Jack Lincoln leaned against the wall behind the nurse station, thumbs hooking the waist of his scrubs.
The head nurse’s nasal voice cut through his brooding. “Jack!”
She continued typing, and didn’t turn to look at him. “Wake up, Jack. 512 needs a blood draw.”
“Are you asleep now? It’s four o’clock.”
Jack pushed off the wall. “Hell! Has his doctor called?”
“Still in 511. Better hurry.”
“Come on, Linda, you could have given me more warning than that!” He strode to the supply machine and tapped in his code.
“You gotta sleep off the clock, Jack. Besides, you look good in a hurry.”
“Oh I try. I’ve never had nightmares this bad.”
“Not my monkeys, not my circus.”
The screen read ‘Jack Lincoln, RN’. He selected blood draw, and with a click the drawer below opened.
“Haven’t I scratched your back enough lately?”
“My back is fine. I’d take a foot massage, though.”
He took out a syringe and vial. “Now that would be a nightmare.”
“Everybody heard it: in your dreams you massage my feet.”
Jack smiled, shook his head, and walked down the hall.
His shoes squeaked on the tile floor: white floors, white walls, white ceilings. The wooden doors were the only color on this floor of the hospital, held in place by their white rectangular door-frames. Even his nurse scrubs were white.
Jack waved his hand under the dispenser beside the door, caught a handful of sanitizer, rubbed his hands together, then rubbed the excess on the vial and syringe. He stepped through the doorway to 512.
A short man with a reddened face and an ample belly sat up in the hospital bed. His wispy hair was gray and disheveled, but when he saw Jack his eyes brightened.
Jack smiled. “Mr. Alverson! How are you feeling this morning?”
“Tired. Still you and me today?”
“Always; until you’re feeling better and we can get you home.”
Mr. Alverson saw the needle, then looked away. “I’d feel better if you could get me some of that key lime pie for lunch.”
Jack shook his head. “Sorry, doctor’s orders.”
He pulled the cap off the syringe and gripped Mr. Alverson’s arm.
“It can’t hurt to ask.” He smiled weakly up at Jack.
Jack tried to smile, and poked the syringe into a vein.
Mr. Alverson grimaced, and sucked air through his teeth.
Jack slowly expanded the syringe, filling it with blood, then pressed a cotton swab to Mr. Alverson’s elbow and pulled the needle free.
“Keep pressure on that if you would please.” Jack wrapped some medical tape around the cotton swab. “There we are. All done.”
Jack stuck the needle into the vial and filled it with Mr. Alverson’s blood, then applied the label. He turned toward the door, then turned back. “Tell you what: I’ll talk to Hospitality and see if we can’t work something out.”
Mr. Alverson beamed. “I’m counting on you, big guy.”
Jack smiled and walked out, rubbing hand sanitizer on his hands and dropping the needle into the sharps bin.
Back at the nurse station he placed the blood vial into a large padded plastic capsule, tapped in the pharmacy code, and shoved it into the vacuum tube. He closed the small door, and with a hiss of air the capsule disappeared into the wall.
“Don’t we have any lo-cal pie we can get for Mr. Alverson?”
Linda squinted. “Dr. Alverson?”
Linda’s hands clattered over her keyboard.
“Hmmm. Nope. Strict dietary requirements.”
Jack hooked his thumbs into his scrub waist and leaned against the wall behind her.
“What kind of life is that? When a man can’t even choose his food?” Jack shook his head. “You think he even remembers what key lime pie tastes like?”
“I do.” The keys clattered under her direction.
“Maybe it’d be better if he didn’t remember, since he can’t ever have it again.”
“No chance. Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”
“You say that now, but what if you end up in a place like this: not able to live your own life, slave to someone else’s orders. What’s the point in going on like that?”
She snorted. “It beats the alternative. 501’s trying to get out of bed again.”
Jack sighed. “On it.”
He jogged down the hall, shoes squeaking.
He burst through the wooden door.
The man had gray and wrinkled skin covered with liver spots. His legs swung over the side of the bed. He looked at Jack with wild eyes.
“Freddie, give me a hand. I have a meeting in ten minutes and my reports aren’t done.”
Jack quickly rubbed on hand sanitizer as he approached. “There’s no meeting, Mr. Wenton: you’re retired remember?”
“Of course there’s a meeting! Jefferson will want the Monday numbers, and he goes straight to the boss if with every little thing, the little suckup!”
“You can’t get out of bed, Mr. Wenton. You get too dizzy remember? After the surgery?”
“Let go of me! I have to get my reports ready! You’ll cost me my job, you ass!”
Jack shielded his face. “Ow! Mr. Wenton, there’s no meeting. Stop it! I’m just trying to help. Careful! Your IV!”
Jack grabbed the man’s wrist.
A beep emanated from the ceiling. Linda’s voice called out of the intercom. “Everything OK Jack?”
The old man flailed and shouted. “Alice! Call security!”
“I got it, Linda. Mr. Wenton, the meeting was canceled!”
Mr. Wenton stopped fighting. “Canceled? It’s never canceled! This place won’t run without Monday numbers.”
“The police declared a state of emergency after they flew those planes into the towers, remember? Everyone’s gone home early today.”
“The towers… all those people. I saw it on TV. The second tower, I saw it!”
Jack eased him back onto his bed. “Yes, it’s a terrible thing. Get some rest. Everybody needs to take some time to figure things out. You can worry about the reports after lunch.”
“What’s lunch today, Jack? Can I eat today? I have my surgery soon.”
“Your surgery was two days-” Jack sighed. “You can have whatever you want for lunch, Mr. Wenton. Would you like grilled cheese and tomato soup again?”
“God no! I haven’t eaten tomato soup since I was a kid!”
“Well, here’s the menu. Just press your call button when you know what you want.”
“Do they have apple pie?”
“As much as you want, Mr. Wenton.”
Jack scrubbed sanitizer on his hands and walked slowly back toward the Nurse Station.
Linda didn’t look up from the computer, keys clattering away. “Kill me if I ever get that way, Jack.”
“Won’t he get better after he’s off the pain meds?”
“Nope. He’s been this way since well before the surgery.”
“Maybe he’ll snap out of it, some day. You don’t know.”
The head nurse kept typing.
Jack leaned against the back wall. “What’s he got?”
She shook her head. “Dementia. Alzheimer’s. Syphilis. Take your pick.”
He walked over to the counter and picked up the phone
Linda frowned. “Did he hurt you? He didn’t pull out his IV, did he?”
“No, I’m calling the cafeteria.”
“What for? He’ll think he’s a kid again and want grilled cheese and tomato soup, just like always.”
“Hospitality? Yes, this is 5. Do you have any low-calorie pie? Key lime, maybe?”
Jack Lincoln walked slowly, one sweaty hand inside his trenchcoat, pressing the crossbow flat against his chest. He stayed in the shadow of the trees lining the sidewalk, but kept his speed constant. Not being seen was good, but not being noticed was better: face forward; slow, steady gait; just out for a walk.
He moved only his eyes to scan a passing car. He squinted through the headlights. The windows were fogged with humidity after the summer rain, the driver obscured. Jack did not step away from the curb, and a few drops spattered his coat. Predictable movements, concerned only with his own problems, nothing interesting, nothing to worry about. The car rolled through a yellow stoplight, then passed into the night. Jack took a slow breath.
He quickened his pace, turned the corner, and came to the front door of the apartment tower. A woman stood leaning against the outside of the glass doors, smirking at him. Her black hair was buzzed short, her muscled arms crossed over a tight white sleeveless T-shirt. A small purse hung from the crook of one elbow, swaying by the knees of her tight jeans.
