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       John Gone, p.25

           Michael Kayatta

  Chapter 19

  John was running through a flowing field beneath the sun. Tall varieties of grass lightly rubbed against the skin on his legs left uncovered by the shorts he wore. He didn’t remember waking or why he was running. The only thing John understood was that he was on his way toward something. He shielded his eyes from the sun and peered out in front of him. A hazy figure jumped in the distance, waving him onward.

  John removed his hand from his eyes, revealing a purple sky halfway through sunset. He looked to his right and saw Ronika there, running alongside him. She was wearing a white dress, feminine in its lacey trim and collar.

  He looked ahead for the figure in the distance, and saw his mother. She was sitting on their couch with its back turned from him. He tried to call out to her, but his voice held no volume.

  The sun had dropped from the sky now, and the stars had appeared in force above him. The moon shone on his mother like a spotlight through the darkness.

  A sudden chill overtook him as he looked down at hills of sand that had appeared beneath him. The sound of a snake hissed from behind. He turned over his shoulder and saw the Advocates running after him, their joints stiff like machines. He panicked and ran on toward the couch in the distance, never getting closer to it or his mother.

  The Advocates were now just behind, moments from catching him. The sky had turned blue, the faux blue of a blueprint diagram made of paper. White lines intersected in geometric patterns across its surface. The sky began floating down toward the Earth on top of him. One of the Advocates’ hands reached John’s shoulder.

  Suddenly, he was lifted by something black and metallic. It was Mouse, larger than the size of a person and sprinting. He climbed on its shoulder and saw the Advocates losing speed behind them. There was a voice calling his name. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The world around him began to fade.

  “John! John, I can’t see anything,” Mouse said. The voice was out of breath. “I got back home as soon as I could. I’m sorry; I know I’m forty-five minutes late. I didn’t know what else to do. John! John?”

  There was no response. Mouse craned its head around like an owl, trying to see anything other than the darkness filling Ronika’s monitor at home. Mouse could feel the messenger bag beneath it, as well as John’s body if it leaned forward and reached, but still saw nothing. Ronika hurriedly slammed some numbers and letters into her keyboard.

  “I’m going to force open the optical sensors so I can take in more light and see. John? John, why aren’t you talking to me?” Mouse cried.

  A minute later, Ronika’s few lines of patchwork code were complete, and she rebooted Mouse’s software with the new commands in place. The small light sensors in its eyes widened immediately as she’d planned. The final effect was minimal, but at least Mouse could now see what was close, even if it came through pixilated.

  Mouse left the messenger bag and began to scale the mountain of John’s body, using its clamps and legs to power closer and closer to his face. Soon, it arrived on the boy’s shoulder and tugged on his ear. There was no response.

  Mouse leaned to its side as far out as it could, clamping to John’s collar for support. His eyes were closed and his head was tilted down against his shoulder. No part of his body was moving. Ronika thought she could hear his breath through Mouse’s microphones, but the noise almost seemed to be coming from elsewhere in the room like an echo.

  Becoming more fearful with each second, Mouse slid down John’s shirt and made its way to his watch, conveying the sound of Ronika’s tears through its small, tinny speakers. It looked down at the device; its glowing blue wires easily visible, even in the darkness.

  Mouse clamped onto the watch’s knob and pulled. The small size of the knob made it difficult for the robot’s clamps in the dark. Mouse lost its grip and fell onto its back, barely avoiding tumbling from John to the ground.

  It maneuvered onto its feet again and focused on the watch’s knob. It pulled quickly, and the knob quietly clicked into position. Dr. Kala’s hologram buzzed to life.

  “I can’t see anything,” were his first words.

  “I know,” Mouse replied. “It’s dark.”

  “I have infrared and heat-based vision capabilities,” he explained. “The darkness doesn’t matter. The watch is pointed at the ceiling.”

  Mouse wedged itself underneath John’s arm and lifted his hand toward his face so that Kala could better assess the situation.

  “Is he--” Mouse began.

  “Dead?” Kala replied. “No, but you’re damn lucky he isn’t. I told you this was dangerous. Why can’t I make you people listen to me?”

  “What’s wrong with him?” she asked. “Is he just sleeping again?”

  “Yes. When did you come online?”

  “Just a minute ago.”

  “I see. And he didn’t wake up again last night after you turned me off?”


  “Then it seems likely that he’s still not woken from yesterday.”

  “You mean he jumped like this?”

  “My statement would seem to imply that, yes.”

  “Can we wake him up?”

