Looking for Work?

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Phil looked at the classified ad for the thousandth time.

“Looking for a new job filled with excitement and eye-opening experiences?” it asked. “Come to 1329 Home Ave. at 3:00 pm on Monday for open interviews.”

Ordinarily, Phil wouldn’t have answered something so vague, but he was reaching the point of desperation. There were bills that needed to be paid and food that needed to be bought. If there had been anything else in the paper that seemed even remotely promising, he wouldn’t have gone.

But there hadn’t been, so he found himself parked in front of 1329 Home Ave. at a few minutes past 3:00 wearing a shirt and tie he’d bought over the weekend. He’d even polished his shoes that afternoon in order to make a good impression. As he looked out his windshield at the front of the building, though, he wondered why he’d bothered.

When Phil thought about what a business was supposed to look like, many things came to mind. Shop fronts, offices filled with cubicles, and even restaurants. In his mind they all had exteriors that, if not new, were at least professional looking. This place did not qualify.

He was parked in the gravel driveway of the building. The gravel driveway that was also an alley. The cracked, brick sides of the two neighboring structures loomed over him, blanketing everything in shadow. At the far end of the alley was an old, monkey-shit brown Buick. It was parked at the foot of a metal staircase that, like the Buick, was spotted with the reddish tint of rust. The stairs were connected to a deck that overlooked the alley, but he couldn’t see anything past that. All in all, though, he didn’t have a good feeling about this interview.

“What am I doing?” he asked the air. “Do I really need a job this bad?”

Yes, he thought. I do.

He climbed the staircase, taking each step with hesitant caution. The metal groaned, bowing with his weight. When he finally reached the top, he breathed a sigh of relief. As he looked around, he wondered again why he’d bothered. There were piles of junk strewn across the weathered deck, and Phil couldn’t help thinking he’d walked into a particularly frightening episode of Sanford and Son. There were chairs with no seats, a tired-looking old oven, and several hunks of metal he couldn’t identify. The more he looked around, the more he suspected the ad had been a misprint.

I’m here, he thought. I might as well talk to someone. If it ‘s the wrong place, it’s the wrong place, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

He’d heard a story once about a serial killer that used classified ads to trick people into coming to his home. Images of being bound and gagged by a greasy-shirted maniac flashed through his mind, but he squashed them. He really needed money.

There was a door a few feet away from the top of the stairs, and Phil made his way to it through the piles of junk. The screen door opened with a startling screech, and he knocked on the door. He waited. A minute went by. He knocked again.

“Oh, fuck this,” he said.

As he turned to leave, the door swung in, causing Phil to jump. Looking out from the darkened doorway was a very angry man.

“What the fuck do you want?”

The man looked as though he’d just woken up. His eyes were red and there was a red mark along the left side of his face. He wore a white t-shirt and a pair of faded camouflage pants, both of which were beyond wrinkled. His head was shaved, but there was a good deal of stubble covering his face and scalp, suggesting it had been a few days since either had seen a razor. It was difficult to tell, but Phil thought the man was in his mid-forties.

“I… uh… I mean…” Phil stammered, trying to find the words to explain himself.

“I said what the fuck do you want? You better have a good excuse for waking a man up so early.”

Phil looked at his watch again. It was now 3:15.

“Sorry, I think I have the wrong place. I was answering an ad I found in the paper.”

The man looked him up and down, letting his eyes linger on Phil’s tie before saying: “You’re here about the ad?”

“Yeah, about the job. Like I said, I think I have the wrong place. Sorry to have bothered you.” Phil turned to leave, but the man stopped him.

“No. You’ve got the right place,” he said.

Confused, but strangely interested, Phil decided to stick around for a minute. He looked around at the piles of junk again. There was what looked like the remains of a blender on the mound next to him.

“So, uh, what exactly is it you do?”

“Follow me,” the man said. “I’ll explain inside.”

The man turned and walked into the dark apartment. Phil moved to follow him, but slowly. The situation had started to feel a little more than weird. As he stepped across the threshold, he saw the man sit on a stained couch and light a cigarette.

“Close the door behind you,” he said, exhaling.

Phil checked the room for anyone that might be waiting to jump out and attack him. When he was sure there was no one else there, he shut the door and moved toward the cluttered living room.

Empty pizza boxes were stacked around the cramped apartment. Phil wasn’t sure, but he thought they might be the cause of the strange odor. Then he saw the trashcan. It was overflowing with beer cans, pizza crusts, and what looked like chicken bones. He tried not to disturb the precarious pile, wondering how a person could live in such filth.

“So,” the man said when Phil sat down. “I guess I should ask you a few questions.”

“That’s usually how these things work.” Phil knew sarcasm wasn’t the best tool with which to procure employment, but it was all he had to keep from running out of the room.

“First, what’s your name?”

“Phillip Martin. You can call me Phil.”

“All right, Phil. You religious?”

“What? I didn’t think you could ask that sort of thing in an interview.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t a normal job. Besides, it won’t affect whether you get the job or not. I’m just trying to find out what kind of person you are.”

“All right then, no. I’m not particularly religious.”

“Good. What about education?”

“I finished high school in the top ten percent of my class, and I have some college experience. I didn’t finish, though.”

“That’s all right, you don’t need a degree. Out of curiosity, though, what did you study?”

“Philosophy, mainly. I did take a few classes on mythology and religious studies, though.”

“I thought you weren’t religious?”

“I’m not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s good. Curiosity is good in this line of work. The mythology might help out, too. When would you be able to start?”

“Immediately, I guess. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Phil took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Not at all.”

“I guess it’s just one question, really. I mean, I still don’t know anything about this job. The ad was pretty vague. What exactly would I be doing?”

“It’s a difficult job to explain,” the man said, taking another drag from his cigarette. “It’s easier to show than to tell. Know what I mean?”

“I think so. It would be nice if you could give me some sort of idea, though.”

“Well, if you get the job, you’ll be working with me as a sort of Park Ranger, but for everywhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe Animal Control would be a better comparison. We’ll patrol the area and make sure there’s nothing running loose that shouldn’t be.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Like I said, man, it’s easier to just show you. I’ll tell you what,” the man looked at his watch. “It’s almost four now. I was going to leave for patrol tonight at sundown, which should be around seven or so. If you want, why don’t you come back this evening and ride out with me? That’ll give you a hands-on feel for it, and you can decide if you like it or not.”

“I don’t know, man.” Phil stood to leave.

“Wait, I know I’m being pretty vague, but like I said it’s hard to explain. If you ride out with me tonight, though, you’ll know exactly what the job will be like. I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour, too. If you get out there and decide you don’t like it, I’ll bring you back to your car and still pay you for the night.”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

“That’s all I can ask. Like I said, I’m leaving at around seven. If you’re not here by fifteen after, I’ll know you’re not coming.”

The man stood and offered his hand. Phil took it tentatively and then headed for the door. When he was halfway out, he stopped.

“Wait, I never got your name, man.”

“Oh, sorry. Name’s Hal. Hal Jorgenson.”

* * * * *

Phil pulled back into the alley that served as Hal’s driveway at five minutes till seven. He parked beside the Buick and wondered what the hell he was thinking.

I have to be crazy, he thought. Either that or dead fucking broke. As he killed the engine of his truck, he decided it had to be a bit of both. It can’t be that bad. I’ll ride around with him for a few hours tonight, and at the end I’ll at least have enough money to buy a few groceries.

Still, as Hal appeared at the bottom of the stairs dressed in almost the same thing he’d been wearing earlier with two over-stuffed backpacks, Phil wondered again what he was doing. He waved to Hal as he got out of his truck.