Jack slumped, as much as he could with a crossbow pressed to his chest anyway. He whispered “Liz, what the hell? You couldn’t wear something less noticeable?”
“What, like that ridiculous coat?”
“Where else should I keep my tools? A purse?”
Liz rolled her eyes. “God! Don’t remind me. I look like a damned prostitute.”
“A dominatrix maybe.”
She stood up straight and punched him in the shoulder. He staggered back a step, laughing.
She drew two automatic pistols out of the purse, then threw it into the bushes.
“Whatever. Let’s do this.”
Jack opened his coat and fished his hand into a pocket.
“Hold on! You’ll trip the wards!”
“What does it matter, the cameras are right on us.” She gestured above them to the camera mounted over the door and its blinking red light.
Jack drew out a large stick of purple chalk. “Those are just for show. Nobody’s watching the electronics; not his style.”
“What about guards?”
He shook his head and began to draw runes onto the glass. “Not his style either. He’ll have a lot of thralls, but no allies. The book says he hasn’t allied with anyone since the fifth century.”
“Well if the book says it…”
“That thing has saved our lives more than once.”
There was a puff of air and a shower of green sparks.
Jack grinned. “There!”
He pocketed the chalk and pushed the glass door slowly inward.
They crept into the atrium. Liz aimed her pistols into the shadows, first one, then spinning to the next. Fluorescent light flickered from a single overhead light, but the rest were dark. Jack followed behind, tip of his crossbow pointed down, his eyes flicking back and forth.
The metal cage was down, preventing access to the cafeteria. In front there were several tables with chairs pushed not quite evenly around them. On the other side of the Atrium the information desk was dark: abandoned. The room smelled of cleaning fluid, and the white tiles reflected a thin sheen.
Jack flinched at every squeak of their shoes, shushing Liz more than once. After ignoring him several times she finally stopped, twisted her head around and silently scowled at him.
He held a finger up in front of his lips.
She aimed a pistol at the ceiling and made a rude gesture with her fingers.
At the click of a latch across the room they both dropped into a crouch. Beyond the tables the Employees Only door opened and an old man in a blue jumpsuit emerged, pulling a mop and wheeled bucket behind him.
He barely moved his legs, shuffling across the laminate tiles. Once out in the middle he dipped his mop in the bucket, then dragged it across the floor. Jack and Liz stayed low, sneaking around to keep the tables between them and the man.
Liz stopped, nearly causing Jack to bump into her. She turned her head to face him, eyes squinted, and pointed at the old man. She moved her arms around together, as if holding a mop. Jack craned his neck over the tables, and saw the the man was rubbing the mop on the floor completely dry: no water on the floor, mop, or in the bucket.
Jack frowned, tapped his finger on his temple, then shook his head.
He pointed toward the Employees Only door.
Liz nodded, then headed that way. As they passed a table Jack’s long coat snagged on one of the chairs, causing it to loudly squeak across the floor. They both flinched and tried to crouch lower.
The old man stopped, dropped his mop on the floor, and stood up straight. He turned in a full circle until he was facing them. He pointed a gnarled finger in their direction, then began to scream.
It wasn’t like any normal scream of surprise or pain, but a single, long, high-pitched wail. Movement caught Jack’s eye: up on the wall the camera’s round lens split in half and opened, revealing a black pupil. The eye blinked, then looked around the room. It scanned over the man, then followed his pointing finger and looked at them. It blinked again, then closed and returned to only a dark camera lens.
After a few moments there was a commotion on the other side of the Employees Only door, then it burst open. A dozen people poured through: men, women, some were only teenagers, and others were middle-aged. They had no uniform clothing: most of them wore jeans and T-shirts, though one couple wore a dress and three-piece suit. All of them held large kitchen knives, and in once case a butcher’s cleaver.
As on they turned and looked at Jack and Liz, then ran full-pelt toward them. The did not scream, snarl, bare their teeth, or show any emotion whatsoever. All of their faces were completely impassive. They did not speak or give any warning, but only ran, arms pumping and blades glinting in the flickering light.
Jack stood and staggered backward, swore, then loosed a crossbow bolt at them. The air rippled at the bolt’s passing, and one of them burst into blue flames, but did not stop running. Liz gasped.
Jack back-pedaled, trying to reload another bolt into the crossbow.
“Shoot, damn you!”
Liz stood. “They… they’re people.”
“Not any more! Look at their eyes, their faces. Now they’re his bullets.”
Liz snarled and raised both pistols. They were right up next to her, arms outstretched, knives raised and hands grasping for her. She fired, emptying both clips into the crowd.
They tripped, staggered and collapsed, mouths open in what looked like shock or pain, but still they made no sound, other than the thrashing of their clothes on the floor, and the crackling and sizzling of the one that still burned.
The old janitor shuffled quickly for the door. Just as he grasped the handle Jack turned and loosed a crossbow bolt, striking the man in the back. His jumpsuit burst into flames. The man flailed his arms, collapsed to his knees, then slumped to the floor in a smoldering heap.
“You… you didn’t have to-”
“Suck it up! I’m not about to have one of his mind-slaves stab me in the back, just because he used to be an old man, or because you wanted to show mercy to a monster.”
Jack began loading another bolt into his crossbow.
“Dammit Jack…” She rubbed a forearm across her face, then sighed and loaded new clips into her pistols. “We kill the Wizard, and this ends tonight.”
Jack locked the bolt in place. “Tonight.”
Liz strode to the Employees Only door and turned the handle. “Damn right.”
Suddenly the door exploded into her, flying off its hinges, shattering into splinters, and knocking her back several feet. She skidded across the tiles and collapsed into a heap.
Jack threw up his hands, catching several sharp wooden slivers in his arm. He staggered back and blinked. “Liz! What?”
The shape of an enormous man blocked the entire doorway. He was bare-chested, with blue skin and a ragged gray beard. His growl rumbled like a car engine, seeming to vibrate the entire room. He had to turn sideways to slip through the doorway, scraping large gouges in the metal frame with a pair of blood-red horns sticking out of this forehead.
Jack stepped toward Liz’s crumpled form, but did not take his eyes off the creature.
“Liz, are you okay?”
The creature bared its teeth and let out a torrent of booming laughter.
“Bastard!” Jack loosed a crossbow bolt at it.
It snatched up a large chunk of the door from the floor and held it up as a shield. The bolt thudded into the wood, which immediately caught fire. The creature howled and threw it aside, shaking its hand, but unburned.
Jack backed away, desperately trying to load another bolt. His belt was empty. He fished into his coat pocket for more.
The creature snarled and quickly advanced, slapping a table out of its way, where it flew against the wall and shattered in a spray of splinters and wrecked metal.
“Come on, Liz! Get up! Shoot it!”
Jack backed against the wall. He pulled out a small case of bolts, but his sweaty fingers fumbled and dropped it. The bolts spilled out across the floor. He dropped to a knee, grabbed a rolling bolt, slapped it into the crossbow, and took aim.
The creature halted its advance ten strides away. It narrowed its eyes, then picked up another small table and held it up over its chest.
They slowly circled each other: Jack with his head cocked, looking down the crossbow sights, the creature peering over the wood, holding it like a shield.
He glanced past the monster.
“Come on Liz. You can make it. I need you!”
“Liz!” Jacked looked over at her.
Her muscled arms were criss-crossed with scratches. One of her pistols was gone, but the other was still clutched in her hand. Her face was a bloody mass of swelling bruises. A jagged shard of wood stuck out of one of her eye sockets.
The monster strode closer. Jacked hopped backward and looked down the crossbow sights. The monster slowed again, crouching behind the table, slowly edging forward.
