I wrote this homage to my writing group in 2008, by remixing my favorite characters from their submissions into one story. I provide this early work of mine here unedited and unrefined, so please enjoy and don’t judge it too harshly.
Lost and Found
by Jon Thysell
“I knew I still had it.”
The fishing rod bounced a queer rhythm, strong and distantly familiar. He smiled at me and I forced myself to join his laugh.
No reason to worry him, he wouldn’t understand. I pulled back against the fish, and the wind picked up, carrying foreign breaths around us.
When I die…
I looked back at Ben, but the clapping in my ears weren’t his. The line tugged my eyes back to the water. Feisty, for such a small fish. I grunted and pulled harder. Exertion drowned thought.
…and they lay me to rest…
My head shot upward and I cocked my ear. The wind pushed down the center of the pond and out to the shore, cascading halos across the water.
A growing thump thump beat in my ears, my chest, in the rhythm of the bouncing rod. Only a few more yards, and the fish would be mine.
…to the place that’s the best…
I could hear nothing but the wind and the thump, thump, thump. Was that Ben calling my name?
When I lay me down to die…
A shimmer appeared over the water, just briefly. I dropped the rod and gaped wide.
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky…
Is that a heli…
The wind roared.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
What’s going on?
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
THE… WIND… IS…
A voice cut sharply in the black: “Let’s get him out of here!”
The black dissolved into sky, blue with patchy white clouds. Starved blades of crumpled brown grass hung over me, and thin hands grabbed my shoulders and pulled me into a sit. I gagged and coughed and started breathing again.
“Hey, are you OK?” I followed the thin hands up through toned arms to beautiful green eyes. “You still snowy?” she asked, cocking her head, a black lock of hair slipping from its bun and whipping about madly.
I could feel my face flush and so I turned away and stammered, “W… wh… what’s going on?” I sat upon a small hill in a vast dry field, in the afternoon heat. A long stride off a man squatted with his hand to his brow, scanning the horizon.
The source of the thump thump was obvious now: an army helicopter held some hundred yards out, its wind pushing down and out the surrounding high grass. The music had blown away in the rush of air.
“We need to get you out of here,” the girl shouted. It only occurred to me then that she’d been shouting over the helicopter. “It’s not safe. Come on.”
She helped me to my feet and guided me towards the helicopter. I tried to ask for her name, but the squatting man had stepped up between us and leaned into my face.
“What’s your name kid?” he asked. His immediacy trapped me, and I could almost feel his patchy stubble. Part Japanese maybe?
“J… Jo… Johny” I stammered.
“You workin’ for M?” he shouted, narrowing his eyes, producing a handgun from his waist. He had to step back to hold out the shinning revolver.
“Give him a break Cap,” interceded the girl. “He’s a fresh coney.”
“We can’t dice, Beth, not since that bitch.”
Coney? Dice? “Who’s M?” I asked. “Where am I?”
I sat dazed as the helicopter took off. I let Beth strap me in to the seat, and tried to shake the gun’s hollow barrel from my memory.
I’d half expected the weathered machine to be packed full of Vietnam marines, but there were only five of us. I could see the man with the gun in the cockpit, could hear him barking orders to the female pilot.
Beth sat across from me, next to a man wearing thick, coke-bottle glasses. His mouth stopped moving: apparently he’d asked a question but I hadn’t been listening.
I shook my head and said, “I couldn’t hear you,” then cupping my hand to my ear, “What’d you say?”
“What season did you join?” he asked. I shook my head and shrugged.
“He’s a fresh coney, Prof,” said Beth.
“Is that so?” the man asked, pushing his glasses up his nose. “What’s your name?”
“Johny,” I said, “What’s…”
“James,” he said, extending his hand, “But everyone’s taken to calling me the Professor, or ‘Prof’ for short.” He extended his hand, and I took it weakly. “But I’m not a real professor,” he added hastily, “not yet anyways.”
The nickname felt appropriate. I couldn’t place exactly why, but he carried himself like the professors I knew. His clothes had seen better days, but he seemed unconcerned.
My gaze wandered to Beth then: she wore a white shirt sporting a faded logo “Walk for Dreams, May 1st 2001”, pulled tight and tucked into her jeans. She turned away when I looked up to her face, and fixed the lock of hair that had blown out earlier.
“And who’re they?” I covered, indicating the two up front.
“The pilot’s Liz,” Prof said, “And that’s the Captain.” I thought of the Captain’s gun in my face, the sharpness of his features. He wouldn’t be out of place as a WWII kamikaze pilot.
“We’re coming up on the compound now,” came the Captain’s voice.
“Compound?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” said Beth, recomposed, “You’re lucky I… we found you out there.”
Prof agreed, “Uncannily lucky, I’d say.” He looked at Beth out of the corner of his eye. “We haven’t had any new characters for quite some time, nothing but extras.”
The helicopter rotors whined when Liz cut their power. I stepped out and followed Beth and Prof, eager to avoid confronting the Captain. We walked across the mesa, silent but for the sparse gravel crunch.
“It’s just over here,” Beth said, pointing ahead to a small stone outcropping. The stone revealed a concrete wall, a metal hatch on one side.
“In we go!” said Prof cheerily as he spun the screeching hatch. A stairwell ran into the ground, fluorescent lights flickering on the walls. “It’s almost prime-time,” he said, leaning on the swinging hatch, “No time to lose.”
I followed close behind Beth. The stairs hardly afforded one-way traffic, and Prof and the others were quick behind me. Soon the lighting ended and the stairs rounded into a spiral. Cool air wafted from below, carrying a wet spelunk-smell.
“Oh!” Beth said when I walked into her, hitting my face on the back of her head. “Just a minute, let me get the door.”
