Michael cursed as he walked quickly down the side of the interstate trying to put some distance between himself and the Ford Escort he’d “borrowed” to get home. If the wrong person saw him it was all over. He really didn’t know how long Apollyon was going to give him to complete his murderous task. He got the feeling that it wasn’t long. But as pressing as the need to be clear of all this was, what he was really thinking about was could he even do what he had to do to save his existence. His body might still be alive if he failed, but if he wasn’t himself anymore, what difference did that make?
He had nothing against the two people that had raised him and becoming the actual son of Jim Kastor was not the worst thing a person could face, but what he couldn’t face was losing himself, his personality, losing everything that made him who he was and the memories of that self. That was not acceptable. That was dying. That was something he was not willing to face.
His mother would be much more difficult. The man he had learned was his stepfather, not his blood father, was not an extremely warm person. He was a good guy, but he kept everyone, but Michael’s mother, and they’re helper, Rose, at a distance. He had been very concerned with Michael’s life, but something had kept them from ever getting close. Maybe on a genetic level he sensed Michael wasn’t his.
Michael looked back in the direction of the wrecked car. He had searched for the most nondescript car he could find. The Escort had been the ticket, he couldn’t imagine the cops getting too excited about that car being reported stolen.
Owner: My Escort was stolen!
Cops: And you want us to get it back?
What he hadn’t counted on was the transmission in a three year old car locking up at seventy miles per hour. The car had almost flipped when the wheels decided to stop turning. If his surprise hadn’t caused his knee to jerk, pushing in the foot that was resting on the clutch, the car would have gone over for sure.
Now the car was sitting a mile behind Michael. Where the first state trooper happening by would have to do something about it. When he ran the plates and found out it was stolen, he was going to be looking for somebody on foot. It was at least three miles to the next exit and even Barney Five could put a man walking down the side of the road and a broken down car in the same picture.
Michael started to jog backwards and hold out his thumb. It was a dangerous move. He was only thirty miles from Circleville and well known there. The chances of being picked up by someone who might recognize him were better than he cared to think about. That would tie a real knot in his plan and he already had to find another car.
A two tone, primer and red, Camaro pulled off the road twenty yards up and Michael hurried to meet it. The door opened and the girl was still leaning across the seat. He recognized her right away.
“I thought that was you Michael Kastor.”
‘Think. Think. Think. Janet, no. Alice, no. Tina, maybe.’
“Tina.” She said and smiled. “How are you doing?” The girl was pretty in a hillbilly sort of way. Long, wavy, chestnut hair that hung down over her shoulders without being forced into shape. Dark brown eyes, that bespoke a mystical sort of intelligence. Michael could see her uncovered small firm breasts, where her flannel shirt hung open from her leaning. She looked at the direction of his eyes and smiled again, but didn’t hurry sitting up to correct the exposure. She waved her hand.
Michael got in and closed the door.
“I didn’t think you’d remember me. You always dating those cheerleaders.” She threw it in first and punched it as soon the door closed. “What are you doing walking down the road. Where’s your Mustang?”
“It’s in the shop. I borrowed a car and it broke down.”
“Broke down? I have a cousin that could go pick it up with his tow truck.” She finished a quick trip, through four gears, that rocked the crystal hanging from the review mirror, hard enough to tap the windshield, with every shift. She eased back in the seat, steering with one hand on the bottom of the wheel.
“No that’s okay. He has one of those services. I got tired of waiting, so I thought I’d just hitch into town and deal with it later.” Michael answered. He was feeling only slightly better than being exposed on the road. He was now thinking that he was going to have to kill this girl as well.
Tina started fishing in her shirt pocket. Michael realized he was looking at her full, unpainted, lips as she put the joint to her mouth.
“I got a my own trailer now. My land and everything.” She lit the joint with a pink Bic and passed it to Michael. He was hooked in her eyes and was startled by the sudden presence of the joint. He took it out of pure reflex.
“Want to see it?”
