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.

Tradewinds 06 CH 00

INTERLUDE: “THE MORNING AFTER”

Kalispell Medical Center, Kalispell, MT
11:59 AM, Saturday, April 29, 1995

As the numbers ascended, the two stood patiently, waiting for their floor.

Much of their job, of course, was a waiting game; the day was still fairly fresh, and the elevator was what it was. Dark grey suits, ties, wingtip shoes, aside from gender and hairstyle, the only thing to break the monotony of the uniform was that the man carried an over-stuffed briefcase in one hand. The growing number of pieces they had accumulated to a puzzle whose exact shape they still couldn’t quite determine.

“So, what’s next on the list?” the man asked.

“According to the reports, they’ve finally caught the driver of that black van we’ve heard so much about lately,” the woman replied.

Something about a wreck out in the mountains that they would have to examine later. The whole ride here, they had poured over the papers crammed in that case while he drove.

When the right number lit, the door ground open, and the two of them stepped out in unison.

As they strode down the hall, their echoing footfalls startling staff and visitors alike, they raised voices from the room they sought:

“…To be honest, we don’t know what’s wrong with him,” one voice, presumably the doctor’s, said. “I’ve never seen a case quite like this, and neither has anyone else I’ve consulted.”

“What do you mean, you’ve never seen anything like this?” a second voice, a very irate-sounding man’s, demanded. And apparently not for the first time in this particular conversation.

“I don’t know, Mr Adams. Please keep in mind, head injuries can be somewhat un—”

“Goddammit! What’s wrong with my son?”

“Sir,” the doctor replied, trying to sound as soothing as he could under the circumstances, “your son’s condition isn’t critical, at least, so I think it would be best if we…”

The two nodded to each other, then the man knocked on the door.

“What now?…” Mr Adams’ voice demanded.

A moment later, the doctor opened the door, and both of them walked into the room.

“Dr Mason, I presume,” the man said, reading his staff ID badge. He could see how so much tension had built so quickly; even from across the room he could tell that Mr Adams was a good deal more imposing than the poor doctor.

As his father and the good doctor debated about his condition, Carlos Adams lay strapped down in a hospital bed near the window. In the corner, his mother sat, red-eyed and puffy-faced, hunched over in a chair next to the one from which her husband had exploded only moments before. Ever since they found him, still at the wheel of a certain black van, throughout the course of an investigation into the double break-ins at the MacLeans’ and the Kaskos’, he had remained unconscious. He had only suffered a couple cracked ribs and an inconsequential bump on the head— not bad for a dummy who wasn’t wearing his seatbelt in either crash— and this was why his coma was so unusual.

“Yes,” Dr Mason confirmed, “but what—”

“Agents Morden and Ledger, FBI.” Agent Morden flashed her ID, Agent Ledger following suit, as she breezed past. Seeing the young man on the bed, she turned and asked, “Is this the driver of the black van?”

In her corner, Mrs Adams started crying all over again.

“What is this?” Mr Adams demanded.

“This is a criminal investigation,” Agent Morden said flatly. “Carlos Adams— the driver of the black van— is suspected, not only of breaking and entering the MacLean and Kasko residences in Lakeside, but also all of the crimes associated with this vehicle.”

“There is no proof that my son even did any of those things!” Mr Adams shouted, trying to figure out why he couldn’t be a little calmer about this. Already knowing full well why. Even as he refuted the charges, he tried to figure out how something he had had nightmares about over twenty years ago had crashed into a tree last night. “How do you know this ‘Shades’ person didn’t do it?”

“As I said,” Morden explained, refusing to let him drag her into a shouting match, “this is an investigation, Mr Adams. That is why we need to speak to your son as soon as possible.”

Mr Adams stood there for a moment, his outrage far from spent, but suffering from a momentary shortage of words.

“So far we have accounts from MacLean’s mother, his sensei,” (who, for a local, had proven hard to find) “and several of his classmates, as well as his records.”

“And we also have testimony and records on your son,” Agent Ledger finished, speaking up for the first time since he entered the room. “There are still holes in Carlos’ alibi, including his fight with MacLean at East Mall yesterday.”

