The Hardest Part of the Job

Caleb scratched at the implant in his temple. Lyssa had promised it was the easiest way to steal the car but he wasn’t so sure. The transmitter wired his brain directly to the vehicle. It would be like another limb, as long as the connection held. “A bigger rush than driving” she’d said with that same lopsided smile that had convinced him to throw in with Lyssa Nguyen and her gang in the first place.

“The hardest part of the job is waiting.” he heard the scratchy growl of his father’s voice in his head. Suddenly he was thirteen again, white knuckling the wheel. His feet just barely reaching the pedals as his father tried to keep Benny’s guts from leaking all over the backseat.

Caleb closed his eyes, and let the rumble of the motor chase away the feelings. He felt the vibration in his bones and smiled. A quick diagnostic check sent an extra surge of electrical current skittering across his brain. The car was as perfect as it had been the day Damien Hellridge stole it off the assembly line. Gunshots tore into the concrete around him. He hit the gas, and the car shot forward like a bullet.

“Once you’re in it, you’re fine” the memory of his father’s voice came as clearly as if he was riding shotgun. “Adrenaline takes over. Be the guy who can keep his cool and you’ll always get your share of the money.”

He knew his dad wouldn’t know what to make of his only son running with a gang like this. Henry Browner’s boy was better than this mixed bag of petty thieves and psychopaths. Caleb had a pretty good idea which one Lyssa was; he just wasn’t sure he cared anymore.

As the car skidded around the corner, the squeal of tires on hot pavement mixed with the screams of the Hellridge alarms filled the air around him. Caleb didn’t know when he’d ever felt so alive. He hit the straightaway on Lawrence Street with the pedal to the floor, and for a moment got so caught up in the feeling of gliding over the broken road that he forgot to breathe.

The plan itself was surprisingly simple. Lyssa’s schemes normally involved weeks of planning and intricate maneuvering by everyone involved to pull off. This time, all he had to do was get to the Exchange in time to pick up the rest of the crew after they finished robbing the joint.

There was a shriek of metal on metal as a Hellridge car slammed into him. Wincing in pain, Caleb veered into a narrow alley, sending sparks flying as the sides of the car scraped against the walls. Pain crackled up his side, but he forced the car forward towards the next street.

Two more Hellridge cars were on him as soon as he left the alley, forcing him down a side road that led away from the Exchange and the rest of the gang. There was a slight tickle in his left ear, followed by a loud screech of feedback.

“Whatever dumb son of a bitch stole my car, I want you to know that I am going to find you,” Damien Hellridge’s broken bottle voice echoed across the radio waves. “I will scalp you, and whatever family you have. Everyone you love is going to die painfully. Nobody fucks with a Hellridge.”

Caleb’s ribs popped as the Hellridges boxed him in from either side. He slammed on the brakes, causing the cars to collide in front of him. For a moment they drifted back apart from the impact. He hit the accelerator and shot forward through the gap. Behind him, the Hellridges crashed into each other again, sending glass and metal shooting across the road.

He let out a long sigh of relief as the wreckage faded into the background. Another car shot up behind him, lights flashing. The radio chatter exploded. Three more joined the chase before Caleb could blink. He was so focused on the police that he missed the Hellridge car moving up to cut him off. There was a loud tooth-rattling crunch as the car collided with his left fender. Then darkness.

Caleb sat in his chair staring at the dark room around him, trying to ignore the headache that was splitting his skull. “I told her to put the transmitter inside the fucking car,” he muttered, pulling over his computer. It was a lot riskier getting the damn thing inside the vehicle, but it also kept the transmitter from getting knocked off-line. Lyssa hadn’t listened to him the first dozen times, so he wasn’t sure why he was surprised that she’d ignored him this time, too.

His fingers flew over the keys. The car was dead without the transmitter. He’d have to reboot the connection before the anyone traced the signal back to the base. The cops and Hellridges were likely shooting it out over who had rights to the car. It wouldn’t be long before whoever came out on top searched the car, and came gunning for the person at the other end of the line.

He was finally able to find a weak signal from the transmitter. With a grimace, he pressed against his temple and forced the transmitter to reboot. The computer fell to the floor as the car roared to life around him. It lurched forward, sending the Hellridges that had been climbing around the outside sliding to the ground.

The car had spun around from the impact. Caleb found himself staring down a mob of Hellridges and police cars. He weaved between two cop cars, smiling as they stared at the empty vehicle. A Hellridge truck flew past and slammed into the cops as they tried to turn around. Sliding to the right around another Hellridge car, Caleb the familiar rush of adrenaline. This is what he was born to do.

He dodged another couple of police cars and shot off over the hill towards the Exchange. He cleared the top of the hill with a shout of joy, the car lifting briefly off the ground. Down on the street below, Damien Hellridge stared up at him, ten feet of boils, hair and bad teeth squeezed into a five foot frame. Behind him, the gang had built a wall of wrecked cars and garbage across the road, blocking off the only route to the Exchange.

Caleb slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt halfway down the hill. He threw the car into reverse and tried to think of another way around the barricade. At the top of the hill, he watched the police close in on him. Flashing lights bounced off the walls of the buildings as they sped up the hill towards him. The Hellridges followed not far behind.

“Fuck it,” he said with a smile. He waited until the first car crested the hill, then hit the gas. The police followed him over the top and he slammed the brakes, watching them shoot past him and into the wall. The armored vehicles plowed through it, sending Hellridges and pieces of machinery flying through the air.

Before the police or the Hellridges could recover, Caleb drove through the hole they’d opened in the barrier, darting through the debris and sliding to a stop right in front of the Exchange as Lyssa and her boys came running full tilt towards the vehicle. They piled in and he sped away, leaving the witnesses to see Damien Hellridge’s personal vehicle leaving the scene of a robbery.

