There are places where you don’t want to wake up.
There are places you don’t want to wake up.
Flat on your back in a plowed-under field, clumps of earth stabbing your spine.
That’s one of them.
A CEO’s office, your own drool defacing the mahogany desk, the room dark, the only sounds the hum of a custodian’s vacuum and your own thudding heart.
Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the Joint Personal Effects Depot, surrounded by containers that hold so little and yet, so, so much.
That’s a third.
Today, when I wake up, my joints ache with cold. I’m on my back as if I’ve been dropped from one reality into another. Around me, metal ticks and groans. It’s the sound of abandonment. No footfalls. No hint of breathing except my own. Empty places feel empty. This, I’ve learned.
I consider when to sit up. Too soon, too quickly, and I’ll vomit. This, too, I’ve learned—the hard way.
From my vantage point on the floor, I study the space. It looks industrial, with row upon row of control panels with dials and gauges. The layer of grime on the floor might act as insulation—if it weren’t so disgusting.
Despite all this, there’s nothing specific to grasp. No signs with words, no distinct sounds except the rasp of my own breath. No clue as to where I might be.
I press a palm against the cold tile, but before I can sit, I do hear something new.
Slow, deliberate footsteps punctuate the air around me. I bolt upright, scramble to my feet, only to pitch forward into a control console. My head swims. My vision tunnels. A second later, I coat a series of dials and buttons with a spray of vomit.
“Weak,” a voice behind me says. “Always so weak.”
I spin and then regret it as another wave of nausea hits me. I grope the panel behind me, fingers reaching for a dry, solid spot.
“Tell me, at least, that you’ve figured it out.”
The man before me must be at least seven feet tall. He wears a long black coat. The scent of damp wool clogs the space between us while a swirl of smoke rises in the air. His face looks as though someone has carved it in alabaster, all sharp edges and angles—and familiar. I’ve seen him before. I blink. Yes, certainly.
“You’ve made the connection, haven’t you?” he says.
Stray thoughts fill my mind, the barest tendril of an idea. I consider the trips I’ve taken and the places I’ve landed.
The field, for instance, with its old farmhouse. In the root cellar, I found a lockbox. Inside that, a deed with my grandfather’s name. Evidence of bounty lost in the Great Depression. Moments after my fingers touched the yellowed paper, something whisked me back to my actual life.
The man’s lips curl into a hint of a smile. No, someone whisked me back.
In that CEO’s office, I found a birth certificate, listing my name, my mother’s, and a third—the one embossed in gold on the door. Again, I could only hold the paper for seconds before that particular place vanished as well.
This is why, when I found myself in the Personal Effects Depot, I held my breath. My fingers inched their way through Gabe’s container until I found the one thing I couldn’t bear to leave behind. I gripped the chain of his dog tags so tightly that the tiny ball bearings left welts on my skin. But I had them. They traveled back with me.
I have them now.
But how does this place, with its soot and oil and years of grime, relate? Cold, impersonal, insubstantial. Even this man of smoke and oil could evaporate in an instant.
Assuming he doesn’t kill me first.
My confusion must show on my face because the man shakes his head and makes a tsking sound.
“Weak and slow. I can’t imagine how you’ve made it this far.”
While I don’t know what he means, I can only agree.
He takes a step forward. And I, still clutching the console, take three skittering steps to the side. My mind races. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates. What does it all mean?
“Of course, you are pretty,” the man says. “The pretty ones are never very bright.”
I stop taking those skittering, hesitant steps. With all my will, I hope he closes those last few feet between us. I have a roundhouse kick I’d like him to meet. Behind me, something drips, the steady plink of a dam about to break.
“Nothing?” the man asks.
My mouth is dry. I long to tip my head back and catch a few drops of that water. Even if I could, it wouldn’t loosen any words.
“Ah, well,” he says. “At least you are pretty. There’s consolation in that.” He grins, and something sparks in his eyes. “For me, at least.”
