It was hot, which made him angry, and he was scared, which made him furious.
He took a few dry swings with the aluminum bat to loosen up, and used the opportunity to look around the park. Many things were not right.
At the edge of the park, on all sides where sidewalks should be, huge stone walls rose, reaching up to the sky; dozens of small hallways opened up at irregular intervals.
A more immediate oddity, however, was the car parked across the pitchers mound. The windows were tinted so completely it was like looking at dark mirrors, except the drivers window, which was rolled down. Only it wasn rolled down. Sunlight glittered off pieces of broken window laying on the ground, as if it had been shattered. A black man, wiry and on the far side of middle aged, was perched in the drivers seat, leaning partly out the window and smiling at Aaron.
"Fancy meeting you here," the man said.
Aarons grip tightened on the bat; he stared hard at the smiling old man.
"Oh, now, don give me that sour puss, son. Im just trying to make proper introductions. My name is Barrett and, no matter what you might think, Im here to help you."
"Shit yes! I imagine you realize theres all sorts of weird goings on and Id like to help you sort it out."
Aaron looked at him dubiously but said nothing.
"Anyways, like I said, my names Barrett. Since we didn have a chance to introduce ourselves earlier, you got me at a disadvantage." His smile was friendly, but his eyes serious. "So, whats your name, friend?"
All the suspicion Aaron had felt earlier came rushing back, this time with an added twinge of annoyance. He said nothing, only continued to stare at the old man in his rental car. He was keenly aware that his only avenues to escape were those narrow hallways, which gave him a sense of even deeper unease, although he wasn sure why.
Barrett sighed and held up a placating hand. "You
e hesitant, I get that. Alright, let me think a minute."
The old man rummaged around in his car for a few seconds, then leaned out the window again, now holding a legal pad and pen.
"Like I said, strange things have been happening to you. Let me take a guess at a few and you tell me if they ring any bells, alright?"
Aaron thought the old man would give him time to answer, but he barely even paused for a breath, then started listing things off.
"Youve been having funny dreams. Maybe they
e about people or places youve never been. An associate of mine who is more familiar with these things says they might be about trying to hide yourself from something."
Barrett gestured around at the castle walls that were impossibly high and the maze passages that radiated outwards in every direction.
"We don really know why you
e hidden away this time, but we can make some educated guesses. Way we figure, the special something thats started to coalesce in you has come to recognize a threat thats tripped it up a fair few times. So, its changed things up to give us a better chance of meeting."
Aarons throat was suddenly very dry. It didn sound exactly right to him, but he didn know why, and, more importantly, he didn think Barrett knew it wasn quite right. Even if he didn entirely trust the old man, he thought Barrett was being earnest.
"As for that special something I mentioned, I think thats a bit easier to hit the mark there. Your body has been doing things that seem incredible — sometimes you
e impossibly strong, other times your reflexes are so quick it might even be a little scary. The change thats most intriguing, and easiest to overlook, is how you haven been affected by heat the way you should. Not burning your tongue on boiling coffee, not sweating in the summer, things like that."
It wasn even necessary to think back all that hard. As soon as he heard it, Aaron thought of half a dozen specific moments over the past few months where hed been completely unfazed by heat and he simply hadn paid attention to it. Barrett was watching him with a knowing look that Aaron didn like; it made him feel like the old man was laughing at him.
"The point is," Barrett continued, "that you
e going through a kind of awakening to a power within yourself; a power that makes you close as kin to us. Thats why Im trying to help you. Take these."
Barrett held out the legal pad and pen, shaking them encouragingly when Aaron hesitated. Aaron leaned the bat against the front of the car, where it would be within easy reach, and took the pad and pen.
"Im going to tell you a phone number a bunch of times. Each time, you repeat the number out loud, and write it down. Thatll help you remember it when you
Aaron gave him an incredulous look, but Barrett just chuckled softly.
"It sounds nutty as pig **, I know, but I can see you
e not ready to trust us just yet and this will give you a way to get in touch when you are."
