It was thirteen minutes past two a.m. Natalie Gillum flicked her cigarette onto the gravel and savored the frigid air in her lungs. She knew she’d remember this night forever. As expected, and much to her delight, her brother Ray had been moping all week. He continued to do so even as the trucks arrived and the first prisoners were unloaded. They were blank checks straight from Uncle Sam that were there to guarantee the Gillum family would remain as rich as the Hearsts so long as the world continued to spin.
It was an abject victory for them both, but Ray still moped, because Natalie had beaten him.
Three years ago… when Ray was a big shot board member and she was barely in college, their father had issued to them a challenge. He’d always loved to pit them against one another. Competition, he had said, was the pressure that made diamonds.
Their father had taken them into his office and shown them a videotape… surveillance footage of a man walking into a bank. As he waited in line, he dropped to his knees and screamed before erupting into a burst violent flame that killed everyone inside in an instant. Two minutes later, however, the man was caught on an exterior camera. Naked and fleeing, but very much so alive.
The senior Gillum had told his children that their company, Gillco, had been hired to create prisons for such monsters… where they could be hidden away from the rest of the world to run the course of their natural lives. He then challenged his children to find a place where such a prison could be hidden.
Natalie had been the one to find it.
Well… technically a grad student at UCLA had been the one to find it. But Natalie had been the one to buy it from him. Then, she used what he’d created to find six more places just like it with dirt cheap land along U.S. Highway eleven, from Louisiana to New York.
Natalie had given Daddy an expansive network and proprietary technology. Ray had given him a hundred acres outside of Little Rock.
Since then, their father’s health had deteroriated past what money could fix. He’d be dead within six months, and everyone suspected that Natalie’s recent contributions to Gillco would be reflected thusly in the last will and testament.
“What are we waiting on?” she barked.
A man in a jumpsuit handed her a yellow, smudged, supermarket pricing gun. There was a small knob on top that both adjusted dollars and cents as well as gamma frequency.
Ray approached from behind her, wordlessly, and lit a cigarette. “You wanna do the honors together, little sister?”
Natalie giggled, clicked the trigger of the pricing gun, and booped Ray on the nose with it.
“Look at that! You’re worth a buck sixty-nine!” she said, twisting the knob again.
“Cut it out. I’m serious,” Ray griped.
“Me too,” Natalie said with a wink. “Daddy never did teach us to share.”
She clicked the pricing gun again. Now, instead of a sticker, a beam of blue and purple light shot forth, slicing a bright hole in the space in front of Natalie. The prisoners were escorted to the rim, then shoved inside.
All said, relocation took twenty minutes.
When it was over, Natalie told her driver to wait in the car. She wanted a few minutes in silence to celebrate alone.
She took off her shoes and felt the grass between her toes.
SFX: [gravel footsteps]
“Mind if I join you?” Ray asked. He was holding a decanter of bourbon and two glasses.
“‘Go right ahead.”
SFX: Pouring liquid
“You remember…” Ray began. “That time we were playing Monopoly in the treehouse? It was the first time you beat me at anything. And I just swore up and down that I let you win?”
“I do.” Natalie laughed. “I got so mad at you for being a sore loser that I threw the board into the lake.”
“I have a confession to make. I didn’t let you win.”
The siblings laughed together… for the first time Natalie could recall in years.
“I really am proud of you, Nat.”
Natalie nodded her head. He must have seen the number of zeroes on the invoice to come around so quickly. She never would have confessed to the nervous excitement his pride made her feel. “Thank you,” she said.
Ray shrugged and climbed to his feet. “Don’t thank me yet.”
Natlie heard a click and was blinded by searing light. The last thing she felt before she tumbled forward into the sands of someplace else… were Ray’s hands between her shoulder blades.
“Go with me into the Lions’ Den. Guide me, Florence, goddess of healing, as I venture through the wilds of this world… healing the sick and the wounded in your name and with your light…”
FX: Car horn
FX: voice: “FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE”
“HEY, DOES THAT TRUCK COME WITH A BLINKER, DICKNOSE? Where was I? Oh yeah. Heal the sick and injured, yada yada, in your name and with your light. Whether you want me to or not. Amen. Not like you give a shit. While we’re performing miracles, go ahead and grant me the ability to take a hint.”
