The Wolf of Rome

Part 2: Asphalt Capillary

Cornelia, Ohio was officially a city of approximately ten-thousand, but Rick knew its title was largely charitable. Much of the "city" stretched across a largely uninhabited sprawl of trailer parks, truck stops, and decaying subdivisions. The only remnants of civic life were a town hall in the same building as the local police, in a building that served triple duty as the community center. It was the only lit structure on a former main street of empty strip malls, together with a grocery store, fast food joint, doctor's office, and vacant lot for a stillborn big-box superstore. The local high school was one of the more modern structures, and even it bore signs of aging and disrepair, scars from its battle with entropy. Just driving down the center of town was enough to remind Rick why he left in the first place.

Rick Landon knew he needed a place to crash, sooner rather than later. He ran down a mental checklist of everyone he still knew who lived in town. His parents had moved in with his little brother in California, and he didn't want to drag his relatives into his personal problems. His online contacts had recommended he lay low until he was in a more secure location. Crashing for a day or two before visiting the doctor would by him the time he needed, assuming the fever didn't kill him first.

There was only one person who came to mind, a friend from high school who'd send him a few short messages now and then. Rick recalled him as one of the few people worth talking to in high school, and one of the fewer still of keeping in touch with: Eddie Pham. As the only non-white person in his high school class, his peers had automatically consigned him to the outsider's table with Rick and a few others. Despite his abyssal grades, their more ignorant classmates would always copy his answers on homework and tests. His strict parents were unaware he spent most of his "study time" getting stoned behind the library, something that ended when college applications rolled around.

He ran down the mental checklist of his fellow victims in the half-forgotten purgatory of high-school drama. There was the first girlfriend he ever had, a raven-haired horror nerd named Lisa West. She was the only other person in his high school knowing what the Necronomicon was, so it was a match made in R'lyeh while it lasted. It ended amicably when she left for college, having received a full scholarship on their pre-med track. He'd lost touch with her since then, but Eddie'd mentioned she'd been back in town recently in a local clinic. If he had to seek medical attention, any reunion would be awkward.

Then, there was Brian Berg. While Eddie was banished to the outcast for being Asian, Lisa for her encyclopedic mind, and himself for his apathy towards them, Rick felt only Brian truly deserved his fate. The little rat-faced twerp had a face like infected genitals, pockmarked with acne and wisps of facial hair. He'd earned the moniker of the 'Mario molester' for always playing with a Gameboy in class, hiding it in by his crotch between his legs while the teachers pretended not to notice. He'd typically take and knowingly fail classes far above his level, something that made the teachers universally loathe him. After he somehow stumbling through graduation, he applied his proficiency for sloth and laziness to other endeavors. Last Rick had heard of him, he'd been dishonorably discharged from the military for reasons undoubtedly his fault and living off his folks rent-free. He honestly hoped the young man he knew then had matured past being a human tapeworm, but some growth went in the wrong direction. If Brian still remained in Cornelia, he'd go out of his way to avoid him.

Rick didn't want to invite himself back into anyone's life without undue invitation, but he felt he had no other choice. A cursory drive by the Pham household confirmed Eddie's folks still lived in his house, and additional unrecognized cars occupied the driveway. While it had been a month since he'd last contacted Eddie, he wanted to approach directly when his friend was home. He'd wait until evening before that happened, when Eddie returned from whatever job he had. Rick only hoped the disease or his pursuer didn't finish him before then.

Like his own former home, Pham's was nestled in a stillborn subdivision deep in the woods. The roads had not been repaved in the decade since Rick had last driven down them. The ranch houses flanking either side of the road sat as unchanged remnants of his childhood, untouched by the passage of time. A feeling of sentimental pride slipped through his mind until he recalled why it was a negative thing. He imagined that within each, domestic violence with a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack continued unabated. Like the timeless wonders he had seen in his travels, the world was unaffected by his presence. He momentarily wondered what kind of burden the converse was, shaping history with every decision and being judged by untold generations in the future. Living in a white trash hole like Cornelia negated any worries Rick had in those regards.

Rick had felt better since he had arrived in Cornelia, if only for the nostalgia factor. Most memories were not happy ones, but this was their site. It was curiosity that drove him to take his temperature with the thermometer in his backpack, and confusion that resulted from noting his body temperature had dropped substantially. He mused for a moment that he might actually be recovering before his stomach churned again. He sat in the driver's seat as he parked the car on the side of the forsaken road. The van blended so well the junkers parked in the street, he almost believed he was home.

With nothing better to do, he drew a notebook from his bag and began to record the details of his fever dream as best he could recall him. They'd go into that dog-eared tome of incomplete stories and novel ideas, a literary limbo he'd always promised himself to break out of one day. He began to record the notes as best he could, coming up with a list of adjectives to describe his time in Titus' sandals. It was then he nodded off, back to into the eyes of a man he was unsure if anything but a dream.

This time, Rick noticed Titus was in a dense urban area. Men, women, and children with tunics of all colors swarmed around him. The Roman walked through the crowd, with leather military sandals on his feet and the weight of a traveler's cloak over his head. A nearly supernatural awareness permeated his frame of reference, shifting amongst the chatter of the crowd. Titus moved with care and a surprising spring in his step, as if he had important business to attend to. Rick immediately knew he was moving from the Campus Martius, the Field of Rome, towards the Forum.

Rick noticed the identical weight of the blade on his hips, and recognized much of the Roman's clothing was worn compared to his prior vision. He had gone from a properly dressed Legionary to beaten traveler in whatever short timespan had elapsed. The only difference was the beard now growing across his face, and an unsettling grin as he turned towards the Capitoline Hills, the famous Seven Hills of Rome. Strange aromas came from a nearby merchant's kiosk as Titus moved towards it. Two men in purple robes walked beside him for a moment, just long enough for him to hear a brief exchange of dialogue.

"The young lawyer volunteered to defending Sextus Roscius," the first said. "I think his name was Marcus Tullius Cicero."

"It's a patricide case, so it's our duty to attend and see justice served."

His interest suddenly piqued for reasons Rick could not understand, Titus began to shadow the men through the crowd. The shrill blast of a car horn returned him to the present day, and he pulled himself off the steering wheel of his ride. He looked outside to see someone walking towards the front door of the Pham house. Exhaling deeply, he stepped out and hoped for the best.