“Jack! Jack, my face! I can’t see! God, Jack, where are you! My eyes!”
“Don’t touch it! Your… can you see out of your right eye? Blink, Liz!”
“God, what the hell is that!”
“Shoot it Liz, shoot it!”
The creature bellowed and charged him.
Liz sat up, blinking her one eye. He lifted her gun and fired into its back. After the first shot it howled in pain, and spun to face her.
She fired again and again, emptying the magazine. Fragments of wood tore away as the bullets dug into the table, but no more struck the monster. It bellowed and charged Liz, raising the table high to smash it down on her.
Jack aimed his crossbow and let loose, striking the creature directly in the center of its bare back.
It bellowed, stopping its charge and dropping its shield, desperately reaching for the middle of its back, but unable to grasp the bolt. The skin around it bubbled and blackened, and the monster twisted and spun, still trying to pull the bolt free.
Then the flesh erupted, blue flames crawling over its back, up its arms, then engulfing its face, chest and legs. It screamed and thrashed, crashing into walls, rolling on the floor, and slapping at its own skin.
It howled and flailed, and finally collapsed onto the tiles, still burning. The room filled foul smoke, and the horrible smell of burning meat.
Jack staggered to Liz and collapsed onto his knees, breathing hard.
She smiled up at him.
“Did I get him?”
Jacked started to laugh, but then coughed on the smoke. In the distance he heard police sirens.
“Liz, can you get up? We have to go.”
Jack grasped her wrist, and pulled her up.
“Ah! My knee!”
“Does your other leg work?”
“Ow! Yeah, I think so. God, my eyes, Jack. My eyes!”
He lifted her up and put her arm around his neck. She hopped beside him.
“It’s okay, Liz. We’ll make it. Just keep moving.”
They stumbled toward the glass door. Red and blue lights flickered through the smoke. They pushed through, and a blast of cool, wet air washed over his face.
Jack sat up in bed, throwing the sheets off and crying out at once. He was covered in cold sweat, and breathing hard. His bedroom was dark, with only a distant flicker of red and blue filtering through the translucent curtains. A police siren faded into the distance.
He picked up his phone from the bedside table and opened his messaging app, then tapped Carla’s face. He typed in a message, but stopped when he saw the time in the corner of the screen. He sighed and dropped the phone back on the nightstand.
Jack flopped backward into a puddle of his own sweat, and rubbed his temples.
Jack sat back a soft recliner. The room was illuminated only by a computer screen out of his view. For a long moment the only sound was the soft clicking of the mouse.
“It was the worst one yet, doctor Cummings.”
“Mm-hmm.” She clicked again, then started typing.
“I’m serious. It’s never been like this. I can’t sleep. Hell, I don’t want to.”
“Just nightmares though? No hallucinations?”
“No, I’m not hallucinating.” Jack sighed. “Not yet, anyway. It’s never during the day, just at night, at home. What do you think it is?”
“Are you taking any anti-smoking medications?”
“I’ve never smoked.”
“Maybe you should be.”
Jack sat up. “I don’t really like pills. I’ve always been able to manage everything with sleep and food.”
“Do you meditate?”
“I’m not superstitious.”
“That’s not the point. It’s about calm.”
“Do you really think that will help?”
She shrugged without looking away from the screen. “It’s worth a shot.”
“But you don’t think it means anything?”
“You said you weren’t superstitious.”
“You know what I mean.”
“The brain’s all chemicals and electricity. Watch your diet. Get bloodwork done. Have your water tested.”
“There was this woman, too.”
“Not your significant other?”
“Are you unhappy with Karen?”
“No, we’re happy. I couldn’t ask for better.”
Dr. Cummings typed for a few minutes.
“Are you attracted to her? Could you have seen her somewhere, and subconsciously wished for more? An exciting fantasy?”
“I’ve only ever seen her in the dreams.”
“More than once?”
“Well, yes, now that you mention it. But always doing something crazy.”
“Yeah, like some kind of show, always talking about them, hunting them, fighting… all kinds of things.”
“Hmm. Sounds like you might be bored at work.”
“This place is plenty stressful!”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Too mundane, maybe?”
“I don’t like excitement.”
“Maybe you only think you don’t.”
“No I’m pretty sure. I’m having panic attacks, doc. This is a nightmare!”
“Like the others?”
“No, damn it! I just mean it sucks! Things are falling apart.”
“You have a good job. You own your own house. You have a good girlfriend, so you say.”
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“Okay, Well things don’t sound that bad. You’re not a teenager any more: maybe you’re getting older. Maybe you need to start taking sleep aids.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Jack stood. “I have to go back to work.”
She looked at Jack. “Jack! Make sure you don’t let it affect your patients.”
“I’ll be fine. I’d take time off before I let it get that far.”
She went back to typing. “No more than 36 hours awake.”
“I know, I know.”
He turned his head on his way out the door. “Hey, Thanks for listening. Seriously.”
She kept typing. “Mm-hmm.”
Jack stopped his car on the edge of the street. He stepped out and shaded his eyes from the evening sun. The row of houses stood close, packed together like they waited in line for something, politely not touching, but just barely.
Some of the front lawns were mowed, but Jack approached the one with the fence on either side of the cement walk completely obscured under morning glories, and raised wooden planters closer to the house, all with multi-colored flowers smiling out. He walked up the steps, between the potted plants, and knocked on the olive-green front door.
After a few silent moments he pressed the doorbell button. He leaned over and peered in through a window, obscured by curtains, and completely dark. He checked his phone, but saw three of his own texts, still unanswered. He looked around, then flipped up the lid to the mailbox bolted to the house just beside the door. He peered down inside, but it was empty. He texted again.
Another minute passed. Jack walked down the steps, then stopped. He inhaled deeply, taking in the smell of flowers and fresh wet dirt. He bent over and squinted down into one of the pots, freshly watered. He looked around the neighborhood again, then walked around the planters and the side of the house. It was a tight squeeze between the house and the fence, but Jack turned sideways, only a few times scraping the back of his jacket on the creepers growing through from the neighbor’s side of the fence.
The glass greenhouse in the backyard was lit from within, shining in the fading dusk. Jack smiled at the flickering in the light from movement inside. He tapped a knuckle on the window in the wooden door.
He opened the door and leaned his head inside. “Hello?”
“Hey, Jack. Thanks for stopping by.”
She didn’t look up from the plants, but he could hear the soft smile in her voice. He walked in and closed the door behind him.
“How’s it going?”
“This is my new Hibiscus.” She packed dirt into the small pot on the wooden counter around a single red flower.
“What, uh… what happened to the last one? Was it the cold?”
Carla kept packing dirt, but leaned her head around. She showed him a raised eyebrow over a sad smile. “Been doing some reading?” He smile grew a bit.
Jack smiled. “Nothing wrong with a little research.” He approached and hugged her from behind.
She kept packing dirt, each press pushing her back into his embrace.
“Don’t listen to him. You’re going to be fine here. It’s spring for sure now. All my lilies will take good care of you. Isn’t that right, ladies?”
Jack slide his chin down onto her shoulder, his mouth by her ear. “I feel like we’re not alone.”
“Yeah, I feel it too. There’s some strange man in here with us.” She reached up to carefully stroke the leaves of a nearby rose. “Do you feel him too? He can’t be my Jack: he doesn’t believe in plants.”
Jack playfully snapped his teeth at her ear. “Hey, I’m just turning over a new leaf.”
She wiped her hands on her apron, then turned around in his arms and held him away so she could look him in the eyes, her expression suddenly serious. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay? You’re not dying, are you?”
