I watched the fire fall from the sky, and knew that there was nothing I could do. The city would burn, and all I could do was stand at the railing of the ferry, and watch the conflagration reflected in the murky waters of the Hudson. Screams of desperate people filled the air. I tuned them out. I couldn't allow myself to get tied up in their pain, I had my own problems to deal with, not the least of which being that this whole mess was all my fault.
I suppose I should explain myself. My name is Veronica Stone, but my friends call me Ron. I moved to the big city from a rural part of Ohio a few months back, after I had been told that the only way to make a name for myself in the world was to live in the big city. I was a photographer by trade. Nothing fancy, just the occasional yearbook photos, a wedding here and there. I even had a few of my photos show up in Newsweek. I fully blame that brief fling with the national spotlight for my eventual exodus to New York. Other than the semi-regular tornado damage, nothing ever happened in Ohio, and if I was going to become the next Annie Leibovitz, I needed to be where the action was.
So, with just a little money, and my Nikon, I left my home to seek my fortune in The Big Apple.
Life wasn't easy once I got there. I ended up working a string of shitty jobs by day, and sleeping in shittier holes in the wall at night. My only companions the first couple of weeks were the roaches and rats that seemed to occupy every dive I could afford a bed in. Occasionally I would talk to the vermin as I fed them. When you're all alone, you do whatever you can to stave off insanity.
By the end of the fifth month, I was ready to call it quits and head back to Ohio. My will was broken, and the I had lost the starry-eyed disillusionment that had lead me here in the first place. Too many nights spent cold and hungry, and too few glimmers of hope. I was prepared to swallow my pride, and come crawling back home. I packed my bags, and hailed what I thought would be my last cab.
With my head hanging, I slid into the cab, and said simply, “42nd and 8th.”
He tried to talk to me, all of them did. I was no model, but I thought myself at least mildly attractive. I ignored him. When he finally got the hint that I was uninterested we traveled on wordlessly. I barely saw the world go by. I was so absorbed by the world in my head, that everything else seemed meaningless. Only the sickening sound of squealing tires and shattering glass broke me out of my reverie. When the man in the three-piece suit came crashing through the windshield to land beside me, I was still trying to process what was happening.
As he lay there bleeding, he looked up at me, blood pouring from his nostrils and various other cuts on his face. One of his oddly blue eyes had already swollen shut. He pressed his phone into my hand, “8675... tell the mayor... they're here.”
With that, he coughed up more blood onto my blouse, and died with his head on my lap.
I think it goes without saying, that I missed my bus out of town. With a hysterical cabbie and a dead guy using your lap as a pillow, catching the bus just doesn't happen. The cops wasted no time getting to the scene, but I hardly noticed. All I knew was that the city had managed to tighten its grip on me, and I was stuck here for a little while longer.
One would think that my mind at that point would be focused on the dead man in my lap, but from the moment I walked out my door that morning, the world had just seemed unreal. Less reality and more like a really vivid dream. My first thought when the guy died in my lap was, “I wish I hadn't left my camera in the back with my clothes.”
Blood pooled in my lap, and a detached sort of calm filled me. I knew that at any moment I would wake up and this bizarre dream would end. I sat there, expressionless as the officers questioned the cabbie. It barely even registered when they helped me out of the car, or when the EMTs took away the dead man. I barely even remember answering the officer's questions. Nothing mattered. Time meant nothing. I couldn't tell you if the cops were asking me questions for 3 minutes or 3 hours.
Eventually, one of the cops drove me back to my apartment in the cheap section of Alphabet City, and told me to call him if I remembered anything else. As soon as the door closed behind him, reality came crashing back on me and I fell to my knees, crying hysterically. I looked down at my hands, and tried to scrub them clean on my pants, only to realize that the blood was there too. In a mad frenzy I began discarding layers of clothing, until all the bloody horror lay crumpled on the floor. Then with the tears still falling, I ran to the bathroom, and surrendered the meager breakfast I had that morning.
With my stomach purged, I crawled to the shower, and sat there amid the questionable stains, hugging my knees until long after the hot water had turned icy.
It has become something of a cliché for folk to say, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I think the person who said that never had any actual lemons handed to them. I mean, sure... If your windshield wipers go out, or the elevator at your apartment is broken, and you have to walk up fifteen flights of steps, go ahead and make that fucking lemonade.
When a man dies in your lap, after flying through the windshield of the taxi that was taking you to the bus that would take you back home, that is not a lemonade sort of moment. I think it is safe to say, that is a “cry in your shower while shaking uncontrollably and dry-heaving” sort of moment, don't you?
