The 101 Domitians
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Al was bundling at the Big ’n’ Bag.
“Sure you’re not Attila the Hun?” Al said as he shook hands with Miriam.
Miriam grinned. “He’s let you in on it?”
“It’s come up.”
“What do you think?”
Al shrugged. Lot of shrugging going on. “What’s to think?”
“Has he shown you the other Domitians?”
“He didn’t take me out on a date like he did you. Once a guy came into the store. That was what started it. ‘Is that your brother?’ he asks. I told him I got no brother anymore.”
“My big brother bought it at Long Tan.”
* * *
“Funny that he lost a brother, too,” Miriam said.
“His older brother. A soldier.”
“How’s that critical thinking working out?” I said.
“Let me mull it over for a bit. Did you add the new ones we saw today to your tally?”
“The guy who came out of the mall food court bathroom with the square of toilet paper stuck to his shoe was number one hundred. Thank you again for lunch.”
Miriam waved it away. “One hundred Domitians. Did he have a wife?”
“The guy with the toilet paper?”
“Schmuck, the emperor.”
“The empress Domitia.”
“What was she like?”
“Suetonius says he loved her.”
* * *
“Under the circumstances, I see no choice—”
“Please, Your Honor,” I said.
“But, in addition to issuing the restraining order, to refuse you visitation until such time—”
“Your Honor, I’m begging you.”
“Do you want me to hold you in contempt of court? Stop interrupting.”
“I never laid a hand on Juanita!”
“You had a chance to defend yourself,” the judge said. “You lost.”
“Juanita and her boyfriend cooked this up between them.”
“Or rather she cooked it up, and he followed orders like the spineless tool he is,” I said. “Like he did the last time she lied about me in court.”
“Don’t take my son from me.”
“I’m not doing it. You did.”
“This is wrong. This is garbage!”
“That’s it. You’re in contempt. Bailiff, take him out.”
“Don’t do this! Please! No, you don’t need handcuffs—”
* * *
“It’s Miriam. Let me in.”
After a couple of tries I got the latch undone. “Drink this.” She thrust a Styrofoam container of coffee at me. I managed to close my hand around it.
I didn’t have a kitchen. There was no room for a table. I took Peter out for breakfast. I couldn’t really afford it, and Miriam didn’t know I ate dry corn flakes for dinner three nights a week. Juanita would have said it was too good for me.
Peter. He should have been here now. My hand shook as the nausea hit me again.
“Careful. Give me that.” She took the coffee from my numb hand before I dropped it and guided me to the bed. She tossed a book onto the bed before she settled me. The bed is the only furniture in my room. Peter kicks off his sneakers and does his homework that way, and we read and watch television.
She peeled back the opening and blew on the hot coffee. She set it on the floor, among the dirty clothes and empties and God knew what else. “Are you drunk?”
“I do not believe so.”
“Wasn’t turning you into a part-time father enough for Juanita? You live and breathe for that boy of yours.”
“Nothing will ever be enough,” I said.
She opened the fat volume where a slip of folded paper marked it and handed me the book. “Read this.”
“Then listen,” Miriam said. “‘In the very instant before joining battle, without any perceptible alternation preceding, on a sudden the sky opened, and a large luminous body fell down in the midst between the armies, in shape like a hogshead, but in color like melted silver, insomuch that both armies in alarm withdrew.’”
“What is that?”
“Plutarch’s life of Lucullus.”
“The hell’s a hogshead?”
“Like a big barrel. And before Julius Caesar was murdered, guys were seen who looked like they were on fire.”
I burped. Miriam fetched me a swat on the back of my head. The room swam.
“A soldier’s servant’s hand seemed to shoot flames. Shoot flames! And there was a man or men with two heads.”
“So strange things were happening in ancient Rome. A man with two heads? What might an atmosphere suit with the helmet folded back or to the side look like?”
“You read too much science fiction,” I said.
“This could be the answer.”
“Miriam, I don’t have time for this.”
“Or for work, apparently. And when was the last time you came in contact with running water?”
“I can’t see Peter. This is meaningless.”
“Carl, what if what Plutarch calls a hogshead was a crashed spacecraft, or a sample collector? Or some other sort of visitation? What? What did I say?”
“Nothing. Go on.”
“Suppose one picked up Domitian two thousand years ago, scraped a little skin and made clones?” she said.
“Then turned the original loose so he could be assassinated?” I said.
“Why the hell not?”
“Screwy.” To please her I asked, without interest, “Any more about it in old Plutarch?”
“Not this. But plenty of weird things. These old writers love to tantalize with a fascinating fact and never mention it again.”
“Maybe he made it up.”
“Think so? Never mind Rome. Look at this.”
Miriam withdrew a slim paperback from her big shapeless bag where it lay on my dirty floor. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. “Listen. ‘The men who fish the lakes caught a bird the color of ashes, a bird resembling a crane. They brought it to Motecuhzoma...’ and blah blah blah.
“’This bird wore a strange mirror in the crown of its head. The mirror was pierced in the center like a spindle whorl, and the night sky could be seen in its face. The hour was noon, but the stars and’ — she flipped her hand around — “three stars in Taurus — ‘could be seen in the face of that mirror.
“‘But when he looked at the mirror a second time, he saw a distant plain. People were moving across it, spread out in ranks and coming forward in great haste. They made war against each other and rode on the backs of animals resembling deer’.”