As was always the case now, there was no response to his prayer. When Eric Williams burned a bridge, he did it well.
With all of his might, Eric turned the steering wheel of his 1997 Nissan Altima into a parking spot. The vehicle hadn’t had power steering fluid since the third year of the Obama administration, so this was no menial task. Flakes of padded filling from the steering wheel chipped off under his grip and scattered in the air like glitter, except without shine and possibly toxic.
Eric brushed the dust from his jeans and pulled a vape pen from the center console, as well as a bottle filled with bright blue fluid – a recipe with a secret ingredient given to him by an old friend.
Without looking, but with the practiced ease of a nurse administering a vaccine, Eric filled the tank of the vape pen. He glanced across the parking lot of the strip mall. At this point, there were far fewer storefronts than there were ghosts… hollow shells dressed with the faded imprint of marquis letters long fallen or removed. A barely-living Dollar Tree. An abandoned gamestop, which had occupied the same space as an abandoned Blockbuster before it. A thriving liquor store. And the piece de resistance: the only reason Eric ever bothered to venture to this side of town: The Bounce 4 Less Bargain Boing Trampoline Park. An ambulance mounted the curb outside, as if to welcome him, and a single EMT was loading a young boy, probably twelve or so, into the back.
As Eric walked toward the ambulance, the cold winter air burned his lungs, and he felt the beginnings of an infection in his bronchial tubes. He took a small drag from his vape, just for him, and savored the burn.
Soon, he heard screaming: the guttural yell of a pubescent boy who hadn’t yet learned to control the volume of his voice.
“OH MY GOD! ARE FEET SUPPOSED TO DO THAT? I’M GONNA PUKE.”
“Try to stay still, you’re gonna be fine.”
Eric poked his head into the back of the ambulance and saw the extent of the damage. The poor kid’s left foot was on backwards. There wasn’t a guardian in sight — they’d probably dropped him off expecting him to be safe while they enjoyed a $2 PBR at the Applebee’s across the road.
“Yow,” said Eric, taking another, much longer, drag from his vape pen. The E.M.T. jumped, hitting the gurney with his hip. This slightest of movements caused the maimed child to scream in agony. “That looks rough, my dude. What happened?”
As Eric spoke, he exhaled a thick, blue cloud of vapor into the hold of the ambulance, directly onto the child’s face. As they always did, the E.M.T. absolutely lost his shit.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” he roared, fanning his face. “Do you want him to have a prosthetic foot AND lung cancer?”
“A PROPHETIC WHAT?!” the kid screeched, coughing. Eric held up his hands and backed away.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. Don’t vape, son. Alright, have a good one.”
He turned on his heel and took four steps across the sidewalk, stopping just short of opening the door to Bargain Boing. He examined his faded reflection in the door. Dark skin. Buzzed hair under a beanie. His jeans were on their last leg, but he managed to play it off as fashion. Apart from that, he wore a peacoat and a t-shirt that he had ironed and sprayed with Febreeze after pulling out of the bottom of a hamper. His smile faded when he stared at the diamond stud in his nose for just a second too long. Another gift from the same old friend.
Then came the sounds from the back of the ambulance.
“What the hell?”
“It… it stopped hurting. What did you do?”
“Can you stand?”
“Huh. Well… my job here is done. Just… don’t do any kickboxing for a couple of days, alright?”
Eric pushed open the door and stepped inside. He hadn’t expected the DJ to be playing the theme from Scrubs.
He wasn’t mad about it.
Inside the Bargain Boing, music blared. There were no fewer than a hundred different songs being heard at once… but no two songs were heard by the same person. Standing on his stage, elevated in a booth high above an audience that couldn’t see him, Cooper Brake surveyed his arena. Only an L-shaped area around the perimeter was solid ground. There lived the lobby, snack bar, sock rental, and sitting area filled with tables and cheap aluminum chairs. The rest of the floor space was taken up by trampolines on several different platforms. There were free-bounce areas, as well as a section of basketball hoops for simulated dunks. The ceiling was high and painted black, as were the rafters. A single, sad disco ball dangled unused, not quite in the center of the room. Outside light poked in from a hole near the central air vent, where birds accidentally flew into the building at least once per month.