I grip the console tighter. The man steps forward, raises a hand as if to caress my cheek. I don’t let him. That last step leaves him open. Perhaps it’s meant to intimidate, this stance, to show off his height or that he doesn’t find me a threat.
What it does is give me a target.
My foot ricochets off him three times—knee, groin, jaw. A crack. A thud. A howl. I should finish him off, but perhaps he is right: I am too weak. Instead, I shake out my leg, push from the console, and run.
* * *
A cadence pounds in my head along with my footfalls. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates, and then, Oklahoma, Chicago, Afghanistan. If I run fast enough, maybe I can catch the connection that eludes me.
Everything is cold and damp and empty. An occasional drip lands on my nose or the back of my neck and sends shivers skittering across my skin.
My footsteps are too loud, my breathing too heavy. It’s all I hear in my frantic charge down this passageway. If someone chases me, I won’t know until too late. With that thought, I spin, search the dimly lit corridor behind me—no impossibly tall man with alabaster skin. I wheel around and continue my headlong dash forward.
The object I crash into is solid and warm. It says, “Oomph,” when it strikes the floor. So do I. The landing jars my wrists, paralyzes my arms. I can’t move them, not to fight, not to defend myself. I kick away from the figure opposite me, legs struggling, hands useless. Then the figure—a man—lunges.
He grabs my feet and nothing more.
“Hang …” His head droops with the effort to breathe, to speak. “On. Won’t hurt you.”
Gradually, I inch into a sitting position, still braced to run. When he lifts his head, I peer into the dark eyes of not the man I dispatched with a roundhouse kick, but those of my brother, Gabe.
Gabe. Who died in Afghanistan. All I can do is mouth his name. No sound emerges from my throat except for one, plaintive croak.
“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
“I … how?” My voice is rough, but the words, at last, are there.
He shakes his head.
The implication—the connection—hits me, sends me reeling backward so I might collapse on the floor again. My arms, still weak, tremble beneath me. I scan the space around me, this here that really isn’t.
“Am I dead?” My question is quiet, and it sinks in the cold air around us.
“I don’t know,” Gabe says.
“Why are we here?”
He shakes his head. “I keep traveling—flashing, really—to different places, then back to Afghanistan. Always Afghanistan.”
“The Army sent someone to the house. They knocked on the door…” I break off, not wanting to narrate Gabe’s death, not now, not here, not ever.
How I knew, even before opening the door, the shadow of a uniform through the etched glass, like smoke and oil blotting out the sun. He doesn’t need to know these things.
“I keep going back to Afghanistan,” he says. “Hell, I wish I wouldn’t. Anywhere else must be better.” His gaze surveys the dark, damp space around us. “Well, almost anywhere.” He climbs to his feet and then offers me his hand.
Despite the cold, metallic air, his skin is so warm.
Even with Gabe at my side, this place is strange and hollow. Abandoned, like that field in Oklahoma, that daughter in Chicago, the soldier in Afghanistan. And yet, different.
It’s missing life or some essential component of life. After all, a plowed-under field has its uses. A birth certificate can list a father who might not live in your life, but at least he lives. The personal effects of a soldier represent a life that once was.
But this place has none of that. It’s too empty, too impersonal to be hell.
“Do you think this might be purgatory?” I ask Gabe.
Before he can answer, sharp, slow applause echoes. It’s a brutal sound that infects the air with cruelty.
“Brava, Miss Malloy.” It’s the impossibly tall man again, all alabaster white and yet shrouded in smoke and oil. “You’re not as slow as I first suspected and certainly not as dimwitted as your … what is he, exactly? Your half-brother?” He casts a look at Gabe. “Honestly, it’s as if you enjoy dying in Afghanistan.”
Behind me, Gabe shifts, his hand resting on the small of my back, a posture that means he plans to take the fight over flight option—and wants me to do the opposite. But I’m pretty good with a roundhouse kick—thanks to Gabe—so all I do is tense in reply.
“Yes.” The man rubs his jaw. “You are fairly competent.”
“Am I also dead?”
