The traveling carnival arrives at the Mississippi Gulfport Harbor along with a group of swindlers who make a living dazzling crowds with oddities and magic. Colton Lockwood goes to the hypnotist show to see mind reading and learn about past lives. He meets Jasper Thorn, an eccentric carny that claims to have found the secret to immortality. What would you do if you could live forever?
"I am a master of hypnosis and misdirection, using the power of suggestion."
Jasper Thorn, Traveling Hypnotist
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Colton Lockwood had always been fascinated by genetic mutations. He read a lot about anomalies in nature, such as livestock that sprouted two heads or an extra tail. Some tree frogs were sometimes born with an extra eye. Colton was born with the correct number of arms, legs, fingers, and toes. His hair was dark, thick, and easily styled. He spent three nights a week in the gym, gaining muscle. He bulked up for health reasons, but the extra attention from girls was nice, too.
The oddities of nature held his interest when they appeared in others. But he didn’t want to be seen as a freak; in fact, quite the opposite. Colton wanted his body to look as healthy and strong as possible. After being voted most likely to become a millionaire in his high school yearbook, his reputation became important to him. He paid more attention to his hairstyle and spent more money following fashion trends. But he enjoyed learning about all kinds of topics. As a kid, he stared at the pages of hardcover books such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the annual Guinness Book of World Records. He collected them in his room along with special articles from National Geographic.
The strangest photo he ever saw in the yellow-bordered magazine was that of an aboriginal girl on an island off the coast of South America. She had the rare ability to contort her legs over her shoulders and pick up lizards with her toes. As part of ancient cultural rituals, she stretched her ear lobes to fit large pieces of cork. Her face was painted with limestone dust and medicinal tree sap, which the article explained served as a natural sunblock. Her clothing was made of braided blades of grass and twigs, tightly woven into a pastel skirt with a leather belt.
There was another exceptional thing about this otherworldly girl: her tongue was eight inches long. A different photograph showed her licking her elbow. A skilled climber and hunter, she had extreme upper-body strength and a toned core from scaling cliffs to find food. The girl wasn’t the only member of the tribe with these extraordinary traits. Many tribe members had evolved these abilities based on the demands of their environment and diet. Colton framed that article above his desk when he was seven years old. Those photographs inspired him to take more science courses than his peers. He later took biology, zoology, and several classes on the history of natural medicine.
Colton once read that the oldest person on record was a French woman named Jeanne Calment, who lived from 1875 to 1997, 122 years and 164 days. She lived an active life, which included fencing, tennis, and roller-skating. Jeanne had enjoyed chocolate, wine, and red meat along with many kinds of sweets; and she was rarely sick throughout her many years. Colton found an entire website about this woman’s biography and medical care. He found it intriguing how her lifestyle might have allowed her to live much longer than others.
When the traveling carnival came through at the start of the summer, Colton had just completed his first year of the medical graduate program at the University of Southern Mississippi, with summer classes starting. His program focused on disease research for new strands of emerging viruses that, if spread, could lead to a devastating pandemic. Since the research required constantly changing statistics, he spent most of his time conducting surveys at hospitals and clinics.
His interest toward this cutting-edge topic deepened his understanding of the fine line between life and death. He first saw this invisible boundary when his mother took him to see the lions in a big top tent at a circus just outside Jackson, MS. It was the type of night that instantly became headline news the next morning. They were part of the crowd that witnessed a lion tamer mauled to death in the center of the ring. The music in the show had kept playing as the lion tore the man limb from limb. Colton remembered the way the spotlight darted away from the incident into the tent rafters as the curtain rippled behind the trainer, causing an uproar from those watching in terror. His mom had been in such shock that she pulled Colton from his seat and rushed him outside the tent. A handprint bruise had formed on his arm from where she grabbed him.
For any child, this event would have been traumatizing. For Colton, it showed all the majesty and mayhem that made the circus so exciting. For the price of an admission ticket, danger became fun. He figured the lion tamer must have known the risk of his death-defying career. Once a man cheated death that many times, it was bound to catch up with him. So, seeing a man gobbled by the king of the jungle had a dark sense of karma to it. He thought of it as gypsy karma, the kind that followed the freak show around like a swarm of locusts.
His mom never took him to the circus after that. And so, Colton asked his uncle Frank to take him until he was old enough to drive. And since the year of the killer lion, Colton had not missed a trip to the Circus. Eventually, the show outside Jackson stopped coming around since other attractions like concerts and nerd conventions became more popular. But Colton found another way to get his freak fix. His uncle introduced him to the new traveling carnival that came to the Gulfport Harbor coast-side in Mississippi for two weeks every summer.
Massive billboards all across Interstate 10 promoted it weeks before the summer months. The signs used fantastic images of jugglers, wild animals, and elephants with hats. Huge letters stretched across the billboards: YOUR TICKET TO SUMMER. Other signs appealed to adults with phrases from classic circus and vaudeville shows.
Affordable family fun for all ages! The world’s best traveling roadshow. Preserving the past, promoting the future. Built to amaze. Come one. Come all. Roll Up. Roll Up. The carnival is coming. Gleaming with gold. Surprises for young and old. The sensation of the century with spine-chilling attractions!
As families planned their road trips, kids saw the signs and begged their parents to take them to the traveling show. The rides weren’t as thrilling as Six Flags, but there was a charm to the carnival that appealed, especially to children because it fed their imagination. People drove down from Jackson, Starkville, and even towns like Clarksdale to attend the wackiest place in Mississippi.
On the first weekend of the carnival, Colton and his friend Trevor, an orthopedic grad student, drove south from the university to Gulfport Harbor.
A famous ticket man greeted them. His name was Lobster Boy. He was born with two unsightly hooks of cartilage instead of fingers and had been one of the most recognized carnival acts in America when he was younger. Now, after a lifetime of being toted around like a show pony, Lobster Boy’s fleshy claws were swollen with veins. He smelled like a can of tuna and said, “Enjoy the show,” then whispered, “Watch your back.”
Colton chuckled a little and looked into the washed-up performer’s eyes as the shell of a man tore his ticket in half and handed him the stub.
Trevor didn’t laugh. He looked genuinely disturbed by the man’s appearance. He hadn’t seen someone like this before. Trevor had been to a carnival only a few other times, some of which had been canceled for bad weather. When Lobster Boy ripped his ticket and handed it back, Trevor dropped it because he was too focused on the man’s deformity. Embarrassed, he stooped down to pick up his ticket stub. Colton nudged Trevor’s shoulder to keep the line moving; and they walked under a colorful banner, entering a mist of whimsical sights and sounds.
They walked past the booths for sand art and wax hands, popular with creative kids who wanted something to put on their nightstand at home. Some children kept these trinkets as treasured memories; others threw them away before leaving. Colton still had his wax hand, a valuable artifact from his early carnival visits from when he was a kid, and kept it next to his alarm clock. The polka music and smells of popcorn were pure nostalgia.
Trevor bought a glazed turkey leg from one of the food vendors to gnaw on while they walked around. Colton bought the biggest stick of cotton candy from the man in the red-striped waistcoat. He liked to start first with sweets and move onto savory treats later, since he planned to be here most of the night.
Lines formed in front of large containers of lemonade and root beer. Even longer lines stacked up for Drown the Clown, the timeless game of throwing baseballs at a target to sink the clown into a water tank rimmed with white and red face makeup. It took Trevor only two throws. He doubled over with laughter when the clown’s wig flew off. While the soaked, bald joker climbed back on the platform and squeezed the water from his wig, Trevor gave the baseball guy another fifty cents. He eyed the target, wound up, and this time nailed it on his first throw. The clown’s legs flew into the air while water splashed out. Colton hadn’t seen Trevor laugh that hard since the paintball fight at the campus Olympics last year.
They paid a few dollars more to ride the Spinning Cyclops. Some kids pouted by the side of the ride because they couldn’t get past the height requirement. Colton closed his eyes to prevent getting a headache from the cascade of spinning lights. Neither of them suffered from motion sickness, but Trevor couldn’t walk straight for fifteen minutes after they stumbled off the ride. They avoided the Ferris wheel because Trevor was afraid of heights. Besides, that ride was too romantic. Colton believed it was exclusively for young couples on dates that wanted to make-out.
