17. Hobo Corner.
With monumental effort Mojo climbed to his feet, barely able to keep his balance.
Janey held out her hand but Mojo refused to take it. She couldn’t believe how old he looked. Lank greasy hair fell around his face like seaweed. A ragged beard failed to conceal how sunken and hollow his face had become. The only remnant of his former self were his golden eyes. She had never seen eyes like that and despite the Grind pushing time upon him they shone in the midday sun.
Even his clothes looked shabby and tired. They were worn out before their last trip through the Grind but now they looked as if they would fall off his frail body any moment. For the first time Janey saw a large backpack on the grass beside them.
“Is that yours?”
Mojo nodded. “All that I own. All that I am.”
Janey went to pick it up. Mojo’s surprisingly tight grip on her arm stopped her.
“I must do this alone,” he said. “A long time I have waited for this moment. To falter at the last step means failure.”
“But I can help.”
“Not this time, little Janey,” said Mojo. He grasped the handles of the backpack and slowly pulled it over one shoulder. “It’s not so bad. Feels like home.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Pass on my knowledge to the next Guardian.”
“The one who will carry the torch of hope, just as I have.”
“But the clacker jacker…” Janey frowned at her friend. “You said it was here. How will I know who it is?”
“You will know.”
“Easy for you to say.” Janey folded her arms. She wanted to feel sorry for Mojo but she couldn’t help her anger. Riddles and half-truths were tiring. “Do you know who it is?”
“You shall see soon enough.” Mojo glanced up at the sun. “It’s almost time. Wait for me in the bushes. I cannot risk the Guardian seeing through my disguise.”
“You’re joking? That’s not a disguise. You’re like hundreds of years old now.”
“Then if I can fool you, seeker of the truth, the illusion is set.”
“Old is the truth.”
Mojo laughed and coughed. “For now. Hurry and hide. I will join you shortly.”
Janey didn’t like being separated from her adventurous friend but she forced herself to trust him. She pushed her way through the thick foliage of the bushes. A few feet in she turned. There were too many branches and leaves in the way so she snapped a few off to create a porthole. Satisfied with her work she waited.
Mojo periodically glanced at the sun. He shifted his weight from one foot to another. When nothing happened for some time he dropped his backpack on the grass and rubbed his shoulder. Janey fought the urge to leave her hiding place and comfort him. It was difficult to see him in pain. Despite the shade the heat and humidity was severe. She longed for a cool drink.
When Mojo fished a bottle of water from his backpack she smiled and wondered if he was doing it to wind her up.
But he didn’t drink it.
He just held it in his hands as if waiting for something.
But waiting for what?
A group of lads wandered by after Mojo had been stood alone for almost thirty minutes. Janey saw Mojo tense and back away when one of them looked in his direction. Whatever Mojo was waiting for Janey suspected it wasn’t them.
But after yet another glance at the sun, Mojo turned and shuffled toward them. What was he doing? Janey pulled aside a stray branch and watched the lads surround him. Mojo cradled the bottle of water against his chest but didn’t back away. It looked like he was enticing them.
Janey studied the young lads, none of them older than nineteen or so. Typical boisterous teeangers, bare-chested, minuscule muscles, fuelled by arrogance and macho bullshit. Janey figured that on a one to one basis they would probably be good-natured but together the pack mentality took over. Her stomach knotted when they surrounded Mojo. Before the Grind had churned his borrowed time back upon him, she believed Mojo to be a capable guy, wise, intelligent and able to protect himself.
But now… He looked pale and old. Hardly able to stand let alone hold off eager energetic lads looking for some fun.
“Come on old man, we’re thirsty.” A lad with a big gold necklace and red shorts pointed at Mojo’s bottle. “Share the wealth you dirty hobo, that’s what my Dad taught me.”
The others laughed. “Just grab it, Lance,” said a lad with a thick black wrist band. “He don’t need it anyway, his mates will give him some booze to quench his thirst.”
“Yeah, that’s all they drink anyways,” said Lance. “You don’t need it, old man, come on.”
Janey didn’t like how this was going. Why would Mojo so obviously attract their attention? He could have backed away when they strolled by. There had to be a reason. Janey was prepared to dash out and fight them if things got out of hand. She waited with barely contained patience. After everything they had been through together she wasn’t going to let a pathetic gang of bullies ruin Mojo’s quest… Whatever it was.
