Tradewinds 06 CH 10

Again with the furniture store. Be it ever so cramped, there’s no place like home. Or maybe home was where you hid under the bed.

After more than a week of this, Shades had long since tired of trying to make up cheesy jokes about the most nerve-wracking part of his new life. Just wondering how long he could keep getting away with this before someone finally caught on to him. Though he always ended up crashing from sheer exhaustion, he hadn’t really had a decent eight hours’ sleep since his first night. If he wasn’t awakened by half-remembered nightmares about John and Amy, he was instead disturbed by imaginings of guards striding through the dark, empty “after hours” places, on patrol.

On the hunt.

Mostly just remembering another strange day.

Again in dirty clothes after an all-too-brief shower. His hair still smelled of chlorine, and he hoped it might conceal the ever-intensifying odor of his clothing. His days of being able to walk among other people without drawing too much attention to himself were counting down by the hour. In recent days, he had taken to scavenging change from vending machines, arcade games, and pay phones, spotting random coins— once even lucking out and finding a fiver— on the floor, had even pocketed a couple tips someone had left on unoccupied tables in the food court. And now he would have to take it to the next level, resorting to the old Five Finger Discount just to survive. A dangerous venture, as he would have to learn it quickly in this place where the guards do more than just kick you out.

He regretted using so much of his meager cash supply at the mall’s indoor swimming pool, but he had seriously needed to clean himself up. Of course, he stuck around for the whole session, and not just to get his money’s worth— it had been too many moons since the last time he got to go swimming. Fortunately, he had taken his gym shorts back home to wash for the weekend, finding them smashed flat in the bottom of his pack, but he was barely able to pass them off as swim trunks. Still, he was able to have a few hours of fun, washing away days of stress in the pool, as well as dirt and sweat in the locker room shower.

It felt so unreal to just slip back into his old troubles again. Mounting all that pressure with each garment he put back on. Stepping back into the nightmare as he left the locker room. After swimming for several hours, he was famished, so he would have to find the cheapest meal he could, then go back under his bed.

Though a small piece of the experience still lingered with him. For as long as he could remember, any time he went swimming, the sensation of floating stuck with him for a couple hours after he left the pool. As if he could just spread his arms and glide through the air.

Floating was a good description of how he felt at moments like this, as if he was walking along the bottom of the ocean. As if he was just hovering, bobbing, not so much that he was drifting through these rooms as much as it was that the rooms simply moved around him. The other half of the time he just had to put one foot in front of the other and take each floor tile on faith because with each step he took he could feel himself falling.

The jury was still out on which of these two states was worse.

He slid back and forth between the two in the course of his second mission. Swim, then shower, before stealing clean clothes. Spending every minute not quite believing he was doing this. Had to look middle class to keep a low profile. Picking out clothes based on whether or not they had ink-tags, and if they did, in places where he could cut the fabric around them in less conspicuous places. Hiding each tag somewhere it wouldn’t be found anytime soon. Taking one item from each store, then making sure he wasn’t followed before entering another.

First his jacket, to cover his dirty shirt. Then his shoes, remembering that people judged you by your shoes. Then pants, to make his outer appearance complete. Shirt, so he could unbutton his jacket again. Underwear and socks, so now maybe he wouldn’t smell so much.

By the end of it, he was a nervous wreck. He wondered how the hell real shoplifters did it. He had once resolved that he would never steal unless it was a matter of survival. The cruel joke here was that it was. When he saw himself in the mirrors and such, he could see that he was turning into a vagrant before his very eyes, and that was making it harder and harder to avoid the guards’ attention. That left him with a choice of risking getting caught stealing, or getting caught for simply existing.

In the end, he concluded that stealing was a lesser sin than suicide.

At one point, he had run an experiment wherein he tried to follow some people out. But no matter how hard he tried to be subtle, they got suspicious and started trying to evade him. One even threatened to call Security. Exactly what I need… He knew that if he tried to explain, he would just come across as some kind of nut. In the end, he had to abandon the experiment for fear of drawing too much attention to himself.

In the course of his explorations, he had discovered that this place wasn’t as infinite as he had originally imaged. Huge, certainly, but he found that the mall was divided into about a dozen “sectors”—each with its own architectural styles and atmosphere, and he was still learning his way around. On one hand, he was glad he could find his way back to certain places, but if the mall was never-ending, he would at least have been able to make a fresh start in each new sector.

Before returning to House of Clutter, he passed through a hall that was empty, most of the stores closed at this time. It made him think of how empty his life had become of late. Aside from the few vaguely familiar images he could find here, his whole world had vanished without a trace. Just as he had similarly vanished from that world without a trace. He was glad Mom had been out of town on the night of the experiment, had been spared the ordeal he currently endured, but he also knew she must be pulling her hair out by now, and he had no way to tell her he was alright. Alright for now, at least. Admittedly, between his job and hers, the two of them had seen less and less of each other in the last couple years, in spite of living under the same roof. Still, he was surprised at the hole her absence left in his life. His mom, all of his friends, he even found himself missing his old routine, which he had chafed under for years.

What was left behind when the dust settled was utterly alien, or at best only a cheap knock-off of the most shallow elements of his old life.

In this place where there would be no witnesses if anything happened, he was again reminded of how precarious his situation was anymore. The last time he was at Bankshot, DJ told him about a man who had once killed himself in the very atrium he had wandered when he first came here. And how. After alternately begging and demanding to be shown the way out, he had finally blown his brains out. In front of a live audience.

Though it had happened well before Shades ever set foot in this forsaken place, the story still freaked him out. Especially knowing there would be no police investigation. No investigation of any kind, knowing Security. Just like it was with the man who warned him that fateful night.

The day before, he had gone to the site of the suicide. The man had done himself in with an automatic shotgun, and sure enough, the wall had been plastered over in that place. Right where he was cornered at the end. Just like all of the other incidents, a mute testimony of the evil that resided within these walls.

Yet that wasn’t even the worst of it. When he had turned to be on his way, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. What he saw when he turned around, his mind still adamantly insisted on attributing to sleep deprivation. Blood, dipping, oozing down the wall as if it had happened only five minutes ago.

The part that made him shiver as he made his way down that vacant hall was the image of the wall itself soaking it up, making him wonder if there really had been anything to clean up later.

He suspected that this place was full of scary images, sometimes he got the impression that some of the kids he saw didn’t seem to like this place as much as one would expect. As if they had perhaps gotten a brief glimpse of this place’s true face. This whole place ticked like a clock— he pictured an alarm-clock time-bomb— waiting. For what, Shades didn’t know. A deathwatch, a giant ticking clock.

And sometimes he got the disturbing idea that it was counting down to his demise.

