Short Story: Brace-Face

She looked at herself in the mirror, stretching her mouth and lips to better show her teeth. The gleam of wires and metal was far from visually pleasing. Aesthetically, she hated them. One day she might say differently of the whole thing– one day when her teeth were pearly white and perfectly straight. For now, she curled her lips closed and frowned.

Danielle had never been one to speak out of turn, or fuss over things. Mostly, she sat in her room, or in one of her various classes, and let life swirl by in silence. She didn’t have friends to speak of, or to. It kept her quiet most of the time. Maybe, she thought, she could hide her mouthful of metal until graduation. It was a couple years away, sure, but she’d managed the preceding ten without much peer-interaction. Then again, she wasn’t about to add a blotchy, red face to the mix by holding her breath.

She brushed out her long, bushy hair. Yet another of Genetics’ slights was to give her the thickest, curliest hair a girl could have without being of some exotic origin. Each day, she’d stand in front of her bathroom mirror, vainly fighting it. Whether morning, afternoon, or night, they battle raged until Dani gave up and wrestled it into a bushy ponytail.

“More like squirrel-tail,” she always muttered. As always, thinking of how akin her hair was to having a long-haired cat rooted into her scalp– but less cute and twice as angry.

And now, there was the metal. A literal ton of it. Okay, maybe not literal, literal, but there was a lot. She might have cried, had she built any type of social standing that was to take a hit. Otherwise, it was just par for the course of a life as dishwater-dull as stagnant. She did her best to settle into her nightly homework, added to by the missed assignments from the day’s be-metaling. The only time she rose was to answer her mother’s call for dinner. It was only afterward that she realized just how bad it felt to have someone drill, glue, and wire her mouth together. To say nothing of having to pick, brush, and clean them for the first time.

By the end of it, she was haggard, emotionally and physically. With the last finishing touches on her homework, she collapsed into bed. The night passed in a patchwork of introspective bad dreams until she found herself lucid and aware she was dreaming, and completely helpless to stop them.

In the same, befuddled manner of all dreams, enough reality melded with hallucinatory strangeness to form a believable dream-world. Dani found herself at a school not quite the same as usual. Never-ending hallways took eternities to cross, super-imposing vast barren dunes atop them. Peers with transmogrifying faces drifted here and there or accompanied her for unknown reasons, refusing to listen to her cries of help. Others wandered about without faces. More still kept up an unending chorus of “brace-face, brace-face” that followed her as if ethereal whispers on an ever-blowing wind.

The dream-school was the very definition of eerie strangeness. After a while, even dream Dani found the chanting more tacky than hurtful. For hours and hours, the hallways carried her across their deserts, her would-be friends came and went, strangers stared from black-holes in their heads, and the wind chanted incessantly.

When the sun decided to grace her window and rip her from sleep, she returned from dreamland with gratitude. She praised the sun, albeit silently. Dreamland had become more twisted and sordid over time, in ways she couldn’t describe nor recall, but that left her feeling uneasy. The monotony of her years-old morning routine was just what she needed. It remained largely unchanged, though slightly more dismal now from aching teeth and a metal-bruised ego. Fighting her hair into its hairy-cat state helped her feel a little more normal. Her best “don’t look at me” clothes formed a hopeful shroud that allowed her to make for school without collapsing in embarassment.

Bacatta High-School was a place filled with paradoxes at every turn. Certain class rooms were dark, dank dungeons, windowless and cold. Beside them were warm meadows, windowed along one side with vibrant warmth. A time-vortex or dimensional rift would be perfectly at home there, and admittedly, not surprising. In her words, “You know, a regular high-school.”

She entered school to the drone-procession of students too-asleep for the morning hour. At least there she was invisible. Good. No one would notice her new metal-mouth. Not even if they tried to. She kept her head bowed, flowed with the rivers of students toward class. There, she floated in place like them, but half-submerged to remain invisible. It seemed to be going well until midway through Algebra, when she was forced to speak aloud.

Mrs. Harmon eyed the room, “Who can tell me the value of x, if x equals seven, plus two, divided by three. Hmm, let’s see… Danielle?”

Danielle was a deer in the headlights, hit by the car before realizing it. She was expected to answer. Her brain had already worked out the problem, but the few eyes that turned her way froze her in place. Mrs. Harmon leered with expectancy. Never in a million years could it help. It made things much worse than she ever expected.

She grimaced, did her best to hide her teeth, and saw herself flipping up and over the car, headlights already long gone. As she end-over-ended through the air, she revealed her unintentional lisp.

“Exsss equalsss three?”

“Correct. Excellent,” Mrs. Harmon said, moving on, completely unaware of the slaughter she’d caused.