I don't know how long I was there. The hot water in this building was infamously spotty, so the fact that the water was freezing meant absolutely nothing to me. All I knew was there was a rather insistent pounding coming from the door, a pounding that was loud enough to bring me back to reality.
“Just a second,” I shouted as I slowly got to my feet. “I'm in the shower.”
The pounding only became more insistent, there was a frenzied quality to it. The knocks came faster and at a more irregular pace. I turned off the water, and slid into the tattered old bathrobe I had stolen from a hotel years ago, if you looked hard enough, you could still see the faded remnants of the hotels logo right above my left breast.
“Hold your horses. I'm coming.”
More pounding, faster still.
“For fuck's sake, man, I said I was coming.”
There is no medicine quite like anger, to boil the blood, and make you forget the soul-crushing reality of the last couple hours. Some small part of me wanted to thank the jackass at the door. Another part of me wanted nothing more then to kick him in the crotch, and make him stop.
I was just about ready to open the door, when the baseball bat came crashing through, showering me in splinters.
I shielded my eyes, as I fell back against the wall. More splinters showered me, as the baseball bat continued to break it's way through the paper thin door.
I clawed at the discolored gray carpet as I tried to get away from the man breaking through my door, wet hair lashing at my face with every frantic movement. The sound of the deadbolt being disengaged, inspired an even more profound urgency in me, and I managed to make it back into the bathroom. I closed the door, locked it, and backed up into the shower again, wishing all the while that I had listened to my family and bought a stun gun or paper spray, or any kind of protection for that matter. As I sat there panting, I silently cursed my own over-confidence.
I had little time to ponder this however, because the first hit of the baseball bat against the bathroom door broke it clean in half. I turned my head to avoid even more splinters in the face.
“What the fuck do you want, asshole?” I screamed, fear lending an extra octave or two to my voice.
His heavy breathing was the only answer I got. As he stepped through the remains of the door, I got my first look at my tormenter. He was a big guy, his shoulders scraping against the narrow door frame as he made his way in. His head was completely bald, with eyes entirely too big for his face. His nose was overly large as well, and looked like it had been broken at least once or twice. A scar extending from the edge of his mouth all the way to the spot where his left ear should have been left him with a permanent smirk. This man was the type that seemed to have been bred to terrorize those smaller than them.
He pointed the baseball bat at my face, and then pulled back to swing. I closed my eyes, and clenched my teeth, hoping only that death was less painful than I had always feared.
The crack that I heard next, was not the crack that ended with my skull caved in. In fact, there was no pain at all. Warily, I opened my eyes in time to see the scarred giant crumple to the floor, revealing a man with a small hammer, standing there behind him.
The man stepped over the giant, and offered me a hand, which I reluctantly took. No sooner was I back on my feet though, then the man's face turned bright red and he turned away. “Um... Miss, you're uh... that is to say...”
As he hurriedly exited the room, I noticed that my robe had come undone sometime during my mad dash to get away from the giant, and I had apparently just given my rescuer quite a show. I could feel the heat rising in my own cheeks, as I quickly closed up the robe and re-cinched it. I edged my way around the unconscious giant, and then gave him a firm kick in the ribs, before scurrying out to meet the man
He was standing by the ruins of my front door, his back to me. Beyond him, I could see a series of heads poking out of the doors along the hallway. Suddenly self-conscious, I grabbed my still packed bag, and disappeared to get dressed, paying no heed to whether my clothes matched. When I came back out, I was wearing an old green t-shirt, and my khaki shorts. My hair was still a mess, and full of splinters, but there was little to be done about that.
“Thank you, Mr....” I stood back just a bit, not fully trusting this man who had saved my life.
“Blake. Ashton Blake.” He turned, and seemed to be somewhat relieved that I was fully clothed. “I um... I live just down the hall, I heard the commotion and I uh...”
“Thanks for the save, Mr. Blake.” I offered a hand, and smiled as he shook it. I then stooped to grab my purse, and with it the cell phone. “Can we wait in your apartment until the police get here? I don't want to be here if the ape wakes up.”
We were in his apartment for nearly an hour before I realized I hadn't even introduced myself. We chatted quietly for the whole time, waiting for the cops to show up. When my nerves got the better of me, and I started to tear up a little, Ashton offered me a beer, and although I knew I shouldn't, I accepted, and downed it. By the time the cops finally showed up, I was on my second beer, and was starting to feel quite a bit more mellow.
Ashton opened the door, and two officers stepped into the room. The one who appeared to be in charge looked to be about 6 foot tall, with a small beer belly. The other one was a bit shorter, perhaps 5 foot 8, and he looked like he was in better shape.
