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Xs & Os by Nicole DragonBeck

For Kalvin, thank you for leaving out all the forty-two dollar words 🙂

Imagine my surprise when, upon answering a midnight call, I was greeted by my own voice.

“This is going to be a short story, because I don’t have much time and the universe is conspiring against me even as I speak. It’s cold here, in this other place with no time, but there’s a warmth to it as well.”

My voice sounded strange to my own ears, more so than usual. I sounded older, more worn. My skin prickled, and I fought the urge to slam the receiver down. Ignorance is bliss. But some inner strength made me listen further, a strength I suspected the person on the other end of the receiver knew a lot more about than I did.

“There are many steps between where you are now, and this place that is your fate. Someone is coming for you, someone you should listen to. Running is pointless. They will follow you and there is nothing you could do about. I already know what you’re thinking…”

This is crazy, nothing in the future is set. My actions will determine your face.

“This is cray, nothing in the future is set, but your actions will not determine your fate. Your fate has already been determined, but others of far greater power than yourself. They are the called the Dorfrenti, or the Faceless Ones, depending on who you ask.”

The name sent shivers down my spine, sending cold pools of ice settling in my stomach. Somewhere, in some other universe, I knew that I had come across these Faceless Ones. And it didn’t turn out too well for me. The thought came out of nowhere and hit me harder than a punch. A squeal from the recording rang in my ears then a painful tightening in my chest made me gasp. It was like some invisible hand had reached through my ribs and was squeezing my heart. For a second I was afraid I was going to die, then it eased up and I could breath again. The ringing in my ears faded, but my head pounded as if I had run a mile in the sun. I had to rewind the recording because I hadn’t heard it.

“They have powers that you cannot imagine, and if you go with them, you can learn the most wonderful things. Things of magic”

Another harsh whine spat from the machine, and the squeeze in my chest came again. Pain blurred my vision. Before everything went black, whatever it was let go of me, and I clutched at the bench. It took every ounce of my strength to remain upright. The words the voice was still speaking, but the words washed over me, meaningless.

“…that’s all I have to say, except one last warning. Don’t trust anyone, except yourself. No one is who they say, and nothing is what it seems. And whatever you do, do not follow the Xs and Os.”

The recording whirred and clicked and the fell silent. I was tense, waiting for another wave of pain. It didn’t come, but suddenly a heavy fog of fatigue descended, and I felt like I wanted to sleep for a month. This was too much for so early on a Sunday.

Trust no one. That wasn’t very helpful. And what about those Faceless Ones, the ones whose real name made my skin crawl – I couldn’t face these Faceless Ones on my own. I wasn’t that smart, or that brave, or that powerful. Trust no one. Then another thought came: does that mean I can’t even trust myself?

A shadow moved past the door, and my heart leaped to my throat and began pounding. Was it the Faceless Ones, come already? The shadow paused, the letter box rattled, and a white envelope shot out. I stood frozen, watching the shadow, then in a blink it was gone. In shaking steps, I moved to the door, and picked up the letter. Inside the envelope was one sheet of paper, with a simple message, written in a hand I knew better than anyone else’s, because it was mine.

Follow the Xs and Os.

 

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Quiet by Nicole DragonBeck

For Michael, thank you for your thoroughly enthusiastic story starter, I hope you like it!

“But Winifred my dear, all that work will…” 

“Don’t call me that, I hate that name!”

She continued to tear at the pink satin ribbon tied to the ends of her pair of shoulder length blond braids.

“But Winnie can’t you…”

“No! Not Winnie either!”

A pink tangle of ribbon with a few strands of blond crumpled with a soft bounce as it hit the floor.

“But Wi…”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”

Miranda woke up with a start, the scream that sounded like her own voice still ringing in her ears. This was the fourth time this week that she’d had that dream, and each time it was more vivid than the last. She couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Her desk called to her, with the pen and paper that promised relief, but her bed had an equally strong pull, the warm covers willing her to stay and be seduced by their promise of comfort and sleep. But sleep would not come, she knew this, the echoes of her dream taunting and tantalizing at the same time.

