English attorney Alistair Robertson can’t quite believe an astonishing tale of kingship and transformation he hears at Burning Man, the annual counter-culture art festival in the Black Rock desert. Who are the Found Kings? Is “being kinged” as magical as it sounds?
Determined to find the mysterious garage mechanic named Vin who helps men “remember who they were always meant to be,” Alistair catches his quarry amid the extravagant sculptures, fire worshipers, mutant cars, and lavish costumes. After searching for three years, he’ll finally get to ask the question burning inside him: “Will you king me?”
Wandering together through the desert, Vin Vanbly and Alistair explore Burning Man’s gifting culture and exotic traditions, where they meet the best and worst of their fellow burners. Alistair’s overconfidence in Vin’s manipulative power collides with Vin’s obsessive need to save a sixteen-year-old runaway from a nightmarish fate, and the two men spiral into uncontrollable, explosive directions.
In this fourth adventure of The Lost and Founds, beneath the sweltering summer sun and the six billion midnight stars, one truth emerges, searing itself on their hearts: in the desert, everything burns.
- 1 To Be Read list
- 1 Read list
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Badass Hero, Bodyguard/Guardian Angel, Coming Out / Closeted, Criminals & Outlaws, Healing Power of Sex, Love Can Heal / Redemption, Most Mindblowing Sex Ever, Thrill of the Chase
Word Count: 100,000
Setting: Burning Man, Nevada
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
This story takes place in the year 2002
I am Bedouin.
I walk the hard-packed desert in my canyon-brown jubba, the thin cotton gown flitting over the tops of my exposed feet, tickling them. The scorching heat rises through the barren earth, through my sandals, slowly cooking me on this oven-blasted day. A sturdy rope belt, woven from camel wool, wraps around my waist twice; the excess swings at my side almost like a lasso. My canvas water bag sloshes against my thigh. A shorter length of camel wool secures my headdress, its fabric brushing my cheeks, flowing down my shoulders and back, protecting me from the brutal desert rays.
I could die out here. We could all die out here.
Sunstroke. Dehydration. A deep flesh wound could kill, so far from civilization and hospitals. The desert cares nothing about our survival. This is my world.
I am Bedouin.READ MORE
“Excuse me,” says a man wearing furry brown pants meant to represent goat’s hind quarters. His feet are cloven hooves. “What do you call that thing on your head? My friend doesn’t believe me.”
“It’s a keffiyeh. Traditional Middle Eastern headdress.”
“See?” says the half-goat to his friend, a fuzzy rabbit from the waist up and below, well, just a white jockstrap and bunny slippers.
“Okay, okay, you were right.”
They thank me and walk away.
I am Bedouin.
I travel with my thick staff, observing these people—my people—pondering their multifaceted fates. The sun celebrants, the fire worshippers, the partiers, the burn-outs, the techno-geeks, aging hippies, acrobats, sculptors, welders, performance artists, colossal dreamers, and the in-over-their-heads vacationers. The Mad Maxers. They all come to escape. They come to experience something they cannot find anywhere else but this desert.
Also, they come to get laid.
We are Burning Man.
Despite living here for five days, I still haven’t picked my Bedouin name. I haven’t had the need. Haven’t talked to many people. But I do like to pretend to be someone else. Should I be…Vinicio Vanabalay? What? No, that sounds almost Italian. A terrible Bedouin name. I need a more Arabic-sounding name. What about…Vanaco. No. How about….Vintalmach. Ick. No, that’s a mess of letters flung together without any regard for their personal safety. This is hard. The Arabic alphabet contains no letter v. In their language, my name couldn’t possibly exist.
- V. The touchpoint of two l’s clashing, meeting by rooftop in the dead of night, two ninja swords—No.
Enough on the word stuff.
I step aside to let twins pass me, not twins exactly, but dressed as twin bumblebees, both women holding martini glasses and singing. I will head down Mizzen Avenue and see what I might barter for lunch. Who needs the services of the traveling Bedouin, Vinicio Vanabalay? No, dummy. Too Italian.
