They were getting closer to the tower, but not yet close enough to make out any details with so little light. Hazel, Aiden, and Cooper trudged through the desert sand with Eric slightly in the lead. Several minutes had passed since Giselle had morphed into a hawk and scouted ahead by air, flying toward the mysterious, skeletal tower looming over the desert.
Cooper had tried to break the ice by having perfect strangers share the stories of their first magical releases. A noble, but buck-fucking wild concept. Eric imagined most people had a first release story that was as unpleasant as his own, and therefore weren’t exactly eager to share it with strangers.
That said, the tepid vibe hadn’t lasted long before, probably out of nervous habit, Hazel started beatboxing. Cooper had joined in with a vocal riff, and had somehow used his power to make it sound like he was harmonizing with himself. Eric stayed silent, mostly because he’d forgotten how to talk to people. But he smiled. Their company wasn’t unpleasant. They both shared a disarming presence. At the very least, their energy was helping to calm the kid, which was likely the most important component to getting home. He still scratched his head, bit his cuticles , and visibly chewed on his jaw, but every so often their antics would cause him to crack the faintest of smiles. Hazel in particular was able to lower his defenses, due in part to her having the rancid humor of a teenage boy. Her knock-knock jokes were particularly vile.
“Orange you glad I didn’t say prostate massage? WOAH.”
A streak of blonde feathers swooped from above. Giselle flapped her wings, cawing. She turned her head to where Eric was about to step. As if there was a line on the ground, the sand changed into a different kind of terrain… darker and wet. Hazel held out a wrist, which Giselle landed on. If the razor sharp talons pierced Hazel’s skin, she didn’t flinch.
Eric knelt down and got closer to the marsh. He took a fistful of sand from the safe side of the line and sprinkled it on top of the muck. It… dissolved. The smell was noxious. Like stagnant sewage water. He reached a hand out, waving it over the surface to judge the temperature. It was warm. Not just warm — hotter than bathwater. As he waved his palm across the ground, there was a squishing sound, like thick bubbling paste, before a thin finger reached out of the marsh to meet his hand. He jerked away and fell backwards. It wasn’t something below the ground. It was the ground. The finger of quicksand waved around like a periscope, two feet tall or so. Eventually, it stopped and bent at an angle toward the travelers.
“Can it… see us?” Hazel asked.
“Or smell us?” suggested Cooper.
“Either way,” Eric said, dusting off his jeans, “We can’t walk any further. Any ideas?”
“YURK!” Aiden screeched as Giselle lifted him off the ground by his belt loops, soaring low over the muck before gaining altitude. She belted a haunting screech.
SFX: bird caw
Aiden’s arms and legs thrashed in every direction as they flew, like he was trying to climb a wall that wasn’t there. His weight and movement seemed to have little effect on Giselle. She flew straight as an arrow.
“One at a time oughta work,” Eric said, tapping the tank of his vape. It was below half. No extra juice. No seeds to cook with, or even fire or water. He stopped himself just shy of praying they wouldn’t need it.
“Fucking… janky… fucking… FUCK!” Natalie grabbed the yellowed PVC pipe and shook it in a violent attempt to break up the sand and gunk that was undoubtedly clogging the inside. Dirty water spat out of the spigot and trickled into her iron pot. She smiled, imagining, as she did every day, what it would be like to beat her brother’s brains out with it.
“Excuse me…” chimed a voice behind her. “I’ve got two mothers in labor and we really need water.”
“And I have two dead rats I have to boil. Which one do you think I’m more worried about?” Natalie snapped.
The man behind her wrung his hands and walked to a ladder, looking both up and down to see which floor had a free spout.
