Constellations appeared in the pockmarked material. A faint hum from the central air system vibrated along the t-bars.
Seven minutes. Read more “Fiona Unnoticed”
Constellations appeared in the pockmarked material. A faint hum from the central air system vibrated along the t-bars.
Seven minutes. Read more “Fiona Unnoticed”
Burl Langston leaned against the cedar post. Behind him, a few longhorns mulled about. On the other side of the fence, clouds of dust hung over the plains like soiled cotton as countless shorthorns spilled onto a patch of alfalfa. Burl’s toothpick splintered, so he spit out the pieces. He had plans today, like every day, but a seething anger pulled him here on yet another morning. Read more “Done Right By You”
The metal folding chair was doing a number on Sharon’s back. Along with a handful of arm-crossed citizens, she sat before the town council and watched them stuff their faces with slices of cherry pie that the Mayor’s wife had brought in. Sharon’s stomach churned. She was too nervous to partake. Read more “Aye”
Previous scene: Elisha is taken to her new home.
No spoken words. Only silence and a quiet thought telling Elisha that she needed to breathe.
So this is it. This is home.
The hallways radiated a hum, feeling empty. What kind of home could she make for herself here? What was to be expected of her?
The two of them walked along the long corridor which made a left and reached a dead end. More blank wall. Instinctively, Elisha looked up at Lucya. Again, the woman crooked her head and a slice of the wall rose in front of her.
There was a lot to learn about this new world.
They were confronted by a bright light. Birds chirped. A cool breeze rubbed across Elisha’s exposed flesh, carrying the scent of plants and a hint of chlorinated water. It gave her goosebumps.
Lucya spoke. “Once your eyes adjust, I think you’ll find the garden to be one of our most beautiful and serene places on campus.”
There was so much about that statement which confused Elisha, but as her vision returned to normal, she agreed with a part of it. The lush greenery was certainly beautiful and serene. Flowers of all colors were embedded among bushes. A mix of large oaks and palm trees towered over them. The combination seemed odd, but somehow worked, forming a harmony of strangeness. The sound of running water drew her attention to a waterfall off to her right. It rained down over a jagged, rock cliff from what appeared to be the highest point in the surrounding area. Bordering the scene were tall gray walls reaching up several stories. Elisha was definitely inside of an enclosed space as the walls appeared to extend for several hundred yards on every side, cut by severe right angles.
“Come,” Lucya said. She reached down and grabbed Elisha’s hand and Elisha accepted it without any reticence or afterthought.
They walked a little further down a winding brick path. There were intricate patterns created by multicolored blocks, each appearing to represent some sort of symbol. Along the way, they were spread out from each other by several feet. It reminded Elisha of the zodiac signs she had learned about in school, though none of the images conjured up anything familiar.
For a while, it was only the two of them until Elisha came to a sharp stop, causing Lucya to halt.
Sitting on a grass clearing to their left was a group of ten children varying in age. Most appeared to be a little older than Elisha. They were cross-legged and resting their hands lightly on their knees. Their eyes were closed and they appeared to be in deep concentration. It didn’t seem difficult given the surrounding atmosphere, until a shout erupted from an older man seated in front of them.
It made Elisha jump and give a slight yelp. When she regained her senses, it was as if not one of the children had so much as batted an eyelash.
She looked at the man, his shaggy hair and beard as white as snow, eyebrows as dark as coal. His stiff-backed posture was the same as the children’s but instead of being closed, his eyes were wide open and appeared to be following her every move. His gaze pierced Elisha and she turned away, hoping the feeling would disappear. It didn’t.
Lucya seemed to sense her discomfort and pulled her forward. The man’s eyes still followed, yet his head never turned. It was like those paintings where the eyes were always watching, no matter where you stood. Just like those paintings, she also felt there was a sort of emptiness there–that no one was really watching her. That it was all an optical illusion.
“What are they doing?” Elisha asked.
Her voice was louder than she anticipated, sounding shrill against the once again tranquil environment.
“They’re studying,” Lucya replied. “Specifically, they’re focusing on their meditation and concentration skills.”
Lucya looked down at Elisha, not unkindly. “You’ll find out. It’s one of several classes you’ll be taking.”
With a gentle pull, Lucya once again drew Elisha forth. The beauty of the environment did not fade as they walked and eventually came to the other side of the campus. At every turn and twist, they encountered another clearing with another group of children, each one listening intently to a leader of some sort. One lot was focused on a woman who was kneeling down, gingerly handling a small flower.
“…and you must be careful to grab by the stem. If you were to be pricked by the tip…”
Her voice trailed off as they arrived at an ordinary brown door.
A normal door? Elisha felt oddly relieved. It actually had a knob. It grounded her, comforting her by demonstrating that not everything in her new life was beyond reason.
The hallway they entered was similar to the one they had taken to get into the garden. Its gray walls and dim lights eliminated any sense of tranquility. After climbing a flight of stairs, they arrived at what appeared to be the inside of any ordinary office building, or at least the kind Elisha had seen on television. She’d never actually been in a real office. A hallway was surrounded by doors on all sides, but instead of the hustle and bustle she’d expected, the floor was free of footsteps and general chatter.
“It’s generally quiet here during classes,” Lucya said. “This is where the faculty does their own studying and handles business when they’re not with students.”
Lucya led Elisha to the end of the hall where a pair of double doors loomed. They stopped several feet prior. Lucya bent down and spoke quietly.
“I want to not so much warn you, but make you aware,” she said. “The man you’re about to meet may seem somewhat…cold. But don’t let that bother you. No matter what is said, I believe in you. I believe you belong here.”
Elisha wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Do you want to find your sister?” Lucya asked.
Haven’t we been through this?
“Yes,” Elisha replied.
She could feel Lucya’s eyes burning into her.
“I mean, do you really want to find her? Do whatever it takes, no matter the consequence to you or those you love?”
Elisha thought for what seemed like an eternity. What did Lucya mean? What could be the consequence?
“Yes,” she said more forcefully. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Lucya’s eyes darted back and forth, looking over Elisha’s face. She felt Lucya was intent on seeing something, maybe catching her in a lie before it was too late. Before things became too final.
Finally, she straightened up and smiled. She knocked on the door. There was no pulling open with the handle. No head twitch. Just a simple request for entrance.
Elisha couldn’t help feeling nervous, but she was proud of herself that she hadn’t cried yet. It hadn’t been easy. She had been confronted with so much outlandishness. The past year of not having a comforting mother to run to seemed to have given her a strength, a resolve that was purely her own. Maybe it was similar to what Martha had experienced before she disappeared. They were becoming more alike. Neither of them needed anyone else but each other, she liked to think. Each capable of handling things like grownups.
After the knock, there was a few seconds of silence and then suddenly the door was open.
There was no monster or anything scary in the traditional sense. Instead, it was simply another man, of average height and bald but for a small patch of gray hair that wrapped around the sides of his head. Sunspots dotted his face and he wore a dark gray suit that seemed allergic to wrinkles. Even at the crooks and bends, the fabric seemed to fold in a magnificent way that interested Elisha.
Lucya nodded her head in a respectful greeting. Elisha waited for something to happen, but the walls stood where they were and she was confronted only by the stranger looking down at her. She could see the overhead lights reflecting off the flesh of his head.
“Elisha,” Lucya said, “this is the Warden.”
Abruptly, the man looked back up at Lucya.
“Take a seat,” he said.
