Page 136 of 138

Common Ground

Common Ground

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

            She woke to the feeling of cold cement beneath her cheek, the chill of the stone stiffening the muscles in her face.  A puddle of drool had collected beneath the left side of her head, its wetness unpleasant as she regained consciousness.  Her plain brown locks spilled all around her as she lay there, some of it catching in the wet puddle as she began to slowly move her head about.  A sense of vertigo hit her as she tried to crane her neck backwards, sending her crashing face first back to the floor beneath her. 

“Hey, are you okay?” she felt a rough hand gently touch the back of her neck, its warm touch causing her eyes to snap open.  Trying as hard as she could she attempted to rise, her arms and legs moving in spasms no matter how hard she tried to regain her control. 

“Hey relax, you’re still groggy.  Just take it easy.” Another hand clamped gently on her shoulder, further aggravating her.

            Vanessa did not like to be touched.  Why this was so even she could not say, it was just a character trait that had been with her for most of her life.  The merest brush of another she did not know or care for set her teeth on edge.  Even those she knew didn’t always find that they could just offer a friendly touch. 

“Get off of me.”  She managed to speak the words, but found that her jaw clamped shut immediately after.  Whatever had been done to her had yet to wear off, leaving her body still halfway paralyzed. 

“Fine, have it your way”, the voice said, muttering as the speaker moved away.  She wanted to apologize, to tell whoever it was that she didn’t mean to be so rude, but first she had to rise.  Gathering the sparse strength she still possessed she attempted to work her arms, planting them beneath her shoulders as she struggled to push herself up.  Fire burned in her muscles as she ground her teeth together, keeping her eyes tightly shut as she struggled to raise herself from the ground.  The rough feeling of the cement was quite unpleasant, though it was nothing compared to the pounding in her head as she continued to strain herself, managing to rise halfway before she collapsed, her cheek meeting the ground quite rudely as she grunted in pain. 

“See?  That’s why I tried to help you.  All of us had that problem apparently on waking up.  Do you want help?”  The voice became a little more distinctive as she lay there in pain, its masculine tone carrying a hint of irritation in it.  Vanessa ground her teeth together as she steeled herself against the answer she knew she’d inevitably give.  The fire within her body did not subside as she lay there, her muscles seizing even as she tried to lay as still as possible.  She could feel her cheeks burn with the shame of not being able to stand on her own two feet. 

“Yes please.  If you don’t mind can you help me up?”  A short snicker caused her cheeks to flush even more as she heard the footfalls coming in her direction.  Keeping her eyes closed she could feel as her entire body tensed upon the stranger’s touch.  If he noticed he said nothing, picking her up quite easily before setting her back first against a wall that felt just as solid as the floor.  The chill touch of it even through her shirt caused her to at least try and arch her back, though she found that she couldn’t even do this as the fire in her veins surged yet again.  Her hiss of pain was followed by yet another short burst of chuckling from more than one throat.  Opening her eyes Vanessa prepared herself to glare at those who were laughing at her expense, though what she saw caused her to think twice. 

She quickly counted nine other individuals within the well-lighted room, seven of them women and two of them men. They were in a round room that, as she could now see, was composed of concrete walls, floor, and nothing else.  Blinking several times she attempted to look up, but after just a few seconds her head began to swim as black spots started appearing in her vision.  Lowering her chin she gasped at the pain that had erupted at the nape of her neck, reaching back with one hand to feel for the sore spot. What she found left her wincing anew as her fingers probed the sensitive, raised portion of flesh along the back of her skull.

“You too huh?” spoke the voice that she now recognized, one of the two men she reasoned.  “I woke up with a pain inside my skull that I still can’t get rid of.  I suppose whoever put us here wasn’t too gentle in the doing.”

Vanessa didn’t answer, closing her eyes for a moment as thoughts of drifting off to slumber began to enter her mind.

“Don’t fall asleep,” she heard a woman say, “If you’ve got a concussion it’s likely you won’t wake up.  That’s what my mom always told me anyway.”

She had no intention of falling asleep, not when her head hurt this much, but it was at least good to hear another voice at this moment.  Her memories were so badly jumbled at that second that remembering her name felt like a grand accomplishment as she gently massaged around the tender spot on her skull.

Someone let out a long sigh as the sound echoed faintly in the chamber, “So, anyone have any ideas on how we got here and why?”

No one answered the second man as he spoke, though Vanessa was desperately attempting to remember the last thing she’d done, said, or even ate before waking up in this place.  What had she been doing?

“All I know is that I was folding my family’s laundry when I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head and I dropped. When I woke up I was here.”

“Me too,” said another woman, “I was coming out of my home and felt a jab at the base of my skull, right here,” Vanessa didn’t look, but could imagine the woman pointing at the spot, “and then I was out.”

“Where is ‘here’ though?” one of the men asked.

No one spoke for a moment, though as she opened her eyes Vanessa once again attempted to look up, but this time without craning her head back so far.  What she saw was absolutely nothing, just pitch black without any hint of an end, as though they’d been dumped in a pit that light never reached. Except there was at least some light, though it took her a moment to realize that it was coming from wall-mounted halogen lights that were burning just bright enough for them  to see by.  The cylindrical lights were located far enough up on the wall that jumping for them would be quite impossible.

 Looking around the room with half-closed eyes she took in the state of her fellow captives.  No one was chained or bound in any way, and none of them appeared to have suffered anything worse than whatever had been done to subdue them and bring them here.  The seven women ranged in age from what looked to be two teenagers to one woman who could have been in her thirties.  The men looked old enough and rough

enough to be in their thirties and possibly forties in the case of one of them. 

“I don’t know any of you,” she said plainly.

A bark of laughter came from one of the women, her blue eyes meeting Vanessa’s sudden glance as she shook her head.  The mass of blonde curls that swung about her head looked as though someone had shoved a dirty mop on her head, though Vanessa kept her mouth shut. The problem of foot in mouth disease had always been her biggest fault. It was one of the reasons why her last boyfriend had dumped her apparently. Well, that and the fact that she’d been acting “slutty” in front of his parents apparently.

“Something funny?” she asked before she could bite the words back.

The woman raised an eyebrow at her, sitting forward as she spoke, “No one knows anyone in here.”

“Where is ‘here’?” Vanessa asked, daring to look up again as her head began to pound more.

“Here,” spoke a voice that seemed to reverberate off the walls, “is where I’ve put you.”

 Each one of them looked up and all around, searching for a source that could divine just where the voice had come from, but they could see nothing past the lights and the darkness above.  Vanessa didn’t bother rising to her feet as she watched them, confident at least that they would find nothing. Whoever had put them here, and it had to be a who, had likely seen fit to insure that their cement prison was inescapable and ultimately too confusing to figure out.  Her mind had been racing since waking only a minute before, formulating questions that might provide answers as to what had happened, but so far nothing had come to her.  The only question that remained now was why they were here, and that she couldn’t begin to fathom.

“Who are you?” one of the women asked, her voice sounding close to panic.

The modulated voice came again, offering no clue as to its owner’s gender, age, or identity.

“I’m your tormentor, just as you all were mine at one point and time.”

That elicited looks around the room as Vanessa managed a slight frown that didn’t send a spike of pain racing across her skull. It was a clue at least, but one given so freely that surely the speaker was banking on the fact that no one in here would understand how to solve the rest of the puzzle.

“We don’t understand,” growled one of the men, “You mean we all know you?”

Ah, that made sense Vanessa figured, but it still didn’t provide an answer.  Even if led somewhere though she had a sick feeling in her gut that the speaker wouldn’t care, that he, or she, would believe themselves beyond reproach.  Somehow she couldn’t fault that logic.

“At one point and time, yes,” the unseen speaker said. “You’re here to conduct a little social experiment.”

“You can’t do this!” one of the women screeched, standing to her feet as she pounded a hand against the wall.  Vanessa quickly noted that all she received for her efforts was a sore hand and a dull, empty thud, meaning that the walls were likely a foot thick or more. 

“I already have,” the voice said, “Now to the experiment. This chamber will fill up periodically with water, which will be stored for no less than two minutes at a time.  In order to survive the only method you will have will be to hold your breath for that period

of time.”

“That’s not an experiment, that’s torture!” snarled one of the women, a young lady no more than twenty or so Vanessa figured. Her pretty face was pulled into a hideous grimace that spoke of fear and something else, though she couldn’t guess what just now.     

“Beyond the darkness of your chamber there are eight holes only two inches in diameter, enough to breathe through once the chamber is filled. But as there are more people than there are holes, you must decide to share, or allow two of your number to expire.  The experiment starts now.”

“Wait!”

The sound of the woman’s protest was drowned out by a sudden, blaring noise as the lights grew brighter for a moment, confusing them all even as the sound of something, perhaps a heavy slab begin dragged along, reached their ears.  Only a few seconds after the first drops hit them, and then the chamber was filling with water as from above the deluge began.

Vanessa knew that to remain seated was a death sentence, but as the others sprang to their feet, moving about like frightened crickets in a jar, she could only sit, feeling as the water immediately began to fill the bottom of the chamber, creeping upward until she felt it filling her shoes and saturating her pants and the flimsy underwear she’d selected just before….

Wait.

A memory was surfacing, something she’d been doing just last night. If her head hurt this bad then her assailant couldn’t have attacked her that long ago.  Of course that was assuming that her pain wasn’t the lingering type that waited until the body fully woke.  She was going with her initial thought however as she tried to hold onto the memory of picking out her underwear for….for….

Dammit, where had she been going that she’d needed a lacey thong riding between her cheeks?

“Get up!” one of the men said as he rushed towards her, “Get up or you’ll be sucking water soon!”

He wasn’t lying at least, the water had already risen to her waist and was steadily climbing now, the rush from above becoming a full on roaring waterfall that was filling the chamber without pause. 

“What do you remember before coming here?” she all but yelled at him, standing to her feet with some help as she felt a sudden chill.  She’d just stood under one of the direct streams feeding into the full mass of the waterfall, leading her to believe that one of the holes the voice had spoken about was right above her.

“Not much!” the man said as he shook his head, “I just remember that I was walking around outside my home and I felt a sharp pain in the back of my neck! After everything went black I woke up here!”

“Where do you live?”

It was forward and blunt, but it was something at least. She had to ask.

“We need to get ready to swim!” he said, looking down.  Vanessa could already feel the water rising hungrily to her waist, almost as if it was a living organism that wanted to devour them all.  But she would not be swayed from her question.

“Where?” she all but demanded.

“I’ve got a house with my girlfriend and her kids, one of ‘em’s mine, out in Vancouver, Washington!”

That struck no chords, but it was surprisingly forthcoming. 

“Where’re you from?” he yelled at her, keeping his head down so water wouldn’t gush into his open mouth.

“Portland,” she yelled back, giving nothing else as he merely nodded. This wasn’t the moment to be giving life histories after all as the water reached their waists, lapping at their bodies as if eager to pull them under. 

“We’ve got to find those holes!” yelled one of the women from across the room. Her voice reverberated off the walls as the water continued to pour down, ceaseless as the group began to go in their own directions, looking ever upward as though the water and the darkness would part just a bit to allow them a better view. Vanessa could have told them that this was pointless.  Eventually they would have to start kicking their legs to propel upward, where they could search in the darkness of those holes yet again, hopefully with better luck.  She reasoned that if they paid attention to where the water actually joined to make the singular column they would be able to find the holes that each spout was coming from.

People in a panic however did not think straight, nor did they allow logic to settle their frightened minds in their time of need.  Vanessa knew how to think when her back was to the wall, at least when emotions weren’t involved.

Another memory began to surface, but even as it did she felt the chill water reach her armpits, and any thought she might have had was gone in the next instant as she reflexively lifted her arms from the water.  The man she’d been speaking to had moved away by now, joining the others in seeking a way to see past the darkness.  She might have rolled her eyes had the situation not been so dire.

“Eight holes!” someone called, “We’ve got to survive with eight holes for air!”

“No shit!” yelled someone else, “Just don’t get in my way and we’ll be okay!”

Vanessa shook her head despite the pain it caused, wondering just who would be given the short end of the stick when it came time to ascend. She didn’t intend to be one of those left out.

                                    *                      *                      *

 

10 minutes later…

 

            As it turned out she hadn’t been the one who got the short end.  The man she’d been speaking to lay face down across the chamber, isolated in his own little spot as the others had left him.  The waters had indeed filled the chamber just as the voice had said, and had lasted for what felt like hours, but according to the watch that one of the women wore had been no more than a couple minutes.  At the very least the voice was being consistent.

            “Did anyone know his name?” The weak voice of one of the young women across the way sounded pitiful in the soaked chamber, and even more so as her voice shook. Each one of them were shivering and shuddering where they sat, well enough apart from one another that the sharing of body heat wasn’t even a possibility.  No one here trusted their fellow captives any further than they could throw them apparently, and more than that it was evident that whether he had never found a hole or  been forced from one of the

holes, the dead man had become a casualty of this little “social experiment”.

            “Does it matter?” asked the sole remaining man in the room, “He’s dead, and none of us know each other anyway.”  That remark elicited silence for nearly a minute before another person spoke up, one of the women across the way.

            “My name’s Jennifer Marsh, but everyone calls me Jen.  I’m from Portland, Oregon. I was going to pick up my kid from daycare. I’d just gotten in my car when I felt a sharp pain-“

            “In the back of your neck?” the man asked sarcastically, “Yeah, me too.  Anyone else?”

            The others muttered a “yes” or nodded in turn, which made Vanessa’s mind turn even quicker as she filed the thought away for a later time. So they had all been abducted in the same manner it seemed, and so far the woman, Jen, who had just spoken didn’t live too far from the man whose name she’d never gotten.  That gave her an idea as she rose to her feet, walking over to the corpse. 

            “What’re you doing?” the man said, shying away from her as Vanessa steeled herself for what she was about to do. It wasn’t anything like she’d ever seen on The Walking Dead, but it was still repugnant enough to be standing so close to a dead body, let alone shoving her hands in his pockets.  Thankfully she retrieved what she’d been looking for without needing to go through them all.

            “Have some fucking respect!” shouted one of the younger women.

            “Shut your hole,” Vanessa said, turning around just in case the younger woman wanted to do something foolish like sucker-punch her.

            The wallet was made of nylon, almost like something a young child or adolescent would carry, and featured the New England Patriots logo on its front, the swooping face of the mascot seeming to disapprove of her actions. She blinked as she opened the wallet, poring through the sparse contents until she found a drivers license with a stamp reading REVOKED across its front. She almost laughed, as she’d never thought the DMV would do anything like this. Instead Vanessa read past the permanent red ink, seeking his name and where he’d been living.

            At least he’d been telling the truth about his home.  Clinton Morgan, age 38, living in Vancouver, WA.  His picture spoke of a certain gleeful arrogance that the man she’d met had not seemed to possess. But then they’d been scrambling for their lives, and panic did strange things to people.

            “Clinton,” she said aloud, “That was his name. Happy?”

            There was a sullen silence as the other woman muttered “You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”

            “It’s what I do,” Vanessa shot back as she looked to the woman who’d spoken, seeing her eyes widen as she realized she’d not been as quiet as she’d thought.

            “Now that we know two of our names, anyone else want to volunteer?”

            Vanessa looked around the room as she spoke, not too surprised that no one bounded forth attempting to end the mystery. Finally though the only remaining male spoke up.

            “I’m Phillip Reddenthal,” he said plainly, “I live in Vancouver, Washington, and I was just getting home from work when I felt the pain in my neck. I thought a bee stung me at first, but when the lights went out, well, I suppose the rest of you know.”

            No one else spoke, but Vanessa was thinking hard now. Two from Vancouver, and two from Portland counting herself. That was a very limited area so far to pull from, and begged even more questions that she couldn’t answer right away.

            “Anyone not with us?”

            The voice, the hated voice, the cowardly voice she thought to herself, boomed out of the hidden speakers once again, and this time sounded almost jovial.

            “Clinton is gone,” she dared to say, “He wasn’t able to make it up to the holes.”

            Vanessa just barely saw one of the women twitch, as though the statement had caught her unawares, or had struck a nerve. She ignored it for the moment but would recall the tic later.  At the moment she listened to the silence from the speaker, wondering if she should infer anything from it, or if it meant nothing at all.

            “Does that make you sad?” she asked, daring just a little now as she looked up.  Something blue and crackling suddenly appeared in midair, spitting and creating a blue, arcing spark.  Too late she and the others realized what it was, and that the floor was still very wet.

            Electricity danced along the water-slicked floor, slamming hard into all of them as Vanessa felt her muscles seize and her body drop from the sudden shock.  She heard the others cry out from across the chamber and knew that they’d been tased too.  Though it lasted only a few moments she was still jerking and feeling the pain as she rose to her feet. 

            “That was only a taser,” the voice said, “Next time I might try a live wire when the chamber is filled.” Vanessa looked up, her muscles still seizing slightly as she closed her eyes against another spasm. “Does that make you sad?”

            She’d touched a nerve it would seem. File it away for later use she thought, and continue on.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            The room filled up a short time later, and they all made their way to the top.  Once it had drained again they were all still alive, but Clinton’s corpse had somehow vanished. No one had seen it, none of them had even noticed a change in pressure or the feeling of water rushing from an opening. To be fair they’d been worried more about saving their own lives than keeping an eye on a dead man, but it was still a shocking revelation. 

            As the chamber drained she kept an eye upon the others as much as she could, finding that none of them seemed willing to meet her eyes. Once their feet touched the floor however another of them spoke up, revealing that her name was Jenna Ogden, and that she lived with her family in Vancouver.  So it was three for Vancouver and two for Portland now. Vanessa knew there was something that tied them all together, otherwise what was the point? 

            The connecting piece was still unseen as of yet though, and seemed to dance just out of reach. Somehow she had the idea that it was something very simple, and that she might feel like a fool once it came into focus.  This had happened more than once.

            “So what’s your story?” Phil asked her as they began to shiver anew from the wetness they’d endured so far.  “Who are you and where are you from?”

            Vanessa was inclined to tell him to mind his own business, but instead she revealed her name and where she was from, though the details she recalled before waking up here she kept to herself.  Phil didn’t press the issue, but she could see in his eyes that

he wanted more.  He would have to wait, just as she was doing.

            “I was just getting home,” said one of the women. She had yet to offer her name, but her sopping wet hair and rumple clothing had already revealed a body that was obviously well-cared for and indicated that she took care of herself. “I’d gone for a run around town and was walking up to my front walk when I heard footsteps behind me, and then, here.”

            Vanessa wondered if anything was going to make sense in that moment as the woman kept talking. What she said next though made her pay attention.

            “I was supposed to be going to work the night shift.  I live in Brush Prairie and work in Jantzen Beach at the Doubletree as a waitress.  I didn’t get to clock in. They must be missing me by now.”

            “Likely they’ll think you just skipped out,” Phil said, shaking his head, “Any chance of anyone else being missed?”

            Heads rose at that remark, though no one but Candace spoke as she shook her head, “No, no, no. They know me well enough. They know I never do a no-show without a good reason. I always call, always call. They know me, they know I like my job.”

            Vanessa could hear the panic in the woman’s voice and deduced very easily that this young woman didn’t handle stress well, at least when her situation was as dire as this.  Under the circumstances she couldn’t blame her.

            “Likely as not we haven’t been here that long,” Vanessa said, “But it’s also likely that our tormentor is someone who has all the time in the world.”

            “What makes you say that?” Phil asked, looking at her askance.

            “Something like this had to have taken time,” Vanessa replied, looking up and all around, “I couldn’t even say what this place is, but obviously it’s a well-used system. It had to have required some planning and some effort to get us all in here, particularly without a scratch on us.”

            “Other than the obvious lump on the back of our heads,” Phil remarked.

            Vanessa nodded, “Whoever it is had to know our routines somehow I would think to know enough about where we’d be and when. I can’t believe it’d be dumb luck or done on a whim. That would be too dangerous.”

            “Regular detective aren’t you?” spoke one of the women from across the way, “Well then Sherlock, maybe you can tell us the best way to get out of this goddamned hole?”

             Vanessa and Phil turned their attention to the speaker, a rough-looking woman in her twenties perhaps who looked as if life had used her up and put her away wet.  Her face was a roadmap of scars and abuse, and her body was stocky and quite muscular. As she came to stand only a few feet away she scowled heavily at them, as though expecting them to speak.

            “What’s your name?” Vanessa said calmly.

            The woman scowled even heavier, “My name is Jean Burleson, and I asked you a question.”

            “First, where are you from?”

            Jean looked to Phil, then to Vanessa, then back to Phil, “Is this bitch for real?”

            Vanessa bristled just a bit at the woman’s tone, but did not rise to the bait. Instead Phil just smiled and replied, “I think this is all about as real as it can get. It might be best if you answer her question, ‘cause right now she seems to be the only one with any ideas

on what’s going on.”

            “Is that right?” Jean said, cocking her head in a manner that almost shouted her intent to get physical. That was fine if it happened, Vanessa had knocked a few bitches down in her life, as well as a few men.  She already knew where she would strike if it  came to that.

            “Well I’m from Vancouver.  Is that helpful missy?” she asked, her voice condescending and quite angry as she stood there glaring at the two of them. Vanessa couldn’t quite understand the reason for her vehement attitude, but did not decide to say as much.  Instead she processed the small bit of information and kept going.

            “What were you doing before you woke up here? Do you remember?”

            Jean moved just a little closer, one eyebrow raising suggestively as she eyed Vanessa up and down. “You really want to know sweets?”

            “Are you a dyke or something?” Phil asked, frowning slightly.

            Jean snorted as she looked at the older man, “The only thing a man is good for is what’s between his legs, and any real woman can still do without that limp little thing.  You want to know what I was doing sweetheart? I was tongue deep in-“

            “I get it,” Vanessa said, interrupting as she held a hand up between herself and Jean. “I get it.”

            Pursing her lips Jean pulled back, raising her hands in mock surrender as she crooned, “Oooh, well lookie here. Little Miss thong up my crack is a genuine prude!  Who would’ve guessed?”

            Vanessa frowned, tugging at her skirt to keep it covering her upper legs. She wasn’t afraid of Jean seeing anything, obviously she’d seen enough, but she didn’t need her lady parts to be on display, especially not in sight of this woman.

            “What, or should I say who, were you doing before you came here? Hmm?” Jean let this last word draw out as she went back to her place, sauntering now as she obviously believed that she’d hit a nerve. Vanessa could only shake her head, wondering again what connected all of them.

            “Wait, you were with someone?” she called.

            “Yes and no,” Jean said as she sat down, obviously pleased with herself. “My bitch and I were already done and she’d hit the road like I told her to. I was about to fall asleep when I felt the pain in my neck, and then nothing.”

            Shaking her head Vanessa looked up, half-hoping to hear something, anything, that might have given her a clue as to where they were. But of course it was silent save for the breathing and other noises made by her fellow captives.

            When the rushing sound of water reached her ears she wasn’t surprised, but she’d almost been expecting the voice to come again. This time she had at least a facsimile of a plan, though she had no idea if it would work.

            “Here we go again,” said Phil. As he spoke the water rushed in, and the nine remaining captives waited.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            One of the remaining three women who’d not identified herself as of yet was sobbing once the room had been drained, sitting with her head in her hands as she wailed into her interlaced fingers.  No one bothered to tell her to shut up, but as her sobs finally tapered off she spoke.

            “My, my name is Amy, and I don’t belong here.  I don’t, don’t belong, here.”

            It was almost too pathetic to listen to her hitching sobs, but Vanessa was listening all the same. She needed to know as much as possible, and could only hope that the voice came eventually. 

            “Where are you from Amy?” asked Phil, who was leaning up against the wall not too far from Vanessa.

            “Beaverton,” she said meekly, “I’m from Beaverton, out near Sunset High School. I work at the Costco over by TV Highway.”

            Vanessa knew where the woman was speaking of, and was growing more and more intrigued. She knew what question she wanted to ask now, though it might seem outlandish and a bit of a stretch. If the voice came back though she was primed and ready to deliver the challenge and see what happened.  If they were unlucky they might get another taser thrown down into the chamber just before the water came again.  If they unlucky….she didn’t want to think about that.

            “What were you doing before you got here Amy?”

            The young woman shook her head as she tried to recollect, to discover just what she’d been doing before being abducted. But then the voice returned, and Vanessa forgot about Amy for a moment.

            “Having fun playing detective?”

            The playful tone keyed her into something she’d not thought of before, a familiar note that almost struck a chord she could work with. But then the voice kept talking and her concerns swept that thought away immediately.

            “I feel it prudent to tell you that one of the holes has been covered over and will not be in use for your next swim. Now I understand that this means that you will need to work together once again or allow someone else to perish, but I feel confident that you will do as expected.”

            “And what are we supposed to do?” Phil managed to challenge.

            The voice was silent for a moment before coming back, the tone grave now as the unseen speaker said, “Simple. You will survive.”

            Before the speaker could step away Vanessa voiced her question, making her voice loud and clear as she looked up.  “How do you know all of us?”

            Again there was a moment of silence. Vanessa was well aware of the others turning to look at her, perhaps wondering how she had come to this deduction. She would reveal that later, but for now she wanted the speaker to at least think that she was beginning to figure things out.  If she could keep their unknown captor off balance they might stand a chance of surviving this ordeal.

            Instead the water began to pour in again, and as she noted the lack of a single stream Vanessa realized  that the speaker had been telling the truth.  She wanted to believe that she had struck yet another vital nerve by challenging the speaker in such a way, but as the chill of the water began to lap over her shoes again it was hard to feel any sense of victory.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            Amy went next.  Once the water had receded again, once more without a visible drain to flush it away, the young woman was found lying face up on the cold concrete floor, her eyes wide open and a look of horror etched permanently on her face. Worse than this however were the bruises that ringed her throat, speaking volumes to the assault she had suffered at the hands of someone within the room.  So far Vanessa had let her opinion remain buried within her thoughts, but the others had not been so reserved.

            “Lookit the marks and look at your thick porkpie hands bitch!  You could’ve helped her survive and instead you saved your own ass!” Phil was vehemently attempting to reach Jean, being held back by three of the women while the other two held Jean in place.

            “And why would I waste a fine piece of ass like her?! It was probably you!  Where were you when we were all fighting just to breathe?”

            “He and I shared a breathing hole,” Vanessa said, piping up as she finally took note of the conversation.  Instead of furthering it however she looked to the two women who’d not yet identified themselves.  One of them, a woman with thick jowls and a heavy frame, looked to be in her mid to late thirties, while the other, who was rather pretty but in a plain sort of way, had to be in her twenties at least. 

            “You two haven’t said much since we started talking,” she said to them both, “Now would be a good time to start.”

            “I don’t have anything to say,” the older of the two said.  Dark brown eyes regarded Vanessa with a mild amount of suspicion as the woman then looked away. The other simply stayed quiet.

            “Your names and where you’re from would be a good start.” 

            “What does it matter?” the same woman said, “It won’t help us get out of here.  Just leave us alone.”

            “’Us’?” Vanessa asked, cocking a brow, “You two are an ‘us’?”

            “No!” the woman protested, “But since she’s not speaking either I spoke for both of us.”

            The other woman twisted her lips in distaste as she looked to the older woman, finally leaning her head back as she spoke, “My name is Margo and I live in Portland. Good enough?”

            Vanessa just nodded, turning her attention to the other woman.

            “Oh Jesus Christ,” the woman muttered, “Fine. My name is Pepper and I live out in Milwaukie.  I’m a Capricorn and I enjoy binge-watching Netflix on rainy days and I’m a caregiver at a Foster Care home.  Is that good enough?”

            That last bit struck Vanessa in a way she’d not expected, but it was not yet enough to spring any lasting memory.  Instead of showing that it had affected her, she nodded, moving away a few steps as she allowed her thoughts to churn.

            “We were all taken from somewhere,” she began, “And as near as I can tell the limits are Brush Prairie to Milwaukie. That’s not a huge jump.”

            “So?” asked Margo, “What does that mean?”

            “It means our kidnapper, whom I hope is listening, is either limited in their geographical influence, or knows all of us from their dealings in whatever city we were grabbed. The bastard knew us all in some capacity, that’s my theory.”

            “Oh yeah?” Jean challenged, “Then tell me this sugar tits, how come none of us know each other then?  You’d think if this puke pulled only people that they knew then at least one or two of us would recognize each other.”

            “Pepper what did you say you did?” Vanessa asked, ignoring Jean.

            Blowing out a breath Pepper rolled her eyes and said, “I work for a Foster Care

home.  I was taking out the trash when I felt a jab in my neck, and then nothing.”

            “In Milwaukie,” Vanessa said.

            Pepper just nodded.

            “What’s the goddamned point you’re trying to make woman??” Jean asked impatiently.

            “My point is that if someone who knew us did this, they would know where we were, when to hit us, and that we wouldn’t be missed.”

            “But I’ll be missed,” Candace piped up, “I didn’t show up for work and they’ll miss me.  That means they’ll call my mom, and she’ll miss me, then she’ll call the cops, and they’ll be looking, and then-“

            “Oh shut up!” Jean shouted, “We haven’t been here that damned long!”

            “And how would you know?” Phil almost growled.

            Jean looked at him askance, grumbling under her breath.

            “What was that?” Phil said, shaking his head.

            “I said I’m a diabetic!” Jean shouted at him, “I need a shot every six hours or I start to get the shakes. And I haven’t felt so much as a twinge since we woke up here.”

            Vanessa and Phil exchanged a look.  There was far more to that statement than either of them wanted to contemplate at the moment. For now Jean looked and sounded fine, but Vanessa had known a few diabetics in her life, and knew what could happen once Jean’s blood sugar dropped. It wouldn’t be pretty.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            The water came again, and then receded. As it did though the voice spoke again.

            “Everyone still with us?”

            Looking around Vanessa could see that Amy’s body was, predictably, missing.  How it had happened she still didn’t know, but the eerie quality of the abduction was enough to give her chills on top of the cold that had already seeped into her bones.

            “Amy is gone,” Vanessa said, “But I suppose you already knew that, Trent.”

            All eyes were on her now as she spoke, but the voice was silent for the moment, as though in contemplation or shock, she couldn’t be certain. 

            “Trent?” Jean said, “You know a Trent? So do I.”

            “Trent Farlaine?” Phil asked in a shaky, almost unsure voice.

            “Is his dad Abel Farlaine?” Pepper asked as she raised her head.

            Vanessa felt vindicated for the moment, but there was no definitive way to know yet that she was correct. The fact that they all held at least a small amount of common ground at this moment was tenuous at best. But if the voice-

            “I guess I should have known you’d figure it out eventually,” the voice said, still modulated despite the admission, “Of all of you in there I suppose Vanessa is the smartest.”

            “Trent??!” Candace suddenly erupted, “You took me from my home?? What the hell is wrong with you?!”

            “Oh pipe down Candace,” the voice, Trent, said in reply, “None of you have any room to stand on indignation.  Each one of you was selected for this little experiment for a reason, and a very good one I might add.”

            “What possible reason could you have for killing two innocent people?!” shouted

Jean, “You snot-nosed little puke!  Who the hell gave you the right to play with others

like this?!”

            “Oh come on now sis,” Trent said, obvious pleasure in his voice, “It was you who gave me the idea.”

            “’Sis’?” Phil echoed, looking at Jean now with obvious mistrust in his eyes.

            Jean was stunned to silence as she looked up, then at her fellow captives, her mouth working soundlessly as she obviously was trying to sort out just what had happened.

            “Don’t be so modest Jean. I had to wait for the right time to get you after all. Right when you were done with that little guttersnipe you enjoy so much I slipped a needle in your neck and, for good measure, I knocked you over the head.”

            “You little sonofabitch,” Jean whispered, shaking her head, “I never, goddammit, I never-“

            “You never what?!” Phil roared at her, coming dangerously close as Jean tensed up, no doubt waiting for him to strike her.  Vanessa had the feeling that this would be the worst thing Phil could do just now, but wasn’t willing to step in between them.

            “Back off,” Jean said calmly, silently, and in a tone that Vanessa couldn’t think of as anything but dangerous.  “Just back off old man or you’ll be singing the high soprano for the rest of your life, all two seconds of it.”

            Phil looked as if he wanted to try that threat, to see how far she would really go, but he did not advance. Instead he stormed off to the far side of the chamber, fuming and ready to punch something, or someone.  Vanessa on the other hand was putting two and two together. She knew Trent Farlaine, and in fact had met his parents, but never his sister. In fact it was fair to say that she’d never known he had one, as he and his family had never spoken of her. 

            She’d been dating Trent for some time before he had unceremoniously dumped her after she’d been too flirty around his parents.  In truth Vanessa had believed she was being affectionate, but Trent’s parents had been a couple of prudes in her estimation, and hadn’t approved of her from the get go.  But where did the others fit in?

            “Truth time,” she said to the chamber as a whole, “How do each of you know Trent?”

            “I worked for his dad,” Phil said, “Painting company, he was on the same crew as me and to be honest we didn’t get along too well.”

            “You’re an idiot Phil,” said Trent, his voice booming into the chamber, “Each day you came to work either drunk, stoned, or both, and wanted to do things your way, not the company way.”

            “That didn’t mean you had a right to get me fired!” Phil roared to the ceiling, “You ratted me out to your old man and he fired me on the spot!”

            “As he should have,” Trent said calmly.

            “I, I worked with him  years ago, but we kept in touch. Why Trent?” Candace’s voice was so pathetic that she sounded on the verge of tears, though upon looking at her in the weak light Vanessa figured that she was simply cold and tired, like the rest of them.

            “Ah Candace.  You might have been left off the list of people to include if not for one thing.  You screwed me over when it came to advancing within our place of employment those many years ago. You stood in my way when I wanted something, and now you get to pay the price.”

            “After seven years?” Candace whimpered, “You told me we were good, that we were friends. What the hell?”

            “Oh shut up Candace, you’re already boring me.  Just in case the rest of you don’t feel like confessing I’ll save you the trouble and tell you why each of you is here.”

            “Jenna, you’re a stupid little bitch that ran back to your sniveling boyfriend even after I tried to make you happy.  Jenny, you’re easy, and I mean that in every possible way.  I tried my best to show you another way to be happy and you laughed at me. You LAUGHED AT ME!”

            “Oh cry me a river,” Jean muttered, though no one was listening to her.

            “Shut your goddamn muff-eating mouth Jean!” Trent roared, his voice a roar within the chamber as he continued, “Margo, I told you more than once that I didn’t want you around. And what did you do? What did you do you dumb bitch?!  You stalked me and came to my parents’ home time and again!  Pepper, you tried to cheat my parents time and again, bilking them for as much as you could get in supplies and pay advances, only to turn around and do it again!

            “And Jean, ah Jean, the dark horse of the family, the one who never shows up in pictures, or conversations because she cut herself off from the family.”

            “That’s a goddamn lie!” Jean shouted, “You’ve got no idea what happened! You were only in junior high when I was kicked out!”

            “When you left, you mean?” Trent said, finally calm and composed as his voice flowed through the unseen speakers rather than thundering down like an angry god.  “I remember very well sister, dad gave you an ultimatum: shape up or ship out.”

            “You spoiled little privileged shit!” Jean snarled, “They  gave you everything and left me out in the cold!”

            “You put yourself there,” Trent said, still composed.

            “What about the rest of us?” Jenna said, finally speaking up again, “We’d likely forgotten about you, at least some of us. So why attack us like this now?”

            Trent chuckled, the sound filling the chamber as a few of them shivered, “Oh Jenna, you want to know why? Why I would do this?” Vanessa was certain that she didn’t want the answer, but it came all the same in the next second.

            “Because I can.  Just to stir the hornet’s nest a bit, there is one of you in this room who knows what’s going on and why, but it’s up to the lot of you to find them. Oh and by the way, two more holes have been plugged, so enjoy trying to share after this fun revelation.”

            With that, the audible thump of a connection being cut came over the speakers, and the small group was alone again. With nothing and no one but the recent history to ponder over. Vanessa could only watch, and wait.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            There was no more trust.  Each one of the remaining group stood looking across the chamber at the other, wondering if that person, or the one next to them, was the individual that Trent had spoken about.  There was a mole among them, but Vanessa figured that such a revelation might have been Trent’s way of sowing further discord among them, therefore making the experiment a little more interesting. 

            She couldn’t suppress a shudder as the water came again, pouring down from far above as two more streams had gone missing, lending more truth to Trent’s words.  He was going to kill them all she was certain, but it was likely going to be a long, torturous death that he would somehow enjoy. To think that he was keeping them in here for such petty reasons as he’d listed was hard to swallow, and even harder to fathom.  She’d thought him to be a much more deep-minded individual, someone who thought about the things he did rather than acting on impulse. After all it had taken her nearly three dates to figure out if he was just being coy or if he was genuinely nervous about touching her in any way.

