Strawman ch5: Maybe

previous: Strawman ch4: Basic Instinct

I fell back asleep, but not of my own free will. When I awoke there was an open window, letting in the freezing cold night air. On the pillow next to me was a pile of papers haphazardly stuffed into a standard letter-sized envelope. My friend would have been better off just folding the packet in half. I carefully extracted the contents. The largest piece, wrapped around the packet like a decorative ribbon, was an elaborate letter written on hotel stationery. I looked at the page. The ornate composition belonged in a modern art museum.

“You knew him in a past life.” The words were written in thick block lettering. The words were surrounded by flowers and ocean waves. “But until you know where and how I’m afraid you are of no use to us.” This page ended with a sad face emoji. My head was flooded with profanity. I had no idea what she was talking about, nor did I have any idea of what steps to take to gain further insight.

Unless that was the point; that bitch had abandoned me, she was probably halfway to California by now. I quickly looked around for any equipment. My pack was sitting on the chair, the same one Eli had been occupying when I first went to sleep. And thankfully, my phone was plugged in. Clearly, she had not robbed me of my meager possessions and for that I was grateful.

I dropped the package of notes, causing a separate page to fall from the stack. This was an image printed on the cheap black and white printer from the hotel’s ‘business center.’ Those places never had anything other than plain black ink flowing through the veins of printers that were older than me.

From what I could tell, it was a photo of a family at the beach. On the back was a handwritten message. “You’re not crazy, you knew him as a child.” This was accompanied by an arrow and a circle. The figure was too blurry to be recognizable. It was a tall muscular male with his face cast in shadow. His dark hair was pulled into a faux-hawk, spiked straight up but not shaved. Someone had braided his hair. Maybe?

Was this even Razor? At the bottom of the page was a final line. ‘He means more to you then you realize.’ The words made me upset. I felt like someone had taken a hole punch to my soul, and just went to town. What was my mother’s name? My father’s name? Why could I not remember anything? All I could focus on was Razor. And that was making me sick.

This was Hell, to be locked in my body with no access to my mind. The final page was a sketch of a farmhouse, with the words, ‘this is not goodbye. this is ‘please try to stay alive, until we meet again.’

I crumpled up the page, hurling the ball against the nearest doorway. ‘Not helpful, so very unhelpful!’ I returned my focus to the photo.Where was this picture from? Something about the figure seemed familiar. I could see his arms, legs and part of his chest. He was holding something. I had no memory of living (or even vacationing) on the beach but I’d seen enough movies to know a lifeguard buoy when I saw one. Was he a lifeguard? On his hand was a diamond with a cross in the middle. Did Razor have a tattoo? I had only seen him wearing gloves. Who did I know with that tattoo? Was it a gang sign, or something out of a movie or videogame? Or maybe it wasn’t a tattoo at all.)

“Oh well.” I had plenty of time to figure it out. I looked out the window. There were no other cars in the parking lot. My heart dropped. Stealing a car had been a major part of my plan. “This can’t be right. If it is, this is a dream, or I’m dead.” I needed to save my energy for the potential journey on foot. “There has to be an employee lot someplace.”

No, there was nothing anywhere. I needed to prepare. Knowing that I would have a long walk I made sure to check for bottles, and any other garbage that could possibly hold liquid. I filled my pack with water containers. And then I realized why most backpackers travel without water, opting to search for it once they made it to a campsite.

That was a problem; where was the nearest campsite? Where was I even going? I yanked my phone from the charger, attempting to connect to data or wi-fi before leaving down the road that would likely be my death. I already knew the direction I wanted; Minnesota had the chance for meeting back up with civilization before dying of heatstroke. But again, that was just an educated guess.

With my pack comfortably on my shoulders, I walked along a desolate road. This seemed to be entirely farmland with the rare oasis of a gas station or diner. I walked for hours, watching the clouds pass by. I wanted to find a place to stop for the night (or just to rest to drink some of my hastily packed sink water.) Any man-made structures seemed to be located just out of reach. Sometimes they were across a field, other times on the opposite side of a highway. One farmhouse appeared to be on the ledge of a ledge overlooking a canyon.

I marveled at the beauty. The bright sun painted highlights across the ribbons of clouds. The world was becoming darker. In the distance I could see the colors develop into deep shades of purple and blue. This was not sunset; it was about to rain, and I needed to take shelter somewhere, anywhere.

I started to move forward. If I continued east, I would be running straight into the storm, but if I headed north or south, I’d likely end up lost in the wilderness. I just had to keep walking.

The world went dark, as cold wind swept through. If I could not find shelter in the form of a cave, I’d settle for a tree. In the distance, right along my path, there was a thick grove of trees that seemed to be laced together, creating a canopy. I felt a rush of energy, enough to allow me to sprint to the shelter and safety of their embrace. Sitting with my pack held to my chest, it was actually nice. I was willing to sleep out here when I noticed something in the distance. ‘A gas station?’ That was not possible.

