copyright 2011 Ted Krever
To David, who wanted a superhero
Cover photo by Jack Cowley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual places, events or persons, living or dead, is entirely fictitious.
The screams pulled me into the hall and through the open bathroom door, to where Uncle Dave lay in the tub dead; blank-faced, stupid-looking, lights-out-nobody’s-home dead.
The tinny screaming poured out of the tube on the counter by the window, where the Prime Minister of India was getting shot on CNN. The anchors scrambled to make sense of the pictures—the frantic crowd stampeding the exits, true believers moaning and pleading behind the podium, bodyguards taking down the gunman in a pile in the corner—everybody screaming, screams in bunches and too late, surely, hopeless, useless, for who, in that insane moment, was listening?
Only those of us across the world, on the far side of the room, where Uncle Dave’s head was lolling crazy, like a cup tipped on its side in a saucer, his tongue hanging, eyes open, bits of brain bobbing among the soapscum, the blood rolling down his cheek and fanning out in the water like spider veins. I reached out to touch his cracked forehead and then his eye, just to be sure, to know. A little hole nippled the glass of the window, cracks radiating like the blood in the water.
It was right in front of me but then, I wasn’t there anymore. I was receding fast, pulling away like a tortoise into its shell. It’s not like I could deny what was happening but I did anyway. That’s how I did everything in those days. I knew more than I understood, as Renn would tell me later; more than I could bear to understand.
If I’m going to tell this story, you have to know how I was back then, back when I could shut out a bullet through the brain, back before I knew what it was to know, back before I even knew him as Renn—back before everything, really.
I turned the TV off and suddenly the place felt too quiet, too empty, echoing-barn empty. Somebody should have been screaming for Uncle Dave, except there was nobody to scream for him but me and I was lost inside myself. The screams rang in my head, same as they had for a long time.
I wandered to the front door, looking away, way away. A little breeze rustled the willows and the long grass, not that it cooled anything off. If you could sell Florida air by the pound, you’d be richer than Gates. Someone was out there, surely not far off, staring back at me—someone with a gun.
Instead, I heard a fluttering and looked up at a pelican gliding overhead, working its heavy wings, pumping air like some wheezing arthritic climbing steps. It circled the house and the marsh full of vines and camellias, sassafrass and begonias, the hoots and hollers of a thousand birds, the hissing of the big snakes and gators and me and Uncle Dave’s body.
And then the back door opened and there came Mr. Dulles up off the porch, not real tall but way too skinny and looking like he hadn’t slept in a week like usual. He marched in with that clunky walk of his, just stopping off on his way someplace else, someplace maybe he’d forgot already. You live in the Everglades, nobody has someplace else to go, at least not someplace they can’t go tomorrow. Mr. Dulles didn’t look like tomorrow; he looked like now.
“Where’s your stuff?” he said.
I pointed to my room. I didn’t know him much but enough that he wouldn’t have expected more. Dave had guys in the house who stuttered, guys who put their fists through the wall and guys who didn’t know the difference between a wall and a window and a door. I was the one who didn’t talk.
“Get it together.” He didn’t even look me in the eye, just slipped by and away.
I didn’t really want to go to my room since it meant passing the bathroom, the smell setting in and all, but I went and pulled some clothes together and my toothbrush and a couple books. Not much for living in a man’s house for a year but I had nothing when I came and little or nothing left over once I put in for rent and food.
Mr. Dulles was in Uncle Dave’s room, tearing apart his bureau. The clothes were on the floor and he was pulling out the drawers when I came in.
I picked a drawer off the pile and shook it in his face. Dave kept them locked.
“Not anymore,” Mr. Dulles said, pulling out the middle one, inspecting the sides and back and tossing it on top of the others. The man was shifty, slippery; I never trusted him, not that I’d ever had need to.
He seemed to have known Uncle Dave a long time—together, they never had to finish a sentence. Dulles lived farther out in the glades, they said, someplace where he didn’t have to pay rent or talk to anybody for days at a time if he didn’t want to.
