Tim stepped into the cool, dry air of his house. The air conditioner was whistling like usual, but he was tired and didn’t feel compelled to attempt to fix it. It could wait another day. He stepped over the hardwood floors and to the kitchen, where he opened the fridge. There were no cold drinks there; apparently, Marcy had forgotten to go by the store and pick up more beer and soda, just as he had forgotten the last time.
Tim looked around the brightly lit house, his eyes resting on the floor-to-ceiling windows and the small garden beyond, which was lit by the orange, dusty sunset. It was a familiar sight. A slightly comforting sight, but one which always made him feel somewhat out of place. He seemed to always get home at sunset, no matter how long he tarried after work, no matter how quickly he got out the door. Marcy should be home now, too. Maybe she’d bring soda.
Tim swallowed and felt the parched roof of his mouth for a few seconds. With a sigh, he turned on the nickel faucet and filled a tall glass with tap water. He took a sip. It was lukewarm and almost bitter. Even the water in Middlebury tasted like dust, but it was, at least, wet.
“I always forget the ice,” he said aloud, then opened the freezer. The icemaker had frosted over again. Tim sighed and scraped out a handful of frost, which he squished into a tiny snowball and dropped in the glass. The cold did little to flavor the water, and if it quenched his thirst, it was only just so. “Maybe Marcy will remember the soda this time.”
He stared outside at the sunset for a few protracted moments, watching the shadows on the distant brown mountains change slightly as the sun dipped lower, then he walked from the kitchen to his living room. After a short but annoying search, he found the controller to his TV and turned it on, and then he turned on his PlayStation. Settling into his favorite spot on the couch, he watched the warm phosphors of his set blend with the failing light of the day as he heard the familiar start-up music. He was just over remembering where he was supposed to go in the game when Marcy stepped in through the door.
“Great, you’re home,” she said as she tossed a few bags of groceries on the kitchen counter. “I saw Greg at the store. He wanted me to tell you he was going shooting this Saturday.”
Tim laughed. “He could tell me himself.”
“You know how he is. He doesn’t quite know how to talk to married women, so he just mentions you.”
“I’ll give him a call,” Tim said, getting off the couch and heading to the kitchen. “Great, you got some soda. Caffeine-free?” He held up one of the gold-colored coke cans and sneered.
“It’s all they had, sorry.”
“No worries. I just thought it was funny. Thanks for remembering to go by the store.”
Marcy smiled at him, then leaned in for her customary peck on the cheek, which Tim delivered. “What do you want for dinner?”
“How tired are you?”
“Pretty tired. Let’s just make some sandwiches, eh?”
“I was kind of hoping you’d say that,” Tim said, picking up a bag of barbeque-flavored Lays. “No Salt and Vinegar?”
“I thought you liked barbeque.”
“It’s good, yeah.” He opened up the bag and ate a few. They made him thirstier, so he opened up one of the Cokes and took a sip. It was warm and certainly sub-optimal, but it was wet and bubbly, which went well with the salt.
They ate their bologna and white bread sandwiches on the couch while watching an old rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was one of the seventh-season episodes, where Doctor Crusher sees Scottish ghosts. Tim remembered that a good portion of the writers had moved on by that time, so the series had some schlocky episodes like that.
“I’m pretty tired,” Marcy said, yawning. “Head is hurting again. Mind if I go to bed?”
“Mind if I stay up and play WoW?”
“Of course not,” Marcy said. She got up, then leaned over to kiss him on the forehead before heading toward the stairs.
Tim took his warm coke and shuffled over to the card table that functioned as his desk. He sighed as he turned his PC and monitor on. He heard the familiar clicks of the hard drive spinning up. After a minute, he heard the familiar menu music and entered his password. He spammed his mouse button as the game loaded. It was getting sticky again. None of his friends were on; no big deal, they’d probably be on later. It was a good time to do a little farming or crafting.
Tim walked in the door and to his kitchen, which was filled with the half-orange light of sunset. He glanced at the fridge and saw the cokes sitting next to it; he realized he had forgotten to put them away the day previous.
“Oh well,” he said, and opened one up. It was a neutral no-temperature, and would have been better cold, but he was thirsty. He sat down on the couch and started up his PlayStation. “Wasn’t I going to go shooting with Greg?”
He picked up his phone, and it occurred to him that he hadn’t called his friend. He pressed the speed dial for Greg and waited for a few seconds.
“Hello?” came the static-laced voice of Greg.
“Hey, it’s Tim.”
Greg laughed. “I know. Caller ID is a thing, you know?”
“Yeah,” Greg chuckled. “My wife said that she ran into you at the store and that you wanted to go shooting.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Greg said. “Do you want to go now?”
“I don’t think there’s that much daylight left,” Tim said, looking out at the blending colors of orange and purple.
“Yeah, but it always seems like we can never get out there on time, anyway, you know? It’s always the end of the day by the time we get going. Might as well just have an evening shoot. Besides, I bet some rabbits are getting out about now.”
“C’mon. I always feel like we’re putting it off.”