I chat with cheerful folks who offer a trampoline to passersby, the chance to jump into the blistering sky. I politely decline. I pass southern white trash who have recreated a run-down trailer camp. They call, “Hey, foreigner,” in their friendliest redneck accents. They invite me to join them. I bow. I pass a squirrel theme camp, which is pleasantly odd. Ahead on the left I see Camp Cuddleville, where lingering hugs evolve into nonsexual intimacy in the shade of their RV’s awning. May have to return there tomorrow. I pass the Fun Time Death Camp and Wine Bistro. Seems hopping already.
A block later, one guy snarls at me, “Go home, towel head.” I bow to him. I expected comments like that so recently after 9/11. I intentionally chose an Arab costume this year to generate and share goodwill. We all lost lives, landmarks, and trust in our world. We must regrow our tolerance—nurture a sturdier crop this time. The world gets smaller each week. We must grow to meet this new, unfolding era with patience and love.
A medium-height, black woman in a flashing silver skirt—some space-age polymer wrapped around her in sensuous folds—argues loudly with a taller man: white, mid-twenties, shirtless, with sunburnt shoulders. I don’t know why I think former fraternity guy, but I do. First impressions. Her naked breasts support dozens of silver necklaces, which fall over and shelter them, yet draw the eye to the heavy curves of their undersides, revealing thickness and perfection. She defines austere elegance in this harsh environment.
The man’s blonde spikes suggest more haircare product than the haphazard, windblown appearance most burners share. I see his abandoned robot-something costume a few feet away—same silver material as hers—already layered in playa dust.
She yells. He sloshes his beverage, gesturing wildly, and snarks back. She screams louder. He shrinks from her—only for a second—redoubling his yell. Interesting. A few people stop, a small crowd forming. I see others dressed similarly, probably from the same camp, whispering, deciding whether to intervene.
Common enough scene, drunken rowdiness or random expression of fierce emotions, but perhaps I am needed. I stroll right between them. I must distract them from their rage.
I jerk my staff above my head and I out-shout them both. “‘Nobody fucks with the Butterfly King!’ he would cry in his resonant voice—and all rejoiced when he thundered those words, for this meant he would take action against an injustice to his people, and so many considered themselves his people.”
It works, for they pause long enough to gape at me.
“The Butterfly King ruled with the gentlest touch, not ruling at all, merely a hand on a shoulder, the soft awareness of his presence behind you as you blew out your birthday candles, letting you know he shared in your wish, whatever it might be. He sometimes paid the rent for those who could not afford it. Those fired from their jobs often found fresh roses delivered the next morning, compliments of him. Next time you go to New York, look for a new kind of graffiti, not spray-painted. Look for the yarn butterflies. This king taught me the lightest feather touch will enable a certain magic to emerge, and this feather-touch ability he bequeathed me, a simple Bedouin. I stand in your service to see if I might offer you butterflies of your own.”
“What?” The frat man is annoyed. “No. Go the fuck away, dude. Private conversation.”
“Of course, of course,” I say and bow before them. “Sahib, I am yours to command, yet might I suggest with four minutes of your time, I could change your life direction, making your fights softer and more loving. Four minutes is all I ask. This, and you must answer my every question with truth.”
“Go the fuck away,” he repeats, his emphasis harder.
“No, stay,” she says. “Help us. Four minutes?”
She wants me to stay, if only to defy him. She’s spoiling for the fight. Still, it’s an invitation to stay.
“Yes, beautiful lady, four minutes, if you both agree. And you both must answer whatever I ask, however I ask it.”
She glowers at her lover. “Stay. We agree.”
He scowls and takes a slug of his drink. Foam sloshes over the side, suggesting beer. I don’t work with drunk people, but I don’t think he’s wasted. He’s merely enjoying a cold one—or possibly warm one—as they explore the city streets. Yeah, he’s okay. More importantly, I measured her reaction when I said “beautiful lady.” I believe I know her story.
“My name is Vinicio Vanabalay.”
Why didn’t I invent a better name?
“I am an Italian expatriate, wandering the desert, searching for treasures buried in this barren land. Throughout my journey, I help those in need. Please, good people, what are your names?”
He grimaces at me. “Alan. This is bullshit.”
“Are you two dating?”
They answer in the affirmative.
“For this next question, you must both answer quickly. Ready? Ready, Alan? Okay. Are you in love?”
“Yes,” Alan says.
“Yes,” Helena says.
