previous: Strawman ch5: Maybe
‘I want to rip off your skin; piece by piece while you scream.’ The sound curled upward like a full-grown adult trying to impersonate a child. “You will scream for me, right? Mama?’
These were the words I heard in the darkness. This was followed by a series of squeaks. The creature walked with a rhythm. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume it was a wind-up toy.
It came closer and closer, louder and louder. I was fully expecting to feel its breath. First, I felt something cold and (for lack of a better term) moist. Yes, moist was the most accurate description, (as opposed to wet.) This was sticky like a child’s slime toy. Except there’s a pulse. I can feel its skin throbbing like a beating heart.
This was followed by giggles, and an abnormally warm breath. I braced myself, clenching my chest. There was something inside my abdomen that was causing me searing pain. I couldn’t scream. Every breath was like a punch to the gut. ‘Make it stop.’
“Sqa-ish,” the voice was clear, child-like. Some might even call it ‘cute.’
I was hit with a large rubber surface; sticky, porous. This was its sick version of a kiss. It peeled away slowly, in an act of movement that felt like a violation of my very soul. The wicked, evil, shiver felt like pain. That was the sensation that finally woke me up.
I was in a basement room, with a dirt floor. In the center was the remains of a campfire. That meant I had to be outside, right? ‘No, the air felt too still for that.’ In the distance, I could hear gurgling. It was human, someone else was in the room. In the shadow I could see what looked like boots. ‘Work boots, rain boots?’
It was then I realized I’d been typing this out on my phone. ‘Making plans to turn the light.’ I knew I could turn on the flashlight, but I needed to take advantage of the fact I was in possession of a camera. I switched over to the photo ap, at the same time seeing that my phone was on fifty percent power, with zero signal bars. I knew this was a dumb idea, but I needed to document everything. Whoever found me would find this phone. ‘Turning the light.’
I moved the light carefully, until I caught the reflection of what appeared to be rubber. The figure wore blue rainboots (navy blue, but not quite black.) These shoes were worn over a pair of long denim jeans. I moved the light towards the figure’s stomach and chest. He was wearing a mount Rushmore t-shirt; white with the blue logo on the front. My beam caught the shine of a raincoat. The color was a lighter shade of blue. And there was motion; the figure was breathing, but that didn’t mean the individual was actually conscious. I knew I needed to locate the figure’s face (or at least the head.)
‘Moving to the head.’ I saw a patch of blonde hair. It was short, making me believe this was a male. It could have easily been Eli, but for whatever reason that felt incorrect. “Jamie, is that you?”
The figure turned its head. “Who’s there?” The voice was painfully raw, like a smoker. There was a hint of anger, mixed with fear, overlaying a base of depression. I felt afraid, but more than anything I felt pity.
“My name is Grace,” I answered in a high-pitched voice. This was clearly not the same Jamie I had met before. He was older, or at least old enough to have cut off his hair and destroyed his lungs. I attempted to pull my knees to my chest. That was when I realized I was restrained.
I heard a loud, thick sound. The industrial metal reverberated with a surreal intensity. This was followed by a coldness on my lower leg. On my naked ankle there was something that felt like a metal cuff. I carefully moved my phone to illuminate my surroundings, and I soon had my answer; I was inside a room with actual brick walls, and my limb was secured to a metal pipe via a heavy chain (like something a person could use to tow a car.) This I had never seen before. It was not a normal handcuff; the size and weight reminded me of a device commonly used to restrain a horse or a cow.
I then crossed my arms over my chest. I was wearing a hospital gown over just my undergarments. That explained why I was so cold. Thankfully, I was still able to move. ‘Come to think of it, I imagine a horse or cow could easily escape a single cuff.’
“For horses, I’d use one on each leg.” A female voice spoke from an upper floor. Due to a strange echo, I was unable to determine her direction.
“Eli?” I asked in a whisper.
She walked down an unseen set of stairs, reappearing on ground level. “Let’s add some light in here.” With an elegant spin she tossed a powder on the firepit, causing the thoroughly charred wood to sparkle with red and orange flames. “Much better.”
I knew Eli identified as male, but once I saw her face, all I could think about was her hypnotic female beauty. Eli sat cross-legged in front of a campfire. Her long hair hung over her shoulders in perfectly placed sections. There were several small braids in the front, decorated with flowers chains, leaves, and even beads. She looked like a Native American shaman about to call upon the spirits. (Or a witch.)
Was she a witch? That would make perfect sense. “Eli!”
“Yes,” she said, opening a bag to arrange a series of items.
“Why am I chained to the wall? I thought we were friends.”
“We are.” Eli paused, looking up with her bright blue eyes. “In fact, we’re more than friends, we’re family.” The way she held her glare, pursing her lips; there was something very wrong.