            The water reached her ankles as she kept a close watch upon the others, wondering if any one of them might make a move towards her or the others. It was a little disturbing to think that she’d shared a bed with Trent but had learned so little about him.  She could reason away not knowing about past co-workers or those who worked for his father, but his sister was still one that she couldn’t figure out why she’d never learned of.  Vanessa had known many families that had split in such a manner, and had known the resentment that could separate one from those who loved them. But this level of animosity between family members was still quite rash she believed. 

            “Why were you kicked out Jean?” Vanessa asked, raising her voice to be heard over the water. She didn’t expect a response, but Jean surprised her by shouting back an answer.

            “I came out to my parents when I was still in high school!  I told them I was a lesbian and they freaked.  My father said I needed to straighten my life up or find another place to live. My mother tried to help me but she couldn’t understand.  I left, and Trent was there alone with them.  Our father didn’t want him making the same decision so he made an example out of me. He cut me out of their lives.”

            It was as simple an explanation as she’d ever received from another person, but one that made her shudder all the same. Her parents were no prize. Her mother had at one time had a parade of losers coming through the door, some that had even gone so far as to think that Vanessa was one of the perks of the relationship.  None of them had lasted more than a few months at most, but the current one that her mother was seeing, a guy who at least didn’t look at Vanessa with anything other than contempt, was one of the worst.

            “What about the rest of you?” she called out, “It would seem this is the time for explanation if not absolution.  What else have we got to lose?”

            “Stuff it you bitch,” Phil snarled at her, “How do we know you’re not the mole? You showed up after the rest of us after all.”

            “And I had as little memory as the rest of you,” Vanessa challenged.

            “But you figured things out so fast,” Candace countered, standing to her feet, “Too fast.”

            “I used my goddamned brain,” Vanessa countered, “If the rest of you hadn’t been wallowing around you might have come to the same deductions I did.”

            “How did you know it was Trent?” Jean asked, her voice raised and her head cocked curiously as she took a step forward, placing her almost under the cascading water, which had by now filled the chamber to knee level.

            “I guessed,” Vanessa said, tensing herself just a bit in case Jean decided to try and rush her. “I’m not the fucking mole here. How do we know you’re not?”

            “Me?” Jean chuckled, “He’s got no reason to reconnect with me. When he did

find me I told him to piss off and deal with his own problems. My brother and I haven’t

got anything in common other than the same bitch of a mother.  But you, I’d imagine he

got his little carrot wet a few times and found it was worth the return trip, yeah? He’d be more than willing to put you in here just to screw with us I would imagine.”

            “Trent dumped me not long ago,” she almost snarled, “I could have cut his balls off for the way he did it, and if I saw him now I most assuredly would.”

            “That’s a fine speech,” Jean said, “But I don’t think I buy it.”

            “I don’t really care,” Vanessa spat, “Because I’m not selling it.”

            “Enough! Both of you!” Margo said from where she stood, “The water’s rising and we need to make a decision!”

            “And what’s that sunshine?” Phil asked, standing where he was, still drenched and obviously unwilling to trust any of them as far as he could throw them.

            “Who’s the mole?”

            “We’re looking at her,” said Jean, her gaze lowered menacingly as she clenched and unclenched her fists, the intent obvious. 

            “You can kiss my ass with that,” Vanessa said as she too clenched her fists, “I was dumped in here the same as you.  Maybe we should be asking you a few questions.”

            “Like what?” Jean sneered, “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

            “Except that you’re Trent’s sister,” said Phil, eyeing Jean with suspicion, “I never knew he had a sister either.  That seems damn suspicious to me.”

            Jean looked at him incredulously, “Are you shitting me? You’re going to back her on this one?”

            “I’m not backin’ anyone,” Phil said, not moving as Vanessa watched him tense up. “I just want to survive this is all.”

            “Open your eyes already old man,” Margo said, shaking her head, “None of us are getting out of here.”

            “Except maybe the mole,” Jean snarled.

            “Making plans already?” Vanessa smirked.

            The water was at hip level now and climbing, and so far no one had moved. They wouldn’t start kicking their legs until it had rise above their heads, so as to conserve energy.  Vanessa got the feeling they were doing more than just waiting to tread water now though.  It was about to get ugly.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            “Did you have to hit me so hard?”

            “You can take it.”

            “That’s not the point,” said the speaker, “I wanted to make it real, not make it really hurt.”

            “Sometimes reality hurts,” said the other speaker.

            “You’re such an ass sometimes.”

            “And yet you keep coming back.”

            “I can’t help it. I like what I’m getting.”

            The other speaker smirked, leaning back in the sole office chair within the room.

            “I know.”

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            For being such closed quarters the water was incredibly murky, limiting visibility to less than a foot in front of her face. Vanessa could only guess that this was why none of them had been able to see whoever had removed Clinton and Amy’s  bodies. Whether it had been Trent or someone else, the supposed mole perhaps, they wouldn’t have been able to see. Even the lights were all but useless once the chamber was filled.

            No one had made a move yet.  What that meant was that they had made their way to the holes, but so far no one had hassled Vanessa as of yet.  She wouldn’t be able to see anyone coming until they were right in front of her, but by then it might be too late. As a result her heartbeat had increased slightly, thudding in her ears as she pressed her lips to the hole she had managed to find. She could only imagine what might be going on across the way at the other holes. 

            Her breath was coming in and out of the hole at the most even pace she could think of, considering that she was scared shitless now. There was no reason to believe that the others wouldn’t be coming after her. She had after all figured out that it was Trent who was pulling the strings on this macabre little screwjob, though it had been simple deduction as she had pointed out. Whether or not his sister was the mole was hard to figure out, though she couldn’t see it being anyone else.  The others seemed to have a genuine dislike of Trent in some way, or at least a good enough reason to stay away from him.

            She sensed movement in the water behind her, prompting a return to watching out in as many directions as she could swivel, keeping her eyes peeled for any sign of movement. What she saw as she continued turning was only more and more murky water, without another body in sight.  If anyone was thinking of coming for her they would have already done it she figured, which left only another option: they would wait until the water receded. 

            In the dim murk Vanessa waited, and she watched.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            It turned out her worst detractor was no longer a worry she needed to concern herself with. As soon as the waters receded she saw two bodies floating gently in the chamber, each one facedown with their arms out to their sides.  It seemed strange that there were two this time, though could easily deduce that the added bombshell that Trent had dropped had caused this.  He’d thrown a metaphorical live grenade into the room and watched to see what would happen. 

            Despite her hatred of Jean and what the woman had said, in that moment Vanessa couldn’t have hated Trent any more than she ever had. They didn’t even need to roll the bodies over to see who they were, as the forms were known well enough by now. Phil bothered to roll them face up once the waters had completely receded, the hollow trickle of the last few liters echoing in the chamber despite the fact that whatever grate had opened could not be seen. This was an oddity that Vanessa could not understand. But if there was an outlet somewhere it was obvious no one on the outside could hear, or was bothering to listen.  Their voices had been raised loud enough at one point that any passerby should have at least taken passing interest.

            “Miserable bitch anyway,” Phil muttered as he stepped away from Jean’s inert corpse.

            “That’s goddamn cold,” Jenna said, hugging her arms to her as she rocked back

and forth, not bothering to even look up as Phil glared her way.

            “No fucking respect,” Margo almost hissed, and that did it. Phil turned around, glaring hard at her as he took a step forward.

            “You want respect?  You want respect?! Take a good look at that drowned piece of shit! For all we know she was the mole!  For all we know it’s because of her that we’re here!”

            “How do you figure?” Margo challenged, standing to her feet as she didn’t flinch from Phil’s gaze.

            “You heard him!” Phil shouted, “He said that it was her idea from the get go!”

            “He could be lying too!” Jenna managed to shout, making her voice heard as she remained seated. It was not a wise move in Vanessa’s estimation, as Phil went immediately to her, obviously fed up and not wanting to hear anything contrary to what he believed.  As he loomed over her Jenna went quiet, though this didn’t save her. The slap that Phil delivered to her face was loud in the closed off chamber, eclipsing Jenna’s whimper as she rocked to the side, the force of the slap more than enough to knock her to the floor in her weakened condition.

            “Now what?!” Phil said, “Say something else you stupid little-!”

            Both Margo and Jenny were the in the next instant, followed swiftly by Candace, who stood nearby waiting to something. Vanessa found it less than helpful the way she just stood watching, but then she wasn’t doing anything either, and wouldn’t until things went too far.

            “Let me go!” Phil howled, thrashing as the two women attempted to keep him contained.  Margo and Jenny weren’t quite strong enough as they tried to hold him, allowing Phil to weasel out of their grips to back away several steps.

            “That’s not helping anything,” Margo spat, “Just keep your damn hands off of her and everyone else from now on.”

            “Or what?” Phil said, spreading his arms wide as if in challenge, “Huh? Or what? What’re you bitches gonna do?”

            It was just then that Vanessa heard a rumbling sound deep within her body, followed by a gnawing feeling in her gut. She was hungry, which meant she hadn’t eaten in at least six hours or more. Her body often metabolized food very slowly, which meant she tried not to eat so much, which in turn meant she often went long periods of time without food. But it would appear that they’d been here long enough for her body to remind her that it was past time to eat.

            Too bad, she thought to herself, it looks like it might be a lot longer than usual.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            Trent’s voice did not come again for some time, and thus no more holes were plugged when the water came again, drained, and then came again. The seemingly endless cycle was sapping the strength and the will to go on from each of them, as during one purge she noticed Phil lying on his face in the water as it drained out. She entertained the thought that he might have finally expired, but was surprised when he rolled over, coughing out the murky water before swearing to himself, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t seem to commit to his own demise.

            The second purge they lost Jenny. Vanessa had the misfortune of finding her

floating nearby when the purge reached the level at which they could stand.  She’d just

noticed the floating body when it rolled around, and Jenny’s dead gaze had found her

own. Vanessa had almost screamed aloud at the dead woman, but had clamped a hand over her mouth as she’d looked away.  Even now though, perhaps several hours later, that glassy, vacant gaze haunted her.  In a way it even mocked her, as if to say “I got out, and you didn’t.”

            She didn’t speak to anyone after that, not even when Phil had bothered to call her name.  His teeth had been chattering, and in truth he had barely gotten the syllables out. It was then that she realized they were slowly freezing to death, though the temperature in the chamber was still easily warm enough to avoid such a fate. 

            Wait.  That wasn’t right. If they were this cold then it meant something other than being immersed in chill water every so often. Staying very still Vanessa closed her eyes, relying solely upon her hearing and sense of touch in that moment.  It took only a matter of moments, but as she heard the telltale sound of wind whistling through a seam somewhere in the chamber her eyes opened.

            Virtually no prison was inescapable, as most such constructs were made by men and women who were just as fallible as their creations. It was true that this chamber had yet to offer any reliable way out, but she hadn’t yet given up hope.  The only problem now though would be how to allay suspicion from the others by searching for the source.  Even if she were up front and completely honest about what she was doing there was little chance any longer that the rest of them would believe her motives were pure.  It was a dog eat dog situation now, and they would likely turn upon her if she was caught searching for a way out.

            Casting a glance across the dimly lit chamber she saw the remaining captives, noting that each of them were casting suspicious glares at her and each other. Their watchful manners would make it impossible to go searching for the slight breeze she had felt. 

            She was tired, hungry, wet, and cold.  The others had to be in the same sorry condition, but she found at this moment that she didn’t care.  It was hard enough to care about her own predicament just now.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            At one point she fell asleep.  She hadn’t meant to, but her body had demanded it.  In this type of crowd however it could mean the difference between waking up cold and hungry and not waking up at all.  As she slept she dreamt of the last thing she’d been doing before Trent had somehow crept up behind her. She couldn’t remember that part, and it was probably for the best.  Who knows what the sick bastard had done when she’d been unconscious.  Thankfully nothing south of her hips had been sore or otherwise damaged, as that would have been noticeable. 

            Her dream took her back to the master bathroom of the apartment that she and her mother shared, where she had been getting ready for, for what?  Vanessa saw the dream but could not equate what was happening with what she could recall.

            “I’m so glad you came back,” she heard herself say, a smile on her lips and in her voice.

            “You were worth it,” spoke another voice as a figure appeared behind her, draping a fine silver chain around her neck as she gasped in pleasure. The pendant that was attached to the chain was a small cameo of a mother and child, a favorite rendering of hers that Trent had known about for some time.  As she saw him materialize behind her Vanessa gasped, aloud and in her dream.  She didn’t wake until Trent had already stuck the needle in her neck, and by that point in the dream he’d clubbed her hard enough that she stumbled forward, her face slamming hard into the sink as she submerged. 

            Vanessa awoke with a start, shaking her head only to realize that she was already underwater, her eyes opening wide with the realization as she took a deep breath out of reflex.  She almost gagged as she felt the chill water rush in, choking her as she quickly stood up, stumbling about for several steps as she spit the brackish fluid out, coughing in a loud, barking manner as she wiped at her face with shaking hands.

            Trent had come to her.  He’d been so damned smooth, so nice, and so obviously smitten that she’d listened to him. She’d opened the door for him, and she had let him in. The dream wasn’t just a dream, it was a memory.

            Wiping at her eyes with the heels of her hands blurred her vision for several seconds, but as her sight finally cleared she looked around and saw something that made her blood run cold. 

            There was no one left.

            She stood alone in the chamber, with the water already having risen to waist level, the streams coming down from above drowning out her voice as she spoke.

            “Hello?”

            It was foolish she knew to even expect an answer, but as her blood turned to ice in her veins she moved forward, dreading what she might find.  She knew very well that Phil, Candace, Margo, and Jenna had remained, but where were they?  Moving around the cascading water she saw nothing, not even a hint of movement within the water.  Despite the moisture in the room her mouth was suddenly dry, almost barren as she attempted to sort out the puzzle of where the others had gone. She had been so smart up until this point, able to figure out at least bits and pieces of what was going on, but now she was at a loss.

            A faint ripple just ahead of her grabbed her attention, but as she moved in that direction she felt a stirring upon the back of her neck.

            “He was always mine you silly bitch.”

            She didn’t even have time to turn around as a large, heavy object crushed the back of her skull, allowing the darkness to crowd in as she fell face first into the water. All Vanessa was aware of as she fell was that she’d been a fool, and that she should’ve never opened the door.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            “So I’m safe, yes?”

            “With me? Always.”

            “It’s not just because I’m hot and you’re horny, yeah?”

            “If it was just that you might be floating down there with the others. No matter what happened between us, we’re square as far as I see it.”

            A smile made Trent just a bit nervous, but he could at least feel safe knowing that if his secret got out, he wouldn’t be the only one ruined for it.  After all, the woman he’d taken as his partner years before stood to lose just as much as he did. 

            “So what now?” she asked, “I don’t suppose there’s anyone else you have such a huge grudge with, is there?”

            There was a twinkle in her eye as she said this, as though she expected him to say yes.

            Instead he pondered for a moment before replying, taking his time to think it over.

            “The day’s still young.”

The Last Tree

The Last Tree                                                                                      Started 10-17-08

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Portland State University

June 2nd, 3021

3:28 pm

 

“Myths and legends, fairy tales and fables line many pages of text that were once thought to be rather important to our species.  Upon these pages were stories of individuals, groups and creatures large and small that were often capable of feats that we know today are simply not possible.  The ink used upon the pages was a co-conspirator in a way to the lie that was told by the authors of such tales to amuse and divert our kind’s attention from the world we knew.  Yet perhaps the greatest crime of all was the material used by each unsung individual to transfer their often hedonistic and sometimes cautionary tales.”

Alyssa paused as she gauged the attention of her audience, raising her eyebrows as though to accentuate the point she was about to make.  There were far too many half-closed eyes that were barely focused upon her, especially given the lack of attendance that had thinned her class to less than half of its original size.  She lamented that many of these absences were due in part to the fact that those who had not chosen to attend this day would not be returning.  She was fast becoming unpopular in this place, just as she had in others.

“Paper, as you all know, has become a highly restricted medium. It was once upon a time something that mankind took for granted because it was there, readily available, and easy to use.  Of course the thought of where it came from never once entered the minds of those who wrote upon it, tore it to shreds, used it for mundane and sometimes vulgar purposes, but that then is the point of this course.  The study of conservation is one that came far too late for our benefit, an idea that was born in the time of our grandparents and yet was somehow not implemented until it was too late.”  Alyssa watched with just a little heartache as two students, a young man and a younger woman, rose from their seats with backpacks in hand, each of them already reaching for the breathers that were stowed so haphazardly in amongst their other school materials.

No one wanted to hear about something that couldn’t be changed any longer, and as a result her course, while barely tolerated at any university, was swiftly becoming like the fabled forests of ages ago. It was dangerously close to becoming extinct.

Another student got up to leave, though he at least gave her a backward glance, perhaps to see if she was going to keep going or not, or maybe just because he had at least something of a heart.  Nonetheless he was up the stairs and out the door into the steadily increasing winds that had scoured the city clean only a few days before.  The weather patterns of the past several centuries had shifted so erratically that at times even the barriers that encircled the great cities had not been enough to keep the worst of the windstorms out.  At times she had to wonder if she was even reaching any of her students. Most of them took this class as something easy to pass, an elective that could allow them to keep their grades up, or in some cases allow them to catch up on their beauty sleep.  In any regard it felt like a bad joke, and she was the punch line.

*                      *                      *

 

6:54 pm

 

She was enjoying a pleasant sip from the glass in her right hand while holding onto her holopad with her left when the doorbell to her office chimed. One of the perks of being a tenured professor at any university was that she had at least rated an office with more than a single room and its own toilet facilities.  As such she had spent many a night in her office either drinking herself into oblivion after a hard day, or studying up on her ongoing research, which was more common.

Inhaling through her nose she set her glass down sans coaster, something that seriously irked one of the only friends she had at this place, keeping the holopad in her left hand as the strap that adorned its back rested snugly against her knuckles. Rolling up from her chair she made her way to the heavy, metal door that had been installed long before she’d ever been born. Everything made of wood had slowly but surely been replaced as the material had slowly been allowed to fade and dwindle away.

The world’s wood supply wasn’t gone, but it might as well have been.

Reaching the door she peered at the viewscreen at the hinge-side of the door, smirking as she saw the goofy-looking woman mugging for the camera outside of her office.  Melodie Amberveldt was anything but a normal person in her estimation, but she was a good friend.  She’d known Melodie since high school, and had kept in touch throughout the years despite the distance that had separated them at times. Pushing the intercom button that would carry her voice to the hallway just outside her door she spoke.

“I’ve had my quota of crazy today. Peddle it somewhere else.”

“Ah but I’ve brought a new and unique brand of psycho bitch that you may not have experienced lately, and are desperately in need of. So open the door o’ favorite love pet of mine.”

Rolling her eyes as she reached for the lock Alyssa wondered idly, for the millionth time perhaps, how she and this wild force of nature had ever stayed friends for so long.  She had heard that opposites attracted one another throughout her entire life, but was always reminded of its absolute truth every time she spent time with Melodie, or “Mel” as she liked to be called. Even before the door was all the way open Mel was pushing her way in, brandishing a bottle that sloshed welcomingly as she clicked her tongue in greeting.

A faint noise drew her attention as she looked back to the hallway, her steadily blurring vision showing her nothing more than the empty, somewhat intimidating hall lined by marble tiles on the floor and drywall along the faded and chipped walls.  This wing of PSU had yet to receive a true upgrade that required actual money, but it was still functional at least.  Shaking her head she decided it had been nothing, perhaps just the janitor making his rounds. He would be the only one still here aside from herself after all, the other professors all had lives or homes they enjoyed returning to.

She had a studio apartment only a short walk away that offered little more than the flat screen television filled with newscasts of how the world was dying a little more each day.  There was a TV in her office too, but was hardly ever turned on save to watch a movie or something else of interest.  Alyssa wasn’t much of one to watch TV, she much preferred the classics, old, ancient movies really that had for some reason been preserved throughout the centuries.  Her favorites were the films and cartoons that featured the very subject of her research.

“So my little dandy throw rug, what’s on the docket for tonight?”

Mel had a way to speaking that normally astounded whomever she talked to, especially her students. She’d had more than one student complain over her use of the English language, thinking that she was being impolite or even degrading at times. To those who really knew her, like Alyssa did, they would have understood that this was how Mel signified that she liked someone. It was a little bit degrading in fact, but the tone she used was almost always with love, and Alyssa had learned how live with her quirky, sometimes off-color friend a long time ago.

“Oh, I was thinking of kicking back with a pleasant, stomach-warming vintage and perhaps switching on some of the oldies.  Care to join?” Alyssa collapsed into her oversized, very comfortable chair as she pointed at the television where it sat upon the wall, the proverbial fly that would only buzz when she desired.  A holo-player sat affixed to the all just below it, a full load of ancient programs loaded and ready to go at her command.

“Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes?” Mel quipped.

“Maybe both, or maybe I’ll feel adventurous and watch The Sandlot just for kicks, or the The Goonies even. Maybe I’ll have an all out oldies orgy.”

“Sounds fun,” Mel said with a smile, “Should we order in?”

In truth she’d been kidding, but as her friend continued that maniacal smile that Alyssa loved so much she had to laugh.  It did sound like a damned fine idea.

*                      *                      *

 

8:59 pm

 

“So are you still on about your research into the world of long ago?” Mel said, stabbing at a wad of greasy noodles in their plastic packaging as she finally managed to wrap a few around the plastic fork that had come with the meal.  Food was never far away in a city such as Portland, and given its ethnic diversity they’d had a wide variety of places to choose from. Despite it all, they’d gone to their favorite, Panda Express.  It had been their favorite as kids and remained so to this day.

“As much as I can be,” Alyssa replied, swallowing her current bite before going on, “Professor Lansden thinks I’m nuts of course.  He tells me that researching something that went extinct over a hundred years ago is like searching for a single rock at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Pacific or Atlantic?” Mel mused.

“Oh shut up,” Alyssa said with an amused smile.

“You have to admit that it’s almost a lost subject,” Mel said as she kept stabbing at her meal, as though expecting it to fight back. “Trees have been dead and gone for a long time now ‘Lys, no matter how people tried to preserve them.”

She nodded, “I know, but I also know that there’s likely a chance that a few still remain.  If I could only-ow!”

The crunch of her tooth upon something solid and unyielding forced her to sit up

in her chair as she quickly set her food and utensil down, reaching two fingers past her lips to retrieve the item she’d just chomped on.  Her jaw ached a little from the unexpected effort, but as she saw what it was that had been hidden in her chow mein she and Mel both raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know they were giving out prizes in noodles these days,” Mel quipped, her eyes focused on the object that Alyssa now held in her hand.  A plain platinum band without any decoration lay dormant upon her palm as she and Mel looked down on it, almost innocent in a way despite the ache in her jaw.  It wasn’t much to look at, but Mel pulled back suddenly as her eyes widened. Putting down her box of chow mein she looked hard at Alyssa, her jaw working as though in thought.

“What the hell?” Alyssa asked, still looking at the ring, “Did someone drop their damned jewelry in my dinner?”

“Put it back ‘Lys,” Mel said quietly, not bothering to look at her, “Put it back and pretend you never saw it. Please.”

Alyssa looked at her friend with confusion written plainly on her face, “What? Why? Someone just lost a ring in my food is all. It’s gross and unsanitary but it’s not-“

“Put it back ‘Lyssie, please.” There was no mistaking the urgency in her tone now as Mel leaned forward, “I’ll explain later, but please just put it in the box and throw it out. Believe me, you’ll understand soon enough.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Alyssa asked, palming the ring as she stood to her feet, “It’s just a ring.”

Mel sighed, a sound that was usually reserved for her students when they were being naïve or intentionally stupid. It wasn’t a sound that Alyssa was used to hearing directed at her.

“Give it to me then,” Mel said, “And I’ll show you why it should be tossed in the trash.”

Alyssa wasn’t stupid, she’d seen enough old movies to see where this was heading, or at least where it might be heading in theory.

“Why Mel?” she asked, “That is your name, right?” She was only half-kidding, but the sudden change in Mel’s demeanor and the fact that she’d used a variation of Alyssa’s name, Lyssie, that she hadn’t used in years, had alerted her to the fact that something was very off about this situation.

“Alyssa I’m your friend, and you can trust me. I’ll explain it all once you give me the damned thing.  Just, please.”

Alyssa handed the ring over slowly, watching Mel closely but not wanting to believe that anything untoward might happen. She’d known Mel since they were kids, she didn’t want to believe that anything she’d seen in the old movies could possibly be real.  Despite the fact that the futuristic depictions of the world back then were in some sense coming true, she still didn’t think that the drama of such films could possibly have occurred in the exact manner that she’d viewed them.

“Activate,” Mel said into the center of the ring, her lips almost brushing the metal as the ring suddenly glowed from within.  Alyssa had seen such things before, as most things nowadays had hidden circuitry buried deep within to keep the item in question from appearing as anything other than a mundane object.  The effect was nothing new, but if not for Mel’s action she might have thought it was just another wedding band, or something similar perhaps.

Instead the ring began to glow with a bluish-white tinge, an inner mechanism causing the interior of the ring to shift and spin slowly until a minute click could be heard, and a voice issued forth.  Alyssa felt a slow, methodical frown crease her brow as she could have sworn she recognized the voice, but she listened without interrupting.

“Forty-five point six-two-two-four North, One hundred twenty-two point seven-zero-one-eight West. June 6th, 3021.”

“What is that?” Alyssa asked, looking to her friend. Mel swallowed hard, closing her eyes as she shook her head. As the ring went inert again it gave one final click, but Alyssa didn’t notice. She was too interested in what her friend might be holding back from her.

“Mel, what is it?”

“Those were coordinates,” Mel said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “They were meant to direct the selected individual to a designated location at a certain time.”

Alyssa waited, and waited, but her friend was obviously ready to stop talking.  She wasn’t ready to stop listening though.

With a sigh, Mel said, “This wasn’t an accident ‘Lys.”

She was ready to laugh at the joke, but she saw that Mel wasn’t in the mood.  Instead of smiling Alyssa suddenly felt her stomach turn to ice. Her heartbeat began to quicken slightly, though she still didn’t know why.

“Do you know where those coordinates point to Alyssa? Do you have any idea?”

Alyssa shook her head, “I don’t do latitude and longitude, that’s your forte.”

Mel nodded as she sat down, lacing her fingers over her abdomen as she leaned back. “I know.  That’s why I was hoping this would never happen.”

Alyssa’s frown deepened, “Mel you’re starting to scare me.”

Mel shook her head, “Honey you have no idea. But you will.”

*                      *                      *

 

June 3rd

6:26 am

 

The last tree was reportedly cut down as part of a preservation project in the year 2998, over two decades ago when the Presidential Accords were signed to act in order to preserve what was left of our fading atmosphere. The effect of eliminating the last of the earth’s forested regions had a drastic effect upon the ecosystem, creating vast gaps within the food chain that were necessary to fill with other, artificial means. 

            “What this mean for humanity was that our race soon become the beginning and the ending of the food chain, as we were forced to resort to drastic measures to keep life moving ahead in a manner that would prove beneficial for our race.  Due to new innovations in DNA and technological advances in artificial agriculture it was possible to all but eliminate the risk of our atmosphere failing and our world eventually becoming a poisonous greenhouse that would eliminate all life on earth.”

Alyssa waved her right hand over the holo-control embedded into her chair. She didn’t want to hear anymore, especially after last night. Her head was still whirling from what Mel had told her, though she found herself wanting to believe at least part of it. What had been discussed was so unbelievable that even her own bias towards the subject seemed to be weighing against the decision she felt compelled to make. Mel had of course told her again and again to throw the ring away, and she had almost listened.  What Mel hadn’t told her was why she had never bothered to tell her that she was a part of something so clandestine in the first place.

She wanted to be mad at her friend but it wasn’t as easy as all that. Mel had given her the truth during their little talk, and had even expressed anger that she’d been given the ring at all.  The issue of who had put it in her food and why hadn’t been touched upon as much, but she had at least asked. That part Mel hadn’t been able to decipher, though she had at least made a guess.  What was truly confusing and yet still gave her the smallest glimmer of hope was what Mel had said at the midpoint of her explanation.

There was a tree still living within the world.

It had sounded like a bad joke to be honest, something that she might have seen on a documentary or a movie from the modern age.  Trees had been a disappearing resource since before she’d been born, and had died out finally when she had still been in grade school.  Her teachers had always told her class that absence of trees was why they wore breather masks, and why they would never be safe outside for long periods of time.  When it was needed human beings could go outside for about an hour or two at most before the radiation and poisonous gases that existed in the atmosphere would begin to affect them.

The scrubbers and various windmills that were designed to cleanse the air and keep the earth from being completely overrun by carbon dioxide had been installed worldwide nearly three decades before.  Such a system was reported to have a veritable army of redundancies just in case one section went down, but it was still far from perfect. The coordinates that had been revealed by the voice from the ring were directly in the middle of one such area that had gone down when she was still in high school.  It was officially called the Neutral Zone, like something out of the old Star Trek films, but in truth it was called the “Dead Zone” by anyone living within twenty miles of it.  That was  how close anyone had ever come to the area once known as Hayden Island since the year 2923, when the world had felt the first massive effects of deforestation.

Alyssa and Mel had been born into a world where it was necessary to remain indoors more often than not, and had never known the joys of running in the long, green grass as was depicted in the films she favored. They had never built a tree fort or swung from an old tire swing.  Humanity had  been forced to adapt and change far too quickly for anyone to recall the old memories of a world that had moved on before the next generation could catch their breath.  It was a cruel joke really that the culture and records of such a life would be left to be viewed and remembered by those who had at one time walked barefoot upon a lush, green lawn, or climbed an actual, living tree.  It all seemed so horribly unfair.

There were no classes today, and no one had bothered to check and see if she was still here or not. As a professor she was required to check out of her office every so often just to keep with protocol, but as an individual she often made the decision to use her office as her living space. It was well within the rules after all, but the need to leave every so often was recommended by the council of health that overlooked both students and faculty.  It was to avoid the dangers of isolation and to insure that professors were kept psychologically healthy.  Today though she didn’t feel like going anywhere, and she especially didn’t feel like venturing to the Dead Zone.

That lack of desire though was slowly losing ground to the desire she felt to see whether or not the words Mel had spoken were true.  For almost three decades trees had been relegated to history, a growing myth that the new generations cared for and knew even less about.  An important part of the world had been eradicated and no one seemed to care.  Of course when a person had never experienced something for themselves they didn’t know there was anything to be missed.

The knock that came upon her door was not expected, but it was hardly unexpected either.  Going over to the image that presented itself in the viewscreen she was hardly surprised to see Mel standing there, but her friend wasn’t mugging for the camera any longer. Instead she just gave a sad look into the camera, as though she had come to a very difficult decision.  Sighing to herself she went to open the door, allowing her friend inside before closing and locking it. For some reason she felt the need for privacy and security, as much as she could get.

“Any change in that scotch-soaked sponge you call a brain?” Mel asked, seating herself in one of the office chairs. The attempt at humor was at least mildly comforting, but right now it came off as a bit flat.

“After you dropped that nuclear bomb in my lap? Not really.  My research will likely keep going, but with this in mind now I don’t know as I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror without at least checking the veracity of it.”

“I kind of figured you would say that,” Mel said, shaking her head, “But at the very least the people I talked to last night have agreed that we should move ahead.”

Alyssa frowned, “Move ahead? What are you-? No, no no no.  You can’t mean going out there!”

Mel nodded, “That’s exactly what I mean.  If you’re going to know everything then you need to see everything. People have theorized about this subject for a long time Alyssa, but no one has ever been allowed into the truth in this manner.  Public opinion was formed and fostered a long time ago in order to keep interest from becoming too high on this subject. People were made to believe that trees were no longer important once civilization found other means of keeping itself alive.”

“But the exposure between here and there-“

“Is minimal when considering how you’d be transported. And the methods that have been used to keep it alive are such that the environment it uses are far more suitable to life than in any sterilized, artificial setting. It’s a clean room without peer ‘Lys, one that relies on its own natural ability to cleanse itself.  But it isn’t infinite.”

“This is all coming really, really fast,” Alyssa said, closing her eyes as she held one hand to her face, “Last night I believed that trees were extinct, just like the rest of the world.”

“Ah, but you always suspected I believe.”

“No, I didn’t.” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “I was along for the ride with public opinion. I really thought they were gone.”

“One immutable reality of our world young ‘Lyssie is that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered. So in truth, trees are around, but in ways that we no longer recognize.”

“I know that,” she almost snapped, “But, but it’s not the same.”

Mel nodded, gaining momentum now, “You’re right. You can’t scrub carbon

dioxide from the air with a sheet of paper, or with an antique chair covered in untold

layers of stain and lacquer.  But the reality of it is that the trees still exist, just in a

different form. Thus, their DNA still exists as well.”

“No,” Alyssa said, shaking her head, “That isn’t the same thing.”

“No,” Mel said, nodding, “You’re right. But it is still there.”

“What’s your point Mel?” she asked, growing a bit irritated now.

Mel leaned back a bit, interlacing her fingers as she placed them over her stomach. “If the remains of a tree are real, then so must be the tree.”

“Just tell me what is going on and what you want me to do. After last night my head is still spinning.”  Alyssa sat down with a groan as she spoke, pinching the bridge of her nose lightly between thumb and forefinger.

“The people who I’m in contact with want you to see something,” Mel said plainly, “I wanted you kept away from it, as it’s a secret that is more than a little dangerous.  But after your last little lecture they decided to bring you in on the little secret. Well, it’s not really a little secret, but something along the lines of a world-changing conspiracy that might just get us both locked away or killed at any moment.”

Alyssa sat forward, looking at her friend as though she’d gone insane. “What’s that now?”

Mel just grinned.

*                      *                      *

 

June 4th

4:54 pm

 

Her lecture that day came and went without fault.  Alyssa was looking for someone, anyone, who might be paying more attention to her words than the others, but she saw nothing.  Mel’s words were still echoing in her mind as she took to instructing her students by rote, not even hearing her own voice for the strange clanging in her head, alarm signals that she knew were part paranoia and part inborn security systems meant to keep people safe.  The only problem was that she had absolutely no idea which way to look.

Alyssa was gathering up her materials for the day, closing books and turning off the holoprojector in the front of the class when she suddenly noticed that she was no longer alone in the room.  Fashioned after the old-style lecture halls, the stadium seating that this room featured allowed the students to keep line of sight to the front of the class, but could easily obscure anyone from the view of the teacher, if that teacher did not look up.

She felt her breath hitch in her throat as she did look up, noting the individual seated in one of the rows nearest the door. His laid back posture indicated that he had been waiting patiently to be noticed.  The small grin upon his stubbly features told her that he was perfectly at ease, and that he was anything but an interested admirer.  There was something dangerous about that grin, almost predatory.  It was the grin of a man who knew he had his prey cornered.

Deciding to play the authority card she tossed her long, curly brown hair back behind her neck, “Can I help you?”

His eyebrows rose as he leaned back a little further. She could see that he was in excellent physical condition as the dark shirt he wore stretched over a torso she might have been attracted to under normal circumstances.  Alyssa could also see what looked like a gun holstered beneath his right arm.  Now her heart began to pound, and she wondered if she might survive this encounter.

“Yeah, I suppose you can.  If you could just give me the coordinates that you were handed a couple of days ago I’d be on my way and you could go on lecturing about ancient history.”

She was thunderstruck, despite what she already knew.

“What?” she murmured, “Who, who are you?”

“Professor,” he began, leaning back a little more, “I could tell you everything you want to know before I get what I want, but-gah!”

The man attempted to get up, but a light shock from the cattle prod now pressed against the side of his neck stopped him cold.  He jittered madly in his seat for a moment before attempting to pull the pistol from its holster under his arm. Unfortunately for him the wielder of the prod jabbed him again, sending another shock through his body as his teeth clacked together, painfully from the sound.

“If your ass moves from that seat big boy you’ll be shitting sparks for the next few days.”

“Mel?” Alyssa asked, “Where did you-?”

“It’s not the time and we need to go,” Mel said pointedly.  “Dick-lick here beat me to you by just a few minutes it would seem, but at least he’s the type that likes to talk before he takes. Get the stuff you need ‘Lys and let’s scoot.”

“But-“

“Now Alyssa! Please.”  Mel adjusted her tone as she held up her free hand, putting it quickly upon the base of the prod as the faint humming that Alyssa now heard cranked up just a bit. “As for you Mr. Assmunch, I would prefer you not remember a single thing about this meeting, but I’ll settle for you being reduced to a jittery mess of nerves for the next few hours.  That way you won’t be following us where we’re going.”

“Y-you don’t ha-have the b-b-balls,” he managed to stammer. The electric shock was still firing through his body as he tried to regain control, but as she dug the prod a little harder into his neck she smiled.