They look at each other and this simple declaration changes the energy between them. Neither one hesitated to answer the question.
“And, Helena, why do you argue today?”
She says, “We partied all night. We drank until dawn. I think we should lay low today, take a day off. Sleep.”
I don’t care about the fight. It doesn’t matter. I want to surprise Alan and I need him to drop his guard.
She says, “He wants to go meet friends at the Temple of Joy, people we already saw—”
Alan cuts her off sharply. “I didn’t come here to be no burner vampire. You have to—”
I flip around, instantly furious, yelling my loudest. “Enough of your fucking bullshit, Alan!”
His chest inflates, and he rises to his full height, ready to scream back in my face. Too late. I saw him flinch when I yelled. I saw the split-second hurt in his eyes.
Alan sputters, “You goddamn, motherfu—”
I raise my hands, as if in surrender to his fury, and say, “Stop. That was a test. I got what I needed. Alan, who yelled at you? The way I did?”
He stops short, bewildered by my sudden change. “Listen, asshole—”
“Father? Mother? Yes—right there, friend. You twitched when I said the word ‘mother.’ Your mom yelled at you. You ever yell back?”
Gritting his teeth, he speaks. “Fucking pop psycho bullshit. Hel, we’re not taking relationship advice from some burner turd Arab.”
I bow before him. “Shalom, shalom, my good sir. You promised me you would answer my questions. I ask again, did you ever yell back?”
I drop to one knee, recreating a child-parent dynamic with him. He won’t yell at me while I gaze up with a pleading expression. He won’t let himself become her, the woman who raged at him. I say, “Please, please. My question to you. Did you ever yell back?”
He huffs and says, “Helena, if you’re not going to leave with me—”
I must interrupt.
“It was awful. You loved her deeply, but even as a child, you possessed enough awareness to never yell back. You knew defending yourself would make it worse. She said things, terrible things about you, what a mistake you were, how you ruined her dreams.”
His head jerks away from us both, staring at something far away.
I know how this works. I can guess at what a mother who didn’t understand boundaries might yell at her kid. I employ the fourth pillar of kinging. Make your leap, and read the results. I step closer.
“Alan, she unloaded her fury on you. And yet, you took care of her. You never yelled back. Isn’t that right?”
“Alan,” Helena says. Her voice trembles. She reaches out and places a hand on his neck. “Did you ever yell back?”
Captured at last, his face turns to her and his eyes grow confused, angry and soft at the same time.
“This is bullshit.” After a long pause, he looks away. “No.”
A small, hurt sound escapes her.
That is all we will hear from him.
I rise from my kneeling position.
“Helena, when you yell at him, he feels like he’s dying. He feels powerless again. But this time, he’s not going down without a fight. For as long as you two date, you will never, ever successfully win an argument by yelling. You will lose. He will lose. You both lose, every time. If you want to date him, you’ll have to find a way to feel furious with him that doesn’t involve yelling. Scream into a pillow. Yell into the desert and let the wind carry your rage far away. When you’re ready, be angry, but stay even-toned with him. Yell, and you’ve already lost.”
Alan juts out his chin defiantly. “Don’t talk about me.”
His girlfriend pulls him into a hug, squeezes him, and says, “I won’t yell, babe. I won’t yell.”
His arms find their way around her, casually at first, as if he hugs her to comfort her. But something changes and he buries his face in her neck and squeezes harder.
From this soft place, I can do her work.
“Alan, meet Helena. You may have noticed she is hot. She is smoking hot. She knows it. Men have dated her because she is smoking hot and then dumped her when she became a real person. They didn’t want to put up with her attitudes and anger, her days when she felt unhappy. They thought she should behave as a trophy girlfriend ought to behave. Although she’s smart enough to know that’s their issue, not hers, she still believes she failed. She doesn’t trust you’re going to be around a week from now. She doesn’t trust your love. She fights with you to prove her suspicions—that you will get tired of her being a real person and leave. Earlier, you said you loved her. Was that true? Do you love her?”
While holding her, he says, “I do.”
“Every day for a year, you must tell her you love her. Every single day. Not the same time of day, and not in the same way. You don’t have to give a speech. You don’t have to give reasons. But every single day, you must say the words ‘I love you’ to her. . Do this daily without fail for one year and she will trust you. The words don’t matter as much as your commitment to the year. Do you want to date her for the next year?”