Tim was silent for a few seconds. “Alright. I’ll call my wife and tell her on the way.”
He hung up the phone, turned off his console, and went upstairs to his closet to retrieve his favorite rifle, where it seemed to sit eternally in its black case, along with the box that held his ammunition and magazines.
Tim slowed his Silverado as he approached the old turnoff. Greg was leaning against his pickup, smoking a cigarette, a slightly irritated look on his face. The road forward was blocked off by a few concrete barriers. As the slight breeze cleared away the dust, Tim saw that the road had been torn up on top, presumably to be repaved, but it looked like nobody had worked on it in a long time. The lonely sunset desert with its still, dry grass stretched away from the solitary road in all directions.
Tim killed the engine and stepped out, spitting in the dirt as he approached Greg.
“Well, hell,” he said.
“Yeah,” Greg said. “Looks like no hunting today. Know anywhere else?”
“Not really. At least, nowhere we’d likely be allowed to shoot.”
“We should just squeeze off a couple of rounds right here,” Greg said. “Screw it, you know? We’re losing the light anyway.”
“I’m tempted to, but that’ll be precisely the time a cop decides to roll by and bust us.”
“You’re probably right. I haven’t seen one in months, it feels like, but they’ll always show up right when you’re doing something fun, eh?”
Tim laughed. “Of course, we could just drive around the signs.”
“Same deal. Besides, I don’t want to take my truck all over that brush and get stuck. I don’t have four-wheel drive.”
“Me neither, but there’s no mud. It’ll be fine.”
Greg tossed his cigarette. “I’m gonna head home. Maybe they’ll have fixed the road next week, yeah?”
Tim looked at the rough road stretching into infinity, piled with dust. “I bet not. Looks like it’s been a while. I guess we really don’t go shooting very often.”
“Guess not. But it’s getting too dark anyway. I’ll call you on Saturday, okay?” Greg turned and opened the door to his truck, then reached in and started it up. “What’s up?”
“I’ll go in a minute,” Tim said. “I haven’t been out of town in a while.”
Greg nodded and got into his pickup, then turned around and headed east on the two-lane highway, back to Middlebury proper.
Tim stared out to the darkening east, where the yellow plains had become a dark purple, with a field of yellow stars that were the lights of town, then at the west, where a pale pink-orange light lingered above lavender mountains and a below a sky of darkening aqua blue. Stars were beginning to peek through the wispy, colored clouds. When the sound of Greg’s truck had faded, and only the near-silence of the desert remained, punctuated by some burrowing owl calling to its friends, Tim dropped the tailgate of his truck and pulled his rifle case toward himself.
He zipped it open and took it out – his AR-10, just like the M110 he had used in the army other than the custom autosear he never told anyone about. It was as familiar as his own skin; in fact, it was more familiar, for he had spent more time running his hands over the rifle than he had his skin. He had spent countless minutes in the ritual cleansing of his favorite tool and knew each part by touch as well as sight. Even the smell – a mixture of CLP and a lingering hint of powder solvent from his crud kit – was more familiar than any smell in his life. More recognizable than the scent of his wife.
How long had it been? He couldn’t remember the last time he went shooting. Mechanically, he opened up the receiver and looked at the action. Everything looked in order. He took out the bolt carrier, expecting to see some caked oil, but no, everything looked perfect, just like he had left it. He smiled as he put the carrier back and shut the receiver.
He took out a loaded 20 round magazine and looked at it. He had trouble recalling when he had loaded the ammo, or the last time he had loaded fresh .308 at all… He laughed as he remembered some unplaceable voice from his past gently castigating him for not calling it by the NATO name.
“I get four barrels to the hog’s head, and that’s the way I likes it,” he said aloud.
He put in the magazine, put on his earmuffs, then racked the bolt. He leaned against the side of the truck, steadying the rifle against the edge of the bed. He put his eye up to the scope, looking out at the dusty plain, stretching in a flat line to the dark mountains. Not aiming at anything in particular, he pulled the trigger.
The recoil felt right. Perfect. Familiar… yet forgotten.
Tim emptied the magazine, then took off his earmuffs. There was silence, and no life in the west seemed to care about the noise he made or the lead he threw out into nothing. He sighed and took out the magazine, then thew it next to the others in his ammo box. He checked the empty chamber and released the bolt, then slipped his rifle back into its case, gathered up the brass, put up the tailgate, and took one last look around, his gaze lingering on the mountains in the west.
Apparently, he and Marcy had forgotten to cook the ground beef she had bought at the store, and it had gone bad. Since it was already dark, they had settled for lunchmeat sandwiches again, along with semi-cool soda pop, since Marcy had taken the cokes out of the fridge when looking for food and forgotten to put the box back.
“You have fun shooting with Greg?” she said between bites.
Tim shrugged. “He didn’t do any shooting. Road was torn up, and he didn’t want to get in trouble for shooting too close to city limits.”
Marcy laughed. “Did he just watch you shoot instead?”
“Nah, he went home. All I did was empty a magazine. If I had more time, I would have driven on the torn-up road anyway to get to the spot we were thinking of.”
