A Paranoid Mind
Doctors. Bah! What do doctors know? I have been to three different doctors in the past three years and did any of them have any answers? I’ll give you three guesses, but I bet you will only need one.
Oh, they thought they did. Most of their so called “answers” were the kind that come in little orange bottles with white child proof lids. You know, the ones that you have to press down while squeezing the sides to get them open? But I’m here to tell you that those are false answers. I can prove it to you. Just look out the window with me.
Can you see? The night is dark. The trees bare of their leaves. The branches reaching up to claw at the full moon, like the dead trying to reach heaven. The moon is casting its silvery light, the kind that gives the world a not quite real feeling. A soft wind is blowing, moving the bare branches in a quite macabre dance of the dead. The wind is blowing the dead leaves around the trunks of the trees, giving the impression of villagers running from the clomping steps of a giant.
It is a perfect night and a not perfect night. It is not perfect for me, but the perfect night for them. They love this kind of night. For them, this is perfect hunting weather.
What are they hunting, you ask?
The answer is simple. They are hunting me.
Oh, it’s ok, come on back to the window. You are perfectly safe with me. They have been hunting me for a long time, but they haven’t caught me yet.
You know what I think? I think they were in league with those doctors I told you about earlier. I have no doubt that the “answers” they tired to give me were nothing more than a sneaky, underhanded way to get my guard down.
It didn’t work, I stopped taking them. They made the world too fuzzy.
The only reason I went to those doctors was because a judge told me I had to. I saved a strangers life by dragging her into an alleyway so she wouldn’t be killed by one of them and the next thing I know, I’m being arrested and forced to get through years of therapy to deal with my “Paranoid delusions”. Their words, not mine. Some thanks. I should have just let Them get that woman after all.
But I’m straying off target. Sorry, I tend to do that sometimes. I was telling you about Them.
I first became aware of Them when… Wait. Did you see that? That right there, behind that old oak tree. Right there! The one I’m pointing at!
You didn’t see it did you? The small green head that peeked around the tree trunk for no longer than a second?
Didn’t think so. If you want to stay alive, you are going to have to be more watch full than that. If I wasn’t here to see that one, it would have snatched you right up.
Anyway, I first became aware of Them when I was in the seventh grade. It was a night very much like tonight. I was sleeping in my bed. The covers pulled tightly against my chin. I was sleeping soundly in the knowledge that my parents were only two doors away and I was safe. Boy, was I wrong.
I’m not quite sure what it was that woke me. Was it the creak of my closet door being slowly opened from the inside? Or, was it the soft patter of feet, inching closer and closer to my bed?
Whatever it was, I woke up just in time to see red, glowing eyes and dripping green teeth inches above my face.
I tried to scream. I really did. But nothing would come out. Nothing but a tiny mouse squeak escaped my lungs. But that was enough.
It, whatever it was, must have gotten spooked and it ran off, back into the closet, slamming the door behind it.
Then I screamed.
My parents came bursting into my bedroom. I tried to tell them what had just happened, but they didn’t believe me. Just like that judge. Just like my doctors. Just like everyone else.
Everyone, that is, except you.
Why else would you be standing at this window with me?
Look there. In the tree at the corner of the yard, high up in the branches. Do you see that round, black shadow that looks so out of place? I can tell by the look on your face that you do.
Don’t worry. I figured out long ago that if you watch them, they won’t get you.
So stay with me here, at this window, all night and watch. Watch and make sure that They don’t get you. All night and all the next nights to come. Because you know what they say? It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
The Red Gate
I dodged the mace at just the perfect time. A second later and the gray matter inside of my head would have been used to decorate the ground. As it so happened, the mace caught nothing but empty space.
I am getting ahead of myself; let me tell you how and why I got here in the first place. I am Tomas Ridden and I am a knight.
I grew up in the small village of Oxsacks, a fishing village on the coast of Bastillics. My parents were not nobility; my father was a deckhand on a fishing vessel until he died from a misguided spear that pierced his heart. I was eleven then and was thrust out of childhood and into the role of man in the family.
Oxsacks boasted no farms, the ground too parched and dusty to allow anything to grow. The only job that I could find was the same spot on the same ship that had been made vacant by the death of my father.
The captain did not want to hire me. He thought I was too young, too scrawny, and too inexperienced to contribute anything. The only reason I ended up with the job and beating out the hundreds of perfectly capable men waiting for a job with the fishing fleet was that the captain felt guilty about my father’s death.
A year later my mother succumbed to a disease that left her nothing but an empty husk that I no longer recognized by the end. At twelve years old, I was left alone. I left my position on the fishing vessel and headed out on my own to the capital city of Rimes to make a new life
The way to the capital was hard. The road was filled with bandits and murderers whose only talent was taking things that did not belong to them. From these men I learned to fight. It wasn’t the kind of fair fighting that was popular among knights, but it would have given me an upper hand against the other knights that I would have to face.
Fighting came naturally to me. It was almost like breathing. My body responded well to movements that I had required of it. Working as a fisherman had made my body strong and the bandits made it even stronger. It was not too long before I was able to defeat any bandit that challenged me.
I am still not sure why the bandits decided to help me on my quest to become a knight. Common sense would tell you that they believed if they helped me, they would have an inside man that would give them access to the riches the capital held from the common people. They were wrong, but I allowed them to believe that in order to help me achieve what I wanted. They even helped forge the documents of my lineage in order to better help me. After I received what I needed from the bandits, I left them to their own devices, knowing that one day I would return and ruin them.
Once I arrived at the capital, I made haste in finding a knight in need of a squire. The man I found was of a lesser nobility. His family owned a small parcel of land on the outskirts of the capital. His name was Ser Johan Barnst and he was the bravest man I had ever met.
Ser Barnst could not find anyone that was willing to squire for him. All of the prospective squires would have rather served the higher knights for the prospect of more treasure and rewards.
Although I had a much bigger vision for myself, I knew that Ser Barnst was my ticket to getting that better vision. At first he was a little hesitant to accept me. I became a pest to him. The man could not turn around without me right there, begging to be his squire. Multiple times he threatened to have me arrested and thrown in chains if I didn’t leave him alone.
I would not be deterred by threat of imprisonment. As far as I was concerned, a few weeks in chains was a small price to pay for the chance of becoming a knight. Spending weeks out at sea fishing in the great storms that ravaged the Allukian Sea, dodging the swinging ship’s rigging and crates of supplies that were knocked around by the rolling waves was my clearest vision of hell.
I can remember the moment that I decided that my life could be better. We were twenty miles off shore, hunting the squeal sharks that lived in that area. The huge beasts, longer than six of the fleets’ largest ships, were in the middle of mating season and their low, haunting calls could be heard from miles away.
The crew had been stationed below decks for the past few hours, everyone that is except me. A vicious storm had snuck up on us, taking us by surprise. As I was the most junior member of the crew, it was my job stay above deck and make sure that everything was secured.
The raindrops as big as oranges were pelting my backside. They fell with enough speed that I worried I was going wake up with welts the next day. The waves crashing against the side of the ship were causing it to list wildly from side to side. Trying to keep my balance and do my job was becoming increasingly impossible.
One of our fishing nets had become loose from its hold, flew through the air and knocked me over the side. It was only thanks to my quick thinking that I avoided becoming another lost soul to the sea.
I grabbed the netting, wrenching my arm almost out of place while I dangled over the churning waves. Even in the darkness, I could see the squeal sharks circling in the water below, waiting for me to drop into their waiting jaws.
The net was slick from the rain and I thought that at any moment I would lose my grip and fall. Grimacing with the effort, I pulled myself up and back on the deck. Lying there in the rain, panting from exhaustion, I knew I could not take any more. There had to be a better life out there for me. I decided that I was destined to be more than a fisherman, just waiting until a piece of loose netting or a stray harpoon took my life.
Ser Barnst ended up being somewhat of a surprise. That knight knew far more than his reputation spoke of him. It wasn’t the knowledge that he carried that made him just an adequate knight. Ser Barnst had more knowledge bouncing around in that skull than most scrolls in the Abby held. Ser Barnst’s problem was his problem in executing his knowledge.
Ser Barnst had a long, stringy body. It was the kind of body that got easily tangled up in itself. What he wanted his arms and legs to do and what they actually ended up doing were two completely different things.
What Ser Barnst did have going for him what is articulate nature. He was able to teach me all the things he knew about fighting and being a knight, including how to read and write. I was a natural student and soaked up his teachings like a patch of parched soil after a rainstorm.