“Sorry!” I said. Smooth. My face went hot. Good thing it’s still dark. I smiled though: for the briefest moment, the damp cave waft had been replaced by the scent of Beth’s hair.
She opened the metal door into the light of a small concrete room. A large vault-like door lay opposite, a small intercom on the wall nearby. A filing cabinet sat in the corner. Beth walked toward the other door.
“Hold it kid,” came the Captain’s voice. He pushed past the others and grabbed my arm. “Not til you’re scanned.”
“Scanned? Hey!” I said, when he pulled me toward the filing cabinet. He used his free hand to rummage through the top drawer, and pulled out a kitchen whisk attached to an extension cord.
“Is this really necessary?” Prof asked, pushing up his glasses, “He knew his name. Extras don’t know…”
“He’s gettin’ scanned,” the Captain said sternly. Prof put up his hands and backed away. The Captain held the whisk over me, then reached back into the drawer. A click and hum sounded from within.
“You don’t have a pacemaker or anything, right?” pipped Liz. Her squeaky voice matched her diminutive stature.
“No,” I replied. The Captain waved the whisk around me. “What is this, a metal detector?” The Captain glared at me.
“He’s checking for biotek,” Prof explained. “He doesn’t trust that you aren’t one of M’s extras.”
“Who’s M?” I asked again.
“Well…” Prof started.
“He’s clean,” the Captain grumbled, “Let’s go.”
A buzz came from the thick door as Liz finished fingering a keypad. A latch clunked within. With that, the Captain turned away from me and set to refiling the whisk-scanner.
I hurried to follow Beth. We walked down a long hallway past several doors. Through an open door I spied the corner of a cot. Bunk rooms. Where am I?
At the end of the hall, we walked into a large circular room, tall with a vaulted ceiling. A vast ring-desk rounded the perimeter, sparsely stationed with office chairs. A long rectangular table stood in the center of the room, itself populated by old and faded leather chairs.
The room rang cacophonous. A vast tile of TV screens dominated the walls. Dozens of channels spread among cracked glass, snow, and gaping holes spewing frayed wire.
I’ve had enough. “Will somebody please tell me what’s going on here?” I asked, shouting.
A portly cherub of a man waddled in from the hallway opposite our entrance. Grey mussed hair, wearing tattered clothes several sizes too large.
He immediately ran toward me, and latched onto my leg. “Coney!” he bellowed in an impossibly deep voice.
“No,” I said, trying to pry him off, “It’s Johny.”
Beth came to my rescue. “Jombi!” she said. “Let him go!”
Jombi clasped his hands together, and scurried out of the room.
“Sit, kid.” The Captain pointed to the central table. The others followed.
Liz’s chair nearly swallowed her, so she compensated by adjusting it well higher than anyone else. Next to her sat Beth, who glanced away from me and to the Captain. Prof sat, alternately smiling and pushing up his glasses. The Captain stood undisturbed, his arms crossed.
A pit formed in my stomach. “What’s going on?” I asked.
The Captain reached into his pocket and I flinched. He chuckled and pulled out… a remote? At a click, the screens cut silent. “You’ve been kidnapped,” he said as he continued chuckling, “Welcome to M’s World!” He threw himself onto a chair.
“And you’re rather lucky we found you before M did,” said Prof. “Or you’d be with them.” He pointed to a TV behind the Captain. The Captain rolled his chair to the side and clicked the remote.
The screen drew me. I stood and walked to it.
A young man clung desperately to a branch, trying to pull himself up. Underneath, a bear circled, swiping up with its paws. A small set of symbols flashed in the bottom corner, then the camera cut to a handheld shot of a young woman, wide-eyed, tear stained, crying in… French?
“What is this?” I asked.
“What’s a matter kid, never scoped a game show?” the Captain asked.
Game show? I felt a hand on my leg, and looked down to see Jombi. He stared blank at the screen. A looked at his hand for a moment, then back to the TV. The French woman turned her back to the camera, and faced a large wall dotted with multicolored toggles.
She pulled on them in varying combinations. Suddenly, the symbols in the corner of the screen flashed more rapidly, and a rising mob roar filled the speakers. Then the symbols disappeared all together.
An off-screen crowd cheered. The woman screamed. And the tree vanished, sending the man down. Close-up. Not a bear. Something else, tearing and clawing and blood. What kind of…
I looked down as Jombi squeezed. Only has three fingers on each hand. I turned round, head pounding and knees shaking. “What the fuck? Is this some kind of joke? Where the hell is this place?” My legs gave, I fell to the ground.
I vomited, and all went black.
I woke up, and a face hovered fuzzily over me, and I could feel a cold towel on my head. “Ben?”
“Sorry Johny,” said Beth’s voice. Cot. Bunk room. “How do you feel?”
“What’s going on, who are you people?” I sat up, and Beth offered a bucket and a glass of water. I took the water.
“Just like you,” she said and sighed, “Been here so long, sometimes it’s easy to forget what it’s like when we first arrived. You can get through a couple of time slots before your mind just says no, this is too much.”
The words poured out of me: “I was out fishing with my brother, I’m reeling in the first catch, and the next thing I know, I’m hearing oldies on the wind, and there’s a cute girl and a crazy guy with a gun, and I’m on a chopper headed to an underground bunker, a three-fingered dwarf named Jombi, and TVs… Where am I?”
Beth’s laugh disarmed me. “Exactly? Specifically? Prof’s the only coney among us with half a decent idea, and even then, to hear him explain it, let’s just say that he’s one league ahead of most geniuses, let alone us.”
I took a deep breath. “Ok, I can see that,” I said, my nerves calming a little. “And what’s with this coney thing?”