Barretts smile faded and he looked at Aaron very seriously. "As much as I don wanna push you before you
e ready, you are in danger and folksll be coming for you. We very much don want that to happen, but the clock is ticking. None of your gee-damned office drone buddies would tell us ** all about you, so we
e on the slow road to tracking you down through paperwork, and other, quicker methods have proven unreliable so far."
Aarons guts trembled a bit, a hot ball of anger and fear that was much stronger than he was accustomed to. He hadn been this annoyed in years — except when hed been stabbed earlier, of course.
He shook his head. Stabbed? He hadn been stabbed. Hed hit himself with a bat by accident, but that hadn even hurt that bad.
Barrett started repeating a phone number, slowly, waiting for Aaron to repeat after him and write it down. Aaron pushed the idea of getting stabbed away. That was weird even for this weird-ass dream. He repeated the phone number and wrote it down. It wasn a local number, but Aaron thought it was either New York or Washington, D.C..
Barrett steadily picked up his pace dictating the phone number, even making it a little song the way commercials sometimes did. They filled most of the page on the legal pad before Barrett seemed satisfied.
"If you get into trouble or you just decide you believe me, you call that number and well come straight to you. We
e not messing around here; your safety is our first and only real priority right now."
Barrett hesitated. "Its like I said, that special something you got makes you close as kin to us. Theres a bit more to it, but it gets complicated, and it damned sure sounds crazy enough without the proper context."
Aaron frowned. "Crazy how?"
"The specifics ain that important, right now, but Ill give you an example: if, for any reason, you can use that phone number — maybe you forgot, maybe you can find a phone, whatever — you get your ass to sleep and dream. Sounds crazy, but it makes sense, right?"
The hot ball of nerves and emotion in Aarons stomach rolled over. This was preposterous, and he felt like Barrett was making fun of him. Dreams where people mocked him were among Aarons least favorite and always lingered when he woke up.
He scowled. "No, that does not make sense."
Barrett sighed slightly. "Dreams are fickle and you seem to have unconsciously gone to some lengths to keep yours closed off. Making contact like this, as things stand, was only possible because of how close we were this afternoon and how close Ive tried to stay. Proximity, and some help from the closest thing to an expert we have, are the only way this little meeting even happened."
The rear window of the car rolled down about halfway. In the shadows of the car, Aaron could see a figure in a black mask. He leapt back, grabbing for the bat, before he realized it was a deep hood or cowl, not a mask.
A single, slender hand emerged from the darkness of the rear seat. Aaron, for reasons he couldn have explained, immediately looked for a knife in that hand, but all he saw was a plain circle held in the long fingers. The nails were covered in a soft red polish.
The circle was about the size of a bracelet, the kind they called a bangle, and appeared to be made of white plastic. He took a step towards the rear of the car to see it more clearly. It was almost translucent, with a dark, hazy shadow visible around the edges furthest from the light. The bangle had carvings in relief so delicate he couldn make anything out of the designs except the hint of curves and edges.
A womans voice, soft but still clear, came from the back seat. "If you must use dreams, picture this charm; focus on it, try to remember the way the light casts shadows within it, or the shapes of the carvings in the stone. It will help establish the connection."
The hooded woman in the backseat rolled the bangle in her fingers, making it travel in a full circle in the sunlight. Then, the bangle and hand returned to the dark car, and the window rolled up. Aaron, despite his confusion and frustration, adjusted his head to catch a glimpse of the mystery womans face, but without success.
"Alright," Barrett said, extending a hand out to Aaron. "Lets have that pad back!"
Aaron looked down at the forgotten stationary in his hand, then returned it.
"Theres one more thing you should really be made aware of," Barrett said, stowing the pad in the car.
The thick barrel of a shotgun emerged from the window, as Barrett calmly said, "You
e basically bulletproof."
The shotgun went off with a deafening roar, hitting Aaron dead center.
Aaron was knocked clear off the ground and landed several feet away, hard. The burning sensation in his stomach merged with the new pain in his chest, flaring so violently he thought he was going to be sick.
