In which a new world begins to beckon!
|Chapter Three: Things Really Start Getting Trippy
The grass was drier and warmer than I remembered. It prickled my face and clothes. The crusty weeds tangled in my eyelashes, and I lifted my head to open my eyes. I waited for splitting pain to spasm through me, but nothing happened. Slowly, I reached back for the knife I knew protruded from my back, but it was gone. What the hell?
I sat up quick-like and found that I was in the middle of a ring of feathers, talons, chains, and metal studs. What the hell?! The ring was in the center of a meadow surrounded by very old-looking conifer trees. The uncannily-fresh blue sky was cloudless. I began to sweat as the sun beat down hard on me.
Something moved off to my right, and I looked to see that it was an elderly, dark-skinned man with a long, full white beard and a bald head. He wore a white button-up shirt tucked into some old patchy jeans. His eyes were a wolfy-silver color, and the sun seemed to make them glow. He had been waiting for me to notice his presence, and now he smiled softly.
“Where am I?” I called over to him. When he didn't answer: “Who are you?”
He ignored me and beckoned me over with his hand, still beaming. I stood and stalked closer.
He produced from his pocket a violet-colored pill that looked like a jelly bean and placed it in my palm, closing my fingers around it. He nodded in encouragement, and I gave him a sardonic, are you serious? look. But he laughed and nodded his head a few times, urging me to eat it. I looked around, feeling helpless. There was still no one else around, no buildings or streets that I could see that marked civilization.
“If this is a roofie or something, I'm gonna kick your ass,” I said to the old man, and he guffawed at me. I licked the pill, then swallowed it before I could change my mind. It didn't make me feel any better or worse, and it tasted minty and slightly herbal.
Then the man took my arm and led me to the ring of random junk. Crouching, he shifted everything around. Laying the feathers in a circle and ringing it with talons, he made numerals with the studs and used the chains to form the hands of a clock. He looked seriously into my face, the makeshift clock loudly ticked its first tock, and my eyes blinked open to where I lay in the schoolyard.
The first thing I did was suck in a long, loud breath as if I’d just come up from underwater. I braced myself for a sucker-punch of pure agony but, oddly enough, my stomach hurt more where Garrett had punched me than the knife in my back. For a minute I just held still, lying there, waiting for my pain level to change, and everything that had happened truly started to sink in.
I had fought Garrett. I had broken his nose...and he had stabbed me. Stabbed me. My insides felt like they had developed a layer of frost. I had always known that Garrett hated me—after all, the feeling was mutual—but that he hated me enough to try and kill me… Why had he suddenly lost his mind? What was I going to do about it?
The bell for lunch and/or fourth period rang, and I knew I had to move if I didn't want kids seeing me. Much easier said than done.
I found I could move my legs and wasn't in too much pain, and I wondered if that guy's pill had anything to do with it. Then I realized it had only been another weird dream. Well, in that case, maybe the reason I wasn't writhing in agony right now was because the injury wasn't as bad as I’d thought. Maybe the knife had a really short blade, or maybe Garrett hadn’t put it in deep.
After wrapping my hand around the knife hilt to hold it steady, I sat up, stood, and hobbled over to a vacant tool shed where I closed the door behind me and turned on the naked bulb on the ceiling. Avoiding the rusty rakes, shovels, and putrid cleaning chemicals, I craned my head over my shoulder to examine my back. A patch of drying blood soaked the lower half of my shirt and the upper half of my jeans. It felt cold and sticky against my skin. I couldn't see the nurse—she'd probably send me to the hospital and call dad, and he'd probably drive drunk into a ditch on the way into town, which would open a whole ’nother can of problems. I had to handle this on my own. And first of all, the knife…had to go.
Wincing, I wrapped my hand around the hilt and slowly pulled. I growled through my clenched teeth and felt new, warm blood stream from my wound. The knife was in there deep enough to have stuck, but the pain was not at all as bad as I thought it should have been. Fine by me. No organs seemed damaged, and I wasn't coughing up fluids. Also fine by me. The injury itself didn’t look particularly lethal. The knife didn’t seem to have made it through the muscle layer.
“If I ever see Garrett again…” I muttered to myself. That maniac had set the tone for all of our future confrontations. Next time we met, I wouldn’t just break his nose.