“I’m surprised you came back,” Hal said as he threw the backpacks into the Buick’s back seat.

“I am, too,” Phil said, trying to smile.

“I’m glad to see you changed,” Hal said. “That tie wouldn’t’ve worked very well where we’re going.”

“Where, exactly, is that?”

“Millennium Park. I’ve been tracking one for the past few nights. That’s where the trail ends.”

“Tracking one what?”

“I’ll explain on the way. You ready?”

In answer, Phil opened the passenger door and climbed into the old Buick. When they were on the road a few minutes later, Hal lit a cigarette and turned the radio down.

“You believe in ghosts?”

Phil looked away from the window, a little surprised at the question.

“I guess, yeah.”

“Ever seen one?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve seen some weird shit in my life, but never a ghost.”

“What have you seen?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“All right. When I was, I don’t know, twelve, maybe, I was riding in the backseat of my mom’s car on the way to school. It was about three in the morning, but I was in the band, and we were taking a ‘band-trip’ to King’s Island. What a theme park had to do with the band I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. On the way there, I was looking out the window and I happened to see a… well, I don’t know what it was. It was sort of man-like, but it was big. And white. I remember that like it was yesterday. It seemed like it was glowing as it went through the street lights. Anyway, it was moving in the opposite direction as us, and it was using its arms to run, sort of like a gorilla or something. I tried to get my mom to look, but by the time she did it had already run over the hill and out of sight. I still don’t know what it was. Could’ve been a dog or something, I guess. It still sort of freaks me out to think about.”

“Do you remember if there was a full moon?”

Phil laughed. “What? You think it was a werewolf or something?”

“Maybe. Never heard of them being white before, but I’ve seen stranger things. Could’ve been an albino.”

I’m in the car with a crazy person.

“You believe in werewolves?” Phil asked, lighting a cigarette. He cracked his window to let the smoke escape.

“Don’t you?”

“Not since I was a kid, man. Ghosts are one thing. I can see how someone could leave an imprint of themselves in a place or something when they die, but werewolves? That’s like believing in vampires.”

Hal took a drag off his cigarette, but said nothing. After a few minutes of riding in silence, Phil turned the radio back up. “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin was playing. Phil tried not to think about the strange man next to him, hoping that the night would hurry and be over so he could get his money and go home, but Hal turned the radio back down.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of other people ride out with me before. They didn’t work out. I think I told some of them too much at the outset, others just couldn’t hack it. I have a good feeling about you, though, so I want to be up front. There’re things in this world that people have convinced themselves aren’t real. Like ghosts and werewolves for example. But just because we don’t believe in them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“Wait a minute…”

“Let me finish. If it turns out that you aren’t into this job, fine. But I don’t want you making up your mind before you know the truth. These creatures, entities, whatever, that our society has decided aren’t real; they’re all around us, all the time. Humans are damn good at tricking themselves, though. Even if met head on by one of these things, most people will swear they didn’t see it or that they saw something else entirely. For the sake of most people’s sanity, this is probably a good thing. But in this line of work, you have to have an open mind. All I’m asking of you right now is that you keep an open mind. Can you do that?”

“How much are you paying me again?”

Hal smiled sardonically. “Ten an hour.”

“Well then, if all you’re paying me for is to keep an open mind, I guess the least I can do is give it my best shot.”

“I guess that’s good enough.”

Hal turned the radio back up. “Swinging on the gallows pole; swinging on the gallows po-oh-ole.” Robert Plant’s wail carried them through the next few minutes until Hal pulled to the side of the road.

“Here we are,” he said, turning off the car.

“I thought the park entrance was up further?”

“It is. We’re not going through the entrance, though. This is where I found the trail, and I’m going to follow it. Here,” Hal handed a sheathed knife to Phil. It was the length of his forearm. “Hang on to this. You might need it.”

Phil was about to say something, but Hal was out of the car and lugging the bags out of the backseat before he could. Shaking his head, Phil undid his belt and ran it through the sheath’s belt loop. He didn’t know why he would need a knife, especially such a large one, but at least he was armed. If Hal was really crazy and wanted to hurt him, at least he’d have something to defend himself with. He couldn’t think why a man that wanted to hurt him would give him a weapon, though.

Phil pulled one of the backpacks on and watched while Hal pulled a large, black case out of the trunk.

“What is all this stuff?”

“Tools,” Hal said. “We probably won’t need all of it, but it’s better to be prepared.”

“A regular boy scout, huh?”

“Something like that.”

They jumped the ditch and made their way into the trees. The ground was thick with leaves, and Phil had a hard time keeping up with Hal’s pace. He moved through the trees like someone that had spent more of his life out in nature than inside, barely making any noise. Phil, on the other hand, was making enough noise to more than make up for Hal’s silence.

After close to half an hour of trudging through the forest, a howl in the not far distance caused Hal to stop. He looked around for a moment, as though trying to determine the direction from which it came, and then set off again. Phil, trying not to lose him in the darkness, caught his foot on a hidden root and fell face first onto the ground. He pulled himself back up, cussing, but Hal was gone.

As he turned around, looking for his companion, Phil became aware of how quiet it was. There were no birds chirping; not even the wind made a sound.

“Hal?” he called, his voice jarring in the silence. “Where are you?”

A hand gripped his shoulder from behind, and he whirled around. Hal held his finger before his mouth, signaling for Phil to be quiet.

“It’s not far,” he whispered. “Try to stay quiet.”

Hal turned, leading them deeper into the trees. Phil followed, making as little sound as possible. After several minutes, Hal stopped and pulled his backpack from his shoulders. He set it on the ground and opened it, rummaging until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he whispered, holding something out.

The object was heavier than its size would suggest. Phil realized after a moment that it was a set of binoculars.

“Those are night vision and very expensive,” Hal said. “Be careful.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

“Look through them. Over there,” he pointed toward what looked to be a clearing a few hundred yards down the hill. “Tell me what you see.”

Phil looked through the binoculars, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He scanned back and forth a few times, but there was nothing.

“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Wait. Is that… I think I see a dog.”

“What kind of dog?”

“I don’t know. A rottweiler; maybe a mastiff. Shit, I don’t know. It’s big.”

“I bet it is. Look at its legs. See anything weird?”

“Not really. It’s just scratching its back against a tree.”

The dog reared back its head and howled. A shiver ran up Phil’s spine.

“What about its legs?” Hal asked. “The legs always give them away.”

“What are you talking about?”

Phil lowered the binoculars. A new wave of fright coursed through him. Hal was holding a rifle. Before Phil could say anything, Hal turned and pointed it toward the dog.

“What are you doing, man?”

“Are you sure you don’t see what I’m talking about?”

Phil raised the binoculars to his eyes again, but all he saw was a large dog. It was rolling around on the ground now. Its legs did seem a bit longer than normal, but he couldn’t see anything particularly odd about them.

“Watch,” Hal said.

“You can’t fire that thing in the park,” Phil said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to kill an animal, too. You can’t just…”

Hal pulled the trigger; the shot echoed through the trees. A second later, Phil heard a growl followed by a high-pitched wail. Hal fired again; the dog fell silent.

“There,” Hal said. “I got it.”

“You’re fucking crazy man. What the hell are you thinking? I can’t believe you just…”

“Shut up and come with me. I’ll show you.”

“I don’t want to see a dead dog, man. I can’t believe…”

Hal grabbed Phil by the shoulders. “Calm down. Just walk over here with me. I told you it’s easier to see for yourself than to have someone tell you, didn’t I?”