Mrs Adams started crying even harder.

Seeing this, Mr Adams found words again, demanding, “Since when is this any of the FBI’s business anyway?”

“Any criminal investigation is the Bureau’s business,” Ledger told him, “if we’re called in. That’s beside the point. Your son is only part of this investigation. Other things have happened that appear to be related to this case. And keep in mind that Mr MacLean, as well as at least three of his classmates, are still missing.”

“Kidnapping is a federal offense,” Agent Morden reminded them.

“Are you accusing my son?” Mr Adams hissed.

“Right now, Carlos is our prime suspect,” Agent Ledger told him bluntly. “If nothing else, he is the only available witness to the events of last night.” Hefting the briefcase into his other hand, he asked, “Dr Mason, is Carlos in any condition to be questioned? If so, we will need his statement.”

“No,” Dr Mason told them. And perhaps for the first time all day, Mr Adams was pleased with something he had said. The doctor took a nervous glance at Mr Adams, then explained, “Carlos has been in a coma since he was first found out in the mountains at…” He sneaked a peek at the clipboard he had left on the table next to his patient. “Ten twenty-three this morning. I can’t in good conscience allow him to be disturbed any further. If you wish to question him, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until he is conscious and his condition stable.”

“Then perhaps we can ask you a few questions,” Agent Morden said, turning to Mr Adams.

“Like hell you will!” Mr Adams snarled. “My son is not a criminal! Why don’t you try and find this ‘Shades’ person before you start pointing fingers? Just the name sounds pretty suspicious.”

“Um, Mr Adams, with all due respect, that ‘Shades’ person is still missing,” Morden informed him. “All we have are his motorcycle and helmet. Which I might add, were found farther back on the same road that police found your son in the black van. We’ll at least need a statement.”

“I’m not saying anything until I see my lawyer,” Mr Adams declared. “Now, do you mind? My boy is in a coma, and I’m trying to find out what the fuck is going on.”

“This really isn’t helping his son’s recovery,” Dr Mason pointed out. “Might I suggest getting back to this at a later time?”

“Sir—” Agent Ledger began.

“I can see we came at a bad time,” Agent Morden cut him off. Something about this was amiss, but she saw nothing more to be gained from disturbing the patient. “You’ve clearly been through a lot today. Sorry to bother you at this time. We’ll call on you to make your statement at a later date.”

She handed Mr Adams a card as the two agents breezed out the door.

“So what’s the plan, Morden?” Ledger asked after he shut the door behind them. He hadn’t wanted to break ranks with her in front of Mr Adams, so he waited until now to say it. “That man is on the defensive about something.”

“I know,” Morden replied as they headed back to the elevator. “Even with his son in a coma, his reaction is a little off. But unless he’s simply in denial about his son’s involvement, I’m not sure what he could be hiding. I think it’s time to go to the scene and see if there’s anything the local police missed.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Ledger shifted his briefcase to his other hand. According to the information contained therein, the MacLean home, especially that ‘Shades’ character’s room, had been totally ransacked, and the family dogs turned loose in the woods. Three of them found, the rest still unaccounted for. From the crime scene photos they’d been sent, the place was trashed— broken windows, upturned furniture, pictures smashed, it was a mess. The neighbors’ house, on the other hand, had merely been broken into, in what he had to admit was a rather inventive manner, a completely different modus operandi than the MacLean break-in, along with a very bizarre 9-1-1 call.

“After all,” Morden continued, “a lot of things seem to be missing today. I’m beginning to see why they dragged us up from Colorado Springs for this…”

They both froze in mid step as, back in the hospital room, Carlos Adams demonstrated why he had been strapped down after they were finished tending his injuries. The staff had warned them before they went up that, though Carlos had remained unconscious since he was found, at least twice before, he had simply lost it, waving his arms and legs, shouting all manner of incomprehensible threats and profanities, at times, almost seemed to be begging for something.

Now they got to hear it for themselves, even from down the hall.

