He knew it was Jack because of the sweater. Bruce and his friends always called it the Freddy Krueger sweater because of the wide stripes. The first time he wore it was in high school, and in this very same building twenty years later it was also the last time he wore it. Now it was the only recognizable piece of his friend. As Bruce turned to vomit on the men’s room floor his mind wandered to the first time they had watched Nightmare on Elm Street. Jack had been scared crazy. He confessed to Bruce that he kept having nightmares of body bags full of people being dragged by his bedroom door, and that there was at least one incident of bed-wetting for fear of leaving the room in favor a bathroom.
“Don’t worry, dickhead,” Bruce had told Jack. “You’re not going to get mutilated like a horror movie. You’re going to die at the ripe old age of 50 from lung cancer, because you’re an idiot.” It appeared that heading to the bathroom brought about Jack’s death after all.
Bruce went to the sink to wash off the vomit and the tears as he decided what to do next. Catching his reflection in the mirror, he became embarrassed; he hated what he looked like after vomiting. It looked like he had been crying. Not that there would be anything wrong with that right now, he thought. Glancing at the chunks of flesh that he used to sing stupid songs with in the car, he could make out what had to be pieces of brain, the same brain that changed the lyrics of classic rock songs and made Bruce laugh all night. Jack didn’t look like he exploded, didn’t look like he was torn apart. It looked more like he lay down on the floor and just sort of… broke. Like when you put a DVD in the microwave. Except that DVDs aren’t full of meat and fluids. And they didn’t wear Freddy Krueger sweaters.
“Jack’s dead,” he said into the mirror, practicing how it sounded.
A man walked into the men’s room and overheard. He wore a beat up leather coat and had a blue book bag slung over a small shoulder. He was unshaven. They all were, at this point. But this guy looked like he did it for style.
“What?” he said.
“Jack’s dead,” Bruce said, pointing at the bloody mess on the floor.
Bruce watched as the man’s face quickly gained twenty years. The book bag slid down his arm as he looked away from the remains. He glared suspiciously for a few seconds. Bruce could see him working out the math problem in his head. Did Bruce kill him? Could one human even do that to another.
“I promised him he wouldn’t die in a bathroom.”
“You knew him?”
That deserved no answer. “I’m Bruce.”
“Peter,” the man extended his hand. Bruce ignored the gesture.
“I gotta go tell someone what happened,” he said.
“Whend this happen?”
“I have no idea.”
“Who are you gonna tell?”
“I have no idea.”
Bruce left, heading for the cafeteria, which was quickly becoming the communication hub at the school. With no internet or TV and barely any radio signals anymore, people were forced to communicate face to face. He passed the library, and looking through the large glass window saw a few people sitting and reading, spread out as far as the small area allowed. The book return cart was full to overflowing, with books scattered haphazardly on top of the cart, and some were on the floor. With no librarian on duty anymore, they would just build up until some bored and organized individual decided to take care of business. Bruce hoped the person was smart enough to comprehend the Dewey system.
Walking into the cafeteria brought back the insecurities of high school. Different peer groups gathered together and chatting quietly, assessing every newcomer coming into the room. Bruce quickly found his own group and sat down mid-conversation.
“Someone really had their act together, is all I’m saying,” Sharon said. She was in town visiting a friend when it all happened. Sharon made it to the school, her friend had not.
“Or this is some kind of conspiracy, and they knew it was going to happen. How do you think they got the school prepared so quickly? Someone knew this was going to happen.” Andrew, always the conspiracy theorist. Bruce knew him two weeks ago only as “that bartender that watches Coast to Coast, and probably still plays Dungeons & Dragons.” Now that they were stuck here together, Bruce knew that he was actually a pretty good guy. Andrew reminded him of Dwight from The Office television series, but slightly cooler and more relaxed.
Sam chimed in, “this is a high school. It was made to hold people and feed a lot of people at the same time. It didn’t have to be prepared. Just raid the grocery store, and we’re set for a while. Since we don’t even know what this is, it’s too hard to speculate how it was a conspiracy. We can’t even say if this is local, national, or worldwide.” Sam was a local, a doctor who knew almost everyone in the small town. People referred to her as “The Jew” which caused her no obvious offense, and Bruce had his suspicions that the nickname had originated in Sam’s mind. She turned to Bruce.
“You look, um…you look bad, Bruce. Everything okay?” The table’s attention turned to Bruce.
“Jack’s dead,” he said.
