After The End
I stood at the railing on top of the parking garage, looking down at the river, rippling gently in the early morning breeze. The city was starting to wake up, the traffic picking up almost imperceptibly, lights flipping on in buildings, the horizon growing brighter and driving the blackness of night to dark blue, and then the dark blue away from the edges of the sky altogether.
I needed someone to talk to.
Back in the car, the loneliness I’d felt earlier had barreled back in on me like a freight train. Alone in this little city, no one to connect to.
Dad was sleeping, and needed to, so I wasn’t going to call him. So was Mom, and Brett, and Stephanie. Dan was probably up, but wasn’t picking up his cellphone. The big bad rockstar was too busy to talk to his little sister.
Tim…Tim hadn’t picked up any of the seven times I’d called his phone since leaving the stadium. And that made me even more depressed, angry, and desperate.
I felt like hoisting both legs over the railing and stepping into air. Like walking up University into the ghetto and mercilessly beating the first guy to give a pretty teenage girl any grief.
I felt presence at my side and so unconcerned was I with anything that I didn’t even acknowledge the person. Eventually I looked over. “Oh. You again.”
“Me, again,” Keith said.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than follow me around?”
“No.” He was very matter-of-fact about it. Not sarcastic. It was what it was.
“Dude, who are you? WHAT are you?”
His face crinkled as the thought for a minute. “I think I’m an angel.”
“An angel.” I repeated quietly. I wasn’t even shocked. Of course he was nuts.
He shrugged with his shoulders and eyebrows.
“Somehow, I don’t think there are angels named Keith who stalk teenage girls through waterfights.”
“You’d be surprised. For some reason, this stupid game seems to attract the people I need to talk to the most. I suppose if we’d both been born in the past, I’d be talking to you during your vision quest or during agoge or something.”
“Women didn’t go on agoge, you idiot.”
Keith shrugged again. “Whatever.”
“How do you know so much about me? What do you have to tell me that’s so damn important you decided to infiltrate my life last night?”
“You’re valuable. Chosen to do great things. A human weapon, if you will. You can and do fight harder than most people can even imagine. Unfortunately for you, some branches need to be trimmed before it can become a spear.
“You’re going to lose a LOT of people you love, and very soon.
“But it’s worth it for what you’re going to do. “You have a destiny to fulfill. You’re never going to know peace or sustained happiness ever again. You’ll always end up doing good at the end, but there’s about a fifty-fifty chance of your soul actually tilting towards what’s right. You’re worthless now, but you may just find your way back into the light. Just something to keep in mind.”
He didn’t sound mocking or sarcastic or insane, or anything other than perfectly straightforward and serious. So I punched him. Elbows on the railing, I moved from a state of rest to drive my right elbow into his left cheek hard enough to numb my arm, using momentum to pivot me and add heft to the left hook I slammed into the same spot. My hand exploded with pain, and I ignored it as I stepped back, putting my hands up defensively.
Keith reeled back from the hits, his face already going purple, blood pouring down his split cheek. “What was that?” he asked mildly, touching a hand to the wound.
“You’re an angel, right?” I asked mockingly. “Surely you’ve heard of the story of Jacob and the Angel of The Lord?”
“Never.” Again that infuriatingly simple, honest voice.
I approached, hands up, ready to ward off any punches he might throw. Within distance, I kicked low, aiming for his kneecap. He angled past the kick with an astonishing economy of movement, closing the gap and slamming his right forearm into my collarbone while hooking my leg with his own, dumping me flat on my back.
Pain jolted through my entire body, and I shifted on my side, kicked out the back of Keith’s knee instead of the front, dropping him on the ground beside me.
I was so angry, so worn out, so sick and tired of all this bullshit I attacked him with a fury so venomous and evil that Satan himself might never have known its equal. I swung an arm over his neck, yanking his head back and pulling myself close. He struggled to get a hand under my arm, and I rolled us over until I was lying beneath him and could keep him from twisting out of my trap by wrapping my legs around his hips from behind. He drove his left elbow into my ribs again and again and I responded by working my left hand behind his head, pushing it forward from behind, driving his neck further into the joint of my elbow, grabbing my left arm with my right hand to tighten the hold. Ten seconds and out.
