Dirk Lazerus series; M is for Monster, Part Three

Part Three

I started toward the car in all my sodden glory. Whatever it was doing here, whoever was inside, they had no business in this part of town. Nothing that shiny belonged down here. It moved slowly at first, navigating between the rusting corpses of its brothers. But as I closed in I heard the electric hum crank up a notch, and the car rammed through the remaining blockage then rushed right at me. I saw it coming, but it was fast. I had just a second to throw myself out of the way, hitting the pavement in a clumsy roll, leaving puddles as moved.

The car swerved just in time to avoid hitting the rusted metal wall of an empty warehouse, and began to back up down the pavement to try for me again. I rolled aside just in time, into the safety of a doorway. I realized the disadvantage of the confined space too late. The car rolled up beside me, blocking any escape, and the window started to wind down. I got a waft of something sickly, a fresh scent made to imitate flowers, covering a clean undercurrent of someone who actually bathes with filtered water.

By the time the window was low enough for an automatic pistol to pop out and start to aim down. I already had my bulldog aimed and ready. I was wedged into a corner but had a birds-eye view of the black gloved hand holding it. One shot was all it took, right in the knuckle.

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(Unraveling Series) Milly and the end of the world

The cake was vanilla with chocolate frosting. The top was covered in little purple chocolate hearts. As I sat back in a lawn chair devouring my third piece, a sickness settled in my gut. I set the glittery paper plate down and took a breath.

A dozen little girls ran around the yard screaming at each other while a grown man in a unicorn costume tried his best to stay ahead of them. As my stomach churned, Milly ran past with a goofy grin on her face.

“Daddy look.” She said, waving a plastic wand until glitter fluttered out of it, covering her clothes.

I smiled and waved at her, trying to ignore the queasiness still stirring.

“Is this going to be a habit?”

I turned to see Mira standing behind me. She wore shorts and a t-shirt but they were covered up by several layers of glittery, see through fabric, making a sort of princess dress that almost matched Milly’s. She watched our daughter running and laughing, but her face was serious. She took a sip of some pink liquid in a plastic cup and put on a thin smile as another mom walked by.

“I’d like it to be. If you’re ok with it. I changed jobs so, I’ll be in town more.”

“She loves seeing you Bob. But I won’t let you get close to her and then take off again. You can’t do to her what you did to me.” Mira said. Her lip started to quiver but she clenched her jaw and tightened her mouth until it passed.

“I’m sorry Mira. I didn’t ever mean to-”

“Stop. I’m not looking for you to explain or give excuses. But I swear, if you unravel her life like you did mine, I’ll…” She trailed off, but the plastic cup in her hand cracked under the pressure of her grip, spilling pink juice down her legs. I got the point.

“I know. I won’t. Not to Milly. I promise. This time things will be different. I’d give up the world for her, honestly.”

Mira looked at me, and for the first time in a long time, there was no scowl or disbelief. She just flashed a quick smile and then turned away back to the screaming chaos of the birthday party.

My stomach rumbled, loud enough that it carried to the couple sitting by the garden gnome on the patio. I stood up as casually as I could, and headed inside. The moment I was through the patio door I bolted to the downstairs bathroom. There’s something about a tiny downstairs bathroom, the size of a closet and covered in pastel colors, that really makes you think. I sat hunched awkwardly on the toilet, trying to keep the noise down, and all I could think about was the thread. I’d given up my birthright. I handed over the means to alter the universe, to a madman who told me I could have a normal life. But what kind of normality would it be? How would I fit into birthday parties, business meetings and the world of 401k’s? I knew nothing about normalcy. My life, other than a brief and unsuccessful marriage to Mira, had been one of secret meetings, crazy lunatics and musty tombs. I had wanted to tell Mira what was going on, to share the reason for my late night outings and random disappearances. But that was against the rules. No matter how much I loved her, she wasn’t one of us. It could upset the balance they said. But now, what did it matter? I’d thrown the balance down the toilet, along with about five pounds of chocolate cake.

Would Milly have a normal life with me in it?

“Hey. We’re doing presents.” Mira yelled through the door. “The spray should be under the sink.” She added.

