The September Featured Writer is Rachel Coles
Please feel free to email Rachel at:
by Rachel Coles
This story is dedicated to the Veterans of the Iraq Water Project HERE.
The young man jerked awake under the bridge in Confluence Park. The twilight hues of the Colorado sky and sounds of the river combined to make reality seem hazy. What was he doing here? He rubbed his eyes and forehead, and noticed that his hand was shaking. He felt like he weighed a ton, like he was being slowly pressed down like a grape under someone's shoe. He recalled a flash of something just before waking, impressions of fire and crushed bodies amidst twisted metal. But they had no faces.
He went to the river's edge where an algae-clogged calm spot reflected his dark-complected face. His black hair was cropped in a buzz, but it didn't look as though it had been done in the last day. So it was no help to figure out how long he had been there. He laid back against the high water rocks and tried to think, but then sat up again in alarm.
Every time he tried thinking hard all he could hear were screams, and feel vertigo as though a giant had thrown him up in the air. And then he had another flash of an image, a teenage girl dressed like an elf. She had an easy familiar feel to her. But her face slipped away from him now, just like the others.
He peered around him in the gloaming and leaped to his feet, startled. There was a large black bird near the river staring at him. Something about it seemed wrong, so he cursed and started walking. He ran down the riverside path and looked behind him.
The bird followed him. As it moved closer, he could see it more clearly and realized what had seemed so wrong. The creature seemed to be made from parts of different kinds of birds. Its eyes particularly caught his attention. It had very blue, very human eyes.
He stumbled backward in shock, and paused at the realization that he must still be dreaming. He turned and walked away, waiting to wake up. Every time he stopped, it stopped. He ran. Then it was in front of him. His heart thundered as he sped up. He veered towards a few walkers on the bike trail. The bird followed him through a small crowd, but the people kept laughing and chatting as though they hadn't noticed it. And now there were two of them.
Jay realized he was in a hospital bed. His skin felt hot, but he wasn't sweating. Jay, his name was Jay. Something terrible had happened. He had seen the exact same explosion he had seen earlier, but again had flinched himself into consciousness. He guzzled from the giant plastic mug at the side of the bed in the dim room, and plopped back to the pillow. As soon as he closed his eyes, his mind sought a different image dancing at the edge of his mind.
A young girl in her early teens, the same girl he remembered earlier, gazed at him with a mischevious grin. She had storm-gray eyes, dark hair and pale skin. She was dressed strangely in gold lame, and plastic elf ears. In her hands, was an enormous foam sword, half her size. She screwed her face into a battle snarl and swung the sword at his head, and yelled, “Dork!” The sword connected with the side of his head with a whack. He reached out to grab the girl and pin her in a wrestling embrace, but she pulled back and her great gray eyes grew serious and sad. Then she faded, and he was alone in the dark.
He opened his eyes to the ceiling of the hospital room. His eyes and face were wet with tears.
The young man closed the door of his new social worker's office at the mental health center, and sat down on the couch, shivering in the air conditioning. Allie Kiernan, the social worker, noticed, and fiddled with the control on the wall. "Ugh, this old building. Hopefully, it'll warm up soon. It's been like this since this morning. Sorry about that! Are you okay?"
He nodded but said nothing else. Remembering his full name was first on his list before getting rid of goosebumps. He fidgeted with a string unraveling from the upholstered couch, just like his brain, it seemed. The only thing he'd been able to remember when the police found him yelling under the bridge was, eventually, his first name. Thankfully, the harried officers had brought him to Denver Health.
After a battery of tests and interviews in which he could come up with nothing about his family or where he had been yesterday, a brisk doctor had told him that the cause of his memory loss and vision of the birds, wasn't organic, but psychiatric. Meaning he was nuts. After a couple days, they had released him with medication, and sent him here.
Allie gave him a bright reassuring smile. "How are you today, Jay? I'm Allie. I'm your case manager."
"I know. Your name's on the door. I'm bonkers, but at least I can still read." He sighed.
She laughed softly, "Well, we'll work on getting your memory back too, okay? Is there anything I can get for you? A glass of water?"
"No. I'm ok. Thanks for the hotel voucher and stuff."
"No worries. How is that working out?"
"How is your medicine working? How are you feeling?" She probed.