“Is there anywhere else you could go?”
“There’s nothing but empty desert for a hundred miles, so you’d think so, but…” Tim paused and narrowed his eyes at his wife. “Say, have you seen any cops lately?”
“Sure, I guess,” Marcy said with wide eyes.
“When was the last time?”
She sat silent for a minute and frowned. “I don’t know. Who pays attention to that?”
Tim nodded. “Yeah. I was just thinking. I can’t remember the last time I saw one.”
“Not like there’s much that goes on in Middlebury.”
“Nothing goes on here. And I mean nothing.”
“That’s good, though. Low crime, right?”
“Yup. Never anything major. Just people speeding or running a light. Shooting on the edge of town.”
Marcy gave Tim a confused look. “That’s good, right?”
“Good place to raise a family?”
“But we don’t have one.”
Marcy smiled. “Kind of hard to justify when we both have all that debt. How are we supposed to pay for kids when we can barely cover the mortgage and car payments?”
“Any of your friends have kids?”
“Well, no, but they’re in similar situations. You know how it’s been with the recession and all that.”
“Do you know anyone with kids?”
Marcy was silent a moment. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know,” Tim said. He stared down at his bland sandwich and pulled a wilted piece of lettuce from the middle. “I just have this feeling. It’s fleeting. Sometimes, in the failing light, I can almost put my finger on it. I can almost see things clearly, but then it runs away from me. This vision.”
“I don’t know, that’s the problem. Some other life or place. A place I can’t really remember.”
Marcy sighed. “Maybe you need to go see the… What is called?”
Tim licked his lips. “The VA?”
“That sounds right.”
Tim put his sandwich down. “I don’t think about you enough.”
“You’re really beautiful. I want to take you upstairs and make love to you.”
Marcy tilted her head. “Right now?”
“Can I have a rain check? I’m kind of tired from work.”
“You always are.”
Marcy rubbed her head. “I’m sorry I’m not always in the mood, okay? Things at work are really busy, and I’m always having to stay late and-”
“You’re never in the mood,” Tim said. He leaned forward and smiled sardonically. “Never. I’m not trying to be a nagging husband here. It’s just how it is. I think.” He shook his head. “It’s hard to think, sorry.”
“This isn’t like you.”
“Maybe it isn’t.” He stood up and walked to the refrigerator, picked up the now half-empty box of sodas, and put it in. He took one can out and put it in the freezer.
“You gonna remember that?” Marcy said. “I don’t want to have to clean up an exploded soda.”
“Honestly, I’m probably going to forget,” Tim said. “But if I remember, I want to have a cold soda tonight.”
Tim checked his watch absent-mindedly and suddenly realized that he had forgotten about the soda in the freezer. He pushed away from the desk, leaving his character standing in the middle of a group of mobs, and ran to the freezer where, sure enough, the soda can had exploded.
“Damnit!” he said. He scooped out the shards of frozen cola and shoved them into his mouth. They didn’t taste right – frozen soda never really does – but they were cold. His mouth was in pain, but he didn’t stop. He kept shoving the ice in his mouth until it was gone, and his tongue and throat were numb.
Breathing heavily, like he had just swum a few laps in a pool, Tim returned to his desk, where he found that his character had died. He turned off his PC. His monitor returned a blank, slightly grey glow from its rounded surface, and Tim stood in the dark by himself for a long time. He saw the stars outside – clear in a sky with virtually no clouds, and wondered why he was always forgetting.
Tim woke from a dream, and like always, it fled away faster than he could hold onto it. The joy of that other place was gone, and that was left was an impression, an echo of feelings, images, words, scents, and sounds. There was something beautiful about it, as well as something terrible. Endless wastes and spaces unfamiliar, too familiar. They faded with the light filtering in from the windows above the bed he shared with Marcy, who it seemed had already gotten up and left for work.
The pale light of dawn cast the whole room into shades of grey and purple, quite different from sunset, but somehow, as his eyes focused on Marcy’s empty spot, he thought he could remember, just a bit better, the images and… a certain purpose.
Frustrated at the loss, Tim clenched his fists. Then he heard the toilet flush. He sat up and saw Marcy exit the bathroom and hurry across to the little closet opposite the bed, still in her baggy pajamas.
“Oh, sorry, sweetie. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t wake me,” Tim said. He quickly got out of bed and went to his wife, then wrapped his arms around her while she looked through her hanging clothes.
“Are you okay?”
Tim leaned down and began kissing her neck. She moaned softly.
“I’m late for work,” she said.
“I don’t care that you’re late for work,” he said. His hands began to move over Marcy’s body, and she finally turned to him, a soft, half-lidded smile on her face.
“My boss cares.”
Marcy moaned again. “I really-”
“I don’t care. Call in sick. It doesn’t matter. I want you, and I’m going to have you.”
Finally, she turned her head up to him and kissed him hard.
They quickly disrobed and made love as man and wife, giving in to the moment in a short, violent burst of rising tension and pleasure, then release, followed by soft satisfaction. They lay silently together, naked, as the light in the bedroom changed from grey to gold to white.