When he came over, he would sit in the corner while we watched TV or rooted for a game or played music. He never seemed to be doing what we were doing; it was more like he had a quota for being with people every once in a while.
He wouldn’t play cards. “It wouldn’t be fair,” he’d say and Uncle Dave would nod like that was obvious and no more about it. Shifty, like I say. Now he looked up and said, “You ready?”
I nodded. Maybe I shrugged. It was about the same thing; I didn’t know what I was doing anyhow.
He pulled the bottom drawer out, tilted it backward and upside down and then peered inside the bureau. “Ah!” he said and pulled out a taped-up bundle of cloth. He ripped it open to show me a piece of paper and a small key. “Let’s go,” he said, heading for the back door.
It threw me, him heading out that way and suddenly I heard my own voice: “You want to go this way? Nobody knows this way.”
“You do,” he said, like that was an answer.
The back was the water side. The weeds between the house and the water were like eight feet high and the path jumped around tree trunks and dipped under hanging willows but now Mr. Dulles led me straight down like somebody’d painted a yellow line through the swamp.
I didn’t like this. I had no interest in going anyplace with him. Of course, while I’m thinking this, he’s not slowing down, so we’re practically on the dock already.
“I’ll drop you at the VA,” he said, stepping into my boat like that was his, too, “on the way through town. Okay?” He held out his hand for my bag but I didn’t offer it.
“I live here.” It was weird hearing my voice—it had been a long time. I couldn’t feel my mouth moving but there were the words so I was talking.
“Nobody lives here anymore,” he said, pulling the bag off my shoulder and throwing it in the boat. I didn’t see his mouth moving either.
What does that—? was as far as I got before the air flashed white-hot all around and blew me off the dock. Mr. Dulles grabbed my shirt in mid-air and dragged me down onto the floor of the boat. I scrambled onto the bow seat as he pulled a couple hard strokes away on the oars—the bow line was gone, burnt from the blast; he didn’t even have to cast off. The whole curtain of eight-foot weeds was blazing all around us.
I could see where the house was—where it had been. A fireball curled out of the black smoke, crackling burning itself out as it sucked up into the sky overhead. It looked like the oil blasts outside Fallujah. I think it was Fallujah—I have trouble keeping places straight.
Mr. Dulles rowed up under a stand of low trees, put up the oars and held a finger to his mouth to warn me, not that I needed warning.
The breeze wasn’t much but it began to part the smoke and we could make out the men around the house and hear their voices, if not wh
Mr. Dulles was hunched on his seat, watching, humming to himself. His hands were on his thighs, palms up, fingers curled inward, meditation-style. Every once in a while, his eyes would flicker with the pupils up under the lids. It was gross, actually.
When I heard their car engines starting up the hill, I got upset—I teared up, to tell the truth. I hadn’t heard them coming, when it might’ve done some good. You never hear what you really need to.
Mr. Dulles opened his eyes and put the oars back in the water. He made a few quick strong pulls and brought us over to the bank on the other side. He grabbed onto a tree and held the boat steady, waiting for me to get out. “C’mon,” he said. “We should get moving.”
“What just happened?” I burst.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? The house blew up!” Whoa! Now I felt the words, my throat vibrating and the rumble in my chest.
He shrugged. “Gas main?” he offered.
“In a swamp? They blew it up!”
“Who? Them!!” I was pointing and yelling. Suddenly I knew I had a larynx because it hurt like hell. If I felt it now, why didn’t I before? “Shot Uncle Dave! Getting away! Now!!”
“Gregor, you don’t see things clear sometimes.”
“I’m disabled, not stupid,” I blurted. Every syllable was an explosion inside. A thought is just a spark; words need muscles flexing, tendons stretching. “And I’m Greg, not Gregor.”
“You know Gregor Samsa?” he asked with his cockeyed smile. And somehow I did.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s you, the cockroach guy.” And he stepped off up the hill. “C’mon—I’ll drop you at the VA.”