She pulls back from him. Helena has been crying.
“Helena, you must find a way to fight without yelling. Alan, every day for a year, you must say you love her. If you two can do this, the butterflies will come.”
Helena wipes her face, nods, and pulls her hair out of her eyes. “I won’t yell.”
“And now, according to Bedouin culture, we drink.”
Alan says, “I thought you were Italian?”
“I’m working out my backstory.” I hold my canvas water pouch out to her. “It’s water.”
She takes it from me—still crying, and laughing at herself now—removes the plug and takes a healthy swig. She passes it to Alan, who remains serious through these motions. He moves to put it to his lips but pauses, looking into her eyes as he says, “I love you.”
Then he hands the canvas back to me and I take a swig too. You can never drink enough water out here on the playa.
I speak my final words as I wrap the pouch strap around my shoulder and neck. “Amongst my people, we honor each other after a fight, after bruised feelings transform into something lighter with wings. You create butterflies in this desert wasteland with every kiss. I will show you. You may decide if it fits your circumstance. Helena?” I reach toward her. “Your hand?”
She offers her right one willingly, and under the bright sun, I take it and turn it over to reveal a chalky-white palm, covered in playa dust like everything else. I kiss the underside of her thumb, the thenar…something. I knew the name at one point, the muscle right under the thumb. The king’s kiss.
“If it feels right to you, Helena, kiss Alan right here, under the thumb.”
Helena turns to her lover and reaches for his hand. He smiles.
My cue to sneak away, while those two remain engaged with each other, and the meager crowd surrounding us disbands. Best to leave before questions arise.
Surprising how easy it is to disappear here in the desert, with no trees, no geography to speak of, no place to hide. Well, except among the ocean of people. I am engulfed within seconds, passing three or four in long white gowns similar to mine, followed by a topless woman in a nun’s veil. For a split-second, I see a man licking a Popsicle stick, fingers red. I love the crowd at Burning Man, old and young, naked and clothed, the costumed, and the burnouts who dress like Chicago bike messengers on the longest assignment ever. Not far away, a man sits back in an old La-Z-Boy recliner, motorized to drive him around. Don’t see that every day.
I am Bedouin. I have many places to visit, many people to see. True, I do not know who they are at this time. But I must meet them. And damn it, I’ve got to invent a better name than Vinicio Vanabalay.
A young Asian woman jumps in front of me, sporting a spiked, yellow fauxhawk and glittery green eye shadow extending beyond her eyelids, curling downward into flowery spikes on her cheek. She holds melting red ice in front of me, chilly droplets dripping from her fingers.
“Cherry Popsicle, Arab man?”
I nod solemnly. “Yes, please.”
She hands me the ice pop, red stickiness running down my fingers as they touch hers.
“Pretty lady, may I do anything for you in return?”
She says, “Kiss me.”
She turns her face and indicates the bronzed cheek not covered in sparkly green makeup. I lean in to touch my lips to her soft skin, silently blessing this sparkle pony who decided to make my day better.
She bounces away, eager to distribute her prizes before they melt. Over her shoulder, she says, “Be wonderful.”
I will try, Sparkle Pony. I will try.
A school of mermaids passes me, a dozen of them, green streaks in their hair, flowers behind their ears, carrying scaly tails of shimmery blue, like wedding gown trains.
I suck the red juices and glance around Black Rock City, taking in the outrageous, volatile clan gathered in this Nevada desert, the seventeenth year of Burning Man. The Floating World—this year’s theme—dictates the art, the street names, even the costumes. Well, to some degree. The barren, crusty playa is our ocean, a boundless dead sea. A million dust granules, finer than sand, our ocean spray.
Out in the real world, everyone’s life is shaped by the need to bob the waves and survive reality, gasping for air in the impossible deluge of everyday sensations, modern life experiences. Endless daily chores, information overload, and conflicting moral impulses over minutiae constantly waterlog us, splashing reality into our throats. Drowning us.
Here in the desert, we gather to resist drowning, clear our heads, attempt to ride uncharted waves, instead of simply reacting to life. Or…maybe not. Maybe we celebrate the opposite. To drown. To surrender to the inevitable, sinking beneath thick waters to King Poseidon’s ancient ocean floor—this barren bedrock—dancing and swaying like seaweed tethered to the bottom.