Caleb smiled to himself as Lyssa climbed behind the wheel and disconnected the transmitter. The pressure in his head immediately stopped and he leaned back in his chair, trying to catch his breath. All that he had to do now was wait for the others to get back.

“The hardest part of the job is waiting,” he whispered to himself with a smile.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Fear of Falling

When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream where I tripped and fell in the backyard. It never hurt when I hit the ground, instead I’d just bounce into the air. Each time I came down, I’d bounce a little higher, a little slower.

Every night, for weeks, I would go to sleep knowing that this dream was waiting for me. I’d lay in bed, waiting for the horrible feeling of my stomach dropping out from under me with each bounce. It’s been practically burned in my memory ever since.

It didn’t take long for me to start looking for ways to recreate that terrifying feeling when I was awake. I hated it, but I needed it. At first, just stepping off a high step would do it. I’d stand on a box with my toes peeking over the edge, my heart beating a mile a minute, and feel the adrenaline pump through my body. Soon, I was leaping off ladders and fences, and even jumped off the roof of Tommy Maddox’s garage once. I couldn’t stop.

The first time I saw her, I’d just gone for my fourth round on the Terror Tower. It was a lime green monstrosity at the county fair that shot you ten stories into the air before dropping you back down again just as fast. It scared the hell out of me, leaving me short of breath and barely able to walk. I was hooked.

“Is he okay?” she asked, as my friends helped me to a bench across from the ride after my fourth time on it. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember was the beautiful girl standing in front of me. In an instant, I was lost in deep brown eyes, tight black curls, and dark skin. She placed a cool hand on the back of mine before telling me that everything would be fine.

She sat down next to me on the bench, and I did my best to not throw up. I don’t think I even noticed when my friends disappeared into the crowd, leaving us alone. I sat with her for awhile in silence. It wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable, just silence. Finally she looked at me and smiled.

“I’m Alicia,” she said. I knew that instant that I’d never heard a sweeter sounding name.

“Tyrone.” I tried to think of all the things I wanted to say to her. The words crowded each other out in my mind. My brain was grasping for anything to keep the conversation going, convince her that I was cool. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. Whenever I looked at her, I felt that familiar sensation in my stomach

“Your friends seem nice,” she finally said.

I shrugged. “They’re all right, I guess.”

“If they’re just all right,” she said, “why are they your friends?”

“We’ve known each other since we were little.” I stared at my hands. They were shaking, but I didn’t know if it was from the Tower or from how close she was sitting. “Better than not having any friends, right?”

“If you say so,” she said, looking around at the people walking past us. A few kids barreled through the crowd on their way to the Terror Tower, and we both watched the gondola slowly climb to the top. I felt a little shudder run through my body as the car plummeted towards the ground.

“So what happened up there?” she asked, nodding towards the ride.

I closed my eyes, thinking about the rush of adrenaline as I fell, like every inch of my body was screaming at one second. “I’ve been riding it all morning. Every time I come here, it’s the only thing I ride, even though it scares the hell out of me.”

“If you’re so scared of heights, why do you keep making yourself go up to these places?”

”I’m not scared of heights,” I started to say, the words dying before they reached my mouth. I didn’t have a way to explain it to her. I barely understood it myself.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.

“No, no, it’s okay,” I replied. “It’s just something that I have to do. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“Maybe you can show me,” she said, taking my hand and dragging me towards the Terror Tower.

The line was short, and we didn’t have to wait long. They strapped us into our seats. The operator slowly made his way around the ride, checking each harness. I had a tight grip on the handle bars, and my heart was racing.
Alicia’s hand settled on mine, and I felt myself relax a little. The gondola began the long climb upwards. She reached out with her other hand, and pulled my face towards hers. I focused on her dark brown eyes, and the feel of her soft skin against mine. For a minute, it felt like we were two parts of the same person.

I was so focused on her that I didn’t notice when we reached the top. Staring in her eyes, I felt that familiar sensation as we dropped. She laughed at the fear on my face, but it wasn’t a mocking kind of laugh. It felt warm and inviting. In that moment, I knew why I’d been obsessed with it, why I’d chased this feeling over and over again. She made it all make sense.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, patting my arm while we were waiting for operator. “Lots of people are afraid of heights.”
“It’s not a fear of heights,” I said to her, staring into her eyes.

“It’s a fear of falling,” she said with a smile, cutting me off as she pulled me in for a kiss.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Pulling Teeth

Marion pulled another tooth from her shoulder with the pliers and winced. Three long teeth rested on the bathroom counter. She could hear Gary banging against the garage door. Taking a deep breath, she gritted her teeth and pulled out the last one.

She dabbed peroxide onto the fresh wounds, biting her lip as it sizzled. There were going to be scars, of course, but she already had a matching set on her side and her leg. Marion offered up a silent prayer as she tightened the bandage around her shoulder. She didn’t know if she was praying for herself or Gary, anymore. She just needed it to be over.

Fighting the urge to check on him, she went into the bedroom and turned up the volume on the TV as high as it could go. Blinking back tears, she reminded herself that it was still summer. He wouldn’t freeze out there.

Marion was just settling down on the bed when the house plunged into darkness. Silence filled the air, the only sound was the thudding of her heart in her chest. It was too much to hope that Gary had tired himself out. He must have found the circuit breaker. She held her breath and waited. There was a loud crash as he threw his weight against the wooden door.

She counted back through the steps she’d taken to lock him in. Both deadbolts were secure. The bar had been placed over the door. There was no way he could get through. The windows had been boarded over, and the door would hold him til morning. Still, something was wrong.

He was learning.