Michael blinked. “What?”
“My trailer.” She smiled.
“Yeah, sure.” Michael looked at the joint and brought it to his lips.
Tina glanced at Michael without turning her head. The left side of her face slid up into a grin as she noticed Michael shift in his seat to make room in his jeans for Mr. Happy.
Lisa laid on the bed. One more hour before Jim came home.
“I can’t do this, I can’t tell him.” Lisa knew that her life was over and didn’t really know why, or how it would end, but she knew it was definitely going to end. She’d had nightmares through the years about impending doom that always caused her to tear up the sheets and wake up covered in sweat. But she never could remember them. The fragments she could hang onto made no sense. Maybe if she left she could save Jim. Jumping off the bed she got in the shower. She had no time to dry her hair, so she fluffed it with the towel and tied it back. The was something getting closer she could feel it. She pulled on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. She found a pair of running shoes and laced them up tightly. Then she dug through the back of the closet to get her camping backpack. It had the basics, tightly rolled mummy sleeping back, a hatchet and survival knife. She stopped at her dresser to throw in some extra traveling clothes. Then pulled out her top drawer, peeled the envelope from the back and replaced the drawer. She had put that money there back in the dark ages when she was cheating on Jim. Two thousand dollars in fifty dollar bills. Enough to get to the coast if need be. The bills were old, but crisp and uncirculated, she’d probably raise eyebrows spending them if anyone noticed.
She came down the stairs quietly. She knew Jim was in the shop, but she wanted to be ready if he’d come in for a beer, or something to eat. She slipped into the kitchen and took some canned sardines and tuna, then stuffed them into the backpack with a loaf of bread and some bottled water. She couldn’t take the car that was too easily traced and Jim had the garage door open anyway. She had to go overland to the truck stop by the freeway and get a ride out from someone who wouldn’t recognize her. She went through the back door quietly and slowly closed it. The patch of woods, behind the house, followed a green belt that ended at the back of the truck stop where the big rigs parked for naps.
She crossed the back yard quickly and hopped the chain link fence that separated the house from the tree line. She didn’t stop until she could take cover behind a tree to look back. She didn’t see Jim in any of the windows, or on the back patio, so he hadn’t seen her.
She took the hatchet out of the pack and tucked the handle into the back of her belt, then took the survival knife and put that in the pocket of her hoodie. She followed the tree line until it melded with a continuous tree break that made a path through the surrounding farmland. It ran southwest toward the truck stop. It was a long curving walk that would be a lot longer than walking in the open, but she would only have to cross one big road on the way there. She hoped she was doing the right thing. If she tried to explain to Jim, what was happening, he would have her put in a hospital for observation. She just hoped that he was safer without her there than with her. Maybe the nightmare would follow her and leave him alone.
“He’s going to come for you.” She said aloud as if she was warning somebody other than herself. She did not fully understand how the engine of her destruction would manifest itself, but she knew her clock had run out.
Michael walked around the trailer wearing his boxers. Tina was still in the one bedroom at the back of the trailer. Crystals hung everywhere. There were pewter bats and dragons and a makeshift plywood bookcase that went to the ceiling. It had records on the bottom two shelves and was piled with references on numerology, astrology, and the occult the rest of the way up. He noticed a black pentagon hanging on the front door. A creak, in the floor, turned Michael toward the back of the trailer. Tina was standing there naked. Her long hair hanging in waves over her shoulders, nipples poking out where the hair caressed her breasts. Her right thigh was shiny and wet. He noticed there was some blood as well.
“You like my place?” She smiled confidently at Michael. He found it very unnerving.
“Interesting. You a witch?” Michael tried to make it sound like a joke, but failed miserably, his voice all but crackling. His body responded to seeing her standing there naked and confident. Not a hint of shame.
“You could call me that if you didn’t know any better.” She smiled her predator smile. “Which I would guess you don’t.” She walked over to him and he couldn’t help backing against the wall. “Did you know we had the same birthday a year apart?”