  “Do you know how dangerous it is for someone to jump unconsciously?”

  Mouse dropped John’s arm and began to pull on his fingers with its clamps. “We need to wake him up. John!”

  “This is why I said to take him to my lab. This wouldn’t have happened,” Kala continued.

  Mouse was still pulling. “John, John! I need you to wake up. John!”

  “Stop blathering. He’ll be awake soon.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Simple mathematics. There’s a window of error not knowing how far we currently are, but taking the average jump distance and the time he’s been unconscious, I‘d say--”

  “You’ve been keeping record of that?”

  “The watch keeps record. It sends a data-signal of certain values to a computer here. I’ll turn the resting power usage down as well. Give him another few minutes. If he’s ever going to wake up from this, it will be then.”

  Mouse dropped John’s finger. “Where are we?” it asked.

  “I don’t know,” Kala replied.

  “Do you hear breathing?”


  “No. Something else.”

  The hologram and the robot remained quiet for a moment, listening for sound.

  “I do hear something,” Kala said quietly. “You need to investigate.”

  “Me?” Mouse asked incredulously.

  “Well, I can’t very well do it, now can I?” Kala replied.

  Mouse latched onto the strap of John’s messenger bag and used it to repel down his body to the polished concrete floor below. It fell onto the wheels on its back and slowly drove around the space, looking for any signs of where they’d jumped or what else was sharing the room with them. It wasn’t long before Mouse hit a wall and followed it to another. Wherever they’d appeared was obviously small and confined.

  Once at the other end of the room, Mouse saw the shape of a man’s body standing and slouching against a corner, only five feet from John. The robot froze and quickly considered how easily this mysterious man could’ve heard its conversation with Kala. If he had, he’d chosen to remain silent throughout.

  “Hey,” John’s voice groaned from across the room. “Ronika, you there?” He was awake and alive.

  “There is no ‘Ronika’ here,” called a voice smothered in a thick Russian accent. The sound had come from the corner. John heard Mouse speeding across the floor from about the same location and felt it crash into his foot a moment later.

  “John!” Mouse called from below. “You’re awake. Thank God. Lift me up.” The robot frantically tugged on his pant leg. Slowly and foggily, John reached down to the small robot and brought it back into his lap.

  “My mother,” he said groggily. “She’s--“

  “I know, John.”

  “Oh, God,
how could she be--“

  “I know, John; I’m so sorry.”

  “Where are we? Who spoke before?” John called frantically into the darkness, fresh tears sliding into his open mouth as he spoke. A deep Russian-sounding chuckle was all that replied. John filled his lungs to capacity with a long breath and exhaled it slowly. He was doing his best to calm down; there were too many unknowns to fall apart now, and others were still counting on him to survive.

  “Where are we?” he asked Mouse quietly. “Kala?”

  “I’m here, Mr. Popielarski,” he answered.

  “Is this your lab? I can’t see anything,” John said.

  “No, this is not my lab,” Kala said. “I’m still just a small blue hologram. The girl one refused to input the coordinates when you passed out.”

  “So it’s true?” Mouse gasped. “You were going there? You were going to let him win?”

  “Well, give me the numbers now,” John said to Kala. “I’ll put them in.”

  “Sorry, Mr. Popielarski,” Kala replied dryly. “It has to be an outward jump. You’ll need to wait another twenty-three hours and eight minutes.”

  “John, you don’t have to do that. There’s still time. I can still figure something out,” Mouse protested.

  John lifted Mouse in his hands and brought it close to his face. He looked into the small open eyes beneath its visor. “I believe you,” he said. “But if we don’t have something before tomorrow, I have to go. It’s better than dying, Ronika, and I’ve been the cause of too many deaths already. I’m not adding my own or yours to the list if I can help it.” He lowered the robot back down to his lap.

  “Those weren’t your fault,” Mouse squeaked.

  “Now, let’s figure out where we are,” John said. “We just have to get home this one last time. Kala, ideas?”

  “Only based on the obvious clue of the man’s voice, but we could be anywhere, really. The U.S.S.R.? One of the Slavic countries perhaps? Maybe you should ask that gentleman in the corner.”

  “Hello?” John called out to the room.

  “Hello,” the man replied.

  “Who are you?” John asked.

  “That is an odd question coming from you,” he answered back.

  “Why is that?”

  “Because you’re the one who’s entered my cage without a key. This is solitary,” the man said, laughing viciously. “You’re not allowed in here.”

  “Solitary?” John asked quietly. “Does he mean--”

  “Jail. Prison. Yes,” Kala answered.

