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Chapter One: Prelude


     The dismissal bell rang triggering a flood of teens which quickly filled the halls of Markan Falls Middle School.  The end of the day, the end of the week, and very nearly the end of the school year.  An air of casual excitement pervaded the throng as hundreds of eager kids rushed to escape the tedium of education.  Outside, the long line of cars filled with equally anxious parents would be vying for position with the heavy, yellow buses, and those children who would not be walking home would soon be crowding in front of the school.

     Sonya Richards pushed her way out into the hall and made her way to her locker.  Won’t have to remember this combination much longer, she thought, spinning the dial of the lock.  But there’ll just be another one to memorize next year.  She deftly swapped out books, loading her bag lightly.  Not much homework being assigned this close to the end of the school year.  Even the teachers were feeling the touch of summer fever.

     “Hey, Sonya!” a voice called over the din.  Sonya closed her locker and peered over the heads of the other kids.  “Over here!”

     Sonya spotted her friend’s hand waving above the crowd.  The way parted and Jenny Yarborough appeared, pushing her way through a hail of elbows to Sonya’s side.

     “Hey, Jen,” Sonya said.  “What’s up?”

     “You coming to practice this afternoon?”

     “Of course.  Don’t I always?”  She meant gymnastics, Sonya’s current passion.  She had tried the other sports, but basketball, volleyball, soccer, nothing gave her the sheer thrill of motion that gymnastics did.  She was surprisingly good, as if the awkwardness of adolescence sloughed away when she was on the floor, tumbling and leaping with unerring grace.

     “Can I catch a ride home with you after?” Jenny asked, twirling her hair around a finger.  She was putting on her best little girl act, the same she obviously used to have her way with the boys.  Sonya pushed down an urge to laugh.  Jenny was her best friend, and she was completely unaware of the way she attempted to use her sexuality to manipulate everyone.  Including Sonya.  It worked on most people, but Sonya had always been able to see through the thin veneer of her friend’s personality flaw.  Somehow, it made her feel closer to the girl, knowing that they shared a vulnerability which they masked with exuberant character.

     “Sure, no prob,” Sonya said, giving her friend her most winning smile.  There were things she did to manipulate people too, although she had never been able to pinpoint what exactly she did to exert her influence.  Maybe she was psychic.  People usually tended to do what she wanted.

     “Great,” Jenny said, already turning to leave.  “See you then.”

     “Okay,” Sonya said.  “Bye.”

     “Bye,” Jenny returned, her eyes shining.  The crowd quickly swallowed her, leaving Sonya relatively alone.  She turned and headed in the opposite direction, toward the car lines.  She had actually forgotten about gymnastics practice, and she would have to find her Dad in the line, let him know she would be staying late.  He would probably be pissed, but she knew it would pass. 

     Sonya ducked out a side entrance, preferring to avoid the thick traffic at the main entrance.  The sidewalk here led around the side of the school, joining with the main walk in the front and then leading to the car line waiting area.  She passed up beside the line of cars as it curved up the drive, already edging forward as kids poured out of the school and clambered into the vehicles.   Her mind was still buzzing, a whirl of thoughts about the approaching summer, that afternoon’s practice, and a dozen other thoughts of the type to consume a teenage girl’s mind, and she almost overlooked the strange black car.

     It looked totally out of place, an older model painted flat black, engine idling with a deep rumble.  She ducked down to glance in, wondering if it was some boys from the high school, somebody she might recognize.  Somebody got a new ride, she thought.

     The man in the passenger seat looked back at her, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.  His hair was cropped short and as black as the car, skin a pale olive.  He was dressed all in black, as far as Sonya could see.  Long sleeved coat, some sort of leather material, looking ridiculous in this heat.  She would have laughed, except that the man continued to stare at her as she passed, his face severe despite his hidden eyes.

     Sonya looked away, suddenly nervous.  She quickened her step.  What a weirdo.  She glanced back.  There was a woman behind the wheel of the car, dressed just like the man, all in black.  Like some sort of cult, she thought.  Then shivered.  There had been too much school violence in the news lately, and the mere possibility of it had a chilling effect on her. 

     A sound behind her made her look back.  The man was getting out of the car.  He shut the door casually and began walking steadily after Sonya.  She stifled a gasp and darted forward, clutching her bag tightly to her chest.  I’m being silly, I know, she chided herself.  Still...

     She pushed her way into the crowd, making her way to the brick wall of the school.  No one paid her any attention, lost in their own conversations.  Sonya peered over their heads, watching the man in black approach.  He ignored her, slipping into the crowd like a wraith, garnering stares all around.   Markan Falls was a small town, but there were enough metropolises nearby that the man, as strange as he appeared, still was not so completely oddball as to arouse suspicion.

     Sonya heaved a sigh of relief, laughing at herself for having been afraid.  “Paranoid,” she whispered to herself.  Still, she can not tear her eyes away from the man, following his easy progress through the crowd as he headed for the large, double-doors of the main entrance.

     The doors opened as the man approached.  Sonya rose on her toes to see who was coming out, recognizing Mr. Brown by his pastel colored shirt and short cut blonde hair.  He was one of her favorites, boisterous and attentive.  It helped that he was really cute.  He was walking with another teacher, absorbed in their conversation.

     Everything seemed to happen in slow motion.  Mr. Brown looked up, seeing the stranger for the first time.  His smile vanished.  Sonya watched in terrified fascination as the man in black reached beneath his coat, never breaking his stride.  An evil looking assault rifle appeared.  The man stopped, planting his feet, aiming the rifle at the teacher.

     Brown shoved the other teacher hard, sending her flying away from him, away from danger, never taking his eyes off the gunman.  The explosion of gunfire was deafening in the confined space.  A blossom of flame licked out from the assault rifle as Brown’s chest exploded in a spray of blood.

     Sonya pressed herself against the wall as the crowd of kids turned instantly into a screaming stampede.  When she can look again, Brown is pressed against the glass facing of the entrance, his body jerking with the impact of each bullet.  Her ears continued ringing even as the gunfire stopped.  Mr. Brown slumped, his body released from the lethal pressure which had forced him backward.  He had to be dead.  His chest was gone, lost in a mass of shredded cloth and blood.  Sonya felt her lunch threaten to come up, and willed herself to turn and run, but her legs refused to work.

     The gunman carefully replaced the rifle under his coat and reached into the opposite side.  A small, gleaming ax appeared in his hands, like a stainless steel replica of something from a museum.  He raised it above his head, aiming.  Sonya fought to look away, to avert her eyes from what she knew was about to happen.  As if the gunfire was not enough, the killer wanted to ensure Brown’s death.

     The ax never descended.  With a guttural yell, Jason McGregor, star tackle of the football team, appeared from nowhere.  He hit the gunman at a full run, launching both of them off their feet.  The ax flew out of the killer’s hands, skittering across the concrete sidewalk to stop not far from Sonya’s feet.

     She looked down at it dully, dimly aware that the two males were thrashing.  Quickly, not knowing quite why, Sonya ducked down and snatched up the ax, stuffing it frantically into her bookbag.  She dragged the bag with her as she put distance between herself and the fight.  A grunt of pain caused her to look up, just in time to see Jason’s limp body flying through the air.  He hit the concrete hard and lay unmoving.

     Sonya looked up, frozen.  The killer was staggering to his feet, clenching his hands in furious anger.  It was not the sight of the stranger which chilled Sonya to the bone.  Rising behind him, like some figure from a horror movie, Mr. Brown was climbing to his feet.  Mr. Brown, his chest a gaping wound, a man who had been shot with enough bullets to kill dozens of people, stood and faced the man in black.

     Brown snarled as the killer turned, lurching forward to grab the man by his throat.  Sonya was unable to see the stranger’s face, and wondered if he was shocked by this turn of events.  Like some evil undead, Brown had risen to seek vengeance.  He lifted the stranger from his feet as if he weighed nothing.  The man was choking, a wet gurgle which might have been an attempt at a scream.  Brown released his hold briefly, grabbed the killer’s coat and swung him around like a rag doll, slamming him into the brick wall of the school hard enough to partially cave it in.  Brown reversed the swing, smashing the killer against one of the concrete support columns of the waiting area, shattering it like glass.