“Not going to the VA.” I never thought arguing with somebody was the way to make sure they’d follow you around but it seemed to be working for him. “Got to do something!”
“I know where they are.”
“I know.” Before I could yell at him some more, he held up his hand. “If I do something about it, will you let me drop you at the VA?”
I nodded. I didn’t want to talk; all that came out was bad Tarzan dialogue. Cheetah—get Boy! I felt a whole lot smarter when I only heard the voice in my head.
We came up on top of the hill now, where his car was stashed in the weeds off the road—a ‘67 Camaro. I don’t remember lots about my past but I can tell I paid a lot of attention to cars. We gunned it out the back road to the highway.
“Call the cops?” I barked. Literally—the way I was forcing words, I sounded like a dog.
“Not yet,” he said. It was unnerving that none of this seemed to be throwing him—people getting shot and houses blown up. Maybe that was why he lived in a swamp and never talked to anybody.
No AC in that old car of his—didn’t look like it ever had it, but driving around in Florida with no AC in June, you might as well just stick your head in an oven.
When we got to town, he took the back way off the main drag, past corrugated warehouses, the old frame houses falling apart behind neon gardens of wildflowers ten feet deep off the street. Small town South Florida. Finally he pulled onto a sidestreet half a block from Uncle Dave’s store.
Uncle Dave had a gift shop—all of us, all the vets who lived in his house, made crafty things for the store. Once we finished them, he would stomp on them and grind them into the dirt and tell people they were from the Indian digs to the west of town. I don’t think anyone really believed him but we made some money out of the place.
“Wait here,” Mr. Dulles said. “I’ll be a few minutes.”
“Not waiting,” I said, following him out of the car. First I didn’t want to go with him; now I wasn’t letting him go without me. Both answers came from the same place, the same doubts in my mind—I just didn’t trust the man. If he was going into Dave’s store, I was going with him.
“There’s something there that Dave left for me,” he said.
“Guys that killed him. Take care of them.”
He pointed up the block.
“They’re here already,” he said, tilting his head back like he could smell them in the air. He wasn’t shifty—he was flat-out strange. “I’ve got to get what Dave left me.”
“Mine,” I yelled now and he groaned. “I’m last guy in Dave’s house. Like next of kin.” This was like the Gettysburg Address, coming from me but I wasn’t done. “Dave said, ‘What’s mine is yours—what’s yours is mine.’”
This was flat-out weird from the first second I heard it coming out of my mouth. I didn’t know what it meant and I didn’t really even remember Dave saying it, to tell the truth. But as soon as I finished, Mr. Dulles shot me a look with those hawkeyes of his that burned right through my skull—I mean really burned; it felt like somebody had shoved the back of my head against a skillet.
“Okay,” he puffed, “you’d better come. But you do what I tell you; don’t go improvising on your own. Got me?”
I nodded but I didn’t really mean it. He sighed and reached into his shirt pocket and fished out the paper from Uncle Dave’s desk. He unfolded it and handed it to me:
Dulles will get you to safety if anything happens to me. Don’t worry. You worry too much. I trust him to get you where you need to be.
I was downright shaky on Mr. Dulles but I trusted Dave. “Okay,” I said and we went up the block fast. A van was parked in the alley behind the store, shiny black with smoked windows and a couple of stubby cellphone antennas popping out of the roof. Mr. Dulles stepped over to it and knelt at the rear fender, running his hands over the surface without touching, like he was worshiping it or something.
When he turned back, he said, “It’s them. There’s three of them, they have weapons, two of them are decent shots but the third one is the most dangerous because he’s out of control. No judgment. Everyone is afraid of him because he goes off for no reason.” He shook his head. “Idiots send other idiots into the field.”
I leaned over and took a close look at the fender. There was nothing written there. I ran my fingers over the thing, in case it was Braille or something. Of course, there was nothing there and he’d never really touched it anyway. I was feeling a bit dizzy.
“Okay,” he said, “when we go inside, the storage room is just off the door. You know it?”
“How do you?” I couldn’t ever remember him coming to the store.