“No, I’m not dying. I just wanted to see you. Am I interrupting your time? I noticed you didn’t have your phone.”
She turned back around and picked up some more soil for the pot, but didn’t pull out of his arms. “I never take my phone into the greenhouse. They don’t like its energy.”
“Oops. I still have mine.” Jack let go of her and backed away.
She twisted her head around. “Since when does that bother you?”
“Look, I’m sorry I made fun of it before. If you can… feel their energy, then great. I respect you enough to let you have that… relationship with them.”
She cocked her head to the side and squinted. “Who are you?”
“I’m still Jack! Can’t I be nicer?”
“It’s not like you.”
Jack stiffened. “Okay.”
He looked away from her face. “I mean… I guess, before, I’ve said things, but… I like this place. It’s nice.”
Carla stared at him. Her hands absently rubbed together, shedding dirt onto the floor.
He raised his hands. “This is me now.”
She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, craning her neck up to sit her chin on top of his shoulder. “I’m glad. I could get used to the new Jack.”
Jack returned the embrace, exhaled, and closed his eyes. He squeezed her tight, and whispered “This is real.”
She pushed away and looked up into his eyes. “What?”
He shook his head. “It’s not important. You make me happy.”
Carla smiled. “Okay.”
She turned back to her Hibiscus. “Hand me that bag of soil, will you?”
The sky was dark by the time Jack left Carla’s house. The clouds were low, blocking out all starlight, reflecting a synthetic purple from the electric lights of the city. It had rained while he was inside, bringing the smell of wet pavement into the air, mixing with the dirt and flowers in Carla’s yard. As he stepped past her bushes, a cool breeze washed over him, bringing the scents of oil and city garbage with it. The wet streets were pitch black, seeming to absorb any light, yet still shining streetlight glare directly into Jack’s eyes.
He fished keys from his pocket and took a moment to yawn, wide and slow. He reopened his eyes and trotted down her steps to the sidewalk, and his car beyond the curb. He stopped at the sight of a lone figure across the street.
Jack squinted at the silhouette. It was an old three-piece suite with a top hat. The suit was extremely thin, hardly able to contain a human body. Below the top hat, the streetlight shone through stiff sideways hairs of what could only be an extraordinarily large mustache. Below the sleeve extended a long black cane with a white ball at the top, swirled with gray marbling. Jack realized it was not marbling on the ball itself, but a withered pale hand grasping it. It didn’t quite look like a man, as if someone had created some odd scarecrow by planting a broom handle into the ground, wrapping a suit around it, then shoving a top hat down onto the frayed bristles.
Jack slowly advanced toward his car, keeping his vision fixed on the figure. The old man crossed the street toward him. The driver-side door faced into the street, forcing Jack to come around the car, next to the man.
The old man tipped his hat and spoke in a voice wavering with age. “Jack Lincoln.”
Jack faced the man, keeping his back against the car, clutching the key in his fist. “Do I know you?”
The old man barked out a short laugh. “Thankfully not before now. All of us are very glad, now that you’re here. Come, let me buy you drink, introduce you to a few friends.”
“What? I dont… Who are you?” Jack fumbled his free hand behind his back, trying to find the car door handle.
“We’ll avoid the ogres, of course. They’re still a bit sore about the other night, but they’ll come round.”
Jack blinked several times, suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of burning hair. “No, I… that’s not…”
The old man held out a hand. “It’s all right. We’re all friends now.”
Jack shrank away, then saw there was a business card between the wrinkled fingers. He took it. “Alexander Brom. Artisanal Broom sales?” He squinted up at the man.
He smiled wide. “Everyone just calls me Mr. Broom.”
Jack shoved the card into his pocket, then scrambled for the door handle. “Thanks, really, but I don’t need any brooms. It’s been nice, but I have need to go. Right now.”
Mr. Broom put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “It’s all right: I’m like you.”
“Get your hands off me! I’m not like you! You’re insane!” Jack shoved him away, then quickly unlocked the door, jumped in his car, and sped away, without even fastening his seat belt.
Click to skip to Chapter 2, Scene 2, Scene 3, Scene 4, Scene 5
Click to skip to Chapter 3
Jack walked past the nurse station.
“Linda, I’m taking lunch.”
“Can you skip it? Williams called in sick today.”
Jack slowed. “Its a bit early for the the flu.”
“She didn’t specify.”
Jack resumed his normal walking pace.
“Of course she didn’t. You know what? No. I’m sorry. I need this.”
There was a sharp edge to her voice. “Say ‘hi’ to Cummings for me.”
Jack walked away faster.
His shoes squeaked on the white tiles, echoing down the long hall. As he approached the large double doors at the end of the unit, he heard Mr. Wenton moaning. He stopped in front of room 501.
The old man was still in his bed, looking right at Jack, a wordless cry coming out of his open mouth. His eyes were panicked, confused. He looked down at the velcro straps around his wrists, at his clumsy fingers, unable to manage the grip strength to peel them off. His moaning continued.
Jack closed his eyes and pushed through the doors out of the unit.
He walked across the atrium in a daze, his gaze sliding right over the people he passed. He realized someone had spoken to him. He looked up and responded “Hello” but the other person had already passed him . He blinked, then turned and walked on.
Jack turned into a side hallway, past several small clinics, and to an unmarked door. He swiped his badge, the keypad light turned green, and he pushed inside. The room was dark, but for the glowing computer screens, and a mouse clicked in the corner. The blue light illuminated Dr. Cummings’ face. Jack flopped down into a chair and sighed.
“Good morning, doctor.”
She clicked several more times.
“It’s… I don’t even know any more. I thought I was awake, but…”
“Have you had a CT scan?”
“I wasn’t hallucinating. I don’t think so. It was just weird. This old guy came out of nowhere.”
“Did you have him restrained?”
“No, not on the unit. Out on the street. By… my girlfriend’s house. I think he was following me.”
“Discharged patient? Family member?”
“No. Just… this weird old guy. He acted like he knew me. Like we were old friends.”
“You’re certain you’ve never seen him before?”
“I would have remembered.”
“A friend of a friend? Someone from childhood, perhaps?”
“I guess that’s possible.”
She clicked several more times, then typed for a few minutes.
Jack continued. “He didn’t even want anything. Just to hang out, have a drink.”
“Was he coming on to you?”
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t the time of night where you just walk up to people.”
“Was he the type to be less nervous alone than in a crowd?”
“What? Yeah, I guess he might be. He said we were alike, but he was really odd. I’m just… normal.”
“Except for the nightmares.”
“Lots of people get insomnia!”
She typed and clicked.
Jack let out an exasperated sigh, stood, and walked out.
It was early evening, and Jack found he had let his mind wander while driving home, and had instead driven to Carla’s neighborhood. He allowed himself a little smile, and parked in front of her house.
He got out and slammed his door, then hopped the neighbor’s fence and strolled through their yard to get to Carla’s greenhouse. He pushed through the glass door and walked in. She was leaning down toward a row of potted plants on the long wooden table, speaking softly to them.
Jack came up from behind and wrapped his arms around her.
“Hey babe. Good to see you. It’s been a hell of a long day.”
She tried to turn to face him, but he held her in place in the embrace.
“Hmmm. Isn’t it still early though?”
He kissed her neck.
“Did they let you off?”
“I took off. They’ll be fine. Other people work there.”
“Don’t you work there?”
“I’ve got better places to be.”
Jack’s hands wandered up from her stomach to her chest.
Carla squirmed in his grip.
“It’s a hospital. Isn’t it bad for patients if they’re shorthanded?”
Jack let her go.
“Who are you, my boss? Can’t you just be happy to see me?”
