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Pioneer John

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I wasn’t ready for the snow, but all my neighbors were ready. They had animals for companionship and animals to eat. They had toys that made perfect snowballs and toys that could kill their enemies. Everyone around me was equipped for fun and death, and I was unprepared.

The man on the radio said the snow could last a whole month. I hadn’t intended to stay here so long, but I was stuck. A case had brought me to town, and I hadn’t solved it yet. I had recently gained a roommate who had no resources, and I was responsible for feeding both of us. When I rushed to the store, I found the shelves were mostly bare, but I took what I could find . . . candy corn, applesauce, overripe bananas, cans of sardines. Anything for survival. 

As I left the store heavy with supplies, I saw Pioneer John walking my way. He was the prime suspect in my case, a man who claimed to be a descendant of John of Patmos, also known as John the Revelator, also known as the Disciple whom Jesus Loved. I didn’t know what all that meant before this case, but he was just one of the twelve disciples who wrote a weird book or two, and no one thinks he even had descendants (assuming he existed), and it’s all a bunch of baloney. Baloney is Pioneer John’s specialty.

My hunch was that Pioneer John didn’t have any ancestors at all. I suspected he was merely the incarnation of an impulse, like the impulse to explore and conquer. Nonetheless, he had achieved the status of flesh and blood, and apparently, he needed supplies just like the next guy. He lived down the street from me; my client had rented a house for me in proximity to his so I could understand him better. He didn’t acknowledge that I was watching him, though he probably knew. In any case, we acted like friendly neighbors.

He smiled, showing his teeth. “How d’you do, Jack?”

“Not much left, but I took what I could. Looks like it’s going to be a bad one. How are you and yours going to get through it?”

I pretended to be concerned about him and his wife and his little boy. Really, I suspected they were all just incarnations of impulses. I didn’t think they were human in the sense that you and I and the mailman are human. Pioneer John paused and looked off into the distance at the snow clouds gathering with the violet sunrise. His fur hat looked like it was breathing. He was a foot taller than me and twice as brawny, and—I won’t lie—he scared me.

“There’s something worse than a snowstorm coming,” he finally said after a few moments of silence. “Me and mine will get through it as always, by being intrepid and wise.”

“What bad thing is coming our way? Maybe I can get ready for it,” I said. I acted jocular about his predictions, but in truth, I was afraid of them, too. He’d already correctly predicted an earthquake in Japan and the death of one of our neighbors. He’d also predicted that I was looking for something I’d never find.

He gave me a smile of contempt. “I suppose you’ll be wanting my protection since you can’t look out for yourself. But I have to think of my wife and child.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Then I’ll be heading home with my provisions. One more question, though. Does the bad thing coming our way have something to do with bears? I hear they’re vicious in these parts.”

A few towns over, a lawyer named Fergus was killed by a bear. Fergus represented a man who was suing Pioneer John over a terrible car accident. His wife Mary had heard rumors in town that Pioneer John trained his bear to attack people. The bear in question attacked Fergus when he was walking from his car and his office, and that was the end of Fergus. First bear attack in the town’s history. Mary hired me to look into it. She thought Pioneer John trained the bear to attack her husband, but she couldn’t prove it. She hired me hoping I could. I hoped I could, too.

Pioneer John laughed at my mention of bears. I was glad he did. I needed to annoy him enough to trip him up without making him so mad he wanted to kill me.

My hunch was that Pioneer John didn’t have any ancestors at all. I suspected he was merely the incarnation of an impulse, like the impulse to explore and conquer.

“Something worse than bears is coming,” he said. “You can be sure of that. And you won’t be safe. Not with your wicked ways.”

I laughed like he was just ribbing me. “I’m a scoundrel, all right. Well, see you later, neighbor!”

I lugged my bags home, feeling kind of good about my new supplies. When I reached my front lawn, Pioneer John’s little boy was playing there. He was swinging a stick and wearing a fur hat like his father’s.