This place messed with his mind— he was increasingly certain it was more than just the loss of sleep. There were forces at work here that no one seemed to understand, moving behind the scenes. He was afraid the place itself was somehow alive, in some way he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

It made him wonder how many of the passing people here were real. How many were just camouflage for passing victims. Based on what DJ had told him, he had come farther than most, and the thought really frightened him, too far now to ever close my eyes.

Lost in thought, Shades nearly tripped over a bench, catching his feet and grabbing onto the back of the bench. As he righted himself in this darkened corridor, he stepped around the bench, gazing at it as if at some abstract art display. For a moment, he wondered if he should have disrupted this little scene, which for some reason felt like a still shot from some surreal movie.

Again remembering the vision that jolted him awake whenever he dozed, of himself curled up comfortably on a bench very much like this while guards quietly surrounded him, he wondered if something along those lines may have happened here. For a moment, he half expected to see blood on the seat, but everything looked okay. It was while examining the bench that he noticed the card sitting on the far end of the seat.

He paused for a moment before approaching the bench, again not quite sure why he thought of it as a scene. Yet he almost felt outside himself, watching himself, as he played out some part he didn’t fully understand. For a moment, he almost swore someone was watching this, but when he looked around, he saw no one. No cameras, either, that he could see.

Feeling for all the world like this whole situation was another weird dream, he reached down and picked up the plastic card. It was the right size for a credit card, had a black strip across the back. Across the front was the acronym FMBNC, then First Municipal Bank of New Cali, printed underneath in fine print.

Holding it in his hand, he again wondered what he was doing. A voice in his head asked him if perhaps this may have been left for someone else. Another part of him knew, just knew, that it had been laid out and was waiting right here just for him.

Or someone like me, Shades concluded.

That was when he noticed there was a scrap of paper left underneath the card. He picked it up and read a hastily scrawled note: Jackals closing in. No way out. Don’t let THEM have it. Upon further inspection, he caught the number 4963 scribbled on the back.

Shades again paused in understandable confusion. Should I have taken it? Am I the one? Am I fulfilling some mysterious last request? Or am I now cursed?

But now he had the card, and its previous owner had cast it off. Finders keepers, and all that jazz. Of course, he had his own dark suspicions about who “them”— who the jackals— might be, and by the simple act of keeping it he would be fulfilling the writer’s cryptic last request. As much as he hated the scavenger-esque feeling of walking away with what was likely a dead man’s possession, he felt deep down that it had been left for him, whether its previous owner knew it or not. So he put it in his pocket and walked away.

It’s mine now.

Yet that mystical feeling hung on. He had no idea what the future held, for himself or his friends, but he had ventured into this dungeon and found his first real treasure. He was where he was, and could only take things as they came. It may have sounded grim to some, but he was beginning to understand what Master Al had told him about how one of the greatest strengths one could possess was the ability to improvise when the going gets tough.

But what a tradeoff. Yes, there were some parts of his old life he didn’t mind, some he was glad to be rid of, but not all of it— though definitely the monotony— and he wished he hadn’t lost his friends in the process. Sometimes it was all he could do to shake off the fear of being alone, left on his own— and much sooner than expected.

Shades had made a wrong turn on the way home from work one night, and now he was lost on that proverbial Unknown Road. His fondest wish was for Arthur, or Tom, or especially John or Amy, to explore it with. Just like his fragmentary vision of her that night, he felt that he— and they as well, out there somewhere— was now cruising on some endless highway.

Just trying to read all the new road signs.

Tradewinds 06 CH 09

Shades sat slouched in a very cushy chair, slumped down to keep a low profile for those who passed behind him. Someone else, a pleasant couple who, like many he encountered, were blissfully oblivious to the hidden horror that surrounded them, had beaten him to the two chairs against the wall.

In his hand he held a copy of a book about haunted places and disappearances that he hoped might be of some use to him. Nothing so far; all the people in these accounts had either inexplicably escaped their predicaments, or had vanished without a trace. Either way, not very encouraging. He had already read a few chapters of this volume, and still no help, so he had decided to switch and read one of the comics, the manga (he was fast picking up on the terminology, and finding it increasingly fascinating the deeper he dug), English versions of what most of the shows he had watched the other day were based on.

The place he was currently hiding called itself Bookworm’s Paradise, a place that he felt would be ahead of its time in his world. The very concept was entirely new to him, and after a mere six hours he had already fallen in love with it. He could sit in a very comfy chair for hours at a time, reading any of thousands of books, with no obligation to buy. No Are you gonna buy that? or This isn’t a library!— in this place, the books sold themselves.

Or, in Shades’ case, served as a poor man’s library.

The only thing he didn’t like about this place was how the aromas from the store’s own café made him hungry. It made him wish he still had some gum left. In his experience, nothing went better with a good book than bubblegum. Gum had a way of taking the edge off. Off his bewilderment, frustration and free-falling anxiety.

In short, off the fact that hundreds of people seemed to walk in and out of this place somehow, and yet he couldn’t find a way out.

There had to be one. He still refused to believe it— after all, there was a way in. Already he knew he would have no peace until he found John and Amy. John, who had gone the same way as his favorite cliff. And Amy, to whom that place was also special. Yet he marveled at how seldom the two of them ever crossed paths there…

…Shades sprawled in the warm spring earth between the roots of the ruins of what was once a great tree. Blackened and charred at the top, this odd landmark stood in the middle of a broad clearing near his favorite clifftop lookout spot. What was left still towered over twenty feet above him, a trunk split by more than one lightning strike over the years, for it was the tallest object for miles around.

From this lofty vantage point, one could see the entire northern half of Flathead Lake, all the way across to Big Fork. From a little farther along the cliff, he could see most of downtown Lakeside, including the school playground. When he was younger, he used to come up here with Dad’s old binoculars and pretend he was a spy, scoping out enemy territory. In addition to reading, he also came up here sometimes to train, or just to wander around and think.

In that narrow band of shade, his legs crossed in the grass and dirt, reading a copy of The Two Towers, which Arthur had lent him. There were some books he found that he enjoyed most reading in fresh air and sunlight. Good book, check. Gum, check. Shades, check. Headphones playing loud music, check. Bottle of pop, check. Solitude in the middle of nowhere, check.

Ultimate Sensory Deprivation; nothing else existed except the world contained in those pages.

So deprived was he of his earthly senses in this state, that it was only after a deeper shadow fell across his lap that he realized his solitude was not as complete as it was a minute ago. When he got really lost in what he was reading, he tended to blow big bubbles that he noticed only when they started to cut into his reading vision, and so startled was he by this unexpected presence that he gasped. Causing the bubble to blow up in his face— something he had ordinarily long-since mastered not doing. With no other options, he yanked off both specs and headphones, trying not to show how embarrassed he felt at being caught unawares like this.