Dragging her legs out was the first step. Her torso and arms followed, and somehow Miranda ended up in her chair, hunched over the desk, a pen clenched in her hand. She closed her eyes, and in the darkness, she searched out the dream.

It came in bright flashes of light and color, and sounds that no human ear had heard. Her pen flashed out, scribbles and scratches doing their best to capture what she was experiencing in her own mind.

And then the quiet came. Miranda’s hand stilled, but there was something wrong. She couldn’t put her finger on it, and her eyes moved back and forth behind her eyelids, searching for what was out of place. Usually the quiet was the end, and everything returned to normal, but this was different. This quiet was incomplete.

Although she didn’t want to, Miranda opened her eyes. The bedroom was dark, and this darkness was overwhelming. She reached over and flipped on the desk lamp. The light hurt her eyes, and she shied away, holding her arm up to shield herself from the attack.

Her eyes fell on the paper, and at first she couldn’t make out what was written there. Squinting and holding the paper closer only helped a little, but word by word, Miranda made out what the cacophony had turned into in the real world. Winifred was apparently engaged to a man she didn’t want to marry, and was throwing a temper tantrum hours before she was to be wed. Her lady in waiting was pulling her hair out trying to dress her ladyship and put on her jewels.

Miranda sighed. Why did all these people come to tell her about their problems and woes? Couldn’t they just work it out themselves? If this Winifred didn’t want to marry the Count of Verdigrad, why didn’t she just say so? What was the point of disturbing Miranda’s sleep with her screaming and whining?

Silent vibrations of that screaming and whining throbbed in Miranda’s head, and she recognized the indefinable disturbance of her quiet. She waited for the rest to be emptied onto the paper, but the silence full of promise continued to burn in her mind.

Miranda sat at the desk for how long she didn’t know, and with a sinking horror, realized that she was never going to be given any peace unless she prompted the tempest. Her eyes flicked to her bed, cold now, but still inviting, and taking a deep breath, she gripped her pen tight, and probed the thrumming behind the blackness.

All of Winnifred’s woes and troubles came pouring out. Miranda had a hard time keeping up, and her handwriting got even messier. Winnifred ranted and raved, her handmaiden, cowered, pleaded, and simpered, and then, after pages of this, Winnifred finally saw the light. It was beautiful. The spoiled, naive, practically useless young woman took the first step to becoming something greater than fate had planned for her.

Winnifred fled the palace without writing a note, leaving her poor handmaiden shaking on the floor of Winnifred’s lavish chambers, imagining in terror the horrible punishment that Winnifred’s father was dish out when he found out his daughter was gone, and so was the alliance he hoped to consolidate with the neighboring land of Verdigrad and all the wealth and power it offered.

But this was Winnifred’s story, and Miranda didn’t have to worry about it any longer, as quiet returned to Miranda’s world. She dragged herself up one last time, stumbled over to the bed, and fell into the blissful embrace of the covers, and sank into the quiet.

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Why It Had Begun by Lisa Barry

For Shelley Martin; enjoy.

 By the time it ended she would understand why it had begun.

Marla blinked at the fortune teller and turned to her friend. Becky was big eyed and nodding in agreement with the fortune teller like she had understood his cryptic telling.

“What a crock of shit,” Marla commented and stood. “You may believe it, but I know better.”

She walked out of the tent and met the dusk with a glare. So much of the day had been wasted at this stupid carnival on her sweet 16th. She looked around for her boyfriend. He’d said he was going to try to win her a prize. She was thinking about making her sweet 16th very sweet and invite him to visit her room later. It would be an amazing top off to this oddball day. Her own parents had left for a bowling tournament in the next town and forgotten her special day. The devil-may-care attitude could sometimes get old. At least she got to take dad’s car. Becky came out of the tent just as Marla spotted Chris.

“That was very rude,” she said but when she saw the look on Marla’s face she paused and turned her head.

Chris was leaning against the seven mirror maze. He was embracing a petite blonde. Becky winced when she saw that it was the kind of embrace you don’t want to see your boyfriend having unless you were having an out of body experience and watching yourself.