“My God, your face! Are you okay? Were you attacked?”
“It’s just a scratch. A needle-stick.”
“In your face?”
“A patient fell on me.”
“Did you get checked? What were they in for?”
“That’s not important. I can’t tell you anyway: patient confidentiality. The needle hadn’t been in them yet, okay?”
“You should transfer to another department. That place is too dangerous.”
“It’s fine. Nobody gets hurt.”
“You got stabbed in the face! What about that chemical burn last month?”
“You know what? I can handle it! It’s my job, and I know how to do it. You don’t know what I have to deal with. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“Then tell me!”
“Stop picking at me! I don’t want to think about work all the time. I get enough of that while I’m there. I came here to see you! Isn’t that enough?”
“You’re never really here. It’s all anger about your day, or whatever’s going on with you, that you never tell me about. We never really connect!”
“You never ask about my day. Maybe I had a bad time. Maybe I’m busy. I don’t always have time to fool around whenever it suits you.”
“Are you kidding me? The plants will still be here tomorrow.”
“Some of them are very delicate! You have to be careful.”
He grasped her shoulder and pulled her close.
“I’ll buy you some more. Let’s just go inside.”
She pushed him away.
“It’s been a week, and you come in here, mad again, all scraped up, again, all handsy, and I’m just supposed to roll over, like I owe you something!”
“What are you complaining about? You always seem to have a good time. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother!”
“Oh, what, it’s a chore? You’re doing me a favor?”
Jack stormed out of the greenhouse, slamming the door behind him.
He jumped the side fence, walked through the neighbor’s backyard, hopped the front fence, and walked back to his car, muttering to himself. He stomped on the accelerator, and with a screech of tires he drove away.
He took several deliberate turns, then pulled onto the highway over the city. A few miles later he took an off-ramp by a well-lit big box store surrounded by dive restaurants and thrift stores. He turned on a side street past a lumberyard.
Between the large stacks of cut boards and a long warehouse hid a single, tiny house, surrounded by a rusted, chain-link fence. The small yard was unkempt, full of tall grass and weeds, with a single scraggly tree.
Jack parked on the cracked drive, walked up to the house, and hammered his fist on the door.
He hammered on the door again.
After a long moment several shuffles and bumps came from inside, followed by the clicks and sliding metal of many locks and deadbolts on the other side of the door. The house was dark inside, the lights off and the shades drawn in the main room. A wave of body odor and stale air washed across him.
Liz stood just inside, head slumped down as if looking at Jack’s knees. Her buzzed hair had grown out a bit, now clumped and messy. A simple tank top rested on her bulging shoulders, and muscled legs pulled tight against her boxer briefs. Hanging above her nearly escaping chest was a silver-chained pendant with a spherical cat’s-eye at the center.
Jack said “Keep your head up. It puts people off when you don’t look them in the face.”
“I can’t see your face. If it wasn’t so damn bright out here I wouldn’t even know where you were standing.”
“Have you been practicing?”
“What else can I do? I can’t work, I can’t hunt, I can’t even research!”
She wiped her cheek with her hand.
“Just relax. Focus. Picture energy flowing from you into the pendant. Don’t fight, just let the visions come.”
She blew out a breath and closed her eyes. After a moment she slowly reached a shaking hand through the doorway. She poked at his jaw, then rested her palm on his cheek. She sighed, and the tension in her arms eased.
“Can I come in?”
Liz said nothing, and instead dropped her hand to his should and pulled him inside, wrapping her arms around him. She stood up straight, taller than Jack, and held him against her in a tight grip. Her breath was halting and her chest heaving, but she was silent.
She said quietly “Thanks for coming.”
“It’s been a hell of a day.”
Liz let out a short laugh.
Jack reached down and patted her butt.
“You’re going to have to put on pants at some point.”
“Or at least shower.”
She squeezed him tighter.
“I don’t… want to take it off.”
“Just make sure you remember where you put it.”
“What if… something comes in? What if I knock it over?”
“Tell you what, I’ll stay until your done.”
Liz pushed him back so he could see her smile.
“You better come with me. I might drop the soap.”
Jack smiled back at her. “Always happy to help. We are partners, after all.”
He grasped the back of her neck. She pulled him close and they kissed.
Jack closed his eyes.
Liz’s grip weakened, and her skin was suddenly cool and rough. He opened his eyes, and found himself looking up at his bedroom ceiling, his sheets wrapped tight around him.
He sat up and looked around at his bedroom, in his house. He dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his temples.
The head nurse’s voice echoed down the hall of the hospital ward. “Lincoln!”
Jack logged out of the computer kiosk and walked down the hall towards the nurse station.
“God, you sound like my husband. If you ever say ‘yes, dear’ to me, I’ll kill you myself.” She kept typing. “Or have you do my laundry. Are you busy tonight? You aren’t married, are you?”
“I think what you’re describing is slavery.”
“He says he loves me.”
“Stockholm Syndrome. Is there a smack waiting if he doesn’t?”
“Even if he does.”
“You make it sound so appealing.”
“For me it is. If only he wasn’t so boring.”
“You really are a gem, Linda. Did you scream across half the floor for a reason?”
“Pattie’s ready to take your lunch. Give her a hand-off.”
“Oh, is it time already?”
“You been asleep again, Jack? I thought you’d come looking for her an hour ago.”
“I’m not firing on all cylinders today.”
“Another bad night?”
Jack rubbed his forehead. “You could say that.”
“I’ll bring some of my husband’s pills. They’ll knock you right out.”
“Where’s Pattie now?”
Jack walked down the hall, shoes squeaking on the tile floor, echoing off the pale walls. A younger woman in matching blue scrubs stepped out of the patient room as he approached.
“What’s the word, Jack?”
She sighed and pressed her hands to the dispenser, them rubbed the alcohol foam between her hands.
“512 is asleep for now, 510 is ready for discharge once Dr. Raj approves, 515 needs a blood draw at 2, and 516 needs lunch as soon as she wakes up. Or more morphine.”
She waved at him, then her back to him and logged into the nearest computer kiosk.
Jack sighed and walked his squeaking sneakers toward the elevator. He rode down to the cafeteria floor. The doors opened, letting in a bubbling of fifty conversations, a slow circling current of people carrying trays, occasionally dropping a few off at a table, or picking up others and washing them toward the drop-off counter, and the kitchen and dishwasher noise beyond.
He swept his gaze across the sea of faces: people he knew, but didn’t really know. He didn’t know if they were married, if they had kids, if they lived on the north side or the east side. They didn’t know anything about him. He saw one of his patients, still in her hospital gown, with one hand pulling an I.V. stand on wheels and carrying a tray of food with the other. An older man traveled close behind her. Her father? Grandfather? Or just someone walking too close, not paying attention?
The woman happened to look up, and her eyes locked with Jack’s. She smiled and nodded at him. Jack raised his hand in a lethargic wave, trying his best to smile, but there was no life in it. He slowly slumped, wilting even at the sight of her. More work, more expectations, more obligations. The elevator chimed, then the door started to close. He didn’t move to stop it.
No one else came in. He was alone in the elevator. The door closed, and Jack let out a relieved sigh. He pressed the button for the lobby.
He stepped out and strode across the atrium. He could see the sky through the large windows. His pace quickened. The revolving door spun slowly on its motor. Jack leaned into it, pushing it around faster, and finally emerged into a light drizzle.
Jack closed his eyes and faced up into the rain. He smiled. The hiss of rain on the parking lot muted the noise of the city. The lot was full of cars, silent and still, but empty of life, but for a few people jogging to get out of the rain.