The room was as cold as his demeanor. Elisha saw several chairs that were facing a desk. On the other side, one lone chair. For some reason, she had expected something fancier, but everything about the office was understated. The walls were bare except for two plain paintings of fruit–one with two green apples sitting on a wooden table and the other was simply an orange against a green backdrop. The desk was made of old wood, fading and scratched in parts. It reminded Elisha of her desk at school. And the chairs, they looked downright uncomfortable. Wooden, stiff, no padding to be seen.
Lucya indicated toward a pair of them and they each took a seat. The wall behind the man’s desk was just as dull as the rest of the room. Elisha supposed it made sense that if you were working there, you wouldn’t need to turn around, so there was no reason to make the back look any better than the rest. Still, the lack of view felt constricting.
“What makes you think you’re ready for this?”
The question was out of the man’s mouth before he took his own seat.
Elisha looked askance at Lucya, who nodded back.
“It’s a simple question,” he interrupted.
Elisha attempted to swallow away the lump that had gathered at the back of her throat. It was no good. The air felt heavy and as the man stared at her, she sensed the ticking of a clock which she couldn’t see.
“R-Ready for what?” Elisha asked. “I just want to find my sister.”
The man leaned forward and clasped his hands across the desk. Elisha saw tiny, gray whiskers poking from his chin and upper lip.
“What makes you think you can find your sister?”
What kind of questions were these? Again, Elisha looked at Lucya.
“She told me–”
“I know what she told you. But why do you think you can find her?”
Elisha felt threatened. The inside corners of her eyes began to moisten.
“Because I know her.”
It was beginning and she felt ashamed. She was choking on her own words.
“I can almost feel her. Every day since she’s been gone.”
The man stared at her.
“You’re almost crying, Elisha. Do you think tears will reveal your sister’s whereabouts? Bring her back to you? Any more than just knowing her?”
His nose wrinkled as he spoke.
Elisha’s whole body trembled.
“Look!” she yelled.
She stood up and thrust her hands onto the edge of the desk, almost meeting the man face to face. Her arms shook violently.
“I’m here to find Martha.”
Tears streamed down her face and she didn’t care.
“If you didn’t need my help, you wouldn’t have brought me here. I’m young, but I’m not stupid. Whatever you brought me here for, I’m ready to do. I’m ready to learn.”
Her legs would have given way if not for her quivering arms keeping her standing. She looked at Lucya. The cause of this whole misadventure looked back at her without expression. Elisha felt hurt.
“Help me,” she said quietly.
Lucya turned toward the Warden. A playful grin formed on her lips.
He stood from his chair and walked toward one of the fruit paintings, the one with the apples.
“We need you,” he said as if addressing the painting. “It’s true. And you appear to know just as well that you need us. We understand the connection you have with your sister, even if you don’t fully understand it yourself.”
He turned and looked at Elisha. His face had relaxed.
“We need to know that you will be ready and capable of performance.”
“Performance?” she asked. What sort of game was being played here?
“We run what you might call a performing arts school, though quite different from any you would be familiar with.”
And then the oddest thing happened.
“Everything is performance. You’ve heard the saying ‘the world is a stage?’ There’s a lot of truth in that phrase. And as on any stage, you have minor players and you have the star of the show.”
He took a deep breath.
“Not everyone can be a star, but some believe there are those with inborn talents.”
His eyes focused on Lucya. Her stupefying grin remained.
“I believe in hard work and dedication,” he continued. “But when those two come together…”
He put his hands together in a prayer-like motion.
“Stars are born,” Lucya chimed in.
The man continued to stare at her, but returned to his chair and leaned against the back.
“Our time to act is coming soon and we need all of the right players. Opportunity has come before, but the means to take advantage of it have not. What we’ve always lacked is a potential star.”
He looked hard at Elisha.
“So I ask again, what makes you think you’re ready for this?”
Elisha paused. Her heart was beating rapidly and she realized she was still propping herself up on his desk. She pushed her arms off, supporting herself with her still shaky legs.
She looked down and wondered if she could answer his question.
“I don’t want to go home,” she replied. “I don’t want to live without my sister. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Silence filled the staid air, broken only when the man scratched the side of his nose and sniffed.
“And so you’ll have your opportunity.”
He stood and nonchalantly stretched out his hand.
“Welcome to the Academy.”
Previous POV scene: Elisha leaves her current life and joins the strange woman.
Elisha had been blindfolded for an unknown amount of time. A myriad of unorganized thoughts ran through her mind as she felt the rumbling motion of the vehicle beneath her seat. She hadn’t gone home to pack her things. What would she wear? She’d been told it would be taken care of. What about Mom and Grandma? Surprisingly, or not so much, she felt that they would be okay. One would think that losing two little girls would have a devastating effect, but Elisha believed Mom would be alright–she had been disconnected and distant since the disappearance of Martha. Grandma would probably take it the hardest, but even she seemed somewhat resigned to the fact that they were at a strange life’s mercy.
The radio was on. Low sounds of jazz music slithered into Elisha’s ears. A bass guitar kept rhythm with the snare and kick drum. The trumpet took the lead. It reminded Elisha of something that she had heard before, but she couldn’t quite place it. Mom really enjoyed listening to music after a long day on her feet. She would normally come in the house, throw her purse down by the door and remove her shoes. Before she did anything else, she would put a record on the turntable. The music would vary daily–Elvis, Benny Goodman, even some Hank Williams. Some of it was energetic, meant to be danced to, but somehow Mom found a way to fall asleep. Elisha wondered if Mom were sleeping to it now, quietly assuming that her little girl was out playing.
But Elisha was already on the road, already finding her way to a new place, a new life. She surprised herself at how easy the choice had been. The realization that she loved her sister beyond anything else and would do anything to find her had been a relief from a year of discomfort. The desire had been buried deep inside her and the only way she could describe the feeling was one of freedom, knowing that she was pursuing Martha while everyone else had decided to let things be as they were.
The blindfold was beginning to make Elisha’s face itch. She reached up to scratch but her hand was quickly taken hold of. She tried to pull away, but the grip was too strong.
“Just a little while longer,” came the woman’s voice.
Some time ago, maybe an hour or so ago, they had all left the lake and walked quickly out of the small wooded area to the nearest street. They had climbed into the back seat of a nondescript black sedan, manned by an equally nondescript driver. The boy had taken the passenger side and had handed a blindfold to Elisha.
“Why do I have to wear that?” she had asked.
He had looked at the woman.
“It’s a precaution,” she had said. “There are a few secrets that you’re not ready to know yet.”
“I need to know everything,” Elisha remembered saying. She had felt defiant at having given up her life and didn’t take kindly to her questions being blocked.
The woman’s grating laughed replayed itself over and over in her head.
“In due time,” she had said.
And now here she was, still blindfolded, unable to relieve the prickling sensation by her cheek.
“I have an itch,” Elisha said.
“Where?” the woman asked.
“By my eye. It’s driving me nuts!”
There was a pause.
“Go ahead and scratch,” she said, “but don’t take off your blindfold.”
“I won’t,” Elisha said, somewhat petulantly.
The woman removed her hand and Elisha began to scratch away. She was now tempted to pull the blindfold off for spite, but she didn’t want to take any foolish risks. If seeing her sister meant playing along, Elisha would do so as long as possible. She didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
Slowly and deliberately, she scratched at the itch that had since gone away, but Elisha sensed another oddity. The car had a strange smell, or, maybe not so much the car but its occupants. It was as if they had been sitting around a fire–that smell of hickory smoke combined with sweat. She mused on the fact that all of her other senses seemed to be extra sensitive while being unable to see. It reminded her of similar experiments in school where they had to wear blindfolds and taste different foods, or feel different objects to determine what they were without the use of sight. She never seemed to have any problems passing them with flying colors.
