Atmosphere & Pressure

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I have a schizoid radio inside my head that literally never stops. Not an earworm, but a runaway rambling jukebox that underscores my joys and mocks my pain. Happily, an equally capricious nickelodeon also plays inside my head with similar wantonness.

Thus, when I first laid eyes on the helicopter Liv had chartered for us last week, Skywalker proclaimed, “What a piece of junk!” while Blood, Sweat & Tears informed me that what goes up must surely come down. I had a bad feeling about this.

Regardless, she beckoned me to climb into the cabin. The stocky pilot helped us into our seats, clicked us into place, and slipped into his own seat.

“You want the usual, young lady?”

“The whole stinking town!” she exclaimed with delight, over the roar of the rotors.

He winked.

I had no reason to fear. Liv had just treated us to an exquisite dinner of bean soup, veal cutlets with roast asparagus, and raspberry sorbet.

“Do you trust me?” she had asked, as usual, her blue eyes gleaming in her round beaming face.

Indeed, I did. It was our third date and as yet we had gone wherever she wanted, eaten whatever she had ordered for us; she had even paid for us each time.

As the chopper began its ascent, something struck me odd about how dinner had ended. I suddenly remembered the shiny-toothed waitress declaring, “All of our desserts are sugar-free.” I should have wondered why Admiral Akbar popped in and shouted, “It’s a trap!” But I didn’t.

One just didn’t tell Olivia Wainwright no. Valedictorian, head cheerleader, debate team captain; I was astonished she had even asked me out at all.

The first twenty minutes of the tour were pleasant enough. The night sky, the lights on the bayfront, the sparkling water reflecting the moonlight. I sensed Liv watching me as I took in the sights. The pilot dutifully droned on about the landmarks and important locales as we climbed higher.

But then something happened that should only happen in my nightmares. Truthfully, I had started to feel a discomfort on the ride over to the airfield. I thought maybe I wasn’t responding well to Liv’s hairpin turns and overreliance on her anti-lock brakes. However, as we ascended higher and higher, I could feel the treacherous gases reproducing in my gut. What would Blood, Sweat & Tears say about this?

“I can hold it,” I said to myself.

“What’d you say?” Liv asked.

“Uh, nothing! I said it’s getting colder,” I answered, which didn’t matter since I had remembered to throw on my bomber before I left the house. I was lying to her and I was lying to myself. It was only beginning. Soon P!nk was getting the party started, singing “I’m coming out!” while the only black X-wing pilot in the Battle of Endor shouted, “She’s gonna blow!”

I was going to blow it. The most amazing, dazzling, captivating girl in Pullman High School was taking me on a romantic ride through the sky, and I was going to break the most hideous wind since Han Solo cut open a Tauntaun. The angels were going to weep, first at my misfortune, and then probably because they would be close enough to smell it.

“Are you okay?” Liv implored, her eyes almost seeming to water. Already?

“How much longer is this?” I asked, not really caring if it sounded rude.

“I booked an hour.”

No! It was getting worse with each passing moment. A Persian-sized cloud of gas was descending on the vastly outmanned pass of Thermopylae. The mountain trolls of Mordor were gleefully hurling Grond against the crumbling gate. Queen Elsa was crying out to let it go while Santa Ana’s horde swarmed toward the Alamo!

“Blast it, Biggs! It was the dessert!” I yelled with cold certainty. Had to be.

“Mel! It’s okay!” Liv said, gripping my arm.

That’s when the odor hit me, a wave of things long dead and unlooked for that filled my head instantly.

Only, I was still holding it in. Did she just…?

I looked at her, still smiling, and our eyes locked like lasers. I tell you with an almost holy assurance that in that instant, that woman knew me, and I knew her.

“Let ‘er rip, Tater Chip!” she screamed.

I did. I should say, we did. We made onions cry. Since the invention of gas, there were five farts that were rated the most malevolent, the most appalling. This blew them all away.