She hurried to the kitchen to grab a knife. It wouldn’t help against Gary, but the small bit of reassurance it gave her was better than nothing. Holding her breath, Marion moved slowly towards the door leading to the garage. Everything was still in place. A soft shuffling came from the other side of the door.

“It’s going to be okay, but you need to relax.” she whispered. Seconds passed in silence. “Gary?”

There was a loud bang as the drywall in front of her pushed out from the wall. Marion froze, watching Gary’s blood-stained fist force its way through. His body followed, squeezing and contorting through the hole before falling into the hallway.

Backing away, she held the knife in front of her with shaking hands. Gary craned his head up and sniffed the air. His jaw unhinged, and even in the darkened house she could see the rows of teeth that lined the roof of his mouth. The sandy brown hair on his head had fallen out in clumps, revealing slick patches of black skin.

He crawled towards her, saliva dribbling to the floor from his mouth. His back rose and fell sharply with each breath, the muscles shifting under the skin. Moving faster than she expected, he grabbed her ankle.

Marion crashed to the ground and he was on top of her. His big blue eyes stared into hers, and she saw the fear in them. A low keening whimper came from inside of him, even as his fingers dug into her shoulders. Marion felt the sharp pain from the earlier bite as the wounds split open.

Gary lunged forward and she jammed her forearm between his teeth. He clamped down on it, and she fought back a scream as the skin bubbled where the saliva touched it. Before she could think, Marion shoved the knife up into his ribs with her other hand. Gary shuddered and collapsed. His jaw relaxed and he released her arm. Looking up at him, she saw the look of pain and betrayal in his eyes.

It took a few tries to slide out from under him. He grabbed at the knife, trying to pull it out of his body, but only succeeded in making the wound larger. She leaned against the wall and tried to remember how to breathe.

Marion knew he would recover, just as he had from the dozens of other wounds she’d inflicted. A sharp, violent shock always seemed to slow him down. Forcing herself to get up, she grabbed his foot and began dragging him back to the garage.

It was the longest half hour of her life. Every few feet she’d have to stop and rest. Gary would snarl at her, occasionally snapping his jaws. He weighed so much more in this state. When she got him back to the garage door, she sighed at the trail of thick black blood on the carpet.

Pulling him into the garage, Marion shivered a little despite the warm evening air. Taking several deep breaths, she hauled Gary in behind her. There was too much to do before he healed up again. She tried to force the panic to the back of her mind, get control of her shaking hands.

She gave him one last glance on her way out the door. Every night he seemed to get worse. Thick, segmented skin covered his neck. Even in the darkness, she saw the shine of the dark skin that crept along his shoulders. His eyes were almost gone, covered over in the transformation. She wondered if one day they’d disappear forever.

“Break down later,” she thought. “Right now, you need to move.”

Barring the door again, Marion stared at the hole in the wall. She was too tired to board it up. Dragging a chair from the dining room, she staggered into the bathroom and locked the door. After shoving the chair under the door knob to hold it in place, she grabbed the pliers off the counter with her good hand. It took three tries to work the first tooth free. Gritting her teeth, she dabbed peroxide on each wound, before adding the next tooth to the pile on the counter.

“In the morning, everything will be fine,” Marion told her reflection. “He might even look like your husband again.”

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

 

The Bellringer

I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw him. He just appeared one day. It seemed like everyone knew about him, but nobody ever talked about him. People would see him shuffling down the street in his ruined clothes and do their best to avoid even looking at him. Some kids would joke about the smell, or the roaches that crawled over his skin, but they gave him a wide berth all the same.

Mostly, I remember the bell. A loud, sharp clang that echoed in the air long after he’d gone. It was a steady monotone, and as he passed you’d feel your heart beat in rhythm with it. After a few seconds, the feeling would pass, and you’d find yourself standing in perfect silence wondering what the hell just happened.

My husband Brian always shivered when he came to. We’d only been married a couple of years at that point, and if I’d known then what I know now, I would have left that godforsaken town and taken him with me. It got so bad that when Brian heard the man coming up the street, he’d turn and begin to walk away as quickly as he could. I used to tease him about it. He was right to be afraid.

We lived a mile or so away from the town square, in a small house that Brian inherited from his parents. For the longest time, the bell ringer stayed near the town center. I remember being surprised when I saw him walking up the street in our neighborhood, the sound of his bell puncturing the air with every step. I was even more shocked when I saw Jackson Aldridge following along in lockstep behind him.

At first I thought the boy was mocking him, and I had gone out to shoo him away. I didn’t much like the bell ringer, but it was important to me that the man have some dignity. When I got closer, I noticed that Jackson barely seemed awake at all. He moved forward like he was being yanked by invisible ropes. His eyes were half-closed and he was barely breathing.

I stepped in between them, placing my hands on Jackson’s shoulders. This kid, who barely weighed a hundred pounds, brushed past me as though I weren’t there. I stood in the middle of the street, staring after them in shock. When they turned up the next street and out of my view, I ran back to the house to call the Aldridges.

Tyler Aldridge picked up on the first ring. I know that I must have sounded crazy. I was talking a mile a minute and was still trying to catch my breath. Still, there was something odd about the calmness with which Tyler listened to my story. I could practically hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line.

“Rosie, honey, I’m sure you didn’t see Jackson. He’s at school. Why don’t you lie down for a bit. It sounds like something has you over-excited.”

He hung up the phone before I could say anything else. I stared out the window for a few minutes, trying to think of a plan. I had a few hours before the kids were due back from school, and it wasn’t like St. Martin was that big of a town to begin with. It wouldn’t be hard to find where Jackson had gone. Grabbing my coat, I hurried out the door and in the direction I’d seen them go.

