“Believe Me” – Fiction by Jono Naito

Dreaming of the Astral Plane – Norval Morrisseau (Copper Thunderbird), 1995

A mysterious man reunites with an old friend in “Believe Me,” Jono Naito‘s eerie & alluring short story from our Spring 2017 issue.

{ X }

AN OLD ACURA PULLED INTO THE DRIVEWAY in early November, during the last of the cold rains. I had my hand down the drain of a hot tub. I was out at my late uncle’s place, which I rented to rich types from the city. The deck was broken, the wires frayed, the roof peeling back with each passing year, but I would still come up the mountain to fix it. I liked the long breaks though, when no one was there, where I could be by myself for a week or so. A water-proof headrest floated in the leftover tub water. Being there was my purpose, at the time; I thought it was all I had. I stepped around the rusted metal furniture to watch the unexpected visitor, dangling my dripping arm far from my body. The car pulled away, leaving a man with a black coat and two hard leather briefcases. Facing me, I could see it wasn’t a coat, but a robe. It took a moment, but I realized the person was somehow Nathaniel Sharp.

“I need a place to stay,” he said, at a distance.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“Rules are prisons.” He hadn’t outgrown his familiar tone. His face was thickened by age, though the eyebrows, twisted over like the touching of two bent river-reeds, those were his. In grade school Nathaniel had little, round spectacles and carried notebooks with him wherever he went. The former was still perched on the tip of his raven’s beak nose, and at least one journal dangled from his hand. My body shivered in the wind as he approached. We were both the same age, but what thinning hair I could see made me second-guess the time. It had been twenty-five years since the tenth grade, when he left school without saying a word. It couldn’t have been that long already, I thought, I was still fairly young. Nathaniel, standing quietly before me, removed his hood.

“LaFarge gave me your info. He said you had a place up here. I have money.” He pulled a clod of bills from his pocket, aligning his eyes with mine. LaFarge was the one guy I still knew from school.

I took and unfolded the cash. “Why do you need a place?”

“I just do. Just for a few days. I have news, quite the news, but I can’t share it with you. Not out here.”

He looked at the trees around us, holding the suitcases closer to himself. When we were young he thought himself a wizard, and, for some time, so did I. I became worried, quickly, that he still thought this.  “What’s in there?”

“My equipment,” he said. “The standard, everything I need to continue my work.” He looked at the cottage wall. “It is nice here. Isolated. You must like it very much.”

I nodded. It had been awhile since a friend had to lean on me for help, and I couldn’t, at that moment, think of a way to say no. “Front door’s unlocked,” I said. “Loft bedroom to the left. You can set up there.”

Nathaniel nodded and put a hand on my shoulder, the edge of his thumb resting on my clavicle. It was strange to be touched. He smiled that same, child-wonder smile.

“It’s good to see you, Ford. I have much to show you.”

He left me in the chilled air and went to the front door. I considered changing my mind, but as I unfolded the bills I saw they were hundreds, quite a few of them. Money was money. Moving about inside I heard the suitcases, percussive. I returned to the hot tub, dipped my arm deep, and pulled on the valve to drain it.

{ X }

I sat on my couch and stared up at the loft. Nathaniel had fallen asleep quite abruptly, one boot visible. The scent of incense settled on the room; lavender, a smell that I used to adore for its ability to cleanse a space of bad energy. My phone shook on the table; it was, perhaps, a new tenant, finally messaging me back. Or junk email. In both cases I didn’t get up, and instead I continued to watch the single boot like a television for the next half an hour, wondering how long he’d be like that. As if he heard me thinking, Nathaniel eventually grunted and got up.

He maneuvered himself down the steps, hood back, exposing the edges of tattoos extending from his ears, down under the collar of an undershirt. He sat in the armchair by the wall, and looked out the window, licking his lips in silence. His socks were not matching; I could see under the hem.

“I finally did it.”

“Did what?”

He untangled the robe at his feet, hiding his socks again. He looked out again.

“It’s incredible.” He ran his fingers through his hair, almost like he was removing a toupee. “We spent all those years, and now I can do it.” I began counting the rings on his left hand. “Are we alone?”

“Yes,” I said.