Colton recently broke up with his girlfriend, Julie Vasco, because she cheated on him with a guy in the chemistry department. Trevor had seen them together at a Chinese restaurant and found out she was sleeping with the guy. Apparently, she wasn’t even trying to hide it. But when Colton made the split, she smashed the windshield of his car with a nine-iron golf club. Colton would have gone on the Ferris wheel with Julie; but that was over, and he was trying to forget about her. Romantic things bothered him since the breakup was still fresh. Even though he actively avoided Julie, he’d often imagine spending time with her again.
A blinking sign made of small yellow bulbs caught Colton’s eye. It read: Mind Reading, Hypnosis, and Dream Interpreter. The sign flashed above a partially opened, red curtain next to an arrow sign pointing into the darkness.
Colton poked Trevor in the ribs with his elbow. “Hey, we should check this out.”
Trevor threw a handful of peanut M&Ms into his mouth and shook his head. “Nah, not my thing.”
Trevor chewed with his mouth open. “I’m gonna go sign up for the pie-eating contest.”
“You’re going to get sick!”
“Oh, thanks. Mom.”
“You’d rather go eat pie than see the hypnotist?"
“Okay, fine. Go stuff your face. You know where to find me.”
“All right. Cool.” Trevor turned and walked into the crowd of strangers.
Colton curled his fingers around the edge of the red curtain and walked inside. An audience of forty people or so sat in front of a raised stage. He stood in the back next to a father with a young boy perched on his shoulders.
Suspenseful, brooding music played from behind the empty stage. The back curtain rose, revealing a middle-aged man wearing an old tweed, vaudeville suit. He had a spare-tire belly and a bow-legged walk. Folds of skin surrounded his neck like the jowls of a basset hound from extreme weight loss. He waddled forward into the spotlight and wheeled out a large fish tank balanced on a mahogany table. The humidity in the small, tented theatre already had him sweating bullets. His voice boomed throughout the room, commanding the attention of even the most skeptical audience member.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming this evening. My name is Jasper Thorn. I am a master of hypnosis and misdirection, using the power of suggestion. If you’ve been to the fortuneteller’s booth, you should get your money back. The entertainment that I will provide you tonight will shed light on the fakes. I’m going to show you things the fortunetellers can’t predict. My methods are not found in their dusty, old books.”
He raised his arms and turned in a complete circle, lifting the soles of his shoes, opening the folds of his tweed jacket to show he wasn’t wearing a wire.
“As you can see, I will not be using any gimmickry in my wizardry tonight. The only electronic device used in my act is the CD player behind the curtain. I did away with watches and pendulums long ago.”
Goldfish shimmered in the fish tank, swimming in peaceful disorder. Jasper closed his eyes and waddled ten paces from the tank to the right edge of the stage. He formed fists with his hands and raised them into the air like an insane conductor. The music stopped. It felt as if the air had been sucked out of the theatre. Opening one eye, rotating his head toward the tank like an owl watching prey, Jasper waited for a moment.
Suddenly, the fish stopped swimming, suspended in a spellbound paralysis. Several people in the audience gasped. The little boy perched on his father’s shoulder next to Colton cupped his hands over his open mouth.
Jasper opened his fists and relaxed his stance. “Do you believe in mind control? Many believe . . . but few can do it.” He circled around the fish tank and spun squeaky wheels of the table, showing the gold specks floating in suspension. “We’d all like to know how to influence the thoughts and feelings of others, wouldn’t we? Wives want to cast a spell on their husbands so they’ll do the dishes. Children want to house-train their rambunctious pets. Although practical, these are trivial uses for such power.” He held his hand over the tank. “These fish are not dead, but fully conscious. If you look carefully, their gills are still opening and closing. They are waiting for me to release them. Don’t worry, I will in just a moment. But first, I need a volunteer. I know you’re out there, tonight.”
A few hands shot up. The spotlight moved around the room. One of the girls in the front forcefully raised the hand of a friend next to her.
Jasper shielded his eyes from the spotlight. “Hmmm, more than I thought. You, in the front. Yes, you. Come right up the stairs on the left. Are you ready to know what these fish are feeling right now?”
“Sure, I guess so.” The young, teenage girl turned red as she walked to the stairs. “I’ve never been a fish before.”
“Right, well I’m not going to paralyze you completely. You will be able to talk with us.” Jasper gently guided the girl to a mark near the front of the stage. “What is your name, dear?”
She giggled. “Brittney.”
“Oh, you must be popular with a name like that.”
“If you say so.”
The girl looked equally excited and anxious about what might happen to her in the hands of this weird showman. Colton thought she seemed like the type to sneak out on a Friday night even though her strict parents had grounded her for dating a bad boy and smoking cigarettes in the trees behind the school parking lot.
Jasper took her hand. “And where are you from, Brittney?”
“Jackson. Born and raised.”
“That’s great. Have you ever been put in a trance before?”
“Not that I remember.”
“Well, memory is funny that way. It plays tricks on us all the time. Have you heard of past lives?”
“Like when you used to be another person, from another time?”
“Yes, like a passenger on the Titanic, or a monk in Tibet. Those are examples of who we might have been. And they’re part of the reason some people have such vivid dreams. You see, only the subconscious can tap into the secrets of our past lives. The brain is an incredible mystery. And yet, through some of my simple methods, I can unlock a few of those secrets.”
Now, Brittney looked petrified. She nervously scratched her forearm and squinted in the spotlight beam.
“More than names, we remember faces. Our brain stores millions of faces from our past lives. Most of the faces we see every day are stored in places that are easily accessible, those of our family and close friends, our bosses and co-workers, even your hair stylist or the mailman. But the facial recognition required for the majority of the other people we’ve interacted with are in the deep storage of the mind. This is why everyone looks vaguely familiar on TV. But there’s something even more unique about each of us: our voice. As long as you’ve spent a good deal of time with someone, it takes only a few words for the brain to recognize the frequency, enunciation, and other vocal patterns to identify who’s talking. Some conjurers use many different devices to open the subconscious. But I need only my voice.”
Jasper moved his finger back and forth in front of her face and spoke in a smooth rhythm. “I want you to relax and follow me with your eyes. Just like this. Good. Now, you’ll start to feel your toes are numb, a coldness, seeping up through your legs like wading into a pool of ice water. Unlock your knees. Let the weight of your body move into the stage. Feel that? It’s rising, up through your feet, your stomach; you feel nothing now in the tips of your fingers, your wrists become frozen, then your arms, moving up through your shoulders and neck. Finally, you wade in deep enough to dip the back of your head. That’s right, tilt your head back ever so slightly. You are calm. You are weightless. You are a feather.”
“I am a feather,” the girl repeated.
Jasper circled his hand around her head; clearing invisible cobwebs like the man outside the theatre spun cotton candy. “I’m going to remove some artifacts from your memories. Brittney, can you hear me?”
“Can you move your legs?”
“Do you have any last words you’d like to share with us?”
The theatre fell silent.
“Then, I’m going to ask you to step away from your body and come back only when I tell you.”
Under any other circumstance, Brittney’s voice would have trembled; but the trance removed her nervous energy and replaced it with a sense of calm.
Jasper coiled the final strands of the imaginary thread above her head and placed them in his tweed jacket pocket. “I am going to ask you a few questions. What is your name?”
She opened her jaw for a moment before saying, “I don’t know.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Reach further back, into your past. Who are you?”
“Into your past lives. Brittney has left. Now, with whom am I speaking?”
Then, her voice became older, more elegant. “The Queen of the Nile.”
“My name . . . . ”
“My name . . . is Cleopatra.”
“That is my name.”
“Don’t lie to me!”
“You must bow! I am your ruler! Fall at my feet and worship me!” The girl’s eyes rolled back until only the whites filled her upward gaze.
Jasper said, “How is it that you’ve come to grace us with your presence?”
“I’ve come to warn you of a great disaster that will destroy this god-forsaken desert, prophecies foretold in writing on stone, things not of this earth. The plagues are coming.”
“And how do you know of these things?”
“I’ve been shown . . . by the gods. They came to me in a dream.”
