Monday, November 25, 2013

Diary of a Man-Child 25/11/13

     Mother took them to the food bank where she used to volunteer; they had been nice enough to offer us a free Thanksgiving meal.  While mother chatted it up with one of her old friends, he and his sister hovered around, trying to entertain themselves.  Things got interesting when he grabbed Sister's bandana and yanked it off her head.
     "Mom!" sister yelled, chasing him around shelves stacked high with off-brand food.
     Mother ignored them.
     After four or so times, pulling off the bandana lost its appeal, so they floated over towards an empty food rack with a sign reading "Take only "one" bag, please."
     "We have to burn this," he said.
     "I know, right?" sister scoffed.
     Mother finally took notice of them.  "Why do you have to burn this?"
     "They're mis-using quotation marks," he said.
     Mother returned to ignoring them.
     After the food was in the car, and after another round of yank-the-bandana, they went across the street to the Chinese buffet.  On the way, sister tried her hardest to get him punished for annoying her.  "You always take his side!" she yelled.  "He never gets in trouble!"
     He found a pair of sister's black-and-white striped gloves and put them on.
     "Stop acting like this," mother said.  "You're an adult."
     "I may be, but Zebra Man isn't!"  He cackled and clicked his fingers together.
     In the restaurant they were seated, their drinks ordered and delivered, and now he was trying to blow the paper off of his straw.
     "Get that out of your nose," mother said.
     He pulled the paper down a little further, then straightened, looked around, and proceeded to blow the paper off.
     "I told you not to do that!"
     "No one was looking!"
     They calmed down after a few minutes, then turned to quite conversation.  He had recently become enamored of the film The Room, and had begun sharing its many many-splendored joys with his family.  Sister in particular enjoyed one specific line, and repeated it over and over.
     When she was done with yet another recitation of the line, he said, "Have you heard about the similar Japanese movie, The Loom?  'You're tearing me apart, Risa!'"  Laughs all around.
     Conversation lulled again, and they focused on eating.
     "So," mother said after a few minutes.  "What does the phrase MILF mean?"

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 23

Chapter 23

            In the beginning was darkness.  John opened his eyes, blinked, closed them again.  There was no discernible difference.  He pushed himself into a sitting position, felt concrete rasp against his bare legs.  Where was he?
            The last thing he remembered was driving home from a client meeting in Cherry Hill.  He had... well, probably too many drinks.  Oh, God, where was he?
            A sound, somewhere between a gasp and a sneeze, came from his right.
            He held still, waited for his heart rate to return to normal.  Wherever he was, he wasn't alone.  Groping in the dark identified an arm, shoulder, bare breast.  John sighed and relaxed against the rough wall.  Lucy.  He must have come home a little drunk, must have ended up taking Lucy down into the cellar.  God, what a horrible place to make love.  She wouldn't be happy in the morning.
            But maybe tonight?  John stroked her breast, leaned in, kissed her shoulder, worked up to the neck.  She snorted and flopped her arm towards him.  Her ear, and— rough scalp.  Prickly fuzz of freshly growing hair.
            He jerked away, shouted something.
            Whoever was there with him awoke, flailed around, scooted out of reach.  “Oh, God!” she yelled.  “Please, whatever you're doing, please stop!”
            “Me stop?  Who the hell are you?”  John crossed his legs, tried to hide his nudity, despite the total darkness.
            “You were—you were rubbing on me!”
            “No I wasn't!  I mean, you were asleep—”
            “And that makes it okay?  The fuck is wrong with you?  Where am I?”
            “I—I don't—”  The situation became clear to John.  He was stark naked, in the dark, with a complete stranger.  If she wasn't Lucy, this wasn't his cellar.  If it wasn't—  A deep disquiet rumbled in the pit of his stomach, and he felt a tremor pass through the walls of his reality.  Slowly, he reached up to the top of his head.  Nothing but stubble.
            Now there was soft crying.  “Oh, God, what is happening, what is happening...  Please don't rape me, just let me go, I swear I won't tell anyone...”
            “Whoa, hey, slow down, no one's going to, um...” he cleared his throat.  “What happened before, I... I thought you were my girlfriend, I just woke up, I don't know what's going on...” he trailed off.  “I thought you were asleep.”
            “I thought I was just dreaming at first...”
            They sat in silence for what seemed like hours.  “Um, I'm John by the way.”
            No response for what seemed like hours.  “My name's Suzanne.”
            “That's, uh, that's a bit of an accent you got there...”
            That brought John up short.  He never thought about it, but he guessed he did have a bit of an accent.  Of course, so did almost everyone he knew.  “It's not too weird.”
            “It's just...  I don't know, it seems really north-eastern.  Where're you from?  Originally, I mean.”
            “Here.  I've lived here my whole life.  What do you mean, north-eastern?”
            “Like somewhere around New York, New Jersey, somewhere in there.”
            “Pennsylvania...”  Nausea was rising.
            “Right, something like that.  But you say you're from Texas?”
            John lurched forward, fell to his knees, dry-heaved onto the concrete.  How much had he had to drink?  Where was he, what was going on, what was going on, what was—
            Harsh white lights burst on overhead, and both John and Suzanne yelled in pain, fell back to writhe blindly on the floor.  What seemed like hours passed before John was able to blink away tears and look around.  He was in a cube, maybe teen feet on a side, a large metal door imbedded in one wall.  Overhead, almost lost in the glare, where row upon row of halogen lights.  His vision drifted down to the nude woman laying on the floor an arm's length away.
            There was no guessing her height, but her build suggested she was no more than average.  Her flat, broad-featured face was topped by a fringe of black fuzz.  Her skin--a dull chocolate color--contrasted sharply with his own milky paleness.
            That wasn't right.  He had never been very dark, but the last thing he remembered, he had sported a tan.  Now his skin was pale and papery-looking, a matrix of thin scars spread across his chest and arms.  “The hell...”
            There was a dull clunk as Suzanne backed against the door.  John looked up to see her trying to cover herself, to curl into a ball.  “Don't look at me!”
            He rolled over, tried to hide his unconscious reaction to seeing her; this was neither the time nor the place.
            “So,” he said, trying to inject some cheer into his voice.  “you're from Texas.  You think this is Texas.  I'm, uh, I'm from Philadelphia, and...  Look, the last thing I remember, I was driving home from a business meeting.  Um, what do you remember before waking up?”
            She sniffed, cleared her throat.  “Um... I was just at my apartment.  I was finishing up a paper for school.  It was, it was the last paper for the term.  Oh, God, I need to get that turned in.  I need to... Fuck!”
            “Um... I hate to rock your boat, but isn't it a little late to turn in a term paper?”
            “It's... It's July.”
            “No it isn't.”  Her voice was steely, and John didn't dare argue.  “It's December.”
            The pale skin, the scars— “You have plans for Christmas?”  He couldn't keep a note of panic out of his voice.
            “My, uh... My parents died last year.  I was just... just going to stay around the dorms, drink a lot...  You?”
            “I'm Jewish.”
            “Oh yeah, I saw that.”
            John clamped his legs tighter.  He needed to think.
            He played through multiple scenarios.  Kidnapping?  Most definitely.  Someone who had access to people all over the country.  That seemed to be outside the realm of the average private psychopath.  Aliens?  No.  Just... no.  The scars, the time jump... the night driving home, far beyond buzzed.  There must have been a car wreck, he must have been in a hospital.  Government?  Had to be.  Why?
            Didn't matter; he had to escape, had to get back to Lucy.  They were just months away from being married; she had already picked out baby names.  Had to get back to Lucy.
            He stood, unconcerned now by his nudity.  It was just a fact of life, just something he had to get used to.
            Suzanne looked up at him.  “Um... what are you doing?”
            He gestured behind her.  “We need to look at the door; it's our only way out.”
            “What about the drain?”
            John turned and looked at the floor.  There was indeed a small circular, maybe two inches across.  He looked back to Suzanne.  She dropped her gaze.
            “I was just kidding...”  She stood as well, and together they began examining the door.  It was difficult to make out details, the light was so bright, but it seemed to be a solid piece of metal, with recessed hinges.  It would be impossible to fiddle with the hinges as long as the door was closed.
            They were stuck.
            They sat in silence for what seemed like hours.  The whole time, John continued to think of ways to get out, to get back to Lucy.
            “Hey, uh, John?” Suzanne said.
            John started.  He must have dozed off, despite the lights.
            “Look, I know we're uh, we're naked and everything, and we can't really be strangers, but I'd still like to ease into it, so... You think you could turn around while I use the drain?”
            John complied.  He heard footsteps, the sound of pressurized liquid spattering against a hard surface, then—
            From somewhere behind the lights powerful jets of water blasted on, pelting them, bruising skin, spattering against the floor and ricocheting around in a stinging spray.  Moments later it stopped, and they lay curled on the ground, trembling and whimpering.
            “We're... we're being monitored,” John gasped.
            “Could... could be coincidence.  Two times, two times, we're monitored.”
            “What the hell were you studying in college?”
            Then the light turned off, and they counted it as morning and evening of the first day.

