They say it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the landing. I landed on a rainy day. My car tires gripping the rain slicked road until suddenly they weren’t. Did I hit the accelerator on that sharp turn knowing I’d flip over the guardrail? I don’t know. What I do know is this: If I had seen death walking down that road towards me, I would have ran to him begging him to take me, my heart bursting with gratitude when he did. Whatever peace I had hoped for ended when I slammed into the guardrail, and was wrenched violently to the side before plummeting and blacking out to the screeching BOOM of metal impacting on rocks.
If I had wanted a quick and painless death, I shouldn’t have worn my seatbelt. I came to choking on smoke. The back of my hands brushed against shattered glass, while I hung suspended upside down watching the spider web cracks of the rearview mirror light up orange. An orange that only grew hotter, and roared louder as it ate its way toward me.
Lightening and thunder cracked overhead extinguishing the orange glow, a cold wind and eerie silence replacing it. Through the shattered dashboard window I could barely make out a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots, pausing in front of me a moment before walking to the driver’s side window. I tried to turn my head only to find I was immobile, stuck with my view of the dashboard. “You kept me waiting Cass.” He said crouching down. His voice was low and rough, the sound of gravel and grief slammed together with the power of the cosmos. “I was beginning to think we’d never meet.” He reached inside the car and grasped my hair turning me to face him. I saw a starless piece of night sky staring back at me. A blackened void that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from. “I’m sorry it had to be like this, but it’s the only way.” He let go of my hair, and when my head swung back I could hear the rain falling down around us. “Sleep while you can Cass.” He said brushing his fingertips against my cheek. The Brittle cold radiating out from him raced over my skin and spread through my veins. “I’ve got big plans for you when you wake up.”
I wasn’t sure if I was alive or merely stopped over in some halfway world as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I had vague impressions of people dressed in white, bright lights, my family by my side talking, crying. Life returned with the smell of coffee tinged with peppermint and vanilla. They triggered primitive neural pathways the way the sun does when it peeks through your window at six A.M. I opened my eyes. “Ah, you’re awake. It’s about time.” The voice chastised me. My sister. Melanie. She was sitting next to me in an oversized chair, a Starbucks cup in her hand. Sunlight streaming in through a window hit the strawberry lowlights in her long blonde hair. She narrowed her eyes. “I know. How could you? You know what don’t answer.” She held her hand up, “Just NEVER do that again. Call me. Pull over and call me, I’ll come get you. Just… Just don’t leave me alone.” Her voice cracked, and I could see tears brimming in her green mascara framed eyes.
“Is that coffee for me?” I asked, attempting to change the subject.
“No. People who try to abandon me don’t get coffee.” She took a long deliberate sip without breaking eye contact. “The nurses probably don’t want you to have any.” Another sip. “It might interfere with your pain medication.” I break eye contact then and finally look, beyond a cursory glance at my hospital room. Every available surface is overflowing with vases of dying flowers and stuffed animals holding bright balloons losing their helium as they wish me a fast recovery. On the wall a large whiteboard with my name printed on it and today’s date tells me I lost two weeks. I glance at the clipboard on a hook next to it, before I finally realize my predicament. I’m almost completely entombed in colorful casts with doodles and names inked all over them. I couldn’t drink coffee if I wanted. I’m hooked up to a suspension rig. “You look like a mummy marionette doll. I’ve barely restrained myself from yanking on the strings.”
“Thanks Mel. How’s my face?”
“Unscathed from the neck up. The rest is pretty good too.” She got up and walked to the wall, pulled the clipboard off it and sat down again, angling it so I could see. “This X-ray is just about every bone in your body broken on impact.” She set the clipboard down and grabbed her phone off the nightstand. “This is mom and I after the state troopers called us.” She shoved her phone in my face, a picture of mom sobbing fills the screen. Melanie’s thumb slid the screen to the next picture, her stricken face replaces it. I looked up, “You stopped to take selfies?”
“Because I knew. And if you lived, then you had to know how much pain you caused so you wouldn’t do it again. Continuing on, here is Mom and I in a taxi on the way here because we were too distraught to drive.” Swipe. “Mom signing the papers for your skin grafts. You were still in surgery so I couldn’t get you looking like a burnt lobster, they wouldn’t let me in.”
“Well graft, just the burn on your shoulder, they took a chunk of skin from your butt. This is mom and I in the waiting room with Blake, they didn’t know if you would live so there wasn’t a hospital room for us to hang out in yet.” This time it’s a picture of Melanie standing, mom sitting in the background crying on the shoulder of a man who looks like Melanie’s long lost male twin.
“Oh. Right, I just… He’s been such a big part of our lives the past two weeks I forgot you hadn’t… that you don’t know him. He drove past right after your accident and called 911, scaled the cliff face and pulled you out of the wreckage. I wouldn’t be at your hospital bed if he hadn’t been there, I’d be at your grave.”