“Just go inside and stay down. It should be over fast. Okay?”
I nodded but he could stick it. I’d been with him the whole time since the house. The killers left way before us and we never sighted anybody on the way that looked slightly like them. I had more reason to worry about him being nuts than about three or four or twenty guys waiting inside Dave’s store with guns.
I wouldn’t have been with him at all if I had anyplace else to go. Whether it was the VA or the hospital or another halfway house, with Dave gone, I didn’t have a home, I didn’t have a friend, I didn’t have any reason not to do anything anybody—even Mr. Dulles—wanted me to do.
His expression softened. He looked almost friendly for a moment. “If I tell you I know something, I know it. If you ask me how, I’ll have to lie to you—so don’t ask. You’ll go in the back room and stay down, yes?”
I hadn’t said I wouldn’t.
“Well, you said you would—but you didn’t mean it,” he answered, just like that.
“Okay, okay,” I said, impatient, busting him for being such a pain in the ass. And then, with my stomach going queasy, I realized he’d replied to something I hadn’t said.
I yelled—at least I did all the instinctive things you do when you mean to yell. I felt my vocal chords tighten up and air pouring out of my mouth but nothing happened—no sound came out at all. Not that it made any difference. Mr. Dulles touched two fingers to the man’s temple and he collapsed in a heap, like all his bones had just disconnected from each other.
He came back down the hallway to me now, eyes sharp. He held a finger up in my face. “If you can’t stay put, stay quiet,” he whispered. “I have to concentrate on them, not you. Okay?”
The finger he was wagging in my face had just made the t-shirt guy fall apart like a toy—I stared at it like it was a gun. He turned down the hall again and headed, crouched, into the showroom.
The showroom was as wide-open as the hallway was cramped, display cases and thick-bordered tables heaped with our junk. We moved past the severed alligator’s heads with little feet sticking out of them, the arrowhead fossils I used to pound out at the kitchen table and the wind chimes with an Everglades mosquito stuck inside each glass piece. All our little toys.
Dulles motioned me up one aisle while he took the next. A moment later, I heard a sizzling electrical sound and a thud and then he was next to me again, whispering, “Two down—that way,” pointing me to the front of the store.
And then a huge man in a Hawaiian shirt stepped out around the edge of a big display case with a dark Glock in his hand—a nine millimeter, a real nasty gun—pointed right at us.
“Stand your ground!” he shouted. “Identify yourself!”
“You first,” Mr. Dulles answered, calm as could be. They stood facing each other for a long moment, each waiting for the other to speak.
“I just sensed you coming,” Hawaiian Man said. “I’m usually faster than that.”
Mr. Dulles shrugged. “Maybe I’m not really here,” he said lightly. This seemed like a crazy response to me but the guy holding the gun on us seemed to take it real serious. His eyes narrowed. Maybe I’m not here? Everyone tells me I’m addled but I was out of my depth with these guys.
And then, all at once, Hawaiian Man began to sweat. His face started twitching, as though he was under some kind of pressure he didn’t want to admit to. He was still the one packing the gun but it didn’t feel like it all of a sudden. His arm wavered up and down, as though the gun had suddenly gotten heavy. He kept staring at the arm, then back and forth, first at Mr. Dulles and then at the arm again. He looked like he kept trying to swallow but couldn’t. Finally, Mr. Dulles said quietly, “You can scratch if you want.”
Hawaiian Man lifted his hand to scratch—you could see how bad he wanted to—but he flinched an inch away and burst, “There’s nothing there! It’s a trick!” He couldn’t stop those quick flicking stares at his arm, though. “It’s a trick!” he repeated.
“Your gun’s not there either,” Mr. Dulles said quietly. The gun was there—I was sweating over it bigtime—but, as soon as he said it, Hawaiian Man jerked back in surprise, stared at his hand and held it up in front of him, as if to say, Where the hell is it? He opened the hand in disbelief and the Glock fell to the floor with a clang.