The drops were small, infrequent, but cold. Jack shivered and his smile faded slightly. He hunched his shoulders and walked quickly across the lot to the street. His gaze lit on a bright white and red awning, under the glowing sign of a sandwich shop. His smile returned, and he strolled toward it.
Jack looked in through the windows. Most of the seats were full, though the glass deadened the noise of people. He frowned and stared at them. No blue scrubs, no green patient gowns, no white lab coats. He pushed into the door and walked inside.
Jack scanned the other customers, looking for an empty table. After several moments without success he walked up to the bar and sat on a high stool.
A man behind the counter turned to face him. His hair was tied up into a gray bun on top of his head, and he wore a red apron over a white shirt, like the colors of the shop.
“What can I get for you?”
“Uh… soup of the day?”
“Lentils and carrots. Anything to drink?”
“Just water. Thanks.”
The man turned away and poured him a glass, then ladled the soup from a large pot and set it in front of Jack.
“There you are. Anything else?”
The man printed a receipt from the register and let it on the counter by Jack’s plate.
Jack took a drink of water. It was cool. He hadn’t realized how much the dry heat in the hospital had parched him, until he tasted it. He tipped the glass up and drank deep, in great swallows, eyes closed. The world around him fell away. All that was left was a stream of refreshing life, pouring into him.
He set the glass down on the counter and exhaled loudly, eyes still closed. He didn’t look up, didn’t look around to see who had heard, who might be offended by his rude display. Everybody needed water. Screw them for their expectations and rules.
He heard someone sit on the next stool at the counter, just beside him.
The woman’s voice was deep, somehow familiar. “Is this seat taken?”
He opened his eyes and turned to face her. “No, no one’s-”
It was a tall woman with short, dark hair, wearing a leather jacket over jeans and a white tank top. She wore sunglasses, even on this rainy day, and over her chest she wore a large cat’s eye pendant on a silver chain.
Jack froze mid-sentence. He could not help but stare at her. His scalp prickled with sweat.
She turned her body towards him, but her face was aimed over his shoulder. Her voice was strained. “Come here often?”
Jack faced forward, trying not to look at her. “No, I… I’m usually too busy.”
Her teeth were clenched. “Clearly.”
The server walked over to face her across the counter. “Can I get you anything miss?”
She didn’t turn to face him. “No.”
He stiffened. “Well, if that changes you know where I’ll be.”
Jack laid some bills on the counter by his receipt. “Nice meeting you, but I really need to go.”
He stood, but the woman snatched his wrist with a grip like iron.
She whispered at him. “Three weeks?! I thought you had gone in alone! I thought he killed you!”
“Ow! Let go! I don’t know you!”
“That’s it? I’m just a pity case now? A booty call? I know I’m not… at my best, but I can still fight! I’m not one of these sheep. I’ve been practicing: my aim is… it’s still better than yours!”
“It… you… it’s impossible! Get away!”
She gripped his wrist tighter, pulled him closer. “Listen, you-”
Jack kicked her stool out from under her. She fell, and let him go to catch herself on the counter. The Cat’s eye pendant clattered onto the counter, face down. She flailed her arms, swinging wildly. He backed away, out of reach.
Jack backed farther away. He looked out at all the people staring at them now. “She’s crazy! I don’t know her!” He ran outside.
Before the door closed he could hear her shouting. “You need me, Jack!”
Jack burst into the darkened room. “Dr. Cummings!”
Like always, she was sitting in the darkness, illuminated by the glow of her computer monitor. She sighed, and continued typing.
“I’m a little busy right now, Lincoln.”
“I saw her, Doctor.”
She clicked her mouse several times, then continued typing.
“Who did you see this time?”
“The woman from my dream. I saw her, at lunch, just down the street!”
“No, Carla’s real! The other woman! The woman with the monsters: Liz!”
“Do you know her from somewhere else, and now she’s appearing in your dreams? Maybe you saw her once, and she’s filtered into your subconscious, like that fight movie.”
“This isn’t… Every time I’ve seen her has been with… some impossible situation.”
“When’s the last time you had a full night’s sleep? Are your dreams distorting your memories?”
“That’s not…” Jack sat in the chair. “It has been a while since I’ve… caught more than a few hours. Uninterrupted.”
“Could these dream monsters be replacing the memory of someone you hate?”
“I don’t hate anybody!”
“Clearly there are some strong emotions, Lincoln.”
Jack sat back in the chair and rubbed his forehead.
She clicked several more times. “So have Carla and Liz ever met?”
Jack sat up. “What? No. No, I think… I think that might be bad.”
“Do you know for certain if this Liz is a real person? A person you know, I mean. Did you just see her, and then imagine that she’s someone in your life?”
“I saw her with my own eyes.”
“No, I mean did you see the image of a person, and then just dream who you wished she was? Is she who you wish your girlfriend was?”
“No, that’s not possible. I don’t… I don’t want her. She’s not the kind of person I would like.”
Dr. Cummings sighed. “From everything you’ve told me, you sound dissatisfied in your current relationship, and you’ve seen someone on the street, and fantasized into her everything you feel like you’re missing.”
“I didn’t imagine this today!”
“Are you certain? Is there really any hard evidence? Is there any proof that this woman is who you dream she is? Did she actually say her name was Liz? Did you even speak with her?”
“No. No I didn’t.”
Dr. Cummings started typing again. “Get some sleep, Lincoln. Take a few days off. I have a lot of work to do.”
“I have to get back to work myself.”
Jack walked out of the darkened room and into the hospital.
After work, Jack drove straight to Carla’s house. The sky crept slowly toward dusk, but no one inside had turned on any lights. He checked his phone, but she had not responded to his message saying he was coming over. He frowned at the hasty words. He regretted making it a statement, when it should have been a question. He looked again, but the house was only darker.
He scanned the street through his window. The streetlight flickered and buzzed. Jack got out of his car and locked it. He peered around again, then approached the house.
He walked up the sidewalk, then cut around the side and squirmed into the thin space between the fence and the siding. The greenhouse was still dark. He stepped up and tapped a knuckle on the glass door.
After several moments of silence, he walked over to the back door and knocked, just in case. Nothing. Jack leaned against the door, then slid down to sit on the concrete back step.
He imagined her inside the greenhouse, remembered it. She was here, only two days ago, but not now. She was always here, every day, but now seemed a thousand miles away. He shivered and hugged his arms around each other, then closed his eyes.
He remembered their simple embrace the other day. She had pulled herself close to him. He had closed his eyes, and was sure she did as well. They were both where they wanted to be.
His memory flickered back to the images of the other darkened house, the smell of Liz’s sweat, the sound of her shouts, breathing and shifting limbs, a firm grip on his wrist, a hand around his back. He saw the giant blue man, with his horns, erupting in flames. He could smell the burning flesh.
Jack opened his eyes and inhaled. The smell of woodsmoke drifted on the cool breeze. He sighed and his shoulders relaxed. He walked over to the greenhouse and tried turning the door handle again. Still locked. He sat back down on the stoop and rested his elbows on his knees, and his head in his hands.
He jumped up at the squeal of old bus brakes, turned, and peered into the window in the back door. After a few minutes he saw a light come on inside the house, then saw her walk back and forth a few times, shedding a bag and her jacket.
She approached the back door and stopped short, eyes wide at the sight of Jack. He smiled and waved through the window. She closed her eyes and sighed, then unlocked the back door. Jack stepped back, allowing her space to open it.
“Sorry if I scared you.”
“You’ve come by a lot recently.”
“Is that bad?”
“No, just… throws me off.”
“Can I come in?”
“I’m headed out, actually.”
She stepped out of the house and locked the door.