“Dexter? Is that you?”

And then things got a whole lot more embarrassing, as he turned and saw that it was none other than Amy O’Connor who hovered over him. Shades set aside his glasses, the gum stretching and most of it peeling off, and his headphones, nearly tangling his hands in the cord as he fumbled for the STOP button, completely losing his page in the process. There was the traditional awkward moment of silence, then Amy started giggling in spite of herself.

Not-So-Ultimate Sensory Reintegration, more like burning up on re-entry and crash-landing.

“Um… yeah…” Shades finally managed.

“Who’s the spaz?” a second voice piped up.

As a second shadow crossed him, he saw that she had a little boy in tow, and the grin on his face was a joke whose punchline escaped Shades, but suggested that the joke would be on him soon enough.

Into the vacuum left by the absence of Shades’ response, Amy spoke on his behalf, saying, “That’s Dexter MacLean. He’s in my Geometry class.”

“Shades, please.” At last regaining his speech faculties, he quickly added, “That’s what all my friends call me.”

“Oh yeah.” Though this wasn’t the only time in the years since he changed his name that she called him by his original name— not that he really minded, in her case. “So, what were you doing up here?”

“Well, I was reading.”

And then, just as Shades was starting to regain his balance, the little kid chimed in: “Amy and Dexter, sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g…”

“Roy!” Amy snapped, pushing the boy back. “Don’t mind him. He’s just my little brother, and he seems to think every guy we meet is my boyfriend.”

To which Roy replied, “That guy you met yesterday was cooler than this geek.”

“Roy…”

It would only be a couple years later, while sitting in a bookstore in another dimension, that he would realize just how embarrassed she must have been, as well. Not to mention having that little kid following her around making fun of every guy she meets. For now, though, all he could think of was how this was one of the rare times he had gotten to talk to Amy outside of school, and the little brother from hell was ruining every minute of it.

Changing the subject any way he could think of, he asked her, “Do you happen to know what time it is? I kinda forgot my watch.” After all, in the spirit of the event, he didn’t bring his watch on his “Sensory Deprivation” sessions.

“Oh, it’s about…” she checked her watch, “three-thirty…” And an odd look seemed to cross her face, as if he had somehow confused her.

And then Roy jumped back in, more obnoxious-sounding than ever: “Amy and Dexter, sittin’ in a tree, f-u-c-k—”

Smack.

“You watch your mouth!”

“But Uncle Don…”

“Just do as he says, not as he does.” To Shades, and Shades wasn’t sure she couldn’t possibly look any more embarrassed if she tried: “I’m really sorry, Shades. I love him dearly, but the things he picks up… So… Shades, what were you up to?”

“Amy’s got a boyfriend…” Roy sing-songed.

“Just a little reading…” Even as he spoke, Shades watched a couple good “sensory deprivation” quips go flying out the window. Charm was never his strong suit, but right now he would settle for just being able to make his tongue move coherently. “It’s a great view, isn’t it?”

“Amy’s got a boyfriend…”

Never in his life, even after all Master Al had taught him about the dangers of judging an opponent’s strength by appearance alone, would Shades have dreamed he could be beaten so easily by someone only half his age.

“Yeah…” Amy seemed to have taken Shades’ cue and turned her gaze on yonder lake. “Anyway, I was just showing Roy where me and my friends’ old tree fort is. See ya at school tomorrow!”

Shades’ “Um, yeah… You too.” was mostly drowned out by Roy crooning, “You gonna kiss him goodbye, Amy?”

To which she may well have turned even redder than Shades. Then another slow-time silence, in which Shades wished she would while trying to look like he thought no such thing. A breeze picked up, sweeping Amy’s hair aside as she turned to her little brother.

“Come on, Roy. We’ve got to be home by dinner, or Dad’s gonna ground me. Sorry about that, Shades. Guess I’ll see you around…”

…Shades had sat there letting the very sands of time slip through his fingers as those two walked away. As embarrassed as he had been at the time, he had come to treasure that moment in his own peculiar way. So what if he lost his page? So what if he had to clean gum off his shades? So what if he made an ass of himself in front of Amy? So what if her pint-size bodyguard had just shown him some simple-yet-devastating Kung-Fu that bastard Carlos would never be able to touch?

He got to talk to her, dammit, and on the few occasions when that happened, he always feared it might somehow be the last time.

And now he feared that all-too-brief conversation in another mall, in another world— in what was already beginning to feel like another life— actually would be the last if he couldn’t find a way out of here.

Beyond these walls was a strange new world, just waiting for him. Though the possibilities fascinated him, at times, he still found it overwhelming. It was all so daunting, yet he had no choice. And, just as this place had proven bigger on this inside than it had on the outside, it had proven more dangerous than that little voice in the back of his mind could possibly have conveyed.

Though he had to make an effort not to kick himself for not figuring it out. This place was too much like a twisted version of those old tales of sirens and lotus-eaters for comfort. A commercial pitcher-plant, luring unsuspecting travelers with its glossy surface. Which was really just a slippery slope, sliding down into the nightmare that lies beneath that surface. Its exact nature still eluded him, but he sensed something behind the façade that made him more afraid of being here too long the more he thought about it.

So he mostly tried not to think about it.

As soon as his hunger reached the point where he could no longer focus on what he was reading, he would ration out a little more of his dwindling currency on something cheap to eat. In a few hours it would be time to sneak back into a certain furniture store and hide under a bed. After that incident with the little boy, he had made a mental note to pick beds with frills running around the bottom from now on.

Not to mention sleeping on his stomach; it wasn’t as comfortable, but he couldn’t help thinking of how he had avoided breaking his nose by only an inch or so when he woke up from that nightmare the other day.

Tradewinds 06 CH 08

With everything on his mind, it was hard to focus on his escape, but that last situation had scared him enough to hold his attention.

Even so, he would soon learn that this awkward, maddening skit wasn’t quite over yet. The final scene was yet to come, and the joke was almost on him when a familiar voice burst out: Daddy! It’s the guy from under the bed! And there, in the showroom off to his left, was little Kyle, pointing right at him.

And Shades had barely managed to duck into the next room before either of the boy’s parents could turn and look.

Come on, Kyle, this isn’t funny anymore…

But it’s him! He just went around the corner!…

Enough games, Kyle. Let’s go…

The boy had lingered for a moment, forcing Shades to pass within sight one last time in his haste to get the hell out of the store before the little brat could cause a scene. Shades waved to him but refused to break his stride. Just letting the boy’s argument with his parents drift into background noise, then silence, as he fled.