“No, I didn’t.” Michael was leaning against the wall now.
“You wouldn’t. You haven’t been as aware of me, as I have been of you.” Michael’s eyes puzzled. He didn’t have a chance to think about what she had said. She slipped her hand inside his boxers.
“I’ve got to take care of something.” This time his voice did crack.
“You’ve got time.” She toyed with him. “You need to use my car?”
“Yes.” Michael tried to be cool
“Then you need me to drive you back to school and you were never here.”
“Good. Now shut up. I’ve been waiting for this, for a long time.” Michael grabbed her around the waist and picked her up. She felt he was nervous and smiled.
“What’s the matter cowboy? Chick got your dick?” He held Tina’s hips and thrust into her determined to fuck that smile off her face. Which was, of course, exactly what she wanted.
Michael sat in Tina’s Camaro, parked across the street from his parents house. He hadn’t seen anyone come or go from the house all day. He tried to imagine killing the people that raised him. He thought if he imagined it repeatedly he wouldn’t hesitate when the time came. He could see his stepfather in the garage that was his wood shop. The double wide door was rolled up and he was painting something. Probably some shelf, or cabinet his mother needed somewhere. Michael shook his head. He was losing focus. He was hoping that his mother would leave so he could take care of Jim separately and practice on him. It was taking too long. He got out of the car and headed over to the house.
He came in through the garage and Jim looked up and set down his paintbrush. “Michael? This is a surprise, I didn’t think you were coming home.” He hobbled over to Michael and gave him a man hug. Still with the powerful arms. Michael thought this might not be easy for two reasons.
“She’s inside. Why don’t you go on in, I’ve got to finish this coat before I can stop.” Jim picked up his brush and started working on the cabinet again.
“I’ll wait for you.” Michael looked at the cabinet. “Is that new, or an update?” Michael noted his father’s thick wooden cane leaning against the sawhorse, he’d have to watch out for that thing.
“New, it’s for the laundry room.” Jim was focused on his work, he didn’t notice Michael survey his workbench and slip the carpet knife into his pocket. “There’s beer in the cooler.”
Michael opened the cooler and picked up a can of beer. He read the label, Stroh’s. He smirked it’s all his parents ever drank. Though his mother was more of a wine drinker. Neither of them drank hard liquor anymore. Something they’d sworn off before he was born. They still had a bar in the living room, but that was for guests. He pulled the tab and dropped it in the trash before taking a good swallow. He was eerily calm and felt completely detached from himself. He leaned against the workbench and watched Jim finish his work.
“Where’s Rose?” Michael asked then took another swallow of beer.
“She’s off today. We only have her come out three days a week now.” Jim surveyed his work, then wrapped a wet rag around the paint brush and put it in a baggy. “I think one more coat ought to do it.” Jim started to hobble to the door, then turned a picked up his cane. “Your mom is always complaining I’m too stubborn about using my cane. The damn thing’s a reminder of how bad it used to be. But my hip does hurt more if I don’t use it.” Jim continued on to the inside door. “Let’s go find your mother.”
Michael followed him through the door into the kitchen.
“Lisa! Michael’s home! Lisa?” He stopped in the middle of the kitchen and looked up toward the ceiling. “Hmm. She must be taking a nap. I know she hasn’t been sleeping well the last couple of days.”
Michael noticed the door open on the pantry cabinet in the kitchen. The normally perfect can stacks were in disarray.
“You still eating tuna or Sardines every day?”
Yeah, it’s very healthy for your heart. Never have less than a weeks supply. It doubles as our unexpected storm food.” Michael noted there was not a weeks supply there, so what was going on? Michael looked up at the ceiling, he didn’t think his mother was taking a nap. This was going to make things more difficult.
“I’m going to wake up your mother. She’d be pissed if I didn’t get her up to see you.” Jim walked past Michael and Michael acted out of some deep instinct and when his father was just about to set the tip of his cane down and put his weight on it, Michael tapped it with his shoe and it slid out sideways. Jim started to fall. Michael grabbed him from behind and held him up, but with kept him off balance to keep him from getting his feet under him again.