     The man in black was limp as Brown swung him up in the air then hurled him to the ground.  The killer hit the concrete hard enough to crack it and lay unmoving.  Brown staggered back, exhausted by the superhuman effort.  Sonya stared open mouthed.  No, she thought, there’s nothing human about him.  Her legs trembled with a desire to flee, to put as much distance between herself and this unnatural horror as she could.

     The bloodied teacher seemed to find his balance, and he stopped swaying long enough to catch Sonya’s eye.  He smiled weakly.  His mouth moved soundlessly, trying to say something.  His last words?

     Sonya would never know.  A shotgun blast ripped through the air, and Brown was hurled backward by the force of the shot.  More blasts followed, and Brown’s tortured body began to disintegrate as he was forced back against the wall of the school.  The shooter walked calmly into Sonya’s transfixed vision, the woman from the car.  She emptied the shotgun into Brown’s body as she strode forward resolutely.

     She never paused.  Reaching Brown, she dropped the shotgun, and before it had hit the ground the woman had snatched a sword from a hidden sheath beneath her coat.  She swung upwards, slicing through Brown’s already mutilated chest.  He screamed, as if only the sword had the power to inflict real pain on him.  He threw his clawed hands up to ward off the next blow.  The sword completed its arc and cut cleanly through Brown’s wrists, severing his hands and then his neck.  Brown’s head flew from its perch, the decapitated body falling loosely away from the blood painted wall.

     Sonya slumped as well, nearly overcome by the horror of it all.  When she looked up again, the woman was pulling her partner to his feet.  He shook his head, a trickle of blood running from his nose but otherwise unhurt.

     Oh my God, Sonya thought, swallowing hard to keep down the contents of her stomach. Who are these people?

     “Freeze!”  The shout came from the car line.  Sonya looked up shakily.  The traffic cop from the road had run up and stood between two abandoned cars, weapon leveled at the pair of killers.  As if on cue, the front doors of the school burst open, disgorging the school security guard and the principal, both armed with pistols. 

     The woman was already in motion, walking calmly back toward the black car.  With almost invisible precision, pistols appear in her hands, and she shoots in both directions at once.  Three shots, three bodies fall.  She holstered the guns as she reached the car.  The man trailed her, limping slightly.

     Sonya ducked behind a column, able to move at last, and praying desperately that the killers overlook her.  She peered around the opposite side of the column, watching the killer’s retreating back.  He passed close to Jason’s unmoving form, and he hesitated.  Sonya thought she was beyond shock, numbed to the core by the explosive violence.  Death was a palpable force in the air, choking her with the metallic smell of blood, the acrid scent of gunpowder.

     Jason was coming to, rising up on his hands and knees.  The killer never slowed as he passed, smoothly drawing his pistol and putting it to Jason’s head.  Sonya jumped at the muffled gunshot.  Jason fell back to the ground, unmoving.

     The man stopped suddenly, turning his head slowly toward Sonya.  She stifled a gasp, trying to shrink behind the column, to disappear.  This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening...  The words repeated endlessly in her head.  Why won’t I wake up?  She clutched at her bookbag, then looked down at her empty hands.  It had fallen from her grasp and lay at her feet.  The sound must have been what had alerted the killer to her presence. 

     She looked around wildly.  There was no place to hide.  The main entrance beckoned, but she could not make herself move toward it, afraid of moving into the open.  Footsteps beyond the edge of the column.  Death approaching.  Sonya could only stare blankly at the wall in front of her as she tried to force her mind into action.  Then she was in motion before she could think about what she was doing. 

     Fear gave her energy.  She leaped at the wall, kicking hard to rebound off of it and launched herself upward.  Her hands caught the leading edge of the roof overhang.  She clutched at it with desperation, heaving herself upward.  A voice, cursing below.  A gunshot.

     Splintered wood sprayed Sonya as she hurled herself over the edge, rolling onto the roof.  She paused, panting from the exertion.  Pain in her shoulder, probably a pulled muscle.  But she was alive.  Safe.

     The material beneath her erupted suddenly, geysering upward in huge gouts of destroyed wood and tile.  The killer was shooting blindly through the roof, hoping to kill her with a lucky shot.  Sonya skittered backward frantically, trying to distance herself from the danger, from the lethal upward rain of hot metal.  She fell over the raised joint where the shelter met the main roof of the school and sprawled onto her back, shaking with fear. 

     For a moment, she was unable to move, her mind and body succumbing to the chilling reality that she had escaped death.  Nothing pursued her.  There were no more sounds of gunfire.  Distantly, she heard a car door slam, the race of an engine, the squeal of tires.  The killers were leaving.  Sonya clawed her way to the roof’s edge and peered over cautiously.  The black car was racing away, dodging traffic, unable to get down the main avenue.

     How long had it taken?  How long since the dismissal bell had rung?  It seemed like an eternity, an eon of horror and bloodshed.  Sonya’s stomach lurched.  She leaned further over the edge and emptied the contents of her stomach.  Fear mixed with relief and poured out of her along with her lunch.  When she was done, she felt hollow inside, empty of emotion and stunned into a state of mute shock.  This was the sort of thing which belonged on the television news, something which happened to somebody else.  There was no sense to it.  

     Below, the black car was circling, weaving through the abandoned cars.  It jumped the curb and crossed the sidewalk to plow across the athletic field.  They were going around the school, headed for the access roads at the rear.

     Afterward, Sonya was unable to remember what she was thinking at that moment, what she felt.  She found herself on her feet, running across the roof as fast as she could.  The roar of the black car kept pace with her.  She could sense where it was by the rumble it made in her stomach.

     She reached the edge of the roof.  The bus loading area was below.  A line of the huge yellow vehicles were still lined up at the curb.  The metal roof of the rain shelter spread beneath her, and Sonya never slowed as she reached the end of the roof.  She jumped hard, flying across the twenty-foot span of empty air, and struck the shelter on her feet.  The shock of her landing raced up her legs all the way to her teeth, clashing them together painfully.  She fell forward, the training from her days on the track team paying off. 

     Breathless, Sonya scrambled forward on her belly, clawing at the hot metal beneath her.  She hugged the sharp edge of the shelter and swung over, dropping heavily to her feet.  Dozens of confused and frightened kids jumped away from her.  They had heard the gunfire, the screams, but had not known which way to run.  Sonya turned her back on them, not caring what they thought of her, a wild girl dropping on them from the sky.  She staggered between the buses, clutching weakly at them to support herself.

     The black car roared by, racing for freedom.  Sonya leaned out to see it.

EWA 148

     I’ve got you, you bastards.  They had brought death with them, brought the grim specter of terror into the midst of her life.  But she had their license plate number.  She had seen them close, and the horror had burned their faces into her memory forever.  And she would make sure they paid for what they had done.

     Tragedy is what happens to other people.  What had happened today, to Sonya, was an act of war.  Sonya felt blackness closing in, the road was rising to meet her.

     She had a moment of clarity then, an insight into the underlying reality of what had happened.  For whatever reason, the more cruel aspect of life had surfaced here, invaded her personal reality, and she knew beyond doubt that her life would never be the same again.  The memory of physical pain might fade, but the emotional scars inflicted by dire circumstance remain much longer.

     Sonya felt her thoughts engulf her, swallow her, and then she thought no more.





Chapter Two: Visions


     Jacob Richards milled nervously at the edge of the crowd, waiting for his daughter to appear.  At thirty-three, he was one of the youngest parents there, though he looked older.  His black hair was graying prematurely, and his brown skin had the taut appearance of one who spent long hours in the sun.  Truth was, Jacob spent little time outdoors.  The coloring was natural, not seasonal.  He often speculated on what his heritage might be.  Arabic?  Latino?  Indian?  It was that unknown factor which, in his mind, set Jacob apart from the rest of the anxious parents surrounding him.

     He lacked a heritage, or at least lacked knowledge of it.  His natural father had left when Jacob was only two, allowing Jacob to be adopted by his mother’s second husband.  The turbulent life he had led after that, his mother’s string of bad marriages, the almost annual relocation to a new city, the lack on any coherently structured social life, had compounded the issue and left Jacob feeling rootless.  Then had come his mother’s death and the arrival of the only stability Jacob had ever known.

     She had been fading away for over a year, Jacob remembered.  He had learned to shelter himself from his own emotions, building a hard shell around his heart to protect it from a home life practically devoid of love or compassion.  He was sixteen when his mother simply did not come home from the bar one night.  The police and social workers appeared the next day, and Jacob had found himself suddenly living with a grandfather he barely knew.