            Sometime later the lights returned, just as sudden and relentless as before.  John stood and approached the drain.  “Get ready, I'm about to test your hypothesis.”
            Suzanne nodded and curled into the fetal position. 
            He began to urinate, finished, waited, every muscle tense.  “I think maybe you're—”
            Water.  John fell back on his heels, trying to keep as much of his body as possible away from the under-spray that reflecting from the ground.
            When the water stopped, he looked up to see Suzanne staring back at him.  “Okay,” she said, wiping water from her eyes, “we know how the toilets work.  Now, we find out how we get food.  There was no food yesterday, but I'm sure they're not going to let us starve.”
            “We don't know if the dark/light cycle was a full day.”
            Suzanne almost smiled.  “What the hell were you studying in college?  Anyway, it doesn't matter if it was an exact twenty-for hours or not, what matters was we have something regular to measure time by.
            The lights shut off.
            “Okay, now they're just fucking with us,” she continued.
            John sat, edged his way back to the wall.  “So, uh, it appears we're trapped here for the time being.  We should probably get to know each other.”
            “I'm not telling you any more until we see another person.”
            “For all I know you're a serial killer, and this is just how you get off; pretending to be a prisoner, gaining the trust of your victims.  If there's someone on the outside, I'm more inclined to believe you're a prisoner, too.  Serial killers tend to work alone.”
            “What the hell where you studying in college?”
            He couldn't see her, but in the silence after his question, he could almost imagine a smile.
            “While I'm waiting on verification that you're not going to kill me, why don't you let me get to know you.”
            “Um, well...”  With all the talk of serial killers, he was having his own doubts about Suzanne.  Still, thinking about normal life might help him to keep a level head.  So far, this was all too strange to accept, but he was sure that once he did accept it, he would well and truly panic.  “My name's John Donalson, Jewish, age twenty-seven.  I'm an architect living in Philadelphia.  I'm... I'm engaged.” 
            Saying it aloud, acknowledging it in this strange place made it seem so distant, so impossible.  He wasn't supposed to break this soon, his reality wasn't supposed to collapse after only a few sentences of his own biography.  It was as if acknowledging what he had had before this cube only served to underline what was no longer his.
            He didn't realize he had been crying until he felt the warmth against him and his tears stopped. 
            “If you really are a serial killer, you're doing a damn good job of getting my sympathy...”
            And there was morning and there was evening the second day.

            The next time the lights turned on, there was food.
            “Did you see or hear anything?”
            “No...”  Suzanne was starring at the gallon jug of water.  “You could have slipped out while I was sleeping.”
            “You were on top of me.”
            She didn't hear him; she was busy chugging the water.  When she had finished about a third, she returned the jug to the floor, then slid the jug to John.  He too drank greedily, only to be pummeled to the floor in a spray from the ceiling.  When the water stopped he turned to see Suzanne, hunched over the drain, water dribbling down her chin.
            “What the hell?  That fucking hurt!  Warn me next time, goddammit!”
            She retched then scuttled away, fear visible in her eyes.
            He sighed.  “Look, I'm sorry, okay?  I... I'm sorry.  Here.”  He placed the jug to the floor, then stepped away.  “Just... just drink slower this time.”
            She stood, half-bent, eyeing him warily, then picked up the bottle and sipped at it.
            John turned to the small metal bowl that had been left beside the jug.  It had turned over in the downpour, and whatever had been in it was oozing towards the drain.  He scooped it up, shoved it in his mouth, gagged.  It was some kind of bean paste, unseasoned hummus maybe, that had mixed with too much water.  He used the bowl to scoop up the rest, then set it aside.
            He and Suzanne took turns drinking the water until the jug was empty, then shared out the bean paste.
            “So,” John prompted, licking the remainders of the paste off his fingers, “what's your story?”
            She frowned, then nodded.  “Alright.  I'm a sophomore at Texas A&M, studying psychology.  Nominally Baptist.  Like I said earlier, my parents died.  Car wreck.”
            John shuddered.
            “I think I was in a car wreck.  That's how I think I got here.”
            “Car wreck in July?  Alright, I'll take a wild guess and say dorm fire in December.  Smoke inhalation.  Those fucking hippies down the hall were always burning something.  We had three small fires in the time I was there.”
            “You think we're dead?”
            Suzanne leaned back and regarded him.  “Honestly, that seems a lot better than any of the alternatives I could think of.”
            Then the lights shut off.
            “Shit, that happens at bad times.”
            “You think they're controlling the lights based on what we're doing or talking about?”
            “You know one of those worse alternatives I mentioned?”
            “I'm hoping I didn't get wasted and sign up for some really fucking weird experiment.  No amount of extra credit is worth this.”
            And there was morning and there was evening the third day.

            And so life continued.  Lights would turn on, lights would turn off, food would come, all without pattern.  Sometimes the light would last for mere minutes.  Sometimes it would strobe on and off for... some immeasurable period of time.  Sometimes when the light turned on, there would be food.  Sometimes, there wouldn't be.
            And then came the time when the light turned on and they were not alone.  Three humanoid forms stood among them, wearing a harness of armored pads, with thick metal bracing at the knees and hips.  Their faces were completely obscured by helmeted gas masks.
            Once they noticed the intruders, John and Suzanne scuttled away, pressed into the far wall.  They waited, wondering if their presumed captors would speak.
            They didn't.  The humanoid—no, it had to be a human, there were tiny English words stenciled on the armor—closest to them raised a short club at Suzanne.  He jerked the end upwards, waited a moment, repeated the gesture.
            With a glance to John, Suzanne stood, her body trembling.  The man nodded, turned to John, jerked the rod down.  John sank to the floor, lay prone, looked back up to the man.  The man nodded, brought his hands up to his chest, pushed them forward, returned them, repeated the gesture.
            Unsure of what was happening, John pushed himself up, then lowered himself.  He looked to the man, and the man nodded.  The club pointed again, flicked back down and back up.  Again.
            Having no other idea of what to do, John performed another push-up, then continued, occasionally glancing up at the man for affirmation.  The man wasn't nodding anymore, nor was he giving any other indications.  John continued.
            At twenty-five, his arms began to ache; at thirty-five, he was ready to collapse.  He hadn't been exercising since his incarceration.  Mostly, he had been eating and talking, trying to remain sane.  At forty-five, his arms gave out, and he collapsed to the floor.  He looked up to see the man's reaction. 
            The man stood for a moment, then approached Suzanne.  She flinched away, but he lay a reassuring hand on her shoulder.  She straightened, and the man struck out with the club, catching her just behind the ear, sending a spray of blood down on the concrete.
            “No!”  John found the strength for one final push-up, coming up to his feet and lunging at the man.
            The two others stepped forward and caught John, holding him in place while the first man reached down and helped Suzanne to her feet.  John noted with some pride that while her eyes glistened, she didn't cry.  Quite the opposite; she fixed the man with a glare so fierce John was surprised the three didn't turn and leave right then and there.
            The man looked away from Suzanne and repeated his earlier gestures to John. 
            This time, he made it to twenty before the man struck out at Suzanne again.
            When they were finally alone again, John sat slumped in the corner, his arms hanging limp at his side.  Suzanne, blood seeping from the four wounds across her head and right shoulder, lay curled up next to him, her head in his lap. 
            As John stared down at the glistening brown ridges protruding from the dark skin, he realized that he was never going to see Lucy again.  All he had in the world was this woman before him.  No matter what, he couldn't let her be hurt again.

