The crickets whispered their song into the midnight air as the starlight faded behind a shadowy curtain of clouds. For a moment, however brief, rain brushed the horizon the only evidence the sound of the droplets against the red rocked hills of the western deserts.
Jericho Grace sat nestled away beneath a canvas tent with the gentle glow of an oil lamp flickering on his face as he stared down at a withered, but still legible map of the prairie roads that lead to salvation. A worn and unstable land of misery yet the only place he knew that held the correct key to his salvation. Throughout his days he had been given many keys. Some were rusted keys with broken teeth, a few were iron forged keys and even fewer still were wooden keys, but none opened a door that contained anything but woe and gloom for a man who could not shake his curse.
An unassuming man of modest means yet he still lived an utterly complex and questionably sane life driven by internalized anxiety and burdened with the curse of a thousand thoughts that were not his own. He set out from his ranch on the Pacific coast on a hunch garnered from a wily and frantic man with no given name save for the one bestowed upon him by the mean and unforgiving teenagers that moved from the plow to the streets at an age when most would be subservient to their father’s wishes.
Had the moniker not been given in jest after watching the poor man stumble and break his ankle causing his foot to face away from him rather than beneath his eyes, Bentfoot might be considered charming had it not become a colloquial nightmare of a name associated with a wretch.
Jericho met the man known as Bentfoot in a tavern during the evening after what had been a sun warmed day. He could scarcely forget the circumstances as it was a rare phenomenon to find a moment of remembrance when the thoughts of others screamed past his mind. A constant reminder and distraction to the present. Keeping him away from reality and only through daily miracles permitted him to subsist in a world that he questioned whether he should bear the insanity to persist
Bentfoot reeked when he stumbled in. Covered in what Jericho assumed to be his own excrement and urine, the tattered man reached aimlessly for a hand to guide him to the closest drink each patron reeling in revulsion doing little to disguise their horrible disdain for the town’s representation of what rock bottom truly meant in society.
For reasons not yet confirmed by Jericho he bought the man a meal of potatoes, fried greens and pork coupled with a glass of bourbon carefully selected by Jericho himself to ensure that Bentfoot was not served a glass of burnt cigar, water and tobacco. A bartender’s staple when he chose to not put his best foot forward for a customer.
“Thank you kindly. Tis not everyday that I receive kindness of any sort let alone that of a stranger.
Much obliged for the food and the bourbon.” He ate greedily but took a moment to savor the amber liquid as it touched his lips. He shuttered slightly from the gentle burn of the bourbon as he finished it. Studying the empty glass.
“Few would pay me the attention you have Mr. Grace and for that I am thankful. People rarely acknowledge my existence tending to only do so to express a distaste for my presence like if a sewer rat were to scurry across the wooden floor. Yet, you saw it in your heart to reach out and give me the time of day. Why?”
Jericho straightened in his chair, nodded and presented a small, but meaningful smile.
“Humanity does a wonderful job of ignoring what is important in this world. We look to the outside for comfort and for things we do not yet have, but we forget that as humans we have each other. I did nothing more than what I what hoped any loving and amiable man might do when he saw hunger in his fellow brother.”
Bentfoot nodded and lifted his chin studying Jericho as he did the glass.
“Dare I ask what is on your mind Mr. Grace? You seem present but are not quite here. Almost as if you have more thoughts swirling about in your mind than you care to share.”
“Or could share.” Bentfoot finished.
Jericho sighed and studied Bentfoot close. Clearly homeless, he carried with him the entirety of his material universe in a few satchels and packs. A human pack mule upon first glance, but a deeper understanding of what it meant to be human showed that despite the man’s unkempt exterior there was wise soul hidden internally.
“I have more on my mind than you could possibly know. I can share that I struggle with a thousand memories that come and pass without my prompting. Each memory belonging to a person I know not but beyond what I envision. I cannot tell you if they live or cease to breath. It is a burden for me to bear, but I know not why. I only speak these words to you because I feel a strange sense of brotherhood with you.”
Bentfoot grinned and pulled a frayed and mildew-stricken piece of paper from a hidden coat pocket. He unfurled it on the table top gently sweeping away the edges revealing a map of a place that Jericho could not comprehend at first glance.
“Take this map as a token of my gratitude Mr. Grace for a fear that I have nothing else of value for you. Just know that it will give you a choice and a choice for you alone to make. No one else can make it for you because when the time comes there will be no one left but your own self-awareness.”
He pointed a grime encrusted finger at a tower at the edge of the map.
“Go to the tower with haste and speak with its patron. Be wary as you approach though as there are dangers ever watching near its gates.”
Jericho picked up the map and dropped unexpectedly as a memory rushed to his mind forcing him to the floor. By the time it passed it looked up to see that the man had gone leaving behind only the map and a bevy of questions that yielded not a single answer.
Those memories had filled the night and as the day broke and the sun crept high above his camp he saw in the distance the final leg of his journey. A tower resting peacefully in the valley below. He wondered how no one had come to discover it in the years since westward expansion began. How had a single tower evaded the eye of settlers as their wagon trains crawled across the outstretched plains of the prairie lands?