Before he knew what he was doing, or how impossible it was that he was doing it, Aaron was back on his feet, bat in hand, and striding towards the car. As furious as he was, he didn fail to notice the shotgun blast hadn done any actual damage. Except for his t-shirt; that was ruined.
Having his expanding belly exposed in front of the mystery woman was actually making Aaron angrier than being ambushed with a twelve-gauge by someone asking him to trust them. Barrett, for his part, had both of his hands out the window, showing he was once more unarmed.
"What. The. Hell?" Aaron asked, banging the bat on the hood between each word and denting both severely.
"Listen to me, please," Barrett said, his voice slightly raised but steady. "I had to put the idea in your head. To activate certain innate qualities of your changing state, your subconscious had to be introduced to the idea you were essentially invulnerable."
The heat in Aarons guts and chest was seething so viciously he thought he was going to puke. The bat was badly bent, so this time Aaron chose to kick the car door for punctuation.
"I…have been…shot…in dreams…before!"
He hurled the useless bat away from him as hard as he could. It wobbled as it flew through the air, but sailed more-or-less straight across the park and hit one of the stone walls. Several of the mortared bricks where it struck cracked or had chunks broken off.
"Its not pleasant," Aaron added, "whether its a dream or not, you asshole piece of **!"
He kicked the car a final time and it actually slid several inches away from him, the drivers door crumpling in a way that wasn as satisfying as Aaron thought it would be.
"Well, I didn know that," Barrett said, shrugging his shoulders.
Aaron felt like all the hot bile was going to come up soon. He turned and stomped away, maybe to get behind a tree or vomit into one of the hallways. He didn want the mysterious woman in the hood to see him be sick nor did he want anyone close to him when it happened.
When he was less than a couple steps from the entrance to a hallway, her voice drifted across the park, loud but not shouting.
"Don go in there!" she called. "Whatevers in there is not your friend!"
No sooner had she finished than Aaron heard that dragging limp coming from ahead. He saw a vaguely humanoid shadow fall across the end of the hall.
He stopped and leaned against the wall outside the hallway, closing his eyes and trying to take steadying breaths. He willed himself to stop fighting the sick. No matter how much he hated the vulnerability of throwing up, he knew he would feel better if he could just get it out. Worse, he was in no shape to fight or run with his body seizing up, trying to decide whether or not to hurl. And yet his body tensed, trying to hold the bile in.
The scraping, dragging sound drew closer, and he was sure whatever monster was in the maze was just about to turn the corner; then it would be all over. All he wanted, in that moment, was for the crazy dreams to just **ing stop.
As if borne of that thought, the awful heat of whatever was in him finally forced its way out of his mouth. The sound of his own blood pressed against his eardrums and he could hear nothing else. The scorching torrent of acid churned through his contracting throat. He waited, half terrified, for a pause that would let him take a breath, not sure that it would come this time. He squeezed his eyes so tight his vision went white, like looking up at the sun with closed eyes.
It was always like this, yet each time was a new horror.
Aaron jerked awake in bed, sheets tangled around his legs.
A car was pulling into the alley behind his building. The headlights had hit the blinds of the window, washing part of the ceiling and wall with bright, white light.
His breath came fast and heavy — he was practically panting — but when he wiped a hand across his brow, he found it dry. In light of the dream hed just had, that was more than mildly unsettling.
There was no way that ** had been real, but as he got out of bed, Aaron wondered: if it wasn real, what the hell was going on with him?
Even if hed wanted to keep an open mind, there was no sane way to test anything. If he tried lifting something ridiculously heavy, he was just as likely to tear muscles as find out he was secretly the Hulk, and the problem was much more pronounced with the bulletproof nonsense. Could he try doing a super jump? Super jumps weren exactly a consistent power among characters with superstrength.
Why was he giving ideas from a dream even semi-serious consideration? Or remembering details so clearly, for that matter? He needed to get his head on straight and sitting around in his apartment wasn a good way to do it; he decided a walk might do him some good.