“He’s dead. He’s in the men’s room. The bathroom.” He spoke the final word with emphasis as if they would understand the significance. “It doesn’t look right.”
“What doesn’t look right? What happened to him?” Sam asked.
“He looks shattered into pieces. Opened up in the middle. He looks like a small bomb blew up inside his chest. He’s wearing his Freddy Krueger sweater today.”
They had heard the sweater story while the group of five passed the hours together over the last two weeks. Their small group had learned a lot about one another. Bruce barely knew anyone else at the school. He had known only Jack. They grew up together, and had maintained their friendship in a way that was completely uncharacteristic of Bruce, the guy who forgot anniversaries, birthdays, and other important dates. Bruce never bought a greeting card and never really got into socializing with other people – but since childhood he had made contact with Jack two or three times a week. He had invested in his friend.
– – –
When the town siren came on two weeks earlier, Bruce was working a case, another insurance fraud lawsuit. It was better than getting video of an unfaithful spouse. Somehow the movies glamorized that aspect, and the spouses and their temporary mates were all portrayed to be attractive, and the video was supposed to look like some amazingly hot porn movie. What he usually ended up with was unattractive, very heavy people and video showing off six hundred combined pounds of heavenly bliss jiggling around in bed. Or in a playground. Or at a bus stop. Not the PI life Bruce pictured. Most of his time was spent in his office scanning the web.
He assumed the siren meant there was a tornado warning or something of the like. He heard frightened shouts in the lobby a few minutes later and left his office to see what was disrupting what had been a perfect spring day. Off in the distance, four mushroom shaped clouds obscured the newly green foliage. Only later, in relative safety, did he reflect that these mushroom clouds were upside-down. The base of the cloud was a mile-wide explosion of dark gray smoke with a pillar shooting up from the center. The pillar swirled like a tornado but maintained its width. It didn’t taper like a tornado. And it went up so high that it just faded out into outer space. There were at least seven or eight of them. Bruce couldn’t tell if they were going up into the sky, or coming down from space. Three of them were about were forty miles away, behind the mountain range; one was close enough to make him realize that immediate action was needed.
Standing outside deciding what “ immediate action” meant, he was not surprised at all when an armored truck pulled off the street. The passenger door swung open. Jack. Jack to the rescue.
“Get in, get in,” he hollered.
“You stole this from work,” Bruce said as he climbed in.
“Nah. I was working. Lucky. There’s probably twenty grand or so in here. Half of it’s change. From the looks of things, may never get to spend it. What’s happening?”
“Nothing much,” Bruce said automatically.
“I actually meant what is happening?”
“I don’t know. Thought you might.”
“Bruce, you’re the one who reads the news. I read Dilbert and the lottery numbers.”
They drove around town while considering their next move. Bruce was thankful that he didn’t have to consider this by himself. It was a comfort to be with his friend when all hell seemed to actually be breaking loose.
But now Jack was gone, and this thought yanked him back to the present.
– – –
“I need to go see the body,” Sam said. Maybe I can figure out what’s going on.
“You’re not going to have much time, if all the rumors are true,” Andrew said.
Sharon asked him which rumors he meant.
“The way I heard it, people were just falling over on the ground and sort of dissolving into gas. Clothes and all. Just disappearing.”
“That doesn’t sound like what happened here. Jack didn’t just fall over and die,” Sharon said. “Maybe Sam should go look, see if she can tell what happened. Maybe we should all go, though.” Sharon shivered at her own suggestion.
“Sounds like a plan,” Bruce said. He had heard the rumors, too; not only heard them – while riding around town in the armored truck., they had seen the strange phenomena. Two distinct types of death – if it was in fact death, and not something else entirely. A woman had been running down the street towards Jack’s vehicle. She just collapsed mid-run. Before either of the two could decide to help her or not, she had started to fade away. She just got lighter and lighter, and you could see more and more of the sidewalk through her. Then she was gone. In the movies, the clothes are left behind. Bruce assumed this was for effect. He realized after seeing the entire woman swallowed up by nothingness, it had more effect when everything disappeared. He thought it also had more effect because it was reality and not a movie.
They didn’t witness the other deaths at all. They did witness the bodies though. As they looked at random bodies lying bloody and broken on the streets and sidewalks, both of them had wondered if that was to be their fate. Unfortunately, Jack now had his answer. For Bruce, it was still a valid question. In the three hours they drove around town before they discovered the school, they saw around one hundred of these broken bodies. They did not see many pedestrians after the initial panic. Bruce assumed that most of the people fell into the vaporized category. With no clothes left behind, it was hard to tell. All he knew for sure is that around two hundred made it to the school.
