners/corpses/no one at all. As he talked, he chewed noisily on peanuts/cinders/squirming grubs. Deke’s stomach churned, bringing it in line with his brain.

Like Will, Ray was easier to look at than the rest of the bar, as long as Deke focused on him and not anything he was doing. Unlike the rest of the bar, Ray was unburnt. The flames had avoided him entirely except for his hands, and even there they did not burn him. Both hands were wreathed in orange flames which spread to everything that Ray touched, but beneath the fire his own hands were undamaged and pristine.

“You come to lose some money at cards, Deke?” Ray asked. The other miners rolled their dead eyes to regard him. They burned like candles, flesh dripping away from their bodies, the flames nearly hiding the lethal wounds each bore from bullet and bludgeon.

“I’ll play, though I can’t guarantee I’ll lose,” Deke said, keeping his gaze tightly focused on Ray, to blot out the rest of the saloon. Ray shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. His pant leg rode up as he did so, briefly exposing the glyph carved into the side of his leg. To Deke’s eyes, the symbol glowed more brightly than any of the flames.

“What’s that on your leg?” he asked, more to see what Ray would say than anything else. A single glance at the word had been enough to sear it into his mind. Contain.

“That? Oh, some damn fool thing your boy talked us into up at the mine. Got Elmer to do it, too. Said it’d bring good luck, or some such.” Ray spoke dismissively, but Deke heard the tone in his voice that indicated lies mixed with truth.

“Has it worked?” Deke let Ray think he’d gotten away with the lie for now. Easier to pursue the question later when his guard was down again, if necessary.

“I think it just might have. I’m sure feeling luckier than these boys tonight. Wouldn’t you say so, boys?” Deke let out a roar of laughter.

“Luck’s a word for it,” said one of the men. His eyeballs had burst and were running down his cheeks like thick tears.

“You calling me a cheater?” Ray’s momentary good humor was gone, and the flames around his hands flared up as he pushed his chair back, hand near his gun.

“Nobody’s calling you nothing, Ray. Sit down and play your cards.”

“That’s right,” said Ray. He slowly pulled his chair back to the table. “That’s right. I will.”

Ray tossed another peanut/cinder/grub into his mouth. It popped audibly between his teeth as he chewed while talking.

“So you joining us, Deke?”

“Well, if you’re as lucky as you say you are, I may just sit this one out.”

“Your arm’s looking decent healed. Come join us at the mine. You’ll have all the silver you can lose.”

“I aim to do that real soon, Ray.”

“All right. Well, if Deke’s not in, what’re we sitting around jawing for? Deal the cards.”

Deke turned and made his way back to the door, picking his way around gaping holes in the floor that he was only mostly sure were there. He exited the dusty/flaming/ruined building and stood silently on the street for a moment, ignoring the dancing firelight at his back and letting his eyes readjust to seeing only one thing at a time.

While he waited for reality to resettle, Deke turned Ray’s lie over in his head. He’d said that Contain was Taylor’s idea, that Elmer had it too, and that it brought luck. The last part was obviously a lie; its purpose was clear to anyone who looked at it. The middle part, about Elmer having one too, was probably true. The boy was a born follower.

Which left the first part. Had it been Taylor’s idea? That felt like truth. Ray liked to seize on other people’s ideas. If Taylor had shown him some advantage to having Contain on him, he would have gone for it in a heartbeat.

Deke was struck by a sudden desire to know what exactly Taylor looked like through the eyes of Reveal. He set out for the boarding house to find him, but he hadn’t taken two strides before he was seized from behind and something heavy, wet and rough was dragged across his face.

“It’s me, Pa! It’s me!” cried Taylor, dancing back as Deke whipped his knife from its sheath. He held a dirty towel up in front of him like a shield. “Damn, I’ve never seen a man so unhappy to have mud cleaned off his face.”

“Sneaking up on a man like that is a good way to get yourself killed,” Deke said, heartbeat slowing back to normal. He touched his face, his fingers coming away with no sign of the black gunk that Porfirio had slathered onto him.

“Sneaking up, nothing. I called your name a half-dozen times. You get a little too much of Will’s poison?”

Deke glanced around. The saloon was whole and unburnt. The constellations were back where they belonged in the sky. And Taylor looked completely normal, untouched by any revealing visions.

“Miz Blaumer sent me to find you,” Taylor continued. “Said you seemed to have gotten lost on the way to the washroom.”

“Just taking the long way around,” Deke said. He was sure that Taylor was lying to him. Worse, he was sure that Taylor knew that he knew that, and didn’t care. For the moment, he was trapped, which meant that there was nothing to do but play along. “Appreciate you coming to find me. You ready for supper?”

“I hear there’s more porridge on,” said Taylor, making a face. “You have any luck with those snares?”

“I might have,” Deke said. “We’ll see tomorrow.”


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