“Gerrof me,” Mojo said. His voice was rough and strained. “Taint yours. Taint nothin’ to do wi’you lot. Bug’rof an’ leave me alone.”
“That’s not very nice is it?” A lad with deep tanned arms and comically untanned chest. “We asked you nice like and now you’re acting all victimized and shit.”
“Yeah,” Lance said. Janey figured he was the leader. “If anything we’re the victims here. We’re thirsty and you’re holding out on us.”
“Probably a bottle of his piss anyway,” Red Shorts added with the laugh of an idiot.
Janey wanted to sprint out and kick him in the balls.
The lads laughed and jeered. Lance gave Red Shorts a high-five.
Through the group Janey spotted a younger boy lingering some distance away. At first she wondered why he had yet to say anything witty or macho. She inched forward to get a better look. The boy was holding a football and crouched beside a fountain . It dawned on Janey that he was eavesdropping too. How many other people in the busy park were watching this side-show?
Probably none. No one cares what the homeless get up to.
“We want your bottle of piss, old man,” Black Wrist Band said. “Cos we want to pour it over your face, you know, so you can be all refreshed and shit.”
“Jus’ leave me be, ye young fools,” Mojo replied, his voice a little louder this time. “I ain’t gonna warn ye again.”
“Ooh, he’s giving us a warning,” White Chest said. A jolt of anger hit Janey when he poked Mojo with a finger. “What you gonna do about it, old man? There are four of us and just you.”
Two of us actually you dumbass. Three if you include the boy spying on you.
A lad wearing a white baseball cap turned and looked at the boy hiding by the fountain. “Guys, there’s some kid watching us. Maybe we should just leave the old twat alone, yeah?”
They all turned to stare at the boy and Janey gasped when she saw his face.
Janey clamped a hand over her mouth. That was almost too loud. What was he doing there? The last time she’d seen him he was leaving to play with his friends. Janey hadn’t taken to slipping through the Grind well, the shifting time frames gave her a headache and left her feeling hungry. It must have been a few hours ago when they were in Tom’s house. She hoped Mojo knew what he was doing. She recognised the cloud of collective testosterone and knew it was only a matter of time before one of the lads did something stupid.
Lance stamped a foot on the dry grass as if to scare Tom away. Tom glanced at Lances foot with a frown but stayed put.
“Fuck off, shorty,” Lance said . “This ain’t none of your business.”
“Guys, let’s go.” Baseball Cap fidgeted with his head-gear.
Black Wrist Band waved his hands in the air. “Yeah, before he goes and tells him mummy on us.” His mates laughed. “What ya gonna do, shorty? You gonna cry to your mummy?”
Tom cocked his head to one side. “I don’t have a mum.”
“Short and an orphan,” Lance said.
“I’m not an orphan. I’ve got a Dad and he’ll be here soon.”
White Chest let out a short dark laugh. “What’s he gonna do? Beat us up? Call the cops? Ooh I’m so scared I’ve shat my pants.”
Lance knocked his knees together. “Yeah, me too. It’s running all down my leg I’m so frightened.”
Tom looked at Lance’s legs. “No it isn’t.”
Janey stifled a chuckle. She liked the boys spirit.
“Of course it isn’t you duckweed,” Lance replied. “I was being sarcasmic.”
“It’s sarcastic,” Tom said. Even from Janey’s hiding place she could see the look of shock on their faces. But Tom seemed oblivious. “Why are you bullying him? There’s a kiosk over there that sells ice-cold drinks and ice creams.”
Quick as a flash Lance was in front of Tom, staring down at him. Janey twitched in anticipation of a punch.
“Did you call me a bully? What gives you the right to call me names and make me look bad in front of my mates?”
“Because that’s what you are.”
Go Tom! Tell it like it is, lad. Janey was rooting for the young boy even though he was pushing his luck.
Lance raised his hand.
Tom didn’t flinch.
Janey held her breath.
“Are you stupid or something, shorty?” Lance asked him, his fist frozen in the air. “You look stupid.”
“Maybe he’s Forest Gump’s brother,” Black Wrist Band said.
“I don’t have a brother.” Tom walked around Lance and stood before Mojo. “And my Dad won’t beat you up or call the cops either.”
“So what you gonna do then?” asked White Chest. “Fight us all to protect your hobo pal?”
“Guys, seriously, he’s just a kid.” Baseball Cap glanced around at the busy park.