Time carried on, but without anything to look at, Elisha was beginning to feel very tired. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the crinkling leather seat. Several days ago, she had been living an aimless life, not knowing what she should do, where she should go. Now it seemed that fate had intervened and pushed her toward a decision she’d subconsciously known. She only had to follow the path laid out.
Elisha woke with a start. The vibration of the open road had ceased.
“You can remove your blindfold now.” The woman’s voice was stilted, but soft.
Elisha removed the felt blindfold and blinked, squinting into the bright light that penetrated the car windows.
“Where are we?” Elisha asked.
“Home,” the boy replied. He was looking back from the passenger seat, grinning furiously, or so it seemed to Elisha. “We won’t see each other for a little while,” he continued,” but time seems to go by fast here. We’ll meet again.” With that he opened the car door and stepped outside. Elisha heard his light footsteps fade into the distance but couldn’t see where he had gone.
She looked up at the woman who was still smiling, as if trying to comfort Elisha.
“Let me show you to your room,” she said.
They exited the car on opposite sides. The lights were even brighter outside, but Elisha’s eyes were beginning to adjust. The room was surrounded by cement on all sides except for a corrugated metal door that was drawn behind the vehicle. It was then that Elisha realized the driver had left at some point.
Where did he and boy go?
The woman came around the other side and held out her arm. “Shall we?”
Elisha turned and looked at the metal door. It seemed the only way out. The woman reach down and placed Elisha’s hand on her arm.
“This way,” she said.
They walked slowly toward the cement wall in front of the car. It seemed ludicrous. Elisha wrinkled her brow at the woman who kept facing straight ahead, never flinching. They approached a portion of the wall and just stared at it for a moment. The woman snapped her head gently to the side and Elisha began to feel a slight draft cross her naked ankles, just above her socks. She noticed small cracks forming on the wall around her and heard a faint whistling sound as the cement began to move upward from where she stood, revealing a tiny hallway with recessed blue lights.
Elisha looked up at the woman.
She hesitated for a moment, but quickly realized she had stepped into a world she couldn’t step out of. A new path had been decided upon back at the lake. She didn’t know where she was, how she could leave, or which direction in which to head home if she got that far.
Just think about why you’re doing this. Was Martha enough?
Elisha stepped into the hallway and there was a low hum. She felt a bit of air swirling around her skin. It was a peculiar feeling and it made her hair sway lightly. She turned to see that the cement wall had closed rapidly behind them.
She noticed her legs were shaking and she was focusing hard on keeping herself upright.
Was Martha enough?
The woman turned to Elisha and gently placed her hands on her shoulders.
“What you’re about to see, what you’re about to learn, will change your life forever. There’s a world out there that is unknown to most people, existing just beneath the surface of the everyday. It’s not a peaceful world, Elisha. The simplest comparison, though completely lacking in actual truth, is that there is a balance between the dark and the light. You can’t have one without the other. When the balance is upset, there is too much of one thing, and that can wreak havoc on our souls. Your sister, she’s become part of a greater plan to change that balance.”
Elisha noticed that her mouth was agape. The back of her throat had gone dry.
“You’re a big part of our best defense, and in the process, the best hope of saving your sister. Nothing in this world is free, you understand that right?”
Elisha thought she did, so she nodded.
“Good.” The woman smiled and stretched out her hand.
“My name is Lucya. Now come with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Previous scene: Elisha is given the opportunity to find her sister.
Previous POV scene: Elisha falls into the clutches of her intended target.
The air had a small bite to it. A coolness seeped in and penetrated Elisha’s damp clothes. A gift from the recent rain. After so many events, one would think Elisha would be used to the sudden torrents of strange weather, but the phenomena never ceased to astound her. Maybe it was because the time span in between jobs was so large that she was apt to forget the sensation. Because her marks were no easy targets, it took years of careful tracking and planning. Mistakes could not be afforded.
Yet mistakes still happened.
If that weren’t the case this time, she would have been well on her way out of town, another job well done. Perhaps she’d be sitting across from Pete, savoring a glass of Brown. It would have been a celebration drink. A bit of nose-thumbing toward her boss.
Instead she looked around the cavern in which she was either a guest or a hostage, neither of which boded well in her mind. The haze of pain and shellshock had cleared and an unusual picture unravelled: she and the old man sat across from each other in a pair of aluminum lawn chairs covered in red and green webbing. They sat not at the beach nor in front of a child’s soccer game, but among themselves, inside a lava tube that ran beneath the surface of the Mojave desert. It was likely only one of many that had been carved out thousands of years ago by rivers of molten rock. Such a location provided an ideal place for the old man to set up shop and escape the harsh summers along with the equally frigid winters. Of course the man could have lived in a modern house like a normal person, but he was obviously far from normal. Even if one hadn’t known he was special in ways unseen by the natural eye, he could make himself conspicuous if he wanted to, exposing the strange marks on his skin.
He said nothing, only taking occasional sips of tea as these thoughts charged through Elisha’s mind. His eyes were wary but calm. Elisha shivered when she realized that he was watching her, watching him. He held up the other glass of iced tea.
A moment of debate took place in her mind, but she realized that he had poured the tea from the same pitcher. That wasn’t exactly a guarantee, but she reasoned that being poisoned at this point would not seem a reasonable thing to occur. She would have been a rude guest not to accept what was offered and if she were indeed a hostage, at risk of annoying her captor further.
Besides, she was really, really thirsty.
Elisha reached over the table and took the glass.
“You mentioned my sister,” she said after taking a drink. The tea was quite good. Unsweetened, as she preferred.
The man’s voice emerged a hoarse whisper. The disproportionately large Adam’s apple on his thin throat bounced each time he spoke and swallowed. It reminded Elisha of that game at the fair where you have to slam down a ridiculously large hammer in an attempt to make the puck ring the bell.
“I also mentioned a small favor,” he continued.
Bemused, Elisha looked him in the eyes. He still had not lost his cool demeanor.
“Why do I have a feeling the favor is anything but small?” she asked quite rhetorically. “You don’t save people who have been tasked with killing you for small favors.”
He smiled his yellowed grin.
“Depends on your point of view. In the grand scheme of things, it’s small.” He took a sip of sun tea. “But you’re somewhat right. Small does not equate to easy. If anyone could do it, you wouldn’t be here. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have made it after that last little show of yours in Apple Valley.”
The man stood and reached up high, stretching taut his old flesh.
“You’re good,” he said. “But I’m better.”
He gave her a sharp look, then walked over to where Elisha had picked herself up off the ground. He looked up toward the gap in the cave ceiling and snapped his head quickly to the side. A pair of flat boards came together gently and closed the hole, putting the trapdoor back together.
“Before we get into the details of the favor, a history lesson is likely in order.”
“You are a mystery,” Elisha responded.
“Not mine, yours.”
Elisha grimaced. “I know my history.”
“You think you know your history. The trouble with pawns. Their view is limited. Can only see so much of the board,” he replied.
Elisha wondered just how right the old man was. How much did she know about the games being played in the backrooms, the lairs of the men and women behind the great machinery of which she was a cog. A good cog. A hardworking cog. But a cog nonetheless.
The old man turned toward her. “But I am inherently curious. Love to hear your view of things.”
Elisha stirred slightly. She wondered just how much she should say. It wasn’t as if she was in the military and in the case of capture, was instructed to only give name, rank, and serial number. No, her instructions had always been of a simpler sort:
If you’re captured, you say nothing. No matter what.
There was no Geneva convention in their line of work, so who was to say what would or wouldn’t be done to pull information. It was part of the reason front-line soldiers weren’t told much about their jobs. They wouldn’t have much to reveal.