“You’re right about that,” she said cheerily as she pushed the button. The prod actually sparked as it discharged its deadly current into the seated man, making him jump high and hard enough that he upended his seat, almost knocking into Mel as she leapt backward.

“What the hell?!” Alyssa exclaimed, “Mel?”

“Oh he’ll live,” she said nonchalantly, “Just get your stuff and let’s get going. I get the feeling that he isn’t alone.”

“What, I mean how, I mean-“

Mel started walking down towards her, sneakers squeaking slightly as she approached Alyssa calmly, quietly, turning off the prod as she came.

“Alyssa, I told you all about this,” she said in an even tone, “I told you it would be trouble if you kept that ring.  What we spoke about is something of a secret that has been kept for a long, long time now, since before you or I were born.  My family has kept the secret for many years, and I was initiated when we were still in high school.”

“Let me get my stuff,” she said stiffly, still not daring to believe what was going on was real. Mel stayed with her, following Alyssa from the lecture hall back to her office, making good and sure they weren’t being followed or in any way watched.  So far as she could tell they were in the clear.  Now the only hard part would be reaching their destination without a  hitch.

*                      *                      *

 

June 5th

3:23 am

 

Her world had been turned on its head.   No, scratch that, her world had been turned upside down, inside out, and then broken apart to be pieced back together with components she’d never known existed.  Only a couple of days ago she’d been a tolerated professor at one of the more prominent universities still left in the state. It hadn’t been a glamorous existence, but it had been comfortable. Her life now was anything but torturous, but it was so foreign to her that Alyssa still hadn’t learned to cope yet.

The area known as Hayden Island, or Jantzen Beach from historical records, had for a long time been off-limits to the public, as it was a hot zone of seismic activity and was continually flooding from the various weather patterns that sent the river it rested upon into a frenzy.  At one time it had been a garbage dump, then a water park, and then a shopping center according to records that were accessible to the general public.  She’d overlooked this stretch of land many times largely because of its designation and the fact that twenty miles or more of barren and forgotten landscape surrounded it.

Portland and Vancouver, the two cities that had surrounded Hayden Island, had been walled off and kept away from the continually shifting island for centuries now.  Reports had come in continually throughout the cataclysmic era that Hayden Island was in continual danger of simply dropping into the Columbia River and washing downstream bit by bit, but to date it was still there, a blasted hunk of rock where nothing grew and no one dared to venture.  There was no interest in the place for even the clandestine government agencies that were in charge of keeping people safe and secure behind the walls of ordered society.  It was for all intents and purposes a place that lived up to its name.

She was only now discovering just how wrong they’d been.

“Beautiful aren’t they?” Mel asked, her voice filled with wonder and a strange quality that Alyssa had only heard on a few occasions. It was longing, a desperate cry to the past that might have been had humans ever learned to live with their home rather than destroy it. Alyssa was no activist, but she didn’t need to be to know that human kind had done more damage to the planet they lived on than any natural catastrophe could have ever accomplished.

“They are,” she nodded, still breathless as she knelt before the grandeur, the majesty, of the small grove in front of her. “But how do you keep them safe? How do you keep them from being noticed?”

Mel smiled, “Technology can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a very effective method of keeping secrets.  You see that shimmer in the air?”

Looking up Alyssa squinted as she tried to see through the darkness to whatever Mel was talking about. The heavy-carbon-dioxide-laden cloud cover didn’t allow for star or moonlight, but she could finally see a faint shimmer as an errant breeze rippled across an unseen barrier.

She gasped, and Mel chuckled.

“There is a holographic barrier over this place that was designed specifically to fool every possible scan known to human kind.  People in key places know how important this secret is, and are doing their very best to keep it.”

“But, but how?” Alyssa asked. Words were failing her at every turn just now, refusing to take form in her mind or be delivered to her tongue.  Never before had she felt this type of awe, this type of absolute wonder that could steal away her very breath.

Mel sighed, “Well despite how much you like those old, ancient movies that keep getting recycled for some reason, there is no order, no secret society, and no other clandestine reason for keeping these trees except for the one thing that’s kept my family in this whole mess from the start.”

“How long?” Alyssa asked, “How long has your family been…?”             “In charge of this place?” Mel asked, eyebrows raised. “Oh man, since my great grandfather really.  The dead zone was created a long while ago, and back then most people had figured this place as a lost cause. I mean it still floods, the bedrock is failing, but overall it’s still an ideal place to keep these beauties alive.”

“But the atmosphere,” Alyssa said, now thoroughly confused, “How do they survive?”

“If there were more of them they might thrive on their own and make a difference in this small part of the world. But we have our own scrubbers and filtration systems hidden here and there, all covered by the barrier so as not to draw any unwanted attention.”

“Are they viable?” Alyssa asked, looking back to the trees, “Are they able to produce more trees?”

Mel smiled, “At one point there was only one of them. So what do you think?”

Alyssa turned her head back to the wondrous, leafy sentinels, her jaw hanging open as she began to count each one.

“There are twenty in all,” Mel said, leaning over her shoulder with a smile, “The last tree took root just about twenty years ago.  The first among them, we call her Genni, has been here for roughly three hundred years and counting.”

“Genni?”

“For Genesis,” she said, grinning at her friend as Alyssa grinned back, feeling the contagious emotion as it finally washed over her. There were trees here, and suddenly life had gained a very different aspect.  There was life to be had for their world, if only they protect it for long enough.

“So what is my place in all this?”

To that, Mel could only smile.

Raise Tough

Raised Tough

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

June 21st, 2501

Year 78 of the New Era

 

Clatskanie, OR

 

No one here was any good. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good either. It was a failing that had come from years upon years of living with the aftereffects of something that none of them understood any longer.  During the dark years, when the town had almost disappeared, it was by simple misfortune that someone had come to finally call this place home.  In truth it had been all but deserted by anyone except the damned crows and wild animals that had roosted in the empty remains of a once civilized population.  Nowadays they were just barely civilized and were more likely to turn on each other for some half-imagined slight.

One thing did keep them together though.  It’s just too bad it happened so often.

*                      *                      *

 

Doug spat a phlegm wad onto the faded and cracked sidewalk, wiping his chin as a thin ribbon of spit drooled down his lip.  The stuff he’d taken to chewing tasted awful, but seeing as it was a trophy from one of the last raids he didn’t dare throw it away.  Not only would his father knock him upside the head for throwing away good spoils, he knew that anyone who grabbed it would be crowing up and down that they’d taken it from him. That was almost the same as admitting to weakness, and people in Clatskanie didn’t last long if they were marked as weak or feeble. Even their old folks didn’t like being told they were weak.  Likely as not such an insult would entail being beaten over the head with their gnarled old canes or having something flung at you when your attention was elsewhere.

It just wasn’t wise to screw with the old folks.  They did what they could, and too often it could hurt despite their lack of strength.

Heaving a large sigh he looked to the east, where the old road that led up into the trees wound up and away into the shadows.  Long ago, as the histories said, that road had been a major highway between here and Shadow’s End, one of the longest-lived cities that still stood.  He’d never known anywhere besides here, the small little piece of thing on the side of the road that was Westport just a few miles away, and the surrounding forest that lay to all sides.  This had been his world for a long, long time, and he didn’t see that ever changing.  He was comfortable here, and he was needed.

Only cowards went and left this place.  They were the ones that couldn’t hack it, couldn’t

stand the lifestyle. They were the ones that didn’t have what it took to live through the fighting. He’d been through nearly twelve major raids in his time, all of them against such forces as the Longblades, the DarkSongs, and a few minor ones against the ridiculous group called the Holy Ghosts.  That bunch were little more than saps in robes that didn’t know how to fight their way out of a wet sack.

Of course, such views were his fathers.  The fact that he was comfortable here was really only born out of habit.  Truth be told, he was curious to know what went on outside his little world, and why the clans that raided them seemed so adamant to have Clatskanie as one of their posts.  He’d found out from one raid, after taking prisoners, that Clatskanie was desired as an outpost for the clans, a place where they could station their people, expand their reach, and even, and this had made his father laugh, convert the lot of them over to their way of living.

It was cleaner, they said.

It was safer, they said.

Hell they even said it was more honorable, which had made his father laugh even harder before he’d planted the sole of his boot directly into the face of the speaker. The fact that it had been a woman he’d stomped didn’t make one bit of difference to Doug, but the fact that his father had kept stomping until the woman fell still did. There’d been no need to kill anyone. They’d always sent the survivors of any raid packing, hurting and in need of medical assistance, but still alive.  The rest of their captives had been free to go, but only after they’d been sufficiently roughed up as well. The half dozen souls that had made their way out of Clatskanie had never come back so far as he knew, but their clans had.  Even the deplorable act of setting their companion on a stake and displaying her just outside of the trees hadn’t changed that.

Nothing stopped them from coming, and it was safe to say that their efforts wouldn’t be able to keep them safe forever. To date they couldn’t use several of their methods any longer since the opposing clans had figured out how to counter them.  They were still able to use their geographic defenses to their best advantage, but overall they were getting to the point that stopping anything larger than a full, standing army was going to next to impossible.

They had traps that were continually checked and set according to their needs, they all carried weapons of some sort, be they bladed, blunt, or the rare incendiary device. The latter tended to come from those who fell during the raids, and were by and large extremely hard to come by. Those devices were from the old world, and it was safe to say that every one out of three devices would work.  The rest just fizzled and popped with a depressing, almost mournful sound.

Their greatest weapons however weren’t due to geography, or their ingenuity, or even their blind, stupid luck. They had warriors unlike anyone had ever seen that would protect them from time to time, and who had taught them to fight years before.  Those individuals had not been through Clatskanie in some time, but he could still remember their last visit, and it was with a smile that he remembered it fondly.  It had been three years ago as a matter of fact…

*                      *                      *

 

June 2nd, 24998

Year 75 of the New Era

 

The thud of his body hitting the hard-packed earth hurt just as much as the actual impact.  He could feel his damned teeth rattle as he tried to quickly gain his footing, expecting to feel at any moment a heavy boot colliding with his shoulder, or his face. When it didn’t come he stood to his feet, looking at the disapproving frown that the woman across the way wore.

“We don’t train for mercy here,” he grunted, shifting his shoulders around slightly as he adjusted himself.  He was knocked to the ground in the next moment as he raised his eyes, his body hitting the dirt hard as he wheezed in response.

“Be glad you’re not an enemy then,” said the blonde warrior that stood above him now, blade poised just above his heart as she looked down with that same disapproving frown.  “I don’t want you dead young man, I want you trained.”

He rolled quickly to his feet, shame staining his cheeks a bright scarlet as he heard the few snickers and saw the pointed looks from his companions and fellow initiates. In that moment he wanted to hurt the woman who was supposed to be training them, he wanted to knock her pretty ass in the dirt and make her see how it felt. But he was in this training group at the behest of his father, and would suffer greatly if he showed his anger.

“You look like someone who wants to do something,” the blonde woman said with a grin, spreading her arms wide.  “So come and do it.”

The part of his budding manhood that would indeed like to do something with her was thankfully dormant, though the other part, the more feral part that seemed to be the natural way of life in this place, wanted something entirely different. It wanted to hurt her, to take the sword she held and ram it hard into her body, to see the blood come spilling out and her eyes widen as the life began to drain out of her. It was brutal and it was wrong as he’d been taught, but it was what he wanted, and what he might try to take if he could.

But then things went as he’d expected.

His own blade, a dulled-down piece of metal that each of the trainees was given upon their first lessons, felt heavy and unbalanced in his grip, far unlike his father’s blade.  That weapon felt like it could slice a small tree down with one chop if he so desired. His father had laughed and told him that such a thing was not possible when he’d voiced his opinion, but it could in fact cut a human being in two. This clunky piece of trash in his hand couldn’t have done much more than raise a welt if he managed to strike anyone. But unfortunately, he was one of the weakest in the class at this time, and had no chance of striking anyone.

But he meant to try.

He rushed forward, brandishing his club-like blade as he sought to take her off balance,

to perhaps use ferocity instead of skill to push her on her heels.  It was one of the worst mistakes

he could have made.  For one blissful instant he believed that she was backing away in fright,

that he had accomplished at least that much. But then he was falling forward, the lights going out

for a short time as a hard rap to the back of his skull took him out of the fight and even out of the

training session as he saw the ground rush up to meet him.

*                      *                      *

 

It was only a short while later when he woke, but his head felt fuzzy and the back of it hurt as though he’d been kicked by a damned mule.  Sadly he knew the feeling, as his friend’s irascible old donkey had once managed to clip him in the temple when he’d come too close.  He’d been attempting to re-shoe the damned thing when it had decided to buck and almost level him with one kick.

“Eat this,” said a voice from beside him, “You won’t feel better, but the pain might go away a little bit.”

It wasn’t the same woman he saw through bleary eyes, but another face that, despite his obscured vision, was known to him.  Of course at this moment he wasn’t wanting to see anyone, at least she wouldn’t be kicking his ass to the ground if he refused. When he saw what she was holding out to him though Doug took the proffered item, chewing it in silence as a spicy burst hit his tongue, warming his throat all the way down as he swallowed. The numbness that came as a result wasn’t all that pleasant, but only a minute later the pain in the back of his skull was at least bearable.

“Why is she so hard on me?” he bothered to ask. It was the question that someone who wasn’t accustomed to pain might ask, not someone from here. Clatskanie had been a place of hard living for several generations now, despite the fact that they were largely self-sufficient. They knew how to grow and sustain crops, they knew enough about livestock to keep them alive and well-bred.  They even had a handy supply of fish to draw upon from the meandering river that ran alongside the town.  But they were still tough as nails, no good, and very realistic folk. They didn’t trust outsiders, didn’t often trade with others, and had a general disdain of anyone that wasn’t from these parts.  Except for those few individuals that had earned their trust, including this woman.

“She’s hard on everyone,” Alexis said, “But on you she goes a little harder I believe because you show the most attitude. As the son of the town’s chief guard it’s likely that you have a great deal more expectation placed on your shoulders.”

He groaned, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

He couldn’t see it, but he could hear the smile in her voice, “Your father was watching.”

Doug almost sat upright in that second, fear and anger stoking his action as Alexis easily kept him from reacting by placing one hand gently upon his shoulder. For such a slight woman she was surprisingly strong. But then, as she and her companions had already shown, they were all just as fit and as strong as anyone in Clatskanie, perhaps even stronger.  Summer certainly was.

“Did he see what happened?” Doug asked, the pain in his tone telling her that he really didn’t want to know.

“He did. And to be honest, he said you need some experience yet.”

“He hates me,” Doug said miserably, “I know it. He wishes he’d had someone else as a son.”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation,” Alexis said with a sigh, “And I’ve told you more than once that your father doesn’t hate you.  He’s a hard man to be sure, but he still has hope that you’ll turn out okay.”

“Then why won’t he ever tell me?” Doug said, “One word of encouragement would be nice. It doesn’t have to be kind or even loving. Just one word that shows he’s proud of me would be nice.”

Alexis chuckled.

“That’s funny?” Doug asked, already feeling the fire within his heart burning again as the need to challenge someone, anyone, almost had him leaping from the cot he was laying upon.

“It is, kind of,” Alexis said, “If you knew half of what your father wanted and thought about you I seriously doubt you’d be thinking he hated you. He’s a hard man, there’s no doubt, but he’s far and away better to you than our mentor was to us in the beginning.  I assume Summer has told you the story already?”

Doug nodded. She had, in a way.

“Our teacher, the man who became our protector, leader, and in some ways our father figure, almost kicked us forcefully out of our future home.  He was fully intent on knocking us into the dirt without remorse until….”

“Until what?” Doug asked. He hated cliff hangers, he always wanted to know what was going on right now.

Instead, Alexis’s features clouded over a bit, as though she’d remembered something that had the power to affect her still.  Doug knew little about the collective pasts of Alexis, Summer, and Alexis’s husband Kenyan, but he did know that they had all been involved in the fabled war between the Light and the Dark, the war that had ended the threat of the Dark to this world and given it back to human kind.  He also knew, as did the rest of the town, that she and Summer were of immortal blood, perhaps not full members of the immortal race, but half-breeds. They would outlive everyone within this town, including Alexis’s husband.

There was legend of another half-breed that had come from this town, but it had long ago been lost to history, at least until Alexis and her journals had brought it back to light. The half-breed immortal, Marijka Cotrone, wife to one of the fabled Chosen, had been born and raised in this place in the old world, a place that was little more than legend despite the remnants that were still to be found.

“Rest here awhile Doug, then return to the practice arena.” With that Alexis rose to her feet, leaving him behind as he snorted in disdain. He respected the outsiders, but he did not always agree with them. Laying back he couldn’t help but wonder as he always did what they saw in this place, and why they had decided it was worth training its people to defend it.

*                      *                      *

 

“I was really hoping this would come later, after we’d left,” Summer said with a sigh,

“No offense to you and yours Mark.”

The grizzled, middle-aged guard shook his head, “None taken.  Like I’ve said since the beginning, we can handle ourselves. It’s always nice to have you here though.  So what’s it looking like?”

“It’s looking like the Longblades are sending another scouting group forward, with a combat-ready battalion dogging their heels only a mile back,” Kenyan said, unfolding one of his many maps as he laid it across the large table that stood between them.

“What in the world are they looking for out here?” Mark asked, rubbing his hand over his beard stubble with a faint rasping sound.  “We’ve got enough to take care of ourselves, but we don’t have nearly enough to provision an army.”

“They want what they’ve always wanted,” Summer said, “A waypoint closer to the coastal regions. They’ve been unable to push any further than Naselle for so long that they’ve all but abandoned that route, and in truth there’s been talks about them heading towards Origin with a new attempt at creating a fleet.”

Mark snorted, “That’s not likely. There hasn’t been a working fleet of ships since the old world, and I don’t see anyone building one any time soon.  At the very least a fleet wouldn’t be reaching this place.”

He looked around at those gathered, receiving at least one nod as he went back to listening.

“At last glance the scouts were about five miles out, but there’s nothing to say that they won’t be making their way forward soon enough.”

“How soon?” Alexis asked Kenyan, her dark gaze piercing him as he sighed, showing not an ounce of the intimidation that she was able to evoke in others.

“That’s a bit harder to say. Their movements have been a bit, erratic.”

“How so?” Mark said, eyebrows raising as he stood closer, “Have they discovered the traps?”

Kenyan shook his head, “No, there’s no indication that they have yet, but that’s not saying much.  Look, Mark, they’ve been changing their tactics ever since you and your people, with our help admittedly,” he added this in response to Mark’s sudden hard look, “started fighting back. Once they realized they couldn’t just roll over you any longer they started taking different paths. They’ve found backroads and trails that we never knew existed.”

“We didn’t miss a damned thing,” Mark shot back, “We know this region like no one else.”

Kenyan nodded in response, “Which is most likely why they’re keeping their movements as hidden and indirect as possible.”

“What do you mean by indirect?” Summer asked, clearly not understanding.

Kenyan sighed, “They could have been here as early as yesterday if they’d kept a straight course. Instead the veered off to the north and south, zigzagging in a manner I’ve only a seen in a few different engagements.”

“They’re stalling,” Summer said, quickly deducing the reason for such a move, “They’re letting the bulk of their forces stay close while they try to ferret out the traps.”

“That would make sense,” Kenyan said, standing straight as he looked at Mark, “Just how fortified are the woods around this place at the moment?”

“About a dozen traps of some type or another per acre,” he said with a shrug, “Some are obvious, others not so much.  Others are contingent on the springing of other traps.”

“Redundancies set into mechanical traps,” Summer said with a grin as she shook her head, the blond tail of hair that swept out behind her swaying as she looked at Mark. “You and your people are just mean.”

“Damn proud of it too,” Mark said with a fierce grin, “I’m getting damned tired of these shiny-shelled assholes thinking our town is up for grabs.  Didn’t we tell that button-down, limp-wristed little bitch of a commander they’ve got what would happen if they tried this again?”

Alexis cocked a single eyebrow, “You expected a man like Jarred to listen? The guy thinks the sun rises and sets on his ass. He doesn’t acknowledge danger until it’s got a blade up against his smooth cheek and is ready to slice him from chin to nuts.”

A few exclamations earned their attention as the four of them looked outside of the former council chamber where they’d been allowed to hold their meeting.  The beating of heavy wings could be heard just before the crunch of heavy talons punching into the ground came along, the light, gentle tapping of lighter claws following soon after.  Alexis and Summer smiled while Kenyan went outside, accepting the shoulder nudge as the snowy white creature resembling a blend of lion and eagle almost bowled him over.  Scratching idly just behind the crown feathers of the griffon he reached up to retrieve a rolled up missive as the other creature, a fiery-colored bird named Incen, held up one claw with perfect balance.

The bird’s claws were each roughly the size of a short sword and could rend steel as easily as flesh.  Had the bird been so inclined she could have brushed Kenyan then and there, but he had earned her respect long ago, when she had still been capable of the mind speech that had made communication easier. These days they still managed to figure out what their animal companions were saying without such niceties, but there were days when he missed the mind to mind speech.  Unrolling the sheet of paper that Incen had borne upon a strap on her scaled leg, he sighed as he looked back to Plume, who seemed almost apologetic as she lowered her head towards him.

By this point the other three had caught up and were staring at Kenyan as he gave Plume another hearty scratch behind the tufted “ear” that was in truth just a covered hole beneath her feathers.  She let out a screech of delight as he spoke gently to her.

“It’s not your fault, either of you.  I didn’t expect much from that poor excuse for a commander.”  Incen shook herself, ruffling her feathers as though in agreement.  Kenyan couldn’t help but smile despite the news. When Alexis and Summer asked what had been written in response to a request they’d made for the Longblades to stand down Mark joined them, looking over their shoulders as he tried to make out each word.  Capable as they were in Clatskanie, education was still a skill that they were attempting to master.

With each word she read Alexis could feel her anger growing, and her disdain for the Longblade commander stationed in Shadow’s End continued to burn.

 

To The Intruders of Fort Clatskanie,

 

            I have received your continually ridiculous message on this bright morning and have decided, yet again, that you do not know to whom you are speaking.  My will is the will of the vaunted grandmaster of our order, and as such is not to be confused with that of a weaker man.  Should the grandmaster, in his mercy, decide that you are to be spared and allowed to return home to your rebellious state, then it shall be. Until then, realize that I have spared the lives of your ridiculous, feathered pets only because I require them to send this message back to you in return.

            The Longblades will not be denied their due, nor will our proud order be bullied about by the likes of two former commanders who continue to ride the coattails of a legend long since relegated to the overblown myth it should have always been.  The world as we know it now exists because of the tenacity of mankind, and it is humanity that will decide the fate of our ascension, not eldritch beings composed of fantasy and myth. 

            By the order of the grandmaster you will vacate Fort Clatskanie so that it can be properly garrisoned and placed under the command of myself and whomsoever I choose as my second in this endeavor.  You will have a day to decide, less if your pets are slow in returning.  You will not receive another warning.

             As an added bit of caution, should you ever send such filth-ridden beasts to my city again, they will not be returned. 

 

Your Commanding Presence

Jarred Y. Woodall

 

“He’s a Woodall?” Summer asked incredulously, “As in, Howard Woodall?”

“Does that name mean something?” Mark asked suspiciously as he saw the reaction it had upon the rest of them.

Alexis just nodded, “Whether or not he’s related to the individual we remember doesn’t matter. He still thinks he’s a military genius and is bound to underestimate us at every turn. That works in our advantage. And to answer your question Mark, Howard Woodall was one mean son of a bitch who could do very bad things when he was still alive.”

“He had magic?” Mark said, his eyes widening. It wasn’t a secret that the people of Clatskanie hadn’t ever had any use for stories of how the rest of the world had fared during the war between Light and Dark.  The amazing things that had been accomplished and the supernatural feats that had been quite normal in those times had been lost on the citizens of this town. In fact it was safe to say that the touch of the Dark that they’d had to endure and move past had soured them to the war altogether.

“The darkest kind,” Alexis said as she nodded. “But he was vanquished at the tail end of the war.  If this man is one of his descendants it’s just coincidence.”

“If he thinks he’s that smart though, we can use that. How close were the scouts?” Summer asked, looking to Kenyan.

The blond man shrugged as he shook his head, “When last we saw them, which was recently, they were only a short way out of town.  Anything you want to attempt needs to be done now and without hesitation, or they’ll likely be able to see or hear anything we attempt.”

Summer’s eyes were alight with an idea that Alexis could already see might mean trouble.  Whether it was for their enemies or for them however, that remained to be seen.

*                      *                      *

 

“I said no, and that’s final.”

“But I can fight!” Doug protested, “I know how to swing a damned sword and I can take my place with the others!”

Mark towered over his son as he glowered, his warning growl not seeming to faze Doug as the younger man stared up at his father, his gaze never wavering as the two glared at each other.  He knew how he felt about his son, and he knew that in time he might make a great warrior, but as of now he was still too unskilled and unprepared for what might come.  He knew that others in the village felt that Doug was a lost cause, that he did not have the killer instincts that the other young men his age possessed, but Mark knew there was something there. His son was like him in many ways, but his martial skill had yet to surface.

“When you can complete a session without being knocked on your ass you can be considered for the guard, but there are no promises,” Mark said as calmly as he could, “Until then you remain under cover, and out of sight.”

“With the children and the elderly?” Doug asked bitterly, “I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m seen as a weakling and a coward?”

“You are my son,” Mark growled, “Never have I doubted your bravery.”

“But you doubt my skill,” Doug accused.

“You are not ready!” Mark roared, wishing that he could be anywhere else at this moment. He wished that Doug’s mother were here, that she had not perished in a raid by a roving clan, and that he had been able to better understand the needs of his son long ago.  He was trying, by all the watching fates he was trying. But he was failing.

“If I have to wait on your word, I’ll never be ready,” Doug said, moving away as he went to sit near his bunk, where he proceeded to stare at his practice blade, not even acknowledging that his father was still in the room.  Mark did not know what to say, nor did he think it would have come out correctly if he said anything at all. Instead of making it worse though he quickly gathered up his gear, grumbling under his breath as he then made his way out of their shared domicile.  He had to meet Summer and Alexis soon to coordinate their part of the plan, and he didn’t mean to miss them.  At this moment he needed action, a means to vent.

As it turned out they were already waiting for him as he came striding from his home, each one of them girded for warfare and looking at him carefully, as though weighing what they should say next.

“You heard?” he asked, almost feeling ashamed despite not knowing why.

They nodded.

“You two have kids,” he said brusquely, “How do you manage?”

“Well, being a single mother is just as hard as being a widower in many regards,” Summer said as they began to walk, “Brooke and Melody keep me on my toes continually when we’re back home, and Belle seems content enough to accept the fact that her mother and father are important enough to be needed far from home this often.”

“Do they ever challenge you like mine does?”

Summer grinned at Mark as she raised a single eyebrow, “I’d be worried if they didn’t.”

The three of them continued to walk along the main road through town as they observed the quiet, battened down doors and windows of the buildings that remained more or less intact after years of raids and full-on attacks from clans that had been eradicated or slowly absorbed into bigger, more vicious groups such as the Longblades. Summer took note that many doorways featured marks and signs that spoke of the independence of Clatskanie, the proud markings of a town that owed no allegiance to anyone but their own.  She could honestly respect that, especially considering that she’d seen what the Longblades could do when one swore fealty to them.

It wasn’t fair to condemn the entire order for the actions of a few, but when the entire order operated under the fallacy that those few were without fault, then it became easier to defend those who stood in their path.  At one point and time, long before she and Alexis had been born, the order had stood for justice and the defense of those who could not defend themselves.  The Longblades might have sought to protect and ally with those of Clatskanie, and would have perhaps left them to their own devices rather than force their will upon them.  The stories that she’d heard of Belle Roninsay, she of the cursed name, and Aeris Peders, wife of a Chosen, were such that they had been saints and warriors alike.

They had created an order that was based on freedom and the survival of humanity, not the oppression of one’s fellow human.  The Longblades that existed now were a twisted mirror image of what had come before, and they were anything but honorable in her mind. Unfortunately, the order had drawn many thousands of followers from one coast to another, uniting them under a supposed banner of order and justice that, she knew in her heart, was simply another lie told to excuse the injustice and chaos they’d sown in their conquest towards power.  The justifications they used to explain away their forays into the wilds had long ago ceased to be anything but virulent lies that were told to the common folk in order to appease their faded sense of honor.  After all, principles didn’t mean much to those who knew so little.

The three of them reached the edge of town in short order, where Kenyan and another

member of the town’s militia stood with Plume and Incen. It had been decided that Mark’s

second in command, a strapping young man of nearly twenty-five years, would join them. His

name was Ferdinand, but most people called him Freddy to spare the time it took to speak his name.  He was brown of skin and almost as tall as Summer, and would have been quite attractive if not for the horrendous scar that began at the left side of his chin and etched its way up along the corner of his left eye before disappearing into his dark, black hair. Where the scar entered his closely shorn locks it had left a well-defined line of scar tissue where hair would no longer grow, giving him a rather dangerous look that he had claimed to prefer.

Freddy was a good man in their estimation, always aiming to please and always ready to throw down when necessary.  For what they were about to do it would be wise to have another experienced hand on board.

“Are we really doing this?” Kenyan asked, turning away from Freddy, who was gently stroking Incen’s wing as the bird almost shuddered in pleasure.  Shaking her head Summer stepped close, addressing them both as Freddy turned to pay attention.  Incen ruffled her feathers, as though insulted that he’d stopped.

“We need to stop this thing before it goes any further.  The town is battened down and the traps are all set.  If the Longblades make that final push they’ll find out quickly that they’re walking right into the jaws of a very pissed off populace, and whether they fall back or not it will be too late. The traps that will be set off behind them will cut off any easy means of retreat and will help to keep separation between the line of command and their troops.

“Getting to Jarred won’t be a walk in the park, as he’s likely to have the most skilled and capable fighters he has surrounding him.  If he even came this far I’ll be slightly amazed.”

“What?” Freddy asked suddenly, “What do you mean he might not have come this far?”

“Think about it Freddy,” Mark said, “When was the last time you saw that noodle-loving princess out this far? He’d rather let his soldiers do the work and not get his pretty boots dirty than come out this way.”

Freddy muttered something in his own language that only Alexis understood, which made her smile as she responded.

“He might not agree with that description, but I would agree that it’s very likely.”

The others ignored this, as Freddy had often spoken in his native Spanish but never bothered to interpret. If Alexis did it would be later, when they weren’t so pressed for time.

“If he has come this far, which is unlikely, he’ll be in plain sight. He won’t want to risk moving out into the woods where he knows there are traps everywhere. And since the roads aren’t trapped every few dozen yards…”

“He’ll stay to the main path,” Mark reasoned, “But he’ll have archers because he knows about these two.” He motioned towards Plume and Incen, who were obviously chomping at the bit to be airborne, as their constant shifting would indicate.

Summer nodded, “He’ll have archers and spears around him to insure that we won’t just come swooping in to take him out.  That’s why we’ll stay high enough to be out of range, and if we see him, then we dive.”

“I’m not sure I like that plan,” Mark said with a grunt, “I don’t much care to be feathered by a damned Longblade arrow.”

“Neither do we,” Summer said, “That’s why we won’t be diving where he can see us.”

The confused look that Mark gave them in that moment almost made Alexis laugh, but she held it in.

*                      *                      *

 

He hated just standing here, doing nothing, relegated to being protected. He should have been out there with his father, or at least with the others protecting the town.  Standing in the doorway Doug could see a great deal of Clatksanie, and could see that it was battened down as always in anticipation of an attack.  Only twice before had he been allowed to help out, but that had always been because they needed an extra person manning the traps or someone to help out with any injured townsfolk.  He’d always wanted to be in the middle of combat, where he could prove that he was worth something.

But his father had told him no.

Doug was tempted to pick up his practice blade and go out anyway, but he knew the penalty if he did this.  His father would not only enforce town law on him, but he would inflict the punishment, three days in the hot box, on his own.  Doug knew that his father cared for him, but sometimes it was that same quality that irritated him to no end.  It wasn’t fair, and more than that, it wasn’t right that as the son of one of the most influential people in town that he would be allowed to be held back when others his age were fighting.  It almost made him ashamed to be his father’s son, but he had to remind himself again and again that there was a reason why his father would do such a thing.

Doug didn’t feel like being groomed to be the next chief guard of the town, especially considering that he was still a ways behind his fellow trainees in matters of combat training. He had other skills, but he…

His self-ruminating was cut short as he looked out towards the river that ran east to west through the town, dividing the town proper from the wilderness beyond.  Had he seen something? Or was he imagining the telltale gleam? Doug watched carefully as he cast one glance back towards where he’d seen his father departing town on the back of one of the large birds. They were already airborne, winging away and well out of shouting range, but as he looked back to the river he saw nothing but gently flowing water, trickling around reeds and lapping gently against the embankment.

Considering the placement of the home his father and he had been given at the top of the hill, Doug had no trouble seeing for at least a mile or more in every direction. Now, as he continued to look, he saw the gleam that had attracted his attention again, his eyes widening as he took in the sight of not one, not even two, but eight different forms, all armored, and all floating along the river’s edge, keeping close to the embankment as they submerged again.

Panic attempted to set in quickly as he realized that a small contingent of the enemy had

somehow pushed through their many traps and sentries, utilizing the one pathway they had not

thought to guard.  As he watched for just another second Doug was already formulating a plan,

his mind working overtime to deduce just what he should do, and how he should go about it.

Without realizing it he was about to prove his worth as he went towards his father’s room, grabbing one weapon after another before dashing out of his home, fully intent on warning the others.

As of now he had the element of surprise, and he didn’t intend to waste it.

*                      *                      *

 

They lifted off without an issue and proceeded to gain altitude as each rider clung tightly to their mount.  As instructed, Incen and Plume did not fly high enough to look down upon the world from a noticeable vantage point, but remained just above the treetops, away from the main road where they might be easily seen. This was not their intended method of attack, as they would be setting down wherever they could after affirming whether or not Jarred had indeed made the trip.

It only took a short amount of time to discover that the commander had indeed decided to follow his troops this time, albeit from a safe distance of nearly a mile or more behind the front lines. He was protected by no less than a full contingent of men and women bedecked in full armor and bristling with weapons. He had spearmen, archers, and even fire-slingers, a specialized regiment among the Longblades that had been included only a few years back.

Fire-slingers were more or less just how they sounded. They would arm themselves with several flasks of volatile liquid and, armed with a variety of ways to create fire, would on command begin to launch volley after volley of incendiary attacks at an enemy. It was a deadly method of attack, but an uncertain one as well, as most fire-slingers were not known to survive more than one engagement thanks to the fact that they often carried their entire arsenal on their person. Even those who were smart and carried their liquid in packs or on carts or other contraptions did not last long, as they were in effect the only regiment in the Longblades known to willingly sacrifice themselves for their beliefs.

“He would bring the craziest bastards he could find,” Summer muttered as they touched down in a small, unnoticed glen some distance away. “What do you think the chances are of taking the fire-slingers out first? He doesn’t dare keep them close and they’re not well-protected.”

“With good reason,” Mark replied as he dismounted from Plume’s back, “They’ll torch whoever’s in the way to get their enemy, even if it’s their allies.”

“All the more reason to press them back,” Alexis said with a grin. She looked up at Incen and then to Plume, “You two feel like trimming the hedges?”

Incen looked to Plume, who cocked her head quizzically before blinking a few times.  It would seem they were in agreement.  It would be dangerous, but it might just work to their favor.

“Just a little off the top,” Summer said as she nodded at Alexis, “We’ll take care of the rest.”

Mark just looked at them, obviously confused but willing to go with whatever they were planning. It was usually better that way.

*                      *                      *

Tap-tap tap tap-tap.  Doug wasted no time as he went from one boarded-up door to another, hitting every home and shack he knew to house those who were inside, ready to fight. He knew very well that traps had been set and were waiting to be sprung around and outside of town, but those would do no good for those who were in town and needed protection. His father’s weapons were hanging heavily on his person as he made his way quickly through the town, keeping an eye out for any armored forms that might come around the corner at any moment.

He knew the signal to warn those inside of an invasion, as it had been devised by the town council and finalized by several of those in charge, including his father.  Doug had learned a great deal from his father, despite being left out of the specialized lessons he so badly wanted to learn.  At least he could do this much.

Even as he was passing he could hear people stirring, weapons being drawn, and doors creaking open as those townsfolk who’d been left behind to defend the young, elderly, and infirm came forth to protect the town. The plan was simple once they were roused, to move slowly and cautiously towards the main strip, as this was where the bulk of the raids that had ever come against Clatskanie had been focused. Invaders knew very well that taking their homes would be a devastating blow, but taking the strip would be the end of Clatskanie.

