The face in the mirror

I don’t remember the first time I had the dream. That’s odd, because I have many memories of my early childhood. My first distinct memory is of chaotically tumbling while all around me, people scream. When I described it to my parents, they were shocked. They wondered how I could remember something that had happened to me when I was barely three years old. Father told me that a tire had blown on a slick road, and he had caused the car to roll over while trying to counter the effects.

But for all that, I have no clear memory of the first time I awoke from that same eerie dream. I am standing in front of a mirror, looking at my reflection. What I see is the me of that moment. As a young boy, I saw a young boy. Now, as an adult, I see my adult self in the mirror. But as I stare at the mirror, I see another face appear.

It is ghostly at first, like the beginnings of a sketch. But as the dream progresses, my face disappears, replaced by a face like mine, but different. It was a young girl when I was a young boy. Now, it is a grown woman. Her hair is midnight black like mine. Like me, her nose is long and thin. Her lips are fuller than mine, but it is her eyes that are the most striking. Like mine, they are brown, but they lack any warmth, which I find find disconcerting. And always, always, she looks out of the mirror, smiles…and I know. I know she knows I can see her.

Who she is, I don’t know. I asked my parents about her, even going so far as to accusing them of concealing a twin, for that is how she appears to me. They denied it, denied that I was ever anything but their only child. I could see the truth in their eyes, but my heart still wonders who that strange yet familiar face in my dream was.

The dreams began to come more frequently. From a once-a-month occurrence, they became weekly. Then they visited me every night. And for the first time, the dream changed. The image in the mirror still morphed from my face into that of a woman very much like me. But now, rather than smile knowingly at me, she spoke. And her words were chilling.

“I am here, and I will not be ignored any longer.”

Now, instead of awakening with a start, I bolted awake screaming, her ominous words still echoing in my mind. I began to dread the night, to fear sleep that offered not rest, but terror. I began staying awake, sometimes all night. My work began to suffer, my friends started noticing my listlessness. But I couldn’t tell them what kept me from the sleep I needed. Nor could I tell them that those times I did sleep offered no rest.

Then I got sick.

It started as stomach aches, annoying but something I could ignore. As time passed, my pain grew. From discomfort, it became more and more debilitating. My doctor was baffled, as where the specialists he sent me to. Tests found none of the tell-tale cells that would indicate I had cancer. Finally, an MRI finally found something, what the doctor less than helpfully described as an ‘undefined mass’ in my stomach. He wanted to do a finer scan, but the machine would not be free again for a week. They gave me ‘pain management’ medication, and told me to return.

The medicine, huge pills that looked like something for a horse, did what the doctors said they’d do. Within an hour of taking the first one, the pain was little more than a nagging twinge at the edge of perception. But the pills also brought something else, a very unwelcome guest. They brought sleep, sleep that would not be denied. No matter how I fought, my eyes kept sagging shut. My last memory was sitting in my favorite chair, struggling to stay awake; the next, I was in the dream.

This dream soon turns different. Instead of overlaying my face, the woman’s face slowly materialized next to mine, like she were standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I see a hand rise, descend, and felt a touch on my shoulder. My mind tells me it is impossible. I know nothing can touch me, can harm me, not in a dream.

But it is real. I can feel the pressure of each of those fingers on my shoulder. I feel warmth were they rest upon me. I scream, but I do not wake up. Behind me, the woman waits. She neither smiles nor frowns, her face a blank mask except for her eyes. In them, I see amusement, and the willingness to wait until I stop screaming, to wait as if she has all the time in the world. I master the fear that always strangles me when I saw that face and stop screaming. She nods, once, a motion much like my own. Then, she speaks.

“So, this time you can’t escape? Now, I can finally confront you, murderer.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve never hurt anyone, let alone murdered anyone.”

Her eyes harden. “Liar! You are a murderer, and I will exact revenge from you!”

I want to turn around, to face her instead of arguing with a reflection, but my feet, my whole body, are frozen in place. I can’t even turn my head. Only my eyes and lips are at my command. I feel panic rising and try to force it down. “Fine, if I’m a murderer, who did I kill? When am I supposed to have killed them?”

Her eyes narrow, and her grip on my shoulder tightens. “Don’t play the innocent! You know who you killed, and you know when you killed them too!” Her grip tightens until I feel her fingernails dig into my flesh. Her lips thin, exposing her teeth as they stretch into a fierce smile. “So, you can get away? Only for a while, murderer, only for a short while.” Her presence begins to fade, and in that final moment, I hear the thing I fear the most. “I’ll be waiting for you, and when you come back, I’ll make you pay!”

I wake up on the floor, arms wrapped around my legs, knees pulled as tight as I can pull them to my chest. My throat is raw like I have screamed all night, and my shirt clings to me, soaked in a stinking fear-sweat. I force myself upright and look at the clock. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and the patch of sky visible through the window is growing light. I wonder if this is how the rest of my nights will be? And if it is, will my sanity survive the week?

The pain in my midsection begins to reassert itself. But take another pain pill, and possibly face that angry presence? No. I pull out a favorite book to try to distract myself, but it is no use. Every minute, every second, the pain increases. It increases, becomes like a wild animal trying to claw its way out of my belly, and I give in. Time passes, the pain recedes, and I feel my eyes sagging again. They are starting to close for what I fear will be the last time before sleep claims me when my cell chirps at me. I know the voice on the other end of the call, my internal medicine specialist, but it seems to be coming from a million miles away.

“Mr. Sanchez, it’s Doctor Linden. We’ve had a patient cancel their MRI appointment. If you can get to the clinic in the next hour, we can get your scans done and, hopefully, get a handle on what’s going on.”

I mutter something that doesn’t make sense even to me, and the voice on the other end picks up on my state. “Sir, are you having a reaction to your pain medications? Sir?” I can’t even work up the energy to answer, my body wants to do is sleep. I hear a distant voice shouting. It wants my attention, but I can’t make myself bother to try. “Help is on the way, Mr. Sanchez. Just hang on, sir, help is on the way.” The voice sounds concerned, and I know I should stay awake, but my eyes shut. Sleep takes me.

There is no mirror in my dream this time. Now, I am in a vast space, a dark plain that extends beyond sight. And I am alone. She, who ever she is, is not here. In a way, this complete emptiness is more frightening than she ever was.

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

Her voice is soft, hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken so close to my ear I feel the warm breath that makes them. I jerk away from the unexpected closeness, and unlike every previous dream, I move. Free of my imprisonment, I turn to face her. She is shorter than me, but only slightly, and her rounded body reminds me of my mother. Her face, so like mine, is lined, her features drawn together in an angry scowl.

“Why do you keep calling me a murderer? I don’t remember ever seeing you, and I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. So how can I be a murderer?”

She steps close to me, close enough that I feel uncomfortable. Her voice, when she speaks, is filled with a cold, contained anger. “But you are a murderer. You killed me, in cold blood. You snuffed out my life without a thought.”

Her statement makes no sense. “But if I killed you, why can’t I remember killing you? Are you saying I’ve somehow repressed the memory of murdering you?”

“Oh, you remember killing me…if you didn’t, how could I be talking to you?”

“You could be…I don’t know, a figment of my imagination, or a manifestation of my wish that I hadn’t been an only child.”

“You wanted a sister?”

The anger drops from her face like a curtain falling, replaced by an intent gaze like she’s trying to catch me in a lie.

“It might sound selfish, but a sister, a brother, hell, even a dozen siblings. My parents heaped all their hopes and dreams on me. I hated the expectations, the pressure to succeed. If I’d had brothers and sisters, I’d have been happier, and maybe they’d have been happier too.”

Her face changes. The suspicion, the doubt, the anger, all of it drops away, leaving a stunned stare. Then I see something I had never thought to see on that cold, cynical, face. Tears well in her eyes, run down her face. When she speaks, her voice is a hollow echo of what it has been before. “You wanted me? You didn’t kill me because you hated me?”

I open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t know her, so I couldn’t have hated her, but her scream stops the words in my throat. A broad red slash appears on her left arm, and when her eyes fix on mine, I see the hate, the anger renewed a thousand times over. She charges me, and her hands go to my throat. Her fingers, surprisingly strong, sink into my flesh and I find myself gasping for breath. As she strangles me, she screams in my face.

“Liar! You kept me talking so you could kill me again! I won’t go, not without you!”

I try to free myself, but my body refuses to respond. The blood thunders in my temples, my vision darken, but even knowing death is close at hand, I can do nothing. My sight dims to nothingness, and the last thing I see is not my attacker, but my Mother. She smiles, and as she always did, she looks sad as she does it. I hear voice one final time.

“It’ll be all right, Paulie, it’ll be all right.”

It is my nose that tells me I am not dead. It brings me the smell of a hospital room, so familiar from my vigil over Father. I am surrounded by the harsh chemical scent filled with a background of human filth that I associate with a hospital room. My body comes back to me next. It tells me I am lying on my back with something stuck to both of my arms. There is a steadily beeping, the noise far too loud for my comfort, and my brain tells me it is a heart monitor. My eyes are reluctant to open, but I force them to obey, and I see off-white ceiling tiles set in a white metal framework. It’s a hospital ceiling, if ever I saw one.

Something is pressing against my left hand, and I shift my head to see what it is. A white cord, ending in an oblong box studded with buttons…the same sort of control and communications pendant my Father had at his bedside. I fumble with the box, stabbing the big button with the nurse’s head outlined on it until a young woman comes in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Sanchez, I hear you gave the doctors quite a scare. Do you need help, maybe something to drink?”