“I’m gonna really get it,” Marcy said at length, her voice slightly creaky from such sudden use in the morning.
“Just call in sick. You never do. That’s what I’m going to. Or maybe I won’t bother calling. Who knows?”
“No, there’s a lot to get done. I’ll… I’ll just say my husband needed my help with something. I probably won’t get fired.”
“You won’t,” Tim said. “Who else is there to hire in Middlebury? But if you feel like you need to go to work, go, I guess.”
Marcy leaned over and kissed him, smiling deeply. “That felt good.”
“Oh, I know.” Tim nodded. “Real good. I’m going to have a cold soda.”
When he got downstairs, he saw that the half-empty box of sodas was once again sitting on the counter, next to the one which had exploded in the freezer.
“I knew you’d forget,” Marcy said with a laugh as she threw a few convenience food items into her bag.
“I said I would. But it tasted great. Cold as death. Best I can remember. The ice cut the crap out of my mouth, though.”
Marcy laughed out loud. “Don’t forget to call in,” she said as she left the kitchen, now full of light, and stepped toward the door.
“I love you,” Tim called.
Marcy paused and looked at him, her head tilted, her eyes soft and wet, almost like she was tearful. “I love you, too.”
Tim watched her leave, then he went upstairs and retrieved his rifle. An impulse made him check his ammo box, and there he found all of his magazines were full.
“I did go shooting,” he said aloud. “When did I reload this magazine?” He shook his head and boxed everything back up.
He turned off his truck and looked up. He was parked outside the office building where he worked as a bookkeeper. He glanced to his right and saw his rifle case leaning up against the passenger seat. His rifle?
“I must have been on autopilot,” he said, killing the radio and the Incubus song he thought he had heard for the 10th time that week. “Where was I trying to go?” He shook his head. Maybe I do need to go see the doctor.”
With a sigh, he laid his rifle down and exited his truck. He walked into the shadowed courtyard of the building, which looked like a big glass box on stilts from the front. When he stepped into grey gloom, he paused. That feeling had returned, and he could suddenly remember a few fleeting images. He walked to one of the benches and sat down on it, turning his face to the exit of the courtyard, where the city of Middlebury sparkled in the sun.
There was a forgotten brown bag there, sitting auspiciously next to him. He picked it up and looked inside to find a few old food wrappers and a receipt. He had a feeling he had bought those items – twinkies, a bag of beef jerky, and a bag of Chex mix – yet the memory didn’t seem right. As he got up to put it in the trash, he remembered a dream (or was it a dream?) where he sat on the bench and shared his food with a stranger, since he had forgotten his usual lunch and had run to the gas station for some cheap vittles. The man was huge, built like a truck, but was hungry.
Someone who quit?
It had to be a long time ago, considering how little he remembered it, and yet the bag was still sitting there. He stopped himself from chucking the bag and checked the receipt for a date, but it just read 12:01 1/1/2001. The computer must have never had its clock set. He reached forward to throw the bag away, then hesitated. He stared at the half-full trashcan, then tossed the bag back on the bench.
“Maybe I’ll remember you again, whoever you were.”
Tim looked down at his clothes. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, not his usual suit and tie. He looked back at his truck and remembered where he had meant to go. Feeling paranoid, he glanced around the dark windows of the office building. Through them, he could dimly see people at work in their cubicles. None of them seemed to be looking out to the courtyard where he was.
He got back in his truck, already uncomfortably hot from the noon sun, and started it up. He kept the radio off as he drove back out to the highway that ran to the fields outside of Middlebury. He found the familiar turnoff, blocked by signs and temporary concrete walls, then took his truck off the road and through the brush, climbing a small embankment to get back up onto the closed road. The top layer of asphault had been ripped off and bumped like a washboard underneath him, yet it had become so dusty it was practically just a dirt road. Clearly, the county had never actually meant to repair it.
The dead-brush desert soon surrounded him, and the sun began to move into the west, blinding him. The road wound this way and that: past empty, dry pastures and dusty irrigation rigs falling to pieces, down through dried creekbeds and up over ridges of red rock. The mountains that surrounded Middlebury loomed ahead of him, growing closer little by little.
Finally, Tim stopped his truck. He had at last reached his favorite shooting spot, a perch up above a long-forgotten junkyard that was probably once a quarry. The sun was beginning to dip behind the mountains. Their shadows were stretching across the valley, which he could see now from his elevated position, growing out almost infinitely behind him to the cluster of buildings that was the city. He watched the purple darkness reach forward like giant fingers, running at the speed of the sun.
“Run, rabbit run,” he said.
Tim frowned and, compulsively, turned on the radio. The FM radio was mostly static, but through it, he heard the familiar drawl of a Stained song he hated but could never get out of his head.
“Naw, that would be too convenient, huh?” he said. He reached to turn off the radio, but then pushed the seek button instead. Through the static, he heard a Pink Floyd song.
