Sarah Anne Steckel: Countless Lives

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Countless Lives

By Sarah Anne Steckel

The cab driver was completely silent as he drove through the busy intersection, past the dozens of busybodies as they trampled along the crosswalk. A vibrant pink strand of hair crossed over Newo’s eyes as she peered into the crowd, searching every face in the hopes of finding the one that was most familiar to her. Finding none, she sighed deeply and turned her attention to the back of the driver’s head, pushed the hair out of her face and asked, “Have you been a driver here very long?”

“Fourteen years.”

“A long while…” Newo fell silent for several moments, her mind drifting to the person she longed to see the most, racing through memories that she thought she had long forgotten — drunken conversations that took place lifetimes ago, playful sparring matches, hushed secluded nights they refused to speak of the next day. Every thought was a hopeful hint to where she would find him, a secret clue that only she knew the answer to. Wracking her brain for the correct answer, she stirred from her memories and returned her gaze to the back of the cab driver’s head with a smile. “Tell me, do you know of a place that a rowdy person might catch a strong drink?”

The driver smiled at her in his rearview mirror and made a U-turn in the street, taking the first turn down a series of side streets before turning down an abandoned alleyway. Placing his elbow up on the center console, he turned around slowly to face her. “If you walk the length of the alley, you’ll come to a door. Knock on it three times and talk to whoever answers. If you answer him correctly, he’ll let you in.”

“What will he ask me?”

The driver shrugged. “Who knows?”

Newo smiled broadly and chuckled under her breath. “Well I suppose that I’m up for this little game. What goes on in this place?”

The driver grinned and vaguely echoed her question from earlier. “It’s a place where rowdy people can catch a drink, girl.”

Reaching into her jacket pocket, Newo pulled out a few folded bills and handed them over to the driver as she reached over and opened the cab door. “Thanks man. Have a good day.”

As she heard the yellow cab drive off behind her, Newo smiled to herself and began her short stroll down the bleak and dark alleyway, reaching the doorway with no trouble. She raised her fist and firmly knocked on the door three times, as instructed, and waited. Several moments went by, and just as she began to grow impatient, a window in the center of the door opened and a pair of eyes greeted her. “If you eat me, my sender will eat you… what am I?”

A riddle. Newo smiled to herself; her many lifetimes made mind games come easy to her. Her smile broadening, she answered quickly. “A fish hook.”

She watched the pair of eyes furrow, the man was frowning behind that door. “Another. What can you hold in your right hand, but never in your left hand?”

“Your left hand…” Newo yawned dramatically, her response heavy with boredom.

The man behind the door narrowed his eyes and grunted with frustration. “One more. I no longer have eyes, but once I did see. Once I had thoughts, but now I’m white and empty. What am I?”

She debated on pretending to think on this one for a while, to make the man behind the door feel better about his lackluster riddles, but she figured that with the type of clientele they had visiting this establishment, he couldn’t make them too hard. Her smile grew as she quickly replied. “A skull.”

The guard frowned and slammed the window shut, opening the door to her to freely walk inside. As she passed through the threshold she looked at him over her shoulder. “Here’s one for you… Great deeds with little strength I do, I close the open, open the closed for you. I keep the master’s house, the master keeps me, too. What am I?” Watching the confusion set in on the guard’s face, Newo grinned as she walked away from him, failing to give him the answer.

She gazed over the dimly lit interior. The room was small, with a long bar in one corner and a series of tables all centered around a large flat-screen TV that was mounted to the wall. Along the opposing wall of the bar was a doorway that led to another room that was much more well lit. Newo turned her attention to the blonde barmaid behind the counter. She motioned her over as she took a seat on a barstool. “Whiskey on the rocks.”

“Sure.” The blonde woman responded and began pouring the drink and handed it over to her.

“What’s over there?” Newo asked in a nonchalant tone, handing the woman a few dollars to pay for her drink.

“The fighting ring,” the barmaid responded. “Actually, you came at a good time. One’s about to start soon. Some new, unknown cocky guy challenged our reigning champ, Sparky.”

“Oh yeah, some new guy?”

“Yeah. Real big bald guy. Odds are still against him, though. Sparky’s been reigning champ for a month now.”

Newo quickly downed her drink and placed the empty glass back on the counter top. She motioned for a second one, and as she handed her the money to pay for it, she asked, “You wouldn’t happen to know the new guy’s name, would you?”

The barmaid furrowed her eyebrows in thought, “Cyclone… No… Cortex? No… It starts with a V…”

Newo’s heart skipped a beat; she froze just as she lifted her glass to her lips. She watched as her hot breath fogged up the rim with her haggard and excited breathing. Forcing herself to take a sip of whisky and swallowing it wrong, she fought back a hoarse cough as she spat out. “Is it Vortex?”

“That’s it!” The barmaid snapped her fingers. “You know him?”

“Yeah.” Newo smiled. “Lemmie even out that betting pool, won’t you?”

***

Inside the center of the second room sat a roped-off fighting ring, with chairs placed all around it. The first few rows of seats had already been occupied, so Newo sat along the aisle beside another man in the third row. Almost immediately as she sat, the man beside her draped his arm around her shoulders. With ease she reached over and pushed his arm off of her, and returned her gaze toward the ring, nervously waiting with anticipation to see Vortex enter.