“I understand your reticence. Have your own rules of the road and all that. I won’t force you to say anything. Though I’ve worked with many that have had no bones when it comes to pulling out information, never been one with a taste for it myself. Besides, most of the time, the information that comes out is useless. Even when they know nothing more, the victims begin to believe that they do, and that what they’re saying is the honest truth. Ends up more a waste of time than anything.”
The old man chuckled to himself.
“You know, of all of these useful strengths and powers we have, you’d think we’d have the ability to confidently discern truth from a lie. It’s a puzzle that’s been worked on for millennia, but it’s turned out a lot like ancient alchemy: a lot of hype, yet no gold from bronze.”
He looked directly into Elisha’s eyes. “Doesn’t mean some of us aren’t damned good at it. Just no magic to it, that’s all.”
Elisha figured she didn’t have much to lose at this point. In a best case scenario, even if she left here alive, it would soon become clear to her employers that the target had gotten away. That she had possibly become compromised. That she could no longer be trusted. The penalties for failure were harsh. For something that had come straight from the top, well, this was territory that Elisha wished never to explore. With her skills, she may be able to get away temporarily, but the Company had a wide reach. Life would not get any simpler, that much she knew.
The decision was made. She felt there was little to lose at this point.
“I’ll tell you what I know. I don’t see any harm in it. It’s obvious to me that you know much of it already.”
She took a deep breath.
“I was seven when Martha was taken away. She was eight. My mother and grandmother had warned us about strange weather which came out of the mountains, east of where we lived, but something had struck Martha’s curiosity. One day, she refused to hide with me and that was the last I time I ever saw her. A year had gone by when I was given the opportunity to find her again. My life had to change though. I had to leave home. I had to become a student of the organization for which I now work.”
There was a twinkle in the man’s eyes as she spoke.
Was he crying? Before she could tell, he turned away and took a drink of his tea. Elisha thought she saw him shivering, but it could have been a simple trick of the lantern light playing with the shadows.
“The rest of the story is just needless detail.”
He cleared his throat and turned toward Elisha. He approached and she instinctively stood. She sensed something powerful within him and she didn’t want to be the target. He gently raised his hand and placed it on her shoulder. There was a single tear running down his left cheek, carving a path along the wrinkles like a small rabbit hopping over snowy banks,.
“Yes, indeed it is.” As if suddenly aware of himself, he straightened up and reached into his pocket. He removed a small handkerchief and dabbed at his cheek. “I just realized that I’ve been a rude host. Haven’t properly introduced myself. My name is Peter Karovska. I’m responsible for what happened to Martha. This favor that I ask, not only helps you, but selfishly, is an attempt to atone for my sins.”
Previous scene: Elisha receives a mysterious letter.
It had been a long time since Elisha ran so hard. The wind whipped her hair across her face as she raced down the gravel driveway in record time. If Martha were there, the competition would have been fierce. They would have both ran as if their lives depended on it, one trying to keep up with the other, and then finally they would finally collapse, limbs flailing onto the front room floor. Mom or Grandma would have come in and told them to pick themselves up and start their homework. They would have had no excuses, and even if they had managed to conjure up a few, the sisters would’ve been too out of breath to verbalize them.
Elisha occasionally looked look back, half-expecting Martha to be grinning furiously right behind her. In fact, she wanted to see that so bad, she swore several times that her sister was right behind her. The image was so vivid in her mind. Martha had on her red cotton shorts and a white t-shirt with matching red rings clutching her skinny biceps. It was an outfit that Elisha had borrowed sometimes, that is, when Martha hadn’t known about it. Sure, they had been close, but Elisha had learned long ago that sharing clothes was off-limits. And by sharing clothes, Elisha meant wearing Martha’s because Martha would have never been caught wearing anything of her sister’s. Now Elisha never had to borrow Martha’s clothes because Mom had put them all in Elisha’s closet for her choosing.
The only race taking place today was against the clock. Elisha wanted to quickly put away her schoolbooks and head out to the lake. There was no date or time associated with the letter she received, so she had no idea of when to go other than right now.
When she reached the front door, Elisha absentmindedly turned and pushed on the knob only to meet stiff resistance. She’d forgotten that Mom had locked the door all the time now. In a small town like theirs, that was unusual. But it was just something Mom did. Elisha assumed it was out of a need to protect what was left of the family, but she couldn’t be sure. These days, the only times Mom wasn’t closed up inside and keeping the world at bay was when she had to wait tables or to buy groceries. Elisha doubted locking the doors provided anything other than a false sense of security.
She quickly remembered the jingling in her pockets–a pair of keys, one for the top deadbolt lock, the other for the bottom knob. Through labored breathing, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the tiny keyring. Her hand shook. She always seemed to insert one of the keys upside-down on the first try.
Once opened, Elisha slowed down and caught her breath as quietly as possible. She gently opened the door and peeked her head in to see if Grandma was knitting in her chair. The sound of television came from the backroom. Elisha thought of just closing the door and sneaking out again, but decided that was a bad idea. Grandma would almost certainly wonder where she was and come looking for her. Might even get the neighbors involved. That would only lead to more questions and Elisha felt that the situation was too precarious to waste on being careless. This may be her only opportunity to find out what happened to Martha. What really happened.
Elisha closed the door. The smell of a beef roast made its way in to her nose, wafting out of the kitchen. It was the usual Monday dinner, thrown into a dutch oven with a handful of potatoes and carrots. Leftovers would be eaten the rest of the week. She realized that she may be at the lake for awhile, so it was best to eat a quick snack.
The kitchen was in slight disarray. It was never as clean as it could have been, even after Elisha had spent her chores wiping up the countertops and sweeping the linoleum. It would be a mere day before it was messy again. She opened up the pantry and grabbed a jar of peanut butter. She unscrewed it and violated the oft-spoken rule of keeping her dirty fingers out of it. She dipped in once, twice, three times and savored each scoop. A watchful eye kept out for Grandma, in case she snuck in the other side of the kitchen. No one was there. Muffled sounds of the television could still be heard through the swing door. At least she didn’t have to worry about Mom. She was working swing shift today and wouldn’t be home until late.
Elisha put the jar back in the cupboard and walked into the living room. Grandma’s eyes briefly acknowledged her and went back to her program.
“Hey hon,” she said.
Elisha was unsure of what to do with her hands, her backpack still firmly strapped over her shoulders. She doddered in the hallway, looking intently at Grandma, who was looking equally intently at the television. Grandma loved to rock in her living room chair and watch television almost as much as she loved to rock and knit in the front room. Those were two images that Elisha felt would be ingrained in her mind, up until the day she was herself old and ready to move on to the next plane of existence.
“How was school?”
An uproarious laugh-track emerged from the television, filling the entire room. Elisha waited for a pause in the action.
“Good,” she replied.
Music queued up and then an ad for motor oil began to play.
Grandma finally looked up at Elisha.
“Good. Did your teacher like your report?”
Elisha nodded quickly.
“Good, good,” Grandma said. “I’m glad you picked someone like Buchanan. I’m sure most kids picked Kennedy or Lincoln.” Except for a tiny chip in the middle left tooth, her falsies gleamed with an obscene brightness as she smiled. “It’s good to go outside the norm. Good to be a little different.” She reached for a cup of lemonade that she had mixed up on Sunday. It was one of Grandma’s favorite drinks, but they way she made it, was always too sour. Elisha found herself heaping in sugar if she ever had to drink it.
She wasn’t sure what to say next. Elisha was afraid her body was telegraphing her next move as she instinctively leaned back toward the hallway. She was already fighting thoughts of what would actually happen at the lake. If she let herself think too much about it, Grandma would know something was up for sure.