  “I would ask where you come from,” the man continued, “but I already know you aren’t human. Spirits, voices, here to judge.”

  “I don’t want to judge you,” John said.

  “But you will,” the man said quietly. “I heard them, the voices arguing around you. The woman and the man. An angel and a demon. One in heaven, one in hell. Both on the shoulder, arguing about who takes me. And who are you, then? I know who you are; purgatory, the middle man. So which will you choose? Who will you listen to, the angel or the demon?”

  “I’m real,” John said. “Come here, touch my arm to prove it.”

  The man in the corner began a harsh laugh that turned into a cough. Next, John heard the sound of what he thought was the man sipping water loudly, followed by what he knew to be the loud, alarming sound of a metal cup being thrown strongly against the wall just next to his head. As he eyed the ground where the cup had fallen he noticed that he was sitting on a small metal prison toilet. He stood from it quickly and repositioned himself on the ground a few feet away.

  “Tricks,” the man said. “They will not work. I know the stories. I touch you and I leave this place. I do not want to go where you want to take me.”

  “Can you at least tell me where we are?” John asked.

  “Earth. Realm of men. What, you lost?”

  “Answer the question, pitiful human!” Kala boomed.

  “Kala,” John whispered to the watch.

  “It was worth a try,” Kala defended.

  John took a deep breath through his nose. The room’s odor was putrescent. He moved his hand to the front of his nostrils, hoping to defend them from the stench. He hadn’t noticed the smell until now and briefly wondered how that had been possible. Now that he was focused on it, the stink seemed to strengthen by the minute, becoming more and more noisome the longer he sat there breathing it in.

  “Does it bother you, being locked in the dark like this?” Ronika asked.

  “I am half-blind, so, no, darkness does not bother me,” the man said. “Even before I lost my sight twenty-eight years ago, I was its friend. I have been seeing and hearing only darkness since I can remember. It speaks to me.”

  “What did you do exactly?” John asked cautiously. “To end up in here, I mean.”

  “You don’t already know?”

  “Tell me in your words,” John replied.

  The man began to take short steps toward John as he spoke. “I was jealous of my neighbor, a Turk,” he said. “He had taken a beautiful bride, while I could find no one for my own bed. When he was away, I snuck into his home and had my way with her between his own red silken sheets. Later, she told him, though I had threatened her life not to.”

  The man was now standing over John, his face only a foot away. John was getting nervous. “He came to my house,” the man continued plainly, “and overpowered me. He is a bigger man. He took a poker, my own poker, and slashed it across my face, blackening my sight because I had seen his woman naked.”

  The man gestured to his eyes, and at his close distance, John could see the thick, two-pronged scar running through one of the man’s eyes, over the bridge of his nose, and across the other.

  “The militsiya arrested me soon after. They brought me here without trial, and here I have sat. Now, all that my eyes can see are light and dark. No shapes.” The man turned and backed away.

  “Are you sorry?” Ronika said quietly.

  The man laughed heartily. “Sorry?” he yelled loudly. “Sorry they found me before I could tear the genitalia from that Turk with my teeth! Sorry they have kept me here where I can’t take another ten wives of another ten men! That is why I am sorry!” Mouse shrunk back into John’s messenger bag.

  John felt something bug-like crawl across his left ankle. He jerked his foot back at the touch. Knocked from its perch on his leg, a large cockroach scurried away across the floor to some secret exit from the jail cell.

  “Why are you telling me this?” John asked, “I thought you were being judged.”

  “Because I know the truth,” the man said. “It doesn’t matter what a man does when he is greeted by decisions to be made. You can live your life as a good man or as a monster, but in the end, fate will deliver you into the arms of its choosing. That’s hell usually, in this world or the next.”

  “That’s a bit defeatist, don’t you think?” Kala replied.

  “It is not ‘defeatist’ to go where you are taken, when you can go in no other direction,” he growled. “And if none of it matters, then why not cave to the flesh and listen to the darkness, when the darkness is all that will speak to you.”

  Suddenly, there was a banging at the door, a controlled three knocks, the sound of a hammer on iron. Then, the door across the room from John opened, allowing a strong wedge of light to enter the space and illuminate the half-blind man in the corner. As the light fell across him, he lifted his arms against it and shrieked. With his body now bathed in light, John could finally see what this frightening man truly was, old, frail, and tattered.

  John looked back to the door and saw six men with berets and assault rifles orderly crowding behind a short, bald man in a fifty-dollar suit. “Hello, John Popielarski,” he said.

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