Natalie’s patience ran out before the pot was full. Half was enough. She grabbed the partially-clear water by the handle and swung it, letting its weight lead her instead of using any strength. She took a flat shard of metal out of her cleavage and ran it through her fingers like a coin, surveying her surroundings for an easy mark. She pulled white hair out of her eyes, palmed the metal shard, and approached a young man sleeping a few feet down the wall from her. She tiptoed, making sure she wasn’t seen. He was sleeping on his side, and the small of his back was exposed. As gently as possible, she touched the edge of the metal against his back. He stirred, but didn’t wake. The metal warmed in her palm. Orange light traced across the shard, like handwriting forming a symbol. Something that looked like two triangles with dots. Or pointy boobs. Natalie rolled her eyes. She didn’t know, nor did she give a fraction of a shit as long as it heated her water. It was a wrinkle that one of them had to touch it for it to work, but she’d gotten creative with sneaky ways to get their help without asking for it — which she’d die before doing. And almost had. Many times. Still, it was one of the more useful trinkets she’d looted off of the dead ones before they were eaten by the sand. Rats were still rats, but eating them boiled beat the hell out of eating them raw.
When the shard was too hot to hold, she tossed it on the metal floor, put the pot on top, and plopped the day’s kills in the water. There was just enough liquid to cover them. Within a minute, it was boiling. Within ten, she was eating.
As she used a pinky nail to pick a bit of flesh from between her front teeth, Natalie squinted. An enormous golden hawk was sailing across the desert, carrying a human in its talons. A human with clothes.
“Where did you come from?” she whispered. “I sure didn’t put you here...”
“WOO!” Hazel shouted as Giselle plopped her down on the metal flooring of the structure. She wiped tears from the cold wind out of her eyes. “God, that was fun. I haven’t… oh no.”
The rest of the group stood motionless, jaws unhinged or mouths covered, as they observed up close what Giselle had discovered before them. They got several sideways glances, but no one dared speak to them. Cooper muffled sobs into his elbow. Eric ground his teeth so hard that his jaw audibly popped. Giselle popped out of her hawk form.
They wore the shredded rags of cheap polyester and denim with the faded, but once-vibrant, colors so often associated with the 1980s. They used magic openly… in particular, Hazel noticed one man waving a palm over a pot of filthy water and making it crystal clear. There were no rooms whatsoever… just the floor on which every person or family had a small camping spot. And there were families. Children. Infants. A series of pipes scaled up the height of the building from the ground through which Hazel assumed a modest amount of rancid water was allowed to flow up from below.
“Dude, where did you bring us?” she asked Aiden.
“I…Did we go back in time? Or forward?” Aiden asked, wiping tears off of his cheeks.
Eric knelt beside a metal ladder that seemed to descend into the belly of the building. “If we went back in time, we didn’t go far. This ladder was quality-control checked by Lisa in Fort Worth.” He gestured to the ladder. “Shall we?”
Hazel felt a tickle on the back of her hand. Giselle was gone, but a butterfly, who, apart from being a color that could only be described as blonde, had a pattern that resembled that of a monarch. She flapped her wings and descended gently into the depths of the building. The others boarded the ladder and followed.
During their climb downward, Hazel would have to avert or close her eyes for several seconds at a time. One floor seemed to serve as an infirmary. Women gave birth while exhausted healers stood with hands on them to lessen the pain. Others lived with no sense of privacy, as if they’d never had any to begin with. Wherever they were, these people had been here for a very, very long time. Many, if not most of them, might have been born here.
When they reached the bottom of the ladder, Giselle was no longer a butterfly. She was standing and speaking with an elderly woman with a shaved head. She was frail and stooped, but wore a gentle smile as she balanced herself on a steel pipe that had been fashioned into a cane.
“...I just saw you all the way up there a moment ago,” Giselle said.
“And I, you,” said the woman. “The rarest of gifts, you have. No one in this place can do what you do. To be able to commune with nature across the planes and universes… to access oneself in the form in which you exist elsewhere is truly purity of will and mind. And by the look on your face, I can tell that no one has ever told you that.
Giselle nodded. Hazel knew she seemed to have a more specific command over her power than the rest of her new friends, but the fact that she had done so without truly knowing the extent of her gift was mind-boggling. Not to mention she had just been told for the first time that her gift was the rarest a person could have, and she had barely reacted, let alone allowed herself to show any amount of conceit. It made Hazel admire her even more.
“But.. what of you?” Giselle continued. “How did someone in your condition move so quickly down a ladder?”