“I already have the next assignment,” she blurted out, louder than she would have liked. Thankfully the television was turned up loud enough to mask her uneasiness.
“Oh?” she said. “What’s this one about.”
And just like that, Elisha’s mind went blank. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to say. She knew what the assignment was. It just happened to be hiding in some dark recess of her mind and not wanting to be found.
“Birds,” she quickly said.
Where that came from, Elisha was unsure, but the rest of it seemed to come out of her mouth as if it were sliding on a stick of butter.
“We’re supposed to look at the birds that live in the area and record things about them. Size. Color. Types of feathers.”
“Oh?” Grandma said again.
“Yeah,” Elisha said. “I was thinking I should go outside before it gets dark and see what kinds I can find.”
Strings began to swell and a brass trumpet played a swaying melody. The music for Grandma’s show was starting up. Her eyes flickered back to the television, and then back at Elisha. The changing angles reflected the light of the tube off her thick glasses.
“Your mom will be home late tonight. I don’t want you going outside without her permission.”
“But it’s for school, Grandma. I need to–”
“When is the paper due?” Grandma asked pointedly.
Elisha could have lied and said it was due tomorrow, but that would have been unrealistic.
It was hard to lie to Grandma. She had a way of penetrating Elisha’s thoughts with her eyes, taking them and twisting the truth right out.
Grandma took a deep breath. She sat up in her chair and looked outside through the back window and onto the porch. Then she took another big swig of lemonade and turned back toward Elisha. Her eyes swung to the television and a look of disappointment crossed her face. She had missed some of her story it seemed.
“You be back in one hour and you stay close. Don’t you dilly dally and don’t make me come looking for you.” The smile on her face had gone away at some point, but Elisha couldn’t recall when. Grandma’s eyes were glued to the television, but she was shaking her finger, causing the wrinkly skin beneath her arm to flap back and forth.
The words were spoken as Elisha was already heading down the hallway toward her room. She almost dropped her backpack and took off running, but that would have given up the jig. She quickly pulled out a notebook and pencil and rushed toward the front door.
Waves of nausea churned through her stomach. Elisha stood at the lake, slightly out of breath and feeling ten pounds lighter. She was filled with nervous anticipation as her eyes searched the area. There were nothing but trees, water, and plots of mud in the immediate vicinity. Ten minutes must have passed as she marched back and forth looking for someone. What if she was on the wrong side? She thought of circling the whole thing, but if she did that, she may miss them. What if she came at the wrong time? She should have looked closer at the card. Maybe a date and time were written, but she just missed them. No. She was sure she had looked the whole thing over and there were only the three simple sentences. Questions continued to crowd her mind, each subsequent one more agonizing than the last.
Tired of standing, Elisha plopped onto the ground, dropped her notebook and pencil, and wrapped her arms around her knees. The weather was warm and the world seemed so empty. Sometimes the lake had a fisherman or two, but they were usually out on the weekends. Right now, the only thing confronting Elisha was a serene body of water untouched by even a slight breeze. An upside-down world projected itself almost perfectly on the wet, glassy lake. She began to wonder if the fish below saw the same image. A stupid thought as soon as it entered her mind. She had been under the water before and all that was down there was seaweed, mud, and rocks. And that was when you could see through the murky water at all.
A muskrat edged along the lake. Its graceful movements left the tiniest wake, even that, hardly upsetting the placid water. The serenity of it all fascinated Elisha, how the quiet calm could live in such harmony with things in motion. Life was busy, chaotic, and yet nature found a way to remain unperturbed and a source of refuge.
What type of refuge would she find in learning about her sister, Elisha wondered. It suddenly struck her just how dangerous this could be. What if it was a trick? What if the people that came to see her actually took her sister, and would would try to take her too?
Her eyes raced towards the Eastern mountains. The sky was clear. No clouds in sight.
Again, she was overthinking things. If someone wanted to take her, they probably could have by now. This way seemed too obvious, even a little clumsy.
She had made a decision and needed to stick to it.
Her heart nearly jumped out of her chest and she instinctively followed it, hopping forward on the slippery banks.
Elisha’s foot dipped into the soft soil, causing her to tumble slightly toward the lake.
She reared around on wobbly feet.
Her breathing was shallow, fast.
Standing only a few yards in front of her was a young man. Maybe a teenager, but just barely. He had protruding lips, as if he were wearing braces. Beside him was a pale woman. Beautiful curly hair. Brunette. Her dark dress highlighted a slim figure.
Elisha tried to put words together, but her jaw was clenched tightly. She could only be silent. Observant.
The woman smiled gently with a touch of sympathy.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, dear.” She looked down at the boy. Her thin hand was resting on his shoulder. “It’s in our nature to arrive…quietly.”
Elisha was still quiet. She examined the two of them. The woman had a faint voice. It sounded old, but she looked so young. The boy stared back at Elisha. She felt unnerved by him. His smile was crooked and his eyes had a strange twinkle, yet he also had an air of innocence.
A part of Elisha wanted to run away and forget the whole thing. The only problem was the lake was at her back and she imagined getting away would be no easy feat. She wasn’t about to go for a swim.
“Let’s cut to the chase. You should know what’s happened. About Martha.”
Elisha finally mustered the courage to speak.
“Where is she?”
“She’s gone away. With my sister.”
So they were a part of this. The nervous rumbling returned to Elisha’s stomach. She could scream, but Grandma would never hear her through the house and over the television. She would have no idea what happened until it was too late.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said with a raised hand, a sign of reassurance. “I had nothing to do with it. My sister and I, well, we aren’t exactly on speaking terms.”
Elisha had no choice but to hear the woman out. She was determined to question her until she received better answers.
“Who is he?” she said, indicating the boy.
“A student,” the woman replied quickly.
Her reply confused Elisha. What exactly did this woman teach?
“You said you know where she is, “Elisha continued. “How do I see her?”
The woman looked at the boy and he looked back at her, smiling.
“Well, I don’t know exactly where she is. But there is a way to find her.”
Elisha felt a sharp sensation in the back of her skull as she tried to fight back tears. She had thought she was so close, but now the possibility of seeing her sister seemed to be fading further and further from Elisha’s mind.
She couldn’t hold the pain back from her voice.
“Tell me,” she said.
“It won’t be easy,” the woman replied. “It won’t be quick. But if you want to see her again, you’ll need to come with us.”
Elisha looked around. The sun was edging toward the horizon.
“For how long? I have to get home. I’m probably already late and Grandma–”
“I think you know.”
A mix of dread and excitement went to Elisha’s head. She felt herself swaying slightly and fighting the urge to retch.
She did know.
The woman sighed, her face showing cracks of impatience.
“This isn’t a game, Elisha. And I’m sorry you had to be forced into this. But we need your help. Martha needs your help. I’ll leave the choice up to you. Be glad that it was more than what your sister had.” She looked at the boy by her side. “It’s not a decision that any young person should have to make…but life doesn’t always give us what we want. Just know, that if you don’t join us, you will never see Martha again.”
Elisha would have to leave her family, which didn’t feel much like family these days. She would have to leave school. No big deal. There was nothing much for her there anymore. It didn’t take long to make up her mind. If Martha could be brave and face the cloud, Elisha could be brave and face whatever new world she was certain to enter. At least there was the chance, however slight, of seeing her sister again.
As if her body had already made up its mind, Elisha began to feel normal again. The butterflies mysteriously disappeared. It’s as if she was doing what she was supposed to do.
She stepped forward.
“Do I need to pack anything?”
The woman simply smiled back and shook her head.