Still in shock, but somewhat afraid Hal would shoot him if he didn’t, Phil followed him down to the clearing. As they got closer, Phil could hear a whimpering, but it didn’t sound like a dog anymore. The closer they got, the more Phil thought the whining sounded human.

“What’s going on,” he asked, but Hal ignored him.

They entered the clearing, but the dog was gone. In the exact same place where Phil had seen it rolling around before, though, was a man. He was naked and bleeding.

“See what I was telling you now?”

“What the fuck have we done?”

Phil followed Hal over to the body, overcome with panic. The dying man looked up at them, blood covering his face. Phil couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was smiling.

“Thank you,” the man said, coughing up blood. “Thank you so much. I… I…” he coughed again. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he died.

“So,” Hal said, turning away from the dead man. “You want the job or not?”

 

One Bad Choice After Another

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

“Tell me one more time why I agreed to this.”

Karen looked at me with embers behind her green eyes. The headlamp she wore cast a glare as she stared at me, making it difficult to tell if the fire there was at all playful.

“Because,” she said, her tone suggesting she was more irritated than I’d hoped. Not that I could have hoped for anything else, really. “You’re the one who is always bitching about needing some sort of adventure. Something exciting. Well here we are: excitement coming out of our asses! Happy now?”

She was right. As always. I had been the one that insisted we explore the cave we found while hiking. I had, in fact, been the one that insisted we go for a hike at all. Everyone else would have been happy hanging at the camp and swimming or reading or doing anything other than wandering aimlessly through a cave that had so many passages you had to wonder how the ground didn’t collapse.

Still, her tone had been a little sharper than necessary, but I guess that’s marriage for you. Some days one or the other of you is wound just a little tighter than usual, and the words come with just a little too much zing attached.

I swallowed the burst of anger in my throat and reminded myself that we were all tired. We had hiked for nearly three hours before we even found the cave, and the four of us had wandered for close to another three before we would admit to ourselves we were lost. That had been nearly six hours before.

And still, the fact that it was my fault we were there hadn’t changed.

So, I left off my usual sarcasm. I took out my water bottle and had a long drink before I leaned against the wall and said: “Sorry. I’m just a nervous talker.”

“I know, babe.” She smiled weakly, but I could tell her exhaustion had her feeling raw on the inside.

“I think we should all take a rest for a minute. What do you two think?”

Rachel dropped her pack to the ground and plopped down beside it. She unzipped it and dug around inside for a moment before pulling out a water bottle and two Clif bars. She tossed one to her husband, Alex, before tearing into her own. He sat down beside her and took a drink from her water bottle when she offered. The four of us had been friends for well over a decade, but I could tell that at that moment they both wished they’d never met either of us before.

When they finished eating, Rachel looked at her watch and let out a bewildered sigh.

“Well, I think we should think about setting up some sort of camp. We’ve been walking all day. And all night for that matter. I need to just sit here for a while or I’m going to collapse. It’s dark outside, anyway. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the exit.”

“I agree,” Alex said, leaning back against the rock wall. “I could use a little more to eat, and maybe even a few hours sleep. I hate to ask this, but does anyone have any idea where we are?”

“We’ve been in this same stretch of cave for the past three hours,” Karen said. “Which makes me think we’re nowhere near where we first entered. There were tons of side tunnels coming off that first tunnel.”

“Yeah,” I said, remembering. There had been one to our left after only about fifteen minutes after we set foot inside. From there we passed a tunnel on the right or left every twenty minutes or so. “We’d walked for close to two hours before we made that first right-hand turn.”

“That was when we first heard the water,” Karen said, her eyes glazed with memory. “We never did find that damn river.”

The statement hung in the air like an insult handed to you just after someone socked you in the gut. We all felt it, but it stung me the most. Just like all the other events of the day, it had been my idea that we try to find it, after all. The whole day had just been one bad choice after another.

“So, we should turn back, then, right?” Rachel asked, looking first to Alex, then to Karen, and then, finally, to me.

It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to speak. There was something in the question that seemed charged, loaded. Like it might explode in our mouths if we tried to answer. We all just sat there, leaning against the rough stone walls, looking at anything but each other.

“It doesn’t really help that none of us know what we’re doing,” Alex said.

We all agreed silently. For my part, I had never been in a cave that hadn’t also been some kind of tourist attraction, and I was pretty sure that was true for the others as well. That fact alone should have been enough to keep us all outside.

“We should never have come in here,” I said.

“Well now,” Karen said. “That’s not going to help us get out of here.”

“I know. I just feel like shit for getting us all into this.”

“As you should,” Alex said, grinning beneath the light of his headlamp. “Come on, man. We all chose to come in here. You didn’t force anyone.”

I frowned, wanting to believe him. I didn’t.

“I say we all try to get some sleep,” I said, changing the subject. “We can try to come to a decision once we’ve had a bit of rest. Right now I’m so tired I can barely think at all, much less straight.”

Everyone nodded and grumbled their consent. We spent the next few minutes digging Clif bars and individually wrapped cheeses out of our packs and then stuffing our faces. We made sure not to eat all of our rations, though, just in case it took us longer to get out of the cave than we were all hoping. After our impromptu dinner by headlamp, Rachel and Alex curled up together beside the cave wall. They mumbled a half-hearted “good-night” and then turned off their lights. I could see they were using their packs as pillows, and I wondered vaguely if that was comfortable.

Karen and I decided to try the same arrangement, but without much luck. She had always been prone to insomnia, even in the least stressful of times. With a real reason to be anxious—like being lost in a cave, for example—sleep was as unattainable for her as the Fountain of Youth is for everyone else. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, she sat up and whispered to me in the dark.

“It’s no use,” she hissed. “I can’t sleep. I’m going to go a little further down the passage to see if I can makes heads or tails of where we are. It might help us decide if we should turn around or not.”

“I’ll go with you,” I whispered back, sitting up.

“No. Try to get some sleep. I won’t go far.”

“I really think we should stick together, Karen. What if something happens and you get hurt?”

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Hang here and get some rest. If I’m not back in half an hour or so, come find me.”

After eight years of marriage, I recognized that tone. There would be no arguing with her now that her mind was made up. I could try, of course, but I knew how it would end: both of us pissed at each other and even more unhappy than we were when we started. She was going to do what she wanted no matter how I felt about it.

“Okay,” I said, more than a little irritated.

“Don’t worry,” she said again. “I won’t be gone long.”

She turned and switched her headlamp on. I leaned against the wall and watched as it moved steadily away from our mock camp. After a few minutes, the passage must have curved, because the light vanished. I looked at my watch. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I would give her half an hour and then I’d go after her if she wasn’t back yet.

I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes for half a second. The stress of the day and all the energy I had spent hiking worked together so that that brief instant was all it took for me to fall dead asleep.

* * * * *

Rachel pushed me gently, and I woke with a start. A quick glance at my watch told me it was just after five in the morning.

“Fuck!” I said aloud, and then to myself: Why do I screw everything up?

“Is Karen back?” I asked. As I looked around the makeshift camp, the panic in my throat eased for an instant as the hope that she’d returned while I slept popped into my mind.

Before Rachel shook her head in response, though, I knew she hadn’t. She would have woken me.

After spending about five seconds making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I turned in the direction I last saw Karen heading and was off.

“When did she leave?” Rachel asked from behind me after a quarter of an hour. I hadn’t turned to check, but I could sense that both she and Alex had followed me from the start.

“Around two,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“You let her go off alone?”

