At first, I was visualizing a pretty boy, caught between a fundamentalist preacher's bigotry and desire. An old character of mine popped into my head, though, taking over the first few lines of the challenge. Before I knew it, she'd taken over the story altogether...
Warning. This story fragment does include mention of abuse, although it doesn't get graphic. Reader discretion is advised.
“Ain’t no rest for the wicked,” Madam Journey mumbed, as she pushed her cart down the road. Anyone who looked at her would see a bent old woman, wearing an array of once colorful scarves around her head, as she pushed a rickety old cart. Sometimes, it looked like a pedlar’s cart. At other times, it was a modern, battered metal shopping cart, filled with trash. To the average eye, Madam Journey was one of the down and out, a homeless person, a vagabond. People’s eyes slid off her, not wanting to look at her sad shabbiness for long.
This suited Madam Journey just fine. If no one noticed, she could go about her business. She shuffled along, pushing her cart, letting the road guide her. Madam Journey was as much part of the road, as she was flesh and blood. Not just her own road, but other people’s. The lost ones, who left bits and pieces of themselves scattered about like trash.
Right now, she was looking for the boy. Pretty boy, longish hair, slight figure, or at least that’s how she remembered him. Or how he remembered himself. Whose memories belonged to who got confused, sometimes. Especially for her.
“Ain’t no rest for the wicked,” she hummed, as she walked along, picking up the pace. He used to sing that in a groaning, gravelly voice, which was somehow pure, in spite of all the grit in it.
“My daddy is always saying that,” he’d say with a smile. It would have been a perfect smile, if not for the missing tooth. His daddy had knocked it out, when the boy dared to question one of his sermons. The boy’s daddy had been a preacher man, one you didn’t dare argue with, as he thundered and roared about sins and sinners, as if he’d personally like to get his hands on all of them. “By singing his words, I’m taking the curse and the hate out of them. I’m…” He stopped, as if he didn’t dare say anything more.
“You’re what?” Madam Journey had asked. Only she hadn’t been Madam Journey back then. She’d been just a girl, who liked the boy in spite of his pretty looks and his godless songs. Almost everyone else sneered at the boy, or offered him ugly smiles. They whispered equally ugly words behind his back, when they weren’t shouting them, or writing them on bathroom walls.
“I’m turning them in a blessing,” the boy confessed. He looked at her from behind wavy bangs, which were always getting into his eyes. “My daddy is trying to hurt every single person he throws those words at. It’s like he’s turning them into invisible weapons he’d like to drive into the wicked’s hearts.” The boy shook his head. “It ain’t right. The wicked he’s throwing curses at aren’t any worse than my daddy.”
This was only too true. The girl had seen the boy with his daddy, when his daddy had thought no one was watching. It made her wonder if that preacher man was really the boy’s father at all. It also made her wonder at all his yelling about sin and boys with boys, when he was more than willing to do the same stuff to his son, when no one was looking. Maybe the preacher man didn’t want any other man touching his son, other than him.
They never talked about what his daddy did, the girl and the boy. The preacher was powerful in their small town. Everyone looked up to him, or cringed, when he walked by. There was no point in trying to tell anyone in town. All it would do was let the preacher man know that the girl had discovered his secret. Her life wouldn’t be worth spit, if she said anything.
Sometimes, Madam Journey thought back on those times. She wondered if things would have turned out differently, if she’d told someone. Not that there was any point in dwelling on it now, but she did wonder.
Everyone thought the boy had died. The boy disappeared, leaving only a bloody t-shirt behind. There had been more than blood on that t-shirt, which fancy forensic people had been able to identify. The preacher man’s relationship with his ‘son’ was exposed. Only it turned out the boy had never been his son. Just some boy he’d bought for his personal ‘needs’, ‘needs’ no one would understand. The preacher had passed off the boy off as his son.
The boy never told the girl any of this. The small town who’d once sneered and mocked at the boy remembered him with pity. He’d been the victim of a big, bad wolf, disguised as a preacher man. That wolf had fooled them all.
Only Madam Journey remembered anything else about the boy. Only she remembered the boy’s intention of taking back his ‘daddy’s words.
“Ain’t no rest for the wicked,” she hummed, as she walked along, her cart rattling in time to the tune. Her voice wasn’t bad, even after all these years. Once, she and the boy had sung together. She’d been caught in his quest to take back the words. That boy was one of the reasons she’d become Madam Journey. One of many reasons, but he’d been an important one. Part of his heart and will he’d left with her.
There was another part of the boy, somewhere, crying out for her. It must’ve gotten lost, wandered off one of the many roads in the Shadow Forest. She’d only just begun to hear him, so part of that boy must have made it out. Otherwise, Madam Journey wouldn’t be feeling the pull of the road, as she hummed his song.
Bits and pieces of folk lost in the Shadow Forest sometimes made it back. They always called to Madam Journey. She’d find those pieces in some of the darnest shapes. An old shoe. A discarded horn, flattened, so it could no longer be used. A soiled leotard. She’s gather the bits up, put them in her cart. To most eyes, the stuff in the cart looked like trash. To most folks, it was trash. Only one would it different. The ones Madam Journey was looking for. The ones the stuff belonged to.
The ground changed beneath her feet. Pavement gave way to gravel. The skyscrapers disappeared, to be replaced with trees. She might be walking between worlds and not even knowing it, taking all those special short cuts open to Madam Journey. This was what it mean to be part of the path, part of all paths. Fancy speakers like that Gabrielle Bouchard in Omphalos would call her an ‘avatar’ of the path. To Madam Journey, it just meant she went where she needed to go a bit quicker than most folks.