A "Hidden City" Story
Ryan P. Macklin
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
Michael, age 5.
Michael's mom frowned. Today was Michael's birthday, but instead of having a birthday party with cake, ice cream, friends and presents, he was trapped in a Ryder truck alongside her. They were fleeing from her husband, his father, their tormentor. She cried, because she couldn't explain to her child that he had to leave his home, abandon his birthday party, and never see his friends again. Make-up covered the bruise on her cheek - she became adept at covering up her husband's drunken fits -- but nothing could cover up the years of pain and guilt crushing down on her.
Michael didn't grasp the full extent of what was going on around him. All he fully understood was that he was going on a long car trip in a big truck -- the idea that he would be missing friends wouldn't fully occur for a few more hours. He smiled, and every time she saw that smile, she broke into tears again. He would cheer and wave at the other big trucks on the road, and point out them and other cars and landmarks to his mother in a continually excited voice.
"Smile, Mom. It's my birfday." he said softly. He wanted her to stop crying, not because it was his birthday, but because he was close to crying himself seeing her so sad.
Hearing that, she couldn't bear any more. She pulled into the nearby truck stop and broke down. She grabbed her son and held tightly, unable to stop the flood of tears. Michael tried to put on a brave front. "Don't cry, mommy." He became overwhelmed, though, unable to keep himself from crying. He held onto his mother tightly in return.
They spent several minutes crying and holding each other in the cab of the truck when a man knocked on her window. They saw the spitting image of a stereotypical trucker -- middle-aged, overweight, covered in flannel & jeans, with a baseball-type cap on promoting some truck company.
"Are you alright, ma'am?"
She wiped the tears from her face, not realizing that she was also wiping away some of the cover-up. "Yes. We're fine, thank you."
The man could tell they needed space. "Name's Jim, ma'am. If you need anything, we're just in the diner." He walked away, looking over his shoulder. They got out a few minutes later, and walked in the diner to get something to eat. The few people inside were friendly but not over-engaging. The waitress came by to take their order was polite and soft-spoken with them, though she was a bit rougher with the regulars. As she took the order down, she wanted to tell the mother to fix her make-up, but dared not poke her fašade.
The mother and child spent around 30 minutes eating, mostly in silence. Michael colored on the paper placement with some crayons, and his mother took advantage of the free coffee refills a few times, starring out onto the flat land, watching cars drive quickly past on the interstate.
When Michael's mother asked for the check, the waitress pointed to Jim and said he insisted on picking up the bill. She tried to refuse, but neither the waitress nor Jim would accept. They talked briefly while Michael continued to color, his attention only being focused on them when he heard mention of his birthday being today.
When Jim found that out, he bought the child a toy truck from the adjoining shop. His mother wanted to refuse this offer of charity, but saw the look in Michael's eyes when he saw the gift and couldn't deny him.
Michael never forgot what the trucker said to him that day: "Everyone deserves something special on their birthday, no matter what."
* * *
Why can't I breathe?
Michael tried to cough, but instead swallowed water. He opened his eyes briefly, and closed them again as they stung. I'm...under...water? Disorientation quickly turned into panic as he thrashed around, unable to find the surface. Then his foot brushed against something rocky and slimy. He pushed himself upwards, and his lungs quickly found air again.
As he walked out of the water, the stench hit him. Stagnant water filled with garbage, oil, bird feces, rust, and things he didn't dare imagine filled his nostrils and coated the inside of his mouth. He bent down, throwing up into the pond. He paused, staring into his sick as it drifted down. The thought that he could have swallowed someone else's vomit made him throw up again.
Michael continued heaving for a couple minutes, well beyond there being anything left in his stomach. As he regained his composure, he marveled at how his mouth tasted better with the vomit than before. His body responded to that thought with another feeling of throwing up, but Michael was able to avoid it. Thought it did seem better, his mouth was still filled with the taste of bile.
As his eyes adjusted to the night, Michael could make our silhouettes. There were three or four streetlights lighting the area, but they were all too distant to provide anything more than dim spots weakly fending off the night. He only saw outlines: the shore, a fence around what he could tell now was a pond, with trees, trash cans and benches beyond it. There was the faintest of red dots near one bench, where Michael thought he saw an outline of a person sitting down. He walked toward the figure, clumsily climbing over the wooden fence.
The sound of his wringing his shirt out echoed through the park as he walked along the concrete walkway. The faint red glow moved along with the stranger's hand from his lap to his face, glowing brighter for a moment before becoming faint again.
The figure was mostly shrouded in the shadows, but what little light hit him only revealed the edges of a white beard and the faintest of glares from a bald head. Michael was slightly sickened from the cigarette smoke mixing with the taste in his mouth, but was drawn in by the heat -- everything else felt cold, chilling him to the bone.
The old man pulled out another cigarette and lit it with the lit end of the other cigarette. He handed the new cigarette to Michael while taking a drag off of the first one.
Michael just stood by the bench, soaking wet, thankful there was no wind to speak of chilling him further. He looked momentarily at the cigarette, but otherwise didn't acknowledge it. "Where am I?"