She says drink, and I realize my mouth is dry, so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. I try to speak, manage a croak, and purse my lips like I’m sucking on a straw. She nods, grabs a foam cup, and places the straw sticking out of it in my mouth. I suck on it and cold water floods my mouth. I keep sucking on the straw until I’m sucking air, open my mouth, and let her put the cup down. I try to speak again, and I’m happy to hear even the rough echo of my voice that comes out.

“What happened? I remember being at home, and the doctor calling…then, I’m here.”

I notice her name tag. “Brandy” shrugs as she answers me. “I don’t know the details, but you’ve only been on the floor for a couple of hours. Before that, you were in ICU for three days. The doctors haven’t made their rounds yet this morning, so you should be able to find out what happens when they come around. Until then, would you like something to eat? Breakfast was served about the time you were being brought in, and lunch won’t be for another two hours, but I can get you something from the ready fridge. Maybe some ice cream?”

Ice cream, even three of the small tubs they serve out, does little more than take the edge off my hunger. Five minutes is all it takes for me to know there is nothing on the TV besides inane daytime programming, so I turn it off and wait.

Some time during that wait, I fall asleep. I know I was asleep because I have memories of the sunlight slanting low through the window, then the light is shining down from a much higher angle. An older woman with skin as dark as mine and a stethoscope is standing by my bed, her finger pressed against the inside of my wrist.

“Good, you’re awake, Mr. Sanchez. I’m Doctor Bajaj, your attending physician. How are you feeling?”

“Honestly, I feel confused. Do you know what happened to me?”

She picks up a tablet I hadn’t noticed on my bedside table and begins tapping the screen. A few swipes, and her eyes begin to scan the screen. “I wasn’t part of the team that operated on you, but according to the admission notes, you were brought in unconscious and rushed into the ER.” A pause as she reads, then her eyes widen, and she flicks the tablet’s surface again. Her hesitation is beginning to worry me. What could she be reading that would cause her to stop so suddenly? Her eyes meet mine, then shift away… and I know what she says isn’t entirely true. “All the details of what was done aren’t here, but it does say you underwent emergency surgery, and that you suffered a cardiac incident caused by acute blood loss. This lead to you being placed in our ICU until your surgical team was satisfied with you condition. Your surgical team should visit you sometime this afternoon, so you can get the details from them. Now, I’d like to listen to your heart and lungs….”

I’d seen what happened next done to my Father and Mother, but being on the receiving end of it helped me understood why they frowned through their examinations. Doctor Bajaj was perfectly civil to me, yet so detached that I felt more like an animated piece of meat than a human being. Finished, she tapped the tablet, I guess making notes, then addressed me.

“Your heart and lungs sound good, but your blood pressure is still low. I’m going to recommend that you remain in the hospital for at least another day, and I’ll be ordering another unit of saline to help build your blood volume. I’ll be back this afternoon…” and that was it. She walks out without giving me any information, leaving me feeling as if I’d ceased to exist the moment she made her decision on my treatment.

I was in a room by myself, and staring at the walls soon got boring. I was spared having to resort to watching TV doctors pretend to treat pretend patients by a cheerful young man who brought me a newspaper, then handed me the day’s menu.

“I’ll be back later to get your order, or you can call the kitchen and they’ll put your lunch order on the cart. The doctors don’t have you on a special diet, so you can order anything you want.”

I hadn’t noticed how close to noon it was. My stomach growled, letting me know it was looking forward to me eating something. “Thanks. If you’ll tell me how to call the kitchen, you won’t have to come back.”

He points to a number printed across the bottom of the page, “Just call that number, sir.” leaving me feeling like an idiot. I thank him and he goes about his business. Lunch, I soon find, is not going to be a five-star affair. I pick what’s described as an ‘open-faced sandwich’ and coffee, call it in, and open the paper to occupy my mind. Ten minutes later, I’ve read everything of interest.

Lunch, when it arrives, could generously be described as ‘inoffensive’. It has no real taste, not even a scent to match its description. The coffee is hot, bitter and completely lacking in stimulation. I eat and drink all of it knowing that ordering something else will not improve the situation. The server returns, clears the dishes away without comment, and I am left with my boredom.

Sleep come to me, but I don’t realize I’ve slept. What woke me up isn’t hard to figure out. The familiar Dr. Bajaj stands beside my bed with an older man and a woman who looks like she should still be in college. They are discussing me in the cold, abstract terms doctors use, but the medical jargon is thick enough that I can’t understand whether I am living or dying. I shift my position and they realize I am awake. The man approaches me, pitching his voice to give the impression he wishes to engage me and failing.

“”Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Werten, the doctor who operated on you. How are you feeling? How is the pain you were experiencing?”

Until he asked, I hadn’t noticed the absence of pain. How could I miss something that had so been the focus of my life? “It’s…gone, doctor. Do you know what was causing it?”

His eyes, which had been fixed on me, shift away. “Yes, I do. Your spine was under pressure from a foreign mass. That was triggering your pain episodes. The mass was also partially wrapped around your aorta, and putting pressure on it which lowered the blood flow to your lower body. That is why you became unconscious, the pain medication wasn’t being equally absorbed by your body.” He paused, his eyes fixing on mine for the first time. “I was unable to reawaken you and operated immediately. Unfortunately, the scans didn’t show was that there were several small blood vessels running through the mass that connected to your aorta. I’m sorry to admit it, but I severed one of those, and you nearly bled out before I could close it off. After that, I kept an eye out for more vessels and managed to seal the rest off without further incident. Once your blood volume has returned to normal, you’ll be free leave and go back to your normal routine.”

I heard the words ‘foreign mass’ and the rest of it became minor details. “What do you mean when you say you removed a ‘foreign mass’? Was it cancer?”

Dr. Werten’s eyes begin shifting around, like he’s looking for something, anything, to look at but me. “Mr. Sanchez, do you know what a vanishing twin is?” I shake my head, and he continues. “In about ten percent of pregnancies where more than one embryo is formed, one of the embryos will absorb the other one. It’s not something that causes problems…or I should say it’s not normally something that causes problems. Usually, if there’s anything left of the absorbed twin, it’s fragments. The most common form it exhibits in the surviving twin is stray teeth, hair and other fragments in a benign cyst. But in your case,” He pauses, and a chill sweep over me. What did he find inside me? I don’t have to wonder. “In your case, we found significant development. Teeth, hair, even a partial skeleton. We also found…well, we found what we think were undeveloped brain cells. But the important thing is that the growth has been removed, and you should be free of pain from this point forward.”

Now, the chill I feel is like I’ve been submerged in an ice-covered pond. I don’t want to know, but I ask. “Dr. Werten…could you tell if the twin was female?”

His eyes meet mine, and I see he is shocked by the question. “We’d have to do a DNA test to find out. If you don’t mind he asking, why do you ask?”

She’d said I had killed her. I even heard her screams as they’d removed her. Had she been alive inside me all this time? Was that why I’d always had the dream? How could I explain that to him? I can’t.

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”

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Echoes of the past

“…and so, honored mother, I hope you will know that I keep you always in my thoughts and prayers. I hope I remain always in your heart and prayers as well. Your son, Julius Maximius Gabinius”

Claudia Upton looked up from reading the translation to scrutinize the man who had picking it from the mud-soaked, decaying original text. Paul Sanchez had a face that could have been lifted from a Roman mosaic. Dark hair over an unlined, olive-colored face with none of the Mesoamerican features that so often marked those of Hispanic background. Well, the Romans were in Spain and the Iberian for centuries. Perhaps he’s a genetic fluke, a reversion to an ancestral appearance. Those dark, almost black eyes watched her, and she sensed he was waiting for her comments on his translation.

“It’s an excellent translation, Mr. Sanchez. You clearly have a good grasp of Latin. Could I ask you where you studied?”

A smile began to appear on the otherwise impassive face before her. Then it vanished, replaced by the same mask-like appearance that Sanchez always wore when he was around her. “Oh, I studied at home. My father and mother both knew Latin, and they insisted I should be at least slightly fluent in it.”

Claudia knew a snow job when she was being subjected to one, but this wasn’t the time to confront Sanchez about his surprising fluency in a dead language. She was just glad to have someone who could make sense of the badly-decomposed messages Claudia had recovered from a German bog over a decade ago. “Well, you definitely surpassed their expectations. I can read Latin without translating in my head, and even I couldn’t make anything of my find.”

Paullus Lucius Decimus looked across the desk at the young scholar. Needing some extra cash, he’d seen the online ad looking for someone to translate Latin text and been glad for the chance to make money reading his native language. What had caught him off-guard was what he was translating: messages he had written himself over two thousand years ago. As one of the more literate members of his cohort, Paullus had often been asked to write letters home for others. He even remembered the messenger who had been charged with taking the letters home to Rome…and wasn’t surprised to find that they’d been thrown in a bog. Atticus Erucius had been a slippery little shit, more inclined to informing on his fellows than fighting in the ranks. Paullus had never figured out who’s ass he’d kissed to be assignment to carry mail to Rome, but if not for that bit of foresighted butt worship, he’d have been slaughtered like the rest of Legio XIX by the Germans.

Paullus still had nightmares of that time, and they’d gotten worse since he’d taken the translation job. Just the night before, he’d bolted awake from a dream of those dark, stinking bogs so vivid he could have sworn he smelled them in his small apartment. Just reflecting on that moment brought other memories forward, things that made remembering a bog filled with screaming, dying legionnaires seem pleasant.

Are you all right, Mr. Sanchez?”