The woman extended her arms. Giselle felt a vibration on the air, and the woman’s feet lifted off of the ground.
She lowered herself. “And I see there are more of you.”
“Where are we?” Eric asked.
“You’re nowhere you’ve ever heard of,” she said, her eyes scanning the newcomers one at a time. “My name is Jacqueline. I’m… as of today, the eldest of our number here.”
“And all of these people… why are they here?” Cooper asked.
“So we can’t hurt anyone, of course.”
Hazel didn’t ask. She stated. “This is a prison. You were forced here. You haven’t always been here.”
Jacqueline made deep, thoughtful eye contact with Hazel. “Hmmm. That’s correct. I’m old enough to remember the youth… even a bit of adulthood… of another life.”
“Who put you all here?” she continued.
“Ah. You might say that anyone who ever made a decision based on fear is responsible for our being here.”
“FALL!” shouted a voice from above. Silhouetted against the red moon, Hazel saw a body flipping and tumbling through the crevasse. Jacqueline closed her eyes and held out her palms. Bright blue beams of light burst forth and shone on the falling person — a young girl no more than three years old. Her fall stopped, and she was suspended within the beams. The elder lowered her hands, causing the girl to gently lower until she landed on her bottom in front of Hazel, sitting and giggling and chewing on her curls. She was thin, pale and dirty. She looked up at Hazel with a mischievous, buck-toothed smile.
“It’s not yet time for the Dust Demon to take you, child,” the elder said.
The girl ignored the Jacqueline and turned to Hazel. “Hi,” she squeaked. Hazel burst into tears and picked up the child. The girl wrapped her arms around Hazel’s neck and clung to her like a monkey, giggling while Hazel rummaged through her bag, then pulled out her special notebook and a white crayon. Within the span of a few seconds, she sketched her idea of the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
It poofed into existence in the girl’s hands. Her eyes widened as the jelly dripped down her little arms.
“The height of culinary innovation,” Hazel said. “It’s about to change your life, kid. And there’s more where that came from.”
Hazel returned her attention to the group. They were all listening to the elder speak. Except Giselle. Giselle was smiling in her direction. Hazel wiped a bit of jelly off of the child’s chin to avert her eyes. Her skin prickled as it blushed.
“I’ve answered your questions,” Jacqueline said. “Now, answer mine. First: Have you come here to rescue some of us or all of us?”
Cooper opened his mouth to speak, but a confused groan was all that escaped his throat. “I’m bad at riddles,” he admitted, defeated.
“I’ll help whoever, however,” chimed Hazel, placing the girl back on the ground. “But I think what Cooper means to say is that we don’t even know how we got here. Let alone how we’re leaving.”
Jacqueline nodded. “So you’re here to help none of us. But, you are here. That’s certainly a start.” She squinted at the child. “Second: Could I trouble you for one of those sandwiches? Strawberry jelly, if you please.”
Aiden was a connoisseur of nervous habits. Knuckle cracking. Nail biting. Jaw chewing. He picked his scabs until he was eleven or twelve. He had discovered young in school that the problem with nervous habits of that nature was that they were finite resources that had to be replenished. Joints had to refill with fluid. Nails and scabs had to grow back. Once you’d chewed your jaw into hamburger meat, the pain and the taste of blood were so constant and unnerving that they only added to your anxiety.
Over the past… however much time had elapsed since he arrived in this place, Aiden had emptied his reserve of nervous ticks. His knuckles only gave a feeble creak when he tried to pop them, and he’d bitten three nails so far below their beds that they ached. In the absence of other opportunities, he had taken to plucking hairs from his scalp and eyebrows. The sting of it was enough to take his mind somewhere else for a glorious millisecond before he had to pluck another… which was difficult considering he had neither tweezers nor fingernails. Each pluck was not only a release of pain, but a small victory—like a game he’d created and to which he never wanted to share the rules.
