Distortion - Street Noise - Scene One Rewrite
A man in black disappeared behind a gray Chevy Suburban across the street. Ash spotted him through the window of The Grounded Café while waiting for his morning Java Chip Frappe'. Wait, was he wearing combat gear?
Ice shards tore down his spine, his heart skipped a beat. The muscles in his right arm tensed as he reached for the Glock 9mm holstered on side. He shook his head, on second glance the man was gone, a cloud of charcoal dust whisping into the air from under the SUV.
A breath slowly escaped his lungs, Ash released his grip on what he originally thought was the Glock 9mm, but he now realized was a holstered steel tape measure. He wasn't licensed to carry anymore, so he typically didn't. He let his arm slowly lower to his side as he closed his eyes. Taking a deliberately slow breath, he silently tapped his finger on his leg counting to ten. The scents of blonde-roast and espresso filled his mind and centered him until he came in for a landing in the present.
Even after eight years, war long over, he still could not trust what he first sees. Eyes open again, the world returned to normal. No threats. Just passers by, shoppers on a crowded small town tourist street in Ashland Oregon. A young lady walked by outside, face glued to her screen like so many others. She bumped into an elderly homeless gentlemen but didn't look up, or give any indication to acknowledge the incident. He walked off mumbling to himself. A grey dust cloud hung around her shoulders like a shawl, and riding the cloud was a small green frog with red eyes. Its legs disappeared into the mist, becoming one with it. As she passed, the frog held Ash's gaze; head turning unnaturally backward. He shuddered, no matter how many times he saw them, they were still creepy.
To the best of his knowledge, nobody else could see the colorful dust clouds that wrapped people like a shawl or overcoat, nor the creatures that accompanied them. Each persons' cloud seemed to be colored by their mood. Not everyone had a pet creature, but many did. This insight was his unique gift, a prize brought home from overseas.
"Don't worry so much," Theron "Ash" Ashland could still hear his doctor's advice from their last session a few weeks back. "We’re just beginning to understand PTSD and many veterans come back with hallucinations. The mind is a marvelous adapter to stress. As long as these phantoms don't interrupt your daily work, or cause you to want to harm yourself or others, you should be fine. Consider yourself lucky. Just think of them as a construct of your over-active imagination, an amusing distraction from the mundane realities of life." The medication seemed to help, a little. The visions were no less common but he felt more detached from them now, a casual observer.
Movement from above, just outside the window caught his attention. The shade of a Basswood tree was crawling down the sidewalk for the days' last stretch. A yellow and orange leaf fell, landing on a coffee table on the empty patio.
"Ash, your Java Chip is ready," the Barista called. "Are you ever going to let me talk you into trying something else?"
"I doubt it, Jake, maybe next time," Ash replied and grabbed a coffee sleeve.
"That's what you said last week. You working on anything new lately?" Jake asked.
Ash glanced at him, forced a smile, and replied, "Yeah, I've got a few new pieces. Just dropped them off this morning over at Woodmen Furnishings. You should go by later, a few of the other craftsmen were there... lots of new inventory."
"Will do," Jake said as he turned back to start another order. "Good to see you, as always."
Ash said, "You too," as he headed to a far corner and found his favorite leather chair.
He glanced around the café before taking a seat. Two men just arrived while he was waiting, they were having a meeting. One with glasses, the other in a black turtle neck. Two women talking about their kids nearby. Three teenagers typing away on laptops as though their life depended on it. Always keep your back to the wall, stay as inconspicuous as possible. The need to be hyper-vigilant was like breathing, it never stopped. With the possible exception of the guy in the turtle neck who looked like he could handle himself, everyone seemed fairly free of danger. He bit his lip and sighed, "You're doing it again..." He took his seat, the leather hugged him like a cool blanket.
The morning paper had been abandoned on a nearby table, as was the café custom. He reached to grab it when he noticed several people outside turning and staring in the same direction. Others ran from across the street to join a crowd that was developing just outside the window. Whatever had their attention was just out of view, they looked concern. Anything that caused concern for normal people, he needed to be aware of.
Reluctantly, he stood again, one knee popped. "Come on old man," he encouraged himself. After he exited the front door, he turned to the crowd. The man with the glasses followed from inside the coffee shop, turtle neck in tow. Turtle neck bumped into him. "Excuse me," the man said flatly.
A voice from the direction of the crowds gaze was yelling something he couldn't quite hear. Ash wasn't going to get a good view from here, so he walked around the outside of the crowd, keeping his distance from actually touching anyone. The whisps of colorful dust rose and fell off each person. When they were close together like this the dust seemed to combine, grow even. He avoided getting near it if he could help it.