The trick, of course, being to hurry without looking like he was in a hurry. At the first opportunity, he ducked into a restroom to re-equip— and relieve— himself. Keeping his whip, his only real weapon, close at hand, he concealed his backpack, wearing it under his jacket and shifting its few remaining contents to pants or jacket pockets. Never had he seen a place so hostile to people with backpacks— it wasn’t like he had a car to leave the damn thing in while he was out and about— and he didn’t like letting random strangers paw through what few possessions he had left.

As far as he was concerned, what the mall’s money-nazis and minions didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Or him, either, for that matter.

He understood all too well that he was now stuck playing a dangerous game, with little margin for error. And already he had made too many mistakes. His first mistake had been getting John involved in this mess. Barring that, it was getting separated so easily. No matter how many times he thought about it, he just couldn’t get over how stupid that whole debacle had been. How preventable.

Tactics. Exit strategy. Escape plan. Somewhere in this vast universe, Douglas MacLean was shaking his head at how quickly his son had forgotten such basic tactics.

And then, to top it all off, he had to go and enter this place. Tired and confused as he had been… You still felt something, didn’t you, Shades? No voice spoke up to contradict this, and he again found he could only feel foolish for even setting foot in here. Still, what was done was done; the only thing he could do now was try to stay alive long enough to find a way out.

This just didn’t seem real, despite the fact that it was happening to him. Just a nightmare to be awakened from by an alarm. Though he knew such delusions would be disarming in the face of such dangerous foes, especially in the absence of any allies.

In his frustration, he wasn’t terribly surprised to find himself thinking of Carlos…

…Seventh grade, the year Shades would learn a thing or two about frustration. Most of it from one Carlos Adams, who had been a new student at the end of last year. And ever since fall quarter, this Carlos had set his sights on him, making his school life a pain in the ass whenever he turned his back.

For example, trying to trip him in the foyer after lunch break.

Though Carlos always had a way of lurking and waylaying him at unexpected moments, this particular ambush had failed. Shades stumbled, but managed to regain his footing. Carlos, on the other hand, had lost his balance in the process, burning his hand on one of the ancient steam-heating elements, which for some reason still ran long after the others in the building were shut off.

Shades didn’t wait around to see his nemesis’ reaction, busting through the inner doors and retreating to the classroom. Carlos tearing after him in a rage. Seeing his adversary burst in, eyes immediately fixing on him, Shades tried to put some distance between them by ducking around a table at the back of the room.

And Carlos scrambled over the table, taking a flying leap at him.

Though he landed on his feet, Shades’ uppercut stopped Carlos in mid lunge, sending him crashing to the floor. Carlos crawled slowly to his feet, knees and elbows numb with pain. Though shaky on his feet, he again charged Shades.

Who simply sidestepped and tripped him— a technique he had learned from Master Al, the hard way.

By now, he was flowing motion, no longer letting conscious thought slow him down or trip him up. For that one moment, as if he did this sort of thing every day. If Master Al had seen this, rather than listening to his student downplay his own actions later, he would have known that Shades as in the zone. That he had come into a state of mind in which he was using the skills Al had taught him for over a year as second nature.

Think intuitively… Flow like water…

The class, meanwhile, had stood by, too stunned to react, and now they were laughing at Carlos. It had become one of those scenes in life where everyone’s script seemed to have been written for them. Shades was in the zone, Carlos was beside himself with rage, and the whole class could only watch this spectacle with helpless amusement.

Seething with fury, Carlos picked up the chair he had leaned on to get back up.

“You son of a bitch!” he roared as he swung it at Shades.

Still lost in the moment, Shades rolled over the table to dodge the attack. And that, zone or no zone, was where his luck ran out. For it had been a wet, boggy February day, and muddy water had been tracked all over the back of the classroom, and as Shades landed, he slipped and fell on his ass.

Perhaps his luck had not run out entirely, though, as that was when Mr Bosley yanked the chair out of Carlos’ hands, nearly hauling the furious young man over backwards in the process.

“What the hell are you doing!?” Bosley demanded…

…So it could be argued that Mr Bosley had bailed him out of that one.

Though that was not how most of his classmates remembered it. Mr Bosley, in the eyes of most of these kids, was reduced to a mere footnote in their life stories, having merely “broken up” the fight just when it was getting interesting. Still, for a long time, most people didn’t look at him quite the same after his brawls with Carlos, or anyone else, for that matter.

And that was the problem. Though his close friends, then Arthur, Tom, and John (whom he had first met in gym class that year after the holidays), knew about it, Shades didn’t exactly go around advertising his martial arts training with Master Al. Real name: Albert Fairbanks, an old friend of Dad’s, and an accomplished Master of Shorin-ryu Karate, having studied in Okinawa and Japan in his younger days, who had started teaching Shades when he was in the fifth grade. Instead, Carlos had forced his hand, making him give it away in front of the whole class. In front of the entire sixth and seventh grade, at the end of the year.

And Shades still didn’t know how he did it. He had always sucked at sports— and never harbored much of an interest in it to begin with— but had always taken Master Al’s training seriously. On the spot, just busted out and went from zero to sixty, doing things he wouldn’t have thought himself capable of.

Then it was back to being just plain old Dexter MacLean.

Though Carlos had picked his share of fights among the seventh- and eighth-graders that year— and got his ass kicked by every single one of them— Shades was the only one he fought more than once. And was also the only person Shades ever had to fight more than once. Of course, most people quickly forgot about the whole thing, yet a few still told the tale at the start of his freshman year, causing a lot of problems at first.

So much for a clean start at a new school.

Just thinking about all the people who went around challenging him and picking fights because his middle-school fisticuffs had somehow gained an extra leg— not to mention an action sequence or two— in the telling, becoming an epic battle of kung-fu action, made him clench his fists even as he strolled down the hall. It was only the people who followed him around for a while, asking him to “show me a few moves” that put him in a more awkward bind than the tough guys who had made him out to be the reincarnation of Bruce Lee or some damn thing. Far too much hype for what they would have gotten to see anyway, hadn’t even earned his green belt back then.

Hell, even someone only half as good as Bruce Lee would be able to wipe the floor with me…

For whatever reason, Carlos always had it in for him, but at least here he could take some comfort from the fact that there was no one here to tell the guards any tall tales about his exploits against the bastard. All the same, he found he would gladly trade these thugs for all the muscleheads in his school right now, at least they weren’t trying to kill him. The thought of facing any of those guards again was starting to put even his most awkward school moments in perspective, much to both his bitter amusement and chagrin.

