Carter watched his pupil, sitting languidly in the ugly but comfortable green cloth chair. Kelt was no longer waxed, but his eyes were blurry and his speech, slurred. Carter slid his gaze to the trunk and looked at the bottle of whiskey, a black label "Old No. 5" across the surface of the bottle, half empty. He was losing Kelt, he felt it.
Kelt said, "What are you looking at? crazy old man."
Carter watched him carefully. He didn’t know what tack to take with the boy. He drawled, "I see you’re making the most of this truce."
Kelt lifted the bottle to his lips and took a small pull, more for show; his head felt numb, but anger burned away that cottony feeling. "Why the hell shouldn’t I? I’ve got a free month to enjoy the way things were, the easy way life had been before you arrived."
"So you’ll just backslide, huh? What about your search for the Answer?"
Kelt said, "Shit." He belched. "Just shit. Metaphysical bulldoodey." Kelt laughed, too loudly for sense. "That was good. Hell. Grab what you can, when you can. That’s what Jax would say."
Carter leaned closer to Kelt, tried to catch intent in Kelt’s eyes, but they were too blurry from alcohol. Carter spoke softly, trying to defuse the situation but get Kelt back on track, "Since when have you liked whatever Jax had to say? You’ve gotten nothing but a stab in the back from him, literally."
Kelt shouted, "Dammit, you know when! You know when! This ain’t no gawd dammed movie. You ain’t no freakin’ Yoda the hut. You put me out in the streets to confront that damn dragon as a lesson, old man. You were usin’ me. You put my soul in danger–I feel so friggin’ filthy."
Kelt sighed, stood, went to his kitchen, drank down a glass of water, left the glass on the counter, and stumbled into the bathroom.
A long moment later, Kelt came out grinning and said, "Ah, much better," and reached for the bottle, taking another pull. "And that, my dear lost builder, was even better."
Carter asked, "Was it that terrible?"
Kelt smirked and said, "Oh, no, man. It was good, real good, being in the scum effin center of Jax and then ejaculating. Oh yeah, that’ll get you thinking right. I can’t–oh, forget it. You’ve got to be there to know what I’m talking about. Everybody travels alone. The Trickster said that and he–it? Whatever–He was right, so very right. But I ain’t listening to your shit anymore."
"If you don’t want me around, I can leave."
"And have you gettin torn up by builders on my conscience? Uh-uh. C’mon, relax. I’m sorry I shouted at you. Have a drink."
Kelt snorted and took another small pull from the bottle. "Prig," he muttered and set the bottle down. His aim was poor and he only set one corner of the bottle on the trunk before releasing it. The bottle tipped over and the brown liquor splashed to the floor. "Shit!" Kelt yipped and lunged after the bottle. Only a few shots remained. "Eh, I feel like pukin’ anyway. I always feel like pukin’."
Kelt wrenched his stare from the bottle to look into Carter’s eyes. "Are you searching for the Answer, Carter? I don’t think you are. I think you’re a soldier in the same way that woman was talking about me and Jax. You some sort of lost builder generalissimo?"
Carter leaned back into the couch. He inhaled and then spoke, "I’ll tell you, Kelt, though you probably won’t remember any of it in the morning. I understand your hunger for an answer to existence–"
Kelt interrupted, "Incompleteness, that’s my question."
"Any way you want to phrase it. But I don’t share it. I just try to get by–"
Kelt interrupted again, "But that’s what I was doing before you came. Just trying to get by, day to day."
Carter grimaced; then, he sighed and said, "You’re right, but not precisely. I’m trying to get by in helping my people, not in hiding in a fast food dump."
"Blacks? Uhm, I mean African-Americans?"
Carter shook his head. "Lost builders. We’re a fragile breed. One stroke of Jax’s soul blade sent Carol over the edge. Some go over the edge by themselves. And all of them, as you say, travel alone. You want some god or Brahma to give you enlightenment; some just want oblivion; some just want to relieve their ennui. All of them at one point had to be hungry enough for something to lose themselves, their identity, their memories, if only for a moment."
Kelt drained the last shot from the bottle and pointed a wobbling index finger at Carter. "Yeah, that’s them, old man. Me. But what about you? Huh? What the hell are you doin’ this crap for?"
