Screaming Candle

The Strange – Episode 12 Upgrades

In the Hogstown State University Hospital critical care ward, a weak heart continued its beating vigil. All around, the organs it had worked beside for decades were failing, leaving it as a one of the few lone holdouts in this old woman’s chest.

Beat… beat… beat… rest. The heart joined the rest of its companions intending to give itself and its host it’s final, well deserved sleep. From deep within the woman, the flow of energy she always carried, the energy that had bonded her to her love and her life, that energy faded to a trickle, then stopped.

A sudden, sharp burst of another power from outside of the old woman’s body, shocked her system back almost to equilibrium, and the jolt was enough to bring the sleeping organs back to life. The heart began to beat again and Natasha Riley continued to save the world.

But the burst of power that shocked her back to life continued to race through the city.

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The Sod Walls of the Natural History Museum spit and two sets of glass doors allowed entry. The doors were locked this early on a Saturday. Like many of Hogstown State’s facilities, the museum was more geared to teaching than presenting. Students who worked there could use the less dramatic rear door next to the loading doc. This Saturday morning, only one did.

“Can you believe that toad is making me work today? Ugh!” The fair redheaded girl’s words echoed off the ignored exhibits and polished stone floor of the empty museum’s main hall. “I don’t know what his problem is. You don’t think he likes me or anything? I mean… Yuck!” Her hands flew in the air in disgust.

Undetected by the girl, the wave of power coming from the hospital blew through the museum. The sod and stone walls could not dim the power. It swirled and caressed everything, blowing through and around as it tore through the building. As quickly as it came, the power was gone, but it left the landscape slightly altered.

She turned off the main hall and pushed open a door marked “Staff Only.” The new hall had the cheap, prefab, metal doors of a seventies public building, but it kept the high ceiling.

“Well he said, ‘Andrea, I expect you to finish cataloging these samples.’ Just like that. Like I’m actually going to get through a whole box of these stupid rocks in four hours?”

The work room was full of utilitarian metal shelves and a few large tables for examining samples. Andrea wandered in and navigated the rows of rock bins without interrupting her phone conversation.

“So yeah, he told me it was my job if they weren’t done by Sunday, when the Prof gets back.” The phone squeaked. “Well, I’m glad you are getting ready for the rush party.” She climbed the ladder and grabbed a plastic sample bin by the handle. “I know you want me to rush, but I’m on student loans, remember? I wouldn’t be able to pay sorority dues.”

Carelessly, the distracted co-ed tugged on a box, leaving it teetering on the edge. “Hell, I’m counting rocks for room and … Bo-oo-oo-oard!”  The box of rocks shifted and fell off the shelf, Andrea still holding on to the handle. The slight woman was pulled off the ladder and tossed to the hard ground by the force.

The rock samples came crashing from the box and down onto the hard floor as the girl fell prone. One fist-sized rock hit the stone floor, inches from her face and it cracked in two. From inside the rock, Andrea saw a mesmerizing, glimmering object. Not taking her eyes off the enchanting sparkle, she pulled herself off the ground.

Her cell phone talked excitedly into the air. She picked it up and absently said, “I’ll have to call you back.” She dropped the phone and cradled the glinting half-rock.

The box said these stone samples should be ancient. Nothing man made could be inside, much less an article of rare and captivating beauty. But as she looked inside the rock shell, she saw a tiny two-inch shimmering silver sword with an intricate golden handle. Turning the rock upside down she dropped the tiny blade into the palm of her hand.

It looked sharp and perfect, without a scratch. As if to test this, she lightly touched the blade with her fingertip. A small drop of blood caught on the blade as her finger sliced open.

“Ow!” She stuck her finger in her mouth, not noticing that the drop of blood on the blade instantly coated the strange metal object. It soaked impossibly into the blade. The blood sang through the tiny sword and it began to glow.

Andrea looked deeply into this glow as it grew brighter and brighter. The light blinded her and overwhelmed her senses. A giggle escaped her, as her body began to dissolve and pour itself into the eldritch light. As that light continued to grow more brilliant and beautiful, her giggle turned to booming laughter.

Out in the main hall, her laugh reverberated through the unexamined exhibits of the museum. “So Much POWER!”

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“…and the rest you know.”

The two looked at Goldberg, dumbfounded, mouths agape. The only sound was the hum of the box fans in the windows and the steady snipping of Joy’s scissors.

“Dude. That’s messed up. You won that lottery? You’re going to remember who your friends are right?” Dan smiled with too much teeth.

“So, we fled the scene of a murder.” Molly had her hand over her mouth, eyes wide in surprise.

“No. I did. Maybe. Really, it was self-preservation. You had nothing to do with it, in any event. The officer only saw me, I guess.”

“Maybe the cop got killed.” He clapped his hands. “Problem solved. Case closed. Call it a day.”

“Dan!” Joy shot a disgusted look at him.