Becky turned to console Marla but stopped with her hand out-reached. The blood had faded from Marla’s face and she stood, stony faced and emotionless. Her fisted hands gave away the stark anger that seemed to pulse from her.

A strange wind started up, dusting the dirt up at their feet at first and then whipping through their hair. The haunting carnival music stopped abruptly. A few pieces of hail hit the blonde in the head and she startled away from Chris. He threw an arm over her and looked around a bit frantically.

The wind continued, pulling itself into funnel and sucking up debris only to shoot it up and out. The ground shook in waves.

Becky giggled with glee. Marla’s lips quirked slightly, but she pulled her frown back and squeezed her fists tighter.

People were starting to scream and run around. The seven mirror maze shook, the sound of breaking glass echoing the wind’s roar. Marla yelled and flung out a hand. The maze broke apart and swept Chris and the blonde in before closing back up, pulling in the wind behind them with a whoosh.

Marla let out a contented sigh. Becky giggled again. The music started back up.

“Feel like joining me downstairs to mete out some vengeance?” Marla asked Becky.

Becky nodded but spoke up for the blonde, “she probably didn’t know you existed, ya know.”

Marla shrugged, “By the time this ends, she’ll understand why it begun.”

Becky giggled again. “See? Some of those guys really know how to tell a fortune.”

Marla rolled her eyes before sinking downstairs.

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News Travels Fast by Brandon Scott

For Alexis Scott Sexsmith, who came to my rescue when I really needed it.

 In that moment time stood still.

Well, it did for me at least. My shoulders dropped and my eyes swam in some sort of twitching, watery shock. The muscles behind my eyes contracted, and I could do nothing but stand, mouth flapping.

“Gene? Gene? Did you hear me?”

To talk was like breaking out from a stone shell. Like something inside me was moving before I moved. Cracking and pushing and snapping my way out of the confines.

“Yes…I heard you.”

She squealed and took my hand. “Isn’t it so exciting?”

“Yeah…it is…” I said, unsure if it was.

“Come on then!”

I took a step and paused. The stone again. She didn’t let me calcify or petrify; she nabbed my hand and tugged me along, making my feet drag on the carpet.

Through the empty halls we went, the growing sound of people coming from the rooms ahead. Someone chuckled, and out of my shell I broke again.  I planted my feet, and she stopped. Letting go off my hand. Looking at me startled.

“What is it? What’s wrong, Gene?”

Looking at her paused me. Damn melting chocolate eyes and freckles on the nose. Dammit all.

“Are we sure they know?” I said. “Like, they do tend to do things which could seem like…”

“No, I’m sure. We’re sure. Radio waves are bouncing off of us.”

The back of my head twitched. My stomach lurched. “Oh. Okay. So… they do know. How is the…taking it?”

“No idea yet. It’s the first hour. Come on, Gene. This is too big. I don’t want to leave you here, but I will if I need to.”

A spasm wracked my legs for a moment, and I decided. The burning curiosity too much. It wasn’t like my lack of interaction would do anything to soften the monumental reactions happening out there.

One more breath; then: “Okay, let’s go!”

My smile: fake, but my emotions swirly. Some of it happy. I grabbed her hand and took her along toward the viewing deck. The metal walls slid away, revealing the others—all twenty of us—wearing the usual jumpsuits, staring at the glass.

I’m not a huge person, but I forced myself—along with her—forward enough to see. I don’t think I blinked for the longest time. She bounced next to me. Still caught in my hand.

The lights and fireworks. They were flickering an entire power grid just so we could see. This planet, all the way down below, not only knew we were here, but they were celebrating us.

I smiled wide, and the energy of the surrounding others rippled. This was the intent of the detour, after all, no matter how against it I was, and this green and blue and brown and swirling white-clouded sphere in the sky was something new. This was going to be the first civilization we learned from and spoke with.

“Do we know what they are like?” I said, my voice lost in the roar of the others.

“Only a little,” she said, hearing me after all.

