Gunning for the Buddha
It was fitting that we caught sight of him walking barefoot next to the autobahn, where it would be a real bitch to stop in time to pick him up. But we were nothing if not up for a challenge. I brought our '75 Firebird screeching to a stop next to him on the narrow shoulder, giving him a few centimeters of breathing room between muscle car and blocky metal guardrail, and opened the passenger door. Traffic screamed past us like bullets as the little man lifted his robes and stepped into the car. With a groan, Ari had jumped into the back and onto Marco's lap, crushing Annina, Marco, and Yeshev. The Buddha rode shotgun.
He was bald, of course, but a lot skinnier than I'd ever imagined. He'd been walking west, out of Berlin into the German countryside, probably headed for Madrid or Amsterdam or some damn place like that. I had to grin at the dirt trapped under his fingernails like brown scars. His face was made up of delicate bones, like a china doll I'd had as a little girl, before I broke it with my baseball bat.
When the Buddha smiled at me I felt the world teeter, but that could've been caused by the two oversized bottles of beer I'd already downed. Before tromping on the gas, I checked the rearview mirror for the first time all day, looking around the multi-colored faces cheek-to-cheek in the back seat so we wouldn't get into a wreck. I wanted to savor the moment, stretch it out like day-old taffy. It wasn't every day you came across someone who—for all intents and purposes—was a major player from the spiritual realm, thumbing a ride.
And you know, of course, what you're supposed to do when you meet the Buddha on the road.
In seconds the Firebird was hitting 190 kilometers an hour, the dashboard shimmering like an ocean at low tide. I watched him out of the corner of my eye while the others hissed laughter in the backseat, waiting for my patience to run out. They knew me too well, my fellow travelers. We were between gigs, regrouping. Our next rendezvous was with a bridge in downtown Frankfurt later that afternoon. Time was of the essence.
When we passed the first sign for Frankfurt am Main, still some fifty kilometers away, I'd finished off most of the bottle of German ale I'd been balancing between my legs, and my bra was flapping in the wind next to me, wedged between door and window like a flag of surrender. The breeze cooled me off, reminding me of the metal pressed against my side under my thin T-shirt. I was always amazed at the way our assignments took shape, usually at the last possible minute before or after a jump, in spite of—or was it because of?—all the chaos in the world.
Next to me, the Buddha had started talking. His soft voice carried clear as a bell over the wind howling through my cracked-open window.
"In some ways, my girl," he said, "I am helpless. I have what I have if only I will surrender to things as they are."
His lash-less eyes stared at me, into me in a way I'd rather not remember. I hated it when men called me "girl."
"We must return to the sea," he continued, "or the sea will return to us."
"You're damn skippy," I said.
The others in the backseat exhaled in disappointment. They'd wanted me to blow him away from the moment he got in the car. To hell with them—I wanted to hear what this Buddha had to say. Plus I was distracted; Frankfurt's Eiserner Steg was approaching, and I'd forgotten that this was a footbridge, and the pedestrians weren't cooperating. But the Buddha's time was coming.
We had to get it just right, hitting the midsection of the Iron Footbridge where the blue metal arches of the supports for the bridge dipped down. Then we'd be back into the ether, casting about for a new when and where, for more chaos to unravel. I needed to be rid of the skinny little shit by then. Who knew what sort of cosmic balance he'd tip over if we jumped with him in the car?
"Trusting the young is the only hope of each aging generation." Pointing a delicate finger at me, the Buddha gave me a smile that made me think of cheap ceramic statues and sleeping lions. "However, pointing at the moon is not the moon itself."
"Like a fortune cookie you are," I muttered.
A man and woman dressed in black dove out of our way as we jumped the steps leading up to the bridge. I had my gun out by that time, the Firebird's wheels ba-dang-dang-danging onto the near side of the bridge over the Main. When we were a quarter of the way across I pressed on the brakes.
"Be a lamp unto yourself—" the Buddha began, but I didn't let him finish. I'd had enough of his whispering voice and his suspect wisdom. It was time.
I took two shots, but I think the second went high into the afternoon sky over the Main River. Ari pushed the false Buddha out the door at 140 k.p.h., and we launched ourselves off the temporal bridge backward—or forward—to some other damn when.
Anyone can travel back and forth in time.
A cynical creature would laugh at such a thought, but stop and think about it for a second. We do it all the time just by remembering the past and daydreaming about the future. But to actually take your body with you, you've got to go through some extra effort.