The safe zone.
Or at least, it was a safe zone until he found Jack in the men’s room.
Bruce trailed behind the others as they headed towards the body. But it was gone, and someone had mopped the area. There were swirls on the floor made by a shoddy mop job with a dirty mop. Something normal had cleaned up Jack’s body. Since the school had opened to survivors, nobody had claimed to be in charge. Everyone there seemed to be in a holding pattern, waiting for the “next thing” to happen. Someone had to be running things. Bruce looked around and could tell everyone was thinking the same thing.
“They probably moved the body because they didn’t want to a scare,” Sharon guessed.
“If they put it somewhere, I still need to see it. I have to do some kind of an autopsy. And if one body was taken away secretly, there may be others,” Sam added. “Unless they all vaporized.”
“I need to sleep, and be alone for a while,” Bruce told the others. “I’ll find you after I’ve had some rest. Remember, we don’t even know who ‘they’ are. Can you look while I’m sleeping?” The group knew that Bruce and Jack had been close, and they understood his need to get away. They said goodbye, but remarked that his matter-of-fact mannerism would be missed as they set about finding the leaders, and Jack’s body.
“Just don’t let anything happen without me,” he told them.
Bruce’s temporary living space was a math classroom on the second floor, above the cafeteria. Blankets and sleeping bags had been given as he and Jack came into the school two weeks ago. One still had the tag from Wal Mart. Whoever was in charge here must have wasted no time pillaging for supplies. He rolled up Jack’s sleeping bag, using it as a pillow as he crawled inside his own. His first pillow in two weeks. He slept, and he dreamed.
– – –
He was shaken awake by Jack.
“Hey bud! Get up, there’s a lot to do.”
Bruce looked around. He was sleeping on some rags in the back of the armored truck. Stretching his tired muscles, he followed Jack, climbing into the cab and settling in the passenger seat as Jack assumed the wheel.
“You’re dead,” he said to his friend.
“Not bloody likely,” Jack said. “There’s some things I have to show you first. Things that will blow your mind. Make you think twice about reality. Or three times. You ever heard of Plato?”
“Play-Doh?” Bruce said, and immediately he thought of a world, his world, made of the stuff. The clouds and pillars were black, and he could see a giant hand in the sky, bigger than a city, the hand of a child. The hand was the only flesh and blood matter in Bruce’s vision. After it created the mushroom clouds, the hand moved near town and began to destroy the mock-clay humans. Some were poked and prodded and crushed, and left to dry. And break? Some were lucky, if you could call it that – the hand picked them up and rolled then into a ball of dough, and dropped them out of site behind the mountains, forty miles away.
“Thirty-eight miles away, to be specific,” Jack said.
How could Jack know what he was thinking about?
“I meant Plato, the philosopher, Bruce. Son of Socrates? Student of Socrates if you believe the current hype. I swear, sometimes I think you just take whichever meaning doesn’t make sense. If there’s two ways to interpret something, you’ll pick the least convenient one. That’s good Bruce. It means you’re a thinker. But it’s annoying as hell.”
“Well, my dead friend, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. And it probably won’t be the last. At least, I hope it won’t be the last, considering the circumstances. And when the hell did you start learning about Plato? Let me guess, someone wrote about him in the Sunday funnies and you looked him up on Wikipedia?”
Jack ignored the rib. “I’m not dead. I’m free. More free than I’ve ever been. I have things to show you.”
“I saw your body. In the bathroom. I’m sorry.”
“That musta been one hell of dream, Bruce. But I’m here. Flesh and blood baby, flesh and blood. But there are some things you have to see first. I’m taking you there.”
“Where are we going?”
“Wait and see, my friend. We’ll talk on the way. So have you ever heard of Plato’s cave? His allegory?”
“How about the Bible? The sheep and the goats?”
“I think so. The goats are the bad ones, right?” Bruce wasn’t used to Jack explaining things to him.
“Those two concepts, the cave , the sheep and the goats, that’s what’s hapnin here-“
“Bruce. BRUCE.” A voice calling him from somewhere outside the truck. Sounding adamant.
“Looks like you gotta go now, Brucie. I’ll be back. You can count on it.”
– – –
Bruce awoke a second time within an hour, this time being shaken awake by Sharon. He sat up quickly, shaking off the dream.