            The men returned, following no discernible schedule.  On their first trip back, Suzanne was made to perform pushups while John was beaten.  When he tried to fight back, the two followers held him while the head man beat Suzanne.  It was the last time they tried to resist.
            For the most part, the exercise/beating schedules were even.  First Suzanne, then John, then repeating.  But just like everything else in this private corner of hell, even that couldn't be counted upon.  The longest run had been three sessions in a row where John was forced to watch Suzanne suffer as his arms gave out.  Through it all, he couldn't help feeling as if he were the one hurting her...
            When they were alone in darkness, or during the bright times when there was food, the two were never more than a foot apart, trying to remain in physical contact at all times.  They had ceased to speak, to dredge up the past.  All their communication was physical now.  First, simple touches: I know how you feel, I'm there for you.  Then, prolonged holding and caressing: I won't let you go, I won't let them hurt you.  Finally, copulation: Why are you letting them hurt me, why can't you do better?
            At some point amid the haze of light and dark and pain and pleasure there was a change: the visitors began to come during mealtimes.  As John watched Suzanne work herself to exhaustion, as he flinched and fell under the head man's blows, he saw one of the other men stoop and proffer the bowl of bean past to Suzanne.  As she ate, as she rested, as John continued to suffer, he hated her.  He was hurting, while she was thriving.
            As the pain and isolation continued to drive them together, the sudden lack of reliable nutrition drove them apart.  Now, when a visit was over, and one of them was hurt and ashamed of their powerlessness, the other would be full and sleepy.  The sex became rougher, became less communication and more accusation: You're doing this to me, you're the reason I can barely stand to live.
            Then water became a bargaining chip.  As the lights turned off, as the visitors left, the unlucky victim was forced to drag themselves to the drain, to summon enough blood and saliva to activate the flushing mechanism, to try to lap up some of the stinging water that bulleted from the sky.
            Soon, even physical communication passed away.  Between visits, John and Suzanne would huddle together in the corner, oozing with half-healed sores, each silently hating the other for what had been done, each silently feeling shame at what they allowed to happen...

            And then the imprisonment ended.  The lights turned on, and they shook themselves awake; it was the one routine they had left.  They looked around, tried to see what was different. Food?  No.  Visitors?  No.  It took them several minutes to notice that the great metal door, the unmoving behemoth, stood open, letting their bright white world drift into the void beyond.
            Almost as one they stood, crept forward, cautiously poked their heads around the corner.  Outside was a hall of dark grey cement, a strip of fluorescent light locked behind a wire cage running overhead.
            John took a step back, hunched his shoulders, drew in on himself.  He wanted to be out there, to find Lucy, but the unknown outside this portal seemed too great compared to the relative safety of this little room.  Here there was pain, yes, but there was food, there was water.  What was there outside?
            Suzanne glanced at him, back at the open door, back at him.  The call of freedom was so strong... 
            Tentatively, all too aware of something like the flush mechanism laying in wait, she stepped through the portal.  Nothing happened.  She turned back to John, beckoned.  He hesitated a moment longer, then stepped through. 
            They continued down the hall, slowly at first: there was so much to explore.  Some twenty feet from their door was another, same size, same shape, but firmly sealed.  Twenty feet beyond that, another, another, another...  They were running now, doors rushing by on their left, never ending grey on their right.
            They were three doors past it when they realized that they had missed something.  Without speaking they both stopped, both turned, both walked back the way they had come.
            There was a door in the endless wall.  What's more, it was open.  This time, there was no hesitation as they stepped through the portal, as they looked around at this new world.  In many ways, it was like the one they had left: a cube, too bright lights lost in the glare overhead.  In other ways, it was different: two low armchairs sat facing each other in the middle of the room.
            Behind each chair stood a man, dressed in loose grey fatigues a shade lighter than the wall outside.  To John's right, the man was short, wide-faced, with a fringe of red hair extending down in sideburns.  To Suzanne's left, the man was a little taller, brown hair topping a square face.  Both men were thin and bony, fairly swimming in their uniforms.
            “Hello,” the redheaded man said.
             John flinched; it was the first voice he had heard in... in... It was the first voice he had heard.
            The man gestured down at the chair before him, and John felt a sudden urge to sit in it, to feel the smooth black material against his bare skin.
            Beside him, Suzanne was stepping forward to take the seat the other man has offered her.  They both sat, both sighed as the smooth coldness touched them, soothed them.  They looked up, into each other's eyes, and John was almost willing to forgive her what had been done to him.
            Then the taller man spoke.  “You are now unable to move.”
            John tried to look up at him, to try to pry meaning from his expression, but found himself unable to move.  Oh.
            “Only your left pinkie is able to move.”
            John saw movement in his peripheral vision; Suzanne was testing.
            “We're going to play a game now.  You are both going to not move your pinkie.  The first one who does, lives.  The other dies.  Your entire future is now up to you.”
            John's body spasmed as the words sank in.  He tried to breath, found only the smallest give in his diaphragm.  Across from him, Suzanne's pupils widened, despite the brightness.
            And suddenly, nothing else mattered except for Suzanne.  John was determined to remain still, to let her kill him, to let her live, to survive, to find escape, to thrive—
            To live on through whatever interminable hell came after this.  If their time in the room had been any indication, this place was not one that accommodated the living.  Death would be the greatest escape.  Life... life would be the best punishment for her, after all the pain she had caused him.  She deserved it for all the beatings, all the times he had gone hungry, all the times—
            All the times he had failed, and she had been beaten.  All the times he had eaten while she had starved.  As much as he resented her, he realized that she must resent him just as much, hate him blow-for-blow, bowl-for-bowl...  Feel the same guilt for failure that he did.
            What could he do, what could he do, what could he do...  He had to be sacrificed, he had to take the blame for all that had happened, he knew that, it was the only way.  But which was the worst fate, which was the last parting gift he could give to her for all she had done to keep him sane?
            Have to choose, have to choose, have to—
            Suzanne slumped forward, slid from the chair, a pained groan escaping her lips.
            John could move again.  He threw himself forward, clutched at the limp body, screamed her name over and over again, began murmuring babbling, saying all the words he had held inside for so long.  
            Why?  Why had this happened?  He hadn't moved his finger, had he?  He had still been thinking, still been trying to find a way out.  No, it was too soon, too soon, he wasn't ready to be alone, not yet—
            The lights turned off.  There was the sound of boots scuffling on cement, of two heavy object being pushed aside, then the feeling of a presence behind him—
            And there was morning and there was evening the last day, and then John rested.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Diary Of A Man-Child 8/11/13

     He had begun selling knives.  His boss told him he was the one who could do it, could sell $10,000 worth of product in his first week, and he almost believed him. There was still a part of him that said, "This guy probably tells everyone that..."  Oh well, he would try to sell that much, or die--okay, not that extreme--trying.
     Today he had three appointments back-to-back-to-back.  The first went off without a hitch: he showed the knives, made the speech, sold a few.  Great.
     The next house had dogs.  He loved dogs.  Apparently, the dogs loved him back.  As soon as he got inside, the 10,000 pound pit bull got so excited she vomited.  Then being a dog, she proceeded to eat the vomit.
     "I've already seen this twice," the homeowner said.  "Do you think you could speed this up?"
     He did.  Twenty minutes later, he was done, and ready to go to his next appointment.  That wasn't scheduled for another hour.
     "Have you waited long?" his next appointment asked an hour later.
     "Only about five minutes," he said.
     Inside, he began his presentation.  The man he was presenting to had sold these knives over twenty years earlier, so they had fun comparing the products, seeing how they had changed over the years.
     Then his dog vomited.
     "Wow," his appointment said.  "A dog vomiting while on a sales appointment?  That never happens."
     But it already had.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Diary Of A Man-Child 21/10/13