“Man, that was close.” Jim said almost laughing. “That would have really hurt.” He never saw the smooth motion of Michael’s hand as it slipped the carpet knife from his pocket and thumbed the blade out. Michael sliced Jim’s throat from side to side and lowered him to the floor to keep from getting covered with blood. It took a moment for Jim to die, but he couldn’t speak. He just stared up at Michael so surprised he couldn’t have even asked “Why?” if he’d had the breath.
Michael watched him die. It didn’t take long. He took a dish towel and wiped his prints off the carpet knife and dropped it next to his father. He had to leave the kitchen through the dining room, because the blood had spread completely over the floor. He went through the living room to the stairs. He crept up the stairs even though he didn’t believe that his mother was up there. He planned to choke her out. He thought that would be the least painful way to kill her.
When he got to her room, he saw she had been taking a nap, the bed was unmade, but she was gone. A drawer of her dresser was open. He looked in, the drawer had jeans and T-shirts, traveling clothes. She couldn’t have been gone that long, Jim had thought she was in the house. She hadn’t left through the front, because Michael had been parked out there for a while.
He went to the back yard and walked the fence line. The trail behind the fence had been disturbed. Michael knew where it led, he’d used it when he was a kid. He knew she wasn’t going east, there wasn’t anything in that direction except farmland. The highway was west. Michael chewed on his lip and looked in the direction of the highway and wondered what kind of lead she had on him. If she had any kind of lead at all he wasn’t going to catch her quickly and Michael didn’t want to leave Tina’s car across the street from a murder scene, any longer than need be. He went back through the house and pulled the garage door down as he went out.
Michael parked the Camaro at the back of the truck stop. He didn’t worry too much about hiding it. His mother wouldn’t recognize it. He pulled on the leather gloves he had kept stashed in the car when he went to his house. He locked up the car and surveyed the tree line and tried to remember where the trail came out. I didn’t take to long to spot the little gap in the bushes. He followed it back a hundred yards, then walked off the trail and found a big tree to sit behind and wait.
He thought about Tina and it played heavily on his mind. He’d always been the clear dominant in sexual transactions. Unless he wasn’t really interested in the woman, then it didn’t matter to him. It had taken all he had, just to get in the car after the third time and he’d stopped for coffee to stay awake.
After an hour he was getting really uncomfortable and he started to question himself. It was no quick walk, so she could easily still be out there. The one road she had to cross was local traffic, if she was trying to run without leaving clues, she wouldn’t have tried to catch a ride on that road. She would wait to cross when there wasn’t any traffic.
He scratched his chest absently and looked around. He got up on his feet and stretched, bending over to touch his toes. When he straightened up he locked eyes with his mother.
Lisa thought the man had left the trail to relieve himself. When she recognized Michael she froze. ‘Michael? Michael was after her? Apollyon had some how turned her son on her that quickly.’ She didn’t doubt her instincts, this was no longer her boy.
“Michael? What are you doing out here?” She tried to judge if she could get past him and run for the truck stop. She saw his eyes dart toward the path. He was already edging that way. As fast as he was, she’d never make it past him. He was side stepping now and he’d be at the path in a couple of steps. She had to decide what she was going to do. Was she ready to fight him, risk hurting him, and try to save her own life? Her hand was already moving to the hatchet dangling at her side. She might have one chance. One more step and he would be at the center of the path. Her hand came up in a single smooth motion and released the hatchet just as his foot came down on the far edge of the trail.
The hatchet hit him dead center on the sternum, but with the backside. It didn’t cut into him but it punched the breath out of him and knocked him backwards off his feet. Lisa rose up on her toes as if she could see better that way.