I flushed quickly and washed my hands, then fumbled under the sink for the air freshener. My stomach was still in knots. As I headed back outside to watch Milly open her gifts, it felt like I was walking sideways down a rollercoaster. I staggered into the doorframe, and stopped myself just barely, from falling out onto the patio.

Something was wrong. Either I was out of place in the world, or the world itself was… changing. My stomach did a flip, and I had to swallow to stop from throwing up. I watched my little girl sitting cross-legged on the grass in a peach sundress. She was tearing into a box that was bigger than she was and grinning in anticipation. I looked around the the crowd of parents, all watching, all oblivious to what was going on.

What if he comes for me? What if he comes for Milly?

I realized with sickening certainty that I held none of the cards. Tim Grim had the power to wipe me off the map. He had the power to do just about anything he wanted, and the only real limit was something he didn’t possess; sanity. As one of the guardians of everything, one of the Grand Seven, the main thing that kept us in check was reality. We had to live in it like everyone else, so if we used to much power, changed to much or generally messed things up in saving the day, then the universe would be thrown out of balance. Tim on the other hand, probably didn’t know that, and wouldn’t really care even if he did.

I had given away the whole world, for the chance at a normal life. But in giving it away, I had given away any chance at a normal life. Tim wouldn’t be able to resist the power. He wouldn’t be able to resist the ability to alter reality. And I would have to lie to Mira again. I would have to go face the man I had given that much power to. And I’d have to do it without any power of my own.

I steadied myself, and took a breath. I took one more moment to watching Milly pull a giant doll from the box and wrap her arms around it. I soak in the image of her smile. Then I stepped back into the house and slipped out the front, as I had done so many times before. Only this time, I would need to take a cab.

Litereality; the elephant in the room

They both sat in silence on the bed as the fireplace crackled. Bale looked up from his book.

“I think we need to talk about elephant in the room.” He said, eying the enormous grey creature with suspicion.

           Sunny shifted in the bed and pulled down her reading glasses. She nodded. She was playing with a paperclip between her fingers, but her eyes were on the elephant.

           “Should we address it, or do you think it will go away on its own?” He added.

   “Bale, it’s been here for a while, months actually, but you’ve been too caught up in your work. This is the first time you’ve been to bed with me in ages.”

    He rubbed his hands together, putting pressure on his left thumb, massaging while he thought. He looked around the room, avoiding her eyes while he processed her words.

   The room, sparsely furnished, with dark wood floors and white walls, had been torn right out of last month’s edition of better homes. It was a little rough along the edges, but it was a beautiful room nonetheless.

   “Sunny… I thought we were happy. I thought you were… satisfied.” His face seemed confused but quickly sank and settled into sadness.

   “Honey, we both know how we are. Yesterday was all sunshine and roses – and don’t get me wrong, the roses were pretty, and sunshine in the middle of January was a lovely change, but…” She smile, and reached over to take his hand, “but then it’s always the same thing. You go from on top of the world to old man misery, with the snap of a finger, and there’s no bringing you back.”

“I’m trying.”

   Sunny squeezed his hand, but didn’t speak.”

   “I am love. I need you to know that. I thought the rose tinted glasses would help, but, they just threw me off at stoplights and make it impossible to win at twister.” He stood from the bed and walked over to the sliding glass door that led out to the balcony. The elephant shuffled its feet and swatted at him with its trunk. Bale pushed the trunk away, and stared out into the night. He slide the door open just a little, and took a long breath as the fresh air rolled in.

   They were both silent for a while.  He stood there, looking at the lights spread out over the city like a thousand regrets, each one reminding him of how he had failed her. The fire crackled. The elephant huffed. Bale let his mind wander into the darkness. That was where all his best ideas were hiding, waiting for him to find them.

   “I remember when you couldn’t get home quick enough.” Sunny said, pulling him back to the awkward moment.

   She was standing right behind him now. He hadn’t noticed her walk across the room. He wondered how many other times he had not paid attention, because his mind was off wandering. He felt her hand on his bare back, the soft touch of her fingers on his skin.

   “I love you.” He said, under his breath.

   “I know… but that isn’t enough. I’m tired of spending my nights alone while you obsess over work. I’m tired of sitting under your rain cloud, getting soaked, when you finally do come home.” She shivered as a cool breeze blew. Thunder rumbled overhead, and the first spots of rain landed on her cheek. Sunny let out a sigh, and turned away to get out of the rain.