A woman in a red hoodie rushed passed him to join the crowd and knocked the coffee out of his hand. The lid popped off, contents spilling down the front of his jeans as it tumbled to its final resting place on the asphalt.
"Dang lady, watch it!" He said. She paid no attention, engrossed in whatever was happening just beyond his field of vision. "Whatever," he said, more to himself than her, and worked his way around the crowd.
When he found a clearing on the opposite side of the crowd, he stepped onto the sidewalk. The elderly man, the one the little girl bumped into earlier, was now standing on the bed of a pick up truck. A tattered brown dress coat, stained with years of unwashed use, hung over his thin skin like a cape. The coat may have been black in a former life. A scruffy white beard hid his gauntly features.
It was Frank, now that he could get close enough to see him up close. Frank was one of several train hopping hobos that made camp on the outskirts of town. He came to pick up his Social Security check ever month about this time. The man with the glasses was on the other side of the crowd, staring at his tablet, taking pictures no doubt, tourists.
Frank appeared to be having a conversation, "You always did love Mother best-- I know-- That's why-- You couldn't keep your mouth shut--" A creature was rising up out of the dust on his shoulders, only the top half visible. It bore some resemblance to a sloth, but moved more quickly. It rotated from shoulder to shoulder, shouting in each ear, visibly agitated. Ash couldn't hear the creature, he never could, but it was feeding the other side of the conversation.
The hair on his neck rose as he watched it. Could this be me if I stop taking my medication? He shuddered at the thought.
A larger creature rose from the mist. This one had a different quality about it, more tangible. The bottom was still rooted in the dust rising and falling from Frank, but the top of the creature was like that of a man. It had the head of a bull with long horns shooting out to each side and curving upward. The Bull-Man was over nine feet tall, black skin made of charcoal, three white streaks were painted across and down its chest.
The bull creature cocked its head to one side, and stared Ash in the eye. Its eyes were pools of red, bulging from their sockets. They pierced him as none of the previous creatures had before. The others seemed more interested in their hosts then Ash, but this one was staring him down. A fog entered his mind, his vision clouded over slightly. The muscles in Ash's jaw tightened, and he took a step back. A tingle ran down his thighs.
The man-bull's mouth curved upward, eyes narrowed. It slapped the smaller creature into stillness. Frank looked confused at the sudden silence. The larger creature leaned down and spoke something into Franks' ear. The creature stood up right, nodded to the smaller creature, and they both evaporated back into the dust cloud. Frank turned to look at Ash, eyes narrowed like the man-bull had before. The truck bed gave a rusty creak as Frank leapt off to the ground, spry for an otherwise elderly man. Head tilted awkwardly to one side, he ran at Ash with a wild deranged look in his eye.
Ash tried to step out of the way, or run, but his legs were now clued to the pavement. He raised his hands to prepare for a fight, but Frank jumped at him before he could properly react, they both went tumbling to the sidewalk.
Ash's head slammed into the concrete sending his vision swirling with white dots, and a throbbing throughout his skull. He could feel Franks' hands on his neck, tearing into the flesh. Making a fist, he aimed a punch at Frank through the white dots, where he figured his head would be.
Frank released his grip with one hand, and loosened the other.
Ash caught his breath. "Jesus," he cried as he recoiled at the throbbing in his throat and gagging on the scent of unwashed clothing.
Frank backed up, and looked confused, as though he didn't know where he was.
Ash took the opening, kicked Frank in the chest and sent him sprawling backward. Loosing no momentum, he raced over and punched him with a right hook to the jaw. Frank spun back and fell to the sidewalk, unconscious.
Sirens pierced the air as a patrol car sped to stop a few feet away. Two officers got out and ran over, stopping just in front of Ash and Frank.
"Frank's at it again," the first officer said.
"Got it bad this time," the second said, cuffing the unconscious old man.
"Hey Ash, you OK? Want to file a report?" The first officer asked.
Ash rose to his knees, catching his breath. The throbbing was subsiding now, but he felt it all over. "Maybe later George, I'll let you know. I just need to get out of here," Ash replied as calmly as he could. Inside he was shaking, he needed to get home ASAP. He hoped his look said it all. George was part of his Veterans support group, he knew Ash didn't like crowds and people confrontations.
George looked down at Ash's jeans, "No problem. You get yourself cleaned up, we need to take Frank in anyway. We'll talk later. Call me when you're up to it." The two officers each grabbed one of Franks' arms and threw him into the back of the squad car. They didn't bother to belt him, body laid awkwardly across the back seat. The patrol car backed up, and took off down the street.
"Are you OK sir?" a male voice spoke from behind.
Ash turned slightly, the voice came from the man in glasses. He was wearing a yellow polo, with two overlapping Es, and gray slacks. "I'll be alright," Ash replied reaching for the bump growing on the back of his head.
