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A "Hidden City" Story
Ryan P. Macklin
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
As the bus pulled up to Michael's block, he saw the detective who had harassed him the night Heather was attacked. Oh, God, Heather... His thoughts turned momentarily to calling her, but he decided to wait until later, when he was alone. Deep down, he knew he would not be able to bear her forgetting him, at least not right now.
The bus driver stopped and opened the door. "This is you." He did not turn around to speak to Michael, keeping his eyes on the road and traffic instead.
Michael hesitated. "If it's not too much trouble, can we go someplace else?"
"It's no trouble at all. That's why I'm here." For some reason, perhaps from the weariness and impatience of the bus driver's voice, Michael could tell Mike was lying. Nevertheless, the offer was made. "Where to?"
Heather's place..., he thought for a moment. He shook his head, still unready to risk that, as he did not want a repeat of this morning's events with her. "I don't know. Just drive." Michael kept looking in the bus's side view mirror, trying to see if Espinosa had noticed him, but he was not able to see his car.
"I'm not supposed to do this, but..." Mike paused. "…if I might make a suggestion?"
"Yeah?" Michael replied with a tone of hopefulness in his voice.
"You're looking for answers. Or, if you're not, you should be. Brother Charlie has answers. So do his...friends."
"I wasn't able to get any out of him last time we talked. He was cryptic about making choices and whatnot."
"Things are different now, don't you think?" After a moment, Mike added, "But I've said enough."
Michael became slightly annoyed by the fact that the bus had not started moving. "Can we go?"
"Go where? I have to take you somewhere."
Michael sighed. "Fine. To see Brother Charlie."
The door closed and the bus drove off, merging into the left lane.
Espinosa kept focus on Michael's apartment and did not notice the bus at all.
* * *
Jason pulled up to the light in time to see a sports car run a red light and plow right into a minivan, gawking in horror as the two cars became one lump of twisted metal.
He got out of his car and started to walk over to the scene to help when a figure emerged from the wreckage, seemingly unscathed except for superficial damage. The man was covered in tattoos and wore a tank top that might be white someone bothered to wash it. Jason could not tell if the rips on his jeans were old or fresh from the accident -- he guessed a bit of both.
He looked at Jason, their eyes locked together for a moment. Then the man marched toward him. He started to back up. The figure yelled, "Get in your car!" Jason, unable to do anything but follow the voice, got back into his car. The man opened the passenger door and climbed in. "Drive," he said in the same commanding voice.
The man then shouted to everyone else to put their cell phones down and not to follow him. Jason drove off, swerving around the pile of cars sitting in the middle of the intersection and the people around them.
* * *
The bus pulled up to an all-too-familiar alley. "This is where Heather was attacked." It doesn't look quite so menacing in the daylight.
"Brother Charlie will be here soon." Mike opened the door.
Michael took that as his cue; he gathered his box of effects and laptop and climbed out of the bus. "Thank you, uh, Mike." It only now occurred to him that they shared the same first name, but he shrugged that off. Michael's a common enough first name. The air outside felt much cooler than the heated bus interior. After a couple steps, he turned around. "How soon?"
"Soon," Mike replied as he closed the door. With that, he drove away, turning the bus right at the next intersection.
Michael stood around, waiting for something to happen, wishing he was not encumbered by his laptop and box of junk right now. Waiting around for a few minutes on this quiet street, Michael began to feel quite uneasy here. Creepy, being here where it all started. He noticed that how well the alley was shaded, even though it was only shortly after noon.
The building on the south end was only a couple stories tall, running down most of the length of the alley. The beige wall smooth, aside from spots where paint had chipped off over the years. There was one door in the middle, painted to match the wall. The building on the north end was maybe three stories taller its southern neighbor, covered in large bricks of stone Michael could only describe as "urban decay green." Unlike the other building, this one was only half the length of the alley, starting halfway across the block.
He surveyed the empty lot adjacent to the tall building. It was surrounded on three sides by chain-link fence topped with razor wire, the fourth side being the wall of the neighboring building. Seeing the razor wire made Michael think about the wound on his face from Friday. He recalled the rusty look of dried blood on one bit of razor wire when he came back on Saturday.