Carter glanced at the empty bottle, leaned back and said, "Builders aren’t crazy-hungry like lost builders. They have the patience to sit and plan, like a murder of crows harassing an owl. Someone has to fight for the lost builders."
Carter looked over at Kelt for some kind of reaction to what he had said, but Kelt had passed out, his arms hanging over the sides of the chair, his head lolling back, and a soft and rough snore passing from the back of his throat.
Kelt woke with a sore neck and a blinding headache, which a glass of lukewarm water mollified, but his gut and his chest felt like a mass of spaghetti instead of bone and muscle and sinew. Hungover. He couldn’t drag himself into the shower; the water would be too unpleasant, smashing into his skin. He grabbed a pair of sunglasses and walked down the steps of his apartment building. The smell of paint made him queasy again, but he forged on. Standing still only made it worse.
It was late afternoon. His shades blocked the sun from his too sensitive eyes. Gulping fresh air, Kelt convinced himself he felt better. He stretched once and headed for the store to buy a six pack. He looked at the buildings, the ornate cornices–anything to distract himself from the depression that weighed on him.
"Kelt," a voice hissed.
Kelt turned to look down a narrow alleyway between two grey stone buildings that were tall enough to block the sinking sun from the narrow passage. Loose garbage–beer cans, cigarette butts, old newspapers–and twin dumpsters crowded the alley. A man shape stood tall and Kelt saw a glowing white soul blade in his left hand. The white blade didn’t disturb the shadows.
Kelt pushed his anima to his left eye and the energy started to run down to his palm.
But the voice–Jax’s voice cried, "No. Wait. I want to talk." He held up the blade and Kelt watched it slowly shrink as the white anima rolled up Jax’s arm like liquid dancing a defiance against gravity. "Truce?"
"What do you want? I don’t want to talk to you."
Jax’s voice was frantic. "But you must, must! Come here. I won’t hurt you. God, Kelt, you’ve been inside of me."
"That’s why I don’t want to come any closer. Or have you forgotten you stabbed me twice?"
Jax took a step toward Kelt; he was half in shadow and half in twilight. Jax said, "Now, do you see? Come here. I’ve got no clothes. I don’t want to attract attention. Julia’s looking for me. I couldn’t come down from my first void in any of my usual haunts–haunts . . . heh, heh, like that slang? Already, I’m starting to sound like a lost builder. Come here."
He was naked and shivering and sweating. Kelt saw all that before Jax retreated to the safety of the shadows. He took two steps into the alley. Jax clutched some sort of lump in his right hand. Kelt halted.
"Fine, that’s fine." Jax said. His voice wavered and he shifted from foot to foot.
Kelt asked softly, "What are you holding, Jax?"
Jax broke into a ragged laugh; then said, "I’m holding me, or what I used to be. That’s why I need to talk to you. Heh, want to see?"
Kelt’s harpy rustled in its nest, squealed to be released, bothering Kelt’s concentration. But Kelt wanted to learn something from Jax, for Carter, for the shitty way he had treated him since the truce. Kelt only wanted the Answer, but Carter was his friend, deserved some help in his war. Anyway, fighting with Jax wouldn’t solve anything. And looking at him was almost like looking into a mirror; he identified with Jax, had identified with him since the fight. Confronting Jax would be a purging–he hoped.
"Show me what’s in your hand."
Jax thrust his right arm into the light; the shadows started at his forearm. Clutched in Jax’s hand was a large city rat. Its sharp teeth embedded in Jax’s hand where the thumb and the forefinger joined. The rat glared back into the shadows at Jax. Its bald tail poked freely from the bottom of his hand and swayed as Jax trembled.
Jax spoke proudly, "See? Do you see? It was me. Look at his eyes, Kelt. What a hunter, what a party animal." Jax broke into another stream of ragged laughter.
Kelt said, "I don’t want to duel with you anymore, Jax. You’re waxed and not making sense. Go get some rest."
The rat released its bite only to get a firmer purchase on Jax. Blood ran down in a thin line from Jax’s forearm and dripped to the ground from his elbow. Jax tightened his grip.
He said, almost shouting, "Stop pretending. You’re not ignorant. You see the rat. You know what I’m talking about. I–and I think almost everyone, except for lost builders–is like the rat. How did they say it in school? Eating, drinking, fucking, shitting–not exactly those words, but that was the definition of life, something like that. And that’s all I was, until you infected me like a damn virus. I can’t–I want to be the way I was. Like this rat." Jax held the rat close to Kelt’s face. Fleas jumped from the rat to Jax and back.