“Hey kid,” I said. “Why are you playing on my lawn when you have one of your own?”

He ignored me. The kid had never said one word to me. I didn’t even know his name. His mother was the same way. At first, I thought they were just being rude, but I began to wonder if they could even perceive my presence. The case baffled me, but I couldn’t give it up. I guess I was in love with it, in a way. I went in and put the groceries in the cabinets, and since the bananas weren’t long for this world, I set them out for breakfast. I called my roommate Brady down to eat.

“Good morning, Jack! How exciting about the snow.” Brady was wearing my spare pair of pajamas. He was the most chipper person I’d ever met, as long as I kept the conversation away from Pioneer John and related topics.

“Have a banana. That is, have as many bananas as you can. Not a lot of options at the store, but I think I’ve got enough to last us through the worst of it. And if we need to, we can always beg from the neighbors. They all seem well-stocked.”

He nodded as he bit into his first banana. He didn’t like to be reminded of the existence of the neighbors. Several nights prior, and about a month into my investigation, he’d woken me up by ringing the doorbell over and over. When I answered, he said he’d escaped from a nearby house, but he wouldn’t say which one. I named the neighbors surrounding me to see if they’d been the ones to detain him, and while he refused to discuss the matter, the name “Pioneer John” had made him cry. I figured he’d spill his guts eventually. Cases take time, you know.

Since then, he’d stayed in the spare bedroom with the shades drawn, reading some old comic books and pulp novels I found for him at a used bookstore down the street. Sometimes he watched television, though mostly in the middle of the night when I was trying to sleep. I’d hear the canned laughter and feel sort of melancholy.

I suppose that’s what I felt about the case—melancholy. As I said, I was afraid of Pioneer John and his soullessness and his portentousness, and even worse, all the ways he could kill me. But in my line of work, I don’t expect to live forever. I just wished I had someone I could talk to. Everyone in my vicinity refused to talk about Pioneer John. I’d tried to avoid my client Mary, so that Pioneer John wouldn’t see us together (or hear us if he was monitoring my calls). That would be bad for the case. The first time I met her, I hadn’t yet developed an appetite for the topic of Pioneer John. Now I understood her interest. Brady needed time to cool off, but I kept pressing him to tell me what he knew.

“Look, Brady, I know you don’t like talking about whatever happened to you. But the case is taking some bad turns. I talked to Pioneer John today.” I sat down across from him at the battered kitchen table, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Started eating a second banana, so I continued with my monologue. “He said something bad is coming. It’s on the horizon, he says. Worse than snow and worse than bears.”

Brady closed his eyes and ate faster.

“I don’t want to upset you, Brady, but see, I need to make some progress if I’m ever going to bring this guy to justice.”

“But Jack . . .”

“I mean, Brady, here I am, I’m housing you and feeding you. On my client’s dime. There’s nothing you, me, or my client would like more than to see this guy go down.”

Brady started to cry, and I decided to wait patiently until his tears dried up.

“Why did Pioneer John have you trapped in his house?” I asked as soon as he was calm again.

Brady took a deep breath and peeled a third banana. “You think you can bring him to justice?” He looked at me doubtfully, like he didn’t think much of my detective skills.

“Well, why shouldn’t I? I’ve brought other men to justice.”

“Like . . . what men?”

The disrespectful twerp. And I was giving him free room and board! Or rather, my client was footing the bill for both of us because of my excellent reputation. Isn’t that why she hired me? I vaguely recalled my past career—chases in alleyways and gunfights and the thrill of connected dots—but I couldn’t remember the names of any of my conquests. This case had claimed my whole brain. I spent every waking moment thinking about Pioneer John and reading online articles. I’d learned a lot about the history of pioneering in America (both celebratory and condemnatory), and about John the Revelator, and about the history of apocalyptic thinking. I had desperately tried to examine and absorb an unending stream of facts, like Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates in their mouths in the cruel factory. There wasn’t room for my memories.

