A "Hidden City" Story
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
Michael jumped into the gang banger's car. He felt the malevolent presence coming from the east. The image of the semi was clearly in his mind -- he saw it driving down Highway 50, only a couple dozen miles from the city limits.
"Head south, to the freeway," Michael said.
The driver responded by pressing down on the accelerator, moving out of the alley. "Which one?"
As the car pulled out and started to move down the road, Michael's mind began to relax and focus. "Who are you?"
"Name's Ludd. Friend of Brother Charlie." Ludd paused, noticing his luck with the green lights. "How is he?"
"I don't know. But the guys who did this are trying to pull some shit, and I need to stop it."
Michael thought for a moment. "I don't really know. But I know it's something. Something to do with a semi truck."
Ludd nodded. "Then we stop it."
Michael thought about asking the guy who he was -- more than just his name, but as they approached the freeway, he focused on the immediate matter. "Turn left here."
"No, man, that's a one-way." Ludd continued straight.
As Ludd entered the intersection, Michael commanded once again, "Turn left now."
Ludd's body reacted immediately, acquiescing to Michael's demand. He shouted, "What the fuck!" as he suddenly faced the oncoming traffic getting off the freeway.
"Take it easy. They'll go around you." Michael poured his will into the traffic, directing individual vehicles, persuading the flow of traffic as a whole. "Get on the ramp."
Ludd pulled out a pistol and held it at Michael's head, his hand cocked so that he held the gun sideways. "The fuck you do, man?!" he shouted into Michael's ear.
Michael began to laugh. It started as a slow chuckle and grew into a hearty roar. He laughed so hard that his control over the traffic slipped for a moment, and Ludd had to swerve to avoid being sideswiped. Still holding the gun, but keeping his eyes ahead, he screamed, "You think this is funny?!"
Michael forced himself to calm down and reassert his grip on the traffic. Still giggling intermittently, he said, "Sorry. After the day I've had, that's just funny." When Ludd's movements showed he still wasn't about to try driving the wrong way on the off-ramp, Michael barked at him. "Ramp, now."
Ludd's hands automatically swung the wheel and swerved so that they were driving east down the westbound side of the ramp. Michael snapped, "Sorry, but there's no time to argue."
Ludd retorted by loudly thumbing back the hammer on his pistol and staring directly at Michael, ignoring the oncoming traffic.
"Watch the road," Michael spat.
"Fuck you. You're Mister Freeway. I don't gotta watch shit."
Michael raised an eyebrow. I guess he has a point. "What the fuck are you going to do with that gun?"
"Silence that fucking voice of yours."
"Yeah?" Michael challenged. "Try it. I'm already dead."
"I know all about you motherfuckers. I ain't gonna be your fuckin' bitch, dead man. I don't care if Charlie says you're cool."
They continued the wrong way down the freeway, neither of them looking at the road. The oncoming vehicles parted around them without a cacophony of horns or screech of tires, as though they were moving through a flawlessly executed choreographed dance of automobiles.
As they left midtown, Michael looked away. "You're right, uh," Michael tried to remember the kid's name. "…Bud."
"Ludd." The driver quickly and bitterly corrected.
"Ludd. Sorry. Put the gun away. I might lose my concentration if you shoot me."
Ludd stared at Michael again.
Michael rolled his eyes. "Shit, man. All right, not again. But this isn't for me. It's for Charlie -- you know, your friend."
Ludd thought for a moment, and then uncocked the hammer and flipped the safety on, tucking the gun back under his waistband at the small of his back. Then he turned to face forward. "A'ight, but not again."
"Fine." Michael focused on the traffic, keeping the lane they were in clear and adjusting the flow far ahead of them, directing approaching cars off the ramps in clusters, until after a couple more miles, the only car on the freeway was them.
Within a few moments, they could see a semi approaching in the distance. As it grew closer, they saw that it was in their lane. Ludd inclined his head forward, "That it?"
Michael again felt the thick oppression he had sensed earlier, gripping his throat, emanating from the truck's trailer. "Yeah."
"What do we do now?"