A second time the man beside her placed his arm around her shoulders, this time his hand making an attempt to grab at her breast. This time, instead of pushing the man’s arm off of her, she removed a concealed dagger from somewhere on her person, firmly pushing it into the man’s side, careful to cut his clothing but not pierce his flesh. Her voice low and eerily calm, she threatened, “If you don’t move from your spot this instant, I will cut you so deep that your guts will spill out and cause this dirty bar floor to glisten with the sheen of your blood.”

A smile crossed her face as the man cursed at her and stumbled out of his chair and moseyed off somewhere else. Just as she replaced her dagger back into its hiding place, the crowd began to cheer and chant the name “Sparky” as an average-sized man made his way into the ring. Once he reached the center he took a bow, causing the crowd to turn into an uproar of hooting and hollering, which was quickly followed by booing and jeers as Sparky’s opponent pushed past the curtain.

Vortex walked confidently toward the fighting ring, his steps slow and firm. He hadn’t changed; in the hundreds of lifetimes that they had been together, every time they came back looking the same way — Newo with her pink hair and eyes, and Vortex with his strong and tall demeanor and his dark eyes and shiny bald head. As he swung over the ropes and entered the ring, Newo couldn’t fight back the broad smile that was growing on her face and causing her cheeks to turn hot.

The two opponents circled one another, Vortex much larger than Sparky, and Newo wondered if any of their many previous sparring matches would be on Vortex’s mind during this match. Before their fight even began, Newo knew that Sparky was going to be faster, and that he would probably fight dirty just to outmatch Vortex’s obvious strength — it’s a tactic that she would, and had, relied upon quite frequently.

The bell rang and as she predicted, Sparky dove low for Vortex’s legs in an attempt to knock him down. Vortex kicked him back with one great swing of his leg and grabbed the smaller man up by the hair, lifting him up and over his head. A loud roar, like a wild animal, bellowed out from his throat before Vortex slammed the small of Sparky’s back into his right knee. The entirety of the crowd broke into hisses and boos, but Vortex stood silent and unaffected. He smiled when Sparky failed to move, and he turned to face the crowd to gloat.

“Don’t fall for it!” Newo found herself shouting as best she could over the crowd. “Don’t turn your back to him yet, you idio—”

Before she could finish her insult, Sparky had jumped up onto Vortex’s back just as he turned away. The smaller man began pummeling both fists into the sides of Vortex’s face and chest, screaming like a banshee as he wailed on him. She watched helplessly, as Vortex tried to rip Sparky off from his back. Like a dog unable to pull a tick out from between his shoulder blades, Vortex was unable to get a good enough grip to throw him off.

“He’s on your back!” Newo did her best to throw her voice over the screaming crowd. “Squish him! Fall back and squish him! You’re much larger than he is!”

She intently watched Vortex’s face as he tried to make out her words, his eyebrows rising and he seemed to laugh. He grabbed on tight to Sparky’s wrists as they wailed down upon him, stopping his barraging fists and forcing him to stay clung on to his back. In one swift movement, Vortex fell backwards, pinning Sparky’s body between his and the mat. He rolled from side to side several times, before remaining totally motionless and waiting for the final bell to end the match. Sparky made no attempts to struggle for his freedom, not even an arm movement to signal that he had given up.

The bell rang three times, and the majority of the crowd booed, hissed, or threw their empty beer cans into the center of the ring. Ignoring all of them, Vortex calmly got to his feet and raised his arms in victory. As the room began to clear, Newo stood upon her chair and cheered loudly. “I’m rich! Woo-hoo!”

“Newo…” Vortex whispered under his breath, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his equally sweaty palm.

Their eyes locked on one another, and Newo couldn’t fight back the smile that overtook her face. In haste she began to run towards him, jumping from chair to chair until she reached the edge of the fighting ring. In one swift move, Vortex wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her over the ropes and hugged her tightly to his chest. “I was wondering when I would run into you in this lifetime!”

As he released his grip on her, Newo swung her fist back and slugged him in the face as hard as she was able to. “Did a lot of searching for me, did you, huh?”

“Well, you know… I got a little busy,” he said bashfully and set her down, rubbing the side of his face with a grimace.

Newo scowled and shook her head, glaring up at him with a grin. Bashfully she raised her hand up to gently stroke the other side of his face and pouted. “I always gotta be the one to find you… Oh well, won a bunch of money betting on you this time. Let’s go collect my winnings. I suppose I owe you a drink?”

“I’ve stopped keeping track of who owes who a drink.” He pulled her hand over to his lips and kissed her knuckles gently. Walking over to the edge of the ring he slithered out between the ropes, and then turned to pick her up with ease and lift her over the ropes before placing her gently down on the floor. “But let’s not get a drink here… I don’t think they care for me too much.”

Newo chuckled under her breath and linked her arm around his. “Noted.”

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Please visit Sarah Anne’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2365113170402055&id=2310272992552740&__tn__=K-R

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