Dani shrank in her seat. It was even worse than she’d expected. She’d probably sprayed the girl in front of her with a fountain of saliva. She didn’t seem to notice, but Dani did. A hand suddenly tapped Dani’s shoulder. She nearly fainted. Her eyes met another girl holding a folded scrap of paper. She gestured for Dani to take it.

Me? She mouthed. The girl nodded. Dani opened the note.

Girly scrawl formed the words “New braces?

Danielle’s face almost fell off. She’d known. Things must be even more terrible than she realized. She glanced at the girl, whom nonchalantly divided her attention between Mrs. Harmon and Danielle, then scribbled a reply:

Yea, why?

The note changed hands, was read, scribbled on, then returned.

It helps to have water. Or get some wax to put on the back.

Danielle’s eyes were a portrait of confusion. She scribbled back; Thanx. Is it really that bad?

The girl took the note, read it, then shook her head at Danielle.

I know the feeling. Mine was sooo bad at first. BTW, I’m Sara.

The bell for class-end rang. Dani read the note, then stood next to Sara. “Danielle. Mosst people call me Dani.”

Sara flashed a metal smile. “Cool. I’ve gotta’ head ‘cross the building, but you wanna’ sit together at lunch?”

Dani followed her from the room, carefully evading any esses. “Okay.”

“I’ll meet you in the commons later,” Sara said with another metal smile.

She turned for the long passage across the school and waved good-bye. Dani waved back, managing a smile of her own; maybe being a brace-face wouldn’t be as bad as she’d thought.

Short Story: Think Deeply

The bomb threat at the Oakton Memorial Hospital had been called in by an anonymous tip. Whether or not it was credible, the two-thousand odd doctors, nurses, M-As and other people inside were evacuated. A whole city block was cordoned off. Police blockades re-directed traffic or otherwise halted it whole for two blocks further on all sides. Someone had estimated, if the building went, its parking garages at either side and a few of emptied businesses might go too.

The chaos was already well under way when the Emergency Response Squad arrived. The new-age SWAT team was more an army than a police force, privately funded by many of Oakton’s large corporations to relieve the local, municipal government’s pressures. In truth they were free-agents, authorized to use any and all force necessary to eliminate threats. Unlike police, they were not a government agency, and were free to do any of a number of sordid things– like kill without the petty worries of justice, due process, or the pesky amendments protecting the obviously guilty from being presumed as such.

In short, ERS was everything American Police wished to be with none of the obligations that kept them in check.

ERS was rarely called in, though. OPD didn’t like having its toes stepped on, neither as an entity nor as as individuals comprising that entity. Even so, they couldn’t handle a threat of this nature alone. Recent years of poor press and tension between citzens and the department had festered a growing resentment. Among other things, it kept many would-be peace officers from joining.

OPD gracefully bowed to ERS, this time. In request for aid, containing the situation and keeping panic from spreading, ERS’ crack-squad were sent in. Their ingress across Oakton from its outskirts was unmistakable. They rolled in like an army in freshly armored sleek, blackened APCs with angry looking cannons. The vehicles were all thick, steel-plated angles and cylinders with tires enough to crush even the largest of vehicles that got in their way. Enough of the pseudo-tanks were able to form an impassable wall around the hospital’s entire city-block.

Captain Abraham Logan stepped from an APC. As acting leader of the ERS battalion, he had complete autonomy. His ultra-thin, kevlar and graphene-woven, black uniform and tac-vest gave him all the menace of SWAT combined with the next-gen tech of an army more advanced than the US’s own. The comm-link in his ear was satellite-guided, good for up to a thousand meters under water, or a mile of concrete on all sides. It connected him with ERS dispatch that had twenty-four hour access to public and corporate satellites to monitor situations in real-time.

Equipped with thermographic and night-vision, A-R glasses, Logan could see in the dark while overlaying his GPS-tracked location on a map of the hospital to one side of his vision. In combination with the Explosive Ordinance sniffers embedded in small, microscopic points around his clothing, he was almost singularly useful. His own stubborn will and battlefield experience would keep him and his people alive so long as they listened.

He led his group to the doors, their hi-tech gadgetry enabled and their comm-links active. Their AR glasses even had small cameras to keep ERS-dispatch aware of the teams’ surroundings. They presently showed Logan and his team breaching the facility with expert movements, their voices short, punctual.

“Cut the lights,” Logan ordered through his comm.

An ERS dispatcher, linked to the city’s power grid and the Hospital’s auxiliary generators, did as instructed. The lights went out. Gleaming, sterile white and warm wood paneling turned to dark silhouettes and blackness underfoot. It was almost blinding. The team’s AR glasses faded up their night-vision, and the way ahead was clear– albeit a little more gray-toned than usual. The active sniffers on Logan’s suit tracked scents of plastique and something most certainly lethal, but unidentifiable.