The main strip that had existed for longer than anyone alive in the town to date had been the gateway between the fabled land of Origin, though Doug had never known just why this was so important.  He had heard the stories of Origin, and of course had the privilege of being trained by the two women who’d allied themselves, and supposedly Origin, with this town. But since he’d never seen much more than this, he had no reason to think much of why anyone would want to visit such an isolated place.

Some said Origin was a place of power, others said was simply another holdout that the Longblades wanted. All agreed however that Origin was a prize of some sort, a treasure that many clans would gladly kill to possess. Those of Clatskanie had no such designs, as they simply wanted the right to exist and take care of their own.  The Longblades and every other raiding clan that had ever come this way threatened that, and by that they had become the enemy. Those of Origin had only ever tried to help them, as his father had said, and that made them allies.

They didn’t have many of those.

He’d made his way down the hill from his home by the time he saw the first of them.  Stopping behind the large building that served as the town’s supply house he stopped cold behind one of the larger trees that created a perimeter around the building, peering hard towards the intruders.  They were at the moment making their way towards the buildings nearest the river, weapons out as they kept their movements slow and methodical, peering around corners and into the few shadows that were cast thanks to the overcast day above them.

There was no one within the buildings they were searching as far as he knew. During a

raid most of the townsfolk would head for the hill, sharing their homes with one another while

others took up positions near the areas that were most heavily fortified with traps.  He had been

one of those who was there to help before, but  this was the first time he had stood in direct

opposition to the enemy, and he could feel his heartbeat as the organ seemed ready to explode out of his chest.  A new feeling was washing over him as he sought to master his fear, tingeing his every breath as he looked at the invaders in a new light, his eyes narrowing as he felt his body steadying, his hands ceasing to shake as he realized what needed to happen, and why they were truly here.  Maybe it was a sudden revelation of sorts, but he could now understand why Summer and Alexis, and his father, had continually pressed upon him, and all the other initiates, the need to hold this town, to keep the invaders that attacked from pushing any further.

He’d known of the vile practices of the Longblades and their ilk since he’d been a young boy, but never once had he felt this type of responsibility, this vitality that now surged through his limbs. These armored parasites were attempting to secure his home for their own purposes, to serve as an outpost so that they might pillage and conquer their way ever onward towards a goal that most of them likely did not understand. He was filled with a fury that was anything but righteous, but still felt right, for lack of a better word.  This was his home they were attempting to take over, and for all its importance, it was just a stepping stone to the Longblades.

The people of Clatskanie did not exist to be stepped on.

“Hey!” The whispered shout caught him unprepared as he swung towards the sound, one of his father’s weapons already out and swinging as a firm grip was laid upon his right elbow, thankfully halting the blow as the unknown assailant grinned back at him.  He almost felt his ears go red from embarrassment as Jacqueline Imenara, one of the fiercest and prettiest young women in Clatskanie, pushed his arm away with ease.  Her olive-toned skin and dark, raven-black hair shone as always as she came up even with him, standing so close that he could smell the faint whiff of her.  She was almost pressed up against him as they huddled behind the tree, though he did his best not to react.

“How many?” she asked, grinning as she noticed his reaction to her nearness.

“Eight that I, counted,” he grunted as she purposefully shifted against him. It was no secret that she favored him, but being the most attractive young woman in the town and his age, it was expected that she would fall for one of the more athletic and handsome warriors, not him.  Yet for all that, Jacqueline preferred his company to any other.

“And you were going to take them on all by your lonesome?” she asked with a grin.

“No,” he said defensively, “I gave the signal.”

“I know,” she said in a friendly manner as her impish grin faded just a bit, “And we’ve answered.”

In response to his confused look she pointed to east, further along the road, where he could just barely make out the movements of several forms as they made their way from one shadow to another.

“So are you going to wait this one out or come have some fun with us?” she asked, pressing against him again just because it made him nervous.  Her body was that of a grown woman, but her attitude was still that of a young teenager, which he could not deny that he enjoyed.  “Your father might give you a good dressing down I would imagine. But wouldn’t it be worth it for this?”

Before he could answer she leaned even closer, kissing him hard on the lips as her tongue danced across his teeth, her hand wrapping the front of his shirt as she moaned softly.  He was reaching for her when she pushed him away, nibbling lightly on his lip as she grinned at him.

“Stay alive big boy,” she purred, “and there’ll be a lot more later.”

With that she darted off, keeping to the shadows and the brush as much as she could, leaving Doug staring after her.  It was a full minute before he went running after, moving as she did, and trying his best to maintain his silence.  At least now he had proper motivation to be defiant.

*                      *                      *

 

The cries and shrieks of the men and women ahead told them that Incen and Plume had already made their first pass. After that, the whirling of hemp cords and the sudden breaking of ceramic jars, followed by the sudden whoosh of flames, told them that the fire-slingers had done their work. This was followed by the sudden twang of several bows as the archers were no doubt attempting to reload in the few seconds it took them to reach for another arrow.  That was their cue.

Summer went first, as her armor, a reconditioned set of Longblade plate mail that had been given to her some time ago, would allow her to absorb more punishment if they were not quick enough. Her powerful form was moving so quick however that Alexis and Mark had to hustle to keep up, their own legs churning furiously as Summer reached the first of the soldiers, her heavy blade clanging hard against armor and producing solid, meaty sounds as she used the flat of the blade as they had discussed.

They had no control over what Mark did, but as he drew his own weapon he was at least attempting to utilize the more pacifistic holds and throws that he’d been taught.  Alexis had no trouble disarming and throwing down her opponents. She and Summer had been taught by some of the finest warriors that the world had ever created, and they knew how to wade through an unsuspecting band of trained and seasoned warriors as though they were mere novices.  In only a handful of seconds several bowstrings had been cut, rendering them inert and all but useless, and many bodies had hit the ground without pause, many of them sporting painful bruises and bloodied lips, noses, and in one case a heavy knot forming upon the brow of a young archer who hadn’t seen Mark’s fist crashing down at him.

Their target was still behind a contracting wall of spears, his face livid and his eyes bulging as he glared at each of them.  He looked mad enough to spit fingernails, and in truth Summer couldn’t blame him. Jarred must have thought he’d had quite the failsafe protecting him on his way towards what he might have thought was an easy victory. As the cries and sounds of battle in the distance began to rise however, it was a little too apparent that he’d mistakenly underestimated his opponents yet again.

“You. Dare!” he huffed, holding his hand near his own blade.  Despite the usual

qualifications for an initiate to become a knight, let alone a commander, Summer already knew

that Jarred had little knowledge of what to do with his blade other than to stick the pointed end

into another person. How he’d ever risen this far was a question for another day however.

“Aren’t we supposed to be the indignant ones?” Summer asked Alexis, not turning around as she had at least three spear points aimed at her just then.

Alexis shrugged, “Takes too much time and effort.  I’d rather just find the problem and get rid of it.”

“You’ve no idea what you’ve done!” Jarred said, attempting to sound haughty and in control despite his current situation.  Summer might have laughed at him had the situation not been so serious.

“You guys just saw us drop your friends like a bad habit and you still want to stick around?” Summer asked, looking to the spear wielders and ignoring Jarred entirely.  “You really think your tent stakes are going to keep you, or him, safe?”

She could see a few of the knights looking as though they’d rather just tuck tail and run.  But the rest were resolute, no doubt because they were zealots, or knew what would happen if they were accused of cowardice. Such a thing could brand a knight and eventually get them kicked out of the order. It had taken far less in her case.

“You dare ignore me!” Jarred shouted, sputtering as he attempted to move past the spearmen. They didn’t budge, and he simply looked like a fool.

“Zip it kiddo, adults are speaking. So how about it you guys?” Summer asked, “Are you willing to go down protecting this limp-wristed little punk or are you ready to put them up and leave?”

“Attack!” roared Jarred, his face red all the way to the ears now as he pointed at the three of them, “Attack attack attack!”

Summer almost laughed at the mini-tantrum, but by then the spearmen were on them, and it was time to fight instead.  She dodged one spear before rapping her blade against it, forcing it out wide to her left before stepping within its reach, punching out hard with the pommel of her blade as it caught the underside of the soldier’s jaw, dropping him instantly. She might have had a clear line to Jarred then if not for another two spearmen that took the place of the fallen, each of their tips hovering menacingly towards her as Summer actually managed to grab one of them, slicing the tip away easily with her blade before bringing her weapon across for a vicious slap to the first soldier’s face.

That soldier was still falling when she sliced the other spear in half, backhanding the second soldier with the flat of her blade so hard that she could actually feel the woman’s face shift perhaps an inch or so to the left. She might live after this, but the soldier would never be pretty again.

Three were down thus far, and as she watched she could see another eight engaging Alexis and Mark, who were doing their very best to keep them at bay and not get impaled.  Incen and Plume had done their job and were even now winging off to help back in town should anyone need it.  They were on their own for the moment, and suddenly Summer noticed that she had a clear run towards Jarred. It was too good of an opportunity not to take as she dashed towards the man, baring her teeth in a growl as he saw her coming.

Jarred uttered a feeble squeak that made her blood burn as he attempted to draw his own blade, fumbling with it so badly that he nearly dropped the weapon. Even as it cleared the scabbard she was striking at him, the flat of her blade rapping his knuckles and perhaps breaking a finger as she reached out.

Her left hand grabbed at his collar as her right brought her blade up and over his head, the edge finally coming to rest firmly against his throat, just beneath his Adam’s apple.  She felt him gulp and then try to halt the movement as she smiled, yelling loudly enough to be heard as she bellowed into the melee.

“HEY!  Look at me! Who is this I’ve got under my blade?!”

“What are you doing?!” Jarred tried to squawk, going still as his actions forced her blade to dig into his skin just enough to break the surface, causing a small trickle of crimson to burst free as he went still once more. The fighting ceased only a moment later, the spearmen surrounding Mark and Alexis, who were both breathing heavily as they’d successfully fended their opponents away, but were in danger of tiring.

“Release him!” one of the spearmen said, making a threatening move towards her. As a means of reminding him what was at stake she gripped the back of Jarred’s head, her bare hand touching his soft, silken hair as she grabbed without any thought. He squealed like a little girl as she yanked his head back, making her grin even wider.

“So soft,” she breathed, “Do you put oil in your hair you little priss? Or are there some hidden stores of the old shampoos and conditioners still left after all this time?”

“Kill, kill her, if she does anything!” Jarred said, being careful not to move too much as the blade still rested upon his skin.

“You never were that smart were you?” she chuckled, “Even if you would have gotten it right, you should have threatened them,” she indicated Mark and Alexis, “instead of me. They threaten me I bleed you like a little piggy.  They threaten them, well, I can’t speak to their level of skill, but Mark and ‘Lex would likely use your men’s own poles to skewer them like hunks of meat. Isn’t that right?”

“I might,” Mark said with a sneer.

“Okay, please don’t make me puke,” Alexis said, earning a reproving glance from Summer.  “I mean, yeah.”

“You stupid bitches,” Jarred said, “You’ll have nothing left to go back to now.” He continued to speak, but was still being as careful as he could not to move. “My soldiers will have already infiltrated and killed, every, last, one, of your filthy, common asses!  What you stopped here is nothing!  Even if you kill us, another commander will be stationed here and you’ll be driven out regardless!  You stupid, uneducated in-breeders!”

Summer looked at Mark quizzically, “How did that rumor get started?”

He didn’t look at her, staring heatedly at Jarred as he growled, “I’m not certain, but it’s another propagandist lie that they like to spread.”

“Very nice word usage,” Alexis said quietly, to which Mark just grunted in reply. “No

seriously, you’ve been practicing it would seem. Anyway,” she said as she looked about at the

spearmen in that second, “I would advise you gents, and ladies, to drop your oversized toothpicks and let us go, or I’ll let Mark here do what he is no doubt itching to do.  Please just make it easy and go. I really don’t want to watch you all become meat skewers.”

“My people will burn your town to the ground! And I will personally shit on the ashes!”

Summer pressed her blade a little closer to Jarred’s throat to shut him up again, looking to Mark and Alexis with a grin as she said, “Should we reveal the big surprise now?”

“Why not?” Alexis shrugged, “It’s not like his people are really going to fare any better than they probably are now. You want to tell him Mark, or should we?”

“I don’t have the right words,” Mark said, grinning wolfishly at Jarred, “So you might as well.”

Jarred was looking at the three of them as though they’d gone crazy, but as realization dawned on his face he once again tried to buck out of Summer’s grip, but was unsuccessful.

“You know what I like about assholes like you, Jarred?” Alexis asked, coming close enough so that she could flick his nose with her fingernails, “It’s that you think you’re smarter than those who’ve come before you.  Whether you want to believe it or not, Summer and I are easily old enough to be your great-grandmothers, and we’ve seen pricks like you come and go for a long, long time.

“You might wonder what that means to you, if anything, but I’m getting to that part. Oh put those down already before I go ahead and let Mark have his way with you.”

The spearmen still didn’t move, but neither did they look ready to threaten them again, not with their leader in such dire peril.  But was that fear she saw in the eyes of a few of them?

“Anyway, as I was saying, men like you don’t seem to understand that for all your tactics, all your supposed smarts and battle-minded antics, you’re children.  The comprehension of abstract thought is well within the realm of believability for people your age, but it’s still incomplete.  You don’t think around corners yet, you don’t try to understand your enemy, and judging by the ease with which we took you down, you don’t respect your enemy.

“Now, as for the matter of back in town.  Your soldiers are likely dead, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to perform as you wanted them to, and largely because we, unlike you, know how to plan ahead and move people where they need to be. His son for instance,” she indicated Mark, “is a great thinker, but not such a great fighter yet.  He’ll come around, I have confidence and so do the rest of us, but at this point and time he’s more of a fledgling leader than anything.  He’s also a damned fine sentinel so far as the rest of us are concerned, since he can take a greater view of the world around him and apply it to whatever he needs.

“What this means is that he likely saw at least one or more of your soldiers entering the town and alerted those left behind, which is, fair to say, a veritable host of armed warriors just itching and ready to shell your knights and see what their guts look like.  It’s strange after all this time that you still fail to realize that people in Clatskanie aren’t born to be weak. They’re not sissies or limp-wristed wimps that need to hide behind a full contingent of soldiers. People in this region are born and raised tough by necessity, and are each ten times harder than your knights could ever be.

“So yes, we knew you were coming, and I think we’ll find that the traps surrounding the town are rather full or have worked with grim efficiency once we’ve checked. But I also suspect that when we head back into town we’ll see however many shiny-shelled miscreants you sent in either trussed up or laid out, depending on how nice they decided to play.”

“Then there’s whatever Incen and Plume might do to them, don’t forget that.”

“That’s right, and maybe even Kenyan if he got in on the party.”

“It’s always possible.”

“Hey, my man knows how to fight.”

“But he prefers not to,” Summer chided.

“So did I at one point,” Alexis said, affecting a false, wounded tone, “He’ll come around.”

“Do you ladies need a moment or something?” Mark said, still eyeing the spearmen, who had yet to fall back.

“Oh yeah,” Alexis said with a sigh, “Them.”

“Tell you what,” Summer said, directing her words towards the soldiers, “You lot can clear out and take ol’ fuzzy nuts here with you, or you can stay and get your asses kicked with the others. Either way, you’re going to want to turn around and head back to Shadow’s End. This little game is just about over.”

“Then let him go,” said one of the soldiers, a woman by the sound of it.

Summer grinned, “Put the spears down, start walking back home, and I will.  I may be a lot of things, but a fool and a liar aren’t among them.”

“That’s debatable,” Alexis said in a low voice.

Summer offered her a cool, calculating look as she said, “Seriously?  I told you I didn’t touch that guy the last time, he made a run at me and I did what I had to do.”

“Mm-hm, and I suppose he broke his fingers off at the knuckles when you knocked him down, right?  After you said you wouldn’t harm him?”

“He had a knife!”

“Most of them usually do,” Alexis countered.

“Is this really necessary?” Mark said, almost shouting as he was still staring down the pointed end of a spear.  The two women looked at him, noting that he was likely just about out of patience and would attack at any moment unless matters were handled soon.

“Make your choice then,” Summer said to the bunch, “My arm is starting to get tired.” As if to make her point she drew her sword arm back and down just a fraction of an inch, creating a longer furrow in Jarred’s neck as he howled as though she was trying to saw his head from his shoulders.

“Help me you imbeciles!” Jarred managed to cry, tears streaking down his cheeks as he stood rigid, still held firmly by Summer. She just shook her head as she raised her eyebrows, not caring one way or another what happened.

“That’s how he talks to you guys?” Alexis asked, “And you expect them to jump with

that kind of attitude?” She directed this to Jarred, who was openly weeping now as the soldiers

looked contemplative.  It would be a serious breach of command if they were to walk away without their commanding officer, but it would also be an easy thing to accredit his death or capture with the three people who had accosted him.  It was a tough decision to make no doubt, and more likely it was because not many people cared for him.

“Let him go,” the same soldier said, leveling her spear at Mark’s heart.  He looked to Summer, who rolled her eyes as she then sighed.

“Fine then, the hard way it is.”

*                      *                      *

 

Doug stood looking over the kneeling prisoners that had been beaten or forced into submission, every one of them stripped of their weapons, and in some cases, their dignity. Those few knights that had manage to make their way past the traps had fallen easily, either because they’d already been overtaxed by the march towards the town or because they’d been furiously attempting to avoid the traps that had snared so many of their companions.  Whatever the case, they had been subdued and forced to relinquish their weapons in short order.

He’d been a part of the fighting of course, but had done little to turn the tide of battle.  His father’s blades had availed him no special skill or insight on how to incapacitate another, and had worked largely for defense until Jacqueline had found him.  She had done her best to finish those few opponents he engaged, smiling at him after it was over.  Any other person might have chided his lack of skill, but Jacqueline said nothing other than a heartfelt thanks for joining the fray, and had even stayed with him even up to this point, when they stood facing the prisoners, wondering just what would be done with them.

“Your dad’s probably going to be pissed,” she said with a grin.

“Likely,” he said with a sigh, “But it was worth it.”

“Of course it was,” she said, nudging his elbow, “You saved the town after all. He couldn’t possibly be disappointed in that.”

“This is my dad we’re talking about,” Doug said solemnly.

“Oh I think he might surprise you this time,” she said, pressing close as she rested her head against his shoulder, “Even your old man can’t be too upset that you helped spot the intruders.”

That got Doug to thinking about something that had been troubling him since he’d seen the first few warriors filing into the town proper.

“What were you all doing in town?  I’d thought you’d all gone to face the enemy.”

“Does it really matter?” Jacqueline said, casting her eyes down.

“It should,” he almost growled, “But considering that our home is safe for the time being, I guess not.”

This elicited a grin from Jacqueline, who thrust her arm through his, snuggling up against him as she said, “You showed you’re ready today Doug, that’s all that matters.”

Looking up from the prisoners he could see several forms approaching from the east,

each of them appearing whole and well enough. He could almost make out the form of his father,

as well as Summer and Alexis.  Doug couldn’t help but inhale sharply, grateful in that moment for Jacqueline as she remained beside him, squeezing his arm in support as they awaited the arrival of his father.  He had some explaining to do.

 

 

 

The Last Tree

The Last Tree                                                                                      Started 10-17-08

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Portland State University

June 2nd, 3021

3:28 pm

 

“Myths and legends, fairy tales and fables line many pages of text that were once thought to be rather important to our species.  Upon these pages were stories of individuals, groups and creatures large and small that were often capable of feats that we know today are simply not possible.  The ink used upon the pages was a co-conspirator in a way to the lie that was told by the authors of such tales to amuse and divert our kind’s attention from the world we knew.  Yet perhaps the greatest crime of all was the material used by each unsung individual to transfer their often hedonistic and sometimes cautionary tales.”

Alyssa paused as she gauged the attention of her audience, raising her eyebrows as though to accentuate the point she was about to make.  There were far too many half-closed eyes that were barely focused upon her, especially given the lack of attendance that had thinned her class to less than half of its original size.  She lamented that many of these absences were due in part to the fact that those who had not chosen to attend this day would not be returning.  She was fast becoming unpopular in this place, just as she had in others.

“Paper, as you all know, has become a highly restricted medium. It was once upon a time something that mankind took for granted because it was there, readily available, and easy to use.  Of course the thought of where it came from never once entered the minds of those who wrote upon it, tore it to shreds, used it for mundane and sometimes vulgar purposes, but that then is the point of this course.  The study of conservation is one that came far too late for our benefit, an idea that was born in the time of our grandparents and yet was somehow not implemented until it was too late.”  Alyssa watched with just a little heartache as two students, a young man and a younger woman, rose from their seats with backpacks in hand, each of them already reaching for the breathers that were stowed so haphazardly in amongst their other school materials.

No one wanted to hear about something that couldn’t be changed any longer, and as a result her course, while barely tolerated at any university, was swiftly becoming like the fabled forests of ages ago. It was dangerously close to becoming extinct.

Another student got up to leave, though he at least gave her a backward glance, perhaps to see if she was going to keep going or not, or maybe just because he had at least something of a heart.  Nonetheless he was up the stairs and out the door into the steadily increasing winds that had scoured the city clean only a few days before.  The weather patterns of the past several centuries had shifted so erratically that at times even the barriers that encircled the great cities had not been enough to keep the worst of the windstorms out.  At times she had to wonder if she was even reaching any of her students. Most of them took this class as something easy to pass, an elective that could allow them to keep their grades up, or in some cases allow them to catch up on their beauty sleep.  In any regard it felt like a bad joke, and she was the punch line.

*                      *                      *

 

6:54 pm

 

She was enjoying a pleasant sip from the glass in her right hand while holding onto her holopad with her left when the doorbell to her office chimed. One of the perks of being a tenured professor at any university was that she had at least rated an office with more than a single room and its own toilet facilities.  As such she had spent many a night in her office either drinking herself into oblivion after a hard day, or studying up on her ongoing research, which was more common.

Inhaling through her nose she set her glass down sans coaster, something that seriously irked one of the only friends she had at this place, keeping the holopad in her left hand as the strap that adorned its back rested snugly against her knuckles. Rolling up from her chair she made her way to the heavy, metal door that had been installed long before she’d ever been born. Everything made of wood had slowly but surely been replaced as the material had slowly been allowed to fade and dwindle away.

The world’s wood supply wasn’t gone, but it might as well have been.

Reaching the door she peered at the viewscreen at the hinge-side of the door, smirking as she saw the goofy-looking woman mugging for the camera outside of her office.  Melodie Amberveldt was anything but a normal person in her estimation, but she was a good friend.  She’d known Melodie since high school, and had kept in touch throughout the years despite the distance that had separated them at times. Pushing the intercom button that would carry her voice to the hallway just outside her door she spoke.

“I’ve had my quota of crazy today. Peddle it somewhere else.”

“Ah but I’ve brought a new and unique brand of psycho bitch that you may not have experienced lately, and are desperately in need of. So open the door o’ favorite love pet of mine.”

Rolling her eyes as she reached for the lock Alyssa wondered idly, for the millionth time perhaps, how she and this wild force of nature had ever stayed friends for so long.  She had heard that opposites attracted one another throughout her entire life, but was always reminded of its absolute truth every time she spent time with Melodie, or “Mel” as she liked to be called. Even before the door was all the way open Mel was pushing her way in, brandishing a bottle that sloshed welcomingly as she clicked her tongue in greeting.

A faint noise drew her attention as she looked back to the hallway, her steadily blurring vision showing her nothing more than the empty, somewhat intimidating hall lined by marble tiles on the floor and drywall along the faded and chipped walls.  This wing of PSU had yet to receive a true upgrade that required actual money, but it was still functional at least.  Shaking her head she decided it had been nothing, perhaps just the janitor making his rounds. He would be the only one still here aside from herself after all, the other professors all had lives or homes they enjoyed returning to.

She had a studio apartment only a short walk away that offered little more than the flat screen television filled with newscasts of how the world was dying a little more each day.  There was a TV in her office too, but was hardly ever turned on save to watch a movie or something else of interest.  Alyssa wasn’t much of one to watch TV, she much preferred the classics, old, ancient movies really that had for some reason been preserved throughout the centuries.  Her favorites were the films and cartoons that featured the very subject of her research.

“So my little dandy throw rug, what’s on the docket for tonight?”

Mel had a way to speaking that normally astounded whomever she talked to, especially her students. She’d had more than one student complain over her use of the English language, thinking that she was being impolite or even degrading at times. To those who really knew her, like Alyssa did, they would have understood that this was how Mel signified that she liked someone. It was a little bit degrading in fact, but the tone she used was almost always with love, and Alyssa had learned how live with her quirky, sometimes off-color friend a long time ago.

“Oh, I was thinking of kicking back with a pleasant, stomach-warming vintage and perhaps switching on some of the oldies.  Care to join?” Alyssa collapsed into her oversized, very comfortable chair as she pointed at the television where it sat upon the wall, the proverbial fly that would only buzz when she desired.  A holo-player sat affixed to the all just below it, a full load of ancient programs loaded and ready to go at her command.

“Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes?” Mel quipped.

“Maybe both, or maybe I’ll feel adventurous and watch The Sandlot just for kicks, or the The Goonies even. Maybe I’ll have an all out oldies orgy.”

“Sounds fun,” Mel said with a smile, “Should we order in?”

In truth she’d been kidding, but as her friend continued that maniacal smile that Alyssa loved so much she had to laugh.  It did sound like a damned fine idea.

*                      *                      *

 

8:59 pm

 

“So are you still on about your research into the world of long ago?” Mel said, stabbing at a wad of greasy noodles in their plastic packaging as she finally managed to wrap a few around the plastic fork that had come with the meal.  Food was never far away in a city such as Portland, and given its ethnic diversity they’d had a wide variety of places to choose from. Despite it all, they’d gone to their favorite, Panda Express.  It had been their favorite as kids and remained so to this day.

“As much as I can be,” Alyssa replied, swallowing her current bite before going on, “Professor Lansden thinks I’m nuts of course.  He tells me that researching something that went extinct over a hundred years ago is like searching for a single rock at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Pacific or Atlantic?” Mel mused.

“Oh shut up,” Alyssa said with an amused smile.

“You have to admit that it’s almost a lost subject,” Mel said as she kept stabbing at her meal, as though expecting it to fight back. “Trees have been dead and gone for a long time now ‘Lys, no matter how people tried to preserve them.”

She nodded, “I know, but I also know that there’s likely a chance that a few still remain.  If I could only-ow!”

The crunch of her tooth upon something solid and unyielding forced her to sit up

in her chair as she quickly set her food and utensil down, reaching two fingers past her lips to retrieve the item she’d just chomped on.  Her jaw ached a little from the unexpected effort, but as she saw what it was that had been hidden in her chow mein she and Mel both raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know they were giving out prizes in noodles these days,” Mel quipped, her eyes focused on the object that Alyssa now held in her hand.  A plain platinum band without any decoration lay dormant upon her palm as she and Mel looked down on it, almost innocent in a way despite the ache in her jaw.  It wasn’t much to look at, but Mel pulled back suddenly as her eyes widened. Putting down her box of chow mein she looked hard at Alyssa, her jaw working as though in thought.

“What the hell?” Alyssa asked, still looking at the ring, “Did someone drop their damned jewelry in my dinner?”

“Put it back ‘Lys,” Mel said quietly, not bothering to look at her, “Put it back and pretend you never saw it. Please.”

Alyssa looked at her friend with confusion written plainly on her face, “What? Why? Someone just lost a ring in my food is all. It’s gross and unsanitary but it’s not-“

“Put it back ‘Lyssie, please.” There was no mistaking the urgency in her tone now as Mel leaned forward, “I’ll explain later, but please just put it in the box and throw it out. Believe me, you’ll understand soon enough.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Alyssa asked, palming the ring as she stood to her feet, “It’s just a ring.”

Mel sighed, a sound that was usually reserved for her students when they were being naïve or intentionally stupid. It wasn’t a sound that Alyssa was used to hearing directed at her.

“Give it to me then,” Mel said, “And I’ll show you why it should be tossed in the trash.”

Alyssa wasn’t stupid, she’d seen enough old movies to see where this was heading, or at least where it might be heading in theory.

“Why Mel?” she asked, “That is your name, right?” She was only half-kidding, but the sudden change in Mel’s demeanor and the fact that she’d used a variation of Alyssa’s name, Lyssie, that she hadn’t used in years, had alerted her to the fact that something was very off about this situation.

“Alyssa I’m your friend, and you can trust me. I’ll explain it all once you give me the damned thing.  Just, please.”

Alyssa handed the ring over slowly, watching Mel closely but not wanting to believe that anything untoward might happen. She’d known Mel since they were kids, she didn’t want to believe that anything she’d seen in the old movies could possibly be real.  Despite the fact that the futuristic depictions of the world back then were in some sense coming true, she still didn’t think that the drama of such films could possibly have occurred in the exact manner that she’d viewed them.

“Activate,” Mel said into the center of the ring, her lips almost brushing the metal as the ring suddenly glowed from within.  Alyssa had seen such things before, as most things nowadays had hidden circuitry buried deep within to keep the item in question from appearing as anything other than a mundane object.  The effect was nothing new, but if not for Mel’s action she might have thought it was just another wedding band, or something similar perhaps.

Instead the ring began to glow with a bluish-white tinge, an inner mechanism causing the interior of the ring to shift and spin slowly until a minute click could be heard, and a voice issued forth.  Alyssa felt a slow, methodical frown crease her brow as she could have sworn she recognized the voice, but she listened without interrupting.

“Forty-five point six-two-two-four North, One hundred twenty-two point seven-zero-one-eight West. June 6th, 3021.”

“What is that?” Alyssa asked, looking to her friend. Mel swallowed hard, closing her eyes as she shook her head. As the ring went inert again it gave one final click, but Alyssa didn’t notice. She was too interested in what her friend might be holding back from her.

“Mel, what is it?”

“Those were coordinates,” Mel said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “They were meant to direct the selected individual to a designated location at a certain time.”

Alyssa waited, and waited, but her friend was obviously ready to stop talking.  She wasn’t ready to stop listening though.

With a sigh, Mel said, “This wasn’t an accident ‘Lys.”

She was ready to laugh at the joke, but she saw that Mel wasn’t in the mood.  Instead of smiling Alyssa suddenly felt her stomach turn to ice. Her heartbeat began to quicken slightly, though she still didn’t know why.

“Do you know where those coordinates point to Alyssa? Do you have any idea?”

Alyssa shook her head, “I don’t do latitude and longitude, that’s your forte.”

Mel nodded as she sat down, lacing her fingers over her abdomen as she leaned back. “I know.  That’s why I was hoping this would never happen.”

Alyssa’s frown deepened, “Mel you’re starting to scare me.”

Mel shook her head, “Honey you have no idea. But you will.”

*                      *                      *

 

June 3rd

6:26 am

 

The last tree was reportedly cut down as part of a preservation project in the year 2998, over two decades ago when the Presidential Accords were signed to act in order to preserve what was left of our fading atmosphere. The effect of eliminating the last of the earth’s forested regions had a drastic effect upon the ecosystem, creating vast gaps within the food chain that were necessary to fill with other, artificial means. 

            “What this mean for humanity was that our race soon become the beginning and the ending of the food chain, as we were forced to resort to drastic measures to keep life moving ahead in a manner that would prove beneficial for our race.  Due to new innovations in DNA and technological advances in artificial agriculture it was possible to all but eliminate the risk of our atmosphere failing and our world eventually becoming a poisonous greenhouse that would eliminate all life on earth.”

Alyssa waved her right hand over the holo-control embedded into her chair. She didn’t want to hear anymore, especially after last night. Her head was still whirling from what Mel had told her, though she found herself wanting to believe at least part of it. What had been discussed was so unbelievable that even her own bias towards the subject seemed to be weighing against the decision she felt compelled to make. Mel had of course told her again and again to throw the ring away, and she had almost listened.  What Mel hadn’t told her was why she had never bothered to tell her that she was a part of something so clandestine in the first place.

She wanted to be mad at her friend but it wasn’t as easy as all that. Mel had given her the truth during their little talk, and had even expressed anger that she’d been given the ring at all.  The issue of who had put it in her food and why hadn’t been touched upon as much, but she had at least asked. That part Mel hadn’t been able to decipher, though she had at least made a guess.  What was truly confusing and yet still gave her the smallest glimmer of hope was what Mel had said at the midpoint of her explanation.

There was a tree still living within the world.

It had sounded like a bad joke to be honest, something that she might have seen on a documentary or a movie from the modern age.  Trees had been a disappearing resource since before she’d been born, and had died out finally when she had still been in grade school.  Her teachers had always told her class that absence of trees was why they wore breather masks, and why they would never be safe outside for long periods of time.  When it was needed human beings could go outside for about an hour or two at most before the radiation and poisonous gases that existed in the atmosphere would begin to affect them.

The scrubbers and various windmills that were designed to cleanse the air and keep the earth from being completely overrun by carbon dioxide had been installed worldwide nearly three decades before.  Such a system was reported to have a veritable army of redundancies just in case one section went down, but it was still far from perfect. The coordinates that had been revealed by the voice from the ring were directly in the middle of one such area that had gone down when she was still in high school.  It was officially called the Neutral Zone, like something out of the old Star Trek films, but in truth it was called the “Dead Zone” by anyone living within twenty miles of it.  That was  how close anyone had ever come to the area once known as Hayden Island since the year 2923, when the world had felt the first massive effects of deforestation.

Alyssa and Mel had been born into a world where it was necessary to remain indoors more often than not, and had never known the joys of running in the long, green grass as was depicted in the films she favored. They had never built a tree fort or swung from an old tire swing.  Humanity had  been forced to adapt and change far too quickly for anyone to recall the old memories of a world that had moved on before the next generation could catch their breath.  It was a cruel joke really that the culture and records of such a life would be left to be viewed and remembered by those who had at one time walked barefoot upon a lush, green lawn, or climbed an actual, living tree.  It all seemed so horribly unfair.

There were no classes today, and no one had bothered to check and see if she was still here or not. As a professor she was required to check out of her office every so often just to keep with protocol, but as an individual she often made the decision to use her office as her living space. It was well within the rules after all, but the need to leave every so often was recommended by the council of health that overlooked both students and faculty.  It was to avoid the dangers of isolation and to insure that professors were kept psychologically healthy.  Today though she didn’t feel like going anywhere, and she especially didn’t feel like venturing to the Dead Zone.

That lack of desire though was slowly losing ground to the desire she felt to see whether or not the words Mel had spoken were true.  For almost three decades trees had been relegated to history, a growing myth that the new generations cared for and knew even less about.  An important part of the world had been eradicated and no one seemed to care.  Of course when a person had never experienced something for themselves they didn’t know there was anything to be missed.

The knock that came upon her door was not expected, but it was hardly unexpected either.  Going over to the image that presented itself in the viewscreen she was hardly surprised to see Mel standing there, but her friend wasn’t mugging for the camera any longer. Instead she just gave a sad look into the camera, as though she had come to a very difficult decision.  Sighing to herself she went to open the door, allowing her friend inside before closing and locking it. For some reason she felt the need for privacy and security, as much as she could get.

“Any change in that scotch-soaked sponge you call a brain?” Mel asked, seating herself in one of the office chairs. The attempt at humor was at least mildly comforting, but right now it came off as a bit flat.

“After you dropped that nuclear bomb in my lap? Not really.  My research will likely keep going, but with this in mind now I don’t know as I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror without at least checking the veracity of it.”

“I kind of figured you would say that,” Mel said, shaking her head, “But at the very least the people I talked to last night have agreed that we should move ahead.”

Alyssa frowned, “Move ahead? What are you-? No, no no no.  You can’t mean going out there!”

Mel nodded, “That’s exactly what I mean.  If you’re going to know everything then you need to see everything. People have theorized about this subject for a long time Alyssa, but no one has ever been allowed into the truth in this manner.  Public opinion was formed and fostered a long time ago in order to keep interest from becoming too high on this subject. People were made to believe that trees were no longer important once civilization found other means of keeping itself alive.”

“But the exposure between here and there-“

“Is minimal when considering how you’d be transported. And the methods that have been used to keep it alive are such that the environment it uses are far more suitable to life than in any sterilized, artificial setting. It’s a clean room without peer ‘Lys, one that relies on its own natural ability to cleanse itself.  But it isn’t infinite.”

“This is all coming really, really fast,” Alyssa said, closing her eyes as she held one hand to her face, “Last night I believed that trees were extinct, just like the rest of the world.”

“Ah, but you always suspected I believe.”

“No, I didn’t.” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “I was along for the ride with public opinion. I really thought they were gone.”

“One immutable reality of our world young ‘Lyssie is that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered. So in truth, trees are around, but in ways that we no longer recognize.”

“I know that,” she almost snapped, “But, but it’s not the same.”

Mel nodded, gaining momentum now, “You’re right. You can’t scrub carbon

dioxide from the air with a sheet of paper, or with an antique chair covered in untold

layers of stain and lacquer.  But the reality of it is that the trees still exist, just in a

different form. Thus, their DNA still exists as well.”

