Skinwalkers, VI

In truth, the smile was still not the sort Nathan was accustomed to seeing in his mirror at home. Another man’s high cheekbones lifted slightly, a stranger’s ears shifted, and someone’s symmetrical features were the ones expressing pleasure.

It was his eyes, he realized. Despite the effects of his eye drops, a sort of relaxed, inner light shone through. He’d assumed there was nothing left inside, nothing he would describe with words like light, anyway.

He looked down, unnecessarily adjusting his antique wristwatch.

Merely seconds after closing, the lift sang its pleasant tone again. Nathan watched his reflection shimmer and pull to one side, to be replaced by the reception area of whatever level he’d been ferried to. This one also held plants, swaying and contributing to the delectable taste of unpolluted air.

The artistically arranged plants stood a balanced sentry against a paneled, daylight-glowing wall. Exiting and turning to look around, Nathan noted a vacant podium of sorts to his right. It stood near two large, closed doors. Accordingly, he approached. He withdrew his comm and ran it along the top and sides, but nothing activated.

He frowned, and walked to its backside. Still nothing. He looked, instead, to the wall-sized entryway. How would he get in?

Nathan paused for a few seconds, indecisively. Then, he recalled his morning-long mantra of confidence. He walked forward, and pushed at the doors. They moved inward, without any resistance. If he’d been in his own, lightweight skin, he would have fallen forward onto his ugly, imperfect face.

He would have landed right at the feet of a small audience, as well.

Three well-dressed, well-shod, and handsome business executives stood waiting. They seemed completely unsurprised to see him, a sentiment Nathan did not share. Suspecting surveillance equipment of some sort, he chanced a careful half-turn to look behind. The doors he had moved so easily were nearly transparent.

He looked back to the waiting party; attempted a level expression. The woman stepped forward slightly. “N. Reed.” Her cool voice said. It was a statement. “Welcome.” Nathan returned her greeting with a barely-perceptible nod. She smiled an executive smile, the sort that lifts one’s mouth but never reaches above that point.

One of the men straightened and clasped his hands together. “Well,” he began in a deep tone, “Shall we?” In eerie accord, he and the other two turned and began walking down the hall and away from Nathan.

This was it. will do this, Nathan reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders and suit, he followed the crushed carpet footprints of his potential employers.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, V.

Recurring Story: Thirty-Five

Wil walked slowly, her soft brown hair framing a small, pensive face. Her dark eyes, so full of the depth of life, scanned the crowd. Her slim yet graceful body moved ever forward as her peers stared in awe.

Boys watched and wanted from the corners of their eyes, as girls shot looks of envy. That purple cloak was stunning. Those boots were the height of fashion. The scarf was an expensive weave of black on black. The young woman who wore them was so naturally beautiful.

Although she tried to ignore them, Wil was conscious of the attention. Anyone would have to be. She pretended she wasn’t, however. She needed to reach her ride, and couldn’t afford distractions.

“I purchased these flowers for you,” spoke a timid young man with black, wavy hair. He offered them in a shaking hand. Wil brushed them aside, dusting petals to the floor.

A confident boy with blond hair and smoldering eyes tried to block her path. “Let’s catch a movie tonight, Wil.” He was sure to be accepted, but she dodged around his Letterman-jacketed arm.

“You’re coming to my birthday, right?” The Class President begged Wil. She approached with an anxious, artificially white smile; and left with a spoiled frown.

They sought her like hypnotized moths to a tempting flame. But, Wil’s heart-shaped face turned only one way. Her deep glance rested on only one person. Her body was drawn to only one other body.

He would be waiting, she knew, with more than flowers. He would take her somewhere better than a theater. He didn’t have birthday parties filled with fake people.

Wil whispered his name. “Derek.”

She reached the doors to outside, and pushed through them. A disappointed trail of admirers was behind her and the afternoon was before her. The shy sun illuminated her path to the idling minivan at the curb.

Even her neighbors stared as she approached, every other distraction forgotten in Wil’s presence. They shifted to give her the best seat as Wil ducked and entered the vehicle.