"Let me help you," glasses said.
Ash took his hand, reluctantly. "Thanks," he said. As he rose, one thousand other fights from his past life ached through his bones. He still worked out every day, but 40 was definitely not the new 20. He was glad for the assistance after all.
"Oh my," Glasses said. "Your coffee has spilled all over your jeans. That must have been awful to be attacked like that, let me take you to get another coffee."
With heart still stampeding through his chest, ash replied, "Thanks for the offer, Mr.--?"
"Briar. Dr. Briar actually, " the man replied.
"Well thanks for the offer Dr. Briar, but I've had enough excitement for one day. I just need to get home, and cleaned up." And get some Purell.
"Another time then," Dr. Briar smiled, pudgy flat face pinched a little too tight. Too interested, too helpful. But maybe Ash was over-reacting, considering the incident he just endured. Then again, turtleneck's total lack of personality kept him on the edgy side. Ash's nose felt tight as his brow wrinkled at the thought.
He waved them off and walked down the street, wanting to get home, his refuge from humanity, as fast as possible. He needed to escape, re-center, and espresso wasn't going to do it this time. He needed a medically induced coma, 6 hours if he was lucky. He turned back one more time to glance at the location of the incident. Glasses was still watching him, turtle neck still behind. A nauseousness crept into his belly, and he turned back toward his truck. Ash kept an eye on window panes and the mirrors on cars he passed, to ensure he wasn't being followed.
In the town parking lot, just behind the main buildings, was his escape. The 1977 Ford F-150 wore a faded blue paint job, which blended into rust spots here and there. He adjusted the mirror again, ensuring no one was watching him. The engine turned over like a beast waking from slumber. The smooth floor shifter knob was familiar, and his stomach calmed a bit.
He made his way down Ashland's main street, a town named after his Great Great Grandfather, so he was told. A few miles down the highway, he turned onto a private road. Taking the driveway two miles into the woods, he parked in front a two story cabin style home.
Ash glanced back one last time, ensuring nobody followed him. He paused and listened for any sounds out of the ordinary, tires on the gravel, shuffling in the house, a branch breaking. Paranoia satisfied, he inserted the key, opened the door, and flipped the switch.
Office to the left, den to the right, hallway, secure. He made his way down the hall to the kitchen, grabbed an orange bottle from the shelf and twisted the white top. They should call these adult proof. Two blue peace keepers dropped into his hand. He placed the pills on the counter, took a large plastic Braveheart collectors cup out of the dish drying rack and filled it. The pills washed down nicely with some Dr. Pepper and Jack Daniels, half and half, over ice.
The stairs to the second floor were hard on his knee caps, but he managed with one hand, keeping a tight grip on the cup of sleep. The fight replayed in his mind as Ash walked over to the bookcase and pushed it aside, revealing a large steel Liberty Safe. A few spins of the dial, and the heavy door swung open. He may not be licensed to carry anymore, but that didn't stop him from keeping a stash of weapons, dating back several generations of Ashland's, leading on up to his retirement from the United States Air Force, Special Tactics unit. Tonight felt safer with having something nearby, so he grabbed the Glock 9mm, two extra clips, and the holster and stashed them in the kitchen drawer so they'd be handy, just in case. House alarm set, he made his way out onto the patio which was tucked away out of sight. Police report, he remembered and grabbed a sticky note and stuck it to the face of the cell phone.
The hammock swung slightly, creaking as it adjusted to his weight. It enveloped him like a cocoon, shielding him from the events of the day. The first signs of stars peeped through the evening sky. A chorus of crickets and critters chirped, his heart settling into the rhythm of the night as Ash finished off the last of Dr. Braveheart Daniels' magic potion.
The image of the man-bull lingered in his mind, so real, he laid his head down and the image faded to sweet nothingness.
The mess hall wasn't much to look at, a building in the middle of a desert Air Force base, thrown together with grey cinderblocks and a make-shift kitchen. It was over one hundred fifteen degrees outside, but the mess hall managed to keep a balmy ninety five. The last of what passed for French fries sat on the tray in front of him. "Did you hear what General Akbar said?" two soldiers at the table in front of Ash were talking. "Yeah, another three months of this hell-hole." Ash stood, grabbed the brown plastic tray that doubled as a plate and walked to the trash to dump it.
There was a bright flash, a shock wave propelled him face first onto the wall, his vision went dark momentarily, then he found himself on the floor of what was left of the mess hall. For a moment Ash was deaf, accept a high pitched frequency ringing in both ears. Vision returning, bracing his hand on the wall, he raised to his feet, the air cleared some but smoke still obscured the scene as he tried to see what happened.