     The plan had been to go to dinner, then to Home Depot for paint for the downstairs bathroom.  The first part went well enough.  Near the end of the meal he got up to go to the restroom.  He was almost there when he heard a voice.
     "Hey, I like your shirt."
     He turned to see the woman at the check-in smiling at him.
     "That show?  I watch it all the time.  It's awesome!"
     He smiled back.  "I was on the show."
     She smiled back.  Or maybe continued smiling.  It was a grey area.
     He continued to the bathroom, and repeated the events of moments before to his brother, in the stall.  "You should talk to her," brother said.
     When dinner was over they all filed out.  Brother stopped him just as he was about to leave.  "Go back in and talk to her."
     He turned back, awkwardly introduced himself, and managed to get her name and a promise to friend him on Facebook.  All told, a good dinner.
     Things started deteriorating in the car.  "I have to pee so bad," he announced to the car in general.
     "Me too," said brother.
     "Hold it until we get to Home Depot," mother said.
     Minutes stretched by, flooding with urine until they were horrible distended hours of torture.  At last they pulled in to Home Depot.  He and brother ran inside, only to find the bathrooms were at the furthest possible point from the door.  They power walked.  Power walked like their lives depended on it.
     "Can I help you with anything?" an employee asked as they power walked by.
     "You guys made it," the employee said as they ambled by the other way minutes later.
     The next half hour was spent arguing with the man at the paint counter.  Mother passed him an orange chip and explained what she wanted it for.
     "A bathroom?  Really?" the paint man asked skeptically.  "Maybe you should just get a sample."
     They continued to haggle back and forth, mother slowly telling the man more and more of their life's story.  It was an odd experience for the children.  In the end, they left Home Depot without the paint they had come for, the second part of the evening failed.
     As they walked outside, he stumbled into sister, who yelled and began to chase him.  Even though it was cold, he stripped his shirt off and swung it over his head.  Strangers in the parking lot stared in horror.
     Despite her best efforts, mother laughed.  As they pulled out of the parking lot, he stood and levered his body out of the sun roof.  They drove for two miles, him shirtless and freezing, his fat oozing over the edge of the car.  Many motorists saw him and smiled.  Most steadfastly ignored him.
     All told, a good night.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Diary Of A Man-Child 29/9/2013

     After church and after dinner, it was time to head to Wal*Mart for some late-night shopping.  Right away he saw something he just had to have.  "It's a wind-up walking zombie!  Clearance for $3!"
     "No," mother said.  "Absolutely no."
     He frowned, but held on to it, just in case she changed her mind.  They walked on through the store--looking at toys, at shelving, at video games.  Eventually he gave up on the walking zombie and tossed it up onto a display chair as mother was busy looking at irons.
     They were almost done, and decided to look at backpacks; sister's had broken.  While the girls were wrapped up in school supplies, he was looking at bins of sundry when he found it: a small, shark-shaped hat for dogs.  It suddenly appeared on his head.  His giggling eventually drew a beleaguered look from mother.
     She tried to hold it in, to ignore him, but eventually had to vaguely smile along.  "That looks pretty funny."
     "I have to buy it.  I have to."  He began to dance around, jumping and twirling in the middle of the store.  Other shoppers pointedly ignored him.
     Mother continued on, winding her way slowly towards the checkout.  He danced in front of her--tapping, leaping, high-stepping, and River Dancing until they finally got into line.
     "Fine, you can buy it."
     Even though it was late, the cashier seemed amused.  She scanned the hat, passed it back, and said, "Okay, you can put it back on."
     The old man in line behind them was less impressed.
     As they transferred bags from the carousel into the cart, he and sister discussed Halloween ideas.  "I'm going as Skyler White for Halloween," she said.
     "You should go as something more interesting.  Hitler maybe."
     She thought about it.  "Yeah, that could work."
     "Ooo, Sexy Hitler!  Khaki mini-skirt, low-cut SS jacket..."
     "What are you going as?"  Sexy Hitler seemed to be outside her comfort-zone.
     "Hodor.  I'll wear my cloak, powder my face...  Ooo, Sexy Hodor!  Shave my legs, powder them--"
     "We're leaving," mother said.  And so they did.
     Once they were in the car, mother retracted the sun roof, and he decided it would be a good idea to stand, shark-hat flapping in the breeze, waving at people as they drove past.  Those who saw were amused.  Most waved, some honked.  Then they were home, and their adventure ended.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Diary Of A Man-Child 27/9/13

     The day started off slow.  He was supposed to be meeting with a writer who was looking for a filmmaker, and had been texting back and forth to establish a meeting.

Ever been to starship its close to the circle theater

No, but I can probably find it.  Do you know the address?

1241 s louis

Its between 11th n 15th

     It had been a long day, and he was bored.  He was looking forward to the meeting; he wanted to work on some kind of film production.  Still though, he was bored, and ready to have some fun with this total stranger.

At 6:40, order a beverage, then get a table facing away from the door.  I will be wearing a blue shirt.  At 6:45 I will sit down behind you and pass you the briefcase   DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT.  Finish your beverage, then leave.  You will be contacted within 48 hours.

     There, that should be good.  Time to pick up sister.
     On the way home from her school, he told her about the last message.
     "What are you going to do if he responds?"she asked.
     He shrugged.  "Three options.  'Oops, wrong number.'  'Sorry, someone stole my phone.'  Or: 'Those are the conditions.  Don't contact the police.'"
     "You should go with option two."
     "Nah; I'll go with number 3.  Freak him out."
     Back at home he was upstairs, fixing sister's computer.  Every few minutes he would catch movement out the window.  He began deleting a program, then waited... waited... waited.  God, the computer was slow.  He looked out the window again, saw movement.  Construction workers on the strip-mall across the street.  Hmmm...  Outside the window, the balcony.  He had an idea.
     He turned to sister.  "Grab a blanket, hang it over the railing; I'll be right back."  He ran to his room, grabbed a puppet, and returned to her room, flopping to the ground.  He crawled out onto the porch, slowly raised the puppet, and began yelling, "Hey!  Hey everybody!  Hi, hello!  How are you?  What's up?"
     Sister was laughing.  "They see you!  Oh, my gosh, they're just staring at you!"
     "As soon as I get out off the porch, close the curtain."  He backed out, she closed it.  They laughed.
     Then his phone beeped.

What is someone sees the exchange?  Do we silence them?  Bribe them?  Flee?

     He smiled; this could work.
     So, he went to the meeting.  It went well.  They stood in the middle of a record store, discussing writing, music, drugs and... that was about it really.  An hour later, it was time to leave.
     On the way out, the owner yelled, "Hey!  We rent space here!  That'll be $20."  Yes, definitely time to leave.
     On the way home, he got a text.

Hey its dylan

     He didn't know a Dylan...  Time for a bit of fun.


Whats up

Is this my future gf

Nope, this is Hez.

who is hez

I'm a novelist/filmmaker.  Who are you trying to reach?

You gave .me your number on fb


What is the name of the person you're trying to reach?

Nothing bye

     Good, he seemed to finally get the hint.  He stopped off at a store, went inside to pick up snacks for his sister's sleepover.  He had gotten almost everything when his phone beeped.

Do you rememver me

I'm pretty sure I'm not who you think I am.

     And that's the last he heard from Dylan that night.

E.H.U.D.: Part II: Entropy

A compendium of the chapter comprising the second part of E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse.
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23

Monday, September 16, 2013

Diary Of A Man-Child 16/9/13

     There were big plans for today.  He was going to wake up, take his sister to the bus, then walk on to the gym.  Work out, come home, get things done, work out.  It didn't work out.
     He woke up at ten, used the bathroom, and was finally ready at 11:30.  "Lunch time," he thought.  Lunch, an episode of Doctor Who, 12:30.  Still time for the gym.
     A mile into the two mile walk and he was ready to go home.  He had made some effort towards working out; the gym could come tomorrow.  Besides, mother had chores for him; he needed to get them done before picking up sister.
     Back at home he gathered the bed-liner for his truck, dragged it out of the garage, and was just about ready to drive to the carwash when he made a shocking discovery: there was a recliner in the back of his car.  At that moment, he realized he wouldn't be getting anything done today.
     The bed-liner went back into the garage, he went into the truck, and then on to Wal*Mart.  Two weeks now, he had been struggling; two weeks the cookie dough had called his name.
     Back at home; watching TV, eating the entire tube of sweet, sweet salmonela risk...
     3:45.  Time to pick up sister.  He went to the school, all three hundred pounds of beard and sleep pants, and tried his hardest not to look creepy.  At 4:00, he called mother.  "Yeah, is there a bail-time?  Can I just go home and she can make it back on her own?"
     "You're not supposed to pick her up today; she has piano.  We told you last night."
     Back at home, watching TV, regretting the cookie dough...