Hands behind his back, Cooper read the children’s lips as they avoided barreling into each other midair. The room was silent as the grave, save for their laughs, the pound of feet on canvas, and the creak of springs.
“THEY ALWAYS PLAY THE BEST MUSIC HERE!” They said.
“I KNOW! THEY’VE NEVER PLAYED A SONG I DON’T LIKE!” Others said.
As he’d gotten older, Cooper had grown to prefer performing in this way… unseen. Unknown. A conduit for someone else’s music. It was better this way, he told himself.
Cooper leaned down over his laptop and pretended to type something. He had forgotten to plug it into the sound system. He panicked, afraid he’d been caught… then remembered that Mr. Penn was the manager on duty today. He never stepped foot in the sound booth. Or outside his office, for that matter, unless he was going out the back for a smoke.
Not only was Cooper’s laptop not plugged in, it had been dead for three months. A complete potato. He was saving up for another, but he was worried about how long he could keep up the pretense of his screen being asleep every time a manager came into the booth.
He breathed a sigh of relief and brushed the hair out of his face. The red streaks were fading a bit and silvery-greys were shining through the black in a more than a few places… it was almost time to recolor.
“What’s everyone listening to?” he said to himself.
Cooper closed his eyes. He tapped into the shared energy woven into the room, and visualized the act of listening to music in the way he was most familiar with… the most formative to him: A first generation mp3 player his grandma had gotten him for his sixteenth birthday. He had thanked her by ruining her computer with illegal downloads.
He liked to think everyone had one of these BrainPods. A magical box wedged into their grey matter that shuffled the songs stuck in their heads. He only turned it on for them.
He glanced at a young boy, about six years old, turning a backflip. “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots.
SFX: reverb: Good choice, kid.
He turned to a pair of girls at the basketball hoops.
Both heard “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish.
SFX: reverb: Badass. Love it. And what’s this?
A small girl who couldn’t have been more than seven was wearing a unicorn sweater and headbanging to “Deutchland” by Rammstein.
SFX: reverb: Huh. Unexpected, but good for her parents.
Speaking of parents, most of them sat on the sidelines, hearing absolutely nothing and savoring the blessed silence for the first time all week.
Cooper’s concentration was broken by a shrill voice. “EXCUSE ME!”
He leaned over the ledge of the booth to see a woman, well-dressed, in her early forties. She was holding a boy’s wrist in a deathgrip beside her, awkwardly lifting his arm above his shoulder. He seemed unfazed — his eyes were closed and was nodding his head along with music that no one else could hear.
“Exactly what type of music are you playing for these children?” She demanded.
Cooper played dumb. “What… what do you mean?”
The boy sang a line that made Cooper blush. IN a blink, he quickly accessed the boy’s BrainPod to see what was playing.
“WAP” by Cardi B.
Oh shit… Cooper thought.
“AND WHY CAN’T I HEAR IT?” the mother demanded.
“We really are taking over the world,” Hazel Gutierrez said to herself. She couldn’t quite believe that a bounce park in Tennessee was playing the theme song to a web series about D&D. Not only that, but had been on a loop for the better part of an hour, and the kids were no less excited to hear it for a thirtieth time than they had been the first. This gave her a swelling of pride. At long last, a generation of geeks. The future is bright, she thought.
Hazel desperately needed to catch up on commissions. She’d left her apartment for the first time in days, hoping a change of scenery would help the flow of creative juices. Instead, she hummed along with Ashley, Laura, and Sam as she doodled a pencil sketch of a rattlesnake in a tutu. The final touch on the piece was a cute, sharp smile with a forked tongue sticking out, just as hers did whenever she drew.
“You deserve to feel pretty, Mr. McRattleHiss,” she said.
Another conversation caught Hazel’s attention. She took a breath… she’d been able to tune out the overstimulation while she drew. Now it was hitting her all at once. A girl, something like twelve or thirteen, was blushing while she talked to her mother.