Michael rubbed his cheek, but did not feel the roughness of a scab or the ridge of a scar. Looking around, he spotted a parked van. Walking over to look at himself in the side view mirror, he could not find the cut on his face at all -- no scab, no scar, no mark of any kind.
At least something good is coming from today, he chuckled to himself. It then occurred to him that before this morning's hellish events, he might have freaked out over this little change, or at least been mildly disturbed.
"Don't sweat the little shit," he said to no one in particular.
Michael glanced up from the car's mirror and noticed that the alley across the way was not especially shadowed like this one was. He turned back around, looking at the empty lot that took up a quarter of the block, and then up at the sun, feeling something amiss.
He lowered his head and stared again at the empty lot, much of which was dug up. Probably, he guessed, to make room for a foundation that hadn't been poured yet. There was something about how irregularly shaped the hole in the lot was, though he wrote that off as a work-in-progress. This thought seemed to be validated by the various construction vehicles parked along the stretch of dirt road that was this part of R Street.
He noticed that the hole seemed to be dug quite close to the tall building next to it. He did not know anything about architecture, but that seemed off to him. The tall building looked old and possibly abandoned -- not worth building onto. More than that though: because of how the shadows fell, the hole looked as though it opened deeper inside the building and still deeper below it .
Michael thought about this land for a few minutes, as its very existence felt somehow wrong in his mind. Forgetting about waiting for some homeless man to show up, he turned toward the light rail station and walked up a block. He then turned back around and stared through the chain-link fence that, along with the shadows, made the alley look like a grainy, underexposed photograph.
But I can see the other side from here now. He walked forward, shifting the box and laptop to his left arm and dragged his fingertips along the fence as he walked back toward the alley. Michael's eyes stayed focused on the spot where he first saw Heather as he walked forward.
His pace quickened as he kept walking. As he started to jog, the laptop that was loosely held under his arm alongside the box slid out from his grasp. Michael's ears disregarded the sound the machine made as it fell, corner-first, buckling and cracking parts of the plastic casing and shattering the display. His arm barely registered the decrease of weight carried.
He started tracing back his path with his eyes, turning his head from the direction of the light rail station to the alley way. After doing this a couple times with only his head, he traced the path with his hands a few more times. Unable to process this situation silently, he spoke out loud. "Where is the wall that was here before?" He clearly remembered having to turn a corner around some sort of brick wall to see Heather being attacked by that thing on Friday evening. Today, less than three full days later, he's able to see the same space clearly from a block away.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught movement in the deepest part of the foundation hole, up against the tall building. His head snapped towards the flicker of light, but it was gone as quickly as it came. Nonetheless, he tossed down his box somewhat carelessly and began searching the alleyway for a part of the fence that would let him inside.
As he walked a few paces in, it occurred to him to look back up at the sun. While dealing with this newfound obsession, he had not noticed gray clouds moving across the sky, covering the sun. The shadows grew more intense everywhere, and in the alley they practically felt tangible.
Almost every ounce of his being told Michael to run, save one part that told him it was too late.
* * *
T-Bird and his hostage drove for fifteen minutes. He was somewhat amused that the man continued to take directions after he stopped using the commanding voice. Fear does wonders. He was relieved that he did not have to keep using it, as he had not realized how fatiguing it was before.
"Your name is Jason, right?" T-Bird said.
The man nodded, daring not to speak.
"Turn right here." Jason followed the order.
"You're a friend of Michael Reyes, aren't you?"
"Y-yes," Jason stuttered.
Fucking great. Maybe some good luck after all. First thing's first -- that Claude fucker needs to be taught a lesson, and T-Bird's school is always open. Then I kill Michael. I don't need some high-class fuck doing my work for me. Something happened during the crash that seemed to unlock a part of T-Bird. The fear he felt left him, and was replaced with rage. Some of his ignorance left him, replaced with knowledge he did not quite know how to process yet. He was running on a strange, new instinct.
"Where are we going?" Jason asked, timidly.
"If you would like to keep your jaw intact, you'll speak when spoken to." T-Bird took a deep breath, and then used the commanding voice for one word, "Understand?"
Jason nodded nervously and remained silent.