A cascade of lights, golden, exploded out in our direction from their atmosphere, and a screen dropped down over the viewing deck to show what they were broadcasting our way. Symbol-based language, it turned out, once we’d managed to translate. And they’d sent two “words.”

One for “hello” and another for “friend.”

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Heather and After by Brandon Scott (contains some graphic language)

For Jim Miner.

She was hot as a pistol and shot a hole in my dreams.

And I wake up from those dreams sweaty and horny. She yells things at me in those dreams, tells me about secrets I want no one to know, much less myself. How I hate myself and love myself too much. She gets me drunk in those dreams, and as the world behind me swims more than even alcohol can do to a person, she speaks about the reality of the world.

And then, it’s a bathroom, and she’s wearing only a sweater pulled down over bare legs, the tiny hints of panties glimpsed. She places a single hand on my chest, brown hair hanging over her forehead, freckles around the nose. I can never remember the exact color of those eyes, but they look at me.

And thin cloth dropping around ankles, and discarded, and the water running, and touching. Oh, fuck, so much touching.

Or was that reality?

Anyway.

Mornings were just as surreal with her. Finding someone else in the house, someone who is not a guest or a family member, but a seemingly permanent resident. Never in the bed when I woke up, always there when I tried to fall asleep, and only letting me once exhaustion hit and swept over me and I needed water to even talk.

And she would stare at me with those eyes and sip coffee, often wearing nothing at all, and crossing her legs, and uncrossing them, underneath the table. Leaning pinkish elbows against the wood and sipping the last sips.

“Hello there,” she’d say, and walk past me, and disappear into the bedroom.

Until I was almost fired, I was late all the time for work. But toward the end, I did not follow her inside the room.

Money disappeared occasionally. That was the death keel. Once I noticed ten bucks used for something, I had a little feeling in my stomach. The kind hard to ignore. Next up: one hundred. Two hundred.

A fortnight of fucking, harder and more frequently than we’d done before, came then. So much it gnawed on me, made my bones hurt. Sleep so screwed up it was like she was caffeine poured constantly into my mouth.

But then a thousand dollars, and I confronted her about it. Over dinner. She got me drunk, I talked to her about it, and I woke up and she’d disappeared. Every article of clothing in my house gone. Nothing but the covers, and not even a note about what it all was for, why she had waited this long.

I still don’t know. I still see her in my dreams. Still feel her weight on me, shifting. Still feel her underneath me. Still hear her tell me how much of a terrible, awful person I am. It’s almost easier now, those dreams, because I know at least she’s worse. I’m not a thief. I don’t play with the hearts of others.

Though, I suppose, in a way, I am a purchaser of a prostitute. Because, in the end, she was sex and intimacy, which only cost me money and material things. Currency and my sanity. I wonder how much of that I gave to her. How much she left inside for me to give to others.

All I know is I seem to sleep a lot now. A whole heck of a lot.

 

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The Asteroid Belt Around My Waist By Brandon Scott

For Veronica, I know you have a story in you.

“Whoa misty, watch out for the asteroid.”

The old mechanical creature bucked up underneath The Sergeant, and he grabbed onto the silver handles as it rocked him around from the sudden stop. The old beast could use a tune up, and maybe a shot of plasma to the energy core. A massive lump of stone floated past them, the amount of momentum behind it deceptive to the average eye.

The bulk was big enough that The Sergeant had to wait and look around in boredom. He watched with a lazy eye as the stars around morphed and gave off heat. Below the string of celestial matter his mount was standing on, various elements lazily rotated around in their own orbits.

The asteroid moved past, and he kicked his boots against the horse’s side. The creature of metal galloped forward without hesitation, and ran along the twisting lane. Gravity had nothing to do with the quickest path, and he went up and down along the length of an energy ribbon.

Once he was sure no heavenly bodies would smash him into a little pile of space cowboy pulp, he engaged the autopilot and pulled out the yellowing wanted poster. The bastard’s face stared at him with his massive twirlable mustache and his eyes like the coals used in the steam trains of old.