“Are you upset about something?”
“What would make you think that?”
For a moment I didn’t realize she’d avoided choosing an actual answer. “Then will you unlock me?”
“Hum.” Eli placed her long elegant finger on her lip. Her fingernails were covered in dirt, but perfectly shaped and adorned with colorful gemstones. “Now why would I do that?”
Her answer was no. I should have seen that coming. “Because you can trust me?”
“To do what?” She lifted her chin, continuing with her angelic supermodel pose. She spoke like a school teacher asking a small child to defend their answer. “What are your plans if I were to release you?”
“I want to see if your father is alright.”
“How do you know that’s my father?”
She had a point. I didn’t know for certain. In fact, this could have easily been a trap.
“He needs help,’ I said, mustering all my confidence and courage. “Please let me help him.”
“He’s already dead,” she replied in a mocking, sing-song tone.
“I don’t believe you.” I forced myself to crawl as close as I could. One scoot after another until I had a view of his face. Jamie wasn’t dead, but he was very sick.
His eyes flickered. If this was Jamie he was now in his forties, with notable facial hair. His expression was one of pain; his skin was pale, and his lips were a shade of gray usually reserved for the undead.
I felt a genuine discomfort; a mixture of physical and emotional anguish. I forced my breath to avoid the tears in my eyes. It was an odd feeling for a total stranger. There was part of me that knew I was meant to care about him. ‘Why?’ Soon I realized my leg felt strangely lighter. The cuff was gone. “When the world hates you,” I muttered, buying time as I contemplated my next move.
Eli nodded, her jewel-adorned hands stroking the fire. “Hashtag relatable.” She was still speaking in a seductive monotone, making no effort to check on me. The witch likely knew that I was unable to see the location of the stairs she had used to enter.
I took a seat by Jamie’s side. He was not restrained in any manner, but that was for good reason. His left leg was broken. Although he was wearing jeans, I could easily see that his kneecap was positioned at an odd angle. Where his right leg was straight, his left leg had been twisted like a cork screw. I placed my hand upon his thigh, tracing a line down to his knee.
He screamed. The sound of his voice echoing through the darkness. First there was terror, followed by agony and sadness.
I reached for his hand, making sure to move as slowly as humanly possible. I could already imagine him gripping me, with superhuman speed, attempting to tear me limb from limb.
Thankfully that was not the case. When my fingertips touched his rain-soaked skin, I felt him tremble. “Hey,” I said in a whisper. “Are you alright?”
‘No, dumbass, of course he’s not alright.’ That was not even close to what he actually said.
“Please.” His eyes clenched, forcing themselves shut. The image was akin to a prisoner about to be relieved of his vision via the use of a flame, or perhaps a power drill. “Don’t leave me again.”
“You left him behind,” Eli said calmly. The only way she would have known about that was if it had been a situation of her own creation. (A test that I very much failed.)
I could have apologized, begged for forgiveness. My brain had other plans. “No.” The word came out in a way that sounded offended.
Now she turned. “You cheated. You ran.”
Was she even still referring to the night of the storm? “I don’t understand.” Again, I did not apologize.
“I know, you never did.”
Was this about Razor? It had to be. After all he was the one who shot teenage Jamie, not me. “Do you know Razor?”
“Rey,” she said with a nod. Her attention was suddenly returned to the fire. “Yes, I know Rey.”
“Is he a friend?” I asked. With her eyes no longer looking in my direction, I lifted my phone slightly, attempting to get a full understanding of the room’s layout.
“There has been a change of plans.” Eli was preparing something long and metallic. “Do you know what purpose is?”
“The word?” Was she referring to fate, faith, innovation?
“There are things that are meant to happen; a plus b equals c, that kind of thing. But if the letter ‘A’ suddenly feels like leaving her family, ‘B’ will never exist in the same way. B will suffer depression, self-harm.”
If Jamie was ‘B’? Did that make me ‘A’? Was that why I wanted to hold his hand, to take him away from whatever this was? “And C?” I asked. ‘C’ was a child, apparently, my child.
“And ‘C,’ well there is a lot of crap ‘C’ will have to go through.” Her voice trembled with a hint of sadness. “She would be put in a place where she,” Eli paused, choking on her anger. “I mean They.”
“They,” I repeated, forcing myself to speak with confidence. “They.”
“They would question what they were, and why. Other times they would wish ‘C’ never existed.”
Jamie reached for my wrist. “Please help me.” He was gripping my hand, turning my phone just enough to illuminate a piece of wood. It was a ninety-degree angle; the bottom step, my chance at freedom. I gave his hand a squeeze, acknowledging his gift. ‘Had he known about it the entire time?’ Before I could ask, my attention was brought back to Eli and the fire.