He leaned forward. “I can do it, Ford. I can get into dreams.”

“You mean, like with Melissa?” I recalled the girl in fourth grade homeroom who spoke to Nathaniel at lunch. When she complained of nightmares, he promised her he could save her. My idea, it was actually, to try and leave our bodies.

Nathaniel scrunched those eyebrows of his. “Melissa was a simpleton.”

“Melissa was ten.”

“So what?” he said. He seemed to be too warm in his robe and shifted again. I guessed that he liked the show he was putting on for me, that taking it off would detract from the experience.

“You must have questions for me,” he said. He pulled out his notebook and flipped to a page. “You always had good questions.”

“We haven’t spoken in years.”

“I know, I know, you had to lay low, had to stop,” he said, nodding with rhythm. “I used to be worried about that, but now I get it. You can’t go around talking about the truth all the time. People listen. Big folk.”

“Do you think someone is following you?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Have you told anybody else?”

“I am certainly associated with the right and wrong crowds.”

“Why me?”

“You believe.”

The phone buzzed again. Nathaniel stiffened, then relaxed. He got up and began to pace. I wondered how many times he had put his faith in someone, only to be rebuffed with reason. I regretted not doing the same.

He continued. “All the great thinkers were persecuted by those in power. You are a thinker too, like me. You helped set the ground-work for me.”

“Barely a blueprint,” I said, “and it sounds like you have the government after you. Or something.”

“Or something.” He laughed. “Worse. I’ve said too much.”

“Then what can you say?”

Nathaniel’s head rolled back as he looked at the ceiling. As a kid, he would mix herbs from the cupboard together to make a potion that made him fire-proof, which he dabbed on his fingertips before pinching out a candle. Other times he would cast rat bones and read the weather. In a place that was always cold, he had these little victories that caused him to go limp, to grin, like when he had predicted one of any number of inevitable snow days. Whatever had changed about him, that same smile was pushing through.

“You know when you lose something, like your keys, and you rummage around over and over, and then you find them? In a sock or under a lamp, somewhere obvious but impossible and all that tension and fear evaporates, all at once, right off your skin?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Yeah but, you know, you feel shameful? That same freedom is suddenly annoyance, frustration. All that time, wasted. Even in success you can only be disappointed.”

“I don’t think I care enough to beat myself up over it,” I said. As Nathaniel paced, he looked at my phone.

“Yeah, yeah,” he continued, “you find it and you get over it, that too. Completion. But, I can tell you the truth. I could even show you the truth. But if the keys never went missing, you wouldn’t feel all that. The importance would be lost. Vanished. Dead. You need that moment, to know you did the right thing, to know you made a difference.”

“I don’t follow.”

“No, but you will. You will. That’s the magic of it.” He stopped in front of me and smirked. He thought he was funny.

“Is this what you’ve been working on since high school?”

“I founded a guild of like-practiced individuals. That’s what everyone does as they get older, right? Make friends. Gardening, carpentry, collecting non-poisonous spiders.” My phone disturbed us again, and Nathaniel pointed back at it. “Do you need to get that?” He sounded nervous again, for a moment, like the first time he told me he could control cloud formations back when we were seven.

Before I could say anything, he got up and went to the fridge, opening it. “How about you? This place?”

“Uncle passed. Family wanted to sell the place, but I got in a ruckus with them, wanted it to stay. So I’ve been coming up here, renting it out.”

Nathaniel closed the fridge. “Sounds like destiny then.” He took a bottle of oregano. “I’m going to borrow this.”

{ X }

His passings were like gossip that I was supposed to know. He would be out gathering trimmings from the woods, or boiling bones, and come back through the living space as I sat and read my books. He would nod, I would nod back, and each time he said, “Do you know it?” I would say no, and he would continue on his way. I found the counters and tables all dribbled with wax, and the tub filled with toadstools, recently harvested. On the porch lay divining stones, and the walls were replaced with charts. His question, “Do you know it? Do you know it?” became more aggravated, more intense. He would regale me with theories and thoughts, futures and alterations, and after it all he would demand, “Do you know it?” He ate with me only once and he slid across a cup and told me to drink it. Out of nothing but an idiot’s curiosity, I tasted it. It was probably dish soap and tonic water. I had failed to make the discovery he desired me to. I barely slept.