“How are you today, Wil?” Mrs. Crandall attempted. Wil didn’t respond, but no one expected she would.

Mrs. Crandall faced forward, appeared to watch surrounding traffic, and pulled into the familiar queue of cars heading home.

Reagan, pulling an earbud from her right ear, turned to Wil and whispered, “So, you’re part of our group now, right?”

Wil didn’t hear at first, as she slid in her seat at the sudden movement of Mrs. Crandall braking and honking.

She realized Reagan had spoken to her, and brilliantly responded, “Huh?”

“Our group,” Reagan persisted. “You got the notes. Derek said you’d find out about it after school today.” She looked at Wil’s face and raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“Oh,” Wil replied. “Um. Yeah.”

“So,” Reagan said, “Welcome.” She sat back, pushing her ear bud back in place and looking at her phone again. She had been reading it since first climbing in the van.

Wil blinked in the reality of the small cabin around her, and realized she ought to actually read what Derek had given her.

 

Continued from Thirty-Four.

Skinwalkers, V

Nathan walked forward, gawking in the wonder of expensive surroundings. He sensed the door slide quickly and silently closed behind him. The expanse in front was more interesting, by far.

His basic-slipshod feet sank slightly into an opulently clean path of carpet. A solid, reflective flooring ran to either side of the path. Both led past a spacious, plant-furnished foyer to an impressive, raised reception desk of dark wood.

Daylight-simulation glowed from the walls, floor, and ceiling. He didn’t know how it could or how anyone could afford the affect.

In fact, any small corner of the area cost more than Nathan expected to earn in a lifetime. He couldn’t imagine, even, the price of actual plants; the price of keeping them living was another phenomenal consideration.

“N. Reed?” a polite voice called from the desk. Her voice echoed pleasantly around the room to reach him, despite the foyer’s polished appearance.

Nathan swallowed; closed his slightly-agape mouth. He realized he’d been standing much like a castaway first waking on a beautiful island. The air felt so fresh, he could almost hear waves and taste airborne sea salt.

Straightening, he tried to regain some dignity as he walked toward the receptionist. The floor caving at each step distracted his feet. Green fronds swaying in the delicious currents whispered to his ears. Everything fought for his visual attention.

He reached the desk at last, and found that the young woman sitting there was yet another distraction. She smiled, making things worse. Mentally blessing the horrible Suspension Drops, he attempted to keep the rest of his face composed.

“Yes,” he answered. “I am Nathan Reed.” He tried to look collected, yet casual. All this must be normal. No, he wasn’t surprised by these settings. He couldn’t be; not someone as important as he.

“Wonderful!” she said, and appeared to mean it. Either she had the best skin money could buy -highly likely, considering what surrounded him- or she was very good at acting. “If you’ll scan your comm, here,” she tapped an unobtrusive panel at the top of the desk, “You’ll be able to proceed to the level you need through the lifts.”

At mention of her last statement, the receptionist brought her manicured hand from the panel to wave behind and to her right, at the wall. Squinting slightly, Nathan could see the outline of a door in the paneled wall.

His hand still held his comm. Nodding, he drew it to scan where she had indicated. A green bar briefly glowed, then faded. The lift, as it truly was, chimed a pleasant sound and its panel slid open. He pocketed his comm.

“Good luck,” the receptionist said, again seeming sincere. She also smiled again, which was unfair for someone with such flawless teeth and vivid eyes.

“Thanks,” he couldn’t help responding. He smiled, and wondered at the naturalness of it. Turning, he walked to and into the waiting lift. Its panel slid shut; his side was reflective, as he had hoped this morning.

Nathan was surprised at what he saw, though not for the reason he’d assumed while dressing. Yes, his appearance was strange for many reasons; however, it was the expression of lingering happiness that caught him the most off-guard.

When was the last time, he thought, that I smiled?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IV.

Recurring Story: Thirty-Four

The space around her undulated with excited preparations, but Wil sat on an island of stupor.

She felt completely indecisive in the face of probable conclusion. The X on the final fragment of a treasure map led right around the next clump of trees, and she was strangely unsure of unearthing what lay buried.

