7. The Deal
“I am older than the trees, older than the mountains but not nearly as wise. My time is coming to an end in this world and I do not seek to wither away like a dying tree. I deserve to face my end on terms set only by me and no other, yet I cannot move on with matters yet unresolved. I will place your feet on the yellow brick road in exchange for a gift, young quest seeker, a gift that you shall bring to me when you reach your destination.”
Janey was confused, again. She had to buy Rickety Jack a present? What could an old train station, or whatever he (or it) was, want with a present?
“What sort of gift?” she asked.
“Bring me the clacker jacker that crossed me,” Rickety Jack told her. “Only he can release me from my bondage. I desire to be set free and I will demand it of him. Together we will enter the joy of terminal oblivion and take refuge in the void of silence and peace.”
“You want to die?” asked Janey, horrified at the thought of any being that wanted to end its life.
“Die?” Rickety Jack’s voice boomed around Janey. “Ho! Day people have yet to fully learn the truth of existence. Death does not mean one is dead, young quest seeker. Existence in this world grants us but a glimmer of what is to come. Death is but a doorway to elsewhere. It most certainly is not the end of things.”
“Oh I get it,” said Janey with a smile. “You’re talking about reincarnation.”
“Hmm. Of a sort, yes. But that is a choice all must make when they pass through the door, whether to move on and seek new horizons, new countries and new adventures, or return because their light has not yet been fulfilled. I have lived many lives in many forms and now it is my wish to enter that door and start a fresh in unknown lands.”
“That’s a pretty cool way to look at it,” said Janey.
Rickety Jack frowned and part of his eyebrow menu fell to the floor. “It is the only way to look at, young quest seeker.” He sighed and the eaves of the train station rattled. “I see you well. Would it alarm you to know this world is your first but not your last?”
Janey thought about that for a moment. “I guess not. I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s all a bit confusing really, but exciting at the same time. And scary too. But fun. Um, that’s not very helpful is it?”
“Ho! The honesty of one so fresh is truly wonderful. Seldom do I meet a light so bright and true as yours, young quest seeker. If time was not slipping through the hour glass with such rapid pace I would much enjoy your company a while longer. Time is not our friend and you must be on your way.”
“On my way where?”
“Mojo waits for you,” said Rickety Jack. “He will take you to see the Bonds Keeper and from there, with luck on your side, to the Cog. You must speak the truth, young quest seeker, speak it always if you desire to see that which is hidden beneath the jibba-jabba.”
The Bonds Keeper? The Cog? Was this too much for her to take in? Her curiosity had taken her into the night and brought her to Mojo but was there a line she daren’t cross? When did fun merge into the serious and ward her off her quest to seek the truth? She wanted to know the truth about Arcane Town so much she could feel the urge to keep asking questions like an itch all over her body she couldn’t scratch.
“What about this…clacker jacker?” asked Janey. “How will I know who he is or how to bring him to you? If he has lied to you before what can I do to make him come back here?”
“He will come if you ask. How and what you ask of him is up to you. It is his nature to be curious, just like yourself, young quest seeker. In many ways you are very alike, but not so many that make you the same. A light like yours is a rare thing, cherish it well, watch and guard it against those who try to bend it to their will.”
Janey wasn’t sure what Rickety Jack meant by light, maybe he meant soul but that felt a bit too religious and deep, even though that seemed to be Rickety Jack’s nature. It would be too embarrassing to keep asking questions and Janey was feeling the familiar tug to continue her journey. Though she had plenty of doubts and fears she was determined to push on.
“Will I see you again?” she asked.
“Perhaps yes. I would like to look forward to such a meeting but the if’s and where’s, why’s and how’s of our paths crossing again I am not certain.” Rickety Jack looked saddened by this. “The time of questions is almost at an end. Remember, always be true, young quest seeker, speak your truth well and beware of the cracks in your yellow brick road.”
Janey nodded even though his advice was wrapped in riddles. She slipped off the burgundy velvet stool and gave Rickety Jack a short bow, it seemed like the right thing to do. Rickety Jack winked at her with a slight smile that Janey thought was tinged with loss rather than mirth.
“Goodbye, little quest seeker,” Janey heard him say as she opened the door to the platform.
8. Boom or Bust.
Mojo listened without comment as Janey retold her conversation with Rickety Jack. They sat together on the lonely train station platform with their legs dangled over the train tracks. When Janey had finished she waited for her quirky friend to respond. Sometimes Mojo took his time with things, like a chess player evaluating a dozen moves ahead.
Janey thought he looked better than when he had grabbed her outside the park. He seemed less feverish and panicked, almost calm and serene since arriving at the train station. Whatever illness he had, and Janey was sure it was an illness; it had tucked itself away for the time being. She hadn’t pushed him to talk about it, but her concerns were still there.
“Rickety Jack, clickety-clack,” mused Mojo. He took Janey’s hand in his but avoided looking directly at her. “To the Bonds Keeper said he, to meet the mighty keeper is a difficult task, little Janey.”