     He was allowed to come and go as he pleased, and in that atmosphere of casual disregard Jacob learned to rely on himself.  He no longer had to play nursemaid to an alcoholic mother, to defend himself from the men she brought home with their physical and verbal abuse.  He set schedules for himself and found ways to limit the avenues of social interaction.  He reveled in freedom from chaos.

     But despite his established reputation as a loner, Jacob still managed to attract friends.  He had a natural charisma which he strove to suppress.  He had always been good at brawling, and he used that to his advantage, thickening his protective shell with an aura of dangerous violence.  And though he became well known, no one would have called him popular.  Though he had many who called him friend, none could say they really knew him.

     Then came Michelle.

     Right from the start, she knew how to penetrate his shield, get into his heart and his innermost being.  For her, it was love at first sight.  It took a little longer for him.  Michelle was an unconventional beauty, a bit plumper than most guys preferred, though that never mattered to Jacob.  She had silky auburn hair which she wore in tight ringlets, cascading over her pale shoulders.  From the very first, Jacob discovered he could get lost in her deep brown eyes, that he thrilled to the softness of her touch.  In truth, it frightened him, though it was a decade later before he realized it.

     Michelle inspired him.  They dated, and love blossomed like roses amidst thorns.  He tried to push her away, to drive her off with callousness, closing his shell as tightly as he could.  She was stubborn, worming her way past his defenses, refusing to give up on him until he finally came to his senses.  Within the embrace of Michelle’s arms, Jacob was at last able to lower his guard, to trust someone with his heart.  And Michelle had never let him down.

     They were married right out of high school.  Michelle had a level head and had always known what she wanted out of life.  With the birth of their daughter, Sonya, Jacob and Michelle each acquired what they wanted most.  Family.  The early years were hard as Jacob worked and put himself through school.  Michelle was happy to stay home working to keep the family harmonious.  Their roots were embedded firmly here in Markan Falls.

     Raising a child had been a difficult prospect for Jacob.  The only parenting model he was familiar with was the exact opposite of the parent he wanted to be.  Michelle, was a natural mother, and having been raised in a stable, loving home environment she managed to fill in the gaps where Jacob’s ability ran short.  He had contented himself watching out for Sonya’s safety, encouraging her to socialize, to respect herself and not be afraid to be outspoken, to go her own way.

     Perhaps, in that respect, he had succeeded too well.  The police had already filled him in on the details of the afternoon’s events.  Parents filtered away from the crowd as detectives finished their questioning and allowed the students to leave.  Sonya’s interview had taken much longer than the others.  Unlike her peers, Sonya had stood her ground when the shooting began, had witnessed the entire murder.  She was a treasure chest of details, offering detailed descriptions of the killers, their car, their methods.

     She had put herself in mortal danger and Jacob could not decide whether to be angry or proud.  He settled on a combination of the two, relieved that she was at least still alive.

     She appeared then, exiting the school building from a side entrance escorted by a uniformed officer.  Jacob did not try to hold Michelle back as she rushed forward to scoop Sonya into her arms.  Jacob felt tears on his cheeks at the sight of Sonya, whole, alive, safe.  He brushed them away quickly before anyone could see then opened his arms as Sonya rushed into them.

     “Daddy, Daddy,” she kept repeating, sobbing into his chest.

     “Shh,” he said soothingly, stroking her hair.  “It’s okay now.  You’re safe.”  Michelle came up, putting her arms around them both.

     “Oh God, Daddy,” Sonya said in a low voice, clutching him.  “It was horrible.  Horrible.”

     “Hush, now,” Michelle said.  “Don’t talk about it.  Let’s just go home.”  She pulled away, letting Jacob untangle himself from their daughter.  They turned their backs to the school and walked away with Sonya between them, holding her parents’ hands like a toddler with legs just as unsteady.  The drive was lined with emergency vehicles of all kinds, their flashing lights making the scene look like some bizarre disco.

     The eerie flicker of blue and red lights gave way to bright white as the line of emergency vehicles ended and the clusters of reporters began.  The police had erected barricades, providing Jacob and his family clear passage to where their car was parked.  They climbed in quickly and sped away, eager to put distance between themselves and the surreal horror which had eradicated the normality of their lives.

     The silence in the car was broken only by Sonya’s occasional sob.  Michelle sat with her in the backseat, holding her, providing the type of comfort only a mother could.  Eventually she pushed away from her mother, wiping her eyes roughly.

     “I want to talk about it,” she said abruptly.

     “Honey,” Michelle said softly, “you don’t have to do that.”

     “I know,” Sonya said.  “But I need to.  I don’t want you guys sending me to therapy or something.”  She laughed, attempting to lighten the mood.  Jacob had to smile in response.  It was so like her, an emulation of her mother in her concern for the feelings of others. 

     “Okay,” Jacob said, forcing the words.  “Tell us.”

     Sonya sighed deeply, closed her eyes, and began to talk.  Jacob watched in the rearview mirror as Michelle turned white, and he felt himself grow dizzy at Sonya’s detailed descriptions.  The sights, smells, sounds, all became vivid in his mind, painted indelibly on the canvas of his imagination, and he felt himself growing nauseous.

     “Oh, oh, oh,” Michelle was gasping, covering her mouth with both hands, staring at her daughter with glistening eyes.  “My poor, poor baby.”

     “It’s okay, Momma,” Sonya said, reaching out for her mother.  “I’m okay.”

     “But you could have been killed,” Michelle said, wrapping her arms around Sonya.  “We could have lost you.”

     “Mother, please,” Sonya said, squirming.  Michelle drew her daughter more tightly to her chest, as if afraid to ever again let her go.  “Mother,” Sonya said again with more energy.  “Mother!  Ouch!”

     Michelle released Sonya as if she had suddenly grown hot.  “What is it?” she asked, voice on the edge of hysteria.

     “It’s nothing,” Sonya said, pushing herself away from her mother.  “Just a scratch.”

     “Scratches don’t make a grown girl cry out in pain,” Michelle insisted.  “Where is it?”  She began to probe Sonya, squeezing gently.

     “Mother, please,” Sonya protested.  “Mother...stop!”  She pushed Michelle’s hands away.  “It’s my shoulder.  It’s nothing, really.”

     “Let me be the judge of that,” Michelle said using her best motherly tone.  “Come on, let me see.”

     Sonya sighed, the sound of a teenager humoring her parents.  She pulled up the sleeve of her shirt revealing a white bandage around her upper arm.  Jacob switched on the interior light so that Michelle could inspect their daughter’s wound.  She clicked her tongue disapprovingly.

     “Were you shot?” Jacob asked sternly.

     “No!” Sonya said emphatically.  “Of course not.  It was like some piece of wood that broke off from the roof when I was climbing up or something.  It’s nothing.”

     Michelle looked at her with eyes that spoke doubt.  “Really, Mom,” Sonya said, pushing her mother’s hands away.  “I’m fine.”

     “Well, let’s get the doctor to look you over anyway,” Michelle said.  “Just to be sure.”

     Sonya sighed.  “Okay, if it makes you happy,” she said.  “But really, I’m fine.  It was just a big splinter.”

     “You’re lucky it wasn’t a bullet,” Jacob said.  He was still angry, not so much at her or for what she had done but that she had been placed in the position to begin with.  Of all the decisions teenagers had to face, standing in the face of death should not be one of them.  He turned off the interior light as they left the main road and entered the residential section where they lived.  It was a quiet neighborhood, and Jacob and Michelle had lived in it since they were married.  It was as familiar to him as his own backyard, yet tonight it seemed strangely different.

     Markan Falls was a small town, and the terrors of the big world were supposed to bypass them.  A piece of that security had been stolen from them, shattering the aura of comfortable complacency they had so far enjoyed.  Will it ever be the same again? he wondered, looking at the serene houses as they passed, windows lit by the gentle blue glow of televisions.  He pictured the families gathered on their sofas, children sprawled on the floor, basking in the false security of their small town lives.  There was nothing, he realized, so insidious as self-delusion.

     “I know, I know,” Sonya was saying, smiling.  She found herself unable to muster any ire at her overprotective parents.  Their concern was like a comforting blanket, a dependable factor which she craved now.

