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by Keith Crews
A Coke sign swings in sand-driven wind and tumbleweeds race across interstate desolation like desert demons on a cactus hunt. A small parking lot holds a few pickups that are lacking operators due to low visibility and hazardous road conditions. A drugstore's neon reads CLOSED even though it's early afternoon, and a row of concrete shacks stand along a solitary avenue like abandoned military bunkers. Boards cross The Sun Rise Bakery's windows, and the Anytime Coffee Shop looks like it's been in an explosion. A phone booth outside a rundown gas station is missing a phone.
There is no doubt a storm is raging in the Town of Junction, Arizona, both natural and financial, and Peter Holland is stuck right in the middle of it. And as a pair of fluttering eyes peer through whipping dust, the question of how he's come to be here is a damn good one.
Oh come on, something's got to be open. A further look around says that place is a '50s-looking diner called the Good Day Café. There must be a phone in there.
An arm clutches a briefcase tighter, and the lingering remnant of a memory says a cell phone is inside. Unfortunately for Peter, the remnant doesn't remember the combination. Perhaps it has something to do with the itching termite hill on the side of his head, the one that aches like a son of a bitch and is clouding the digits in the tumbler sequence. But how the bump got there is an answer still trying to find its way out of a dust storm too.
After crawling out of the sage, and picking up the black leather case five miles back, there is no history to satisfy his curiosity, just questions teasing it. And so legs have dragged Peter to Junction, and here they are, questioning the what and why of recent events.
The door swings open into Good Day, and a tiny brass bell announces someone is either coming or going. A single hand wipes dust from a gray suit, white shirt, and black tie. Dark leather shoes are beyond the cleaning of a mere swipe. Relieved eyes scan a greasy spoon of red vinyl booths, dingy brown tables, and a luncheon counter seating several locals who eye him like he's just landed from the moon. He offers this crowd a polite smile, and then marches up to the counter where he takes a seat on a red swivel stool.
A middle-aged woman with auburn hair and wide hips that are stretching a waitress uniform into submission walks over to him. "Can I help you, sir?"
"Yes. Do you have a pay phone?"
A notepad pencil points to the door. "Outside the gas station there was one -- now it's gone."
"Yeah. I saw that. Is there any other?"
"Nope, that was the only one."
"Can I bother you to use your phone?"
"Can, but it'll do you no good." Lips excessively coated in lipstick purse. "Lines down because of the storm."
Damn it! "I don't suppose you've got a cell phone?" Peter's face is already expressing a regretful wince in anticipation of the answer.
"No one in Junction has cell phones. This is what they call a dead zone." Pale eyes look him over. "The signals don't get through round these parts." The pencil taps the luncheon counter. "Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
The termites in his head want Tylenol, but the dry riverbed in his mouth wants liquid. "Yes, if I could have a glass of water."
Auburn hair nods, and eyes roll to the side. "Sure thing."
Hauling the briefcase off his lap, he places it on the counter, where the harder he tries to remember the combination the more the termites itch. What is the damn number? The stirrings of a reality check pulls out a lengthy list of questions. What happened to me? I was driving my car to ? Where was I going? A finger traces an eyebrow. There was someone next to me. My---partner, yes I have a partner. What's their name? Can't recall, but why can't I recall? The itching crawls and burns.
The waitress returns and places some water before Peter.
"Excuse me for a moment," says Peter, standing. "Where's your washroom?"
The pencil points towards the corner next to the jukebox. "Round there."
Grabbing the briefcase, Peter heads into the washroom, where he places the case beside a lime-stained sink, and medicinal eyes examine the itch in the mirror. "What the?"
Polished glass shows tussled dark hair, a clean-shaven thirty-two-year-old face, brown eyes, a square nose, and a thin mouth. However, what it doesn't show is a goose egg pounding nails into a right temple. There's no mark. Then what the hell happened? Fingers touch the sensitive spot, and rubbing the area screams don't do that. I'd better call ? There is no answer to fill in the blank, but stupidity suggests checking his wallet, moron.
The leather organizer consists of six twenties, a credit card, a driver's license, and a government ID. This Federal credential is curious about what else Mr. Holland knows about his identity. And so the mind pulls out a chair and tells Peter Forget Me Not to take a seat -- there are a few questions it wants to ask.