Seriously, he thought, who dreams the wise old wizard whos supposed to guide you to a new and exciting life is some scruffy old dude in a rented Impala who takes a cheap shot with a twelve-gauge?
Worse than getting sucker punched with a shotgun (sucker shot?) was the anger. Aaron did not get angry like that, not anymore. He was in his thirties and hed barely shouted at anyone his whole adult life; he hadn even really been angry since high school. The last time hed truly lost his temper had been either elementary or middle school. It just wasn something he did. Aaron saw rage as a winning ticket in the psycho lottery and a sure way to wind up in prison. Hed decided, when he was still young, to take his life in a different direction, so having a resurgence now? No, thank you.
Aaron stepped into the bathroom and turned on the sink, splashing water on his face. He wanted to wash away the crazier aspects of this latest dream. Dreams had always been a weird thing for him and they were usually uncomfortable, but details rarely lasted more than a few minutes after waking up; the really bad ones sometimes had a residual emotional effect, which was unpleasant enough, but nothing compared to this.
When he pulled the hand towel away from drying his face, Aaron saw a figure in a black mask behind him in the mirror. The figure had a darkened area around their eyes and a knife with a blade that was a living serpent, its fangs bared.
He spun and barely stopped himself from punching a hole in the drywall; there was no one there, of course. But…it had seemed so real.
A walk was what he needed to settle down and calm his thoughts. He grabbed his phone and put in some earbuds on his way out; the phone told him it was only a quarter after one. Since it was still a Saturday night, in theory, people would be out and about in the neighborhood. Aaron wasn sure whether or not that was a good thing; it would make him feel less lonely and isolated, but if he was jumping at shadows it might not be the best thing for peace of mind.
Stepping outside, Aaron felt a light breeze. He let the cool night air wash over him for a few seconds. Lively chatter drifted down the alley from the back patio of the bar at the other end. He turned on some music and walked in the opposite direction. After living in this dense, central neighborhood for five years, and visiting socially for several years prior, he knew where most of the bars and nightspots were. He decided on a meandering path that provided at least a block of distance between him and the centers for the weekends revelry.
Still, Aaron couldn avoid coming across small pockets of people on his stroll. He tried to maintain some distance, but that wasn always possible. Several times, he felt a very strong intuition that someone was about to lunge for him. At one point, he passed someone coming out of the dark walkway of an apartment building and mistook a hat for a black mask, which sent him reeling away, heart fluttering. What was this thing with the black mask he kept imagining? He had been around some violent things in his life, but never an armed robbery or anything like that as far as he could remember. Was it a repressed memory or something else?
He grew increasingly on edge and suspicious, the walk doing nothing for his nervous energy. The music was helping him keep a good pace to burn some of it off, but he felt vulnerable not being able to hear what was going on around him. He started checking over his shoulder every half a block or so.
About five minutes after he had started keeping an eye out behind him, someone actually peeled off from a group smoking outside a bar shortly after he passed. He couldn really make out any details; they were wearing pants and a hoodie, probably male from height and build, but that was about it. They might not even be following him, just going in the same general direction.
Aaron started taking random turns and the person stayed on his tail, even closing the distance bit by bit in between backward glances. After they followed him through three turns, Aaron started looking for a good place to either escape or turn the tables.
Another two blocks on, he spotted a dumpster at the mouth of an alley between two apartment buildings. He picked up his pace to get there before the tail could reach the corner, ducking behind the closest dumpster. He paused the music and waited, listening. He could hear the tail getting closer and it sounded like they had picked up speed, possibly running to catch up.
When the hooded man jogged up to the dumpster and stopped, leaning against it, Aaron moved in. He grabbed the other man by the shoulder, spinning them around to grab the front of their sweatshirt, and pinned them up against one of the garages. It took him a second to realize two things: this wasn a stranger, but someone he knew, and he had hefted them a good foot or so off the ground without even trying.
"Hey, Aarom," the man slurred. "Wasgoinon, dude?"