“Mom… I can’t go out there,” she begged.
“What are you talking about?” the mother responded, not looking up from her tablet.
“This shirt is too small…” she whispered. “It shows my stomach if I lift my arms even a little.” She was right, Hazel thought. She looked like she’d just come from a fashion shoot, as did her mother. “And… this bra isn’t good for jumping.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’ve lost enough weight. You look adorable,” the mother responded. “Go on.”
Hazel gritted her teeth and clenched her pencil tighter, snapping it in half. She grabbed the purple cloth backpack at her feet. It folded and clattered in her hands under the weight of a dozen decorative pins — dice, protest symbols, obscure references to podcasts, and a blue, purple, and pink flag.
She rummaged through her bag as quickly as she could. She snatched a bound sketchbook with a loop on the side that held a white crayon, threw it on the table in front of her, and looked over her shoulder. Nobody was watching. She’d always had a knack for choosing those special spots in public no one seemed to notice or venture toward. Now, she sat at a table that was pushed against the defunct Fruitopia machine. In the notebook, which was full of black construction paper, she used the crayon to draw the baggiest, comfiest, slouchiest hoodie she could imagine. As she did, the space on the table in front of her began to glow and crackle, as if space itself was manifesting something. She looked around once more as she drew. She hadn’t caught anyone’s attention.
Within a few seconds, the glow had dissipated, leaving behind the sweatshirt she had just drawn. It was still warm… like it had just been taken out of the dryer. She snagged it and ran toward the girl who was slowly creeping toward the bounce floor with her arms crossed and her shoulders hunched.
“Pst! Hey!” Hazel said. The girl turned. “Here.”
Her eyes lit up with relief, and she glanced to her mother, who was sipping a sparkling water and tapping on her tablet. “Thank you so much. I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”
Hazel smiled. “Don’t worry about it, seriously. I can just whip up another one.”
The girl pulled on the hoodie and sprinted to the bounce floor, allowing herself to act like a child for the first time since she’d stepped inside.
From the corner of her eye, Hazel saw a flutter of wings. She ducked as a pigeon flew inches from the top of her head, then perched on top of the drink machine. The pigeon was watching something intently. Hazel followed its gaze and saw a second pigeon, fluttering and trapped.
She looked back at the first bird. It looked… annoyed.
She grabbed her pencil and began a sketch, and she wondered if pigeons’ eyes were always that green.
Giselle could feel that she was being stared at, but didn’t have time to figure out who was doing the staring, or whether they were on to her. She’d just have to make sure to get lost quickly before animal control came to rescue and study a rare breed of green-eyed pigeon and she ended up in a cage at some university. It had happened before, after all. But first, she had to help this poor fool. She rolled her eyes as her new friend fluttered to and fro, chirping his panic.
“BIRD GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?!”
“Please, just calm down!” Giselle cooed. “I can show you the way out!”
“THE SKY IS GONE! HOW CAN I BE CALM?!”
Giselle landed and perched on a rafter above the bounce floor, then surveyed the room for some kind of distraction. French fries, a water fountain… anything that might alleviate the poor creature’s panic. She saw the person who had been staring at her, still watching. No, drawing. She was smiling, and her tongue was sticking out as she doodled. Giselle scratched her head with her wing and the woman laughed, erasing a bit to re-sketch the movement.
“Shame,” Giselle said. “If only I could take the time to pose.”
Cooper scratched his head. He’d stopped the flow of music from his mind to the kid’s, but the boy was still singing most enthusiastically about vaginas.
“TYLER!” The mother turned to Cooper and roared in his face. “TURN IT OFF!”
“I did!” Cooper cried. “I mean! I wasn’t playing that song to begin with! Or any song! Clearly!”
“Is there a problem, here?” droned the manager, Mr. Penn, as he approached the crime scene. On a typical day that Mr. Penn was in charge, Cooper might see him once as the building was being locked up. He was a skinny, balding man in his early 40’s with a perpetual 5 o’ clock shadow. At his most alert, Mr. Penn’s eyelids were only raised to half mast. He wore a faded blue polo with an embroidered logo that read “Bargain Boing” on the breast.