Bale grabbed her arm and turned her to face him. “Wait Sun, let’s just clear our heads. We can sit down and talk about all this, get everything out in the open. I know I frustrate you, I know this hasn’t been easy, but… tell me how you feel, about us.”

   She pulled away half-heartedly, looking up at his face, young and gentle, except for the dark, hard eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again with another sigh.

   Bale heard a tweet, and look over to see a bird in a tiny cage. He hadn’t noticed it before. Had it always been there? Is that how she really felt?

   He nodded, and sank a little. “And, you don’t want to be that any more, do you?”

   Sunny looked down and shook her head.

   The bird, a pretty, white dove, pecked at the cage door until it swung open. It hopped up and looked around, hopefully, but didn’t seem to be able to leave.

   “I, can’t really blame you, I guess. I haven’t given you much reason to want to stay.”

   “Bale, don’t… it’s not like I want to… I just, I can’t”

   “I understand, I get it. Just give me a chance to speak, and then you can make your decision, ok?

   He let go of her and ran his fingers through her hair. She smiled and cocked her head to one side, her eyes closed. It was a fragile thing, but it was the first smile he had seen from her, in a long while.

   He waited for an answer, his breath held, not daring to disturb her thoughts, praying she would at least hear him out.

   After a long minute, she nodded, looking up at him again with those deep brown eyes that used to cause his heart to skip a beat.

   He stared into them, feeling the peace and comfort he had missed for so long. The whole room seemed to settle, and he pulled her closer, feeling her breath against his neck. He closed his eyes and focused on her scent. She closed hers and pressed her face against him. They didn’t move for a while, just stood there, breathing.

When they opened their eyes, the room was clear – clearer than it had been in a while.

   Sunny looked around and chewed on her lip, just a hint of hope in her eyes.

   “See. This is how it should be – without so much baggage that our house feels like a train station lost and found. I can only stash so much in that spare room honey.”

   “I can work on this, love. I can shut out all the darkness, but…”

“No Bale, you can’t.” Her hand touched his face as she spoke, running down his cheek.

“I understand your job is, demanding. I know it takes a lot out of you, but, I need you too.”

   He grabbed her hand and squeezed her fingers, a little too tight.

   “Baby, you don’t understand. I mean, you try, but you can’t. No one can. I didn’t ever tell you everything. They told me not to. They said if I told you, it would change the way you looked at me. But I guess at this point, what does that matter?”

“Bale, it doesn’t matter what you do, it only matters who you are.”

“Humph… it’s the same thing.”

“No, it’s not. You don’t have to become what you do.”

He scowled and cracked his neck. The room darkened, and ice began to form on the floor around his feet.

Sunny took a step back, shivering. “Honey, what’s going on?”

Bale closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath. The shadows sank back into the corners, though the chill still remained.

“Sit down, please. It won’t take long.” He held her gaze until she relented, sitting on the bed cross-legged.

“Everyone can manifest, right? We all do it, and for the most part, we keep it under control. They teach us from, what, like kindergarten, how to shut down the worst of the manifestations, and the consequences to our minds, if we don’t.” He paused, his eyes softening as tears began to swell.

“When I took the job at the agency, they told me, told all of us there, that it was just research. They told us they had to study the outer reaches of the human psyche, and to do that, we needed to dig deeper than we ever had before. We had to imagine the things that lived in the darkest recesses of our minds.”

Sunny edged forward, seeing the pain in his face, wishing she could wipe it away. She tried to manifest, to imagine light and warmth, but found nothing.

The ice crept across the floor, and the shadows rose up from the corners, spreading through the air like ink in water.

Sunny tried to smile, but the cold around her was oppressive, pushing happiness so far from her mind, she began to forget it existed.

“I created things Sunny, things so dark and perverse that it made me question who I was as a human being. It made me question if I deserved life, or even you…”

“Bale, don’t…”

“But I kept it all inside. I left it at work and pretended at home, pretended that your light could save me. I can’t contain it, love. They unlocked me. They ripped open my imagination and let it loose. I can’t stop it – no one can.” He was openly weeping now. Each tear and quiver of the lip, broke a piece of Sunny inside.

“Baby, I’m sorry, I… I had no idea.” She looked at him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look back.

