A week later I went off the painkillers and quit my job – perhaps not the best timing, but the world of social work had gone dead to me years before when I ditched my savior complex anyways, and the depression I was sulking in basically sealed the deal. The rumor mill around the office was that I had burned out – fine, whatever. I couldn’t exactly tell them that I had an insatiable craving to return to a place that didn’t even exist and yet had somehow made my everyday life feel utterly meaningless.
I also moved out of Andy’s apartment. And not just because I couldn’t contribute the rent anymore. It’s not that I didn’t love him – well, I mean I definitely didn’t love him but that’s not why I left – I just got tired of the weird stares, awkward questions, and suggestions that I see a councilor.
“You don’t smile anymore.”
“Quit yelling at me.”
“You’ve been acting suicidal.”
Blah, blah, blah…
Yeah ok, I understood – I was going a little nuts since the whole supposed out-of-body experience thing but I was getting tired of getting the third degree every time I jumped out my skin at the sight of my two non-existent stalkers, Penny and Blaine.
That’s what I named them, btw. Penny seemed like the right name for a cute young girl in pigtails and Blaine pissed me off so often that I gave him the closest name to the word “blame”.
I was pleased to find, though, that since I’d moved out of Andy’s place the strange ghosts hadn’t visited me. Maybe I’d finally appeased them. Maybe they just didn’t like Andy. I couldn’t begrudge them that.
I decided to stop by the strip mall to grab a drink before I heading to bed in the backseat of my car near the Generic-Mart parking lot. Diet Dr Pepper was my nighttime beverage of choice and I could always convince the guy at the Corner Mart to give it to me for free. Cuz I’m awesome like that.
I took a little stroll down the strip mall in the cool Houston air before turning down my seat cushion for the night. It was a nice and scenic little shopping area – I meandered past the pet store, the liquor store, the strip club, and then the abandoned warehouse. The pawn shop was teaming with activity as usual and I could hear live music wafting through the breeze from the small karaoke bar with the boarded up windows. I smiled to myself. I was gonna be okay.
I turned back towards my car prepared to call it a night, but a small brown hand gripped my arm just above the elbow.
“Keep walking,” whispered a small voice, “and don’t say a word.”
I looked down to see the small girl with the two braids guiding me along the pathway back in the direction I came.
“I was already walking – ”
“Shhh!” She hissed, “You’ll look like a crazy person.”
I glanced down at her, rushing her little feet along in a pair of pink Mary Jane’s, a ridiculous pair of denim overalls covering her lime green tank top, and a baseball cap with the Cowboys logo turned backwards on her head.
“I’m going to look like a crazy person?” I ejected forcefully.
“No one else can see me. You’ll look like you’re talking to yourself.”
I scoffed as she gripped my arm tighter, picking up speed. “Hey!” I tried to pull my arm from grasp but she had an iron fist. I could already feel the bruises forming when she opened the door to the abandoned warehouse and tossed me inside, glancing around cautiously before locking the door behind her.
I caught myself before falling to the ground and rushed back towards the door. “I’m not hanging out in an empty building with a crazy person,” I spat. But before I could reach the door, her hand was clamped on my arm again, dragging me back into the dark depths of the dilapidated hallway.
“Where are you taking me?” I screamed. “Let go, I’m going to bruise!”
She gave me a malignant stare that told me her size was no indication of her strength. I shut my mouth and crossed my fingers.
The hallways seemed to go on forever. We turned right, then left, went upstairs then down, entered doorways and jumped through trap doors. Wherever she was taking me, she was making damn sure I’d never find my way out without a bulldozer.
After what seemed like a good solid hour of traipsing through a building I felt quite certain wasn’t more than 200 feet deep, we finally reached a door with a faint glow sneaking out beneath. I heaved a sigh.
“Have we finally made it to my torture chamber? Because I’ll tell you right now: it was the one-armed man. All you had to do was ask.”
She glared and reached for the doorknob. The door creaked open before she reached it and I found myself face-to-face with fuzz-face psycho-criminal Blaine. A smile crept across his face.
“It’s about time.”