She was watching him, staring as if she could see the images of death and suffering that hung in front of him. His father had been of the Stoic school, and had enforced his ideas of a proper, impassive visage on his son with a well-wielded switch. To know that he had let himself slip more than embarrassed Paullus, it angered him deeply.

Claudia, watching the man sitting across from her, saw the mask drop away. Sanchez’s face went from its natural darkness to a gray pallor like someone an inch from death. Lines that hadn’t been apparent before became pronounced, giving him the appearance of an ancient. Then, his color returned, but not with a healthy evenness. No, this was the blotchy flush of someone deeply embarrassed…or very angry. Oh, very angry indeed, but why? The eyes that had given away nothing of the inner man were now narrow, hard openings into another person, one that frightened Claudia. Then, like a man forcing a door to another side of his soul closed, Sanchez’s face resumed its calm appearance. Claudia wasn’t fooled by the change, she knew that Paul Sanchez was not someone she would want angry at her.

“I’m fine, Ms. Upton. If I might ask, where did you find the text I translated?”

“I pulled them out of a former bog in Germany. A hiker saw some corroded metal beside a trail and thought it might be part of a bomb intended for Hannover. The German Army EOD team that came to investigate recognized it was too old to be from WWII and contacted the local university. I was studying there at the time and ended up being part of the team that went out to study the find. Turned out to be part of a Roman helmet, and my clump of peat-soaked messages was found nearby.”

Maybe Sanchez sensed her unease, because his body relaxed visibly as he spoke. “So you found a helmet with your mail. Kind of odd to find a single piece of armor, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, we found the remnants of an entire suit of Roman armor…and the person who’d been wearing it too. My German colleagues thought he might have lost his way trying to find his way through the bog. However he came to be there, these messages give us an insight into what life was like for soldiers serving on Rome’s farthest frontier.”

“’And we will know them by the things they leave behind.’ Is that what you’re saying?”

Claudia didn’t recognize the quote, but it was quite apt. “Precisely. After all, until some mad physicist invents a time machine, that’s all we have. I mean it’s not like I can sit a legionnaire down and interview them, can I?” She started searching her desk, digging through the piles of papers and folder before finding what she was searching for. She pulled the battered folder out and extended it to Sanchez. “Now that you’ve shown you can make sense of one of my messages, I want you to tackle this. It’s the prize of my messages, the one I really want translated.”

Paullus took the thin folder of reproductions and flipped it open. He understood her not trusting a stranger with the originals, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had the original documents in front of him. Would they carry the same stink of cold rot he remember so vividly from the bogs? So you weren’t the coward I imagined you were, Atticus? I’ll remember you in my prayers to Mars tonight, and hope the War God grants your spirit rest.

Aloud, he spoke in a different voice, in a language far removed from the plebeian Latin that was his mother tongue. “No, you can’t talk to a legionnaire, can you?” Then his voice caught in his throat. He recognized the scrawled Latin script before him, even if he’d only read it once before. It was the handwriting of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the political hack who’d sent so many of Paullus’ fellow legionnaires to their deaths. Willing his voice to be as calm as his as his face, Paullus continued. “It might take me a little longer than the first letter. I don’t know who wrote this, but their penmanship is terrible.”

“I know! But look at the next page…this is a letter home from Varus, the man who commanded the legions the Germans beat at Teutoburg. I was able to pick that much of it out, but with these eyes,” she gestures at the thick glasses that magnified to huge proportions, “that’s all I can make of it.” She smiled. “I’m willing to pay extra…call it ‘hazard pay’ for dealing with his terrible handwriting.”

Did Paullus want to read the inner thoughts of the man who’s incompetence led to the death of three whole legions, over 16,000 men? Paullus flipped to folder shut. He’d spent over two thousand years wishing Varus resided in the hottest fires in the Christian Hell, but he still needed money. “Well, as a poor, itinerant Latin scholar, I feel I should take you up on your offer of extra pay. Now, how much

extra are we talking about?”

Paullus enjoyed the dickering that followed. In a way, it was comforting that no matter the age, humans always sought the best deal. Now, alone in his rooms, he found himself hesitating. Almost every legionnaire had known Arminius was not to be trusted. The German auxiliaries that had stayed loyal tried to warn Varus of treachery, but neither he, nor any of the other commanders, had listened. What would Varus have to say? Had he been as clueless as Paullus always thought? There was no way to know but to begin reading. The desk he sat at, like every other item in his apartment, as someone else’s cast off. Some bored child had crudely carved “Billie, age 12, 1949” in the upper left corner, but it did the job. He toggled the switch on the magnifier, and its circular florescence bulb flickered to life, bringing the text beneath it into sharp relief. Paullus leaned over it, focusing on the first line and began to read.

“My Dear Wife…”

#

Paullus leaned back, stretched, and scrubbed his eyes. Immortality had saved him from death more times than he could remember, but it didn’t stop his body from aching after spending hours hunched over a piece of paper. Now, after twenty days struggling to understand what was written on those pages, he knew what Varus had meant to communicate. And what he had learned opened his eyes in ways nothing had before. He picked up his notes, the Latin script as neat now as it had been all those centuries before, and ran through Varus’ final message.

“My Dear Wife,

I write you because I know that if we ever see each other again, it will be in Elysium. I wish I could see you again, to hold you and our children one final time, but that is not to be. In my folly, I trusted Arminius, and he has betrayed that trust. I have learned that he intends to attack my legions, hoping he can rally enough warriors to his cause to overwhelm us. He has the advantage of knowing the land, and its people, while all I have is my confidence in the courage and training of my legionnaires. I know that I have no chance to prevailing, but if I were to run, what would become of me, of our family? So I will stay, and fight, to give what honor I can to you and our children.

Know that while I will die looking forward to our reunion, I hope that happy event is many years away. So live, my beloved wife, and keep my memory alive in our children’s hearts. I will not ask you to keep it alive in your heart, because I know it will never die there. Until we meet again, may Jupiter, Minerva and all the gods keep you always in their care.

Your husband,

Publius Quinctilius Varus”

It all made sense now. By dying rather than running, Varus saved his family from the humiliation of cowardice in the face of the enemy. But even knowing why he had done it did nothing to quell Paullus’ anger. No, it made that anger worse. No man’s honor was worth so many lives. But he had the letter copied, and once he’d translated it, he’d be paid…and getting paid was what it was all about. He glanced at the clock, and to his surprised, found it was 3AM.

“Sleep, I think, before translation. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish. Now, to bed.”

#

Claudia ran her hand across her eyes, wiping tears she hadn’t expected away. Sanchez’s notes, his detailed interpretation of what different words might be, were as good as anything she had seen . What those guesses and interpretations put together was heartbreaking, and the implications of Varus’ letter rewrote one of the most shocking defeats in history. She looked across her desk and found Sanchez watching her. The bland mask was in full force today, not even his eyes revealed what passed through his mind.

“Do you accept my translation, Ms. Upton? I’ll admit some of it’s guesswork, but put together, it all makes sense. Don’t you agree?”

I do. It’s also quite a story, which is why I wonder if anyone will take your translation seriously.” Claudia saw the eyes narrow and held up her hand. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t doubt you’ve done an excellent job translating the letter. I’m just saying that historians are not immune from fearing change, and this letter changes the whole narrative of Teutoburg.” She saw the man’s tension lessen, then with a smile, caught her by surprise.

“Fear of change has always been mankind’s greatest enemy. Perhaps if Rome hadn’t been so focused on victory, if they’d been willing to accept a fighting retreat, Varus might have found a way to bring his troops home instead of leading them to the slaughter.” Sanchez shook his head. “But all humans hate change, don’t they? Well, if you’re satisfied with my work, there is the vulgar matter of my fee…”

Claudia suppressed a chuckle at the old movie reference and opened the central drawer on her desk. She didn’t understand why Sanchez always demanded payment in cash, but she was happy to pay for this sort of quality. She pulled out the fat envelope holding his fee and passed it to him. “As agreed, sir. I’d like to offer you something more to express my thanks for your work. Would you mind if I listed you as a co-author when I submit the paper I intend to write based on this? I’m sure it would bring you more work, if you need more money.”

Sanchez was folding the envelope, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his khakis before responding. “Thank you for your kind offer, but no. I’ve been thinking of doing some traveling, and now I’ve enough money to actually do it. Perhaps after I return…”

“Oh, it’ll take me a couple months just to write the paper, then several more before any journal can do their peer-review before publishing. It might be as much as a year before it hits the in-boxes of anyone who would want to hire you.”

“In that case, I hope you’ll remember my services on the off chance that one of your peers asks for your translation recommendations.” Sanchez gave her a slight bow, not unlike some of her Japanese colleagues sometime would. Then, almost as if he were catching himself in something he shouldn’t do, he straightened and held out his hand. She took it, finding the hand that closed around hers hard, the grip strong. It had nothing of most men’s handshake, that attempted to convey strength without being obvious. No, the fingers that enclosed hers could just as easily close around her throat, or snap her neck, and Sanchez made no effort to hide the fact.

“I’d be happy to recommend you to anyone who needs your services, sir, and I hope you enjoy your vacation.”

Sanchez left, and Claudia began going over his notes, taking in the details of his deductive process. Yes, he’s got an exceptionally detail-oriented mind. Maybe a mild case of ADHD? She picked up another laser-printed block to text, and found something unexpected beneath it. It was a page covered in handwritten notes…notes not in English, but in the so-called rustic Latin. They had none of the hesitation of a person trying to copy a style, no, this was the flowing script of someone who wrote in the language. She saw a letter, then another one, and knew she’d seen them before. That same shape, the way the bar was formed on the “f”, but where? It couldn’t be…. Claudia dug into her notes, found the copies of the first text she’d had Sanchez translate. She rooted in her desk, found the magnifying glass she used these days, and examined the copy. The “f” was the same, right down to that odd little flick on the end of the bar. She examined the rest of the copy, going back and forth between it and Sanchez’s notes, finding more and more similarities with each examination.