Keith ducked his head and bit my right arm. Bit and chewed. I hissed and hung on. Seven seconds. I had to let go. Dammit. He reached almost casually behind his head and angled my left arm out, then snapped his head in a reverse headbutt that split the bridge of my nose and broke the cartilage with a fountain of blood. Keith flipped back over my head, aided somewhat by the quick bridge I gave him, and we both rolled over, pushing to our feet. I got there second, and realizing what was going to happen, brought both forearms up to cage my face in.
The blows came blindingly fast, so quick the pain barely had a chance to register. Left right left right over and over into my ribs, a yank to my elbow followed by a left to my face. I put my head down and charged, and Keith collapsed as my head and the concrete retaining wall sandwiched his diaphragm.
Even possessed by rage, so furious the edges of my vision were going black, I had enough presence of mind to alter my tactics. I didn’t go for the KO. I wanted to hurt Keith instead. A slap to each ear, a knee to the groin, an uppercut that slammed his jaws together, a punch to his already spasming lungs…he swung a left at me, and I trapped it between my side and my arm and headbutted him in the face, then caught his hand as he pulled it free and wrenched his wrist and fingers back.
He shrieked, and I’d been so concentrated on lefts he was throwing, I’d forgotten about the rights. His cross caught me in the face, tipping me backwards from the kneeling position I’d had over his slouched form. The toe of his boot slammed into my side, flipping me over with a crack from my midsection.
I sucked in a breath over cut and smashed lips, felt blood bubbling in my throat as I elbow-crawled away, felt it streaming down my cheeks and chin and neck from my now-flabby nose and a cut in my hairline I didn’t remember getting. My entire face felt broken, and one of my eyes was swelling shut, constricting my view. I hurt – simultaneously dull and intense – all over, and I was so tired. I didn’t think I could stand on my own, but if got to a car, I could drag myself up by a tire or a door handle or something. A look over my shoulder showed Keith bent double, hands on his knees, taking deep breaths. Aside from bloody, he didn’t look any worse for wear.
I kept crawling even as I heard footsteps above me. Get to a car. Get to a car. Get to a damn car. Keep crawling, Samantha. One arm in front of the other.
I felt hands grip the back of my shirt, and Keith hauled me up, more or less to my feet. I swung at him – flailed really – and managed to land a limp blow to his chest before he heaved me across the ramp into one of the concrete tunnel walls. I slammed into it side-on, all breath leaving me, pain spiking in my left arm, and dropped to the ground in a heap, rolling slightly down the incline further into the parking garage.
I sagged against the chainlink fencing used to separate the rows of cars from each other. I couldn’t win. I was too tired, too hurt. Everything I was was pain. Every breath felt like a stab. This would go on for as long as Keith wanted. I was a toy. I had no choice in the matter.
My hand skittered over the wire, my fingers hooking through it loosely, and I pulled myself up with a groan. I could see Keith approaching through the half an eye that was open. One was blinded with blood, the other swollen half closed. I had to look a wreck.
Keith batted aside my weak punch, and tipped me on the ground with the same forearm bar he’d used earlier, then knelt by my side. I looked up at his blank, empty eyes and willed my hand up, clawing at them. The bastard smiled and grabbed one wrist as I punched at him, then the other. He slammed me back against the fence hard enough to shake its entire length, and just stared into my eyes.
“You’re dead inside. You’re a perfect artificial human, just like you’re an artificial girl. You don’t – can’t – care if you lose. Not anymore. That’s why you fight so hard. Not even Brian Tanner fought as hard as you did. That’s why the universe chose you. That’s why you’ll make a difference.”
Keith let me drop as he rose and then walked away, back up onto the roof, where he disappeared around a corner.