As smoothly as he could, Aaron lowered his bar buddy, Jeff, back onto his feet. Jeff was very well-known and -liked, despite regularly drinking himself insensate; he was a generally positive, outgoing person who was friendly to just about everyone. Jeff stumbled a bit when his feet were back on the ground, but Aaron held him upright.
"Hi, Jeff. Sorry! You scared the ** out of me. I thought you were trying to jack me or something."
Jeff flopped a hand amiably on Aarons shoulder and laughed.
"No, man, not me. I saw you walking past the- the place, yknow, back there? With the shuffleboard? I tried to call out, but I think you had a band playing in your ears. Yknow?"
Aaron pulled his earbuds out and dropped them in his pocket, releasing Jeffs hoodie.
"Ah, yeah, I was listening to music. Sorry about that."
"Sokay, Arim; sall okay! You know we keep it janky in the neighborhood, but folks come in from the urbs and try to jack people, so you got to get the getters before they get you. Sometimes. But we keeps it janky, yknow?"
Talking to drunk people when you
e sober is always a dicey proposition. Aaron thought, if hed been out drinking with Jeff, that would have probably made a lot more sense. If hed really tied one on, it might have been downright profound.
The conversation went on several more minutes, mostly Jeff repeating himself or veering off topic and Aaron trying to politely extricate himself. He was still feeling antsy and kept scanning the street around them, but he didn want to be a jerk to someone whod always been cool to him, even if Aaron got a little awkward or weird. As it turned out, Jeff had chased Aaron down to offer to put him on the list for an afterparty at some new warehouse art gallery thing that doubled as a speakeasy.
Under ordinary circumstances, Aaron would almost certainly have gone. He had trouble socializing outside of certain nerd circles and Jeff was a genuinely kind, albeit frequently intoxicated, person. Jeff had a talent for including people without diminishing the mystique of exclusivity, so it was a rare opportunity. Aaron was still feeling intensely on edge, however. The details of the strange baseball dream lingered, as fresh and clear as any memory, and he was starting to feel exposed being out on his own. Jeff was a good friend to have, but he was way too plastered to qualify as backup. Aaron wanted to be back home, where he felt safe.
He made his excuses and apologies, Jeff none the wiser that hed been hoisted clean off the ground by a pudgy drinking acquaintance who was four inches shorter than him, and jogged back home.
It only took a few minutes to get back to his apartment, but the whole way Aaron avoided the shadows of hedges, alleys, and even parked cars, each time thinking he saw someone poised in the darkness. He changed his route every time he saw someone up ahead, doubling back several times and cutting through alleys.
He was growing frantic and his thoughts kept drifting back to the little suitcase in his closet. There was comfort there; real comfort. Aaron pushed those thoughts away just as fiercely as the nagging idea that the dream maybe hadn been entirely a dream.
Finally, he got back into his apartment. After he locked the door, as he always did, he backed up into the door so fast his head bounced off it. A man was sitting against the wall behind the couch, blood on his face and neck, chest caved in, and a knife buried in his stomach.
Aaron closed his eyes tight, clenching his fists as hard as he could, and repeated the same thing over and over in his mind: this isn real.
When he opened his eyes again, the body was gone. He let out a long sigh and headed for the bedroom. As he turned around the end of the couch, he caught sight of a masked figure standing in the corner by the front door, a knife in their hand. The figure lunged as soon as Aaron spotted them. Aaron flipped the couch up to create an obstacle between them.
The couch came back down on the floor with a loud thump and, of course, no one was there. The neighbor in the apartment below, a younger guy Aaron thought was a nurse or something like that, pounded on the floor a couple times. Aaron could faintly hear him shouting to keep it down.
Aaron righted the couch as gently as he could, feeling a mix of embarrassment and terror, and found it weighed practically nothing. He sat down on it and put his face in his hands.
He took a shuddering breath and said the thing he needed to hear, the only thing that made sense.
e going to the hospital. You are paranoid, hallucinating, and almost attacked Jeff. You are delusional and you need help before you actually hurt someone."
Aaron slumped back on the couch and waited for dawn; he didn manage to get any sleep.