“Oh! Damn! That hurt!” That was all Lisa needed to hear. He was still in the game and she started running back the way she had come as fast as she could. Michael struggled up to his feet and gave chase. He was impressed with her speed. While he was gaining on her, it was taking everything he had. He almost went down hard when his foot caught a vine, so he had to lose a little speed to keep an eye on the trail. He tried to think how far it was to the road. He tried to remember if there were any houses close to where the trail crossed it. He had to catch her before she got there. He made up some ground when she tripped on a root and had to grab onto a tree to keep from going down. Michael kicked up his speed. She hesitated a couple of seconds too long, if she tried to run now Michael would catch her from behind and bring her down. She braced herself and slid the survival knife out of her hoodie. Michael was reaching for her and jumped back just in time to keep from being sliced across the chest.
They looked at each other as death, only one would, or could, survive. Michael couldn’t hear anything but the ringing in his ears. They didn’t try to talk but grunted and growled at each other. Lisa kept Michael at a distance with wide slicing attacks. Until he anticipated her swing and caught her arm, though it cost him a slice across his ribs. He jerked her towards him and headbutted her. She staggered, the knife fell from her fingers. Before she could recover he spun her around and locked his arm around her neck and put on the squeeze.
She was already dazed and couldn’t put up much of a fight once she started losing air. She struggled for a moment then went limp. Michael didn’t let up until he was sure she was gone. He lowered her to the ground and check her breath and pulse, nothing. He put his hands on his knees and struggled to catch his breath. As his breathing leveled out and the ringing in his ears stopped, he straightened up and looked around. He needed to finish this. It was possible someone else might come down the trail, other people used it. He dragged Lisa off the trail far enough to be out of sight. He rifled the back pack to make sure it didn’t contain anything that could give Michael away. He found the money shrugged and put it in his pocket. Not finding anything else he dropped the pack beside her, then quickly covered her with leaves. He took the knife, because it had his blood on it. When he got back to the spot on the trail, where they first seen each other, he found the hatchet lying in the weeds and retrieved that as well.
Michael hurried over to the Camaro and got in quickly. When his heart slowed from Rap to Easy Listening, he smiled and pushed back in the seat.
Apollyon materialized beside him as he turned onto the interstate. Michael barely kept control of the car. Finally getting straight he leaned back in the seat.
“That’s a good trick dad, can you teach me how to do it?” Michael was breathing hard again.
“You’re a ways from that kind of training, but you’re still in the game.” Apollyon looked Michael over. “You showed little hesitation in carrying out your task. I’m impressed.”
“Survival.” Michael stayed in the right lane and kept to the speed limit.
“Well, that’s a good instinct to have. It will serve you well, but it will not be enough.” Apollyon turned his attention to the road.
“What happens now?” Michael glanced at Apollyon.
Apollyon let the question hang there for a minute. “Right now? as in this minute, nothing. The game, as old Sherlock used to say, is not yet a foot. All the cosmic mambo jumbo is not yet aligned and there’s no telling exactly when it will be.”
“How will I know?” Michael squeezed and twisted his hands on the steering wheel.
“Different every time. Four souls have to align perfectly. I don’t even know who they are.” Apollyon studied the conflicting expressions battling under Michael’s skin. Determination and dread tightly weaving together. In the end there would be an acceptance of a fate, he wouldn’t have chosen, but not one he would not shirk from to save his being, his ego self. Apollyon returned his attention to the road. “I hope you will succeed where the others have failed, Michael.”
Michael looked at Apollyon a little too long and had to over correct when he looked back at the road. “So who are these others your talking about?”
“Your brothers. I can have children whenever I desire, I’ve got several children walking the earth right now, but it’s one in a thousand that lines up correctly.” Apollyon glanced at Michael. “And has the guts and strength to even try to pull it off. No one has succeeded yet.
“Is there some kind of time interval? I mean how often does this go on?”
“To some degree it never stops. Ever. But that’s just play time. That individual attrition is never going to make up enough to turn the tide.” Apollyon clapped his hands and rubbed them together vigorously. “Those are just league games, his is the Championship. You can bet they’ll all be lined up watching and we’ll be watching them.”