The wind and rain pounded the structure, knocking over one of the old-fashioned pumps. It was clearly not attached to anything. With the knowledge that the location was likely abandoned, the safety of the trees seemed like the wiser option. Unless there was a basement or storm cellar.

I needed to take a closer look. Knowing how bad the storm was, I gave myself twenty steps to make it to the main building. That would keep me close enough to the trees, to retreat back to safety in case there was nothing of value to be found.

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” I counted out loud, forcing my mind to stay focused. There was a joke from a Netflix series; something about being able to endure anything for ten seconds. The female lead tells this to a little kid who was being impatient about opening presents. When the spoiled rich kid asks what happens after ten seconds? She tells him to just count for another ten seconds. And then it’s shown just how she knows this; she had survived years of torture. I always loved that scene. “6, 7, 8, 9.” I made a turn, walking against the wind. I could see what looked like a door in the ground. “10.”

I dropped to my knees narrowly avoiding a flying piece of wood. My comfort did not last long. A stone hit me in the cheek. I gripped my face in pain, turning my attention to the ground. That was when I saw the door blow open. Without hesitation, I dove into the opening, hoping to God this was not a massive mistake.

 Using my bag to break my fall, I crashed down a small flight of stairs. I quickly moved to the side, out of the line of sight of the storm. I was about to dust myself off and attempt to close the latch when I saw a figure in the doorway.

“Hey you!” shouted a male voice he sounded young, like a teenager. “Get the fuck out of here.”

Hearing such a young voice, I felt embolden. I moved to the light of the doorway. I could make out a figure with long wet hair. He wore a raincoat with a hood, but the process of tucking all of his (likely) waist length locks under the plastic would have proven difficult. I looked up at him, raising my hands to show I was unarmed.

The boy moved closer, reaching his hand in front of his face. One hard tug turned on the lone light switch, causing the room to become flush with a dirty yellow light.

“Hi,” I said in a shy squeak. 

The teen wiped the rain from his face, revealing his bright blue eyes. “Oh, sorry I thought you were a raccoon or a rat or whatever. We have a lot of problems with those. You’re welcome to stay if you like, I can grab you some food from the main house.”

“I’m fine,” I replied as sweetly as possible. I needed him to assume I was a helpless teenager. “I just needed a way out of the rain.” I held out my hand. “I’m Grace.”

His bare hand shook mine. “I’m James Ryan, my friends call me Jamie.” His hand was freezing cold, too cold.

In the weak lighting he looked human but I had no way to be sure. “Did you say Jamie Ryan?”

“Yeah, do I know you?”

“No, but I think I’ve heard of you. Do you have a daughter?”

Jamie chuckled. “I’d hope not. But then again, I’ve been to some pretty wild parties. Do you know something I don’t?”

“No.” I honestly did not. “You just have a very common name.” The other explanation was too impractical to even entertain.

“Do you live out here by yourself?”

“Yeah, I inherited all this from my granddad.” He looked back at the open door. The rain was starting to blow in our direction. “Shit. Let me get that.”

“I can.” I sprang to my feet, pulling the wooden door closed with one hard yank, but from there I could not figure out how to engage the lock. I was faced with two strong metal handles with nothing to latch them with.

“Watch your hands.” He said as he sent a metal spike through the holes, securing the door.

“Is that a railroad spike?”

“Hell if I know. I think it belonged to my granddad.”

“How old are you?” I needed to classify him as either a cute child or hot teen, in order to know how to proceed.

“How old are you?” he asked in return. Taking a step towards me. Whether or not he was older, he was still a good four inches taller than me, with noticeably broad shoulders.

“You can’t ask a lady her age.”

Defeated he rolled his eyes and walked in the direction of the fully furnished bedroom. “Well, I’m seventeen. If it’s really that important to you.”

He motioned to the small kitchen. “There’s plenty of food and fuel to last us a month or so.”

“A month? you think the storm will last that long?”

“You must be new to the Dakotas.” The blond boy shrugged as he attempted to set up the bed. The metal cot was held together with a tarp but no actual mattress. That made sense. An actual sleep surface made of fabric or foam (stored in this belowground area) would have risked mold and corrosion.

He pulled out a pillow and blanket (that appeared to be crafted from upcycled clothing) along with some extra linens. “These belonged to my mother. She was one hell of a seamstress.”

“I can tell.”

“It’s not much but you should be able to make yourself comfortable.

“Thank you.” I saw there was only one bed, but there was more than enough room to sleep on the floor. Using my pack as a mattress/ground cover allowed me a comfortable level of support.