Because of him, I quickly rose in ranks from squire to knight in just a few years. But it was not long before I realized that even being a knight, it was a struggle to live day to day. The job simply did not entail any extra perks when there was not enough food to go around.
When I was sent to the town of Isles to track down a kidnapper that had snatched an influential lord’s daughter from her bassinet and intended to hold her for ransom, I found a way to free myself of this worlds struggle.
My orders were simple, track the kidnapper, slice his throat and bring the girl back to her father. The first thing I did was go to the local inn. A small dank and moldy place that served dark warm ale, I figured that it would be the best place to sit and listen. Isles was far enough away from the capital that the kidnapper would probably be stupid enough to drunkenly brag about the crime he had pulled off.
I sat in a corner table, ordered my ale and listened to the various conversations that took place. I spent the entire day at that table and never did hear the information I was trying to get. The inn was full of talk of an upcoming tournament to be held within the following week. After hearing the details of the tournament, I lost all interest in the kidnapper and his ransom. I was enthralled by the tale of a wizard that showed up out of thin air a thousand years ago with a challenge to the people of Isles.
After my fifth pint of ale, my fate was decided.
I stayed in Isles from then on, attending every tournament I could. I watched and studied all of the men that fought in the tournament to learn what mistakes they made so that I would not make the same ones.
After five years of watching and waiting, I decided it was time to sign up for the tournament.
Entering the tournament was not as simple as signing a piece of paper. The rules stated that the opportunity to enter the new world was only opened to those who deserved it, to those few that put the welfare of others above the welfare of themselves. The prize was a reward for their selfless acts of service.
In the thousand years that the wizard had been holding the tournament, he must have had some contestants that were not so truthful of their past deeds. A man’s word was not enough to gain entry into the tournament, he had to provide proof of who he claimed to be.
Luckily being a knight did have its advantages. When knighted, the men of my order are branded with a symbol of our position. Two swords crossed at the tip, tied together by a thorny vine, the king’s royal crest, are seared into the skin of our upper arm. This symbol is shown to local authorities during our travels in order to bypass tolls and any other obstacles that I would meet while trying to accomplish my tasks.
The brand was enough to convince the Lord of Ceremonies in charge of the tournament, but I was not accepted yet. I later learned that the Wizard Hig himself wanted to personally speak with me.
I was lead to a cave at the outer edge of town. Almost as soon as you entered the cave, stone stairs led down into complete blackness. The Lord of Ceremonies led the way by torchlight. The stairs were slippery with moss.
At the bottom of the stairs was a long hallway, four doors on the left side and five on the right. We went to the second door on the right side of the hallway. The Lord of Ceremonies lit a torch on the wall. As soon as he lit the first torch, ten more torches instantly flared to life around the room. Inside was a simple chair in the middle of the room. The Lord of Ceremonies motioned for me to sit, I sat, and then he left the room.
I sat in silence for some minutes wondering when I was to meet the Wizard Hig. Before long, I was wondering if I was going to meet him at all. There was only one chair, where was he going to sit. I have not met any wizards in my time and did not know if they even sat like normal people or if they just hovered above the ground with their magic.
Just when I was about to get up and leave the room, convinced that the wizard was not coming, a voice boomed out of the walls of the room.
“You are the knight known as Ridden?” It asked.
I looked around the room to see where the wizard had entered the room. There was only the one door, in front of me, and it had not opened the entire time I was there. Finally I nodded.
“Good. I heard that you would like to enter my tournament.” The wizard said. Another nod. “Tell me
then, Knight. What makes you worthy to fight for the right to enter the new world?” The room was silent again.
I stroked my chin as I thought. I knew that I only had one opportunity to make an impression on the wizard and I wanted to make sure I got it right.
A clearing of the throat, “I am not the patient man I once was. Spit it out.” The wizard said.
I stood up from the chair and spoke. I told the wizard the only thing that I knew would work, I told him the truth. I spoke of my humble beginnings as the son of a fisherman and my rise to knighthood. I told him of my infiltration of the band of bandits in order to get where I needed to be. I told him of all the wars and quests and other things I have done all in the name of what is good. After I was done I returned to my seat.
A long, loud laugh boomed through the room. “I like you Knight, you remind me of myself when I was trying to get into Harvard. You may enter the tournament.”
The door opened, the Lord of Ceremonies opened the door. I was in the tournament.
I had a month to prepare myself for the tournament. I was given a private room in the inn without cost. The knights that compete in the tournament were idolized by the people of Isles. Meals and drinks were given freely. Women batted their eyes and bared their legs at the competitors. Being a Knight, I was used to being treated better than most, but the amount of affection that I received during that month was a little unsettling.
I spent that month training. An obstacle course had been erected close to the house of the Lord of Ceremonies long ago. It had been well taken care of over the years, much better than most of the other structures in town. I spent a great deal of time on that course. There were machines bristling with swords that whirled around when someone turned a crank. Logs attached to ropes that swung at you and tried to knock you down. It was the toughest training course I had ever practiced on.
When the day of the tournament finally came, three large men came to my room to get me. They escorted me out through throngs of cheering people, people who would soon pack the stands to watch me fight for my new life. People from the crowd handed me tokens of affection: flowers and pieces of cloth.
I was led back into the cave and down the stairs, but this time I followed the hallway till the end. I was left by myself to walk down the hallway, the crowd had been ushered into a separate corridor. I continued on down the hallway, into the labyrinth. I was to find my way into the middle of the maze, fighting warriors that were sent to block my path. Getting to the middle was a test in of itself, only the virtuous would make it.
Back in the battle, the giant that I was squared off against was visibly surprised when he did not feel the resistance of the solid iron mace against my skull. His eyes first grew wide, then narrowed into tiny, hate filled slits. I know I saw a hint of red starting at the corners of his eyes.
I had no mace in my hand. In my opinion, the mace is a clumsy weapon. Made only to cause the most amount of damage as quickly as possible. It held not the finesse or honor that the broadsword that twirled around in my hand did.
The crowd that surrounded us roared at the prospect of my head almost getting caved in. I took the opportunity that his surprise presented me to land a punch directly in the middle of my opponents face. I heard a pop and one of his front teeth popped out. The tooth was yellow and pitted like an old piece of corn that had been left out of in the sun too long.
The crowd ooh’d at that. In all the history of the tournament, no one had ever been able to lay even a scratch on Ser Toran, the giant that I now faced. Ser Toran stumbled back, clutching at his face.
A small, high-pitched chuckle escaped from my mouth that only served to anger Ser Toran even more. It probably was not a good idea, but not only did I surprise both the crowd and Ser Toran with my punch, I surprised myself as well.
As soon as he recovered, Ser Toran came at me with a renewed vigor, like he had just awoken from a nice long nap. He swung a back swing that hit me in the thigh. My legs were taken out from underneath me and I fell on my back. If it hadn’t been for my armor, my legs would have been shattered like a chicken bone in a dog’s jaws. The world went momentarily gray from the pain.
Ser Toran brought the mace downward in an ax chop. I rolled out of the way. The mace came down and created a puff of dust where my head had just been.
Quickly I got to my feet, Ser Toran grinning from ear to ear, pleased with himself, as if he had taught me a lesson for daring to touch him. Some say that I am a slow learner.
Behind Ser Toran, I could see the fabled Red Gate of Naberlone. The gate that the Wizard Hig had placed in the great labyrinth under the city of Isles. The gate was said to lead to another world, one that was free of the pain and suffering that plagued our world. It was said that the gate led to a world where water fell from the sky like it had once done in ours and crops were abundant and covered most of the land.
The tournament had been created to allow only the most deserving people into the new world. The Wizard Hig had placed five warriors in the labyrinth to test every participant, Ser Toran was number four.
The smile on Ser Toran’s face did nothing to deter me from attacking again. It only made me want to touch him again. I crossed the empty space between us in three loping strides.
The song our weapons made as they clashed was both harsh and sweet. He swung, I blocked. I jabbed and he parried. Together we danced the deadly dance of our professions. Ser Troan was quick, almost too quick for me. He was strong as well. Each swing of his mace that hit my sword made my arms cry out from the impact. The longer we continued, the harder it was to keep my sword up and in position in front of me. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to continue fighting much longer. I could understand why Ser Troan was such a feared competitor.
Exhaustion was taking its toll on my mind and body until Ser Troan decided that it was time to end the fight.