Lance gestured for him to shut up. “A kid who called me a bully. Answer the question, squirt, you going to fight us all?”
Tom shrugged. Janey tensed. Say the right thing, kid. Don’t push it.
“Yes,” Tom said.
Janey closed her eyes. Wrong answer.
“Kid,” Mojo mumbled. “Taint worth it, leave ‘em be. Let ‘em take what’s comin’ to ‘em.”
“All on your own?” asked Black Wrist Band. “You against us?”
Tom smiled. “No. Not on my own.”
“Yeah,” said a voice behind Lance. “Now it’s you against us.”
Janey saw a gang of boys Tom’s age lined up behind the bigger lads. She smiled at this sudden turn of events. Now that’s what you call a dramatic change around and no mistake.
The lads and the boys faced each other.
“Now there’re ten of us against the four of you,” Tom said. “Only we’re not the bullies, we’re the heroes. So, you still want that fight?”
They were beaten. Janey silently cheered the young boys for making a stand against stupidity.
Lance turned to face Tom, hands clenched in tight fists at his side. “Keep your smelly hobo, short arse,” he said. “I’m bored with him anyway. C’mon guys, let’s leave these gay lords alone.”
The lads trooped away and Tom threw the football to a boy with curly dark hair. “Thanks. Nice timing.”
The adrenaline pumping through Janey had nowhere to go. In her hiding place she stood stock still. Tom talked with his friends for a moment and Janey realised she had been holding her breath. She let it go in a gasp and sagged. He hands hurt. She released her grip on the branches and looked down at her palms. Thin angry cuts were etched into the skin. She silently yelped and shook her hands. The pain wasn’t that intense, more like the annoying paper cut variety.
“Are you okay now, mister?”
Janey concentrated on Mojo and Tom. So the lads arriving wasn’t what Mojo was waiting for. Or maybe it was. Janey tried to imagine what it was like inside Mojo’s head. When she first met him he was just a homeless lad, kind and softly spoken. She never took him for someone with a plan. Sure he spoke in riddles but she figured that was just his charm.
Through their adventures she had come to realise that Mojo was much more than his dishevelled appearance. The way he subtly attracted the attention of the group of lads was no accident. Janey theorised that if he hadn’t then Tom wouldn’t be talking to him now. And that was the point, wasn’t it? The silent whispers in his ear at school, the nudge of the wind to blow the painting off the canvas. All of it was part of Mojo’s plan.
But why? The Cog had given them a brutal and damning Task. Despite everything Janey had learnt she was still in the dark.
“Yrrr. It’s safe.” Mojo shuffled and glanced at Tom. “Am good. Morons and pipsqueaks is but they are, wi’ nowt but shit fo’ brains and the banter of fools to get ‘em through life.”
“Do you need anything? I can run and get you a hot dog if you’d like? They smell great.”
Janey’s stomach growled. The aroma drifting across the park was better than great.
“M’good. Dunt need no junk food,” Mojo said. He bent down and eased himself onto the grass next to his backpack. “Shit ain’t no good for ye. I got alls I need right here.”
“Okay then.” Tom twisted his head and looked around at the park. “They won’t bother you again, mister. Hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon. I’m going to finish the game with my friends. Nice to have met you.”
Mojo didn’t reply. Tom turned and walked away.
What? Janey stared with horror at the growing gap between them. What are you doing? Don’t let him go now! This is what you’ve been planning for…well, probably forever. This isn’t the time for taking risks Mojo.
“You saw it as it should be,” Mojo called out. “Didn’t ye?”
Tom stopped. Again Janey tensed up. She wasn’t sure if she could take any more suspense. Slowly Tom turned and looked at Mojo sat on the grass.
“That’s why ye did what ye did, ain’t it?” Mojo asked him. He coughed and wiped his hand across his mouth. He was getting weaker. “Because you see ev’rything as it should be seen, not how it is.”
Tom nodded. Janey relaxed a little when the boy walked back and seated himself in front of Mojo. Janey saw him glance at the bottle of water Mojo still cradled in his hands. She was so thirsty she almost stepped out of her hiding place to make a quick trip to the kiosk. They’d have a fridge filled with cool soda’s. A few minutes was all she needed.
But the bottle in Mojo’s hands caught her attention. Drops of crystal clear water ran down the side. It still looked chilled to perfection. How as that possible? It had been at least forty minutes since she had left Mojo for her hiding place. If he had removed the bottle after it must have been in the hot sun for almost that long. And yet it was still icy fresh.