Monday, September 9, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 22

Chapter 22

Rachel sat in a cold grey conference room in the cold grey airport.  At least, she assumed the airport was grey.  She hadn't seen much beyond the terminal, hadn't been outside at all.  It was cold.  And now it was getting late, and nothing at all had been decided.
She looked at her allies: a group of six other passengers, each from a different flight, that had been selected to represent all the stranded passengers.  At least three of them were lawyers, but she couldn't remember which ones: everyone looked frumpy and unwashed.  They had been in here for over five hours, arguing.
They argued with the people from the airline: One vice president, two customer care specialists, two lawyers.  The lawyers she could identify from the suits they wore.  The rest...  she didn't even care who they were anymore.
One of the lawyers was talking, exhaustion evident in her voice.  “Again, we are in no way liable for this situation.  This was a government mandated grounding.  We sympathize with you, and will of course help to arrange lodging or other forms of transport, but we cannot and will not provide financial recompense for costs incurred during this layover.”
One of Rachel's allies answered; probably a lawyer.  “As this is a federally mandated grounding, then I am sure the federal government will reimburse you for any costs incurred while assisting us.”
God, were politics always this boring?  The news made it seem so simple, Mom's rallies made it seem so exciting.  Negotiating was just...  She didn't know how much more she could take.
Someone else had the same idea she did.  “Look, let's just table this tonight, figure it out—”
“We can't!  If we stop here, everyone's going to have to find hotels, with no idea of who's going to pay!”
The mobile in Rachel's pocket buzzed, and she straightened in her chair.
An enemy lawyer noticed the movement.  “Yes, Ms. Donalson, do you have any ideas you'd wish to contribute?”
“Little compromise on the last point raised.  Fifteen minute break?”
There was a moment of silence, then a babble of assent.  They all stood, chairs scraping, and walked stiff-legged out of the room.
Rachel remained seated and dug out her mobile.
There was a message from Tisha:  Rach - - check the news!
Rachel rubbed her forehead.  She didn't need any more on her mind right now.  Still, if Tisha thought it was important enough to message so late...  She opened a browser, began flicking through the news feed.  Almost at once she saw the name: John Donalson.  Click, open story.  An old photo, John looking younger, with hair.  The story...
Cyd was right.  After months of yelling it on the street corners, it seemed the homeless woman had correctly identified a Defender.  After displaying his powers, Donalson was invited to join President Latterndale for a summit on international/Defender relations.  Then, a force of U.S. soldiers ambushed and killed the erstwhile Defender.  The battle, short and brutal, had claimed the lives of at least ten soldiers, as well as over a hundred civilians who were caught in a building set alight by a downed chopper.
Rachel gasped and slumped back into her seat.  It had to be a joke, it couldn't be real—she clicked a link at the bottom, found a response video, listened as Senator Terstein's voice sprang into life.
“The time for action is now!  Even as protection and goodwill were offered to this young man, our military has struck him down!  So far, every Defender to pop up has been struck down, and I am forced to ask our president, 'Why, Edgar?
“What aren't you telling us, Mr. President?  I am beyond the point of giving you the benefit of the doubt, and so too, I hope, is America.  Where are you?  Step forward and set the record straight!”
Another link, another.  Riots in major cities, raids on army bases, more members of the LCR springing up all over southern California.
More links, international responses.  Iranian Ambassador Ahmad Mokri, denouncing America as a rogue state, advising all nuclear states to prepare themselves for possible hostilities. 
More links, NORAD readying anti-missile countermeasures, more links—
It was all Rachel could do to keep from crying.  John was gone... 
As the door to the conference room opened, as people returned, Rachel felt tears begin to streak her face.

Darkness engulfed Philadelphia.  Beyond the light of Sky Crest, blackness extended into infinity.  There were occasional sparks of gunfire, brief flares of stars exploding into existence, then fading away into nothingness.
Indistinct movement passed over the gunfire, and Amanda Latterndale shifted her focus, took in her own reflection in the glass wall that curved overhead.  She could see the penthouse behind her, open wood floor for twenty feet, then continuing under the steel loft of the floor above.  Ethan sat in the small living area in one corner, playing with his one legged Gigawatt toy.
Movement again.  An aid, up a flight of stairs to where Mistlethwakey stood in conference with several soldiers.  The aid pushed in close, said something to the General, waited for a response, then returned the way he had come.  Minutes passed, the General dismissed his entourage, then descended the stairs and came to a stop next to Amanda.
“It's kind of beautiful, don't you think?” he asked in a somber tone.
“In a rather perverse way, yes.  Did the messenger bear bad news?”
Mistlethwakey ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head.  “Just an update on Norgent.  It looks like he's going to be okay.”  He dropped his hands, then fell silent.
Amanda glanced at him.  “Something on your mind?”
“Just...” he gestured back at the few soldiers who continued to mill around upstairs.  “They're so damn concerned with what's happening outside, they're not seeing the bigger picture.”
“Which is?”
“We're on the edge of nuclear war.”
Amanda let that sink in, ground her teeth.  “They're really that afraid of what the Defenders will do?”
“The Defenders?”  Mistlethwakey shook his head.  “For once, this isn't all about them.  We're a nuclear power, with an absentee president, terrorist groups in control of our biggest airport, rioting in all our major cities, and politicians very publicly calling for armed revolt.  Most in the last four hours, I might add.  We're the very definition of an unstable state.”
Amanda sighed.  “And Ed assured me we'd be safe here...”
The General turned and appraised her.  “He was absolutely right; this is the safest place on the goddamn planet.  It'd survive the end of the world.”
She smiled.  “You know something I don't?”
He nodded.  “Damn right.”  He returned to staring out the window.
She returned her attention to the reflections.  Behind her, Ethan was gripping the Gigawatt, swinging it at a small stand of army men.  The innocent play seemed so wrong in light of what was happening just outside their window.  The bigger figure would hit, the little men would fall.  How many civilians were dying out there, gunned down as they tried to break into police stations, or take over train lines? 
“Have you been speaking with Ed?”
Mistlethwakey looked up.  “Hm?  Not as such.  He's not exactly on speaking terms with me at the moment.”
“Seems a bit odd for him to name you NSA.”
He shrugged.  “I think he was trying to get me out of the way.”
“Has Ed been speaking with anyone else?”
“Ashby said he's been a little withdrawn lately...”
“Right.”  Amanda stood a little straighter, let the room blur as she focused on the eternal night outside.  “Then as far as anyone's concerned, you're speaking for him, as security adviser.  You'll get a SEAL team, infiltrate LAX, take the damn thing back.  If they fly out any planes, you shoot them down as soon as they're clear of the city.  This country's been on lockdown long enough.”
He quirked an eyebrow.  She turned for a moment to look at him, saw that he was offering no resistance, returned to her vigil.
“Once the skies are clear, you're going to get as much FEMA support flying as is humanly possible.  I know it's not your purview, but you see it gets done.  You land food and medicine in all the major cities, the ones with the worst fighting: Chicago, LA, San Antonio, New York.  You get the idea.  Pick a spot, somewhere large but defensible.  Lock it down.  Then, you start letting in anyone who wants to get away.  Make sure they don't have weapons.
“Here, you do it in Sky Crest.  I know you've got some barricades already.  Now, everything outside Kensington's a dead zone.  Hell, even Kensington.  You now have the tower, the mall, and the immediate surroundings.  Pull back the troops.  Anyone who wants can come in, but absolutely no one gets out.”
He nodded, then ran his hands through his hair again.  “You're suggesting concentration camps.”
She returned the nod.  “Hostages.  It'll mostly be women and children who come.  Safety, food, and medicine.  You said yourself we're a destabilized state.  People out there are fighting for ideals, for the future.  If you take their families, their futures, they'll have nothing to fight for.  If you take the families hostage, the men have no choice but to give up and go home.”
They stood in silence for a minute, the last few soldiers descending the stairs and making their way to the elevator.
“You realize he's not coming for you, right?”
Amanda clenched her jaw.  “How long ago did he choose the world over me?”
Mistlethwakey shook his head, shrugged.  “I don't have an exact date; it's ancient history to me.”
“Just make sure you get it done.  Then we can get back to worrying about those fucking EHUDs.”  Amanda turned from the window and stormed away.  She approached Ethan, got his attention, gathered him in an embrace.