The team moved in sweeping caution, to a stairwell. They burst through its entrance to follow the stairs downward for a basement boiler room. Silence beneath their collective boot-steps sent a chill down their spines. Even Logan, war-hardened as he was, shuddered from the cold. He hid it from his team, led them further down in silence. The E-O trail was hot, as a faint, green line on the AR at their eyes.

They slipped into the bowels of the hospital beyond the stairs, angled for a morgue spanning half the basement. This was where they kept their dead. Everything said it. It was cold, morbid, and overpoweringly sterile smelling. A slightest scent of death though, still remained– as if it could never be scrubbed for its eternally continued presence.

Once more they readied to breach and entered the morgue. The team’s chill shudder returned in full force, caused a pause to their advance. Night-vision revealed steel surfaces of counters, tables, and gurneys both empty and filled across the morgue. Bodies atop them tainted the air further, the stench increasing each second the air warmed from lack of cooling. Even if Logan had given the order to engage the back-up power for the room, he doubted it would undo the odor around them.

He fanned the team out across the room. Behind them the door swung closed with a click. They advanced through the long, wide morgue and autopsy area. Logan followed the AR sniffer trail toward small doors equally spaced along the back wall. Body storage was six high, twenty wide, and according to the faint-outlines on thermal-vision, mostly full.

Logan was too preoccupied with the sniffer trail. It led to a door in the center of the storage unit. He pressed a pair of fingers against a panel there that was still active, likely powered by a back-up battery. Over the course of a minute, the door swung open. An empty tray inched outward. In its center sat a curious looking bomb; tall, wide, but hollow with a glass protrusion atop it. Through it, there was the undeniable stir of vapor mist.

Logan set his rifle aside, reached for the bomb.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” an old-man’s voice echoed over the room. The men and women rubbernecked. “Don’t fret. I’ve been gone a while now. You on the other hand…”

The door they entered from hissed, locked. Ventilation covers snapped shut across the room. All at once, the other hundred-and-nineteen doors on the storage wall opened. The scent of over a hundred bodies doubled the team over, Logan included. A few people passed out, overwhelmed by a mix of Methane and Vomit.

After a few moments of retching, Logan regained his feet, “You sick bastard!

“Death is a funny thing, Captain,” the man’s voice replied over the PA speakers. “It does interesting things to a man. For instance, it causes a reaction of decomposition that, when mixed with bloating, makes one able to literally explode their guts around the room. The problem of course, is that we are dead when we gain this lovely ability.”

“You sick fuck, these are people!” One woman shouted. She sprinted for the door, breath held, tried to pry open it.

“Ah, ah, ah,” the voice said. “You’re locked away, you see. Were I in your position, I’d make peace with that.”

“Fuck you!” Logan shouted. He suppressed a dry-heave.

The man sighed as though a teacher disappointed with his pupil, “Now, now, Captain, we all have to die sometime. As I said, the body does interesting things. One which I have discovered, and which no one else knows but I.”

“Let us out of here you bastard!” The woman screamed as she booted the door.

“No,” the man replied simply. “No, you are to be the statement which reveals my discovery.”

“What the hell are you talking about, psycho?” A man shouted upward at the room.

“You see, I’ve discovered something many men don’t realize they already know about a dead body,” he paused dramatically, as if it meant all the world to his phrasing. “What I’ve discovered, dear friends, is that a body can create a powerful statement after the consciousness inhabiting it leaves.”

“You son of a–”

“And many dead bodies, Captain,” he said without interruption. “Can create a very powerful message.”

“You son of a–”

A sound came from behind Logan. A buzzing that shot up a thousand Hertz to scream with a high-pitch. Two blocks away, the earth jolted and trembled with a nearby explosion. Dirt and debris filled the air. A cloud of smoke and dust covered the distance between ground-zero and the furthest cordoned areas. The shock-wave blew out glass from every window for a mile. Shards rained through Oakton as precipitous drops that fell from the heavens.

When the dust settled, it took two weeks for ERS and OPD to count the dead and injured– most from the effects of the shock-wave. The crater where the hospital had been was kept roped off for months. Various crews worked day and night to restore power, water, and sewage to the effected areas.

Through it all, ERS and the various news outlets worked to locate the man responsible. When the team’s final moments, recorded by ERS’ dispatchers, finally leaked to the web, the world began to speculate. His statement, it seemed, was lost in the tragedy of the moment. That was, until a few amateur sleuths discovered a single phrase whispered in the final half-second of audio.

Buried beneath sounds of methane igniting, bodies being torn asunder, and cement cracking was the man’s voice; “Think Deeply.

Rehab: Part 3

5.

Carol projected herself over the running tap to reach the speaker setting on her cell-phone, “I don’t know, but it wasn’t good. It was like… a drug overdose.”