“No,” Alyssa said, shaking her head, “That isn’t the same thing.”

“No,” Mel said, nodding, “You’re right. But it is still there.”

“What’s your point Mel?” she asked, growing a bit irritated now.

Mel leaned back a bit, interlacing her fingers as she placed them over her stomach. “If the remains of a tree are real, then so must be the tree.”

“Just tell me what is going on and what you want me to do. After last night my head is still spinning.”  Alyssa sat down with a groan as she spoke, pinching the bridge of her nose lightly between thumb and forefinger.

“The people who I’m in contact with want you to see something,” Mel said plainly, “I wanted you kept away from it, as it’s a secret that is more than a little dangerous.  But after your last little lecture they decided to bring you in on the little secret. Well, it’s not really a little secret, but something along the lines of a world-changing conspiracy that might just get us both locked away or killed at any moment.”

Alyssa sat forward, looking at her friend as though she’d gone insane. “What’s that now?”

Mel just grinned.

*                      *                      *

 

June 4th

4:54 pm

 

Her lecture that day came and went without fault.  Alyssa was looking for someone, anyone, who might be paying more attention to her words than the others, but she saw nothing.  Mel’s words were still echoing in her mind as she took to instructing her students by rote, not even hearing her own voice for the strange clanging in her head, alarm signals that she knew were part paranoia and part inborn security systems meant to keep people safe.  The only problem was that she had absolutely no idea which way to look.

Alyssa was gathering up her materials for the day, closing books and turning off the holoprojector in the front of the class when she suddenly noticed that she was no longer alone in the room.  Fashioned after the old-style lecture halls, the stadium seating that this room featured allowed the students to keep line of sight to the front of the class, but could easily obscure anyone from the view of the teacher, if that teacher did not look up.

She felt her breath hitch in her throat as she did look up, noting the individual seated in one of the rows nearest the door. His laid back posture indicated that he had been waiting patiently to be noticed.  The small grin upon his stubbly features told her that he was perfectly at ease, and that he was anything but an interested admirer.  There was something dangerous about that grin, almost predatory.  It was the grin of a man who knew he had his prey cornered.

Deciding to play the authority card she tossed her long, curly brown hair back behind her neck, “Can I help you?”

His eyebrows rose as he leaned back a little further. She could see that he was in excellent physical condition as the dark shirt he wore stretched over a torso she might have been attracted to under normal circumstances.  Alyssa could also see what looked like a gun holstered beneath his right arm.  Now her heart began to pound, and she wondered if she might survive this encounter.

“Yeah, I suppose you can.  If you could just give me the coordinates that you were handed a couple of days ago I’d be on my way and you could go on lecturing about ancient history.”

She was thunderstruck, despite what she already knew.

“What?” she murmured, “Who, who are you?”

“Professor,” he began, leaning back a little more, “I could tell you everything you want to know before I get what I want, but-gah!”

The man attempted to get up, but a light shock from the cattle prod now pressed against the side of his neck stopped him cold.  He jittered madly in his seat for a moment before attempting to pull the pistol from its holster under his arm. Unfortunately for him the wielder of the prod jabbed him again, sending another shock through his body as his teeth clacked together, painfully from the sound.

“If your ass moves from that seat big boy you’ll be shitting sparks for the next few days.”

“Mel?” Alyssa asked, “Where did you-?”

“It’s not the time and we need to go,” Mel said pointedly.  “Dick-lick here beat me to you by just a few minutes it would seem, but at least he’s the type that likes to talk before he takes. Get the stuff you need ‘Lys and let’s scoot.”

“But-“

“Now Alyssa! Please.”  Mel adjusted her tone as she held up her free hand, putting it quickly upon the base of the prod as the faint humming that Alyssa now heard cranked up just a bit. “As for you Mr. Assmunch, I would prefer you not remember a single thing about this meeting, but I’ll settle for you being reduced to a jittery mess of nerves for the next few hours.  That way you won’t be following us where we’re going.”

“Y-you don’t ha-have the b-b-balls,” he managed to stammer. The electric shock was still firing through his body as he tried to regain control, but as she dug the prod a little harder into his neck she smiled.

“You’re right about that,” she said cheerily as she pushed the button. The prod actually sparked as it discharged its deadly current into the seated man, making him jump high and hard enough that he upended his seat, almost knocking into Mel as she leapt backward.

“What the hell?!” Alyssa exclaimed, “Mel?”

“Oh he’ll live,” she said nonchalantly, “Just get your stuff and let’s get going. I get the feeling that he isn’t alone.”

“What, I mean how, I mean-“

Mel started walking down towards her, sneakers squeaking slightly as she approached Alyssa calmly, quietly, turning off the prod as she came.

“Alyssa, I told you all about this,” she said in an even tone, “I told you it would be trouble if you kept that ring.  What we spoke about is something of a secret that has been kept for a long, long time now, since before you or I were born.  My family has kept the secret for many years, and I was initiated when we were still in high school.”

“Let me get my stuff,” she said stiffly, still not daring to believe what was going on was real. Mel stayed with her, following Alyssa from the lecture hall back to her office, making good and sure they weren’t being followed or in any way watched.  So far as she could tell they were in the clear.  Now the only hard part would be reaching their destination without a  hitch.

*                      *                      *

 

June 5th

3:23 am

 

Her world had been turned on its head.   No, scratch that, her world had been turned upside down, inside out, and then broken apart to be pieced back together with components she’d never known existed.  Only a couple of days ago she’d been a tolerated professor at one of the more prominent universities still left in the state. It hadn’t been a glamorous existence, but it had been comfortable. Her life now was anything but torturous, but it was so foreign to her that Alyssa still hadn’t learned to cope yet.

The area known as Hayden Island, or Jantzen Beach from historical records, had for a long time been off-limits to the public, as it was a hot zone of seismic activity and was continually flooding from the various weather patterns that sent the river it rested upon into a frenzy.  At one time it had been a garbage dump, then a water park, and then a shopping center according to records that were accessible to the general public.  She’d overlooked this stretch of land many times largely because of its designation and the fact that twenty miles or more of barren and forgotten landscape surrounded it.

Portland and Vancouver, the two cities that had surrounded Hayden Island, had been walled off and kept away from the continually shifting island for centuries now.  Reports had come in continually throughout the cataclysmic era that Hayden Island was in continual danger of simply dropping into the Columbia River and washing downstream bit by bit, but to date it was still there, a blasted hunk of rock where nothing grew and no one dared to venture.  There was no interest in the place for even the clandestine government agencies that were in charge of keeping people safe and secure behind the walls of ordered society.  It was for all intents and purposes a place that lived up to its name.

She was only now discovering just how wrong they’d been.

“Beautiful aren’t they?” Mel asked, her voice filled with wonder and a strange quality that Alyssa had only heard on a few occasions. It was longing, a desperate cry to the past that might have been had humans ever learned to live with their home rather than destroy it. Alyssa was no activist, but she didn’t need to be to know that human kind had done more damage to the planet they lived on than any natural catastrophe could have ever accomplished.

“They are,” she nodded, still breathless as she knelt before the grandeur, the majesty, of the small grove in front of her. “But how do you keep them safe? How do you keep them from being noticed?”

Mel smiled, “Technology can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a very effective method of keeping secrets.  You see that shimmer in the air?”

Looking up Alyssa squinted as she tried to see through the darkness to whatever Mel was talking about. The heavy-carbon-dioxide-laden cloud cover didn’t allow for star or moonlight, but she could finally see a faint shimmer as an errant breeze rippled across an unseen barrier.

She gasped, and Mel chuckled.

“There is a holographic barrier over this place that was designed specifically to fool every possible scan known to human kind.  People in key places know how important this secret is, and are doing their very best to keep it.”

“But, but how?” Alyssa asked. Words were failing her at every turn just now, refusing to take form in her mind or be delivered to her tongue.  Never before had she felt this type of awe, this type of absolute wonder that could steal away her very breath.

Mel sighed, “Well despite how much you like those old, ancient movies that keep getting recycled for some reason, there is no order, no secret society, and no other clandestine reason for keeping these trees except for the one thing that’s kept my family in this whole mess from the start.”

“How long?” Alyssa asked, “How long has your family been…?”             “In charge of this place?” Mel asked, eyebrows raised. “Oh man, since my great grandfather really.  The dead zone was created a long while ago, and back then most people had figured this place as a lost cause. I mean it still floods, the bedrock is failing, but overall it’s still an ideal place to keep these beauties alive.”

“But the atmosphere,” Alyssa said, now thoroughly confused, “How do they survive?”

“If there were more of them they might thrive on their own and make a difference in this small part of the world. But we have our own scrubbers and filtration systems hidden here and there, all covered by the barrier so as not to draw any unwanted attention.”

“Are they viable?” Alyssa asked, looking back to the trees, “Are they able to produce more trees?”

Mel smiled, “At one point there was only one of them. So what do you think?”

Alyssa turned her head back to the wondrous, leafy sentinels, her jaw hanging open as she began to count each one.

“There are twenty in all,” Mel said, leaning over her shoulder with a smile, “The last tree took root just about twenty years ago.  The first among them, we call her Genni, has been here for roughly three hundred years and counting.”

“Genni?”

“For Genesis,” she said, grinning at her friend as Alyssa grinned back, feeling the contagious emotion as it finally washed over her. There were trees here, and suddenly life had gained a very different aspect.  There was life to be had for their world, if only they protect it for long enough.

“So what is my place in all this?”

To that, Mel could only smile.

The Strange Case of Liam Allsace

The Strange Case of Liam Allsace

By Tom Foster

 

 

Some people have to be careful of the thoughts they allow into their heads.  Take my son for example, good, honest, poor Liam.  He was a bit of a problem child when he was born you know, but we still loved him, no matter what.  I suppose most parents with problem kids see their lives through a daily routine of choices, what to do with them, how to snap the kid out of their current funk or destructive behavior, but when I say that Liam was a problem kid, I don’t mean in that regard.  No, Liam had problems, but they were always, kind of strange.

What’s that? Oh no, no, no no no.  Liam didn’t do drugs, hell he didn’t even drink once he came of age, I should know.  Why?  A mother always knows her child, or at least we like to believe we do.  Liam was, well, he was different from a lot of kids.  I know, I know, it makes so little sense to say a child is different, we’re all different in some way.  But Liam was a bit more than that.

Well, I guess I could explain, but it’s going to sound kind of crazy.

That’s okay ma’am, we’re used to crazy here.”

Yes, yes I suppose you are.  They don’t call it Shady Acres Mental Health Institute for nothing do they?  Ha ha! I suppose that you’re also used to people having things happen around them without having any explanation.  No?  Well, then maybe Liam’s story, which I suppose is now my story, will perhaps be a little beyond what you’re used to.  Do you have your pen and paper handy? Oh, you use a recorder now?  Oh yes, look at that little thing, how wonderful, the marvels of technology are just growing more and more curious.  Don’t you agree?

Well, I suppose I should start, right?  I could tell you that it began when my husband, God bless him and all, started working at that awful textile mill out in Happy Valley.  It was one hell of a commute from that place to our home and back, but Andy did it each and every day.  You see young man, he and I were trying to start our family at that time, we’d only been married two years and were still quite young and very piss poor, as the saying used to go.  He worked his fingers to the bone, doing whatever was asked of him, working overtime and coming home at all hours of the night sometimes.  He was a good man, a good, honest man.

What does a textile mill have to do with Liam? Oh, nothing I suppose.  There’s no mumbo-jumbo going on in a textile mill that would have affected Andy or, by extension, myself.  It’s not a comic book case as some of the other doctors would like to call it.  But something did happen when Liam was born, something that neither Andy or myself were ever able to figure out.  The boy was just, different, from the first day he opened his eyes to the day he closed them finally.

I say he closed them, and I’m not of the mind to become confused or exaggerate.  God didn’t close my boy’s eyes, not unless He has a very cruel sense of humor. No one on this green earth closed my boy’s eyes but himself, and why he would do such a thing, I suppose no one will ever know.  Andy and myself knew that Liam was troubled, and we did whatever we could to make our son happy, to make him, you know, normal.  But that wasn’t enough.

Liam didn’t run around like other children, he didn’t read books, he didn’t like to watch television even when we had one.  He just sat and stared at things for hours on end, even when other kids would tease him and poke at him for doing so.  I can remember days when Liam would come home bloody and bruised because someone had taken it into their head that he was a retard.  Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to use that word, awful word it is, especially for a mother to use about her son. But Liam is gone doctor, and explaining why a thing happened isn’t quite the same as speaking ill of the dead. Wouldn’t you agree?  Well pfah, even if you don’t it’s not like I need to care about your opinion.  Doctors like you are the kind that saw fit to make my Liam’s life even harder when he got older.

We’re not here to judge ma’am, just to get your story.”

Ha!  That’s a good one you damned puppy!  Oh yes, everyone is just interested in getting a story, something to laugh about in the faculty offices and pore over as though the subject was something more akin to an insect, just waiting to be dissected.  It’s a cold profession that allows a person to detach emotion from what they do, but I suppose you’re used to that. Right?

Ma’am please, I don’t-“

Oh pshaw!  Enough of that “ma’am” crap.  I might be old enough to be your grandma boy but I won’t be forced to sit here and listen to some damned kid patronize me.  If you want this little morbid bit of entertainment to show to your colleagues and other interested parties you’ll sit there and just shut your mouth.  I swear, just because you have a degree you think you can make others feel like they’re idiots.  Isn’t that right?  No?  Well you can fool others sonny but you can’t fool me.  I went to school too, back in a day when an education actually meant something, when the money you put in actually went to what it was supposed to.  You damned young’uns today don’t realize just what hard is.

What? Oh fine, fine, I’ll tell the damned story.  Now where was I?

*                             *                             *

 

Portland, OR

October 30th, 1954

 

Liam Allsace was a bit different from other kids, and unfortunately he knew it.  His mother and father had done everything they could in his life to make sure that he was made to feel as though he were just like anyone else, but like so many well-meaning parents, they had either failed or made things worse.  He wasn’t any closer to beginning a life of his own than he’d been when he’d moved out of the house, surviving mainly on the routine, day to day existence that kept him alive, able to eke out a living and not much else.  He wasn’t interested in anything, he wasn’t motivated by anything, and he didn’t really know why.

His father had tried to get him a job with the textile mill that had seen their family through so many years before Liam had even been born, but he’d politely refused, not willing to live his father’s life nor follow in his footsteps in any way.  Andy Allsace hadn’t taken any offense to his son’s refusal, in fact he had been quite proud that Liam had not gone the same route he had.  But he’d still been concerned, and Liam knew that his mother felt the same way.  His parents wanted the best for him, just as any parent would, but they didn’t know enough about why he did and thought the way he did, and they most likely never would.  Even Liam didn’t know, and that was perhaps the most terrible thing.

He was about as average as a person could be, he wasn’t tall and he wasn’t short, he wasn’t fat or skinny.  Liam was just, average.

There were no goals in his life, but he didn’t wander around like a lump waiting to be cared for, he just didn’t have any motivation in the traditional sense.  Liam didn’t know what he wanted to do in his life, he didn’t even know if he really wanted to keep the life he had.  It was a terrible thing to think so, but Liam Allsace found himself wondering sometimes what the real point of living was.

He wasn’t suicidal, and it wasn’t just the fact that he was irish-Catholic.  Suicide was seen as a mortal sin, a punishment for throwing away what God had given a person.  But in his own personal view, Liam had to wonder why anyone would be punished for throwing away a gift.  His father had thrown away gifts before, not out of spite, but out of necessity.  Too much clutter could become a bother later in life, and in doing so would weigh a person down.  Liam could easily think at times that life was all about clutter, that eventually it weighed a person down, no matter how much one tried to even their life out.  It wasn’t the accumulation of things or people, it was just the addition of year after year, of day after day piling up on a person.  Eventually it got cluttered, things got forgotten, and there was just too much clutter to sift through any longer.

Liam was only in his mid-twenties, he’d not yet taken a wife or even considered having children.  Like so many things it wasn’t to spite his parents or because he didn’t feel the desire.  He just didn’t have the motivation to go out and get what other people wanted.  Instead he went to work each day at his job, a relatively peaceful desk job with an insurance company, logged in his eight to ten hours, and then went home, where he sat and just stared until it was time to go to bed.

He had no real friends aside from his co-workers, and even they kept their distance most times, thinking he was weird or perhaps just anti-social.  Liam didn’t really care, what they thought was really of no importance, though he knew they whispered behind his back, perhaps hurtful things or just plain gossip, it made no difference.  He was different, he knew it, and he knew that there was little to nothing he could do about it.

Liam had talked to his parents more than once concerning why he couldn’t seem to fixate upon anything but the empty air, but they’d never understood.  They’d tried of course, but they still hadn’t been able to understand what their son told them.  He didn’t want clutter, that was about all the motivation he could claim.  Each day at work he had to interact with others, but after work, the conversations and information he’d received during the day just went away, disappearing until the next day when he needed it.  But Liam could always realize that the clutter was there, just waiting to come forth to confuse and crowd in upon the nothingness he found normal.  It was always there, just on the edge of his mind, waiting to jump forward like some deranged jackrabbit, stomping all about with its oversized paws, making a mess, letting in the clutter.  Liam didn’t like that thought.

Each year it had seemed to get worse, with the clutter closing in around the perimeter of his thoughts, or rather, the absence of thought.  Liam knew what happened when he thought about things, and he didn’t like it.  The act of thinking was one more bit of clutter that he knew was waiting to overwhelm him, though he could not help it, at least not until he’d become an adult, when his control had grown somewhat.  Liam could do things with his thoughts, though they were hardly ever the things he’d really wanted.  They were dangerous things, unpredictable things, and things that had almost gotten him in trouble more than once.

When the Henderson’s dog had gone missing after enough people had complained about its barking?  That had been Liam, though he hadn’t meant it.  He’d gotten tired of the barking too since the dog’s yard and favorite spot to voice her complaints to the world at large had been not far from his bedroom window.  Too many nights he’d been woken by her bark, though never once had he complained.  Dogs barked, sometimes for no reason at all, that was just how the world was sometimes.  But Liam had wondered what it would be like to not hear Isabelle anymore, and the next day, she’d been gone.

Little Danny Henderson had been more than a little upset over the loss of his dog Isabelle, a Scottish Terrier and a good friend besides her incessant nighttime ritual.  No one had ever really known why Isabelle had barked so much, but it had been enough to get the Henderson’s in hot water with their neighbors more than once.  Isabelle had been gone, and Liam, as well as the rest of the neighborhood, hadn’t had to listen to her anymore.  And why?  He’d wanted to know what it would be like to not hear the terrier anymore.  In truth it had been kind of nice, but the tears on Danny’s face hadn’t been all that nice.  No one had ever found the dog, no matter how hard they looked or how many pictures they’d put up.  Isabelle, and her barking, were just gone.

There had been other times when Liam had harbored such dangerous thoughts, but he’d kept himself in check thankfully more than once.  He’d wondered things about other people and the smaller inconveniences of life that he’d quickly reigned in, fearful of another repeat of the incident with Isabelle.  To do something like that to a dog was bad enough, but to do it to a person would be a damning act he was sure.  Liam had never ascribed to the whole idea of God and the holy trinity as his parents had done, but he had still been young enough to be wary of defying something he could not understand.  Anyway, he’d kept his thoughts light and in check when he had them for many years, with only a few random occurrences taking place and far from any prying eyes.

He’d never had a doubt that he had been the one who had made Isabelle disappear, though he’d never told anyone either.  Liam knew he would have gotten in serious trouble, and that was the type of attention he liked to avoid.  In fact, he liked to avoid attention whenever possible, except when his parents were around.  They were good people, he knew this with all his limited heart, and they wanted the best for him.  But Liam knew in that same location that he was not meant for this life somehow.  He just knew he wasn’t supposed to be here, and for some reason he knew that today was the last day he had.

His parents would be sad of course, it was the way of parents to care about their children. Well, at least the way of good parents.  His would no doubt cry their eyes out and lament his passing, perhaps thinking that they might have been able to help him somehow.  There was nothing to be helped though, he just wasn’t meant to be here.  If he’d been able to find a means to just erase himself from this existence he would have already succeeded, he’d tried.  But it didn’t look as though he would be able to, whatever had given him this strange ability to direct his thoughts upon reality had seemed able to deny him such an escape.  So Liam had come up with another method.

Seated upon his only chair within his small apartment, Liam focused as he always did on nothing, delving into his own mind as he did.  This was not the first time he had done such a thing, but it would most certainly be the last.  He just couldn’t let the clutter get him, not like it had everyone else.  He wasn’t meant to be here, and the clutter of his life wouldn’t be allowed to fall on anyone else, not if he could help it.

Allowing his arms to lay upon the armrests of his chair Liam let his gaze become unfocused, his mind going blank as he began the process he’d been thinking upon for nearly two years.  It was something inventive, something that he was almost sure no one would be able to understand.  It was also something that would erase him from this world almost entirely, if he was successful.  Liam couldn’t possibly erase all that he’d done to influence the lives of others, he’d tried that too.  Somehow though, he felt as though only two people in this world would remember him after a matter of months, and those two would have more right than any to do so.

As Liam Allsace settled himself within his chair, his favorite chair he realized, he began to think the thoughts that he’d practiced for the past several months, hoping against all hope that it would work.  The shock upon his body would be absolute, but at the very least it would erase the clutter, along with everything else.

*                             *                             *

 

That’s, not possible.”

Humph, you science types are all the same, doctors or no.  If someone gives you a case that you can’t understand you just parrot back “That’s not possible.”  Well I’ll tell you something boy, none of us thought it was possible either, back then or even now.  Wishing yourself out of existence, that seems like something in a fantasy story doesn’t it?  Then I guess my Liam must have been a pioneer in that particular field, because he sure as hell enough found a way to do it.

Not possible?  You tell that to the medical examiner that opened my boy up to determine the cause of death.  Liam wasn’t dead when they brought him in, but no one could explain why his body seemed to be just tip top but his reactions and other functions were next to nil.  The body takes a while to die sometimes I suppose, but in Liam’s case, they couldn’t figure out a damned thing wrong with him save for the fact that he’d somehow gone catatonic.

The technology in those days wasn’t as up to snuff as it is now.  The doo-dads and gee-gaws you kids have got now are a damned sight finer and a lot more confusing than anything they had back then.  Maybe now if Liam were still alive you could’ve told just what was wrong with him, without cutting him open that is.

But ma’am, the case report states that your son suffered blow to the head.  There’s no record of-“

Oh be quiet boy.  I know what the report says, I read the damned thing more than once, and I found it so much crap that I laughed and cried and then laughed some more.  It was no blow to the head, no conspiracy to get rid of my Liam and no random mugging like they thought it might be.  Liam, rest his soul, for whatever reason figured that this world wasn’t for him, and he found a way out.

But you’re suggesting that he-“

Punched his own ticket, yes I am.  You damned well bet that I’m saying that.  Liam found this world wanting and he took the only way out he could.  From what the medical examiner told me, that man had balls enough to tell a mother what happened to her boy, Liam’s brain and spinal cord were as smooth and unlined as possible.  There wasn’t so much as a groove in either his noodle or his backbone, as though each one of ‘em were like clay just waiting to be molded.  The examiner, he was a doctor in his own right, claimed that without the proper equipment to either part, the body couldn’t function, and that was why Liam had died.  But he hadn’t ever seen the like, I’m sure no one had to that point, and probably not even now.  You believe what you want kid, but I tend to believe a man who will come straight with a mother when everyone else decides to pull the wool over her eyes.  I didn’t doubt that man, and I don’t doubt him now.

I, I’m sorry, I just can’t-“

Believe?  Back then neither could I, but damned and hell if I don’t believe it to this day.  My son wished himself out of existence young man, and for reasons that no one can possibly understand.  Andy and I never tried for another child after that, we couldn’t bear the heartache of something like that happening again.  But the odds must have been astronomical right?  Who could possibly have a child like my Liam?  Who could possibly have another one like that?  I tell you this boy, my Andy and I didn’t want to take that chance.

Andy passed on only about ten years after Liam, leaving me alone to this day, without children or any sort of legacy to pass on.  And you know what?  I’m just fine with that.  My legacy died with my son, as did my husband’s.  We did our best to bring a child into this world and raise him as best we could, and in part we did just fine.  There was something more to Liam, some part of him that maybe didn’t figure he belonged here, and there was nothing we could do about it, no matter how hard we tried.

I loved my son, just as much as I loved my husband.  As a family we were always close, no matter how far away Liam seemed to be.  He loved us just as we loved him, but it wasn’t enough.  I’ll go to my grave and before God and the angels to tell my story, and I can only hope that He has already accepted my Liam and my Andy.  Maybe they’ll be waiting for me up there at the pearly gates, and maybe then we can all settle down and tell the story of my Liam’s life, without nosy parkers like you trying to get a kick out of it.

Oh don’t give me that look son, I know what you came for.  The story of my son’s life and passing is something of a medical impossibility, along with many others that have occurred over the decades.  You aren’t the first to come my way seeking the odd and the macabre, but damned and hell if I’ll have to listen through one more of you white-coated clowns.  I was born in Albany, New York, and moved out west with my family at a young age.  I’ll die here in Portland, Oregon, most likely in the small room I was given so many years when I was placed here.  And you know what?  I’ll do it my way, with the names of my son and husband on my lips when I go.  As for you and any others that try to spin the story of my Liam, well, I hope the ink runs dry before you get the first word down.

I’ve said my peace, now leave me be.

Unbound

Unbound                                                                                            

By Tom Foster                                                                                               

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

            Darkness receded as he could feel his eyes opening slowly, struggling to break the crusted excretions that had been growing worse as of late.  Wiping lazily at his eyes he winced as his fingernails accidentally struck his lids, gouging only a bit before he pulled his hand away.  The prospect of coming fully awake brought the usual plethora of physical ailments he’d become used to over the years; the creaking of joints worn down by age and hard labor, the fullness of a bladder he couldn’t deny and of course, the burning that seemed to coat the entire inside of his throat, lungs and even stomach.  He could almost taste the coppery flavor in the back of his throat as he rolled over from his right side to his left, feeling his throat clutch as his stomach clenched in reflex.  He was going to vomit.

            With eyes that were just barely open enough for him to see past the crust he’d failed to wipe away Morgan Linton stumbled to his feet, doing his best to hold in the acidic flood that began to swell in the back of his throat.  Feeling his way towards the door he turned his shoulders to fit through the smaller than average doorway, hastily opening the door before he exited the room.  The soft feel of the carpet beneath his feet did nothing to ease a single bit of the pain that now tore with raw fingers at his body as he felt his way along the short hall that would lead to the bathroom.  He tried being quiet, lord knew if he woke his two roommates he would have a hard enough time explaining what he was doing up at this hour on a day off, but it was hard given the current situation.

            He didn’t even bother to flick the light on as he leaned over the sink, keeping his face close enough to the faux marble basin so that he wouldn’t splash the counter and floor with whatever came up.  Morgan’s hands clenched the side and front of the counter as he leaned over, his stomach still clenching and loosening in reflex as he closed his eyes completely, hoping that the force of his regurgitation didn’t cause him to move.  Opening his mouth he could taste as the acidic wash of fluid was almost there, almost about to spew forth.  And then it was there.

            His hands clenched the counter even tighter, causing it to creak as the glue that held it tightly to the wooden cabinet below was strained to its durability and almost beyond, giving just a little as he suddenly realized the fact.  Hunching his shoulders Morgan moved his face a little closer to the basin as the foul-tasting spill of fluid rushed from between his lips, coating his tongue, gums and even the backs of his teeth with its foul stink.  He didn’t bother to open his eyes, he had no desire to see what was coming out of him today, he could already guess what part of it was.  The sickening sweet aroma that was mixed in with the acrid tang of stomach acid was hard for him to miss. 

            The painful torrent lasted for several more seconds before Morgan felt his stomach muscles relax, giving one final, cramping tug before they went loose again.  He

                                                                                                                        Page 2

 

could feel the tension within his body as he began to shake, as though his nerves and muscles were untrusting that the worst was over, that any second another spasm could hit.  Morgan couldn’t help but think that his body knew better than he did what to expect, though in all honesty he didn’t care.  He would still live as he wanted, do as he pleased and damn all the rest.  At thirty-seven years of age he didn’t give a damn any longer, he’d lived what he believed amounted to a full life and had plenty of regrets.  Who didn’t these days?  At least he could say that he was living on his own two feet without need of assistance from anyone.

            It wasn’t entirely fair to think this way about one of his roommates, as the younger man who “owned” the home that he and another friend were staying in had shown a great deal of personal responsibility over the past two years.  He’d even gained the nerve to demand rent money from Morgan and their other roommate and friend, Jerry. The owner of the house, Tim, was the type of man who’d been kept under his parents’ thumb for most of his life, and remained there to the present day.  Tim liked to bluster and claim that he made his own decisions in life, but at the current moment he worked for his father and was on call whenever his parents so much as whistled in his direction.

            Tim wasn’t a weakling by any means, as he’d stood up to Morgan and Jerry more than once.  Morgan had to believe though that Tim had known at the time that neither Morgan or Jerry would throw down with him.  For all that they rode Tim about his weaknesses of character and the many oddities he enjoyed, the younger man was downright scary sometimes.  Morgan had been in more than his share of fights throughout the years, and he knew very well that those who talked and blustered about their fighting prowess were often the ones that crumbled first and hardest.

            Tim didn’t talk much.  When he did talk it meant he was drunk and quite possibly feeling a little squirrely. That hadn’t happened since the last full moon though, which Morgan found oddly disquieting but also coincidental.  Tim was a Cancer on the zodiac calendar, whereas Morgan was a Sagittarius, and Jerry was a Leo. Their personalities fit their signs to a tee, meaning that poor Tim was always one-upped at anything the three of them did just because he wasn’t the forceful personality that he and Jerry were.

            But when it came to fighting him, Morgan had come close once, and he’d seen no give in Tim’s eyes when they had stood nose to nose.  He’d said something that had irked Tim more than anything he’d ever uttered, and the younger man had stood up instantly, which had provoked Morgan, who had gone nose to nose for several minutes before deciding that the coming fight wouldn’t be in his favor.  You just didn’t fight men that had a cause to champion, not unless your own case was stronger.  At that point they’d both been drunk and he’d had no better cause than finding the next beer. Tim had been ready to fight for his beliefs though, and Morgan knew that the other man would have fought tooth and nail had it come to that.

            Jerry had a much simpler philosophy about fighting someone like Tim, and it went “I don’t fuck with quiet people.”

            Morgan knew the sense of this.  It was better not to screw around with people that were too quiet. You never knew what would set them off and how badly they would explode when pushed too far. Tim was like that he believed, and this was part of the reason why he could cut the guy so much slack when it came to how he lived.

            Spitting the last of his morning regurgitation into the sink he turned the tap on low so as not to wake his roommates.  He then began to scrub at his face, taking in large mouthfuls of water to wash away the horrid taste.  After only a minute or so of scrubbing he actually began to feel normal.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            At least it was a day off.  Morgan was in the kitchen brewing coffee, looking out at the long, overgrown back yard that was a part of the property.  The next door neighbors were already up and about, their two little girls laughing and giggling up and down their own driveway as he could hear through the open kitchen window.  It was leaning into late October, but the chill morning breeze had the effect of waking him up just a little more, invigorating him in a way he enjoyed. 

            He’d heard one of his roommates stirring about as he’d exited the bathroom, being careful to clean up his mess before leaving. His friends already worried about him at times, he didn’t need to give them another reason to be concerned.  Morgan didn’t hide much from them, they knew that he was slowly going blind in his left eye, and that his doctor had discovered a black spot on his lung only a month ago that might have been cancerous.  They’d done what friends normally do in such a situation and told him that if he needed anything they’d be there for him. He appreciated that, but in all honesty he didn’t know if they realized that there was little they could do if things got any worse.

            A large part of him insisted that he needed to find a new job, but the rest of him reasoned that he’d never be able to find a job with anywhere near the pay he was getting now.  It was a dirty, nasty job he did, but the benefits and the paychecks were enormous, and after scraping by at so many other part-time jobs and working as a CNA for so many unforgiving years, Morgan was quite tired of making shit money doing shit jobs.  His current take-home pay per week was around seven hundred dollars after taxes, and despite this accomplishment he was only allowed to keep about half of that, if he was lucky.

            Child support, rent, his part of the utilities, and other debts he was still paying off took a large chunk out of his pay.  Thankfully his portion of the rent was low, and the utilities split three different ways made them almost negligible.  It was child support for his son and the court fines he’d collected throughout his life that bent him over and did him dry more often than not.  He was close to paying the fines off, but his bitch of an ex-wife was always careful to gouge him for everything she could.  The worst part about it was that the money that was supposed to go to their son rarely ever got spent on anything he could have used.

            It went for salon visits, spa treatments, cigarettes, alcohol, nights out at the bar, and anything else that she could get away with.  The court had never ordered her to provide receipts that showed that the money was going to Albert, their son, but they had put him through hell year after year.  There was a part of him that wanted to ask again and again why he’d ever stuck his dick in Jessica more than once.  She’d been meant to be a one-night booty call, nothing more. They’d worked together for a short time before their attraction had become enough that she’d made her way over to his place, intent on just one thing.

            After that it should have ended, but obviously he’d been hooked.  She was great in the sack, but that was where the fun ended. Despite having a job, Morgan had found out quickly that Jessica was a user, a leech that sucked the life out of people for as long as they lasted.  She’d grown up in a home that fostered abuse and treated neglect like it was a minor thing, so it was no surprise that she’d been born to manipulate others. He should have seen it coming considering that his own family were little more than manipulators, but he’d been too focused on the physical pleasure.

            The coffee maker burbled in its pleasant way as the aroma wafted towards his nostrils, causing him to close his eyes as he inhaled.  A big, lumbering form moved past the open entry to the kitchen, shuffling slowly as his mop of unruly blonde hair waved and jumped with each movement. Morgan couldn’t suppress a small grin as Tim moved by, grunting a “morning” as he passed.  Morgan repeated the greeting, not leaving the coffee pot as Tim made his way just around the corner and sat down at the small dining room table in the nook just off the kitchen. 

            The house wasn’t all that big really, only nine hundred square feet if it was an inch, and the dining space was barely bigger than the laundry area that jutted off the kitchen. Tim though had unofficially claimed this area as his own when his two friends had asked to move in, keeping it as his writing space, his school space, and anything else he needed it for.  Morgan and Jerry both knew that their younger friend occasionally used it as his space to look at porn, but thankfully Tim hadn’t ever surprised them by engaging in any self-pleasuring ritual that they’d noticed. 

            In fact, Morgan had only ever once caught his friend looking at porn on the old and battered laptop he used, and he’d had to admit that Tim’s taste in women was pretty damned good.  It was just too bad the guy couldn’t talk to them for shit.  He and Jerry had tried again and again to get Tim to find a woman that was worth his time, but lately he’d been pining over some eighteen-year old piece of nothing by the name of Gina. She was a fellow student at Tim’s college who’d fallen for him only about a year ago, and had subsequently asked him if he wanted to attend a concert with her at the Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland.

            That was how their relationship had started, but how it had ended neither he nor Jerry really knew. All that was known was that Tim had been pining for the kid, as they called her, for nearly two months now since she’d dumped him.  At least Tim had never lied about that part, but he’d been more crushed about it than Morgan and Jerry could understand.

            In a way he could accept why Tim was so heartbroken. He was a much more sensitive person than either of them. He’d come from a good, nurturing family where such values as kindness, honor, and respect held great sway, and had no doubt thought the world was supposed to make sense until it had reached out and slapped him in the face a few times.  Tim wasn’t a novice to life by any means, but he still believed that such things as honor and respect were the currency of the social landscape, while Morgan and Jerry knew too well that it took a special kind of person to still believe in such things. 

            “Oh God,” moaned Jerry as he made his way to the bathroom, managing to poke his head out just for a moment as he called out, “If you need the bathroom for anything speak now or hold your peace for about an hour or two!  I’ve got a shit on deck that could choke an elephant!” Without waiting he shut the door firmly behind himself. The sound of the ceiling fan turning on behind the door could be heard as Morgan rolled his eyes. Same old Jerry.

            “It’s always nice to have some warning I suppose,” Tim said with a yawn.  The

clicking noises that came from his direction alerted Morgan to the fact that the younger man was already online and no doubt beginning or continuing another of his stories.  For all that he didn’t appear to be a scholar or even a capable student, Tim was diligent about his studies and more than that, he was one hell of a good writer.  

            “Screw that,” Morgan said, hating the way his voice croaked, “I’d rather he shove a cork up his ass and use the gas station down the street.”

            Tim laughed as he heartily agreed by saying “Si.”

            Morgan smiled as he growled, “SI!”