“Good grief, that’s the worst!” she howled, laughing hysterically, tears streaming down her face. Somehow, our ice-cold pilot remained calm throughout the ordeal.

I couldn’t stand it. I fished an old playbill from “The Phantom of the Opera” out of my jacket and fanned the air around me while Liv ducked down to the floor in search of fresher air.

She spotted the paper in my hand.

“You went to see Phantom? Did you like it?”

“I loved it,” I answered, this time not lying.

“We should go! Next week,” she declared. “Dad, can you take us to see Phantom next week?”

“Dad?”

What?

“Oh yeah, sorry,” she exclaimed, turning toward the pilot. “Dad, this is Mel. Mel, this is my dad.”

Sorry?

My heart stopped cold in my chest. Sweet Sarlacc, Pit of Carkoon, please swallow me up right now.

“Hello, Mel! I’ve been wanting to meet you ever since I caught wind that you two were dating.”

He was a dad, alright.

“Uh, thanks. I mean…yeah. I mean, pleased to meet you,” I stammered as I tried to recall if Liv had ever mentioned anything about her dad. Details!

The rest of the flight went quietly, relatively speaking. Not a word from Dad or Liv. She just smiled. We landed back at the airfield and Liv drove me home at breakneck speed.

“See you next week,” she said as I stood on the curb outside my house.

I nodded.

“As you wish.”

 

Eyes of Truth

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The light makes them move from the shadows.

The light filtering through the broken blinds flickers off and on; but even so I can see my unwanted visitors scurrying about the corners of this room. I can’t sleep. Not while they are running about. They are ravenous, their eyes watching for a moment of weakness unto death, like the grim reapers of what is left of us.

Only one more night and we’ll quit this hole for good and then I don’t know what comes next. I’m making this up as I go now. No plan B comes to mind.

This floor is hard and unforgiving, but maybe that’s what I need. No absolution for these abject bones. I’m just relieved that Jake and I have made it this far.

He is nearby me, his frail frame barely covers the filthy crib mattress next to me. He’s shivering. He always shivers these days. All I found was a dingy pillow I don’t dare lay his head upon, so I place it over his little body and lay my arm over him. Maybe it will be enough. A few more nights like this and all the warmth in the world won’t help us to survive.

His sleep is fitful, his breaths are shallow and raspy. Is he having nightmares again? After all his young eyes have seen, it may be that nightmares are all he is capable of dreaming. There is little difference between waking and the sleep of deathly visions that terrorize him in the icy darkness of night.

His eyes. They never made sense to me before, in those blissful ignorant days, but now they are what I must hide from the rest of the world at all costs. He was born seven years ago, just a few years before our world changed forever. Now I see that the change started the year before Jake entered our lives.

They are gray, his eyes. Not like the sea on a stormy day. They are almost silver. At night, even in the pitch black, you can still see them. Feel perhaps is a better word. When Kayla and I found out she was pregnant with him, it was a god-send. Years of miscarriages after the births of our three daughters had put an unbelievable strain between us, a cold seething resentfulness. But we were finally going to have another child and soon afterward I found out I would finally have a son. Joy seemed complete, forever and amen, at that point.

I look across Jake’s bony shoulders and see the slumbering form of a woman in her late forties. Her face, perhaps once beautiful, is scarred across her forehead with the tell-tale gash of a whip. There are marks on her neck, her arms, probably up and down her shrouded body. The dried welts and blisters are old. She had escaped her tormentors a couple years ago and had spent the last three months traveling with me.

She is not my wife. They took Kayla three years ago and I never saw her again. After all I’ve seen since then I pray each night that she’s dead. I know God is out there. I also know He doesn’t listen anymore. Not for many years. They had already used her in the most heinous way. The sweet oblivion of death would be a blessing for people like Kayla.

The woman near me is Rachel. Sleeping next to her are two others, wretched starving girls that are not her daughters, neither are they mine. We picked them up during a water run last month. The younger one had been struck mute with terror, frozen and stained with blood as she crouched in that black tunnel with her sister. She had still been holding her mother’s dead hand in hers. Where the rest of her mother could be was anyone’s guess. Whatever had happened, the girl hadn’t spoken since that day.