Mistlethwakey watched in the reflection, then looked beyond the shadow world into the darkness beyond... and smiled.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Fisher Price presents: My First Music Video!  Yes folks, I've done a lot of filmy things, and now I've done a music video.  A friend of a friend from film school was looking for someone to tackle their cover of 'Clarity,' and I thought, why not?  Filmed in scenic (?) Riverside, California.  Best of all of this, though, I'm now a tag on someone's blog:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 21

Chapter 21

Dusk was fading into darkness when John turned a corner and saw Sky Crest rising above the skyline.  A few cars drove by, desperate to get to ground before curfew hit.  John stood for a moment, trying to focus, to feel minds around him, to distract their attention from him.  He remembered the procedure, the tried and true methods of misdirection, but there was a blockage of some kind, a disconnect that prevented him from putting action to thought.  His past life still felt... unreal.  It was as if two Johns inhabited the same body, both diverging from the car wreck.  One, awakening in a hospital, surrounded by friends and family, brought back out into the real world; the other, awakening in hell.
Gritting his teeth, John stepped out into the street, crossing behind a Humvee packed with soldiers.  As he walked he scouted out paths of escape, alternate routes into the building, into his apartment.  Worst case scenario: infiltrate the Central Maintenance Core, and take a utility elevator to his floor.
He stepped out of the street and onto the front walkway, taking in the warm brown stone underfoot, realizing with a pang of regret that this would be the last time he saw it.  Through the front doors, into the foyer, following the curving surfaces of the room to the focal point where a man stood, dark skinned in a dark suit, contrasting with the silvery steel of the inner wall.
John stopped, tried to feel the man's intentions, only read a confused hubbub from the thousands of souls overhead.
The man smiled, raised one hand in greeting.  “Mr. Donalson, hello!  Frank Norgent, State Department.” 
Take a step back, make it outside, around the east side of the building, freedom— “What can I do for you?”
Norgent dipped his head in acknowledgement.  “I'm here on behalf of President Latterndale, meeting you as a representative of an independent people group.”
“Has that gone through yet?”
“We're still working on it.”  Norgent lowered his arm.
John could finally make out a bit of this man's signal from the noise of the tower.  Not enough to find meaning in the message, only to identify the man as a distinct entity.
“And what are you going to do to me, as a representative of an independent people group?”
Norgent shrugged.  “Don't see as there's anything I can do.  You're not out beyond curfew, you're brother's car is insured, and I doubt he'd press charges, given the circumstances.  Not even trespassing on the way here.”
John felt stupid.  He wasn't thinking, wasn't acting up to his abilities even with mundane skills if they were able to track his so easily.  “So then, what do you want?”
“President Latterndale is interested in seeing peaceful international relations established with you Defenders, and as you're the first we've met who's in a...” he moved his jaw, then gestured to the air, “...reasonable state of mind, he would very much like to meet with you, see what you would like to see come out of all this.  He wants to work with the Defenders, but up until now, he hasn't had any to work with.”
There was a way out, a last little shred of the world the resurrected John held onto.  “I'm not really in the best position to be a consultant; I don't remember too much.”
Norgent nodded, relief evident on his face.  “This is a completely voluntary request.  If you don't feel the need to meet with the President, he won't force the issue, though he may try to fly out and meet with you on your own terms.”
“Where is he now?”
And just like that, Norgent was back on edge.  “I'm afraid that's privileged information.”
Now John was getting something... fear, disappointment and... hope?  Behind Norgent's walls of professional concern, of his mistrust of this Defender standing before him, was hope that John's intervention on Edgar's behalf would cause the whole world to step down.  Still, hope wasn't enough.
“How do I know you won't just kill me as soon as we're in the air?”
“Because the world has already seen you, Mr. Donalson.  Your little outburst at the car is now an internet sensation.  If you disappear now...”  He shrugged.  “Could destroy the world.”
Memories flitted by, only showing themselves for the barest of moments.  John already could destroy the world.  “I'll need to get a few things from my apartment.”
Norgent nodded, his attention shifting from the present and to the future.  “Take as much time as you need.”
John continued his march to the elevator, aware again that this would be his last time seeing this place...
Out of the elevator, down the hall, and into his sanctuary.  His tower stood in one corner.  It seemed to burn brightly in the darkness, previously unknown significance pushing to the forefront of his mind.  For the resurrected John, it had been a hobby, a private passion.  For the old John, the dead John, the tower served as his one link to sanity, the tenuous thread tying his mind together, keeping him sane until he got back to Lucy.
And now he was back, and now he wondered: why had he forgotten her?  Who had taken her?  There was still an unknown, a mist of forgetfulness around her heart-shaped face. 
Bypass the tower; its purpose had been served.  Circle the apartment, gather a bag of essentials: three shirts, two pants, a week's worth of socks and underwear, toothbrush.
And now he was back at the door, staring around at his life, the one he had fought through hell and back to get to.  The realization that it had all ended months—years—ago, that it had been nothing more than an illusion, brought the final dissolution of resurrected John's walls of normalcy.  The new memories were still there, but the old ones were forcing their way to the surface.  The dead John turned his back on the apartment, his second life becoming nothing more than a brief diversion from the one life he had always lived. 