            “SIIII!” they both said in unison, laughing at the inside joke as from in the bathroom they could hear Jerry groan.

            “Enough with that shit!” he yelled through the door. He had grown tired of their borrowed phrase a short while ago, which meant they used it as often as they could.

            “Back atcha!” Tim barked, eliciting another chuckle from Morgan, who was feeling better by the moment as he began to laugh.  It was always like this with the three of them, and it was good.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            “Man,” Morgan groaned, “There is absolutely nothing on!”

            “It’s Sunday,” Tim said, still sitting at his computer, “What did you expect?”

            “If it was football season I’d expect your ‘Hawks to be takin’ a big shit on the field by now.”

            “I still say it was pass interference,” Tim said with a raised eyebrow.

            “Get over it man, your team lost,” he said with a grin. ‘They lost the Super Bowl.”

            “Yeah, yeah,” Tim replied.

            “You know, the biggest game of the season.”

            “Shut up,” Tim said in a singsong voice that told Morgan he was done talking about it.

            “As in, they lose and have to start over again next season.”

            “Dude…”

            “What?” Morgan said with a grin, thrusting his chin out at Tim, “Whatcha gonna do, bruther!”

            Tim and Morgan both laughed as Tim strained his voice to emit an “Oooh yeeeah!”

            That broke the tension that might have built, allowing them both to laugh as Jerry came walking into the room, heading for the kitchen as he groaned at both of them.

            “You guys are so gay,” he said as he began searching through the cupboards. “Hey, who ate my goddamned burrito?”

            “It’s in the fridge,” Morgan said, “You tried to put it on the stove last night when we got home you renob.”

            “I was gonna eat it!” protested Jerry as he looked and, with a grunt of satisfaction, found the rolled up, bulky item he’d been looking for on the top shelf.

            “You’re welcome,” Tim said from his seat.

            “Get bent,” Jerry said as he turned to the microwave, “But thanks.”

            Tim just nodded his head, this was how life was with his friends.  Morgan shook his head in turn as he continued to flip channels, looking for something, anything, that might be entertaining enough to just zone out to. None of them had plans to go anywhere

today, and Jessica had already told him that she’d planned to take Albert and her two

older boys to OMSI for the day.  Ever since he’d broken off a three-month fling with his last girlfriend, a strange but lovely young woman named Britta, he’d lost a good deal of drive to do much more than just sit at home and hang around the guys when he wasn’t working.

            “So what’re we up to today?” Jerry asked from the kitchen, his voice sounding like the sickening croak of a bullfrog. 

            “Not much man,” Morgan said, “I’m still kind of hurting from last night. Aren’t you?”

            “Shit yeah,” Jerry said, “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to go out again tonight.”

            Morgan could just barely see as Tim rolled his eyes where he was sitting. He knew very well that Tim had had as good as time as they had despite the fact that he was still pining for Gina, but he could understand as well that going out wasn’t the big prospect for the younger man as it was for Morgan and Jerry.

            They gave Tim a great deal of shit most of the time for his values and morals, but he was in truth a great deal better than the two of them.  He had at least held onto the teachings and lessons of his parents in a way that Morgan could not fully understand.  His own parents had always shown him little more than a fond type of neglect, always telling him that he was loved but never really showing it like he’d seen Tim’s parents do.  They didn’t want to let him go and it showed, but Tim was in the process of shaping himself into his own man despite the fact that he had no chance in hell of stepping away from his parents until he broke from them financially. 

            “Jodie’s again then?” Jerry said with a grin as the microwave chimed, indicating that his burrito was done. 

            “Isn’t there anywhere else we could go?” Morgan asked, reclining on the sofa as he finally found a popular cooking show that he liked. It was rerun, but he didn’t give damn, it was interesting.   If he could do anything other than what he was doing now it would be to go back to school and learn to cook professionally. He was already invested in cooking when he could, and he knew that his friends appreciated it from the way they always commented on his dishes.  Jerry thought he could cook, but in truth was more effective on the grill than in the kitchen. Tim, well, Tim knew how to cook, but didn’t take the full appreciation in his own dishes, preferring comfort food over the more exotic and interesting dishes that Morgan liked to try.

            “There’s The Dolphin, or Jiggles,” Jerry offered as he came to sit on the other end of the sofa.  The living room now had a rather crowded feel, as from the dining nook to the front door there was only twenty feet or more of space, and the sofa and entertainment center that housed the television took up a great deal of it.  Thank God they were friends, otherwise the proximity might be really uncomfortable.

            “I almost just want to stay here and drink tonight.  You know any females that might want to make their way over?”

            Jerry eyeballed him curiously as he continued to eat.  Tim had turned from his computer now, inhaling strongly as he looked at Morgan, “You know the drill,” he said, his voice serious and just a bit authoritative as he raised an eyebrow.

            “Ah shit man, c’mon.”

            Jerry grinned as he shook his head, “His house man, even if it is owned by-“

            “You need to stop when you’re already right,” Tim said sternly, frowning even as

he looked back to Morgan.  “Don’t get me wrong man. I’m all up for it,” This caused Morgan’s eyebrows to lift in surprise, “But this time the rules are gonna stand. If I say someone goes, I expect you guys to back me up.”

            Morgan sat back, rolling his eyes as he remembered just why Tim would say such a thing.  The last time they’d had a party at the house they’d made good and damned sure that Tim’s parents wouldn’t get bent out of shape about, which in his estimation was a mark of respect, and that their neighbors wouldn’t mind. The Privets, who lived on their left, didn’t often mind when they got a little loud, but asked them to at least forewarn them if they were going to have a party, or a get-together as they called it.  On their right, old Mrs. Widdlemore, a widower of nearly seventy years of age, could barely hear them when they were talking directly to her, and had already professed that once she was down for the evening she couldn’t hear a damned thing.  Mrs. Widdlemore was a very cool old lady, and hadn’t even heard the last scuffle that had broken out in their back yard. The Privets had been on vacation thankfully, so there had been no trouble at all since the fight that had taken place had been in the back yard, and gone unseen by anyone else.

            But it had come about thanks to an old friend of Morgan’s, someone he’d known since before he’d met Tim.  Tom McCall, a friend of Morgan’s for nearly twenty years now, was what most people would call a waste of space.  He drank like a fish, he said stupid things without thinking, and more often than not he professed to respect people but talked without pause behind their backs.  He’d been a part of Morgan’s life when he had first started getting into trouble with the law, and continued to be a hanger-on type of friend that couldn’t figure out when the party was over.

            Morgan had grown up a great deal since meeting Tom, but Tom had yet to understand that being in his upper thirties, almost in his forties, meant that partying every night, drinking yourself into a stupor, and expecting to do it all over again the next night wasn’t the way to be a successful adult.  Morgan had learned at least the first part of this, and was working on the success part.  Tom though was the same asshole he’d always been, and was kind of proud of the fact. 

            The last party they’d held here had been going just fine up until Tom had gotten himself soused to the point that his mouth had run away from him.  He wasn’t always a sloppy drunk, but that night had been worse than others since he’d not seemed to care who he was talking about or how.  Many of the partygoers, people that were either acquaintances or good friends, had done their best to ignore him, but it had been when Tom had decided to rag on Tim that the shit had hit the fan.

            Along with their many male friends, Jerry had introduced him to the veritable host of strippers that he’d known for many years, several of whom were knockout gorgeous and had all found Morgan and Tim quite attractive.  That night Tim had been talking with a young woman whose stage name was Whisper, and had been having a damned good time as Morgan had seen.  The two had hooked up with one another almost immediately when Whisper had gone to talk to Tim, and had been inseparable up until Tom’s little faux pas that had almost ruined the entire night.

            In fact, it was safe to say that Whisper might have been the one for Tim had she not moved away shortly before he’d met Gina….

            That aside, the two of them had been all over each other, with Whisper doing her level best to entice Tim to escape to his bedroom for a short time it would seem. Tim though, unlike Morgan or Jerry, had politely but companionably replied that while he was

more than ready for such, he didn’t want to bail on the party.  He’d told Jerry and Morgan

this afterward, which had prompted them both to call him a goddamned fucktard, right up until he’d told them that Whisper had found it absolutely sexy that he cared about his guests so much.  You could label that under weird and unusual, but considering the noises she’d made after the party was long over, neither of them could fault him any longer for letting the moment pass. Whisper had been a regular visitor right up until the day she’d left. In fact, she’d even given Tim a pleasant parting gift…

            They could all still recall how Tom had acted and how embarrassing it had been when he’d really gotten going.  He’d shown up drunk, still chugging on a forty of Big Bear, some truly rotgut shit, the only type he could ever afford, but had been pleasant enough to start with. Tom was the type of drunk that at least started out friendly, laughing and joking with everyone while attempting to be the life of the party, but after a while his antics usually wound up rubbing someone the wrong way.  Eventually this became a problem and could at times cause trouble for whomever he was with. 

            That night he’d shown up without one of his many ‘filthies’ as he called the women he constantly bragged about.  The three of them had met the women that Tom favored, and “filthy” was a kind description in their opinion. Having arrived later than most of the people that had decided to come over, Tom had goggled at the number of beautiful women that had been in attendance, wondering aloud if Tim’s parents had signed off on turning the back yard into a giant strip joint.

            Here was the thing, as Jerry had told them both when they’d started frequenting strip joints. While inside the clubs, women were used to being seen as sex objects, it was the whole point of a strip bar.  They would dance on stage, climb the pole, jiggle their asses and make their tits bounce pleasingly for the men to drool over, and it was good.  But it was also a part of the business. If a stripper decided to get involved with a customer it was their prerogative, but it was oftentimes frowned upon by management.  If they did go ahead and take that risk then it was up to them to make certain that their friend, or lover, or however they defined the lucky guy, didn’t make trouble if they continued to frequent the joint.

            It took a special kind of guy to not mind if their girlfriend, or even wife, was a stripper.  Tim had even stated that he might never be able to date such a woman, but he’d dated Whisper after that night for nearly a year and never said a single damned thing about her profession.  Well, the fact that she worked at PDX in Portland had something to do with it as well. 

            Tom though had seen the party as a means to act like the asshole he usually was, and had given out a hearty “Woo-hoo!” as he’d seen the women, who were dressed in nice, fairly conservative clothing, cavorting here and there.  Between Jerry, Morgan, and Tim there had been a number of people there, all of them trusted and all mature enough to simply have a good time and enjoy themselves. They’d made it a BYOB party and had everyone pitch in for pizza, and had made it known that it was just what it seemed like, a general get-together for friends. 

            But Tom had seen it as a free pass to act like a major douche, as he’d propositioned more than one of the women for a lap dance, and had made the mistake of walking over to Tim and Whisper with his tongue lolling out of his head. He’d even given Tim a leering smile before silently motioning to Whisper, who had wrinkled her full lips in utter disgust as Tom had tried to move behind her.  Tim had known full well

what Tom was trying to get at, and had stomached the other’s antics only long enough to

set his beer down and ask Whisper politely to move aside. When Tom had attempted to move with her he’d held an arm out to block him, to which Tom hadn’t responded well. Morgan could still remember that particular conversation, as it hadn’t ended well for Tom.

            “Hey man!” said Tom, attempting to knock Tim’s arm down, “Don’t go gettin’ stingy on me!  There’s plenty of ass for both of us!”  Tom was laughing as he spoke, chugging from each hand, one after another.  He wasn’t often a double-fisted drinker, but he had been known to pull this stunt now and again when he was really lit.

            “Go on Tom,” Tim said calmly, “She’s not into it, and neither am I.”

            “Oooh, don’t be such a little priss!” Tom chided, “I was just joking! I mean damn man, she is a stripper right?  Give her an extra five and see if she can hook us both up!”

            Morgan had learned through trial and error how to tell when Tim was really fired up, and he knew at that moment, as he hadn’t been the only one observing this scene, that Tim going quiet and still was never a good sign.  The only other sign he could see was the minute set of the younger man’s jaw, a sure signal that he was ready to throw down.  But still, he spoke again before any fists were thrown.

            “Whisper,” Tim had begun.

            “Jill, honey,” Whisper had said from behind him. Tim had nodded, correcting himself as he’d spoke again.

            “Jill, is a lady, and I expect her to be treated as such when she’s in my home.  In fact, I expect every person here to be treated with respect Tom.  If you’re not into that then you can leave please.”

            Before this point Tim had already asked Morgan not to invite Tom, but Morgan had known that if word got out to his other buddies that they were having a party then soon enough Tom would find out.  Tim hadn’t been too happy, neither had Jerry, but they’d at least promised to be nice if Tom showed up. Jerry didn’t care for Tom at all really, but knew how to be civil.  He just ignored him.

            But he wasn’t ignoring him that night.

            “Are you serious man?” roared Tom, still trying to laugh as he looked around, “You’re the one being the prick, not me! I mean shit, everyone around here’s trying to have fun and you’re being all serious,” Tom had pulled a stern face then, acting all stiff and businesslike before becoming his asshole self again, “You need to lighten the fuck up and shit!”

            “If you can show some respect you can stay,” Tim had warned, and Morgan had seen his jaw tighten just a little with each word.  His fists hadn’t balled up yet, but that took only a second. Tom however had remained oblivious.

            “If I call her a stripper it’s because that’s what she is!” Tom roared, “She dances on a pole and grinds on guys’ cocks for money man!  Would you want me to call waitress a goddamned, ah, eh, uh…”

            Morgan had rolled his eyes as Tom had gone into his drunken fugue state as usual, words failing him as he’d attempted to keep insulting Tim and Whisper.  The moment seemed to stretch on for several minutes as Tim stood his ground with Whisper standing resolutely at his back, one hand held lightly upon his right arm as though to hold him back.  He could have told her it wouldn’t matter, but Tom made that point in the next second as, dropping both beers, he decided to worsen the situation all on his own.

            “Answer me man!  You tell me I can’t say shit and then you-!”

            Tom hadn’t managed to speak again after that. In fact the next thing out of his mouth had been the short, anguished grunt of pain that had emerged when Tim had grabbed both of his hands, gripping his fingers in a tight, unforgiving grip. Morgan had actually heard bones break as Tim had then wrenched Tom’s fingers back so far that the other man had been forced to kneel or fall over. 

            He and Jerry had acted then, moving to intercept Tim before he did any real, lasting damage to Tom.  Once they’d reached him though it had taken both of them tugging on Tim’s arms to get him to release Tom. Even then, Tom had been stupid enough to get up and try to sucker punch Tim while Morgan and Jerry had been holding him, though the pain in his hands had to have been bad even in his drunken state.

            Tom had managed to land one hit on Tim, striking him hard in the cheek, but it had been a mistake that he hadn’t gotten to make again. His hit didn’t even faze Tim, and in fact it was like hitting solid rock as Tom yelled out in agony.  Tim though didn’t bother trying to break free, he just rocked back and sent his the ball of his shoe upward to connect with Tom’s chin. The effect was almost comical as Tom went flying from his feet, out cold before he hit the grass.

            It had taken some doing to get Tim to calm down, but eventually Jerry and Morgan had deduced that he was well enough to let go.  In all honesty it had been hard to tell, since Tim’s anger never manifested as others did. He would go quiet and start breathing heavily, but rarely ever did he do anything else.

            Morgan had been the one to drive Tom to the nearest clinic where they’d announced that not only was his blood alcohol level nearly three times over the limit, but he’d broken two teeth and four fingers between his two hands. Tim had also cracked Tom’s right ulna somehow, which had required a splint so it wouldn’t get worse. All in all the visit to the clinic had cost Tom around two hundred dollars give or take, and a deep and aching resentment later on.

            Tom hadn’t come around since then, but he’d been in contact with Morgan more than once.  Tom Always he asked if he was still hanging around Tim, and if he still lived in the same house.  Morgan actually took some satisfaction in telling him yes on both counts.  Tom was, in his opinion, a waste of space that he was better off not hanging around with any longer. 

            “Y’know, it’s not like I set that asshole on you or anything,” Morgan said in his own defense. “He had plenty of women to harass and for some reason he came over and got in your face.”

            They knew why too. Tom and Tim had only ever gotten along because of their mutual friendship with Morgan.  When Tim had taken to taunting and teasing Tom about the prominent scar that ran over the bridge of his nose, and then the fact that he was missing one of his front teeth, Tom hadn’t taken it very well. He’d told Tim a few times that only his older, more trusted friends could talk about things like that.  Unfortunately for Tom this had been after he’d already given Tim shit about his dating habits, his attitude towards women, and of course the fact that his home was owned by his parents.  After that no one had bothered to tell Tom that he’d had it coming. 

            “I can’t stop him from getting wind of a party,” Tim said calmly, “But I promise you this man, if he shows up I’ll be tossing him to the curb.  I won’t be nice enough to drive him to the clinic.”

            “Is that the one he’s on a first-name basis with?” Jerry quipped, causing Morgan and Tim both to snigger and finally laugh as Jerry continued eating, a big grin on his face.  Another thing that Tom was known for, amongst several other disquieting character flaws, was that he would have sex with damn near anything with tits and a pulse.  On his own admission he’d contracted crabs, gonorrhea, and what he had once thought was herpes.  He’d gone so far to try and have Morgan, who had been a CNA at that time, to take a look at his junk to see if he could tell.  Morgan had promptly kicked him out of his apartment that time, and Tom hadn’t been allowed back in for nearly a week.

            “I’m kind of surprised they haven’t had a room or something named after him,” Morgan said between laughs.

            “Shit no,” Tim said with a laugh, “I’d name a procedure after him at best. Like maybe if someone needed to have genital warts removed or something, call it the “McCall Method”.”

            This had the effect of making Jerry choke on his burrito as he spat a bit of meat out, looking over at Tim as he wiped at his lips. “You asshole,” he said, still grinning, “I’m eating over here. Talk about his junk somewhere else, or better yet, don’t talk about it all.”

            “Why not?” Tim asked, “He certainly does.”

            The sound of the doorbell chiming interrupted their mirth just a bit as thanks to the vertical blinds being drawn across the front windows they couldn’t see who’d come calling.

            “I’m eating,” Jerry said as he sat back.

            “Not getting it,” Morgan said, settling back.

            “No really, I’ll get it,” Tim said sarcastically, rising from his seat to make his way over to the front door, shaking his head as he debated looking through the peephole set high into the tan-colored door.  He decided not to as he grasped the knob, turning as the thought that it might be Tom entering his thoughts.  It would have been fitting he supposed, as they were talking about the guy. 

            The person he saw on the other side though had the effect of dropping his jaw as he stood gaping, his eyes wide as beheld the same woman he’d fallen so head over heels with well over a year ago. The same woman he had had to let go when she’d moved away.  The same woman who, now, was standing on his front porch, holding a small bundle that, as he looked closer, cooed ever so gently, bright eyes looking out from the swaddling blanket that was wrapped around him. 

            Tim didn’t know how to react in that moment. Had it just been the woman of his dreams on his front step he would have already let her in, but as he saw the cherubic face of the little boy in her arms, the little infant he noted, he could only shake his head as though to clear it. He didn’t even hear as his friends leaned over to see who it was, nor did he register them speaking her name as he raised his eyes to hers, those wise, luminous green eyes that had captured him so easily before. 

            “Jill,” he said, his voice sounding decidedly meek as she smiled at him in turn. She was as beautiful as the day she’d left, with only a few lines in her angelic face to indicate that any time had passed. 

            “Hello Tim,” she said pleasantly, “Can I come in?”

            Coming back to his senses he shook his head, opening the screen door that stood

between them, stammering that yes, of course she could come in, come right in and find a

seat.  It would appear they had a lot to talk about.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

“His name is Michael,” she said softly, “I named him after my youngest brother.”

Jerry and Morgan had stayed at Jill’s insistence, as she had told them that she wanted them to hear, so they wouldn’t have to pepper Tim with questions later on.  What they’d heard so far was beyond words though, and definitely beyond anything they’d expected.  It was good to see Jill again, they’d both liked her immensely when she and Tim had been an item, but it was common knowledge that Tim’s parents hadn’t thought much of her choices in career. It hadn’t even mattered that she’d had a second job and was thinking of going back to school, being a stripper just hadn’t been good enough for their son.

“He’s, he’s cute,” Morgan said, sitting only a few feet away from Jill and Tim, who was still looking at the burbling little boy with something between shocked surprise and a mild grin that could have been taken in many ways.  After all it wasn’t every day that you were told that you were a father. 

“Isn’t he?” Jill grinned, her mood thankfully not dampened by Tim’s inability to say anything yet.  Jerry was watching Tim silently, as was Morgan, but so far they couldn’t read exactly what was going on in his head, which would have been nice at that moment. He didn’t look displeased, but the shock had yet to wear off, serving as a type of mask that might have been hiding away other, less pleasant emotions. 

“He has your eyes,” she said softly, looking at Tim, “A-and he even, kind of has your spirit I think,” she cooed at the baby for a moment, saying “Strong and silent, just like daddy.”

Morgan almost felt Tim shudder as he seemed to come out of his stupor, shaking himself as he finally drew a breath.  Jill tensed just slightly, her lips pressing together as she waited for him to speak. With only mild amusement Morgan noted that they all were waiting.

Clearing his throat, Tim said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Morgan almost blew out a sigh of relief. There were so many other questions that Tim could have asked that would have made this already awkward situation take a serious nose dive, but that wasn’t one of them. He could have asked “How do you know he’s mine?” or something equally as offensive like, “I want a blood test.”  He felt certain that such words would crushed Jill just then, no matter how strong-willed she’d proven herself to be.  He could remember criticizing his ex on something that didn’t matter at all after she’d given birth, and the tears that had come after, followed swiftly by a box of mac and cheese to the head.

Jill smiled, “You were in school, remember? And you were working full time. I, I didn’t want to, I mean, you had so much going for you.”

Tim did manage to crack an uneasy grin as he raised his hands to indicate the house, “Yeah, you can see how that worked out.”

She looked at him blankly for a moment, as though not certain how to respond, but then she broke out laughing, covering her mouth with one hand as she continued to hold the baby, who frowned as though in confusion.  “Oh my, I’m so sorry,” she said, still laughing.

“I was  just joking,” he said with a genuine smile now, “I’m still in school and

still working full-time, but I manage.”

“Yeah, he manages because we foot two-thirds of the bills,” Jerry said with a smile. He was kidding, but Tim decided to rise to the bait anyway.

“My paycheck’s more than enough to foot it all man.  You could always sleep over at Morgan’s with his folks.”

“Shit, hell with that,” Jerry said as he scratched his ear.

“Seconded,” Morgan said with a laugh, “I’d rather go sleep out in the gutter.”

“We might be anyway seein’ as how things are now,” Jerry said, still grinning.

“Oh no!” Jill said, catching on quickly, “I don’t want you guys to think-!”

“He’s kidding,” Morgan said with a grin, “But if Tim here decides to do the right thing, like I hope he will,” he said, poking Tim lightly in the back, “We’ll expect to be needing to find a place soon.”

“Oh guys no!” she protested, “Just because I chose now to show up I don’t want to kick anyone out!”

“It’s okay,” Jerry said, trying to calm her down as the baby began to squirm and mutter.  “Just calm down, we’re still kidding.  I’d expected to move whenever Tim found someone he wanted to settle down with.  Maybe though we’re taking it too fast.”

“There’s a party going on tonight,” Tim said suddenly, “You feel like staying?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, pulling Michael a little closer as her eyes sparkled at the thought, “He needs his formula, and my brother is expecting me back. I don’t know, I might just need to say-“

“Say yes,” Morgan said, “It’s so much more fun than saying no. And besides, you can invite Chris, he’s way cool.”

It was true, Jill’s younger brother Chris had come around several times when she and Tim had been together, and he’d always been a pleasant person to have around. Plus, he could almost match them all drink for drink when it came down to it, and that was saying something. More than that though, he was a good person, and only two years younger than Jill, which meant he was 23 and a legal adult.  They didn’t really enjoy partying with kids under 21, it kind of took the fun out of the whole thing.

“Can you call him?” Tim asked, “It would a lot of fun to see him again. We kind of fell out of touch after, you know.”

“Tim I’m so sorry,” she almost sobbed, “I didn’t know until, until I…”  A deep, wracking sob forced her stop talking as Tim instinctively reached out and gently took Michael from her, noting that he too was beginning to cry.  He almost expected the infant to begin crying as soon as he left his mother, but to his great surprise the baby boy looked up at him, and smiled.

Upon seeing this all three of them felt their eyes widen as father and son looked at each other, really looked at each other, for the first time.  Jill’s sniffles subsided slowly, but the smile she wore was one of such warmth that her cheeks almost immediately blossomed with color.  Morgan couldn’t fully believe it, though he wasn’t too terribly surprised since his own son had never once cried when Tim had held him. Jerry just grinned as he watched Tim with his son, a son he’d never known about until now. 

“Well hell’s bells,” Jerry said, “I think he knows his daddy.”

As for Tim, he couldn’t even speak, couldn’t even breathe as he held the bundle in his arms close, fully enraptured by the tiny life he had helped to create.  He didn’t even feel the resentment or anger that might have been the mainstay for some fathers who’d never met their children. Instead he felt a sudden weight lift off of his chest, a feeling of being completely unbound, unchained in a way that he had never once experienced in his life. He was a father.  Both Morgan and Jerry, who knew that feeling well, couldn’t help but smile at their friend in that moment.

                                    *                      *                      *

 

“You want me to help with that?” Morgan asked Jerry as the aging, rusted barbecue was lit, a gout of flame erupting out of its back end as Jerry and Morgan both backed up quickly. 

“Nope,” Jerry said, snickering as he tossed away the bottle of lighter fluid he’d been using to liberally douse the coals.

“Shit man,” Morgan said, “How much did you use?”

“Damn near half the can. These briquettes are dry as a bone.  Plus, I just wanted to see a fireball.”

“Next time put a lighter to your ass when you rip one,” Morgan commented, “There should be plenty of gas in there.”

“Shit, I might blow up the garage,” Jerry said with a chuckle.  Morgan joined in as reached for a cold beer from the cooler near the back door of the house, plucking one of many out of the ice as it came free with the clunking sound of cubes hitting one another.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll take one,” Jerry said from where he stood near the grill.

“You hear anyone ask bitch?” Morgan said with a grin, moving to head back into the house. The party hadn’t started yet, but it was only 5 o’ clock, and a few people had already shown up.  They’d decided to set the barbecue up in the driveway along with two large coolers filled to the brim with ice cold beer and a few sodas for any who wanted to stay sober tonight.

“Yeah, I heard myself asking. And just for that you can crack it for me too, bitch.”

Jerry and Morgan shared a laugh as Morgan reached into the cooler near the house for another beer, one he knew Jerry would actually drink.  As he walked it over he shook his head, handing the brew to his friend by the neck as he said, “There’s two things I don’t do in this world, and that’s kiss a man and crack his damned beer for him.”

“That wasn’t the tale last night,” Jerry snickered, his rotted teeth making an appearance as Morgan suddenly planted one hand on his hip, affecting a rather feminine attitude as he widened his eyes at Jerry.

“Thut up you thilly bitch,” Morgan said, causing Jerry to really laugh now as he walked away swaying his hips before he too broke into a short gale of laughter.  This was a running joke between the three of them that had been going on since Tim had introduced Jerry to Morgan several years ago. While none of them were homophobic they enjoyed, now and then, playacting the stereotype that was often shown to represent flamboyantly gay men.  It wasn’t something they would do around just anyone, but friends and family seemed to get a laugh out of it, and understood very well that not a one of them were gay.

“I will thcratch your eyes out mithter!” Jerry said, waving one hand in the air with a limp wrist as too cocked one hip.  At that moment though Jill came striding out of the house, a wide grin on her face as she took in the little act.

“Some things don’t change I see,” she said with a laugh, “Mind handing me a beer handsome?” she asked Morgan.

He reached into the cooler again, this time taking the effort to take the cap off with a deft twist as he handed it to Jill with a pointed look at Jerry. 

“Oh sure!” he exclaimed with a grin, “You’ll do it for her!”

“For a lady,” Morgan said, “Not for a lady who looks like a man.”

“You come over here and I’ll show you a lady that looks like a man….wait, that didn’t sound right.”

Jill and Morgan both busted out laughing as Jerry waved them off, taking a wire brush to the metal grill as the flames went higher for a moment.

“Shit,” he said idly, “What the hell did we have on this thing last time?”

As Jill came outside Morgan went in for a moment, needing to use the restroom as he turned the corner. Tim was just coming out of his room where his young son, which was still processing in Morgan’s head, was now sleeping, closing the door gently as he saw Morgan.  Chris had promised to take Michael after coming over to spend some time at the party that evening, but until then the baby would need to stay at the house.  Chris had professed to his sister that he’d been in the middle of a particularly nasty day at work that should have been his day off, and would be delayed until at least five. 

This news had thrown them all off for only as long as it had taken for Morgan to recall that he had enough baby stuff socked away in Tim’s garage to help out.  He’d managed to locate a barely-used pack n’ play that his own son had been using until his ex had pulled her shit, and had gladly given it to Tim and Jill to use. 

“Little guy down?” he whispered. Tim nodded, standing at the door for several moments with his head bowed as though in deep thought.  Morgan wanted to say that he knew how his friend was feeling, but that wouldn’t have entirely accurate.  His own experience with having children had been spotty thus far, and despite the love he held for his son, he’d at least known that the kid was going to be his, and that the woman he’d gotten pregnant would be sticking around. Tim hadn’t known a goddamned thing.

“Hey,” he whispered, “You okay?” It was all he could think of to say, but it felt right at least.

Tim nodded without speaking, but then whispered “You going to use the bathroom?”

Morgan nodded, “Just take a minute. But meet me out front when I’m done. I want to say something to you.”

Tim looked at him, not nodding or doing anything other than walking off in the next second. Morgan didn’t take it personally, with what Tim was going through at that moment and his normal, slightly off-kilter personality, it was pretty standard behavior.

                                    *                      *                      *

 

“She never told me, not once. Neither did Chris.”

Taking a swig of his beer Morgan swallowed before speaking again, “I’m sure they had their reasons man. Chris and Jill are both good people.  I don’t know why they wouldn’t think you’d want to meet your kid, but I think they had good intentions at least.” He looked carefully at Tim, noting the slightly frown upon his face and the brooding look he sometimes got when he was thinking. “Are you gonna be okay when Chris gets here?”

Tim only nodded.

“Because, well, you know,”

“Because Chris could have come running over here and told me? Yes, I know.”

“Look man.  Jerry and I give you a lot of shit all the time, but the truth is we look up to you, a lot.  We don’t give a shit that your mom and dad bought this place. It was you that fixed it up and made it livable.  Plus, your parents probably would have said no if we’d asked to stay here, wouldn’t they?”

Tim just nodded.

“But you didn’t.  For some insane reason you let us stay.”

“You’re my friends,” he said plainly.

Morgan nodded, thrusting his hands in his pockets as he spoke again, “Yeah but, when I first moved in I’ll admit that I was thinking it might be less rent and more of a free ride.  At least so far as the bills were concerned. You didn’t let that happen though.”

Tim managed a grin, “The only free rides you get are when Jerry is too drunk.”

They both laughed, “Man you won’t let me forget that night will you?”

“Not on your life,” Tim said with a grin.

The night in question had been while Morgan was still living with his ex, her two boys, and their own son not far from this place.  He, Tim, and Jerry had gotten seriously drunk one night and as a gag, Jerry had decided to slip into Morgan’s bed when he’d gone to pass out.  To this day they all still recalled how loud he’d yelled when he’d discovered that it wasn’t his wife that had been snuggling next to him, but one of his friends.

“I still wish I’d had a camera for that,” Tim said, shaking his head. Morgan managed a laugh, thinking that no matter that it had taken them off the subject, it was good to experience such moments.  He felt a small twinge in his guts as he stood there, but he did his best not to show it.  Taking another swig of his beer he looked at his friend as he swallowed, nodding his head as he began to speak again.

“My point, asshole,” he said with a grin, “Is that instead of just letting us walk on you, you actually stood up for yourself and made us man up for once.  I can’t say it was the first time for either of us, but it was needed.”

“You guys have done a lot more in your lives than I have,” Tim replied, “Jerry’s been around the world, you’ve been on your own since you were seventeen. I feel like I’ve been kept under my parents’ thumbs all this time.”

“If that was true we wouldn’t be friends,” Morgan said, feeling the honesty of his words.  “I don’t like little momma’s boy’s man, you know that.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“If anything we’ve grown just as much as you have.  It’s true we’ve got a few years experience on you and have done a fair amount of shit, but you’re in the middle of doing more than either of us have ever done.  You’re going to school, you’re holding down a full-time job, and now, you have the chance to show what you’re really made of.”

Tim looked at him curiously, though he had to have a sneaking hunch of what Morgan was about to say.

With a grin, Morgan replied this look, saying, “Any man can get a woman pregnant Tim. It takes a father to raise a child.”

Morgan felt the truth of these words so acutely that it almost pained him in a

physical manner to think of how little time he spent with his own son.  He wanted so

badly to be near him, to have him closer all the time, but his bitch ex wasn’t having it. 

He’d done nearly everything short of begging, and still she attempted to dictate the terms of visitation, no matter what the courts said. It didn’t help that her family didn’t like him at all, and would either vouch for her or scrounge up anyone off the street they could find to bear witness to events that never happened, like for instance, he’d apparently just spent a long, four-day weekend with his boy just last week, but in truth she’d promised to leave him at the house only to later on state that she didn’t feel like bringing him over.

That was the kind of shit he dealt with on a constant basis, and it killed him each time she decided to be a bitch like that.  He seriously hoped Jill would never do that to Tim, and in truth he didn’t think it would happen. He’d seen how she looked at Tim before now, and the tears she’d cried when arriving had been genuine. 

“I just don’t want to screw up,” Tim said as they could both see cars coming close to the curb outside the house now, people waving at them as Tim and Morgan waved back.

“None of us do Tim,” he said companionably, “But almost all of us will at least a few times.”

                                    *                      *                      *

 

Only an hour later the party was in full swing, with nearly twenty or more people congregating on the back lawn and through the kitchen and living room.  There was music, there was food, beer and alcohol were abundant, and the general mood was one of absolute enjoyment.  Jerry had managed to come through on his word that he could contact and deliver several stripper friends that were known to work throughout several different clubs in the Portland area. Most of them were hot as all get out, and a few of them were even pleasantly single, as Morgan had discovered when he had began speaking to a woman his own age. Her stage name, as she had told him, was Diamond, and her real name was Bridgett. It went without saying that he preferred her stage name.

Jerry was conversing and cooking at the same time, talking at the moment about NASCAR and what he’d been doing lately with his brother Micah, who was pretty cool but a little odd sometimes. Other mutual friends had shown up as well, and thus far the party had been going damned good.  Tim and Whisper, Jill, he still had to keep in mind she was no longer a stripper, had been back and forth between Tim’s room and the party, checking up on Michael now and again. 

So far the little tyke was still sleeping despite the noise outside, and each time Morgan stole a glance around he saw Tim and Jill constantly together, almost as if no time at all had passed.  He would never admit it to his friend, but he was touched in a way that Tim had seemingly found someone he truly connected with. Jill was his match in every way it would seem, kind and social where Tim could be a bit moody and didn’t enjoy crowds.  He was doing just fine while in her company though, talking to people he’d either just met or had known for some time through Jerry and Morgan. 

It was a perfect evening thus far, but like all such perfect moments, Morgan had almost known that someone was bound to throw a cog into the works.  And lo and behold, that cog’s name was Tom McCall.

How he snuck into the party Morgan would never know, but upon noticing he was there Morgan and Jerry did their absolute best to corner him before Tim managed to notice.  Morgan didn’t doubt for an instant that Tim would simply forgive and forget the last time that Tom had come over for a party.  In fact, considering that Tom had not been back over since that time, it was safe to assume that Tim’s anger towards him had been given a chance to settle.

Morgan and Jerry reached him at about the same time, but it was Morgan who spoke first.

“Dude, you need to get the hell out, right now.”

“Well hello to you too asshole,” Tom said, his lopsided grin showing the gap in his front teeth where he’d supposedly gotten it knocked out during a brawl. Morgan knew better, he’d fallen down after drinking too much and hit a curb outside a bar.

“Don’t give me that shit Tom, just turn around and walk off.”

“Fuck you man!” Tom tried to protest, pushing back against Jerry and Morgan as he did, to no avail of course, “I came to party!”

“You weren’t invited you dipshit!” Jerry replied, “I specifically said ‘no toothless, scar-nosed, homeless, herpes-infested ass bandits!”

Tom looked like he wanted to swing just then, and Jerry saw it. “Go on then motherfucker!  Go on and swing, I fuckin’ dare ya!”

They’d reached the incline of the driveway now and Tom was backing up just enough to keep his balance.  To Morgan he looked like he’d had a few already before coming here. It was probably the only reason he was brave enough to pull this shit.