This woman is not my wife. These girls are not my daughters. The truth is, I realized a long time ago that Jake is not my child, either. Doesn’t matter. He’s my son. I love him and I’ll die before I let them take him back to their chambers, their laboratories, their observatories, dungeons of the damned.

He has my dark skin. He has his mother’s wavy golden hair. That should have been the first clue something was seriously wrong. Inherited traits are paired up in certain ways and get passed on in certain ways, too. Apparently, they didn’t know that. Whatever research they had conducted on our race before they starting infiltrating, they missed a few things about genetics. Their finest effort to make a real boy had flaws that I just didn’t see back then. Fool me once.

Still, he had filled a gaping hole in my soul at the time. My son. I can’t know how many of my unborn children had been males. Maybe all of them. With his birth, old hopes and dreams suddenly formed again. I had no idea that the real heartbreak and unimaginable terror was about to begin.

His eyes are open. I can feel them staring at me before I realize he is awake. He is sobbing, but making almost no noise.

“Were you having bad dreams again, Jake?”

“No Papa. I was dreaming of Mama.”

“I’m sorry, Jake.” I don’t know what else to tell him.

He was only four when they took her. I’m surprised he can remember much about her, but sometimes he tells me stories of the “early days” as he calls them. Perhaps that is another way in which he is different.

For example, he remembers nursing. He talks about the butterflies that help him to not be hungry. I remember when Kayla got those tattoos, so many years ago, before our girls were born. To Jake they mean comfort. To me they represent a carefree time, the last bits of which just up and flew away when Jake showed up.

“Did Mama say anything, buddy?” I ask him.

“She said to come to her. She’s waiting for us, Papa. She’s not sad like she used to be when she left us…”

“She didn’t leave us,” I interrupted him.

“When they called her away, Papa. When they made her go away to that place.”

He is silent for a moment.

“She’s happy now, Papa. She says to come to her. She says not to run anymore. That she’s waiting for us in the heaven.”

“Try to sleep some more, Jake.”

A few minutes later he is breathing that raspy noise again, his little shoulders heaving only slightly.

I think about what Jake said. Everything I’ve done up till now has been for him, to keep him alive, to keep him away from them. The things I had to steal, the people I had to eliminate, the destruction I had to wreak on those who would rob me of the last shred of my sense of family. It was all for him. But now what? There was no place to run after this. I only knew we couldn’t stay here anymore.

The rats are circling closer and closer now. There are more and more of them with each passing hour. I look at Rachel, still asleep. The young girl has stopped her sickly breathing. In fact, she’s not breathing at all. It is too late for her.

I look at Jake. Golden-headed savior of my soul. I remember that story I grew up believing about the savior of the world. There was something he had to do before his purpose could be fulfilled. He had to leave this world.

I move the pillow up higher and cover Jake’s face. There is no more time to plan, no more places to hide, no more reason to keep looking for love in this forsaken world. It’s time for us to go find Kayla, in whatever heaven she has found.

The rats are closer now, their eyes shining the truth back to me. The truth that will set me free.

Then a cold, blue light shines through the windows and floods the room. The watchers scurry back into the far corners. They know before I do that there will be one more pickup before it’s over. In a moment I realize who is driving the rover that has pulled up outside the abandoned motel. There will be one more run.

I pull the pillow away from Jake’s face. It’s time to move on. As I scoop him up and head toward the door, I know that wherever we are headed, those eyes will be there too.

Gravity

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I’ve got my anti-gravity dreaming boots

Got an anti-reality pistol that shoots

I’ve got hope and I use it like rocket fuel

Have a dagger made of pain, it’s a razor tool

I have no disdain for the earth beneath

But against ordinary I am armed to the teeth

Don’t know very much about the how or when

But I won’t be stopped, I’ve got a mightier pen