“What the ffff…” He held the rest of the word inside.
“Oh god. I’m sorry for shaking you. You had the covers on, and I thought you might – I mean, I was worried you were – I couldn’t see under the covers. You weren’t making any noise. I am an idiot.”
“Sharon, don’t worry. You didn’t hurt me, and you didn’t offend me. If anything, I’m touched that you were worried about me. I just had a really weird dream. So. I guess you came in here because you found something?”
“We found out who is running things around here. And he wants to talk to us. All of us.”
“We’ve sent out three groups in the past two weeks. None have come back yet, and I have to assume they won’t. The only consolation I have is that every explorer expressed an interest in finding out what’s happening outside these walls. I’m not running a prison here.”
They met in the principal’s office, a secluded inner room of the main office. Cheap poster prints of Escher and Van Gogh lined the office, an apparent attempt by the principal to look polished. Jack would have found irony in being called to the very same office he had spent much of his mischievous youth. “Trouble then, trouble now,” he would have said. Of course, if he were around, they wouldn’t be here. Bruce missed him. Until this morning’s discovery, he had not known how much he leaned on his friend.
Randall F. Faulkner needed no introduction in Borden County. He gave one anyways. He introduced himself as the mayor of Scarlet Lake, even though his constituency was currently reduced by about ninety percent. Something about politicians gave Bruce a bad taste in his mouth. Faulkner was no different, although at least it was the guy Bruce voted for in November.
“I have no intel about whatever this is that we’re going through. I have some people on it, but we’d be happy to take some more if you’re interested in helping. I’ll tell you what I know.”
Much like Bruce, Mayor Faulkner was in his office when it hit the fan. An administrative assistant burst in the room and told him to look outside. He saw the smoke, the irregular clouds, and immediately called the fire department commanding that they put the siren on. He asked his assistant to turn on the TV for him as he picked up the phone to make some calls. She didn’t make it to the TV – she collapsed with a surprised squeak and vaporized.
For Faulkner, that was the beginning of the nightmare. The TV showed a blue screen, no cable signal and there was only white noise on the radio. The phone lost its dial tone. His cell phone still worked, but every number he tried just rang and rang. He ran outside to see if he could figure out what to do next, solve this mystery. A fire truck, sirens blaring, raced through a red light and clipped a car before veering off the road and scraping the buildings across the street from his downtown office. It came to rest down the block. The friction of the small town brick buildings was enough to stop its momentum, but the siren continued to blare. Faulkner ran to the truck and climbed inside, but there were no occupants.
Bruce listened intently with grudging admiration for the mayor. He remembered his own actions of walking outside and standing there dumbfounded until Jack showed up. He wondered what he would have done if his friend hadn’t come.
“I climbed out of the fire engine and looked around, saw a man fall over with cracks in his body. Looked down the street, maybe saw another one like that, but mostly folks were vanishing. I was on the street. People on the streets were running, dying, or vaporizing. I wondered how long it would be before I fell into one of those categories. I decided that I couldn’t stop myself dying or vaporizing, but I could stop myself from running. I was alive, and there were probably people who needed help.”
Faulkner’s best friend and largest financial backer, Ralph Simon was the general manager at the Scarlet Lake Wal-Mart branch. He drove to the store and told Ralph to start loading a truck. Faulkner’s original plan was to get survivors to the Scarlet Lake Shopping Mall, but that was located conveniently (for the local gas stations) twenty miles east of downtown. More than 18 miles away from most of the population.
“I didn’t know if the school was the best decision, but how the hell do you know what the best decision is in a case like this? It was close, and it was meant for a lot of people. I told Ralph to load up food and medicine first, then camping supplies, then everything else that would fit. I also told him to fit as many drivers as possible into the truck, so we would be sure it would get here. One guy was lost, vaporized, on the first trip. The other three made it for both trips – really brave guys. All of us are still in their debt, and always will be. We were able to get two full tractor-trailer loads before the clouds got too close to risk another trip. The rest you know.”
Faulkner sent out the only two surviving police officers in their cruisers, using the car’s loudspeaker system to announce that survivors should meet at the high school. People came. So far, everyone who had lived through the mysterious disaster was allowed into the school. No questions asked. Every couple of days a new individual or group would make it to the school.
“Do you know how far this is spread? I’m from Sacramento, is there word about anywhere else?” Sharon asked. She tried to hide her obvious worry about her family, Bruce wasn’t sure why she would do that.