“This man is playing Satanic sex hymns for our children! And he’s playing it at high pitches so adult ears can’t hear,” she stated, flattening the creases in her blouse.
“That’s not true! It’s just his favorite song!”
“What?” said the mother.
“What?” replied Cooper.
The child had gotten the attention of several parents, some of whom were covering their children’s ears. Others only stared, amused. One young woman approached from the sitting area, sat cross-legged on the floor, and began to draw the confrontation in a sketchbook, like a courtroom artist, with her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. Cooper locked on to the pattern of the pencil strokes. He heard a melody in them that he wanted to remember.
FX: Pencil melody
Mr. Penn smacked his gums. “Ma’am, I assure you we won’t play that song again. We vet our music for inappropriateness, but sometimes something slips through the cracks. Please accept this coupon for a free admission on any Sunday between six and nine am. Thank you for visiting Bargain Boing. ”
The woman grabbed Mr. Penn by the front of his shirt and lifted him off of the ground. “I WANT THIS MAN FIRED AND ARRESTED. He has tainted my boy for life!”
SFX: Pencil melody
The boy chanted a line in regards to a tuition payment in exchange for sexual favors. Several parents gasped, and Mr. Penn rubbed his forehead.
“Hey, he’s learning about our broken educational institutions!” Cooper offered.
SFX: Reverb: How do I get out of this? Cooper thought. What do I have to work with? Oh God…
His ears latched on to the sounds of the artist sketching behind him.
SFX: Pencil melody
SFX: REVERB: No… that won’t work. I need a distraction.
SFX: A ringing phone.
“Hello? Calm… calm down. I can’t hear you over the music… why are you yelling, Aunt Lidya?”
Too late. DAMMIT. Focus. Focus.
Cooper’s neck tingled. He turned to see a hyper young girl standing on top of a table, draining the last slurps of a cup from soda. Her cheeks puffed out as the air rose from her stomach…
Seizing an opportunity, Cooper put his palms together and twisted them in opposite directions behind his back, before interlocking his fingers into one another. His vision faded into a translucent grey.
SFX: Some kind of low resonance
Cooper saw his surroundings not in physical shapes, but in sound waves and frequencies. He commanded the trembling waveform of the belch to pitch across the open space of the building, and lodge itself firmly in the back of the raging mother’s throat.
In mid sentence, the mother’s self-righteous roars ceased.
The mother squeaked in embarrassment and covered her mouth, blushing.
“That’s enough excitement for one day, I think,” said Mr. Penn in an exhausted monotone, grabbing a pack of cigarettes from his hip pocket.
But Mr. Penn’s smoke break was not yet to be, for that’s when Cooper saw the blur of a naked body falling from the rafters.
“Hello? Calm… calm down. I can’t hear you over the music… why are you yelling, Aunt Lidya?”
Aiden nudged the lobby door open with a sneakered foot and watched as the sole of his shoe, after months of threats, at long last separated from the cloth. He cursed under his breath. By the tone of his aunt’s voice, now wasn’t the time to ask for a twenty to go thrifting.
SFX: Phone voice: “Where the hell are you?” Aunt Lydia demanded. Her greeting was the same as it always was, but she was smiling. He could hear it in her voice.
“I’m at the Bargain Boing,” Aiden responded. “I told you before I left.”
SFX: Phone voice: “What are you doing there?”
“I… I dunno. I like the music they play here.”
SFX: Phone voice: “And What kinda music is that?”
“Uh. Well, right now they’re playing Depeche Mode.”
SFX: Phone voice: “You’re fulla shit,”
his aunt responded.
SFX: Phone voice: “You’re a liar and you’re fulla shit. No damn trampoline park is gonna play that.”
“Why would I lie about…?”
SFX: Phone voice: “‘Cause you’ve gone to see that deadbeat mom of yours for drugs.”
Aiden gripped his phone so tightly that the plastic case creaked in his hand. “I’ve asked you a million times, just let me take a drug test if you’re so convinced…”
SFX: Phone voice: “I don’t need you to take no drug test. I’ve got all I need.”