It’s the wrong one, he thought, as he stared at the dusk desert. Then he heard the chords to exactly what was scratching along the edge of his brain, but the words were different:
Home, home again
I like to be here when I can
And when I come home cold and tired
It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire
Far away, across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells
He turned off the radio before the DJ could interrupt his mood. He killed the engine and got out, his eyes still on the plain in the east.
“Greg was right,” he said. “There really is never enough time to get out here.”
Tim put his ammo can in the bed of the truck along with his rifle, then hopped in himself. In the west, the old quarry ran out several hundred yards, made of rocks, old gulleys, and rubble. Even in the dark, Tim found the oil barrel he had placed far beyond the rest of the refuse, some three-hundred yards out, where it looked like little more than a black dot among colorless sand. He knew it well, though, and when he had rested his loaded rifle on the side of the truckbed, cushioned by a small sandbag, and brought his eye to his scope, the target was unmistakable.
The center was slightly crumpled. Tim took his eyes away for a moment to put on his earmuffs, then looked again at the makeshift target. He centered his crosshairs on the black mass and slowed his breathing. The air was still; he wouldn’t have to think of windage. Slowly, he breathed out and brought his trigger finger back.
The rifle fired. Tim quickly found the target again after the shot, but he saw nothing in the failing light. The empty casing rattled around in the bed. Then, two seconds after firing, he heard the loud gong of the steel. He smiled.
Then he shot ten more rounds. He listened to the cacophony of strange sounds, then fired his next nine shots at random pieces of garbage that were closer.
“Man, that’s satisfying,” he said. He threw the empty magazine into his ammo box and brought out one of his thirty-rounders, which he kept loaded with garbage ball ammo rather than his hand-loaded ballistic tips. He threw it in, then let the bolt close with a musical clack. Then he toggled his modified rifle to auto and emptied all thirty rounds at a pile of garbage a few dozen yards away, aiming away from the glass with a sighting trick he had learned as a kid by looking down the side of the barrel like it was a shotgun. The .308 hammered his shoulder hard, and he smiled. He put in another 30 rounds and repeated the fun on another collection of trash.
“Now that’s a good waste of money,” he said.
He sat back and looked around at all the empty brass. Night had fallen around him. Only the pink-orange sky on the other side of the mountain had any clinging life of the day left. He looked up at the sky, pale lavender fading to dark blue, and took a deep breath, full of burned powder.
That was when he saw it: a fire.
It was back on the plain, to the east – not far from him, but a good walk from the road. He brought his empty rifle up and looked through the scope. In the gloom, he could see, among a cluster of scrubby trees by the old dry creek bed, a man sitting on the ground beside a small campfire. He was facing his direction, but the flames and the distance obscured any details. All he was sure of was that it wasn’t Greg.
Whoever it was, they had to have walked out there, because there were no other vehicles on the road going all the way back to the distant highway
“Unless he went off-road and it’s tucked up somewhere I can’t see,” he said aloud. He looked to his right, at the empty truck bed, feeling suddenly lonely. “Hey!” he yelled out. “Hey, you down there!” Tim looked in his scope. The man didn’t move.
He grabbed his remaining 30-round magazine and put it in. He had a few more 20-round mags that he put into each of his back jean pockets. He hopped out of the truck bed and began walking downhill toward the fire, picking his way carefully among the rocks.
Soon he was close enough to the fire to make out the figure, who was leaning against a pile of dead-looking wood, his head seemingly focused on the fire.
“Hey, you there!” he called out again. “What are you doing? Who’s there?”
The stranger looked up at him. It was definitely a man, but Tim could see he had long, dark hair. He raised a hand in silent greeting.
Tim didn’t sling his rifle over his shoulder, but approached with it at his hip, his right hand on the buttstock. He stepped up a bank and past a mound of dead tumbleweed, then into the ring of firelight.
The man sitting beside the fire was huge and had the look of a bodybuilder, only his arms and shoulders were covered in strange armor like he just came from a renaissance fair, except that the armor looked both real and fantastical.
“Howdy,” Tim said, stepping closer.
The man stood up, standing half a head taller than Tim, put his hand to his chest, and bowed, letting his hair fall around his pale face. He looked back at Tim with pale, almost luminescent eyes.
“We meet again. Would you like any?” the stranger asked in a deep voice, gesturing at the fire. Tim saw that an old cowboy coffee pot was sitting in the coals, steaming slightly.
“Never had much of a taste for black coffee,” Tim said.
“That is good, because it is tea.”
Tim chuckled. “You said we meet again?”
The man nodded. “You probably don’t remember our meeting well, which is to be expected here. Your name is Tim.” He raised his eyebrows. “I am Ramiel.”
Ramiel, if that was his name, sat back down on the dirt and pulled the coffeepot from the coals with a hand gauntleted in silvery steel. He produced two tin cups from a nearby backpack and filled them both with pale tea. He handed one to Tim, who took it with his left hand. With his right, he took off his rifle and leaned it against a rock.
“What are you doing out here?” Tim said. “Just felt like camping in… full plate armor?”
Ramiel chuckled. “I followed you. You told me about this place, though I think you probably do not remember. I couldn’t find it without following you, so I apologize for that. That is the nature of this place. Very hard to find the way out, but I had a feeling about this direction, this place you mentioned. West. If all else fails, walk west.”