"Turn left up here. We'll be going down this street for a bit." In truth, T-Bird was not exactly sure where his destination was, but somehow he knew how to get there. Watching his prisoner paralyzed with fear provided him some wry amusement, but he could not shake the nagging feeling in the back of his mind that this was wrong.
* * *
After a few moments of paralysis, Michael's body began to obey its flight instinct. He picked up his left leg and pushed off with his right, aiming to sprint back toward the end of the alley from which he came. He stumbled, his pant leg caught on the fence, causing him to stumble, but caught himself before falling. Without a moment's hesitation, he pulled with greater force to free himself, his pants be damned.
The sound of ripping cloth was masked by the sensation of ripping flesh as he jerked his leg with all of his might. Once the pain hit, he collapsed. His entire lower left leg felt like it was on fire and wet at the same time. He looked back at his leg, his mouth falling agape at the sight: the fence was wrapped around his leg, poking into it from all directions, like he was trapped in a spider web made of steel. The shadows did not allow for much color, but he could tell that the dark spots on his pant leg were probably blood soaking through.
Michael watched in horror as the tangled fence twisted tighter around his leg. He howled in agony, unable to bear the ripping and crushing of flesh. Suddenly, a bizarre thought popped into his mind: At least I'm not driving stick right now.
Almost as if in response to his thought, the fence released him. He hobbled up, putting as much weight on his left leg as it would allow, daring not to prop himself up on the fence or the wall on the other side. The pain made him want to collapse, but fear and adrenaline kept him going.
He hobbled no more than four steps when he heard someone from behind calling out to him. "Michael Reyes?" Michael coughed, tasting sulfur in his mouth as he heard the horrible, deep, booming voice. If he had heard the voice under different circumstances, he might have likened it to James Earl Jones' Darth Vader. Right now, the voice felt like a great and terrible evil all on its own.
Michael refused to turn around, instead mustering up the energy to keep hobbling away.
The voice replied to his action, "I'll take that as a 'yes.'" This time, the voice seemed to emanate from both sides of the alley as well.
The pain Michael felt a moment later was too intense to bear. His vision went completely white, as though he were hit with a bright spotlight and unable to shield his eyes. He went completely numb; suddenly, he felt like he was floating and unable to move at all.
Some time later – his sense of time was lost as well, so he did not know if it was moments or hours later – the blinding white vision faded, leaving him seeing nothing. His first coherent thought returned: Am I still blind, or am I just seeing the darkness? His sense of smell began to return filling his mouth with the aroma of vomit. I must have puked from the pain. Maybe that's what a migraine's like, he thought as he threw up some more.
His sense of equilibrium returned, as did some of his sense of touch. He was lying on his stomach. His eyes finally adjusted, revealing wet pavement right in front of his face and a figure standing before him. With great strain, he moved his eyes up and tilted his head. Though there was no significant light source behind the figure, it was silhouetted. He was able to see claws on the end of the figure's arms.
Michael groaned as the sensations of pain began to slowly return to him. His back felt horrible, as though it was open and exposed to the elements. He guessed the claws were responsible for that, seeing light glinting wetly off of their tips.
Michael coughed, his blood adding a bit of complexity to the flavor in his mouth. "I know you," he gasped.
The evil voice returned, speaking from all around him. "In point of fact, you do not. However, you have seen me before." The shadowy figure bent down. It continued to speak, though this time its voice came only from where its mouth probably was. "Last time, I allowed you to see me. I allowed you and Heather to survive. You did not beat me or cow me into fleeing. I retreated because that was my task."
The figure paused, waiting for Michael to reply. When he did not, it continued. "You see me now, because one of His servants must watch you die."
This time, Michael responded. "Why me?"
"`Why me?' Ah, that is ever the mortal question. I must retort with: Why not you? What places you above being sacrificed?" It paused. "In any case, your question is not one that I can answer. Your side chose you. I merely intercepted you before they were able to do so."
The figure let that thought sink into Michael's head for a few moments. Michael responded, speaking more to himself than the creature, with "Brother Charlie?"
The shadowy figure jumped up, recoiling. It yelled, its voice booming from all around Michael, as if God spoke from the heavens. "How dare you! Such insolence shall not be tolerated!" It thrust a single clawed finger into Michael's right eye. At that moment, the whole of Michael's pain returned to him.