Ser Troan swung wide and missed. I could feel the wind from the mace cool off my sweating face. The amount of power he put into the swing made him unbalanced and that was enough for me to make my move. I jabbed the point of my broad sword into the space between his armor plates underneath his arm. I felt it as the blade pierced the flesh and bone as easily as the countless fish I once slaughtered on the boat. I placed my boot on his chest and pulled my sword as if I was pulling an ax from a tree.
The crowd fell silent with awe. Ser Toran had never been bested. He coughed once, blood pouring from his mouth and then fell over dead. A pool of blood mudding the dirt underneath him.
My arms shot up above my head and I cried out in an excited howl. The crowd exploded in a ground rumbling cacophony of noise.
The air in the labyrinth began to stir as if a great storm was suddenly building. I stood, not knowing what was coming next. I have watched a great many tournaments in my time in Isles and I have never seen anyone get as far as I did on that day.
Suddenly, something shot passed my head. Through my helmet, I heard it cutting through the air. From behind me I heard a roar filled with rage.
Quickly, I turned and saw a monstrous beast walk out of an alcove set in the wall. It looked as if it had just appeared out of nothing in the shadowy recess. It had the body of a man and the head of a bull. Long, red tipped horns protruded from its head. The tips looked as sharp as the tip of the most deadly knight’s lance.
The minotaur, a species long thought to be dead, tossed an empty bow to the ground. I instantly knew how close I had come to dying at that moment. It was an arrow that had sliced the air next to my head. My knees began to shake and my legs felt week at the near miss I had.
From the way the beast roared and tossed away the bow, I could tell it was not happy that it had missed me. It charged at me and I found myself frozen in place.
Fear is not an emotion that I am accustomed to feeling. I have fought and survived many wars. I have sacked castles, crossed never ending deserts, and faceddown the largest armies in the known world. Seeing that beast coming towards me, white foam leaking from the sides of its mouth in thick ropes, was almost enough to send me running.
The crowd watched with a silent mixture of horror and anticipation. No one had seen a minotaur in over a hundred years. They were shocked to their cores to see a still living one. They wanted to see what it was capable of.
The only thing I was able to move was my head. I looked behind me at the red gate and I once again remembered why I was standing here, my one chance at a better life.
The idea of going to the new world stoked my courage like adding a good-sized log to a fire. I stood my ground and watched as the minotaur stampeded towards me.
It was so fast. Much faster than anything I had ever seen before. I was only able to glace at the gate for the briefest of moments before it was upon me.
I side stepped no more than a finger’s length to the left, narrowly avoiding a horn that would have surely punctured my steel armor as if it was nothing more than a piece of parchment paper.
I did, however, catch the full force of the minotaurs rock solid head. The impact drove the air from my lungs. I wrapped my arms around its head as it carried me across the field of battle. I tried pounding on the beast’s head as I rode with my fists, but even using all my strength did nothing to phase the beast.
No sooner did I catch my breath was it taken from me again when the minotaur rammed me into one of the stone column’s that sat at the edge of the battle field. Dust and stone chips cascaded down on us from the force of which the minotaur hit the column.
I was able to recover quickly as I knew that if I wasted any time, it would be the end of me. I took my gloved hand and poked two fingers into its nostrils. Then, with all the force I could muster, I yanked upwards.
A horrible pained howl came from the minotaur and it jerked its head up. I gained enough room to slip away and I crumpled to the ground, gasping for air. My chest felt heavy and compressed, as if a great weight was resting on it. I could not take more than a shallow breath.
There is a funny thing that happens during battle. Some say that if one’s heart is strong enough, no matter what injuries one gets, there are times that one can tough through an injury. This was one of those times and I knew that I had to move and quickly. The minotaur began to sneeze and with each powerful exhale; its sharp horns jabbed dangerously down at me.
As painful as it was, I crawled in between its legs and came up behind the beast. The rapid sneezing distracted it enough that it didn’t notice where I had gone. There was a metallic taste in my mouth and I spit. A large glob of blood hit the dirt. I knew that I had not cut the inside of my mouth.
I decided it was time to end it.
Jumping as high as I could, I grappled myself onto the minotaur’s back. It roared and bucked, trying to throw me off, but I held steadfast.
I ran the blade of my broad sword across the minotaur’s throat as if it were nothing more than a regular cow at an auction. Blood shot like a geyser from the wound and gave the column that I had just been rammed into a new coat of paint.
The beast thrashed and clawed at its throat. So much blood came from its throat that the fight did not last for long and it dropped to its knees, making a soft mewing noise until it fell snout first in the mud.
The crowd was stunned into silence, as was I. I did no celebrating, no shouting for joy. I stood like a statue, transfixed by the sight of the red gate and the fact that I had done it. I had won.
I could not believe it. I was the first one in generations to win the tournament. I was going to that other world, to a life that was going to be so much better.
The strength in my legs finally gave out and I went to my knees in the bloody much next to the downed minotaur.
There was a loud crack in the air above my heat that brought me out of my stupor. A thick mist began to swirl in front of the gate, distorting my vision of it.
From inside the mist I could barely make out a shadow, nothing more than an outline of a man. The longer I looked, the more solid the outline became until I was sure that some one had materialized inside the misty shroud.
An old man, far older than anybody in our village had ever lived to, stepped out of the mist. His hair was unusually short and tight to his skull. It was as white as sun-bleached bones. A small tuft of hair jutted out of his chin, although it did not connect under his nose like most beards I have seen. He wore strange wire circles over his eyes that hooked onto his ears and a long white robe.
The man lifted a finger at me and spoke in a loud voice that seemed to come from every direction at once. “Thomas Ridden. You have bested all five of my champions, a feat that very few have ever accomplished.” At that moment it dawned me on who it was that was talking, the Wizard Hig in the flesh. I was in awe. He had to have been more than a thousand years old. I knew that because that is how long the tournament has been held in the labyrinth.
Wizard Hig’s hand moved from me and swung around and laid open towards the gate, which had an unearthly glow surrounding it.
“You have earned your right to take your place in the next world.” His voice boomed. Slowly the gate opened. Inside was nothing but absolute darkness. I walked towards it.
Heart beating faster than a hummingbird beats its wings, I reached the gate as it fully opened. Without hesitation, I stepped past the threshold and was swallowed by blackness.
I do not know how long I was inside the darkness. It didn’t feel like a long time, but when you are in a complete absence of light, the mind can play its tricks.
When I finally could see again, I was looking up at the sky but it didn’t seem right. Instead of a vast blue blanket covering the world, all I saw was a small square of sky surrounded by metal. Gray metal houses, taller than the tallest tree back home surrounded me on all sides. There was no grass to be seen either, the ground was covered by a hard black stone.
A few seconds after the noise hit me. So much noise that it disrupted my thoughts and caused my head to hurt. Low roars and high-pitched whines assaulted my ears from everywhere. There were people everywhere I turned, all packed together like livestock. They were all bumping into each other and into me. The air smelled dirty, almost like it did after a dust storm, but much worse.
A woman, whose skin I could see far too much off, screamed. I turned and looked at her. She was pointing at me and my sword that was still dripping with the minotaurs blood. More people screamed and began to run away from me, some of them holding small boxes up to their heads. I wondered what they were for.
In the distance, I could tell that the high-pitched whines that I was hearing were getting louder and louder. Soon five odd carriages that had no horses stopped in front of me. Men in dark clothes jumped out of the carriages and began yelling at me. I could not understand what they were saying; they were talking in a strange language that I had never heard before.
The men pointed odd, little hand held black and yellow boxes at me. One of the men said something to the others and I heard a rapid clicking sound emanate from the box that he held. The noise, whatever it was, made the hairs on the nape of my neck stand on end.
I began to say something, to tell them that I meant no harm to them. I wanted to tell them that I was a newcomer to their strange new land. I took one step closer to them and one shouted louder than the rest. Three distinct words, although I do not know what they meant: Taser! Taser! Taser!
Something came out of the box one of them was holding and created a hole in my armor. An intense pain on a level that I had never before experienced engulfed my entire body. All the muscles in my body stopped froze and I could not move. The sensation lasted for what seemed like an eternity. When it was over, I fell to the ground in a clatter.
Before the darkness came over me again, I caught a glimpse of a small trinket sitting behind a shop window. The design was weird but it stood out to me. It was the last thing I saw before the darkness took me. It looked like this: I New York.
How long ago that was, I do not know, but there is one thing that I do know: Wizard Hig lied. This new world that he sent me to was not the promised land that the people spoke of. I have seen no crops.