A chilly wave settled at the base of Aiden’s skull. “What do you mean?”
SFX: Phone voice: “You know what I mean, you little shit. You broke the rules. Did you not think it would cross my mind to call the factory to check the visitor’s logs?”
Aiden ran a hand through his board-straight red hair. His roots were already soaked with panicked sweat. His mom’s birthday. She’d been clean for a year and away from her abusive douchebag of an ex-husband for ten months. Aiden had made a cake for her in Home Ec. They wouldn’t let him inside unless he gave his real name. He thought he’d gotten away with it…
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said after too long of a pause.
SFX: Phone voice: “You know the deal,” Lydia said, muffled. Like she had a mouthful of food. She was eating without him again. “They said if I can’t keep you away from her, I’ll be relieved of my duties as your legal guardian.”
Aiden hated living with his aunt with a white hot intensity, but he’d been through enough court hearings to know that this was in no way a good thing.
“Where am I gonna go?” Aiden gulped.
SFX: Phone voice: “Hell if I know. Back in the system, I reckon.”
In that moment, Aiden didn’t think his lungs would ever fill with air again. His eyes burned and his mind went into overdrive. He’d felt the same feeling several times before, but never this strongly. As the fire burned in his mind, time slowed, and he knew he’d never forget every detail of that exact moment. The faded skull bumper sticker on the pickup truck to his left. The stick of his four-day jeans to the back of his leg. The hum of the engine of an ambulance as it dismounted the curb and drove away.
“Please,” Aiden whimpered, wanting nothing more than to lie down on the gravel. “I’ll get a part time job. I’ll quit school and get a full time job. Just… I can’t do that again. Don’t make me do that again.”
SFX: Phone voice: “The state’s paying me more to watch you than any Burger King would pay a pimply 15 year-old. I just want my house back.”
“No. No. Please, No.”
SFX: Phone voice: “Yep, yep, yep. Get back here and get packed. Somebody’s already here to get you.”
SFX: BEEP BEEP BEEP
The call ended, and Aiden’s phone screen shattered when it hit the pavement.
Giselle knew that logic could never hold any sway over panic, but she tried nonetheless. The other bird was exhausted and desperate, and behaving even more erratically. “Please…” Giselle said, trying not to show her frustration. “Just land somewhere and we can talk.”
“Maybe I can break through…” he cooed.
The bird swooped low, as if preparing to attack whatever was blocking it.
The frightened pigeon gained speed and flew upward, never slowing until he slammed his head into the black ceiling. His wings and head went limp before he plummeted, bouncing off of the unmoving disco ball and fallingtoward a stampede of socked feet waiting to crush him to a pulp.
Fifteen feet away, and perched on a rafter, Giselle sped into action. She flapped in his direction, twisting and and narrowing her body in order to gain more speed than his fall. Within a second, she was within reach of him. She extended her wing, and, from the corner of her eye, saw a boy point in their direction.
“What are they doing, Dad?”
Giselle hoped the father hadn’t seen both birds falling from the ceiling.
“Let’s traumatize some children, I guess...”
Giselle released the bounds of her conscious thought for a millisecond. That was usually all it took her to attune to the pulse of the Earth — the life around her, the death beneath her, the water in the air and the metal and rock of the building.
Where a grey wing had been a moment before, centimeters from the unconscious pigeon she’d come here to rescue, there now was a slender human hand.
Giselle grabbed the bird, pulled him safely into her chest, and fell onto the mat of the bounce floor, naked as the day she was born.
One of the first lessons of physics any child learns is the transfer of momentum on a trampoline. Eric had learned this lesson the hard way one Easter Sunday when he was six, and his cousin’s bounce sent him in a freefall onto the ground below, causing him to break his wrist. Of course, it had healed before the grownups had gotten there, but it still hurt like hell. He now watched as a woman fell from the rafters and landed on the trampoline beside a small boy. The boy was launched into the air like a cannonball, and slammed into the back wall.
“Help! He passed out!” One child yelled.
“Help! She’s naked!” yelled another.