And if you want to travel temporally with the same group of folks, in the same vehicle you're currently whisking around in through the present, you've got to use a bridge. The more people you have, the more accurate the jump, but the shorter distance you could travel. It was the temporal quandary, the paradox of time. The Buddha and his Zen buddies would've loved wrapping their brains around that one.
To do a jump, any bridge or vehicle will work. The trick isn't the bridge or the vehicle—in our case, a sky-blue '75 Pontiac Firebird with a fat white stripe running up the hood and back to the trunk, but the timing you use on your way across the bridge. The secret is to jump at the exact midpoint of the bridge. There's that frozen heartbeat of a moment—you know what I'm talking about here—when you're no longer coming onto the bridge but leaving it.
The strongest thought of any person in the vehicle at that temporally flexible juncture in the bridge wins the where-and-when game. So it's good to stay focused on your way across a bridge.
As the Buddha would've said (before I shot him, that is, and heard his slender body hit the girders of the bridge with a sharp crack), bridges put us in touch with ebb and flow of our own inner area of unrest.
To which I say: rest in peace.
We landed outside a three-story brick structure. The when was unclear because there were no cars or people around. Unless it was the far future or the distant past, most buildings hid their timeframes well.
"It's a school," Ari said, pushing out of the back seat. My bare arms burst into gooseflesh at the sound of Ari's deep voice, followed immediately by the popping of the passenger door. Ari was a Muslim who'd lived his whole life in southern Missouri. He flipped his thick black hair in an arc around his head and somehow managed to secure it all under the turban he always carried in his back pocket. His turban had a John Deere patch sewn on it, along with the logo for the Kansas City Royals.
"Looks like America," he said, "from all the advertisements on the walls and used rubbers around the garbage cans. But when is it?"
I looked over at the shotgun seat, half-expecting our most recent Buddha to still be sitting there, legs crossed and grinning over at me. But the seat was empty, of course, his last fortune-cookie message forever left unfinished. I put the Buddha's words out of my head and got out, gun in hand, determined to live up to my tough-as-shiny-new-nails riot-grrl reputation.
The others unfolded themselves from the backseat and joined us outside, stretching and groaning. Marco was a former Soviet soldier with Jewish aspirations and no sense of the fall of communism, while Annina was a gawky Canadian atheist with bugshit eyes and a black sense of humor. Yeshev I didn't know much about. All of them I met on the road, and for the most part, we traveled well together.
And of course, we all tended to gravitate to times like this one, which are supposed to be periods of heightened chaos. Right now this place looked to be suffering only from a bad stretch of dullness and monotony.
"So," I said, looking at the slope of grass in front of the school and the sun reflecting off the evenly spaced windows above it. "Who was thinking of this place?"
Great, I thought. Another at-the-last-minute job.
We drifted into the school, smelling the warm meat smell of the mass-produced lunch being prepared for the noon hour. Yet under that scent was a darker odor. A mix of gun oil and blown matches. Okay, I was thinking, there just may be some chaos activity here. We drifted inside, letting the waves of waiting energy pull us on invisible strings into the cafeteria, and then into the library.
The school reminded me of jail, the one I spent almost a decade in before I learned how to keep my mouth shut and fake my good behavior. Jail was shit, a constant battle of victim and aggressor, but I'd learned to always cover my back and trust the hunches that came over me. I was starting to recognize this place now; my hunches were rarely wrong, when I chose to listen to them.
A hot breeze blew across my forehead when I stepped into the musty school library. I was starting to think that today was a weekend or a holiday, the place was so empty. I'd wanted to check out the Reference section, where the computers were, so I stepped behind the desk, and then I felt a familiar tingle. I turned, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the glint of black metal reflected in the rows of monitors in front of me. I was the first of our little group to see the kid in the army fatigues walk in, carrying an assault rifle in each hand, a WWJD pendant dangling on his chest next to his homemade dogtags.
My gun was out and pointed at the kid just as he was lowering the first Kalashnikov. I froze when I saw that Ari was in the kid's line of fire. The tall Muslim was motionless, staring at two other kids, a boy and a girl decked out in the same ugly green fatigues and carrying more weaponry than any zit-ridden sixteen-year-old had a right to.
The boy began shooting. He realized too late, of course, that his girlfriend and his buddy were standing directly behind Ari, guns lifted. Ari was caught in the middle of a mindless firefight that left us with four corpses and one less mind to muck up our travels through the ether. I still stood there, gun aiming at the space where the boy with the dogtags had been standing. I may as well have been pointing it at the moon, for all the good it had done Ari. Ari was not the moon, either.