“You know you can tell me if you’re using, Carrie,” Kathy said carefully.

“Damn it Kathy, I’m not on drugs!” She snapped. She pounded a fist against the sink, caused the phone to jump, flip mid-air beside her. It landed face-down.

Kathy hesitated, “Alright, I’m sorry Carrie. It’s just… there’s not much I can tell you. It sounds like text-book splitting.”

“What?”

Kathy explained as Carol ran cool water over her face, “Splitting’s a term for black and white thinking. Black and white thinking’s characterized by a lack of color to one’s perspective– when one believes all that is there is what they see and think they know. For instance, in black and white thinking one would say there are only two possible answers to any question; right or wrong. However, in colored thinking, there are three or more possible answers, but someone splitting will do their damnedest to whittle the options answers down to two– the black or the white.”

Carol shut off the tap, lifted a towel from the counter to pat her face dry, “Okay, I think I see where you’re going. But how’s it relate?”

“Well if you’re splitting, this guy you ran into will instantly either look like the… other guy, or not. Those are the only possible answers when splitting, but in truth, nobody’s that one-dimensional.”

Carol sighed, braced herself against the counter to stretch, “I don’t think that’s it Kath, I just… don’t. It seems too simple. For that matter, why would the reaction be so violent? I mean, I’m not that judgmental, am I?”

Kathy agreed, “No you’re right, you aren’t. At least not normally, anyhow. But the fact is Carrie, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s a defense mechanism triggered by trauma. You could have begun experiencing it unconsciously when the trial ended– you said yourself you felt like you’d failed those girls, failed yourself. Splitting’s caused by questioning your self worth. I can only imagine the blow you took from that.”

Carol gave a slow shake of her head, and a heavy exhale, “I don’t know. It’s too cut and dry, and I’d have figured you’d seen something like that by now, wouldn’t you?”

Kathy’s wavering certainty was a resounding “No,” but she expounded evasively, “The truth is, I’m getting older, Carrie. I’m not as observant as I once was. Plus, we’re friends. Those personal feelings make proper analysis impossible. It’s part of the reason we’re taught not to become emotionally involved with our clients.”

Carol frowned, swiveled to lean back against the sink and stare at her feet, “I figured you’d say something like that.”

“That’s the problem then,” Kathy admitted.

Carol’s eyes trailed along the floor to Buddy, his body melted into the tile. He gave a sigh as Carol crossed her arms, “As a professional, but also as a friend, what would you suggest?”

There was an audible wince over the phone, as though Kathy reeled at the thought of making a suggestion in this situation. She continued with a firm forward motion, “As a professional, I’d say you need to see a friend of mine, but I’m not sure he’d really be able to help with this problem.”

“It’s probably worth a shot,” Carol admitted graciously. “And as a friend, what would you say?”

Kathy was more forthcoming this time, her tension gone, “As your friend, I’d say you have two options; Let it go, or find out as much as possible about this guy, see if maybe it’s your woman’s intuition acting up. I mean, we have instincts for a reason, and this seems like instinct kicking in. You’ve had extensive, first-hand experience with wackos. Check him out. Maybe he’s another one.”

Carol sighed. She was exhausted, but relieved that the episode had passed. Her body no longer shook, and there was only a faint taste of bile left in her mouth.

“I’ll do that Kathy, see what I can dig up. Maybe then I can let it go. Thanks.”

Carol spent the next twelve hours scouring the internet. She read through dozens of business articles, watched double as many press videos and news reels. Each of them highlighted DePaul or his company’s quick rise to wealth and glory. Evidently, the company was competing for the fastest growing commercial construction business ever. Guinness and their books were already on it, with roughly half the articles she found speculating that DePaul would go down in the record books as one of the greatest businessmen ever. Strangely enough however, the most distant article she found came from a year ago, almost to the day in fact.

The local newspaper brief relayed the company’s particulars, highlighted DePaul’s extraordinary fortune and connections. At its inception, DePaul contracting was given several development contracts for local high-rises. Carol suspected corrupt government officials, but there was no evidence in the articles. Even so, if there was foul play involved in the money, there was no doubt it would extend elsewhere. Such was the nature of these types of people and deals.

It was on a natural instinct that she called Sherry. They needed to meet outside of work, discuss things. Sherry promised to oblige the next afternoon while Carol spent the better part of the night and morning researching both DePaul and her own illness. She found little else on either subject, slowly became frustrated, and calmed herself the only way she could think to; a walk with Buddy around the neighborhood.

The second time around the length of the block, the conversation with Kathy returned to the forefront of her mind. Was she splitting? Was everything so black and white that this random stranger had become the target of her unconscious ire? Was it really likely she’d become the victim of a mental illness that had been left unchecked, manifested physically?