Molly smeared a bagel with cream cheese and munched away.

“I’m just saying… that was a pretty good explosion. Not to mention, I could have sworn I saw the guy being blown out of the house. That’s a long way to fall and not die.”

Pausing her snipping, Joy said, “I thought you were at work this morning.”

“Yeah, well,” Dan seemed to fight confusion for words. “I’m still not too sure what I saw, but I saw something”

“The Cop didn’t die.” Goldberg said with confidence.

Molly challenged him, crossing her arms across her fat and ample chest. Her voice was muffled by the last of the bagel. “You know this how? And how can you just sit there giving him a haircut?”

“What else am I supposed to do?” Joy said, continuing to cut. “Trust me, I’m all tension and conflict on the inside. External fidgeting is not going to help. And besides, he still smells like… burning.”

Goldberg once again grabbed the thread of the conversation. “I know this because the power, the same power I used to save you, helped me get the guy into the right position. He was right by the window so he’d be blown out of it and live, just like Dan said.”

“Hey, don’t drag me into supporting you’re fucked up weirdness. I say that this is all just an acid flashback. You know how many tabs we’ve taken in our lives?”

“It wasn’t a flashback, Dan. I know what reality is most of the time and what I saw was real. Shoot, I can still see it now if I care to.” He reflexively tried to get up only to feel Joy slap him on the head. “Ow!”

“I told you moving would be painful. Now sit still, tiger.”

“Yeah, I just… My God! Your hair!” Joy’s dark hair now had narrow streaks of dark purple.

Her hand went up to the top of her head. “What? Did I cut it somewhere?”

“No. It’s purple. The color.” The purple went all the way down to the root, like it just grew that way.

“Purple? What?”

“Your…” He glanced over his shoulder at Molly and Dan and asked, “You all both see this too, right?”

Dan raised his head from absentmindedly packing another bowl of weed. “Yeah. Good look. What’s the big deal?”

“It just lightened as her hair dried,” Molly added, looking off into space. When no one replied, she got a flash of paranoia and said, “Right?”

“Wrong!” Joy said, sailing into the bathroom. I’ve never died my hair in my life, much less purple.”

“Well, it is a nice color for you,” Molly said, returning to space.

From the bathroom, Joy yelled, “Holly crap!” She paused a moment then said, “You know, it actually isn’t that bad when you… What the hell?”

She came out looking miffed and surprised. “Goldberg, you didn’t…”

His hands shot into the air to deflect the daggers poised behind her eyes. “Hey, Look, I’ve been telling you all that weird shit has been happening. At least you aren’t having visions and bumping into dead people.”

The strains of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” dropped into the silence as Joy considered this.

“So, do you all still think I’m tripping or what?” Goldberg asked.

“I don’t know what to think. But this,” she pointed at her hair, “hardly proves that you are some sort of super dude. Exceptional, maybe…”

On the couch, Dan waited for Molly to finish smoking from the bong. Feeling eyes upon him he swiveled his head. “I think you all are both nuts,” he smiled, “but you already know that. Still, sucks to be you I guess. You get all that money and will probably have to spend it OJ-ing yourself into a ‘not guilty’ for killing Weird Bill.” He shook his head. “That shit’s fucked up. I mean, are you sure?”

“That he’s dead? Well… Yeah. Hard to believe.”

“Man, now we have to say nice things about him, even though he was kind of a tool.”

“Dan!” Joy’s shout of disgust echoed off of the bathroom tiles.

“What? Why do you think we called him Weird Bill? Thought the world was out to get him. Guess he was right. Been like that ever since I had him for Calc Two in Undergrad.”

Molly handed the bong back to him and tilted her head. “You took Calc Two?”

“Please,” Dan said, feigning insult, “You see before you a BS in Aeronautical Engineering.”

“With an emphasis on the BS,” Goldberg chimed in.

A frown crossed Molly’s face, creasing her heavy eyes into almost imperceptible slits. “What the hell are you doing being a sign changer guy … former… Seems kinda … manual.”

“What’s wrong with manual? I like my job.” He shrugged and added, “liked.”

“Yeah well I liked my house.”

They both sat there and let the sounds of the box fans resonate against their buzzing minds.

Goldberg said, “You all aren’t helping me much. I mean, there has to be some logical explanation here.” They both shot him puzzled looks. “I’ve got some kind a geek super power or something. There was that clue at the top of the spire that no one else could see but me and even though it’s probably crushed under rubble, maybe there’s a way to prove I didn’t kill Bill in this whole thing. Maybe that thing is the reason someone killed him.”

Joy returned from the bathroom with ruffled hair and pursed lips. “Well, fine. The police will find it and figure it out.”

“I am not feeling happy at all with the police. Did you miss the part where the guy yelled ‘Freeze. Hands up’? Maybe I should just lay low and let the whole thing blow over? I mean, isn’t that what people do?”