Michael tried to make the semi stop, but something slapped his thought away. He shook his head and focused again, and again his effort to force the truck to stop was defeated, his mind smacked down as though it were a child's hand reaching for a cookie. "Fuck."
"What? Fuck what?"
Michael closed his eyes, trying to coax a different instinct forward; the one that was telling him this was bad in the first place, hoping it would tell him what to do. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and snorted. "Ram it."
"What!?" Ludd's eyes widened and shot over to Michael.
"We ram it."
"Fuck that!" Ludd started to turn the wheel. Michael kept the tires from turning along with it, but the effort drained him. Fighting physics and commanding people was taking its toll on him.
Ludd let go of the wheel, reached back, and pulled out his gun again. Michael quickly interjected, "Do you want Charlie to die?"
Once again, Ludd and Michael stared at one another Once again, Ludd put his gun away. He muttered, "You're gonna owe me."
"Fine. Whatever." Out of the corner of his eye, Michael thought he saw a slight grin on Ludd's face as he switched his focus back to the oncoming semi, which had begun to honk its horn. He continued to sense the resistance to his directive, and knew that the semi wasn't going to change lanes just because of their car. One thing's going right, at least.
Ludd closed his eyes tight. Michael breathed slowly. It *has* to work. Nothing else makes sense. In the moment before the impact, he mentally added, Not that this does, either.
The car seemed to accelerate as it collided head-on with the tractor-trailer. The multi-ton behemoth struggled against its lightweight challenger. Its steel grill bent, headlights shattered, rubber squealed -- the clamor was thunderous.
Ludd's car remained unscathed as it pressed on into the semi. Inside the car, Michael felt as though his mind were being compressed. Stopping traffic was one thing, but this was too much, especially in the living world. Still, fighting through the tension, he knew what to do, and poured his will into one thought, repeated over and over. I am the car. I am the car. I am the car.
Michael's body took the blow that Ludd's car should have. His flesh tore open, as though ripped apart by the jagged metal pressing down around the car, which continued forward during this exploded moment in time and space. Ludd pressed down on the accelerator as hard as he could.
The car pushed further into the truck, an unstoppable projectile shredding the underbelly of the beast. To either side of the car lay engine parts, wheels, axles, everything in its path spraying backwards in a slow-motion V. As he pressed on, Michael's body continued to take the damage meant for the car. His bones began to be crushed into powder. His skin was pulped, grated, leaving red chunks of flesh on the seat.
He continued his mantra, blocking out the pain. I am the car. I am the car. As Ludd drove through the semi, nearing the other side, Michael's chest and skull caved in. Michael's mantra stopped. Everything about Michael stopped.
Having nothing to support it, the truck collapsed behind Ludd's car. Ludd could feel the resistance drop as soon as it cleared the semi. He looked to the passenger seat. A frothy stew of powdered bone and ruined flesh was all that was left.
Without slowing down, Ludd drove down the next on-ramp, still empty from Michael's assertions. He parked under a bridge, got out of the car, dropped to his knees, and voided his stomach onto the ground. Several minutes later he got up and walked away, leaving the car behind.
* * *
The first thing Michael noticed when he woke up was the brisk cold. He opened his eyes, and very little light came in. He lay there, feeling something rough underneath him. His hand moved around slowly as he mustered up the energy to do anything. His fingers, after some experimentation, determined that he was lying on grass.
Michael noticed he wasn't breathing. He thought about that and tried to draw a breath, but then collapsed back into exhaustion.
Footsteps approached him and a hand suddenly came into view. Michael pushed himself to take the man's hand and, as he did, he felt energy flowing into him, exhaustion melting away as he was helped to his feet.
As Michael focused his eyes, standing before him was the old man he met when he died.
"You're early," the old man said.
Michael fought to recall the man's name. "Hey...John."
The old man snorted, and reached into his pocket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. He offered one to Michael, who gladly took it.
"Damn, it's cold here." He looked around, and noticed little bits about the place that looked familiar, but also unnatural at the same time. He recognized this as the park where he first woke up after dying. His eyes drifted up at the skyline. There was a fog in the air, but he could just barely make out the Golden Gate Bridge. "So, this is the City?"