Claudia leaned back, letting herself smile even as a chill of pure terror ran through her body. “I guess I could have interviewed a legionnaire…if he didn’t decide to kill me afterwards to keep his secret.” She stared at the door to her office, wondering if Sanchez might have seen the legions march away from Rome to their doom. Did the echoes of that long ago tragedy explain some of what she’d seen?

And what of Sanchez? Would Claudia find him already gone if she went to the address he’d given? No, Sanchez, or whatever his real name was, had lived a long life. She had no doubt that the vacation he’d spoken of was some way to disappear. “Good luck to you, whomever you are. The world must be becoming a much more hostile place for a man like you.”

Amazing stories

Rain roared down on the roof of the police cruiser as Delgado ‘Del’ Salazar rolled to a stop outside Sweet Young Things. He’d driven past the ‘gentlemen’s club’ outside the tiny burg of Myers, Texas more times than he could remember, but this would be the first time he’d entered the place. The single squad car owned by the Myers PD sat in front of the entrance, flanked by the county EMT vehicle and the car driven by Paul Obert, the other county sheriff on duty tonight. The rest of the gravel parking lot was packed with the cars and trucks of the customers who were inside, leaving Del to no option but to park on the grass strip between the lot and Texas Route 23.

“Figures. It’s pouring rain, and the nearest parking spot is a good hundred feet away.”

The rain slicker kept him dry almost to his knees, the the ‘smokey bear’ hat he usually hated stopped the rain from spotting his glasses, but his feet were squelching in soaked shoes before he got to the front door. Inside, the rush of the rain was drown out by the thumping beat of music so loud it set Del’s teeth on edge before he’d even left the entrance hall.

The hall opened onto a dark room centered around a raised oval stage surrounded by a low rail. Flashing light illuminated a pair of polished brass poles that stood at either end of the stage, and a bar stretched along the entire length of the wall opposite of where Del stood. It was packed solid with men in work clothing whom were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist. Mixed with them were a handful of women a mix of bikinis and an odd assortment of costumes.

The bar was the only island of regular light in the room. Just short of it was a second pool of light. This one came from the Maglites of two police officers, and it revealed a disturbing scene. Two men in EMT uniforms knelt beside a dead body. Del didn’t have to be any closer to know the young man lying between the EMT’s was dead. Nobody alive could twist their head nearly 180 degrees from its normal orientation, nor would a living man’s eyes have that blank stare to them. It wasn’t the first dead body Del had seen, not after two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

As a deputy sheriff, Del had authority over the local police officer. As the senior officer on the scene, he also had authority over Paul. “Time to get this show on the road.” he muttered to himself as he approached the tableau.

Neither officer noticed his approach, and Del’s shout of “What’s going on?” caused both officers to jump. The Myers PD officer, a young woman with “A. Renald” on her name tag, tried to answer. Del only caught a few odd words of her reply. He turned towards the bar, took a deep breath, and in his best parade-ground voice, shouted. “Could you please turn the damned music off?” It has the effect Del hoped for. A young black man in a muscle tee and tattered jeans pushed away from the bar and almost ran to a small platform in the corner. He twisted knobs on a control panel and the music mercifully died. In the stunned silence that followed, the only noise was the relentless hiss of the rain on the buildings roof. Del aimed a “Thank you.” at the man, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.

“So, what happened here?”

Renald took up her earlier efforts to explain. “911 got a call of shots fired at this location. I was on the scene first, followed by your officer. I found the subject already dead, and a 9MM auto lying beside him.” She pointed towards the gun in question, Del suspected it was a Ruger from what he could make out of it, but kept his opinions to himself. “Witnesses say the deceased, Oberto Soto, entered the bar and got into a confrontation with one of the dancers. Club security approached Soto and requested he leave. He did, but re-entered the club a short time later brandishing his gun. Security here is only armed with hand tasers, so they backed off. Soto then pointed his gun at the dancer and threatened to kill her.” Renald had been turning her head and pointing out the different parties she had been speaking to , but now she stopped and focused her gaze on Del. “That’s when it gets, well, strange. Everyone I’ve spoken to says some kid was over in the corner at a table. They all agree he got up, walked over to Soto, and told him to leave. Soto turned his gun on the kid and threatened to shoot him…and the kid told him to go ahead.” Renald looked away, pointed towards the floor, and Del saw three spent shell casings. “Soto fired three rounds into the kid at almost point-blank range.” She pointed towards a section of wall that framed the entrance to the main room, and Del saw for the first time the three clean holes in it. “Everyone saw the shots fired, and they all agree there was no way Soto could have missed. But the kid just stood there like it was nothing. Then he grabbed Soto’s head, twisted it, and broke his neck. He must have killed him instantly, at least that would be my guess.”

Del looked at the EMT, who was looking up at him. “Yeah, she’s right, but the force it would take to do this….no way a kid could do it. I’m not sure I could do it.” He pointed towards a pair of red marks on the side of Soto’s face. “That’s a hand print. I once read about how they train Marines to silently kill someone by breaking their necks. They wrap their arm around the victim’s head and use leverage to give them the mechanical advantage to snap the spine. From what I can tell, this kid literally put his hands on either side of this guy’s head and twisted it like it was bottle cap.”

Renald took up her narration. “But that’s not the strange part. Look at the floor, at the wall…no blood! Not a drop, anywhere. How the hell does someone get shot three times, and not only manage to kill a man with their bare hands, but not bleed a drop?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people here we need to take statements from. I need to contact the county medical examiner to come out to collect the body and collect any forensic evidence he can. You and my man Paul get started on that. Be sure to get as much of a description of this mysterious kid as you can. Do you know who’s in charge of this place?”

Renald pointed towards an older man standing at the gap in the bar which allowed access to the rear. “Okay, you two get started on the witnesses, and I’ll see if all these security cameras are real or just for show.”

Del approached the manager and waved at the three camera pods he could see. “Any of these working? And if they are, we’re going to need a copy of any video they captured tonight.”

The manager shook his head. “Sorry, but most of them are just there to keep the customers from getting too ‘friendly’ with the dancers. Only one that’s working is the one pointed at the cash register, but it’s got no sound pick-up, so I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you.”

“So, no images of this vigilant kid? By the way, how did a kid end up in this place? Doesn’t your license require you to card people and make sure they’re 21 before you let them in?”

“Hey, the kid walked in, soaked to the skin and looking like death warmed over. All he asked for was a place he could sit out the storm. I figured he was hitching and I didn’t want to just shove him back out in this downpour. Does that make me a bad guy?”

Del waved the excuse away. “We can talk about what a Good Samaritan you are some other time. Where you out here when all this happened?”

“No, I was in the back, in my office, doing the books. I heard the shots, but by the time I got out here, the kid was gone. My security guys said he walked out like nothing had happened. How the hell does someone do that?”

“Damned if I know. Why don’t you go where ever you have your security camera recorder and get me a copy of the footage for tonight while I go call the county forensics people.”

The manager disappeared through a doorway set in an alcove behind the bar, and Del moved to the exit. Outside, under the awning protecting the entrance, he stopped and drew a deep breath. What he’d told everyone wasn’t the truth. A few week ago, he’d seen a report out of Nevada of a group of people who’d been rescued from human traffickers. It had been passed onto Del by an old friend who worked in law enforcement out there who knew of Del’s fascination with strange, amazing stories of crime. The human traffickers weren’t all that amazing, nor was their forcing a group of people to work an illegal uranium mine. What was strange was how they’d escaped: all of them agreed that a young man, a teenager , had managed to overpower not one, but several of the guards. Even stranger, at least one of the people who’d been rescued reported that the teenager had been shot several times, by automatic weapons fire no less, and had kept on going.

A rumble of thunder rolled across Del, then another came, this one close enough to illuminate the parking lot and everything around it. In that moment of light, Del saw a slight young man, a teenager, standing across the highway from the club. Then the vision disappeared into the pouring rain. Another flash, further away, gave a dimmer light to the scene, but the young man was gone. Did he really want to go into the downpour, into the darkness, to find a out who he was? He shook his head. “No, I don’t need to go looking for an avenging angel.” He squeezed the mic of his handheld. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Sheriff Salazar. Wake Doc Hastert up and tell him we’ve got a crime scene for him to examine, a homicide. EMT’s are already here, so he doesn’t need to roll his meat wagon. Just tell him to get his tail down to Sweet Young Things. Knowing that old coot, he probably doesn’t need direction.”

“Rodger that, Del. I’ll pass the word. You want I should wake up the chief?”

Sheriff Don Alperts was a stickler for proper procedure. If anyone would demand Del mount a manhunt for this phantom protector, it was Alperts. “No, Hettie, let the boss get his beauty sleep. God knows he could use it.”

The snort of laughter that got through told Del his joke was appreciated. “10-4. I’ll get the Doc on the way to you as soon as I can, Del.”

“Thanks, Hettie. You stay dry there, hear?”

“You too, Del. Dispatch out.”