Both can be true at Burning Man. Anything is true if you want it to be.
That Popsicle tasted yummy. I add the stick to my carrying bag. It is now my responsibility to carry this moop out of the desert. Matter Out Of Place. Moop. I suck my cherry fingers clean. Don’t get started on the word moop. Don’t do it. Think of the ocean.
The ocean, the ocean, the sea, the sea. Sea.
C is the Capital constantly changing, from Capital to capriciously curvy and always upended. A cup you can sit in until it rights itself on its side, spilling over, then back again, becoming a u, a u you float in until you can c it, an ocean of floating in your tea cup. It’s obvious c and u are unique cousins, sharing sibilant sibling parents, an S in common who broke into children. You see? u c?
Quit doing that, Vin. Don’t let yourself. Think about something else. Look around.
I am surrounded.
It’s impossible to catalog the thousands of people, some naked, some close to that state, others body-painted with handprints on their thighs. This very second, I am passed by a constant parade of burners on bikes, beat-up bikes, tall bikes, and now, at this second, a man bicycles by, wearing a top hat and a wedding veil and camo shorts. A cloud of churned dust chases in his wake. No point chiding him. The hard crust in this ancient lake bed is dust-free until you step on it. With each footstep, every crunch, alkaline dust is manufactured. More than see the white dust, I feel it sting my cheeks.
“I beg pardon, Bedouin man.”
A man at my side touches my elbow. I turn, half expecting to see Alan or Helena.
This man is fair, his hair mostly red-brown—more brown perhaps than I first perceived—and his face dusted lightly with freckles. Shirtless and wearing a purple sarong. Thirty, maybe? Thirty-three? He fits my definition of postathletic, someone who used to work out, maybe used to be chiseled but decided that’s simply not his style anymore. I hope he slathered his pale skin in sunscreen. Hopefully, he sunscreened the tops of his ears, which stick out a bit. Did he stop me for a reason? Did I drop my Popsicle stick?
He smiles, nervously, as if he must deliver bad news. “I waited until you finished your Popsicle.”
“May I help you?”
He smiles, broadly now. “It’s you. The king maker.”
I shake my head and smile. “No, friend, you’re thinking of someone else.”
How does he know me?
“No,” he says. “It’s definitely you. Your eyes flinched, a little. Almost imperceptibly, but I was watching for a tell. It’s you, mate. You’re the king maker.”
He’s English. English accent. Do I know any English guys from Burning Man?
I chuckle. “Sorry, friend. You mistake me. I am a simple Bedouin.”
He says, “Also, you didn’t ask me who or what a king maker was. You instantly denied it. Which means you already know what I mean when I say ‘king maker.’”
My heart beats faster. What does he want?
“Shalom,” I say, bowing.
I turn away, careful not to appear too eager to leave. If I stride too hard, it will look like I wish to escape. If I give any sign of confirmation, he will chase me. Instead, I pleasantly meander, just another burner appreciating theme camps, lost in a crowd. Chill, Vin. But hurry. Get away from him. I hear a xylophone nearby, maybe three or four of them, a xylophone band. The music sounds like the letter x to me. I’d stop and listen, but I have to get away from this guy. He was cute, though. I like a guy with big ears.
I travel only one more block before I see the same shirtless man, in his purple sarong, standing in the makeshift street before me. How the fuck did he manage to get in front of me? I approach him slowly, and he watches my every step, anticipating my racing away. When I get close, he speaks.
“You’ll find the English are not easily dissuaded. I worked arse over elbows for two full burns searching for you. Finally gave it up this year.”
“‘Arse over elbows’ isn’t British slang.”
“English slang,” he says. “It is if an English person says it.”
He grins at me, happy and lopsided.
Is he crazy? Is he…unhinged? Something feels off-kilter about this situation. Something isn’t right.
He laughs. “I invented it. You like, yeah?”
Ah. That’s it. He’s not English. Everything swirling around him says “not from England.” Years spent analyzing split-second reactions means I know things almost immediately, and I often don’t know how I know it. I can’t articulate why I’m so sure, but he’s not English. So, why pretend?