Eli Vander’s laugh echoed in The Sergeant’s head, and on impulse he kicked out, forcing the engine to race even faster, making the town of Orion come into view in seconds. It was a tiny place, only one bar, only one whorehouse, but per the reports: this was the place.

His horse alighted on the ground and The Sergeant waited for a second for his boots to adjust automatically to the environment. The seat let him go once that was confirmed done, and he jumped down, his shoulders feeling heavy underneath the thicker gravity.

Sitting off to the side of the one bar, in a wicker chair, was a man with a pipe made of copper, and his own boots holding him down to the ground. A Cheln from the look of him: skin the same color as the pipe and long yellow streaks along the jawline.

“You…new…here?” he said, his Pho-English not great.

“Yes,” The Sergeant said, and held up the paper.

The alien studied it for a second. “You got a… um, fire? No: gun!”

The Cheln nodded afterward, pleased with that sentence alone. Pho-English is hard enough for the people who could speak the root language, and going from Chelnish to it was a hell more of a barrier.

The Sergeant unhooked a silver cylinder from his belt and waved it around for the alien to see. A quick button press and the trigger and handle came out the side. He held it like a gun now, and the business end had a satisfying blue glow growing in intensity.

“Yes, I got it.”

The Cheln stood up and pushed the door open, letting the din of the bar explode out, along with the smell of fifteen species’ cultures worth of alcohol.

“He in there?” The Sergeant said.

The Cheln nodded and made a small hand gesture, which in the old world would be an insult. But to a Cheln it was a sign of good luck.

The Sergeant nodded with his hat, an old ten-gallon looking thing, with brown leather and a small force-field generator hidden in the brim, and walked past the bacteria-locked door.

And there Eli sat, at the counter, with his back to the entrance. Many used glasses off to the side of him, stained by various liquids.

The Sergeant raised his gun, aimed, and as someone made a startled noise with realization, he pulled the trigger and splattered Eli’s gray matter on the back of the wall. That would teach him for stealing The Sergeant’s moon dust, along with teaching the rest of the thieving Fortune Soldiers.

The Sergeant turned to leave as the bar’s patrons all began to shoot and riot. Blasts bounced off the field from the generator in The Sergeant’s hat.

The Cheln looked surprised when he came out and walked past him. The Cheln stood up, and cast an eye back to the intensity in the room.

“No showdown?” he said.

The Sergeant gave him a quarter turn and a smile, before saying his parting phrase, without looking, as he walked back to the Misty, Mark Seven.

“Nah, we’ve evolved past that petty honor shit. Justice is swift. No time for bravado or machismo. Leave that to the cowboys of the yester-millennium.”

 

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Hitchhiker by Désirée Matlock

For Diana Rosenfield

 When he looked up, he saw only branches; he knew better than to look down.

He’d woken up a few seconds ago, confused. Where was he? In Jessie’s car, which was upside down. Upside down is never good. What had happened? He tried to remember, but nothing came. Strange. Well, he could certainly fill in the blanks well enough. They’d started on the trip from Pacific Palisades up toward the bay area, and Jessie’d been goofing around on social media.

 

It had taken everything he had to get Jessie to stop going live. Like anyone cared about their commute. “No one wants to see you drive back to school on Facebook LIVE!” he’d yelled at her, while Jessie held a phone out the window, swooping and turning and looking for a good angle.

 

“Hey, seriously, KNOCK IT OFF!” he had yelled for all to see, before Jesse had turned the phone’s tiny black eye back, saying, “Live, from California… it’s Saturday Night DRIVE!!!!”

 

“Seriously, Jessie, focus on driving!” the wheel jerked, and he snapped the phone away from her. “Do I need to drive so you can do that?”

 

“Chill out, psycho,” she whispered loudly at him, eyes buggy. He shook his head in disbelief, and muttered a small prayer for them both. He turned away, shoving the phone under his seat.

 

Not much else happened for an hour or two. The commute droned on, winding roads, gorgeous shimmering seas, smatterings of beach towns, shitty ancient bridges, and he was lulled into semi-consciousness.  But then they’d pulled over, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and Jessie had picked up a hitchhiker. Seriously, this girl had a dead wish!