“Come on, Rachel. You know how she can be sometimes. I tried to go with her, but I got the feeling she was just wanting to be alone for a little while. She’s probably just up the tunnel here, curled up asleep.”

“Maybe.”

She sounded about as certain as I felt. Karen required more solitude than most people, and sometimes if she could go off by herself for a little while she could get around her insomnia long enough to catch a little rest. But, unfortunately, as the minutes ticked by and turned into an hour, we still hadn’t found her. Asleep or otherwise.

After two hours of walking I was growing very nervous and was having trouble keeping myself calm enough to keep moving. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore uncertainty, we came to a fork.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.

“When in doubt, Merriadoc,” Alex said from behind, “follow your nose.”

I wanted to laugh. I did. He was trying to ease the tension we were all feeling, but I just didn’t have it in me.

Which way did she go?

I felt so desperate that for a few minutes I actually did try to sniff out a difference between the two tunnels. Maybe if I’d had any experience spelunking I could have detected something, but to me both passages had the same musty dirt smell that I’d always associated with basements and Halloween Haunted Caves.

Even though I couldn’t smell a difference, after a moment of standing there I thought I did detect something. Not in the smell, but in the sound. There was a deep, rhythmic pulse that I almost felt more than heard coming from the right-hand passage. It was a very slow and drawn out sound, but it repeated over and over: hhhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. Hhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. It seemed so familiar that I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time. And then I had it.

It sounded like someone breathing.

Sleeping, to be more exact. It sounded like someone—or something—breathing while in the midst of a deep dream.

It was so faint, though, that I had almost convinced myself it was my imagination. If Alex hadn’t said something then, I probably would have ignored it.

“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Do you think it’s Karen sleeping up ahead?”

The terror that had been growing in my chest gave way for a moment. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. “Maybe,” I said, hopeful.

I stepped a few feet into the tunnel, straining to hear. “Karen!” I called, still a little spooked, so that I didn’t do it as loud as I could. The breathing seemed to pause for a moment, but then resumed.

I started to go deeper in the tunnel, and Rachel followed.

From behind Alex asked: “What if it’s a bear?”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” I said and continued without pausing.

About a hundred yards down the passage the floor fell away to a steep incline. It wasn’t a straight drop, but it would have been a nasty fall if I’d come upon it unawares. We stood there for a moment, looking into the darkness.

“I don’t think Karen came this way,” Rachel said as she and Alex crowded around me at the edge of the slope, hoping to see better.

“Neither do I,” I said. Something about the place felt wrong. There was thick dust and muck over everything. “I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a long, long while. Nothing looks like it’s been disturbed recently.”

“Right. And when did you get your Tracker’s merit badge?”

“Okay, Alex, good point. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but something about this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Karen would have come this way alone.”

“She could have not been paying attention and fallen,” Rachel offered.

I frowned and shook my head. Looking more closely at the ground, I noticed that the ground was much softer through this part of the cave. I looked closely and was able to spot the footprints the three of us had left as we came through. I pointed it out to the others.

“While Alex is right,” I said, “and I don’t know shit about tracking, it really only looks like three sets of tracks have come through here. I don’t see anything by the edge of the slope, either.”

“Neither do I.” The voice came from behind us so suddenly that it startled us all, but none so much as Rachel. She let out a gasp that was almost a shriek and jumped almost two feet into the air—away from the source of the sound. Which meant toward the drop off.

When she landed, a large rock slipped out from under her foot, and her momentum carried her toward the edge of the precipice. She slammed down hard on her tailbone before her momentum carried her into Alex’s legs, sending him tumbling after her. Alex cried out in either fright or pain—I couldn’t tell which—and then the two of them went crashing into the dark.

Karen was at my side and holding my hand in an instant. I nearly jumped out of my skin again, but the realization of what had just happened dawned upon me. In stunned silence, Karen and I turned toward the sound of Rachel and Alex’s calamitous journey down the slope. When the crashing came to an end, I waited for a moment before calling down after them.

“Alex? Rachel? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”

It took a second, but Alex’s voice drifted up from below.

“We’re all right. A little banged up, but nothing seems to be broken. There’s a pretty nasty drop off at the bottom here. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get back up without some rope.”

“I found a way out,” Karen yelled. “I can run back to the camp and bring rope and help.”

“Yeah, you might want to do that.”

There was something different in Alex’s voice. Something that sounded very much like fear. A second later I thought I heard Rachel say something. It sounded like a question.

“Mike,” Alex yelled. “I think there’s something down here with us.”

Then Rachel screamed.

Karen gripped my hand with one of hers and squeezed my bicep with the other. Her nails dug deep into my arm.

I gasped as Alex’s voice joined his wife’s. A second later both voices were drowned out by a sound unlike any I had heard before. Somewhere between a screech and a snarl, the sound brought goose bumps across my flesh as it echoed through the cavern.

The timbre of the screams in the dark below us changed. They went from a bone-chilling tone of fright to a sickening chorus of pain as a second screeching/snarling voice joined the first. Then a third came, and a fourth, until there were so many that it was impossible to count. Within seconds Alex and Rachel’s voices diminished. Eventually, they died out all together.

Karen began to back away from the edge of the downward slope, her face a mask of panic-stricken terror. The way her headlamp illuminated it against the utter darkness of the cave around us suddenly seemed to me the most frightening part of everything that was happening. It took me a second to realize she was still clinging to my arm and pulling me away from the slope with her.

I almost began to protest, not wanting to leave Rachel and Alex behind, but then I heard something from the pit below. The things that had attacked my friends, whatever they were, were talking to each other.

I couldn’t understand their language, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was intelligent communication. This, on top of everything else, was just too much. As we turned to run, I heard something else from the bottom of the slope. Despite my better judgement, I paused and cocked my ear in order to hear what was going on. The things were still chattering to each other, but there was a strange scraping sound that I couldn’t quite place. In a gift of vision, it suddenly occurred to me that what I was hearing was these things crawling up the rocks toward us.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Karen’s hand. She led the way out, taking me into the passage we’d ignored when we first heard the strange breathing sound.

“The way out is pretty far,” she said. “But if we hurry, I think we can make it.”

We took off running, with her in the lead. The cave was much rockier and wet here, not to mention that it had a fairly serious uphill grade. Our boots fought for every foothold, and we both slipped several times as we tore through the tunnel. Once or twice we lost our balance and hit the ground. As these happened more often, I became aware of sounds behind us. Scratches, grunts, and other disheartening sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and I felt the same terror from before sprung to life anew in my throat.

But each step we took brought fresher air that carried with it hope. Hope that we might actually make it to the outside. What we would do when we got there was irrelevant. One goal at a time was all my mind could handle at that point.

Karen slipped and fell, crashing down hard on her left knee. She let out a cry of pain and slumped onto her right side, cradling her knee.

We had been running for half an hour by then, and how I was able to pick her up without stopping still confounds me. But I lifted her onto my shoulder and carried her through the cavern on a wave of adrenaline. My pace was slowed, though, and I could hear the sounds of our pursuit growing closer.

“I can walk now,” Karen said several minutes later.

I grunted and picked up my pace, not trusting her knee yet. If she was wrong and stumbled again it would likely mean our deaths.

Minutes ticked by and the cave grew closer around us, making it difficult for me to carry Karen. I ducked and slid as much as I could, but the passages were shrinking and my back was starting to get pretty adamant in its protests. Not for the first time since we set out to go hiking yesterday, I made a decision.

“We’ll try it now,” I grunted. “Be ready to run the second I put you down.”

“I will.”