I say, “Although no forests grow nearby, metaphorically, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“The king’s kiss, mate,” he says. “I witnessed what you did. As I passed those two fighting, I heard you cry out ‘nobody fucks with the Butterfly King.’ After two burns searching for you, I had become attuned, listening for any overheard conversations of kings. I know other Found Kings come here. The rumor is, they use Burning Man to gather and make plans in secret.”
My heart pounds. How the hell do I get out of this?
“You mistake me.” My resolve grows weaker.
He folds his arms before him. “Which begs a few questions, yeah? Why is it important to these Found Ones to gather in secret? What are they planning?”
I try to appear bored. “You lost me.”
It’s true. Some Found Kings come to Burning Man every year. Liam told me Perry’s coming this year, which terrifies me. I don’t know if I’m ready to see him, though three have years passed. Am I over him?
People navigate around us, and as it’s clear he’s not letting me go, we move out of the main pathway. We are passed by pirates, nymphs, and four men in tutus. A man wearing a Batman cloak and bat headgear strides past us without pants or underwear. Ah, shirt cocking. Kinda weird, but it’s all good. Radical acceptance.
He says, “Three years ago right here, I met Liam, the Dolphin King, late one night around a fire drum. He revealed to me, and a few others, his extraordinary tale—his forty hours spent with a garage mechanic who promised to reveal his true kingship.”
I say nothing.
“You kinged Liam. Right here at Burning Man. All of us standing around the fire drum could somehow sense the truth of it, though none of us knew what a kinging was. The longer into the night he spoke, the more Liam transformed, like some half god revealing himself. He finished his tale as the sun rose, so we all held hands to greet the dawn. I can’t tell you how this night impacted me.”
I say, “You were doing drugs, weren’t you?”
“Yes.” He doesn’t hesitate in his reply. “But I wasn’t hallucinating. I know what I saw.”
I’m not sure what to say.
“Please, mate,” he says. “I spent the next two years searching for you, yeah? No leads. As a bit of a last resort, I found Liam’s restaurant in San Francisco. He refused to put me in touch. He told me, ‘that’s not how it works.’ Said hunting for you disrespected the organics. I said, bollocks, and once again, I searched at the next burn. No results. This year, I decided to enjoy myself. Forget about finding the king maker. Then, I happen to stroll by as you’re yelling a king story and teaching two people the king’s kiss. How is that possible?” He takes a step closer. His eyes are earnest. “Please don’t tell me I’m wrong, or it’s not you. For two burns, I searched. Please be honest with me.”
Something feels off in what he told me. On the other hand, he’s not wrong. Lying to him is not the right move. I must respect his journey.
Though I fear I know what he will want from me, I must let it happen. “Okay. You found me. What do you want?”
Standing close, I see his eyes fill with tears. “Would you—would you king me?”
Damn it. I knew he would ask.
I evaluate him more closely than I have before.
Not particularly tall, not particularly short. He’s handsome—well, handsome to me—but I dig guys who are rather nontraditionally handsome. I like his big ears and straight, long nose. For a moment, I flash upon Perry Mangin, one of the most movie-star handsome men I’ve ever met, and I can’t resist comparing the two. By contrast, this man is plain, but plain is my favorite flavor. The shape of his arched brows, raised in hope, appeals to me. His flushed expression, the raw hunger. Pale and rugby solid, reddish-brown hair glowing in the desert sun.
He searched for me at Burning Man for two years? He’s got the fire.
What does my heart say?
Well, that’s clear.
I shake my head. “No. I’m sorry, friend.”
I turn and head back in my former direction.
“Please,” he says, from behind me. “I’ll do anything.”
Over my shoulder, I say, “I’m sorry you spent time looking for me. I answered your question.”
I am sorry. I wish him well. But this can’t happen.
Coming at me, there’s a man clad in leather pants carrying a—holy shit, a live snake—no, wait, it’s a snake-painted inner tube hanging around his neck. The snake appears to be eating its own tail. Probably an inner tube from a bike tire. Accompanying him, two more bald guys with inner tube serpents. Yikes, those snakes look completely realistic.