“Oh,” Beth blushed, “Coney, as in rabbit. I don’t know, you’re here a couple seasons, you start picking up their slang. It’s mostly what you’d imagine a slick TV exec would say, with some local color mixed in. Coney’s are characters like you and me. If you’re not a coney, you’re an extra…
I remembered the French woman. “Characters? You mean we’re on…”
“Not exactly. You would have been, if we hadn’t found you.”
“You mean, before M did. Who’s M?”
“M runs this place, whatever or wherever it is. He wanted a new setting for his Games, so he enslaved the locals with biotek implants and uses them as extras. He entertains the Audience by kidnapping people from across the universe to play the main characters.
“We’ve been kidnapped.” The idea was fantastic, even if the pieces fit together. “To be characters in alien game shows? I don’t believe it.”
“More like inter-dimensional reality TV, but yeah, I didn’t either, at first.” Beth stood up.
“And you know this how?”
“Mostly from Jombi.” I started but she interrupted, “I’m starving. You want to go join up with the others and get something to eat? Prime-time’s almost over.”
My stomach growled, I hadn’t eaten all day. “Sure.”
“Six months ago, I was on a break from work, and went on a quick run. I’d just finished climbing this wicked tree, and was about to head back, when I stumbled over a root. I woke up here.”
“In the bunker?” I joked as we walked. Talking with Beth had calmed me.
“No,” she laughed, “Like you, out in a field somewhere. I’d wandered for a half a day before…” Her eyes unfocused for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” I said lamely. Touchy subject? “If you’d rather not…”
“No,” she said, forcing out another laugh. “You’re lucky we found you when we did. I’d been wandering lost for hours, when M’s warcoons found me.”
“Warcoons?” I stifled a laugh, as I could plainly see that she wasn’t joking.
“Yeah, sounds funny till you see them. You’ve seen normal raccoons I imagine?”
“Sometimes, near the pond.”
“Ok then. Visualize your everyday raccoon. Then make him twice as big, twice as mean, and made of liquid metal. Then imagine a dozen of them: cunning, fierce, and razing the countryside.”
“Sounds nasty. And they found you?”
“Yes. Whatever M uses to snag us isn’t perfect, he doesn’t know where we’ll pop up. He sends out his warcoons to hunt us down.”
“And what did you do?”
“What else could I do? I ran. I ran for hours before Cap rescued me and brought me here.”
Cap? She… they… call him Cap. Wait. I retraced her sentence. “Hours?”
“Oh.” She smiled and looked away. “I’d only butcher Prof’s theory on hyper-realization, better have him explain it.”
Prof was speaking when we entered the TV room:
“…and I think that with some minor adjustments, I should be able send us to our respective universes. In theory of course…”
“He lives!” squeaked Liz. The others turned toward us.
“Kid scopes a porcubare and keels! Wished you’d woken up back home, huh?” asked the Capt… Cap.
“Food’s over here,” Liz said, pointing to the empty chairs. “You might need to reheat them.”
I laughed when I saw the little plastic plates. Frozen TV dinners. Figures.
“It’s good to hear you laughing,” said Prof, “I was just explaining to everyone how lucky you are that we found you just now…”
“Give the kid’s ear a break,” said Cap smiling. His demeanor had softened somewhat. “Let him grub some.” He looked at Beth and Liz rolled her eyes.
Prof put a hand to his mouth and mimed zipping it shut.
I sat and ate greedily, even though I couldn’t recognize anything on the plate. Smelled good though.
I slowed as everyone stared at me. Finally, Liz asked, “So Johny, what’s your story?”
I swallowed my food and repeated what I’d told Beth earlier, letting some elaboration flow, but remaining more mindful than my previous burst. Had I said aloud she was cute? I left out any mention of my feelings coming home…
“Spirit in the Sky?” asked Cap, snapping his fingers. “Something played on the radio, right before I…” He rubbed his chin.
Soon the table was alive with chatter, as everyone rushed to tell me their story. By looks on the other faces, they’d done this before.
Cap had been driving through the California valley with his infant son when the radio’s static crack, like a striking katana, had whipped him here. “I can’t remember the song.”
Neither Liz nor Prof had any recollection of a song. Prof had been standing on a toilet, hanging a clock. Liz had been crossing the street with her new boyfriend, Chad. Beth had been running, and might have heard music, but couldn’t remember.
“Very interesting,” said Prof. The table went silent.
“But more important than how we got here,” he resumed, “Is how we get home. And as I was saying before you two joined us, I think I may have found us a way.”
“Again Prof?” asked Liz sarcastically. “Last time you said you’d found us a way home, Jombi ended up three feet shorter, with a three word vocabulary.”
Jombi perked out from under the table at the sound of his name.
“I may have made some miscalculations in the past,” Prof defended, “or made some inappropriate assumptions, but I’m sure it’s almost ready. Just a couple of kinks left…”
“Kinks?” Cap interrupted. “I don’t want to be stunted retard.”
“Now that I have all the parts I need,” Prof continued, ignoring Cap, “I should be able to complete an inter-dimensional bomb of sorts, no, don’t look so alarmed, it’s not a physical bomb per se, but device that would blow, that is return, all materials to their original dimension.”
Beth stood up. “Which would not only send us home…” she started.
“…but M too,” finished Liz.
“That’s the idea,” Prof said, “Only…”
“Only?” asked Cap.
“Power,” Prof said. “Only, we’ll need a lot of power to make it run, something that we can’t possibly generate here. That and, with even a slight miscalculation, it might send us all who knows where, or in the worst case…”
“Here we go,” squeaked Liz.
“…destroy this dimension, creating a recursive black hole that would suck in all matter across all dimensions. But that is the absolute worse case, and the odds of that happening are practically zero.”