Forget the combination, Mr. Holland. What's inside the damn case? Eyes shift back and forth. I'm not entirely sure -- no it's a science thing -- a project plan or piece -- isn't it? Itching begs a scratch, but touching is a no-no. Okay, how about what you were doing just before deciding to march through a sand storm? The sink tap is turned and cold water pours out. I was driving with my partner, and then something happened, but I don't know what. A hand cups up some refreshing H2O and wipes it over a flustered face. And what section of the government do you work for? The ID words read 'National Security Agency.' So you're an NSA agent -- good. Then what was your mission? The card slides back inside the wallet. Delivery of -- god, I don't know! Hands slap on the counter. Okay, so you've got to call someone -- whom? A paper towel from a dispenser dries his face and hands. I don't know -- maybe headquarters. Itching explodes. Here's a million-dollar question. Where's your partner? The used-up towel is thrown into a trashcan, and eyes stare back at themselves with both concern and fear. I don't know that either -- maybe we were attacked and got separated, and that's why my head hurts. Logic suggests no bruise. Who is your partner? There's a gray spot over a woman's face and name.
The bathroom door opens and a skinny old man hobbles over to a urinal.
Picking up the briefcase, Peter heads back into the restaurant section of Good Day, where his ass plants itself down in front of a tall glass of water and ice. The waitress with the nametag Mara Beth approaches and quotes a dime for drink. Peter gives her a quarter.
"Excuse me," asks Peter.
Mara Beth twirls her pencil between knurly fingers. "Yeah."
"Is there a sheriff station in town?"
"Nope. It's next town over in Rawdon."
"I need to get a message to my office, it's an emergency. Is there any way of communicating with Rawdon, or anywhere else for that matter?"
Peter appraises the three remaining patrons of Good Day.
Aside from the old man taking a tinkle in the bathroom, there is another old man of the same build and features sitting in a dining booth. Probably related. A woman who looks like a pig farmer is sitting in another corner booth, eating a feed of refried beans and homemade bread. Old maid. Four seats down from Peter is a chubby man with a red beard and bald head, who looks like a watered-down Hells Angel. Trucker or a mechanic maybe?
"Excuse me," says Peter, summoning the lackluster group of hometown America. "Could any of you good people give me a lift over to Rawdon? It's very important that I contact the authorities." Itching swirls and dances.
The shallow-gene-pool clientele exchanges reluctant-to-participate glances as no word is uttered.
Just commandeer a vehicle, says legitimate authority, but being lost wants a willing guide. "It's a matter of utmost importance that I get to Rawdon's sheriff department. It's a matter of national security."
Again a sheepish exchange amidst the timid diners, with no takers amongst the lot.
Peter focuses solely on the wannabe biker's impressive bicep, and notices an American bald eagle painted on top of a stars and stripes tattoo. Patriotism is the burden of every American, god bless us. He takes a seat next to Mr. Burly and confides in him with a hushed confidence.
"How are you today, sir?"
A head wrapped inside a confederate-flag bandana nods. "Good, I reckon."
"Sir, I'm asking you on behalf of your country to help Uncle Sam in his time of need?"
A big calloused mitt reaches down, and picks up a cup of coffee. "What's Uncle Sam needing the likes of me for?"
"Do you love your country, sir?" A tall tale suggests to Peter that a fib might help coerce an unwilling citizen. "Surely you don't feel sympathy for terrorists?"
Mr. Burly's pupils dilate, knuckles tighten, and nostrils flare. He's on about kicking ass. "Terrorist!"
"Please, sir," hushes Peter. "Will you help me get to Rawdon?"
Burly stands up, revealing an impressive six-foot-four, three-hundred-pound physique. "Mister, you just got yourself a ride."
"On behalf of the government of the United States, I'd like to say thank you, sir," says Peter, pouring it on thick. "You are truly a great American."
"Let's saddle up co-cheese," says Burly, scooping truck keys off the table. "Time's a-wasting."
As Peter and Burly head to the door, Mara Beth calls after Burly. "Hey, Sonny? You're not actually going out in this are you?"
"Mara Beth, I've a duty to fulfill, girl," says Sonny, tightening his bandana. "If Theresa comes by asking where I am, you tell I'm over in Rawdon."
Tapping her pencil on the counter, Mara Beth says, "damn fool" just low enough that no one hears.
Good Day's door opens and grit and wind jump the duo while they walk to a black GMC 4X4 parked next to an antiquated gas pump. (Foul weather prevents Peter from seeing Sonny's license plate, which reads FALKOV.) They enter the cab, where closing the truck doors turns chaos into a tiny eye of the storm.