As people accidentally brushed past her desk or herself, a galvanizing thought finally sunk through: if she didn’t move, she’d be stuck alone with Mr. G.

So quickly that she actually finished before a few others; Wil gathered up her things, moved down the narrow aisle of desks, and edged open the heavy metal door into the chill afternoon outdoors.

Nature’s cool hand stroked Wil’s cheek, reminding some primal part of her what being alive truly felt like. Anxiety blew away. She felt strong, clear-minded, and brave.

She also remembered that she’d have to hurry, to meet her destiny and still have time to catch her ride.

Wil scarcely saw the stands of chattering or texting or zoning out teenagers. They were posts she had to walk around -as uninteresting and lifeless as the swimming salad utensil décor that occasionally interrupted the walls of the hallway she hurried down.

Wil made record time arriving at and emptying her locker. She headed toward the library, squinting ahead to see who might be waiting.

She saw no one standing.

Wil reached the doors, which were closed and locked. Their librarian strongly believed her day ended when the teenagers’ did. In practice, she left as soon as she could without the principal noticing.

Wil looked around for another paper scrap or a hidden agent. Nothing and no one presented themselves.

Looking agitatedly at the exiting masses, Wil’s eyes were drawn to one body heading across the crowds to her position. She felt her heart rate increase and anxiety return.

He was a boy. Wil thought she’d seen him in two of her classes. Had Mrs. T. been right?

He reached her. He smiled.

“Hi, I’m Derek,” he supplied in a voice-still-changing tone. “This is for you.” He held out a note with an edge that showed it had been torn from a notebook.

“Don’t worry,” he assured Wil. Her agitation of more clues conveyed itself as a panic on her face. “I’ll see you later.” He gave her another simple smile, then turned and walked away. He was swept with the crowds down the hall and out the doors.

This time, Wil was marooned for a shorter time. She pocketed the paper and ran to carpool.

 

Continued from Thirty-Three.

Skinwalkers, IV

His newsfeed was not as interesting as Nathan had hoped, or he was simply too anxious to be captivated by its stories. He suspected a mix of both. Perhaps it would help if something newsworthy happened besides the unending reports of famine, over-pollution, rising costs, and no jobs.

Too bad he couldn’t risk watching something more interesting, but he wanted to appear confident and collected for the interview. He wanted to radiate the impression felt during his last glance in the mottled bathroom mirror.

The humming transport moved in measured automation down its predetermined strip. Strips of light, both natural and artificial, panned through the thickly-tinted windows and played across his comm, his suit, and the back of the operator’s head. Nathan was distracted by their movement, in part because his eyes still felt over-sensitive to strong contrasts of dark and light.

Not a minute too soon, they pulled up under the street shade of a grey office complex. The door immediately to Nathan’s side popped open, and he shifted over and out. Pocketing his comm, he carefully looked up to the heaven-reaching monolith.

A gray building tapered up to a gray pinnacle, surrounded by gray clouds against a gray sky. Nathan felt slightly mismatched in his dark blue garments.

The transport door closed and it left in a near-silent hum, a bit faster than regulation. Nathan snorted derisively at the operator’s obvious desire to get back, and hopefully ferry a more lucrative client.

Straightening his lapels, coat, and sleeves compulsively, he strode forward under the shade. It was a nice, expensive, semi-translucent roof that covered the entire width of the building’s front, and led from street to entrance. Remembering the brief precipitation during his drive, Nathan realized and marveled at the costs of maintaining the shade’s transparency.

The doors, too, were immaculate. They were guarded, by a man better-dressed than a hotel concierge. Nathan felt trepidation raise his heart rate; his palms threatened to sweat through his skin.

I can do this, he told himself. Considering, he altered his mantra, will do this.

Forcing himself to keep his nervousness thoroughly internal, he walked an even gait up the steps to the formidable front. The guard barely granted him a glance, but Nathan knew the man had already measured him up and down since he first stepped on to the curb.