That didn’t make any sense.
“What did you mean when you said it was safe?” Tom asked.
Janey had been wondering the same thing. Come on Mojo, tell us all about it.
“This is what’s safe,” Mojo said. He held out the bottle. “G’on, touch it, won’t bother ye none.”
Tom touched a finger to the side.
“Ice cold ain’t it? Bet ye be wonderin’ how and why and all sorta questions, ye?”
“To them that want, want, want, this could be jus’ water, young Boon. Plain old water. Cold but jus’ water. But fo’ them what need it’s more’n water. Much more.”
“How is water more than water?” Tom asked .
“When it’s life itself,” Mojo said. “Only when it needs t’be mind ye. Without it we’re dry husks, old bark on a dead tree or kindling for a fire. Water is life. It gives us strength, hope, energy, power an’ can be that beacon o’ light amongst the darkness.”
“Water does all that?”
“Not does, can. When the time is right.”
“Because ye need this more’n I do,” Mojo replied.
This was it. Janey gripped the branches again, the sting on her palms barely registered.
“Fo’ when it happens. Ye will see how it should be an’ how it has to be. Ain’t many folk around who see like yeself, not the reality of the world but the possibilities that hide under the surface.”
Mojo chuckled and coughed. Flecks of red landed in his beard. He was failing fast. The Grind was still pushing borrowed time into Mojo.
“Took me a lifetime to figure that out,” Mojo said. “An’ then I finds a kid who knows more’n I do.”
“I don’t know anything,” Tom said.
Janey nodded in agreement, you and me both, kid.
“I’m just playing football with my friends.”
“Fo’ now. But later – “
Mojo was consumed by a fit of coughing. Janey resisted her deep desire to run out and comfort her friend. Mojo curled up on his side and wrapped his arms around his backpack until the coughing subsided.
Come on Mojo, get up. Don’t quit now.
Tom helped him to his feet. A trickle of blood and mucus dribbled over Mojo’s beard.
“Are you okay?” Tom asked. He fetched out his phone. “I can call an ambulance?”
“M’good.” Mojo pushed the bottle of water into Tom’s hands. “Take it. Keep it safe till the time’s right. Ye’ll know the when an’ where an’ how, jus’ don’t question the why, ye get me?”
“I think so,” he said.
Janey frowned. Really? You get it that quick? Wish you’d share just a slice of that knowledge with me, kid.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to call an ambulance? It won’t take long. I can wait here with you. I don’t mind.”
“Get off an’ play wi’ ye friends,” Mojo said.
He grasped the handles of his backpack and pulled it over his shoulder. Janey was horrified to see Mojo’s eyes had dimmed to a slate grey. Panic and sorrow filled her. She had hoped there would be a way to prevent Mojo from slipping further. Maybe they could make a deal with the Grind and restore his youth again.
“Ye know, for a second or two I weren’t too sure if ye were goin’ to show up. Had me a worryin’ an sweatin’ for a while.”
“Show up?” Tom asked.
“Yrr, but ye did an’ the rest as they say be history.” Mojo turned to leave. “Ye make sure it’s a good history, ye get me?”
“Um, okay,” Tom said.
Mojo pointed a shaking finger at the bottle in Tom’s hands and smiled. “Like Gandalf says t’Frodo, keep it secret, keep it safe. Ye got hope an’ salvation in there, don’t go wastin’ it on ye thirst.” He pointed to the kiosk. “Get yeself a bottle o’ Cola if ye thirsty.”
Tom glanced over his shoulder but when he turned back Mojo was shuffling toward Janey’s hiding place. She watched Tom stare at the bottle of water for a moment longer before reaching out to catch Mojo as he collapsed in her arms.
“It is done,” Mojo gasped.
“Easy,” Janey said. She lowered him to the ground. “Don’t suppose you’ve another drink in there?”
Mojo shook his head and wheezed. “One Guardian. One bottle.”
“What’s he going to do?” Janey asked. She stared with tear filled eyes at Mojo’s tired face. “What am I going to do? I don’t know anything.”
“You know the path. That is enough. Follow your heart and the clacker jacker will be yours.” Mojo shuddered. His voice had slipped to a cracked whisper. “The Guardian will battle the darkness after it has been unleashed.”