“Where’s this savior now?”
“He went down with me for coffee, and stayed to wait for our food. I had to come back up to you… I was afr-… I didn’t want you to wake up alone.” The reason why drifted between us. She hadn’t told anyone. She was the only one who knew what I’d done, and she had taken responsibility for me like she always did. The way I had taken responsibility for her when we were kids. Pulling her away from the room when they screamed and fought, too embittered in their battles to see her small face full of terror. I had tried to show her being a kid was rejoicing over the fact the owners of the angry voices had no care of what we did. That we were free to raid the ice cream and watch cartoons without asking. When did it shift? When did I start falling, burning in a blaze of self destruction? When did she start trying to pull me away from the endless cycle of embittered battles I had with myself? Before I could reminisce to the moment that all started, the door opened.
“Hey let me help you with you that!” Melanie said, jumping up out of her chair and setting her coffee next to me on the bed as she rushed towards him. “Look who woke up!” She said, taking a bag full of takeout boxes from his hands and turning back towards me. He wore… his hair was… I blinked wishing I could rub my eyes, I couldn’t see him clearly. My eyes darted over to my sister. I could see her, standing at the door in a blue sundress, a slight red lipsticked frown over my evident confusion. He was coming closer and still, it was like looking at something underwater, a distorted image, blurred and vague. Closer and closer he advanced, I felt part of me wanting to get away, retreat, hide, scream. My sister’s face , now a look of happy expectation held me back. I took deep breaths in and out. There was no danger. In and out. It was all in my head. In and out, you don’t want to end up in the psych ward.
Whatever he was, or “it”, as I had already begun to think of him, sat down in the chair and reached for my fingertips sticking out of the cast. The sharp brittle coldness of his touch was familiar as it pulled me into a enveloping chasm of darkness. It was consuming and instantly snuffed out any pain or agony I might have had. I opened my eyes when he pulled his hand back and finally I could see him. It. The so called savior. The blonde-haired, green-eyed man from the picture on my sister’s phone looking like the brother we never had, had been what? An illusion? Camouflage? A blackened form sat before me, nothing reflecting off it. It’s face had a crimson impression of lips and a pair of dark indigo eyes with red pupils. It smiled and leaned back, wearing denim jeans and a pink button up dress shirt. “Ugh, Mom’s calling.” My sister said, “I’ll take it outside, let you two get acquainted.” I panicked, what if it assaulted me when she stepped out, what if her presence alone made it act human? She was gone before I could say anything though, the door clicking shut behind her. I couldn’t reach the call button on my bed. Was the room soundproof? Would anyone hear me if I screamed?
“They wouldn’t.” It said, with a low haunting voice drawing my eyes back to it. It cleared its throat, “Blake. Or he, not it.”
“Mind reading is invasive.” I said under my breath.
“I’m not reading your mind Cass, I’m watching your face. When you know someone as well as I know you, a face is an open book.”
“I would remember knowing you.”
“ I didn’t say you knew me, but I know you better than you know yourself. I’ve watched you for years, every time you rise, every time you fall, I’ve been there, waiting for you.” If it had been human, the man pictured on Melanie’s phone, my reaction would be different. My voice would have escalated to a nervous high pitch, while I pretended everything was ok, making small talk waiting for Melanie to return. She could help me get a restraining order, a concealed weapons permit. But it, no he, I reminded myself, wasn’t. And I could think of only one thing I had wanted with enough intensity to bring about something like him. “Why didn’t you take me?” I whispered. He looked guilty; ashamed I decided as swirls of red played across his inky dark face, before he replied, “The time wasn’t quite right, I had to arrange a few things.”
“You shouldn’t have bothered, I may have chose you in the rain, but this morning I woke up to coffee, sunlight flooding in through a window, and my sister harassing me. I don’t want to go with you now.”
“The time for that decision has passed. I’m taking a break, and I need you to do it.”
My heart slowed and sank. To be his successor? To go around killing my family and friends? My neighbors? Their descendants? “I couldn’t do what you do.”
He looked puzzled for a moment. “No, nothing like that.” He leaned back in the chair, “I abandoned my sector the moment you were in freefall, by now it would have already been replaced with someone else.”
“There’s more of you? I thought you were-”
“Death. A black void where nothing exists. Close enough.”
“What do you need me for then?”
“I can’t be alone. I need you by my side if I leave it all behind. You’re a source of raw power and now that I’ve saved you, you can fuel me for eternity.”
“I’m a battery?”
“Battery.” He said it slowly as if he was thinking it over. “No, more like a portable power plant.”
My face must have reflected a lack of enthusiasm about the upgrade, because he quickly added, “I wouldn’t call you that though. I’d think of you as a friend.”
“Look, I’m sorry but I have friends.“
“I don’t. I’m alone.” He crossed his arms, “You say you have friends but do they understand you the way I do? Would they accept you if they did? If the answer to those questions was yes you wouldn’t have called out to me. Face it, you’re just as alone as I am.”