When I awoke, I found myself in the back of one of the horseless carriages. I startled awake as I saw the many stone structures around me moving past at an amazing speed. I felt as if I was falling backwards. I tried to catch myself but could not, my hands were secured behind my back by what I could only describe as manacles. My helmet had been removed from my head, as had my chest plate and the rest of my upper body armor.
The front portion of the carriage had been blocked off with bars and there were two men sitting there. The one on the right turned and looked at me and shouted something in his language then spoke to the other.
“Please.” I said to them, “The Wizard Hig sent me to this world. I fought in his tournament. He said this….”
The man had turned back around and yelled again, this time striking the bars with a wooden club. The club made the bars sing loudly and it hurt my throbbing head. I decided that it would be best not to speak anymore.
They took me to a drab building surrounded by metal. One of the man spoke into his shoulder and a door at the side of the building opened all by itself, as if by magic. The carriage went through the door and it shut behind us. The two men got out of their seats and pulled me roughly out of mine.
What happened next was a blur to me. Lots of people yelling at me. They put me in a place that I know was this world’s version of a dungeon. Soon I was moved to a different building and was put into a room with soft walls made of cloth.
They gave me paper and a stick that makes words appear. I have written this in the hopes that somehow it will make it back to my world. I want to warn the people of Isles not to trust the Wizard Hig. He is full of lies and this world is no better than the one we come from. Do not fight in the tournament and do not
go through the red gate.
Although, there is plenty of food to eat.
A Fetus Between US
Mia Zane went to bed one night not pregnant and woke up the next morning pregnant.
When she had taken the at home pregnancy test purchased at the local pharmacy later that night in the bathroom that was through one door to the left of the bedroom, she was shocked.
Mia and her husband Chuck had not been exactly careful during their nighttime activities. When Chuck was a teenager, a car accident after a school dance had left him with a diagnosis that he would have a very difficult time fathering children.
Mia told Chuck the news and he took it as a miracle and thanked God with tears glistening his eyes.
The couple wasted no time in preparing for the coming of their miracle baby. Mia’s office was cleared out of all her things and replaced with a crib, changing table, and a mountain of stuffed animals. The muted olive green color that had adorned the office walls was painted over with bright and happy colors more suited for an infant. Mia even spent most of a day painting a happy, smiling sun that watched over the crib.
Mia couldn’t believe how happy the pregnancy was making her. Usually, she was a happy, bubbly person. Very rarely was she in a gloomy mood. But, ever since she found out that she was going to be a mother, she thought her happiness might burst out of her. It was both scary and exciting at the same time.
Chuck seemed just as happy, if not more than, she was. Mia had never seen him walk with such a spring in his
step before. A broad and toothy smile had been permanently carved in his face. He even stood up straighter than he normally did.
It made her happy to see him so proud.
One morning, when Mia was five months along, she was standing in front of the stove. A large pan of scrambled eggs sizzled on the front burner. Funny, she never liked eggs before, but she now thought they were the best thing that had ever been discovered. While the eggs cooked, she grated an entire block of cheese to go on top of them.
Her grating had been interrupted by a sound of confusion coming from Chuck.
“Hmm…” He murmured. He was sitting at the breakfast table. He was in the middle of the daily newspaper. He had a look of serious thought on his face and he stroked his chin.
“What is it dear?” Mia asked turning towards him. She almost knocked over a shaker of salt as she did. She was just starting to show and hadn’t yet gotten used to the fact that she suck out further than she had before.
Chuck repositioned himself in his chair before answering her. “It says here that you are not alone in
this. Apparently there has been a worldwide pregnancy boom around five months ago. It seemed like it almost happened overnight.”
Mia smiled. She didn’t quite understand why he found that so interesting. To her it was just a trivial bit of information. She knew that she wasn’t the only woman in the world to be pregnant. She wondered why he had thought that she thought that she was alone in this pregnancy. What a thing to say.
“Must be something in the water.” She joked and went back to cooking her eggs.
She did not put another thought into the subject. Chuck on the other hand, kept his nose in that newspaper and reread the article all the way through breakfast. For a second, Mia was worried that he might become obsessed with it.
Chuck finally put the paper away and spoke no more of it for the rest of the day.
Nine long months dragged on and on and on. Even though Mia loved being pregnant, she sometimes worried that her due date would never arrive. She was so excited to meet her baby that time had slowed down to a crawl.
Mia spent those nine months reading every book on pregnancy and child rearing she could find and listened to all the stories about weird cravings that pregnant women tend to get.
At first she thought her newfound love of eggs was the weirdest craving she would experience. It wasn’t.
The weirdest craving struck her on night in her sixth month. Mia was sleeping soundly. It was one of the few times she had slept in the past couple of months.
She awoke in a sweat, breathing heavily. An odd feeling, almost like an incessant itch covered her entire body. Instantly, she was mad. It wasn’t fair. She had finally gotten comfortable, finally sleeping, and now she had to get out of bed.
She left the bedroom, walked past the baby’s room and went down the stairs. She moved with a purpose, although she was not sure where it was she was going.
At the end of the hallway was a closet. She twisted the knob to the closet. Inside were all the various coats that she had collected over the years that she just did not have the heart to throw out.
Sitting on the floor, behind all the coats, was a carpet cleaner that hadn’t been used in quite a while. Next to the bulky machine was a bottle of cleaner.
Mia snatched up the bottle and twisted the lid off in one, smooth motion. She caught a small whiff of the liquid inside and her skin puckered with goose bumps. It was exactly what she wanted.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Mia brought the bottle up to her nose and breathed deeply. She shook with ecstasy. The smell of the cleaning fluid was heavenly.
She fought the overwhelming urge to drink the neon green liquid that sloshed around inside. She wanted to. She wanted to more than anything else in the world at that moment. It sounded better to her than the fanciest chocolate in the world.
She didn’t though. She was too scared that the cleaning fluid would hurt the baby that was still growing in her tummy.
The smell would just have to do.
Mia sat on the floor with her legs folded underneath her and lost herself in the breathing of the carpet cleaning fluid. She stayed there the rest of the night
and did not move again until Chuck found her in the morning.
“What the hell are you doing?” Chuck asked as he snatched the bottle from Mia’s hands and deftly twisted the cap back on.
“I don’t know.” Mia replied. Without realizing what she was doing, her hand shot out, reaching for the bottle.
Chuck pulled away so hard that the bottle almost went flying out of his hands and down the hall. The momentary look of insanity that had distorted Mia’s face as she reached for the bottle scared Chuck. He had never seen her look like that before.
“How long have you been down here?” He asked.
Mia shrunk back, ashamed of her actions. It had suddenly dawned on her just how dangerous what she had been doing was.
At the time she had been able to stop herself from drinking the cleaning fluid, but she didn’t stop to think that inhaling the fumes was probably just as dangerous. She began feverently praying to God that she had not hurt the baby. Even as she prayed, the urge to sniff more of the cleaner was almost overwhelming.
“I don’t know.” She said hoarsely. Her throat was beginning to become sore.
Chuck looked at Mia with a combination look of anger and pity. He said nothing more and turned on his heels and swiftly carried the bottle out to the dumpster on the curb.
Mia had a momentary panic attack at seeing Chuck toss the bottle, but she eventually realized it was for the best. She still fought the urge throughout her pregnancy.
When the big day finally arrived Mia was soaking in the bathtub. Chuck had gone to the grocery store to pick up some popcorn for a movie they were set to watch.
It was still a full two weeks until the baby’s due date and neither of them thought twice about Chuck leaving his cell phone on the end table next to the front door.
Just before Chuck left, Mia’s legs were suddenly feeling very sore so she decided to take a hot bath. She had turned the hot water on full blast and added just a scotch of cold water.
When the bath was ready, wisps of steam rose tantalizingly from the water. Her belly broke the surface and Mia rubbed it affectionately, eager to find out what her baby would look like when she finally got to meet him in a couple of weeks.
While she sat in the tub, Mia giggled happily. The baby must have really been enjoying the heat from the water. It was kicking and moving around inside her like crazy. She rubbed her belly lovingly and swooned. She did not notice that the baby was moving so much that she might have seen the out line of its face as it pressed against her stomach.
When the feeling in her tummy went from odd, kind of ticklish, movement to painful cramps, did Mia stop giggling. The loving smile vanished in an instant and was replaced by wide-eyed panic.