#

George watched the cop go back into the strip club. How could he have been so stupid? He was dead, so the rain was little more than an inconvenience. He could have sat down in this drainage ditch and let the thunderstorm hammer down on him without taking any harm. Hell, he could probably have taken a lightening strike without noticing it. But no, he’d begged shelter in the club, then he’d been cocky enough to confront that angry clown when he’d threatened the only woman who’d talked to George. His undead form took no damage from the gunshots, but then he’d been dumb enough to react and kill the man.

George gave a final look at the club before rising from behind the road and walking away. “I gotta be more careful, or somebody’s going to catch on to me.” he told himself as the night and rain swallowed him.

Alone

Jack looked at the still figure in the coffin and shook his head.

“It’s all right, Jack. Paul had been sick a long time. At least now he’s not in pain.”

Frank, another of Paul Sanchez’s old friends, had walked up beside Jack without him noticing. The statement drew a wry smile from Jack.

“I know. That’s not what I was shaking my head about…I mean I know Paul was pretty much an American okatu, but to decide he wanted to be buried dressed like Spike Spiegel from ‘Cowboy Bebop’…”

Frank leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Yeah, I know. Trying to make heavy-set bald guy look like a slick ex-gang killer just doesn’t work. Then again, I heard his request was to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits, and only two of them still fit: this one….and one for the red Power Ranger. Would he have looked better dressed like that?”

Jack had to fight a desire to chuckle. “I don’t know, him in red spandex with the mask and all…” That was when he noticed the thumb drive lying on Paul’s chest, its lanyard wrapped around his wrist. “What’s with the thumb drive?”

“I hear it’s got a collection of Paul’s favorite anime on it. Supposedly he put it together when they told him he was going to be in the hospital for a long time so he’d have something better than the regular TV to watch. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to watch it.”

Jack remember the call. Hearing his childhood friend had died suddenly while being evaluated for congestive heart failure had been a shock, but as Frank had said, Paul had been having chest pains and trouble doing stuff for years. The two of them had become friend because of a love of Japanese animation, an interest that had brought Frank into their acquaintance during high school.

Paul had gone on the learn about, and later lecture on, Japanese culture. His devotion to anime and manga had been the stuff of legend in the small circle of follower of those art forms living around Carswell’s Corner. His house was a shrine to Japanese illustrative art.

“So, any idea what he put on it?”

Frank shrugged. “Not a clue. If I had to bet, at least his favorites, like ‘Bebop’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Hell Girl’. Probably ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ and ‘Corpse Princess’. Who knows what he burned on it. The guy had a digital version of pretty much any anime that was ever released, so it’s hard to say. I just thought it’d be nice to send it off with him, something to enjoy in anime Valhalla.”

#

So Paul Sanchez went into the ground. A man who’d died, loving an art form and buried with it. His friends carried him to his grave, his few remaining family members wept for him, but in the end, he was gone. Dead and buried. Free from the concerns that would shape the world he left behind. Spared the suffering that would be inflicted on all humanity within a decade of his passing.

#

Paul Sanchez bolted upright, a move that caused the room he was in to spin and his head to throb. He remembered the hospital room, the doctors crowding around him. A nurse pressing his chest so hard it felt like she was trying to drive her hands through him. Then nothing until this moment.

Paul could tell he was on some sort of platform in a featureless off-white space. The surface under his butt yielded as he shifted, and he realized he was dressed in his Spike Spiegel costume. Why? Wait…he remembered asking to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits…had he died? Was this hell? Heaven? Some eternal waiting room for those to be reincarnated?

A muffled whoosh drew Paul’s attention to an opening that had appeared in the blank wall. Through it…Paul could think of no other term to describe how what those massive insect-like creatures moved like than scuttled. Their grayish-brown ovoid bodies glittered in the sourceless light that flooded the space like they were made of plastic. There were eight of them, and the eight legs they moved on arching up and away from those bodies moving in a blur when they advanced into the room. Their feet, or whatever they were, caused a clicking noise like a flock of women in high heels walking fast. Paul pushed himself back from them, back to find that a wall was immediately behind him and he had no place to go to escape the freak show in front of him.

They spread out in a semi-circle in front of Paul, and for the first time, he saw what had to be their faces. Four black, faceted eyes, two to a side, flanked a mouth that gaped behind a pair of wicked-barbed mandibles. Several of them had pouches slung under their bodies, and into one of these the insect in the center of the group reached with its front legs, which Paul now saw ended in something like a hand. That individual made a noise like a string of clicks and chirps as it drew out a metal box. One of the other insects, this one on the left end of the crescent, made a noise that sounded like a fart, which brought another, longer string of noises from the central insect. It had barely stopped when the insect on its immediate right launched into a long string of noises, including a bleating sound Paul couldn’t imagine such a mouth being able to produce. In seconds, all of the insects were vocalizing, some of them even waving their front legs/arms about, a spectrum of sounds that grew in volume until if made Pauls’ head ache. He slapped his hands over his ears, trying to keep the noise at bay, and it stopped as if someone had turned a switch off.

He looked about, saw that the insects had frozen with their front legs/arms in mid-motion Some of them had been facing each other, but now they all scuttled around to face him again. The central insect, the metal box still in its hand, took a step forward and raised the box. It let out a string of noises, waited, then adjusted controls on the box before repeating the same string of noises. This time, the box made a noise like someone fighting the impulse to puke, and Paul nearly laughed as the insect shook it for all the world like a human with a malfunctioning piece of electronics. Another series of adjustments, and when the string of noises was repeated a third time, the box produced a string of Japanese words.

Paul could understand the words, but the syntax was wrong. He opened his mouth, tried to speak, and found himself so dry he had to swallow before he could speak. “Konnichiwa.” he managed to get out, hoping a polite hello would convey something to these creatures.

The box produced a long string of clicks, moans and noises Paul couldn’t even begin to describe. It was far too long to convey the simple message he’d hoped pass along. The insect held the box up to one pair of eyes, brought a hand around to do something, and then brought it down to its mouth. It repeated the earlier sounds, much more slowly this time, and after a stutter of noise, the box bleated out. “Greeting! We revive you to our questions answer. Answer.”

Where the hell did they get a voice sample to reproduce the voice of Kirito from “Sword Art Online”? Hearing that voice had stunned Paul for a moment, and the sudden switch in languages forced him to mentally shift gears before replying. The delay must not have set well with the insects. Even as he opened his mouth to reply, the central insect let out a new string of noises that set the box squawking. “Answer! Require answer we do!’

Paul did his best not to laugh at the Yoda-like quality of the demand. Something in the tone of the voice told him the insect was angry, or at least impatient. “I’ll answer you, but I have a question first. How did I get here?”

“You, Subject 4532. Others we try revive, not work. You first. Your society preserve people. Revive not easy.”

Preserve people? What the hell…wait, have they been trying to revive dead people? “How did you get hold of me?”

The box spit out a string of noises that started an exchange between the central insect and the ones on either side of it. Whether it had been shut off, or just couldn’t keep up to translate, the box remained silent until they’d stopped. Central insect let out a final string of noises, waved a front leg/arm towards the wall behind it, and the third insect on the right drew a small object out of its pouch. A few movements of its hand, and the wall became a display. On it, Paul saw a broad expanse, like a field of ash. Out of it rose blocks of stone, blocks he recognized with a start as tombstones. Several holes had been crudely dug through the ash, leaving the underground vault exposed. The scene began to move as a video clip followed a group of insects in what looked like space suits crawled down into the hole to lift the lid of the vault off. Out came a casket, the plain one Paul had chosen long ago to serve as his spot of final repose. He wanted to turn away but couldn’t. He watched the insects move aside as something gleaming of metal scurried into view and placed itself over the box. Limbs far more flexible, and far stronger, whipped down to begin prying at the coffin lid. They failed, and a new limb came out of the side of the machine. This one traced the outline of the lid, leaving a smoking trail behind. It completed its circuit, retracted into the machine, and the other arms moved in. This time, the lid came away, and the machine moved off on four legs, with four more clutching the lid.

Inside the coffin was a form dressed in a dark suit, the suit Paul now wore. The face was his, but drawn tight as if the skin has shriveled down to embrace the bone beneath it. Seeing himself dead, looking at his lifeless corpse, stopped Paul’s mind in its tracks. The video kept going, the camera moving from that bony face down to his chest. He saw the thumb drive he’d made, the one he’d hoped to watch during his hospital stay, and wondered which of his friends had sent it into the afterlife with him.

Then that image was gone, replaced by a montage of clip from “Sekirei”, “Tokyo Ghoul”, “Corpse Princess” and several more. Another string of noises, and the box sputtered out “These, where? Not end with you. Powerful! Where?”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand the question.”

The box chirped, squawked, clicked and hissed. The insect holding it held it out, shook it violently, then let out a string of nosies. This time, the box tried to interpret them. It couldn’t translate much of what the insect said, but two words came out loud and clear. “Fucking box!” Hearing it’s words coming out in another language set the insect to working on the box. Both remained silent while the insect worked on whatever it thought was wrong with the interpreter. Then the insect spoke again, it’s string of noises coming out in another string of mangled English. “These, in images, where? Your people, yes. Where? Powers, this type, not end. Where?”

Did they honestly think anime was a realistic representation of humanity? That there were women like Musubi bouncing around? That Ken Kaneki wandered the streets of Tokyo, fighting his desire to kill and eat humans? “Those aren’t real. There are no people like that. Why didn’t you just ask someone, they could have told you it was all make-believe. Entertainment, understand? Entertainment.

The box clicked and moaned away, and when it finished, a storm of noise arose from the insects. All of them were talking, probably shouting given the way the volume rose over time. An occasional word popped out of the box, not enough to make any sense of, but the box could put intonation on words, and some of them were clearly being said in anger.