I heard in her voice the same fear that was in my mind: what if her knee won’t support her?

Pushing the thought as far into the back of my mind as I could, I paused for an instant and set her down. She stumbled on her first step, and I nearly grabbed her. But she stayed up and kept moving. I could tell it was causing her serious pain the way she was favoring it, but we were keeping a pretty brisk pace regardless.

Seconds turned to minutes and as our pace began to diminish, the sounds of pursuit were getting louder. I spared a glance back once and thought I saw something, but it had to have been my imagination. If it had been as close to us as I’d thought we would have died seconds later.

I was beginning to lose hope, beginning to think that maybe lying down and letting them have me not be so bad after all. But then it appeared. It started as no more than a thumb-sized dot, but each step I took brought it closer: sunlight.

The sight of it renewed me, and Karen must have seen it, too, because her pace quickened as well.

We were sprinting by then. How we managed to keep our feet in that rocky terrain is a topic for theologians to discuss. All that mattered was that the sunlight was getting closer, and we would be safe there.

I don’t know why I believed that, but I did. Maybe I read too many stories as a kid or maybe something was happening on a deeper, more instinctual level. Either way I thought—no, I knew—that we would be safe as soon as we hit the surface.

As if sensing the same thing as I, but preferring a different outcome, the things behind us began moving faster, narrowing the gap between us. The snarls and screams and screeches were getting louder faster than the light was getting closer. I thought I could feel the heat of their breath on my skin, and imagined they were nipping at my legs, taking tiny scrapes of flesh with them until my skin felt sunburned.

Fear and pain mounted, and with one final burst of speed I didn’t think either of us had left in reserves, we broke through the cave mouth. As I crossed into the morning sunlight, I felt a jab of pain in my left heel and went tumbling forward. I rolled head over heel down a rocky hill, eventually slamming back first into a boulder and stopping.

Through the haze of pain, I could make out several shapes in the mouth of the cavern, crossing back and forth, yammering to each other. They were pointing at me and Karen, who had run down to where I’d fallen and was leaning against the same boulder I’d crashed into, gulping air and nursing her knee. Otherwise she seemed fine.

The creatures were never completely visible. They ducked in and out of the pockets of shadow inside and around the cave. At first I thought they were very doglike, but the longer I watched them the more they took on feline characteristics.

Covered in what looked like filthy, matted fur, their snouts were long like a dog’s with large mouths and very sharp teeth. Saliva dripped from their chins and large tongues as they barked and chattered to one another. They sat on their hindquarters and held their front paws in front of them, though to call them paws is a little misleading. Long, slender fingers with sharp claws opened and closed in ways that were uncannily hand-like, and it seemed that they might even have had thumbs, but it was too far away to say.

“They seem like they’re trying to decide something,” Karen said between breaths.

She was right. I got the distinct impression that they were discussing something, and I didn’t need three questions to guess what it was.

I looked at my heel, which was now but one of many injuries commanding my attention. My whole body, especially my head, throbbed with a pain so intense I was finding it difficult to understand what was happening around me. My sock, just above the top of my hiking boot was torn and soaked in blood. I pulled myself up on the boulder and tried to put weight on my left leg and nearly passed out from the pain.

The chattering of the creatures got more excited.

Karen, seeing the extent of my injuries, and not knowing what else to do, found a long, straight stick that I could use as a crutch. I thanked her as I leaned against it, still feeling nauseous from the last attempt at walking.

I took one last look at the creatures, which seemed on the verge of disregarding whatever it was keeping them at bay and coming after us, and started moving as fast as I could away from them and down the hill. I was in too much pain to worry about whether we were headed toward the camp or not, but luckily Karen had a clearer head. She removed the old-school GPS her uncle had insisted we take with us the day before. It took her a few minutes since we were afraid to stop moving, but she got us pointed in the right direction. We thought we had the radio with us for a moment, but then we remembered that Rachel had been carrying it.

We were lucky in one small way: since we hadn’t returned the night before as expected, and since they couldn’t raise us on the radio, Karen’s aunt and uncle had organized a search party. Several of the members of this party knew about the caves in the area and had sent people to all the known entrances. We stumbled upon them about twenty minutes after exiting the cave.

Help was called in and we were escorted back to camp where the police had already arrived. They weren’t very convinced by our descriptions of the creatures or our accounts of what happened to Alex and Rachel, despite the fact that they questioned us separately and our stories matched exactly.

I can’t say I blamed them. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

Another search party went out, headed toward the cave we used to make our escape. We warned them repeatedly and begged them not to go, but I think that just made them more suspicious of us.

Karen and I were taken to the hospital to make sure we would be well enough to be taken into custody. My achilles tendon had been severed, and the imagined cuts on the backs of my legs turned out to be real. Most of the skin on my legs and parts of my back and arms was gone. On top of that, I shattered several ribs when I hit the boulder, which was also when I got the concussion.

The good news is the doctors say I’ll be all right.

It’s just going to be a little while before they can get me in to surgery. In the meantime, I have the morphine which is administered by the all-powerful button to keep all my troubles at bay: the pain that won’t stop, the screams of Rachel and Alex that I still hear, and the feeling that those—things—are still nipping at my legs that I can’t shake.

The morphine is all that I have to help with all of that, and it isn’t working.

 

The Night Jennifer Lopez Ate My Soul

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Sometimes I hate her.

She lays there, her arms wrapped around her pillow, sound asleep. I throw the covers off and pull them back on, but she’s oblivious. Her foot is twitching like it does when she’s having a really great dream, too.

Sometimes I really hate her. 

I glance at the clock and groan when I see it’s already 3:42. If I fall asleep now, I can still get three hours. I can function on three hours.

I roll over again and pull my leg out from under the covers for what has to be the hundredth time. It’s still hotter than the seventh circle of Hell. I look up at the ceiling fan and wonder why the people that designed it didn’t include a more powerful setting than ‘high.’ Something along the lines of ‘ludicrous speed’ would suit me just fine.

I manage to tilt my head so that the brunt of the fan’s airflow is hitting me in the face. After a few seconds of enjoying this, my body relaxes and I can feel the first gentle caresses of sleep brush my mind. Within seconds, I drift into sleep.

I jump at the sound of breaking glass.

The clock now reads 3:49.

Fuck, I think. What now?

I try not to wake Rene, though it would serve her right, as I slip out of the covers. There is another loud crash from the kitchen; my heart leaps into my throat. All thought of sleep is gone as I reach into the closet and remove my baseball bat. I’ve never owned a gun, and for the first time I wonder why.

The cold feel of aluminum in my hand gives me courage. I take a deep breath and, making as little sound as possible, I creep out of the bedroom. Expecting to find a man with a black ski-mask waiting for me in the kitchen, I almost drop my bat when I espy the shape of a woman standing just inside the door.

“John,” she says.

I stop. How does she know my name?

“I’m glad you’re awake. I need your help.”

“Do… do I know you?”

She giggles. “I need you, John. Come with me.”

Something about her voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Stepping closer, her perfume tickles my nose. She reaches out and takes my hand. I let the bat slip from my fingers, and it slams against the floor. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder why Rene hasn’t woken up.

“Come on, John. Follow me.”

She leads me through the door, and we step out onto the front porch of my parents’ old house. This is strange for several reasons, mainly because that house was torn down over ten years ago. This strikes me as odd, but before I can comment on it the girl turns, allowing me to see her for the first time.

My heart skips. Standing there in nothing but a see-through teddy is Jennifer-fucking-Lopez.