Jack moved aside to allow her through.
“Oh. Do you need… I mean, would you like some company?”
She squinted up at him.
“If you can… just be… then you can come in.”
“Can I help with anything?”
She walked past him and unlocked the greenhouse.
“Let’s try not, for now. They’re still not used to you yet.”
He followed her inside.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“No, just… don’t be hostile. No snide comments.”
“I don’t… I’m turning over a new leaf. Uh, no pun intended.””
She shot him a dark look, then rolled her eyes and handed him a watering can..
Jack smiled weakly.
“Sure thing. Uh, where-”
“Back of the house.”
He stepped out of the greenhouse, looked around, and found the spigot. He turned it on, and swore when water splashed all over his pants. He brushed off as much as he could, then finished filling the can, and carried it back into the greenhouse.
“Where should I start?”
“First, give it to me. If this is going to be a common thing, pay attention. These need a lot, and every day if you can. These twice a week, usually Wednesday and Saturday. This one only once every two weeks, and don’t mess that up: too much water will kill it, then not enough.”
“Daily, twice a week, twice a month. Got it.”
She looked at him again, with less hardness in her eyes.
“Okay. Just watch me for today.”
She moved around the room, watering the different pots.
“Like this. See, you don’t need to drown them. The extra will flow out of these holes in the bottom of the pots anyway, but too much is still bad.”
She handed him the empty can.
“Just put it over there.”
She put on a pair of heavy gloves.
“What’s made you so interested?”
“I like it here. Everything’s so calm. Simple. Do you mind if I stay? For a while?”
She stopped, both hands in a bag of dirt.
“Since when do you want a quiet night in? Have you already eaten?”
“I don’t know, we’ll figure something out. Could I make you a sandwich or… some spaghetti or something?”
“You don’t cook much, do you?”
He smiled sheepishly.
“Not really. Does anyone deliver?”
“Not really. I don’t have accounts with any of their services. You’ll have to go pick it up.”
“No, that’s okay. I’m not hungry now. I’d rather stay here.”
“What will you do? I haven’t known you to sit still for an hour, let alone an evening.”
“Can I try?”
Carla tore open a bag of soil and poured some into an empty red ceramic pot. The smell of wet dirt intensified. Jack scratched at his lower back. She moved a flower from a rusty metal bucket to the new pot, and placed more dirt over the roots to hold it up.
“Okay. Yeah. Start with just being quiet while I work.”
Jack stood in the corner. He looked around at the wide variety of plants. A few white flowers had opened in the dim light, while most other blooms were closed at this hour. He leaned over to one and inhaled deeply, sneezed, stepped away, sneezed again, and then a third time.
Carla turned around, tension rising in her voice. “Look, I really don’t think this is going to work. It’s been a long day, and I don’t have the patience.”
“Can you tell me about your day?”
“I usually… just tell them.” She nodded to her plants.
Jack’s gut twisted. He stepped closer.
“I want to know, if it will make you feel better. Even if it doesn’t, I’ll listen.”
“All right, but don’t expect anything.” She stared at him, eyes hard.
Jack stepped back and averted his eyes. “Okay. Look, we’ll talk, just for a while, then I’ll get dinner and go home.”
Carla nodded. “Good.”
She turned back to the pot and pressed her hands down, packing the dirt over the flower’s roots.
Click to skip to Chapter 3, Scene 2, Scene 3, Scene 4
Click to skip to Chapter 4
Jack Lincoln stood under a tree in the pouring rain. Drops beaded and rolled off his hat and trenchcoat. His pants were wet and his socks damp. He looked up at the apartment tower, at its tall, thin windows and large clean concrete squares. Water slid down the outer walls in sheets, running across the sidewalks and into the storm drains.
He peered forward across the street, through the glass doors and into the atrium. Even at night the inside was well lit, though littered with wet floor signs and “under construction” partitions. Splinters and metal shards were still scattered on the ceramic floor tiles, though the large pieces had been cleared away.
He reached into his coat for his phone, shifting the crossbow so he could reach his pocket. As he moved, water started to run down his coatsleeve over his hand. He swore and closed his coat back up, then scowled back up at the apartment building.
Jack looked around the empty street, then slowly walked across. He stopped outside the glass doors, under the short awning, and fished out his phone. He took several pictures of the interior, then stopped when he spotted movement inside.
A young man in a blue jumpsuit walked out into the middle of the atrium, broom in hand. Jack stepped to the side of the door and used his phone camera to see around the corner. The man was cleaning the floor. First sweeping, then mopping.
Halfway across the atrium the man stopped, then bent over to peer at the floor. He bent lower, squinting at a speck that Jack could not see. The man got down on his hands and knees and lowered his eyes to the discolored point. Jack put his phone away and leaned around the corner to stare at the man.
The man leaned down further, just barely above the floor, then he licked the ceramic tile. Jack flinched, an audible sound of disgust escaping his throat. He stepped right up to the glass, shaded his eyes from the fluorescent lights, and squinted at the man. He continued licking the tiles, then pressed his lips, his whole mouth against the floor.
Then Jack noticed someone standing beside him. He spun, and found he was surrounded by a small crowd: a semicircle, hemming him in against the building. They were not dressed for the rain; in fact many of them wore only night-shirts or pajamas, and were soaking wet. They said nothing, and only empty faces and hollow eyes looked out at him.
Jack snarled and threw open his coat. He loosed a crossbow bolt into a large burly man in only boxers. It thudded into his chest. The man’s face didn’t register pain, rage, or even disappointment. The skin around the bolt blistered, then turned black, and flames burst out of this skin. He stood completely still while the fire engulfed him. He didn’t scream, he didn’t run, he didn’t even raise his arms.
The people nearest the burning man backed away only slightly, then all together they converged on Jack. Three of them grabbed his crossbow and wrenched it out of his grip. The rest seized his arms and legs, and one wrapped an arm around his neck.
He screamed and thrashed, but couldn’t pull free. Each limb was held by no less than three of the slaves, and their maniacal grip betrayed their blank faces. As they hauled him past the janitor, he stood up and stared mindlessly at Jack, then picked up his mop and returned to work.
They pulled him into an elevator, pressed close, but their hold on him was undiminished. He stopped struggling, but his eyes still flicked all around, at their faces, at the tools and weapons on his belt, on the illuminated floor number, slowly ticking up as they rose toward the penthouse.
When the elevator door opened Jack pulled with all his strength, twisting and grunting. Two of them stumbled, but did not let go. They wordlessly pulled him out into a large open room, dimly lit by dozens of candles. There were many thick pillars rising up from the slick, black tiles into the high, dark ceiling, but no walls. Even the perimeter of the building was entirely glass.
Jack’s shouts echoed throughout the enormous space, then after a flash of lightning, thunder rumbled through the giant room, followed by the constant hiss of the pelting rain. A chorus of squishy footsteps surrounded him as they pulled him into the open space.
The elevator door closed, and then the candles were the only light. He could barely see anything with the crowd of mindless slaves around him, but eventually a blue glow illuminated them. They spread out away from Jack’s head. He let his neck go limp, and looked out, upside down, at the man staring at him.
He had midnight black hair, neatly combed, and a short beard around a half smile. He wore a dark gray pinstripe suit with alligator shoes. A brilliant green gemstone was pinned just below the knot of his tie. In his hand he grasped a jet-black staff with a blue, glowing orb at the top. The man leaned the staff toward Jack, the blue glow brightening as it neared his face.
“Jack Lincoln I presume.”
“This is my city, Scarborough.”
The Wizard’s mouth twisted. “Under your protection, is it? I hadn’t noticed.”