Finally, the knife was free, and I lifted it to my face, grudgingly studying the short blade even though my hands were trembling.
The handle was made out of leather and had a tassel beaded with silver stones tied to the end. It was fancy—I was surprised that Garrett was so quick to part with it. Heck, maybe the rumor I'd heard in gym was right and he did have an arsenal of weapons in his backpack.
I discarded the blade deep in a smelly dumpster and tied a clean white rag tight around my middle, deciding to head home early and take it easy, see how I felt later. There was a pile of ugly orange raincoats for the custodians to use as needed by a stack of flattened cardboard boxes. I put one on to hide the blood staining my shirt before leaving. Feeling a bit better with a plan of action, I ran up to class, waiting until Mr. Kevin's attention was diverted stacking papers to slip in. My classmates had all left, and other students had just started to trickle in for the next period, their eyes glued to their phone screens so I was able to avoid a crowd and grabbed my pack.
I snuck out of the parking lot and began my walk down the long road home, wondering how my friends would react when I wasn't on the school bus. Ol' Simon would probably do a tap dance.
By the time I got home, the stab wound was throbbing with every heartbeat—but it felt to have stopped bleeding. I peeked at it a few times as I went to make sure it wasn't getting any worse. Garrett had stabbed me—actually stabbed me. He could go to juvie if I told someone, but again, that would mean getting my father involved, and I didn't want people poking their noses into my messed-up life and digging around, ripping open old scars. No—I glowered at the horizon—this is between me and Garrett.
To my surprise, the lights were on in the house. Usually dad was either out visiting a barstool or hung-over inside in the dark. If the lights were on, someone cared enough to want to see and interact with the environment around them. Maybe it was a concerned neighbor. Unlikely, seeing as the closest neighbors were a mile away and too scared to visit us.
I quietly opened and closed the front door. Pop's graying stubble matched his bushy, unkempt hair, and his eyes were wild as he shot around the wall from the kitchen.
“Who is i—” he started off and then recognized me. His brow furrowed in confusion, and he looked up at the small, ten-minutes-slow clock hanging lop-sided above the door. “What're you doin' home?”
I shouldered my pack better over my stained back and headed around him, mumbling, “I felt like ditching early.”
Dad stepped in front of me, and I took a few paces back, avoiding his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was uncomfortable. “Now, uh…Jon, I want you to get yourself an education.”
“I'm not failing any classes,” I said, and thought to myself, Hypocrite.
Dad went on, “But you might if ya start…” He sighed, rubbed the back of his neck. “Son, I'm trying––”
I was already short-tempered and irritable because of my injury, so I blew up at his excuse, the words he always said but never meant. “Try harder! It isn't helping anything! Mom's gone, so look past your nose at what's going on around you! I'm graduating next year, I have a wonderful girlfriend, I'm on the football team... Do you even care?” I stopped, red in the face.
For a second, I thought pa was going to hit me, and I got ready to take it, but then he sighed again and murmured, “Go to your room. Do your homework... or something...”
I blinked and shuffled around him, moving for the stairs. At the last moment I looked at him over my shoulder and added softly, “What happened to her wasn't my fault or yours.” If he heard me, he didn't react, and I started to climb the stairs. Dad's attitude perplexed me. He must've been really sober. Of course, it wouldn't last, but it was nice once in a while to complain and yell at him without him hitting back.
I didn't want to wash up until the pain in my back had subsided somewhat, so I opened the door to my room, dropped my pack off to one side, shrugged off the smelly orange raincoat, and fell onto my bed, not caring if I got blood on the sheets or not. I looked at my painting on the ceiling and imagined the football player as me, scoring a touchdown, the school packed into the stadium going wild, my friends applauding me… my family… That was my dream. That was all that I wanted. A normal life, and the opportunity to be someone other than what I was: the son of a murdered mother and an alcoholic father, stuck in a cage of low expectations and strangers' pity, mocked and now knifed ruthlessly in the back by a bully obsessed with tormenting me.