     “Your father’s going to see Dr. Todd tomorrow,” Michelle said, releasing Sonya’s shirt.  “You can go with him.”

     “Dr. Todd?” Sonya said, covering her shoulder.  “Dad?  Are you having those headaches again?”

     Jacob nodded, then said “Yes,” realizing Sonya could not see the motion in the darkened car.

     Sonya hesitated.  “Are you still seeing things, too?”

     “Yes,” Jacob said softly.  Sonya pressed no further.  The source of the headaches was as mysterious as the ruthless killers Sonya had encountered.  The pain pressed in from the back of his skull, clutching his brain with icy fingers until he could feel it pushing against the back of his eyes like some malevolent force.  The family doctor had him on a course of migraine medication, prescription strength pain killers which had limited success.  The headaches came and went like an unwanted houseguest, leaving muddy footprints in his mind.

     They had quickly been able to rule out cancer and a dozen other disease and disorders.  Doctors aren’t infallible, he reminded himself.  They want us to think so, to believe that any failure to diagnose or cure must somehow be our fault.  But he could not accept that.  Every problem had a solution, and the source of every malady could be discovered if one only looked hard enough.

     He knew it was possible that his perceptions were biased.  In his work as a computer programmer, Jacob had a lot of experience tracking down bugs in newly created software.  But the problem was always identifiable, either as a line of bad code or an incompatible sub-routine.  Maybe that’s it, he thought.  I just have a quirky sub-routine.  Some part of my psyche not meshing with the rest of me.

     Michelle had been urging him to see a psychiatrist, especially since the visions had begun.  At first, they had come at the height of a headache, easy to pass off as pain-induced hallucinations.  Lately, however, they came with no warning, no predictability.  Visions of other places, other times, amalgams of his own life experiences blended with imaginings garnered from books and movies. 

     Yes, he thought, I could just be crazy.  Yet he had the same aversion to therapy as his daughter.  He was afraid to look too deeply inside himself, unwilling to learn the roots of his personality.

     Michelle and Sonya spoke quietly the rest of the way home, recognizing when Jacob was brooding.  They were reluctant to disturb his thoughts when he was in such a mood.  He often seemed to get angry for no reason, lashing out verbally or stalking off to sulk.  The doctor said it was clinical depression, and Jacob had been prescribed a series of ineffectual antidepressants.  Each, in their turn, brought more side effects than relief.

     It was comforting to be home at last, surrounded by familiar things.  Sonya headed upstairs for a quick shower.  Jacob and Michelle drifted into the kitchen.

     Michelle opened the refrigerator and began to rummage.  “Well,” she said over her shoulder, “what do you think?”

     Jacob sighed and slumped into a chair at the table.  “I don’t know,” he said forlornly.  “I never thought anything like this would ever happen to us.”

     “I know what you mean,” she said.  She sat beside him, handing him a soda.  He drank it gratefully, not realizing until then how parched his throat had become.  “It’s all so bizarre,” Michelle continued, sipping her own drink.  “Why would anyone want to kill poor Mr. Brown?”

     Jacob shook his head.  He had barely known the man.  Who could guess what secrets people where hiding?  Which is better, he wondered, random violence or assassination?  Both had their warning signs, if anyone had tried to look.  And it had definitely been assassination.  He was thankful that the killers had made the attack personal.  A discriminating murder.  Had they used a bomb instead...

     Hell, Jacob thought, how much closer to death could Sonya have come?

     “Do you think it was something personal?” Michelle asked.  “A jealous husband or boyfriend?”

     “No,” Jacob said, not sure why he felt so certain.  The attack had been coordinated, planned, executed with professional precision.  No one hired professional killers to settle a jealous rivalry.

     Michelle nodded as if agreement.  “Maybe it was a mob hit or something.”

     “Or something,” Jacob echoed.  He was starting to feel detached, dislocated from reality.  None of what had happened today belonged in his quiet, ordered world.  Chaos and tragedy were elements of fiction and the evening news, not real life.

     “You should go talk to her,” he heard Michelle say.


     “I said you should go talk to Sonya,” Michelle repeated.  “I talked to her all the way home.  You’ve got to open up to her a little more.  She really needs us right now.”

     Jacob nodded.  He knew she was right.  He had a tendency to be aloof, closed off from people, even his own wife and child.  It was something that Michelle, despite her best efforts, had been unable to change in him.

     “Jacob,” Michelle said as he rose from the table.  “I think she’s holding something back.  About what she saw.”

     “Like what?” Jacob asked, puzzled.

     “I don’t know,” his wife said.  “Just call it mother’s intuition.  But I’m sure she’s holding something back.”

     Jacob nodded again.  “Okay,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

     Michelle reached up and caught his hand as he turned away.  “I love you,” she said.

     “I love you, too,” Jacob said, smiling.  He brought his free hand up to stroke her cheek.  “It’s going to be all right,” he told her, trying to sound soothing.  Michelle nuzzled her cheek into his hand, then turned to kiss his palm.

     Her smile was like a balm, and he realized, not for the first time, how much his wife’s happiness meant to him.  “Go on,” she said gently.  “I’m going to call my mother.”

     Jacob stroked her face lovingly once more then pulled away.  He walked toward the living room and the stairway.  What would I do without her? he wondered as he trudged upward.  What would I be?  He found Sonya in her bedroom already dressed for bed in her modest pajamas, a towel wrapped around her head like a turban.

     She looked up brightly at the sound of his knock.  “Hi!” she said, beaming at him.

     “Honey,” Jacob said, entering, “listen, is there something you want to tell me?  Something about today?”

     “Like what?” Sonya asked innocently.

     “Like anything,” Jacob said.  “You know you can trust me.”  It was something he had worked hard at, earning his daughter’s trust so that she would feel able to divulge things to him she might not share with anyone else.  He did not want her getting herself into trouble because she had no one to turn to, no sympathetic and non-judgmental ear.

     Sonya stared at him blankly for a moment.  “Well,” she said, hesitantly, her face softening.  “Actually, yeah.”

     “Oh?”  Jacob said, only slightly surprised.  He had learned to trust Michelle’s instincts over the years, and not just the motherly ones.  There was no clear place to sit so he moved over to the wall and leaned against it.  “And what is it?” he prompted.

     Sonya seemed reluctant, biting her lip as she struggled with some inner debate.  Jacob liked to believe that they had a good rapport, a mutual trust that seemed to stretch as Sonya grew older.  She’s becoming an adult, Jacob reminded himself.  A woman needs some secrets.  But I don’t think this is something she wants to keep to herself.  There’s something bothering her beyond the effect of what she saw.

     “It’s okay, Sonya,” he said soothingly.  “You can talk to me.  Tell me what’s wrong?”

     She sighed.  “Okay,” she said.  “It’s about what happened today.  At school.”

     “You mean the shooting?”

     She gave him a look that said “what else could it be?”  She moved over to sit on her bed, pushing a pile of clothes out of the way.  “What I told you and Mom,” she said, staring at her feet, “that’s not exactly the way it happened.”

     “What?”  Jacob said, his interest suddenly piqued.

     “Don’t be mad,” she said quickly.  “Please.  I couldn’t tell you what really happened.  You won’t believe me.”

     “Which version did you tell the police?”

     “The same thing I told you and Mom.”  She was biting her lip again, aware of her father’s growing agitation. 

     “So you lied to the police,” Jacob said.  Sonya nodded.  What has she done? he thought, rubbing his eyes.  His head was beginning to throb.  What did she see that made her so afraid?

     “They wouldn’t have believed me,” she said as if reading his thoughts.  She shifted nervously on the bed, looking at her father warily.

     “All right,” Jacob said, sighing deeply.  He turned to put his back to the wall.  “Tell me.  Tell me what really happened.”

     Sonya was silent, gathering her thoughts, ordering her words.  Jacob could not guess.  This secrecy was a side of his daughter he was unused to seeing, to dealing with.  She took a deep breath, let it out with a shudder, and began to talk.

     What she described sounded more like a scene from a comic book.  All the shooting, the man rising from a lethal barrage to grapple with his killer, then being decapitated in the end, as if only that could stop him.  Jacob felt the world receding from him.  Things like this did not happen to ordinary people.  A detached part of his mind wondered if that was some statement about his family.

     “No man could get shot that many times and live,” he said when she had finished talking.

     “See,” she said accusingly, “I said you wouldn’t believe me.”