They moved along at a slow enough pace that it didn’t take long for me to to catch them. Wherever the bell ringer led, people followed. Every few minutes, another person would wander out of their homes, and fall in with the rest of the crowd shuffling along next to Jackson. I recognized Mrs. Wheeler, who ran the bakery downtown almost immediately. Henry O’Connor also, who used to deliver milk. There were a few others, people I hadn’t met, but recognized from running errands through the city.

The group was already so large that they stayed in the middle of the street. They walked through intersections with no regard for traffic or the other people around them. The only sound was the clanging of the bell in time with each step.

I followed along behind them for an hour or so, until they turned back up towards my street. Finally, I broke away and rushed back towards the house. I still needed to get the kids from school, and Brian would be home from work not long after that. Together, I knew we could figure out what was happening.

The school was practically empty when I arrived. A few teachers stood in the hallway looking confused, comforting the children that were left. I pulled Mrs. Everly aside, feeling my insides turn to water as she started to cry.

The only words I could understand were “sorry” and “couldn’t stop them”. It took me a few moments to understand what she was saying, and even then I still had to ask the question to be sure. “Hannah? What happened to my babies?”

She only cried harder when she tried to tell me. I pictured them shuffling down the street behind the bell ringer, their eyes vacant like Jackson’s had been. For a moment, I felt my heart break, and then I knew what had to be done. I tried to help Hannah to her feet, but she pushed me away.

The entire drive home, I was torn between wanting to chase after my children and wanting to wait for Brian to help. If I couldn’t stop Jackson Aldridge from following the bell ringer, then I’d definitely need help to stop both Helen and Thomas.

I waited for hours, my anxiety growing worse by the second. The house grew darker as the hours passed with still no sign of Brian. Finally, I saw his headlights shine through the window.

He burst through the door, and pulled me against him. “Where are the children?” he asked. With a shaky voice, I told him everything that happened.I had barely finished when I heard the ringing of the bell. Before I could say anything, Brian was rushing towards our bedroom.

He came out a few seconds later with the old pistol he kept in the closet. I don’t think I’d ever seen him shoot it. I didn’t even know if it was loaded.

I saw them at the end of the block. In the orange glow of the street lights, they barely looked human. He walked at the front, still ringing his bell. The crowd pushed along behind him stretching back farther than I could see.

The bell ringer stopped in front of me, hunched over like a monster from some children’s story. His eyes met mine, the irises a strange yellow color. He stared at me with a hopeful grin and pleading eyes. His mouth opened, like he wanted to say something, but his words were drowned out by the angry roar of Brian’s pistol.

He collapsed, blood pumping from a small hole in his chest. The bell hit the ground with a loud clang, and the people behind him froze. They stared at us in confusion for a second before a look of panic spread across their faces.

I found my children in the crowd, right before they turned to ash with the rest of the town. Their bodies collapsed in on themselves, filling the air around me. The whole time, the ringing of the bell echoed in my ears.

In the cloud of ash, I watched Brian walk forward with a dazed look on his face, then reach down and brush the bell off. I wanted to call out to him, tell him to leave it alone, but I choked on the thick  air around me. Brian gave me a sad look over his shoulder as he walked south, ringing the bell with each step.

I tried warning the people of Philipsburg, but they wouldn’t listen to me. Neither would the people of Marshfield. I need you to understand, he isn’t going to stop. He’s coming, step by step, with thousands of people following behind him. You need to evacuate your homes before he gets here. It’s too late for my family, but it might not be for yours.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Old Times

The envelope had arrived at Angela’s office a few weeks ago, the address hand-written on the outside. There was no stamp or return address. The card inside simply read:

“Oolong. February 20th. 8:00 PM. For old times’ sake.”

“You look good,” David said with a smile, as he stood up. She felt that same nervous rush in the pit of her stomach that she had when she’d first met him. She smiled out of habit. For a moment, she was young again.

“You’ve barely aged a day,” she said, in a voice that was equal parts wonder and annoyance. “It’s been what, twenty years?”

“Twenty-three,” he said, pulling her chair out for her. “But who’s counting?”

His hands brushed her shoulders when she sat. Angela was suddenly aware of every gray hair and stretch mark, of the crow’s feet and laugh lines that make-up couldn’t hide. She picked up the menu, staring at the words while she tried to think of something to say.

She watched him over the top of the menu. His thick black hair was neatly trimmed, without a trace of gray. His dark brown skin had the same youthful glow that it had when they met. Lounging back in his chair, he radiated self-confidence. Her thumb drifted down to her wedding ring, sliding over the smooth surface of the band.

“The card was a nice touch.”she said, forcing herself to look at the menu and not the way the candlelight reflected in his eyes. “You did the calligraphy yourself?”

“Modern conveniences have their purpose, but you can’t beat the old ways for style.”

They sat in silence, each looking at their own menu. Angela closed her eyes, listening to the quiet conversations of the diners around her. For a moment, she felt the heat of each flame on every candle prickling against her skin. It had been years since she’d opened herself up to the world. Her heart broke for what she’d given up.

“I was surprised to hear from you after so long,” she said, swallowing the regret.

He raised an eyebrow and then smiled gently. “Why is that? You weren’t exactly easy to track down.”

“I moved on,” she said. “I have a family now. Children. A husband.”

“Clearly your relationship with the humans has treated you well,” he said, gesturing at her body. “You can barely see the years at all.”

Before Angela could reply, the waiter arrived with the wine. She watched as David locked eyes with the young man. The waiter blushed, almost dropping the bottle, and then hurried away from the table. David watched him leave with a lazy smile before appearing to remember that she was there.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “All this time, and you still flirt with anything that moves.”

“Why shouldn’t I?,” he asked with a shrug. “Beauty is still beauty, no matter how much time has passed.”