“I don’t want whatever this is.“ I gasped in pain when I tried to wave my hand in the air, flinching when he reached towards me to take it away better than any painkiller ever could.
“You don’t have to, you already chose it. When your foot pressed down on the accelerator you offered yourself to the cosmos. To me.” I stared at him with muted horror as the door opened and Melanie walked back into the room. “So what!?” She gushed, “You two hit it off while I was gone?” Blake leaned forward reaching for me, “It’s time to go.”
“What? No!“ I stopped talking as he disintegrated before my eyes. He became a black cloud that rose above the hospital bed, before descending down over me. I lost sight of Melanie, the flowers, the stuffed animals clutching cheerful balloons. All that remained was Melanie’s Starbucks cup on the bed next to me, her bright red lipstick on the rim. I screamed as I was ripped away from it. I felt part of that scream would be anchored to it for all of eternity as piece by piece I was stretched and pulled away.
“How dare you? I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” I screamed. The shadow finished solidifying in front of me, before he calmly replied, “You’ll be back soon enough.” I said nothing and raised my eyebrows. “I promise, she won’t even know you were gone.”
“Then why leave?”
“We have to get my body. I needed you to do it but you were unconscious for two weeks, now I’m almost out of time.”
“Body? I’m sorry,” I waved my arm at him, “What’s this?”
“A projection, you’re a projection here too. Look at you walking, waving your arms around, or did you think I spontaneously healed you?”
“You don’t look like this? But I see you. I didn’t see the illusion, that blonde green eyed guy, I can actually see you.”
“Vague dark creature? Red eyes?”
“I’m saying I don’t go around as some Ken Doll illusion. I’m saying you’re not the only one who thinks Melanie is your savior. When she heard a man had saved you, she projected her vision of your savior onto me so that’s who I became. A man who looked like her.” He moved away from me then, without him blocking my view I took in the room. The floor was galaxies and universes, supernovas and shooting stars. Looking up, the ceiling was the same. I stood transfixed, the beauty of it crushing me. “Cass, I need you.” I heard his voice distantly, barely registering the sound of his boots clicking over the floor as he came back for me. “What’s the matter?” You’ve never been in a stack of Grids before?” He said laughing softly, before taking my hand and pulling me forward toward a massive curving glass wall. He placed my hand against it, dropping it when a series of runic symbols appeared. I stared out the glass in wonder as he began tapping the symbols. “So you’re not a shadow?” I asked.
“That was you projecting on me. Your vision of death. Not highly original either, I was disappointed to be honest. I mean shadows are right up there with men in black suits, skeletons, and my personal favorite, the guy in dirty black rags hauling his scythe around.”
“So what are you then? Where’s this body of yours?” I asked, my breath fogging up the glass as I pressed my face against it, desperately trying to see as much as I could. The view was hundreds and hundreds, maybe even thousands of large glass spheres floating all around us in a pale blue sky for as far as I could see.
“Found it!” He cried. I fell down, my body slamming into the floor when we swung rapidly to the left. Flying past the rest of the spheres, ducking in and out, over and under.
“You didn’t know where your body was?” I asked, picking myself up.
He spared me a brief glance before looking back at the runes. “No. I’ve never consciously been there, I only know life as a projection, becoming whatever other beings imagine me to be, ” He laughed bitterly. “Not even I know what I actually look like.”
……….. Orbis Zero………
The man in the blue suit paused at the entrance of the room, hesitating. He cleared his throat.
“Yes?” The woman seated at the desk said.
“We located the missing sector operator.”
“Why is your voice shaking then?”
“Because he’s accessing his body from the Grid.”
“ He couldn’t,” she scoffed, “He doesn’t have the power, check again there must be a mistake.”
“No mistake. Readings indicate he’s using a Pheonix to do it.”
“Impossible.” She frowned, “I personally hunted the Pheonixs to extinction to prevent this very thing.”
“The energy signature used to access the grid was unmistakable.“
“Shut down all communications between the Sector Operators, we can’t let this get out. Then find them. Bring me this so called Pheonix for examination. If that’s really what it is then a runaway Sector Operator is the least of our problems.”
Of chapter one. Any ideas about what happens next? Share them in the comments, or email me firstname.lastname@example.org I will be beyond grateful and more than happy to credit you for any inspiration I get!!!
Thank You also so much for the time you took to read this all the way to the end, I very much appreciate it, and hope it entertained you!!! If it didnt at some point, and you want to let me know- don’t hesitate! This story and all the installments that will follow are me attempting to hone my commercial fiction skills so feedback is more than welcome.
Thank you also to my Grandma and Grandpa Bodiford who made it possible to take the writing class this was for, and to Tatijana Leong, and Haily Lastimosa for reading zillions of drafts containing very small differences. I love you ladies! Your help means so much!