There was horror in the air. Crackling like a storm just beyond the edge of what the mind could no longer endure. Leranhin could feel it sprouting icy hands along the bottom of frozen thoughts. He stepped backward as those chill fingers raced toward his heart and grasped for his sanity. Like death, pale grey flesh covered the misshapen head and withered body no longer recognizable to eyes which had known it for as long as they had seen.
But it was not these that shook the resolve of his love, what had made him beside while their world dried and crumbled around them, the last to resist. It was the sudden opening of overly large eyes dark as the void from which the taint had touched the mind of the world. That lipless mouth’s dry movement as the impossible voice so long familiar but no more, spoke “we are not what we let them make us believe.” Some part of what passed for his soul died inside the unblinking gaze of those eyes.Leranhin backed away further and tore his eyes from the nightmare form. He ran as his mind ran from him like water from a broken glass. Ears roared with the throb of his pulse still heard the calling cries that only made him run faster.
Golden and glittering brightness had long ago faded from the living walls. The footfalls that once would have drawn musical tones much like laughing water from the very floor now broke the silence of his terror with dull discordant sound. All the magic of their world fell stale, turned sour. Everything turned sharp and stark, too hard and angled even in the now grey sheen of its curving slopes.
With fingers and teeth but mostly the sheer force of desperate will, he tore himself from within to spill without. He spilled onto the dry rasp of leaves under a canopy of swaying afternoon trees. The sounds of birds and rustling small animals in the foreground while rumbling traffic rolled muffled across the forest from the highway less than a mile away.
For several minutes he lay naked and bruised staring across a tilted view of the ground toward that sound. Still shaking with the terror that he was sure would never fade.
Beneath the cool hard ground he felt the poisoned influence seeping from his world into the dirt, rising into the breeze. It was almost as though it sought to return The sun filtering through the leaves angled from a clearly different direction by the time he was able to form a single coherent through. There was only one chance, he must find a Rollin.
Though the promise had been tendered before his own consciousness had formed and from one dispersed into full disarray many long generations ago, such things resonated beyond such constricts. It ran a bond, however tenuous, between the substance of his kind and the blood of those of this strange and solid world. It left a bad taste in his mouth (a singularly new experience) to think of the irony in that. The fault of his tragedy lay so squarely in their laps, straight from the turn of their mind. It rose a distasteful hate, like bile from a body barely nascent in this, their world, no more than a pale echo of what it had been within his own.
That pale echo suffered the epiphany of cuts and scrapes as he pushed himself up from the forest floor and onto feet that continued to suffer. The ground nowhere near as smooth as it looked there were small stones that bit fragile flesh, roots that tripped, sharp twigs and rough sticks and larger stones. All of which his feet seemed unerringly drawn to discover in the most painfully surprising manner possible. If his body hadn’t been a manifestation so alien to this harsh jagged world, he might have managed quite easily to shed tears. In this way Leranhin learned the concept of hours before he emerged from the forest to stand on the edge of a river of gray hardness that wound the full extent of his vision in either direction. A sign beside it bore the numbers 982 his first live encounter with more than just the minds of this world. He put bruised and raw fingers upon the dinged surface. He found it hard to believe that minds capable of such simplicity could so profoundly affect his world.
His world and this world, for an instant they both crashed up around him, into each other. Each one tore at the fabric of the other. Both lurching, sending him out of his mind and onto ground harder than it should be. He flailed and thrashed fighting to sort one from the other, now from then and even later, sanity from the current state twisting through his mind.
With fingers and teeth but mostly the sheer force of desperate will, he tore himself from within to spill without, onto the dry rasp of leaves which lay under a canopy of swaying afternoon trees. The sounds of birds and rustling small animals in the foreground while rumbling traffic rolled muffled across the forest from the highway less than a mile away. Then, like so often before, the traffic became louder, dragging with it the rest of the city sounds to shatter the illusion that he could no longer remember whether it was memory or delusion.
Pushing himself up he mourned the hallucinatory vision of forest as cement, asphalt and the itching discomfort of ill-fitting clothes and matted hair assaulted more than his senses. Dirty fingers scratched at equally dirty scalp as he got to his feet. Gathering his thoughts was an increasingly difficult every time he woke like this. Trying hard to get a grasp on when and where he was, he didn’t bother trying to sort what was real and what wasn’t. That wasn’t something that really mattered. He was here and he only had to figure out what he was looking for, or rather who.
“Who’s that guy?”
“Hmm?” Pamela looked up from her jumble to glance over at David as the child looked out the window. His little face pressed up against the cool glass to squish his nose into a vaguely piggish shape. “What guy?” she asked.
A face-shaped smudge remained on the window as David drew his head back to look at her. “That one on the street” adding a fingertip-shaped smudge to the window as he pressed a pointing finger against the glass.
Putting the newspaper aside and grabbing a saniwipe from the decorative dispenser on the coffee table, Pamela went over to the window. Taking the little boy’s hand she wiped off the sticky fingers before worrying about his jelly-smeared cheeks, let alone whoever might happen to be walking down the street. “If you were any worse about getting your messy eating all over the place, your parents would have to give me a raise” she chided with a smile. Glancing out the window she saw the man and frowned “oh that’s just a bum sweety.”
