previous: Strawman ch8: River
Charli took me on an early morning walk that ended at her penthouse apartment. The main floor was in the downtown, metropolitan area (same as any other city.) But once we exited the elevator, I was no longer convinced this was simply the beauty of Canada.
“So, what do you think?” she asked, as she disappeared behind a massive slate/stone door.
For a moment I was afraid. This door seemed all too similar to the one that required a blood sacrifice. But she had just unlocked it, it was already open. All I had to do was take a step.
The entrance opened to a massive space. Every wall was a window; floor to ceiling, vanishing into the decor without so much as a seam. And yet there was no view. No cityscape, fog or even sky.
The world was entirely too bright, but at the same time being comfortable. This was less like sun light and more akin to soft fluorescent lighting. (Kind of like a hospital.)
‘Was this all fake? Was I in a coma with a light shining in my eyes?’ The furniture was just as ethereal. There were pieces made from wood the color of snow. There was metal inlaid; gold, silver, and gems highlighting the natural beauty.
Everything was so soft, so clean. I hesitated before taking a seat on her ice-white sofa. My clothes weren’t wet, but if I’d actually been in the Niagara River, I imagine I would leave a stain. That was when I noticed the texture of the velvet. The fabric was rippling, like water, or skin. My fingertips glided along the surface. There were no marks left behind; no dirt, not even evidence of pressure.
I reclined, stretching out my legs. As previously stated, I was still wearing the short dress I had on when driving into the ocean. These clothes were not mine, but they were growing on me (perhaps literally.) The fabric was buttery soft, but also stretchy, like a silky pair of leggings. ‘I always loved leggings.’
I found myself rubbing my inner thighs together; forcing me to cross my legs at the knees. I felt a warmth, a burst of energy that rippled through my body like a kiss. I owned so few feminine pieces of clothing, it felt nice to feel sexy; wanted, desired. The world went quiet; all I could hear was my own pulse, as the sofa enveloped my body in a soothing embrace.
Suddenly, I could hear the sound of high heels walking in the opposite direction. ‘Was Charli even wearing heels?’ The apartment was massive, I assumed Charli had her own space. And right now, that was what I wanted; my own space, my own time. Here, on this sofa, in this place, I felt safe.
I closed my eyes not to rest, but to dream. that seemed to be the only way to move within this reality. ‘Move?’ Did I expect to move? Was I on a set path?’ If there was a path there were spaces; moments, locations.
This was a board game. ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ And if I could move forward, I could also go back. In my head I heard laughter. ‘Um, no. That’s not how it works. have you ever played a board game?’
Was I really ready to believemy existence was a series of random dice rolls sending me down split roads and sliding doors? If so, I was in desperate need of a strategy guide.
I sat up, putting my arms around my knees. Examining my surroundings, I suddenly saw that one single glass wall had a dark red seam. ‘Why just one?’ The shade of red was so bright, there was no way I wouldn’t have seen it before. (And why did that color seem so familiar?)
It was lipstick. Charli’s lipstick; a brilliant red with hints of orange. I took a step off the sofa; I had no shoes or socks, allowing my bare feet to sink into the silken, plush carpet. It felt like I was walking on a pile of fresh laundry,
As I approached, two handles appeared; two long, elegant panels made of the same clear glass. ‘Sliding doors.’ I took one step and then another, passing through, in to the opaque light.
Three figures stood before me. the first was a soldier; an African American woman, (or more likely a teenage girl. She couldn’t have been older then eighteen, with a round, youthful face and bright smile. Her sense of style (and something about the intensity of her eyes) was akin to Serena Williams (a famous tennis player from the mean streets of Compton, who rose to become a fashion icon.) Yes, that was who this soldier reminded me of; my childhood crush. If she hadn’t been wearing camo gear, I would have assumed she was just a regular kid; a murder victim taken for her beauty.
“Hello,” I said nervously. “I’m Grace.”
The soldier nodded and offered a welcoming smile. A lock of hair escaped her bangs, falling over her eye. She took a moment to awkwardly touch her face, affixing the offending locks back into place (if only temporarily.) That was when I first realized; this was an actual human soul, a former person who lived and likely died in the height of their youth (As opposed to a fully formed Angel or other spirit.)
The second figure was a native American dancer, the kind that look like they’re asking the land for a favor. She was a vision in red and white with feathers, geometric patterns, and a distinct red handprint on her face. I wanted to ask if she was the same girl I’d met before, but as a white woman, that did not feel right. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t, but clearly, she was one of hundreds lost to time.
The last was of course Charli, dressed as a nurse. Her hair was down, worn long swept over one shoulder like a pageant contestant. This made for a strange pairing with her green hospital scrubs. “Welcome, Grace.”