A brief sojourn in the lobby, then Donalson and Norgent were back in the elevator.  They exited on the fourth floor, wound their way through a huge laundry room, and towards a door in the outer wall.  They pushed through, and John found himself in the freezing night air, standing on a mesh-work balcony.  It narrowed into a catwalk extending over the roof of the adjoining mall, ending in the bloated insect form of a passenger helicopter perched on the building's helipad.
John spent a moment looking around, seeing the illumination that spilled from Sky Crest, contrasting it with the utter darkness of the city beyond.  It could almost be a metaphor for his life right now, he thought, then rejected the notion.  Sky Crest had proven to be nothing but a fantasy.  He nodded to Norgent, and the they stepped out over the mall's roof, drifts of snow creating stormy whitecaps on the sea of glass.
The helicopter, rotors spinning up, was surrounded by a cadre of EHUD clad soldiers.  Seeing them jogged something in John's memory, and he turned to Norgent.  “I assume it's okay if I keep in contact with my family?”
“So long as you don't call during takeoffs and landings.”
“And my friend, Alice, who was in the car, what happened to her?”
Norgent chewed his lip for a moment, then shrugged.  “The reports mentioned a woman, aside from Cyd, but honestly, she was kind of forgotten.”
“What about Cyd?”
“We obviously wish to speak to her, but as soon as you left, she disappeared.  Seems she wasn't so crazy after all.”
John nodded in confirmation.  “She was always pretty level-headed.  I'm assuming it was all just an act.  Or... maybe something went wrong when they scrubbed her.”  John shuddered at the thought.  What mental ramifications were there to erasing a decade of someone's personal experience?  And who's to say all the Defender were released as found, as John was...  Can't think of that, not yet.
The rotors were overhead now, and they were walking between the EHUDs.  Norgent stepped up onto a small boarding ladder, then gestured to John and the soldiers.  “All aboard, folk.”
John stepped forward, but the soldiers remained motionless.  John's hand reached out to grab onto the stair rail for balance, and one of the soldiers moved, an arm swinging up to bring an assault rifle to bear.  A crack of gunfire, and Norgent was laying inside the helicopter, gasping.
Old reflexes acted, and John tried to throw himself to the catwalk, but found himself unable to move. 
The soldier dropped his rifle and stepped towards John.  The other soldiers remained motionless.  The soldier raised his hands, brought them down holding his helmet, and there stood Shaun, his face split in a wide grin.
“Goddamn, Donalson, didn't think I'd get the chance to see you off.  So glad you called.”
The mist of forgetfulness dissipated, and there stood Lucy, bright and present in John's mind.  Another mind intruded onto the memory, the hope of the future.
“You're never going to get back to her, you know that.”
John lay, gasping and naked, on the rough floor.
“I'm not too happy with what you did last week.  Fucked up a lot of well-laid plans.”
John swished saliva in his mouth, then spit blood onto the floor.  Shaun crouched down in front of him, his uniform baggy on his thin frame. 
“You listening?  I want you to think about her now, remember her as much as you can.  Cause after this... she's gone.  I told you I'd do it, too.  You fuck around with me, I'll fuck around with you.”  He paused, smiled.  “Then I'll fuck around with her.”
John began to breath heavily, anger boiling inside him, his starved body unable to do anything about it.  He tried to hold Lucy in his mind, to remember her, to know he could get back to her—
Get back to who?  There was someone John was supposed to remember, someone he needed to remember... but now there was just a void.
“Itches, doesn't it, knowing you know she's there but not... quite... able... to put your finger on it.”  He prodded John in the head.
Her.  A woman...  His mother?  No.  Suzanne?  As much as he wanted it to be otherwise, she was dead.  Alice? 
“Her name's Lucy.”
John jerked away from the finger, the woman reappearing in his mind, forgotten memories resurfacing—and vanishing.
“Nope, can't have you remembering her.  Hell, can't even let you know she's missing...” 
Darkness enveloped the form of Lucy, cut off her smiling face...  And now she's gone, buddy...
 And now she was back.  Now Shaun was back, smiling out of the carapace of an EHUD in the cold November wind.
Nothing for it, then; the President would just have to reschedule.  John pulled his focus inward, built, released.  Shaun twisted backwards, his armor shifting and hardening to hold him semi-upright.  John dropped his travel bag, gripped the railing of the catwalk, and jumped backwards, falling to the roof below.
He hit the roof, rolled, began to run.  Behind him the rotors whined faster, booted feet clumped over mesh, Norgent grunted and cursed as he thudded down onto the helipad.
Over the other noise, Shaun could be heard whooping in excitement.
Blue light filtered up through the glass, pulling John's attention downwards.  The mall was deserted, its arterial chasms undulating beneath him.  He had to fight off the feeling that he was suspended over a pit, about to fall.  Focus, think of those old cartoons—as long as he kept moving, he wouldn't fall.  Well, that and the inch thick acrylic glass. 
Several thudding vibrations passed through the roof, and John felt an unsettling ripple that threatened to knock him off balance.  He looked back and saw a trio of armored troops running across the glass towards him.
He picked up his pace, hoping to get to street level, to a hiding place, before the soldiers got him.  In theory, they weren't a threat on their own.  Get them far enough away from Shaun, and they were just a bunch of confused kids with no idea of where they were or how they had gotten there.  Still, better safe than sorry: they had arms and armor.  John had almost no control of his powers.
There was a groan of metal, and then the helicopter's deafening whine shifted in pitch, began to move closer.  Shaun wasn't going for subtlety. 
Why, John thought, why didn't Shaun just give him another push, another scrub?  Then John would have been out of his life forever, none the wiser about Lucy's existence.  The last four months must have been far more real for Shaun than they had become to John.
The helicopter whined closer.
Time to run.  The edge of the roof seemed to jump forward as his speed increased.  His pants tangled with his legs as they pumped harder and farther than seemed physically possible.  They were starting to cramp...
Ripples propagated through the glass, diminishing in intensity, telling John his pursuers were falling behind.  That gave him what, a matter of seconds to decide how to get down from here?
Can't think of that; can't think.  Old training was making its way back into his mind, unknown possibilities returning to their rightful place as second nature.  Let them return, float away on them...  conscious thought sank away until John was nothing more than a blank sensory receptor, left bobbing on the surface of the world, trailing a bundle of combat reflexes.  Now, up on the edge ledge, seeing the ground, guesstimating the distance, feeling the wind shift as the chopper ascended.
Down, tucked into a ball, one level, two, three.  Balls of the feet, forward, left shoulder, jacket catching on the cement, rolling out of it, left shoulder again, shirt ripping, skin coming away, back to the feet, up, running, every joint sore.
The plaza on this side of the mall was bright, the harsh blue halogen lamps illuminating a small band of National Guard soldiers.  Some must have seen John's leap of faith; they were starting to stream towards where he had landed.  A moment later they were pointing, open mouthed, and John knew his pursuers were still following.
Likely, they didn't tuck and roll.  Likely, they came down hard, like children jumping a flight of stairs, standing still for a moment as the armor dealt with their kinetic force, then starting forward, continuing their pursuit.
Beyond the ring of light now.  Here, the city was dead. 
A wavering cluster of lights appeared in the distance, and John veered towards the subliminal warmth and safety it represented. 
Blood was now beginning to dry on his shoulders, tearing his skin even more as the remains of his shirt, now a massive scab, shifted with his movements.  He shucked it off over his head, held back a pained yell, and ran on, too stunned to register the cold.
When the cold finally worked its way into his awareness, when he felt it stab into his bare arms, he found himself lying on the ground, steam pouring from his blueish lips as he twisted around, trying not to freeze to the metal floor.
 “Got to be ready for any conditions.”  Shaun stood above him, dressed in a thick parka and rugged-looking boots.  God, those boots.  What John wouldn't give for a pair of good boots...
“Never know where we'll send you...”  He was probably insinuating St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Helsinki, somewhere truly cold, not running Philly in khakis and an undershirt...
Sudden blinding light pulled John from the memory.  A spotlight turned on overhead, bobbing and moving with him, definitely from a helicopter...  The pitch of the engines was wrong, though.  He listened for a moment, matched the sound with the engine of a small troop-transport, designed for combat-zone drops.
John fell to his left, rolling under a truck just as machine gun fire buzzed down from overhead, ripping the street apart, cutting into the truck, slicing it in half.  He continued to roll, through a snow bank, onto the sidewalk next to an alleyway.  A small jump and he was inside, in the darkness, gasping in lungfuls of chill air, his body shuddering as it dealt with the demands of actions long forgotten. 
The whine of the first helicopter joined the whir of the second, and underneath that was the stomp of boots as the pursuing soldiers stomped into view.  They made a bee line for John's hiding place. 
He was about to bolt when he heard another sound, saw another light come down the street from the direction he had been running.  A small Humvee, spotlight wielding soldier poking out of the top, careened into view, sliding on the damp asphalt as it braked.  That must have been the light John had seen earlier. 
A door swung open and a soldier leapt out, yelling and gesticulating.  He pointed to the lead EHUD soldier, then to the divided truck, then yelled something that was lost under the sound of the helicopters.  John could make out intention now, could almost pick up discreet meanings from the man's mind, felt sudden pain and betrayal as the helicopter opened fire again, reducing the soldier to a twisted pile of meat.  The light cut off as the Humvee crumpled, clearing the street of any further distractions.
Time to run.
The buildings on either side sloped together, narrowing the alley until John could sense his pursuers were in single file.  Now was as good a time as any for action.  Ideally, John would just loose the soldiers, or push inside them to kill them, but he was too out of practice, and Shaun was too strong for him now.
John halted, felt the soldiers close in behind him, leapt up, back, landed on the first soldier, the armor's broad shoulders and protective frill making a passable seat.  He hooked his foot under the soldier's rifle, kicked up, grabbed, inverted, drove the barrel down between frill and helmet, wiggled it until he felt the end pass between a confluence of plates at the top of the spine.  Normally, this place was unreachable.  From within the frill—
John stood and fired, felt the bullet rip through bone and into the chest cavity, through the torso and—  The armor did its job; the bullet did not pass.  John flipped from the still-running body, slipped in the snow, let his momentum drop him to one knee, swing around, bring the rifle to bear on the second charging soldier.  He braced the rifle, emptied the magazine, dodged just in time as the soldier passed over him, kept running, tripped over the body of its fallen comrade.  No time, deal with it later—on to number three. 