“Are you sure?”
Her head rotated like a balanced plate, and she growled, “Do not question my visions! I am the protector . . . the guardian of souls. I am the great Cleo . . . .”
“Enough!” Jasper snapped his fingers and the teenage girl fell from the trance onto the floor as if he had unlocked her arms from restraints. “Brittney, please return to us. Leave the past. Come back to the present, now. Head my voice. Listen, and return.”
The girl coughed and shook her hair, desperately trying to come to her senses. Her knees wobbled as she stood to face Jasper.
“My dear,” he said. “You have joined us once more.”
She tried to catch her breath. “Where was I?”
“You were hovering over your body. I allowed a past life to speak through you.”
“How long was I gone?”
“It was only a matter of minutes. You never really left us.”
“I sounded . . . crazy.”
“No you did not. It was a beautiful moment. Are you Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile?”
She smirked and put her hand to her chest to make sure the pounding in her head was the same as the pounding in her heart. “I saw myself say those words.”
“But it wasn’t me.”
“You were channeling a past life. Did you like what you saw?”
“It scared me.”
“It can be alarming the first time. And now that you are back with us, I must ask for the sake of us all . . . what is your name?”
“And you hail from?”
Jasper took her by the hand and led her down the stairs. “Thank you for participating in our little experiment. You are a brave girl, braver than most. And I’m thrilled you decided to reenter your body.”
Colton watched this intense demonstration with extreme skepticism. He wondered if the girl had rehearsed her enthralling performance before the show. The two might have conspired to come up with this exchange. Some of it even sounded scripted, especially the pace at which the girl had answered his questions. But whether or not Jasper had actually conjured another woman through his volunteer, he somehow displayed a charismatic grace. For someone who claimed to pull voices from the past, Jasper seemed rather calm. His sly, carny stage persona made Colton even more curious as to what had caused the girl’s body to react in such a dramatic change. It appeared as though her soul had been extracted from her body, but such things were impossible. No matter how absurd or unusual, the events of Jasper’s show somehow seemed plausible to those who suspended their disbelief. Colton had walked into the show with no expectations; but as he continued to watch, he folded his arms and guarded himself from the mysterious energy of the flashy showman.
Jasper called up several members of the audience and periodically wiped out their memories. Even those who knew each other, a husband and wife, suddenly became strangers. Once the volunteers were feathery wafts, he coached them into a small zoo of cawing, braying, and squawking animals. While they kept their human form, sporting their regular clothes, Jasper only had to say a few words to transform their behaviors. They contorted their bodies to match the poses of crows, horses, and chickens.
“Feast your eyes upon the follies of man. Though he walks upright with pride, I have brought him back to the earliest past lives he once lived when he saw through the eyes of these nest dwellers and egg-layers, these galloping wonders of nature. Watch as they paw for their freedom and search for food. These were simple times, before we knew our own reflection. Before we saw the potential that could sprout from such madness. As you can see, man has more beast in him than beauty.”
He guided a woman crawling on the floor, an inquisitive lizard, away from chewing the stage curtains. She flared her nostrils and flicked her tongue between the teeth of an inhuman smile.
“Why do they subject themselves to the ground the way of the reptile? Why do they allow such public humiliation? It is because I have taken away their ability to speak and express themselves. They have been stripped of dignity. As you sit quietly in your seats, feet flat on the ground, controlling your posture, your friends have lost any concern for social stature. If I were to ask these gullible people to tie a shoe or pour a drink, they could not do it. These tasks require the dexterity of thumbs and fingers, not claws and hooves. If I were to ask them for the year, they would only answer with an inscrutable yawn of slurred syllables. In their current state, they are no longer enslaved by the plights of our times. They have escaped them. But this freedom is an illusion. This is how we carny freaks feel.” He spoke passionately. “We are less than. We are stowaways, castaways, misfits searching for rights we can never attain and chasing a temporary affection worth nothing more than the torn tickets in your pockets.”
Jasper’s words transfixed the crowd.
“This is our struggle. These are the chains that bind us to you. For you are the masters. And we are your trained monkeys, singing and dancing for a scrap of food. And you ask, why is it we allow this? Because we love it. We live for it. We crave your attention, fascination, revulsion, and leering-stares. All of it. We need to be seen. Your gasps are music to our ears.”
He snapped his fingers again, and the group of wild spectators toppled over, slamming the stage with their limp bodies, a mess of ruffled clothing and hair.
“We carnies know why you’re here. You want to watch us play with the fine edge between life and death, dangle it in front of your faces just long enough for you to leave this place with a newfound vitality, a fresh reason to be excited about your somewhat normal life, holding us freaks outside of arms’ reach. And this is why, as a carny, I feel so close to my fellow performers. We do everything together: travel, eat, laugh, and mourn. We fall together, and together . . . we rise . . . . ”
Jasper clapped his hands and bowed dramatically as the volunteers rose to their feet in unison. Colton was shocked they seemed clear-minded and wide-eyed, facing the rest of the spectators with broad shoulders in one grand gesture. They had just returned from another side of civility, a more primitive side; yet they stood with more charisma than any of them had at the beginning of the act. Their feet were spread in a wide, confident stance, diligently focused soldiers, ready at the command of their stage sergeant.
The audience applauded Jasper’s control of his naive marks, secretly believing that those who participated were somewhat more open to suggestion. Surely, the “strong-willed” members of the crowd had remained seated instead of risking their inhibitions, or so they thought.
Jasper waited for those who participated in the stage zoo to sit before he finished his exposé. When they were once again seated, he motioned to the tank of suspended goldfish.
“Think back to the beginning of our show. These fish fell into a trance in the blink of an eye. The fish listened not as individuals, but as a unit. Spells such as this can be transferred onto other groups, for instance . . . the crowd that assembled this evening. And though it has been hidden from you in plain sight, I have already laid the groundwork for my final mind trick. I am about to perform transference. Do not be alarmed.”
Pulling a mystic energy from the air around him, Jasper took the aura around the fish tank and lifted it above his head. As if by magic, the fish began to swim, charting their course inside the aquarium as if not a moment had passed. Jasper threw the invisible energy upon the audience.
“Oh, ancient spells of that I call, from thence to whence, the freeze takes all!”
And with that, heads of the audience bowed as an enchanted sleep fell over them. From ma’s to pops, from sisters to brothers, the mantra draped over them, drowning their amazement with a helpless slumber. The hypnotist’s recitation worked like a large cocoon, wrapping them in a warm, relaxed state. An older man, drooped over the armrest of his aisle seat, let out the first rumbles of snore. The trance had touched everyone, except for Colton.
More wide-awake than he’d been the entire show, Colton remained standing, astounded by this strange effect. Even the father with the young boy atop his shoulders had slid down the wall in exhaustion, hugging his son on the floor, each of them breathing peacefully.
“Congratulations, young man.” Jasper adjusted the rusted cufflinks of his tweed suit and pierced Colton from across the theatre with a sinister glare. “You’re the strongest mind in the room. Or . . . in tonight’s crowd, I should say.”
Colton was speechless.
“I know. It can be a bit overwhelming the first time. Rest assured; I perform this act every night. Although, it has become increasingly rare for someone to resist this sleeping spell. I usually just give them a prize. Sometimes, I’ll give them one of the goldfish as a souvenir.”
With a furrowed brow, Colton suspiciously inspected several audience members as he walked toward the stage. “Are they really sleeping?”
“Yes, of course.”
“For how long?”
“As long as I command. They are waiting for my cue.”
Colton hesitated before he asked, “Why me?”
“You mean why are you still awake?”
“Yeah. I saw the same show as everyone else.”
“And yet, you resisted. Two simple reasons: partly, your will power . . . . “
“And the other part?”
“My allowance. I saw you sneak in the back to stand and scowl. I saw you were a skeptic through your body language, your posture, and your self-assurance. I suppose you’re going to criticize my conventions, shoot holes in my profession, my old-school pageantry, even my sensational tendencies. Did my silly tricks hold your attention? Did I entertain you?”
Colton hesitated. For some reason he didn’t want to give this flimflam man the satisfaction he craved. “I’m never going to forget this, that’s for sure.”