“Thanks.” ‘Was that even still my name?’
“What path do you want to try first?”
I thought for a moment; each figure seemed like a nice person to get to know. “Wait, what did you say?”
“Did you just say, first?”
“Unless you find your happy place.”
“Can’t I just choose to die?” The words were spoken in a monotone. Could I just walk away from the game?”
The dancer cleared her throat, choking back laughter. “You can’t be serious.”
The soldier crossed her arms and shook her head, but then looked at me with pity. “She doesn’t know what’s out there.”
“Actually, I do,” I muttered.
The three figures looked at me with disgust and mild confusion. Charli was the first to speak. “I think you’ve misunderstood.” She pursed her lips, preparing her next words like a teacher explaining a concept to a small child.
“Misunderstood what? You all think that I haven’t earned my place among the PTSD angels? That’s what you’re implying, right?”
Now the soldier was the one looking offended. “I don’t think I can do this. There’s no way for her to take this seriously.”
I spoke up for myself, looking down at my clothing; my body, my skin. I could feel my surgical scars; the thick flesh holding together what remained of my stomach. “I should have died at least three times, if not more. I am well aware that someone or something has taken that off the table for me. Just tell me what it will take to make this all come to an end. Tell me why I wouldn’t just end up like you?”
Charli nodded, seeming able to comprehend my concern. “I mean you can, but not before destroying the entity.
“The pink fleshy thing,” I said through gritted teeth. I had been growing fond of not seeing its repulsive features. Worse were its constant claims of being a creature so annoyingly adorable, it felt entitled to my love and admiration. ‘Kind of hard to love something that makes you want to vomit.’
“The entity, it needs you alive,” Charli’s face wore an expression of apologetic disgust. “Because it’s feeding on your,” she paused, biting her lip nervously as she stalled the conversation.
For a moment I thought about Rey, and the words the creature had said to me regarding ‘strong souls.’ It fed on abusers, people filled with anger and rage. That was why it forced me in to the New York door. It needed to declare war on Rey’s family, his life, and it did that by making sure I was there to chase him with my dumbass, weak-willed heart. I needed to stop thinking like a damsel in distress and more like a Disney princess. I was going to go to war with a cute little pink thing, so what I needed was a strong ally.
“I pick the soldier,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster.
Charli nodded. She turned to the soldier with a bow. “I guess you’re up first, Vena.”
Before I could say anything, we were sucked through a void, reappearing in a very distinct space. The world appeared to be a dark forest made of videogame graphics from the early PlayStation era. The shapes were choppy, with sharp angles. Oddly, the sky seemed real (unless the texture was just too far away to see.) Below our feet were a series of stones creating a glowing path.
I moved my barefoot over the surface, examining the texture. It felt like a fidget toy; the silicon rubber of a pop-it wit the sticky surface of a mochi squishy. There was a reason it was sticky, and I didn’t want to think about it. I attempted to start conversation, but with my limited knowledge this proved to be difficult. “So, your name is Vena?”
“And your name is Grace.”
“Is Vena short for something?”
Vena did not reply. She was standing, facing a light that seemed to be coming from a separate, hidden route. “What the fuck is that?”
A florescent pink mass was hopping down the road. Sometimes it appeared to run on four legs, other times on only two (like a human child.) “I love you. You love me,” it sang the famous children’s song, in its typical baby doll voice. “I like to shake my boo-tee.” The creature came to a stop at our feet. It’s chosen form was small, the size of a typical plush toy. “With a great big hug,” the voice abruptly dropped to a deep, demonic sound, echoing through the space. The creature’s big black eyes grew to the size of tires, dwarfing its tiny frame. But no sooner did it make this transformation, then the entity shrank back to its normal toy-like form. “And a little wiggle too.” It shook its tail, the ambient light shifting to give the entity a soft layer of fur. “Oh, won’t you say you,” the creature paused, looking at me with cartoonishly hopeful eyes.
Then I realized it wasn’t looking at me, it was looking at Vena.
The soldier took a step backward. “Um, ok.” She practically rolled her eyes at the demonic hellspawn.
The pink mass blinked, revealing the presence of thick, fleshy eyelids. “You love me too?” It looked less like a pig and more like an insect.
Vena chuckled and looked away, pretending as if the creature was not addressing her.
“You do!” The creature’s voice went low again, blinking its eyes over and over, faster and faster. The black pools began to display a movie; military figures, a desert backdrop, and a gun. The images were flashing like a flip book, adding more and more details to the scene. It went as far as showing three figures; men entering a military tent under the cover of a sandstorm. But before it could show anymore, Vena stomped the creature, her foot sinking completely through the two screens. With the shattering of the eyes, the creature let out a shrill scream. This was followed by laughter. “Won’t you say you love me too?” The voice became lower and lower as Vena stomped the chunks of living breathing jelly.