Kelt gritted his teeth. The blood rushed to his face. "Damn you. Don’t call me a virus. You’re the one who infected me with your filthy thoughts, with the way you look at the world, nothing but pain and pleasure."
Kelt heard Jax cough–or sob? He wasn’t sure.
Jax said, "Th–that’s not the way I am, but–heh, I’m glad I gave you something else to think about besides your own damn loneliness and your own damn lust for God–or is it just you who you lust after?"
Kelt whispered behind clenched jaws, "What do you know about my question? That’s me, not you."
Jax shouted, "You made it my question! A question I can’t even put into words! You bridged your horrible question into me. I never had a choice!" As he raged, he squeezed his right hand tighter and tighter. The rat died squealing. Jax vented his anger by slamming the little carcass into the ground. Rat blood flowed with Jax’s blood on his mangled hand. He seemed unaware of his injury.
Kelt answered quietly, "No one has a choice about that question. Who would choose such an impossible task?"
"Someone bridge the question into you? Is that how lost builders get started?"
"No, Jax. I was born this way, I guess. It just came into me. I don’t know."
Jax laughed, more nervousness than anything else. "How could you live? We’re just drops of oil in an ocean that never joins the two, no matter the same moon, the same currents, the same dreams. I d-don’t understand how anyone could live with such loneliness–always hungering, never knowing. Is that love and hate and all that’s me seeing all I see behind your eyes–oh, please." Jax hugged himself, squeezed his ribs and rocked back and forth. "Or–or just another predator or just nothing, nothing at all behind your eyes–the abyss behind all those eyes in the city and I’m alone. I can’t bear it, I tell you, I can’t. Don’t take off your sunglasses; I don’t want to see your eyes. I’ll stay in the shadows so you can’t see mine. Do you understand? Even with the same question–the one you gave me–we still see everything differently. I want to pretend that we see it the same way, just pretend, like you pretend there’s a god, who’ll make everyone together and make everyone see everything the same way. Huh. I’m not so ambitious in my pretending. I’ll just pretend we both see the question the exact same way." His voice quieted. "Kelt, I–I’m going to become a lost builder, too, just like you. It’ll help me pretend that I’m not alone, that you understand me perfectly, ’cause we’ll be the same, then. The only two together in the whole damned history of the world."
Kelt wanted to dismiss Jax as a lunatic. The way he talked, all manic and naked and shivering. It would be easy. Jax mirrored his thoughts too closely, too insidiously mirrored his fears–a black mirror that only reflected the darkness and not the light. The way he, Kelt, had acted since the fight–the merger with Jax, Kelt admitted to himself. He pitied Jax, his manic pain, and at the same time he pitied himself, for Jax did think like him now.
Kelt said, "Good. Become a lost builder, and if you find the Answer, come and tell me what it is or where I can find it."
Jax moaned, "Oh, It’s hard, Kelt. I go close to the light in my first void and I feel my body start to burn–and–and my mind, too. I’m afraid of dying."
"You won’t die. Am I dead?"
"I don’t know."
"That’s not funny, Jax. I exist. You can’t deny it."
Jax spoke hurriedly, "No, no, I want you to exist. How else could I pretend I’m not alone? But it’s hard, that light. I’m scared. Hold me."
Kelt stepped away, repulsed. "Get hold of your own damn self."
Abruptly, Jax stopped shivering. He spoke softly, "I lied, Kelt. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of living, living forever and ever as a lost builder. Don’t you know you’re immortal? If something from the outer darkness, like a dragon, doesn’t eat your soul energy, you’ll never pass Beyond, where they say you meet your Maker. Isn’t that what you want to do? Meet your Maker? Ask him a few questions, like why? Why don’t you kill yourself?"
Kelt turned from Jax. "Go home. Sleep. You’re perverse from being waxed."
As Kelt walked away, Jax shouted after him, "You’ll help me, Kelt! You did this to me; you have to help me. I’ll become a lost builder. Kelt! Kelt!!"
"Kelt! Watch out for Carter. Watch out for Julia. They’re not much more than rats. You’ll see. They want to distract us from the question, from the Answer. Do like me. Stay away from them."
Kelt walked away; he almost thought he could hear Jax sobbing over his dead rat.