After two days I asked him to clean; I had to leave the next day, so the house could be ready for the first guests of ski season. He asked no questions, just picked up after himself best he could. I didn’t know if this was why I had avoided people as much as I had. Nathaniel said, muttering mostly, “I need to get something started up for later.” This was a common line for him, back when he would begin new projects. He excused himself for the afternoon. I settled in with Prosecco for a moment of peace and stared at the house, the room, and still felt like it wasn’t clean. Too much furniture, too many little notes reminding the guests how to use the faucets, the machines, the windows. Too much to do. Nathaniel, in his fervors, he had a lot to do too, it seemed, but I couldn’t imagine how to begin. I wondered how he knew he was getting closer or further, what he was experimenting on. For a second I admired him, he seemed happier than I was, his purpose had no limits. I washed my glass in the sink and saw a thick glow out the window, around the edge of the cottage. I went outside.

There was a sickly smell of burning, something toxic. I came about the side of the house and found Nathaniel reading through his notebook at a frantic pace, a small fire set in the emptied hot tub.

“What are you doing?” I yelled. He kept muttering. I started grabbing handfuls of snow and tossing them over into the tub. “What the hell are you doing?”

Nathaniel continued to mutter, eyes fixed, bloodshot, a pair of flickering orbs transfixed. I grabbed the book from his hands and he looked at me, broken-hearted.

“Do you know it yet?” he pleaded, his hands bent funny, cold.

“No Nathaniel, I don’t,” I said. I threw down the notebook and kept heaving snow into the tub. It began to stifle the flames. “I don’t know. Just tell me. What do you want me to know?”

He shook his head, rubbing his face, and began making this sound, a cat in baritone, the last creaks of a falling tree before the crash. I grabbed him and shook him to stop, expecting a neighbor to see any second. He wouldn’t face me, twisting his neck, shrinking into his cloak like a turtle.

“I told you,” he whimpered. “You believe.”

The fire flared up again and he pulled out a bottle.

“Here, use this. It will stop the–”

“No it won’t,” I said, my face feeling the strain of anger. “It won’t do anything. It’s cinnamon and syrup. This isn’t your club, this isn’t your job, or whatever it is you do. I am a real person, and this isn’t working. You can’t do this. Not here.”

He pulled away and fell into the snow. He lay there, sniveling, his cheeks permanently up and frigid and red. He was crying.

“You can’t do this,” I said. I pocketed the little bottle and got the hose. It was frozen.

I heard Nathaniel say something, and I returned. “What was that?” I asked.

“You believe,” he said. “You always did. You and me, remember? We were going to change the world. It was destiny that we meet. I read it in the bones.”

I grabbed more snow and threw it in as I spoke. “You were lucky.” Toss. “Of course the wind changes, that is what it did.” Toss. “You seeing visions.” Toss. “You speaking to angels.” Toss. “You–”

“Stop it,” he said. His eyes were closed. “Stop it please, you sound like them.”

“Like who?”

“The others. They are all frauds. What we do, what we do for money, they just make it all up.”

He stood, barely supporting himself with his hand on the edge of the tub. The fire was smoldering, and he coughed in the smoke. There were burns on his hands. “That’s why I’m here, that’s why LaFarge helped me out, helped me find you. He told me you were the quiet sort, that you didn’t talk to people no more. Not even your parents.”

“You spoke to my parents?”

“Of course, to find you.” What hair he had was wispy like a thorny bush. His lip looked bloody, like he had bit it when he fell. “They said you were up here, that you rented this old thing instead of selling it. Now that had me thinking, why would you keep it? We always talked about it, before you made yourself a low-profile, made those fake friends, blended in. We talked about it all, about the plan, you see? A place to work and discover and learn in solitude.”

“I meant your parents’ cellar.”

“You don’t have to do this anymore, Ford,” he said. “It’s for you, you see? All of it. My best friend in this world. You know the truth. Why be so alone? You must have a project too. Tell me about it.”