     Jacob shook his head.  “That’s not it, darling,” he said.  “I do believe you.  Really, I do.”  I don’t know why, but I do.

     “And that’s not all,” Sonya said.  She slipped off the bed and crossed the room to her bookbag.  “Remember I said the guy dropped his weird looking ax?” she said, opening her bag.  Jacob nodded.  “Well, I picked it up.”

     She was holding something out to him.  An ax.  It gleamed with a burnished silver finish, a one-handed battle ax.  It looked like some futuristic replica of a medieval weapon.  He reached out tentatively and took it from his daughter’s grasp.

     It was surprisingly light, like it was made of aluminum.  Yet something told Jacob it was actually stronger than steel, and if he tested that edge he would find it surgically sharp.  He twisted it, inspecting it with open-mouthed awe.

     There was something tantalizingly familiar about it, a rogue sense of déjà-vu.  The cool metal made his hands tingle, and the weapon seemed to subtly shift colors as he turned it.

     “There’s writing on it,” Sonya said.  “There, on the handle.”

     “Where?” Jacob said, peering.  Then, “oh,” as he saw it.

     “At least, I think it’s writing,” Sonya said.  “Something foreign.”  The lettering was etched into the metal in tiny, flowing script.  It looked familiar, like Arabic, or Sanskrit.  Or something older...  The thought trailed away, unfinished.

     Yes.  He knew this.  The throbbing in his head seemed to reach a crescendo then ebbed suddenly, like a break in the clouds of a storm.

     “Tendelai Morevi, Sha’as Tiovay,” he said aloud.

     “You can read that?” Sonya exclaimed in surprise.  Jacob looked up at her, at first unable to comprehend what his daughter was saying.  English, he told himself, pushing the thought through a fog.  That’s English.  This other, that’s...that’s....  It eluded him.

     He stared at the script again, willing the knowledge to return.  It remained illegible.  He looked up at Sonya, trying to speak and blinking away a flood of tears.  The emotion welling up inside him seemed to come from another person, another place, a wrenching sorrow which rose in his throat until it choked him.

     The headache returned with a rush, dropping his mind like a hot rock into a foaming sea.  He was choking, coughing up blood, staring up at the clear, noonday sky.  A shadow fell over him, a grinning man with narrow, evil eyes.  He extended a hand toward Jacob.  “Ma’ach’kai,” the man said.  “Notolai kara’kha.”  Give me the sword, Jacob’s mind translated.

     The vision dissolved like smoke, replaced by Sonya’s concerned face.  She had her hands on his shoulders, shaking him gently.

     “Daddy?”  Her voice penetrated his fogged brain.  The pain in his head had vanished along with the vision.

     Jacob coughed, remembering the taste of blood.  So real, so real.  He forced his eyes to focus.  “I’m okay,” he managed to say, relieved to hear the words come out in English.

     “Are you sure?” Sonya asked.  “What happened?”

     “Another damned hallucination,” Jacob said.  They get more and more vivid.  What the hell is wrong with me?  “I’m fine now,” he added aloud.

     Sonya stepped back reluctantly.  Jacob swayed unsteadily for a moment then pushed himself upright, willing his legs to stop shaking.  “They’re getting worse,” Sonya said matter-of-factly.  Jacob said nothing.  There was no denying it.  He knew his condition worsened on a daily basis.  The headaches came and went like an errant thief, bringing with them these strange episodes and stealing away his reality.

     He handed the ax back to Sonya.  “Here,” he said gruffly, “put this somewhere safe.”  There would be no need to alert the police, to have Sonya alter her story to anyone.  He wanted to keep this ax around.  He needed it.  Somehow, it was connected to his condition.  What is that language? he wondered.  And how did I know it?

     It was obvious Sonya wanted to ask the same questions, but Jacob had no answers.  Or rather, he had the answers somewhere inside him but lacked the wherewithal to get at them.  He spent a few more minutes reassuring Sonya then beat a hasty retreat.  He needed to be alone.

     Somewhere inside him, Jacob felt certain, a drama was unfolding.  He was beginning to worry that he might be loosing his mind.  The dreams, the visions, the periods of disassociation in which he was certain there was another Jacob looking out from behind his eyes.  Now this thing at Sonya’s school, murder and mayhem wrenching away another anchor, and Jacob felt he was on the edge of being cast adrift.  He would be lost on the dark ocean of his own soul.  And he would be lost even faster if his deteriorating mental state managed to alienate his own family.

     He had meant to head for his bedroom, to go into his bathroom and wash his face.  He wanted to erase any trace of the turmoil which seethed inside him.  Instead, he found himself heading downstairs.  He met Michelle halfway down, on her way up.

     “How’d it go?” she asked, stopping him.  He was thankful the light in the stairwell was dim.  If she noticed the tracks of tears on his face or his distraught, distracted mannerism she gave no indication.

     “Fine,” he lied.  “I think she’s handling things really well.”

     Michelle moved closer and hugged him.  “She’s really something, isn’t she?” she said, meaning Sonya.  “Sometimes I can’t believe we made her.”

     Jacob smiled and returned the embrace.  “I know,” he said.  “You did good.”

     “We did good,” she corrected.  They laughed, nuzzling their noses together.  For a brief moment, Jacob felt his old self resurface.

     Yes, my sweet, he thought, you are my only anchor.  Our love is the only thing I have to cling to.  You mean more to me than you know.  “You going to bed?” he asked aloud.

     “Yes,” she said, disengaging herself.  “You?”

     He shook his head.  “Not yet, too much on my mind.”

     “I know what you mean,” she said.  “I’ll pop in and check on Sonya.”  She began to climb the stairs.  “Should I wait up for you?”

     “Only if you want to,” he said.

     “Of course I want to,” she said, leaning down to kiss him.  “I love you.”

     “I love you too,” he answered, as if the words had some power to heal what was broken inside him.  Her lips were soft and cool, a contrast to the fire he knew burned within her.  Michelle had always been a woman of deep passions.  He watched her until she was out of sight, as if it were the last time he would see her.  Then he turned and fled down the stairs.

     The evening was still early, but the trauma of the day made it seem much later.  The neighborhood was quiet.  Jacob considered going outside or down to his workshop in the basement.  He had to find a way to unwind, to release this spirit of foreboding.  A cure for this dislocation of his soul.

     He turned, headed into the kitchen.  Water.  That was what he needed.  He stepped through the doorway...

     ...and found himself standing in a stone room.  There was an earthen floor beneath him, a black thatch roof above.  Shadows danced on the walls created by four sputtering torches nestled in wall sconces.

     A part of him knew it was another vision.  There had been no warning this time.  Yet there was too much of his other self here for Jacob to have room for fear.  The spirit which slumbered inside him was stirring, climbing up from the realm of dreams, clawing, grasping for dominance.

     Jacob looked through those eyes, heard the other speaking.  There were other men here, arranged in a half-circle in from of him.  Each knelt on one knee, looking up at Jacob… no, at the other with harsh faces softened by respect, by awe.

     “We may die today,” Jacob heard himself saying in that strange language, the words somehow understandable, “but it will not be without victory.  For in striking a blow, we show our resistance, that we will not meekly fall to the enemy’s scythe.  That we will not be slaves.”

     The men cheered, and for the first time, Jacob noticed they were dressed for battle.  Armor glinted dully in he torchlight, and each man clutched a scarred shield bearing no emblem.

     “We have fought a good fight,” Jacob’s other self continued.  “There is no shame in dying, as long as we die well.  The shame comes from living at the cost of your freedom.  Others will come after us.  We are but the first.  Today we drive our foe from our land.  We take back what is ours.  We take back our world.  We take back our future.  We take back our honor.”

     “For honor!” the cry went up.  Swords were suddenly drawn.  The men leaped to their feet thrusting the weapons at the sky.  “For honor!” they shouted.

     Blackness.  The vision ended.  The kitchen swam blearily into focus in front of Jacob, and he winced at the comparative flood of light.  He leaned heavily against the doorframe, trying to find solace in its solidity.  “Oh my God,” he said in a croaking whisper.

     There was something inside him yearning to be free, his other self biting at the chains which held it in the darkness of Jacob’s soul.  I am going crazy, he thought.  Right then, at that moment, he felt perfectly sane.  But at any moment, he knew, the other would return.  It would crush him beneath its weight, push him over the edge into oblivion.  The visions would expand, take over his perception of reality, weaving his senses into the fabric of his distorted fantasies until his very soul would be locked forever in delusion.