“Why didn’t you leave? I mean, we would have struggled, but, we could have figured it out. It would have been better than this.”

He took a deep breath, steadying his nerve and biting back more grief and pain. “I couldn’t quit. A month ago, I found out the truth behind the project. I saw a news report on the latest attack on Acadia. It was heavily edited, but the aftermath of the attack was… the city had been decimated. I wondered about it all day, about the war, the killing, the threat of invasion. I wondered how a failing economy and an underfunded military were holding back such a powerful enemy. When it came to me, I was stunned. I woke up on my back, in cold sweats. My stomach had been emptied all over the floor. I didn’t have any proof, but, it was the only thing that made any sense. So, I went to find Reggie, my friend, the project leader, a man we have had over for dinner. I asked him flat out, what they were using my manifestations for. He tried to deny it at first, but I pressed him. I could feel myself getting angry, and I saw my change, in his face. He told me everything.”

Bale dropped to his knees, sobbing. Sunny rose up from the bed, fighting back the waves of misery that washed over him. The water tasted bitter and salty in her mouth, but she ignore it and clung to him.

“Honey. It’s going to be okay. You didn’t know. This isn’t your fault.”

She held him, his head pressed against her body as he convulsed with each sob.

“You can stop. We can just get away.”

He shook his head, even as she held him. His shoulders sagged and he leaned back to look up at her.

“It’s not that easy.

“I know it will be tough honey, but it will get easier.”

“Do you remember how many jobs I tried, before we got married? I couldn’t find where I belonged, or who I was meant to be. At the Agency… I’m good, baby, I’m really good. I fit in, and as sick as it sounds, I belong there.”

“What about us? What about me?”

“You might be better off away from me, away from all of this. You could get somewhere safe. But we’re losing the war. If I leave, there might not be any place to get away, for either of us.”

The shadows shrank back and the chill subsided. Bale felt his mind settle. The darkness was there, lurking just beneath the surface, but the conflict had subsided, replaced by something he had not felt before; acceptance.

“Other people can do this. It doesn’t have to be you.”

“The Agency has limited resources. Not everyone can manifest with the same degree of complexity or power. The enemy has all the cards, except one. I can’t fold, I just have to keep bluffing, keep manifesting, until we win.”

“And we just quit? We give up on us?”

“I’m sorry love, but you were right. I’ve been too caught up to notice you. You don’t deserve that. All I can do to make this better is let you go.”

The bird tweeted in the background, and the cage door swung open. The bird fluttered out of the cage, but circled around Bale’s head.

Sunny was stunned. “What if I can’t let go?”

Bale stood, and place one hand on her cheek. He stared into her eyes, and she stared into his, until all she could focus on was the black circle of his pupil. “You might have, echoes, shadows of memory, for a while, but you won’t remember why. After a while, you won’t remember me at all. And later, after all this is over, I’ll find you.”

His pupils seemed to grow, until they swallowed everything else. She sank to her knees, eyes rolling back in her head. She remembered the pain and the darkness… but all else was lost.

 

***

The streets were crowded. Sunny stood outside an electronics store, leaning against her cane for support. The same picture played out on every television screen. The war was over, so they said. Reports were still coming out, but whatever hit them, had devastated four major cities in a matter of hours. The images had been deemed too horrific to show.

The air was tingling with excitement, as children danced, while miniature fireworks popped and squealed over their heads. They were too young to remember when the war started, their parents were too.

She remembered though, back when she was just a young woman with a…

Maybe she didn’t remember. Her memory wasn’t what it once was. She turned to head for home. She wasn’t in any rush, there wasn’t much to get back to, but she didn’t feel like celebrating. She felt like something was missing.

She stopped after a dozen steps to catch her breath, and heard steps behind her. She turned to see a man following. He stopped when she did. He had a worn face, lined by hard years she imagined, but his eyes were soft and warm. She started to speak, but he held one finger to his lips. He lifted his other hand, and presented her with a beautiful white dove. She reached out to take it, and felt a peace and warmth wash over her, peeling back years of memory. For a moment she was sitting in bed with her husband, staring out the window at the sunshine and roses in the middle of January.

“Bale?”

“I’m sorry it took so long love. But if you let me, I can take those years back, and we can start again.”