“Yeah, but eventually, you come back around to where you began,” Tim said. “You didn’t explain the weird getup, by the way.”
“Is it weird?”
Tim smiled and sipped the tea. It was sweet like it had already had loads of sugar stirred in, but it still definitely had the familiar taste of tea. “Yeah, it is weird. You don’t realize that?”
“You spend a great deal of your time looking at armor much like this, yet you say it is weird.” Ramiel gave him a curious look and drank his tea.
Tim narrowed his eyes. “Games? You look like a Final Fantasy character.”
Ramiel nodded. “Not so weird, then.”
“Why wear it?”
“Obviously. So why did you follow me again? Also, where is your truck?” Tim looked around and could see no vehicle.
“With my feet.”
“You been out here a while?”
“As long as you have. I don’t know the way out. Of all this realm’s denizens which I have met, you have the best sense of what it is. I figured you would find the exit, eventually.”
“I don’t understand.”
Ramiel glanced up at the mountain. “That way. Now that I’m close, I can feel it. A thin spot. A way to get to… whatever realm is next.”
“Only thing that way is desert. If you’re looking to escape Middlebury, the best way to do that is to take the I-15…” Tim frowned. “Is it the I-15? Sorry, I’m having a brainfart. The I-15 goes through Baker…” He rubbed his forehead. “I’m losing it. Every time the sun sets, I start to lose it.”
“What do you lose?”
“It’s hard to describe. My memory, my understanding of… Another world, maybe? I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“Because we all desire confession, Timothy.” Ramiel reached out and put a large hand on his shoulder. “That is part of this place. Do not grow too frustrated. I believe it will get better.”
“Sometimes, I can almost touch it. Almost taste it. Something… else. I know it doesn’t exist, but… I just feel like it does, but it’s so hard to remember it once the feeling is gone.” Tim looked at Ramiel’s stare, which was strangely warm. “I’m crazy, I realize, but I don’t want to tell my wife. I can’t remember things. I’m forgetting all the time. Like, I realized I can’t remember what high school I went to. I can’t remember much about being in the army.”
“You remember your weapon.”
Tim smiled. “Yeah, I remember my rifle. I don’t dare tell Marcy – that’s my wife – or anyone else. I don’t wanna get locked up or something.”
“The fact that you are aware of it separates you from the others,” Ramiel said. “They cannot remember those things, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is the nature of this place.” Ramiel looked to the stars in the sky and lifted his hands. “It’s beautiful, in its own way, though a reflection of true beauty. All of you are still looking through a glass, darkly.”
“I don’t understand.” Tim sighed. “You’re probably imaginary, and I’m talking to nobody.”
“God imagined each of us. What is imagination besides creation?” He pointed to the sky again. “Tell me, Timothy. Where do you think you are?”
“Where is Middlebury?”
“It’s between…” Tim drew a blank. Was it by Barstow, or was it by Clovis? Wait, Clovis is in Texas… or California. The names started to lose meaning even as they came to him.
“Do you understand yet?”
Tim looked up. “Where are we?”
Ramiel smiled warmly. “A place of holding. A place of progress, however slow.”
“Limbo? Purgatory.” Tim nodded affirmatively. Absent-mindedly, he pulled his dog tags from where they still hung around his neck. He looked at them. No Preference.
“This realm seems to be made up of all your attachments. Not just yours, but all the people who are here. The things you were attached to in life you have brought with you.”
“My rifle,” Tim said. “My games. My truck, maybe?”
“Maybe. Also work, hobbies, sensory desires. Memories of houses, streets, even the stars.”
Tim watched the sky for a few moments. “It makes sense, now that you say it. Like a dream. It’s like the underworld.”
“A circle of it.”
“So, I’m dead?”
Ramiel’s large face took on a serious cast. He nodded slowly. “In body, at least. Here you have what passes for physical form, but… It is not quite the same as real substance.”
Tim flicked his dog tags. “Maybe I never made it home.”
“I do not know the content of your life or how you left it.”
“What about Marcy? Is she here because I was attached to her? Is she real?”
“She could be real, but you were never married to her in your earthly life, or she could be a memory, or you could have both come here separately by chance. I don’t have all the answers.”
“You’re an angel, though, right? That’s why you’re dressed like that. Like a painting of Saint Michael or Saint George. Shouldn’t you know?”
Ramiel hesitated. “I am of that order, but… I am a traveler, for now. Just another sinner, like you, doing my penance, in what way I can. Trying to make my way back home and face judgment.” Ramiel poured another cup of tea for himself.
“I love her. Is that real?”
“Of course, it is.”
Tim was silent for a few minutes, slowly draining his tea. “You said there is a way out over there.” He pointed to the west.
“I believe so. I can feel a thin spot. There’s a music that you can almost hear and a smell you can almost sense. It is hard even for me to explain.”
“I get, though. That’s what I feel. Something else, something beyond all this.”
“Yes. There is something else that way, too, Timothy. A guardian. I can sense him, hidden though he is. Can you?”