“So why did you invite me here? What was that plan, we’d have some wine and then go back to your hotel room for the night?”

He smiled, the smug little grin that she had learned to hate over the centuries. “Would it be so bad if it was? You could be young again. Look like your old self.”

“I’m fine the way I am,” she said, struggling to maintain the conviction in her voice. “There isn’t anything you have that I want.”

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately,” he said. “I don’t like the way things ended between us.”

“What part did you not like? The part where I left or the part where it wasn’t your choice?” It was hard not to smile at the look of hurt that passed over David’s face. Thousands of years of pain and heartache welled up in Angela’s chest.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry,” David said. “I should have handled it better. There were a million things I wish I had done differently.”

Angela sat, absorbing what he just said. In the all the time they’d been together, David never apologized for anything. The last time she’d seen him, with a girl under each arm, he had simply stated that they were better off with other people and that it obviously wasn’t working out. Now he sat across the table from her, watching her as she tried to process everything.

“I don’t forgive you,” Angela said with a shrug. “I had centuries of your bullshit, David. Why would you possibly think I’d believe anything you had to say now?”

“But I apologized–”

“And I appreciate the effort it must have taken to be decent for once,” she said, as she got up from the table. “But I don’t accept the apology.”

“Wait,” he called after her. “We need each other. You’ll die without me. There are so few of us left, as it is. It doesn’t have to end this way.”

“It ended twenty-three years ago,” Angela said, as she made her way out of the restaurant. She felt David stare at her back as she left him for the final time. For a second, the years stretched between them, spread out like miles behind her. At the door, she gave one glance back, and she saw him the way she always remembered him: his wings stretched behind him to fill the room, skin faintly glowing in the starlight.

Her thumb slid down over her ring again, as she turned away from him for the last time. Forcing herself to move forward, she stepped out onto the street and walked slowly to her car, just another person on a crowded city street.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

The Soul Thief

My eyes had been locked on the briefcase the entire bus ride. I picked out an excellent position near the front to keep an eye on it. An old man had it, about four rows back, his fingers lightly drumming against the scuffed and battered leather. He leaned against the window, breathing heavily. Trying not to be too obvious, I forced myself to look around the rest of the bus.

The only other passenger was a guy in his early twenties who smelled like an old sock. He wore a heavy coat, probably to cover how skinny he was. The scraggly goatee that clung to his chin helped distract from the stubble on top of his head that somehow managed to look greasy. Our eyes locked and I quickly looked away. The last thing that I needed was some creeper hitting on me now. He smiled at me, and I glared back at him.

There were only two stops left on the route. Part of me was tempted to take the bag now, but I knew that I needed to be patient. I’d waited this long, I could wait a little while longer. I needed to see where the old man was taking the briefcase. If there was someone else that had hired him.

The skinny guy pulled the cord for the stop, and got to his feet. He winked at me, right before he turned and bolted down the aisle, grabbing the briefcase as he went. I started to run after him, but he was already gone. Instead, I turned my attention to the old man, who still sat with his head against the glass, smiling gently.

“Where were you taking the case?” I asked him.

It took him a second to recognize me. “The grand-daughter,” he whispered, with the voice of a much younger man. His hand fluttered up near his chest and he smiled again. “How did you find me?”

“Who was the man that just took the case?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm. “You don’t have much time. Was he working with you?”

“Never saw him before in my life,” the old man wheezed. He closed his eyes and leaned his head up against the window again. He coughed into his hand, and I saw blood on his lip. I patted his shoulder and then turned and sprinted out the back door of the bus. The driver shouted something after me, but I didn’t stop to hear what it was. The important thing was getting the briefcase before anyone else died.

The bus had stopped far enough out from the city that I was able to focus a little on the briefcase. The more people I had around me, the harder it was to separate out the signature it left on the space around it. Feeling the pull of the briefcase, I followed it to an apartment building a few blocks away. There were too many people inside for me to narrow it down any further, but at this point, I knew who I was looking for.

I spent most of that night shivering in the parking lot and thinking about my grandfather. The last time I saw him, we were passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth.

“You were always my favorite, Val,” he’d said. “You remind me of me when I was your age.”

I took another pull from the bottle and tried to hand it back to him, but he waved it off. It wasn’t like him to refuse a drink, so clearly he had something important on his mind.

“I’m leaving you my collection,” he said. “It’ll be your responsibility when I’m gone.”

“Your collection of what, exactly?” I asked, ignoring the whiskey-flavored burp that told me I’d regret drinking with the old man in the morning.

“Souls,” he said, with a slightly manic smile.

He pulled out a battered black briefcase from under the table, and set it down in front of us. A slightly musical sound, like the chiming of tiny bells, came from inside when the contents shifted. He nodded towards the case, and I undid the latches. Inside were several glass spheres, maybe a half an inch in length. There were no markings on them or anything that might say what they were. Half of them were empty, just small clear globes that glittered in the moonlight. The others glowed with a faint inner light.

“Jesus, Grandpa,” I finally managed to say. “They’re beautiful.”

He grabbed my hand as I reached in to touch them. “You don’t want to do that,” he said. “Now listen, this is important. There’s a market for this sort of thing, people who would do anything to get this collection. There’s a curse on the bag, so that only the proper owner can hold it. Anyone else that tries to take it, the bag will drain their life. When they die, they’ll be trapped inside one of those globes forever.”

I closed the bag and nodded at him. It’s not that I didn’t believe him. It was more that Grandpa had always been prone to exaggeration, especially when drunk.

“I want you to take it,” he said. “It’s been in the family for a hundred years. It’s only right that it stay with you.” He grabbed the bottle from me and took a long drink, before sliding the bag across the table. That night I crashed on his couch, clutching the bag against my chest, and all I could dream about was the terrible beauty of the spheres. Each glowing with their own internal light.