My back gave another obnoxious spasm, and I kicked my feet in a temper tantrum. My shoes hit something. Objects slid along the floor and I rolled my eyes, but before I checked to see what they were, I went to study my wound in the bathroom mirror. It seemed to have stopped bleeding, but it was puffy, bruised, and tender. The sections of skin looked to be stretching in toward each other on either side of the gash. I couldn't afford to pay a hospital bill as neither dad nor I had health insurance, so I tried to convince myself that it was part of the normal healing process—the flesh knitting itself back together. At least the pain had subsided significantly. I scrubbed up in the shower and tossed the shirt and the cloth I had covered the wound with into the washer with the dirty laundry. I started it up and returned to my room, tilting my head to gaze down at the objects I'd kicked.
Books. There were three books on the floor of my bedroom.
I'm not much of a reader. I can read, like, in English class or something, but the only books we had were in dusty taped-up boxes under dad's bed. And they were the romance or mystery novels that had belonged to Mom. So where did these old and worn-looking things come from? Did dad buy them for me as an apology for being a crappy parent? I didn't know what to feel—disgust, happiness, amusement?
I decided to ignore all feelings directed at my father and instead picked up the books and eased onto the bed with them.
All three of them had leather covers and were relatively thin. One especially caught my eye. It had a deep-red cover, rough and bumpy like lizard skin. There were small, downy feathers stuck to it in places, like you'd find in a craft store but more realistic. Some feathers were inky black, some were a silky cream, others were a deep brown, and one cluster above the title was a bright blazing scarlet. It reminded me of someone's scrapbook or journal that they'd take with them traveling or something.
The title wasn't stamped into the book in any modern way, but hand-scribed in swooping arcs of calligraphy. It read:
Magnificent Creature, the Griffin
I felt a little dismayed, having expected something more like a story. Not a stuffy history about something make-believe. But griffins were my favorite animal, real or not, so I gently opened the cover to a thick, yellowed title page. It was bound, like the other pages, with knots of string to the spine. According to the text, a guy named Peter Malone was the author. Illustrated beneath his name, there was a large and detailed sketch that I was sure symbolized something.
I flipped through and saw an illustration of a thickly sinewed griffin sitting on its lion haunches and airily licking a fore-talon, its sly eyes peering up and behind it. Above it was a fanciful introduction on the “wondrous beast with a knightly heart.”
Chuckling at the author's imagination, I closed this book, dropped it loudly on the floor, and moved on to the next.
The second book was by the same author and had a pale-blue cover of similar material and a journalistic theme with small illustrations pasted to the front: glorious mermaids, furious dragons, prowling chimeras, black-cloaked strangers, and a lot more. This time the title was in bold ink and spelled:
CREATURES OF DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
Oooh. Maybe Garrett was in here.
Having more of a diverse choice of what to read about, I flipped curiously to a random page that displayed a rough but detailed illustration of something called a siren, taking vague note of the diminishing sunlight streaming in through my window.
Okay, Peter, you've caught my attention…
There was only one picture, and it showed a gorgeous woman floating on her back on the water, her arms extended and her face inviting.
I shook myself, found that my nose was an inch from the picture, and took a couple of breaths.
The first letter of this section was wreathed in garlands of exotic flowers.
My eyes began to drift back to the picture, so I slapped a hand over it and read:
The dreadful siren coaxes all men into her disastrously covetous arms. To them, she is as beautiful as a queen. But it is indeed good luck to have a woman on board in encounters with the siren, for to her, they look like the demons they truly are—with glowing yellow eyes, fleshless skulls, and hollowed-out, emaciated bodies.
The only possible way to defeat them is to cut through them with a sharp water-based tool like a trident or a harpoon, but they must be vanquished swiftly, for their songs, lilting and sweet, entice many sailors to their doom, persuading them overboard into the water and then into the siren's mouth––sailors being their only food source.
“Uugh!” I groaned, and flipped way past the page. Something caught my eye, and I searched back a bit to a section called “Rankers.”
A large picture showed a tall, thin, hooded and robed guy holding a rapier to his chest. Little was written about him, but what small amount of information there was, was interesting, however morbid.
Rankers are creatures born of nightmares and sinister thoughts, and they are the eternal foe of the griffin. They fight using an arsenal of dark powers; they can vanish into and control darkness, turn invisible, and anything else that will intimidate and cow their foe, for Rankers are essentially spirits that have no moral conscience, appetite, or heart, but a cunning disposition.
