It was a great golden topaz. A man in rags carried it in his last pocket across the hundred-year ice, until he came to the watch house at the mountain’s foot. The sentry took him in and gave him soup.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Jim Carrys It,” he said. “I’ll tell the story of it later; it ain’t a disease. Your name?”
“Annie Watches,” she laughed. “That’s the story of it, too.”
“Well,” he said gently, “someone else will have to watch, because you have to carry this now,” and he pulled the topaz out of his pocket.
Her eyes got round as soup bowls.
“The stories are true?” she asked.
“They are,” he nodded. “Except nobody knows if the ending is gonna be true.”
In the morning they decided he should stay and watch, as if they had a choice.
“You have enough food here till I get back. Feel free to carve,” she laughed, waving at ice walls covered in old stories about iPods and fields of grain and so on, and new ones, like the one about the topaz.
“It’s true?” she asked. “I just have to give it to the next person?”
“We hope it’s true.”
When she got to the village we all went down to the longhouse; she said, “Now I’ve got here the topaz that we heard the stories about. The man who gave it me is watching for me. We might be the last people to get it. The stories may be true: if we pass it to every person who was born when it was found, every person on earth…” She stopped there, too scared of hope.
We passed it hand to hand round the circle, like people had all over the world.
My name was Nicky No-name-yet. I sat by Annie, so I was going to be last, and I worried I might really be the last person of all, because I thought it should be somebody special.
When the topaz came to me it felt warm from everybody’s hands. Then it got warmer. It burst into light like the sun we’d seen once. It vanished.
Nothing else happened. Later Annie went back. A month after, she and Jim came over the peak and said, “the ice is cracking.”
“Look by your foot, Nicky Topaz,” said my sister. There was a tundra-pea sprout there, the first we had ever seen. We quick put a seal bone fence around it. Then we started dancing and shouting.
Ron showed the lid to the cashier at Quickie Mart.
“The contest!” He clicked the lid down on the counter and pushed it an inch or two towards the man.
The cashier picked it up, walked to the window, and stared at it for a long time. He put it back down in front of Ron. “It says ‘all-expenses-paid worlds tour.’”
That was right, Ron knew, typo and all.
“But how do I get the world tour? Do I go to a website?”
The clerk pointed at some tiny print on the bottle cap. “You call that number.” He gave the lid back and turned away.
“Hello.” A pleasant contralto.
“I, um, I’m calling about,”
“The worlds tour! I’ll set you up right now. When do you want to go?”
“Well, I, er, any time,” Ron finished weakly.
“Fantastic! Thank you so much for calling, and have a great trip.” She hung up.
That was the most surreal conversation he’d ever had, even stoned out of his mind. He turned, and was overwhelmed with the sensation of jamais vu, the unexpected feeling of unfamiliarity amid the familiar. Had the apartment been this untidy when he left this morning? He stepped over a pile of clothes and looked out the window. Holy shit! The lake was gone. No, it was covered with floating condos. But when had the condos been put in? His stomach was starting to feel a little queasy.
Someone walked out of the bathroom. He was short, paunchy, middle-aged, and wearing a towel.
“Hey…” Ron began.
“Gaah!” The man dropped his towel.
Ron stared at the man’s forked penis, then stammered: “Are you a weresnake*.”
“Funny, Zero. You’re still trespassing. What you doing in my zÅn?” Then he slapped his forehead.
“Oh, right, ‘the worlds tour.’ Look, I don’t need this today. Get out.” He nodded toward the door.
Ron opened the door and stepped out.
From the apartment behind him he heard the fat man with the Y-shaped penis say “Oh yeah, watch that first one.”
*Not making this up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes#Reproduction.
Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the carpet unless the light catches it or he treads on it. The mountain, though stunted, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted. It would not bar him from his lost father.
Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder. Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes. One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne: like God after the sixth day. The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.
Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests: Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?
Yul had never put his mind to quests. He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump. Days passed like a clock’s pendulum. Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.
Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Dawns: “Death slipped by if you gripped the necklace righteously.” True, it’d fail, but had they held it right?
The Ruby had never ceded Yul the confidence needed to begin his own life. Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on. Late in his third decade, he, still questing, paused at a village, where a gangly girl drew well water. When he asked for a draft, she gave without reservation.
Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines. Yul stood beside the old man: his white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on the right, wrinkled hand.
“Hello?” The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room. “That you, Spot? I’ve a doggy biscuit.”
Yul grit his teeth.
“I shouldn’t have let you go.” The last word was a sob.
Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.
The old man’s body shook violently. His ribs rippled beneath robes, coming and going. “I loved you like a son.”
Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.