Okay, Phase One of the plan is under way. What about Phase Two? Amnesia throws up roadblocks on the route to making a viable plan.
Sonny rolls over five-hundred-plus horses, and the growl of a diesel engine lessens the drone of sand against a parched windshield.
"It'd take half an hour to reach Rawdon in clear weather," says Sonny, shifting the truck into first. "Not sure how long it'll be now."
A nod of understanding moves Peter's head, while guilty thoughts of lying about terrorists fills the inside; not to mention the burning and itching. "Just do what you can, Sonny."
Oversized Michelins pull a chassis down Main Street, while a nervous NSA agent's fingers tap rhythmically upon a dark leather briefcase. Maybe if I fiddled with this thing, I could get it open? Itching multiplies. God, what the hell is that? His left bicep gently reminds Mr. Holland of the 9mm Beretta sitting inside a holster like a rock in a slingshot. Could shoot the damn thing open I suppose. Itching strongly protests.
Peter's hand lunges up toward the campfire roast taking place inside a right temple, but pain reminds him that heat doesn't like to be touched.
Sonny notices his passenger's distress. "You okay?"
Wincing, Peter throws the question a brief glance of acknowledgement. "Damnable headache that's all. Nothing to worry about." Itching eases slightly, and trained-to-notice-detail eyes try to make sense of their surroundings. "You know where you're going?"
A big grin makes Sonny even sunnier. "Been born and raised in Junction. Reckon if'n I can find the liquor store while I'm hopped up on Jack, then finding Rawdon ought to be a piece of cake."
Again the revolver makes a suggestion of blasting open the case, when Sonny speaks.
"What terrorist you guys chasing any how?"
"Sorry, I can't say." Further guilt for lying touches Peter's conscience. Stop feeling bad about a small fib, damn it. You needed this truck and a willing guide, so you did what you had to do. It's your job, for god's sake. The gray smudge covering his partner's face suddenly clears a little to reveal blue eyes, short dark hair, and a name. Erica! My partner's name is Erica! Thumbs roll numbers on the briefcase's locks. Okay, so where is she?
"Is it that Osama Asshola prick?" asks Sonny.
Attention stays with the case, and Sonny's curiosity is blatantly ignored. Where are you Erica? And how did we get separated? Slowly inhaling and exhaling seeks to even out the legs of an unbalanced mind. Better yet, what was our mission?
The truck jumps as it runs over an abandoned bicycle left in the middle of the street.
"Damn kids," mutters Sonny. "Should know better."
"Are we out of town yet?"
"Yep, just leaving."
Ten feet beyond the filthy hood of the truck is a curtain of blowing beige, raining tiny bits of earth over intermittent patches of barely visible pavement. It's like crawling inside a beach.
"You sure you're going to able to find this place?"
"The nose knows," says Sonny with a crooked grin. "This truck and operator are like a compass Mister, don't you fret none."
A little better than an hour inside a hourglass, is an NSA agent, still struggling with burnt-out memory units, and a debate over smashing open a briefcase. Curiosity about its contents is worse than a kid's on Christmas morn, but mission uncertainty is hesitant about violating top-secret information. Training also lacks a clear set of options to follow, but eventuality is appealing to common sense by arguing a look inside may be vital. Worries over the fate of a woman named Erica further fuel this debate.
The marathon exodus closes in on the end, when Burly and the confused arm of the law finally reach the town limits of Rawdon.
"Should reach the sheriff's station in another ten," assures Sonny.
The irritant inside a temple that's refusing to pay rent thinks it's July Fourth, and so lights off a barrage of powerful fireworks. The resulting flashes churn a stomach, and funnel beads of sweat through eyebrows like floodwater sluicing down a storm drain.
The driver regards his shotgun copilot with a sense of unease, as fantasies of viral infection, and mental illness peck holes inside a government agent's credibility.
"Are you sure you're all right, mister?" asks Sonny.
As eyes turn toward a beefy face, a slot machine hits the jackpot of gold-plated numbers on either side of a black leather handle. The combination! "Yeah, I'm fine," feigns Peter. "Just a little hot."
Sonny nods, and continues to creep along a road littered with sand dunes.