I laid on the cot exhausted, but, it seemed, having forgotten how to sleep. I tried to pare everything down, but the process only raised more questions. Aliens that enslave other aliens as extras and kidnap humans as participants in reality TV shows. A bad alien named M and… what?
Us? Random people who’d been lucky enough to picked up before M got them? Apparently, besides the millions of alien extras, hundreds of humans were right now, at this moment, being forced to compete for their lives on alien TV.
Perhaps a walk will sort this out. I peaked out into the hallway. Quiet. I stepped out and walked toward the TV room.
I nearly walked into one of the leather chairs, but avoided it at the last moment. My eyes adjusted slowly to the dark. I sat down in front of the screen that I had been watching earlier, and clicked a button.
A humanoid silhouette faded into view. He stood tall and gaunt, and wore a sharp blue-black suit. He held what looked like a single ski pole in his three-fingered hands, leaning on it like a cane. Face pulled tightly conical to the tip of his nose. Slimy grey dreadlocks, more like glazed eclairs than actual hair, stuck to his scalp.
The man spoke a lispy chatter, full of excitement, toward a studio audience of like creatures. They roared in response, then went silent, enraptured. He pointed toward a large screen behind him with his pole.
The speaker narrated the feed. The camera bounced up and about in the dark, in and out of focus, to the sounds of crunching gravel. The camera bobbed down low, and caught glimpses of flowing silver. Snatches of whispered voices, and the narration stopped. The camera focused for a moment onto a metal hatch affixed to concrete.
A gloved hand reached and spun the hatch slowly, soundless. But the door didn’t open as quietly… I heard a muffled echo come from down the hall…
I ran down the hall toward the bunk rooms. One one-thousand… two one-thousand… how long had it taken us to walk down those stairs?
I hit Cap’s room first, and pushed through the half-open door, panting. He sat up instantly and trained his gun on me.
“What’re you…” he said. I tried to answer, but whatever had stopped me from yelling before still held my tongue. “Spit it kid!”
“The TV…” I said, “They’re coming!” At that moment, light echoes of a distant chittering, like white noise, filled the room. Cap leaped from the bed, pulling on his shirt.
“Audition party,” he growled. “Alert the others,” he said to me, “I’ll try and hold ’em off.” I turned for the door, ready to sprint to Beth’s room, when Cap grabbed my arm and pulled me into his face, “Get Prof first, we can’t lose him.”
The crackling static increased in volume as I ran to Prof’s room. Light beaded around the edge of the shut door. “Professor!” I pounded hard.
The door swung open. “I will remind you that I’m essentially working on a bomb…” he started before I cut him off.
“Audition party,” I said, “Cap says we gotta go now!”
“Oh my,” he said, then ran back into the room. Various jumbles of wires and plastic and rubber lie strewn about. Various successions of math covered the walls.
I stepped in, more confident asking him than Cap, “How are we supposed to escape?” Prof poured the contents of a small box into a leather bag as he hurriedly, but carefully, packed up his work.
“There’s a fire escape on the other end of compound”, he said as he packed. “Back past the TV room.”
At his words I ran back to the dark hall and directly into someone else.
“Hey!” Beth said as we collided, sending her to the floor. “The noise,” she said as I pulled her up, “They’re coming!” She pointed behind me. At the far end of the hall, a small sparkling light could be seen in the center of the large metal door.
They’re cutting through.
“Cap said to warn everyone, Prof said there’s an escape route out back, where’s Liz?” I said without taking a breath.
“I already told her,” Beth said. Prof came out into the hallway, the leather bag slung over his back, adjusting his glasses.
“I suggest we get moving,” he said, and we three turned and ran toward the TV room.
We passed in, and Cap worked to throw the center table against the doorway.
I watched the screen behind him. Red-orange sparks flew as the tip of a pole, similar to the narrator’s, pressed against the door. In between the flashes of light, I could see silver swarming on the ground, and could make out boot toes.
Cap knelt behind the overturned table with his revolver. The others were running down the back hall, and little Jombi came running the opposite way toward Cap, carrying a small sack.
Cap pushed him away and yelled, “Run!” Jombi ran, sans bag, to join the others.
Beth grabbed my arm from behind. “Come on Johny, we need to run.”
“Not yet,” I said, alternately watching the Captain, the TV, and the light at the end of the hall.
On the screen, the sparks stopped. Now the ground-silver splashed and slurried up into the gaping hole.
At that, Cap reached into Jombi’s forgotten sack, pulled out a small glass ball, and threw it down the hallway. As the glass struck, a cloud of gas filled the corridor.
“These’ll hold the warcoons a while,” Cap said.
Squeals could be heard down the hall, through the smoke. Beth pulled my arm again, and we turned to run. Cap looked over at the screen, and I caught a glimpse of a human woman’s face.
“Bitch!” Cap said, before firing into the TV.
We ran down the hallway, Beth effortlessly in front, Cap and I trailing behind. Liz’s head stuck out from a doorway, and she motioned for us to follow her. The damp cave smell returned.
We caught up with Prof and Jombi, and finally stopped at a tall ladder leading up through a skinny crack in the earth.
“Let me up first,” Beth said and everyone nodded. Again, as effortlessly as she had ran, she climbed up the ladder. She moved without pause, rising in graceful leaps that quickly left us behind.
Cap climbed in lead of us, and eventually reached where Beth had stopped. The starry sky peeked around the silhouettes above me.
Beth spied from the top of the ladder, and reported, “I can see the helicopter from here.”
“Extras?” Cap asked.
“Two guards by the helicopter,” Beth mumbled for a bit, “Then maybe half a dozen over by the hatch.”