“I’m sorry, Sharon. You know as much as I do about the world outside Scarlet Lake, and Borden,” Faulkner said.
“Why didn’t we die?” Andrew asked.
“I told you I…” the mayor said.
“Was it nuclear bombs?” Sharon interrupted.
“Is there fallout? Is it still happening?” Sam added.
“Did you look for more people? Children that might be trapped at home?” Sharon asked.
“Look. I told you I don’t know. I have no idea, and no ideas. We’re cut off, no communication since the cell phones lost signal. I don’t know what we’re up against; I don’t know how widespread it is. I did what I could to get people here, we’re safe for now, I think. But I don’t know what to do now. The search parties haven’t returned, and I think they are lost. You people think I must have your answers, but I don’t. I don’t know any more than you do.”
“Sorry about the pressure, Randall,” Bruce said.
“Randy.” Bruce looked at his group. “It’s easy to pick authority, especially in situations like this. We’re going to help you. We’re going to do what we can. First, I need to know where Jack’s body is. We have to start there. ”
“If it’s still there, it’s in the boiler room.”
The boiler room. The birthplace of the demon Freddy Krueger. Very fitting for Jack.
“What do you mean ‘if it’s still there?’” Sam asked.
“In the last two weeks, we’ve had a few deaths very similar to your friend’s. We put the bodies downstairs. We had to do something with them. Can’t just leave a body lying around, especially a mutilated one. I would have used a freezer, but I would rather store frozen food. The first guy is still down there, the rest of the bodies are gone. No trace – we’re assuming that they vaporized like the others. Your friend might still be there.”
“Has anyone else vanished without dying first? You know, like they did on the street that day?” Bruce asked.
“Not that I know of,” Faulkner said. “But we never got a head count or a manifest of who is here with us. So a person vanishing would be difficult to know.”
“Okay. We need to gather everyone in the cafeteria for a meeting. We have to have some system in place for people to report incidents. Vanishing, deaths, dreams.”
“Dreams?” Sam asked.
Bruce ignored her question. He wanted to tell her about the dream, but that would have to wait until they were alone. He was just beginning to get involved in this situation; he didn’t want to have people dismissing him as crazy right from the start. “We didn’t know who to tell about the body. That’s gotta change. People have to know they have someone to turn to. We’re not going to tell people what to do, but we will tell them what can do, if they want. People need leadership, so let’s get that structure set up tonight, and let people know about it.”
The mayor looked at Bruce with a raised eyebrow when he started to sound commanding.
“Sorry,” Bruce said. “You seemed to be asking for help, and I’m not used making everything sound like a suggestion. Anything I say, take it as advice. And don’t worry. I wouldn’t want your job right now.”
“You guys can work out politics later. Will you take us to Jack’s body now?” Sam asked. “I need to see if I can get some answers, and from what Randy said, the bodies around here don’t stick around for long.”
– – –
Though the boiler had been turned off a month earlier, the basement was warm and the group worked up a sweat just making their way down the stairs, around the corner and into the makeshift morgue Randy quickly introduced them guard at the door. Bruce knew the man in passing. The guy walked his dog past Bruce’s office almost every day. Not anymore, Bruce thought. He wondered if animals were subject to this calamity, too.
“I think I’ll wait out here with him,” Andrew said.
Yeah, me too,” Sharon said, “my stomach is not cut out for this. I’m from Sacramento.”
Sam gave Bruce a look that suggested, “As if that explained anything.”
Bruce held his tongue. He was not going to get in the middle of a conflict between Sam and Sharon. “Okay then,” Bruce said. “Stick around though, we might need your help lifting or something.”
“You give the call, and I’ll come running,” Andrew said.
Jack’s body lay wrapped in sheet of plastic in a nearly empty tool and storage room. The corpse was on the floor, though several bloody sheets on the room’s shelving gave testimony to the vanishing bodies of the dead.
“Sorry your friend is on the floor,” Randy said. “We weren’t sure about touching the sheets and all the shelves were used for others. I brought these, though.”
He handed latex gloves to Bruce and Sam. The three of them lifted his body on to one of the shelves to make Sam’s examination easier. She looked shyly at Bruce. “I’ve never done an autopsy,” she said.
“You’re a doctor,” Bruce said. “You’re our best bet at finding out what’s going on. Plus, this was your idea. If you want I can head upstairs and start asking around for the coroner but I have a feeling if he were here, he’d be here.”
“I won’t take offense to that, because I know you’re going through a lot right now.”