I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

She tosses her hair over her shoulder and smiles. Her skin glows in the moonlight, and her curvaceous form dances in the breeze like the flame of a candle.

“Come on, John. Let’s go,” she says. 

Her voice is soft and sultry, and I can feel my baser animal urges fighting for control of my mind. She takes my hand again and pulls me to the end of the porch.

Reason is replaced by desire, and I follow her down the stairs and into the driveway. She turns and tosses her hair again, beckoning me with a slender, dexterous finger. I follow her around the garage where she leans against the wall, caressing her belly.

“What are we doing here?” My voice sounds odd, distant.

“Well,” she says with a smile. “I couldn’t fuck you in there with your girlfriend watching, could I?”

My knees almost buckle. Before I can answer her, she reaches out and pulls me close. Kissing my neck, she pulls my shirt over my head. Hard nipples rub against my chest as long fingernails make their way across my back. I feel myself grow hard against her. She pushes me to the ground and straddles me, giggling.

“There’s nothing like a good outdoor fuck, is there?” She giggles again.

She kisses me as her fingernails dig into my chest, flooding my senses with a strange mix of pleasure and pain. She arches her back, and I can feel her growing moist.

Saying nothing, she reaches down and rips open my boxers. This show of strength is surprising, but all I can think about is her warmth. She laughs then. It is not the girlish giggle from before. It is… darker, somehow.

“Ready?” she asks. Her eyes glow, and her expression is that of hunger.

I answer her with a kiss. Our tongues dance and she pulls away just enough to tease me. She runs her hand along my chest again and without warning impales herself upon me. Ecstasy unlike any I’ve known before courses through my body, and she assaults me with her mouth. Alternating between subtle flicks of her tongue and small bites, she works her way up my neck. Her breath is heavy in my ear, and her thrusts grow stronger and more violent. She claws at me, her nails digging deep enough to draw blood; her bites are no longer playful. She rips a chunk out of my shoulder, and I scream.

Crimson runs down her chin, and she smiles devilishly. I try to push her away, but she wraps her arms around me, refusing to let go. Her strength is monstrous. With a cackle, she continues to ride me, but my exaltation from before is gone forever, replaced by revulsion and pure pain.

I grip her chin and fight to keep her mouth from tearing any more of my flesh, but my fingers slip in blood. Realizing I can’t hold her, I change my grip and close my hand around her throat. She laughs.

I squeeze her neck, but she doesn’t notice. She rocks back and forth, cackling. I try to push her away again, and in the process I look down.

My legs are gone.

I scream and redouble my efforts. Pulling my hand from her throat with ease, she puts a finger to my mouth and shushes me.

“It will all be over soon,” she whispers.

She thrusts again, and another few inches of my body enter her. I flail my arms, trying to grab hold of something I can use to pull myself out of her, but my fingers find only empty air.

She thrusts again. And again. Within seconds I’m in up to my armpits. I cry out, begging for her to stop. She laughs and thrusts again.

In my last second, I look up. Her face has changed. The comely face of J-Lo is gone, replaced by the twisted countenance of a hag. She thrusts one last time, and everything disappears.

 

A Little Too Fast

A Little Too Fast

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

I had been scoping out Union Jack’s, a small dive on the west side of town, for weeks. Jenny said it had the best selection and prices, but there were a few things keeping me from just walking in. I wasn’t twenty-one, for starters, and even if I had been, Glyphs weren’t completely legal. Not that that had stopped anyone else; I was one of the only kids left that wasn’t boasting at least one. Jenny had even shown up to school flying. Or, at least, trying to fly, anyway. When she tried to land she tumbled into me, knocking my cellphone out of my hand and into a fountain. She laughed as she detangled from me, her hair wind-blown and wild.

“They finally caved?” I asked, letting the water drip out of my phone.

“Yeah, I convinced Mom to go ahead and give it to me as an early graduation present.”

“Sweet.”

“Sorry I didn’t wait. I know we said we’d go together, but when she asked, I just sort of freaked.”

“No worries. I probably would have done the same.” It was a lie, but her smile made it all right.

“So, when are you getting yours?”

“I’m still…” I caught myself before saying “waiting for my mom to give the okay.” Instead I said: “I’m still trying to decide what to get.”

“Flight is the absolute best,” she said, leaving no room for argument, and the thought of us flying together, hand in hand, made me think she was right. A week later, as we were filing out of school she smiled and looked to the sky.

“Wanna come?”

“Still can’t fly,” I said.

“Sure you can. I figured something out yesterday. Come here.” She took my hand. “Just kick off, okay? Ready? On three. One. Two…”

We pushed off together, and I felt my stomach lurch as the laws of physics ceased to apply. My legs flailed about as they tried to find some bearing while I waved my free arm for balance.

“Easy there,” Jenny said, laughing. “You don’t want to let go of my hand or you’ll go splat. Just relax.”

That was difficult. The more I tried, the more I tensed. She took both my hands, squeezing them as she tried to hold us steady. Looking into her eyes helped, but it wasn’t until I remembered a technique I’d read in one of Dad’s books on meditation, and I started breathing slowly, focusing on the feeling in my lungs as they expanded and contracted, that I finally calmed down. Once I was adjusted, though, that first flight with Jenny was one of the most amazing, and terrifying, experiences I’ve ever had. We were weightless. Buoys in the clouds. She led us far enough into the air that our breath turned to mist and she started to shiver.

“The air is clearer the higher you go,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Thinner, too, but cleaner, fresher.”

We hovered there for a few moments, holding onto each other for warmth as we drifted through clouds. The world beneath us was painted in the richest greens, browns, and blues.

“Wanna do something fun?”

“Sure,” I said, anxious to seem like I wasn’t terrified.

Her grin had never been more devilish, and there was mischief in her eyes.

“Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t let go.”

Suddenly we were falling. I heard screaming as we plummeted toward the earth. When we were about a hundred yards from the ground, Jenny lifted us back up, and all I could hear was the wind and her laughter. She didn’t stop until we reached the old Fire Tower on Sharp’s Ridge.

“I never would have guessed you were a screamer.” She grinned and shouldered me playfully as we sat on top of the tower, holding hands and watching the sun descend as dozens of kids darted around us, rising and falling on the horizon like a flock of strange birds.

“Maybe if I’d had a little warning.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. My brother has always said that people are either screamers or they’re not. There’s no in-between.” That wicked grin appeared again, but this time she seemed to be considering something. Quickly, she leaned forward and kissed me. Nothing fancy, just a quick pop on the lips. “Come on,” she said. “I gotta get home. Mom probably thinks I’ve flown to Tokyo by now. I’ve been threatening her ever since I got the Glyph.”

* * * * *

It was the kiss that did it. With the memory of it still fresh, I drove home with a purpose after Jenny dropped me back at the school. After close to six years of playing classic rock covers at the local pizzeria every Saturday night, and having parents that always bought me the latest video games in order to distract me from all the other kids flaunting their Glyphs, I had just over five thousand dollars. I kept the roll of twenties stashed inside my first acoustic, and as I shook the guitar to get it to fall out, I realized I’d never actually heard how much Glyphs cost. I hoped I had enough.

Replaying the memory of Jenny’s kiss again, I pushed the door of Union Jack’s open and stepped into the stench of stale smoke. There were several old men sitting at the bar, puffing cigarettes and sipping beers. The bartender looked up and scowled. “I hope you’re not looking for a drink,” he said.

I shook my head and opened my mouth to speak, but then shut it.

“In that case,” the man pointed over his shoulder. “Ayita’s back there somewhere. She’ll take care of you.”