He turned away and strode across the room. The slaves pulled jack after, up to a sturdy wooden table covered with dark stains. They split up around the table, stretching his arms and legs out and lifting him on top of it. Scarborough chanted under his breath, and thick ropes shot up from the floor, snaking themselves around his wrists and ankles. The ropes coiled around each limb several times, then pulled him taut across the table. The slaves let go and disappeared out of his vision, squishy footsteps receding into the darkness.
“The other Hunters will come after me.”
“Oh? How many?”
Jack closed his mouth and stared straight up at the ceiling.
The Wizard chanted under his breath, and the air rippled. The hair on Jack’s arms stood on end. Scarborough spoke softly, but his voice seemed to turn inside out and back again, slithering into Jack’s ears. “What are their names? Where do they live? What are their weaknesses?”
Jack clenched his teeth. They chattered, trying to open against his will. Then green light played onto the Wizard’s face. Jack’s neck lit up with green symbols, and he chuckled.
“Very well. The old-fashioned way then.”
He turned away. “First things first.” He waved the staff at the darkness. A teenage boy walked up, eyes dead, carrying the crossbow. Jack tried not to react, but clenched his fists, straining against the ropes.
The Wizard pointed his staff at it and shouted a word. The crossbow exploded in a shower of red light and splinters. The boy was hurled backward, flailing like a rag doll and flopping onto the black tiles.
Scarborough’s beard had gone gray, and a shock of white hair ran over his ear. He swore, then walked over to the boy and bent over him. He stamped the staff onto the boy’s chest, then touched his forehead to the orb. It glowed bright blue, then white. Jack flinched.
When he opened his eyes he saw the Wizard stand, hair jet black, his beard longer. Scarborough stood up straight, then rolled his head. The boy sat up. His face was leathery and wrinkled, his hair wispy and white. He climbed to his feet, hands shaking. He slipped, toppled, and fell on his face, still completely silent. He crawled to the nearest pillar and used it to climb to his feet, then hobbled away.
Jack turned away and ground his teeth.
The Wizard’s footsteps echoed behind him. He heard Scarborough pick up something, start chanting, then return to the table. Jack drew in and let out several long, slow breaths.
“They will come for me.”
The Wizard set a box down on the table.
“No. I do not think they will.”
The Wizard pulled off Jack’s shoes, then tore open his shirt. He set a small potted sapling onto the table by Jack’s stomach. Jack lifted his head to look, brow furrowed. Scarborough set Jack’s shoes on the table, side by side, then pressed the potted plant down on top of them. He snapped off the top of the sapling’s central trunk with one hand, then placed it on Jack’s bare chest. From the floor he picked up a pumpkin with a leering Jack-o-Lantern face carved into it, and jammed it down on the sharp broken trunk. With the face over the trunk, a branch sticking out on either side like arms, and Jack’s shoes under the pot, it almost looked like a twisted little man.
“This is your torture? Modern art?”
The Wizard said nothing, but picked up the broken stick and dug it into Jack’s chest. Jack grit his teeth, then grunted with pain. Scarborough lifted up the stick and drew something onto Jack’s skin with fresh blood. He dipped it into the welling blood like a quill in ink, then wrote onto the pot ‘Jack Lincoln’. He set the stick back on Jack’s chest, then stepped back.
He chanted, louder this time. The air rippled, and smoke poured from his mouth with each word, swirling through the air and into the Jack-o-Lantern’s. The candle inside caught fire, and the pumpkin’s eyes and mouth blazed with orange light.
The pumpkin twisted on the stick, turning toward the Wizard, then turning back toward Jack. The Wizard coughed. His voice was hoarse.
“Fetch, I command you to become Jack Lincoln. Take his life as your own: his house, his work, his friends, his lovers, his appearance, his memory.”
Jack stared into the Jack-o-Lantern’s eyes. It tipped forward, as if nodding. The air rippled, as if he looked through a bonfire. The pumpkin shrunk, the tree stretched, the pot crumpled and half poured into the shoes. After a moment a man crouched on the wooden table beside Jack’s chest.
It climbed down onto the floor, then stood and looked at Jack with his own face. Every hair was identical, every imperfection. It wore his shirt, his pants, his coat, still wet.
The Wizard coughed again, and croaked out. “Now go. Go home.”
The Fetch turned and walked away. Jack could hear the echoing footsteps, then the high-pitched tone of the elevator.
Jack sat bolt upright to the shrieking of his alarm clock. His was soaked with sweat, and his chest heaved with desperate breaths. He reached over and turned on his bedside lamp. He was in his own room. Outside rain pattered lightly against the window.
Jack burst into the darkened office.
“Doctor you’ve got to help me.”
Dr. Cummings sighed and continued clicking her mouse.
“Aren’t you going to be late, Lincoln? You’re not even in scrubs.”
“They’re getting worse.”
“Did you see her again?”
“No, it was… more insane. More fantastic.”
“It’s a dream. It’s supposed to be fantastic.”
“This felt so real.” Jack’s hand slipped under his shirt, to the place where the Wizard had torn the skin. He pulled his hand out and looked at it. He rubbed his fingers against his thumb, but there was nothing there.
“Your mind always thinks it’s real at the time. That’s why dreams work. That’s why they’re scary.”
“But not like this!”
Jack collapsed into the chair.
She typed for a few minutes, then went back to clicking.
“Did either of your parents experience Night Terrors? Are you eating well?”
“Better, actually, now Carla’s giving me vegetables.”
“Food poisoning maybe?”
“I’m not throwing up. My guts are fine. I don’t have a fever.”
Jack put a hand on his forehead.
“Well, I don’t know, see a doctor.”
“That’s why I’m here!”
“Well, if you get an MRI, I’ll look at it as a Radiologist, but until then, go find an actual Psychologist!”
Dr. Cummings brought up another X-ray on her computer screen.
Jack clenched his fists, stood, and walked out.
Jack was sitting in Carla’s backyard, leaning against the door to her greenhouse when she arrived. She stepped out of the back door of her house, then smiled when she saw him. “Hello again.”
Jack smiled and stood.
She keyed into the greenhouse.
“I’m surprised, but my ladies have really thrived on your energy.”
He followed her inside.
“I think maybe they’re the ones helping me.”
“Oh? Sleeping better?”
Jack picked up the can and started watering the flowers.
“Much. Three days since my last nightmare. I’m kind of afraid they’ll come back if I stop coming over.”
She followed behind him, checking his work, nodding as he finished each pot.
“That’s funny: just last night I was worrying they might wilt if you stayed away.”
From behind him she reached up and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze.
Jack smiled, and almost watered the cactus.
“Well, let’s not risk it.”
“Yes, let’s not.”
Carla took her shears and started clipping at the tomato plants.
“Why do you do that?”
“It’s called pruning. It shapes their growth, causes the energy and nutrition to flow where it needs to, and not where it doesn’t.”
“Where it needs to? By cutting off limbs?”
“I’m careful. I never cut too deep: that would harm the fruit.”
“How do you know which are good branches and which are bad?”
“I’ve been doing this a long time, Jack.”
“Okay, that’s true, but still: you know better than the plant itself? Just because it’s not what you like, just because it’s not normal, doesn’t mean you should kill it.”
Carla set down the pruning shears and smiled at him.
“Okay, you win.”
She stepped close and hugged him.
Jack wrapped his arms around her.
“Sorry, I wasn’t trying to win.”
“I know. That’s why I let you.”
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the lips.
Jack relaxed, kissed her back, and hugged her tighter.
Click to skip to Chapter 4, Scene 2, Scene 3, Scene 4, Scene 5
Click to skip to Chapter 4