“What kind of guardian?”
“I won’t know that until I see him. I came here by accident, but I have been travelling a long time. Realms like this are always guarded. It could be a test, or it could be a battle. Or the guardian could exist for all your sakes. To keep others out.”
“But you’re here.”
“True, but I came here in an unorthodox fashion. The guardian likely already knows I am here. I must challenge him.”
“What if I challenge him. What happens next?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps you move on.”
“The next phase of your journey.”
Tim picked up his rifle and ran his hands over it, wiping away a few spots of dust. “Interesting. What happens to Marcy if I move on, Ramiel? Will she remember me? Can I take her with me?”
“I don’t have all the answers, Timothy. She may have her own journey to make. Remember that this place is about attachments and desires.”
“Yeah. Attachments. I don’t want to leave her, but I’ll go see this guardian of yours.”
“Very well,” Ramiel said. “Let us go now, then. The guardian will let us know if you and I are ready.”
Ramiel emptied his tinpot and cup, then stood up from the fire and put a shining helm on his head, which covered most of his face save for his eyes, which seemed bright and colorless. Tim also stood and slung his rifle over his shoulder. He handed his empty cup to Ramiel, who put it with his other effects in a small bag at his hip.
“Think I’ll need a weapon?”
“I do not go unarmed,” Ramiel said. He drew a longsword from his hip, and it flashed, first in bright reflection of the fire, and then with its own inner light, casting shadows on the tangled sagebrush.
“Handy,” Tim said. He kicked dirt over the fire, sending sparks up into the sky, then he flicked on a flashlight mounted to the rail at the end of his rifle’s foregrip.
Tim followed Ramiel across the dry creekbed and up the slope to where his truck waited. Tim paused and ran his hand along the hood, picking up dust from the Silverado’s shiny red finish. He opened up the door and looked inside the cab for a few seconds.
“What is it?” Ramiel said.
“Just wondering what I should bring.”
“You have everything you need.”
Tim nodded, then pulled his phone out of his pocket. “I shouldn’t leave without telling Marcy goodbye.”
Ramiel stared at him from the darkness of the quarry as Tim opened up his phone and dialed his wife.
“There’s no reception out here,” he said. He stared at his phone for a long few seconds, then took a deep breath and placed it in the cup holder, then shut the door.
“You’re crying,” Ramiel said. “Do not be ashamed of it.”
Tim nodded. “It’s like I’m dying. Again. But that’s how it is, isn’t it? You don’t get to say goodbye.”
“What did you say?”
“The last thing? I love you.”
“Far better than goodbye.”
“And you don’t get to take it with you. You take nothing with you, in the end.”
“Not true,” Ramiel said. He pointed to his chest and then his head.
“It’s like this play we had to read in high school. Medieval play. This guy – nobody goes with him when he dies, except his good deeds.” Tim grabbed one more magazine, which he shoved into his belt, then he shut the door on his truck. “But I can’t remember mine. Let’s get going.”
They worked their way through the quarry, up and up, until they reached the oil barrel, which was full of holes. There was a ridge behind it, which they climbed. Beyond it was a ravine, hemmed in by treacherous slopes, with a cave at the far end. Though all that seemed to illuminate it was starlight, they could see it clearly in strange iridescent shades of blue and purple.
“There,” Tim said. “The passage to the next zone.”
“Yes,” Ramiel said. “Put your weapon away for now.” He sheathed his sword, and Tim put his rifle back behind his shoulder. Together, they walked down the rocky path toward the cave.
They saw as they approached that it was not totally dark inside. There was some semblance of light, deep within, sketching out walls that were square and unnatural.
“I hear something,” Tim said.
“The music,” Ramiel replied.
“I feel like I can almost see something, like a dream I forgot.”
“Yes. Careful, now.”
At last, they reached the entrance to the cave and stopped.
“I am Ramiel! Will you let us pass on?”
A few seconds passed, then a shadow began to emerge from the cave.
It was something strange – a beast of indeterminate shadow-shape, with legs and claws and… Tim saw wings and a great horned head.
“A dragon?” Tim said aloud.
“A small one, it seems,” Ramiel said. He stepped back as the beast’s head, on a long serpentine neck, emerged from the cave. It stood at least twenty feet high at the shoulders, and it was covered in chromatic scales of purple-black. Its eyes were shining yellow, and its mouth glowed with fire. Tim wondered at its size and how it had fit in the cave at all.
“You are unarmored,” Ramiel said. “Let its ire fall upon me. You can attack it at a distance, yes?”
“Yeah,” Tim said, his bladder feeling suddenly very full.
The beast gave a deafening roar, sliding its head around to look at them, then it stretched out its black wings as if to take flight.”
“Quickly!” Ramiel said, then drew his sword and dashed forward.
The light was almost blinding, but Tim obeyed. He ran to the right while unslinging his rifle, toward a set of boulders, just as the dragon’s head swiped past Ramiel and breathed a jet of fire into the dirt. Immediately Tim’s nostrils were full of the reek of rotten eggs.