“You wouldn’t have heard of them. Unless you’re a real crime junkie. How many famous criminals do you know?”

Brady’s chewing slowed. “I don’t know . . . Al Capone?” He looked bewildered, but not sufficiently ashamed of his ignorance.

“Well, I didn’t catch Al Capone. I caught bad men with worse press. And I’m all you have right now until you’re ready to go back to your life before Pioneer John. But you haven’t let me call the cops yet, Brady, and that means you’re hiding something.”

Brady draped the peel over the last half of his third banana and laid it on the table. For safekeeping. “Okay. I’ll tell you. I do appreciate what you’ve done for me.”

I nodded beneficently. Now we were getting to the good stuff.

“The truth is . . . I’m the real Pioneer John.”

Of course, I doubted him at first. Pioneer John was huge and commanding, and Brady was small, slender, and a pissant.

“No offense, but you don’t seem like much of a pioneer.”

He showed his teeth like he wanted to bite me.

“My father named me Pioneer John,” he said, holding his nose in the air as if there were something sacred about the old guy. “And I’ll have you know, I’m a great pioneer. I’ve traveled far and had my way with plenty of people and plenty of land. I’m a great pioneer!”

I didn’t see what there was to be so proud of, but I let it go. My job was to solve the case, not give the kid a history lesson.

“Okay, okay. So Pioneer John assumed your identity, you say? Level with me. He’s not really a flesh-and-blood person, is he?”

Brady looked surprised. “What makes you say that? I don’t know who he is, really. All I know is that he knocked on my door one night during supper, and I let him in even though I’d never seen him before. Suddenly it was like I wasn’t there. My own wife and my own son ignored me. Like he’d always been her husband, always been his father. I hung around for five weeks, eating the groceries and sleeping on the couch, but eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. The night I left, I tried begging to my wife to remember our life together, but she got the new Pioneer John to kick me out of the house. It’s no use calling the police. My own wife won’t even back up my story.”

“Damn, that’s rough,” I said, but I wasn’t sympathetic. Fergus was killed by a bear a week before my roommate “Brady”—the old Pioneer John—said he was replaced in his role. That meant that Brady must have killed Fergus while he was Pioneer John. I met my client the day after her husband was killed, and she didn’t show me a picture of the guy.

“But wait a minute, what’s that about being a concept and not a real person?” He leaned forward in his seat, searching my face for some hope, something that would get him his old life back.

“Hmm. What do you want me to call you now?”

“You can still call me Brady for now, until I get my own name back. My father would want me to take it back like a real pioneer,” he said.

“Fine.” I smiled at him, feeling like a crazed animal about to eat its cub. “But I never told you what crime Pioneer John committed. My client believes Pioneer John killed her husband by training a bear to kill him. Her husband’s name is Fergus, and he died six weeks ago. That’s a week before the other Pioneer John elbowed his way into your life. So who’s responsible for that?”

I wasn’t afraid of him. If we got into a fight, I could win. And I knew the kitchen better than he did—I knew which drawer held the knives. I felt like I’d been sitting for a season on the world’s biggest egg, and I’d just heard a satisfying crack.

“He is. He’s the bear guy. I’ll prove it!” Brady jumped up from the table and grabbed me by the arm. He pulled me along, and I followed him. Whatever happened, I was getting somewhere now. He led me to the backyard and made me stand on a dirty old patio table.

“Look towards Pioneer John’s backyard. Keep your head down, though, or he’ll see you.”

I peered over a row of chain-link fences and I could see from a distance that Pioneer John was out in his yard wrestling around with a furry creature. It was a bear all right.

“I mean, aren’t you here to stake out Pioneer John? How could you have missed it?” Brady looked up at me with that doubtful look again, like he didn’t think I knew what I was doing.

I got down from the table and wondered about that myself. Was I a lousy detective? I’d spent all that time inside looking up theories on the internet. And through all that searching and analyzing and connecting, that was how I’d come up with the theory that Pioneer John was the incarnation of an impulse and not a real man. Wasn’t that worth something?