“Miss Stone?” The taller officer asked, looking at me. “You were the one that reported the disturbance?”
I nodded my head, and put down my beer, “That's correct, officer.”
The officer's eyes followed the beer, and then he looked back up at me, “You've been drinking?”
I looked down at the beer, and my eyes widened as I looked back into the officer's eyes. “No sir... Mr. Blake saw that I was shook up, and offered me a beer to help calm my nerves. I almost never drink.”
He grunted in acknowledgment, and scribbled a quick note on his pad. “Can you show us where the incident happened, Miss Stone?”
I nodded, and started out into the hallway. However, the second I turned, my heart stopped. The door to my apartment was whole again, it was as if the behemoth had never bashed his way in. I rushed to the door, and ran my hand along the surface, feeling the chipping, faded paint and the numerous scars of years of poor maintenance.
In a frenzy, I reached into my purse. My hand briefly brushing against the cell phone the mysterious dying man had given my before ultimately closing on my keys.
A quick check of the room revealed that it was in almost perfect order, as if nothing had happened. The only proof that anything had actually happened that day, was that my bloody clothes were still scattered about the floor. Otherwise, there were no broken doors, and more importantly, no sign of the scarred giant.
I had always hated the women that would cry to get out of everything. If a cop pulled them over, they would open the flood gates and, amazingly enough, no ticket. However, in that moment, when the cops turned there accusatory looks on me, when I could see the unspoken accusations of a prank call in their eyes, I couldn't help it. I sank down on the ratty old couch, with my face in my hands and cried hysterically. I could vaguely hear the cops stumbling over their words, and also Ashton pulling them aside, and talking to them quietly. I have no idea when the cops left, I only know that I felt the couch shift, and an arm placed around my shoulder.
Time passed, and Ashton spoke quietly, soothingly. At some point, the stress of the day must have won out, and I fell asleep, because the next thing I remember is waking up curled into a ball, with my head resting on Ashton's leg. I slowly sat up, and stretched. My movement must have woken Ashton up as well.
“Are you feeling better, Miss Stone?” He asked, his voice still heavy with sleep.
“What happened? Where did the cops go... and why is there no sign of that ape?” The questions seemed to spill forth from my mouth of their own volition.
He stood up slowly, and looked around. “This place is pretty empty, perhaps we can go back to my place and talk.”
I nodded mutely, and allowed myself to be lead back to his apartment. It looked so similar to my own, but his furniture was nicer, and there was a feeling of hominess that my apartment never really had. He disappeared into the kitchen after settling me into a chair, and came back a short while later with two glasses of water. We drank in silence for a few moments, and finally, he set his glass down and looked at me.
“So, the cops were prepared to take you in, they were not the least bit happy that they had been pranked. When you started crying, they didn't know what to do. The short one even started to fumble over the Miranda Rights. I took them out in the hall, and told them about what happened to you earlier in the day, and the two of them seemed to accept the idea that you were stressed out, and had had a bad dream.” He paused and looked down at his hands. “Honestly, if I hadn't been there, and seen that guy... I'd probably think you were crazy, too.”
I was about to reply, when I was interrupted by the sound of the dead man's phone ringing in my purse.
It seems unnatural that a ringing phone would lead to silence, but the second that phone began to ring, it was as if the rest of the world disappeared. Everything seemed focused on that muffled ringing, as a sense of growing dread filled my belly. It was a low ominous sound, and I wanted nothing more then to ignore it, and I had no idea why. How could it be that such a small electronic device could fill me with such dread?
“Are you going to answer that, or just let it ring?” Ashton seemed unaffected by the anxiety that had turned my belly into a mass of wriggling snakes.
“That's not my phone...”
I went into the short version of what happened. I don't know how I had forgotten that I still had the phone, or how I managed to not mention that to the officers at the scene. I suppose being in shock can be a bit of a problem when trying to give the police an account of what happened.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have called the police right then, and pawned this whole ordeal off on them, at least then the guilt wouldn't be gnawing away at me. Instead, I took the idiotic route, and picked up the phone. It was a small thing, about the size of an iPhone. It felt slightly heavy, but was miraculously undamaged by the collision it had had with the speeding taxi. I looked all over the device, and I could find no buttons to turn it on, nor any speakers or even a headphone jack. There was only an unmarked white body with a glossy area I assumed to be the screen.
I handed the contraption to Ashton, and after turning it around a few times in his hands, he handed it back. “What the hell is that thing, and how does it work?”
I shrugged, and tossed the thing down on the couch between us. “All the man said before he died was 8 6 7 5...”