As he continued his walkabout, seeking some sign, some inspiration, for what to do next, he concluded that if he actually survived this, he would never again allow himself to be overwhelmed by the likes Carlos Adams or his stunts.

Tradewinds 06 CH 07

A short while later, Shades finally regained consciousness to the sound of voices cutting through the pain in his head.

“…That’s a really lovely spread, dear,” some woman’s voice remarked.

“I don’t know…” some man’s voice commented.

“No way!” the voice of a boy Shades was sure couldn’t be older than nine or ten piped up. “I want a bunk bed!”

“You can’t have a bunk bed,” the voice of what must surely be the boy’s father told him flatly. “You’ll fall off.”

There was just something about the way Daddy dead-panned that last that Shades barely stifled a laugh at. The abrupt movement made his head start throbbing again, his smirk wiped off with a wince. It was only as he worried about blowing his cover that it occurred to him that there must not have been anyone about when he woke up before. Place was likely closed.

“Will not!” the son protested. “Come on, Dad! Steve has a bunk bed!”

“That’s for Steve’s parents to decide,” Mommy told him. “Now, let’s see if they have one with a lighter frame…”

Though irritated by how easily the boy was brushed off in the decision-making process for his own bed, Shades still allowed himself a silent sigh. For a moment he was afraid the two were actually interested in buying his hiding place. He had gotten his full night’s sleep, or as close to it as he was going to get; as soon as these folks left the room, it would be time to slip out of here.

But as the parents ambled into the next room, discussing their son’s new bed, and Shades prepared to make his move, the boy looked underneath this one.

He and Shades stared at each other for a long moment, eye to mirrorized lenses.

Busted…

“Mom! Dad! Look!” the boy blurted out as he jumped back to his feet. “There’s a guy under the bed! And he’s got silly-looking sunglasses!”

Silly-looking! Shades nearly muttered, then his mind switched gears in a frantic effort to explain himself this time (I’m screwed, I’m screwed, I’m screwed…), but not coming up with much of anything.

“Kyle, honey,” Mommy began in a chiding, yet calm and reassuring— in a word, motherly— voice, “there’s no one under the bed. Just as there’s nothing under your bed at home.”

Shades held his breath, hoping that would be the end of it, but the boy, whose name was apparently Kyle, persisted.

“But he’s there! I saw him! He’s even got a whip, too!”

Shit! How’m I gonna explain that? (Don’t let Security get you!)— Shades had taken DJ’s words to heart. So he had braced himself for a confrontation with the guards, not a grade-school kid.

“Nonsense,” Daddy told him, in a voice that made Shades picture him putting his foot down. “There is no one under that bed.”

And from that tone, Shades was afraid that Daddy was going to look under the bed, just to prove he was right.

“But Dad! He’s real! See for yourself!”

Shades braced himself to knock the bed over and bolt; if he made a big enough commotion, maybe no one would catch his face…

“Kyle, I’m not going to make a fool of myself crawling around on the floor.” Then, to his wife, “Come on, dear, let’s go see what else they have.”

End of discussion, to which Shades sighed, then hoped he hadn’t made too much noise.

“But Dad…”

“No buts. Let’s go…”

And so the conversation went.

Even after they left, Shades held still for a while, fearing that there was still one more awkward twist left to this skit; he had seen too many comedies to believe it could end this easily. In spite of the suspense, his mind kept turning back to his bad dreams. To his dream-friends’ predicaments. The only thing he could think of was how real his dreams had seemed years ago.

It had been years since he had had dreams like that

Tradewinds 06 CH 06

It took him a while to fall asleep in such a cramped and vulnerable position, but when he finally did, he had another disconcerting dream.

…Amy walks down an empty sidewalk. (Little does Shades realize it now, but later, when he wakes up, he will remember this same street from another dream he had once.) She looks around, as if to make sure no one is following her.

She appears nervous, anxious even, though about what Shades is unable to tell.

The street is that of some small town, but nothing looks familiar. To either of them, observer or observed. As the sun sets, she enters a small apartment building, and she takes one last, wary glance over her shoulder.

His mind’s eye follows her down a long, dark hallway through the fading red-gold light from outside. Her pace quickens to a harried stride, and she looks back at the entrance every few steps. In the meantime, she passes door after door.

Which gives Shades some relief; he senses somehow that those doors are dead ends, possibly even traps of some kind.

At the end of the hall, she ducks a quick right, peeping over her shoulder even as she does so. Around the corner, she continues deeper into what turns out to be a labyrinth of increasingly narrow halls, more than could possibly exist in such a small building. And at every turn, she steals another backward glance, and every other turn or so, she quickens her pace. After a few more turns, the halls give way to a degenerating maze of rooms and corridors, all dark and grey and dusky.

The few people she runs into either turn away from her when they see she’s being hounded, or worse, try to reach out for her. And Amy, of course, would jerk away from the reachers. A reaction Shades could understand— there is just something about their empty, glassy-eyed daze, about the glazed-eyed zombie look in general, that creeps the hell out of him.

By now, Amy has abandoned any semblance of an orderly retreat, scrambling for all-out evasion. Even in her growing haste, though, she still can spare an occasional reality check, and she clearly doesn’t like what she sees. Which is driving Shades nuts; though he doubts that he really wants to see what she is so afraid of, his curiosity and concern overrule him.

It would later make him think of the Evil Dead movies, this business of being chased by something the “audience” can’t see. Backstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, he thinks, little knowing that, in the waking world, he is giggling madly.

Around the way, Amy hits a blind alley. She’s back outside again, but hemmed in by at least three or four stories of ugly, rust-red brick walls. Looking around frantically for another way out, she spots a door to her left, but when she tries to push it, she finds it solidly locked against her.

The last thing Shades sees is the look on Amy’s face as she turns back around and finds herself face-to-face with her unseen pursuer, she just lets loose with a desperate, horrified scream—

“NOOO!! Amy—”

Shades sat up— or at least he tried to— hitting his head on the underside of the box spring.

The blow stunned him as he flopped back to the lush carpet of the bedroom set. Already numbing the throbbing pain in his forehead, dimming the stars that exploded out of the darkness. The last coherent thought he had was of being more worried about Amy than how close he had come to breaking his nose, let alone the prospect of running feet now that he had done such a spectacular job of revealing his hiding place.

But Shades found himself drifting into unconsciousness, even as his tired mind worried about too many things at once.

Tradewinds 06 CH 05

Shades entered a furniture store called House of Clutter, another fine example of what he had noticed was a popular trend here of giving places the lamest possible names, even for a mall. He was sure it had to be some kind of record, like how fast Carlos could wolf down cheeseburgers. He couldn’t decide what that last thought made him miss more, his old arch-enemy, or those old-fashioned greasy burgers. Yet, in spite of its self-depreciating moniker, most of the displays of the shop before him looked way out of his price range. Not that he was interested in buying anyway.