The old man's arm stayed motionless, continuing to hold the cigarette out to Michael. Taking his eyes off of the tree stump he was staring at, he looked up, meeting Michael's eyes. The old man looked weary and jaded. Michael felt even more exhausted just looking into him, and couldn't help but dart his own gaze down toward the stranger's offer.
Michael opened his mouth to speak again, but the old man cut him off. "I heard you the first time." He sounded as tired as he looked, with a clear undertone of impatience. "Things would go much easier if you take the smoke."
"I don't smoke."
"Does it matter? I'm not asking you to smoke it, just to take it."
Michael opened his mouth to object again, but stopped and let out a sigh instead. Stress and exhaustion took their toll on him, sapping his will to argue. It doesn't matter, and it is warm... A part of him was still reluctant, but he took the old man's offering, content to just hold it in his right hand.
The old man stood up, his voice sounding less tired. His back popped as he stretched it, the sound echoing faintly in the otherwise silent park. "Ah, better," he mumbled. Turning to Michael, he said, "Now, come on. We have a bit of a walk."
"Where are we going?" Michael asked. He looked around, then added, "For that matter, where are we right now? You never answered that."
The man walked a few paces down before turning back to Michael. "Let me paint you a picture. You're sitting on a park bench, minding your own business, when some youngun' walks out of the pond. You offer him a cigarette, because he looks awfully cold." Michael shivered as he said that. "He demands you to answer his questions, automatically assuming you know what he's talking about, without the common decency to introduce himself." The sadness in his voice reminded Michael of people who complain about the lack of courtesy and respect with today's youth.
Michael was a bit annoyed at the old man for not just plainly answering his questions. People who know nothing are up front about it. But he also felt a bit guilty from the man's speech. "You're right. I'm sorry. I'm Michael..." He paused, scratching his head. "...and, well, I'm not sure how I got here." The last thing Michael remembered before this point was seeing headlights rushing toward him. He began to ponder that last image, staring off into the darkness.
"You can call me John." He offered a handshake to Michael, but Michael was lost in thought. John turned to look at what Michael was staring at, and took another drag on his cigarette.
After a few moments, Michael snapped to. He noticed his left hand starting to become numb, and switched his cigarette to that hand. "Am I...?" He couldn't bring himself to finish the question.
John didn't turn back around. "If I said yes, would you smoke that cigarette?"
Michael just looked down at his hand. Though the ember glowed faintly, it was already regaining some feeling. He was tempted to put it to his lips and inhale, but his resolve held out. Even so, he concentrated on the cigarette, distracting himself from thinking about the old man's answer.
John recognized the look in Michael's face as he stared at the cigarette. "Ah, you're an ex-smoker. How long now?"
Michael didn't look up. "Four years."
"You remember all the good times you had with cigarettes, don't you? How it seemed to help you think and de-stress? How warm it seemed to make you on cold nights?" He didn't mean to tempt Michael; his voice was almost wistful, as though he was talking about himself. Nonetheless, Michael wanted badly to put that cigarette in his mouth.
Michael's only response was to look up. He did his best to push the pleasant memories of smoking away, though as he did, he began to think about his own mortality. His face felt a little colder as a tear rolled down his cheek.
John continued, not seeing Michael's tear. "Why did you quit?"
"They're bad for you," Michael replied, his voice monotone.
"Bullshit." The old man spat in disgust. "No one ever quits for that reason. I've quit many times, for many reasons, but never because of that piece of anti-smoking P.R. propaganda shit." He started to walk again, motioning Michael to follow. "C'mon. Moving will help you warm up."
Michael followed him. "You don't seem to be very good at quitting."
John took another drag. "Cigarettes are too important. But you didn't really answer my question."
Michael blinked at that comment, then took the defensive. "You didn't answer any of mine."
"Fair enough. Tell you what: You answer my one question, I'll answer all yours. But don't give me a bullshit answer, unless that's the sort of answer you want."
He breathed some, in order to keep his anger in check. I am sick of playing games. He groaned and thought about the question. They walked a block down the street before he spoke. "I had this girlfriend, just after college, who was weak-willed. She would smoke when I smoked, even though she had asthma. Honestly, I think she was a bit of a moron for other reasons, but, well, you wouldn't believe the..." He held his hands out, miming large breasts. "Fun lay, but, well..."
John grinned, revealing blackened teeth. "You're not with her now. What keeps you from smoking?" As he exhaled, the smoke drifted toward Michael, ever so slightly warming his face. Michael reflexively held his breath until the smoke passed.
Michael regained his breath. "Just because I started doing it for her doesn't make it invalid now. Cigarettes are expensive, especially here in California." John stayed silent, waiting for Michael to say more. "Honestly, I've had maybe eight cigarettes some I quit four years ago, but they don't count."
"It would be too depressing to start my quit-clock over just because of a little lapse."
"I can understand that. So why not lapse one more time, right now? You'll feel a hell of a lot warmer."
Michael looked down at the cigarette he was still holding, switching it back to his right hand. "I'm not nearly drunk or angry enough, and there is something to the whole 'health' thing, even if you think it's a bullshit answer."
"It's bullshit when it's the only answer an ex-smoker gives."