It wasn’t long after that Grandpa died. For the next few days, I spent a long time staring at the globes and wondering if Grandpa was part of the collection. After a couple months, though, the briefcase just became part of the background noise of the apartment. It wound up shoved into the back of a closet, and I went on with my life. It wasn’t until someone broke into my house and wrecked half the place looking for it that I realized Grandpa’s warning had been serious.

Huddled on the hood of a car in the parking lot, I watched people leave the building all night and into the morning. By the time the thief slunk out the door, I was half-frozen and bored out of my mind. He didn’t have the case with him. Shuffling along towards the bus stop, his shoulders stooped and his stupid goatee was streaked with gray that I hadn’t noticed the day before.

He didn’t notice me getting on the bus with him. Watching him closely, I was able to weave my way through the people. The briefcase wasn’t the only thing I inherited from Grandpa. There’s a certain small amount of magic I’ve been given. As near as I can tell, it comes with being the protector of the briefcase.

Before the idiot could run, I stood next to him, my face inches from his. He smelled like sweat and mildew, with a hint of peppermint. The only thing that stopped me from puking on him was the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a day. He stared intently at his phone trying to ignore me.

“Where is my briefcase?” I whispered.

He practically dropped the phone, his hand was was shaking so hard. I grabbed his shirt, and pulled him closer to me.

“Last night,” I said. “You stole a briefcase. It’s mine. I want it back.”

Before he could say anything, I reached up an pulled the cord for the next stop. Every second on that bus was taking us further away from wherever he stashed the case. Still holding onto his shirt, I dragged him off through the back exit. Nobody seemed to notice us.

I tossed him on the ground and wiped my hand against my jeans. “You don’t have the slightest clue what you’ve done,” I said. “Fucking idiot. What did you do with it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. I don’t have a briefcase.” He pulled himself up to his feet and tried to run down the sidewalk back towards the apartment. He couldn’t really move that fast anymore. It was more of an aggressive shuffle. I let him get a half a block ahead of me and then ran after him. It didn’t take much to catch him, and he was already rubbing his chest and wheezing when I got to him.

I slammed him up against the wall by the throat. His eyes darted back and forth, looking for help. “I know you stole it. I was there, I saw you take it.”

“Wasn’t yours,” he said, barely croaking out the words. “Some old guy’s.”

“He stole it from me! And I would have gotten it back if you hadn’t jumped in and grabbed it!”

His hands scrabbled against my arms, and then he sagged against the building. His goatee was starting to go white. There wasn’t much time left. I decided to try a different tactic. Letting him go, I stepped back. He sank to the ground, trying hard to breathe. His breath rattled in his chest.

“Look,” I said. “This thing is killing you, just like it was doing to him. And if you die before you tell me where it is, someone else will find it, and I’ll have to track it down all over again. So, tell me where you’re keeping it, that way I don’t have to repeat this shit with some other idiot.”

He pointed back towards the apartment. His mouth moved on its own for a few seconds before he was able to get words out. “Briar Creek Park,” he finally managed to say. “Under the pine tree marked with an X.”

Part of me was tempted to leave the case buried. If nobody knew where it was, then nobody would be able to steal it again. I’d be free of the damned thing. I wouldn’t have to worry about idiots like this.

But that’s not how this works. If I didn’t find it, someone else would. That’s not something I wanted on my conscience. The closer I got to the park, the stronger the pull of the briefcase got. The tree wasn’t hard to find. It was already half-dead from the curse when I found it. A small X was scratched above some freshly turned earth, and the grass around the tree was dry and brittle.

I dug it up carefully, making sure that nobody was watching. When I opened the bag, one of the globes slowly flickered to life. I thought back to the thief who died without a name. Clutching the briefcase close to my body, I made myself a promise to never lose it again.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Guardians

Clem eased himself down into the pilot’s seat, letting out something between a groan and a sigh. He closed his eyes and smiled as he sank back into the worn leather. The pain in his knees flared up for a brief second, then became a low ache. The chair creaked under his weight, and he briefly wondered if it would hold him up.

Opening his eyes, he stared out towards the horizon. The sun was painting the sky in shades of red and purple as it dipped into the west. 500 feet up with a clean view all around. Clem hadn’t even known there were sunsets like this until he became Chief Engineer.

His gaze drifted over the control panel in front of him. He fought the urge to flip the switches, but couldn’t erase the smile on his face. Growing up, every kid had a favorite Guardian. This one was his. They called it Helios, the Sunset Guardian back then. It faced due west, painted in a mix of bright orange and blue that blended perfectly with the sky as the sun went down. Helios was piloted by Jeremiah Hughes for most of its career, until the city started automating them. The signed poster he’d gotten from the man still hung in Clem’s office at work.

When Clem was little, he’d memorized all of Jeremiah’s stats. In two wars, he shot down over 300 enemy aircraft with a 100% kill rate. He led the charge when the enemy developed their own robots, including one of the greatest fights Clem had ever seen before or since. When they released the documentary on the Guardians’ pilots, he watched Jeremiah’s parts over and over.

Ten-year-old Clem spent hours in his room, pretending to be Jeremiah, copying the movements he made when piloting the robot. Every night as he drifted off to sleep, Clem had watched the lights on Helios’ shoulders blink in the sky above the city, and felt safe.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the view screen and sighed. That was fifty years gone. His hair was streaked through with gray, turning white in places. His hands, which were once so steady, shook a little when he held a wrench. His reflection showed him a few small wrinkles in the dark skin of his face.

“They won’t let you do this much longer, old man,” he said to himself. “Better enjoy it while you can.”