     Jacob sobbed dryly and staggered over to the sink.  He grabbed a glass and filled it with water.  There was no way to quench the fire within him, but he gulped the water desperately as if he could drown the fear which had burrowed into his heart.

     It was not enough to be a father, or a husband.  Those were identities for his family, for the world to see, the parts of himself attached to the love he felt for Michelle and Sonya.  The rest of him drifted aimless on a lonely sea, for he had never learned to establish his own personal view of himself.  Who am I?  he screamed in his mind.  Who am I becoming?

     The night outside had darkened with storm.  Rain began to splatter against the window.  There were no lights to be seen outside, nothing visible beyond the water-streaked glass.  Nothing but his own, dim reflection.

     “Who are you?” he whispered, looking at himself.  “What are you doing to me?”  The stranger in the window said nothing.





Chapter Three: Emergence


     “Kee-yah!”  The walls of the dojo reverberated with the cry of twenty kids.  Jacob sat on a bench along the back wall, watching with a growing sense of unease.  Sonya had been taking karate lessons for over a year, and Jacob had been bringing her once every other week.  Michelle brought her most of the time.

     The kids were arranged in even rows, spread out over the old wooden floor of the converted firehouse.  Not what one usually pictured as a place where children were taught controlled violence.  It was one of the penalties of living in a small town.  The instructor, an ex-marine named Kyle, was the only one around for miles.  Unless Jacob wanted to drive an hour to reach Cordova, the next big city, he was stuck with Kyle.

     Jacob found the man irritating, to say the least.  He carried an air of casual arrogance, a self-assurance born of military training.  In some respects, he ran the dojo like his own personal boot camp.  The dropout rate was high, and Kyle attributed it to a lack of fortitude in the modern youth.  Jacob felt it was the kids’ natural disaffection with totalitarian authority.

     The kids took karate because it was fun.  They did not care that it taught discipline, self-esteem, and helped them learn control over their sometimes awkward movements.  Kyle approached it like a challenge, and any mistake was seen as an affront to his masculinity.  Only fear kept Jacob and the other parents from protesting when Kyle berated a child in his usual harsh manner.  Kyle might have been a complete ass, but he was an ass with a black belt.

     He paraded in front of the class now in his bright red gi, his training uniform, which contrasted sharply with the plain white uniforms the kids wore.  Sonya was on the third row, the only green belt in the class.  She was almost the only female in the class, and she was the only one of her age group who had yet to advance to red belt.  Kyle carried the unspoken belief that girls were inferior to boys, and he made sure no girl advanced as quickly as the boys regardless of her skill.  Since the school shooting, Kyle had made an extra effort to crush Sonya’s ego, somehow resentful that she had achieved public recognition.

     In the two weeks since the incident, Sonya had acquired a mild celebrity status.  As the only eye witness to the murders, Sonya was singled out by the press as a hero, a term which embarrassed her.  She felt she had done nothing to deserve honor, in fact she had done nothing at all.  If anything, she felt guilt that she had merely stood by while two people died.  The fact that she would have been the third victim had she tried to interfere gave her no solace.  She carried the onus well, or as best she could, smiling for the cameras, giving polite interviews, donating the various gifts she received to charities.

     Jacob could tell it was eating away at her inside.  Whether she had stayed or run, whether she had interfered or abstained from action, nothing would have changed the outcome.  And though she knew this, Sonya found it a bitter pill to swallow.

     For Jacob, the past two weeks had been a balm.  He had experienced no more visions, and even the dreams had abated somewhat.  Whatever had resided in his subconscious had either receded or broken through.  That thought always gave him pause.  The other might even now be walking freely through his mind, subtly changing things, transforming his psyche in ways he could not yet perceive.

     For instance, though he had never taken a single lesson in any martial arts, Jacob felt sure Kyle was making mistakes.  He watched the man closely, following the instructor’s movements as he demonstrated for the kids.  No, that’s wrong, Jacob thought, not knowing why he felt that way.  Too slow, not high enough, out too far, and so on.  The more Jacob watched, the more Kyle seemed like a stumbling buffoon.

     Wishful thinking, he admonished himself.  You’re scared of him and you just wish he wasn’t good so you’d have a chance against him.  Sonya, on the other hand, had a fluid grace, a natural talent at the craft.  She routinely bested boys bigger and stronger than herself.  Jacob swelled with pride as he watched her perform, each move precise and carefully measured.  Sonya approached everything with the same enthusiasm, the same determination to conquer a new skill.  Like her father, Sonya had trouble accepting mediocrity in herself.

     “Your girl’s looking good,” Jacob heard.  He turned to look at the man sitting beside him.  “Johnny Barnett,” he said, holding out his hand.

     “Jacob Richards,” Jacob replied, shaking the man’s clammy hand.  His grip was light, and Jacob pushed down a feeling of revulsion.  What teeth the man had were crooked and brown, and he reeked of cigarettes and stale beer.  Jacob knew the type all too well.  Markan Falls had more than its share of such human vermin.

     “You’re Sonya’s dad, right?” the man asked.  Jacob felt himself tensing, an instinct whose origin he did not need to question.  “She the one who got in that mess up at the school.”  It was not a question, and Jacob did not reply.  There was an unwholesomeness about this man, as though a black cloud clung to him, hovering just above his skin.

     “Kee-yah!” came the cry from the kids again.  Johnny turned to look at them.  Jacob could almost follow the man’s gaze as it played over the group, darting about and lingering uncomfortably long on certain ones.  When Johnny licked his cracked lips, Jacob felt his stomach turn, and he shuddered.

     “That’s my girl there,” Johnny said, pointing to a chubby girl near the read.  She was a bit younger than Sonya, and her gi looked to be a size too small.  She moved clumsily, going through the motions in a half-hearted manner.

     “Yes,” Jacob said, recognizing her.  “Anna, isn’t it?  I think my daughter knows her.”

     “Yep,” Johnny said, still leering at the group.  “Anna said somethin’ ‘bout that.”  Jacob looked back at Johnny, his sense of unease growing.  The dark cloud around the man had thickened, and Jacob wondered if it was real or some trick of his eyes.  “So,” Johnny said, abruptly changing the subject, “what’s she like at home?”

     “What?” Jacob asked softly, his eyes narrowing.

     “From what I hear ‘bout the way she done at that school thing,” Johnny went on, ignoring the menace in Jacob’s appearance, “I’d bet she’s a reg’lar firecracker.  If you know what I mean.”  He chuckled as if he were sharing some naughty joke.  Yes, Jacob felt he knew exactly what Johnny meant.

     Jacob felt something fold over inside him.  The other was there, peeking out, and Jacob felt it reaching out, sharing itself.  His thoughts crystallized in an instant, and it was as though he could suddenly read Johnny’s mind.  He knew what lurked at the core of this man’s soul.  It was a monster born of iniquity, combining Johnny’s lack of morals with his basest lust, his libido overriding his meager intelligence to transform him into a travesty waiting to happen.  The man continued to stare lustfully at the students, eyes flitting from one young girl to the next, unaware of the sudden change in Jacob.

     There was icewater in Jacob’s veins.  He looked around, checking for witnesses as he casually placed his hand over Johnny’s.  The man looked up at Jacob sharply, words of protest forming on his lips.  Jacob gripped two of Johnny’s fingers tightly and twisted sharply.

     Johnny’s protest died as he sucked in his breath, his eyes bulging.  Jacob slapped his other hand over Johnny’s mouth, continuing to twist the man’s fingers savagely, feeling the tendons beginning to snap.  He leaned close, putting his mouth to Johnny’s ear. 

     “Listen to me carefully, pervert,” Jacob said in a harsh whisper.  “You so much as look in my daughter’s direction again and I’ll rip your fingers off one by one.  Got me?”

     Johnny nodded vigorously, tears trickling from his fear filled eyes.  “Good,” Jacob said.  “And if I ever find out you’ve touched your own daughter, or any other girl, I’ll find you and put you down like the dog you are.”