After passing the furnishings on display in the front, he found himself in the maze of sets in the back. Living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, earlier he had explored sufficiently enough to know where he wanted to go. When he was a kid, he always imagined people playing hide-and-seek, or hunting each other with water guns.

The former being more along the lines of what his agenda entailed.

Though the mall itself appeared to be open at all hours, individual stores maintained their own separate schedules. Everything ran on a rotating schedule, from one sector to the next. Of course, he had always harbored a curiosity of sorts about what went on in places like this after hours. And despite having stuck to the discount menu, famished as he was, he no longer had enough money left to stay even one more night in the mall hotel.

He had searched for hours on end, without turning up anything useful, and he was now in danger of sleepwalking. This place was weird enough when he was awake— he didn’t want to know what it would feel like after several days without sleep. Just the simple fact that the more he watched these people all around him, the less they felt real, and that unsettling feeling became stronger the longer he went without sleep.

In addition, he was also still nervous about those guards (for a moment, he pictured himself passing out on a bench, and a group of those guys encircling him… and shuddered in spite of himself), so the logical place to sleep was someplace they didn’t know about.

To that end, he was sneaking into a furniture store. It appeared to be the middle of their day, so hopefully no one would note his comings or goings. All the same, he tried to evade most of the surveillance cameras, just to be on the safe side. He wasn’t sure if anyone was watching or recording the damn thing, but he didn’t want a soul to see him.

After exploring the maze of rooms in the back, he found what he was seeking. Just the right bed— not high off the floor, but not so low that he couldn’t fit underneath it. The events of the past thirty-six hours ringing in his head, he made sure no one else was in sight and slipped under the bed.

More trouble in one day than he had been through in one year; he wondered if he would actually have to get used to this.

Tradewinds 06 CH 04

It seemed a shame to put his filthy clothes back on after such a long, refreshing shower, but he had anyway. His socks smelled bad even after they dried out, a recipe for instant athlete’s foot. Just add water. Shades had done what he could to clean up, and at least he looked better than he had last night.

On his way out of the hotel, he hid his backpack underneath his jacket, glad he had ditched his workbooks last night; pissed-off teachers would be the least of his worries if he ever made it home. He would just say that he lost them in the woods, ruined in the storm. In the same spirit, he had also trashed his dorky-looking DepartMart uniform, and planned to use the same story there. After all, they would be but minor details in the story he had to tell.

As he searched the mall, he counted down the minutes until The Crossfire Gang began its final showing. Though his ill-portentous dream about John dominated his memory, still he worried about Amy for some reason he couldn’t quite place. At least until he recalled that whatever was happening last night was happening as far away as Somers, that he and John might not be the only ones exploring strange new places this morning. Still, his inner skeptic asked him what she would think, how long she would wait for him, if she even had an inkling of what happened to him…

Stood up on our first date…

Somehow he doubted this would be a Hollywood ending, with he and Amy miraculously making it to the theater in time. According to his watch, he had all of about thirty-four minutes until the final showing. With a heavy sigh, he collapsed into another pew in this cavernous cathedral of consumerism.

This place that seemed to have no end, as if someone had thrown a roof over an entire city. He had avoided the guards so far, but was still nervous about what lengths they might go to to get him. To that end, he tried to make sure he saw them from far enough away that he could keep his distance while still acting casual. So far, he had not recognized a single store name or brand name anywhere. After a while, he just shrugged. It was to be expected, being in another dimension and all.

While in the shower earlier, he had an epiphany of sorts, and he concluded, Of course I couldn’t find an exit! I was running around on the umpteenth floor!

Thought he could beat the System, but of course he was wrong. The first obstacle he faced was even finding a ground floor. He wandered and wandered, only to find that the levels were numbered differently from one section to the next. His greatest enemy, though, was the sheer scope and scale of this place; no matter how far he walked, upstairs or downstairs, he had yet to come upon the same place twice.

In his explorations, he turned up various architectural motifs that made him feel as if he had just walked through nearly a dozen malls. Not a single familiar store name, nor a single familiar face. Nor a single exit.

There weren’t even any marked on the directory maps he found along the way.

Most of the time, though, his thoughts revolved around his dream from this morning, and its grim implications. Even without that creepy dream, he still felt horrible about what happened to John. After all, he was the one who dragged him into this mess, and not knowing what happened to him was driving him to distraction. Even the knowledge that the experiment’s effects might span the entire Flathead Valley did little to console him.

All it did was make him glad as hell Mom was out of town— out of state, even— that night. That at least he didn’t have to worry about her, too.

On top of that was the argument that really wasn’t an argument about whether or not Amy was waiting somewhere, arms folded, foot tapping impatiently. Guilt trip or dread premonition, either way, what it came down to was that he was really worried about her. The fact that he couldn’t find anyone else he recognized was only a source of further anxiety; as little as he knew about other dimensions, there was no telling where anyone else who disappeared last night might have wound up.

In addition to finding out if anyone else from his world was here, he needed to find a way out of this creepy mall. Only by escaping could he hope to continue his search for his friends. Or, if he actually found anyone here, would they have any chance of finding a way to get back to their own world.

After a short while, he got up, a new plan popping into his head rather abruptly in the midst of his mental replay of last night. Wondering why he hadn’t thought of it before, he headed for the nearest hallway junction, keeping his eyes peeled for a certain sign. He had seen plenty of symbols that were just the same as on Earth, or at least similar enough that it didn’t matter, and sure enough, at the next intersection, he spotted the familiar silhouette phone handset, though here it was superimposed over a green background.

Wasting no time pondering such trivialities, he pounced on the nearest unoccupied phone. Glaring at it for a moment for demanding more than twice as much of his dwindling change supply as any pay phone he had ever seen, he shoved in his quarters, at first relieved to hear a dial-tone. Hoping his luck would hold out, he tried John’s number first, wishing desperately his friend really did make it home last night.

Even as he tried to figure out what to say if John’s parents answered, his jangled thoughts became even more so as an automated operator interrupted them.

“WE’re SORry, but THE numBER you HAVE diALed is FORbidDEN on THIS netWORK,” a jarring mash-up of feminine sound-bytes informed him, “Please STAY on THE line WHIle YOU are REdirECTed…”

That freaky, stilted speech brought him to a grinding halt, reminding him of just where he was, and giving him an ominous new perspective of what he was dealing with. Sweat poured between his shoulders, like the sands of an hourglass as whole seconds ticked by, holding his breath with an inexplicable fear of letting that thing hear his voice. He glared at the phone for a long moment, and he was just about to slam it and try calling the number Amy gave him, when a new voice broke in, causing him to gasp in growing alarm.