John shrugged as he flicked open a Zippo and offered Michael a light. "Close enough. But that doesn't tell me why you're early."
"Early for what?" Michael lit his cigarette and puffed away. As he did so, the fog in the air cleared, allowing him to see farther.
"You've met me already, haven't you?" John asked as he started walking toward the street.
Michael followed. "Of course. I was here after I died."
Michael stopped. "You're fucking kidding me."
John turned around. "What?"
Michael laughed. "I got it. Okay, sure, I get it. I don't know why I didn't think of it before."
"Yes you do," John responded.
Michael looked at him. "Hmm. Yeah, you're right. I was too busy being dead to notice."
"Starts like that with all of them. But it doesn't tell me why you're early, though I think I know what you're trying to get at."
"You think you know?" Michael expressed utter bewilderment. "Aren't you supposed to know?"
John walked ahead, motioning for Michael to follow. "Tell me, Michael, how many times have you died?"
"I guess this would be my second."
"And I met you the first time, right?"
Michael took another drag from his cigarette. "Yeah."
"That hasn't happened for me yet." John crossed the street and started walking down the sidewalk.
Michael followed along side. "I guessed that by how you reacted. So, that means I died and went back a couple days in time?"
John shook his head. "I don't think so."
"I don't know. I don't have an answer for you."
"So why couldn't it have been me going back in time?"
"Because that's impossible."
"Bullshit, old man."
John stopped and turned around, just before reaching the corner. "What did you say to me?"
"You're pulling this 'old wise man' crap, but you're full of shit. You think it's impossible? Shit, last week I thought walking around after being dead was impossible. I didn't believe in monsters and other worlds. Fuck 'impossible.'"
"You swear a lot more than you used to."
"Yeah, well, I woke up on the wrong side of the grave this morning." Michael paused. "Wait a second. What do you mean 'than I used to?' You haven't met me yet. How long have you been watching me?"
John cocked his head and stared at Michael with contempt.
Michael finished his cigarette and tossed the butt into the street. "You're not going to give me any answers, but you're leading me to that bus. You expect me to board it, somehow look like someone else, and pretend that everything's normal when I watch myself board it later."
"Is that what's going to happen?" John asked. Michael couldn't tell if he was honestly inquiring or if he was being sarcastic.
Rolling the question around in his mind, he eventually answered, "Yes."
"Because you don't have any answers for me."
"And because it's up to me to save myself."
"I still don't believe you. But I was leading you to a bus. Maybe there's something to what you're saying."
"Are you really so arrogant that you can't accept that a man might have answers you don't?" Michael walked past John and around the corner. The bus he had seen the first time he woke up in this place was parked on the end of the street, with the door open.
John blinked. "So you know I'm not a man. Did you know before?"
"No, took me dying a second time to figure it out. You're Sacramento."
John looked back at the park. "You'll be here soon."
"I know. I'll play your game if it means other people don't have to." He got into the bus. "We'll be continuing this conversation later."
"Maybe, but it won't be for a long time," John said as he walked back to the park.
Michael whispered to himself, "We'll see about that." Then he concentrated on remembering what Mike the bus driver looked like before.
* * *
Epilogue -- Several Days Later
Michael walked up to the bus bench where Espinosa was sitting. Espinoza's outline looked a bit fuzzy to Michael, like an optical illusion. -- take your eyes away for a moment, and he might disappear. He gripped the business card firmly; the name printed on the card and the blood steeped in its fibers were what allowed Michael to see the detective at all.
"Espinosa," Michael greeted as he sat down on the bench. He saw that Espinosa's right arm wasn't in his coat sleeve. The bulkiness of the coat made it hard to tell from a distance, but close up Michael saw the bulge of an arm in a sling.
"You said you wanted to meet me," Espinosa replied flatly. His hot breath hit the cold, January air, mixing together to become a fine mist.