Penny shoved me into the dusty room and shut the door behind me. There were two others in the room – a taller woman who looked like a blonde version of cat woman but with a pair of Capri pants and a yellow halter top instead of a leather suit, and an older pudgy Asian man with a balding head, a pair of oh-my-God-those-are-way-too-small spandex bike shorts and a t-shirt that would’ve complimented the shorts perfectly if it were just a smidge longer.
A round splintered table sat in the middle of the room underneath a crude rusting chandelier and a set of Go Fish cards coloring the tabletop.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt high stakes poker. I’ll come back later…” I turned to leave but little miss Prissy Penny had me in her grips again.
I slumped onto a wobbly 3-legged stool and the others pulled up various chair-like paraphernalia, seating themselves almost simultaneously.
“You guys gonna sing show tunes for me too?” I teased nervously. The four glares persisted. “Not that kind of crowd…” I mumbled.
Suddenly Blondie stood up, knocking her metal trash can chair to the floor. “This is completely ridiculous – look at her! There’s no possible way this is going to work. She doesn’t look like she’s worked out a day in her life and she’s done nothing but sack out and drink for the past two weeks. If we send her in she’ll stay just like the others.”
“Just have a seat, Blondie,” said Penny, “we already discussed this. We don’t get to make these choices; we go with what we get.”
Blondie walked over towards me so she was towering over Penny’s tiny frame. “We’re running out time, Penny!”
Wow, apparently I have a knack for guessing names. 2 for 4…
“The window is closing and I’m not about to allow Star to rot in that prison because some pipsqueak had a freak blood clot.”
The pudgy man – with some effort – stood to join the fight. “We need all the help we can get.” His voice was far deeper and much more terrifying than I expected for a man with absolutely no fashion sense. “Fate isn’t going to help us here – it’s a lie. We use what comes our way. We’ve all found a way to withstand it, haven’t we?”
Blondie snorted but didn’t answer. Blaine stepped forward. “We’ve had this conversation too many times already, guys. I’m done arguing about it. Let’s get to point already before the Neteru start sniffing us out again. We won’t survive another mutiny.”
Blaine sat back and looked at me apologetically. I decided it was time to open my big fat mouth again. “Okay, guys, I’ve watched enough science fiction and fantasy movies to figure out where this is going. Clearly you’re not here to torture me for information or seek out a Grail so that means there must be some kind of fight going on somewhere – maybe a foreign land, maybe underground, maybe up Blaine’s asshole, I don’t know, and somehow – not surprisingly – you’ve deemed me the ‘chosen one’. Well, look, I appreciate the designation but as you’ve noted, I prefer to sit on my ass and drink beer. Therefore, I will not be joining you on any battles, or quests, or starships or whatever the hell you’ve got hiding in the back of this fuck-tastic building. So if you’ll just give me the hidden invisible treasure map of Gath that shows me the way to the nearest bar, me, my lightning scar, and my precious ring will be on our way.”
They all stared in silence. I blinked around to each of them, waiting for a response but they seemed dumbfounded. Finally Blondie piped in.
“I told you, she’s useless.” She pounded her fist on the table, loosening a few splinters. “She thinks it’s a fucking joke!”
Chaos broke loose. The four of them went at it, yelling, pushing, and screaming in frustration. I took the opportunity and bolted out the door. They didn’t seem to notice so I took advantage, rushing around each corner, plowing through doors, down hallways, and scooting back up through trap doors. I had no idea where I was going, I just wanted to get the hell out; the labyrinth had to end eventually, right?
Not fifteen minutes later, I heaved a sigh of relief as I reached the double glass doors we came in through. I pummeled towards them, ready to crash right through the glass if I had to, when Blaine stepped in front of me. I plowed right into him with a thud, sending me crashing to the floor at his feet. He hardly seemed affected. I grabbed at my side, now throbbing from the my uncharacteristic physical activity. Three other pairs of shoes circled me as I writhed.
“She may be of use after all,” I heard Blondie mumble.
“She killed that maze in a quarter of the time it took us coming in…” Penny’s voice had a distinct tone of admiration I hadn’t heard before.
“Pick her up and get her back in the room. We’ve already been exposed too long.”