 

Jessie had made it worse picking up a hitchhiker. Seriously. She had seen him on the side of the road, looking lost, and the car had come to a crunchy stop in the side of the road gravel. She’d peeled down his window, leaning over him, arm churning the universal sign for “get over here.” The hitchhiker had climbed in the backseat behind him as if the stranger had been depending on the kindness of others for cars forever. Who knows. Maybe they don’t have the same stigma on hitchhiking where ever he’s from.

 

Jesse had turned toward the back seat somewhat, finding it hard to turn far enough to see, but the guy looked short, skinny, harmless. Serial killers don’t wear jeans and a tee, do they? He smiled and his teeth popped white. That’s when he noticed that the stranger was dark-ish skinned, maybe Middle Eastern? Or South American? Or mixed? Whatever. Who cares. A hitchhiker is a bad idea. But, the guy smiled a lot and as Jessie got back on the road, he tried asking questions, but the guy apparently didn’t speak any English.

 

Eventually he thought maybe he’d fallen asleep. And now look. Upside down. Trees outside, also upside down, from his perspective. Near darkness, it must be around dusk. He looked down at the little bit of sky he could see and realized that was ocean, not sky. Great.

 

Dusk, and he was going to die hanging over a cliff along the grapevine.  He was never getting in a car with her again. He tried to turn around enough to look at the backseat, where he knew Jessie’s hitchhiker was sitting, but couldn’t. No noise arose from behind him, and he was barely able to turn enough to see that Jessie was a barely recognizable mess. Piercing pain flooded his head when he tried to turn farther, so he stopped. He groped in his pocket for his phone, pulling it in front of his eyes, which were blurring alarmingly. Damn.

 

He tried to dial 911, but realized the screen was too shattered. The phone dropped out of his hands and fell upward, somehow it felt oddly majestic and beautiful, watching it collide with a branch and then plop into the seafoam above his head. His field of vision darkened. Was that the sky?

 

His thoughts grew blurry, and he remembered something else about a phone. That’s right, Jessie’s phone. He jerked himself more awake, forcing himself to think, another small prayer forming on his lips.

 

He forced his body to bend over – upwards? Downwards? – some, to check under his seat. But then he saw it. Jessie’s phone was lodged firmly in the dashboard, right in front of the unconscious girl beside him. Oh my God, had she done this by going live again, at dusk and on the fucking grape vine? He did NOT want to be in this year’s Darwin Awards. Fuck.

 

The air felt increasingly like thick molasses as he breathed, and his vision blurred further. Moving any part of himself was incredibly difficult.  Damn. He realized he was probably going to die, and then a surge of energy coursed through him. He remembered Lana, the girl he’d done Habitat for Humanity with last year. She was ridiculously beautiful and utterly disinterested in herself. She hadn’t even gotten a smart phone yet, for the love of all things holy, he wanted to see her again. Wanted to hand her tools and chat with her in her broken English and his broken Spanish. He suddenly wanted it more than anything in the world. He tried to free himself from his seatbelt, and the pain intensified, then faded.

 

His field of vision started spiraling inward, his peripheral vision now totally black, and the world going entirely fuzzy as his head fell upward, toward the reaching fingers of branches and the yawning sea beyond the broken window. Please God, I don’t want to die, he’d thought. Not before I get to kiss Lana.

 

A bright, incandescent, peachy pink light similar to sunset suddenly filled the car, and he felt two arms grasp him under his shoulders. Impossible, since he was firmly stuck upside down in a car’s bucket seat. But it still happened. The light grew brighter, gold followed by brilliant white like the dentist’s light. Too strong, he shut his eyes, and felt his body go weightless, and he drifted beyond the car. Must have been through the front window, but he didn’t feel it touch him. He knew because he felt a fresh cool breeze. Am I falling into the water? He idly thought, then he’d passed out.