Not helping matters was the fact that he felt as though he was walking on a tightrope. Just as they had been on the higher levels, the floor was only a floor in the most liberal sense. Parallel metal boards no more than a few feet wide created a very narrow surface on which to walk. Here on the ground floor there were no more than a few inches separating those boards from the evil danger dirt that had come to life as snaking tendrils. Now, drifting away from the conversation and staring at the muck, it just looked like a weird, thick mud. Like a cartoon version of quicksand. It didn’t gurgle or shift. No movement on the surface betrayed that anything could be lurking beneath.
The old woman—Jacqueline—ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Hazel had given her bit by precious bit, tearing off a chunk no more than an inch wide and savoring it for several seconds.
[yummy noise] “Are you all Wielders?” she asked. Aiden felt a silent wave of understanding wash over him. There was a word for what they were. An old one. The way she had said it… the weight her tone had carried when she said it… covered Aiden with gooseflesh. He’d never comprehend everything that had happened to him today, let alone be able to grapple with what had happened before him. This had happened to other people. A lot of them. Hundreds of them were in this place because of it.
Some people might say it felt like a dream. But Aiden didn’t dare to hope for that. In his experience, real life was a lot more cruel than any nightmare could be. Hoping for a dream had never worked out in his favor, and he’d tried. Many times.
“Wielders,” Cooper repeated. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess we are.”
“So they failed, then.”
“Hm. I can’t answer your questions, I’m afraid,” Jacqueline said. “I’m sure I know a lot less about where we are than you do. I've outlived most of the people who could remember being brought here, save for a handful. But they didn’t make it a point to give us any information while we were handcuffed and blindfolded.”
“Do you remember where you were last?” Cooper asked. She said nothing, but nodded gently.
“What I know…is that while they may have failed, they were still thorough. You’ve not encountered many others of your kind, after all?”
Aiden felt a puff of air on his face. The little girl stood below him with her lips pursed and her cheeks puffed. She smiled. He tried to smile back, but he doubted he’d been successful. He was awkward with kids. Still, the child giggled.
Jacqueline continued. “There will be other places like this. It can be no coincidence that five Wielders not only wandered their way here, but into each other’s lives at all. You’ll get your answers. Sooner rather than later.”
Another puff of wind on Aiden’s face, stronger this time. “What’s your name?” the small girl squeaked, ignoring the other conversation entirely.
“I’m… uh. I’m Aiden.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Oh. Um. I think I was named after a character in an anime or something,” he stammered. “My mom’s a weeb. Like, the biggest dork. But you… I just realized you probably don’t know any of those words. Good job, Aiden.”
A giggle, and another gust of wind. Aiden hadn’t been around kids very often. His mom had once dated a woman with a little boy, but Aiden had only been a few years older than him at the time, so they had just watched cartoons together with no real sense that one or the other should be entertaining. Still, he knew the child was trying to play.
As he agonized over whether or not a funny face would be enough to amuse a child that age, she lost her patience. Aiden saw a stomp and a pout before she exhaled a fourth time. Only now, her eyes washed over like obsidian marbles and the veins in her face became visible with just as much darkness, from the corners of her eyes down to her neck. The force of wind was like Aiden had jumped out of a moving car. The pressure popped his ears and knocked him off his feet, directly into the sand pit. He landed with a squelch, but the sound of his fall was much louder… much more resonant than it should have been.
SFX: Creaking metal
It sent a tremble all the way up the structure of the building. The joints popped and groaned, and the metal pipes hummed low, like a church bell.
Cooper hadn’t felt the slightest breeze since they’d gotten to this hellscape, save for when Giselle was carting him across the desert in the air. Still, when a burst of gale-force wind hit him from below so strongly that it dried out his contact lenses, it didn’t register on his weirdometer until he saw Aiden lying on his back in the evil tentacle dirt. It was another second before he remembered why that might be a bad thing.
“AIDEN!” he shouted, dropping to his knees and reaching for him.
Another shock wave.
The ground trembled, causing something almost like a wake to ripple from the center and outward.
One, two three… five tendrils burst from the ground as Cooper grabbed Aiden’s hand.
This concludes chapter 3 of Pockets. Thank you for listening. If you liked the show, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. New episodes are released every other tuesday.
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