She groped for the phone that she kept on a stand next to the bathtub, splashing water all over the bathroom floor.
Her hands were wet and before she could swipe and unlock the screen, the phone slopped out of her hands and plopped loudly into the steaming water.
As fast as she could, Mia grabbed the phone from under the water, but it was too late. The phone was water logged and the screen shown nothing but black.
Panic really began to set in when Mia realized that the phone would no longer work. What was she going to do now? Who knew when Chuck was going to be back from the store?
Mia pushed herself up, out of the water. There was still the house phone downstairs that she could use to call an ambulance.
It was a struggle for her, but Mia eventually got completely out of the bathtub. She almost slipped and fell on the first step there was so much water on the bathroom floor.
After careful consideration, she decided it might be a better and safer idea to stay put in the tub and just wait until Chuck got home.
Her water had broken, but she still had not had another contraction. She remembered from her birthing classes that she didn’t really need to go to the hospital until her contractions were at least five minutes apart. She didn’t know for sure, but she thought it had been almost
ten minutes since her first one and there was no sign of another one.
Even more carefully, Mia climbed back into the tub and was enveloped again by the soothing warmth of the water. She seemed to hurt a little less in the water than she did out of it.
No sooner did Mia start to relax did another contraction slam full force and twisted her belly. She hoped that Chuck would get home soon.
Twenty-seven minutes later, Chuck fumbled the front door open, plastic grocery bags hanging off both wrists.
“Mia!” He called out into the house after setting the bags down on the island in the kitchen. He yelled a bit louder than he normally would. From the moment he opened the front door, he could tell that something wasn’t right.
“Mia!” He called out again.
“Chuck? Oh God! Chuck! I’m in the tub!” Mia’s voice came floating from upstairs.
Knocking over an old glass of orange juice, Chuck hurried out of the kitchen and flew two steps at a time up the stairs.
He threw the bathroom door open and found Mia still partially submerged in the bathtub. She was grimacing in pain and holding her belly.
“Oh baby, what is it?” Chuck asked rushing to her. He slipped on the water that still slicked the floor and fell face first into the side of the tub. There was a sickening thunk and Chuck saw fireworks explode in front of his eyes.
“Oh God. Chuck are you ok?” Mia asked through gritted teeth. She tried to sit up to check on him but the pain was too much and she was forced to lie back down.
After a second, Chuck popped back up off the floor, red faced and breathing hard. His eyes were wide but he seemed more worried than hurt.
“What’s going on?” He asked immediately.
“The baby’s coming.” Mia grunted.
“What? No, it’s too early. The baby can’t come yet.” Chuck said.
“I don’t think it cares.” Mia said.
“Um. Ok. Let me go get the car ready. Can you get out and get dressed or do you need help?” Chuck asked getting up off his knees.
Mia screamed and sent Chuck’s heart into overdrive. “There’s no time. It’s coming now. Chuck, you have to help me.” Mia said after she was done screaming.
“What? No, I..I.. can’t” Chuck stammered.
“You have to. The baby’s coming now. You are the only one that can help me.” Mia said through tears.
Mia sat up and pulled her knees towards her chest.
“Ok. Ok. I can do this. Let’s get you to the bed.” Chuck said. He reached and grabbed Mia under one arm, getting ready to haul her up and out of the tub.
Mia shook her head. “No, I can’t. Water births are better anyway.” She said. Another contraction distorted her face.
Chuck blew forcefully through his mouth and readied himself.
“Hurry.” Mia pleaded. “It’s coming.”
Chuck, with no thought for the clothes he was wearing, climbed into the bloody bath water with Mia. It was a tight fit, Chuck wasn’t exactly the smallest guy on the
block, but he managed to get himself crouched down between Mia’s legs.
Once the contractions had started, the birth had escalated quite quickly and within minutes of Chuck returning home and climbing into the tub, Nicholas Raymond Zane was born.
While Mia got out of the bathtub, Chuck inspected his son to make sure he was healthy. The boy looked fine but something about him didn’t sit well with Chuck.
Nicholas’s color was very pale, almost gray. His mouth was small and he had almost no lips. His arms and legs seemed disproportionately long compared to the length of his body. But what was the most disconcerting was the Nicholas didn’t cry. He simply stared inquisitively at Chuck with dark, slightly pointed eyes.
The sight of his son slightly disturbed him deep down, but it was overridden by the intense wave of emotion that washed over him as he looked at his son. Eventually, Chuck talked himself out of his initial reaction. He had never been around a newborn that young before, maybe that was how they all looked.
Once Mia had gotten dressed and was lying comfortably in bed, Chuck called an ambulance to the house. The baby
looked fine to him but it had come two weeks early and Chuck new that Nicholas had to be checked out by someone who knew what they were doing.
The ambulance showed up, a lot later than Chuck would have liked, and took Mia and the baby to the hospital. Chuck followed behind in the car.
When Chick reached the hospital, he was surprised to see that Mia and the baby were to be put in a room that was not in the maternity ward.
When he asked about it, he was told that the maternity ward was full, but Mia would be put in a single room by herself and there would be extra security on duty so that she and the baby would be safe.
Chuck couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could the maternity ward be full? He had never heard of such a thing before. It did not make sense to him that the maternity ward could be full.
The nurse who told him this leaned in closely and said, in a low tone, “To be honest, that’s why the ambulance took so long to get you guys. There have been a lot of babies born tonight. All of them born before the parents could get here.” The nurse went back to writing something in a folder.
Chuck thought that was the strangest thing he had ever heard.
Mia was not at all happy when she had found out that she wasn’t going to the maternity ward. In shock from the news he had just been given, Chuck said nothing. All he could do was follow.
Mia quitted down after it was explained to her, but she still didn’t like it. She didn’t think that she would get the same kind of care that the baby and her needed outside of the maternity ward. Eventually she accepted that there was no chance for her to get into the maternity ward any time soon. She settled into her room.
Mia and Nicholas were kept in the hospital for the next three days. Originally the doctor wanted to keep Nicholas longer than the three days, but after the second day, he was doing great.
All of his organs were fully developed and he was not underweight. Nor was he too short, as one would think a premature baby would be.
The next morning, after Nicholas had been born, after Mia had had a restful sleep, Chuck walked in the room with a couple of bagels smeared with strawberry cream cheese from the cafeteria.
Mia gratefully took the bagel and chomped it down in three bites. She had the television on and was watching the morning news. Chuck plopped down into the chair next to her bed and nibbled on his bagel.
Chuck had been the proud papa through the night and had taken the baby for most of it. Being that they were not housed in the maternity ward, they didn’t have access to the nursery and, therefore, had been no break from the crying baby in the middle of the night.
Chuck had insisted that Mia sleep and he would take the baby for the night. It was a good idea at the time, but by two o’ clock in the morning, he had started to regret it.
By the time he returned with breakfast, Chuck was exhausted.
The news report that was now on the television woke him up and in a hurry.
In the story description on the bottom of the screen read the weirdest thing; MASS BIRTHS EXPLODE WORLD POPULATION.
The bagel froze halfway to his mouth.
The reporter, a pretty blond with bright red lipstick, was delivering the story that, overnight, mothers all
over the world had given birth at the same time. Hundreds of thousands of babies had entered the world on
the same night. It was the first time in the history of the world that anything like this had ever happened. experts all over the world were baffled about the phenomenon.
The weirdest part of the story was, as the reports were coming in, all of the babies all had similar features. They all, regardless of race or nationality, had a grayish tint to them and eyes that were pointed on the ends.
Chuck looked over at Mia to get her reaction to the story. She was fast asleep. She was lying on her back, her head cocked to one side. Her chest hardly noticeable as it rose and fell. The baby lying on her chest, his tiny fist clenched tightly under his chin.
Chuck stared at the baby, studying him. He tried to see any similarities between Mia and Nicholas. It was hard to notice anything they shared. He thought of his family members and tried to see if there were any similarities there. He couldn’t tell.
All Chuck could think about was the news report and how his miracle baby, born on the exact same night as all
those other ones, looked like how all those babies all over the world were described.
As Chuck was watching him, Nicholas quietly fussed and slowly woke up. The baby didn’t cry, he stared at Chuck with those big, dark eyes.
Slowly, a seed of doubt was planted in Chuck’s mind.
Mia had spent the entire day cleaning. It was now 5:05 but she couldn’t sit down yet. There was too much to be done.
She had started the ardorus task of deep cleaning the house as soon as Nicholas had left for school. Once she had finished, she began to prepare for the party.