“…gone…”

“….waste!”

“Dead…”

Center Insect (Paul had started to think of it that way, to try to tell them apart) raised the box over its head and let out a loud hiss, like water being poured over red-hot metal. The others subsided, not all at once, but eventually they became silent. One of the last things said, from Left-End Insect, came through the box. “Show him.” Center insect let out one last hiss at this statement, then gestured towards Third-Right Insect. It did something tht cleared the display of the anime loop. In it’s place, Paul saw the scene from earlier, of the graveyard, but undisturbed. Then the camera seemed to draw back, revealing more and more ash-covered landscape. The view moved left, following a trail of gray-clad land to an ugly hole in the landscape. Out of it still spewed ash and gases. The view shifted again, moving over cities buried in ash, then, the ash was gone, but the cities were too. Now, though, they were jumbles of wreckage surrounding craters that flashed glassy in what sunlight reached the surface. Then, other images. More cities in ruin. Swaths of countryside where trees stood naked and nothing green grew. And everywhere, not a single image of a human. And what had happened was as clear as if Paul had been there to see it all. Yellowstone had erupted, decimating North America. Either in desperation, or because others saw a chance for advantage in attacking a weakened America, a nuclear war had broken out. Humanity had finished what Nature had started, the destruction of the human race.

Paul buried his face in his hands. It was all gone. His friends, his family, everything and everyone he’d ever known were nothing but memories in his head. “Why did you wake me to this? What did I do to deserve this fate?” He raised his head and shouted the last towards the heavens. But there was no answer. There was just Paul, alone on a dead planet with insects who couldn’t understand him or his culture.

Desert death

The Greyhound to Los Banos, Nevada hadn’t been a ‘real’ bus, more like a big minivan. But George was glad to be out of Oregon. He’d worried the police might sweep down on him since he’d killed a serial killer in Eubanks, Oregon. You didn’t just murder a local without consequences, and he’d expected some sort of bulletin for the prime suspect. Then again, as far as the world was concerned, George Ishkowa was dead. That, and his limited interaction with the other residents of the hostel, were probably what had saved him.

A story on one of the supernatural ‘conspiracy theory’ sites he frequented brought him to Los Banos. People spoke of disappearances. Single people passing through the small town in the middle of the desert sometimes vanished in the night. Then hikers had discovered a body.

That body, a man in his early twenties, had exhibited signs of hard work in excruciating conditions. Blistered hands, barked shins, a partially-healed cut across the scalp like he had slammed his head into something before his death from dehydration. The stomach had reportedly been empty, as if the man had been worked for days without food. The hikers had found the body beside a huge saguaro cactus, the matriarch of a grove that stood in the midst of complete nothingness.

More outlandish were the second-hand stories of the search by local authorities for traces of how the body had come to be where it was. Supposedly no one could find a track anywhere near the body, but when dogs had been brought in, they had struck a trail. The scent they traced had taken their handlers miles through the desert. At first, it had been a meandering path, as if the dead man had stumbled in a confused daze before dying, then it became an almost rule-straight line as if he’d known precisely where he was going. The trail headed away from Los Banos towards the desolate Eugene Mountains, but by the end of the first day, the there was no sign of any dwelling or anywhere the man might have come from. Then, when the search was taken up the next morning, the dogs only went a few miles before stopping. They had not stopped for a creek, of which there were surprisingly few, nor some other place where a scent might be lost by a dog. No, the report spoke of the dogs, eager for the trail, suddenly stopping, first to snarl, then to whimper in fear of something their handlers could not see. Trackers attempted to find a cause for the strange behavior, but no bear or other predator, nor any sign that a similar animal had been present, was found. Stranger still, it had proven impossible to persuaded the dogs to go further.

The bus driver stopped, but as George prepared to step off, the stout woman’s voice had come from behind him. “Are you sure you want to get off here?”

“Yeah, I hear the hiking in the desert around here is fantastic.”

“You’re going out in that and hike…for fun?”

George looked back, found a look of incredulity fit to match the tone that question had been uttered in, and nodded. “What can I say, I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.”

The driver stared at him, mouth hanging open, then shook her head like a dog trying to shoo a fly away. “As my Dad would have said it, whatever floats your boat. I guess for you, it’s tramping around in the middle of the Backside of Hell.”

George caught the emphasis, the almost explicit capitalization of those words. “Why do you call it that?”

The driver waved her hand as if trying to encompass everything outside her front windshield. “This place used to be a big mining district. As long as there was gold, or silver, or something else valuable to mine, they’d go out into the desert hoping to ‘strike it rich’. Most of them ended up going home with nothing to show for their time here but a broken back and lungs full of rock dust.” She favored George with a knowing smile. “My granddad prospected around here, just before he went off to World War Two. He always said almost getting killed by kamikaze attacks saved him from dying for sure in this desert. If that doesn’t tell you how bad this place is, I don’t know what will.”

It wasn’t the answer George had hoped for, but it gave him someplace to start. He gave the woman a smile, then took the final step and went to find the truth of what was happening in Los Banos.

#

The truth turned out to be elusive. George was able to find out the dead man was named Frank Ingram, but what had brought him to Los Banos, or how he’d ended up in the desert, were as much of a mystery as the day he’d stepped off the bus. With no clues, George decided to see if he could reach the spot where the dogs had stopped.

The problem was, nobody normally went where he needed to go. The more he thought about it, the more that fact stood out. In a desert seemingly filled with hiking and ATV trails, a section that people avoided was strange. So, when he heard that a pair of men taking their ‘off-roader’ out for a test near where he wanted to go, he hitched a ride. For George, with his undead body, carrying enough water to get out of the desert wasn’t a problem, but he carried a pair of large water bottles to convince his hosts he wasn’t going out to commit suicide. They were roaring along, George feeling like he should be hanging onto something to keep from rattling around the back seat of the crew cab, when the phone GPS chimed.

“Hey, HEY! Can you stop?”

Even shouting, he wasn’t sure he’d been heard until the the truck ground to a stop. Both of the men in the cab stared at him. The driver was the one who finally spoke. “You want to get out here?”

“Umm, yeah, why?”

The stare grew even more incredulous. “You don’t know?”

Maybe it was hoping for too much, that these two would have some clue as to what was happening out here in the desert, but George asked anyway. “No. What’s wrong with getting out here?”

“You didn’t hear? Some guy was found, not too far from here, like….dead.”

So much for getting information from these two… “Yeah, I heard about that. I was kind of hoping to find out why he was out here.”

That drew a pair of blank stares before the driver spoke up. “Why?”

George pinched his nose and fought the desire to shout out his frustration with people who had a level of callousness that allowed them to ignore the fact that someone had died in this vast emptiness. It wasn’t an easy struggle, so he grabbed the door handle and let himself out.

#

The rising breeze gave George his first hint he was near where he wanted to go. It had begun to pick up as the Sun set behind the mountains, and as it did, the rattling of plastic flapping came to George’s ears. The sound that led him towards the cactus was the yellow police tape, still strung in place around the spot where the dead man had been found. The winds had blown any tracks that might have remained away, leaving no clues for George to follow. Some CSI wannabe had neatly outlined where the body had lain in more police tape, this staked tight to the ground. That was where he sat down, looking over the shape in the fading light towards the surrounding desert.

The saguaro was now little more than a dark outline against the fading sky, but in all that vast space, it would have been the only real shade from a pitiless Sun. George laid his hand on what would have been the chest of the dead body and wondered what his final moments were like. Had he cursed those who had brought him to this point? Had he felt at peace for escaping from whatever hell had made this desolate spot seem better? The breeze died with the light, and in the silence that followed, George felt a presence. It had none of the violence, not a bit of the intense anger he’d encountered in other spirits. No, here he felt relief, like at the end, the man who had breathed his last here was at peace with his decisions. George tried to reach out, to draw that spirit to him, but all he gathered was an impression of a hole in a hillside. The spirit fled as George tried to press it for more memories of that place, leaving nothing but an impression of terror in its wake.

Overhead, the sky had become that endless black you only see far from people. The constellations, so easy to pick out where the sky never reached such a profound darkness, were lost in a sea of stars. All about him, the faint rustling of small creatures coming out to live their lives could be heard. George rose to find the ground about him lite bright by starlight, the hills standing out like cardboard silhouettes against the sky-glow. “Well, fuck it, guess there’s no point in sitting around waiting for sunrise.”

George soon found out that walking through a desert by star light was far harder than he’d thought. Slopes were far more difficult to judge. Soft spots in the sand looked solid. Twice, he stepped on rattle snakes that struck at him and connected, reminding him that being undead had advantages. Through it all, he kept moving. The sunrise found him in the foothills of the Eugene’s.

The impression he’d gotten from the departed spirit drew him leftward, towards a flat-topped hill that would have been a mountain anywhere else. He was closer, but still not at its base, when the Sun went down. That night brought other lights besides the stars. A string of lights led from a low building into an opening so deep the lights diminished into nothingness. Somewhere in the darkness a generator clattered as it kept them all working.

George saw a shadow move across the lights and crouched low before advancing again. Another form moved in the darkness, and the cold glint of a steel barrel revealed an automatic weapon in the hands of a guard. George froze, instinctive caution taking control of his actions. Then he remembered that he was dead, that no mortal weapon could harm him, and he moved closer. In close, he heard the screech of a wheel in need of lubrication before the the cart it was fitted to appeared. Four men shoved it towards the mouth of the tunnel under the direction of a guard armed with an AR-15. All of the men on the cart had the painfully thin frames of people worked too hard with too little food.