Somehow, she had caused a flare up. A bright, vibrant tornado of fire that scorched a previously unseen ceiling. “I’m going to cut out the creature that grows inside you.”
I glanced at Jamie. Should I run? I had no way of getting Jamie to his feet. Unless he could walk and I just didn’t know it. I needed a plan for both of us to escape, but time was not on myside. And then I exhaled.
‘Or should I let her?’ That actually made sense. What if this was my chance at escaping back to reality? “Sure.”
Jamie froze. I waited for him to give me a sign; stand up, grip my hand, something to prove that he had the physical strength to aid in his own escape. Instead, he just let go.
‘Ok.’ My mouth felt dry. Eli was now facing me. With the fire acting as a backlight, they looked like a shadow goddess of Hell. I moved towards her, crawling on my knees. When I reached her lap, I took a bow.
“What do I need to do?”
Eli bit their lower lip, appearing more female than ever. She looked like a super model (or a porn star.) “Recline by the fire.” she made a sweeping motion with her bright orange knife. “If you please.”
That was when two large, gloved hands gripped me under my shoulders. I was dragged with force. My face was coated in dirt. Somehow, I managed to cover my aching nose and mouth with my hand to avoid further injury, as I was pulled up the stairs. ‘So many stairs.’
I assumed he was just taking me outside, but when we finally stopped, I found myself on the roof. Not only was this a flat cement surface (odd for a structure in the middle of a forest,) the building was multi story. There was no way Jamie and I could have cleared this many floors in what felt like less than a minute.
“How in the fuck?” I asked when I finally had a moment to breathe.
Jamie stood tall, helping me to my feet. for a brief moment it appeared as if his leg had healed all on its own. “Come with me?”
I really didn’t want to. This was the same person who tried to strangle me. (Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this was like a ‘if Hitler went to Art school’ kind of thing.)
“Tell me about your mother.”
He shot me a disgusted look. “What? Why?”
“I need to know it’s you.” That sentence made no sense. I was assuming he even remembered meeting me. And if he did, the memory would be of ‘that homeless girl I tried to kill when I was home alone as a teenager.’ More likely he saw me as a random stranger with the ability to save him.
The man’s face was frozen. He looked at his hand, as if questioning why he even bothered to rescue me. “Do I know you?”
I needed to think of a better question; something that only he would know, based upon or last interaction (and not something that would be fatally offensive.) “Do you hate Kirby?”
“Kirby?” He seemed to be scrolling through his mental rolodex for anyone with the first or last name of Kirby.
“You know, the Nintendo character?” I decided to puff out my cheeks, giving my best impression of the round little alien made famous by its ability to inflate like an adorable balloon.
Jamie’s eyes went wide. He was now glaring at me with a look of pure terror. “You?”
I nodded, unsure of where to steer the conversation.
The once starry sky began to darken. Clouds closed in like an automated swimming pool cover. A soft, gentle rain started to fall. It was the kind that seemed more like a soft curtain than actual raindrops. Jamie laughed, his face appearing more human than before. It reminded me of those toys that you put in water; transform a red sponge into a dinosaur, or grow a tiny plastic girlfriend.
Jamie fell forward, resting his weight on his good leg. His eyes went side with fear. Did he recognize me? Or was it the pain kicking back in. The rain water was soaking his jeans, leaving behind a trail of red tinted water that flowed off the ledge. “You.”
“Yeah, it’s me.” I didn’t want him to die. I can write that with a straight face and an honest heart. The next series of actions seemed to happen like a movie. I released Jamie’s hand, pushing him with a deliberate amount of force.
This caused him to look at the ground, and then at me. He placed his hand to his leg.
I pushed him, just once. It wasn’t even very hard. His body fell backward, tripping over his own feet until he tumbled off the roof. He disappeared down the side of the building, vanishing into the darkness. There was no crash, no noise at all. The rain began to fall harder, forming large drops that made loud, audible noise when hitting the pavement.
I needed to find a way off this roof. With the rain, and the darkness, my phone light proved useless. I guess there was nothing else to do. I took one step back, then another until I found the edge. There was a pipe going down the side. Without even looking for a foothold I wrapped my leg and slid down like a kid at a playground. When my feet hit the ground, I ran into the woods
I had an idea of taking shelter, camping in the woods until the sun came up. In the darkness I was not even certain of the direction, and was likely going in circles. That was when I saw the exit.
There was an especially thick wall of trees, followed by the orange, purple and pink of the sunrise. The world opened to a field of grass. There was nothing but flat land for as far as the eye could see. I was grateful, but I was also too tired to go on. I sat on the ground, attempting to rest on the soft, dry foliage.