I think I blacked out and then woke up. Maybe I did that several times, I wasn’t sure. It was much, much later by the time I could stand again. I pulled my aching body up alongside the chain link, and hobbled towards the roof, my aching left arm held tight to my aching ribs. My right leg felt dead. I’d never given the stab-wound a chance to close, and my pants were saturated with blood from mid thigh to hem.
Between Keith and I, there’d been a lot of damage inflicted on me today.
Most of it couldn’t be seen.
The Mazda felt good to lean against, and after a few minutes I slipped inside. I felt like I should cry. I couldn’t though, and would’ve held it back even if I could’ve. I was dead inside. Just like Keith said. Broken, burned-out, empty.
Empty as Keith’s eyes.
I fell asleep, bleeding on the driver’s seat.
When I woke up again, the sun was much higher in the sky. With a groan, I straightened in my seat – I’d need to have the blood professionally cleaned off the leather and upholstry– and turned the key in the ignition. I kept my left arm curled in tight to my body and handled the wheel with my right hand. There was pain from my left shoulder down to a numb tingle in my hand. One more thing to have checked out.
Around and around the empty structure the car crawled, and my head lolled with exhaustion several times before I hit the ground level. All the concrete walls looked the same.
There was a cop in the tollbooth, and his eyes got wide as trash-can lids when he saw me. “Are you ok, miss?” he asked.
I coughed and chuckled. “Just peachy. Guy who did this ran off immediately after. Probably took one of those back sets of stairs.”
He looked at me even more concerned. “Are you sure you’re ok? Did you hit your head?”
I nodded and the throbbing made me wish I hadn’t. A lot. “Yeah, I got hit in the head. A bunch of times. Why?”
“’cause you got here right after my shift started, and nobody’s gone up since. And all the stairwells are locked too.”
Panic and irritation welled up inside me. “Well do you remember me looking like hell when I drove in? And surely you have video cameras around this joint…”
He made a waving gesture, probably meant to mollify me. “Miss, you got your ticket out of a machine, I only see you when you come back down.”
“And the video footage?”
He signed. “Let me see if I can pull that up.”
The monitor was on a swivel arm – thankfully long – and the cop rotated it until I could see it without doing too much stretching. Cameras from every door on every level occupied grid squares on the screen. He dragged the slider around the progress bar until he found my car driving in. Dragging it forward got two distant views of me standing at the railing, staring off into space, the pictures small and grainy in the upper right of the screen.
I pointed. “There, he walks up next to me any second.”
The video played interminably, and then the four roof screens went black. A few seconds later, the cameras for the level below it went out too. The cop hit the “pause” button a few times. “Weird. We only get power outages like that when one of the lightning rods around takes a hit or the generator surges.” He dragged the slider forward and the cameras came back on as my video self limped out of the tunnel.
“I hate to say it ma’am, but it looks like there was an equipment malfunction. Tell’ya what, I’ll check the printout for the electronic locks, see if anyone tried to use the doors.”
I slouched in my seat as he consulted a different screen. I ran my good hand through my hair, found it crusty with blood. Of course. I needed a shower and I’d just taken one.
I wondered if Keith would walk in on me again as I got dressed.
If he did, it would be the last mistake he made. My punches might not have an effect, but he’d have to be superhuman to shrug off the bite of a thousand dollar knife…
“Ma’am, you still awake?”
I shook myself and looked blearily at the tollbooth through my one open eye. “I’m here.”
“I said the doors all stayed locked. Nobody tried to open them.”
I groaned. “So how did he get down?”
“You were the only one up there,” the cop insisted. “No one else entered or left the building.”
“I was NOT the only one up there,” I said with ferocity. “How did he leave?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe he flew. Maybe he miracled his butt down to the street, or disappeared into thin air. Look, I can call you an ambulance, or get another officer over here to take a report, but – “
I lost the rest of his words in the squeal of my tires. He looked outraged in my rearview mirror, and I didn’t care. I was not in any mood to deal with anything that wasn’t going my way. I was hurt badly, tired, hungry, and my guilt and fear and apprehension for Tim was burning at my mind like a wildfire.