The guard offered his tablet, expressionlessly. Nathan scanned his own device, matching and surpassing the man’s seriousness. A green bar flitted across the tablet’s surface; its owner blinked in acknowledgement and returned it to its pocket. Reaching somewhere behind his person, the guard activated the doors.

Resisting the urge to breathe a relieved sigh, Nathan cleared his throat and strode forward. The opening split rapidly, pushing surprisingly-fresh air gently against his body. He almost stumbled, stupidly, with the flavor of the expensive building-breath. Knowing, however, of the guard’s continued scrutiny, he fought natural reactions and continued walking. Internally, Nathan couldn’t help but marvel.

How would it be? He wondered, To breathe this well every day? He couldn’t wait to find out.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, III.

Recurring Story: Thirty-Three

Fortunately, Wil was able to keep awake the remainder of History. She wouldn’t have put it past Mr. G. to try the correctional fluid method if she dozed again. There was no telling what that crazy Air Force fanatic would do.

She hurried to finish the reading and its questions. The silence around her was slowly replaced by the hum of conversations, as her classmates began visiting with each other or working on other homework. They had started the simple assignment whilst Wil was airborne, and most were now finished.

“Done,” Wil said quietly and triumphantly. She set the notepaper with her answers to the top right on her desk, then extracted the secret crossword from her binder. “T-M-E-E-Y-B-R-R-L-I-A-B-Y-R-E-F-A-T-S-C-H-O-O-L,” She read, under her breath.

She had despaired a bit, at first glance, that she had yet another step before resolution. Now, however, Wil could see that not all of the words were scrambled. Clearly, there was “by,” “fat,” and “school.” Perhaps the letters AND the words were scrambled, which would account for “fat” being right before “school.”

Logic told Wil that there wasn’t a good reason to have “fat” anywhere in the message, though. No one at school was named that, nor any location. Perhaps she was supposed to seek out a person who was fat, but she also doubted that.

She stared at the page, thinking, as the room buzzed around her.

Just then, Wil noticed that the key letter boxes in the crossword itself were not all the same. Five of the squares had an extra line on the side. She’d thought it an error of the print before, but now entertained the idea of it being another clue. The letters affected by the extra line were E, B, Y, T, and L.

Thanks to the assignment she had just completed on Morse Code and other methods used for communication during America’s wars, Wil remembered that a space between words is written with a slash. This meant that T-M-E-E was one word, IF her code-writer intended for her to copy the letters down in the order she had. Wil sincerely hoped that was the case. She felt reassurance that it was, since “school” copied that way was not scrambled.

“Eetm, Mete, Meet!” Wil said, a bit too loudly. A few people near her looked at her questioningly, and she smiled shyly before quickly looking back down at her paper. She pretended to be absorbed by it as she attempted to cover most of it with her textbook and hand. They returned to their own conversations and work.

Wil exhaled in relief, and really did become absorbed.

Y, B became “by;” R, R, L, I, A, B, Y was “library;” and R, E, F, A, T was “after.”

“Meet by library after school,” Wil read excitedly in her mind. In answer, the ending bell rang.

 

Continued from Thirty-Two.

Skinwalkers, III

Dressing was more difficult than Nathan had planned. The task was exacerbated by myriad factors, including lack of a full-length mirror. He grunted, twisted, pulled and straightened like a possessed interpretive dancer.

“At least I’m not in a dress,” he mumbled, finally groping with the outercoat and its attachments. The full suit would hide most of his glaring, epidermal defects.

The wristwatch beeped again, at an antique half-hour, and Nathan knew it signaled a few ticks before morning traffic began. If he didn’t get to a transport soon, he wouldn’t beat the better-paid commuters.

He grabbed his slipshod footwear and his comm. Rushing through the three small rooms of the apartment, he sincerely hoped everything appeared in order about his person. He also hoped the appointment was in a building with a reflective lift.

Just before exiting, he slapped the defunct doorscan to activate lockdown. The trick was applying enough force to get the cracked reader to work, but not depress it to a further state of disrepair. He wanted to get back in later, after all.