Rankers can only be vanquished by brave and determined hearts, but they are hard to find: each has its own “other self,” a disguise used to spy on their victims without taking on their mysterious and frightful cloaked form.
Yawning, I closed the book, thumped it on top of the griffin one, and lazily peeked at the last.
This one had a blank yellow cover but for the spiky title:
It had graphic directions and facts on places I'd never been to or heard of.
The first page showed a pretty cool tropical beach called Pebble Embark with calm blue waters, warm golden sand, and all manner of flora and fauna.
I even found a page that had a meadow called the Field of Time. It reminded me of the place I had been in my dream, but I shook the thought away, realizing how tired I was, and put the book with the others.
They were actually good reading for being entirely nonsense. Flipping through them had taken my mind off of my stab-wound for a bit. Maybe I'd look more later.
Rolling onto my back, I stretched, then went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Man, I would've loved to get away from it all. Maybe head up to the slopes for a few days. Too bad the only vehicle we have is dad's pickup truck, I thought to myself.
I didn't have much money because I didn't have a good job, because no one would hire me due to my lack of references. My lame part-time job was working up with Tyson at the lumber and soil farm. One might think that doesn’t sound too bad. It is when one considers that I was so low on the food chain of employees that Tyson was my boss.
I think that was my last coherent thought before everything changed. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on a cold, wet street. My back had been on a mattress, but now it was pressed against a sopping dumpster. My thoughts had been on Garrett, my wound, and my new books—now my mind raced and my heart thundered in my chest.
I fought to my feet, struggling as if invisible ropes bound me to the dumpster. The familiarity of where I was made me ache inside like Garrett had stuck me with a handful of knives. The only light was from a street-lamp at the end of the alley, flickering on and off. I could only move when the light buzzed temporarily on. Without it, I would stumble into the shadows where cold hands would grab me and never let go. Bracing myself, I sprinted toward the alley’s mouth. The light flickered. I paused. Hands emerged from the walls, grasping, reaching, bloodstained and claw-tipped, groping blindly for my arms or clothes. I froze and forced myself to remain still until the light came back on, then I bolted again like a hare from its burrow.
When I finally emerged from the alley, I found myself in the middle of the sidewalk on a vacant street. A small car was parked across the road.
A woman was pinned to the open driver's door by a taller man. I tried to run at them, but the ground was too slippery and with each step I took, I only moved inches. But I heard their voices as if their conversation were taking place right beside me. The words had formed over time to match the images that my mind had produced years ago.
Mom's murder as I thought it had played out.
“Give me your keys!” the man was growling. His had savage eyes and a hollow face made scruffy with stubble.
The woman, my mother, calmly replied, “Why are you doing this? You don't have to do this.”
“I want your damn car!” The man talked loudly over her, holding a gun to her chest. Mom shuddered, hands out, and looked, almost as if for patience, up at the sky. The way the light shone on her golden hair made it look like she had a halo.
The man scoffed and stepped back. “Listen, you bitch, you say all the prayers you want, but I need to get outta here by tomorrow morning, and I'm taking your car, so get the hell out of my way!”
Mom took a step toward her car. “Are you really a killer? Could you really tear apart a family? Take me away from my husband? My little boy?” I lurched forward, pouring every bit of strength I had into trying to move faster. Tears stung my eyes. My jaw was locked against useless sobs, against screams and curses and shouted warnings that would go unheard, wouldn't change anything, wouldn't bring her back.
The carjacker's mouth lifted into a twisted smile, but his eyes were narrowed into slits—all hasty impatience gone and replaced with resolve.
He steadied his arm, said, “You're a mother,” with an interested tone, and shot her, hitting her shoulder.
Mom gasped and fell back, her eyes big and her hand swiping at the spreading blood.
The man stepped forward and shot her once more. Mom closed her eyes, pale, her expression twisted in unimaginable agony, and she died. Just as I reached the car.
I turned furiously on the murderer, able to move normally now, and glared into his triumphant black shark eyes with so much hatred that I shook, bracing to waste my strength pounding every inch of him I could until he shot me too.
He opened his mouth, showing me rows of triangular, serrated teeth and rumbled:
“Deceit and lies,
Look in my eyes.