Previous scene: Elisha falls into the clutches of her intended target.
“Don’t forget to turn in your essays before you leave today. Any excuses, or reasons masked as such, I will not hesitate to give you an ‘F.’”
The room was filled with sounds of shuffling papers and kids riffling through backpacks.
“And ask you to turn it in again next week.”
Focused on her doodle, Elisha couldn’t bring herself to raise her head and meet the teacher’s prodding eyes. Ms. Lum would be disappointed today, though. Elisha managed to complete her essay on James Buchanan and his unsubstantial presidency. That paper ought to buy her at least a week of respite. Elisha may not have been consistent in completing her homework, but did enough to float by.
She glumly followed the children out, dropping her paper in the teacher’s basket. The walk from the classroom to the bus was a blur, a perfect metaphor for how her school year had gone. There was a time when Elisha excelled at academics, but that time had past. Now, she was always so tired. Tired at night. Tired in the morning. Tired all the times in between. Sleep proved to be elusive over the past year and bags had formed permanently beneath her eyes, leaving her feeling like an extra from Night of the Living Dead. She was completely disinterested in anything school had to offer. There was no getting around the fact that her life had been turned upside down by the disappearance of Martha, schoolwork being only one of many things that had suffered.
If Elisha had had any true friendships, those may have suffered as well. The fact of the matter was that Martha had been her only real friend. With her sister gone, Elisha found herself reading incessantly, exchanging the world she knew for others. Whether locked up in her room or during recess, she would lose herself in books pulled from her mother’s bookshelf or borrowed from the school library. She preferred her mom’s collection since many of the books had been shared with Martha and rereading familiar science fiction stories would remind her of those times they spent together.
It was only occasionally that she was asked by classmates what had happened to her sister. Of course, Elisha explained in great detail how Martha had gone to live with their father. Sometimes they were in another state, other times another country. She didn’t worry about staying consistent and actually turned the whole thing into a bit of a game. The stories were all the more easy for her to make up because she had never really known her father. Like Martha, he seemed to exist only in words, but more so. His life was composed of simple fragments that Mom or Grandma had held fit to dole out. Given what she knew about Martha, Elisha also began to wonder just how much truth there was to those fragments.
One thing she believed is he must have been a heck of a storyteller. Elisha figured she had to have inherited her gift from somewhere, and it wasn’t Mom. Maybe that’s why Mom married him, being the big reader that she was. Elisha began to enjoy how big of a yarn she could spin without telling the actual truth, or sometimes better, wildly basing things on a smidgen of that truth. The sad fact was the falsehoods sounded more real than any truth ever would. As a lark, she had told people that a mysterious cloud had come and taken her sister away, and predictably, they would laugh and tell her to stop making things up.
Elisha felt the bus slowing down and the hiss of the pneumatic doors snapped her out of her reverie. She put on her backpack, walked down the steps, and began the two mile hike toward her house.
“Are you going home?”
As the bus motored out from the stop, Elisha saw Alex Barnes standing in its trail of dust. He was a year older than her, but had been held back a grade. Elisha wasn’t too sweet on many boys. They were immature and smelled gross. Sure, she found a couple of them cute, occasionally, but Alex was not one of them. He was nice enough, but when she thought of boys at all, she was drawn toward the smart, quiet ones. The ones she could imagine reading books with, whose imaginations might be great enough to believe what she would them if she could.
“Yeah, where else would I go?”
Alex’s hands appeared to be digging around in his pockets but never seemed to find what they were looking for.
“I know a couple of guys that built a bike track. Down by the McNichol’s farm. I’m gonna watch them race.”
They both stood in silence for a few uncomfortable moments until Elisha started to walk away.
She turned around and smiled.
Elisha didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she didn’t feel like company. There was no reason to make friends with people that she couldn’t share secrets with. Making up stories to acquaintances was fine, but she felt like she couldn’t be friends with someone and not tell them everything.
“Yeah. I need to get started on Ms. Lum’s next assignment.”
“It’s not due for a week. You’ll have time.”
Elisha just shrugged her shoulders. “I write slow,” she said, half smiling.
He didn’t seem to be buying it, but relented anyway.
“Ok. We’ll be there awhile if you change your mind. We usually leave right after it gets dark.”
Elisha hesitated. “Ok, thanks.” She didn’t want to be harsh and tell him she’d rather be alone. Some boys seemed to take things so personally.
Alex looked like he wanted to say something else, but before he could try and change Elisha’s mind, she turned and walked away quickly.
In all honesty, she had to check in at home, not for Mom’s sake, but for Grandma. It seemed she was more “mom” these days than Mom was herself. Elisha tried to picture Mom scolding her for showing up late. It made her laugh and want to cry at the same time. She couldn’t remember the last time she had received a talking-to from her. Even when she had gotten in trouble at school because of her change in behavior, she hadn’t seen much in the way of punishment. Her mom would put on a show when called in to see the teacher, but as soon as they left, it was as if nothing happened at all. They would occasionally even stop for ice cream. Mom would tell her that she needed to do better, but that was the extent of the discipline.
Elisha decided she would run some of the way home. She was usually a sweaty mess by the time she made it to the driveway, but she enjoyed the challenge of trying to get there faster each time. With the weight of the backpack and all, it took her only a half-hour to make it.
Even if she was given to distraction, the scenery was light along the way. Branches on haphazardly spaced willows swayed lightly along the sides of the road. An occasional pair of crows flew overhead, landing in the surrounding dirt fields. Neighboring homes were far and few between. The monotonous views meant Elisha’s focus was usually on the Eastern mountains, standing tall and peering back at her as if they were challenging her. Challenging her to come and find her sister.
Before Elisha realized it, she was standing at the edge of the driveway. She instinctively reached up to pull open the mailbox flap, but it was already open.
The mailman must have forgotten to close it.
Elisha reached inside and grabbed a pile of paper. She shuffled through a mishmash of ads and envelopes.
Today’s mail was heavy grocery coupons and kitchen renovation brochures. Most of the envelopes seemed to be “the usual junk mail,” as Mom called it, but in the middle of the pile was a really strange pink one, shaped more like a greeting card. There was no return address, or really any “To” address; only Elisha’s first name written in faded pencil. She didn’t recognize the handwriting but whoever it was had worse penmanship than she did.
Elisha’s mind raced, wondering where and whom it may have come from.
As she opened the envelope and slid out the card, her hands were shaking. It was a blank white card, no “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations.” Cracking it open revealed three short sentences.
“We need to talk. Meet us after school tomorrow by the lake. It’s about Martha.”
It was dark. The air was damp, though Elisha couldn’t say it was wet. Some facts immediately sprang to mind. Elisha remembered it had rained recently, but it didn’t seem to be doing so anymore. She was laying belly-down on the ground. She tried to turn over and look at the sky, but her body screamed out in pain, so she relented. Elisha’s face plopped back down in the dirt. Slowly, she reached out towards her sides, feeling nothing.
How long had she been lying here?
Where was here?
“Make you some breakfast?”
Elisha held her breath. A male voice echoed from the dark, but she knew it came from several feet up and from her right. It was airy but had a slight wetness to it, the man’s lips smacking on several syllables. There was also the hint of an accent, though she couldn’t source it. Her eyes had adjusted a little, but the blackness was so deep, she saw nothing.
She heard footsteps and thought she finally saw movement, but it could have been her mind trying to compensate for her eyes, based on sound. Reverberations told her they must have been in a large room.
“Sorry. Little joke.”
The voice paused.
“You know, you really ought to watch your step. Crevices run all along the earth out here and flash floods do a number on the soil.”
