The well was as he remembered, still miraculous to behold, even after the impossibilities and madness of Brac. Of the old mutant, there was no sign.
Max squatted by the ashes of the campfire, idly poking its remains with a metal pole he had found lying about. Maybe Horace had moved on. Maybe Horace was dead.
Max touched the ashes, then stuck his fingers in his mouth, then thought. Burning fingers meant that recently there had been a fire alight. Which reduced the odds of Horace being dead. Perhaps there were further clues nearby.
He dropped the pole, removed his fingers, walked over to the shed, and this time, looked behind the well. A small stash of random junk. He investigated.
And it was while he was admiring a funny little globe that snowed inside when you shook it that something colourful caught his eye. Wondering how they stopped the snow from melting, he reached into the stash and withdrew a bundle of paper; a few seconds later, all thoughts of magical snow left him.
It was a book.
Max returned to the campfire’s ashes, took a seat on the curling bone trunk, and studied it.
There were words on the front.
There were words inside.
And that was it.
He looked away, looked back.
He’d forgotten how to read.
Max shut his eyes. His muscles felt heavy, his breaths came with sound. He opened his eyes.
The book was getting damp, he realised, and he placed it on his knees. He stared. Besides two words that taunted him with their meaning, the cover was dominated by a picture.
An old man, a grey beard, a young girl, and a spirit.
An old man. A grey beard. A young girl. And a spirit.
Yes, Max knew this picture. He had seen it before, read this book before, long, long ago, in a room full of children. Other children - yes, yes, Max had been one of them. He’d been sitting in the room, reading this book, this play, this play, and -
And the name came to him and the words smiled at him and Max felt his face beam. The Tempest. William Shakespeare.
‘Reading... my book, stranger?’
A clammy hand gripped his shoulder, the stench ran up and hit him in the face. Forcing his eyes back into focus, Max said:
‘Aye. The Tempest, am I right?’
The mutant grinned - which as far as Max knew was the only expression Horace ever requested of his mouth - then lowered himself on to the opposite side of the bone trunk. ‘I wouldn’t know, stranger. The words pass me by’ - a waft of his fingers to demonstrate - ‘but I like... the shapes they make. They remind me... of things not always being so. Be careful with that book, stranger. It is... mine.’
‘Mine’ carried meaning that put Max on alert, so, placing the book and the treasures it held on the rocks, he selected a safer subject. ‘I wondered if you were dead.’
Horace made the sounds which Max recalled indicated either imminent death or amusement. ‘The thought has often crossed my own... mind. But no... I was merely tasting the air. It carries a curious flavour. The taste of smoke... and fire. From Brac’s way.’ The mutant’s weepy eyes twinkled. ‘And now... I find you sitting at my well... reading my book... having lost an ear and gained a pretty vehicle. Not to mention a fine new shirt. I wonder if these events aren’t at all... connected.’
They were, and Max said as much. Horace asked for the details; Max was prepared to give them. Brac’s was a tale that he wanted to tell, it was why he had come back here in the first place. That, and in a strange way, he had missed the mutant’s company.
And so, once he had scooped out a bowel of the well’s riches, he begun.
Horace drank in the account as if quenching a thirst, interrupting once for the rain - ‘It was here too... something that didn’t belong in this world, and was... quickly moved on’ - and many more times for fits of phlegmy coughing.
When Max came to the tale’s end, the sky was toying with purple and Horace was leaning forward, mucky eyes gleaming. For a moment, silence, then the mutant leaned back and released some air from at least one orifice.
Then he started to clap.
‘Well told, stranger... a tale well told. A hearty meal, it shall keep me... full for many... days. Well told indeed.’
Max said nothing. For one thing, the air had started to pong.
After a few smelly seconds, Horace’s applause rattled away. ‘So, tell me. Have you found your answers?’
Answers? Max looked up. ‘Answers?’
‘Aye. When you talked to that guard...’
‘Franks. Neville Franks.’
‘Aye, Franks... when you talked to him, in that bar, I had the sense that you wanted answers. For why things are the way they are. Have you found them?’
The mutant’s breathing sounded like a dog panting in slow motion; the sound made it impossible for Max to think clearly.
‘Not yet,’ he said finally, filing the alternate response, sometimes there are no answers, away under some kind of internal floor rug.
Horace nodded, smacked his lips and rolled his eyes, all at once. ‘Well. One day, perhaps, stranger. Hrrrghk… hrrghk… hrrrrgk. Now. I have made some interesting adjustments to my well, you may like to hear... no? Later, then. Yes, thinking about it, all this jawing has made me... made me very... made me very hungry.’
Odd. Suddenly Max couldn’t recall what precisely about the mutant’s company he had missed.
Thus a short time later, he told Horace that he was going, albeit in a much politer way to soften any possible blow.
Horace’s eyes flashed fire. ‘Go? You tell me you are going, just like that? Where will you go, stranger? There is nowhere... to go.’ He spat the word, and his face twisted through a variety of leers. Then his expression went smooth and his voice crooned like an ancient love song on a bad record. ‘Nay, stay with me... a while longer. There is much more for us... to discuss.’
Not in Max’s view there wasn’t. He strode to the cart then turned back to the mutant, whose eyes now gleamed with something more desperate than amusement. ‘Your well Horace, Brac, and the rain - these things have shown me that not all is cracked and orange.’
‘And? So? Brac showed you death, Max. Is that what you ache for? As for the rain, my well - mere anomalies. Never to be... repeated. Which is why you must stay, stay here with me. I have many... fascinating stories to tell you, fairy tales and words that rhyme.’ Horace’s poetry? Max got inside the cart. ‘Stranger, come back. Why would you leave? Stay here. Out there, there’s nothing. Nothing, in every direction. That is all that awaits you on the rocks: nothing. You see that or you are a fool.’
‘I see that,’ said Max, and it’s possible he did, and it’s possible he smiled. ‘Which is why I will go to where the rocks end.’
The cart growled and crunched, the sky glittered, and soon the well and its owner were swallowed by the night.