“Dexter! You son of a bitch!… I’ll get you for this!… They’ll come for me, you Zero-Fucker, and when they do, we’ll get you for this!… We’ll get you for everything! Both of you!!…”

Carlos then let out a long cry of pain that both agents decided to attribute to moving, even while comatose, with two cracked ribs.

At that point, Mrs Adams finally spoke up, but neither of them could make out the words, just the undertone of a mother’s sweet nothings, a voice of reassurance for her baby in pain.

After that, the two investigators seemed to lose any desire to eavesdrop further, and continued on their way.

Zero-Fucker…” Ledger muttered after a moment, “Nine years on the force, even in the Army, and I’ve never heard that one before…” Kids these days…

“Yeah… Still, I’m not so sure Mr Adams knows much,” Morden said as they stepped into the elevator. “Carlos is the one we need to talk to. He was there. Something happened last night, and we’re going to get to the bottom of this…”

So far, the bottom was looking rather murky from Ledger’s point of view. Bringing to bear his near-photographic memory, he mentally flipped through the briefcase in his mind. A long drive from Colorado, from one missing-person case to a missing-people case. Several strange, conflicting accounts of an equally strange fluke storm. Over two-dozen missing persons reports— some related, others whose connection, if any, was still unknown— in the Somers-Lakeside area. Several near-simultaneous burglaries and an armed robbery involving bizarre look-alikes wearing trenchcoats. Three identical corpses in the morgue, all said to have decomposed at an unprecedented rate. Two break-ins, both next door but as different as day and night, both paralleled by a wreck out in the mountains. An individual left in an unusual condition.

All we need now is partridge in a pear tree…

“…Last I heard,” Morden mused, “the reports were still coming in. Whatever happened last night might still be happening. If this keeps up, it could start a panic.”

“Panic?” It always annoyed Ledger when she started talking like this.

“We need to talk to that boy as soon as he’s awake. I want to know what he saw. Whatever is going on, it’s a lot bigger than some punk with a vendetta. What about MacLean’s family?”

“Only child,” Ledger told her. “We finally contacted his mother when she called from out of town, trying to find out what happened to him while she was on her business trip. His father was in the Special Forces before he died—”

“Disappeared,” Morden amended. As far as she was concerned, no body, no death. “I do remember that part of the report.”

“—Disappeared,” Ledger continued. “Sergeant MacLean, Douglas L.” As he pieced the info together, he was beginning to see what she meant. “…Missing in action after an operation in Brazil… Morden, this man has been missing since October 14, 1988.”

“Told ya.”

“Of MacLean’s classmates,” Ledger resumed, “we’re missing: John Doe, Amy O’Connor, Tom Robinson, and…”

The elevator door opened, and they were greeted by a man in a severe-looking suit.

“Agents Morden and Ledger?” he intoned.

“That would be us,” Morden replied.

“Regional Director Scallany,” he said. “We need a place to talk in private. But before we do, I need your word that nothing I say leaves that room. Do I make myself understood? If this got out, it could start a general panic…”

Morden simply turned and shrugged at Ledger. Told ya.

Ledger sighed. It looked as if things were shaping up to be one of those investigations.

Author’s Notes

-early draft: 1995
-notebook draft: April 19 - June 04, 2004
-word-processed draft: March 01 - April 11, 2005
-additional revisions: September, 2008

The Flathead Experiment was also part of that peculiar spring where I made such unprecedented progress, narrative and dialogue flowing from my pen as if they had merely been waiting for me all that time, like old friends. Though it starts out as a bit of a detour, I chose to divide it into two parts, ending with where Shades is when he first meets Max. From here on out, the established plot threads will begin working their way back together.

Tradewinds 05 CH 27

Shades sat at a table in the corner, waiting. Not only did the man agree to meet him when he finished up with the next couple customers, but something in his manner he had found reassuring. As if, not only did he sense what Shades wanted to talk about, but that he had also been invited into this kind of conversation before. Just the term “Boss DJ” felt comforting, somehow. Still, after all he had been through, he couldn’t help but worry that he had made a mistake.

When DJ returned a couple minutes later, alone, it did much to allay Shades’ fears.

“Now tell me,” he asked, taking a seat across from the stranger who had asked to speak with him, “what is dis all about?”