At the food of the hill the road ended and off the distance sat the tower. He struggled through the recollections of the thousands of others who haunted his own reminiscences to bring forth his conversation with Bentfoot. He remembered the warning of dangers as he approached and despite the sun he could feel an aura of darkness beckon to him. His courage waned, only momentarily, before pressing towards the tower.
Danger comes in many forms and those dangers are not idle while you muster courage. He thought as he approached the gate.
The sound of roaring thunder clapped in the sky above. The clouds turned to midnight and swirled about in a sickeningly greenish hue as came closer and closer to the ground below. Trees roots grasped in errand but failed beneath the might of the storm. Stones were hurled from their rests and crashed against the tower walls. Jericho turned to try, and pry open the door, but it would not budge.
He crashed against the door in a panic trying to break through its bars, but to no avail and as the storm rolled closer towards him he rushed towards the nearby grove taking refuge among the trees, but they too failed against the storm as it pressed its attack seeking only to utterly annihilate Jericho as he dashed away.
Suddenly, Jericho stumbled and fell. He turned and watched as the storm roared up like a bear and seemed to come faster and more furious than before. He looked down and saw that he had tripped over a handle that had no earthly business in that grove in the prairies. He yanked and pulled the hinges creaking and groaning with his every effort until the lid landed with a thud. He wasted no time in dropping below.
The room was dark as he fell onto the hard-stone floor.
Storm cellar? Jericho asked himself as he fumbled for a lantern. The storm above roared in a desperate attempt driving him from his hiding spot. He glanced up and watched as the clouds swirled once again and just as quickly as they appeared were gone. The sun emerged and guided Jericho to a lantern on the wall near a hallway. He lit the lantern and proceeded with caution.
As he walked, the memories of a thousand others pressed against his mind. He could not focus, he struggled to see what lie ahead. The memories were replaced by voices, the voices replaced by howls and then silence.
He opened his eyes shaking away the haze and peered down the long, dark hallway. He could make out the faint outline of a ladder near a lantern lit at the wall. He pushed forth down the hall, but as he began to feel he should be making progress, the ladder seemed farther and farther away. A strange sensation washed over him. The world narrowed, the walls closed in and as he braced for another rush of the ceaseless noise of memories he realized that the walls were closing in on him, that he was getting further away and if he did not determine a better course of action he would be crushed.
What vacant parts of his mind begged for him to run forward towards the ladder and towards freedom, but he turned and rushed back the way he had emerged. He rushed towards the exit ignoring the carnal urge to turn back and try to press on. He could sense the pressure of the walls as he clawed back. He dropped the lantern and after a mad dash dove at the stone floor.
Yet he did not land on the cold, stone floor. He coughed as dirt and dusted flew up around him as the walls finally sealed shut. He rolled over breathing heavily and stared up the ladder expecting to see the sky above and the storm that hounded him. Instead he saw the dance of a flame. He saw no sky, no trees or grass. He climbed to his feet and soon the realization set in that he somehow had reached the ladder at the end of the hall.
“Good god man get up here.” A voice called down the ladder. “I dare say we don’t have an eternity. Well, perhaps we do or perhaps we don’t, but we’ll get to that when you get bloody well up here!”
Jericho emerged and gazed at his surroundings. All around him were countless, endless books, tales, tomes and page after page of the written word, but that was not the most startling sight to behold. No, that belonged to the throngs of gloves, unattached to any visible person, that scribbled maddeningly at paper before shuffling them aside only to start again.
“What is this place of wonder?” Jericho asked.
The man climbed from his chair that sat behind a large dark wood desk and shook his hand.
“Welcome to the Thought Tower Mr. Grace. I had wondered when you might get here. It was your turn after all. Did our chap…um…. what’s his name?”
“Bentfoot.” Jericho said bluntly.
“Bentfoot? How peculiar? In any case, it appears as though he’s found you. I suppose you have a few questions of your own before we continue? I’ll give you the luxury of asking three questions. A luxury not afforded to me by my predecessor, but I’m a more generous soul than she. All I ask is you refrain from conjuring up anything too complex. Complex answers often require complex questions…I mean…err…reverse that. I’ve been here too damn long.”
Jericho reached out to touch one of the floating gloves only to have his attempt slapped aside causing him to jump back in a confused mix of startling amazement.
“They’ll do that, and I’ll ask that you don’t do that again. There is too much work to be done here. Far too much work to be done. With only so much time I can’t have you interrupted their course. Now ask away damn you. Come on!”
Jericho composed his childlike sense of wonder.
“What is this place? What is the Thought Tower?”
The man rolled his eyes.
“That’s two but I’ll give you the first one since it’s a repeat. The second, well, that one counts.” The man took a moment to roll up his sleeves. “The Thought Tower is a place on earth where the thoughts and memories of every living and or deceased human being is warehoused and curated. Satisfied?”