“Glad to hear it. That’s why I’m here.”
“To put people to sleep with your act?”
“Hmmm, a clever critic. Come on up and inspect my fish tank. I know you’ve wanted to ever since I brought it out here.”
A bitter chill drifted over Colton as he passed the rows of sleeping people toward the stage. The steps creaked when he walked up to Jasper’s level, overlooking the snoozing crowd.
“Go on, don’t be shy. Take a gander.”
Colton circled the fish tank with the same steps he’d seen the showman take during the performance. The fish swam around the tank, rippling the water near the open top of the glass aquarium. Colton pressed his hands along the sharp corners of the tank, feeling for seams, levers, magnets, anything unconventional. He knelt to look for cables or strings controlling the fish. When he saw nothing of the sort, he reached inside the water and scooped a single goldfish into the palm of his hand. The scales shimmered brightly. He saw the gulping mouth of the fish and watched its gills open and close just as Jasper had pronounced during the show.
He gently lowered the fish back into the water. “They’re real.”
“Yes, of course they’re real.”
“I’ve seen a magician make fish vanish before, but they were obviously fake.”
“That’s because most magicians don’t understand anything about hypnosis. They might claim to study it, but very few have practiced it.”
“Would you call yourself a magician?”
“I don’t associate with them anymore. They intend to misdirect the audience, which is the wrong approach entirely.”
“Isn’t that what you do, too?”
“No. I direct the audience the way anyone might direct a motion picture. I give them lines to say and steps to dance just as any director would coach a troupe of actors.”
“But it’s all temporary.”
“Yes, quite short-lived, unfortunately. And before you ask, I’ve always used real fish.”
“Is Jasper your stage name?”
“Actually, no. My father gave me that name. He thought it sounded devious. It’s served me well enough. And what’s your name, young man?”
“Pleased to meet you.”
They shook hands. The hypnotist’s strong grip surprised Colton, but extra skin left over from a drastic weight-loss made Jasper’s hands resemble a loose glove covering his boney fingers.
After the shake, longer than he expected, Colton brought his hand behind his back and wiped it on his shirt. The countless medical lab experiments in his college courses had made him slightly germ phobic. “I have to ask about that girl you had up here.”
Jasper liked inquisitive spectators. Their questions, though infrequent, often illuminated his eccentric views in unexpected ways. “Ask away. What about her?”
“Did you talk with her prior to the show? Say something to her?”
“No. I never met her or spoke with her before she stepped onstage.”
“Then, how did you get her to ramble about a past life?”
“What? You don’t believe she used to be The Queen of the Nile?”
“She looked rehearsed to me,” Colton criticized.
Jasper instantly defended himself. “Well, it’s difficult to rehearse moments like that.”
“So, when you suggested something about Egypt to the audience, she just made up the rest?”
“People may be gullible, but it doesn’t mean they can’t exercise imagination.”
“And I take it you believe in past lives, then.”
“Yes. Hers was very unlikely, but it did add entertainment value to the act.”
“I liked the whole animal thing you pulled off. That was impressive.”
“Oh, thank you. I would gladly tell you more about that if you were educated in the methods of hypnosis.”
Colton had to ask, “If you’re so well-trained, why didn’t it work on me?”
Jasper got a kick from verbal sparing such as this. “Are you questioning my clout as a conductor of the human psyche?”
“You seem like an intelligent guy, so I’ll clue you in. When I position each volunteer, guiding them to a predetermined mark on the stage, it gives me an opportunity to trigger certain pressure points in their shoulders . . . like this.”
Jasper grabbed Colton’s shoulder, firmly pressing in with his strong fingers.
“And this . . . .”
Then he pulled out a gleaming syringe from his suit coat and stuck the long, pinpoint-sharp needle into Colton’s other shoulder, injecting a golden liquid into the young man’s bloodstream.
Everything went dark.
Blackness loomed. It stayed, lingering for an indiscernible amount of time, a cavernous night clouding all reason and thought. Then, a current shot through Colton’s body. And for a moment, he feared a bolt of lightning was the culprit, but the jolt wasn’t loud or violent enough to have struck him from the sky. It came from within. He remembered feeling the booms of a thunderstorm, but had no memory of lightning.
A sense of dread fell over him. This anxiety grew rapidly because he could not see. He felt as though his eyes had been glued shut. His eyelashes seemed to be fused together. Colored spots of light pulsed in the corners of his peripheral vision beneath his eyelids. He could still hear the eerie notes of carnival music playing in the far distance, but he couldn’t tell if he was actually hearing them or if those sounds had burned scars on his eardrums while unconscious. The sound spun around him the way flashing stars circle the heads of dizzy cartoon characters.
He shifted his head forward and finally opened his eyelids like rusty hinges, prying them apart wide enough to see rows of dripping trees. Branches swayed with the last howls of wind. Droplets of rainwater pitter-pattered against rocks under the tree canopies.
A throbbing headache made his head feel swollen. He didn’t feel pain. Instead, he felt numb and feared the injection he’d been given was loaded with narcotics. Sharp pins and needles crawled up and down his legs like an army of fire ants. This sensation wasn’t his legs waking up from loss of circulation; it felt different than that—more prickly and alarming. He felt it more in his muscles than in his skin, a deeper tingling that didn’t wear off even when he bent his knees.
Leaves and dirt swept from the ground during the thunderstorm were stuck onto the sides of his arms and the back of his neck. He brushed his shoulders and put a hand to his forehead. His head burned with feverish heat and buzzed with the same strange feeling in his legs.
Colton heard boots sloshing in the mud from behind with a cheerful chant: “Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, please don’t let me down. I’m gonna take me a drink, then I’ll roam around. Check on my stills . . . see if they’re okay. Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, please last all day. I won’t run out of my rye today. I don’t have no more, or that’s what they say. Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, please don’t let me down. I’ve got to go make another round. Morning sunshine.”
He recognized Jasper’s voice.
Colton tried to turn his head, but his neck instantly seized, causing a terrible muscle spasm.
“You were out longer than I hoped for. Lucky you, the moonshine did its thing while you were sleeping. The worst of it, anyway.”
Colton almost bit his tongue while trying to speak again. “Where . . . the hell . . . am I?”
“Oh, this is where I live. I guess that drink was stronger than I thought.” Jasper brushed some more leaves from the back of Colton’s shirt and walked around him. He looked taller than before and his tweed jacket was nowhere in sight. He had changed into a simple white T-shirt and tattered, blue overalls. He looped his thumbs under the worn, buckled suspenders and licked his lips. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes. Wait, I mean, what happened to the rest of them?”
“The people at your show. You made them sleep.”
“Oh, right. I woke them hours ago. They were only zonked out for a few minutes while I made your acquaintance. They’re all back at home by now, sleeping again, no doubt.”
“Did you drug me?”
Jasper ignored his question. “I ate earlier while you were sleeping. You’re probably starving. I’ll make you something.”
“I’m not that hungry.”
“Your body is playing tricks on you.”
“It’s not that. I feel nauseous.”
“Nonsense. You’re fine. Trust me. Now, what are you in the mood for? I have sausage, eggs, hash browns, and corn on the cob, even some watermelon in the RV. I have dry wood. I’ll make a fire. What sounds good?”
Colton didn’t answer.
“I’ll start with eggs and hash-browns. I figured you might want some breakfast after waking up.”
Colton felt anxious, and now he knew why. “Oh my God. Where’s Trevor? Did you take him, too?”
“Your friend? Right. I heard he got sick during the pie-eating contest. He was starting to eat his fourth pie when someone called the ambulance. He choked on a cherry pit, poor guy.”
“How do you know what happened to him?”
“The jugglers near my tent told me during the storm when I asked about the sirens.”
“Is he still alive?”
“I honestly don’t know.” Jasper went inside the RV and returned carrying a handful of firewood, dropping the logs on the ground inside a circle of medium-sized rocks. He stacked the logs into a pyramid shape and stuffed some newspaper underneath as kindling. Then he lit a match and leaned forward and placed it in the center. Bright flames quickly took to the paper and curled around the tree bark. He sounded rather cheerful. “Now, we have a crackling fire to keep us warm.”
“Trevor would have called me. Where’s my phone?”