She hung up a bright, blue banner that blasted Happy 17th Birthday! over the doorway that led into the living room. She put up party streamers all over the living room itself and put out plates of appetizers.
She was just putting the finishing touches on the cake, German Chocolate, when she heard a car pull into the driveway.
Mia left the chocolate icing covered spatula in the bowl and went to the front door to welcome the first of the guests. Within ten minutes, the living room was
packed with high school kids. They mingled and chatted with each other while waiting for Nicholas to get home.
At 5:30 the sound of Chuck’s pickup truck could be heard coming down the road. When the sound of the truck’s grumbling engine cut off and two sets of doors slammed, all the party guests quieted down and turned towards the front door, anticipating the guest of honor.
He came in and the crowd shouted, “Happy Birthday!” before his trailing foot crossed the threshold.
Nicholas, now tall and broad shouldered, studied the party with his trademark inquisitive look. His dark, almond shaped eyes taking in every bit of visual information they could.
“Thank you everybody.” Nicholas said in a flat, unsurprised voice and continued into the house.
He walked straight to Mia and gave her a rigid hug. Mia warmly hugged him back, laying her head against his shoulder.
“Happy Birthday Sweetheart.” Mia spoke into his shoulder. Just as soon as he had done it, too soon in her opinion, Nicholas let her go and pulled away.
She tried to hold on longer, tried to lock her hands around his neck, but Nicholas broke through and looked her in the eyes.
Those eyes. They were so dark and full of intelligence. Ever since Nicholas had been a baby, Mia had loved to look into his eyes. They were hypnotic. Looking into his eyes was like looking into the deepest, darkest part of the night sky.
“Mother, you shouldn’t have done this. Honestly. This really wasn’t necessary.” Nick said. He was taking in the partygoers and the decorations like a newborn seeing the world for the first time. It was how he looked at everything.
“Oh, it was nothing. And you deserve it Nicholas, really.” Mia said. She leaned in to give him another hug, but he moved away and entered the party becoming lost in the crowd.
Mia awkwardly tried to recover from the missed hug. Trying and failing to hide the hurt she was feeling. Nicholas was her miracle baby, something that was once just a dream, half remembered by the afternoon.
Then, one day seventeen years ago, the dream left the fuzzy mental realm and into reality. Someone that was and wasn’t supposed to be.
It turned out the Nick was her only miracle. She and Chuck had never been able to have any other children.
It was probably because of the fact that Nicholas had been such a miraculous event was why Mia felt such a strong love for him. She had heard that the bond between mover and son was a powerful force, but what she felt for her son was so beyond what had been described to her. It was like standing only a few miles from the sun.
The big problem was that Nicholas didn’t always show that he felt the same way about her.
Nicholas was a highly intelligent kid. He was much smarter than any of the other kids in his school. In fact, he was more intelligent than any of the adults they knew. He was certainly smarter than Mia and Chuck were. Nick had a lot of friends, but as Chuck had often voiced that he thought, Nicholas kept them simply to keep up appearances.
Most of Nicholas’s time was spent on the Internet, chatting with people that were more on his intelligence level about important things.
Nicholas’ intelligence came along with some level of emotionlessness. Mia wouldn’t flat out and say he was cold, but it wasn’t too far away.
A sharp knock on the front door drew Mia’s attention away from her son. She wondered who it could be. Everyone she had invited was already at the party.
Mia moved to the front door but Chuck beat her there.
Chuck swung the door open and a man who looked to be in his early 40’s stood on the other side. He was dressed in a dirty blue t-shirt and tattered khaki pants. His gray speckled brown hair was messy. He looked like he had slept in a ditch.
“Mr. Zane? Chuck Zane?” The man asked. Chuck thought he sounded a little too excited.
Confused, Chuck slowly nodded his head. The man became even more excited at the conformation. Chuck thought that he might bounce right out of his cracked leather shoes.
“My name is Augie Heber.” The man extended an open hand in introduction. Chuck didn’t take the offer, simply stared at the man trying to figure out why he was there.
Augie awkwardly lowered his hand but his excitement did not wan. “I was hoping that I might talk to you for just a minute. Is it a good time?”
Chuck’s eyes narrowed. “No. We are having a party.” He said.
Augie tried to peek inside the house but Chuck moved slightly and blocked the view. Augie frowned at the fact that he was not able to see the inside of the house.
He met Chuck’s eyes. Augie’s eyes were hard and serious. They were probably the only things about him anyone could take serious.
“It would only take a minute.” Augie said. His excitement was suddenly replaced by a sense of urgency. “It’s about your son.”
Chuck looked behind him and saw Mia watching him. He shrugged his shoulders at her. Her eyebrows went up.
Chuck turned back to face Augie and held up one finger. “You have one minute.” Chuck said, and then pointed out to the front yard, away from the party.
Augie smiled and almost danced out into the yard. Once out in the yard Augie didn’t say anything for a long moment. He just looked at Chuck with his serious eyes.
“Yes? What did you want to talk about?” Chuck asked. His arms were folded across his chest and his foot was tapping in the grass.
Augie cleared his throat. “Your son was one of the kids born during that mass birthing event seventeen years ago, right?”
Chuck had never heard it put quite like that, but he nodded his head anyway.
“Have you noticed anything different about him? You know, anything that might separate him from the other kids around here?”
Chuck blew out and impatient sigh through pursed lips. “We’ve been through all of this with the doctors, then the CDC when he was born. There is nothing wrong with him. No mutations, no defects, nothing.” Chuck said. He was getting angry.
Nicholas, along with all the other babies that shared his particular physical attributes, had been put through a mountain of tests by the government. They had been concerned that the babies had all been the victims of a virus that caused birth defects. Whether it was man made or not was not known.
After a few months of near constant tests, Nicholas had been given a clean bill of health. No defects, nothing more that a weird coincidence.
The event had been hard on Mia. She had been stressed to the limit by the possibility that something could be wrong with her miracle baby. Chuck had spent many long nights holding her as she cried at the thought of it.
Chuck was mad that Augie had shown up trying to reopen old wounds.
“No. I mean on the inside.” Augie said.
At that moment, Chuck had all the air sucked out of his balloon of anger.
From the moment that Nicholas had come out of his mother’s belly, that first night in the hospital room, Chuck knew that he would not be like the other kids.
The older Nicholas became, the more apparent it was to Chuck that Nicholas was different. While all the other kids were playing in the dirt or throwing balls around in the park, Nicholas was locked away in his room conducting whatever experiment that popped into his head. It seemed as if Nicholas was compelled to figure out everything he could about the world around him.
Nicholas’s personality was another red flag that had always waved at a corner of Chuck’s mind.
Standing there in the front yard, in the bright spring sunshine, Chuck searched his memories for even a brief instant when he had heard Nicholas laugh. He couldn’t.
For seventeen years Chuck and Mia had never been given back any of the love they had showered over Nicholas.
Chuck never actually admitted it to himself, but deep down, he never believed Nicholas was really his. The fact that Nicholas shared more physical attributes with hundreds of thousands of strangers than with him, did not escape Chuck’s notice.
Augie’s chuckle brought Chuck out of his thoughts.
“Ah. This isn’t the first time you’ve had these thoughts, is it?” Augie asked.
Chuck cleared his throat and tried to regain his composure. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Chuck replied, hopefully a lot cooler than he felt.
Augie nodded. “Sure.” He said.
“Listen. What is this really about? Who are you?” Chuck asked.
“I’m a scientist. I apologize for my appearance but you are not the first parent I’ve talked to about this. I’ve been on the road for quite a while.
“I’ve been researching the children that were born that night, and…” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “I have found something out about them.” Augie finally finished. He had been twiddling his fingers as he spoke.
Chuck’s foot tapping resumed. “And what makes you so different than the others? All the other doctors and scientists that spent so much time and effort trying to figure out what was wrong with them?” Chuck asked.
Augie blinked at Chuck’s sudden anger but it didn’t make him falter. “Because I don’t think like those other scientists. I don’t look at the normal reasons.”
Chuck’s eyes squinted at Augie’s. What the hell had he meant by that?
All the sudden all of Augie’s little twitches and tweaks completely stopped and his voice lowered a few octaves.
“I believe that your son is not human.” Augie said.
Chuck did not give Augie the pleasure of a reaction to his statement. He silently turned and walked back into the house.
“You know I’m right!” Augie called out after him. “You’ve known for a long time!”