Ohhhh, he didn’t like that. An evil look crossed Hawaiian Man’s face as he leapt for the gun. But, as he got close, it jumped away from him, a little hop and skitter across the floor. He jumped after it again—it was only half a foot from him—but again it slid away, across the floor towards us. He looked up, eyes fiery at Mr. Dulles, who was holding out a finger, moving it lightly back and forth. The gun moved as the finger moved.
One last lunge brought Hawaiian Man just a foot away. Mr. Dulles jumped forward and touched his shoulder for just a second. With a crack and a flash of light, Hawaiian Man flew backwards three feet and slammed hard into the wall. When he settled, limp against the yellow-painted bricks, his body was twitching, his head and arms freelancing, his shoulder, where Mr. Dulles touched it, smoking, the steam rising eerie off the fabric of his shirt. Mr. Dulles’ arm was quivering too—he turned to hide it but I could see it took several seconds to get back under control.
He kicked a chair over in front of Hawaiian Man. “Sit,” he ordered. It took Hawaiian Man a couple tries to get into the chair and then he just stared resentfully.
“You better call whoever sent you,” Hawaiian Man said once he got his mouth working. “We’re protected.”
“The sheriff loves you?” Mr. Dulles asked. “Personally?”
Hawaiian Man’s lips curled. “I don’t give a damn about the fucking sheriff,” he said.
“Me neither,” Mr. Dulles replied, real quiet. “So you’re not protected.” He held a finger up, pointing it at Hawaiian Man’s forehead.
Hawaiian Man had six inches and at least a hundred pounds on Mr. Dulles. His gun was on the floor about two feet away but he never looked at it. He shrank, involuntarily, at the sight of the finger.
“Not much point to it,” Hawaiian Man shrugged. “We’re blank slate—double-blind. They give us coordinates and a suggestion—when we see the target, we know it. But that’s all. We got no over-the-horizon at all.”
“What’s the target?”
“I know it when I see it.”
Mr. Dulles stepped forward and slapped his hands to the man’s temples, one to each side, and he sat up rigid as a statue. His mouth came open but nothing came out—I knew what that felt like. When Mr. Dulles released him, he sank back onto the chair, huffing like a steam locomotive.
“You really don’t know anything,” Mr. Dulles said, frustrated.
“I’m just a foot soldier,” the big man answered. “Who the fuck are you?”
Mr. Dulles ran one finger lightly over the bridge of Hawaiian Man’s nose. “Sleep now, ” he said, almost tenderly and by the time he finished speaking, the man was snoring, a little smile on his lips. He slumped off the stool and hit the floor hard—we both winced at the sight of it.
Mr. Dulles shrugged and headed toward the back of the building. I followed but every step was a struggle.
“You…you touched him and…” I wasn’t sure which touch upset me—the one that threw the man, sizzling, against the wall or the one that put him to sleep. Both. Either. I was sweating. Once I realized it, it felt like I’d been sweating for a while.
He went right to the storage room, flipped the light on and the sight of it didn’t help my dizziness any. Papers strewn all over the floor, all the drawers ripped out of the cabinets, all the extra store stock pulled off the shelves and smashed. They’d been in a hurry—for what? What was here that was worth searching for, much less killing for? Uncle Dave was dead—dead now, dead forever. I was beginning to absorb that now, just beginning to feel the hurt of it.
Mr. Dulles stalked around, hovering his hands over the surface of the cabinets the way he’d done with the van outside. He caught me staring at him and held up the key he’d gotten out of Dave’s drawer. “Dave left me a key. A key has to have a lock.”
“Not here,” I said. That seemed to get his attention right away.
“What’s mine is yours—what’s yours is mine,” he said in a different voice, a voice that seemed to echo inside my head. “Where’s the lock?”
“It’s mine,” I said—at least the words came out of my mouth. I heard them and felt them. But they didn’t come from me—I heard them at a distance, same as he did.
“Okay,” he nodded. “If you say so, it’s yours. But Dave wants me to see it. Where is it?”