“Please state your name, followed by the name of the party you are trying to reach,” a flawless BBC-English voice ordered, “and we shall send our personnel to assist you…”

Shades dropped the receiver, numb with horror. At first it was all he could do to make his neck move, looking about the immediate area. Seeing no guards encouraged the rest of his muscles to start cooperating again as he rigidly about-faced from the phone and walked away, not even bothering to hang up as the voice droned on almost inaudibly. Just left it dangling there, hoping whatever personnel “they” sent would lock on to the pay phone, not him.

No longer even caring about his wasted money— as short on change as he was, he would gladly trade every penny of it if it drew his pursuers in the wrong direction.

Even as he made his way down the corridor, he could imagine security guards converging on that location, and knew he didn’t want to be anywhere near here when they arrived. Nor did he want to know just what kind of assistance they were planning to render, as he strongly doubted it would involve seeing John or an exit to this creepy place. All he could think of to do was just keep walking, and try not to look as shaken as he felt.

Not until he was a considerable distance, in what now looked like a completely different mall, did he dare to relax. And even then, he felt as if he had just narrowly escaped what he was now certain was a dangerous mistake on his own part.

His legs were still stiff from last night’s misadventure, so after giving them a short break, he resumed his search, noting that he now had a mere twelve minutes until the show started.

Tradewinds 06 CH 03

A while later, Shades woke up again.

Not as foggy as before, but still waking up in stages. Names and images floated up out of dark waters, things so old they might have been native to his mind, or had been there so long they had decided to go native. An imagery and language unto itself. Shimmering echoes and fragments of his earliest, dimmest recollections, tainted by fictions of fancy and missing pieces of that puzzle people called The Past.

Though the only thing he’ll remember clearly is what finally woke him up. The distant echo of a voice that was and wasn’t Carlos calling him a damn rebel and insurgent and Zero-Fucker (most puzzling of all). That last would linger, popping into his head at odd moments over the next few days. Just the phrase itself spooked him, left him half expecting an attack at any moment. Also, because he felt he should know that cryptic insult from somewhere…

As if he had once had a dream about it or something.

Yet at least this time he was a lot less surprised by his surroundings when he opened his eyes. Not because it was the fold-up, or even the living room couch. Still the same hotel room he only half remembered DJ doodling directions to find. Meaning that his first dream had been more real than he wanted to believe. At least he took some relief from the fact that he was still in the same place he (sort of) remembered falling asleep.

And there were no windows in this hotel room, making him wonder why he had felt the sun shining on him earlier.

His clothes were still on, even his shoes, for fear he would be forced to run before his rest was done. Backpack and his new whip close at hand, in case fight-or-flight should end up entailing both. That afraid of the guards busting in on him while he slept.

Still too logy for real thinking, he found the remote on the nightstand and turned on the TV. If Necessity was the mother of Invention, he reflected absently, Laziness must surely be the father. After flipping through a few channels, he settled on cartoons, seeing as how it was Saturday and all.

Assuming there was such a thing as “Saturday” here, but his mind didn’t dwell for long on that question before setting it aside for the moment. It didn’t take him long at all to settle in, sprawled out on the foot of the bed with the covers thrown over him. Just like he used to when he was a kid.

Even with the door locked, it still felt a little awkward to be watching cartoons at a time like this. Of course, like most of his peers, he had gone through a phase where he abstained from all forms of animation, though when he looked back on it later, the only thing he could think of was the stigma of it being “childish” or some such, always boiling down to someone else’s opinion. Yet after everything he had been through lately, he didn’t particularly care. As he sat there, he became increasingly engrossed in the fascinating spectacle unfolding before him.

John and Arthur would probably love the previously unknown wonders he had found here.

But after a couple episodes, it began to dawn on him just how ravenous he had become. Leaving his jacket and backpack behind in an attempt to look less like any “suspect descriptions” that might be floating around, he slipped out into the hall to find some vending machines. Ruing every dime. He just had to get caught between paychecks; one week earlier, or one week later, and he would have at least twice as much cash in his pocket. Still fearing detection, he heaved a sigh of relief when he shut the door behind him, having gone through his entire errand unseen.

Then he resumed watching cartoons, figuring that if the guards even could find him, they already would have by now, and relaxed a bit. As he chowed down on his vending machine bounty, as well as a few snacks he had packed for the hike he was supposed to be in the middle of, at least according to his watch, he took in these shows (which some enthusiastic voice between breaks informed him, weren’t cartoons, they’re animé), he quickly came to understand what some college student he had once talked to called Away From Home Syndrome. Just a touch of childhood familiarity, and he could now feel right at home, even in another dimension.

Mixed in were also shows that were childhood favorites that he had never missed in grade school, it made him feel more like he was back on the couch at their old home after school on any given day. Tiring of his filthy clothes, he piled them next to the bed, and watched wearing nothing but a blanket. Had even found a couple gumballs from his chase with the guards that had somehow ended up in his jacket pocket. He pulled the covers a little tighter around himself as he shifted to a more comfortable position. It had been years since he had thought of the cats from their old home, but this made him miss the feline companionship of his childhood, made him wish there was a kitten curled up at his side, purring contentedly.

It made him realize it had been a while. Made him feel entirely too at peace with himself, given the circumstances. Made him wish he had a good book handy.

Speaking of good books, he glanced at the nightstand, wondering offhandedly if any Gideons had ever stayed the night in the Twilight Zone. Sixth Dimension— for now he really didn’t care what this Boss DJ called it; he knew he was really in the Twilight Zone. Feeling too lazy to check at the moment, he made a mental note to check the drawer later. For a moment, he wondered what kinds of religious texts he might stumble upon in another world, but such vague musings quickly fell by the wayside in the face of this bizarre parade of comedy, kung-fu action, and fan service, oh my.

Decided it would have to do. After all, he needed to regain his strength before he began his search. So, for a few hours, at least, he was able to forget about his problems and clear his troubled mind.

Finally, Shades got up and went to take a badly needed shower.

After seeing the past and future(?) on TV, he wasn’t quite sure what to think. But at least he was awake enough to think. And well aware that he had a lot to think about.

Looking in the bathroom mirror, he automatically thought of John first. About how easily they got separated. It just happened so fast, made him feel so stupid, he nearly slapped his forehead there in front of the mirror.