     The shock in Johnny’s eyes mirrored what Jacob felt.  He was filled with a sense of power, of raw strength like he had never felt before.  He released Johnny and eased back on the bench, crossing his legs and assuming a casual posture.  He kept his eyes locked on Johnny’s.  The man cradled his hand against his chest and whatever anger or indignation he might have felt died beneath Jacob’s withering stare.  There was death in Jacob’s eyes, and as dimwitted as Johnny was even he could see it.

     Johnny slid away quickly along the bench.  I’ve got your number, Jacob thought, watching the man retreat.  You’d prey on the weak, but you won’t fuck with me.  Johnny looked bewildered, his aura turning from black to yellow.  Yes, Jacob realized with a start.  I’m seeing his aura.  I’ve become psychic!

     Jacob broke eye contact, returning his gaze to Kyle and the class.  As if released from a spell, Johnny shot to his feet and shambled quickly to the door.  For a moment, Jacob felt a vague disquiet, wondering if he had misread Johnny.  No, he told himself, feeling a surge confident power.  I had him right.  I could feel his intentions.  Not exactly mind reading, but close enough.

     He found himself smiling.  For the first time, he felt that the changes he was undergoing might be beneficial.  This feeling of self-assurance, the perception that he had some power to control things around him, it was like being high.  His old self would have shrunk away from Johnny, been afraid of violence or confrontation.  Yet it had been he who inflicted pain, he who had been the intimidator.  And somewhere, just beneath real perception, was the confident knowledge that he could back up his threats.

     The class was pairing off, getting ready to spar.  Jacob watched Kyle move between the students and was suddenly filled with loathing.  Facing down a cowardly redneck was not the same as standing up to a bullying black belt.  He was not sure who he disliked more at that moment, Kyle or himself.  He pushed himself off the bench and edged past sparring kids to the door.  Fresh air was what he needed.

     The sun was well into setting, turning the sky a dull orange.  Jacob looked up, watching the stars appear.  He had been fascinated with them since he was a kid, and he remembered a childhood filled with dreams of spaceflight.  The closest he had ever come was writing computer code for astronomy software.  He could pick out a few familiars already, surprising himself with how many names he could still remember.  The stars were like old friends.

     I wonder if they recognize me? he wondered.  He shrugged off the thought, feeling silly.

     The warm afternoon air was giving away to cooler breezes.  The nights were not quite ready for summer, clinging to the moist, inviting feel of springtime.  Jacob moved out into the gravel parking lot.  The next class was gathering here, a collection of older boys and adults.  No one here was below a brown belt.  None of them was female.

     I’ll have to start taking Sonya to Cordova, he told himself, watching the students warming up.  All she’ll get here is frustration.  He had always tried to do right by Sonya, to offer her every advantage.  As she had aged, Jacob had insisted on buying her what were traditionally boy toys.  Cars and guns, army men, action figures, sports equipment.  He had wanted to ensure that Sonya never felt she was limited by her gender.  It was hard to fight a society which was geared to teach the opposite.

     Sonya never failed to make him proud.  She knew things were inherently unequal, yet she persevered, struggling to assert her individuality while holding on to her femininity.  It was why she insisted on remaining in Kyle’s dojo.  She refused to admit defeat, refused to allow herself to be relegated to an inferior role.

     Jacob wanted to believe that he had taught her that, instilled in his daughter a desire to buck the trends, defy popular belief.  How much are we born with, and how much do we learn? he wondered.  Where do we draw the line?  How do we discover which part is purely us and which part we gain from experience?  Perhaps he would never be able to answer that one.

     Maybe we’re better off not knowing, he thought.

     One of the older kids had brought out a pair of nunchuku and was trying to show his friend how to use them.  The wooden clubs, joined by a chain, made a dull whizzing sound as the boy twirled them, letting the weapon rebound from his shoulder and side.  His friend handled his own nunchuku clumsily, striking his back painfully several times.

     Jacob stared with a feeling of intense déjà-vu.  It was a false memory, he knew, but he remembered learning to use this weapon.  Impossible, he told himself.  You’ve never even held one before.  He knew it was his psychosis kicking in, the same feeling of detachment, of looking at himself from the outside.  He was approaching the boys before he was even aware he was moving.

     “Hey, guys,” he heard himself saying.  There was a buzzing in his head, and flashes of false memory danced across his vision.  A stone room lit by torches and sunlight which filtered in from high windows.  A wizened Asian man, a class of young boys, learning the dance of the nu’aycha.  Jacob rubbed his eyes fitfully.

     The boys were staring at him with remote curiosity.  “Mind if I try that?” Jacob said, pointing at the nunchuku.  The boys gave each other knowing smiles.

     “Sure,” the older one said, suppressing a laugh.  “Here, knock yourself out.”  The other boy giggled at the joke.  Jacob understood.  The weapon looked simple, but it was capable of delivering a lethal blow.  Weapon in hand, Jacob backed away a few paces, giving himself room to swing.

     What am I doing? he asked himself.  I don’t know how to use this.  But even as he finished the thought, his hands began to move, as if impelled by some alien will.  He swung the nunchuku in a slow circle, widening it gradually.  The weight was disconcertingly familiar.  It was a rhythm his body seemed to remember, the steady beat of the weapon chopping the air, spinning in a blur as he began a crisscross pattern.

     Jacob was thinking furiously. What now?  What do I do?  He bent his wrist, sending the nunchuku into a sideways arc around his side.  The wooden club thumped painfully into the middle of his back.

     He staggered, wincing at the blow.  Idiot, he cursed himself.  Lucky it wasn’t your skull.  The laughter of the boys filtered through to his awareness.  Laughing at the fool, he thought.  Laughing at me.

     He could still feel the other, hovering on the edge of consciousness.  The nunchuku were swinging in his grasp again already.  Yes, he realized.  You’re thinking too much.  Let go, let go...

     He relaxed his mind, letting his instincts take over.  The nunchuku seemed to leap up into his other hand.  He pulled the weapon straight, holding it out tautly.  Cho, the rogue memory popped up.  The ready stance.  He began to twirl the weapon again, faster this time.  Kai, the voice in his head told him.  The action.

     The nunchuku became a blur, buzzing around Jacob in deadly arcs, rebounding smartly from his sides, his thighs, his shoulders.  He passed it from hand to hand without slowing as he stepped, turned, leaped about.  Don’t think, he told himself.  Just do.  The other took control, sending the nunchuku into tighter, faster arcs.  The laughter had died away, replaced by burgeoning awe.

     Jacob slowed his actions abruptly.  “Give me the other one,” he demanded, holding his hand out to the boys.  He took the second weapon in hand, spinning it to match the first.  They made a droning buzz as they cut through the air.  Jacob turned his back on the boys, loosing himself in the action.

     The nunchuku cut the air as Jacob followed the rhythm of the dance.  The steps were as ancient as the weapon’s origin.  He had a memory of learning them, a teacher whose name and face had been erased by the mists of time.  Yet, the movements were burned into his soul, and Jacob reveled in the joy of motion, dancing to the song of the nunchuku as they were carried through the air.  They slapped dully against his body, just the barest kiss, enough to reverse their motion.  Jacob turned and twisted, creating a blurred shield around him, swinging the weapons with a precision his onlookers could only dream of.

  He had no inkling where this talent had come from.  What wellspring had he tapped within himself?  It was like a link to some ancient version of himself, one who had lived in a far different time.  He was filled with a vibrant, insistent energy which cried out for release.  The more he moved, whirling the nunchuku around himself, the stronger he felt.

     He came to the end, halting his dancing pirouettes in a flurry of blows against the empty air.  He caught each weapon neatly beneath his folded arms, bringing his feet together smartly, bowing his head in reverence to the dance.  Ta’as, his mind echoed from within.  The ending position.

     Jacob looked up slowly, regaining himself.  The boys stood around him in a broad circle, eyes wide and mouths agape.  Beyond them, Sonya’s class had ended and the students had all spilled outside to watch.  He felt sticky from sweat, and he wondered just how long the performance had lasted.

     He picked out Sonya, standing off to the side.  Her face was unreadable, a mixture of confusion, awe, surprise, and perhaps anger.  Jacob handed the weapons back to their owners shakily and pushed his way into the crowd.  Behind him, the boys looked at the nunchuku and Jacob’s retreating back with equal amazement.