Nathan paused outside his exterior door, listening. Traffic echoes swirled like engined ghosts down the cement stairway and circled, trapped for moments, at the basement landing where he stood. No sounds of human movement came to him. Franks must have gone back to sleep.

Leaning to one wall, then the other, Nathan slipped his feet within their slipshods. He felt the contoured fabric lifting and shaping up his foot and ankle. Once the sole hardened with its habitual click, he immediately climbed the cracking steps to mainground.

What luck! A transport sat waiting, anticipating the impending work crowds.

Striding forward purposefully, he focused on the memory of confidence. His eyes blazed. His steps were measured and certain. Artfully, he withdrew and scanned his comm, immediately entering the vehicle when its activated door popped open.

The man up front seemed startled as Nathan sat and the vehicle tipped slightly. Nathan, however, appeared unperturbed.

“Er…” The operator began. Clearly, the man needed authority. Nathan felt happy to oblige; this would be great practice for later.

“Walls and Pruitt, at 34th Beta,” he enunciated, looking past the slack-jawed operator and to the dashboard computers instead.

All business, the dash responded in light patterns and beeps. “Destination acknowledged,” its female tones confirmed.

Nathan deigned to grant the still-surprised transport operator a raised eyebrow -a question of the man’s choice of High British female voice command, perhaps- before turning his attention to his more-interesting comm feed.

A shifting of garments on seat-cloth told Nathan the man up front had decided to face forward. As he should, Nathan thought. It’s not like the man needs to do anything, anyway.

Nathan had even considered an operator job, before Franks’ cousin’s friend had gotten him such a good deal on the outfit. Imagine someone seeing him in a transport! Nathan shuddered, and resumed panning through stories.

Thunk, thunk, thunk, drummed at the semi-transparent roof. Nathan didn’t bother looking up, as the commonplace acidfall splattered and spread harmlessly above him. Internally, he felt relief.

If not for recent loans, he would have been walking right now. Showing up in drips.

Nathan shuddered again. He’d make this work. He had to pay everyone back, or face the reality of shuttling friends around in the only occupation left to someone like him.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, II.

Recurring Story: Thirty-Two

“Hold formation,” Wil’s flight commander radioed again. Despite the static such an old headset communicated, she could still hear his New England upbringing in the vowels. Somehow, it had a grounding influence on them all.

They held position.

The Mitsubishi bombers and their escorts hummed nearer.

“Ready guns,” crackled quietly to twelve anxious American pilots. Her hands felt sweaty inside their gloves as Wil adjusted her grip on her control stick. She inhaled deeply and focused on the cluster at eight o’clock.

She saw the slight aberration in the Zeros’ pattern the instant before Flight Commander suddenly yelled, “ALL UNITS ENGAGE! ENEMY AWARE OF OUR POSITION! GO, GO, GO!!”

The roar of twelve Wildcat engines grew even louder in intensity as twelve pilots immediately dropped altitude and accelerated toward their targets. The Zeros, holding to their groups of three, drew near in deadly tandem.

Wil leaned forward over the controls, carefully maneuvering the floor pedals.

“Winters!” Wil heard the warning from a distance. There was no turning back now.

“Ms. Winters!”

Wil sat up, and quickly wiped the drool at her mouth. She blinked in surprise at the glaring, bespectacled toad so near her face, confused at why it was there.

“Huh?” She managed, groggily. The class laughed, and she felt her cheeks get warm. Mr. G. allowed a more pleasant version of his grimace before returning his face to its usual self-approved smirk.

“Ms. Winters, nap time was in preschool,” he joked. A few of her peers snickered a bit, though most disliked encouraging his ideas of wit. “Kindly return to page niner niner, and this time use your eyes to read and not your face.”

Wil nodded a bit, and felt relief as he turned and squat-strutted his stumpy walk back to his desk.

She turned her attention back to the text on the page. Meanwhile, a twirling model Wildcat swooped erratically in the current from the heat register.

 

Continued from Thirty-One.

Skinwalkers, II

The trouble with Suspension Drops, Nathan prematurely recalled, was that one’s eyesight became somewhat blurred for several hours.