Chuck went inside, slamming the door shut behind him. Augie watched the front door of the house for a few moments before shrugging his shoulders and turning away. Before he turned and walked down the street, heading for his beat up station wagon that had become his mobile home, he glanced at one of the windows of the house. His eyes were met by a pair of dark, almond shaped eyes that watched him from the other side of the glass.
Augie’s heart jumped at first at the sight of the eyes, but recovered. He waved and mouthed Happy Birthday to the kid before continuing down the street humming the birthday song.
Inside the house Mia was waiting impatiently for Chuck to return. She was waiting just inside the narrow hallway, arms folded when Chuck crossed the threshold.
“Well?” She asked before Chuck could even get the door completely shut.
Chuck waved off her concern with a flick of his hand. “It was just one of those conspiracy theory nuts. Trying to sell his manifesto about ‘The Evils of the Government.’ Which was only half a lie.
“Come on, let’s get back to our son’s birthday.” Chuck said.
He and Mia held hands as they walked back to the party. It was time to open presents.
Three days later there was another knock on the Zane’s front door.
It was the middle of the afternoon. Chuck was at work, Nicholas was at school and Mia was at home by herself. She had just finished rinsing off her lunch dishes when three sharp raps of knuckles on wood brought her from the kitchen.
When she opened the door, two men in suits stood on the other side. They wore guns and silver badges on their belts and serious expressions on their faces.
“Can I help you?” Mia asked nervously. She had never been visited by cops like this before. The first thing that popped into her head was that something had happened to Nicholas. Her stomach twisted and flipped with worry.
“Sorry to bother you Mrs. Zane. My name is Detective Lynch and this is Detective Norton.” Both men held out their hands. Mia took both and shook them one at a time.
After the introductions had been made, Detective Norton took a cell phone from the inside pocket of his jacket. His index finger flipped through a few pages before he came to what he was looking for.
Norton held the phone out to Mia so she could see the screen. On it was a photo of a man with brown hair peppered with gray.
“Does this man look familiar to you Ma’am?” Norton asked.
Mia looked at the phone’s screen, squinting to try and see it better. After a few seconds, she shook her head.
“He doesn’t look familiar to me. Who is it?” She asked completely baffled. The second she had opened the door, she had braced herself to hear news about Nicholas. The two detectives showing her a picture of a strange man confused her.
“His name is Arthur Heber. He’s a researcher from the University of Phoenix. He was found dead, stuffed in a drainage pipe last night.” Detective Lynch said matter of factley.
“Oh my goodness. That’s terrible.” Mia said, a hand rose to her mouth. A second went by and she said, “What does this have to do with me?”
Ignoring the question Lynch said, “Is your husband home Mrs. Zane?” The cell phone had been shut off and placed back into Norton’s pocket.
Mia shook her head. “No. He’s at work and won’t be back until after 5. He has to pick up our son from his young inventors meeting.” She said. The worry had crept back into her voice.
Lynch pulled out a card from his wallet and handed it to Mia. “This has my office, cell and personal number on it. Please have your husband call me as soon as he can.” He said.
“What’s going on?” Mia asked. She had been trembling.
Norton looked at her dead in the eye. “A piece of paper with yours and your husband’s names and your address on it was found in Mr. Heber’s pocket.” Mia’s heart skipped a beat. “We just want to ask your husband some questions is all. Just trying to figure out the connection is all.”
Mia took the card and the two detectives left. All of the sudden Mia felt as if her world had been turned upside down.
Later that night, when Chuck and Nicholas had come home and Nicholas had gone to his room for one of his internet meetings, Mia took Detective Lynch’s card out of her purse.
They were in the bedroom. Chuck was changing out of his work clothes, Mia was sitting on the bed.
“I had some visitors today.” Mia said. She tried to make it sound like it was no big deal, but she didn’t think she was successful at it. Her heart was thudding a thousand beats per second against her chest.
She was scared. Not of Chuck, but of what he might say. She was scared to find out why a dead man would have their names and address in his pocket.
“Oh yeah? From who?” Chuck asked not even looking at her.
She held out the business card. “The police.” She said simply.
Chuck stopped changing, one black sock hanging halfway off his foot. “The police? Why were they here? Did I
get caught by one of those unmanned speed traps again?” He asked.
He took the card from Mia’s fingertips and studied it, frowning.
“No. They want to ask you a couple of questions about a dead guy.” She said. She had given up trying to sound like it was nothing. She was almost yelling.
She reached out and grabbed Chuck’s hand, giving it a tug so he would look at her.
“Why do the cops want to question you about a dead guy?” She asked. She was almost in hysterics.
Chuck noticed how upset she was and sat down on the bed next to her, taking her into his arms.
“I have no idea Mia, I swear. What did they say?” Who is the dead guy?” He asked trying to calm her down.
Tears had begun to well up in Mia’s eyes. “His name is, was, Arthur Heber. They said he had our address in his pocket.”
Arthur Heber. The name sent a shiver down Chuck’s spine. The crazy guy who had come knocking on their door on Nicholas’s birthday had introduced himself as Augie, but the last name was the same. Augie must have been a
nickname. Perhaps one that followed him from elementary school.
“Chuck? Are you ok?” Mia asked, straightening on the bed. Chuck had gone a shade whiter than the slips over their pillows.
Chuck blinked, smacked his lips a couple of times, and then gave Mia a reassuring smile.
“Its just fine dear. Don’t you worry about it.” Chuck said. He gave Mia a one armed hug, squeezing her tightly. Mia returned the hug, wiping tears from her eyes.
Once Chuck had made sure that Mia was ok, he left the house and sat in his truck while he called the detectives who had scared the hell out of his wife.
He made an appointment to meet with them the next day during his lunch hour. It was an inconvenience for him. Lunch was his favorite time of the day, but Lynch had offered to buy it for him. Although, it couldn’t be anything fancy. A cop’s salary only goes so far.
After the phone call, Chuck went back inside and headed upstairs and knocked on Nicholas’s bedroom door.
Before an answer Chuck could hear the tell tale clicking of Internet windows being either closed or shrunk.
“Come in.” The monotone voice of his son came from the other side of the door.
Chuck opened the door and found Nicholas sitting at his desk in front of a blank computer screen.
“Hi there Sport. How goes the night?” Chuck asked plopping down on the kid’s bed.
“Pretty good.” Nicholas replied.
Chuck looked around the room. The walls were bare. They had been repainted to the same olive green they had been before he was born. A bed, desk and dresser were the only pieces of furniture in the room. It was the ceiling though that always fascinated Chuck.
Throughout his life, as soon as he could ask for it, Nicholas had collected as many of those plastic glows in the dark stars that stick on the wall.
Over the years Nicholas had created an entire universe on his ceiling that, in Chuck’s opinion, was nothing less than a work of art.
The stars created intricate patterns of swirls and circles that, if Chuck didn’t know any better, looked like it might be a real galaxy.
Nicholas looked at Chuck as if he were looking into Chuck’s soul. Those dark eyes always unsettled Chuck a little bit. When Nicholas looked at him that way, Chuck found it very hard to hold the gaze.
Chuck stood and rustled Nicholas’s hair. “I just wanted to say good night son. Sweet dreams.”
“Good night Father. Although, as you know I don’t dream.” Nicholas said. Chuck leaned down and kissed the top of Nicholas’s head.
He caught a whiff as he did and scrunched his nose at how bad it was. Nicholas smelled like wet dirt and the sour smell of old water.
Straightening Chuck waved a hand in front of his nose. “Don’t forget to take a shower tonight son. You must have worked pretty hard during P.E. today, huh?”
Nicholas looked up at him, not even a hint of embarrassment on his pale face.
“Ok Father. Good night.” Nicholas said.
Chuck then went back to his bedroom and crawled into bed with Mia. He gave her a quick kiss goodnight, rolled over and turned off the lights, then went to sleep.
The next day Mia was up in Nicholas’s room. It was laundry day and she was gathering up loads to start.
Nicholas kept his room immaculately clean, all the dirty clothes were all neatly placed inside the tall green hamper that matched his walls.
Mia scooped up the hamper and, while exiting the room, she stopped. A white t-shirt had been jammed behind the dresser. Only a single short sleeve peeked out from behind the dresser.
The shirt must have fallen back there when Nicholas was putting away the clean laundry after it was folded. He was usually very careful about his room being as clean as it could be.