Jasper scowled. “Why do you want to call someone when you can talk with me instead?”
Colton stood up, stumbling a bit on his first step. “I don’t know you.”
“There’s only one way to get to know me.”
Colton didn’t see the strange man as a major threat until he remembered what happened right before he fell asleep. “What did you put in my shoulder?”
Jasper pulled up a chair and warmed his hands by the fire. He cracked his knuckles and the bright flames reflected in the shine of his eyes, making them glow. “That’s a good question, isn’t it?”
“What was in that? Sleeping pills? You didn’t like the fact you couldn’t make me sleep with your stupid act, so you thought you’d drug me, is that it?”
“For someone with your intellect, I’d expected more curiosity. Alas, you seem to have a lack of imagination.”
Colton’s voice trembled. “Don’t you dare hurt me!”
“You don’t understand. I chose you.”
“This is bullshit.” Colton started pacing around the fire.
“Out of all those people, you were the only one that could interpret my subliminal messages. You saw right through me. Please, sit. Relax. Why are you so eager to leave?”
“I’m going home.” Colton began to limp away from the campsite.
When he had walked no more than twenty paces, Jasper called out, “It was moonshine. That’s what I gave you.”
Colton stopped and shook his head, then turned around. “Moonshine?”
“Not for sleep.”
“Oh, right. Nice try.”
“Please listen. I don’t want to bring violence into this. I gave you a life that will no longer end by natural means. Think of it this way . . . you don’t have an expiration date anymore.”
“So, let me get this straight, you’re a mind-reading hack who spends his time manipulating fish and cooking alcohol?”
The fire in Jasper’s eyes intensified. “Don’t call me a hack. I’m an honest fooler. You can’t deny that.”
“Whatever you want to call yourself.”
“Come here and have a seat next to the fire. I know you want to know what I put in my batch of shine.”
“And why do you say that?”
“I looked you up while you were sleeping.”
“That’s not creepy at all.”
“You know a thing or two about chemistry.”
Colton was genuinely intrigued now. He walked back to the strange man. The light from the growing fire cast shadows from below like an old black-and-white horror movie. Jasper’s tone was ominous again, but his ridiculous outfit made him less threatening to look at. Colton pulled up another chair. “You researched me?”
“I wanted to get to know my new business partner.”
“Whoa, back up. Business partner? I don’t think so.”
“Let me explain.”
“Wait, so you’re not going to kill me?”
“Hell no. If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it hours ago. I saved your life. Chill out.”
“Sorry, it’s hard to take you seriously in your getup. If you’re really a moonshiner, aren’t you supposed to have a few missing teeth?”
Jasper seemed offended by this assumption. “None of the stereotypes about shiners are true: tattooed, toothless, sun-burned lips, none of it. Some of the reasons behind the way we are might be misconstrued. I do have a few missing teeth. I just got them capped so children won’t run away when I smile during my show. I knocked out my teeth in a motorcycle wreck. It’s not because I don’t have a toothbrush.”
“And what about your costume?”
“Hey, it’s not a costume,” Jasper snapped. “What I wear during my shows might count as one, but this is how I dress when I’m not on stage. I wear these overalls because they’re more practical and comfortable than my tweed show jacket. And yes, I’m aware it’s a bit old-fashioned, but it’s all part of the shtick. None of that matters, anyway. Setting up camp somewhere to make mash is important work. Just like what we carnies stand for. Especially in today’s society, so divided by race, scared shitless of people different from us. Carnies embrace weirdoes. We turn it into a way of life.”
“And you choose to live like this, on the road?”
“The road is where I belong. It’s the only home I have left. I’ve had many careers over the years, such as my stint as a blackjack card shark in Vegas. I made so much money with those fifty-two assistants. Most of the casinos threw me out. I’d come back disguised as my uncle, a heavier man with a handlebar mustache and the most dreadful comb-over you’ve ever seen. But there are only so many blackjack dealers; and apparently, a lot of them are pals. Eventually, I was barred from just about every Casino on the Vegas strip.”
“Why don’t you perform card magic in your show?”
“Cards are better for close-up rather than on stage. Besides, I figure folks have seen enough card tricks. They come here to see things they’ve never seen before, things they only dream about, but tell no one.”
“And after Vegas?”
“I traveled to Houston and Denver, but word got around that I could see through the backs of cards. I couldn’t, of course; but I was flattered to be revered as such a card tycoon.”
“And you haven’t had a home since then?”
“I’ve had many homes. The gypsy life found me; though I wasn’t even looking for it, just kind of fell right into it. A different city every weekend, that’s all right with me. It’s the life I never thought I’d have. I’ve seen so much of this country, walking into diners filled with truckers cussing next to little Junior eating his apple pie in the worn-out corner booth while the mom cusses right back. That’s America for you.”
Colton was surprised how amused Jasper seemed as he told his stories. “You have weird analogies.”
“But they’re honest. I hate liars. Seems crazy that I’d surround myself with them: these swindlers, masters of deception. I guess I’m comfortable around cheaters ’cause I was raised by one of them. My father. He’d go out every night with his keys and his guitar, stumbling into the house right around dawn with the last tune still hanging on his breath, tapping out rhythms on the kitchen table while he chugged his foolproof hangover cure: raw eggs and coffee. He’d stretch his arm around the curves of his guitar, holding her like a Spanish lady at a saloon dance, spinning and yawning verses from oldies. But no matter how drunk he was, he never forgot the words.”
“But he lied to you?”
“He did more than lie. He told me he was a country music star, a household name. I saw him sign autographs every once in a while as Boomerang Billy, his stage name. For all I knew, he was just as well known as Johnny Cash, surely just as talented and famous. Anyway, that’s who he said he was, so I believed him.”
“Why did you think he was famous? Just because he said so?”
“I was pretty young at the time, so I took his word as gospel. Somehow, after watching him stumble around in the kitchen one night, I vowed to follow him to see just where he went, and just how many women threw their panties at him. I figured, the bigger the star, the more free-flying panties I’d see. But the women who listened to my father sing weren’t really interested in him. They were far more interested in telling their woes to the bartender, since my father actually drove to the local Crow Bar to perform an early form of karaoke, strumming out covers to country songs the cowboys used to sing around the fire at night in the old West.”
Jasper turned his hands above the fire and rubbed them together. Then he pressed the palms of his hand against his cheeks to warm his face. He closed his eyes and spoke with bitterness. “I also learned he wasn’t signing autographs in public, but IOUs for his debts around Nashville whenever one of his “buddies” caught him long enough to chew him out. Once I knew my daddy was a liar, I couldn’t trust him. If he left with his guitar, I knew where he was headed. But all the other nights, when he left it at home, God only knows where that man spent his time. He wandered to all kinds of strange places.”
“There must have been some good times, too.”
Jasper slapped his knee. “Of course there were. He and I had a laugh just like anybody else. And we did have a few traditions. Sunday nights, he’d cook homemade BBQ on the grill and we’d sit out by the clothesline and sing songs until the neighbor’s dog fell asleep. Daddy said our music lulled the dog into a trance, causing him to pass out; but I think the dog got so tired of barking that he decided to just listen to the music instead, let it speak to his soul.”
Colton’s perception of Jasper changed with every word the man spoke. And he began to see him as a man molded by a complicated past. And so he asked, “Why is everything you say half poetic and half tragic?”
“I’m really not sure. Doesn’t make much sense with what I’m wearing. Try to look past that. Making moonshine is my new purpose. It’s not all overalls, banjos, and inbred degenerates, dumping water into buckets with hoses. Most of the time, it’s really all about the mash. Ingredients are king. That’s why it’s important to dump a few bags of sugar in there for good measure. It’s still a secret recipe. I can’t tell you the proportions or percentages or anything like that. And I can’t show you everything I do here because I might get in trouble with the law. I’ve got to protect my ass. I have my things set up inside the trailer. I’ll tell you a few things, though. After the first steps, the liquid has to go through the thumper. That filters out a lot of the impurities. I’ve also got this copper pipe coiled up, sitting there in the mixture to cool it faster. I take all the alcohol out and move it to the proofing barrels. It blends it all up to get one uniform proof. This is where the tricks of the trade come into play.”