“I… I don’t know exactly how to put this…” Shades told him, just as earnestly. In spite of everything he had seen, he could still think of no sane- or rational-sounding way to ask what he wanted to know. Yet, with every passing second, he felt more certain that this guy knew what he was talking about. Fresh out of bright ideas, he went for the direct approach. “Do you know anything about a curse around here?”

“Dere are rumors. Who wants to know?”

“I do,” Shades replied, taken aback by the question. Then he realized that he hadn’t even introduced himself yet. “Shades MacLean.”

“DJ Rashid,” he said, “but around here I’m da Boss DJ.” He looked around for a moment, as if, Shades got the impression, making sure they weren’t being overheard. “If you know as much as you already do, den you know you’re in big trouble.”

“So it’s true, isn’t it.”

“Yeah,” DJ replied. With a look of sorrow, as if he already had some idea what might have happened, he asked, “So, how did you find out?”

“A repairman told me…” was as far as Shades got as he hung his head, sighing and shuddering.

“I see.” DJ paused for a moment, then said, “And you’ve already tried to escape.”

Not a question.

“Yeah,” Shades confirmed.

“Den you’re really in trouble,” DJ told him, “because I know no way out.”

“But… there was a way in…”

“I don’t undastand, either,” DJ admitted, shrugging shoulders that seemed to bear the weight of the world in that moment, “and I’ve been here for years.”

Again, Shades tried to crunch those numbers, but it just wouldn’t compute, it was still just so unreal to him.

“I’ve seen people come and go,” DJ continued, “but only dose who break da three taboos get trapped here. Most of dem end up working for da Management, and I don’t know what happens to all of dem.”

“I’m guessing it would be a bad idea to complain to the Management, then.”

“Like I said, I don’t know where dey go, but I neva see dem again. I don’t know what de Management does with dem, but dey don’t like people talking about it. Bad for business, ya know.”

“What did I do, DJ?”

“Da reason why some can come and go, and why some get trapped in dis nightmare, it took me a long time to figure it out,” DJ explained. “Dere are three things you have to do to get trapped in here, da three taboos: Don’t eat da food. Don’t drink da water. Don’t buy anything. You can get away with doing one or two of dese things, but do all three, and you’re done. Dere might also be a time limit, but I can’t be sure about dat. All I know for sure is dose three things.”

“Then why are you telling me this?”

“I’m not with de establishment,” DJ told him. “I don’t know any more about what dis place is dan anyone else I’ve met, but I can give you some advice, mon. Take dis to heart:

“Don’t sign anything!

“Don’t take money from dem no matter what!

“Don’t let Security get you! No one dey’ve taken has ever been seen again.”

Shades sat there for a long moment, just thinking about how close he had come to falling into that last trap earlier. Finally, he asked, “Where the hell am I? How did I get here? One minute, I’m on my way home from work, being chased by hitchhikers… then that black van… then something happened, and suddenly there’s this weird mall out in the woods…”

DJ sat there for an equally long moment, then answered, “Dis could take a while.”

“In that case,” Shades said, realizing belatedly one possibility of his current setting; chilled, hungry, thirsty, and getting drowsier by the minute, “have you got anything to eat around here?”

“We have sandwiches.”

“Ah. Then I’d like a chicken sandwich, please. Plain.” Blinking away at the bleariness in his eyes, he added, “Do you guys have Jolt here? Double or Triple, by any chance?”

DJ cocked his head at Shades for a moment, then said, “Never heard of it. Besides, de Management doesn’t allow anyone to sell alcohol at de mall.”

“Oh, no, it’s an energy drink…” That one threw him off. “Um… do you have anything with lots of caffeine? Besides coffee, anyway?”

“Well, we have Cam’s Cola Jammers.”

“Yeah,” having no idea what the hell Cam’s Cola was, “that’ll work. Thanks, Deej.”

After DJ left, Shades sat there, trying not to slouch or let his eyes droop shut. In spite of his perilous situation, sitting down had nearly put him to sleep. He knew he would need some rest soon if his mind was going to function, but for now he needed to remain as awake and alert as possible.