“Ok,” Cap said, taking a deep breath, “We make for the chopper. Keep your heads down and scamper like hell. Beth, make sure we don’t lose nobody.”
“What direction are we running?” I asked Prof, who clung to the ladder above me.
“From here, the helicopter is to our right…” Prof started.
“Ok.” I said to cut him off.
“Now!” Cap said, and we all lurched upward.
Beth knelt at the edge of the crack and helped pull us out, one by one. I came out last, and together we ran to follow the others. Cap ran in the lead, drew his gun, and two shots brought down the guards.
Liz ran for the front, Jombi followed Prof to the side door. Beth and I arrived last, just as Cap finished looting the bodies. The rotors spun up.
“Here,” Cap said as he handed Beth a small paper booklet. A second later, a red-orange line whizzed past Cap’s head. In the distance, we could see the other guards running toward us, brandishing pole-weapons.
We jumped in with the others, and the helicopter rose to the starry night sky, Liz guiding us between the orange lines shooting from below.
The initial excitement faded with the spirit of the group. Only the roar of the helicopter could be heard.
I’d only arrived earlier that day; they’d had months to develop bonds and pick up the random clutter of life around them in their bunk rooms.
After nearly half an hour, Cap spoke: “I will slag that traitor-cunt when I scope her.” I raised my eyes at his words, and looked around, but no one responded, or seemed to take notice.
“Prof,” he called, “That thing of yours…”
Prof interrupted for once, “Everything’s a go, we just need enough power.”
Cap rubbed his stubble, “So where’s the juice? Where do we hook up?”
After an uneasy silence, Jombi rolled out his deep voice: “One place.”
Liz set down near the rubble of nameless ruins. Cap and Beth pulled out several small bundles from under our seats: sleeping rolls, tarps, and assorted camping gear. We lazily made camp, and I managed to be next to Beth, though we worked in silence. Our eyes caught each other at irregular intervals.
When the others went to bed, I went to build a fire.
I sat alone, exhausted, but fighting sleep now. Retracing the day’s events. Where was Ben? Had he been brought through too? No one had mentioned anything about coming with others.
What’s happening back home? Home. Ben. Mom and Dad. Chris, Vince, and the guys. Heidi.
I’d nearly forgotten about Heidi, after less than a day since being with her last. I looked over to Beth, asleep, and tried to reconcile my feelings.
Not just Heidi, but I’d nearly forgotten all of them. A year at school left me disconnected, lost. Homeless at home. I’d escaped to Heidi, but she had felt the disconnect too. The evening ended rather brusquely, I’d wandered home in the dark.
A flicker from one of the ruins caught my attention. I stood and walked to the crumbling wall, rubbing my eyes. Putting aside old thoughts of Heidi and new thoughts of Beth. “Huh,” I said aloud.
A small spider like bug had spun a web across a corner. An assortment of alien bugs lie trapped in the web. The spider moved rapidly around the web, alternately eating bugs and building new strands. Too fast for an earth spider.
One lucky bug escaped in the confusion. I yawned despite myself. Fishing with Ben had been an attempt to reconnect, and might have worked, that is, until the… kidnapping.
Lost. I want to go Home, wherever that is.
For now, I settled for my bedroll, and finally slept.
Cap’s boot woke me the next morning. Purple-grey overcast. “Get up,” Cap said.
They’d packed camp except for the fire: I’d been the last to wake. “Huh,” I mumbled, then “Alright!” when he toed me again.
I stood and he handed me a pole. Probably from the guards last night. “Gotta pull your own,” he said. “You and Liz on grub detail.”
“You’re coming with me,” Liz said behind me. Cap walked off, calling for Jombi. Liz held a pole of her own. “Let’s see what the universe provides,” she squeaked.
Prof was nowhere to be seen, Beth and Cap were apparently hunting for Jombi. “What’re they…”
“Beth’s the best with Jombi,” Liz said, “Cap wants to pick his mind a bit” She motioned with her head. “Come on, I’m hungry.”
We walked through a small grove away from camp. My thoughts cataloged various “What if?” scenarios concerning Beth. Liz chattered on, and I ignored her, assuming a benign need to socialize drove her.
“What’s your death?” she asked, casually.
I stared at her, confused by this macabre breach in her cheery chatting. “Um…”
“You don’t have death prediction booths, do you?” she asked.
“Damn. Hoped you were from home.” We continued walking. See, she had a home…
“Wait… death prediction booths?”
She sighed and explained that the booths had existed long before she was born, that most everyone got a card that predicted their death. “I’d just got mine when I started dating Chad.”
I’m sure that if such booths existed, I’d have known about them. “Never heard of them.” The trees thinned.
She sighed again. “Prof says that we’re not all from the same dimension. Alternate universes or some such. We’re as alien to each other as we are to this place.”
I kept silent while I processed that information. “So that means if… when this is over, we go home alone?”
“For me definitely. Prof can’t say for sure: we’d have to compare all our histories looking for differences. Mine’s pretty unique though.”
We’d walked for more than an hour, and had only found a handful of blue fruit. Liz moved with a definite skip in her step. “For a girl who knows how she’s going to die, you sure seem chipper,” I said.
“It’s because I know, that I haven’t gone bat-shit,” she said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“They use these for weapons,” she said, spinning her pole, then brandishing it toward me.
“My card said: gunshot victim.” She laughed and shrugged, “No guns here mean I must make it back home.”
“To be shot?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Eventually. But it means we… or just I at least… get out of here.”
We walked in silence a little longer, and climbed up a ridge to the break of a grain-field.
“Who’s the girl Cap keeps raving about?” I asked.
“Her? We don’t really talk about her anymore.” Liz frowned. “We used to have one more, but… well, Cap may be harsh, but his sentiment isn’t unfounded. The woman was such a downer, the consummate pessimist.”