Mia reached down and tugged. After a bit, the dresser released its grip on the shirt. Mia had to use a little too much effort. The shirt flipped up and hit Mia in the face.
She stumbled back, more from the smell that the actual hit. The shirt reeked like an old dog that had been hit by a car and left in the street.
Mia unfurled the shirt and held it out in front of her. Big splotches of red were splattered all over the front of it.
Her mind reeled at the sight of the shirt. She wouldn’t let her mind go where it wanted to and, instead, she forced it to a happier conclusion.
Jam. Nicholas had spilled a bunch of strawberry jam all over the front of his shirt. Either that or it was ketchup. Nicholas had hit the shirt behind the dresser because he was embarrassed. Nicholas always put such an emphasis on cleanliness that he didn’t want anyone to see that he had made a mess.
Yes, that was a much better explanation than the crazy, insane one that her mind had concocted the first second she had seen the shirt.
She would just have to go and wash the shirt for her son.
Mia turned towards the door and was startled to see that Nicholas had snuck up behind her. He was now in the doorway, blocking it.
“Oh! Sweetheart, you startled me.” Mia said breathlessly.
Nicholas cocked his head to one side. “What are you doing Mother?” He asked.
“Just getting some laundry ready to be washed.” She answered cheerfully. The white t-shirt was still clutched in her hand.
Nicholas looked down from her eyes to her hands and the red stained t-shirt.
“I wish you hadn’t come in here Mother.” He said.
Very methodically, Nicholas took two steps inside the room and shut the door behind him.
Chuck had a rough day and all he wanted was to open a beer, plop down in his recliner and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was planning on doing this as soon as he was finished with his last bit of business of the day.
He had to let Mia know how his meeting with the detectives had gone. He needed to tell her that he was not a suspect in the murder of Arthur “Augie” Heber.
He had told the detectives exactly what had happened. That Augie had showed up at their house out of the blue spouting off some crazy conspiracy theories. What he didn’t them was that, the more he thought about it, Augie’s words did not seem all that crazy to him.
The house was silent when he got home. So silent that it seemed oppressively heavy. Stepping in the front door was like stepping into a world full of Jell-o.
Hanging his car keys on the hook next to the door, Chuck called out to let Mia know he was home. He was sure she had been freaking out all day long and he was eager to put her mind at ease.
Nothing but quiet, not even the soft hum of the dryer running in the backroom, met him.
“Mia!” He called out again.
Chuck began to walk through the house, checking each door he came to. Mia was nowhere to be found.
When he came to Nicholas’s room, he opened without knocking. Nicholas was at one of his after school activities and was not due home for another couple of hours.
Nicholas’s bedroom door opened a crack, but was stopped by something on the other side.
Chuck’s heart began to race. What if Mia had collapsed while in there and was blocking the door?
Chuck put his shoulder to the door and pushed as hard as he could. It took most of his strength, but he got the door opened just enough for him to slip through.
He entered the room, calling out for Mia. She wasn’t on the other side of the door. Someone had moved the dresser in front of the door, blocking it.
On the floor, just before the dresser, the polished hardwood was heavily scuffed. Chuck scanned the rest of the room looking for more clues about what had happened.
His jaw dropped and his knees weakened. On the wall above Nicholas’s bed was a dripping, red, meaty splatter that looked like some kind of new age painting. Something that would sell for millions of dollars in the big cities.
Pulse pounding in his temples, Chuck scrambled to check under the bed. Nothing there. He jumped up and ran around the room in a panic, not knowing where to go or what to do.
In his rush, Chuck bumped into the desk that sat next to the bed. The jolt was just enough to move the mouse and awaken the computer out of sleep mode.
Whatever it was that Nicholas had been working on was still on the screen. The site was for a chat room, but not one that Chuck had ever seen.
Chuck bent close to the screen. In the background were countless pictures of what looked to be schematics. Chuck couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were of. What had grabbed his attention was the text box that was dead center of the screen.
Someone named Leader186, whether that was Nicholas or not Chuck had no idea, had posted a message that had been blasted to everyone that was a member of the site.
The message said, “To all Brothers and Sisters. Now is the time. Our people will arrive soon. We must pave the way for their arrival! BEGIN THE INVASION NOW!!!”
After reading the text, Chuck straightened and slowly backed up, in a fugue of confusion and distain.
Faintly in the background of his mind, Chuck heard Augie’s voice quietly say, “Your son’s not human. You know I’m right!”
It all started to make sense and suddenly, Chuck was very scared.
Slowly, Chuck backed away from the computer. He wasn’t watching were he was going and backed right into the closet door.
He turned staring at the gleaming brass doorknob. His hand reached out and gripped it. Chuck turned the knob, not wanting but knowing that he had to see what was inside the closet.
Chuck flung the door open. Inside were all of Nicholas’s clothes, all pressed and hung neatly. He pushed past all the clothes. The wall behind them looked wrong, looked like it was too close.
Behind the clothes, off to the left, was a small metal ring that was painted the same color as the wall. Chuck pulled on the ring.
A small section of the wall pulled away. Chuck let the fake panel clatter to the ground. Behind it was a pile of weapons. They didn’t look like normal guns. They all looked kind of homemade, but there was no mistaking what their purpose was.
This was what Nicholas had been working on during all his science clubs and young inventors meetings.
Suddenly Chuck didn’t want to be in the room anymore. In fact, he didn’t want to be anywhere near the house.
Chuck got to his feet. Once there he froze in place. Something was not right. He turned and was staring directly into dark, almond shaped eyes. They were eyes that he knew very well. They were the eyes of his son.
Chuck, startled, took a few steps back.
“What are you doing in here Father?” Nicholas asked.
“I’m looking for your mother. Have you seen her?” Chuck answered.
For the first time that Chuck could remember, a smile tugged at the corner of Nicholas’s small mouth.
“You humans and your curiosity. It always gets you hurt in the end.” Nicholas said.
“What are you talking about Nick?” Chuck asked.
“Did you really think that I was your son?”
Chuck nodded his head.
“That was all part of the plan. Humans will believe anything as long as they want it enough. My ancestors planted us here with humans that were looking for a miracle. Ones that were desperate enough to believe their children were perfect, despite the evidence looking them right in the face. Today is the day those humans will regret making their prayers.
“What better way to learn about a people than to be raised by them.” Nicholas said.
“What are you talking about? Nick where is your mother?” Chuck asked. Nicholas had backed him up until he was almost standing in the closet.
“My mother is on a warship that has almost entered orbit. If you are meaning your wife, she got a little too nosey and had to be dealt with before she ruined the plan. Just like that professor the other day. They were the first casualties of the invasion.” Nicholas said. His voice was full of anger and hate. Something that Chuck had never heard in it before.
Nicholas stepped up until he was almost nose to nose with Chuck. Chuck could see the fury in his dark eyes.
“You are too late to stop us. Nothing can stop us now.” Nicholas growled.
Chuck suddenly felt a sharp pain in his stomach. A hot fire that burned just above his belly button.
He looked down just in time to see Nicholas pulling a jagged black blade from his stomach. Blood poured from the wound.
“Nick.” Chuck croaked softly and fell down on his butt.
“That is not my name!” Nicholas spat at him.
Chuck reached down, trying to stem the tide of blood that was coming out of his stomach. It hurt like hell.
“Please.” Chuck squeaked.
Nick squatted down until he was eye level with Chuck again.
“Don’t worry Charles. I will spare you the horrors that are about to befall your planet.” Nicholas said raising the knife above his head.
Chuck’s hand groped behind him and his fingers closed around something cold and metal. Without thinking, his hand whirled around and Nicholas’s eyes grew wide.
Chuck pressed the gun against Nicholas’s forehead and pulled the trigger.
The back of Nicholas’s head exploded outward in a flash of white light. He fell over, twitched once, twice, then was still.
Chuck dropped the gun with the loudest clatter he had ever heard. He let out a long torturous wail like the sound of a wounded animal.
He crawled over and cradled the body of his son in his arms. Tears flowed freely as Chuck wept for his wife, for his son, and for the life he no longer had.
After long moments, how many had passed he had no idea, and he felt like he had cried every ounce of water from his body, Chuck stood. He needed to get to a hospital and get help.
Laboriously, Chuck made it downstairs and out the front door. He made it halfway down his lawn before he heard the first boom come from the air. It was followed by more in rapid succession.
Chuck looked up. The sky looked like it was on fire. Millions of falling stars plummeted towards the ground.
Nicholas had spoken the truth. The invasion had begun.