Sam began her examination, going over every inch of Jack’s body. Bruce wondered if she was learning anything, or just going through the motions. She certainly looked like she knew what she was doing, and she kept making quiet little expressions that piqued Bruce’s curiosity. He had been getting to know Sam as a person the last two weeks. He had been attracted to her even then, and that admiration and respect was growing every day. Bruce’s personality was sometimes abrupt, especially under pressure, and Sam reacted well. Plus, she was adorable. Bruce began to admonish himself for entertaining these thoughts while she was examining his dead friend’s body.
“Help me turn him over,” Sam said.
They turned over the remains, trying to hold everything together as best they could. Most of Jack turned over, but some pieces just stayed in place. Bruce continued to help, but focused his mind on something else.
“Did you see anything?” Randy asked.
“The best I can figure about all those tears and trauma on the front is they all came from inside his body. The chest, head and neck, all appear to have been made by some pointed object, but not like a knife. More like a stick you would grab to roast marshmallows.” She grunted as she finished turning the body over. “The hole in his abdomen is empty. His stomach and intestines are gone. Just gone. Above that, everything looks torn to shreds. I have no idea what happened. I haven’t worked on a corpse since med school, and that was for a dissection. It was nothing like this.”
“And no idea what caused the wounds?”
“I’m not sure, but – “
“Sam, look at this,” Bruce interrupted.
He pointed to Jack’s lower back. There were four figure eights each about an inch in width, in no discernable pattern, like an amateur tattooed them on his back. Or burned them on.
“What am I looking at, Bruce?”
“Those are new – Jack would never get tattoos. Ever. He was a purist when it came to his body. Plus we swim at the Y together every couple of weeks. I would have seen something like this. So why figure eights?”
“I don’t think those aren’t figure eights,” Sam said.
“So what are they?” Bruce asked.
“That the symbol for infinity,” the mayor said. They trio stared in thought for a moment. “You think whatever killed him put those there?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Sam said.
“It has to be connected somehow. Probably in no way that we can imagine right now, but this whole situation is beyond reality, right out of hell. We have to assume that this means something.”
“Help!” Sam and Bruce looked at each other as they heard the cry come from just outside the door.
“That was Sharon,” Bruce said.
– – –
“He just collapsed, and vanished,” Sharon said for the fifth time. She was in obvious shock. Sharon, Andrew, and the guard had been chatting, passing the time. Andrew had looked sick of the sudden, said he was feeling kind of strange, and he fell over. “I was too scared to run over to him. I should have run over to him.” Bruce gave her a hug.
“You were probably wise to stay put, Sharon,” Sam said. “We don’t know what causes this, and you might have vanished with him.”
“She’s right,” Bruce said. “Where did he fall over?”
Sharon pointed to a spot on the concrete floor next to a stack of cardboard boxes. Bruce walked over, staring at the spot. He got down on his hands and knees. “Sam,” He looked at her, and looked at the spot. Sam walked over and bent down.
There appeared to be sand or dirt in the spot where Andrew had vanished. Bruce had brushed it into a pile so he could pick it up and examine it. Underneath the sediment, there were four marks etched into the concrete. Four symbols. Infinity. Bruce ran back into to the storage room to look at the symbols again on Jack’s body. Jack was gone.
He ran through the darkness until he found a cave. He expected to be naked, but looked down and saw that he was wearing clothes. His clothes. Fortunate, because the night was beginning to be cold. He thanked whatever God there was that he was protected from that at least.
He had played in these caves when he was a child. The campground, the lake, a playground, and the woods were all part of his past experience. But the caves were his favorite part of their family vacations. He was allowed to explore all day long, as long as he checked in with his parents every hour or so. The dangerous parts of the cave system were roped off, and as long as a person did not go under the ropes they were in no danger of falling deep into the earth, or even getting lost, which might actually be a worse fate than falling. Nobody knew how large this cave system truly was, it was still being explored. At least until two weeks ago.
The mountains were calling him. He wasn’t sure how he knew; there was no physical voice, no mental images. Just a thought in his head. There was knowledge there – he had something to do, some unfinished business to take care of, and that business could be taken care of in the mountains. He peeked through the rocky opening and looked at the four clouds, wondering if those were the voices that were calling in his mind. He didn’t think so. It was the mountains.