Elisha’s instinct was to reply with a witty retort, but as soon as she tried to talk, she sputtered and coughed. Her chest heaved against the ground. It was probably better that way. She didn’t know who she was dealing with and whether it was just the two of them or if anyone else was in the room.
What Elisha thought was a hand reached out and, in spite of her pain, she futilely slapped it away.
“Stop,” she croaked. It was a worthless gesture, but it was a simple act of defiance she could carry out.
The hand withdrew.
“The ground is cold. Let me help you up. Somewhere more comfortable.”
Her options were limited. She could feel the small wooden fish pushing into her quadricep through her front left pocket. It would seem that a little bit of luck was on her side, given that she hadn’t impaled herself on it. At least she didn’t think she had, given that the pain she was feeling was more dull than sharp.
Best to play along. Resisting now would be stupid. If she wanted to get out of this, Elisha had to find the moment of opportunity. Though likely, she was unsure if she was dealing with the target, and again, she was unsure whether they were truly alone. Right now, there were some awfully big blanks to be filled. Had the old man been underestimated or had Elisha not been told everything? It wouldn’t be the first time, but that was often the nature of the business. Even the best recon job was unable to gather every piece of relevant information. Surprises popped up all the time. It was all about extrapolating and filling in those blanks. The best approach now was to ask questions and evaluate answers.
“Why haven’t you killed me?”
It’s often good to cut to the chase. If he was the target, and as valuable as the handler had claimed him to be, he shouldn’t be surprised that he’d been marked. If he was someone else, at least the question would throw him off. Given the situation, the first thought would seem to be the most likely.
“An odd question. Should I have?”
A coy answer, which made Elisha a little nervous. She had encountered some pretty scuzzy folks in her line of work. Maybe this was one of the ones that liked slow torture. They usually opened up this way. Took their time and didn’t want the game to end too quickly.
“Who are you?” she asked. She was slowly flexing her muscles. Checking her strength.
It wasn’t a question normally posed. She usually didn’t want to find out. It only gave her a name to apply to a face and once names were given, things were no longer things. Still, it was the question that pushed itself to the front of her mind.
After a moment of silence, the man spoke.
“A question I’ll answer later,” he said. “I’m sure you’re thirsty. Unless you’d prefer to lay on the ground and eat mud, my tea is much better.” She could feel his grin cutting through the dark and thought she saw the outline move away. There was the sound of objects clanking together and a liquid being poured. Elisha’s lips suddenly felt dry and cracked.
“If you don’t want my help and you can manage,” he continued, “feel free to get up yourself. No tricks, I promise. By the way you’re moving your muscles, you don’t seem to have broken anything.”
How does he see so well in this darkness?
She recalled the handler had marked him as special. Maybe he was a Sighter–a nickname for someone with the ability to see clearly in the dark where somebody like Elisha would just fumble along. Or it could be he was just wearing a pair of night-vision goggles. Sometimes the easiest explanation was the best explanation.
As she puzzled the situation out in her mind, every part of her body seemed to ache and scream out. The man appeared to be correct about nothing being broken. Her arms and legs were bending and moving as needed, though she would be sore as hell the next day. Of course that was assuming there would be a next day.
She placed her palms down against the ground and slowly pushed herself up onto her knees. As if waiting to be kicked, she tensed her stomach muscles and turned her head slightly away.
“I’m being rude,” he said. “Let me turn on the lights.”
He took a breath.
“May want to squint or close your eyes.”
Before she could react, there was a snap, like a whip being cracked or someone stepping on a dry stick. The room lit up and Elisha’s eyes snapped shut at the brightness. She opened them slowly to a squint. Turning her head upward, she spotted two parallel lines of lanterns hanging from the ceiling. She was thankful to see a low flame dancing in each one. As her vision adjusted, she saw that the ceiling was made of black rock and curved down to the walls, which were also made of rock.
They were in a cave.
Then she looked over to where the voice had come from, wiping the blur from her eyes, confident that she wasn’t about to take a boot to the abdomen. Her vision was almost completely normal now. So much for night vision goggles. She saw that the man was indeed old and wore no eyegear. His pink, wrinkled neck hung outside of his long-sleeved, white button-up shirt. Looking closer, the flesh was covered in faded black marks, reminding Elisha of a bruised piece of meat. Her mind searched and searched until she remembered one of the snowbirds she passed on the way up to the Pisgah rim. It would seem he’d been doing some reconnaissance of his own.
“I’m sure you have several questions. Go ahead. Ask the obvious one.”
Elisha thought for a moment.
“I figured you for a Sighter, but…a Minder?”
“Hmm. The assassins usually ask what I’m going to do to them, but I guess yours makes sense. Being who you are and everything.” His hands shuffled around in his pockets and he looked up. “I’m neither a Sighter nor a Minder as you know them in the traditional sense. I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. The lanterns, they’ve been burning the whole time. Your vision was restricted. It’s a part of my security system.”
Elisha recalled the moments before she had felt herself falling. There was the shack which she had opened and found a ticking smiley faced clock.
“The shack,” Elisha said faintly. She was was struggling to catch her breath. Propped on her knees, she leaned back, stretching and cracking her joints.
The old man smiled through yellowed teeth. “A little joke of mine. A decoy. I’ve got a bit of a sense of humor.” He rubbed his hands together. “What about the screams? Do you remember the screams?”
Elisha’s hands almost instinctively went to her ears. How could she forget?
He smiled again, this time wider. “I see you do. Excellent, excellent. My favorite part.” He looked at her and his smile left him. “Sorry about that. But as you can see, it’s a necessity. I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if I hadn’t resorted to those measures. You’re not the first to come tip-toeing through my desert tulips.”
Elisha stared at him.
“There have been others?”
She almost asked where they came from, but given the circumstances and his nonchalant attitude toward her other questions, she knew what the answer would be. Still, he replied as if he had read her question just by looking at her eyes.
“Came from the same folks that sent you. They’re dead. The people they sent, that is. Most of them by my hands, though not always directly.”
Elisha realized she had begun to let her guard down. She had to remember who she was dealing with here.
“Don’t worry,” he said with a chuckle. “They weren’t you. No reason to kill you, though things would have gotten interesting had you tried to kill me.”
“What is that supposed to mean? Who’s to say I still won’t?”
She realized she was pushing things. It was all a part of that frustration she still felt from earlier.
“Come off it, Elisha.” His tone grew insistent. “Means exactly what you think it means. Means I won’t kill you, you won’t kill me. Means I know you’re’ looking for your sister and I know where she is. Means I’ll tell you how to find her.”
Unsure of what to say, Elisha simply stared.
“But…” he continued. The word sat in the air. He smiled at her as if they shared a secret.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He poured himself some more tea.
“I only ask a small favor. Now please, come over here and enjoy some iced tea. When the skies are clear, I brew up the most wonderful sun tea.”
Previous scene: Elisha scouts her next job from Pisgah Crater.
Elisha grew frustrated with herself. What was wrong with her? It was the little things that she seemed to be missing. Not bringing food to eat that afternoon, forgetting her gloves in the hotel room, and having only one idea on how she was going to approach a tiny shack that was miles off the freeway in a land without decent cover and general population noise. She should have been better prepared.
It had to be Martha, of course. Elisha couldn’t get her sister off her mind. She felt like she was getting closer to finding her, or at least what happened to her. The memory was still fresh. White clouds rolling in from the East as the two of them played down at the lake. The wind stirring up from a calm day. Before she had run into the kitchen, Elisha saw Martha for the last time. They were supposed to stick together, hand in hand, but Martha had given Elisha a look she would never forget. Martha had been the one to spot the cloud, but for some reason, she decided it was her moment to declare independence. Elisha felt betrayed, as if Martha was leaving her behind in childhood.