He’d remembered this the instant he left the tiny bathroom and entered his bedroom to dress. For, once there, the flush fixture overhead illuminated within a circle of its own influence, and hesitated to stretch its wattage beyond. Nathan’s floor, bed, and cave-dark closet were imperceptible to his altered vision.

He cursed, quietly, and decided to find his comm. Pillowed barefoot shuffling drew him and his outstretched, groping arms slowly toward the nightstand where he’d last seen it. He hit the bed; grunted, turned, and walked along it to the head.

There! Nathan pawed at the shiny device; grasped it clumsily. Drawing his comm to his face, he said, “Light.”

Nearly instantly, he yelled in a different sort of ocular agony as the light activated. He’d not known, of course, that he’d picked up his comm upside-down. The beam had blared out obediently, directly into his strained and straining eyes.

Nathan closed them. A square of blinding white flashed repeatedly against the dark undersides of his eyelids. He wished for tears; for the ability to squint away the blinking spots.

After taking a few calming breaths, and dropping his hand to point the light downward, he squinted his right eye open a slit. He could make out somewhat more of the bedroom now. Thus directed, he walked gingerly to his closet.

He panned the tiny spotlight ’round the door-less alcove that passed for clothing storage in this cheap apartment, noting a muted glint from drywall patches and exposed wall-pipes. The light reflected shabbily from a plastic-bagged suit hanging between a few wool warmers and two basic liners.

“Some boss,” Nathan mumbled. He re-thought, remembered his reflection from the bathroom mantra. He straightened, and determinedly whispered, “I’ll have a full wardrobe, this time next week!”

Nodding to himself, he reached his left hand forward and withdrew the suit. It shushed in a slithering sigh across the uneven floor as he carried it to the bed. Carefully clumping his bedthings to a disorderly pile, Nathan lay the rented costume on the mattress.

Ironic, he thought, that this suit was his ticket to actually paying for it upon its return to the shop.

He set the light in the blankets, pointing harmlessly at the wall. Holding his breath, he slit open the plastic suit-covering, and began the hurried carefulness of awkwardly dressing himself.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, I.

Recurring Story: Thirty-One

“Your assignment,” Mr. Gil spoke gruffly, from the corner of his mouth, “Is on page niner niner, section bravo.” His large, rounded rectangle glasses reflected the overhead portable classroom’s lighting. The rest of his face squinted around his glasses in the traditional leer he adopted for class instruction.

Wil had always felt nervous around Mr. G. and his extremely strong personality. He had a habit of forming his froglike features into odd expressions while barking most verbal commands. Plus, he seemed to find everything he did highly amusing.

She studied the F4F Wildcat that twisted slowly on its string over her neighbor’s desk. That meant the heat was on. Modern heating and air conditioning were perks of class in the portables. Knowledge of aircraft was a perk of being in Mr. G.’s portable. She couldn’t tell the exact date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; but, by golly!, they would all know the names of his flying toys and the NATO phonetic alphabet.

Her hands automatically synced to the rhythm of her classmates, opening the history textbook in front of her and turning to “niner niner.”

Flight Officer Winters, however, was paying attention to the small speck in the vast grey blue at five o’clock. Her body vibrated comfortably in the overpowering roar of the Twin Wasp engine and the dashboard dials agitated reassuringly at regular readings.

“Hold formation,” crackled in her headphones. She felt the anxiety building in her body as she fought the urge to act.

They inched nearer.

The original speck had visible wings, and now hovered above a line of more dark spots plus one to her left. “Second Zero at eight o’clock,” she reported.

“Third at eleven/ten,” two others reported simultaneously. Wil glanced at the positions and acknowledged the additions.

She frowned. The Zeros always flew in formation, as they were, and had more than three pilots flying cover.

“Reading one more Zero at two. Let’s assume these ******s are leading two more behind them like usual,” the flight leader instructed.

That meant twelve Japanese fighters total. Wil grinned in anticipation and readied her guns. This would not be a fair fight.

 

Continued from Thirty.