He took out the bottle of risperidone and rattled it like a maraca to ward off evil spirits. "I feel a little better, but I'm still seeing the birds."
"Do you want to talk more about that? Are they here now?"
He shook his head. "Not yet anyway."
"Can you tell me about them?"
He gazed at his hands. What if talking about them brought them here, like the myths about the devil? But he had a clear enough memory of them. "I can't."
Allie cocked her head, and her voice got softer. "Why not?" She just waited.
"Because maybe talking about it could attract them."
"Like the dev-"
Even though he'd cut her off, the image of the birds filled his head and he shuddered.
"Okay, it's okay. We don't have to talk about them. You're here so we can work together on getting your life back where you want it to be, so you tell me what you want to talk about. And I'll contact your physician about adjusting your meds. So what do you want to talk about?"
“I want to remember. I don't know why I can't remember anything. I can't even remember my whole name, or anything past a few days ago." He put his head in his hands. Then he raised it again. Suddenly, he felt really weary. "The doctors didn't find traumatic brain injury or anything physical. I thought maybe it was a car accident or something. I keep having these flashbacks of fire and explosion. I try to think of it, but...I guess...I don't know."
She nodded and said nothing, encouraging him to keep talking.
He heaved a sigh, "There’s one thing that keeps me from totally going bonkers. I keep seeing this girl in my dreams. I know her. She makes me feel real. She chases the other dreams away. But even in the dreams, her face melts into this blackness, and all I feel or remember is...loss."
“Someone you know?”
“Sure. But I try really hard and can't get close to her.”
“You said she disappears.”
He was quiet for a minute, as a cold feeling started in his belly. “No. Not exactly. More like I am. Like I'm sinking into the ocean and she sees me dissolve.”
“Do you feel like you're disappearing?”
“Yeah.” The chilly fingers traced down his back. "I don't want to stop being me. I just want my life back. I feel like I'm trapped in a nightmare." Tears streamed down his face.
Allie pulled the tissue box toward him. He took one gratefully.
“Can you tell me about the girl?”
"I think she liked elves, and gaming." He paused and announced the only obvious thing he could remember. He massaged his forehead. “She's too young to be my girlfriend. I don't remember if I had a girlfriend. But this girl is different. Maybe she's my sister. Seems logical. Why else would someone be swinging a foam sword at my head?”
Allie gave him a quizzical look and then grinned. “Well, my brother certainly did stuff like that, usually at the most annoying times. Jay, that's great! We'll keep working on this."
They talked for a while longer about his fears, and worked on finding more permanent housing. She showed him some visualization techniques to control anxiety. He sat with his eyes closed on the couch and let his mind settle, counting to ten and breathing, just as she showed him. But as the space behind his eyelids grew still, he was jolted by an explosion and the smell of sulphur. He yelped and scrambled back on the couch.
Allie rushed toward him, worried. “Jay, are you all right? What just happened? Did you remember something?”
He nodded, shaking. Then he heard a flapping sound near the door. A faint draft ruffled the papers on her desk as a large black and gray bird landed on the desk. Her hair lifted with the wind caused by its wings, but she didn't even blink in its direction.
He put his hands on either side of his head and ran into the hall, down the hall and into the street.
He could hear her calling after him for the first minute as he ran, and then he outpaced the sound of her voice, hoping that he would also outpace the phantom bird. When he glanced back, there was a flock.
He ran for another minute, and then slowed to a walk. They're just hallucinations, they're in my mind. I can beat these things because they're not there.
The creatures didn’t do anything, just followed him silently as he walked. As he passed a shiny architectural office with long tinted glass doors, his reflection paced alongside. He stopped and stared. His image was blurry as though it were out of focus. Everything else reflected in the glass was sharp and clear. He couldn't even see his own face. He ran his hands through his cropped dark hair and started crying again. He looked around at people moving in and out of storefronts. They occasionally looked at him askance. But a part of him wondered, as their eyes slid away from him, if it was because he was nuts and they didn't want to get involved, or because he was becoming like his reflection. He shook the ridiculous notion from his thoughts. I'm more sensible than that. I think, before all this crap happened, that I did something with science for a job. And people don't dissolve into space.