I crossed the blazing hot Hotel Sierra parking lot – now lit gold by the descending sun – and limped across the lobby to desk clerk. She looked shocked to see me. I’d first met her yesterday afternoon as she misspelled the word “dumb” and told me to stay out of uSoak. My appearance had changed somewhat in the interim.
“I’d like to change rooms please.”
“Uh….umm…was there a – “
I cut her off. “I didn’t bleed in the room, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Do you need help? A doctor maybe? Police?”
“I need a new room.”
Her keyboard beeped a few times and she fixed a false smile on her face. “We’ll be sending someone to move your bags to the new room shortly. The changes should already have propagated to your keycard, so you can use the same one to get in. Anything else?”
I gave her the thumbs up. “Groovy. Thanks.”
I think I drew a glance from everyone in the atrium as I made my way over the bistro. My stumble that nearly tipped over a table didn’t help with being inconspicuous. I leaned on the bar and dug my wallet out of my satchel, flipped through the cards one-handed, and flipped dad’s credit card and my fake license onto the counter. Like the desk clerk, the waitress looked at me in shock. Cute little blond girl, looked barely old enough to be serving alcohol here.
Looked kinda like Allison.
I narrowed my eyes at her. Allison had looked like a pale version of myself. Perfect, but pale. This young woman did not look perfect. I shook my head. Seeing things. “Still serving lunch?”
“For another five minutes.”
“Yippee skippee.” I glanced over the lunch menu. “Club sandwich and a double jack and coke.”
“I’ll have to see your driver’s license.” She said it hesitantly, like I might hold the place up if she asked.
Apparently they don’t see too many assault-with-a-deadly-angel victims in here. I snorted at the stupidity of my own thoughts. Shook my head. Ow. I’d have to stop doing that. “Right there on the counter.”
She scrutinized it and handed it back, then ran the credit card. “If you want to take a seat, those will be out shortly.”
I took a seat in the atrium and tried to relax in the hard wire chair. Not easy to do. I had a feeling Keith was out of my life for the time being, but I had another feeling screaming that he’d step out from behind the palm tree I was sitting next to, berate me about destiny, and then berate me with a table.
The fountain hissed and burbled in the background, and in the gently shaded sunlight, I could feel myself growing sleepy. Good, that was good. I might just fall asleep in the shower.
The sandwich and drink arrived shortly, and I stared at my food. Too tired to eat, even to drink the liquid painkiller. I’d take them up to the room try and get them down before passing out under the spray.
My phone rang.
I ignored it, lost in my own world.
It rang again, the annoying MIDI tone cutting through the peaceful atrium atmosphere. And again. And again.
A few tables ahead, a burly older guy sitting across from his wife leaned out to glare at me. I just stared back, and a slightly scared expression crossed his face before he returned to his meal.
Should probably get that.
I leaned down painfully, scooped my phone out of my satchel where it sat by my chair.
The digital clock on the front clicked to five as I watched. Twenty four hours ago…
The afternoon sun shone through the canopy of palm leaves above, turning the ones nearest the middle of the atrium to a greenish gold. I angled the phone out of the sunlight and flipped it open. The display said “Tim.”
My eyes went hot and heart dropped to the floor and bounced towards the ceiling, stopping only for the back of my throat. How…
Keith had said Tim wouldn’t take any more of my calls. He hadn’t said anything about not calling ME.
I knew everything would change. I knew I couldn’t stay feeling as perfectly happy as I did in that moment, but I reveled in the feeling anyway. Maybe not the next, but right at this second, the world was good. Maybe not tomorrow, but today, today I had hope. That little computer display might spell out damnation on the line, but all I could think about was salvation.
I put the phone to my ear and pressed the “send” button.