I nodded before walking past two old pool tables covered in stains that could have been blood or vomit. My shoes stuck to the floor, making a strange sucking sound each time I took a step. The haze of smoke made my eyes water, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to hang out there.

I made my way past the bathrooms and through a curtain of beads. The floor changed from wood to concrete as I stepped through, and there was a draft coming from somewhere. It was still smoky, but the odor had changed. I could never remember what that particular scent was called, but Dad always called it “hippie.” There were a few tables and chairs scattered about, but there was no Ayita. Thinking that maybe she’d stepped out for a second, I moved to sit down.

“Look at this pretty young thing.” I jumped before I made it into the chair. The voice had been female, but I couldn’t see where it had come from. “He’s jumpy, too.”

A woman, tall and beautiful in a dangerous sort of way, melted out of the wall. She wore dark jeans, thigh-high boots, and a mesh tank top that left her naked from the waist up. My eye twitched a little. The woman, whom I assumed was Ayita, stepped forward and lifted my chin, turning my head slightly to the side, examining me. I tried to look her in the eye, but there was something powerful in her dark eyes, almost frightening. I settled for staring at her chest.

“You’re not a cop, are you?”

The question took me by surprise. Surely she could tell I wasn’t old enough to be a cop. I shook my head and stammered out something like “of course not,” but I was still so entranced by how much of her I could see that I really didn’t know what I said.

“I had to be sure. If I find out you’re lying to me, you’ll regret it. I’ve touched you. Do you see this?” She pointed to a tattoo below her left breast, a bloodhound with a compass on its collar. I nodded. “It means I can find you anytime I want.” She smiled and waited, letting her words settle into my mind. When she was satisfied I understood, she sat behind an old, scratched table and took a sip of the blackest beer I had ever seen.

“So, what’ll it be?” She asked, motioning me to the chair across from her.

“Um… what’ve you, like, got?”

She chuckled. “Dearie, I’ve got anything you could possibly imagine. I’ve got Flight, I’ve got Invisibility. Teleportation. Seduction. Strength, Intelligence, and Healing. You name it, I’ve got it.”

“How much for Flight?”

She smiled again. It was a nice smile, full of small, straight teeth. “The kiddies always want the wings. You want true Flight or just Levitation?”

“How much for true Flight?”

“A grand. You can get Levitation for six-fifty, though. It’ll still impress the little girlies.”

“A grand, huh? That’s it?”

She smiled. “That’s it, he says. Only a thousand dollars. Rich kid, huh?”

“Not really,” I said, dropping my eyes to the table and tracing my finger along an old scratch on its surface. “How many Glyphs can you have at once?”

“There isn’t a set number. Some people can handle more than others. I would recommend starting with one. Maybe two if you think you can handle it. I won’t sell more than three Glyphs to any one customer at any one time. Too risky. Never more than two to a first-timer, though.”

My mind raced with all the possibilities. If Flight only cost a grand, I could afford to get two. How cool would it be to walk out with Flight and Strength? Or Invisibility. But then I decided that this woman probably knew what she was talking about, and I might be better off starting small. Still, if I was just going to get one, should it be Flight? Shouldn’t it be something that really got my blood moving? The memories of flying with Jenny made my stomach turn even when both of my feet were firmly on the ground. But mixed in with the nausea was the feeling of her hand in mine and the memory of her smile as we drifted through the clouds, both of which did get my blood moving.

“Let’s go with true Flight for now.”

“Are you sure? It took you a long time to answer.”

“Sure. I mean, Flight seems like a good one to start with, right? Nice and practical.”

She smiled in a way that made me remember the look in Jenny’s eyes just before she let us fall. The memory of my scream made my face hot, and I decided that if Jenny liked speed and thrills, I would try to give her that.

“Let’s do it,” I said. “But can I get Speed, too?”

“Of course. As long as you’ve got the cash. It’ll be seventeen-fifty for both.”

I pulled the money-roll out of my jacket pocket and, turning slightly so she couldn’t see, counted it out. I rolled the rest back up before handing her the stack of bills. She smiled, folded the stack, and stuffed it in her back pocket.

“Right. This way, please. Go ahead and take your shirt off, too.”

I did as she asked, tucking my shirt and jacket under my arm as I followed Ayita through another beaded curtain that I hadn’t noticed before, further into the back of the bar. There was an old, cushioned table, like at the doctor’s office, in the middle of the room. One wall was a solid mirror, while the others were covered in posters of tattoo designs and shelves that were filled with needles and strange devices. An old TV sat in the corner, lifeless.

“Lay face down on the table, please,” Ayita said.

I did as she asked, laying on top of my shirt and jacket so I wouldn’t lose track of them. “Is this going to hurt?”

“Terribly,” she said. It wasn’t a lie.

For the next four hours, she worked. Slowly. Methodically. A low murmuring chant came from her lips, barely audible as she worked the ink into the flesh of my back. It felt like fire. Like ants were chewing through my back. But then it was over, and I was staring into a hand mirror in order to see the two emerald and black wings on my back reflected through the wall mirror. Between them was the small silhouette of a rabbit.

* * * * *

The next day after school I asked Jenny if she’d help put some antibiotic ointment on my fresh tattoo. Ayita had said it would heal in about a week, but I would need to be careful to keep it from getting infected or the Glyph might not work.

“I can’t believe you got two! And without your parent’s permission!” Even though it hurt like hell as Jenny rubbed the goo on my back, the hairs on my arms stood up every time she touched me. “I could never do that. There, that should do it.”

As I pulled my shirt back on, she lifted slowly into the air. She’d taken to hovering in Lotus position instead of sitting. It was odd, having to always look up at her.

“I can’t wait till we can go super-fast! How long till we can go to Tokyo?”

“Ayita said I should be able to use it by next Saturday. So we’re kind of stuck in the Southeast till then.”

“It’s going to be great. We can go to Mt. Fuji, too! Maybe we can even stop off and see where my brother’s stationed on the way! You’d like him.”

“That would be cool,” I said. Jenny was always talking about her brother, but he’d joined the Army just before she and her mom moved up from Georgia so I’d never met him. She was always telling stories about him, and many of them made me doubt that I would like him, regardless of her claims to the contrary.

“I’ll plan out a whole list of things we can do,” Jenny said, rambling in her excitement. “In the meantime, though, I bet we could make it to the Gulf and back before dark if we left early enough on Saturday. What do you think?”

Listening to her make plans for us was intoxicating. Her face was animated with the possibilities in her mind, and something about her referring to us as “we” made my stomach feel weird. Not bad, just weird. Like it was the gooiest cinnamon roll ever served. She wrote out a list that she titled “Local Excursions” and said she thought it would keep us busy over the next week while my Glyphs healed. The next afternoon, after I fumblingly lifted off the ground for the second time while holding Jenny’s hand, she flew us to Asheville where we walked through small folk-art galleries downtown while sipping lattes out of recycled coffee cups. A couple of days later we flew to Nashville and ate hotdogs on top of the Parthenon while hundreds of pigeons cooed and fluttered around us.

The next morning I woke to Jenny knocking on my window. There was a bag over her shoulder, and I barely had the window open before she was inside.

“Quit wasting the day, we’ve got places to be. The beach is calling.”

“What?” I yawned and rubbed my eyes.

“The beach. The ocean. I packed us a lunch. I figure it should only take us a few hours to get there. Get dressed and let’s go.”

Several rushed minutes later, after having thrown on some beach appropriate clothes and brushed my teeth, we were on our way. Jenny flew us to the Gulf where we spent the rest of the morning laying in the sun, sipping soft drinks and watching sea gulls skim across the water.