What that independence had cost Martha, Elisha hadn’t known. She knew what it had cost the rest of the family though. Mom and Grandma tried to wipe away any notion of Martha’s existence. Elisha was not to bring up her name, and if anyone had asked, she was instructed to tell them Martha had gone to live with their father. Anything that may have belonged to her sister had been thoroughly removed from the house. But there was one trace that could never be wiped and Elisha vowed never to let herself forget the events of that day.
As she drove back toward the crater, the cold desert air whipped through a slit in the driver’s side window. The chill kept her alert, but still she found herself drifting into memories of Martha. How she had been so stupidly steadfast. Had she known more about the cloud then Elisha? If so, why hadn’t she told her? They had told each other everything. And why had Mom and Grandma let it happen? Did they let it happen? Amidst the concern for her sister was a sort of bubbling anger. An anger driven by the fact that even her strange position now, she still seemed to be on the outside looking in, never quite getting a clear picture of the truth. Elisha knew it was part of what drove her forward.
She exited the freeway and circled around to the back of Pisgah. Though the only lights were barely clouded stars and an almost-full moon, Elisha scoured the immediate countryside for a trail or dirt road heading toward the ridge she had spotted earlier. There were often small paths that dead-ended in parts like these, but she knew the general direction. All she had to do was find the one that matched up with the trail she had seen earlier. After several tries, she hit upon one that was just as faint as she remembered. She had to drive slowly in the dark as headlights were out of the question. Elisha leaned in close to the steering wheel, making sure she stayed on track, turning cautiously so as to avoid sharp rocks and thorny bushes.
Elisha drove the car up just before the ridge and parked it. She estimated she was about four miles out from the crater. Hiking the other mile would be no problem, especially if it was mostly downhill. She left the car unlocked and walked over the ridge.
More dirt. More weeds. More rock.
Elisha looked around. It was the only depression in the area. It had to be the spot. She supposed that the shack could have been obscured by a rise in the ground or some other illusion, but if anyone actually lived out there, it was certainly beyond the rational senses at this point. Still, Elisha had to remind herself that strict logic didn’t always apply in her world. The trail continued and so did she, hoping she wouldn’t have to report back that the only thing she found was a pack of sleeping burros.
Elisha was perched in a squatting position behind the largest bush she could see.
There it was. Or what it might be. Elisha’s handler was right. It was more rightly called a shack than a cabin and now she saw how it could have been so easily missed from afar. It couldn’t have been more than six-feet square, built up from thin pieces of wood that had been weathered to match the desert terrain. It was windowless and a thin-looking door stood in the middle. There was no car parked outside, no bicycle, no signs of transportation.
Someone actually lives in that thing?
Either she was way off on where she was supposed to be or there was more than meets the eye. Maybe the shack was a Dr. Who-like Tardis, small on the outside but massive on the inside. She’d seen some strange things, but she wasn’t quite ready to believe that yet.
Moisture began to accumulate in the air, adding to the sharpness of the cold evening. She stared at the shack for what seemed like endless minutes, waiting, plotting. Occasionally she would turn and survey the area, making sure she wasn’t finding herself stalked as she did the stalking, though it was a bit late for that. She was far from the vehicle and if things went sour, her options were beyond limited.
Elisha felt a pang on her bladder. The urge to pee hit her. She liked to stay hydrated but may have drank a little too much water that evening. The facts weighed on her mind. There was no indication of anyone out here other than herself and whatever insects occasionally buzzed by her ears.
From where she hid, there was ten yards of ground to the shack.
Time’s a’wastin’. Shit or get off the pot. No one’s coming and you have a job to do.
And just like that, Elisha made up her mind. She moved cautiously, not quite fully erect, engaging all of her senses. Mere feet from the shack, she examined the door and saw it had a wooden handle that was hanging loosely. In any other situation, she would have bet her bottom dollar that this was just another random structure in the desert, not too rare. For all she knew, it may have been an outhouse for some long abandoned mining operation.
Fantastic. Well if I had any aversion to peeing in the bushes, someone has provided me a comode.
Elisha was really starting to wonder if she had interpreted the instructions correctly. She thought this was the right place, not far from the crater. Maybe she should have gotten more concrete details, but her handler rarely divulged more than he had to.
On instinct, she walked toward the nearest bush and searched the ground. Once she spotted it, she picked up a crooked, yard-long branch that had fallen. Makeshift tool in hand, she hooked it into the door handle and stepping to the side, opened the door slowly. It creaked and Elisha cringed as it echoed loudly against the quiet valley. She realized that until then, the loudest sound she had heard for the past twenty minutes had been her own breathing and boots pressing down into the gritty sand.
The moon was on the wrong side of the shack and she could see nothing past the entry.
What was that?
She held her breath.
There it was. A small ticking sound.
Elisha knew that certain sounds didn’t have happy endings and somewhere along her strange travels in life, small, repetive ticking sounds were included in that category. Without even thinking, she dove behind the nearest bush and hit the dirt, covering the back of her head with her hands.
And she waited.
After what seemed like hours, but had to have been only thirty seconds, she pulled her hands off and listened intently. The ticking had stopped, or at least she couldn’t hear it anymore.
What the hell am I doing out here? Something is not right.
Now Elisha was getting angry. She didn’t like feeling deceived and whether it was the assigned target (assuming he ever existed) or her handler, someone would have to answer for this nonsense.
In a huff, she pushed herself up and wiped the dust off. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tiny flashlight. Elisha was throwing caution to the wind now. Most people have a point where they just don’t care anymore. Elisha’s threshold seemed to drop more and more each day.
She turned on the light and pointed it at the cabin. Her Dr. Who theory was thrown out the window. The inside looked to be exactly six-feet deep and her light reflected off something on the wall. It was a tiny yellow clock, it’s face an actually smiley face like you see on the t-shirts.
She stared at it and began to laugh. It stared back and continued to smile, it’s hands motionless. A frown formed on her face.
Elisha reached a finger into her left ear and jiggled it. Then her right.
She thought she had laughed quietly to herself, but realized she had indeed laughed quite loudly. She did so again.
She had gone deaf.
No matter how much poking and prodding she did with her fingers, her ears would not cooperate and hear again.
Desperately, Elisha tried to remember the last thing she heard. The car. Insects. Her boots. Her breath. The ticking.
Something hit the top of her head.
And then two things.
Elisha reached up and wiped something wet from her scalp. She looked up and drops of water began to come down rapidly now. Where there had moments before been stars and a moon was only black. Clouds covered the sky.
She whipped her head around toward the cabin.
It was faint, but it was something. Elisha breathed deeply. Her hearing was coming back.
But that faint sound soon grew louder. And louder. It sounded like a woman screaming. It wasn’t coming from the cabin. Elisha whipped around in different directions. It was coming from all around.
It rose in volume until it passed almost painful into full blown misery.
Unable to think, Elisha ran. The drizzle had long since gone and a torrent of rain was pouring down hard. She screamed in order to try and drown out the sound. Pressing her hands against her ears, she raced awkwardly toward the hill where her car waited patiently for her on the other side. She had to get away from this place. The pain had grown so intense, Elisha squeezed her eyes shut. Both dead and living branches crunched beneath her boots as she tried to maintain her balance.
Elisha took step after step, expecting only the ground–until suddenly there was none. She found herself tumbling forward, her arms shooting out to break her fall. They found only dark air and dust. Elisha felt her self flipping forward until her body and face slammed into what she presumed to finally be the ground. She was unable to stay awake long enough to find out.