As we made sure the shooters were dead, Yeshev wrapped up Ari in his overcoat and carried him to the Firebird. Even as I felt myself want to puke on the card catalog next to me, I was already calculating how, on our next jump, we'd drop his remains somewhere and somewhen that wouldn't raise any questions. It wasn't the best we could've done for him, but we had a responsibility to leave behind no trace of our passing.
Annina and I gave each other a long look, my dry eyes taking in her tear-filled eyes. Was it worth it? Did we have to lose Ari in exchange for all the innocent kids and teachers who would've been shot by the three dead students now spread out across the Reference section of their high school library?
"At least we won't have to listen to his bitching about being carsick anymore," I muttered on my way out, but nobody was buying my act anymore. Not today.
At the door, I saw a bullet-ridden book splayed out over the outline of a perfectly-round, yellow face. "Have a Nice Day," the smiling sticker would have read, if the blood hadn't obscured the words. But I could still make out that smile, a perfect half-circle of self-contentment and wisdom. For all intents and purposes, the Buddha was still riding shotgun with us, his incomprehensible Zen koans echoing in my head like the bullets had ricocheted of the library's cinderblock wall.
I emptied my gun into the yellow happy face even as the others slinked out of the school like the shadow creatures we all were.
Back in the Firebird I was able to pull myself together. Yeshev had said something about not wasting ammo on smiley-face stickers, even if we were all reeling from losing Ari. Marco, even jumpier than normal, sat huddled into the back seat, the gunfire probably bringing back old memories of Chechnya and ruined buildings. Annina pushed past me into the seat next to Marco, swearing under her breath about not feeling carsick. We weren't having what you'd call good group dynamics.
With Ari gone, the Firebird handled much, much better.
I'd found the car the day I walked out of Fulsom County Prison—no, not the one in the song by Johnny Cash, but don't you doubt that that damn song wasn't pumping through my damn head every second I was there. Because it was, believe me.
I was in a car graveyard when I came across her. The 'Bird. After getting out of jail, I found the gun under the Firebird's driver seat and saw it as a sign. So much for keeping up my "good behavior"—I stole the car from the toothless old man at the graveyard and learned her ins and outs as I chased chaos around the globe on my own. I'd learned about bridges and how they could move me through time with a little luck, concentration, and timing from my Fulsom cellmate. Her name was Verity, and she had only one eye and lied every third sentence. She was also the one who told me about chaos.
"If you undo enough of it," she said with her permanent wink, "you can stop running and start finding order in your life again."
The sky-blue Firebird, with its big gas-sucking engine and dual glasspack mufflers, was a natural for moving through time and space and chasing chaos. The beauty of it was, if there was someplace I couldn't get to, the Firebird could bull its way through with the proper application of accelerator and momentum.
The difficulty came in when I started taking on passengers. The more people I had in the car, the easier it was to travel with some sense of accuracy, but at the same time, the more passengers I had in the car, the harder it got to jump longer temporal distances. With two in the car it was easy to go back to the grassy damn knoll, but with a gang of five—now four—it burned up a ton of psychic energy just getting out of the aughts.
Luckily I'd taught my fellow travelers well. They got quiet as the bridge over the Colorado River rose up in front of us. Emergency vehicles blasted past us like screaming mothers mourning their children, headed for the school. We ignored them, focusing instead on the invisible lines of chaos extending around the world like lines on a map, stretching out in billions of timestreams. Ten kilometers southeast of the bloodstained school library and the ravaged Have a Nice Day sticker, we hit the middle of a slender two-lane bridge and jumped south and way east. We landed in Afghanistan.
There was a very simple, almost elegant reason why I had to kill the Buddha. Not just the Buddha, of course, but all Buddhas. You'd be surprised at the number of imposters out there in the world, dispensing their suspect wisdom like a carnival attraction.
I had to kill all the Buddhas because it was their fault the world was riddled with chaos. I had to shoot any and all Buddhas, no matter what their incarnation, even if Ari had to get shot by teenagers, or if Yeshev had to die from multiple bullet wounds from the Afghanistan attack in '99. It was my duty to do it.
Don't get me wrong. I wasn't being bigoted in my choice of targets. If I saw Christ in a crosswalk in San Francisco, I'd gun the engine and splat him onto the windshield as quick as you could say "Peace be with you." Same deal for Abraham and Mohammad, for holy women and medicine men in charge of their flocks. All of them had to go. Too much of their misguided teachings had trickled down through the centuries, only to be misunderstood by murderers and power freaks and oppressors. That was the only way I was going to get rid of the chaos.