He was starting to doze off in spite of himself by the time DJ returned. The thought of food, though, after some twelve hours without a meal, was enough to wake him up again as he tore into his sandwich. He wasn’t sure about this Jammers business, but it turned out to be the best-tasting cola he’d ever had. Either that, or perhaps thirst really was the best flavor.

Whichever was the case, the Jammer kept him awake while DJ gave an explanation of other dimensions not unlike the one a young man in another dimension would soon be receiving from a certain librarian. Some of it was surprisingly similar to ideas he had once read about that were largely passed off as mere conjecture. All those books he had read about the Unknown, and now he felt as if he had wandered into one of those tales.

I just took a wrong turn on the way home from work last night…

Though the mysterious drink had sugar and caffeine to spare, eating was perhaps a bad idea. He was able to take in most of DJ’s theories, as well as his repeated warnings about letting any of the servants of the Management get him, but later he would barely remember anything of the directions his host had scrawled on a napkin, directing him to a safe place to close his eyes.

Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day…

Tradewinds 05 CH 26

“What happened?” the first guard asked the new arrival.

He was standing there in black slacks and t-shirt, the word SECURITY printed across the front in blocky white letters, hands braced against his knees, having just scrambled out of the food court to hear what the commotion was all about. It didn’t take Shades years of martial arts training to observe that this guy was just a little out of shape.

“Some guy… one of the… help… fell off the railing near…” The new guard choked and gasped several times, doubled over. Totally winded. While the first guard was a little stocky, this guy’s gut hung down over his belt. The word SECURITY looked stretched-out around the front of his shirt.

Shades’ diagnosis: too many donuts. Apparently, even in other worlds, some things never changed.

“I know that,” the first replied, then looked a little concerned, asking, “You okay, man?”

“Yeah… I’ll be… I’ll be alright…” the second huffed and puffed.

“Okay,” the first resumed, folding his arms in thought, “but what’re we gonna do about it?”

“Wasn’t that guy,” the second said, pointing at Shades, “just talking to him?”

“Yeah.”

“Then he must have pushed him,” the stout guard concluded. “They’re gonna want an explanation, and he’ll do just as good as the next…”

By now Shades was no longer paying any attention to the guards’ conversation, having left the scene of the accident at a brisk pace. As tired as he was, the timing of all that had all seemed just a little too coincidental for him. The events of the past minute or so, this whole “curse” business, which sounded just crazy enough to be real, had re-energized him.

When the guards called out to him, and then actually started in his direction, Shades started moving faster, breaking into an all-out dash in an attempt to use the crowd as cover. This whole situation was becoming so surreal to him, the certainty that his real self had perhaps already caught up with John, that he was fast believing that he was really dreaming, zonked on the couch at home with the TV still running. Obviously, the late-night flicks were showing a twisted film about hitchhikers, then some B horror movie— a really bad B horror movie, at that— about evil malls. That was it.

That, and nothing more.

As he ran, the absurd thought kept repeating in his head that all he had to do to end this ordeal was just wake up.

Shades raced up and down various halls and passages, checking every turn for an exit. The sheer scale and design of this building was so disorienting, confounding any attempt of finding his way back the way he had come. Having long since lost the guards, and having bigger problems to contend with, he had all but forgotten them.

Some watched him with curiosity, consternation, puzzlement, or even amusement, most affording him only a passing glance. A few, who saw the growing panic in his unshaded eyes, felt a chill trickle down their spines. One called out mockingly, “Run, Terrance! Run!” To Shades, it sounded like “Run, Boy! Run!” and he poured on more speed.

He could still see the mortal terror in that man’s eyes as he lost his grip, not just on the railing, but on his very existence.

Between his full day, his harrowing experience in the woods, all the long hours he had been on his feet, non-stop for over twenty hours, he knew he was pushing even his high energy to its limits. The snow had only finally melted off (and stayed melted off) for just over a month after a long winter, so he had only recently resumed his distance-training again. The Iron Man of Lakeside, he thought, trying to stifle the hysterical laugh seeking to escape him. He barely prevented himself from collapsing and continued his aimless flight.