“You can’t tame a bear like that in a week. They don’t respond to just anyone’s demands. They only work for people they have a bond with. That’s his bear. If you want proof, take your phone.” Brady pulled my phone out of his pocket. “Take a video of him with the bear and send it to Mary. Send it to the police. Then they’ll come and arrest him, and I’ll get my family back. Come on!”

I did as he said. I used my phone camera to zoom in and take the video. I called Mary and asked her to meet me at a bar in town—a hip new place, the sort of place Pioneer John wouldn’t deign to drink his brew in. Mary said a snowstorm was coming and that soon the roads wouldn’t be safe, but I told her I had something she needed to see before the snow blocked all our paths. On the way to meet her, I stopped by to give the folks at the police department a gander at my video of Pioneer John wrestling the bear. I told Brady’s story and Mary’s story as best I could. They said they’d try to investigate the matter after the snow cleared, but they were snickering behind my back.

A fat lot of good. At least Mary was pleased when I showed her the video over drinks. I warned her that the police weren’t interested in my evidence, but she didn’t seem to mind. When I told her I thought Pioneer John was merely an impulse come to life and not a real person, she was thrilled.

“That’s just what I needed to know! It doesn’t matter what the police think. Now I can kill him myself without feeling bad about it. Now I can be sure.” She sipped her beer right out of the can, and she took the law into her own hands. My kind of woman.

She came back with me to the apartment so that the three of us could form a plan of revenge.

“Let the snow come! It’ll only cover up our crime!” Brady said.

“If we kill him, it’s not a crime,” she said. “He’s ruined all of our lives.”

“Except mine,” I said. But I scratched my head and felt like I’d forgotten something.

“He’s become your obsession,” Brady reminded me. “He’s driven you half-mad.”

“Or all mad,” Mary said, and I didn’t like how they were ganging up on me.

“Much madness is divinest sense,” I said, quoting something.

“Whatever,” Brady said, and they laughed at me. Like everyone laughed at me lately. I liked to laugh at myself too from time to time, but I felt like it had gone too far. Here I was, sacrificing my life for the sake of the case, and I was just a clown to everyone.

“Why did you hire me, then, if I’m so unhinged?” I said it quietly, like I was just joking, too. Like I barely cared.

“You weren’t unhinged when I hired you,” Mary said. “You were the best private eye I could find. But I didn’t just need a good detective. I needed a good mad detective. To see through a character like Pioneer John—to figure out he’s not even human—I needed someone who thinks big and odd thoughts. Before you met me, you were a fast runner with strong arms who could take down plenty of bad guys. But you couldn’t think. Not really. I made you what you are today.”

Mad then. Mad for her sake. Mad for Pioneer John’s sake. What did I get out of it? Enough money to live another day, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

“There’s no time to think about yourself now,” Mary warned me. “It’s time for action.”

We decided to set a trap for Pioneer John, like the traps he set for animals. Pioneers are good at escaping, fighting, building, and rebuilding. In the process, they often deprive other people of their property. They cause bloodshed and think it’s the will of God. They think God wants them to take new territory. They feel the need to explain themselves. They can only be stopped by bad omens.

Nothing is more unsettling than a mirror. That first evening of the snowfall, when the stuff was piling slowly on our lawns but still melting in the streets, we paid a visit to Pioneer John’s house. Brady introduced himself as Pioneer John, Mary as his wife, and me as his son. The other wife and son stared at us like they wanted to destroy us, but for the first time, they acknowledged my presence. Pioneer John treated us with contempt, but he seemed shaken.

“I’m the real Pioneer John, and this is my real wife and son,” he said several times. Brady wouldn’t back down, though.

“I’m the original Pioneer John,” Brady said. “And all of this belongs to me.”

Pioneer John glowered at us, but he invited us to sit in his living room. He offered us beers, which we only drank because we were able to pop open the cans ourselves. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have eaten out of his hand.