The dispensers of false wisdom were the true agents of chaos out there in the world—I just rode along in their wake like a bicycle rider following a Mack truck.
But despite all of my best intentions, the Buddhas just kept finding their way back to me, in one form or another, no matter how many times I blew them away.
For close to three hours, the helicopters cut the night sky above us like man-made thunder, until Annina couldn't take it any more. Maybe she was thinking of Ari, and how he would've killed to see his homeland again, or maybe she was furious about the added destruction to a country already nose-deep in desolation. It was obvious she'd been the one thinking of this place. Damn Ari and his vivid descriptions of the poppy fields outside Kandahar.
The fields were on fire.
Shooting down from the choppers as they blasted overhead, the fire fell like slow lightning across the dry fields. We watched from the middle of the only road in or out of the valley, the Firebird parked sideways across the center of the dirt road.
When we heard the trucks of the poppy farmers and the laborers approaching up the road, we quit watching the Apaches crisscrossing the burning field and got back in the Firebird. The trucks piled up when they saw us in the middle of the road, turning off and running into one another even as we shot out of their way. I loved my eight-cylinder, six-hundred-horsepower, dual-exhaust Firebird.
The raid, instead of being foiled as it had been in the "other" past, was a success. We'd given the field-burners—oh hell, let me come right out and say it, the CIA operatives—the extra five minutes they needed. I could only hope that the Afghan time string would play itself out in a different, more orderly fashion over the next few years, and we wouldn't have to come back again any time soon.
We stopped outside a small village and got out to listen for any news about the burning fields and troop movement of the various alliances fighting or serving the Taliban. We kept to the shadows in the early morning light. On my way back to the Firebird, a blanket over my head like a birka to disguise my gender, I passed a donkey and a camel.
The camel was smiling at me.
"The river is wide and unmo-o-o-oving," the donkey next to the camel said in a high-pitched, whinnying voice. "I am but a rock in the river, worn smo-o-o-oth by its passing."
"Peace is everywhere," the camel responded. "You need only find it inside you."
"Peace is the bridge," the donkey agreed with a yellow grin. "And the bridge is inside of you."
I stared at their pleased grins and half-closed eyes. Damn that Buddha. Even the livestock had learned his ways. I reached for my gun, wanting to erase those smiles. But the crackle of automatic weapons made me let go of my gun and cover my head again in the blanket like a good Taliban maiden.
Screw it, I thought. I didn't have time to shoot the Buddha and his various incarnations every minute of every day.
I sprinted back to the Firebird, the gunfire building. I had a feeling Annina had lost her composure. She'd probably tried to do something to honor Ari's memory. I just hoped she didn't take anyone else from the Firebird with her.
I found them half a kilometer from the car, Marco bent over Annina and screaming Russian in her face. From his tone I didn't think the words were sweet nothings. Yeshev was crumpled on the ground next to them like a forgotten wad of paper.
I ran and got the Firebird, and Marco put the injured riders into the back seat. Yeshev was moaning and whimpering, but Annina was deathly silent. On our way away from the village, I passed the donkey and camel, still wearing their shit-eating grins. I fought the urge to turn the wheel and let the big bumper of the Firebird have them for breakfast. We were coming up on another bridge, the bridge that would lead us somewhen else, and I couldn't afford a delay, not with Annina and Yeshev banged up the way they were.
And anyway, I could only kill so many Buddhas before the bad karma finally caught up with me.
Yeshev didn't make it. The wounds were too many and too deep, and he died short seconds after we jumped away from the battlefields of poppy. I got the whole story from Marco as we drove. Annina had led Yeshev and Marco into a Taliban stronghold at the heart of the Afghan village, and bold as badgers, they'd tried to hold back the dam of chaos with their handguns and misplaced courage. Annina, as usually happened in cases like that, came out untouched.
Without Yeshev and Ari slowing us down, we were able to make it back to the eighties, but only the tail end. I tell you, that decade was a damn smorgasbord of chaos to unravel and rewrite in our own unique ways, and I made sure I had the dominant thought when we screamed across the muddy Afghan river on a bridge of rotting timbers. I was surprised to see that we actually made it to the time and place I'd been concentrating on when we hit the middle of the bridge.
We arrived in Berlin, in the fall of '89.
The wall was going down by the time we drove up. I took one look at the holes being punched in the wall and saw what I needed. Everyone in the crowd had pushed forward to get a piece of the wall, the crush of bodies like corpses standing up and leaning forward with their dead, stifling weight, but I was able to sneak in and get the chunk I needed.