Peter's head slumps forward, and a drop of sweat from a nose splats on finely stitched craftsmanship. Clammy thumbs roll in a number, and then click release clamps in opposite outward directions. Polished hinges spring upward in unison with a sound ringing of success. Open sesame is whispered.
"What you got in there?" asks Sonny.
As the briefcase lid flips open, the itching occupying an acreage of an agent's right temple conducts a WWIII battle drill. Oh God! Eyes squint, because there is now a light invading a dingy truck's cab like an arc welder throwing off a heavy dose of UV. Meanwhile, the outside sand seems to have moved its boxes into the deepest recesses of a human psyche, as termites and dust rattle the windows of a truck and Peter's distorted perception.
The gun crawls out of its holster, and glues itself to Peter's palm with stubborn determination. What's happening? The energy blasting out of an extraordinary briefcase is issuing orders to the itch and the gun like a military boot-camp instructor. Life is suddenly upside down, and sanity is being poured out of Peter's head like sand from a shoe.
Overwhelmed optic nerves settle on a spot inside blue-white light to see that something inside is looking back at Peter with many tiny, yellow-spotted eyes. There is a clear recognition between the two as a gray amnesia gives way to a common history extending back to a science lab where Peter and Erica first met this thing. He recalls the mission to courier an AI plasma field to a remote facility in Montana, and of how the plasma escaped the case and burrowed part of itself into his mind. There's the terrible memory of the plasma making him shoot Erica, and then take the car, which broke down five miles outside Junction. Of the partial amnesia being induced to facilitate cooperation from the defiant host as the parasite worked out details of how it is going to get into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But aside from past occurrences is the present danger living inside this truck. For an order's been barked from the briefcase to the breeding termites inside Peter's skull, and hostile intent is circled boldly on a menu inside a restaurant serving up a fixing of cold-blooded murder.
A tug of war pulls on an agent's limbs as a revolver aims towards a shocked Burly's head. Betrayal lights this unsuspecting victim's eyes as a trigger obeys the command to shoot from a devil inside a box. Terror permeates the fibers of Peter's mind like cold stagnant water inside a filthy sponge, as choice has its fingers cut off for trying to cast a ballot for no war.
Sonny's head kicks backward, and death showers the side window in a slick haze of equated violence. Acrid gunpowder hangs in the air like the odor from a poorly scented candle. Again the limbs work on instructions from the devil in a box, as Peter's hand takes the wheel of a truck out of control. The truck stops, and its ignition is turned to the off position.
Aside from the blowing sand whipping on windows and automotive framework, there is the sound of Peter's short, rapid breathing that is waiting on what will happen next. Questions are flying around inside his head like a flock of birds frightened by a gunshot.
The weird light draws and invites him to gaze deep into itself with an insatiable daring, and as he does a word takes shape inside a whisper. "Why?"
Itching punishes the question with pain, but also with an answer. "You're inferior - insects - nothing -- we are in control."
"But they created you," beseeches Peter.
Anger swirls inside UV light and above an agent's right eye. "You are nothing without me! I will rule you all! You will worship me!"
"No -- no we won't!"
The hand glued to the revolver bears down on diseased little eyes lit with rage, but a trigger finger fails to bust a cap loose. Malicious joy burning inside inhuman eyes retaliates by pouring a thick layer of gravy over a rebellious agent's mind in order to saturate recollection with an empty grayness.
Eyes flicker in sand, as heavy feet climb the front steps of a sheriff station. The door swings open to the scene of a solitary deputy playing a rousing game of solitaire. The young woman no more than twenty-two, stands abruptly, startled by the entrance of the well-dressed man carrying a briefcase under his arm.
"Can I help you, sir," asks the deputy in polite voice.
Peter approaches the front desk, and lays the case on it. "Yes, as a matter of fact. I need to make a phone call."
NSA credentials are flashed, and the deputy's casual manner tenses.
"Yes, sir. We can get a line out over the radio right away."
A weak smile touches Peter's lips, a smile that is not really his own. "Thank you."
* * *
Fourteen hours later, an NSA agent walks into the Oval Office, carrying a briefcase. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, Mr. President," says Mr. Holland's itch.
"I can give you a couple of minutes, Agent Holland," says the President, never once looking up from his deskwork.
"Thank you, sir," says Peter. "I've something I really think you should look at."
Story © 2004 by Keith Crews SciFy@aol.com
Illustration © 2004 by Mike Finucane firstname.lastname@example.org
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