“You say you’re Pioneer John’s wife, huh?” Pioneer John looked at Mary. “But I believe you were married to someone else rather recently.”

“I’m a widow. I’m entitled to move on and become someone else’s wife.” As polite and measured as her tone was, she grimaced like someone in pain.

“And Jack? You seem a little long in the tooth to be this man’s son.”

I smiled, a willing clown. “I’m younger than I look.”

“I have received a prophecy from God,” Brady said, interrupting our small talk.

“I’m the prophet,” Pioneer John said, solemn as a temple.

“I’m the prophet. I’m Pioneer John,” Brady said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I built this house with my bare hands. I settled this land when it was a forest filled with bears. I’m immortal. I’m the right hand of God . . .”

He went on and on, and I felt helpless to stop him. Was all this true? Acid crept up the walls of my stomach. Whose side was I on? I looked at Mary, and she seemed only mildly confused. Her goal was revenge, and she didn’t care how she got it or whose dirty help she got along the way.

“Maybe you’re overstating things, Dad,” I said to Brady. “You’re a man—a strong and serious man—but a mortal man. It’s this other man who is the incarnation of an impulse.”

Brady shook his head. “I’m Pioneer John,” he said.

Mary took a revolver out of her purse, and she shot both Brady and Pioneer John. Or, depending on how you looked at it, she shot Pioneer John and Pioneer John.

I couldn’t believe it. My ears were ringing. I stood up slowly, wondering how I could get myself out of any legal mess that was coming my way.

“They were both responsible,” Mary said.

Pioneer John’s wife looked both angry and relieved. His son studied the two bodies as if they were tea leaves. He didn’t seem upset so much as prophetic.

“The end is near,” said Pioneer John’s son. “Now that these incarnations are gone, a third will arise. In this world, a pioneer will always rise.”

The kid ran upstairs and slammed his door. The wife of Pioneer John helped Mary drag the bodies to the backyard, supposedly for the bear to consume. I suspected the bodies were fakes that would simply disappear and wouldn’t be good food for a bear, but I stayed out of it. I walked out alone, the snow stinging my cheeks. I knocked on the door of one of my rich neighbors, and I asked for shelter during the snow. I said I’d chop wood in exchange for room and board. They turned me down. I asked at the next big house. Then I asked at the small houses. Everyone turned me down.

Pioneers are good at escaping, fighting, building, and rebuilding. They cause bloodshed and think it’s the will of God. They can only be stopped by bad omens.

I knew I couldn’t live in that house where I’d once lived with Brady, where I’d plotted to take down his usurper. I couldn’t live with Mary, whose bloodlust could never be satisfied—I could see that now. I would be next. She’d keep killing until she got her husband back. She might start to think I was Pioneer John. She wasn’t safe. While she was away, I put on all the clothes I could for warmth and stuffed as many sweaters as I could into my knapsack along with my computer and a jar of applesauce. Then I got out. I couldn’t remember where my home was, the home I’d had before the case, but I hoped it was in another town.

I hitched a ride from a friendly snowplow driver, and he took me to his home for dinner with his family that night. The next day, I went out to keep the snowplow driver company, and we rose in time to see the sunrise. As we rode along, the snow stopped. An unearthly green light filled the sky. A light drizzle of blood surrounded us. I looked at the driver and asked if he could see it, but he said it just looked like another bad day.

I felt a flush of unwanted wisdom. I didn’t want to be Pioneer John, but I felt the tingle of prophecy in my brain. Would I start wearing a fur hat? No, no, I didn’t want that! Pioneer Johns were merciless. If they’d been allowed to live, they would have taken over the whole street, and then the whole world. If I let myself transform into Pioneer John, I would lose myself completely. I’d sacrifice everything for my desires.

So I did all I could do to stay the same. I ignored the bad omens. I pretended the sky was bloodless. I pretended that what was coming wasn’t coming.

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