Feather boy, feather girl, feather camp I guess, ahead to the right. A remote control car with a tumbleweed attached to the top races across the street. Cute. I smell pizza. Oh, that’s right. Somewhere ahead is the Pizza Sluts camp. I ate there my second night. A Goth accordion player pulls his instrument apart and wheezes the two sides together, making it complain bitterly, possibly about the heat. Burning Man attracts people who like to bond over hardships. When you talk about the weather out here, you’re talking about life and death.
The crowd surrounds me, and I feel deliciously lost, floating along, observing theme camps on Mizzen Avenue, wandering across the street labeled as 240 degrees. Maybe I should wander through Center Camp and assist lost noobs. Sit. Chat. Drop off a few coins. I see a camp ahead, Spices and Vices. They’re serving lunch, and I feel hungry. Perhaps I will visit those friendly tuna guys from Oregon. Damn good tuna. And a fresh tuna melt at Burning Man? Impossibly delicious.
Two blocks later, after crossing the 220-degree street, I see a guy on stilts. I like stilts. Stilts is a word standing tall with l’s and t’s in it, i to keep it—
Damn it, there he is again. Purple Sarong Man.
He’s standing right there, in front of me. Again! How does he keep getting in front of me? I approach him, and he nods at me, juts his chin in recognition. The gesture feels very English. Except, he’s not English. I’m sure of it.
He says, “I want to be clear, yeah? I know what this means. I know it means sacrifice and doing whatever you say for the whole time we spend together. I know. I accept those terms.”
I stare at him, vexed. How do I end this?
Despite our immersion in a sea of people, he speaks with an intensity and ease suggesting we’re completely isolated. Our own private island.
“I’ll do anything.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t decide to king a man on a whim.”
“Bollocks. You kinged Liam at Burning Man many years ago, and you didn’t know your intentions until after you spent time with him and received whatever message you get to king him. Spend time with me.”
“Did Liam tell you we were almost killed?”
“He did, yeah. He was beyond terrified. Every worst fear came true. He said he never felt more alive, more aware of the connectivity in all things. He saw things in the desert he could not explain. He heard unearthly music. He told us he remembered but would not articulate what exactly he remembered.”
“He probably heard a zither. They make unearthly—”
With his eyes, he scolds me for lying. “No. You know that wasn’t it.”
I’ve got to convince him he does not want this. “You’re missing the point about almost dying. Liam and I almost got killed. I can’t do stuff like the old days. I’ve made commitments to nonviolence, to keeping my men safe.”
“We will be safe. You can find a way.”
“I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know what kind of person you are. I don’t know if you and I have enough of a spark, any chemistry, a—”
“Okay, okay,” he says, raising his hands as if approaching a wild dog. “We will figure it out. Ask me anything. I will tell you anything about me. Give me a chance.”
I don’t think I will king him. I’m not getting any vibes to suggest yes. In fact, I’m sure I will not king him. But perhaps I have another gift to offer. He’s so persistent. He’s trying to be patient with me, though he wants this so badly. It’s a pretty sweet form of love. It’s been years since I tried a Burning Man kinging. The kings will help. Most likely, they have plans of their own—secret stuff—and I’d be crashing their party. No. That’s not true, and you know it. They’d eagerly help with a kinging. Aric told me they still haven’t figured out how to cross a man over. They’d want to participate, to observe and learn.
I could see Perry. My Alcatraz king. My heart thuds with love for him.
I’ve got to snap out of this feeling, this maudlin gray while standing in sunlight, come back to the here and now. Come back, Vin. I let myself study this strange man in his purple sarong, pretending to be English. Who is he? What are we meant to be for each other?
He clears his throat. “Please? I’m a famous Burning Man artist, and I made three of this year’s installations, including that one with the shark fins swimming in concentric circles around the life raft. The feeding frenzy.”
“You made that? You’re lying.”
“Of course I’m lying.” He appears almost cross with me. “I said that so you’d think I was cool and you’d want to hang out together. Let’s hang out together.”
I smile. I love his moxie.
I say, “First, what do you think of the letter x?”
“Yeah, as a letter. Any opinions as to its personality?”
“What am I supposed to think?” he asks quickly with a surprised frown. “Always in a tuxedo at expensive parties in Essex, X-rated parties, in his black tux driving a BMW X5. What do I think? X is a badass.”