The screen lit up, and message appeared on the screen. “Trust no one, Miss Stone."
Living with paranoia is something I am intimately familiar with. My father had been something of a conspiracy nut. When I was in kindergarten, he lined an entire room in our basement with foil, because he claimed it would stop the government from listening to our thoughts. Shortly after that, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and things spiraled out of control after that. After he tried to cut a government implant out of my arm, he was sent to a locked away in some psychiatric hospital.
He didn't last long there. Somehow, he managed to steal a pen, and they found him with the pain lodged deep in his eye socket. The wound on my arm hadn't even healed yet by then. Ever since then, I've tried to shake off all paranoid thoughts. I refused to let myself go down the same road as my father.
With that said, it is really hard not to feel paranoid when a random device, that you receive from a dying man, lights up with your name. For the first time in my life, I wondered if my father might not have been right the whole time.
I rubbed the scar on my arm as I stared at the screen, and jumped when I saw the message on the screen change. “You need to get out, Miss Stone. They'll be coming for you again.”
I shared a brief look with Ashton, and then reached for my purse. He scooped up the device, and together we left his apartment. He didn't even bother to lock the door. The device didn't have to tell me who would be coming, I just hoped I could get away before another guy tried to bash my head in with a baseball bat.
“Um... Miss Stone?” Ashton's voice was remarkably calmer than I would have expected, given the situation.
“Just call me Ron.” I tried to keep the slight quaver of fear out of my voice, and was only marginally successful.
“Miss...er... Ron, I think this thing wants us to move faster.”
I turned to look at him, and saw two things almost simultaneously. First I noticed that the device was now lit up bright and said “RUN!”
Then I noticed the giant barreling down the hall towards us.
Rational thought is quick to abandon you when fear digs its claws into your brain. Thought abandons you, and the fight or flight response kicks in. When you see a man two feet taller than you, barreling down towards you, that is generally a perfect reason to start feeling fear. My memory of the flight is a frenzied series of frenetic images. I remember running, falling, several flights of stairs, and an explosive pain in my arm.
Next thing I remember clearly, I was at the bottom of a flight of stairs, my left arm pinned at an unnatural angle behind me, and Ashton frantically trying to pull me to the door. The pain in my arm was nearly unbearable, and every pull sent another shock of pain through my body. My screams echoed off the walls of the empty stairwell, and just when I thought I couldn't take any more, I was free.
A quick look at my arm told me it was broken, but the thing that cut through the pain, was the sight of the giant lying on the ground next to me, with his next twisted around. His eyes were still open, but unblinking. With Ashton's help, I managed to get to my feet, so I could stand over the brute that had twice tried to kill me. I couldn't resist the sudden urge to kick the bastard, over and over.
“You like that, fucker?” I was yelling, not giving a damn who heard me. Each kick hurt, but I didn't care. It just felt too good to vent all the fear, all the frustration, all of the anger from the previous twenty four hours. I couldn't tell you how many kicks I landed, or even where they landed, all I could tell you is that by the time Ashton finally pulled me away, I was smiling through the haze of tears.
“Ms... Ron. We have to get out of here.” He sounded desperate, and out of breath. His voice came out in ragged gasps. “I don't think we want to be here when the police arrive.”
As I turned away from the dead man, I thought I saw a flicker of movement, a flash of yellow reptilian eyes, but Ashton was pulling me down the last flight of steps, and the body was quickly out of sight.
Outside, the city was abuzz with life. Cars raced past, onward to parts unknown, each one seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were other drivers around. Cabs darted in and out of the stream of cars, wedging their way into spaces that logic dictated they should not have been able to fit into. Car horns blared, and all around a thousand cell phone conversations only served to add to the deafening cacophony.
Between the sounds of the city, and the shooting pain in my arm, it felt like the world was spinning. I found myself leaning on Ashton for support, as he tried to hail a cab. My mind kept flashing back to that brief glimpse of slitted, reptilian eyes. Every time I blinked I saw them again, and I couldn't help but shudder.
“What's wrong, Ron?” Ashton's reached down, to hold my shoulder. “How is your arm doing?”
“Arm hurts like a motherfucker.” I attempted a smile, and can only imagine how horrible it looked. After a brief moment, I gave up trying, and sighed. “The problem is that man's eyes. There was something unnatural about them.”
“He was dead, Ron. Of course there was something off about them.” He squeezed my shoulder gently, and I choked back a scream of agony. “Best to forget about...” He paused, as he waved frantically at a passing cab. “The way those fuckers keep passing us by, you'd think I was invisible. The hell is their problem?”