My legs started moving, that’s the best I can describe it. I wasn’t against whatever I was doing but it wasn’t my idea either. I led him down the hall into the boiler room a
He gave me a sharp look and I could see he was trying to figure out how much of this I understood. The simple answer was nothing—I knew nothing at all. I had no control over anything my body was doing. I was sweating and frightened. It wouldn’t have shocked me if my head had split open like a walnut—there was more than enough pressure pounding in there to do it.
He held the key up to the lock—it went in without a hitch—threw over the bolt and opened the lid.
“Oh, c’mon,” he growled. The box was empty. “Why send us here for an empty box?”
“It’s my box,” I said again, though I’d never seen the thing before that I could remember. His eyes narrowed. The look on his face made me nervous. I’d seen what he could do if he had to.
“Where’s the next nearest?” he asked.
“What’s mine is yours; what’s yours is mine,” he said, enunciating like he was teaching a child a nursery rhyme. “Where is the next nearest?”
“Mark Tauber, Savannah Georgia,” I said and nearly fainted.
“Shit!” he said and stomped around the room cursing.
The name came out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. Actually, I didn’t understand it after I’d said it, either. I didn’t know any Mark Tauber and I didn’t know what he had to do with Mr. Dulles’ question. Tell the truth, I didn’t even understand the question—but I’d just answered it.
My heart was pounding and my shirt soaked through. I couldn’t think and I was afraid of what I would think if I could.
“Okay,” he sighed, “Let’s go.”
I stumbled after him but I kept banging into everything, desks and displays and kicking through piles of paper. My whole body was trembling.
“It’s not far,” he said, leading the way. “You can collapse once we get to the car.” But the trembling only got worse when I hit the seat.
“What’s happening?” I spurted, the words flying out of me. “Tell me what’s going on!”
“Relax, you’ll be okay,” he said, pulling a map from the glovebox. I reached over and ripped the thing right out of his hands.
“I’ll tear this to shreds if you don’t tell me—right now!” I screamed and I meant it. I had the pages between my fingers—no power on earth could stop me from doing it if he didn’t give me some answers there and then.
He flashed me a sickly smile.“They sell them at gas stations, Gregor,” he said, taking it back. Then he drove out to Main Street and turned left—away from the VA, away from the police station.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
“Did you know you have a sister in New York?” I didn’t have any sister in New York. I mean, there are plenty of things I don’t remember but I’d remember if I had a sister. “I’ll take you to her—she’ll take better care of you than the VA would.” But that wasn’t enough of an answer, even if I believed it.
“I never heard of Mark Tauber,” I cried. “I don’t get the question but I’m answering it! And you’re pretending nothing’s wrong. What the fuck is going on?!” I was pitched forward in the seat, choking back tears, I’m not proud to say. It surely wasn’t the first time my mind had gone off on its own—but that was a kind of fear I’d thought I’d left behind a while ago.
He pulled over onto a knoll overlooking an inlet where seventeen cranes stood on one leg, waiting for a nice fish to come by. “Sorry,” he said, sounding for a change like he meant it. “Dave worked for the government before you knew him. The program was disbanded but Dave kept a list of the members. I thought it was in his office—so did the boys rifling the place. But apparently, he locked it in your head. And my guess is, he wants us to go run around the country warning the others.”
“How do you know?”
“Because of the way he did it. He planted the names in your head, and he planted a suggestion in mine so I would recognize your password when you said it: What’s mine is yours; what’s yours is mine.”
I don’t know why but, after everything else that had already happened, this really upset me. “I don’t want a password,” I whined.
“Well, you’ve got one and I’ll bet—” He stared right through me; the back of my skull went hot again. “What’s mine is yours; what’s yours is mine. Give me a list of all the agents in the program.”
I stared back at him, blank as newsprint.
“You see? He rigged it so I can only get one name out of you at a time. I’ll bet, once we’ve found Tauber, you’ll give me the next name. Which means, until then, we’re Siamese twins.”
Mindbenders by Ted Krever / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on18 votes