He knew that they only let him keep the job out of respect. An impeccable record, an extra five years of school and another four years of military service had earned Clem the job of Chief Engineer. When he came on, he was already the most knowledgeable person they had on the subject of the Guardians. But lately things had been slipping. He’d set something down only to find that it had somehow disappeared afterward. He had trouble finding the right words to explain what he wanted to the young kids who weren’t listening anyway. He was forgetting.

Clem stared at his hands and wondered where the time went. It used to be he could make the climb up to the cockpit in under an hour with no harness. A few years back, he had to have Takako rig up something to keep him safe. Even with the harness, he still had to stop and rest on the way up. He looked around the cockpit. He still knew every piece of machinery in here. Every nick and scratch in Helios’ metal hide was as familiar to him as the scrapes and bumps of his own body.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by a blinking light on the console. For a minute, his brain didn’t quite register what he was seeing. All twelve of the Guardians had been decommissioned years ago. There shouldn’t be enough power in the control core to run a toaster, much less something of this size.

The lights flickered and clicked on above him as the giant roared to life. The door to the cockpit slammed shut, and Clem’s ears popped as the cabin pressurized. Dazed, he shuffled towards the view screen. Small words scrolled across the screen as the systems booted up one by one.

“Clem!” a small voice shouted over his radio. “ What the fuck are you doing up there?!”

“What the fuck are you guys doing down there?” he asked. “This thing just powered up all on its own, Takako”

“Nobody knows what happened, boss,” she replied. “All twelve Guardians just powered on, one by one. You need to get out of there before it starts moving.”

“Cabin’s sealed,” he said. “Talk me through this. What could have caused this to happen?”

Takako’s shrug was almost audible. “Could be whoever shut them down didn’t do it right. Could be a glitch in the AI. I suppose someone could have hacked into the system recently. We weren’t exactly keeping a close eye on them.”

There was a loud groan as the weapons went online. Clem watched helplessly as the reticle formed on the view-screen and targeted an incoming passenger shuttle. They were flying low, ready to land in the city. Clem did the math in his head. During rush hour, there had to be close to a hundred people on the shuttle.

“Takako,” he said, “can you shut down the weapons systems?”

“What do you think we’ve been trying to do–” Her words were drowned out by the roar of the missiles as they flew towards the unsuspecting commuters. Clem closed his eyes, trying not to imagine the panicked screams of the passengers.

“Boss?” Takako’s voice seemed very far away now. “You there?”

“I can’t go anywhere else,” he said. “Are the weapons active on all twelve?”

There was a long pause. “Yes.”

“How many casualties so far?”

“About two thousand,” she said. He could just make out the sound of her fingers tapping on the keyboard. “They’re shooting down anything that’s coming in. Not just passenger shuttles, either. At least two supply ships have been torpedoed in the harbor. We’ve already sent out a signal warning people to stay away.”

“That’s a start,” Clem said. “Have they moved on the city?”

“That’s the strange thing,” she replied. “They haven’t moved from defensive positions. They’re just…waiting.”

Clem stared at the view screen. The weapons systems were all online, and Helios was fully operational. There was enough firepower on one of the Guardians to level the city a few times over, much less all twelve. In the distance, the smoke from the passenger shuttle wafted into the air. A flock of birds flew past, and Clem cringed waiting for the system to take aim.

After a few seconds, the birds passed and nothing happened.

“They’re protecting us,” he whispered to himself.

“What’s that, boss?”

“The Guardians. Anything above a certain size is being registered as a threat. But a small team of people could power them down fairly easily.”

“We’d need twelve teams, working in unison on site,” Takako said, the excitement rising in her voice. “Even then, I don’t think powering them down will be enough. We’re going to have to destroy them, boss.”

Clem winced at the thought of it. The Guardians had been around his entire life. “Pull the teams together,” he said with a heavy sigh.

“Will do,” she replied. “And boss?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s going to be okay,” she said.

Clem clicked off the radio and stared at the control panel in front of him. He shivered slightly. It was already cold this high up, and wasn’t likely to get any warmer. He cycled through menus, trying to locate the climate control. The city had removed most of the comfort systems when they automated the robots twenty years ago. The only concessions left were the pilot’s seat, and the control panel for maintenance.

It took close to an hour before he was able to locate the necessary files. His fingers were numb as he clumsily typed out the commands. The familiar ache of arthritis had settled in to his wrists and elbows, forcing him to type at a snail’s pace. Something clicked inside the robot, and for a second Clem worried that he’d misread something and fired off more weapons. Warm air poured out of the vents, bringing with it the smell of burned dust.

“At least one thing’s gone right today,” Clem thought at he massaged his aching wrists. The sun had fully set, and night had settled in. Away from the city lights, he was able to take in the full measure of the stars. A feeling of insignificance washed over him, followed closely by the fear of the situation he was in. He sank back in the chair, and let himself cry.

A large banging filled the cockpit, pulling him awake. Clem sat up, and regretted it instantly. He could barely turn his neck. The banging continued, followed by the muffled shouts of Takako. Turning to the cockpit door, he could just make out her head peeking in through the window.

“For a tiny girl, she sure as hell makes a lot of noise,” he muttered.

Shuffling over to the door, Clem saw her through the window. She rolled her eyes at him and shouted “Open the damn door!”

It took another hour at the control panel to locate the subroutines for the door. It slid open, and Takako barrelled in, followed by a young man that Clem didn’t recognize.

“It’s about time,” she said, running a hand over her shaved head. A small pattern of scars crisscrossed the skin on her neck and scalp. “You know how cold it is out there?”

The sky outside was lightening with the rising sun, and Clem realized he’d been out for hours. He turned to the young blonde man who had climbed up with Takako. His name tag read “Anderson”. He was tall, and his muscles showed even through the jumpsuit that was practically designed to make everyone look as unattractive as possible.