“This is too much…” he panted.

After a while, Shades stopped running, having gone as far as he could. Frowned at his watch, knowing that if he had started out fresh, he could easily have gone a whole lot longer. In the twenty-odd minutes he had run, a time-frame that had utterly exhausted him in his current state, he hadn’t seen anything even resembling an exit.

Thinking of the repairman’s apparent resignation to his fate, Shades nearly collapsed where he stood. Feeling totally spent at the possible implications of that grim warning, figuring that fatigue alone would have been problem enough, he wondered if all his efforts, as Olympian as they may have felt, were all for naught. If he was perhaps doomed before he even started.

He stumbled, bumping into a life-size cardboard cut-out standing in front of some video store. Shades nearly fell over himself picking it back up, but he managed. Even as he turned away, he saw the words, the name of a movie he had never heard of, called Crossfire 3: Extreeeme Jake!!! in blocky, camouflage letters riddled with bullet-holes, out of the corner of his eye. Then he recognized one of the cast standing before him, a burly, machine-gun-toting commando-type who looked quite deranged, and wondered just how many Crossfire spin-offs existed in this world when he and Amy hadn’t even seen the first movie.

“Hey! There he is!”

Shades’ stupefied wonderment came to a crashing halt as he saw the guard and his portly partner come around the corner.

“Oy…” Shades sighed raggedly, nearly staggering as he took up his flight again. He almost decided to give up, but dug deep for a little more adrenaline, though he understood that he would collapse soon if he didn’t get a break, that he couldn’t keep this up much longer. “Not these guys again…”

“There he goes! There he goes!” the hefty one shouted, wondering what he had done to deserve having to do so much running today.

“Get back here!” the other ordered, knowing that he would have to listen to his partner’s bitching about his knees for a good couple days after this. Nothing for it but to treat him to lunch as appeasement later.

Normally, I’d be able to run circles around these pigs, Shades thought. But the past twelve hours had drained his reserves. This chase would be brief, and he would not be able to win it with speed or stamina— his usual trump cards— this time.

One of Master Al’s favorite sayings came to mind: Fight smarter, not harder.

As he scrambled around the corner, Shades snatched a box of gumballs from a candy stand in a stroke of inspiration, spilling them on the floor behind him. Paying heed to neither the cashier’s demands, nor the guards’ cursing they slipped and fell on their asses, he didn’t even look back. As he staggered around the next corner, he happened to turn to his left, seeing what appeared to be some kind of dance club. Bankshot, he read out of the corner of his eye. Loud music, flashing lights, and, most importantly, dozens of people on the dance floor.

In one last burst of speed, hoping he wasn’t too late, he ran full-out into the crowd. As he waited he did his best to pretend to dance on what little strength he had left. After a nerve-wracking wait, from behind the wall of dancers, he at last saw the beleaguered guards peer in for a moment, then continue on their errant way.

Hoping he wasn’t celebrating too soon, Shades allowed himself a sigh of relief as he stumbled over to one of the lounge tables near the edge of the floor. As he fell into a seat, he concluded that, if a lowly repairman knew as much as he did, surely others around here would be able to tell him more. Of course, it also occurred to him that clearly someone or something here didn’t want people to talk about it, that he would have to be careful who he spoke to.

In the midst of his frantic, weary strategizing, a man in a teal uniform sauntered over to his table. As he drew nearer, Shades saw his nametag read Boss DJ. Deep, dark skin, long black dreds, and warm brown eyes. In a decidedly Jamaican-sounding accent, he asked, “Welcome to Bankshot. Can I help you, mon?”

At first no words came as Shades tried to decide whether or not to say anything. Unfortunately, he was running out of clever ideas fast. What finally convinced him to try was the simple fact that he was getting a totally different vibe from this guy than from the guards, one he hoped he could trust. Resigning his fate to the unknown, he spoke.

“I think so…” Shades told him, trying to figure out how to work this with a brain that was as tired as his body. Most people seemed oblivious to the curse, so he didn’t want to say anything that could backfire on him. In the end, he settled for, “Do you mind if I talk to you in private?”