George saw that what they pushed was an old-fashioned mining cart, like something out of an old Western movie. It ran on tracks that ended on a raised platform. Beneath the end sat a large dump truck. As he watched, they brought their load to the end and with a heave that took all four of them, emptied it into the truck bed. For a moment, the four figures stood together, leaning against the cart they’d been pushing like it was the only thing holding them up. A voice echoed off the rocks, too faint to distinguish the words, but the tone made the meaning as clear as the gesture the guard made with his weapon. He wanted the laborers to get back to their back-breaking work. They shambled, two to a side, around the cart and began shoving. One man slipped, fell, and the man with him stopped pushing to help him rise. The cart slowed, and the guard came around it. Now the voice was loud enough for George to make out.

“Get your fuckin’ asses back to work! Now, damn it, or I’ll put a bullet in both your worthless skulls!”

The two men rose, one with the other’s arm over his shoulder, and together they threw themselves against the cart. It’s speed rose, but evidently not enough for the guard.

“Faster, damn it! We ain’t got all night. That truck loads before sunrise, and none a you worthless bastard will get fed if it ain’t, hear me?”

The cart picked up speed, but from what George could see, none of those pushing it had been fed regularly for days. “That sick fuck probably takes away their food as often as he can.” he muttered to himself as he started moving towards the entrance to the mine.

He slid down into a low gully and a form appeared before him. This form had no gun, no defined shape at all, just a black blob that stood between him and the mine. A voice like an echo from the grave addressed him.

La muerte te espera.”

George had had enough Spanish-speaking friends to get the jist of what the spirit was saying to him, that death awaited him. He rummaged around his rudimentary Spanish to come up with a reply. Ya estoy muerto, amigo.”

The form moved closer, resolved into what might once have been a handsome young man before someone had savagely beaten him. The head tilted one way, then another, then nodded.

Sí es usted. Vienes a vengarnos?”

The meaning of that last sentence was unclear to George, the earnestness with which it was said led George to conclude this spirit wanted what was happening to stop.

Los detengo, lo prometo.

The outline faded, leaving nothing but a whispered reply behind. “Bueno.”

That was when George saw the gully was really a burial pit. A skull lay at his feet, and scattered around him lay others, along with all the other bones of the human body. Many of the skulls were damaged, partially crushed or missing the entire top like they had exploded. A low snarl caught his attention, and George saw a partial corpse move as if it were alive before a skunk emerged from it dragging a string of entrails. Blessing the undead body that didn’t vomit, he moved to the far edge of the pit and climbed it as steathfully as he could.

He saw the two guards from earlier had moved, and one of them was headed his way. Had he made some noise that caught the man’s attention? George slipped back down the pit and did his best to disappear into the darkness.

George hadn’t needed to worry. As he watched, the guard stopped at the edge of the pit, unzipped, and pissed into the open grave. The casual indifference of that act of disrespect made up George’s mind about what he would do.

This man would die, as would all those who worked with him.

Bladder relieved, the guard turned his back on the grave and began zipping himself up. He never finished. George was up as soon as his back was turned. Before he could react to the sound behind him, George grabbed the man’s head and snapped his neck with a twist so violent the face turned towards him. He saw the man’s mouth open in shock, then go slack as he died. An AK knock-off on a web strap hung from the corpse’s shoulder. George took it before kicking the body into the pit that held so many innocents while hoping the man he’d just killed was already in the hottest pit of Hell.

Now, with one of their own missing, it was only a matter of time before the guards figured out something was going on. George abandoned caution and advance on the mine opening. His path took him past one of the structures he’d seen from a distance. Up close, he saw it was little more than a crude framework of 2X4’s, bare on the outside and covered on the inside with sheet rock. The rhythmic creaking of springs and exaggerated moans coming from inside told him not all the prisoners here were men slaving their lives away in the mine. He kept moving, hoping he could free the men in time to rescue whatever woman was being raped later.

The tunnel stretched further than George anticipated, but luck was with him. Nobody stood guard at the entrance, nor did he encounter any guards until he could hear the sound of hammers on rock. He crouched down, advancing with more caution, until he saw the outline of a man sitting in a niche carved into the rock. He lounged back, his butt resting on what looked like an old sofa cushion, another one behind his back, his head facing down the tunnel. George straightened and advanced with what confidence he could muster, hoping to bluff his way up to the guard, and beyond.

He didn’t need to worry. Here, the noise of excavation was loud enough George couldn’t hear his own footfalls. He unslung the AK, and the motion must have caught the guard’s attention. He started to turn, but the rifle’s stock slamming into the side of his head laid him out cold. An AR stood by his crude guard post, and George collected it. He could see the rock face now, a dozen emaciated men wielding hammers and picks beat the stone, trying to break pieces off. Behind them, his back turned to George, stood the guard who’s threatened the cart crew. He dashed towards the man, but one of the workers saw George’s rush and his wide-eyed gape gave him away.

The sound of gunfire in that confined space was like thunder. George felt something hitting him, but no pain. He hit the guard running, sending both of them sprawling. George tried to push himself away, to get some room to swing, but he didn’t get the chance. Seeing their tormentor down, the prisoners attacked. The first hammer blow sent brains all over George’s face, and he narrowly escaped being struck himself as other blows rained down on the now-dead guard. Several minutes filled with mutter curses and the grunts of men swinging as hard as they could passed, then the fury drained from the imprisoned. They stood in a rough circle, panting from their efforts, as George pushed himself to his feet. He let his eyes take in the men about him. Most were Spanish, but some weren’t. He addressed them all, hoping someone in the group would understand him.

“We need to get out of here, now. Those shots are going to tip off the guards outside that something’s up.”

One of the Spanish men stepped forward, a smile on his face and a Midwestern accent on his lips. “Don’t worry, they shoot folks in here all the time. Usually, they say we’re getting to ‘uppity’ or not working fast enough. Sometimes, I think they do it because they’re bored.” He stopped talking and held out a hand. George took it, and felt a strong grip behind that calloused hand. “I came down here from Duluth, from a job in an iron mine no less, to do some hiking. Never imagined I’d go from driving a dump truck in an open pit mine to a slave in some unlicensed uranium mine.”

George looked around, the inborn fear of radiation overcoming him, and the man in front of him chuckled.

“Don’t worry, kid, it’s not radioactive enough in here to fry your nuts or anything. Some of these guys are going to need checking out, but they’ll need to be in a hospital for malnourishment, so it’s not like that’s the only thing they need to worry about.” He stopped, his eyes narrowing as he looked at George. “Speaking of hospitals, how come you’re still standing? I saw his hit you at least three times, but you’re not bleeding.”

Time to get his mind on other things. George thought and did just that. “Don’t worry about that, worry about getting out of here. There are more prisoners here, aren’t there? We need to get them, and we need to get everyone the hell out of here before the guards figure out you’re trying to escape.”

“Easier said than done, kid! They told us all we’re at least two days walk from anything like a town. Worse, they said the police in that podunk town, Los Banos, were on the take and knew we were out here. So how the hell do we escape?”

George gave him a smile. “You said you drive a dump truck for a living, right? Think you could drive one to keep living, cause there’s one right outside the entrance to this mine.”

“Hell yeah! Show me that bitch, and I’ll make her stand up and howl if it means getting out of here. But what about the guards? They hear that thing start up, they’re gonna know somethings wrong.”

Stooping, George picked up the dead guard’s AR-15 and held it out. “Well, we’ve got this, plus the two guns I walked in with. If we’ve got anyone here who can use them, maybe we can convince the guards it’s better to let us go than to die trying to stop you.”

That brought a fierce smile to the other man’s face. “It just might be possible. Hell, even if it ain’t, at least we can have the pleasure of killing a few of those bastards before they kill us. Thanks for coming, by the way. I’m John, John Sandoval.”
“Good to meet you, John, I’m George Ishkowa. Do you know Spanish, maybe enough to ask if any of these guys know how to use these guns?”

“Yeah, I do. One of my uncles has a farm down in Jalisco, we used to go visit him when I was a kid.” John faced his fellow prisoners. ¿Alguno de ustedes puede usar estas armas?”

Several hands went up, including one belonging a scrawny, pasty-faced red-head. “I was Air Force, military police. I can use one a them things.”

John gave the man a look. “Don’t doubt you can, Ken, but you can barely walk. You gonna be able to keep up if we gotta make a run for it?”

The red head pushed forward, snatched the AR out of George’s hand, and popped the clip off. He flipped a lever on the side of the weapon, then pulled back on a small handle George hadn’t noticed, sending a bullet flying. Stooping, he retrieved a clip from the pocket of the dead guard and slammed it into place before working the handle again. He turned to George, then John, a toothy grin on his face. “Cocked, locked, and ready to rock. Any of those bastards tries to stop us, they’re meat on a stick as far as I’m concerned.” Two men who looked little better than Ken took the other weapons, and after a quick check, the group headed outside.

Everyone stopped short of the mine entrance, then George and the armed men moving forward. One man made a dash for the hut from which the noise of sex could still be heard. An inarticulate shout, followed by a crash, spoke of the violence that happened. The light inside the building illuminated four women, one of them looking like she should be in high school, following their rescuer out the door. It wasn’t a lot of noise, but it must have been enough.

Somewhere in the darkness, a shout rang out, and everyone followed George as he sprinted towards the truck. Up close, the truck loomed like some mechanical monster in the darkness. John seemed happy to see it. He gave a laugh before running for the ladder that climbed to a cab far above. “Damn, I never thought I’d see one of these babies again! Wait for me to get in the cab, then send everyone else up. There’s a ladder to access the dump bed, but the cab door has to be closed to access it.”