“Someone must have taught you.”
“I had a teacher, yes. A better one than I deserved. He was a scrawny, long-bearded mountain man with a foul mouth—Moonshiner Marvin Popcorn Sutton. He has since passed.”
“This guy was a real legend?”
“You could say that. He spent most his days with copper tubing and kettles. And he ran his moonshine really slow, said it comes out thicker that way. He was known to jug moonshine as high as 160 proof! That’s like two bottles of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. He made all kinds of liquor in his time: the fighting kind, the loving kind, and the losing kind. But when an ATF raid on his property uncovered a hoard of illegal liquor, the old shiner chose to take his life rather than report to federal prison.”
“So he knew it was illegal?” Colton asked.
“Damn right he did. It might not be on the right side of the law, but making shine isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon. Anyone who says it’s the drink of sinners is lying through their teeth. Nowhere in the holy book does it ever say; ‘Thou shalt not cook booze behind thine house.’ The shine is pure. And it’s never watered-down like the big whiskey brands. In a blind taste test, ours would win every time. Hands down!”
“What are the other steps to make it?”
“You want the secrets up front, don’t you? Assertive. That’s a good trait. It’ll serve you well. Don’t laugh, now. The ingredients of my original moonshine are water from the Mississippi River, corn mash, unfiltered oil, snake venom, and tears.”
“Really?” Colton leaned forward. “Where do you get the tears?”
“I’m pulling your leg. Just had to make sure you were listening. You didn’t bat an eye when I said snake venom.”
“I knew you’d have something super unusual in there. It fits the rest of you.”
“I guess that’s fair. Now, you’re probably wondering how a bunch of drunk hillbillies perfected such a method. I’ll tell you. Years of practice. This system has been passed down through generations before the Knights of the Round Table. It’s an ancient practice that happened in caves long before man ever sang songs around campfires. And no, Americans did not invent it in the South. Okay, no one really knows how long the mash has been around, but its history goes way back. A true moonshiner doesn’t need a sterile lab. He takes his gear to the woods and gets to work. Nothing is regulated. It’s a free for all. But you run the risk of wild animals finding their way into your mash—skunks, possums, raccoons, you name it. Once it starts cooking, the aroma spreads all over the woods and perks up the little critters who want to take a whiff. Bees love the mash.”
“And they’re attracted by the sugar?”
“That’s right. Moonshiners have to keep their equipment clean to keep the quality top notch. Without quality shine, you might as well dump it down the hill. Besides, working in the woods saves a ton of money. The overhead cost is tremendously low. I don’t have to pay for plumbing, property taxes, not even a goddamn building. All that money goes directly into my pocket. But it’s risky. If you stand too close to the vats, the steam can come right up and scald you—damn near take off your eyebrows. You have to put a sandbag or something to hold it down. I’ve seen it blow off. I’ve seen the whole back split before. Once a shiner fire starts, you can’t put that out. It’s too dangerous. You’ve got to let that burn down until it’s gone. If it blows up and gets on you, it’ll burn you up, too.”
“So, if you’re earning all this money from your moonshine and your show, why are you still living out here away from the carnival grounds?”
“I don’t like staying with the others. They stink. I’m no swan, but some of them don’t use soap. Besides, I’ve heard what they have to say. And believe me, they’ve told more than their share of bat-shit stories. Not even half of them are true, but I guess that’s why they’re on the road, all running from something. Or running toward it. Money, women, and broken dreams . . . all those things the country music stars love to sing about. I stole this RV from a ranger in Glacier National Park, slapped some new plates on it, and hit the road. I’ve probably spent more of my life on the road than off. I had a few flat tires just like everyone else, but I’ve taken pretty good care of that RV. It gets me from here to there; and in return, I give it a tour of the home of the brave, land of the free. And this land has been good to me. But I’ve never stepped off American soil. Not from lack of ambition. Planes and water are my two biggest fears. But I need to get over that. I finally registered for a passport. It should arrive in a few weeks; and when it does, I’ll be on the first flight to Monte Carlo. Now that death can’t touch me, I’m going to live it up for a while. I deserve a vacation from responsibility.”
“And that’s how you want to spend your days as an immortal?”
“Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?” Jasper’s eyes scanned the sky. “Besides, a lot of high-end business people hang out in those European casinos. The Las Vegas strip isn’t their scene. They’re looking for more sophisticated ways to burn their money; and so am I.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see what’s out there, too.”
“You should feel lucky that I chose you. Not everyone is ready to grapple with this shit. It’s a lot of power.”
“You’re assuming I believe you.”
Jasper raised his eyebrows. “What part?”
“You can’t actually make someone immortal. It’s impossible.”
“Then what do you think all the Greek myths are based on? A bunch of hooey?”
“That’s just what they are—myths.”
“I want you to understand how privileged you are now. I’ll illustrate it another way. Have you heard the old fable about the magic thread? A haggard witch gave a young, impatient boy a small ball of thread coiled as tight as a handmaiden’s braid. She told him that whenever his life became too dull or difficult, he could pull that thread and speed it along. This type of magic had no reverse. Once the thread had been uncoiled, nothing could bind it together again. But this amount of power over time became too much for the boy. He yanked the thread so often that he missed weeks, months, even years of his life, speeding through them like you or I would speed through an episode of recorded television. And as the thread ran out, so did his life. His lust for staying in the now unraveled events so quickly that he found himself an old man, without a past or future, robbed of personal memories. Our lives are written in the joys and pains of our struggles. He was the boy without adversity, without resistance or strife . . . the ultimate coward accelerating as fast as he could to the grave. The road, you could say, has been my thread, unwinding before me, yanking me along faster than I could have imagined—faster than I ever planned. But that road has taught me lessons I do remember. My stories will outlive me. I’ve made sure of that. Want to know how many I have? I found a way to count them. The speedometer. Each mile is its own story, its own struggle. But my memories are fading. Every day I lose miles I can’t get back. I don’t see any reason my speedometer has to stop. I don’t plan on shuffling from this mortal coil. I plan on walking right to the edge, and taking my first step without fear, like the invisible platform Wile E. Coyote hovered on for a few seconds during a chase. I want to be there for much longer, hovering until I pave a new way to shuffle.”
“And your moonshine makes this possible?”
“It has already happened. You may not feel it yet, but new life is already pulsing through you.”
Colton tried to hold in his amusement. “You should listen to yourself, Jasper.”
“Oh, because you’re a man of science, you think I’m just out here on my own mixing things together, searching for a way to stay relevant? I was young and cocky once. I get it.”
“Well, you seem pretty confident in your discovery, if you can call it that. But you’re not the first person to try this kind of black magic. Have you heard of cryonics?”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s a cutting edge technique that involves deep-freezing the bodies of people who have just died. Then, years down the road, you thaw them out in hope of curing their medical problems and bringing them back to full health.”
“Bravo. You have done your research.”
“Listen, boy,” Jasper said, “I may not have a college education like you. I never had the resources to benefit from all that knowledge. But I do know how to find books on these topics and read them carefully enough to put them into practice.”
“So, you’re familiar with the practice of cryonics?”
“I’ve never had the patience to attempt it because I’d have to somehow live long enough for medical technology to advance farther than our current solutions. It’s too similar to goals of science fiction. But I didn’t want to wait. Dr. Frankenstein had it all wrong. The goal isn’t to reanimate the body, but to reboot it. Now, this isn’t some anti-aging cure that will make someone young and beautiful. I replicate the power of Dorian Gray’s magical painting.”
“Then how do you go about rebooting the body?”
“First of all, I don’t have to freeze the body. Thawing organic tissues is much more complex than thawing a frozen turkey. Once it’s consumed or injected, my moonshine doesn’t replace cells, it simply tricks them into dying and restarts their metabolic process. Surely you can understand the difference. The human body already completely replaces all your cells about every seven years, so the drink isn’t just for a one time only swig. It’s more like a controlled prescription. However, it is an incredible transformation, not only of body, but also the mind. You may become interested in things that have never caught your eye before. And the things that once made you excited to wake up in the morning may bore you. It’s a strange notion, living forever. But I believe we were meant to embrace that ideal and accept the changes, no matter the cost.”