After pacing for a while through Denver, he looked up at the building to which his feet had taken him: Morton Charles Securities. It felt familiar. Was it his workplace? People here would know him, he was sure of it. Okay, maybe I didn't do something with science, maybe it was marketing. But money is pretty practical, he thought. I have to pull myself together. If this is my job, I can't go in there all bugnuts. And at some point, my schizophrenic ass is gonna need a job again.
As his hand reached for the door handle a sharp pain lanced into his leg and a flurry of wings beat around his ears and head. Beaks snapped savagely at his fingers. With every wing beat, the sound of screaming and the acrid scent of burning gasoline and blasting heat filled his senses. He shrieked and ran again. Just before he took off, there was a flash in his mind of a young man with fierce blue eyes, and an infectious grin. His smile vanished as he sank into the burning ground.
Jay ended where he began, under the bridge, sobbing. He looked around, suddenly alone. The young man's face had been familiar, a friend. And it was certain now, that whatever had happened to him, his friend had been there, and hadn't survived. These creatures were obviously connected. Were they angry? He curled into a shaking ball and rocked at the water’s edge. He rubbed his leg and looked at his hand. There was no blood, no injury, he realized with a jolt.
A golden retriever approached with its tags jingling, and dragged its owner, a young blond woman in jogging attire. Suddenly, the dog strained forward at its leash, barking and whining. Jay scrambled backwards onto the heels of his hands and stared at the dog. The woman looked at his tear-streaked face, and hauled the dog back. She called back to Jay, “Sorry man, he never does this! I don’t know what his problem is! Stop, Boy!” She disappeared down another path, and the dog’s yips faded.
Jay brushed himself off and swiped at his face. Okay, now I'm just a pussy, getting rattled by a yuppie dog. He stood and reviewed his options. He had tried to meditate in Allie's office, and the birds had shown up. He had tried to go back to a familiar place, and they had shown up. He thought of one of his favorite movies, A Beautiful Mind, and thought, Goddamn it! I may not be a Nobel Prize Wiley Coyote Supergenius like John Nash, but there has got to be a solution to these hallucinations!
But since he couldn't think of one, he popped a risperidone, and went back to his hotel room. Despite his fears, he fell asleep.
Nikki, his little sister, waited by his Chevy banger, flicking the antennae. “Cut it out!” he barked before he saw that she was crying. “Oh, what's up, Nik? What's wrong?”
She looked up at him with reddened gray eyes that seemed almost electric next to the bloodshot whites. “Mom and Dad are nuts, they can't be around each other. And I can't be here!You can’t leave me here!”
He set down his khaki duffel by the passenger door and put his arm around her shoulders. “I know, super-Goth, but I can't be the nerd in the basement my whole life. The Army's gonna pay for grad school.”
“But you don't agree with Bush anyway! Why did you sign up, knowing you'd get sent to Iraq?”
“Because I'm going to be doing water quality stuff, good stuff. And I got dollar signs in my brain when I saw how much a degree in environmental engineering cost.” He grinned at her.
She snorted and crossed her arms, but her lips turned up. “They better teach you to use a gun or a sword better than you did last time I kicked your ass!”
He kissed her cheek, gave her a long hug, and drove away. As he looked in the rear-view mirror, her image faded into a blackness that surrounded him. Then there was a loud report.
There was someone knocking at the door of his room. He just sat and tried to calm his watery knees. Nikki. Little pieces of his life were trickling into his memory. And now, even though she hadn't said it in his dream, he remembered his name. Jay Stefanopolos. And hers. Now that he knew his sister's name, he was pretty sure he could find her. But the last time he had tried someplace familiar, the birds had attacked him. Who was at the door? Could it be Nikki?
His surge of hope sunk when he opened it to Allie's anxious face. She had that little rabbity twitch of hyperactivity he'd seen the first time, that had seemed accented by unquenchable optimism. Now she was just agitated. Her eyes flickered nervously around him. “Hi, Jay. I'm worried about you. You freaked out and ran out of my office.”
“I'm worried about me too.” He let her in.
She went and perched on the end of the bed. “So, I talked to your doctor about the meds. Actually, we talked about a lot of things.” As she spoke, her hands fluttered at her sides slightly. “There was some concern that you would harm yourself.”
“I wouldn't off myself, and I just want to get away from the birds and remember my life. But I'm not dangerous." He started shaking.