He had been sneaking through town since…when? This morning? Yesterday? He wasn’t exactly sure. Overcome with nausea, he recalled what happened. What he had done. He still wasn’t exactly sure what it was that he had done, though he could recall every gory detail. And then he ran. At times he looked around wondering if he was going to get caught or shot at. But the town was unusually dead today. The normal everyday hustle was gone, and it looked like a ghost town. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he felt like he knew the reason why he didn’t see any people. But he just couldn’t retrieve the information. There was simply too much going on in his head.
He stretched out on the floor of the cave at the foothills of the mountains. Not much farther to go, but probably safer at night, less chance of being seen. He decided to work things out in his head, see if he could remember what happened, and if he could figure out why he needed to get to the mountains. He would lie down and let his mind put the pieces together. Instead, he slept.
“Tell me what we know,” Randy said. After Andrew and Jack vanished, they had retreated to the mayor’s office to talk things over.
“People either vanish immediately, or they die what looks like a horribly painful death, and then vanish anyway,” Bruce said.
“Not just a horrible death,” Sam added. “The symbols on his body, unless someone as a better word for them. They aren’t the only things I found in the examination. The wounds came from inside him. It looked like something attacked him and tore him open from the inside. I don’t know how else to describe it. Sorry, Bruce.”
“Does anything we found lead us any closer to the truth, or help us find a way to protect ourselves?” Randy asked.
“I don’t think so. Even if I had gotten to finish the autopsy, I’m not the coroner; I don’t do this, ever. I’m not sure what else I could have done to figure out what happened to him, and what happened to all of those people.”
“So the wounds don’t look like they are connected to the mushroom clouds?”
“I’m not sure. This doesn’t look like anything that could be caused by radiation poisoning, if those clouds were some nuclear accident or attack. It’s clear that they are connected somehow, as Bruce said, if only that you can’t discount a series of strange events as being coincidental. But something physical caused the wounds on Jack’s body. As much as I hate to say this, I think something came out of him.”
“That is disturbing, to say the least. I don’t think it’s nuclear, either. I have a little understanding about how mushroom clouds work, and I know they can’t be upside down. Either something came up out of the explosions or something came down from the sky,” Bruce said.
“Are the clouds still out there?” Sharon asked.
“It’s a really bad angle from the school, but we checked this morning, and you can still see the pillar from the closest one,” Randy said.
“Please tell me you’re not thinking aliens,” Sam said.
“It’s what Andrew would have believed,” Sharon said. They paused for a second, remembering Andrew’s conspiracy theories, and then just remembering Andrew himself.
Bruce looked deep in thought. He looked up at Sam, Sharon, and Randy. “I’m going to ask you guys a question, and it’s going to sound a bit off-the-wall. Do you think that there are less vanishings now only because there are less people to vanish? Think about it for a minute before you answer. Does the process seem to be slowing down?”
“Why? What are you thinking?” Sam asked.
“We are not considering what is probably the most important aspect of all of this. I think we all feel it though. Those symbols on Jack’s body, and the symbols on the floor where Andrew disappeared. That indicates…”
“Intelligence,” Sam said.
“Purpose,” Randy added.
“And logic,” Bruce finished. “Something is happening here that was planned. Somebody or something is doing this to us. We are not in the middle of a natural disaster, and not even a man-made disaster. As least not a traditional one. Whatever is happening here is happening for a reason.”
“I hope it’s not aliens,” Sharon said.
– – –
After parting for the evening with a plan meet in the morning, they went to their room to sleep. Under other circumstances, Bruce would have been happy to share a room with attractive women. Tonight, though, he just couldn’t bring himself to enjoy it. The discovery of Jack’s body this morning, couple with Andrew’s disappearance and probable death had destroyed any remaining libido that he had held on to for the past two weeks. Bruce remembered Jack talking about working out problems in his sleep. Bruce had laughed this, and told his friend the only way to work out problems in life is to face them head on, and think them through with a cup of coffee and a clear mind.
“To each his own,” Jack had said. “I can’t be the only person in the world to work out problems in my sleep, or the phrase ‘sleep on it’ wouldn’t exist. I think you’re the anomaly here, buddy.”
Now, Bruce was about to sleep on it. Maybe Jack was right; maybe in sleep he could work out his next step.
– – –
“Look who’s back for more,” Jack said.
Bruce was back in the passenger seat of the armored truck, tired but aware. They were driving through town.
“You still tryin to discover what’s happenin?”
“I’m still trying to figure out why you’re not dead,” Bruce said. “This has to be a dream.”
“Oh, Brucie. Ya can’t realize it’s a dream while you’re dreamin. Otherwise you’d jus wake up.”