I say, “Walk with me.”COLLAPSE
John on Goodreads wrote:
Review: King John is the fourth book in the Lost and Found series. The books are not really standalone and should be read in order to gain the most understanding of the over-arching themes that are foundations the stories are built on.
It’s 2002 and Vin Vanbly is once again in his spiritual home – Burning Man, an annual week long festival held in a Nevada desert that celebrates art, uniqueness and radical acceptance. Amidst the space robots, sparkle ponies and the myriad of other colourful characters we meet fleetingly, Vin notices a man in a purple sarong who keeps popping up in his periphery. Alistair has been seeking the elusive “Kingmaker” for the last few years after hearing a story from a man named Liam at a previous Burning Man about the King Weekend that profoundly changed his life. When the Englishman in the purple sarong finally manages to catch Vin, he uses all of his formidable powers of persuasion gained from his profession as a lawyer to convince Vin to grant him a King Weekend. At first reluctant – he had no calling that there was a man ready to be Found, and Vin just knew there was something major Alistair was hiding – something pulls him towards the seemingly confident man who’s persistence has a hint of desperation wrapped in wistful determination. As the King Weekend progresses, it seems for all the desire Alistair has to become a Found King, his own insistence on questioning every move could be the sabotaging of his own Kinging.
Edmond Manning has a way of describing things so beautifully, yet so succinctly that you feel like you were there, that you saw it with your own eyes. The location in which each story is set has very much been a secondary character in previous books of this series, a rich backdrop for the story taking place. But in King John, that is lifted to a whole other level – Burning Man is an integral participant, alive and exuberant in its role. It abets and enhances the story with shining enthusiasm and does it gloriously.
Vin Vanbly is a wonderfully unreliable narrator. A master manipulator, as he must be to guide his men to their Kingship, who sees so little of his own value. He finds it so hard to believe he is worthy of being loved. To see that he is loved. We learn so much more about him in King John, yet we are left with more questions than ever. This enigmatic, damaged, beautiful man has a story full of pain yet he finds such joy in his amazing Kings. It is his inability to see the amazing within himself that is the most heartbreaking to me.
Alistair drove me crazy at times. His incessant questioning of everything and his selfish disregard to see the sacrifices Vin willingly makes to guide him made me want to shake him! A lot! When his refusal to truly submit to Vin and just listen results in a serious situation made worse, it becomes the tipping point for him to choose who he wants to be – Alistair the English lawyer, or the man he is truly meant to be. By the end, I had fallen as much in love with this King as I had Perry, Mai and Rance previously.
This book has a slightly different feel to it than the ones before it. They were very much focused on the men being Kinged. In this one there’s an added layer, a sense of momentum picking up, of building towards something Important (no, the capital I is not a typo).The ending feels like it’s setting up the next book to be a pivotal one. I love the layers, the subtleties, that are woven through the stories in this series and I’m eager to see where it all leads and what we learn of, and from, Vin and his Kings in future books.
The author, through Vin, takes not only the man being kinged, but also the reader on an amazing journey through the surreal, the ordinary, the pain of loss and the beauty of being Found. The words are beautiful, the imagery is stunning. King John is a carefully crafted story that weaves its song straight into your heart. I cannot recommend this remarkable book enough.
I’ve loved the Lost and Founds books. They’re playful, clever stories full of word-play and riddles, and deeply compassionate loving adventures as well. What makes them special, I think, is the invitation the author makes to readers to empathise with the protagonists. The lost-and-soon-to-be-found kings are a bit Everyman; most readers, I think, would find fitting into their shoes quite comfortable. To one degree or another, I do, anyway.
King John is uniquely so to me. I’m sure I’m not giving up too much of the story to say that all Alistair’s intellect, affectation and bluster must hide something. Of course it is, since, after all, don’t we all employ his techniques to keep reality at bay? I know his tricks because they are my own. I’m hardly unique: they’re tricks we all employ.
So it’s not just Alistair’s quest, or even Vin’s (for he is on is own whether he likes it or not), but it’s a quest we must all make. Which means that I found myself not just observing, but along for the ride. It’s a special book that allows that kind of engagement. It’s mythical quest, yes, but one updated to resonate with a modern reader. There’s a lot of writing craft a work which made it so successful for me.
The Lost and Founds (six books) is complete.