It was possible, but still felt too cut and dry for her. She and Kathy had spent years dealing with her initial trauma and resentment of men after her own, vile experience. Though they’d only briefly touched on her feelings of failure after the trial, she’d taken solace in the fact that she’d done her best; it was the system that had failed, not her. She’d done all she could within her own power and within reason.

She made a mental note to look into the bastard after she spoke to Sherry. Opening old wounds may not be the best thing right now, but maybe it would help. Perhaps it was like a broken bone that hadn’t healed properly, required another breakage to be reset so it might return to its former, pain-free shape. As it was, the proverbial bone still seethed pain from time to time, her current reactions its residual throb otherwise drowned by the adrenaline of her fast-paced life.

When she and Buddy returned home, they found Sherry waiting on the front-porch. Carol apologized, but Sherry gave a dismissive wave; she hadn’t heard Buddy bark, suspected they were on their walk. Free of his leash, Buddy nearly tackled Sherry as he leapt at her, nuzzled her torso and arms, and almost knocked her over with pleas for love and attention. She giggled, kissed the side of his muzzle, and received a good once-over on the face with his tongue. He dropped back to his feet trotted off circle the yard.

Carol led them into the house, and offered Sherry a drink, “Rum?”

“Sure. Gotta’ be five o’clock somewhere.”

The bottle clanged with others, slid from beneath the sink as Carol produced two glasses from a cupboard, followed Sherry out the back door and to the table. They sat, mixed rum with cola, and talked for a long while. Ed and his oddly compulsive behavior were the first ass-ends of jokes. Then, Ed’s long time friend, Chuck, the other senior partner in the firm. He was, in fact, just as odd and obsessively compulsive as Ed. As usual, they joked about locking them alone in a messy room filled with countless, strewn files; Sherry gave it fifteen minutes before the room was clean. Carol, more realistic, said twenty-five.

Eventually, the sun began to set, engaged the solar lighting around the deck’s edges that faded in with time. As the day wound down, so did the bottle of rum, but only at its end did Sherry finally have the courage to ask what had been wrong. Carol wasn’t one to miss work, even when sick. At the very least, she would come in until Ed or Chuck sent her home for fear of catching her illness.

Carol hesitated to search for words until everything spilled from her at once; from the initial resentment of the trial, to the episode in the street and the next in the house. She elaborated on her conversation with Kathy, and her frustration at DePaul’s spotless public record.

Sherry listened with careful interest and intrigue until Carol broke down into sobs. She wept with a high, nasally voice, distraught by the toll things were taking. Sherry fell to her knees, beside Carol’s chair, shushed and comforted her.

Buddy’s near-constant whimpers went silent when Carol wiped her eyes, sniffled, “I’m sorry.”

Sherry’s voice was high, sympathetic, “For what?”

“My blubbering. You know I’m not–”

“Don’t be sorry, Carrie. I’m your friend, that’s what I’m here for. Besides, I wouldn’t’ve asked if I weren’t concerned. You’re allowed to be upset. Hell, I’d probably have put myself in the hospital by now. I just… I don’t know what to do. Is there anything I can do?”

Carol wiped her eyes again, looked Sherry over. The question’s sincerity was poised on her limp brows, Carol obliged to answer. She exhaled a thick breath, “ I don’t know.”

“Come on, you’ve gotta’ have something worked out Carrie. I know you well enough to know that. You’ve got something planned, right?”

She thought about it for a moment; did she have a plan? Could she really breach an innocent man’s privacy? Was she really prepared to take this to that level, re-open that old wound? Could it really help her sickness? She wasn’t sure of anything, save that she had to learn more about DePaul.

She finally spoke again, her eyes and face still wet. Determination inflected in the edges of her voice, “I was thinking about looking into Evans.” She wiped her face with a trembling hand, “Maybe check into the rehab facility.” Sherry nodded her onward. She sighed, “According to the Sheriff’s department, the success rate of their programs are outstanding with little-to-no repeat offenders. Maybe it’ll help to make sure he’s there– still serving his time.”

Sherry nodded, rose to retake her seat. Carol leaned forward, rubbed her temples, drained the last of her glass, then relaxed back into the chair. She stared up at the stars, barely visible through Oakton’s smog and light-pollution.

Her gaze fall back to the solar lights that lined the deck, and Sherry finally broke the silence. “I’ll help you, Carrie. Whatever you need.”

“No, it’s alright. I can’t ask you–”

“You didn’t. I decided on my own. I’m helping you with this. The last thing I need right now’s for something to happen to you. I mean, how the hell would I deal with Ed and Chuck on my own?”

Carol managed a small laugh. Buddy gave a solitary bark that echoed through the night. Even so, the momentary happiness was soon swallowed by that ill-foreboding in Carol’s gut.

Rehab: Part 2

3.