John went up, far more nimble that he’d been before, and as the door closed behind him, George pulled the young woman to the ladder and pointed up. She looked up the ladder, then turned a wide-eyed stare at George. He opened his mouth and froze, unable to think of the words to tell her she needed to climb. One of the older women came forward. “You want her to climb, sí?”

“Yes, but I can’t remember how to say it. Can you explain she has to go up this ladder, then up the one next to it. All of you need to climb up and get in the back of the truck, entender?”

Sí, I tell her.”

What followed was far too quick, and far too quiet, for George to understand. Whatever the older woman said was enough. The young woman went up the ladder, followed by the interpreter, then the rest of the people. George waited until the end, then climbed as far as the cab. John gave him a thumbs up, then reached forward to punch a button. The roar that accompanied that act drown out any chance of George addressing him. The dump truck lurched forward, then began circling to the right following a track visible in the headlights. Something struck sparks off the door frame in front of George, and the quick rattle of gunfire from over his head told him the guards were trying to stop them. The headlights swung across a straight stretch of road, and with a howl, the truck accelerated along it. There was a final burst of gunfire from above George, then nothing as they lumbered their way towards freedom.

#

San Carlos was even smaller than Los Banos, but the sheriff there fed everyone before taking statements from John and all the other captives. George stayed in the background, refusing all the praise heaped upon him. He didn’t want to talk to the sheriff, or even talk to the people he’d helped. He was happy for them, and glad he’d solved the problem of the dead hiker. But he knew there was no way to explain the three holes in the middle of his shirt, and the gaping holes behind them would have been impossible to ignore. Saying he wanted to find a phone, George Ishkaw slipped out of the sheriff’s office and walked down the main drag of San Carlos in search of a ride. It was time to move on.

(Strange) Physic and Laundry

People don’t usually associate the words “physics” and “laundry” with each other. But if you think about it for a few seconds, there’s quite a lot of applied physics going on any time you do a load of laundry. The fluid dynamics involved in how the agitator stirs the wash water to help the detergent remove dirt. The way the centripetal force generated by the spinning tub helps squeeze excess water out of the clothing. The airflow calculations needed to optimize drying when warm air is forced through a dryer. There’s a lot of physics going on every time you throw a load of dirty clothing in.

Then there’s the ‘strange’ physics that seems to randomly happen when we do a load of laundry. How many of us haven’t speculated about the possibility that a random worm hole opened inside our dryer to swallow a missing sock? Or that a space/time dilation is why a load of laundry to seemingly taking forever to dry?

Then there’s the truly strange physics of the stuff that happens and just does not make any sense…like what happened to me recently

I had a load of colored clothing to do, and like I usually do, I started loading by spreading my jeans out around the bottom of the tub. After they were in, everything else went in on top, again spread around to try to avoid the dreaded ‘heavy spot’ that can set a washing machine to rattling all over the floor. Last, but not least, was the liquid detergent, a circle of darker color atop everything else, complete with the cup that held it (both to clean out the cup for the extra use, and to get the maximum amount of detergent out of it possible). Down went the lid, ’round go the setting knobs, and the final press of the start button to set everything in motion. With everything churning away, I adjourn to my computer to add to my current novel. An hour later, my subconscious reminds me that, yes, I have to stop writing and tend to my laundry. Now, things get truly strange.

Upon opening the lid, I see not the usual neat layer of clothing, pressed hard to the sides of the tub. No, part of the load is as it should be, but the rest is a confused jumble that has resisted the forces of spin to remain stubbornly around the central agitator. I begin trying to sort out what is before me, but the clothing is so intricately intertwined that finding a place to start unraveling the mess temporarily eludes me. After several minutes and more than a few aborted attempts to divine what has happened, I managed to find a loose item I could disentangle it from the rest. Its removal reveals another item, then another, until the picture become clear. Somehow, a pair of gym shorts had managed to not only float free of everything else, it had settled over the central agitator, with the column passing through one of the leg holes. Once that had occurred, it seemed to have become entangled with several other items to form the twisted mass I’d beheld. But that is not the strange part.

Somehow, in that churning mass of water and clothing, not only had this pair of gym shorts contrived to effectively dock with the central agitator, it had managed to swallow the detergent cup with one of only two pockets on it. Even more bizarrely, the opening of the pocket is barely wider than the widest diameter of the cup.

How all this happened, I have no clue. Every time I think back on the event, the logical part of my mind stops, scratches it’s head, and mutters “What the….”. The creative part of me, though, wonders if Chance decided it was time to play the Mother Of All Practical Jokes on me.

Whatever the reason, I think I can safely say it is a moment that will stick with me for years to come.

Accidents

Rolling up to the scene of the accident, I was sure we’d be doing nothing more than hauling a body away.

Have you ever heard that phrase “wrapped around a telephone pole”? That’s what I saw. How it happened, I couldn’t guess, but a delivery truck had missed it’s turn at an intersection, had missed it going the wrong way, and had slammed into the steel upright holding the traffic signal. Rather than sheering off as it should have, the upright had remained steadfast and the delivery truck had folded. Now, the body forward of the front doors was folded around the upright. The engine was still affixed to the one side of the frame, but the upright had threaded it’s way neatly along the other side, slicing it loose and peeling it away.

To look at the body,you’d sweat nothing could have survived in the tangled mess that had once been the cab. But a man sat on the back bumper of the truck, watching us pull up in the ambulance.

“Hey, I wonder what his story is?”

Saul Lebowitz, my partner for the run, had the sort of black humor a lot of veteran EMT’s pick up over time. He brought the rig to a stop just past the wreck before continuing.

“How the hell he walked away from that, and managed to to do it without a scratch, is going to be one for the record books.”

“You won’t get an argument out of me, Saul. Then again, we won’t find out how he survived, unscathed, if we don’t go ask him. So….”

We grabbed our gear, dismounted, and walked up to the stranger, who rose as we approached him.

“Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but I’m fine. Don’t suppose either of you have a cell I can borrow? I managed to walk away from this without a scratch, but my phone’s in the cab…in a few million pieces.”

I looked towards Saul, and found him looking towards me. He gave me a shrug, and we turned back towards the stranger.

“We’ll let you borrow a phone in a minute, but first, we’ve got to check you over to make sure you’re as ‘unscratched’ as you think you are. So how about you have a seat and let us do our job?”

The stranger settled back onto his truck’s bumper with a rye smile. “Hey, all you’re keeping me from doing is calling my boss and tell him I wrecked one of the company’s trucks…strangely enough, that’s not something I’m in a hurry to do.”

“Yeah, I can understand that. Saul, why don’t you get some vitals while I get his information?” I pulled out my tablet and opened the accident report app. “Okay, while my partner makes sure you’re really alive, I need your personal information. What’s your name?”

“Paul Sanchez.”

“How old are you?”

There was a tangible pause before Paul continued. “Thirty-five, why?”

“Just information I need for the paperwork…or it’s electronic equivalent. Date of birth?”

Paul answered that question, and all the rest I asked, without any delay as Saul took his blood pressure and took the rest of his vital signs. He finished before I did, and interrupted me to give his verdict.

“He’s fine. BP, heart rate, pupil response…all normal. I haven’t examined him in detail, but unless he real good at hiding bruises, cuts and other wounds, I think he’s managed to accomplish a miracle: walking away from a wreck like that without a mark.”

“Okay, Saul, thanks.” I finished asking the last few questions, closed the app, and looked at Paul again. “Well, my partner thinks you’re going to live, and I’m inclined to believe him. That said, I think you should let us do a more complete exam. Internal injuries, concussions and a lot of other things you don’t want to experience without a medical professional nearby can’t always be detected by the sort of examination we’ve given you so far. I honestly think you should let us take you to the Carswell’s Corner General ER for a more complete check-up.”

Paul gave a slow shake of his head. “No, I’m going to be in it deep enough as it is, I don’t need to add keeping my boss waiting for the accident report to the pile. I’d rather just make my calls, and hope the grief isn’t already too much for me to deal with…if you two are willing to cut me loose, that is.”

I spread my hands. “We can’t make you seek medical advice, we can only advise you to seek treatment. If you decide you don’t want any further tests or treatment, you’re free to do so.”

“In that case, you and your partner can be on your way. Sorry to make you two come all this way for nothing.”

Paul held out his hand, and I shook it. “As long as you’re sure…well, I guess we’ll be on our way.”

“After, I hope, you let me make that phone call…”

#

Paullus Lucius Decimus watched the ambulance drive off, thanking every god he could recall from his long memory that they were leaving. He’d been lucky to get his arms in front of him when the truck had hit the metal pole. They’d suffered most of the damage, and he’d been able to change into a spare shirt before the police had arrived to find him in a shredded, blood-stained shirt…and ask him where the blood had come from. The wounds had closed already, as had every wound he’d suffered over his two thousand years plus of life. It would be another day or more before the scars disappeared, and those were something else he didn’t want to explain.

That was why he’d refused the suggestion that he go for a more extensive exam. He’d had to explain his way out of far too many experiences just like this in his life…ever since that day he’d pulled himself out of a pile of corpses after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Germanic tribesman who’d seen him rise from that stinking mess had run away, sparing him from explaining how he could be alive after one of his fellows had slashed his belly open.

It had gotten harder to explain himself to others since that first realization that he was immortal. Now, with digital records of everything, making a new identity was infinitely harder.

“Oh well, fortunately that’s something to worry about another day…..”