Michael exhaled deeply. He watched as his own breath turned the air white as well, half-expecting it not to. "Yeah," he said without taking his eyes off his drifting, dissipating breath-fog.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Espinosa waited for Michael to ask whatever it was he wanted to ask. Michael didn't know what exactly to say.
Espinosa opened his mouth to speak, but that just prompted Michael to speak first. "What happened?"
"You're asking me that?" Espinosa coughed after he spoke. He took a throat lozenge from his coat pocket and put it in his mouth. "What do you remember about a semi-truck completely obliterated on 50 last week?"
Michael raised an eyebrow, giving Espinosa a bemused look.
"I know you had something to do with it, Michael. I know, because a few hours after they got it off the freeway and cleaned up the debris, no one remembered it. A dozen cadavers in the middle of the freeway, and no one fucking remembers!" Espinosa fished inside his coat and pulled out a Polaroid of the semi on the freeway after the car ran through it. "Talk to me, Michael."
Cavaders? What? Michael just shrugged, his face not showing his surprise. "I don't know what to tell you. Hell of an accident there." His eyes locked onto Espinosa's, his cold lack of emotion in there telling Espinosa that Michael knew more than he was saying.
"Come on, Michael. You owe me an explanation, after everything you've asked of me."
What explanation? You probably know more than I do. Michael paused, running his tongue around in his mouth. Espinosa's words stirred up a fire inside him. "I owe you? How's Heather these days, detective?"
Espinosa's abrasive attitude left him. He looked down as though shamed, and dropped the previous subject. "It took her."
"I know," Michael said, halfway between angrily and solemnly.
"It was monstrous. I don't know if I can even describe it. It was barbed wire and bricks and shadow and...I don't know. It was everywhere, Michael," Espinosa said with a quiver of fear in his voice. "It was everywhere."
Michael nodded, though Espinosa didn't see the gesture. Michael was familiar with Claude monstrous shape as well.
The detective continued. "I guess it didn't see me. I'm not surprised now, but then..."
"I know, Luis," Michel spoke softly.
"Fuck, Michael. I just cowered in fear as the monster took her. I didn't even think about my gun. Probably wouldn't have done any good, but I just froze there. I didn't stop it. I didn't even try."
Michael thought about saying "I don't blame you," but he held back. He didn't believe it enough to say it. Instead, his voice dropped its sense of empathy. "Did you know that the dead can sleep?"
Espinosa looked up at him.
"You know that phrase 'sleep like the dead?' It's true. The best sleep I ever got was the night after I died. Heather was in my arms."
Something in Espinosa's eyes said "I'm sorry" -- words he wasn't able to voice.
"I can't sleep now. When I close my eyes, I see her. I see her and I see him. I hear her; God damn it, I fucking hear her scream like she's right next to me! He's making good on his promise, Luis." Michael's eyes burned with hate, drilling into Espinosa's. "Christ, he makes me smell her."
Espinosa's guilt didn't leave him, but it took a back-seat to rage. "Is that why you've been fucking calling me every day for the last week? To guilt me? Revenge? Fuck you, Reyes. You asked for my help on the fucking phone. I got your message and followed it to get to that place. You don't know what that cost me, do you?"
Michael stared at him, the intense hate beginning to leave his eyes.
"I had to shoot my brother. No one in my family has seen him since we ... in years. Suddenly, I show up to find my older brother -- the man I looked up to -- holding a gun at your girlfriend. You think it was easy to pull the trigger, you selfish asshole?"
"No, just winged him in the leg. Following your message, he didn't see me when I came in." Espinosa's tone became more harsh. "I had to shoot my brother to save your girl, and the monster still got her."
They had been silent for a few moments when Espinosa spoke again. "Why didn't you save her instead of the homeless guy?"
Michael didn't answer right away. He watched a few cars pass by as he tried to collect his thoughts. "I don't know. I didn't really think about it. Now it's constantly on my mind -- in the blink of an eye, I chose him instead of her." Michael continued to look away, watching the passing traffic. Maybe Claude was right.
Espinosa decided to change the subject. He didn't want to see Michael like this. He didn't want to have any sympathy for him. "What happens to you now? You know, since you're dead and he's gone."