He ranted and waved for several more minutes, until finally a cab pulled up. As we slid in, I heard Ashton say, “Take us to Bellevue.”
And as the pain drove me to unconsciousness, my last thought was “I should tell him I don't have any insurance.”
I woke up in a hospital bed, the pain in my arm seemed to be gone, and my head felt like it was full of helium. The glories of pain-killers gave me a brief smile. The feeling of a mouth full of cotton quickly wiped that smile from my face. I could feel that the stiff fabric of a hospital gown had replaced the clothes I had been wearing, and the fact that my arm was immobile told me that I was in a cast. A quick scan of the room revealed that it was empty, Ashton was nowhere to be found. I couldn't tell if I was in the ER, or if I was in a room. All I knew is I had no insurance, and there was no way in hell I could pay for any of this.
I clumsily pulled aside the blanket they had covering me, and attempted to swing myself off the bed. In normal times, such a maneuver would have been executed flawlessly, but under the influence of some unknown pain medication, it just left me face down on the floor with my arms splayed out at odd angles. A brief pinch in my other arm, and a series of squirts of blood also indicated that I had managed to pull out an IV I hadn't noticed.
“I need some help in here!” A voice seemed to call through a wall of cotton. I looked up to see a red-headed nurse coming over to help me up. Soon several other nurses had crowded into the room, and I was 'helped' back into my bed.
I tried to ask them where Ashton had gone, but all that came out was a garbled mess. The red-head must have misinterpreted what I was saying, because as she was pulling the blanket back over me, she said, “You're in the hospital, sweetie. You've had a nasty fall. Fortunately, your neighbor found you and brought you in, or you may have died on those stairs. You're lucky to be alive.” She pulled something off the bedside table, and injected it into my arm. “Now this should help calm you down a bit. Dr. Yu should be in to see you in a little bit. Promise me you won't try and take another walk, I don't want to have to strap you down.”
I nodded numbly with a lop-sided smile on my face, as whatever she had injected me with took effect. Whatever she injected me with, it worked pretty damn good. Because I just kept smiling, even as I saw the dead giant walk past my room.
The giant turned and looked into my room briefly, and I realized in the brief second that our eyes met, that this was not the same person. I laughed loudly, which earned a quizzical look from the red-headed nurse. She frowned, shook her head, and then left the room.
After she left the room, I was left to sit there in the drug-induced haze, as some random game show played silently on the TV hanging in the corner. Everything seemed to be happening far away, even though I knew that it was happening in the same room. Even something as simple as moving felt more like I was watching something on TV rather than actually doing it myself. Whatever the red-head had given me, I was feeling great. Even the thought that some scary behemoth of a man might walk in and kill me at any moment couldn't have wiped the doped-up smile from my face.
I watched the clock for a bit, as each second tick away slowly. There was a faint buzz of what sounded kind of like someone talking in the background. I caught the occasional words I understood like “fracture”, “pain” and “medication”. Then there were other words that just sounded made up, like “midazolam” and “hydromorphone”. When I tore myself away from the clock, I saw a young Chinese woman, who couldn't have been much older than me, standing there next to my bed. Her attention seemed to be focused on the chart in front of her. I found myself distracted once more, this time by the harsh fluorescent lights that seemed to fill the room with a blinding whiteness.
“Miss Stone? Are you listening to me, Miss Stone? Veronica?” The Chinese woman's face floated into my field of vision, and I once again burst out laughing.
“Wait. You're telling me her name is Veronica?” Ashton's voice snapped me out of the hysteria. It tried to sit up, and ended up putting weight on the arm in the cast, which immediately sent pain shooting through my body, cutting through the fog of drugs that had been pumped into my body. “And here I thought your parents had been complete jackasses and named a pretty girl like you Ron.”
He smiled at me, and adjusted his glasses. He placed a small shopping bag on the floor, and pulled the doctor aside for a brief discussion. I looked at him, and he seemed calm and collected, as if we hadn't just been chased out of our apartment building by a crazed man who seemed to want me dead.
He finished talking, she handed him some papers, and without a further word, she left the room. He picked the shopping bag back up, and handed it to me. “This little device you had is pretty amazing. Did you know it can hack into ATMs, and it somehow knew what size clothes I needed to pick up for you? Shit I want to keep it.”
I suppressed another inappropriate fit of laughter. “You picked up clothes for me? But I already have clothes.”
“Yeah... about that. The ER docs kinda cut those to ribbons, I told them I'd get you something to change into for when you got discharged, and this wonderful device handled pretty much everything else. Now get dressed. Our new best friend says there is someone we need to meet.”
---To be continued?