Colton felt a sense of tragedy loom over him. “Yes, cost. The story about the magic thread, that guy never appreciated the time he had, so he used it up so quickly he wound up empty. But his life had a period at the end. If he could have kept living, pulling the thread more and more, he would have eventually witnessed the death of his children, his grandchildren, and so on . . . until no one was left.”
“You’re beginning to see how bittersweet it can be to never fade.”
“Yes, because everything around you fades, while you remain.”
“That is the dilemma we will both face.”
“I’m not sure if I want that,” Colton said.
“There are troubling philosophical implications, but what better way to save a life than to give it every opportunity to survive? That’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want to satiate our curiosities in this world. That’s why people come to the carnival. That’s why they mark their calendars months in advance when billboards for the traveling circus are plastered along the highways. They want to see a show. They want to engage with something that will bring meaning into their lives. And to be honest, I want the same thing. I’ve never seen the wonders of the world outside my home country. This world is the best goddamn show any of us know about. There might be other worlds even more fantastic than this; but right now, they’re out of reach. How else can we reach them if we keep dying?”
“You want to use your immortality to see the world?”
“Isn’t that a good way to use my time? I can try any hobby I want, anything at all. Any skill you can think of you’d have time to learn, everything from learning multiple languages to flying a helicopter. Hell, I could train to climb Mount Everest. Living forever is better than any Ivy League education can offer, because you can learn at your own pace without the limits of time to hold you back.”
“Time wouldn’t stop.”
“But you’d no longer be a slave to its restrictions. What makes you tick, Colton? What would you do with your limitless amount of time?”
“I guess I’m constantly trying to find ways to extend people’s lives, too. I’m researching new methods of developing antibodies for emerging diseases. A lot of them are coming from Africa and the Middle-East.”
“That’s great. And you want to prevent these diseases from spreading, I assume?”
“Yes, the goal is protect people from the viruses before an epidemic or a pandemic happens. We’re always on the brink of finding the cure to one virus right before another one emerges.”
“See, then you already have the mindset of someone who wants to make life longer.”
“Yeah, but you can’t make an enterprise out of eternal life.”
“We can, and we will. It’s been done before. Just think about some of the major religions. They charge people money and promise they’ll live forever if they only believe in a certain doctrine. The difference is . . . my way works. Except, they’ll have to pay through the nose to try it.”
“And who exactly are you planning to sell it to?”
“Anyone who’s willing to pay.”
“But once word gets out that you’ve invented this incredible life extension, aren’t you afraid of it getting into the wrong hands?”
“It’s not like people are going to track us down with torches and pitchforks. That’s why we keep it a secret and charge a million dollars a bottle.”
“Oh, come on. It’s worth more than that.”
“See, I knew we’d be on the same page. We can increase the price once we get some traction. We’ll start at the top: world leaders, Wall Street, and the media at large. The chatter will start behind closed doors about the miracle drink of everlasting life.”
“I can’t be a part of this.”
“It’s a lot of pressure, I know. But you’ll get used to it. I’ve been looking for someone to help me for a long time now. You’ll warm up to the idea over time.”
“Would you mind showing me the equipment you use to make the moonshine?”
“Yes, absolutely. It would be my pleasure.”
Jasper seemed enthusiastic again. An apprentice had finally been revealed to him, someone who would be there at his side to help make his goals a reality, someone he could trust. He took a towel, poured water over it and smothered the glowing embers. He walked over to the eight-wheel trailer behind the RV and opened it, revealing a variety of copper kettles, clear tubes, and boiling pots. Jasper led Colton through the various apparatus, explaining the details of how he’d developed the special drink. He spoke about how the different boilers and vats were connected and the many stages the liquid went through before it was ready to be bottled. The largest glass vat of liquid was near the back of the trailer. The glass was several inches thick and distorted the image of a thin, moving object contained inside. Jasper glided his fingers across the smooth glass and tapped on it. Colton took a quick step back when he saw a venomous rattlesnake slither around in the large vat, silently shaking its tail and opening its fangs.
“This is how I keep the final batch properly seasoned with just the right amount of venom. The venom is just strong enough to paralyze the cells in the body long enough for the other ingredients to take effect and reboot their metabolic process. In fact, the venom is a natural catalyst. It essentially tricks the cells into dying long enough to resist decomposition and, instead, accelerate regeneration. Without this venom, the drink wouldn’t work.”
“This is more of a business question. How do you plan to deliver the drinks to your customers?”
“Ah, yes. Good question. Since our product is extremely sensitive, it would be irresponsible to make it available in stores or even factory outlets. They will be able to order it online, but I’m already planning to set up a facility that we can mass produce it and ship it privately. I would hand-deliver each bottle if I had it my way, but that would be very tedious.”
“And you want the clients to be exclusive, based on the high price point?”
“Yes, only influential people in business, sports, politics, and the arts will be able to afford such an expensive drink. Think about it. If they need to sip the moonshine regularly to maintain its effect, each client will ultimately have to shell out several million dollars a year. Along with the other information they’ll be prompted to type in, we will ask for their cell phone numbers. The final step on the website we will create before they can actually place an order will be a video of me explaining the significant properties of the drink. This video will include a subliminal auditory signal, a frequency of sound that no one will notice. With this frequency, I will be able to control their minds through their cell phones. At any time during the day, I’ll be able to send texts or emails to their phones that force them to follow the orders within the message. I used a similar frequency when I made the audience fall asleep. Very few people are immune to it. That’s what makes you so rare, Colton. And after they’re hooked, they won’t be able to order it online anymore. After the first six months of using our product, they’ll have to fly to any city of my choosing to attend special seminars in person. These events will strengthen my hold on their minds. This group of world leaders and influencers will be the pawns of my new world order, making me the commander-in-chief of any militia or media I desire. And you, Colton, will be there with me, giving me your professional guidance and support. You will be my right-hand man.”
Colton found the cadence of Jasper’s voice captivating. He could tell that the weathered carny had thought about this for a long time and was finally ready to put his plan in motion. Colton maintained strong eye contact throughout and asked, “There’s a lot of steam coming out of this holding container. How does the snake survive?”
“He’s built up a tolerance for the heat. If you look closely, you’ll see his scales are thicker and sharper than any other snake found in the wild. His molecular structure has been rearranged and replaced by the properties that make the drink work on humans.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. And how do you keep all of this running?”
“There are solar panels on top of the trailer that power a generator with a battery, so there’s electrical flow even at night.”
“That’s clever. Could you show me?”
“Sure. I’ll take you up there.”
Jasper closed the back doors to the portable lab and climbed up a small ladder to the top of the trailer. Once they were both on the trailer’s roof, Jasper stepped between the blue solar panels to a circular opening bolted shut with a padlock. Thin wisps of steam escaped from the small gap of the round door. He took a key from his belt and unlocked the door, leaving the key in the lock. Jasper unlatched the door and lifted the hinge. Transparent, white steam billowed from the circular opening. Colton could smell the pungent whiskey fumes.
Jasper kneeled beside the opening and wafted the steam into his nostrils. “If you ever wondered what the future smells like, this is it.” Then he fanned away some of the steam and pointed down. “See the snake down there? This is the heat releasing from that huge vat while it cools.”
“Oh, yeah. I see it.” Colton stood over Jasper and watched as the snake swam in endless circles. “Have you ever gone in there to play with him?”
Before Jasper could answer, Colton placed his foot in the center of Jasper’s back and kicked him into the vat, headfirst. Hot whiskey splashed out and seared part of Colton’s arms just as Jasper’s legs thrashed down into the boiling vat. A large air bubble rose and popped from the whiskey displaced by Jasper’s body. Colton kicked the hatch shut and locked it. Some of the hot liquid sloshed onto his hands, but he ignored the pain. He jiggled the lock to make sure it was secure and jumped off the trailer roof onto the ground. Colton opened the main trailer doors again and looked down to the end of the trailer and saw Jasper spinning in the hot moonshine, thrashing around, and banging on the thick glass walls. A series of disturbed, muffled screams came from behind the glass as the rattlesnake looped itself around Jasper’s ankle all the way up to his thigh, biting down hard. Jasper screamed again and ripped the snake from his leg. Two small trails of blood floated from the exit wound where the two fangs had been torn out. Jasper grabbed the head and tail of the snake, twisted its squirming body into a knot and snapped its neck before tearing the snake in half like a frayed rope. Small bone fragments and scales scattered in the water like gory glitter. Jasper writhed in unbearable pain, clutching his leg. A screaming grimace revealed his perfectly capped teeth. His eyes bulged and darted back and forth. The heat from the liquid had turned his face a boiled-lobster red. Jasper pressed his feet against the glass and head-butted it repeatedly, but the thick glass held strong, distorting his face like carnival funhouse mirrors, bending it into a sinister rage. His fingernails were turning purple.