"He's not gone for good."
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I made a deal with some guys Charlie knows. I wish I hadn't, but I didn't know that I'd have to stick around until I keep my end. After he came to, Charlie said I chained myself here when I made the deal. I've tried leaving, but the City won't let me go -- not here, not on the other side."
"I guess the dead have to stick to their word, huh?"
"Looks that way."
Espinosa nodded. Michael eyed him suspiciously. "Don't even fucking try anything."
Espinosa let out a chuckle which quickly turned into a cough.
"On the bright side, no more colds," Michael said with a slight grin.
"If this doesn't go away soon, I'll keep that in mind."
Michael's smile faded. "That kinda gets to why I called you."
"Because you can't get to Heather yourself."
Michael nodded, looking mildly surprised.
"I'm a pretty good detective, Michael. But that's it. I'm not some monster-hunter for hire."
"I know. Just...you're my last option."
"What about Sue?"
"Even if that psychotic bitch whore hadn't fucking skipped town after everything went down -- which I'm told is pretty common for her -- I wouldn't ask her. She'd probably just shoot Heather if anything set her off."
Espinosa nodded. "Point. What about the homeless guy? Isn't he the 'king' or something?"
"Brother Charlie? He's just a king. But I don't know what that even means yet. All I know is that he's some homeless guy everybody seems to know. I asked him if there was something he could do. You know what he said?" Michael asked rhetorically, pausing to make sure Espinosa was listening.
"What?" Espinosa said, prompting Michael to continue.
"'It's not my place.'"
The detective shook his head. "Damn, Michael."
"No one else remembers who I am at all. Not friends, not family, no one. Well, except for you, since apparently you're half-hidden from the City Folk."
Espinosa kept his eyes down. He didn't dare look into Michael's. "How do you know she's still alive?"
Michael closed his eyes and relaxed on the bench. Several moments later, his eyes snapped open. "I know," he spoke softly.
"Is there anything you can do?"
"Do you know where she is?"
"That's a bit out of my jurisdiction."
"I know that. But you might have cop friends there or, I don't know..." Michael paused, and then hesitantly added, "Family?"
Espinosa quickly stood up, facing away from Michael, and suppressed a cough. "There's nothing I can do," he said coldly and firmly.
Michael stood up with him. "She's in trouble, Luis! I don't care what you think of me, but she's alive and in utter hell!"
Spinning around on his heels, Espinosa started yelling straight at Michael. "Oh, so I should send someone I care about to be slaughtered by that fucking monster? Or worse, join Heather?"
Michael spluttered. "Fu...I...Ga..." In his rage, Michael lost control of his speech, shouting syllables of sentences he couldn't fully form.
A car drove by past slowly. An older woman in the passenger's seat watched the animated argument between Michael and Espinosa as a man of around the same age drove, scanning the houses as though looking for an address. Michael saw them out of the corner of his eye, and lashed out. "Keep moving," he commanded with his booming voice.
Espinosa scoffed as the couple sped off. "Were you going to try that next? Try to order me around like I'm your fucking slave?"
Michael's eyes widened with shock. "No, I--"
"Save it. I can't help you, Michael. Don't call me again." With that, Espinosa faded from Michael's sight.
Michael started to sob. "You don't know what it's like! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to! I'm fucking sorry!" He slumped back down on the bench. "I'm supposed to be dead. I want to stop walking. I don't want to be like them." He cried harder. "I want to be in the ground."
He sobbed for a few minutes without saying anything. Then he looked up to where he last saw Espinosa. Still crying and hoping beyond hope that the detective was still standing there, he said, "You're wrong. There is something you can do." He exhaled. "You could be a friend."
Espinosa tried to leave, focusing on disappearing from Michael, but when Michael started sobbing, he couldn't turn away. "I'm sorry, Michael. I really am," he said, knowing Michael wouldn't hear him.
He forced himself to turn again. "But it's easier than the truth."
Story by Ryan Macklin, Copyright 2006
Photo by Jeremy Tidwell, Copyright 2006