Heart racing, hearing normalizing. Nothing felt broken, everything moved. He took a step, nothing hurt. He tried to make out his immediate surroundings. The ceiling was caved in, mostly rubble. "Help me with this!" one soldier barked to another, they lifted several fallen cinder blocks from a fallen soldier's leg. From what Ash could tell from this distance it would need to be amputated. Another concussion came from outside, a cloud of dust and smoke rose to the sky, which was now visible from inside the mess hall.
Ash glanced once more at the scene in front of him, there were enough rescuers, he needed to stop the onslaught. He pushed through some fallen wall nearby, and paused to listen. A third explosion hit a building on the far side of camp, there didn't seem to be a pattern.
An image of the armory, his rifle; he ran down the lane and hooked a left to the Armory. Rifle in hand, Ash took off and found a steal communications tower just higher than the rest of the buildings, and climbed to a small flat spot he could use as a nest. They were targeting large buildings, it was a risk, but an educated risk.
Ash steadied his breathing, after the long run and climb, and positioned himself low on the flat surface of the tower so his profile would be nearly invisible on the horizon. The high powered scope revealed ten men, faces covered by their keffiyehs and robes, hiding behind an outcropping of rocks and three old jeeps. Two of them were holding rocket launchers, two others were helping re-load. The rest were stationed around them with AK-74M Assault Rifles, ready to defend their position.
Taking aim at the bulky portion of the first rocket launcher itself, and not it's handler, should incapacitate it, and Ash rarely missed. The unit exploded in its handlers face.
He looked away. This was his first kill, but his stomach turned a little each time. It's us or them, they'd started this, he would finish it. His blood boiled at the decision. Resolved, he pear back through his scope and found the small band of attackers had turned toward their fallen comrade, surprised by the explosion. The look on their face said that they thought it had malfunctioned.
That gave him the few seconds he needed to line up the second shot. A second explosion took the remaining rocket launcher and its handler out of commission. "Yes," he hissed to himself. The band no longer posed an immediate threat to his buildings from this distance, not with those rifles, but they were still a threat. A threat now reduced to eight with no long range weapons. Three of the men decided leave the relative safety of the outcropping and run the mile and half of open desert firing at the outer walls of the base. Like ducks flying from a bush. Ash aimed and fired. Seven. Six. Five left. He re-centered his scope on the rocks, the remaining five popped up periodically, firing aimlessly.
Whack A Mole, he thought briefly, and a "hmpf" escaped his throat. Ash fired each time he found a clean shot. Four. Three. Two. For less than 30 seconds, there was stillness from the desert. A shadow by the farthest Jeep. The last two crawled inside, the Jeep sped away from the scene. They were keeping low, out of sight. Ash aimed at the back of each front seat. Two. One. The vehicle drove erratically and crashed into the hill a little further out. The front gates of the base opened as an armored attack vehicle raced out. They'd clean up anything he missed, his job was done.
Back on solid ground, he surveyed the scene. Devastation. By the time he'd taken the rocket launchers out, there were four buildings decimated. The dead would be counted after the rescue was over. Despite the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that wouldn't leave, he chose to feel no remorse about the job he had to stop the attack. He brushed the feeling aside, and ran to back to the mess hall to clean up.
As he ran down the street toward the mess hall, the scene turned white and morphed. Now he was jogging down a long hallway with white walls and porcelain tiles. He stopped before a door, tugged on his shirt, and glanced down at the letter he'd received that morning. "Due to valor in the line of fire, you are hereby invited to join an experimental program for soldiers with your unique skillset. Your invitation and participation is optional - classified as Top Secret. Please report for a briefing at 10:00 hours..." Ash glanced at his watch, 2 minutes to 10:00. The door plaque read: General Akbar.
He raised his hand and knocked. "Come," the voice replied. Ash opened the door, "Permission to enter, Sir?" General Akbar looked up, "Come in soldier." As he entered, General Akbar stood-
The image morphed again, General Akbars uniform was now worn by a larger man shaped body, with the head of a bull. White striped streaked across its face.
The scene turned to black...
The sound of crickets slowly brought Ash back to his cabin patio. The hammock swinging slightly in the mountain breeze through the mountain pass. Another one, uhg. He rubbed his eyes and glanced at his wrist. 3:00 hours. His body ached, his heart was racing but his mind was foggy. Like it hadn't fully kicked on. Ash pondered this view of the stars, remembering his times in larger metropolitan areas. Why would anyone live in a big city? Uhg... I need to go to town and file that report. Maybe George will come up here instead...
A single falling star shot across the night sky among the backdrop of a clear milky way. He decided to lay there until his mind rebooted or shut down.
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