“I hate to say it, dude, but what people do is call the cops. I’m no fan of the man, but this is the kind of shit they are supposed to handle.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t know… I probably look guilty as hell to them. If I had the ball still, then maybe my story wouldn’t sound nuts. Or maybe if the fire hadn’t destroyed the place. But I don’t and it did. There is nothing to prove that I didn’t do it!”

“Sounds like one of those stupid, mass market Sci-Fi novels you are always reading.” Dan gestured toward the milk crate and board shelves stacked against the wall filled with colorful looking book spines. “This isn’t a space opera. You don’t need to investigate, you need a lawyer.”

“I’m not talking about going nuts here, just making sure I can cover my ass before poking The Man. So, what do you say? We go back there and look around. I’m sure the power will help us out!”

Dan and Joy gave him looks that were concerned, bordering on pity. Joy came around and sat on his lap, straddling him and running her fingers through his newly cropped hair.

“Goldberg, you are a sweet man, but this is stupid. Maybe you should just call the police and tell them everything and let them handle it. It’s their job!”

“Yeah, Listen to the smart one, here.” Dan gestured to her with the bong and she shook her head.

“I’m thinking one toke is good enough for this day. Besides, someone has to keep you all out of trouble.”

“To late,” Dan said cheerfully. “How about you, Killer?”

Goldberg frowned. “You just advised me to talk to the cops and now you think I should do it stoned?”

“It’ll take the edge off, man.”

“Yeah, but… Ah fuck, I’m screwed anyway.”

He turned away from Joy and made to get up but her weight in his lap kept him there. Joy turned his head with her fingers and looked in his eyes.

“Sweetie, you are innocent. I believe you and so will they. Maybe you have the missing piece of information that would help the cops catch Bill’s killer. You should just come clean and call the police before they come and find you. Because they will find you. Besides, maybe you have some kind of power, or you just had some kind of flashback, but how is that really going to help you?”

“But… Your hair…”

“What am I supposed to do? stun the cops into submission with my lilac locks? You have just had a really bad experience and I don’t blame you for whatever is going on in your head, but…”

“Call the fuzz, man. Playing hero is for fools and you’d look fishy for not coming forward sooner. You’re a smart guy and it’s the smart play.”

Goldberg’s face fell into utter defeat. “You know, I don’t really know if I believe in powers either… they violate all the precepts of reality, conservation of energy, probability, statistics, order, and when that goes… but I was there and I saw what I saw. Speaking of which, I can’t see shit. Can you guys help me find a spare pair of glasses?” He shook his head. “I mean, what am I going to say? How am I supposed to explain what I was doing there?”

“Well, I’d leave out the hallucination.” He brought the bong to his lips, shrugged and flicked the lighter. “Just a thought.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Six hours to kill. Don’t suppose you brought cards with you? Forgot how boring field work can be at times.” He shrugged. “It’s been a while.”

Delgado looked up from his field manual emblazoned with a fake weather agency logo. Belatran’s face was inky black and highlighted only by the red dashboard of the jet. The sun not quite rising over Arizona plastered pink across the windscreen, but it didn’t have enough power yet to illuminate the cockpit or the pilot when viewed from the cabin.

“No,” He said, returning to his book. “No cards. Sorry.”

“Just as well.” Belatran swiveled back around in his seat and regarded the pink sky. “I’ll just catch up on baseball news. The Dodgers sure have sucked this year.”

Delgado gave a non-committal grunt. “Hey Belatran, you mentioned something about ‘upgrades.’ Are you upping my security clearance?”

Belatran froze, looking at the striped pink sky. The sun broke above the horizon then; starting as a pin prick, lengthening to a line, then growing into a bright half circle above the desert. The pink of the sky retreated to the west, washed out to a pale blue around the sun. The man in the cockpit didn’t blink in response to the blinding light of a new day. He didn’t need to. He could soak up everything the sky could give him.

Delgado observed Belatran from his rear seat, squinting at dawn’s sudden arrival. “Belatran?”

“Yeah, kid. Upgrades.” He fiddled with the radio in the cockpit, finding a satellite sports channel. “Do me a favor and grab that metal box out of the holder.”

The mysterious box hung inside a frame in the comm console in front of Delgado. The circle of the housing in which the box hovered, seemingly suspended in the air, ceased to be black now that the sun shone through the windshield. The circle was now red as danger, bold and unbroken It’s shiny exterior intrigued the young operative even as its unknown insides made him wary. Still, it was just a box, right?

After a moment of contemplation, he reached over for it. The moment his fingers slid over the smooth surface, the thing became alive, quickly stretching out dozens of wires like a perverted flower. Delgado’s eyes went wide as the flower’s silvery petals closed on his forearm like a mouth and jabbed his flesh like needles.

Before he could even scream, his mind went dark.

The Strange – Episode 13 – Spilling the Beans