It continued yelling. "Do you know why I lessened your pain, Michael Reyes? I wanted to speak with you, as men speak, while I watched you die. It is rare that those such as us are allowed the opportunity to converse. How dare you be unappreciative!" Michael's mouth filled with the taste of sulfur again, the combined vileness in his mouth almost overpowering his pain. "Unfortunately, you had to speak that name. Our opportunity for civil conversation has passed. I shall tear your apart, Michael; although it little satisfaction, as I am no simple barbarian. This means I will finish what I started with your lady friend, Heather Christenson, in order to sate myself."
Michael tried to scream, but all he could do was gasp for air as the taste in his mouth seemed to prevent oxygen from entering his lungs.
The thing's head leaned in, stopping inches from Michael's face. "Her fate is sealed because of your actions. Let that roll around in your mind, Michael Reyes, as your feel me slay you." Even though it was still in shadow, Michael could still tell that its jaw was unhinging.
Michael swallowed foul air and screamed out, "Bastard! Fuck you! Brother Charlie!"
As he screamed, a deafening sound came from behind him. It was louder than the shadowy figure's booming voice, and rumbled like thunder. Michael's ears rang as warm wetness flowed down from inside them, dripping off of his ear lobes. The figure flew back several feet and landed on its back.
Another sound like the first rang out. This time, Michael was able to tell it was a gunshot, though it sounded as though it had been fired right next to his head. It writhed around and screamed, "This is not over between us, Lord!" Then it disappeared, and the clouds moved on and the shadows returned to normal.
Michael's pain faded away. He heard footsteps approach him from behind. As he put forth the effort to get up, a woman's hand reached down to help him up. He took it, and was surprised at her strength when she nearly pulled him up on her own. His eyes were drawn to the gun in the woman's right hand: a .60 caliber Desert Eagle, which looked even more enormous than usual in her small hands.
His eyes moved up to the woman's face. Standing before him was a woman whose beauty shocked Michael, even in his shocked, half-beaten state. Her curly, raven-colored hair fell to her shoulders. Her hazel eyes were both lovely and unnerving, as they seemed to stare right through him. Her skin was almost ghostly white, reminding him of the Irish woman he'd dated during his sophomore year in college. She was a few inches shorter than Michael and wore a blue blouse and jeans.
She looked very annoyed at him. She probably has a beautiful smile. She spoke, breaking his train of thought. "You're Michael, right?"
"Good. Come with me."
He found himself starting to move along with her, but his sense returned and he stopped. "Who are you?"
"My name's Jen. Are you coming?"
Michael felt something in the back of his mind, like nails on a chalkboard. "Your name's Sue."
She sighed and started to gesture with her handgun. "You know how long I've been trying to get rid of that name? It sounds so fucking old-fashioned." She stared at him for a moment before continuing, "Alright, fucking fine, I'm Sue. Now get in the fucking car."
Michael looked and saw a Jeep with its top down parked across the street, and instantly knew it was the car she meant. She grabbed the roll bar and hopped in without opening the door, like someone might do in a movie. He walked to the other side, but spoke to her before opening the door, "Can you tell me what's going on?"
Sue looked at him. "Listen, I'm sorry for everything. We're both short on time. I'll tell you on the way."
"On the way to where?"
"Brother Charlie sent me. He apologizes for not being about to meet you here like you agreed to, but in all honesty this was a bad block for you to choose anyway."
"So he sent me. Which, I'll have you know, pissed me off greatly. Now get in the fucking car if you want your girlfriend to live." She impatiently waved, gesturing for him to get in.
With that, Michael climbed into the car. He started to buckle up when Sue said to him without turning her head, "You don't need to do that, Michael. You're already dead." This time, her voice did not carry with it a tone of sternness and impatience.
Michael stared at Sue as she started up the Jeep and peeled out. Dust flew around them as Michael continued to stare at Sue, frozen with the seat belt still in his hands.
"Don't worry, kid. It's not all bad. Charlie's a bit of an asshole, but he doesn't know what it's like for us." She turned to look at him. "I'm dead, too."
Somehow, hearing her say that was almost reassuring. He let go of the seat belt.
Story by Ryan P. Macklin, Copyright 2006
Photo by Jeremy Tidwell, Copyright 2006