“Fuck you man!” Tom said again, “Morgan are you gonna put up with this? You and me man, we’ve known each other for years and this is how you treat me?!”

“Just get out of here Tom,” Morgan said, looking away. Tom knew very well was this gesture meant. It meant that he was done talking, he’d grown tired of his bullshit, and was ready to move on.  He was going to look back just then but before he or Jerry knew it a body was pressing between them and was then barreling towards Tom, or rather, into him.

“Tim, no don’t!”

Jill was hot on Tim’s heels but was too late to stop anything as Tim ran right over Tom, knocking him to his back before straddling him, his knees firmly planted on Tom’s arms to keep him from moving.  Disoriented and no doubt wondering just what the hell had hit him, Tom was looking left and right, dazed and obviously confused as Jerry and Morgan were there in the next instant, fully aware that Tim and Tom’s forward momentum had almost taken them into the street. Already they could see a few people up and down either side taking note of this spectacle as they tried to pull their friend off, feeling him fight with everything he had, which was far more considerable than they’d expected.

It was like trying to hold back a two-ton, rampaging bull, and they were having about as much effect. 

“Don’t man!” Morgan said, doing his best not to shout, “Someone’s gonna call the cops and then what? Are you gonna go away for this piece of shit?”

“Fu-, fk, yu, mn.” Tom said from the ground.

“Get out of here Tom,” Tim said coldly, his voice the temperature of a glacier as he gradually calmed down, “Get out of here and don’t come back.”

“An, an’ what, wha-“ Tom tried to say, struggling to get back to his feet. There were a few partygoers meandering around the front porch and the front lawn, and each one of them were looking at the five of them, perhaps wondering what Tom had done, or maybe that they should join in.  Being friends and friends of friends they didn’t seem inclined to start hurling insults or take Tom’s side. That was something at least.

“It’s really important you don’t finish that sentence asshole,” Jerry said, not releasing Tim until their friend had finally taken a step back, allowing Jill to wrap him up in her arms as she began to ask if he was okay, if he had hurt himself. No one gave a shit about Tom in that moment, nor did they particularly care if he wobbled his ass into the street or not. Morgan stood there long enough to make certain that he got up and walked off under his own power, but not a word was spoken between them as Tom walked away.  He’d made his choice of friends some time ago, and this was just the inevitable finally happening.

To be honest, it felt pretty good.

What Do We Leave Behind?

Let’s face it, you’ve done it at least once or twice in your life. You might have even done it today without knowing it.  You’ve looked around at the world and wondered “How did things get to this point?” Or maybe you’ve looked around and thought “When I was younger things were different.” Don’t bother lying, you know it’s happened at least once in your life.

Our parents did it, their parents did it, and our kids will one day do it.  They’ll look back and wonder why the world isn’t the same as it was when they were younger.  Eventually they’ll come to the same realization that the rest of us have to accept at some point: the world stays the same, it’s the people that change. Whether you’re stressing about who’s in charge of the entire sorry mess, or who’s doing what to whom, the only constants in life is that it goes on, and that it will eventually end.  So where does that leave us? What does it mean for those who are left behind?

We strive to make the world a better place for those who are being left in our wake, to make certain that they have the tools they need to get by when we’re gone, but we always worry that it’s not enough.  Those that spend their entire lives doing for others still at the end wonder if there’s something more they could have done.  Believe it or not, at that point they’ve done all they could, and if a person continues to wonder if they could have done more, then they’ve done all they were meant to do. Missed opportunities and chances in life that a person laments later on weren’t meant to happen, or they would have.

Call it fate, chance, luck, or even karma, but human beings do very few things by random chance alone. There have been heated debates throughout the ages concerning what is random, what is purposeful, and where the two meet for the often uneasy compromise that might explain the chaotic fluidity of human nature.  Humans are at times wonderfully simple in their many astounding and often frustrating complexities, but one thing is always certain. We are born to live, and we live to die.  It might seem morbid, even defeatist, but the moment you draw breath your life is measured by the moments that shape who you are from one inhalation to the last exhale.  What matters in between those breaths is that you do everything you can to make certain to live, and live well.

We live to leave behind a legacy for those that come after, to insure that no matter what, no matter how hard it gets, life goes on.  Humans are the species that denies the odds and shouts to the heavens that we will remain, no matter what might come.  We leave behind the promise of hope for those who will come after.

Symbols

Symbols                                                                                             

By Tom Foster                                                                                               

 

 

 

            “I am courage.”

            “I am dependable.”

            “I am responsive.”

            “I am loyal.”

            “I am exuberant.”

            “I conscientiously analyze.”

            “I balance with charm.”

            “I desire an ideal.”

            “I see optimistically.”

            “I use to be steadfast.”

            “I know of friendliness.”

            “I believe in compassion.”

            “This meeting will now come to order.  Ladies and gentlemen of the assembled Zodiac please assume your rightful seats.”  With an imperious gesture the figure that beckoned to those twelve that had each entered the room upon speaking their key phrases.  The room in which the figure stood was quite plain, composed of granite walls that had been painted over in a variety of colors from a deep and passionate red to a gentle aquamarine.  A swatch of color had been painted to denote the color that was known to correspond to each individual sign, each of them easily five feet across and reaching up to the ceiling twenty feet above. 

            Ten feet from the wall, in front of each color, a chair sat facing inward towards the raised platform the figure now stood upon.  Each seat was carved from a solid piece of teak and fashioned in the sign for the one that would sit therein.  From the first seat, that of the Ram, to the last, that of Pisces, each chair was carved to resemble the creature or personage each sign was known by.  Great curving horns adorned the top of the Ram’s seat, while the horns of a massive bull had been carved upon the armrests of the second.  Twin sculptures rode the sides of the third chair, Gemini’s trademark, while the armrests of the fourth chair were carved in the shape of a crabs claws. 

            Hidden by the feminine form that sat in the chair of Leo was the fierce visage of one of nature’s supposedly most noble creatures, the mighty lion.  The back of the chair around the face had been carefully rendered into a flowing mane, the artistry so detailed that it was easy to believe that at any moment it might leap from the chair and attack.  The back of Virgo’s chair was etched deeply with the likeness of a woman that could only be described as heavenly, her face at peace as she cradled to her bosom a staff and a handful of delicate flowers.  As with Virgo, Libra’s symbol, that of the scales, was carved upon the back of the chair, deeply etched with one side just barely higher than the other.

            Scorpio’s chair was unique like the others in that it appeared to be no less than a very large, two tailed scorpion, its bulbous stingers raised in attack position as they curled over the head of the one that sat upon it.  A leaping centaur graced the back of Sagittarius’s chair, while the feet had been designed in the form of hooves.  Horns that curved backward, much like a goat, denoted Capricorn’s chair, while upon the back of Aquarius’s chair was a scantily clad woman gently stroking the feathers of a great bird, perhaps a heron.  Rounding out the group was Pisces, whose chair was verily covered with the images of fish swimming all about, their bodies so finely rendered that they might soon swim from the surface of the chair and seek refuge elsewhere.

            As each person took their seat the figure standing upon the platform appraised them all in turn, enjoying the absolute authority she had over them.  With her cowl and bulky robe none of them would truly know who or even what sex she was.  Her voice was being carefully modulated by a specialized mouthpiece she wore over the lower half of her face, allowing her to remain completely anonymous.  As for the robed and hooded figures that now sat in a half circle before her, she could easily tell the men from the women.  After all, she had selected each of them many years ago.

            Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius and Aquarius were all masculine while Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricorn and Pisces were the feminine aspect of the Zodiac.  They were placed from left to right beginning with Aries, each individual facing from their seat towards the Speaker, who commanded the most respect of any in the room.  Standing a good five feet above them all, she could see by observing their supposedly calm demeanors that at least a quarter of them were nervous.  The subtle tics and shakings of their garments betrayed their emotions.  A slow smile spread along her face, hidden by the voice modulator.

            “Dark times have come to our doorsteps my gentlemen and ladies, thus have I called you hear this night to discuss such.  We stand on the precipice to a new age, an age in which those of us and others who are like minded must decide on how best to control what will be left from the ashes.” 

            No one spoke, as they hadn’t been given leave to yet.  She enjoyed this type of power, it was intoxicating in a way, but also liberating.  So long had she been a pawn in the earliest stages of her life that the absolute and total control over others was a balm to those sensibilities that she had felt were abused and taken for granted by those who had looked down upon her for so long. She would show them all what she had become one day, when she and her brood were the last ones standing. They would see-

            Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by the sudden wash of light that came from above, forcing everyone around her to wince as they too were taken by surprise. The magic, if one could call it that, was broken in that moment however, and as she looked in irritation to the portal leading into the realm she was forced to call home, she saw the heavyset and gray-haired form of her sire, holding out a vaguely U-shaped communication device as he refrained from stepping into the lair.

            “Tandy I just got a call from the superintendent of your school.  You and I need to have a talk young lady.”

            She closed her eyes in frustration, pressing her lips tightly together as she looked around. Her sire, her father, looked around as well, his eyebrows rising in expectation as he gave them all the same look.

            “In case you were wondering o’ mysteriously hooded strangers, that means out.  Your leader and I need to have a chat.”

            Murmurs and words of assent reached her ears as Tandy watched her friends, who’d known each other right away of course, get up from their chairs and go shuffling out. Many of them removed their hoods before passing by her father, who nodded at some of them and just shook his head at others. He didn’t approve of all of them, but more often than not minded his own business when they were over.  She could only imagine why he had picked this time to step into her personal life.  With the look he gave her at that moment as the last friend exited she had no doubt that she was about to find out.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            After another hour had passed and her ears had already finished burning from the scathing lecture she was back in the garage, sitting on the single step as she looked out upon the gathering room.  Most times she could just close her eyes and pretend that the scene in front of her was as it should be, with the vibrant colors and magnificent carvings and the grandeur that it was worthy of.  She wished for that everyday instead of the shabby, knockoff appearance she’d worked so hard to make seem authentic.

            She’d started the Zodiac council as a joke to start with. It’s beginnings had been simple and taken place within the confines of a storage room in their high school with the permission of the principal. At first it had just been a chance for the bunch of them to get together and bullshit about their day, but after a while they’d wanted another reason to get together beyond hanging out. A social club could be anything really, from the nerds who enjoyed debating about fantasy novels and television shows to the jocks who often made their way down to the weight room or the local stores where they hung out to talk about their interests. Among their number they had a few of everyone from the hierarchy that so typically ran a school, yet none of them had ever felt the need to judge each other.

            They were friends, best buddies, and more than that they’d been together for so long it was hard to imagine being apart. In another couple years at least a few of them would be gone, off to college and a new life outside of their small town.  But for now they still had each other and were loathe to let each other go. Attempts to get them to break ties with one another had begun once junior high had hit and several of them had started developing new friendships with others.  That hadn’t stopped them from getting together though.  But still, they’d eventually needed something else to do besides just hanging out. 

            The Zodiac council had been her idea, as she was the eminent nerd/popular/jock in the group. Among them all she was one of a kind, and the others knew this. That was why they had come to her with the request that she find something to keep them interested. It wasn’t that they would go on and forget about each other, but they wanted variety in their friendship now, and she could totally understand that.  She’d been wanting a bit of a change as well, and she had found it in the Zodiac.

            Her interests in astrology, which many thought of as a pseudo-science, had always been fairly strong, and with her minor background in astronomy that she’d coddled since the sixth grade she’d come up with a fantastic idea.  At first the Zodiac plan had been a little hard to weather for several of her friends, but after about the second meeting the lot of them had gotten into it, and had even started to make suggestions on how to make it better. From that point ideas had been accepted, evaluated, and either respectively dropped or integrated into the main idea, and the Zodiac council had begun.

            To date they’d kept it going for nearly two years, and in all likelihood they would keep it going until one or more of their members left.  The fantasy of it was something that they all enjoyed, but it had never gotten so crazy that they forgot the real world they had to go back to. Sometimes though, she wished she could.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            “I’m sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends sweets,” her father said as she stepped back into the house, “But missing school is a serious issue and makes us both look bad.”

            She knew he was right, and that he had a valid point, but her feelings were still slightly hurt.  He’d gone after her like a bull chasing a red flag when her friends had finally left. At least he’d had the decency to give her that much before lighting her up with his latest lecture.

            “I know dad,” she replied. Deep down she knew he meant well and that he cared, but it seemed to be an unspoken rule that no teen would ever dare show their parents that they understood how much they cared. 

            Slipping on a light jacket she made for the front door, her hand closing around the knob as her father spoke again.

            “Where are you going?”

            “I just wanted to take a walk is all. Maybe down to the corner store and back.” The corner store was a good mile away, her father knew this, but she also knew that they lived in a relatively safe neighborhood. 

            “You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked, becoming the doting father once more, the guy she loved dearly and always wanted to appease. She didn’t have a bad life at home, but sometimes she wished for a little more.

            She nodded, “Yeah, I’m okay.  I just wanted to take a walk is all. I’ll be back soon.”

            “Okay,” her father said with a nod, “Just be careful out there, it’s getting dark.”

            “’Kay dad,” she said as she slipped out the door, knowing full well that he would watch her until she was out of sight.  It was kind of irritating, but at least it meant he was a good father, and not just a yelling, swearing tyrant.  Her life was pretty good.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            Forest Grove was the type of place you went to be ignored she believed.  There was plenty of community and enough to do to keep busy, but it wasn’t like other towns she’d visited during her high school years. Some towns, smaller towns and even bigger ones, had a great deal more pride in their schools, their community organizations, and even their school teams.  Forest Grove was proud, but it seemed muted sometimes, almost as though they would only come together under the worst of circumstances.

            Night had fallen as she’d stepped out into the open air, and she was walking largely in shadows as she made her way towards the corner store, fully intending to do just what she’d told her father.  She had walked this way so often that she no longer feared the deep shadows that pooled around and within several of the properties that she passed. Some of them were ringed by high bushes and trees whose branches hung down like tendrils from some huge, ominous beast, but for the most part the rest were clean cut and kept up pretty nice. 

            One such home that hadn’t seen the touch of a gardener in a long time was the old McLowry place. The home itself was still in good condition, but its yard had long ago gone wild, and not even a notice from the city had done any good. The real reason behind this of course was that the McLowry’s hadn’t been seen for nearly a year’s time.  While there were many theories about where they’d gone and what had happened to make them just pick up and leave, the one that seemed to persist more often than not was that they had fallen behind on their house payment and rather than deal with the banks had just up and left. It was a simplistic and unsatisfying rumor, as well as a bit unrealistic if one had known the McLowry’s, but it was the one bit of gossip that had become the norm.

             She’d known the McLowry’s pretty well, and had hung out with their three eldest boys throughout their younger years. The eldest, Eric, had always seemed kind of spacey, but he’d been a nice guy, as had his two younger brothers, Sam and Caleb. Their youngest brother Cole, who had been born only about five years ago, had been in first grade when the family had up and disappeared.  No one had ever given any thought to the rumor that foul play might have been involved, which was fortunate.  To think that anything had happened to any of them would have been horrible.

            Corrin and Leonard, the parents, had been nice people, kind of laid back and prone to being on the go all the time.  This was probably why she’d never bothered to count the McLowry boys as anything other than good neighbors instead of best friends. 

            Now as she stood looking at the empty home with its jungle-like front yard, she couldn’t imagine why she would have stopped. The wide front windows  were devoid of any curtains, allowing for a very clear view into the house.   As she and anyone else could see there wasn’t anything inside, not even a rug left behind for the tile floor of the kitchen area near the back of the house.  Why had she stopped though? Usually she gave a glance at this place and kept on walking. It held only a few better than average memories for her, and was not a place she would have thought would evoke such melancholy.

            Tandy.

            She was about to turn and walk away when she could have sworn she heard her name whispered from somewhere on the grounds, close enough that she should have been able to see the speaker. But all she saw were shadows, and she’d seen enough horror films to know better than to go investigate. If someone was playing a trick it was better to just keep going.

            We’re still here, Tandy.

            Now that was damned spooky.  She was about to walk forward again when she suddenly realized the view of the street had been replaced by the faded and blank view of the garage door at the end of the front drive.  Shaking her head and blinking her eyes did not change the view, or the disorientation she suddenly felt. How had she gotten here?

            Inside, Tandy.

            She blinked again and she was startled to find that she was now at the front door, which was standing wide open, the screen door propped open as she stared into the empty interior of the house.  What in the hell was happening?

            Tandy.

            Again that sounded too close, and she had to be anywhere but in her right mind if she was getting this close to the house. This was becoming way too much like a horror movie, but she got the feeling that if she started trying to resist the result would only be the same, and that she might soon enough be put in front of something that she wouldn’t like.

            Close the door, Tandy.

            She tried to shake it off, but as before she blacked out for what felt like a second, and when she woke next she was standing in the front room, slightly closer to the hallway that would lead towards the three bedrooms that were located at its terminus.  Her throat clenched as something suddenly passed through her peripheral vision to the right, there and gone before she could even register what it had been.  Turning she thankfully found that she could move, but still she could see nothing as she looked along the front window and then to the wall that separated the living room and the garage. 

            There had been something there, and as she looked closer her breath caught as she saw something upon the wide front window.  Upon moving closer she could see it was a small handprint, like that of a child.  The faint lines and patterns of the palm print were so distinct that she could imagine that the young child that had made it might still be nearby, though such a thing was impossible.  Leaning over she noted that the handprint wasn’t fading away as it should, but instead was becoming more distinct as something else was appearing above it. 

            It took her only a moment to realize that what was appearing were the smudge-like letters that were often made by fingers when writing on the condensation that formed on glass.

            Hi Taddy.

            Tandy wanted to back up but couldn’t, her mouth opened wide to scream despite the fact that all she could muster was a choked squeak.  Taddy had been what the young McLowry brother had called her in the past, as his minor speech impediment had not allowed him to pronounce his n’s.  She wanted out of here like now, but as she tried to turn she felt a presence looming behind her, something she could not see but could sense in a way that seemed far more visceral and oppressive held her in place.

            Do not struggle.

            The strange, almost willowy voice could not have belonged to any of the McLowry’s, though as she tried to fight she felt the grip of not one but two separate individuals upon her wrists as they dragged her forcefully forward, not stopping until her palms were flat upon the glass.  She felt the sensation of flesh upon her own, but could see nothing as she struggled to escape the unseen grip of her captors.  Before she could so much as shout however an equally invisible hand covered her mouth, clamping down just hard enough to stifle any sound that might emerge.

            Her heart was racing as she felt the presence loom even closer, ghostly breath seeming to tickle her neck as she suddenly had visions of rape, dismemberment, and a death so grisly she could not fully appreciate its horror.  Surely someone would come by and see what was happening?  Someone out walking late at night like she was would perhaps come by and see a young woman being forced up against a window, against her will?

            But she had conceded at this point that it was Forest Grove, and the town started closing up around 8 o’ clock.  Few if any individuals would be out at this point. She was alone, and would likely not survive this.

            Be still.

            She could not, and even as the sleeves of her light sweater were pulled back she attempted to struggle, but to no avail. The force that had her wasn’t letting go, and as she felt rough hands lightly grasp her forearms she tried again to scream, to kick, to even bite, but nothing worked. She was trapped.

            You will bear these marks, the voice said, these symbols.

            Before she could wonder at the meaning of the words she felt something burning itself into her forearms, hot, aching heat that slipped past her flesh and scoured bone as she tried once again to scream.  The hands did not let go, nor did the burning sensation end as the hands now clamped around her forearms, the same hands that were burning her, slipped down slowly, initiating new points of pain only to move on again and again as her entire arms felt as though they were on fire. She wasn’t allowed to move as tears streamed down her face, her conscious mind not allowing her to pass out as should have been warranted in such a situation.

            You will serve, as you desire. The voice slipped into her ears like venom, muddying her thoughts and creating confusion as the pain continued to rise.

            Finally the unseen hands came to rest just above her budding breasts, eliciting disgust and rage so strong within her that she bucked again, this time finding a small amount of leverage as the hand seemed to withdraw ever so slightly. Sensing that miniscule bit of freedom she attempted to break free, but the hand upon her mouth clamped harder and was suddenly added to as more hands wrapped around her waist and legs, firmly pinning her in place.

            The last marks seared into her chest, causing more tears to flow as the voice spoke to her again.

            You shall be our vessel, it said, our link to this world. Through you, we shall thrive once again.

            The burning within her arms and chest continued to simmer as she stood there, realizing only a moment later that no hands bound her, no one was holding her in place, and she could work her lips once again as the presence had departed.  Tears stained her cheeks as within she could sense another presence, something, or someone, watching from behind her eyes, a simple observer and nothing else. This should have unnerved her greatly, but as Tandy looked up to the window she saw something that truly scared the hell out of her.

            The McLowry’s were there, all of them.  The parents, the four boys, they were all visible within the window in stark detail as though they stood right behind her.  Her pain was forgotten for only a moment as she turned around, half-expecting to see them and half-expecting what she found, which was nothing.  Looking back to the window she saw nothing but the unkempt yard outside and the dark street beyond. 

            Her sleeves had been rolled down again, and the pain she could recall from only moments before was gone, as though nothing had ever happened.  Rolling them up she almost dropped to her knees as she saw the symbols etched into her flesh, each one vibrant and bearing such detail that she almost wept at the sight of them.  Her horror was swiftly replaced with awe as she sank slowly to a knee, unable to breathe as she held her arms to her body.

            “Tandy.”

            This voice was real, and startled her so badly that she slipped as she spun around, landing hard on her backside as the shadow behind her did not advance.  She could see form the ambient light that the stranger was male, and that he appeared to be in his late teens or early twenties. But apart from that she didn’t know him. Something though, some part of her, said that she should have. 

            “Who are you?” she said shakily, fear staining her words once again as she attempted to keep her distance. The figure did not move towards her, but neither did he move away.

            She couldn’t help but feel somehow drawn to the man, no matter that she was instantly afraid of him as well.  He was good-looking, blonde, with a well-kept beard and moustache. There was a lean look to him despite his obvious and impressive musculature, a look that gave her the impression he had done and seen much in his time but had remained unbroken.  This was a man that looked as though he’d walked through hell just to see what it was like and then walked back out under his own power.  It was an odd thought to have, but one that seemed to fit.

            “No one you’d know now, but someone you or yours might come across in the future.  I have one bit of advice for this new life you’re about to embark on.”

            How did he know anything about her?  Who was this guy?  More and more questions began to pile up as the seconds passed, but she couldn’t entertain them all as she licked her lips, focusing instead upon the moment and not what she would have liked, which was getting the hell out of here.

            “What do you mean?”

            The stranger turned as if to go, his ice-blue eyes raking across both Tandy and the house as though evaluating every square inch.  It was a look she did not care for as it made her feel as though her every fault was laid bare, her every lie exposed.  But then the stranger had turned all the way around, and the feeling passed. 

            “Keep one eye on the horizon Tandy. There’s a storm coming.”

            “What do you-?”

            She was about to ask what he meant, but in that instant the darkness took hold again and when she woke she was outside, on the road, her sleeves rolled down again.  Frustration and fear warred within her as she looked back to the McLowry house, seeing that the interior was completely dark and, as far as she could tell, empty.  She looked long enough to satisfy herself, but could not see anything other than the bare flooring and the shadows that played along the walls and ceiling. 

            Had any of it really happened?  As she rolled up her sleeves she had her answer.

            Oh yes, it had really happened.

           

                                   

Time and Again

Time and Again

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Jan. 3rd, 2016

Kalama, WA

 

“You don’t get to stop this.”

His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs, his sorrow great enough that it felt as though his heart was breaking in two.  Not once in the past decade of his life had he felt this way, so bare, so emotionally powerless.  Everything had been closed off until now, and that dam, built up after so many years of bitter disappointment, had finally broke.

He was feeling for the first time, and it was in front of the last person he’d want present when it happened.

“Not now,” he breathed, the foggy plume of breath escaping from his lips hanging on the crisp air for a moment.  “Not now, when everything needs to go right.”

“This one wasn’t yours to save Larry, not now and not ever.”

“But why?” Larry breathed, still looking down upon the still, inert form of the woman he’d noticed so many times since coming to this little side of the road town.  She was so peaceful in her stillness, so serene that he could almost convince himself that she was asleep.  But the lack of any movement from her chest, the utter absence of breath escaping her lips, it was more than obvious.  She was gone, and for the…..

“I can’t remember,” he said in a small, pitiful voice, “I can’t, remember, how many times.”

“You don’t want to know.”

He wanted to rise up and smack the hell out of this person, this unknown force wearing a human skin.  All he wanted right at that moment was to find something hard and heavy to beat him down and show him what it felt like to wear a human form.  But Larry already knew the danger of such an act, and knew it was pointless as well.

But still, he wouldn’t mind trying again.

“I’ve done everything right so far,” he said, still on his knees over the old woman, Sadie her name had been, “I’ve done everything right and people have been better off.  I’ve made a difference goddammit!”

“And you made one for her too,” the man said, his voice seemingly sincere, “You gave her what no one else had given for a very long time.”

“What?” he croaked, “What did I do that made her life better?!”

“You tried.”

He just wanted to wake up and find this had all been a dream.  As he closed his eyes he

felt the hot tracks of tears staining his cheeks, wetting the beard stubble that had developed on

his unshaven cheeks during the past few days.  This had become tiresome a long, long time ago, and he just wanted it to end.  He knew the path he wanted now and it yet it seemed so far away, and unreachable in a sense that he could not adequately describe.  He wanted something so good and pure that he’d been willing to change everything to get it.

And all he could say was that he’d tried.

He needed to sleep, to just go to sleep and not wake up. But then he’d tried that too hadn’t he? Nothing worked as it should have any longer.

“Larry,” said the other, his voice calm and still infuriating all the same, “It’s time to go.”

“No,” Larry said, shaking his head, a sniffle causing him to grimace as he stayed where he was. “I can’t leave her, I won’t.”

“She’s not your responsibility Larry, not now, and not ever.”

“Well then whose is she?!” he shouted, rising swiftly to his feet as he faced the handsome visage of the tormentor without a true name, the one person in this entire godforsaken town that could recall everything that he’d done from one day to the next.  He had better since than to strike the individual, he’d tried that too with disastrous results. His left eye still twitched a bit as he thought about it.

“She’s mine,” he said calmly, his hands stuffed in his pockets much as would be expected on a wintry, bone-chilling evening such as this. The streetlights just barely cast their light in this direction, painting the two of them in the sickly, pale orange light that seemed so normal.  This night it was no less, but the shadows it cast upon the other’s face were deep and unnatural in that moment, almost as if he was something born straight from the darkness, a shadow that had assumed human form.   Larry could almost believe this was true, but wouldn’t bother entertaining such a fanciful notion at the moment.

“Are you here for the town, or for me?” he almost snarled.

The stranger, no he wasn’t a stranger, not any longer, stepped forward as he went almost nose to nose with Larry, his breath fogging up between them as he spoke.

“I’m here for whomever I’m assigned to Larry.  In your case, I’m a glorified sitter.”

“What about her case?” Larry asked in a dark tone, his anger still boiling over as he pointed behind him, “What are you to her?”

“To who?” the other asked. The audacity of the question caused Larry’s jaw to drop as his anger spiked yet again, his need to hit something, someone, anyone, outreaching his common sense as he whirled around to point at the fallen woman, only to realize suddenly and without any understanding that the spot where Sadie had fallen was devoid of a body.  She was gone, just gone, without a trace and without anything to show she’d even been there save for the imprint of her body upon the thin skein of snow and ice that she’d collapsed upon.

He whirled back on the other, fully intent on voicing his objection as well as a few expletives that he knew would not insure the other’s friendship, but as with Sadie, the man was gone.  Larry sputtered as he took a startled step back, frustration showing plain upon his outraged features as he looked once more to where Sadie had been.  Not even a small wisp of steam had risen from the spot, nor had he heard anything or anyone move.

“Go back to the hotel Larry,” the other said, his voice maddeningly close, “Get some rest.”

Frustrated and angry as he was, Larry couldn’t deny that this was good advice, that after a day spent doing as much as he could he was exceedingly tired.  Maybe he should just back to his hotel and get some rest.  At least there he seemed able to avoid the other for a short amount of time.

Every step he took back to his hotel felt as though it was a step in the wrong direction, a step backwards so to speak, and yet he couldn’t find any other direction to go.  He was stuck, much as he had been for longer than he could really remember.  The world would be here tomorrow, that much was certain, but it wouldn’t have moved on.  That was the worst certainty.

*                      *                      *

 

5:30 am

 

He’d always been an early riser, but as his eyes opened slowly, almost painfully so, Larry Goodkin had to wonder if keeping them open would even be worth it today. It had almost seemed worth it yesterday, and the day before, and many days leading up to that, but today he felt the weight of what he could only describe as the weight of responsibility on his chest, a forceful presence he’d felt in the past but always ignored on principle.  Too long it would seem that he’d denied fate, as it had finally come round to collect its due from him.

Most people would have expected to get bitch-slapped by a thing such as fate, but the situation he found himself in was one that felt more akin to a continual barrage of slaps, kicks, punches, and even a few cup-checks that he’d failed miserably.  In short, life was at the current moment, and in the same day, kicking the ever-living hell out of him aside from when he was doing something right. Then it felt almost right, complete in a way that he’d not felt in much too long.

Inhaling through his nose he listened patiently to the announcers on the radio as they debated over the virtues of “Wild Thing” a song that Larry had once enjoyed in his youth, but now felt was a bit over the top for an early morning wakeup call.  The title alone seemed to imply a youthful, carefree existence that was years behind him, but still he was a creature of habit and could not help but listen as he rolled out of bed, grimacing at the cold feel of the hardwood floor beneath his feet.  He’d asked the elderly couple that ran the inn if they could muster up an area rug or two for the chill flooring, but they’d replied, with smiles no less, that they offered complimentary slippers that were quite cozy.  What the hell kind of place did that sort of thing anymore? Had any place ever done anything so crazy?

At first he’d thought of course a place such as this would offer such a service, nestled into

the wilderness and cut off from the world that existed just around it as it was. Kalama wasn’t so

isolated that it was considered BFE, but it was definitely far enough away from a decent

restaurant or bar that Larry had felt like reaming his agent for bothering to book him in this go-

nowhere town.  Mike had assured him however that thanks to the convention taking place just

down the road in Longview that hotels were hard to find for even the most noteworthy authors and minor celebrities.  When he’d asked why he wasn’t being afforded a better room Mike had told him that he needed to sell a few more books before he reached first-priority status.  Larry had almost launched his cell phone towards the nearby highway at that remark.

Rising to his feet he winced at the cold chill of the floor, wanting only to jump back into bed and forget that this day had ever happened. He’d done that too, only to realize that the days would keep rolling on. Plus, the innkeepers would eventually begin to knock on his door wondering if everything was okay.  They were kind old folks, but also a little nosy.

The radio announcers went on with their morning spiel as he slowly, methodically shuffled his way to the bathroom, seeking relief and then the ice cold shower he knew was coming.  If this was hell it was damned cold, and nothing seemed poised to ever warm up.  There had been a moment though, with his publicist’s assistant that he could….

No, nope, nada, she tolerated him, thought his work was good enough to read, but that was it.  She was moderately attractive and seemed like a lot of fun in theory, but their personalities were just too different, too….

But why not?

Only a few moments later the cold shower he endured took all such thoughts away for a while.

*                      *                      *

 

7:23 am

 

“Here, it gets a little gummy when it gets too cold.”

Larry pushed his hot, almost steaming plate of biscuits and gravy over to the old woman, nodding as she smiled at him in such a way that his heart clenched.  He was doing his absolute best to not look as though he pitied her in any way, he’d learned that lesson some time ago when Sadie had clocked him hard enough to leave a well-defined bruise under his jaw.  She didn’t take kindly to pity or to condescension as she’d explained not long after.  Thankfully she had at least apologized for almost breaking his jaw, but it had been a valued lesson.

Instead of saying anything however Sadie just smiled and tucked into the meal once again, wiping at her lips now and again as he could see the absolute contentment in her eyes.  As a waitress, her name was Amelia, came by with their next order, a heaping plate of pancakes, sausages, and scrambled eggs, Larry made room for the new plates by picking up the old ones, handing them to Amelia with a smile and a “thank you” that the young woman graciously returned.  This at least was a good part of the day.

“Larry? What’s going on?”

Sadie looked as though she might bolt in the next second suddenly as the voice, known to

Larry, came from behind him.  Indicating that it was okay, that she could and should go on with

her meal, Larry turned around to see as Jordan, his publicist’s assistant and the poor woman

who’d been assigned to accompany him to this convention, came walking up in her usual, self-

assured manner.  She was stunning was his first thought despite the fact that she wore the same winter clothing that hid away her enticing curves and womanly figure. She looked a bit confused was his next thought.  Of course she was always confused when she found him here, at least at the onset.

“Hi there. Oh nothing really, just sitting down to a meal with my good friend Sadie here.”

Jordan stood at the end of the table looking down at Larry as she always did, one eyebrow cocked and the other frowning in that usual “I don’t believe your bullshit” look.  He’d tried to woo her more than once since they’d been here, and each and every time it had ended badly. The last series of mishaps had left his cheeks stinging for weeks if he had to be honest, as he had tried too hard, not hard enough, and had made a general ass of himself trying to impress a woman nearly seven years younger than him and more likely to fall in love with a man her age rather than over the hill author who’d hit a slump.  But there was something about her, some quality he couldn’t deny that kept him going, despite the heartache that had been borne on an unending tidal wave of meaningless, uninspired days that continued to roll on.

“Did you want to join us?” Larry asked.

Jordan paused, as did Sadie, each one of them looking at him in expectation, and in Jordan’s case, mild interest.

Which, as usual, she shook off by saying, “Um, not right now thank you, but I did get hold of” Mike, she was going to say Mike, “Mike, and he told me that we need to be in Tacoma by tonight for another signing. He’s” –going to see if we can schedule at the nearest Barnes and Noble, Larry thought, and sure enough she repeated it verbatim as he’d heard for so many different times. Sometimes the words were laced with contempt, other times they came with long-suffering patience, but as of late they’d been slightly more upbeat and even curious, as though she was attempting to figure him out and was quite intrigued by his sudden turnaround.

Larry shook his head, certain of what he was going to say and already certain of her answer, and of Sadie’s. The only thing he wasn’t certain of was where the other, he called himself Ryder, with “y”, was at that moment.  Among the entire town the man was the only feature that wouldn’t sit still, and could not be understood as the others were. For some reason that frightened Larry just a little, but he couldn’t say why.

“I would love to head to Tacoma, it’s always a good turnout. But the storm that’s coming is going to close down the roads soon.  I’d rather not get stuck in the middle.”

Jordan frowned, “But it’s not supposed to hit until tomorrow, and we can be there tonight.”

Larry sighed, “Trust me, it’s going to hit a lot sooner.”

It wasn’t all that often that I-5 was closed for anything other than construction, and even

then it was usually reduced to one or two lanes.  A complete closure was a disaster for those who

had to travel back and forth along the widely used highway, as the long ways around were truly

inconvenient and involved traversing miles and miles of back roads that were not as well mapped

and hardly ever as capable as I-5 was of conveying people to their desired destinations.  In short,

the closing of I-5, the absolute and total cessation of all traffic, would take an act of God or

something akin to what he was living through now.

“Are you keyed into a database I don’t know about?”

He always wanted to laugh when she asked this, but had learned better through many, many interactions.  Instead he just smiled, “One more day spent in Kalama won’t hurt us.”

To that she actually smiled, and he felt his heart warm as he always did when she favored him with such a gesture. Good God, why had it taken so long?

*                      *                      *

 

10:35 am

 

“So are you here to torment me?”

The newspaper in Ryder’s hands rustled as the man straightened a page, his eyes never leaving the print that had never changed a single day since the two of them had been here. Or at least since Larry had been here.

“I told you before Larry. I’m here to babysit and make sure you find your way to the right path, nothing more.”

“And to ferry old, homeless women from life to death.”

“I’ve no idea what you mean.”

“No,” Larry grinned fiercely, “Of course you don’t.”

The two men didn’t talk for several minutes after that, but it was a welcome silence. There weren’t many people out and about today thanks to the wind chill that could touch a person even through several heavy, insulated layers, but still here the two of them sat.  He was expecting Jordan to come walking by in precisely five minutes, but only because this was where he’d met her more than once. Ryder had never been here though, and it made him curious.

“Are you going to be here when she comes by?”

“Nope,” Ryder replied, “Because she’s already on her way.”

Larry looked up at him as the man began to walk off, “Well hell, sit and stay awhile, let her get to know you like I have.  Oh yes Jordan this is my friendly neighborhood stalker, please, get to know him and by the way, do you realize this is the thousandth time you won’t remember talking to me on this corner?”