Soon it sounded like a human male. “Won’t you say you love me too, Private—?” the name was hushed as Vena kicked the largest remaining glob, sending it flying.
In the silence, Vena fell to her knees. She nodded her head to a melody only she could hear. Her breath was wavering, struggling, to maintain her composure.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fucking fantastic.” She spat on the ground, her saliva meeting with one of the jelly puddles. “Now let’s find a way out of here.”
Vena seemed to have an idea of where to go.
I knew better than to ask her any impolite, invasive questions. Such behavior was not in my nature. And then she found my phone.
“What the hell is that?” in the middle of typing she grabbed my phone from my hands. The rest of this account is coming from memory, when I finally had a chance to reunite with my device.
For starters, Vena called me all manner of profanity, before getting to the heart of the matter. “I died serving my country!”
“In the war?”
“In a war that our kind will never win.”
“I know.” She was talking about the war of the sexes. They had femicide, rape, and the pack mentality. All we could do was hope that the men all went off to war and butchered themselves into extinction. (Well, maybe not extinction, that’s a bit too harsh.)
“You know less than twenty-five percent of military academy graduates are female?”
“I didn’t know that.”
I’ll bet it’s not because we don’t apply there. When I was deployed people would joke about how women should be counted as 1/3 of a soldier. ‘This unit has 150 people? No more like 100. What am I talking about? That would mean that a significant number of deployed soldiers are female. That’s one hell of a joke.
“You were murdered by fellow soldiers?
“Serves me right for working in a computer lab. All I did all day was make sure people could surf the net, letting their loved ones know how much fun they were having on the beautiful beaches of Afghanistan.
“There are beaches in Afghanistan?”
“Yeah, just not as fun as the nudist waterparks.” She rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “I’m kidding.”
“I know.” I honestly thought there were beaches in Afghanistan. “It’s a landlocked country that borders the middle east and China.”
“Oh, wow. You’re not as dumb as you look. No offense. I mean you look like a typical American teenager, dripping with white privilege.”
“Well, I’m not. At least not in my main life.”
“Your main life?”
“There’s a reality where I’m a government liaison investigating a terrorist attack on Mount Rushmore.”
Vena stopped walking. “You serious?”
I was ready to defend myself, but her expression was one of curiosity. “Yes. I had a degree in criminology.
“Criminology? Were you inspired by those CSI shows?”
“Yeah, I was.” Admittedly the generation of crime scene television shows made the process look so much easier, faster, and infinitely sexier.
“Which one was your favorite?” she asked. Standing with her arms crossed I could not tell if this was an act of sarcasm or if she really wanted to discuss the merits of the various crime scene dramas that flooded primetime television.
“I always liked CSI Las Vegas. The New York show had a nicer shift supervisor, so I kind of fantasized about working there. But Las Vegas had the more unique cases. And then there was Criminal Minds. That show had the best characters and best cases, but the casualties could get a little excessive.” Criminal minds was about a team of FBI profilers, many of whom ended up dead, insane or forced into hiding.
“What about Miami?”
My face scrunched. I’d never been a fan of the deep south. “I’d rather be a pregnant waitress cleaning toilets in South Dakota.”
“I’m one to talk. I enlisted to get the hell out of West Virginia.” She loomed around a corner, somehow, she could see something other than darkness. “So, what do you want to do?”
“I was just following you.”
“Ok, let me ask this another way,” Vena paused, crossing her arms.
My nervousness bubbled up, causing a child-like giggle. Her next words would be of the utmost importance.
“If I was a genie and could grant you just one single wish, what would it be?”
Vena continued. “It can’t be anything about power, wealth, world peace or whatever. It must be a very specific wish having to do with your own timeline. I don’t want you to overthink this, ok? So, I’m going to do a countdown. When I say ‘Go,’ the first thing out of your mouth will determine your path.”
“That sounds fair.”
“Close your eyes.”
I did as she asked. Standing poised, with shoulders back, hands at my side. “I’m ready.”
“You are?” Vena asked with a hint of sarcasm. “Three,” she said in a whisper. I could hear her footsteps as she came closer. “Two.” I could practically feel her laughter. Soon, she was close enough to breathe on my lips. “One: wish.” Her mouth touched mine. At first it was soft, then she cupped my face, holding the passionate kiss, as she slid something into my hand. “It is done.”
I opened my eyes to the bright sunlight. Exhausted I was tempted to sit, but I quickly tensed my back. I was standing in formation with a large crowd of people. These people were all young, strong and wearing matching uniforms. ‘Soldiers?’