There was no clock in the mysterious space. I only recognized the passage of time by the sound of Jamie’s snoring. Even this was difficult to make out over the roar of the wind. I moved my sleep set up away from the door, closer to Jamie. How did he manage to go to sleep so quickly?

I sat up, looking at his face. His wet hair rested over his cheek, concealing his features. At that moment I saw him as an innocent child. There was something so calm and beautiful about his expression. His cheekbones seemed sculpted, like an action figure, or (more likely) a carved statue from a long-forgotten time. His deep-set eyes looked to be deprived of sleep, making him appear older than his years. (And yet so innocent.)

His blue eyes blinked open, causing me to fall back in embarrassment. “Just so you know, I wasn’t watching you sleep.” I’m not even sure why I felt the need to say that.

“That’s good since I wasn’t actually asleep yet.” He ran his fingers through his hair, pulling it into a ponytail without a rubber band. The moisture held his unruly locks in place. He sat up making his way to the kitchen. “Do you want anything? Instant coffee, ramen noodles? I think I even have some MREs.

“I’ve actually never seen an MRE.” I found this fact unbelievably funny for some reason. I knew people ate them in deployment locations, but I also knew about their reputation for tasting like dog food.

“Not even in the movies?” Jamie asked. “Do you want to split one?”

“Sure, what kind do you have? I heard a rumor about a pizza MRE?”

“I’ve seen it,” he said as he selected a plastic package from a large metal box.  “but I’m afraid I don’t understand the point.” He went to the drain on the wall. Using an old plastic cup, he added recycled rainwater to the heating packet, folding down the plastic. The heater puffed up like a pillow. “It’s nothing more than a hand warmer; it doesn’t make things hot or crispy, so what would be the point of a pizza MRE?”

“What kind is that?”

“Macaroni and beef; basically, it tastes like day-old spaghetti.” He dropped the entree packet in with the heater, placing the package to the side. “This also comes with drink mix, an airtight sealed piece of poundcake, crackers, and peanut butter.”

“What kind of poundcake?”

We enjoyed a meal of lukewarm pasta split between two metal cups, accompanied by cinnamon swirl pound cake with peanut butter frosting. We talked about childhood nostalgia; cartoons, music, and even video games. He seemed to know the basics about Nintendo. I told him Super Mario was overrated. If the Kirby series had come out in the eighties it would have been the star of the tournament circuit, and probably even gotten its own movie.

“You’re such a girl,” he replied with a mouthful of cake.

“The mechanics of the Kirby series were directly inspired by the achievements of Super Mario; scrolling levels, flying enemies. The only difference is the lead character.” He took a sip of his beverage; a bag of water with the drink powder mixed in. “Kirby as a character was created to appeal to female gamers.”

“Because it’s a pink little alien?”

Jamie scoffed. “How do you know it’s an alien?”

“What do you think it is?”

“A little pink blob created to cash in on the success of the Sanrio corporation.”

“You’re talking about Hello Kitty.” I nearly choked on laughter. The rugged Dakota farmboy was referencing the famous cartoon cat that may or may not be a human in a costume. “Kirby was Nintendo’s answer to Hello Kitty?”

“Yes. You don’t see it?” Jamie shoveled a mouthful of pasta followed by a plain saltine cracker. “It’s like they were told to make something ‘cute’ to be able to compete with the most popular characters of Japan and all they could come up with was a pink blob. 

“What’s wrong with cute little pink blobs?”

“Nothing I guess, but it’s still an inferior character created for the sole purpose of fanservice.”

“I guess I can agree with that.” I was not passionate enough to argue on behalf of the Kirby series. “What kind of music do you listen to?”

“Garth Brooks, maybe Alan Jackson.”

“Maybe?”

“I like that one song he wrote, but Garth Brooks is the king.

“What’s your favorite song?”

“By Garth Brooks?”

“Yeah.” I could tell he was trying to buy time to formulate an answer.

“What’s yours?”

“Ireland.”

“Really?”

It was a strange choice, one that solidified my status as the weird kid. “Ireland I am coming home, I can see the rolling fields of green and fences made of stone,” I recited the line from the best part of the song, the epic chorus that always made me feel like a superhero. “I am reaching out, won’t you take my hand. I’m coming home, Ireland.”

Jamie nodded and began to sing a song of his own. “The thunder rolls, and the lightnin’ strikes,” his voice was silky smooth, too sexy for country music. “Another love grows cold on a sleepless night. As the storm blows on,” he held the note, closing his eyes in a moment of pure passion. “Out of control. Deep in her heart, the thunder rolls.”

“Someone needs to go on American idol.

“I ain’t no Kelly Clarkson,” he said with a smile. “It was my mama’s favorite song. she used to sing it to me as a lullaby.”