Clem extended a hand. “Anderson, what’s your purpose here?”

“I’m the pilot, sir,” Anderson replied with a smile. He took the hand and gave it a firm shake.

“So what exactly is the plan?” Clem asked in a low voice.

“One team of two for each Guardian: a pilot and an engineer,” Anderson whispered. “Takako will use the Guardians’ internal network to let the other teams into the cockpits, at least. Then, each team will work to restore manual control to the pilots. We’ll move each Guardian away from the city and detonate the control cores.”

“You ever piloted something like this?” Clem asked, trying not to wince at the pain his joints.

Anderson hesitated. “I’ve had over two hundred virtual missions,” he said.

“But no practical experience?”

Anderson shook his head. “To be fair, sir, nobody has piloted one of these things in twenty years.”

“Well,” Clem said, “I guess virtual experience will have to do.”

They followed Takako over to the control panel, where she’s already set up a small workstation for herself. Her lips moved silently as her fingers flew over the keyboard. The two men watched her work in silence for a few minutes. Each time another team gained access to a Guardian, she nodded.

“Give me a second, and I’ll get you access to the control core,” she said to Clem and Anderson.

Anderson carefully set his pack on the floor, and removed each of the miniature explosives. “Can you open the control core?” he called out to Takako.

A heavy door opened in the middle of the room, bathing everything in a soft green light. Anderson carried the explosives into the control core and knelt down to start setting them up.

“We can’t worry about the radiation,” he said, before Clem could splutter out an objection. “Let’s just get this set up before we all get a lethal dose.”

Clem hurried into the control core, telling himself that the itching in his skin was not related to the radiation. The green light of the core pulsed in rhythm with his heart beat. They set up the explosives, Clem practically holding his breath the entire time.

“Hey boss, I think you need to see this!” Takako yelled from the control panel.

“I got this,” Anderson said. “Go see what she needs.”

When Clem reached Takako, she was frowning at the view screen.  “There’s something wrong with the code,” she muttered. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“What’s wrong with –”

Clem was interrupted by the sound of gears grinding. The landscape shifted as Helios turned to the right. The reticle locked on to the distant purple figure of Apollyon with a loud beep. Takako typed furiously at the keypad as the weapons systems roared to life. Missiles fired towards Apollyon, and a small explosion filled the air. The purple robot crashed to the ground in a smoking heap.

“Have we been fired on?” Clem asked.

“If they had, we’d be dead,” Takako said.

“How the hell did the system know to target Apollyon?” he asked.

Takako shrugged. “Security system must’ve detected the intruders. I told that group to be careful. One less Guardian to worry about, I guess.”

“Two people just died,” Clem said quietly.

“A hell of a lot more are going to die if we don’t get these things out of commission,” she replied. “Anderson, you get those charges set?!”

“Have the remote detonator right here”, he said, coming up behind them. He sat down in the pilot’s seat, and Clem watched the holographic controls spring to life around him. With a few gestures, the pilot had Helios facing due west again, and marching away from the city.

Takako was loading her equipment into her pack, while Clem stared in awe at the ease with which Anderson moved the robot. It was just like he’d imagined it as a kid. There was a tight squeeze in Clem’s heart, and he knew what he had to do.

He reached back for his toolkit and grabbed a wrench. Anderson was focused on the controls, and Takako was busy with her pack. Neither one of them noticed him standing behind the pilot until it was too late. Before Takako could say anything, Clem swung out with the wrench and clubbed Anderson in his head.

The pilot fell to the ground and the robot lurched to a halt.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” Takako shouted.

“Taking his place,” Clem said. “He’s young, he’s got a whole career ahead of him. It’s not right that he sacrifices himself like this.  I’m Chief Engineer of the Guardian program, what do I have left when this is done?”

“How are you planning on piloting this thing?” Takako had rushed over to Anderson’s side and was checking his pulse.

Clem looked at the pilot’s chair and smiled. “I’ve been studying for this my whole life.”

“I don’t have time to tell you how stupid you’re being,” Takako said with a glare. “Help me get him out of here.”

Clem grabbed Anderson’s shoulders, and Takako took his legs. They carried the big man over to the cabin door, which slid open to let them out. The robot stood still in the cold morning air. Clem looked east back towards the city, glittering in the sunlight. He hoped his wife would understand.

Takako adjusted her harness to the climbing rig, and hooked Anderson to it. He groaned a little as he began to wake up. She handed Clem the remote detonator and shook her head at him one last time. “I still think you’re an idiot,” she said.

“I’ll miss you, too,” he said. “Get out of here and take care of that boy.”

Clem watched them slide down over the edge and begin the descent. A small breeze came in from the south with a hint of sea air. A small flare fired up from the ground, signaling that they’d gotten clear of the robot.

He walked back into the control room, and settled into the chair. Trying to replicate the movements he’d seen Anderson do, he began to move the robot.  Helios took a few halting steps forward, and teetered dangerously on its feet. Moving slowly and deliberately, Clem steered the robot out west away from the city.

It didn’t take long to find the rhythm, and for a second, he considered just steering the robot out into the world. Walking as far west as they could go until he died of starvation. Then he closed his eyes and smiled. That was a child’s fantasy. He had one last job to do, and he needed to finish it.

The robot marched to the west for an hour or so, Clem feeling young for the first time in ages. He thought back to Jeremiah Hughes and laughed. When they were out of view of the city, Clem stopped the robot. He got up from the pilot’s chair and lit a cigarette. Janet had made him quit years ago, but he always snuck one when working on Helios.

He stared out of the view screen at the world around him, and felt the smoke fill his lungs. This was a good death. Reaching down for the detonator, he pressed the button, and his life disappeared in a flash of green light.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.