Jericho nodded and pulled a book from the shelf before the man ripped it from his grip and placed it hastily on the shelf gesturing for Jericho to take a seat at the desk. He believed that the man aimed to keep him away from the unceasing work that whirled about him and out of trouble.
“Who are you?”
The man nodded and grinned widely.
“My favorite question.” He cleared his voice and did his best to appear regal straightening the collar on his shirt, which Jericho noticed for the first time was outdated for the time period. An emerald petty coat with gold buttons, flax linen shirt and gusset. He wore a powered wig and ruse.
“Oscar McCarthy.” He said with a bow. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you Mr. Grace. Bentfoot, as you so call him, told me he’d find you and guide you here. You cannot imagine the joy I have that to see you and present you with an offer that I cannot imagine you’ll refuse.”
Jericho regarded Oscar with suspicion recalling that he only had one question left. He could chance the idea that Oscar was bluffing and there would be nothing he could do to end the line of questioning. On the other hand, he could quite simply clam up. The obvious needed to be addressed in Jericho’s mind and there would be no alternative.
“What am I doing here if you knew I would be coming?”
Oscar grinned and pulled out a book and slammed in on the desk in a heap.
“These are all of the people who came before me to maintain the integrity of the Thought Tower. Like you, I was cursed by unfortunate circumstance to have a constant state of recollection through memories I could hardly call my own. And like you I was approached in one manner or another by a mysterious individual, vagabond or seductress. Whatever. Now, though is when I present my offer to you.”
A flood of memories caved in his mind. Outwardly he did his best to remain calm but could feel Oscar’s eyes as he struggled to regain control. The memories became more complex and crippled his ability retain his own.
“I have the power to end this Mr. Grace, but it would be remiss of me to say it does not come with a cost. A cost that I must warn you can be a blessing and a curse. I don’t need to remind you of what a curse controls us, but the blessing is your freedom. Your mind will once again be your own and you can once more guide your life in the direction you see fit.”
Jericho shook his head and rubbed his temples not taking the time to meet Oscar’s gaze.
“That freedom is only attainable for your service here at the Tower. You must maintain the integrity of the Tower and can only be relinquished of your term when another meets you under the same circumstance. For reference, I’ve been in the tower since….1713 I believe. Making that….”
“142 years.” Jericho interrupted. “How are you even alive?”
“That’s a gift from the Tower. You will stay alive and well until the next one arrives to take your place allowing me to finally rest. But you will not be able to depart the Tower until that time arrives. I’m not sure how the punishment is bestowed, but it is almost certainly a fate worse than death according to the manual.”
Jericho seemed to contemplate this option for a moment before waiting for Oscar to continue.
“The second option is you can leave, without fear of reprisal or danger, and return to the life you were living. Debilitating memories and all. You can smell the free air in those few moments of lucidity.” He added.
Jericho thought about what his life meant to him. He had become a loner, a drifter because of his condition. He could feel no love or joy. The flood of memories sowed only confusion and pain, but to stay locked up in the Tower for possible forever? He was not sure if he could bring himself to that.
“What happens to those who leave? Do their conditions get worse?”
Oscar frowned and swung open a book that had been stacked to his left.
“Your memories will fade, and you will dip into a state of madness with no return and die locked up in an asylum, chained to a basement floor or some similar fate. Now, there is a benefit to departing the Tower should you choose it.”
Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.
“What might that be?”
Oscar flipped the pages of the book for what seemed like minutes until resting on a single page.
“You can go out and find your replacement, bring them to the Tower and have them take over your duties as patron of the Tower. They will be forced to serve out their life in this Tower. The only benefit to them of course being their minds will be freed. As you would have, they will die when the time comes.”
Oscar closed the book and placed his chin in his hands and sighed.
“This is of course a separate exit clause and you are given in the term of a single year to accomplish this. If you do not find your replacement, then one of the Tower’s agents, Bentfoot for example, will come and find you to drag you back to serve your term. So, what’ll it be Mr. Grace?”
Jericho thought through his options carefully. A lifetime with a clear mind locked in the Tower, to exit and end up a mindless wretch or to take up the challenge to find his replacement. Which begged the question, if he finds his replacement could he drag them to the Tower and force them into a lifetime of servitude for the maniacal Tower?
Perhaps there would be another way when the time comes. Oscar thought.
” Hand me the contract Oscar. I will hunt down my replacement at all costs and fulfill my end of the bargain.” Jericho said.
Oscar tilted his head.
“You’re a cold, cold man Mr. Grace. Sign your name here, here and of course here.” He said pointing out the lines for signatures. “And it’s done. Take this piece of map. It will let you know where the Tower is at any moment so when you do find...
“You said nothing of it moving from place to place? Even if I find my replacement it could take me a year or more to get back to the Tower depending on where it’s at! What am I supposed to do if that happens?” Jericho scoffed.
“You didn’t ask Mr. Grace when given the chance. That’s what you get for making a deal with devils.”
He grinned. “Good hunting.”