“Isn’t that song about a wife who murders her husband?” As the words left my lips I suddenly realized I fucked up. Jamie never mentioned a father; this was his grandpa’s land, and that was his mother’s favorite song.

Jamie sighed, crossing his arms over his chest as he rocked back and forth. “We were having a really good time you know.” He pursed his lips, choking back tears. “I really thought you were different. But no, Mama was right about you. About all of you.”

“Women?” I asked, calmly as I scooted backward. The wind hit the sidewall, with a grotesque crunch. This was not possible. We were underground. In the millisecond I turned my head, Jamie’s hands found their way to my neck.

I needed a weapon; we had used plastic forks, there had to be some around here. His nails sank into my skin. He was going to choke me, but first he wanted me to suffer.

I flailed like a fish until my left arm became free. I could have tried to punch him, but my fingers touched something even better. The bag with the heater felt like a container of lava. How the plastic didn’t melt I’ll never know. I mentally prepared myself to throw it on him (likely burning my face in the process,) when Jamie passed out.

He went limp, dead. It took me a second to see the blood. There had been no bullet, no gun. At least not a loud one.

“You’re not safe here,” said a familiar voice.

“Razor?” I scooted away from Jamie’s body. I suddenly had a memory of Eli, “His body maybe gone.”

“Maybe?” Razor repeated. His armored hand reached for me.

“She said it as one word, not two.”

“Are you referring to Eli Ryan?”

“Yeah.” I turned to him, getting my first good look at his setup. He wore a helmet with an opaque faceplate, along with thick body armor that seemed to have color-shifting properties. “How did you know about her?”

“Him.” He paused, awaiting my acknowledgment.

“Sorry. Is he a friend?

“Where I’m from, he is.”

The wall shook again, pounding rhythmically. “Is there something behind that wall?” I assumed that was where he’d come from.

“I don’t think so.” He lifted the rifle off his back, readying his aim. The sound became louder, causing the room to ripple. “Get ready.” Razor fired a warning shot, causing a blast of white light.

‘It was a pulse gun that explained why I didn’t hear a bullet.’ I was about to ponder if pulse guns actually existed outside of videogames when a drawing appeared on the wall; thick white lines formed like brushstrokes shifting and cracking as they settled into rounded shapes. As the shapes became more solid, the light became brighter. Razor gripped my hand, shoving me behind him.

“You can’t come to my birthday.” The voice sounded like a mass-produced doll (the kind that spoke when hugged.) The light was not letting up, preventing me from looking in the direction of the creature. 

“What are you even rambling about?” Razor fired a shot.

The light dimmed. “My birthday is going to be the best birthday ever and you are not invited.”

Placing my weight on Razor’s shoulder, I maneuvered myself to my feet. It was then I gasped, unable to close my mouth.

“Stay behind me,” Razor said with the intensity of a US Marine.

“Ok, sure.” What I saw could only be described as an angry Pokemon.

The creature was taking deep breaths. It was a small pig covered in a layer of brown fur. The animal was the size of an average cat, but over half the body consisted of a massive face. The inside of its ears were bright pink, as were the apples of her cheeks (where the fur was less dense.) It had a fur-covered snout, and small silver tusks (that appeared to serve no function beyond decor.) Most notable were the giant blue eyes. ‘Why did it have Jamie’s eyes?’

“You’re a poopy head, and I hate you!” The attack was addressed at Razor, but the words coming out of the creature’s mouth sent shivers down my spine.  “Rey, what is that?”

“Just your average demon,” he said, still holding his aim.

Why was he not taking the shot? He had been more than willing to kill Jamie. “Do all demons talk like that?”

“You’d be surprised.” It was then he fired the gun at the creature, trapping its form in a transparent bubble. The pig-boar puffed out her cheeks like an anime character. I never realized how terrifying that would look in real life; a round face with giant eyes, staring daggers onto my soul.

“You’re not being fair!” the creature’s voice was gradually changing from cute, to deep and (understandably) angry. She squinted her eyes, puffing out her lip like a pouting child. The blue had all but vanished, causing her eyes to appear completely black. “You can’t jump around in the timeline!”

Razor was laughing. “I can and I will, in accordance with my assigned mission.”

“I’m telling mama!” the room shook, as the creature started to grow and contort. It was clear she was trying to break free of Razor’s trap.

“What timeline?” the word escaped my lips just as he fired a second shot, filling the room with light.

I awoke with my phone in my hand. the rain had stopped but I still appeared to be inside the basement. Jamie’s body is gone. But I have no doubt he may still be alive somewhere.

Maybe.

This feels like a child’s game.

I just need to get this all typed out on my phone while I still have the power.

next: Strawman ch6: Desert Rain

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