     Jacob moved within a cloud of his own disbelief.  There was something inside him, there could be no more doubt of that.  It thrummed within his head, harmonizing with his soul, feeding Jacob an energy which knew no limits.  If he let it, he knew it would open up a new world for him, release a part of himself he had long repressed.  Either he lacked the know-how, or his fear of loosing himself held back the knowledge.  He remained on the threshold, listening to the voice of eternity, a steady whisper whose words remained below the level of understanding.

     The crowd parted for him as he approached.  How much did they see? he wondered.  How much did I reveal?  A heavy hand fell on his shoulder and spun him around.  He kept his balance easily, finding himself alarmingly self-possessed, and came face to face with Kyle.

     “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Kyle said angrily.  He glared at Jacob in open hatred, hands balling into fists.  The crowd widened suddenly around them as if repelled by the aura of violence the two men exuded.

     “I beg your pardon?” Jacob said icily.  He felt his nerves vibrate with sudden energy as the other extended itself.  It was lending itself to Jacob rather than taking over, and Jacob had never felt such a rush before.  The memories remained beyond reach, but he knew instinctively what abilities lay at the tips of his fingers.

     “You interrupted my class, asshole,” Kyle said, taking a step forward.  He was taller than Jacob and he puffed out his chest in an attempt to look larger as he looked down into Jacob’s face.  “Answer me,” he demanded.  “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

     Jacob paused, sizing up his opponent.  There was no fear.  He felt nothing but confidence, a self-assurance unlike anything in his experience.  “I think,” he said slowly, with no trace of emotion, “that I’m going to get my daughter, and then I’m going home.”  He met Kyle’s gaze steadily.  “Am I wrong?”

     Kyle was surrounded by a nimbus of red which was edging toward violet.  He’s angry, Jacob noted in a detached way.  He doesn’t know how to control it.  The fact that Kyle was going to fight him seemed a foregone conclusion.

     “You’re a smartass,” Kyle said, poking Jacob’s chest.  “I just don’t like you.”

     “Oh, my,” Jacob said.  “However will I sleep tonight knowing that?”  There was a snicker of laughter from the crowd, and Kyle’s face turned red.  Jacob knew what was coming next.  The man was too vain to allow public insult to pass unanswered, and he lacked the intellect to spar verbally.  Jacob was provoking Kyle into a fight.  He tried to remind himself that he did not know how to fight, and that Kyle was a trained military killer.  But none of that seemed to matter.  Jacob had never felt more alive, and nothing could pry that from his grasp.

     Kyle shifted his weight subtly.  The old Jacob would have missed it, would have been caught off guard.  Not the new Jacob.  Not this amalgam of himself and the mysterious other.

     The punch came up fast, from Kyle’s left, aimed at Jacob’s midsection.  The reaction was instantaneous, without conscious thought.  Jacob twisted his torso to the left.  The punch grazed his stomach, missing its intended target.  He grabbed Kyle’s wrist with his right hand and put his left under Kyle’s elbow, adding energy to the punch, contributing to Kyle’s forward momentum.

     Kyle had relied on his speed and his belief that he faced an untrained opponent.  His fist passed through air where Jacob should have been, and then he was flying.

     There was a stunned gasp from the spectators.  Kyle landed on his belly and slid a couple of feet.  Jacob turned to face him as the larger man scrambled to his feet.  He faced Jacob with a snarl and charged.  Kyle was letting his rage dictate his actions, that and his unbending pride.  He felt he had to demonstrate his superiority, exert mastery over Jacob.  He was driven by his need to appear larger than life in the eyes of the crowd.

     Jacob felt no such need.  Actually, he felt very little of anything.  To him, Kyle seemed to move through a sea of molasses.  Every move was telegraphed, easily countered or avoided.  He did not want to consider where the skill was coming from, afraid that it would vanish and leave him at the mercy of the larger man’s wrath.  Kyle would clutch at Jacob and grasp only air while Jacob cavorted around him, punching, kicking, slapping.

     Kyle feinted, trying too late to fight smarter, to use his brain and direct his skill.  He was outclassed from the start.  Jacob ducked and came up under Kyle’s guard.  His upward punch caught Kyle beneath his jaw, lifting the larger man off his feet.  He fell backwards to sprawl limply on the ground.  Jacob completed the follow-through, arriving at a ready stance. 

     For a moment, it seemed the fight was over.  Did I do that? Jacob asked himself, as amazed at the fight’s outcome as the crowd around him. 

     “Daddy?” the voice floated gently across the air to Jacob’s ears.  He turned slowly to look at his daughter, dropping his stance.  There was fear written on her face, and Jacob understood the source.  Had he room to think, he might have felt the same fear.  But there was much within his head which was not entirely him.  There was too much of the other occupying his mind for him to have room for fear.

     And he wondered if he would need to fear in any case.  He was still in control.  He governed his own actions.  Even in the heat of battle it had been he, not the other, who directed the course of action.  The presence in his head was not a real entity, only a shadow of himself, a self he had never known and which had taken residence deep within his soul.

     “Daddy?” Sonya repeated.  She wanted to come to him, to have him offer reassurance, but the fear held her back.  There would be time enough to fathom the source of his affliction, if he chose to call it that.   It was strength, and power, and an as-yet-untapped source of arcane knowledge.  Where it had come from, and where it would take him, that was a matter best left to the future.

     Jacob took a step forward.  The look on Sonya’s face changed, shifting from one fear to another.  Jacob tensed an instant before he was hit from behind.  Pain exploded in his back making him stumble forward.  Kyle circled around into view, a wooden staff in his hands, an evil smile on his face.

     “Like that, tough guy?” he snarled.  He turned the staff, spinning it and his body, arcing the weapon over his head and aiming another blow at Jacob.  The pain had driven all thought from Jacob’s head.  The other was in control.

     Jacob did not try to avoid the blow.  The hard wood of the staff descended toward his head, seeming to move in slow motion.  He raised his hand to meet it, straightening his tortured back.  There was a resounding smack as the staff made contact with Jacob’s palm.  The shock of the impact raced down his arm, and the strange energy rushed up to meet it.  Jacob twisted his body, forcing the staff downward as he turned.  He kicked out savagely, striking Kyle’s stomach and launching the man off his feet once more.  He stepped forward, the staff now in his own hands, whirling.  Kyle landed on his backside with a grunt and looked up in time to see the staff arcing toward him.

     The blow snapped Kyle’s head around, his body thrashing to follow it.  Jacob finished his turn, twirling the staff around and into an attack position.  But Kyle was still, this time.  Jacob moved closer and poked Kyle with the staff.  The large man grunted in pain, conscious but refusing to move again.  Jacob tossed the staff aside and turned his back on the fight.

     The pain had vanished, and even his hand felt fine.  It should be broken, Jacob told himself.  He flexed it experimentally as he walked over to Sonya.  It was as if the strange energy had some sort of healing propensity, repairing damage as it occurred.  Another gift, I suppose, Jacob thought.  The joy of the moment was fading.  He was coming down from his high. 

     Sonya flinched away from his touch as he reached for her.  He fished for some words of comfort, something to say to his daughter to remind her that he was still her father, still the same man.  It sounded hollow in his own ears.  He was not the same, and never would be so long as he carried this duality.  A part of him was the same, dull, timid Jacob who had occupied this body for over thirty years.  But there was an increasing proportion of him which was not.  What exactly the other was, Jacob longed more than anyone to find out.

     He held his hand out to her, smiling.  The other had subsided with the end of the combat, but it left behind fingerprints, icy touches on his psyche which would never fade.  There was enough of himself left unblemished, though.  I’m still me, he told himself, willing Sonya to see it.

     She took a deep breath and grasped his hand.  When nothing happened, she relaxed visibly.  What had she expected? Jacob wondered.  What would he have expected if the situation where reversed?  More questions without answers.  It was becoming the mantra of his life.

     “Let’s go home,” he said.  Sonya nodded, a smile breaking onto her face at the sound of her father’s voice.  They turned their back on Kyle’s limp form and walked hand in hand to their car.

     “I don’t suppose I can come back here anymore,” she said.  Jacob looked sidelong at her, suspecting an attempt at humor.  Sonya cut her eyes to him, a mischievous glint reflecting the last vestige of the setting sun.  He laughed, feeling a different joy flood though him.

     “No,” he said, “I don’t suppose you can.”  Now we both have something we can’t go back to, he said silently to himself.  But he had something that his changes could never rob him of.  He squeezed Sonya’s hand and smiled.