“What’s a bum?” David asked while he made her chase his face around with the wipe.
His babysitter glanced back at the window and the long-haired homeless guy across the street. She shook her head “just a homeless person. I shouldn’t have called him a bum cause that wasn’t nice” she said and sighed shaking her head at herself. Tossing the soiled wipe in the tiny wastebasket next to the end table, Pamela picked David up “come on, it’s nap time.”
He leaned back fussily and wriggled “I’m a big boy! I don’t need a nap!” he wailed working up into the normal nap time tantrum. Too young to recognize the pattern yet, he threw himself right through the tantrum into an asthma attack. Though Pamela was ready with his inhaler which only made David wish he had enough breath for another tantrum.
It wasn’t until over an hour later when he had finally conked out that Pamela realized that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a homeless person. There used to be lots she thought to herself. Just last year, or was it the year before that? “Huh” she said to herself and sat down again to finish that jumble, not paying further attention to the matter, as strange as it might be.
Despite the fact that they seemed to have cleared the air and both knew they should spend more time together, both Ben and Donna were spending more time at their jobs than they needed to. While Donna could only linger at the office, Ben jumped at the chance at taking a double shift to cover for a coworker with more reason to avoid work than home. He would have even if he didn’t need to take tomorrow off for that appointment with Dr. Genovese, though the extra work helped him forget the sick knot of excited anxiety which that prospect had settled in his gut.
It was five packages into that second shift of deliveries when he pulled up in front of an apartment building on the corner of Oak Hill Circle (which wasn’t anything close to a circle). It was there that he first laid eyes on the homeless man. He gave him a second glance with the same thought going through his mind as had gone through Pamela’s just a few minutes before. “Huh” though it remained unuttered as he made the beeline through the door and briskly headed up a few flights of stairs. He didn’t notice that he was being followed at a much slower pace.
After knocking on the door and waiting and knocking again before leaving an attempted delivery notice, Ben turned around and jumped back and shouted “Holy crap!” There was that homeless guy from outside, he must have been hovering way too close. Figuring that it was what held his attention, Ben shifted the package out of grabbing distance as he stepped around the guy. An automatic “excuse me” flew casually from his lips.
“You’re a Rollin” the guy’s voice rasped as he stepped forward after the man’s back-stepping jump then turned and followed his side-stepping retreat. A smile blossomed across his face and it made the dusty film coating his face crack in fine fissures.
That voice stopped him in his tracks and Ben found himself nose-to-nose with the man as he looked over, overcome by a surreal dizziness swimming through his head. The thought went through his mind that he might know the guy, that under stringy hair so dirty it was hard to see the blond there might be someone he might once have known. While he replied “No, it’s Rollinsmith now actually, but how do you know me?” he peered and stepped back. There was a light dusting of some sort of grayish powder on not just the guy’s hair and skin but where hair and skin met those clothes. It left a smudgy sort of stain that Ben thought was the source of the strangely pungent odor that wafted off him. The smell was nagging, familiar but in a way that he just couldn’t quite place.
“Not you, just what you are” it didn’t make any sense, but it was simple and somehow ominous. Not for any meaning it conveyed, but for the sudden surety that went with it. A surety that something else, something that made even less sense yet would be far more undeniable was about to be uttered. It sat there smack dab in the middle of that smile too confident to have any excuse being on the homeless man’s face.
Ben shook his head and turned to hurry down the stairs, wanting nothing more than to get out of the apartment and back in his truck. He did not want to hear what the man would say next. He tried to dismiss the whole thing by telling himself that the guy was just off his rocker. Muttering it under his breath just to say it aloud as though that would make it truer than it wasn’t “just a crazy bum.”
But the man spoke as though playing a trump card “you have to help me.”
The sense of obligation that those words sent crashing over him rang like the chiming of a bell through his very bones. Ben staggered backward dropping both package and his clipboard. A hand that smacked against the wall was the only thing that kept him from tumbling right down the stairs. Shaking his head as he denied it “no.” Vehemently. “No” he reeled around rushing down to the door only slipping twice on steps that just didn’t want to register under his feet, with feet that only wanted to stop.
Confusion replaced confidence on the homeless man’s face as he gave chase, only an instant’s dismay giving pause. “Help me. Now” he called after him, demanded. He reached to grab for Ben’s deeply unnerved shoulder only to be shrugged, shoved away. It ignited outrage and disbelief “you must!” but Ben only glanced over his shoulder, bumped into the side of his truck because of that glance. Then he scrambled inside and started it up. While he drove away, fighting his own foots urge to slam on the brake, he could see the bum fading away behind him, still shouting, still running but not fast enough.
The further the truck went the easier it was. Easy enough that the sense of urgency started to leave Ben’s mind and he realized one more thing. “Crap!” he muttered over having left not just the package but his clipboard. He almost stopped, almost turned back around but the very idea speared revolt in a linear path from mind to gut. “Screw it, screw it all” he decided. There was no way he was going to go back into the path of that mysterious obligation. It had been too much like not owning his own breath. He didn’t care if it meant he would get in trouble with his boss.