 

When he woke, he was lying with sharp gravel pressing into his cheek, face down with arm draped over something soft. What? He lifted his head, and found he could. His neck had stopped hurting. He cracked an eye open, but bright blue and red flashing lights made it hard to see. Oh, Jessie was beside him, crumpled and still out cold, but no longer in the car. He could have sworn he’d seen her chest caved in and an arm broken, but he couldn’t even find anything wrong, except that she was still out.

 

How had they gotten out of the car? His ears were still ringing, and as that faded, he realized he could hear sirens. They’d been found. That must have been who pulled them from the car.

 

Two paramedics arrived, one started checking Jessie, and another turned toward him.

 

The paramedic leaned over him, patting and looking for issues, trying to talk to him. He woke up better and better every second. It was a minute before he realized he had forgotten someone. He turned and sat up suddenly.

 

“Where is our hitchhiker? Still in the car?”

 

“What do you mean?” the paramedic looked alarmed.

 

“There’s a guy still trapped in the car! He’s brownish, short, skinny, jeans and a grey tee shirt.”

 

“You mean that guy?” the paramedic asked, pointing toward where three police cars blocked the road while the paramedics worked. A guy was leaning on the hood of one of the police cars, chatting and laughing with one of the cops. It sure looked like their hitchhiker.

 

“No, I mean yes. He looks the same, but there was a guy in the car with us!”

 

“Are you sure, sir? I mean, that’s the guy who spotted you guys, while he was just walking along. Are you sure there was another person in the car?”

 

He nodded, and that started a long, drawn out process of checking the car, with search and rescue running lines down the cliff to where their car was.

 

He explained what had happened a few times, though, and the paramedic had left, muttering with the fire and rescue guys, and then everyone had looked at him sympathetically. An EMT had checked him for a head wound.

 

Jessie was lying quietly on a gurney in the next ambulance. He didn’t even know whether she would make it. No one did at this point. She hadn’t woken up.

 

They ran two guys down the cliffside on ropes to check the car, but it turned out no one was in the car. There was no sign of a seat belt fastened in the back seat, and that meant their hitchhiker was probably thrown, too, but not onto the road, into the sea.

 

They started arranging for a chopper to spotlight the sea below, but weren’t hopeful… As time rolled onward into the wee hours, he drifted slowly into a lulled state. The ambulance had already left with Jessie, and his was getting ready to leave.

 

A few minutes later, he was sitting up in the back of an ambulance, getting ready to be transported to the hospital, for an overnight concussion watch, since they hadn’t found anything wrong with him, but he had been acting strangely, seeing things, and had obviously been thrown from a car moments before it fell over the cliff. They suspected mild head trauma, but he was doing fine.

 

The guy chatting with the cops walked over, in a street-wide gait. “Hey man, tough break.” The stranger reached over to give a fistbump, then rethought it, seeing that he was wrapped in a blanket. “Dude, you lived through that? You can live through anything.”

 

The guy sure looked like their hitchhiker. Except this guy spoke English, and didn’t smile… So confused, he closed his eyes.

 

“Yeah, I guess you need some R and R. You know what I recommend? Chill, head down south for a while, find your head, you know, man?”

 

“Yeah, I guess so.”

 

“Hopefully, I don’t have to see you around again man, but anyway. Hey, have a nice life. Do good shit and all that, man.” A smokey laugh, a surfer type laugh. He opened his eyes just in time to see the same bright white smile from before. The same guy, he was certain now. Had to be. What were the chances? Maybe he really had been conked on the head.

 

The stranger waved, shuffled on the spot, and then started walking off down the gravel on the side of the road, headed south, the opposite way they’d been driving, and he swore to God, just a second there, it was like he glowed a little around the head. What was that called? Golden light? Halo. That’s right, a fucking halo. He knew how ridiculous his thoughts were.

 

He closed his eyes and tried to be patient with himself. It was just the head wound talking. He was seeing halos. He cracked his eyes open again to peer over toward one of the EMTs. No halo there.

 

He tried to look back at the stranger again to see if he still saw it, but he just saw a jeaned pantleg and a sneaker as the dude rounded a curve out of sight.

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