A year passed with little incident. Sherry’s graduation and promotion to Junior partner added her full-time into the fold, while Carol’s once, unshakable faith in the system continued to degrade at its usual rate. By now it seemed nearly non-existent, and whenever the subject of that fateful trial was broached, Ed became passive, quiet, still unable to look her in the eye without the aide of copious amounts of alcohol. His guilt became static in their relationship, something he tried to compensate for with large bonuses, pay raises, and her choice of clientele.

Her usual, Wednesday routine to see Kathy remained unchanged, and today the street near her home-office was especially busy. In the early afternoon of the spring’s mild-warmth saw the annual shift from heavy, winter gear to T-shirts, light jackets, even a pair of shorts or two. As a result, most of the block of pancaked, bi-level homes had signs of activity in or around them. Even Oakton’s Street Department had awakened from its winter slumber, began to fill the potholes along the road. The grizzled men in their work clothes and bright, fluorescent green vests clustered along the avenue only a few dozen yards from Kathy’s door

Carol flashed her card at the cabby’s electronic eye as usual, stepped out from the car. A jogger collided with her, toppled her to the ground as the cab pulled away. He recovered, apologized profusely. She did the same, gathered her things without a look.

He scooped up papers, straightened them atop folders, “Sorry. Sorry. Forgive me please, I wasn’t paying attention.”

Carol managed a chuckle, “It’s alright. I wasn’t either.”

He handed his pile over to her, he huffed a flustered breath, “You’re alright, right? You’re not hurt.”

She took the pages, thanked him with a look, “No, I’m fine.”

He smiled wide with perfect, white teeth, as he stepped to one side, “Sorry again.”

The perfect teeth forced a flash of memory from the distant trial, super imposed the perfect, white-teeth of that snake that had slithered away over the man’s. Her stomach lurched. The man apologized, oblivious, and excused himself to jog away. She muttered an garbled pleasantry. Turn autonomously to track him from Kathy’s property to the next. He continued without a look back, but the image blasted a shiver of ice through Carol’s spine. The man’s face disappeared into the overlaid image of the sick, sadistic smile from the courtroom.

Carol swallowed hard, dizzied and sweating. She swayed in a turn for the door, planted each step to it with a deliberate gait to keep upright. Her hand slapped the doorbell as her stomach upturned and her legs wobbled. Kathy opened the door with a casual smile that soured at her pale green pallor. She urged Carol in, guided her away from the door. The foyer and office morphed into one another through vertigo-laden vision. The world gyrated, swirled around her. Her heart raced, panicked, chest tightened, incapable of drawing breathing. A vise had ensnared it, forced it nearer her back.

She was only vaguely aware of Kathy ushering her to the couch. A cool breeze blew from an open window, coursed over cold-sweat that lined Carol’s body, caused a shudder that worsened the vertigo. A distant wind-chime clanged through the air, muffled by a haze of black infected by colors that swirled around it.

Time ceased to have meaning, only seeming to start again once the wind returned to her lungs over the indistinct sound of Kathy’s voice. A warm hand pressed at her forehead and cheeks, while the vertigo began to recede. She managed enough to ask for water, was obliged without question. Her mind focused enough to relay that she had laid down on the couch, was staring up at Kathy’s textured ceiling.

What the hell just happened?

She mentally retraced her steps, found the source of the spell at the man’s face. Dark eyes, not unattractive, but somehow irredeemably repulsive.

Kathy appeared with water, “Sip it, or you’ll make yourself more sick.”

Carol muttered a weak “thank you,” as she sat up to sip from the glass. The ill feelings swirled within her, their cause unknown.

It was a few moments of deep, slow breath’s later that Kathy finally sensed she could speak, “You’re not high are you?”

Carol’s brow furrowed, “What? No. Why would you even–”

“If you are it’s okay, but I have to–”

“I’m not high, Kathy. I don’t…” Carol took a breath. “I don’t know what the hell happened.”

“It’s okay, Carrie, I believe you. But you know if you ever feel you need that you can–” She cut herself off from the glare on Carol’s face. “Oh alright. What’s wrong then?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know.”

“Symptoms?” Kathy asked, formally.

“Vertigo, shortness of breath, sour stomach– but it all came on so fast, I thought I was going to faint.”

“You nearly did. What d’you think caused it?”

She sighed with a shake of her head, “Like I said, it happened so fast.”

“Could be a hypoglycemic episode. How’s your diet been lately?”

“It’s not that– you know how I careful I am with my health,” She sipped a few times from the water glass, “Antacids?”

“I’ll get ’em.” She rushed off once more, returned with a pair of chalky tablets. She handed them over, re-took her seat, “Retrace your steps. Walk me through the few minutes before it started.”