They walked down another block in silence before Michael pushed the issue. "My turn?"
John pointed to a street sign. Michael recognized the intersection, Ninth & S Street. He drove down Ninth back when he had a job downtown and lived in the south area of the city. They briefly walked down S Street, passing by a book store Michael hadn't visited for a few years.
"That answers where we are. What about where we're going? Or how I wound up here? Or..." Michael left the last question trailing. He wasn't sure he wanted that answered.
"You remember when you used to smoke, how things happened magically?"
Michael shot a skeptical look. "I don't remember anything magical about smoking."
John's cigarette finally went out. As they walked toward a bus stop, he leaned against it and tossed his cigarette away. "This should jog your memory." He took out a cigarette and lit it with a cheap lighter he carried in his front pocket. As he took a drag, a bus came around the corner. "You can't tell me you never did that."
Michael raised his eyebrows. "Do what?" he asked as the bus pulled up.
John boarded the bus, his cigarette still in-hand. He motioned for Michael to join him. Michael tossed the cigarette on the ground and stomped on it. John rolled his eyes.
"Hey, John. It's been some time," the bus driver said. "Who's the new guy?" The bus driver looked to be in his late forties, and was dressed like some San Francisco trolley operator from an old film.
"Michael. Michael, meet Mike." Michael's skin felt alive again, absorbing the warmth of the bus. It felt like Heaven.
The bus driver saluted to Michael by tipping his hat. "You can smoke on this bus, son."
"Thanks, but I wasn't smoking anyway." He searched his pockets for change, and then for his wallet, and found he had neither.
The bus driver waved him off. "Don't worry about it." Michael then noticed a lack of a change box.
John sat down in the back as the bus pulled away from the curb. "Are you telling me that things you were waiting for didn't have a habit of showing up when you lit a cigarette?"
Michael joined him, basking in the warmth coming down from the vent above. "Sometimes, but that's just coincidence."
John shrugged. "Have it your way."
The bus continued along, silent aside from the engine and John's deep, smoke-filled breaths.
* * *
T-Bird let out short, quick breaths as sped down Broadway at around 60 MPH, exhilarated from the rush of power and danger. He grinned as the lights kept changing in time for him and traffic moved out of his way. When the cop car didn't even acknowledge him as he zoomed right by, he laughed. "This is the life!"
He thought about food, and saw a late night taqueria with an empty drive through. He thoughtlessly turned left, crossing oncoming traffic, threading through a space just large enough for him to pass through. He made a quick order at the menu, and drove to the window.
They handed him the food without asking for money.
Darting back onto the road, he acted cocky, swerving, hollering, closing his eyes. He felt on top of the world. Even so, the situation didn't fully click until he saw an ambulance with its lights and siren on stop for him.
He truly understood what the Man had offered him. All it took was running over some guy.
He pulled his emergency brake and turned straight around, then sped back toward downtown. He smirked, always wanted to do that for real, not just in some video game, but his mind quickly went back to business.
It was time to see the Man.
* * *
Michael wasn't sure what time it was. Even so, he was starting to become move suspicious - there was no traffic on the street at all, but even more than that, there were no cars parked either. Aside from the two people with him on this bus, everything seemed deserted.
The bus stopped. Michael turned to John. "Where are we?"
"At our stop. C'mon," he said to Michael. Then he turned his head toward the front of the bus and shouted, "See you around sometime, Mike!"
The bus driver responded with a wave. "Take care, John. You too, new guy."
John got off the bus exit of the bus, followed by Michael. John turned around, as thought he was waiting for the bus to move again before crossing the street. Michael looked around, feeling a sense of familiarity to this place.
The bus pulled away and continued on. Before Michael turned around, John put his hand on Michael's shoulder, pausing him. There was a newly-lit cigarette in his hand. "Here. It's a cold night." John sighed as he tossed his old cigarette behind him, and added, "Everyone deserves something special on their birthday." Michael took the cigarette and stared at John, eyes widening.
John took his hand off of him and walked forward. Michael turned around and saw a body broken in the street. Arms and legs were bent in inhuman ways, and the asphalt glistened with a lone streetlight reflection in pools of blood.
Michael was unable to move. All he could do was stare at his own body, lying there, not breathing, not living. The rest of his vision began fuzzy, and then became a tunnel, only able to see himself, dead in the street.
John spoke, but all Michael could hear were unintelligible echoes. Even still, he found himself responding - he lips moved, air passed through, but he didn't know what he was saying. Then his vision faded further, he no longer heard anything, his body went numb -- he was completely unable to perceive the world.
I can't be dead, can I?
Then, Michael felt the warmth from the cigarette in his left hand. Over what seemed like an eternity, the warmth spread over his body. His head began to regain feeling, and he started to blink. His vision was unfocused -- everything was cloudy and dark. As his eyes adjusted, he stumbled around. This space had a familiarity to it.
He squatted down, waiting for his faculties to full return. The first thing he recognized was the bed next to him. He looked around and slowly stood up, blinking in disbelief.
Michael was in his bedroom, naked, still holding the cigarette.
Story by Ryan P. Macklin, copyright 2006
Image by Sasha Pixlee, copyright 2006