I snatched the triangular piece of broken, graffiti-laced concrete with his face spray-painted on it. The corners had broken off in straight lines, cutting the face in half, but leaving that patented Buddha smile. Still he was smiling at me.
But this time I smiled back. I understood him now. He would always keep coming back, in one form or the other, and I would always be there waiting for him, as long as I had the Firebird and a friend or two. The secret was to stop looking. Then I could stop running and find the missing order in my life.
Even as someone grabbed my ass and tried to turn me around for a celebratory kiss, I slipped away with the Buddha in my coat pocket, leaving a horny German man behind me on the ground, clutching his nuts. I pushed through the crowd, the broken wall behind me.
But when I made it back to where I'd left the others and the car, I saw that the revelation I'd made at the wall had already become meaningless. Young men and women swinging sledgehammers had moved to the Firebird, doing to the car what they'd done to the wall. Marco must have realized that this was the end of communism, and he knelt ten feet back from the crowd, tears in his beard. Annina was one of the women swinging the hammers at the Firebird.
I wasn't going anywhere for a long, long time. And for the first time in my life, I was at peace with that knowledge. I walked away from the wall and, avoiding all bridges, I headed west, a tiny sliver of the Buddha held tight in my hand.
I lived in Berlin for a dozen years after that. After the wall came down, traveling the world in the ruined Firebird was no longer an option. I couldn't bring myself to look for some other car. Everything has to end, I knew.
And so, the others drifted away, promising to write and steer clear of all bridges, but most likely doing neither. I got used to walking most places, and it was getting harder for me to say no to the gearheads as well as a growing number of tourists near the Brandenberg Gate who were dying to buy the Firebird from me as a souvenir of the New World Order. I turned them all down, until yesterday.
I needed the money after all my chemo, and I was tired of waiting, one long fucking day at a time, for Buddha. The Buddha, not a Buddha. We had to talk.
I realized that gunning for the Buddha had gotten me nowhere, and somewhere in my travels I'd picked up the big C, probably from all the cigs and the power lines next to my apartment here in Berlin. But that wasn't going to stop me from trying to catch up with him one last time.
This morning I decided to go. But first, following my gut instincts, I plucked out what little hair I had left on my body, even eyebrows and pubes (I felt lop-sided with all that extra hair and none to cover my scalp, so it all had to go), and pulled on a robe. I was doped up on a lovely mix of my own creation—morphine, Maker's Mark, and marijuana—and I'd lost so much weight, my chest was non-existent beneath my robe. So much for my girlish figure.
Without anything on my feet, I started walking. Within minutes I came within sight of the Palace Bridge over the Spree. On the Bridge I could see the statues of men with swords growing closer, male guardians of a lost time. Memories of jumping through more recent timeframes flitted through my throbbing head. I hadn't crossed a bridge in over a decade.
I didn't even have to lift my thumb to get the big car to pull over. It was a mint-green '72 Monte Carlo with mag wheels and a crackling muffler. Nice. After climbing inside, I dug into the pocket of the robe and found one of the hundreds of fortunes on rectangles of paper from Guten Wok, home of the best tofu stir-fry in Germany. I savored the fortunes like most folks did the Bible, or USA Today.
"In some ways. . ." I began, reading from a fortune I held cribbed in my right hand, hidden from the unsmiling young woman behind the wheel. The pain in my head was gone.
In the driver's hard face I saw young boys and girls with guns, helicopters dripping with flames, and desert livestock spouting wisdom. I thought of bridges crumbling slowly, one second at a time, into dust. I had to find the Buddha.
I swallowed and started over. "In some ways," I said, my voice thick from lack of use. "I am helpless."
When she pulled the gun out, we were already on the bridge and decelerating. The four people crowded into the back of the car hissed laughter, like snakes or punctured tires. The driver steered with her left hand and pointed the gun with her right. I forgot all about my fortune-cookie messages and devised my own.
"Be a lamp unto yourself," I said, kicking out with both bare feet as my body slid low in the car's big front seat, "and seek your own liberation with diligence."
The shot went high, shattering the window above me. The blast nearly deafened me, but at last I knew the blissful release of a fortune told, a lesson learned, a deity found. At last. We hit the middle of the bridge, and we were gone.
Michael grew up in the small town of Dyersville, Iowa, home of "The Field of Dreams," but he now lives with his wife and son in Raleigh, North Carolina. His short story collection, which
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his books and two inept cats, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects, including the World Fantasy Award-nominatedanthology series from . His current projects are from and Mainspring from . Jay is the winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com.
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