Carol drank from the glass, swallowed and sighed, “I was at the office, took a cab over like usual, and was fine until some guy bumped into me on the street.”

“Think he dosed you with something, somehow?” She asked, concerned.

“No, nothing like that. I was fine until…”

She trailed off: Could it really be true? No. It couldn’t. It was her imagination playing tricks on her. After all, the one year anniversary of the trial was this week, and it had been heavy in her mind.

Kathy interrupted her thoughts, “Until?”

“Well, it was… odd,” she said over thoughtful stare. “He was nice enough. Polite, but… something about his eyes. They were… familiar. And his smile– full of perfect teeth.”

Kathy joked, “Sounds like a looker to me. Maybe it was love at first sight.”

“No. He repulsed me– to my core. He reminded me of– well, of that sonuvabitch that got away last year.”

Kathy’s humor disintegrated, “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

She hesitated a moment, then sighed, “Honestly Carrie, this sounds like you’re ascribing your… distaste for that particular man onto others with his features.” Carol eyed her skeptically. Kathy explained, “It’s not uncommon. A lot of ex-wives could tell you that– “’I’ll never date a man with brown hair again, or never marry another green-eyed man.” Men do it too, “I’ll never let another blonde into my bed again.” Anyway, trust me when I say it’s more common than you think.”

Carol wasn’t satisfied, but gave a slow, defeated sigh, “I don’t know, maybe. I mean, you’re probably right, but it just didn’t feel that way. It… felt like I was looking into those same cold eyes, getting that sadistic smile bared at me again, just like that day in court… when they gave him Rehab.”

Kathy was sympathetic, but there was a rigidity to her tone that said her opinion was fixed, “But it was his eyes and smile that did it, right? Not the rest of him?”

She shook her head, “No.”

“Did he resemble the… other man in any other way?”

Another shake of her head, and a sigh, “No, not that I could tell.”

Kathy grimaced, “Then it’s probably like I said, and you’re putting too much thought into it. Just relax, and sip that water.”

Carol gave an absent nod, took another drink. Her stomach had finally begun to settle, but an eerie foreboding frothed beneath the fine layer of antacids. She pinched at the corners of her eyes, forced back the memories of that sadist’s smile in the mockery of a court-room.

4.

At Kathy’s insistence, Carol called the office to take the rest of the day off. Sherry was less than enthusiastic, now stiffed with new paperwork for a defense they were working on. After being told of Carol’s episode– and promised a free night out– Sherry relented. Carol conveniently left out the episode’s trigger, but Sherry was satisfied all the same.

Carol hailed a cab back to her house, unlocked the door and entered the house to her slobbery Pit-bull Terrier, Buddy. He gave a few, deep barks, bounced excitedly and pawed at her legs. His tail wagged behind his torso that circled her path down the hall to the kitchen and two, French doors.

“Come on, Budd.”

He lagged behind her as the door opened. Then, a rush of spring air poked his muzzled and his ears perked up. He rocketed outside ahead of her. She followed him down the trio of steps to the patio-deck, sank into a patio chair to stare off while he made his rounds through the yard.

She tried to push the day’s events out of her mind, kicked up her feet to let the breeze flutter at her at cheeks and tousle her stray hairs. What the breeze didn’t cool, the afternoon sun kept warm. It was a welcome release from the harsh, gray cold that dominated Oakton’s winter months. Her eyelids parted to cotton-white clouds that she vaguely recalled as cumulus.

Buddy’s nails clacked in a trot along the wooden deck, startled her. He plopped onto his haunches beside her while his tongue dangled out the side of his mouth.

She leaned over, kissed the top of his head, “Good boy, Buddy.”

He gave her a lick, stood to lead him inside, and carry on with her normal, after-work routine. She filled Buddy’s bowls, washed her face, and changed to her street clothes to plop comfortably onto the couch, flip on the TV. The digital channels passed casually, stopped on Info-Corp’s News Network with the hope that Carol might see a favorable media fare to their case.

Like many others, this client was high-profile and a perpetrator of drunk-driving. The wealthy-retiree managed to hit a parked car before he careened into an intersection and oncoming traffic. His excessive speed twisted the van he hit into his sports car, left them as little more than useless hunks of steel and plastic. OFD had to cut both drivers from their vehicles; the man walked away with a few broken bones, but the woman was now in rehabilitative therapy with a broken back.

While the doctors said she would recover to walk again, it just so happened that she was sister-in-law to the mayor. It was ultimately impossible to avoid jail-time, especially given the forthcoming Mayoral election. On word of the crash, the Mayor’s campaign immediately shifted to a crackdown on drunk drivers to gain public support– never-mind the half-dozen murders each day, or the countless pick-pockets and other thefts.

The TV flashed commercials to a sigh from Carol. Buddy lumbered atop the couch, put his head on his paws to stare out at the flashing pictures on the screen.