“Is the ambulance still outside?” yelled the manager, showing any emotion other than apathy for the first time. “TELL THEM TO WAIT!”
“WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS THIS?” yelled the mother of the rapping vagina boy.
Eric sprinted toward the accident, vape pen in hand. When his foot met with the bounce of the trampoline mat, he flashed back to that day… Easter Sunday in 1998. Sitting in his Grandmother’s kitchen afterward. The distinct smell of macaroni and coleslaw.
The music overhead changed to “That Funny Feeling” by Bo Burnham.
He saw the woman first. Naked and rail thin with matted blonde hair. She groaned and rose to her feet, holding a bird in her hands. She didn’t put any weight on her right leg. Out of breath, Eric took a short drag from his vape. “You alright?” he asked, blue vapor creeping out of the corners of his mouth.
“Fine,” she grunted, and pointed toward the circle of kids that had formed. She neither blushed nor covered herself, but her eyes were clear. She wasn’t drunk or high or ill, but those weren’t the questions to ask right now.
Unsatisfied, Eric looked at her leg. It was unshaven, pale, and the thigh was pockmarked with pink scars.
“I’m fine. Old wounds. Check on the boy!” the woman demanded.
As Eric shoved his way through the gathering children, he noticed a splatter of blood on the wall, tricking downward from where the boy had hit. There was a protective foam padding 6 feet high or so on the walls that surrounded the trampolines, but the poor kid had bounced too high for it to have any effect. He now lay motionless, save for a twitching hand, with blood pooling around the back of his head.
“Fuck…” Eric whispered. A couple of children gasped at the swear as he cradled the child’s head in his hands. His hair was soaked with blood and sweat that trickled between his fingers. Eric breathed a thick cloud of blue vapor directly into the child’s face. After a moment, he felt the wound closing. The child’s eyes flickered open.
“Are… are you an angel?” The child asked. Eric’s stomach dropped, even though it was far from the first time he’d heard that question.
“Nah,” Eric said. “Used to know one, though. Kinda.”
“How could you kinda know an angel?”
“No, I knew her well. She was kind of an angel,” Eric said, blowing another cloud of vapor onto the child.
“What are you doing to him?!”
The manager was storming to the edge of the mat. A vein bulged out of his head right below his receding hairline. His energy had shifted entirely… he was no longer the timid man who was trying to appease a helicopter mom. He was a man about to break.
“Why would you do that?” he shouted again, with something between desperation and exasperation in his voice.
SFX: Pencil melody
“Are you drawing this?!”
Hazel was so wholly enraptured by the scene she was drawing that she didn’t hear the manager approach in time to stop him from yanking the sketchbook from her hands.
“If you wanna see you just gotta ask,” she said, repositioning herself beside him to explain her work. She cleared her throat and monologued:
“This piece is an original Gutierréz graphite on college-ruled canvas — a slice of life work entitled Dichotomy of MANager. As you can see, the medium is intended to evoke the sense of a bored classroom daydream.”
With a graceful wave of the palm, she gestured to the focal point — a caricature of Mr. Penn with an enormous head, divided down the middle. Half of the face was sleepy and sad, the other was exploding with rage. “The manager, who was brought to life by a most excellent subject, exemplifies the full range of negative human emotion from apathetic cynicism to white male rage. Beside him are characters that I like to call “Kaiju Karen” and “Cussing Tyler. You can tell the Karen is feral and animalistic seeing as she is a dinosaur who breathes fire.”
The guy who had vaped into the injured boy’s face was now standing behind Mr. Penn. “What’s Cussing Tyler saying?” he asked. “The word balloon is a little small.”
“Weinercoochie!” Hazel said, then pointed to a falling stick woman with breasts. “And then, of course, the eye lands and rests here, because of the tits.”
“Ha. Tits,” stated one of the children.
Mr. Penn slammed the book shut and threw it on the ground, apparently forgetting he was standing on a trampoline. The pages ruffled as it bounced back into Hazel’s hands.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”
“Who?” Cooper asked.
“WHO DO YOU THINK?”