Ramiel ran forward and jumped, inhumanly high, and slashed at one of the wings. The sword pierced the membranous skin and sent dark blood flying onto the sand. Tim reached the rocks and scrambled up with his free left hand. When he looked back, he saw that the dragon had Ramiel in one of its large clawed hands, but could not keep a good grip on him – Ramiel was too large and was slashing furiously, vainly, at the armored wrist of the dragon. Its head darted around, shooting flames that rolled over Ramiel.
Tim shouldered his rifle and fired a burst into the dragon’s head and neck. It snapped back from Ramiel and turned to face Tim and breathed fire once again. Tim flinched, but the dragon was too distant. The flames dissipated in the air. It dropped Ramiel and began to pad toward Tim, one of its wings flapping uselessly and flicking blood everywhere.
Tim took a slow breath and looked through his scope. The head was too close and moving too fast. He flipped over to semi and started shooting wildly, hoping to hit something vulnerable. He saw sparks as the bullets glanced off scales to the left and right and even off the horned head.
Tim jumped off the rocks just in time as the head came down and hit them like a hammer. He rolled away and saw, just behind the animal, Ramiel attempting to grab its flicking, horned tail. Tim fired wildly at the head, again to no avail, then he took off sprinting toward the other side of the ravine.
“It’s heart!” Ramiel said as he finally got an arm around the tail. “You have to hit it in the heart!”
“My bullets do nothing!” Tim fired again. Sparks flew. His bolt slammed open.
Ramiel leapt up the back, grabbing the injured wing. With his right hand, he slashed at the healthy wing, and the beast screamed at the pain, sending fire in every direction. Finally, its head slid around, and it bit Ramiel on the shoulder. The sword of light fell from his hands, but the man – or whatever he was – somehow held on. The dragon reared up, trying to increase its leverage to pull the nuisance off his back.
Then Tim saw the dragon’s belly. There were no scales, nor were there armor plates, and no coat of jewels from a stolen horde. Cursing softly, he dropped his magazine and pulled one from his back pocket. Sighting down the side, he unleashed a few bursts. Blood splattered as he peppered the dragon’s belly, but he had clearly missed the mark.
Ramiel screamed as the jaws of the dragon got a firmer hold and began to pull him from the wing.
Tim dropped to a kneeling position, took a deep breath, then put his eye to the scope. He was too close to see accurately. Saying a silent prayer, he sighted again down the barrel and pulled the trigger.
A veritable fountain of dark blood poured from the chest of the beast, and it gave up its grip on Ramiel, who fell from the scaled back and rolled in the sand. Tim squinted as Ramiel stood up, somehow once again holding his glowing sword.
The dragon collapsed, and its long neck fell to the earth, cold, golden eyes glaring at them…
And then it was gone.
In its place, kneeled what looked like a tall, grey-bearded man. The man was breathing heavily, but quickly stood up with his hands outstretched.
“I cannot hold you back any longer,” the deep, creaky voice said. Ramiel sheathed his sword and hit his chest with his right fist, which was caked in blood.
“Old man! How were you a dragon?” Tim said, jogging forward.
The old man looked at him. “I appeared as one. Is it not a beast that you have thought of often? Even dreamt of? What you feared? What you desired?”
Tim nodded. “I guess.”
The old man held up his hands in a gesture like a shrug.
“Will you permit us to pass?” Ramiel said. Despite his apparent wounds, his voice was calm.
“I cannot prevent you. But you should not be here. Only him.” He glanced at Tim.
“I know,” Ramiel said. “It was not my intention to enter your charge. I only wish to move on.”
“What about me?” Tim said, jogging forward.
The old man regarded him. “It is your choice. You have already broken with your will the bonds that held you to this realm. You can remain, surrounded by the familiar things of your life, or move on.”
Tim took a breath. “What’s next?”
“I don’t know. The creator gave me a charge for a time. He does not reveal all secrets to me, a humble servant.”
“I can guide us both to the next realm,” Ramiel said. “But I cannot tell you what it is. Or you can go your own way.”
“I guess that’s how it is,” Tim said. “No sure things.”
“We can pray for guidance,” the old man said.
“I think I already know. There are things here I love, but… they’re only echoes of what was true and real. It hurts to lose them, but maybe that’s the point. If this is purgatory, maybe God is asking me to let go.”
“Maybe,” Ramiel said.
“I’ll go with Ramiel, if I can. He’s a good tank, and they’re hard to find.”
Ramiel gave Tim a curious look. “Isn’t a tank a war machine?”
“Sort of. I’ll explain some other time.”
“I look forward to it. Let us see what is next, then.”
Tim and Ramiel bowed lightly to the old man, then entered the cave. Natural stone soon gave way to walls of brick and marble. Light coming from nowhere began to surround them, and a music, incalculable and unknowable, grew from an imperceptible drone to something tangible and memorable. A thousand smells blew through the passage, and Tim thought he could see, painted along the walls in strange hues, images of places he had never seen, and yet they were familiar.
“That other place is close,” he said. “Maybe I’ll finally get to see it for real.”
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