“You have any tattoos?” Bruce asked.
Jack fixed Bruce with a slightly evil grin. “So you’re still tryin. It’s okay. But you need to listen to me. Did you ever look up Plato’s cave?”
“What kind of PI are you anyway? I’ve always meant to ask you that. You’re research skills are crap.”
“I go by my gut,” Bruce responded.
“Sure. Good intuition. Lets you be lazy.”
Bruce’s gut was acting up currently. This was all wrong. Not just that Jack was alive, of course that had to be part of a dream or hallucination. But Jack wasn’t being himself. There was bluntness in both directions in their relationship, but it never got to the point of name-calling, because they both had high regard for each other and for their friendship. Jack callousness during these dreams was so unlike the person that he was, that Bruce’s intuition was trying to scream. Wrong. All wrong.
“Whatever. I told you earlier that I know Plato’s allegory. I’ve read it. You remember that?” Bruce said.
“Were going to see a cave, Bruce. And it’ll open up your mind more than Plato ever imagined. Once you’ve seen it. It’ll open everybody. Everybody.”
It’ll open everybody. Open everyone’s eyes? Bruce wondered. Plato, a few hundred years before Christ, described a group of people chained to the wall of a cave. All their lives, all they can see is the wall. They see shadows on the wall, and this is what they perceive to be their entire world. They don’t know that they are just shadows, because their beliefs are based only on what they can see. Bruce wondered about this. Would he really see something so spectacular that everything he knew would end up just being a shadow of some alternate or actual reality. Philosophy educators for hundreds of years have pointed out that Plato was just talking about education, not some alternate reality.
He stared hard at his friend. “We going now?” he asked.
“No time like the present, but I guess it depends on how long you stay with me this time. But don’t you worry, Brucie. We’ll get there.”
“Where is there?”
“Don’t call me brother. We’re not.”
Jack shot a glance in his direction. Bruce could see a flash of anger, possible even rage. Jack, from waking life, didn’t really get angry. He complained, he got irritated when his job pissed on him, and when one of the ladies he was dating refused to return a call or text. But Bruce would never label it anger. So why was it different. He thought about his dreams. And there was something…
It’s not right, his intuition hollered.
“Jack, what is happening to everybody?”
“I told you, sheep, goats, cave. You need to listen.”
“How do you know all of this? How is it that you came by this knowledge?” Bruce asked. “You never find out anything without asking me first.”
Jack smiled. He was amusing himself by speaking cryptically to Bruce. “I need to get you to the mountains.”
“What happens when we get there?”
“You will see,” Jack said, as he pressed hard on the gas pedal. “Soon.” He steered the truck toward the mountains.
– – –
Bruce sat up and opened his eyes, gasping for air. He kept telling himself that this was just a panic attack, brought on by a nightmare. But half of his mind argued, and that this was a heart attack. He had a history of panic attacks and the doctors could never adequately explain to him why this occurred. They sent him to see a psychiatrist to prescribe effective medication. Bruce never took the meds, though, because he was more worried about the pills giving him a heart attack – he felt as though taking the pills would just bring on more night panic.
He squinted through the dark, looking to see if he had disturbed his roommates. Sharon was snoring.
“I’m awake, Bruce,” Sam said. “You doing all right? Just another panic attack?”
“I think so,” he said.
“You mentioned dreams, earlier. I’ve been thinking about it all night. Are you having nightmares or something?”
“Of a sort,” he said. “While I’m dreaming it though, it feels more like a vision.” He told her about the two dreams, and about Jack not acting like Jack. He brought up the reference to Plato’s allegory, and the mountains but did not mention the sheep and the goats.
“How does it feel different than a dream? Why a vision?” Sam asked.
“I’m not sure I can describe it so that you would understand what I mean, but when I wake up from a dream, I feel like I am grasping to remember what it was about, even some of the major details escape me. The two that I had today were so vivid. I remember the places we were when we drove around town. Details like which stores still had their ‘open’ signs lit up, things like that. I also remember what we were talking about at each place. I feel like I was really there. But I couldn’t have been. Jack’s dead and I was sleeping.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“Right before I woke up, Jack started driving the truck even faster towards the mountains. I’m not sure I wanna go there, not in the dream, and not with that Jack. I feel like something bad will happen if we make it there. It doesn’t sound very likely when I say it out loud. But I think I need to get there first. When I’m awake. I have to get to the mountains.”
“I’m going with you,” Sam said.