Each step of his neoprene boots imprinted the New Mexican terrain with his sprinting gait, their patterned tread stomping over thirsty grass and emaciated shrubs with reckless abandon. Two dusty mountains framed the unhealthy horizon while a trail of blood followed behind, a souvenir of the barbed wire fencing he had stupidly surmounted without thinking of the rubber gloves tucked in his pack. The wind in his eyes fed the cloudy cauldron, hardening the welkin above. Lester felt cold. A storm was coming.
Hours of labored trekking across Catron County had finally uncovered a cabin, its grayed shingles decaying over weathered logs barely stable enough to hold safe haven. He pounded on the vertical plank outfitted as a shoddy door. It splintered open to uncover a group of wary faces, soft and educated, sitting on Spartan cots alongside tourist luggage and a camper kitchenette.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” a bespectacled woman said, a camera hanging over her thin cardigan. The man pushed her aside but what he was looking for was nowhere to be found.
“Is this everyone?” he demanded.
“Of course not. A man calling himself Edgar Lewis left the moment we got the emergency alert over the intercom. We told him he couldn’t go out there, but there was no stopping him. That’s when we called security.”
“Stay here,” the man demanded. “All of you.”
Lester ran from shelter to the field a thousand yards behind it, his legs boiling through the humidity thick with looming precipitation. He entered the grid. Hundreds of stainless steel poles with pointed tips planted 220 feet apart stood among the mounds of ancient ant hills, the polished skin of the slender obelisks reflecting an earthly palate of chartreuse, marigold and violet hazy with overcast.
Standing at the center waiting for a call from the heavens was a short rotund man with silver hair and a tired soul. It was the man Lester had shed blood for, and as soon as could Lester bent over and caught his breath ten paces away. The alkaline taste of adrenaline flooded under his tongue.
“Edgar,” Lester called out, dropping the bag from his back to place his hands on his knees. “Don’t do this.”
Edgar turned to face the unwelcomed company.
“Fuck you Lester,” he yelled back. His pudgy frame hopped once to gather momentum before bustling straight at Lester. Lester placed his right foot back and braced for impact.
Edgar slammed into Lester, tackling him to the sod. Edgar then drew back his mallet of a right hook and pummeled his fist into Lester’s chin. Again and again he hammered at the visage, dislodging Lester’s prosthetic teeth with one blow, exploding a vein with another. In a frantic fit of survival, Lester desperately grabbed at whatever was around them, found crumbling sandstone and socked it across the bridge of Edgar’s nose. The swipe immediately deformed cartilage and burst a capillary, spurting sanguine and stunting the rampage. A dazed Edgar wavered then flopped beside Lester. The two men gulped in oxygen, decades of history racing through their bloodied heads.
“I’ve wanted,” Edgar wheezed, “and waited to crater that vile mug of yours for years. I’ve dreamt of punching you over and over again until my knuckles were mangled and broken. Every day I dreamed of waking up to that ache and then smiling with the memory of what caused it. It would be worth every scar, every cracked bone, every singe of pain. Allow me the joy of mauling that smug smile once more. Come back here. Give me my fill.”
Edgar lunged to fulfill his divination, but Lester rolled away before bruised sinew could land. Instead it pounded the ground. Lester dragged himself from the trampling animal, blinked away the rush of saline and found his soil covered prosthetic. He dusted it off and slipped it back over raw gum and scoured teeth, spitting out dirty blood. He stood and offered Edgar a supporting hand. Again Edgar stabbed at it, lurching forward only for Lester to step back and stumble away.
“Come on,” Edgar whined. “Give it to me.”
“If you’re not going to offer me your lifeless carcass,” Edgar sighed, trudging to his feet. “Then let me be.”
“You can’t do this Edgar. It’s not going to work.”
“It worked for you,” Edgar wailed as clouds drank dark. “You think you’re so special, that you’re the only one?”
“I know I’m not. So do you. But it didn’t happen like this.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“I know. He lied. I found him and made him tell me. That’s why I’m here.”
“I know you lied. I know that now.”
“I’m sorry,” Lester admitted. “It’s not something I wanted.”
“You took everything you’ve ever wanted,” Edgar shouted. “And you took it all from me. I was your friend. And what did I get? To play pretend. You cheated me from my life, from my wife, from my family.”
“I took what was offered,” Lester said. “You ruined the rest.”