“Watching them?” Michael crunched his brows.
“To make sure they don’t cheat.”
“The self righteous always believe they’re justified in cheating, because they’re so psychotically confident that they are infallible. They’re own moral code is a bendy straw when in comes to getting what they want.”
Michael nodded absently.
“That’s why I say there’s no good and evil, there’s just winning the game.”
“Do you have any idea, when this is all going to start?”
“Do you have any idea what I’ll be facing?”
“Any idea? I have ideas of what you might, or might not face, in theory, but it wouldn’t help you, because the death is in the details. There’re unknowns at this time. And I’m not allowed to tell you anyway and I’m a stickler for the rules.”
“Why, if you know they’re cheating?”
Apollyon glanced at Michael. “Because I’m not going to have anyone steal my victory, because I didn’t cross a t, or dot an i.” Apollyon rubbed his hands together again. “Besides, it’s the real risk of the game that does it for me. This is one of the few things in my existence that I don’t know the outcome of. It’s one of the only things I look forward to.”
“Will you be helping me?”
“Not once the game starts. You’ll have back up, but it won’t be me, that’s against the rules. It will be my chosen Champion. It has to be someone who was once human and is in transition, some one with some skin in the game. Same for them.”
“You trials. If you make it to the forth trial, that one will have the equivalent of their graduate student. Though you’re not limited to assistance from your guide. Any human you recruit can help you.”
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“Nope.” They road in silence for a while. Apollyon tapped his finger on the dash. “So, where did you get the car?”
“A girl.” Michael shot a nervous glance to the passenger seat. “Her name’s Tina, she’s got it bad for me. Nothing to worry about, if she gives me any trouble, I’ll take care of her.”
Apollyon smirked. Michael thought he could hear him chuckling, but his lips remained sealed.
“I must go now, Michael, when you see me again, you’ll know the time is at hand.” Apollyon had already started to fade while he was speaking. The last word came out of thin air.
Michael couldn’t help watching Apollyon vanish and struggled to keep the car lined up on the road. He looked up just in time to take the exit for Tina’s trailer
Michael opened the door to his apartment. He was a little nervous Tina hadn’t said goodbye to him at the car, no matter how heavy his hints got.
“Well, here it is. Isn’t much.” Michael looked around, checking to see if there was anything he didn’t want her to see.
Tina stepped past him. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“There.” Michael pointed.
Tina went into the bathroom without closing the door to his apartment. Michael closed the door and set down his keys, on the counter of the kitchenette. The toilet flushed. Tina was naked when she stepped out of the bathroom.
“Ah, Tina, I…”
“It’ll help your alibi to have me here.”
“Why should I need and alibi?”
Tina smirked. “Maybe you won’t.” She went over to the bed and jumped up, landing on the bed.
Michael stared at her.
Tina patted the bed. “Coming?”
Michael nodded and got on the bed.
“Now what shall we do?” Tina said as she pulled at Michael’s belt.
The knock was not enough to wake Michael up. Tina slipped into his button down shirt and wore it like a dress. Then went to the door and answered it. She came back and shook him until he looked up.
“The Dean is at the door.” Tina whispered and winked.
“Dean is at the door?” Michael was trying to focus his eyes.
“The Dean is at the door.” Tina made a scolding face, Michael’s eyes came into focus.
“Oh, the Dean.” Michael jumped up and Tina helped him into his robe.
The Dean had trouble meeting Michael’s eyes as he came up to the door tying his robe.
“Dean Stockwell?” Michael asked, acting as if he was surprised. He actually was a little that the Dean had made the trip out to see him.
“Yes, ah…” He still couldn’t meet Michael’s open gaze. “It’s… Michael, I think you better sit down.” The Dean said grimly.
Michael sat slowly at the table, affecting his best bewildered face. Tina watched from the bedroom and smiled her cat with a mouse smile.