“Nathaniel–” I could barely craft the words in my throat. I remembered when he found me in the hallway sophomore year, when he passed me a set of tarot cards and said they were good ones, they had the proper spells, then he winked and ran off. My friends, at least back then, stared hard, and I shrugged and played dumb for them, and tossed the cards in the trash. I never told the truth to anyone. “Nathaniel, I have no project. I am just here, renting out this house. I have a counter job at the comics store in town. Got a little place there too, above the shop. This is my life now. It isn’t a front or a cover. I’m not here to hide from the government, I just like it. I like knowing who I am, what is, what isn’t.” I felt the lie in my voice. I hated the cabin, and somehow, in the turn of fate, I had left Nathaniel for a real life that contained nothing but silence and peace. He had vigor, he had dreams, even if they were incredible, even if they were insane.

Nathaniel held up a finger. “No, no, not the government. Worse, I said. Worse.”

I pushed his hand down and backed away. “You need to leave tomorrow,” I said. He was shivering, and I noticed he was shoeless in the snow. “You pack up your things and call a cab. You need to go.”

“But Ford,” he said, reaching for me. “Do you know it? I have tried every night to reach you. This was my last attempt, I promise. Your dreams, Ford. Have you seen me? I want you to see me.”

I shook my head and returned to the front door, listening to him call to me, a stuttering repetition. “Do you know it? Do you know me?”

{ X }

I didn’t even see him leave, he was just gone, like a bad dream. I tried not to think about it, that he might just have gone into the woods and was waiting there. I thought he had given up easy, sort-of. I got the house all set for the guests the next day, same as always, same as before, back in the beat and ebb and flow of what I called my life. I called my mother. I talked to her for a time, and after telling her some of what had happened, she only said, “It must have been nice to see a friend, though.” I thought it may be time to sell the place, but I’d have to wait until after ski season. It felt like too long. I went into town to the little diner by the gas station to eat and stare out the window. To think. I stepped out an hour later, and I was approached by a man in a long dark coat. It was certainly not a robe.

“Have you seen Nathaniel Sharp?” he asked. He held out a low-quality photo of Nathaniel, bad printer lines dividing his face, mapping it. I nodded after a long pause and told him Nathaniel was gone. He gave me his number and walked away. I thought about the man as I got in my car, and looked at the number. I tried googling it, and got nothing more than an area code for L.A.

Then I felt it, that little feeling when something has been forgotten, like I left a light on somewhere. I went back up the mountain instead of to my little apartment, back up the winding roads and trees bent over like they were trying to pick me up. I stopped at each turn and felt my breath pop out. I was nervous, I was shivering and the heat was on high. At the second-to-last turn, a firetruck came blaring up the road and I watched it nearly hit the stop sign as it slung about the curve and up into the woods. I turned too, following it, following it right to my driveway. The dreadful truth came sooner than the smoke or the reddened glow on the tree trunks. I felt like I had a third eye, that I could see it coming, the exact image, and so it was; the cottage was a black skeleton, frosted in fire. I had to park on the road, the firetruck filling the whole way in, and began running up. Cops came from about the place to stop me as I yelled at them, at the building. I yelled for Nathaniel, where was Nathaniel, for the man, about this tall, losing his hair, high cheek bones, a robe. I asked about briefcases, about candles, about bottles of oregano. It spilled out of me, the little details, like a long confession. I said his name a dozen times before I said I knew him from school, and I told them about that too, hands freezing and stuffed in my pockets. I felt the little bottle he gave me. The potion. I burst forward and up to the edge of the heat pushing against my face and tossed it, a heavy lob overhead into the blaze.

The shape disappeared, and I was grabbed and dragged back. “What the hell are you doing?” they yelled. I yelled his name again and they repeated, “What are you doing?” I sat in the snow at the end of the driveway, questioned and not hearing. I could only mutter to myself, and wish, and try to listen to what the universe was telling me, beyond the crackling and the talk. The winds changed and blew harder, the fire burning all the brighter.

{ X }

JONO NAITO  is a writer and game designer currently living in Syracuse, New York. You can find Jono’s recent work in StoryQuarterly, Cosmonauts AvenueThe Fem, The Airgonaut, as well as online at jononaito.com.

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