“The last time we came to the beach when I was a kid, I always wished I could fly across the water like the birds. Daddy always shook his head and said I was a silly girl and needed to stop thinking such childish things if I wanted to get anywhere in the world.”

“Shows what he knew,” I said. “Now you can.”

She looked out across the water and gave the faintest possible nod. “He left not long after we got back from that trip. Accepted an assignment and left to go god-knows-where. Wouldn’t even tell us where he was going. When Jacob joined the service Mom almost lost it. She said he was abandoning his family just like his dad.” She seemed to snap out of a spell and the smile that made me notice her in Algebra spread across her face. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You hungry?”

After lunch we spent the afternoon chasing the gulls, flying close enough to run our fingers across the surface of the ocean. As the sun began to descend, we made our way back home.

The following week was spent completing our tour of the Southeast. Short, evening trips to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and Raleigh got us through the days of waiting for my Glyph to start working. The tattoo was starting to itch, and Ayita had said that would happen a few days before it was ready. Just another day or two and I would be able take Jenny to the other side of the world and back in the span of a few seconds.

It was late on Friday night when it happened. I was hunched over the side of my bed playing guitar, when the tattoos started to itch. I raked my fingers lightly across my back, and it felt like a sheet of spiderweb peeled away. Then, suddenly, I could feel the wings move. It only happened a couple of times, like a light fluttering, but immediately after it happened, I hovered into the air of my bedroom for the first, shaky time by myself. It was harder than Jenny made it look. I kept wanting to flip backwards, but eventually I got my balance.

Once I did, I wanted to test out my new Speed. Flying was cool, but I’d done so much of it with Jenny over the past two weeks that I was ready for something different. Even though I had promised she could be with me the first time, I wanted to test it out by myself in case I did something stupid.

I started small. I held a guitar pick as high as I could and then dropped it. It hit the floor. Frowning, I tried again. Each time I dropped the pick, I would try to bring my hand down in time to catch it, but my hand didn’t seem to be moving any faster than normal. The thought that Ayita had taken me for an extra seven-fifty crossed my mind after my twelfth failed attempt. But then something happened. Instead of trying to catch it, I decided to just watch it. As soon as I did, it was like the world went into slow-motion. The pick seemed to hover in the air, not moving at all. I reached out and pushed it a half-inch to the left before letting it drop. There was a slight pinching behind my eyes until I slowed back down, and after noticing that I figured out how to make myself go faster or slower by manipulating that tension. It was almost like I was stopping time.

I slipped out my window and flew downtown. There wasn’t a lot of activity, even for a Friday night, but there were a few people around. I sped myself up and flew into Market Square. Standing in the center of the Square, I never felt like I was moving any faster, but the world would slow to a standstill. I could control how quickly the people around me moved. Anywhere from normal speed to extreme slow-motion to not moving at all. At times it was like looking at a photograph. The clouds didn’t move, and there was a complete absence of sound. I flew home smiling at the cars on the interstate. I was moving so fast they looked like they were parked.

I stopped by Jenny’s house on the way, hoping she was still awake so I could share my new power with her. The light was out in her bedroom, though, so I left, not wanting to wake her. She would get to experience it soon enough.

Settling back on my bed, I decided to test my new ability further. I sped up, and watched the second hand on my watch while counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” Time still moved forward, but a second took about two and a half minutes.

The rest of the night was spent playing with time. I shot rubber bands at the wall and caught them before they hit, hooking them with my index finger. When that got old, I hovered above my window for a minute trying to figure out something else to do before heading North. I followed the interstate, playing with my speed in relation to the trucks below, laughing as they stopped short, freezing in place as I sliced through the air. In about five minutes of clock-time, and before I realized it, Manhattan was beneath me. The city was silent as I zipped through the streets, buzzing the heads of people stuck in a moment that for them would last but a second, but for me could last hours.

I touched down on top of the Empire State Building and slowed back to normal. The traffic roared as the city came to life. Wind skirled around, buffeting me as the tiny people below resumed their lives like nothing had happened. I turned it on and off like a baby that’s just discovered light switches, tensing and releasing the muscles around my eyes. In the back of my mind I knew I should wait and share this with Jenny, but I was having so much fun!

So, I flew to Florida. Then to New Orleans. I got hungry then, so I slowed down again long enough to buy a candy bar and a soda at a gas station. Then I went to L.A. Then Seattle, and, finally, Vancouver. Eventually, though it had only been a couple of hours since I started, I knew the sun would be about to come up at home, and my eyes didn’t want to stay open.

As I crawled into bed, the sun was beginning to creep into my window. Jenny was coming over around ten, so I could eek out around three hours of sleep. I pulled my covers over my head to block the sunlight and fell asleep. My dreams were strange, and I woke to a loud knocking on my window.

“Finally,” Jenny said as I opened the window and she floated inside. “Jesus. You look terrible. Late night of video games?”

“No,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “I was playing guitar, and, all of a sudden, my wings moved.”

“They did! That’s great! So, what, you been flying around the world all night?”

“No, just the U.S.”

“What? I was kidding. You said you’d wait and take me with you!”

“I know. I came by your house, but your light was off.”

“Jacob never called last night like he was supposed to, so I was downstairs with Mom till almost four in the morning trying to calm her down! You could have texted me or something!”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was just kind of caught up in it.”

“I bet.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“I heard you.”

“Look, I didn’t get mad when you went and got your Glyph without me. Cut me some slack.”

“I knew you’d throw that in my face some time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Just nothing. Sorry. I had a rough night.”

“Me too. I’m sorry, I mean. Is your mom okay?”

“She’ll be fine. Jacob was supposed to call last night. We haven’t heard from him since he deployed the last time, and Mom’s just worried. I am, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it’ll be all right. Listen, just get some sleep. You’re obviously exhausted. When you’re rested, come find me. I’ll probably be at the Fire Tower. If not, call me. Cool?”

“Cool.”

Her face was pinched, and she flew out the window without a hug, a wave, or anything. Too tired to think about what that meant, I fell into bed and buried my head with pillows. I was out in seconds.

* * * * *

When I woke up, I went to find Jenny. She was at the Fire Tower like she said she would. I sped myself up so that I could try to surprise her by just appearing suddenly, but I wound up surprising myself. The world was crawling by for me, and I found her flying with a guy in a Brawlers uniform. He was way too young to actually be a member, but he could fly better than anyone I’d ever seen before. I watched as they danced around each other like fighter jets before embracing and twirling around as they ascended in slow motion, locked in each others arms.

I saw the exact moment their lips met.

A great pit opened in my stomach, and I couldn’t stay sped up anymore. The world came alive with an explosion of wind, and I watched as the two of them resumed their dance. It took several minutes, but Jenny finally noticed me. She said something to the guy I couldn’t make out and flew over. The clouds on the horizon spoke of rain.

“You feeling better?”

I shrugged, not really sure what to say.

“Did you still want to try and go somewhere? London maybe?”

“Is he coming?”

She at least had the decency to blush. “I… uh…”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. How long has this been going on?”

“We met just after I got my Glyph. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks but I ran into him this morning after I left your place.”

If she had punched me in the face I would have been less surprised. It had only been a couple of hours. If she could be kissing someone else so soon after such a small fight, maybe I didn’t know her like I thought.

“You two have fun, okay? Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Eric, wait, I…”

I didn’t wait to hear what she was going to say. I tensed the muscles behind my eyes and was gone. An hour later I was sitting on a ridge on the side of Mt. Fuji.