I closed my eyes and pulled my knees to my chest. The fetal position offered a small degree of warmth. Although this was infinitely more comfortable than my previous living situations. I wasn’t restrained, or being dragged up an unknown number of stairs. I was out of the rain, soon to be baked in the heat of the South Dakota sun.
In my head I heard a sound, a drum-based rhythm. I’d always liked Native American music and movies. Especially the ones that focused on modern life on the reservation. The plot is typically: a troubled teen who thinks their existence is Hell and cannot get any better (except via the use of drugs and alcohol.) Then they learn about their culture, their past; a history of people who had to fight so much harder than they ever would. If these historical figures could put their faith in a higher power (nature, earth itself) in order to keep moving forward, the modern-day teenager could do the same.
The drumbeats began to form into my favorite song, ‘Ireland I am coming home. I can see the rolling fields of green and fences made of stone.’
“I am reaching out,” the voice was female, “won’t you take my hand?” Standing before me was a young woman of either Hispanic or Native American heritage. Her long hair flowed like water, blending in to the darkness of the night sky. Her skin was the color of coffee with cream. She tilted her head, rolling her shoulders, when the figure faced me again, she now had a bright red handprint that covered her eyes, down to her chin. The mark was not an injury but rather an iconic symbol used to bring attention to crimes against Natives.
With a burst of adrenaline, I stood up. I had every intention of walking towards the girl. I needed to kneel like a knight or at least bow, but my feet were stuck to the ground. My heart raced. I had no use of anything below my hips. So, with no other options, I fell forward, landing hard on my knees. Only then was I able to move.
With my head down I spoke. “My name is Grace. I’m an agent of the US department of defense. Or I was anyway.” I swallowed the fear in my throat.”
The woman reached out her hand. “You have no reason to fear me.”
“Thank you.” I attempted to grab her hand, only for mine to pass through. (Pretty much exactly the way you’d assume shaking hands with a ghost would go down.) She felt cold, not unlike the previous night’s rain. “Sorry.”
She smiled, and then she laughed. “The name’s Selena Not Afraid.”
“That sounds familiar.” I deduced she was a murder victim. And the idea of a murder victim with the last name ‘Not Afraid’, that seemed ironic? No, ironic was not the right word.
“Was your case ever solved? Or has it gone cold?” Perhaps I had assisted with the investigation. The more logical answer was that I’d heard about her on one of the many true crime Youtube channels.
“I believe for a case to go cold there must first be an initial investigation.”
“There was no investigation?” That didn’t sound right.
“In order to have an unsolved mystery, there must first be an actual recognize crime.” The spirit crossed her arms over her chest. She had already suffered so much, there was little left to do but laugh.
“Were you the one who was found in a trash bag?”
“No, I was just in a field next to a rest stop,” she replied, as if it was a question she had become used to answering. “I, like many, died of ‘exposure.’ So many native kids die of exposure. Funny right?”
“Your death was declared an accident.” As I stated the obvious, my chest started to hurt. This was followed by nausea.
“Yeah, I guess that’s why my kind commit suicide at such high rates, right?” Her smile was bright, youthful.
I remembered. I had watched a video report about her; she had a twin sister who committed suicide at the age of eleven, and a brother who died to police brutality. It was all so hopeless. “Why am I still alive?”
“Because your work is not yet done,” she said casually scratching her cheek. This caused part of the red face paint to flake off. “I know a little about what it means to be lost.”
“Do you think you can point me in the direction of the finish line?”
She lifted her hand, directing my attention to a single metal sign. “Welcome to Montana.”
“Montana?” I felt a pang of anxiety. No matter what was going on inside my stomach, my primary mission was to investigate the attack on Mount Rushmore. I briefly explained the case that brought me to the Dakotas; the unknown terrorist attack that completely destroyed the national monument.
Selena was doubled over with laughter. Her ghost began to glow with a heavenly golden light. “I would have loved to live in that multiverse.” She paused for a moment, biting her lower lip in a way that looked hilariously adorable. “Or maybe not. I wasn’t alive during 9/11 but I read about it in school. It was open season on South Asians. Or the ‘dot’ Indians.”
“Did you just say ‘dot’ Indian?” Now we were both laughing like a pair of preschoolers.
“Yeah; we have casino Indians,” she said, pointing to herself, “dot Indians, turban Indians, help desk Indians. You know: all of the lovely people who run the local 7-11. Oh my god!” She cupped her hands over her mouth. “That’s why they got blamed for 9/11! Some racist idiot was probably trying to help their second grader with their math homework.”
“The guy probably lifted the paper and was like, ‘The Lord has spoken!”
With every smile, the red paint was flaking away. It was still there, still clearly a handprint. Except now there was hope.
next: Strawman ch7: Mama