I was at a graduation. It was my graduation. I could feel my hands trembling. I wore white gloves, and in my hand was my phone. I glanced at the screen for half a second, just long enough to see a date and time. It was a bright sunny day in May, in the mid-afternoon.
The student next to me shot me a glare, but did not dare draw attention to himself.
‘Sorry,’ I mouthed silently, as I quickly hid my phone inside my pants. The elastic of my underwear held the cold metal firmly against my hip. I could have gone for my pocket, but knowing the strict standards of the military, it would have been noticeable. My eyes darted briefly, taking in my surroundings. This did not seem like a military base, more like a college or university. What kind of graduation was this?
An elderly man was speaking at the podium. I imagine he was a senator or maybe a former president. Behind him were men with uniforms loaded down with medals; they were important, but not as honored as the speaker. “Congratulations,” his microphone suddenly started to cut out, searing the air with an awkward wave of static. “Congratulations class… West Point!”
West Point? My heart was racing. I pursed my lips, squeezing them together to hold back the wave of emotions. I could feel tears in my eyes, but I knew I needed to keep focused. I wanted to be here; I needed to be here. This was my happy place.
Each group was called up one at a time. I was receiving a Bachelor of science degree from the Engineering Psychology department. This felt so right. I would get to work towards a career as a profiler, solving the great mysteries; murders, crashes, large scale terrorist attacks.
‘Large scale terrorist attacks?’ This had something to do with my wish. When the graduates were released from formation (to hug and take pictures with their waiting families.) I turned around, looking for Vena, but I was hopelessly lost in a sea of happy people.
I was stuck behind a group of strangers, actively trying to avoid ruining people’s pictures when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, Kid.” Vena stood wearing her dress uniform. The army wore dark green, so I wasn’t surprised to see her in that color, but her arms were adorned with the stripes of a Master Sergeant.
“Nice stripes.” I had a feeling this was just a fantasy. Vena died long before she would have been eligible for such a title.
“I’m working towards a first sergeant position.”
“You get to do that?”
Vena blinked back tears, unable to hold back her vibrant, joyous laughter. No one seemed to notice. (Or no one chose to call out an NCO of her rank, on her lack of professionalism.) There was a third option, of course: I was the only one who could see her. “This is nice, right?”
“Yeah, totally. It’s perfect.”
“Ideal?” That was a strange choice of word.
“Now all you had to do is prevent your child from summoning the little pink rage demon.”
“I still have a child?”
“In this world you signed over custody to your husband.”
I felt a rush of fear, anger, topped with a dash of panic, when I suddenly realized something; this was different, it was all different. Maybe Jamie was someone I could co-parent with. “And yet the path is the same.”
Vena sighed. “I’ll leave that to you, to figure out.”
She walked towards what looked like the setting sun, but I knew better. Vena was getting her happily ever after; she’d get to live out the career of her dreams, in a place where her killers would never again break her spirit.
I walked alone for a while, exploring the campus. Memories unlocked; I had been here for four years, originally on an athletic recruitment post. Jamie was my high school crush, a boy far too old to be courting a girl my age. But this sweet little gymnast had a taste for country boys. I married Jamie during my first trip home. I still had three years left in my program and even more on my military contract. But stupid me had gone and gotten myself pregnant. I lost my place on the team. If I didn’t graduate on time I would be kicked out of school.
I gave birth to Ella Annabelle Ryan, via a scheduled c-section. In this world Jamie never hurt me; he certainly never cut my stomach open to steal our child. No, in this timeline I gave her to him so I could chase my dreams. I took a seat under a tree. Hopefully, I was secluded enough to sit on the ground while talking to myself.
“Why did she do it in the first place?” Why did Ella find the need to call upon a hellspawn for help? Clearly, the entity wasn’t able to save her father. Unless it did? Was that why Jamie was so powerful, so angry? Did it save Jamie, only to use him? “The pig fetus feeds on anger and strong souls. Duh.”
The creature needed conflict. This was a game I was never going to win. I needed to go back to South Dakota, but how? I shut my eyes, letting the breeze trace over my skin. The answer was out there.
As if on cue, a rhythmic drum beat filled the air. I could feel the vibrations calling to me. “Perfect. Time to roll the dice.”
I started walking in the direction of the dorms. There are happy families everywhere; students getting ready to move out, moving along with their lives, and their careers. And then there was me. At the end of the hall the music became louder, deeper, as the dancer waited for her turn.
“Hi,” I said with a shy, subtle wave.
She tilted her head like a doll. The world around her started to warp; reality was made of grains of sand coated in pigment.
“What did I wish for?”
She shrugged. “I know what I’d wish for.”
“Are you here to take me home?”
“I’m here to guide you home.”
next: Strawman ch10: Home