She swallowed. “I need to know what's going on with you. Are you all right? Have you remembered anything else?”
He nodded. "My last name is Stefanopolos. I think I was in the Army. I remembered talking to my Gothy McGoth sister about it. Our parents were fighting and she didn't want me to leave. I think I went to Iraq. So I guess I could find out what happened to me now, right? Because I'm obviously back, and the Army's going to have my records." Unless I'm AWOL and don't know it. Maybe being a schizophrenic guy under a bridge is better than being court-martialed. But why would I do that? Too late now, cat's out of the bag.
Allie grinned, "Great, I'll look it up for you, or if you like, you can look it up in my office. Did you remember this after…"
"After I freaked out about the birds?"
"Yeah. I don't think I can run from them anymore. That didn't work."
She put her hand on his arm, but didn't say anything.
"I think that they have something to do with my friend who was killed. I don't remember his name, but I know he died. And I think one of the birds is supposed to be him in my hallucinations. What do you think that means? That he's an angry ghost?" He sat down heavily on the bed.
"Do you feel responsible for his death? Why do you think he'd be angry?"
"I don't know. I don't remember. I don't think I did anything to hurt him, because that doesn't feel right. And why a bird? Who are the others?"
Allie shrugged. “Well, the one non-Greek myth that we learned in my myth class in college was about Gilgamesh, the Sumerian hero. His friend Enkidu turned into a bird when he died. I always remembered the stuff about ghosts because they were so creepy. But this just seemed sad, that the Sumerian spirits had feathers like birds and ate clay. You said earlier that you felt loss. Maybe your feeling of loss was partly for him."
He knew as soon as she said it, that it was true. Even without knowing more about this man, he remembered the man’s eyes on him, and remembered his smile, and knew it was loaded with experiences they'd had and he couldn't remember yet. Still…"But you learned that in a class, why would I be the one imagining a bird?"
"I don't know, Jay. Everyone has their own context." She looked at her feet. "Well, you said you were in the Army, and that maybe you were in Iraq.” She thought out loud. “Well, Iraq was the country Sumer was in, the land of that myth." She lifted her hands in question. "Maybe wherever you are affects you. Thousands of people have lived there, so maybe their thoughts left some kind of echo that you picked up."
"Like dead telepathy?"
He grinned, "You're a social worker. Aren't you supposed to tell the schizophrenic guy that there are no such things as ghosts?"
She laughed, and the room felt a little lighter. "I do yoga, and I believe in chakras and life energy, so why would it be that different? Helping people get back on their feet shouldn't preclude some kind of belief in spirit or higher being."
"Fair enough." Smiling felt good. "So what now?"
"Oh, you're going to need to come in so they can test your medication level."
"It hasn't changed since I left the hospital."
She sighed, and rubbed her face. "Right. About that, the hospital doesn't have your blood anymore. The blood samples you gave, something went wrong with the containers because they were empty."
His gut froze. "Empty?"
"I'm not a lab person, I don't know the details. Sorry."
It felt like all the air went out of the room.
"Here, I can schedule you from here, so you don't have to wait much." She pulled out her smartphone and went online.
He gazed at it. "You can get online with that thing?"
She scowled, "Not as well as with my old phone. The new Storm stinks, but yes."
"Wait, before you do that, can you go to togetherweserved.com? I think I entered my information there when I enlisted."
Her expression lit up, "Oh, yes!" She fiddled with the phone. After about twenty minutes of surfing and slowly loading screens, her face changed and she frowned. "No, there's another mistake."
"What mistake?" Fear blazed back into his spine.
She snorted in irritation, but her voice shook a little. "This says that you're… uh…" She looked at him with uncertainty and tried to finish her sentence, but nothing came out.
He didn't wait, and took the phone. AWOL information wasn't entered on this kind of site, but he felt queasy anyway. On the tiny screen was his face. But in addition to his other information, it indicated that he was deceased.
He handed her back the phone, and said nothing. They just looked at each other. And he knew that was true too, like his friend. Allie sat motionless. He closed his eyes, gave in, thought about the birds, called them.
The rustle of thousands of feathers filled the room. He opened his eyes. Allie was staring around her, still and terrified. Her eyes were the only things that moved about her body.
"Allie? Do you see them? Are you okay?"