“And I’ve gathered she betrayed you guys?”
“I don’t think she took well to the rebel life. She left and joined M.”
And led the Audition party to hunt us down and turn us in. Can’t be the only reason Cap is… something pink fluttered between the tan grain stalks. “Did you see that?” I asked, distracted. Liz came up behind me. A horse. A pink horse. No… can’t be…
I ran through the tall grain. I think Liz yelled something at me, but I wasn’t paying attention.
I slowed when I got nearer, trying not to startle it. A unicorn. Short and purple-pink, a pony I guess, with a prominent horn between the eyes.
I approached slowly, but could hear Liz’s whisper-shout-squeak from behind me. “Johny! Get out of there!”
“Why?” I whispered back. So beautiful. “Aw…” I said when it saw me and neighed.
“Because…” The unicorn threw its weight to the right and took off in a gallop. A roar bellowed from my left. “Porcubare!” Liz yelled.
I jumped to the side, closely dodging the charging beast. A good five feet high, covered in brown fur with a stubby snout. Reminded me of a cross between a brown bear and a quill-less porcupine. The porcubare roared and turned to charge again.
“Run!” Liz yelled. An orange line darted from her pole striking the beast’s side. Smoke wisps rose from the impact, and it raised on two legs and bellowed. Didn’t fall.
“Run!” Liz yelled again. “We can’t kill it!” I pointed my pole at the porcubare, but realized I had never asked how to use it. Suddenly, the red-orange shot forth, hitting the beast in the throat. It croaked and fell back to all fours.
Liz grabbed my arm, “Now, while it’s stunned!” We ran back down the hill.
“That was some lucky shot,” she said as we ran. We could hear the porcubare roaring, but we couldn’t see it following us.
Finally, we stopped to catch our breath. “I think we lost it,” I said, panting.
“Yeah,” Liz said, pausing, “They work together.”
“You mean they…”
“Bait and switch,” she said, leaning on the pole to stand straight, “Or rather, unicorn and porcubare. Unicorn pulls you in…”
“I get it.”
“We better head back.”
Beth frowned when we returned. “What happened to you two?” It made me happy to think she was worried about me.
Liz explained my encounter with the unicorn, which dashed my fleeting happiness as I hung my head in shame. Cap looked at us and snorted. “No food?” he asked and sighed. We’d dropped the fruit.
“Cap,” Liz said, “We did learn something useful.” She explained my hit to the porcubare’s neck. Cap rubbed his chin, “Hm… lucky shot.”
“We found a couple of forgotten meal packs hidden in the helicopter,” Beth said, “It’s not much…”
“It’ll last,” Cap interrupted. “If Jombi’s directions pan out.”
Prof walked up just then, carrying a small jumble of wire, metal, and plastic. “It’s the best I can do under the circumstances, and the odds may not be great, but they’re all we have.”
We waited for Cap to speak, but he walked off toward the helicopter. So we all huddled around Prof’s invention.
I suddenly remembered the first time I’d gone used car shopping with Dad, years ago. I felt now how I felt then: as if something had slid smooth and undetected past my attention. Beth had said Prof was some kind of genius…
“How could you build a inter-dimensional bomb?” I asked. “No offense, but I thought you were just a grad student or something.”
Prof stepped back, puzzled. Then he laughed, and Beth covered her mouth, and Liz slapped her forehead and turned away.
“In all the recent excitement I’d forgotten that you’re new here,” Prof said with zeal, “and you’ve never heard my theory on…”
“Hyper-realization.” Beth and Liz droned together.
“Um, yes, well, exactly,” Prof stumbled, “it’s just a theory I have, but it seems reasonable considering our experiences here.”
Liz sat in the dust.
“Essentially, hyper-realization is a side effect of us being brought here. We were meant to be characters in M’s television shows, and nothing makes reality TV like exaggerated characters! M can’t control who he brings here, so instead exaggerates errant parts of our personalities…”
“Or not,” said Liz hotly, raising her head. “It was bad enough that I’m small and look young for my age, but I come here and now I sound like a chipmunk.” She threw her arms out above her head. “And I fly helicopters! I’ve never been in a helicopter in my life, I don’t even like to drive a car when I can take the train, and now I’m a combat pilot? What errant part of my personality got exaggerated then?”
Beth’s running and climbing then, had turned her bionic woman. Endurance… I tried to focus on the conversation at hand. Maybe Liz didn’t have anything worth exaggerating? I kept my opinions to myself.
“You’re right Johny,” Prof said, and for a moment I feared he’d read my mind. “Everything’s a little exaggerated here, I mean, we haven’t fueled that helicopter since we found it. Things just work out.” Liz huffed.
If he’d meant to calm me, he hadn’t. But it didn’t surprise me, not after the ol’ unicorn-and-porcubare.
“Even this,” he said, holding up his bomb, “I’m sure I’d never have been able to build this back home, with or without M’s technology.”
“How reassuring,” Liz said. Cap returned. He held in his hand the small paper booklet he’d taken from the guards last night.
“We have a plan,” Cap said, “And now all the pieces.”
“Is that a Guide?” Prof asked, reaching for the pamphlet. Cap pulled it back.
“Jombi says we juice it at Studio One.”
“Studio One?” Prof asked, “The odds are poor enough that this thing’ll work, but the odds of getting in there? On M’s doorstep?”
“That bitch gave us the push,” Cap said, handing the pamphlet to Prof. “Sneak-peek the kid’s tell-all.”
I don’t care what that damn booklet says: I am going to die in this place.
The helicopter rushed over the open sea. “I don’t think I can…” Beth touched my hand.