Just enough time to fall to his back, kick out and take the behemoth's momentum in his leg, roll backwards, pivot the third soldier up and over, letting him fly and fall onto his compatriots.
John continued with the roll, curled, came up on his feet, stumbled back.  He turned, ran up onto the writhing pile of EHUDs, leapt over them, came to the end of the alley.
A spotlight burst into being, and John came back to himself to realize that another drop-zone transport hovered before him.  He fell and rolled just as the spray of bullets ripped into the street.
He had just a moment to think, to focus, as the helicopter rounded on him.  As long as he was on the ground, he was vulnerable.  Against normals, he could run and hide.  Against a Defender, against one of the two men who had trained him, there was no choice but to engage.  That meant getting to the first helicopter.  That meant getting to this one.
Now... now was when he really needed some of his powers.  Falling into the empty sense, dancing with the world around him, that wasn't enough; he needed a direct effect.
Bullets exploded around him, and he jumped, dodged, and rolled until he was below his enemy.  He dropped into a crouch, focused everything down into himself until there was nothing in the world but his hips, thighs, calves.  His muscles began to pull tighter and tighter, bringing the crouch deeper, twisting the meat and sinew into something dense, solid.  And then—release.
John shot into the air, his legs streaming limp beneath him, ten feet, twenty—metal.  His torso hit the underside of the helicopter, his legs swung around the side, gave him enough momentum to flip up and sprawl out on the deck.  Bullets continued to churn out of the machine gun for another few seconds before the armored soldier manning the gun noticed his erstwhile passenger.
By then, John was up, swinging an elbow at the soldier, feeling his humerus shatter as it took the force of the impact with the helmet.  The blow wasn't enough to hurt the soldier, but it caused him to step back, walking into open air.   The soldier fell from the side of the helicopter, landing in a churned pile of asphalt and molten lead.
John lunged for the machine gun, grunted as his right arm swung limp at his side, pulled the trigger.  Compared to the pain of hitting the EHUD helmet, the gun's recoil didn't seem to have that much force.  The soldier below twitched and tried to stand as round after round after round after round rained down on him, but the heavy 50mm darts had their way.  Blue gel exploded from the dark suit visible in places beneath the armor, and the soldier died.
Two minds at the edge of John's awareness saw the blue spray in the harsh halogen light, felt a sense of invincibility draining away.  A third mind, farther out, pounced on the first two, silenced their screams of sanity, pushed them forward.
The two remaining soldiers charged out from the alleyway, only to succumb to John's endless barrage.
The third mind seethed, recalculated.  John was doing better than he expected.  Only one thing left to do...
The helicopter jerked as the pilot began to wildly swing controls.  John lurched forward, grabbed the barrel of the gun for support, screamed as the metal seared into his flesh.  He gritted his teeth and hung on, even as tears blurred his miraculously whole glasses.
A moment passed, and then the other helicopters swung into view.  The other drop-zone transport opened fire, and John hurled himself from the deck even as the helicopter began to disintegrate under a hail of bullets.
He found himself falling towards a flat, snowy roof-top, turned himself so he would come down on his right arm.  One more injury might cripple it, he was willing to risk it if his left arm was still usable for the next few minutes.
He hit.  The air was knocked out of his lungs, and he lay gasping in a snow bank, the cold wetness digging into his burned palm feeling so good.
From the street below there was a tremendous rending of metal as his helicopter, rotors still spinning, impacted parked cars and the fronts of buildings.
John tried to focus, to survive, but this had all... been... too...
He blinked, woke up, found he was still alive, still cold.  Now, he could hear fire crackling under the sound of two helicopters passing by overhead. 
Inventory, now: Legs, stretched and sore, still functioning; left arm, burned, bruised, good enough; right arm... best not to think about that.  Head?  Possibly concussed.  For the rest?  Friction burns, contusions, tears...  the looseness of his skin spoke to the sudden weight loss he had experienced over the past... five minutes?  So much fat consumed, so few calories left; he couldn't keep this up.
The remaining drop-zone transport had its machine gun readied, reloaded, aimed down at him.  John saw the gunner, felt the gunner, felt the mind riding piggy back on his nervous system, felt its attachments.  Shaun was looking through the gunner's eyes, feeling his heart race in anticipation of the kill, was about to jerk the trigger finger... but his mind lay lightly over the gunner's.  The gunner felt he had orders, was willing to fulfill them, didn't need constant hand-holding.
So John took the open hand and jerked.
Just before Shaun pulled the gunner's trigger finger, the gunner swung around, aimed at the passenger helicopter floating some hundred feet away.  And before Shaun had a chance to realize what was happening, he ordered his own death.
The gunner opened up, ripped through the other helicopter, brought it crashing down towards the roof John was on.  The tar-paper construct wasn't made to take the helicopter's weight and the great machine broke through, crashing down into hopefully abandoned apartments. 
The roof beneath him twisted and sloped down to where the helicopter was sinking out of sight, and John found himself sliding towards the still-whining fantail.  He grabbed at a pipe sticking trough the tar-paper and managed to catch himself under the armpit.
Above, the gunner stopped firing, and the still-flying helicopter waited.  Below, deep inside the building, something caught fire, and the entirety of the downed helicopter, its tail still visible, burst into flame.
As the edges of the hole in the roof caught fire, John scrambled upwards, desperate to climb out of the pit the roof had become.  He made it a few feet, managed to slide down behind an air-conditioning unit, the metal holding him away from the hell below.
Above, the gunner remained detached.
John stood, letting the canted roof support his weight, wincing as his body demanded he sit back down.  He looked over the edge of the AC unit, saw the tail of the helicopter sink into the fire...  saw an armored hand reach out of the pit, dig into the tar-paper, drag a mangled and oozing EHUD out of the hell-fire. 
Shaun dug his other hand in, the armor letting him pull his destroyed body up and to safety.
John took a moment to reach out, to take inventory of Shaun: crushed pelvis, one leg completely useless, the other almost so, back broken, one lung punctured by the long shard of metal sticking out of the armor.  So there were some things the suit couldn't survive...
Something deep inside the building shifted, and the rest of the helicopter disappeared amidst a thunderous noise.  Shaun held on, even as the roof rebounded, then returned to its slow melt.  John didn't fare as well; the sudden shift caused the AC unit to tear loose from the roof and slide down into the pit, sending John pinwheeling after it.  He managed to push against the roof, to direct his fall until he was right on top of Shaun, draped over the frill, inches from the edge.
Shaun noticed him, didn't care; the survival instinct was too strong.  He reached up, ripped through the roof, pulled, got higher.
It was too slow.  John could feel his skin hardening, splitting, burning in the intense heat.  He knew, beyond any doubt, that he would die here. 
Shaun pulled himself up another few inches.
It wasn't fair.  John had suffered for years, had fixated on Lucy as his one salvation, had finally made it back to the land of the living, only to see Shaun come out ahead after all.  It wasn't fair...  And he wasn't going to let it happen.
Shaun was too terrified, to preoccupied to notice as John's awareness pushed into his mind, spread out, began searching through memories.  Suddenly, amidst the flames, Shaun was five years old, was in his backyard, mud splattered on his overalls, his conical hat askew as a puppy leapt up and knocked him to the ground, licking him.  Behind him, he could hear his parents laughing.  Then the moist tongue was gone, the dog was pulled away, the next eight years of happy memories faded away until... he was alone, friendless.
John smiled.  On to the next one.
Shaun reached up, flames wrapping around his glove, grabbed onto the breast of the teenage girl straddling him.  She rocked forward and back, shaking him, shaking the whole bed.  Fourteen year-old Shaun grunted, convulsed, shivered in the sudden coldness of his empty room, the girl forever gone, the next three years of their romance disappearing in rapid succession.  
Now Shaun was beginning to notice, to sense the alien mind, to see what it had taken.  He tried for a moment to push back, felt the tar-paper beneath his fingers sag under his weight, pulled himself further up.
John continued to pour through Shaun's mind, to take moments of happiness, of victory, and pull them away.  Soon, Shaun's life was nothing more than a continuing string of disappointments, an empty childhood followed by a lonely adolescence followed by a lackluster military career followed by a dull retirement.
Still, there was promise in the future.  Shaun pulled again, felt himself rise higher.  The flames still lapped around him, still burned the thing that lay slung over his back, but there was black sky overhead, a chance at survival, at redemption.
John began to sift through his own memories, to push them onto Shaun, to imbue him with sudden imprisonment, with years of dehumanizing torture, with pain, with choices that should never be made... with Suzanne...
And as Shaun continued to climb, as John continued to push, he found his actions moving in time with Shaun's—a memory for another handhold, a remembered defeat for another inch towards freedom above.  And then John found all his pain, all his hatred, all his years as a Defender, inside Shaun. 
John raised his gloved, hand, pulled, gripped again.  Yet he still felt the burning, the pain of the shattered right arm...
He expanded his consciousness, found Shaun clinging to a few small memories, to the happiness of the last year, to Lucy.  Shaun was weak, tired, almost completely gone.  Another little push, and he'd be dead.  But his body...
John reeled at his discovery.  He had somehow managed to take his... his essence, his soul, and push it out of his own body and into Shaun's.  It wasn't something the Defenders had been taught, wasn't even something Allen had speculated on in his theoretical musings.  Already, the pain from the other body, the burning vestige of the John that was, had lessened.  All it would take was another small push, and John would be in a new body.  An injured body, yes, but a body in an EHUD, a body with a chance of survival.  All he needed to do was make the final push—
The building trembled, and John lost focus.  For a moment he swept out of Shaun's body, felt the enormity of the cosmos around him, glimpsed into the void of death—and then returned to his own body.  He gasped at the pain that had been building while he was gone, ignored it, focused back on Shaun. 
In the instant since John had left his body, Shaun was reasserting himself, gathering what memories he could, returning to his struggle to make it to the top.
No.  It would not end this way.
John pushed again, felt himself slip into Shaun's resistant mind—

The building trembled again.  The roof creaked, thundered, collapsed.  The whole construct of tar-paper, metal and plywood sunk inwards, towards the flames.  Amidst it all were two barely human forms, silently screaming as they plummeted into hell...