She let out a gasp, "Yes. I'm okay."
The birds’ human eyes shone multi-colored in the paltry light from all around them. The one with the striking blue eyes leaped at him. Its wings expanded like a cloak and enveloped him. There was blackness, and then images unfolded in his mind.
Jay capped off a vial, the last of five. He knew he'd find the same coliform bacteria and nitrite contamination as everywhere else in Basra. And there wasn't enough time or money to fix the Labbani water plant. The local folks had been trying to chlorinate the water themselves, but the flocculates and chemicals were getting through and sickening people.
The broken filter pumps, control panels and other machinery had been cannibalized for parts elsewhere. Shawn, his best friend, glanced at him in the fierce sun and shook his head. His electric blue eyes almost glowed against his red freckled face.
"Same crap in the water?"
"Literally," Jay remarked.
"I still can't believe they managed to jury-rig this stuff that long." He shook his head, "I still can't believe they made a water plant run for this long with stuff like a lemon, a chewing gum wrapper and a pencil. MacGyver must have trained under these folks," he snorted. “It’s cool that the folks around here are so resourceful. But school supplies and random shit lying around will only go so far.”
Shawn started the engine of the truck. Jay loaded his supplies and hopped in next to him. The lead trucks signaled, and the convoy snaked onto the dusty road.
Jay looked at Shawn and leaned close to be heard over the engine. "Wanna grab a beer with me after shift?"
"Yeah! Oh, yeah, Dude, you're going home in three weeks! Let's grab a few!"
Jay grinned and watched the parched countryside pass and thought about seeing Nikki, and seeing their house in Denver, and Mom's baklava. The first thing we was going to do when he got home, after the Final Fantasy smackdown he was going to give Nikki's character, was grab a six pack and a whole pan of baklava.
Thirty minutes later, when they were a mile from camp, there was a thudding concussion. The fire and dirt fountained in front of the truck as it overturned. Jay looked over at Shawn, who was crushed into the driver's side door. He wriggled out and ran around to Shawn's side just before the truck erupted in a blaze and exploded.
Jay felt the heat of the explosion, and heard the blast until he didn't feel or hear anything. He opened his eyes. The blue-eyed bird perched in front of him and stared at him. It didn't look angry, but it belched a hiss and retreated to the door.
"Allie? I have to go now."
She stood and moved toward him. "Are you okay? Jay?" She glanced at the birds, her eyes white-rimmed with fear.
He looked around him, and nodded slowly. "I think you're right about spirit." He swallowed a lump in his throat. "I wanted to come back here so bad, that I did anyway, no matter what else happened. At least for a little while." He gazed at the glittering wings and sharp beaks. "I thought they were angry, but maybe they were trying to make me remember, and keep me away from the living."
"But then why could you talk to me?"
"You helped me sort things out, and I didn't know you before I was died. I don't think it would have helped anyone I knew for a dead guy to walk into work, or go back home, unless it was a zombie movie." He offered a grim smile.
"What are the birds?"
"One is someone I knew. Others, maybe they're the Undead Patrol. Or maybe the dead just like company."
Allie shivered, and rubbed her arms, looking at the sea of feathered bodies around her.
Shawn, the blue-eyed bird, twitched his head and hopped through the closed door. The other birds followed him.
"You owe me a beer." He called after the bird, and opened the door. I wish I could see Nikki again, and Mom. Just put one foot in front of the other. You can't go home. At least you're not alone, he thought to himself. He felt Allie follow him into the hallway. "You can't follow me."
She wiped the tears on her face and shook her head.
"Thanks for everything. Find Nikki and tell her I said bye. Tell her I'll punk her at some game or other in about ninety years or so."
"Do you know where you're going?" She asked. Her voice trembled.
He shook his head. "Not exactly, but I think it'll be okay." He turned before he chickened out and 'put one foot in front of the other'. He could see the birds ahead of him, a glint of beak or talon here, a shimmer of iridescent feather there. As he walked, his body got lighter and the oppressive heaviness that had sat on his chest since he'd woken up under the bridge, disappeared. He leaped and sailed into the night sky to join the others.
Rachel Coles is a medical anthropologist living and working on public health in Denver, Colorado. She lives with her husband Adam and young daughter Rosa. She started writing horror stories because her daughter loves scary stories.