The last thing Aiden saw was a blue pickup truck in a parking spot beside him. It had one of those detachable hood things on the back that made it look like a van. What were they called? Everything had lost meaning, like when you say a word too many times and you start to question if it’s really a word. But it wasn’t only words. It was anything and everything tangible. He touched the hood of the pickup truck and felt the temperature of the metal… warm from the engine. But it proved nothing to him. It was like seeing through an illusion.
Aiden could feel every nerve ending in his arms and legs. Every hair follicle. The freezing sweat trapped in his peach fuzz mustache threatened to burn a hole through his upper lip. He felt himself breathing, but he would have sworn he was choking… drowning. His vision blurred into doubles, then triples. He wondered why he hadn’t thrown up, but remembered he hadn’t eaten that day. He laid down… or maybe fell… onto the pavement. He rested his face on the cold concrete of a parking stopper. He imagined he was six years old again. He had a stomach bug and Mom had put a cold, wet cloth on his forehead. He almost lost himself in the fantasy, but the shallow, quick expansions of his chest caused a loose piece of gravel to wedge between his ribcage, constantly reminding him of his reality. He squirmed, writhed on the ground in hopes that the friction of his skin on the greasy pavement would distract him from whatever this pain was. It didn’t.
Miles away, he heard a door swing open. Footsteps. Voices. They stood out from the handful of other sounds. Cars passing by on the boulevard. The click of the traffic light. He stared into the midwinter sky… grey and dead.
“Holy shit.” Female voice. Accent.
“Hey dude… are you okay?” Male voice.
“Hey, you’re not alone. You’ve got friends here. My name is Hazel.” Female voice. A different one. No accent.
“What’s happening to me…?” Aiden asked. “Hot. And cold.”
“You’re having a panic attack,” one of the women — Hazel — said. “Do you have medicine you need to take or anything? I’m just gonna sit with you for a bit, is that okay?”
“What are you doing?” a male voice asked. Aiden looked for the first time. He only saw the woman who was sitting beside him. She was Latine. She had large, kind eyes and purple tones in her hair.
“You’re having a panic attack, but you’re in good company. I’ve had more of these than I can count. Just try to breathe with me. Do you want me to hold your hand?”
“...Y-yeah. Please.” She did. Aiden felt comfort that was almost euphoric. No stranger had ever been that nice to him. But the panic and the pain were still so strong. He felt every emotion he’d ever felt, and they started battling with one another. The fear grew stronger. But also the feeling of not being alone… what was that called? Did it even have a word? Whatever it was, it grew stronger, too. He felt something crack inside of him, like a glowstick. Hot tears filled his eyes and something vibrated in his soul.
Something was wrong with his hand. Like lasers were inside his fingertips trying to stab their way out. He felt the same sensation in his chest. His heart beat harder and harder, like it was getting his body ready to do something it had never done before.
He mustered every fiber of his strength to lift a hand in front of his face. Not the one being held. He didn’t dare let go of it, afraid that he’d be swept away and drowned by some imaginary current if he did.
He blinked away the sting of tears and sweat. A soft, purple light pulsed in his palm with his heartbeat, and illuminated the veins in his fingers.
“Back up,” Hazel said to the others that Aiden couldn’t see. “Something is about to happen.”
“No fuckin’ way,” a different male voice said. “I know what this is.”
“Try to make sure no one is watching,” the other woman said.
“Why? Why?” Aiden stammered. “What’s happ... NYAGH!”
It was as though the agony flew out of his body and became something different. Aiden’s limbs and back tensed and he watched a purple beam shoot out of his chest. It terminated a few feet overhead, and formed a wide arc in the sky. No… a bubble. It pulsed and crackled with energy, washing over Hazel… and the others… like a blacklight. She squeezed his hand tighter and smiled. But her eyes were very, very sad.
“Yeah. You’re in good company.”
The bubble was gone, taking a chunk of parking lot, half of a pickup truck and the five strangers somewhere else entirely.
It was night.
The air was thin and cool.
There was no moon… nor were there any stars.
Before he tumbled down a mound of dirt and cracked pavement, Aiden saw a glimpse of a tower in the distance… with nothing but a vast expanse of desert all around it.