It felt dangerous to talk like this, as though his mind was trying to unravel and the only thing holding it together was his selfish sense of self-preservation. Somehow though it still felt justified.  As Ryder stopped and turned to look at him in a kind of irritated, almost fatherly manner, Larry grinned again, the gesture carrying no warmth and only the mild contempt he felt for the figure.

“Just go on and be quick about your business Larry,” Ryder said as he folded his newspaper, “I’m getting bored watching you every day.”

With that the other man turned on his heel and left, leaving Larry staring after him with a

diminished grin and a very strong sense of foreboding. Where was Ryder watching him from?

He supposed it made sense, but it was also damned creepy.  Before he could continue thinking

about that however he heard his name spoken again, and could not deny the pleasure that it brought him.

*                      *                      *

 

4:56 pm

 

“Are you seriously not going to try this time?”

“Would it make any difference?”

Both men watched the old woman stumble and stagger her way along the dead-end alley, her heart giving out with each step as she struggled for every breath.

“No, it wouldn’t,” Ryder admitted, “But I’ll admit that you did her a kindness.”

“Now, or this morning?”

Ryder didn’t respond for a moment, and that was all it took for Sadie, the old woman that Larry might have never known until this day, this never-ending, continual nightmare of a day, to drift away completely, collapsing upon the ice-coated ground just outside the local supermarket.  It was as ignominious end as anyone could ask for, and less than he figured Sadie deserved.

“Both,” Ryder said as he started walking forward, to presumably take care of Sadie in his own way Larry thought. He had so many questions he wanted to ask, both mundane and more existential. Being an author he knew any number of questions might go unanswered or even worse, be assigned an ambiguous reply that couldn’t be defined in easy, simplistic terms.  He wrote stories that went like this, he’d never once imagined that he might be living in one.

“Do you know where she’s going?”

Ryder stopped for a moment, turning around to regard Larry in an almost solemn manner as he took his time to reply.

“Does it matter?”

Larry thought for only a moment before replying, “It might.”

The other took a breath before speaking again, “Why?”

“Why not?”

“Do us both a favor Larry, handle your business and be done with it.  I want to move on, and so do you.”

The two men looked at one another, one with irritation slowly staining his features and the other with dawning realization.  Larry couldn’t imagine what life might be like after all this, but he could at least think it might make a great deal more sense.

“Any ideas on how to go about that?”

“Nope,” Ryder said, though Larry doubted this, “I’m your watcher, not your damned guide.”

Something about the way Ryder said that gave Larry chills, but then it always did when the other man was so cryptic.  No matter how long he’d been here he just couldn’t get used to that.

*                      *                      *

8:23 pm

 

Nothing he did was enough. It wasn’t even close, no matter how much progress he believed he was making. And he couldn’t get her to understand, no matter how much he tried to wrap his head around it.  He was an author goddammit, he needed to put the words out and he needed to make her understand. But he couldn’t force another person to believe.

How did you just tell someone you were living the same day over and over, that you predict their movements down to the smallest facial tic, and could tell them everything about themselves because you’d listened so many times?  She would think he was a nut, that was it, plain and simple, but he kept finding that he was tempted to try.  The brown bottle of faintly watered down ale in front of him had remained mute on the subject at hand, though he hadn’t expected much from it aside from the slight numbing sensation that it and several of its brethren had bestowed upon him so many nights.  One night he’d had a few too many brown bottles and been kicked to the curb, literally in fact.  That night he’d passed away from alcohol poisoning, only to wake up in his quaint little room in the same hotel he’d been placed in before the snowstorm had come along.

That had been damned painful he’d discovered.

“I’ve come to a couple of conclusions about you,” said a voice off to his right, a very unwelcome voice at that moment.

Larry didn’t even speak, just snorting as Ryder sat next to him, ordering his own brown bottle of beer as he adjusted his seating.  If he took offense from the rude noise that had just been sent his way he hid it well.

“You’re a pussy, plain and simple.”

Larry felt like punching him just then, but he was all but certain that he’d simply fall off of his stool just then. The bartender, a big, surly man named Gil, just shook his head and walked off, obviously wanting no part of this conversation.  That was okay, he walked away from a lot. The big man wasn’t much in the way of breaking up little domestic spats, only head-knocking, ball busting, skull-breaking fights that would smash up his joint.  Larry could respect that.

“You’ve had all this time to figure out what to do, how to do it, and make amends, but you’ve never once thought of anything other than doing just exactly what you’ve wanted to do.”

“Did you rehearse this little speech?” Larry asked, “Should I be paying attention?”

Ryder took a swig of his drink before replying, “Nope. If nothing has sunk in by this time I’m almost certain that I’ll be extended far beyond what I was hoping on this particular assignment.”

“Who are you anyway?” Larry asked, narrowing his eyes at Ryder as he leaned closer, “Huh? Are you the angel of death? Are you a pain designed just to fit on my ass?  Or are you just some crazy bastard that got stuck here with me?  I mean I really want to know now, considering that you just pop up wherever and whenever you want.”

Ryder took another drink, paused, and then took another before setting his beer down

gently on the bar, turning to look fully at Larry as the other man pulled away, not liking what he

saw in the man’s eyes just then. If he hadn’t been already into his cups, as his father would have said, he would have sworn that Ryder’s eyes had turned just a faint shade of black at that moment, the darkness eclipsing his eyes entirely for just a split second. But that could have been a trick of the shadows as well.

“I am a man who is growing bored, and in that case you should be very frightened.  People like me that get bored are bound to do something eventually that wouldn’t end well for any of us.”

“Take it easy down there boys,” Gil said, eyeing them carefully as he then went back to his own discussion. That gave Larry pause, as Gil had never to date said much of anything to him, not even when he got truly shit-faced and had had to be rolled to the curb. If anything Gil treated him with a quiet kind of neglect, as would a long-suffering parent who’d grown tired of reacting to an ignorant and arrogant child.  The mere fact that Gil had spoken sent a chill down his spine for more than just that reason however.

“So then tell me o’ wise one,” Larry said, attempting to regain his composure, “ What am I supposed to do?”

At that Ryder laughed, shaking his head as he took another swig.

“If I was allowed to tell you that I still wouldn’t,” the man said.

“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?” Larry said, raising a single eyebrow.

Ryder looked at him then, really looked at him, and in those dark eyes Larry saw something that made him believe that Ryder’s claim of ambiguous danger wasn’t just a boast, it was real.  In fact it almost made him want to run out of the bar and start doing good things right that second. But the last bit of nerve he still had made it possible for him to stay.

“You’re not a bad man Larry, not a good one, but not the worst I’ve ever seen.  But I am growing bored with this constant bullshit you seem to call your life.”

Larry took a drink, contemplating telling Ryder where he could stick his boredom, but the truth of it was, the man was right. It was a hard pill to swallow, but Ryder was correct in his assessment.  It was time to change, and to do that he needed to want it.  At that moment he could only think of one thing, one person, that he wanted, and that alone spurred him to look at Ryder, who had already presented his bottle for a cheers it would seem.

As their bottles clanked together, Larry spoke, “You’re an asshole.”

Ryder nodded, “And you’re a prick.”

With that they drank in silence, and it was surprisingly the best time Larry had had in the past few days.

*                      *                      *

 

4:45 am

 

Tomorrow, or today he supposed, was going to be a long, rough day thanks to his current

plan, but it would have to work. He had to memorize everything he planned to do, everything he

needed to do, and would have to on target with every last bit of it.  But he was hoping against

hope that it would not only make his life make sense again, but that it would remind him of what life had once been about.  If he couldn’t have his freedom from this day, then he would at least have those moments to enjoy for eternity.

Lack of Space

Lack of Space

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Saturday

 

            There was nothing to do.  This was the continuing problem of the young man who now lay upon the top bunk of cell number G-2, pod G-4.  He’d tried counting off the passing seconds in his mind only to find out that such a mind-numbing attempt to pass the time led to little more than a tension headache.  Thinking of what he would do once he got out didn’t help either, since for all he knew it might be some time before that happened.  Talking to his cellmates was an off and on prospect.  When it did happen it was pleasant enough, the three of them found enough subjects to speak of and often shared a good laugh.

            Of course, they had been in this institution far longer than he had and knew many more of the inmates.  He didn’t have the charismatic personality or even the desire to get to know the others, so here he was.  At least he wasn’t in E pod, the trustee that had been in the holding cell had tried to get him to erase the graffiti that former inmates had scrawled across the walls and bunks.  He’d scoffed at the other man’s attempt to act authoritative and simply tell him what to do.  The man was an inmate as well, though with the special privileges that came with being a trustee.  He had no idea what it took to gain such a position, nor would he be interested in learning.

            “Hey man, you read much?”  Looking up from where he lay, Colin Simmons saw as one of his inmates entered the cell.  The short, bald man was a Latino, dark-skinned and dark-haired.  The only hair he had on his face however was the bushy black beard and thin moustache that adorned his face.  His name was Enrique, though he had told Colin to simply call him Ric.  For the past day and half that he, Ric and another man named Marcus had shared a cell the two men had made Colin feel quite comfortable.  For the first half day he’d done nothing but sleep to wear off the terrible hangover that had resulted from a night spent drinking far too much.

            This was his first and hopefully last time in county jail, courtesy of three warrants for possibly one of the dumbest reasons, in his mind anyway.  For the past year Colin had been avoiding the problem of which he could have easily been rid of.  His driver’s license had been suspended for some time before he’d finally been hauled in, though why it had become suspended in the first place he couldn’t remember.  Whatever the case, here he was, all because he’d been dumb enough to drive his father’s work van in a neighborhood that was routinely patrolled by cops.  He’d been fully intent on leaving his friend at the house they’d ended up at after a night at the bar, having though that he had a good chance of getting laid if he were to leave as soon as his friend was dropped off. 

            The women had ducked out on him however, leaving Colin frustrated and heading back towards the house where his friend was already engaged in late night activities with the roommate of their shared friend who owned the house.  Colin hadn’t even made it to the door of the house, forgetting in his drunken stupor just which house it was.  The neighborhood looked quite different at night and without a sober view.

            He’d been heading back to his van when the police car had pulled up, lights flashing slowly as two uniformed officers had stepped out.  Never having been one to do anything but what he was told Colin had quietly done as they asked, sitting upon the curb

that ran the length of the street as the officers had asked him their questions.  Colin had answered honestly, though his guts had been churning madly the entire time, making him think that he might well have crapped in his pants had he not been scared that he would be hauled in on a drunk charge. 

            The two men had to have known that he was three sheets to the wind.  Colin was good at hiding many of the telltale signs of being drunk, though there were still others that he couldn’t quite control, such as his breath.  His dilated pupils were a good tip off as well when one of the officers had shined a light into his eyes.  After informing him that he had warrants out they had cuffed him and seated him in the back of their car, which had been quite comfortable even with his hands bound.  Colin had gone quietly after informing them that yes there was someone they could call to pick up the van, and that no, he did not have any weapons on his person.

            He almost felt like a fool for trying to give them the name of an old coworker when they’d asked him for identification. His license hadn’t been in his pocket at that time and he hadn’t wanted to get popped for driving without it, again. When they had checked the name he’d given them the lead cop, a nice guy who’d spoken to him with at least some respect, had decided to give him a second chance.  Most cops would have told him to roll over on his stomach before slapping the cuffs on. 

            The ride to the station house in downtown Vancouver had been reasonably comfortable, the cop had even struck up a conversation with him to ease the tension, or maybe he’d just been bored. Whatever the case he’d obviously believed that Colin wasn’t a threat, as he’d spoken to him almost as if they were buddies.  But the truth of the ride had presented itself soon enough and he’d been taken out of the back of the car and escorted to booking, where he’d given over everything in his pockets, took the few silver rings he wore, aside from the one over his right index finger. That one had been on there for so long he’d given up on trying to get it off.

            An old accident had school had left a large lump of scar tissue along the inside of the finger, preventing him from taking off the ring without dislocating his finger. He’d tried it once and the pain hadn’t been pleasant.  To make matters more embarrassing though one of the cops on hand had attempted to get the ring off with soap, then baby oil, and had in effect stroked his finger until finally giving up.  It had made him glad that his friends hadn’t been around to see it.

            After that he’d been allowed to visit the bathroom, with the door open, so he could change into his blue, ill-fitting jail clothes and rubber sandals.  His stomachs had been doing a strange mixtures of acrobatics and flip flops in his body just then, and he’d been almost certain he was going to puke. When the cops had called for him to come out though he’d sucked it up and gone on his way. 

            The next step had been fingerprinting and photographing, placing him in the system he’d tried so hard to stay out of since he’d turned eighteen.  His mug shot had made him look like a hardened killer, but really he’d felt all but certain that some guy inside would be trying him by the end of the night.  His buzz had been all but gone at that point, the sick feeling was all that was left. It wasn’t helped by the fact that after the processing he’d been given a brown paper sack lunch and tossed into a drunk tank what

was filled wall to wall with snoring, farting, and generally unwashed men.

            It had taken every bit of balance he still possessed to make his way between the outstretched mats without stepping on or tripping over someone.  The one spot available at the back of the room had seemed to glare at him with its white tile and badly scarred walls as if to say “You expected the Hilton?” Heaving a quiet sigh he’d taken his place, which, it turned out, was directly in front of the only toilet in the room.  Colin had taken only a cursory look at his bag lunch before deciding that the milk was the only thing that might not send his stomach into violent spasms at that second.  Drinking it down he’d put the other stuff away, rolling over to just drift off.

            He couldn’t have been down for more than a few minutes when the last sounds he’d wanted to hear reached his ears.  Opening one eye he’d seen a grizzled old man squatting on the pot, his nearly-toothless mouth open as he grunted and strained, attempting to pass what must have eventually been the world’s most painful shit. When he was done he just got up, made a cursory wipe of his ass, and moved off. The old bastard hadn’t even bothered to flush, and worse than that, the odor of the turd he’d battled to pass had decided to make an entrance not too long after.

            If someone had flushed it Colin wasn’t aware later on, because after that little episode he’d placed his hand over his mouth and nose and huffed on the faded smell of latex pain that hadn’t been completely scrubbed from his hands after a long day’s work. All he knew was that when his name was called to get placed in a pod he was more grateful to be up and moving than he would have anticipated.  He was on his feet and grabbing his pad, sheet, and towel before the officer had finished reciting his name, ready and willing to move to a different room where hopefully his fellow inmates wouldn’t be so crude as to leave evidence of their nightly forays to the porcelain god.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            All that shit had happened on Friday night.  Had it happened on a Thursday he probably would have been out by yesterday. But the weekend eliminated any chance of seeing a judge until Monday.  He’d asked several officers if his case would include further jail time, but none of them had been able to give him a straight answer. Some judges could be stern, others just wanted to hear that you’d messed up and would never do it again.  According to his cell mates, at least the one who’d already gotten out of this shithole, cases such as his were kind of a waste of time to most judges, as the orange shirts, the felons, were often those that were looked at under a microscope.

            It didn’t make him feel much better, but it was something. Some people might have told him to not take a con’s word for such things, but right now Colin felt more confident in accepting the word of a fellow criminal than the cops that obviously didn’t give a shit.  He knew at this point that keeping his mouth shut and his head down were what had served him well.  Colin was big enough that a lot of guys didn’t see him as an easy mark, and by keeping to himself he was able to keep from mouthing off and challenging the wrong person.  He’d already seen how that went earlier this morning.

            Some jerkoff whose name he didn’t even know had been in the process of jaw-jacking another inmate since just after breakfast. What the argument had been over no one knew, and no one really cared.  In jail, as he’d learned thus far, it was more important to mind your own business and not know everything, or learn how to know anything within the first few minutes.  He wasn’t the type that liked to butt into anyone else’s business, and had so far kept it that way.  If the little guy that had caused the ruckus had had his way though, Colin would likely be on the hot seat by now.

            He’d been minding his business not long after breakfast, which had been served on a plastic blue lunch tray and had consisted of a hardboiled egg, a small package of cereal, a sugar packet, and a small carton of milk.  They were given plastic spoons as well, but eating cereal out of the shallow basin of the tray had seemed like a bad joke.  Colin had eaten his dry and then drank the milk, but had given away his egg to one of his cellmates when they’d asked.  Ric had asked him if he wanted anything in return, but Colin had just shook his head. At the very least Ric had said he would get him back.

            It could have been only about ten minutes after their breakfast trays had been taken, as the next episode of COPS had been playing on the single television suspended above the common area.  Why the inmates seemed to like that show so much baffled him, but he’d said nothing about it.  His attention had been on the piece of paper he’d been writing on for the past few minutes, a concession from Ric for giving him his egg at breakfast.  Ric had also lent him a pencil after discovering that he was an aspiring writer, claiming that it was cool to meet someone who knew how to spin a good tale.  Colin hadn’t had the heart to tell him that he’d never sold anything in his life, that it was just hobby.

            At any rate, the mood in the common room had been fairly calm until the instigator of the scuffle to come had started talking shit to the guy who would almost kill him only a few minutes later.  Colin had listened with only half an ear as the black-haired punk, a tiny guy really with hardly any weight to him, had all but spit on the guy he’d had an issue with.  After looking at the black-haired guy Colin had figured that most of the guys in the pod could have picked him up and snapped him like a toothpick, but then little guys almost always had big mouths.

            So the shit-talking had gone on until it had finally come down to the other guy, a taller, blond-haired man with a definite anger problem, had invited the black-haired dude to settle this matter in his cell. Like a fool the instigator had gone up, thinking perhaps to sucker punch the other guy and end it quickly.  Unfortunately that was not how it had happened.  Colin had kept his seat, as had had Ric, when half of the pod had gone racing up to the next level to watch the fight, only a few of them offering words of caution as to how their hurried movements would attract the notice of the guards. 

            The loud smack of bone on flesh could be heard from one of the cells upstairs, and Colin had looked up just long enough to see the little black-haired guy come flying out of the cell, backpedaling so fast that he hit the upper railing with full force. He almost went over right then, but had just barely managed to catch himself by wedging his ankle painfully in between the bars.  Colin had gone back to his writing, thinking it likely that no one would have tried to catch the guy if he’d actually fallen. 

            After that black-hair had gone around trying to talk to the others in the pod, attempting to make friends and allies so as to get back at the other guy.  He’d met with failure and outright hostility for the most part, and had come to Colin almost last among them all.  When he’d come close Colin had held up his hand, palm outward, and simply said “No.”

            The punk had actually seemed to take offense from this, the bright red mark between his mouth and nose seeming to glare at Colin as the punk had dared to sit down at the same table. Ric had even attempted to get him to leave by stating that they were busy, at which point he’d invited Colin and another guy at the table to join in a friendly game of poker.  Ric had been playing Solitaire up to that point, but had made a quick decision when he’d seen that the black-haired punk hadn’t been ready to go away.  When black-hair had decided to tell Ric to deal him in, Ric had told him to take a walk.  That hadn’t gone over well.

            Ric had watched him go, grinning to himself as he’d shaken his head. He wasn’t afraid for his safety, not in a place like this.  In county it was hard to get away with anything. There were guards everywhere, and their response time was amazing as he’d already seen. The first night he’d been there, Colin had been forced to get up and vacate his bunk, which hadn’t been too hard since he’d been sleeping on the floor.  Staying awake at the table in the common room had been the hardest part as the guards had tossed the cells, searching for contraband and materials that weren’t allowed. 

            They’d found a few things, but nothing in Colin’s shared cell.  Everything inside had been purchased by his cell mates from commissary and was approved. How they used it to their benefit though was kind of odd. 

            Anyway, black hair had ceased to be even a passing issue after that. Ric had been elated all that day as he’d told Colin and their other cellmate, a lanky, curly-haired kid named Lenny that he was getting out for work release.  Work release in Clark County was the working man’s jail, as some called it. You got better meals, more time out of your cell, and got to go outside to work.  It wasn’t spending your time cramped and stuffed into a cell that was in truth no better than a broom closet. 

            In fact Ric had gotten out just before lights out, which wasn’t usual, but had to have been nice.  He couldn’t wait to get out of this place, but he had one more full day to go. The rest of Saturday had been largely uneventful, but of course jail wasn’t meant to be like summer camp.  The accommodations and the food weren’t much different though. 

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            When the lights came on in the pod they came on throughout the entire space. Common room, cells, everything came on at once.  It was hard to remain asleep once the lights came on, but impossible when the guards suddenly told you to vacate your bunks and get your ass into the common area.  But it was considered a bad idea to cross the guards, and so Colin and Lenny, who was supposedly being extradited back to Las Vegas in the morning, were on their feet and in the common area in the next two minutes, bleary-eyed and unable to fully process why they and the rest of their pod were staring at what looked like two pods worth of inmates.

            The guards quickly explained the situation. The two neighboring pods had been contaminated by an unknown gas leak and had been deemed unsafe after one inmate had almost choked to death due to the fumes and another had fallen over in their cell and struck his head on the metal toilet.  None of it was processing all that well, but when the bottom line came both Lenny and Colin had to look at one another and shake their heads.

            Until the leak, which had been somehow stopped just before it hit their pod, could be fixed, all three pods would be staying in this one space.

            Bunk assignments had already begun by the time they were allowed back to their cells, and it wasn’t long before Lenny and Colin had not one, not two, but four new bunkmates.  Two of them were white, two were black, and all four of them were in a bad, bordering on confrontational mood.  One of them, a young black man who seemed incensed that he was being made to lie on the floor, tried to reason with Colin to give him the top bunk, only to be told that it wouldn’t be happening. When reason didn’t work, he tried to tell Colin why it would be best to just give him what he wanted. When Colin still didn’t give in the guy tried intimidation by standing at the side of Colin’s bunk and staring at him. When that didn’t work he tried to get physical, only to be reminded quickly and without any further violence that he was a visitor here, no matter if he’d been in longer than anyone like he claimed.

            He didn’t like hearing that, but then he also didn’t like the position of Colin’s foot only a foot or more from his nose. The addition of finding out that Lenny had been ready to mash his balls into jelly hadn’t helped him any. With a half-hearted promise to pick this matter up later the young man had gone back to his own pad, still grumbling under his breath right up until he’d fallen fast asleep. That had been the end of their confrontation, at least until morning.

            Breakfast came early in county, and without any more fanfare than the clattering of plastic trays and the grumbling of inmates as they shuffled forward upon hearing their name called. Colin had still been attempting to open his eyes fully when the young man from the night before had approached him, claiming that if he wasn’t going to get the top bunk then Colin should at least give him his morning sugar and cereal packets. Lenny had gone so far to laugh at him, but Colin hadn’t bothered looking at him as he’d spoken, acting with such disrespect that it hadn’t gone unnoticed. 

            He’d heard enough about county from friends that, in their infinite lack of wisdom, had made frequent trips to this place.  One of them was even proud of the fact that he knew the prison by memory.  What he had said to the young man was tantamount to spitting in his face, and he knew that even on the outside you didn’t act this way towards anyone without expecting repercussions.  Thankfully he’d never been a racist, a bigot, or even had an issue with race, religion, or any other difference that separated people. All he had a problem with was rudeness, and his own words had unfortunately made him a hypocrite in that moment when he’d told the young man that he could have his breakfast when he was done with it. 

            Translation: eat shit.

            A surprising number of inmates that had heard this had understood it. In this type of place he could believe that the inmates had heard damned near everything and weren’t easily surprised.  The level of disrespect he showed the younger man though was easily translatable as arrogance, and he almost paid for it later on. 

            Breakfast had been over, Lenny had been out in the common area doing something, and Colin had been in his cell reading one of the few books that his cell mates had offered when they found out he was an avid reader.  In the short time he’d been here he’d already gone through half of their sad little library, reading a Christian romance novel, an obscure fantasy book from the 80’s, and the majority of a spiritual guide written by a man who identified as a born again snake-handler.  He’d almost rolled his eyes trying to think what other titles might have been donated to the county library, if there was one.

            He was reading an older Tom Clancy novel when the young man he’d told to eat shit had come into the cell, his eyes never once leaving him as Colin had finally felt the need to acknowledge his presence. At that point he’d also seen one of the young man’s friends leaning against the entrance to their cell, positioned just so that the guards outside the pod couldn’t easily see into the space.  Colin had rolled his eyes this time, having known that this kind of thing would be coming.

            “Think twice,” he’d told the younger man without getting up.  He wasn’t about to show fear to this punk.  He didn’t need trouble in here, he just needed to get out the following day and all would be right. Well, he’d be out at least, and then he could get to work on making everything right.

            “You dissed me in front of my boys homey,” the young man said, his fists balling as he was preparing himself for action. “You don’t ever diss a guy like me.”

            “Why’s that?” Colin replied, “You gonna tell on me?”  He was pushing it, but he wasn’t about to back down to anyone, not now and especially not in here. If he got roughed up for being rude that was one thing, but he wasn’t about to kowtow to some ignorant, blue-shirt-wearing bitch that thought he was hot shit because he’d been in this place so long.

            “Get yo’ ass off that bed or I’m gonna pull it off,” the young man said, “I’m gonna kick your ass bitch.”

            “That’s all you’ve got?” Colin asked with a smirk, “You’ve had all morning to come up with something terrifying and all you can think of is ‘I’m gonna kick your ass bitch’?  My ten-year old niece could have done better than that.”

            “Motherfucka get yo’ ass down!” the young man insisted, not raising his voice as he looked quickly to the door, making certain that the guards  hadn’t noticed the exchange.  Colin wasn’t normally a violent person, but even he understood the difference between being the outsider and being the bitch when it came to county. He was for damn sure not going to be the bitch, not even for a single day.

            He rolled over quickly, reaching out with both hands as he allowed the Tom Clancy novel to go sliding to the floor with a dull fluttering of pages.  The young man didn’t know what the hell was happening as Colin wrapped both hands behind his neck and pulled forward, yanking himself off the bunk soon after. The resulting sound of flesh hitting metal was louder than he would have liked, but by the time the young man’s head had rebounded from the steel Colin was already off the bed and making it look as though he’d been trying to catch the younger man.

            The move shouldn’t have worked as well as it had, but he couldn’t deny the usefulness of it as the young man’s eyes rolled up in his skull, his body going limp as he began to fall.  Colin was there in the next instant to catch him before he hit the mat-covered ground. He might not have hurt himself, but there was always a chance he might have hit his head on the bottom bunk and made things worse.

            Instead Colin managed to catch him and lower his inert body to his own bunk without any further damage. His friend though was converging on him quickly. 

            “Do you want to fall down too?” he asked the friend, who was a rather hulking specimen that could probably turn Colin inside out.

            “Huh?” the man asked, clearly not understanding. His attacker hadn’t opted for the intelligence factor in his backup.

            “He tripped and fell,” Colin said, putting a small measure of steel into his voice.  “If the guards ask that’s what I’ll be saying happened.  So did you want to get all medieval right here and now or did you want to just fuck off?”

            “He’s gonna fuckin’ kill you white boy,” the big man said, “You just made him look the fool.” 

            “In front of a whole pod where no one saw shit,” Colin retorted, looking pointedly up at the big man, “except you, and me.”

            He let the unspoken threat hang out there for a moment, savoring the uncertain look on the big guy’s face as he tried to decide just what to do.  It was like watching a dim-witted bear trying to add two and two together.

            “You don’t talk, neither will I,” Colin said as laid the young man down before straightening up, “And I won’t need to tell the guards what was about to happen here.”

            “Snitches get stitches man,” mumbled the big man.

            “So do bitches,” Colin almost growled, “Remember that.”

            The big man walked off slowly, not speaking but obviously not willing to forget this. Colin felt his heartbeat accelerating just a bit, he’d done something a little rash, but he’d had justification for it. It wouldn’t matter to the guards, he knew that much. They would likely bring this news to the judge he was supposed to be seeing tomorrow if they found out.

            Just as he was about to get back on his bunk Colin noted Lenny coming in the door, whistling to himself as he looked at Colin and nodded.

            “Pretty boy taking a nap?” Lenny asked, indicating the unconscious form of their roommate at his feet, “I don’t know if I’d be standing so close to him right now man. He might wake up and think you’re trying to mount him.”

            Lenny had a good chuckle at that, and Colin tried to join in, but he was more interested in climbing atop his bunk and getting back to his book.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            The rest of the day was uneventful.  He played some poker, borrowed a pack of cards to play Solitaire, wrote a little more, read some more, and even laid down to just stare at the ceiling for a short time. The punk had finally woken up with one hell of a bruise on his forehead and no idea how he’d gotten it.  When asked about it Colin had stated he knew nothing about it. Teezy, the name that others knew the young man by, had professed that he’d been talking to Colin and then felt a sharp pain in his head before passing out.

            When a few guys had asked him why he didn’t report that one of his roommates had passed out Colin had replied that he hadn’t been aware of it. He’d turned over to read, ignoring Teezy, and when he’d turned back he’d been gone.  It was a bullshit story to be sure, and no one was really buying it, but Teezy and his big friend weren’t saying anything to contradict it, so Colin knew that one of two things was bound to happen. They would move forward from this without further issues, or he would in for a long night.

            Teezy and his big buddy wouldn’t even look at him the rest of the day, preferring to be on the other side of the pod when Colin decided to come out of his cell.  He was under no illusions that they were afraid of him, but they didn’t want to risk the interference of the guards.  They wanted to get him when he wasn’t on his guard, and when they could proceed without anyone butting in.  In the pod that would be difficult, but he wouldn’t put it past the two of them to find a way to make it possible.

            As it turned out he only had to wait for lights out.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            All the prison stories ever told, all the movies ever made, were a bunch of bullshit so far as he was concerned at the moment.  True, he was in county, which was different, but he’d heard so many tales about this place and what happened that he’d been scared shitless upon being caught.  But now that he was here he couldn’t imagine why he’d ever been scared.  This place was boring, that was about the worst thing aside from the food. Colin understood it wasn’t supposed to be like a stay at a luxury hotel, but sitting around reading outdated books, begging and borrowing what materials you could just to entertain yourself, and staring at the walls got very, very boring with a quickness he’d not expected.  There was no paranoia or feelings of claustrophobia for him, but then again he’d not been here that long.  He imagined that if he was here for a month or more he might feel differently.  That wasn’t going to happen so long as he could avoid it though. He was supposed to be getting out tomorrow after his arraignment hearing, and would be a free man again.

            Maybe that was why Teezy had planned his little parting gift the way he had.  For all the stories and myths that were told about jail, some were too real. Teezy didn’t manage to create a shiv or a shank during the day, but he had managed to visit the commissary where he had an account it would seem.  What he’d purchased had seemed innocuous enough, a small bar of soap, a few sugary snacks, and a bag of chips.  Unfortunately the soap hadn’t been part of his normal purchase, though he hadn’t known this.

            Lights out had come without any trouble, as the inmates had all retired to their bunks without fail.  Upon entering his shared cell though Colin had accidentally shifted Teezy’s mat before he’d reached it, which had almost caused a scene.  The fact that the guards had still been in the pod had kept the other man from shouting at him though. Instead Teezy had given him a look that Colin knew all too well. It meant “Your ass is mine.”

            He hadn’t said anything, just climbed into his bunk and ran over his few options as he let the thought of what he’d seen run through his mind.  The bar of soap had been wrapped tightly in Teezy’s pillowcase, creating a simple but painful weapon that could cause at least some harm and possibly humiliation if he managed to hit Colin just right.  He wasn’t going to depend on Lenny again, or their other cellmates if Teezy decided to attack. This time he needed to end it.

            Thankfully Teezy wasn’t the patient type.  Colin was lying on his back just waiting when he saw the young black man stand up, brandishing his homemade weapon as he spoke in a harsh whisper.

            “I want that top bunk bitch!”

            He swung the pillowcase as he spoke the last few words, but had not realized that Colin was still awake.  It took just a split second to reach up and grab the descending pillowcase, the bar of soap standing out in stark relief as he watched it aiming towards his face.  Colin ruined Teezy’s chance to beat him as he ripped the pillowcase away and, more out of luck than skill, backhanded him with his left hand so hard he felt the other man’s teeth through his lips before he was knocked away. 

            Colin’s hand immediately began to sting as rolled up to his knees, staying just inches shy of the ceiling as he swung the pillowcase.  So stunned was Teezy that he didn’t manage to block the first two hits as the bar of soap smashed across his left eye and then his right cheek as Colin just started swinging, aiming for wherever he could see

as Teezy, finally over his initial shock, began to cover up.

            He was angry to be certain, but he was also tired and sore from sleeping on a thin, foam mat with only a hard metal bunk beneath to offer any comfort.  He was tired of people like Teezy who thought they could take what they wanted, guys like the dipshit who’d gotten his ass kicked and then attempted to make friends with half the pod, and especially tired of being in this goddamned place.

            His anger played out as a flurry of hard, stinging blows that landed on Teezy’s arms and shoulders, with a few bouncing off the back of his head. The last hit had him raising his head as Colin could see tears of pain, or shame, streaking down his cheeks. This just infuriated him even more as he saw the glistening trails, prompting Colin to grab the bar of soap in one hand as he watched Teezy open his mouth to presumably yell, or perhaps call out for the guards, or both. 

            It was just like a bully was what Colin figured.  Once they realized that their intended victim could, or would, fight back, they became crying little bitches that sought to act like the victim.  Colin was definitely pissed off now as he rammed the bar of soap, still covered by the pillowcase, into Teezy’s wide open mouth. He had a perverse moment of enjoyment as he saw Teezy’s eyes widen in shock as he bit down out of sheer reflex, his teeth almost catching Colin’s fingers as he felt them slide across the skin of his knuckles. Worse than having the cloth-covered bar shoved in his mouth was the fact that Teezy could not control his reflex, and bit even harder as his teeth punched through the flimsy cloth and deeply into the soap.

            The others had barely stirred at this point, but he could hear Lenny coming awake slowly beneath him, and the other three were stirring in their sleep as Colin looked hard at Teezy, speaking in a low, dangerous voice.

            “Go back to bed Teezy,” he said calmly, still at a whisper level, “You had a weird dream and thought your soap was a candy bar.  Next thing you know you’re awake and your teeth are filled with soap chips instead of chocolate.  Do yourself a favor and leave me alone for one more day.  Otherwise it’s about to get a lot worse.”

            “Man you two need to get a life,” mumbled one of the others.

            Colin didn’t take his eyes from Teezy, “You ever had a comb rammed up your ass?”

            Teezy’s eyes widened, but Colin spoke again, “Lenny, you still got your comb?”

            “Just wash it after you’re done man,” Lenny said sleepily as he rolled over, “It’s on the desk.”

            Colin smiled at the horrified look that Teezy gave him, seeming to forget that he still had his teeth buried in his bar of soap.

            “Soap chips in the teeth, or potential anal trauma?” Colin asked Teezy as he cocked his head to the side.

            It was then that Teezy unclenched jaw, spitting out soap as he was careful to turn his head.  Otherwise he would have spit them right onto Lenny. 

            “How about I just go to the guards and let them drag your ass off to solitary, bitch?”

            Colin shrugged, “You’d need reliable witnesses,” he said, looking around.

            “I didn’t see anything,” Lenny said from his bunk, still turned around.

            “Me neither.”

            “Nope, I was fast asleep.”

            “We heard you spittin’ out soap, that’s all.”

            Colin managed a grin as the other inmates spoke up, and that grin continued to spread as he saw the anger rising in Teezy’s tear-filled eyes.  As Teezy looked back at him all Colin could do was shrug.

            “I’ll be gone tomorrow,” he said calmly, “And then you can forget all about me, and this little episode.”

            “I won’t forget,” Lenny said in a half-sleeping voice.

            “Me neither.”

            “Nope, won’t forget, bitch.”

            Teezy looked like he wanted to stomp the life out of each person in the room, but that kind of ruckus would be sure to bring the guards, and no one wanted that., especially when he was the odd man out.

            Teezy looked back to Colin, who was already rolling over to go to sleep.  He felt better than he had all weekend.  And for the rest of the night there were no more ill-fated attempts to disturb him.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            The next day came early, and as they rose and exited their bunks Teezy wouldn’t even look at him, much less speak to him.  Colin ate breakfast, then was escorted to his video arraignment a short while later.  He was eating lunch when Teezy and his big friend from the day before seemed poised and ready to make their way over to where he was sitting. It was only when he looked up and shook his head that Teezy seemed to think twice. When Lenny and the other three men from their cell looked up as well it was obvious that Teezy wouldn’t be coming out of this scenario as the victor, and he wisely backed away.

            It was just before dinner that the sweetest words he’d heard in some time came through the door, words he’d been waiting on for a few hours.

            “Simmons, roll out!”

            He knew what that meant and wasn’t at all sorry to trade his mat to one of his cell mates, or his towel, or even his slippers. Giving one last goodbye to Lenny he was out the door and gone before he could even begin to wonder if Teezy’s bitch ass would be allowed to get the top bunk.  Once he hit the doors leading out to freedom, he couldn’t have cared less.