“Probably horses. The Aztecs wouldn’t have seen them until Cortes brought them in 1519. This was written years after the conquest. Who knows how many versions it went through before being written down? Take the ash-colored bird. Maybe it had wings and a thing with wings must be a bird to them. Maybe the nearest thing sixteenth-century Aztec fishermen could liken it to was a crane. It may have been ash-colored because it was metal. And the thing in its head?” she said. “A viewplate? A monitor? First showing a section of space, then a scene of mounted warfare?”
It was beginning to penetrate. “What else did it show?”
“The next time they looked it was blank.”
“Huh.” Bile suddenly rose in my throat. I shot up off the bed. “No!” I roared.
Miriam gasped and scampered to the corner, pressing the open paperback to her bosom. “Carl?”
“You’re trying to distract me,” I said. “I can’t see Peter.”
“Keep it down, jerk!” came through the wall.
“Get bent, Freddy!”
Miriam said, “Peter knows you love him.”
“What is she filling his head with right now?”
“Nothing you can’t undo.” She crossed to me and I let her push me back down on the unmade bed.
“So that’s ancient Rome and much more recent South America. Now, in India, Krishna fought these beings called Danavas. Paying attention?”
“This guy named van Buitenen was an important Sanskrit scholar. Translated the Mahabharata.”
“Giant long poem of ancient India. Kind of their Iliad, only longer. This stuffy academic, the last guy you’d expect to talk about ancient aliens, said that the original language indicated pretty clearly that Krishna’s enemies came out of a spaceship and wore spacesuits.”
She crouched to take my shoulders and peer into my face. “In the Old Testament there’s Jacob’s ladder and the book of Ezekiel. It’s everywhere.”
Pounding on the door made us jump.
“Where’s Peter?” Juanita said in a tone of triumphant anger. She pushed her way in past Miriam, chewing gum with her mouth open in a kind of furious enjoyment, as though she’d finally gotten the ass of an old enemy between her teeth. “Ugh. How you can have him in this cesspit is beyond me. And you stink.”
“I can’t have him here, thanks to you,” I said. “And you’re in violation of your own restraining order.”
“I can’t be in violation. The order is against you, not me. Peter!”
“Isn’t he at school?” I said.
“Would I be here if Peter were at school? Peter!”
“There’s only the one room.”
“I know how sneaky you are.”
Miriam said, “Just a damn minute, Juanita.”
“Shut up, Miriam,” Juanita said. “Ted, check the bathroom.”
Ted drifted into the doorway. Miriam put a hand on his chest and pushed him back out. Their legs moved in sync like a silent tango. She shut the door.
Juanita nodded like a prize fighter taking the measure of an opponent. “Okay. Ted! Start knocking on doors. One of these other losers may be helping them. Do you hear me, Ted?”
A muttering from outside.
“Why didn’t you phone?” I said.
“And give you time to hide him?”
Miriam moved toward Juanita, narrow shoulders hunching bonily. “The mother of the year lost her own child? Did you check your dried-up womb, Juanita? Maybe you finally sucked him back up.”
“I’ve got pepper spray.” Juanita’s hand jerked into her bag.
Miriam’s eyes shone with battle. Her palms were up, fingers jutting as though clawing a giant’s buttocks. “Juanita, be careful what you pull out of that Tijuana Prada, because I’m going to ram it sideways so far up your—”
I stepped between them, my nausea forgotten. “Where’s the last place he was seen?”
“I put him on the bus at seven-thirty,” Juanita said.
“You saw him get on?” I said.
“Screw you, Carl.”
“So no. He probably just ditched.”
“Did you call the police?” I said.
“The cops in this town couldn’t find their peckers with a map,” Juanita said.
“Miriam, call the police. They’ll probably want to speak to a parent. Juanita, I take it Ted came with you, so that’s three vehicles. We’ll start at the mall.” I opened the door, intending to stop Ted bothering my fellow tenants. He was leaning against Juanita’s lavender station wagon with his arms crossed.
“Why aren’t you knocking on doors?” Juanita said. Ted glared at her like a mongoose who wasn’t sure he could take the cobra but was game to try.
“Nice to see you showing some sack, Ted,” I said.
“The police want you,” Miriam said. “It’s Sergeant Lewis.”
“Ted, you and Juanita take the mall.” I turned back to take the phone from Miriam.
“Carl, I have no intention of letting you bark orders at Ted in my pres—”
“Ted, if she won’t go with you, go alone,” I said. “Yes, Sergeant Lewis, this is Peter’s father.”
When I got off the phone with the police, Juanita’s car was gone and Miriam had her keys out. The hand that held them also held a piece of paper, and she looked at it, brows knit.
“Ready? What’s that? Did Peter leave a note? No, that’s loopy.”
Miriam handed it to me. A picture of the bust of Domitian.
“I printed it off the internet. I had it stuck in Plutarch to mark the page.”
“So what? Let’s go.”
“Juanita said he looked like Peter,” Miriam said.
I was on the way out the door. That stopped me. I looked at Miriam.
“She picked it up off your bed where it lay next to Plutarch,” she said. “Said it looked like an older version of Peter.”
A cold hand caressed my scrotum. “Peter is my son.”
“I don’t think he’s at the mall,” she said.
“We don’t have time for this.”
“I haven’t seen your Domitians lately.”
“Your Domitians,” Miriam said. “They’re disappearing.”
“This is nuts.”
“Where did you want to look for Peter?”
“School, the movie theatre, the park. See if any of his friends also ditched.” I shrugged. “This hasn’t come up before.”
Miriam said, “Let’s start at the Big ’n’ Bag.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Max Christopher