The Prince of Dreams
Must break his ties.”
Well, this was a new development. Usually, the guy looked just as I remembered him from when I saw him sitting in court and silently accepting the verdict for the death penalty. Now it was as if he had become a picture of what he was inside, having shed his mask and disguise.
I took a few steps away. Why was he all of a sudden spouting creepy rhymes? I felt like I should have had something just as witty to say, but all I came up with was a half brave, “Yeah?”
The shark-man laughed. Just as fast as my nightmare had started, it ended, cutting off the beast mid-guffaw.
My eyes blinked open to my bedroom ceiling, which I could see only dimly in the moonlight from my window. Covered in sweat, I sighed and forced myself to relax a bit at a time. I rubbed my face and kicked off my tangled covers to cool off my torso against the air.
I often had that dream, but it usually wasn't so disturbing. Mom had only been shot once before in previous dreams, and the killer hadn’t seemed to take such a vivid interest in the fact that Mom had a son.
I closed my eyes. I didn't want to go back to sleep, but I did feel weakened from my adrenaline-pumped brain rush. So I was still, trying to think of other things. I promised myself that tomorrow would be a much better day. It had to be.
Floorboards creaked. I assumed at first that it was the old house settling, but my skin prickled apprehensively. I opened my eyes and looked down at the end of my bed. Three figures stood there, draped in black cloaks. I blinked hard and moaned, thinking I was still dreaming.
Swift and silent, the trio took up a post on all open sides of my mattress. I watched them for a few shocked seconds, finally registering that they weren't there to have a tea party, that they were real, and I quickly sat up, my pulse racing. When I took a breath to yell, one darted in and shoved a rough and foul-tasting cloth in my mouth. I was out-of-my-mind terrified, my every nerve tingling, my pulse racing so quickly that I could feel my heartbeat all the way down in my fingertips.
I reached up to pluck the cloth from my jaws, at the same time scrambling to launch out of bed, but one guy blocked me, took my shoulder in a leather-gloved hand, and twisted me around. The robed guy at the other side of my bed pushed me down on my face, and he and his buddy pinned me stiff.
I gagged on the cloth and twisted my head to one side, breathing heavily through my nostrils. I flailed my legs, trying to hit the guy at the end of my bed, but he stepped around my thrashing limbs to stop by my back. My sudden movements had reopened the knife wound, and I could feel small trickles of blood flowing warm down my sides and back. For some reason, in the moment, I felt the blood to be especially precious—my life force draining from me, when I needed it most, a sign of weakness like blood in the ocean with sharks swimming nearby. The man reached inside his cloak and extracted a minuscule glass bottle stoppered with a cork. He pulled out the cork with a little pop and raised the vial over my back.
I started to babble through my gag, resuming my useless struggling. “Hey! Come on, guys! What'd I do? Hey, no! Don't do that––”
The man upended the bottle, and its contents felt terribly hot against my spine. But it didn't hurt. It was almost comfortably soothing. I felt the strength drain out of me, and I stopped moving. The strangers released me and backed out of my line of sight. I knew they were leaving.
Sleep consumed me once more, and I felt myself drifting into that world where nothing matters, the bizarre place you find yourself in the sub consciousness of your mind. But before my lids even shut, color and images blended out before my eyes. I was physically still in bed with the strangers' toxin now in my bloodstream, but my mind found me watching an event take place.
I was atop a shrubby, tropical outlook covered in sand and roots. Down a steep hill straight ahead was a beach shaped like a crescent and pinched by clear blue water on one side and stout leafy trees on the other.
A big, dark-feathered creature perched atop the hill ahead, and to one side of me, against the ferns and vines, his pointed orange beak and intense gray eyes aimed down at the beach. He had a large, thick body, but I could only see down to his chest. I couldn't move my head or blink. He eyeballed a trio of men in cloaks, two of which were getting aboard funny-shaped planks of wood. They must have just carved them from trees; I saw chips of curled up bark piled nearby. The other man sat cross-legged in the sand, playing a haunting melody on some delicate panpipes. His comrades surfed the waves. One dropped an object beneath the water.
The feathery creature's ear tufts twitched and he turned to look straight at me. I jumped, and then I was awake.