“You bastard. This was offered.” Edgar widened his wingspan as if it encompassed the world. “And I’m going to take it.”
“Eddie, don’t do this,” Lester pleaded. “If you really want to try I can give you the same chance I gave myself.”
“You think I’m going to trust you? After what you did? Unbelievable.”
“What’s not to believe? I’m here aren’t I? I can help you but I can’t save you this, from the madness that is about to happen.”
“Save me?” Edgar laughed. “You think I want you to save me? You can barely save yourself.”
Thunder echoed from above, the tempest of dusk swallowing the valley.
“You hear that?” Edgar asked. “That’s God saying fuck your salvation. This moment is mine. I made you happen. I can make me happen, too. All I have to do is what you did.”
A sudden surge of light erupted from above. Gravity pulled it towards the grid, a deafening shot landing a dozen yards away. Edgar began running in the direction of the hit.
“Goddamn it,” Lester muttered. He rushed to his pack and removed a pair of rubber gloves, stretching the latex over coagulating wounds.
Reaching the singed pole Edgar placed his palms to the blackened iron ore but it was too late. As Lester closed in to wrestle him away, Edgar turned and kicked him in the chest. Lester’s lungs compressed and he collapsed. Edgar took off towards the other end of the grid, leaving a gasping Lester scrambling behind him.
Lighting struck again. Edgar changed direction, chasing the electricity as Lester staggered behind. Another violent blast. Then another. The lightning field was humming with the static of ethereal power, the metallic beams begging for more.
Edgar ran like a beast after its prey, each swift turn aimed towards a charred scepter, each time failing to recover what he hunted. The electrical storm began throwing down bolt after bolt, the tangible atmosphere raining upon the field. Edgar darted in haphazard circles, desperate for a piece as Lester straggled red-faced and exhausted from the onslaught.
Abruptly Edgar stopped and backtracked, gunning in the opposite direction. A winded Lester noticed too late and Edgar clotheslined him. Lester fell with a thud. Too stunned to get up, he turned just in time to see Edgar bank a slow tight turn around a pole. His arms were extended, the tips of his distal phalanges barely grazing the shiny divining rod.
A flash erupted from the sky. The boom shattered the area and the fractured current sizzled through the air, spiking Edgar with the energy of above. It bubbled through his skeleton and roasted the surroundings to a temperature greater than the surface of the sun.
The impact jettisoned Edgar’s body from the point of contact. Shoes flew off crisped soles, cloth burned and ripped, but Edgar’s body landed three yards out in a pile of smoldering limb and ruin. Scorched with Lichtenberg figures, his skin was seared of hair and peeled of muscle. Shrunken pupils danced an embedded agony as the shriveled whites of his eyes dehydrated in his sockets like albino raisins.
Lester climbed to his feet and approached the fried figure. Feeling his friend crouch near his corporeal form, Edgar trembled away shock to seize control for one final effort.
“You orphaned son of a bitch,” he moaned. “Why am I here and you’re there?”
“I thought about that, too, after you left me to die—twice,” Lester said. “Our roles have reversed but I think about it still. You want to know why I’m here and you’re there? It’s because where you fell into fault I persevered. Where you accepted weakness I pushed along. I’m here because I am the reality you refused to accept. I am why you lie, why you sin, why you choose to survive the way you do, or did. Simply put, I am here because I am what you never were—strong enough.”
Edgar lay in the burnt tissues of his ash, letting Lester’s words cover his quivering corpse. Then, sputtering charcoal phlegm, he crackled with laughter.
“I heard you’re only here because you bargained with the devil. Or did you forget?”
Hearing Edgar’s words caused Lester to grip the blistered cranium in his gloved hands and dig his fingers into the flakes of calcium that had been Edgar’s skull. Edgar never felt a thing—his nerves had melted.
“It’s not that you weren’t decent, Edgar. It’s that you were just no good. Or did you forget?”
“You’ll see,” Edgar coughed. “They burn everything. They’ll burn you. Then they’ll burn him. While you watch.”
With a chuckle that sapped the last of his reserves, Edgar’s body went limp.
Lester pried his claws from the sticky membrane of Edgar’s brained scalp and stood. The gale had finally given way to heavy rain, swamping the scene. He lifted his gloves and watched the cooked blood run off into the muddy human stain at his feet. He removed the fake skin from his flesh, let it drop beside the body and ran away from it all.