“We’ll make it,” she said over the wind. “Look!” she pointed toward a black dot on the horizon.
An island. Studio One. Home to M and his Audience.
Beth had been reassuring me for days, bringing us closer, inch by inch. Thoughts of Heidi had receded into neutral whispers. Beth understood what Heidi could not; knew how it felt.
To be lost.
Frustratingly, neither of us had made any moves. I smiled when she looked at me, not forced as I had with Ben and the others, back then… I cut the reverie short and feverishly retraced the plan in my mind.
“Get ready!” Cap yelled back, unbuckling his seat belt. Prof nodded, and handed me his bag.
“Now remember Johny…” he started, pointing at one side.
“I know,” I said.
Cap came back. “Off to leeward!” he yelled to Liz.
“What if the Guide’s wrong?” I asked.
“M sent the bitch for you,” he said. “They want you, which is proof enough.” He nodded to Prof, who rolled open the side door, one hand pressing his glasses to his face.
The wind roared in.
I followed Cap to the doorway, his head blocking my view. Jombi ran up and handed him the sack of smoke balls he’d used against the warcoons. He laughed, tussled Jombi’s hair, and stepped out to the sky.
The sun shone white in my face. Thin hands grabbed from behind.
“For luck,” Beth mouthed in the din. He head cocked to the side as when I’d first seen her. She pulled me in and we kissed deep. Her hair whipped loose.
We broke. I looked once more into her bright green eyes. Ever again?
I turned and stepped and held my breath.
Tumbling through the sky, holding tightly to the Professor’s bag.
The Guide had to be right. Everything got hyper-realized here. If the Guide said I was lucky…
Lucky? Felt too abstract, not like Liz’s piloting or Beth’s running, or even Prof’s intelligence.
Had I been lucky? Cap said they wanted me for my luck, the Guide had me cast as a superfluously lucky contestant for the coming season’s lineup.
I thought back on the first night: being found, happening on the late-night broadcast of the compound’s invasion, the bumps with Beth.
Did luck find me Beth: beautiful and smart, in control and in ownership of herself, but who understands what it means to be lost, who makes me feel at Home?
I remembered the porcubare incident with Liz, then a slew of other events over the past week, small but cumulative, that had pushed Beth and I closer together.
Maybe I am l…
Cold blue rushed up and over me. I kicked with my legs. I nearly lost the bag, had to dive to retrieve it. My lungs ached, and the salt-water burned my eyes, but I pushed up, up.
Liz had said we were as alien to each other as we were to this place. Maybe this all goes down and I never see Beth again?
With a burst I made the surface, and coughed and gagged.
“Over here kid!” Cap said as he swam to me. “I lost the smoke balls, you still have the bomb?” I nodded, and a wave crashed over us. “Let’s go!” he said, and swam toward the island.
The water chopped rough, but we were both strong swimmers. We matched stroke for stroke as we headed toward a greyish patch, surrounded by seabirds.
Garbage. We swam through the oily mess, waving away the pecking birds. Lucky me? Mostly discarded food sloughed on the surface, and for several feet deep. We neared the sheer wall of the island’s leeward side.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“There!” Cap fingered a point on the wall. “About 10 feet under.”
According to Jombi, Studio One pumped their waste out to sea through a large pipe under the surface. The plan was to enter the pipe, find the power plant, and hook up the bomb. Meanwhile, the others would make a distraction in the chopper.
I’d finally asked Beth about Jombi, and she said he’d been an extra whose biotek had malfunctioned. Up until Prof’s stunting accident, Jombi had been their leader of sorts, trying to rebel against M.
“Take a deep breath,” Cap said, as we reached the crashing surf. Together we dived, and I could see the large pipe. We swam toward it.
Jombi had worked in Studio One as a janitor, was responsible for unjamming the frequently clogged pipe. We swam for several yards, then the pipe bent up. As Jombi had said, a ladder stuck to the pipe wall.
“Blarck!” I gagged as we broke the surface. We started up the ladder, soaked and reeking.
We reached the top, and shimmied across a thin ledge toward the maintenance door. Cap nearly slipped once, but I caught him by the shoulder and he pulled himself back with a huff. “Don’t drop the bag,” he said.
Once inside, we took a moment to ring what we could from our clothes. It seemed hopeless. They’d smell us a mile away. “This way,” Cap said, drawing his gun.
We walked down grey concrete hallway, reminiscent of the group’s old compound. We reached a door at the end. Jombi had assured us that there wasn’t any need to see the studio proper, that we could go straight to the power plant through the maintenance halls.
Had luck prevented any encounter with extras, either guard or worker? I couldn’t tell. The plan rested full haul on my supposed luck. If the chances were bad that the bomb works, or that we’d even get in to set it, reasoned Prof, then they’d send me and my luck along to do it.
Talk about faith.
After nearly half an hour, Cap and I rounded a final corner and stopped at a doorway with a strange symbol on it. “Bingo,” he said, and snapped his fingers.
They hadn’t needed to smell us.
Prof, Beth, and Liz knelt on the floor, hands tied behind their backs. Next to them stood the man hosting the show the night they’d fled the compound, leaning on his pole and touching up his greasy grey dreads.
“M!” Cap said, training his gun on the three-fingered alien.
M spoke in his lispy chatter and laughed. Several guards stood around him, pointing their poles at us. Cameramen hovered behind them. Showtime.
Our three compatriots raised their heads, slightly scuffled. A purple welt had formed on Beth’s cheek, tear-stained.
I moved to her, only to be barked back by the guards. Hundreds of blue-white pylons loomed in the vast room behind them, like giant lava lamps. Game over, we’d never get through.