The abrupt motion of his reflection made him jump in spite of himself as he remembered his dreams. Looking in the mirror now gave him a bad case of the hoodoos, even as it already started fogging from the shower. Dream or no dream, he knew why he felt bad about John, but now that he thought about it, he was also worried about Amy. Vaguely remembered hearing her voice, something about hash-browns and eighty-six, and having a really bad feeling about the whole matter. Thought for a moment that he remembered having a bad dream about her too. And an ominous premonition that terrible things either had happened, or were going to happen…

…to all three of us.

He splashed his face a couple times, reminding himself not to drag his feet too long. Like it or not, he would soon have to venture forth into this strange new place. Would have to screw up his nerve and see for himself if anyone else he knew had dropped in last night.

“Shades… Help me, dude…”

Even as he heard those words, Shades looked up from his thoughts to see John’s reflection staring back at him, his face a mask of desperation. Shades reached across and wiped away the fog. By the time he removed his hand, the spectral image was gone, if it had ever been there in the first place.

He splashed his face a couple more times before he stepped in the shower.

Even as he washed up, the haze in his mind began to clear, and a plan of sorts began to take shape. First priority, find anyone, anyone at all, he might know from his own world. A close second, keep a low profile, as this was the guards’ home turf, and he didn’t want to fight them if he could possibly avoid it. Third, try to gather as much intelligence about the place as possible, especially this “curse” business. And last, but by no means least, try to find a way to get the hell out of here.

All the same, there were moments when he still didn’t believe this was really happening to him.

Tradewinds 06 CH 02

And had a dream, this one having nothing to do with malls:

His friend John walks into a bathroom, one like in an old mansion or something. Beyond the door, all Shades can see is a glimpse of yellow-and-ugly-green flowered wallpaper and off-white fixtures before the door shuts. And just a sliver of what he somehow knows is a very large mirror above the sink.

After John enters the room, clouds of steam start wafting out from the cracks in the door. Shades can tell it’s steam, and not smoke, because of the condensation dripping down the edges of the door. Just hovering in a dark, golden-lit hallway, waiting. Out of idle curiosity, he takes a look out the window, seeing only snow blowing around from what appears to be an upper floor of some place in the mountains.

No matter how long Shades stands there, John never comes back out— just steam issuing from the room.

Eventually, there is a skip, and John again comes through the hall and enters the bathroom.

This time, though, Shades’ mind’s eye gets an inside view. He watches John step up to the sink and splash his face a couple times. But when he looks up, he sees that his friend’s reflection doesn’t look very healthy. The face staring back across the sink looks pale and dead, rotting like a corpse. Glazed, murky zombie eyes gazing back at John from deep within sunken sockets.

Shades doesn’t like it, especially after he notices that his own reflection is nowhere to be found.

Then another skip.

Again out in the hall, and again John enters that creepy bathroom. This time even slower, and Shades realizes that this whole routine has been slowing down each time, building up a disturbing sense of suspense, as if something is going to happen one of these times. And, sure enough, as John washes his face again, something very different happens this time.

John again looks up at his reflection, and at least this one doesn’t look like the walking dead. This one actually looks normal. Yet there was still something about this one that Shades likes even less than Cadaver John.

Then it finally hits. John’s reflection doesn’t move with him!

Instead, it reaches out for John, grabbing him by the front of his shirt. Pulling him through the mirror like it isn’t even there. His friend seems reluctant to move, but offers no real resistance. He just sits there and lets his reflection haul him over the counter to the other side, where he simply stands there, right where his reflection had, staring out through the looking glass like a puppy at the pound.

John’s reflection, meanwhile, climbs over the counter as if it is nothing more than the world’s most realistic-looking optical illusion. Even though this other looks identical to his old friend in every way, there is still something about this one that Shades trusts about as far as he could throw him.

For its part, Looking-Glass John stands in the same place the original had stood, just smiling back at him with a devious gleam in his eye.

“Shades…” the real John says quietly, eyes pleading to him from within his bizarre prison.

The last thing Shades remembers before snapping out of the dream is seeing his own reflection step in through the door on the looking-glass side, and somehow, even from behind those opaque lenses, he could feel his reflection’s eyes lock on to him…

Tradewinds 06 CH 01

“FALLING…”
“Mmmm… I don’t wanna go to school…”

Shades rolled over, pulling the blankets over his head. The darkest hour is always before dawn, before it could dawn on him that it was Saturday, and there was no school on Saturday. (At least not in this world.)

Ha! Mrs Banner! For no particular reason remembering his fourth grade teacher. Your educational powers have no effect on me on weekends!

He turned again, splaying himself out on his back. Feeling the squares of summer sunshine which had crept up on him, warming his whole body, and knowing that Saturday morning was passing into Saturday afternoon. A whole day, and he had all of that day to decide what to do with it. For all his years in the trailer, he had slept on a fold-up couch in what was technically the dining room. His bedroom was right behind the wall, but the heating system didn’t reach back there— the rest of the year, he had simply grown accustomed to sleeping in the dining room.

On a few occasions, especially in his early years there, he had had dreams about sailing the seas on that fold-up, like a raft, off on adventures he only remembered bits and pieces of after he woke up. There were parts that were bright and joyous, but there were also parts that scared him. Even so, the idea still intrigued him.

It all felt so real, so right. On days like that, the waking world felt so fake, like he was walking around a movie set. Like he could just wake up from his own life.

Back then, before Mom’s schedule changed, and they came to see less and less of each other in the morning, she usually woke up first, often turning on the radio while making breakfast. Sometimes she was there when he woke up, sometimes she wasn’t; either way, he would often wake up to the sound of Oldies, and sometimes the music would seep into his dreams. Later, as radio went down the crapper, he saved up and got a tape deck alarm clock, playing his mix tapes, for he had quickly become immune to the sound of alarms, no matter how loud, yet it was always strange when it happened.

Soundtrack and subtext.

So, in his foggy musings, it stood to reason that a movie could do the same thing. Based on how stiff he was from head to foot, that must have been one hell of a realistic dream to be thrashing around so much. Feeling as if he had just attempted the world’s first sleep-walking marathon, he debated whether or not to look at the TV page and find out what could possibly have been playing last night. After getting something to drink, for he was also a trifle parched.

Slowly Shades opened his eyes, already trying to figure out how to apologize to John for missing their hike. (And a voice in the back of his head telling him that he had a lot more to apologize to his friend for than that.) Discovering that he didn’t have nearly as much light to blink away at as he expected, the room came into focus. He turned his head to see mute beige walls, a light blue pillow tossed on the floor, the lamp next to the bed glowing softly. And the TV that sat on the edge of his peripheral vision was decidedly turned off.

The hotel room was still very much the way he left it when he crashed.

“No way…”

As his mind was unable to come up with any other response at the moment, Shades simply went back to sleep.