“What are we gonna do with this world, Budd?” Carol said aloud. He whimpered, rolled sideways to expose his belly. She gave it a scratched, muttered, “I guess that’s a solution.”

Info-Corp’s jingle played as the news returned. The overtly charismatic man began his spiel at a moderate speed, never pausing for longer than it took to breathe. “Turning to local business news; today Allen contractors was bought out by DePaul contracting LLC. The emerging construction company seems to be an overnight success story for its owner Anthony DePaul.”

Carol looked up just in time to see a photographic expose of a man’s life. She watched on, entranced, the images chronicled the life of a familiar face– the one she had seen earlier in the street. His dark eyes and pearly-white smile burned into her retinas with the familiar rush of a curdled stomach. This time though, the sounds muffled seemed to highlight the televisions words.

“Anthony DePaul, thirty-eight, inherited a modest fortune from a dying relative,” The anchor said. Old, color photos of a young boy gave way to a young man, then finally, the adult man she’d met, “With a generous dose of foresight, DePaul put the money to good use in creating a construction company with a vision to change Oakton’s scenery.”

Carol’s head began to spin. The expose shuffled through images of office-buildings and construction equipment, “In just under two months DePaul Contracting saw profits in excess of three million dollars. DePaul publicly attributes this success to quote, “dumb luck and knowing the right people.” In the last nine months, the small construction company has grown by triple that, leading to the acquisition of Allen contractors after it had fallen on hard times. Mr. Depaul had this to say:”

Carol couldn’t move, or think, or even look away. She was gripped by pain, terror. Acid rose into her throat, the ivory-white teeth moved in a mockery of her pain while the dark eyes softly scanned the crowd of a press-conference.

“It is my esteemed pleasure,” DePaul said cheerfully. Carol’s insides rolled. “To make this company a part of the DePaul family. As promised, all employees will be held to their original contracts. As you know Allen is an old company, and a well respected name, and speaking as a laborer, I’d hate to see that name lost.” There was a pause, a break in the reel where it jumped to another question. “My intent is purely to help our weakened economy. It’s on all of us, as business owners and citizens, to ensure we keep jobs available and money coming in. In acquiring Allen, I hope to see that–”

Carol heard nothing more. She slumped forward, felt vomit rise. Buddy whimpered. Carol stumbled around the couch, sprinted with a hand over her mouth to the bathroom. The cold porcelain chilled her hands and face as she heaved in a stupor. The fire in her throat and pores reveled in a cold draft from the open door.

She wanted to crawl into the tub, ball up and die. The pain in her stomach and throat forced her eyes shut and clenched against tears that squeezed out. Panic gripped her. Her mind ran hurdles along a gauntlet of hypochondria; she was being drugged, poisoned, slowly gassed or…

Something was wrong. She knew it, felt it, but couldn’t place it. The expose replayed in her mind, triggered a final, dry heave. She gave a loud sob, her tears streams along her pale cheeks. Buddy appeared, barked in alarm. The expose refused to stop. It played a dozen times at high speeds, followed by her episode in the street. Violent shakes seized her arms and legs. Her head snapped from side to side, neck twisted and writhed with attempts to throw the images from her mind.

Without volition, her fists balled. Her knuckles whitened. The images began to superimpose atop one another. With a mounting speed, the man’s face followed childhood to manhood, ended with a grip of unassailable fear as a final, translucent overlay of a second-man’s face appeared. The features were distinctive, similar; a protruding brow, boyish cheeks, dark hair, and full white teeth. Worst of all, were the cold, dark eyes whose orbits perfectly matched those of the other man.

The second man was Zachary Evans, the killer she’d failed to prosecute, the same one given Rehab in place of life-long prison cell or a deserved death sentence. There were obvious differences– chin, nose, hairline, each one thinner. Somehow though, Carol knew; they were the same man.

She crumpled to the floor, exhausted, stared up at her ceiling. Buddy’s hot breaths against the floor were the only sounds audible. Even so, she didn’t notice it. Her mind was too focused, too preoccupied with piecing together the puzzle before her. Her stomach and throat burned from acid, limbs ached from residual tremors that vibrated her body.

Why was this happening? What did these two men have in common? Was it really Evans or was Kathy right; had she displaced hatred for one man onto another? No. No, it couldn’t be that simple. She couldn’t put it all together yet, pieces of the puzzle were still hidden, but it couldn’t be another man. She knew it wasn’t. So what was happening? Were Evans and DePaul really the same person? How?

She didn’t know the answers to her question, but she knew she had to find them. These two episodes had been radically different. The first was bad enough, but the second was like a textbook cocaine overdose. If the last two episodes’ progressions were any inclination of what she could continue to expect, the next one could very well kill her.