Mojo coughed and winced. “The Cog gave me the Task. Complete it I must. Limbo I cannot bear another forever. Help me.
She helped him lean forward.
“Put your finger in the dirt like mine.”
She followed his hand and placed the tip of her index finger in the dirt.
“Make a circle, counter-clockwise,” Mojo said. “Slowly.”
Together they made a circle in the dirt. When their hands touched Janey felt a cold tingle shoot up her arm. Mojo gasped for breath and gripped her hand. The cold sensation burned her arm and she struggled to let go.
“Hold on. Now push.”
Hands flat inside the circle they pushed against the ground. It gave and sank a few inches. Dark tendrils of fog curled around the edge of the circle. Janey thought she could smell sulphur and charred flesh.
“One, two, three…push.”
Janey heaved her weight down into the circle. The ground shuddered and the dirt dropped away. Janey pulled herself back in alarm. Where there had been dirt a deep hole appeared. Thick black dust belched out of the hole . Instead of rising into the sky it slipped away into the undergrowth. Mojo dropped onto his back.
“My Task is complete,” Mojo gasped. “I, Mojo have fulfilled my Oath. I demand the Cog release me and the Bonds Keeper forget me.”
A moment later Mojo gave Janey a thin smile. “It is done. I am finished.”
“No. You can’t be.” Janey couldn’t see her friend through her tears. “If I open the Grind maybe I can do a deal with it.”
Mojo shook his head.
“You can borrow some of my time.”
“Long have I visited this place. Too long. I have watched over you like a father, little Janey. One day I hoped I would see you grown up and happy. Never did I expect us to meet. I am sorry for it to be in such dark times. We shared adventures you and I. Forget them I will not, not ever. But now I am tired.”
“You’re not. You can’t just leave.”
Mojo reached up with a shaking arm and touched Janey’s wet cheek. “I’m not leaving. No one truly leaves. They just move on, one step at a time.”
“I don’t want you to move on either.”
“Move on I must. Your path is still there before you.” Mojo shuddered and cried out. “Watch for the Guardian. The end of his battle is the start of yours. Only then can you reveal the clacker jacker and uncover the truth behind the jibba-jabba.”
“I don’t care about any of that,” Janey sobbed.
Mojo placed his gnarled trembling hands on her face and pulled her to him. Their foreheads touched and he stared into her eyes.
“All that I am and all that I wish to be,” he said. “Don’t forget me.”
His slate grey eyes glowed with a deep golden colour one last time.
“Speak your truth well, little Janey,” he whispered. “It will always be your shield.”
His hands slipped from her face and Janey closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see him without life. A surge of rage and painful sadness welled up inside her. Every shred of emotion swirled like a tornado in her chest. She let the tension build on her throat until she could bare it no longer.
Janey raised her head to the sky and screamed. It was a sound no one had heard for a hundred generations. Her throat burned as the torrent of emotion roared out of her.
She collapsed, sobbing and gasping for breath.
When she opened her eyes Mojo was gone. A pool of water covered the dirt beside her like a swathe of pure silk.
Janey peered into it.
A girl with golden eyes stared back.
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 3 and half hours to write, and is a shade under 4,300 words. This has certainly been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride for me. I suspected Mojo would pass on to somewhere else but I wasn’t really ready for it to happen like that. I really enjoy writing emotional stuff, and I hope you enjoyed read it, dear blog reader, for just as it touched me, I hope it touched you too.
In this instalment the story of Mojo and Janey truly overlapped Tom’s story from Ground Fall. Things started slipping into place in the previous instalment but here it feels like events are no longer just random but there was a plan all along. Despite this story being told through Janey’s eyes, Mojo has been my muse throughout. He’s quite the man of mystery. Even now his own story hasn’t been told, not fully. We don’t really know where he came from or how he got mixed up with the Cog and the Bonds Keeper.
Maybe I’ll write another series about Mojo.
Now there’s an idea.
There’s still one more to come. One more epic battle. Janey will discover who the clacker jacker is. She will finally uncover the truth behind the jibba-jabba that has shrouded Arcane Town all her life. There’s plenty more twists and turns yet to come.
The next Arcane Insane will hit your screens on 17th October. Until then, dear blog reader, clickety-clack keep an eye on the track!
A quick word about stories and fictional adventures, a moment of your time I beg. In November I’ll be joining the masses in National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – and have joined a special support group set up by Indigo Spider to help us on our journey through the writing frenzy.