“Are you?” And now his voice is laced with that smoke and oil, the sound deep and seductive. It’s enough to make you flutter your eyelids shut, if only for a moment. When I do, I see him, the harbinger of death, standing on my doorstep, wearing—of all things—an Army uniform with chaplain insignia.
“It’s up to me, then?” I say.
“Is it?” His tone matches the single, arched eyebrow.
I officially loathe the man in front of us. An oily smile spreads across his face. He revels in my hate, soaks it in.
“It’s so pure,” he says, “undiluted. Absolute. You don’t often hate, which makes it all the more delicious.”
Gabe bristles and steps in front of me.
“Oh, go on, big brother. Protect her, if you can, and if I don’t dispatch you back to Afghanistan.”
“Run,” Gabe says, the word a growl. “Run and don’t look back.”
“I tried that,” I say. “It didn’t work.” I could run forever.
“And I will always catch you,” the man says.
“Run!” This time, Gabe’s voice cracks.
I see what the man of smoke and oil plans to do. If he can read my thoughts, then perhaps I can sense his intentions. Static fills the air. I smell dry heat. Grit fills my mouth. I work to blink sand from my eyes. I land somewhere real this time.
A battle wages, but in this pocket of craggy hills and rock, the three of us stand as if we’re the only people in the world.
The man of smoke and oil raises a hand.
I throw myself in front of Gabe and catch the full blast meant for him, pieces of it like shrapnel. They pierce my chest, my legs, my heart. I think I must be torn to ribbons. The impact throws me into Gabe.
Twin cries of “No!” echo around me.
Gabe gathers me in his arms. “Marta, what have you done?” He looks up, his fierce gaze locked on the alabaster man. “Don’t do this, not to her. Don’t let it happen.”
“It … can’t,” I say, even though my lungs seer with each word. “I never died in Afghanistan.”
I pull the set of dog tags from beneath my shirt. The blast has fused them together. Smoke rises from the charred aluminum. And yet, the chain is cool to the touch.
“Yours.” I drop the chain around Gabe’s neck.
With a single howl, the man of smoke and oil evaporates, leaving behind only acrid air and soot. I breathe in both, and then everything vanishes.
* * *
I jolt awake, and everything is white. For an instant, panic seizes me. But death doesn’t smell like antiseptic, and I doubt the soundtrack for the afterlife contains soft clicks and beeps. I sit up, blink, and stare at Gabe.
His hospital gown is askew, exposing a bandaged shoulder. My fingers itch to adjust the gown, but my hands are clenched in his. Together we hold the dog tags as if they are a string of prayer beads.
At one time, I would have said that a hospital is a place where you didn’t want to wake up. Now I know that isn’t true.
Something teases my peripheral vision. I jerk my head, certain I’ve seen the man of smoke and oil, caught a glimpse of his alabaster face. And while a man does stand in the doorway, he only holds a pitcher of water.
“Sorry,” he says. “I thought you might like something to drink.
I nod my thanks, my heart too high in my throat for words.
“He’s done so much better since you arrived,” the man adds.
I nod again.
“I doubt my sister would fly all the way to Germany for me.” With that, he sets the pitcher on the tray table and leaves the room.
Gabe cracks open his eyes. “I bet his sister wouldn’t throw herself in front of some psycho demon’s death ray, either.”
“You didn’t die in Afghanistan.”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
Gabe unfurls his fingers and studies the mangled dog tags. “You changed things when you refused to abandon me, even when I told you to run, even.” He rattles the tags. “Even after I died.”
I nod but remain silent. A glimpse of oily smoke catches my attention. There, in the corner of the room, but the inky tendrils scatter so quickly, I’m not sure they were there at all.
“Here.” Gabe raises the chain. Compliantly, I lower my head so he won’t have to strain. “You wear these from now on.” He pauses, and I wonder if he can see the oily smoke or just senses it. “They’ll keep you safe.”
I clutch the dog tags tight in my palm and know this one thing:
Abandonment Issues may be the closest thing to horror that I’ve written (clearly, I scare easily).