“Can you take me?”
“I can and I must, but I fear the hardship that faces you, that faces us both,” said Mojo. He took a deep breath and looked at her with golden eyes. “A deal with Rickety Jack should not be broken, not for the moon or the stars. We are to make haste, little Janey, because night will not last forever and we must prepare for your meeting. Come.”
Mojo dropped onto the train tracks and helped Janey down. She was nervous and looked left and right. The lonesome tracks stretched into the distance without sign of a train, but Janey had been told never to walk on train tracks.
“We’ll hear no clickety-clack tonight, little Janey,” Mojo told her after a few minutes.
“I know, but it’s better to be safe than sorry my mum always told me.”
“You can always be sorry,” Mojo said.
They walked in silence. Janey didn’t ask where they were going because she was certain Mojo would state they were to see the Bonds Keeper, surely she didn’t need to ask such a redundant question so soon after Rickety Jack had told her so? She tried to keep her bearings, it felt as if they were heading north in a roundabout way, around the edge of Arcane Town. But if that were so she should be able to see the twinkling lights on her right, but all she saw was darkness and fields of corn swaying under the pale moonlight.
After what felt like an hour or more of walking along the tracks, Janey was surprised to see something other than crowds of corn. On the horizon hard shapes revealed themselves when ghostly clouds whispered across the dark sky. They looked like buildings, big solid structures that heaved up out of ground like giants reaching for the stars.
Janey pointed. “Is that where the Bonds Keeper is?”
“He will be there when we’re there and not before,” replied Mojo.
“I’m guessing that’s the old steel mills then, somewhere north of Arcane Town?”
“North yes but no longer part of the town you know. Like the train station and Rickety Jack it is a forgotten place, full of memory and darkness.”
“Do you know what the Cog is?” asked Janey.
“Yes. I should not want to mention it before the time is right.” Mojo gestured to the corn fields. “Out here even night dwellers are uneasy with such talk.”
“Oh.” Another dead end. Janey was all for adventure and uncovering the truth but too many riddles and half truths yet to be made whole were starting to annoy her. “When can you talk about it?”
“The Bonds Keeper will say when and what.” Mojo gave Janey a pleading look. “Be still your questions for a while, little Janey, and you will live to be safe and not sorry.”
It was a lot for Janey to take on faith or someone else’s belief and part of her wanted to turn back and head home. Already her night of questions had revealed more than ever before and she was getting tired. Did she fear the deal made with Rickety Jack enough to keep going? What if she just stopped and refused to budge without a solid explanation of at least one riddle, plain English if you please with riddles swapped for facts, not too much to ask was it? Would Rickety Jack make true on his promise to punish her for breaking her oath?
Was it worth finding out? Probably not, she decided, after all I did agree to the deal and breaking it meant telling a lie where a truth had been promised.
She sighed and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, timing her steps with the wooden sleepers so she didn’t trip over. The tracks led them across a bridge she had never seen and another train station she didn’t know existed. This one, however, was little more than a wooden shell and almost no roof, as if swept clean by a tornado. No silent words came from that stark dead train station, just a feeling of decay and emptiness.
On either side of the tracks the corn fields surrendered their ground to a collection of creaking shacks and huts without doors. She saw a grave yard of pick axes, shovels and mining trolleys beside the rails. Janey shivered at the idea that this had once been a thriving place, busy with people, noise and smoke.
“Everything gets lost in time,” said Mojo, picking up on her mood.
The moonlight glinted across abandoned train carriages, an open tomb of metal dinosaurs left to rot back into the ground. Up ahead the giant structures loomed closer, huddled together at the end of the tracks. Janey made out smoke stacks and vast warehouses, everything was silent yet she sensed they were whispering to one another.
Here she comes, the bold one, the girl with the questions, eager to step off the end of the clickety-clack and never look back. Boom or bust she wants to know the truth behind the jibba-jabba. Answers to questions and riddles and the knowing of the clacker jacker, that’s what she wants, it’s all she ever wants. Let her come and test us, with her truth and her quest and her notepad and pencil. Let the Bonds Keeper take her through the Cog to the place where no day person dare venture.
Except for the clacker jacker.
To be continued…
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt.
This section took about an hour and a half to write, and is a shade under 2,000 words. Every word, twist and turn has come straight from brain to screen without forethought or planning. Just the way I like it, well, for this ongoing adventure at least!
I’m trying so hard not to think about Janey or Mojo and what is going to happen to them next, and when I do catch myself daydreaming I quickly snatch away my attention away from Arcane Town. Just as readers like to be surprised I like that feeling of what’s lurking around the corner just as much!
Next Thursday or Friday 29th I’ll add another instalment and we’ll see who the Bonds Keeper is and why Mojo doesn’t seem to like the Cog, whatever that is! I’m in the dark as much as you!