Colton opened a refrigerator near the vat of bottled moonshine and filled a black cooler. He neatly stacked the bottles to fit more of them inside as Jasper continued to bang on the glass. When he had filled the cooler and wheeled it outside, Colton rummaged through several drawers until he found leather-bound books and a box of matches. He tossed the books into the cooler, closed it and wheeled it about thirty paces from the RV and trailer.
Then Colton took a single bottle and removed the cork. He tore off a back pocket from his jeans and stuffed it into the bottle, crafting a makeshift Molotov cocktail. Using a match from the drawer, he lit the small piece of fabric hanging from the top of the bottle and threw it into Jasper’s trailer lab.
A few seconds later, the boilers and vats of alcohol ignited into blue flames, then exploded in rapid succession as a daisy chain of fiery bursts overtook the lab. The flammable liquid inside some of the containers detonated like small bombs, spewing copper and glass inside the trailer. When the fire reached the back of lab, a deafening blast echoed off the trailer walls, spraying flaming moonshine everywhere. The fire flashed and discharged a loud boom as it spread to the RV, consuming Jasper’s road home as if it were made of papier-mâché.
Dark smoke billowed from the wreck as Colton wheeled the cooler back to the carnival parking lot and loaded it into his car. With shattered nerves, he drove north, homebound.
While the young man drove home, Jasper’s traveling legacy continued to burn. But just before nightfall, a scorched hand blistered by ugly pustules reached out from the melted back tires of the wreckage.
Colton hid the bottles of moonshine under his bed since most of his closet space was littered with clothes and old homework assignments. He continued taking classes and tried to forget about the nightmarish events at the Gulfport Harbor coast-side carnival. He spent time with Trevor who had been released from the hospital after only one night. With long tweezers, the surgeon had to remove the cherry pit lodged in his esophagus. Except for a sore throat, Trevor was just fine and returned to his summer job delivering pizzas.
Every night, Colton took a small sip from one of the bottles. The moonshine burned as it trickled down his throat, but he had faith that it would continue to work. He often felt fatigued by early afternoon and sometimes skipped his summer classes to take a long nap, assuming the effects of the special drink took extra energy for his body to process. There were some nights when he couldn’t sleep at all, plagued by restless thoughts. Other nights, he had a reoccurring dream of the hypnotist’s show; except in the dream, the fish came to life and ate everyone in the crowd. He woke from these night terrors standing on his bed touching the ceiling with his fingertips, sore from whatever bizarre motions he’d repeated in his bed to attain such a strange position. When this would happen, he’d take a few extra sips from the stashed bottles to build up his tolerance. Although he’d taken more than two-dozen bottles, Colton knew it wasn’t even close to a lifetime supply. He needed to find a way to recreate the drink for himself.
In the weeks that passed, he spent time in the chemistry labs at the university after hours; carefully studying the books he’d stolen from the crazy carny’s trailer. Some of the books were written entirely in Latin. He tried to translate some of the chapters in the college library, suspicious that these books held the secrets to replicating the mystic moonshine. After acquiring a small vile of snake venom from a black market website, Colton conducted a large number of controlled experiments in the labs, adding different amounts of alcoholic mash, and only a few drops of snake venom.
Since that eventful night at the carnival, he had a newfound sense of purpose. He wanted to dedicate the extra time of this immortality to break new ground in the field of disease research to fully reach his potential of saving those in harm’s way. He realized that nature didn’t care if people were rich or poor, or in which nation they’d been born. Nature killed both adults and children alike with viral diseases without remorse or meaning. The smallest creatures on the planet, those invisible to the naked eye, somehow had enough freedom to spawn and mutate faster than medical scientists could keep up. And so, Colton didn’t see his extra time as tragic or boring. It revitalized his will to live and contribute toward his field of study.
And he was gradually getting closer to replicating the secret formula.
One night, when Colton took a sip from his stash and took his evening shower, he felt the warm water cascade over him in a soothing moment that brought peace again to his restless mind. He could tell he was going to rest easy that night and wake up refreshed with even more ideas of how to use this unique ability. Maybe it was the small sip of booze that brought on this calm, but he doubted it. He felt confident that his body was adapting to the strong substance for the better.
He dried off and brushed his teeth in the sink by the mirror, running the water. He could have sworn he looked a little bit younger. Wiping off some of the shower steam, he opened the cabinet behind the mirror and reached for mouthwash. When he closed the mirror again, he gaged on his toothbrush.
The reflection of a man appeared behind him in the mirror.
The man was Jasper Thorn.
Colton yanked the toothbrush out of his mouth and tried to turn around, but Jasper already had a firm grasp on his shoulders. From the reflection in the mirror, Jasper’s face was almost unrecognizable, covered in shiny scabs and rough skin, the effects of being burned for hours. A few facial muscles were visible under sections of missing skin; and his once grandiose smile was now grotesque, only showing a few rotted teeth riddled with cavities. The flames had peeled his lips and blackened his tongue, which seemed sharper than before as if forged like a sword in the fire. Blue and purple splotches branded the backs of his hands; and all ten of his fingernails were gone, replaced by protruding bones. His eyebrows and eyelids were missing, leaving the windows into the hypnotist’s sinister soul wide open.
Jasper already had one of his hands up by Colton’s neck just as the graduate student swallowed a scream. His charred hand held a syringe of golden liquid. He pierced Colton’s neck and squeezed the stopper until it touched the back of the needle, then gently caught his falling head and shoulders and laid him on the bathroom floor.
A raspy whisper floated into his ear, “Now, you’ll sleeeeeeeeep . . . .”
As his vision blurred into a smear of color, Colton felt Jasper snap shackles onto his ankles, tear down the shower curtain, and roll him up in the damp plastic.
Colton awoke in a chrome-plated vault filled with boiling copper vats and clear tubes. The pungent smell of the cooking alcohol was so strong that it made breathing difficult. A thin coating of dew-like droplets had condensed on his skin from the high humidity of the lab. The shackles on his ankles had formed circular bruises from his rough transport. Jasper’s scratchy voice boomed from behind him.
“What part of immortal did you not understand?”
Colton gaped up at him. The eccentric carny wasn’t wearing his tweed show jacket nor his tattered overalls. Instead he wore a classy pin stripe, three piece suit with a silver vest and red, silk tie. His shined shoes were almost as reflective as the chrome that enclosed the room’s walls. Now, his face was covered with a black handkerchief; and a pair of matte sunglasses covered his hideous eyes. He lowered the shades and glared at Colton.
“What a stupid boy you are. I offered you everlasting life, and you burned me to a crisp. Is that how you’re going to treat our paying customers? Now get up!”
Jasper had purchased an underground silo bunker, the kind paranoid rich guys often bought to prepare for the inevitable apocalypse. The structure was two hundred feet below the surface, and Colton had been placed on the very lowest level in the chrome-cooking vault. The other floors of the bunker housed many different areas, including a computer network, electric generator, heating system, small greenhouse, offices, and, on the top level, Jasper’s living quarters. He’d spent the last few weeks preparing the bunker, but more construction needed to take place before its completion. He lured in several gullible geeks from a local start-up company to create his company website and trapped them there to work for daily meals, prisoners of his locked silo. The entrance at the top of the underground bunker would open only with a handprint scan from the hypnotist himself.
Colton Lockwood is still there, making moonshine one bottle at a time. He lives out his immortal days witness to the silent uprising at Jasper Thorn Industries, a living puppet that cannot resist the pull of his master’s strings.
© Copyright 2018 by TJ Moore