M laughed, and called out as he indicated a doorway. From the shadows a short pudgy woman appeared, the same as I’d seen on the TV. She wore large sheepskin boots, quite out of place given the tropical heat. At her feet pooled the warcoons, making their staticy noise.
“Traitor!” Cap said. He cursed in a fury, turned and fired.
The pool at the woman’s feet splashed up as he turned, and the shot ricocheted off the now solid metal. M dived, re-purposing his pole as weapon, yelling in his alien tongue.
I tackled Cap, as the guards fired their poles at us. We fell with a thunk on the hard floor. Across the room, Liz lay on the floor, and Beth knelt over her, shouting and crying. Prof had managed to stand, and despite losing his glasses, had jumped on top of M, pinning him to the ground.
The woman had slipped on the warcoon puddle and struggled in their mess to stand. Cap raised to a knee and shot one of the guards. M appeared to be yelling directions at them, and in the confusion, Cap dropped two more.
I rolled and picked up one of the dropped poles, and fired at a remaining guard. From the corner of my eye, I saw Beth run off toward the machinery, with flashes of silver behind her. The warcoons. The large woman still struggled to stand.
Where were the other guards? I couldn’t see the cameramen either. Cap had walked calmly over to the struggling woman. “Better than you deserve,” he spat. He held the gun to her head.
I closed my eyes. Surely he wouldn’t kill her in cold blood?
I’d never know. The extras had fled, and a roar filled the room. A porcubare, twice the size of the one I’d encountered with Liz, had come charging in. It knocked Cap down, and his victim crawled away feebly while he tried to defend himself. Shots rang.
“The bomb!” cried Prof. “It’s our only chance!”
I stood and swayed as the blood rushed to my head. M had escaped, and Prof hunched over Liz’s body. Cap was pressed behind a metal table against the wall, face slashed, dodging the porcubare’s swipes. No sign of Beth or the warcoons.
I fired the pole at the back of the porcubare. “Hit it in the neck!” I yelled as I strafed toward Prof. The porcubare roared but ignored us. I untied Prof’s hands. “We have to hit in the throat!” He picked up a pole, and I stopped over Liz.
She lay smaller than ever. The bullet had caught her in the side of the head.
Where was Beth? I yelled and fired again at the porcubare, hit its shoulder. Prof jumped in besides me, firing away at the back of its head, hitting well despite his missing specs. “You need to set the bomb!” Prof yelled, “Let me handle him!”
I fired again, then dashed toward the closest pylon. I used the shaft of the pole to break open the control panel door. I pulled out the bomb from the bag…
Prof had justified that he’d learned M’s biotek so easily only because the technology did most of the work for him.
Only now, did I believe his words. The bomb wiggled wildly in my hands, alive in the presence of the pylon. It leaped from my hands and into the control panel, and the lose wires I’d nervously eyed days ago found their way in throughout the pylon’s innards.
“Ok…” I said. The bomb started to hum, and the room faded to black.
Light shined forth from the pylon, then the whole of the room began to shake and dissolve. Oustide, the wind roared around the island. Studio One and M’s inhabitants had disappeared, leaving a vast imprint in the ground marking where the building had been.
We were surrounded by M’s former extras, standing and shaking their heads as the biotek shunted from their bodies. With a twinkle, the porcubare disappeared, then Liz’s body, then Prof.
I tried to look for Beth, but suddenly the whole island disappeared. I floated in a white and windy void. I could see Cap floating and pushed my way over to him.
“Well, kid.” he said. He had taken several bad blows. “Looks like we’re going home.” He coughed. I turned to look behind me, but I could see only white. No Beth. My eyes watered, and Cap grabbed my face. “I didn’t mean to shoot her.”
“Liz?” I asked. “I know…”
“Her too.” He looked me straight in the eyes. “Father told me never to trust women, and I knew he was wrong then, and I know he’s wrong now.” He let go of my face. “But for a span, I thought he was right.” He smiled and rustled my hair. “Don’t worry kid. God help us, it’s gonna be alright. You’ll find her.”
After Ben left, and I was sure he’d gone, I climbed from the backseat and stepped outside the car. I pulled out the small canoe, threw in my rod and tackle, and drug it toward the lake.
Out on the water, I stood and cast my line. I’d joked with Ben about the pills risking my relationship with Heidi. As far as he knew, I’d been spending my whole summer at her place.
I’d woken up in the hospital. Apparently I’d passed out by the lake. The last thing I’d remembered was reeling in a whopper. But I’d woken up more depressed than the day before, feeling as disconnected and lost as ever, not knowing why.
Heidi dumped me that day a the hospital, kind of callous I suppose, but we both knew the relationship was over. I needed time to think, so I just never told anyone, kept up appearances so I wouldn’t be stuck home all day.
I’d spent a lot of time running. Not my usual exercise of choice, but I’d taken a liking to it.
Apparently I’d had another episode on the trip up, but I couldn’t remember that either.
What’s wrong with me? Should I have stopped taking the pills? I hated lying about it, but I didn’t think drugs could cure this.
Lost? Homeless? Pills can’t cure everything.
I recast. A tug on the line. I fought hard with the fish, and a cool breeze blew over me.
Never been a sinner…
Words carried to my ears. Something familiar. I pulled and the fish was mine. I held it up proudly, first catch of the trip.
…I never sinned…
I can definitely hear something. The wind picked up and ruffled the reflection on the water. Not mine. Green eyes, black hair, cute girl…
I got a friend…
I remembered everything. No longer lost.
“Beth,” I said, and smiled.
“And even though everyone else’s dream for Johny died on that day, at least his own dream became a reality.” – Ben
© 2008 Jon Thysell. Some Rights Reserved.
Lost and Found by Jon Thysell is licensed under a
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