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The Hanging Tree

By Phantomwriter05

Scifi / Mystery

Chapter 1

 From the first moment of blinking eyes, the first swell of oxygen in our lungs, the first sign of life, one asks the same questions: What is it that makes humanity? Is it the capacity to form sentences, our empathy, or is it our cruelty? What makes humanity a better breed of animal, or the worst? Some say it’s our civilized nature. But for many, even in this time period as before, it may come to another conclusion. A shark rips apart its mate, a lion breeds with many. Yet, humans, the ultimate predator, put so much of their life and personal stock in the pursuit of love. The idea, the attachment, the condition in which the best and worst are brought out in us, it’s a feeling seldom felt by anything else in this known universe. In the human mind is the compulsion and infatuation to never again seek another. That mind, body, and soul is captured and kept in a symbolic, emotionally symbiotic relationship that lasts a lifetime.  In essence, it is love that makes us human and yet, by the same token, what your worth is judged upon as a member of the species.

If you cannot choose who you love, and yet it’s so important in your identity, when do you stop becoming human when what you love cannot feel the same? But perhaps the better, and by far the most important, question to civilization is certainly this.

When something loves what it shouldn’t, does it make it a miracle or an abomination?


                    Detective Stories: Black Case Book

                                        The Hanging Tree

The darkening sky was like a water painting on a master’s canvas. The twinkling sparkles on a soft silk fabric in a wicked black loomed and pressed above the last fires of the sun being snuffed in the west. Its fading orange and violet glow was reflected in the sheen of wispy clouds like a trail of smoke marking the fading legacy of warmth supplied from a blown out candle. In the last throws of light, shadows began creeping back into a world caught in the ominous limbo of the last of the western heat clinging to the ground. The gentle breeze of the Pacific whispered in its quietest of tomes of the cold that would accompany the passing of the witching hour of this dark night.

On top of a solitary hill on the outskirts of hundreds of miles of ruined concrete, rusted metal, and burned out towers stood a great apple tree. Untouched by the deforestation of the great urban jungle below, this solitary tree stood a silent sentry over the many years of sorrow and death. The nourishment of its branches provided life for those who found it in their desperation. Its trunk gave support and rest to the weary, and its roots hid faithfully the secrets of two brothers that they exchanged beneath its soil. They, like so many in those days of suffering and uncertainty of the very hour being the last of a species, called it “The Tree of Life”.  It was a rumor and legend that to eat from its branches would bring you good fortune in those horrible times. 

Now, joined amongst the red fruit, hung a different silhouette that twisted awkwardly in the salty breeze. Its presence amongst the scarcest and most sacred of this suffering world’s commodity profaned the very name that so many had come to call it. Blank caramel eyes looked pained and frozen in fear as they looked out over the mountain ranges behind the grids of concrete stumps and ruined streets. They were ignorant and unresponsive to the dark figure standing against the paint background. It watched at the tree’s base while the lifeless body swung to and fro with an ominous creek of buckling wood.

Cowled with a hood, leather coat fluttering in the exceedingly frigid breeze, the figure’s hardened eyes watched the body with an acquired grimness. He turned his head in study for a long moment. This quiet observer was tall and athletically built. A well-worn double breasted coat the color of mahogany and a crimson lined dark hoody covered a deceptively strong frame. The man reached into a utility bandoleer buckled across his chest under the coat.

THUNK!

A four pointed throwing star was let fly with a snap of an arm. The thin razor sharp blades made from Coltan cut the hangman’s noose with one elegant spin. The electrified weapon released its deadly charge ineffectively against the thick wood. When released the stiff body hit the ground like a warped board of wood. 

Dusty, grime covered motorcycle boots puffed over the ash strewn soil at the base of the tree. Reaching into his coat pocket, the man extracted a chaffed handle of black rubber. A matching blade snicked with a press of the button to reveal an inherited tactical knife, older than the man himself. With the body face down in the dust, he began effortlessly sawing off the budgie rope that tied its hands behind.  Arms freed, the man stood and used the tip of his old boot to turn the body over. Shadowed eyes seared the fragile face in his mind. He knelt next to the body, bowing his head as a knight to a crucifix. The figure had been taught long ago that there should be just a beat of silence, a reserved respect for the loss of something venerable, a nod to the innocent fallen. It lasts only for a fleeting moment

Then it’s time to begin.

Immediately he noticed that there was no sign, no notification of what this man did to earn this fate. Had he been a criminal, a sign would’ve been nailed to the trunk, or hung around his neck labeling the crime in which he had committed. Desertion, rape, and murder where the only three hanging offenses. The absence of any cause meant that he had been slayed in the manner of punishment for at least one of the crimes he is a victim of himself, Ironic. 

The dead man was tall, slender, and handsome despite a broken face that suggested attendance to an Irish wedding. He looked to be Hispanic, most likely Latino in origin, possibly South America; his nose and brow line suggested origins in Peru. He looked to be in his early forties from the wrinkled edges of his mouth, thinning face, and whiting hair.  The cowled figure picked up one of the Peruvian’s hands. The dead man’s palm was calloused from splinters likely from griping a wooden handle. For a moment he thought the man to be a sailor from the splinters and absence from his native dwelling. But the investigating figure quickly relabeled his theory in favor of the South American being a farmer. He judged anew when pushing up his blue lips with the flat end of his knife to showcase whitened teeth from a steady diet of produce, already coupled with the rough hands coming from pushing a plow.

The murdered man was a foreign farmer, hung for no crime. What did he have that had cost him his life? His black long sleeve shirt was patched. His beige pants were dirty, sandals self-crafted. The man’s knapsack was untouched where he left it leaning on the tree. It was filled with apples and spare clothing. It seems as if nothing had been taken. He had all his teeth, no fillings to be stolen. This was not done by thieves. 

He began checking other wounds that were on the body. Both of the man’s jaws were broken from hard blows from a fist. His ulna was cracked in two on his right arm, and his left carpus was completely shattered. They were clear defensive wounds. Gingerly, fingerless gauntleted hands lifted the man’s shirt. A new prospective was reached when the figure found that the body had a history of plasma burn scars. Before he was a farmer, this man was a soldier. When he checked the shattered wrist, he was not surprised to see a bar code from Century Work Camp. He must have been one of the first soldiers to be a part of the “Land for Service” program. All soldiers that had served for more than 10 years were offered a parcel of land in the long liberated San Fernando Valley. The freedom of ownership, plus the needed market for produce, was a win-win situation for all.

But all of this new information seemed to breed more questions when put against the victim’s pre-mortem injuries. The defensive wounds and subsequent soft tissue injuries, suggested that he had been attacked with a blunt, rubber club. There were three boot tread marks of feet in different sizes on his torso and broken ribs where he had been stomped on. The farmer’s knuckles were lacerated from a fist fight, and his right was busted from striking something hard. Whoever jumped him got more of a fight than they were counting on.  It became clear from all of these things that he was attacked, most likely ambushed, by more than one person. 

Who these murderers were was simple enough to deduce from the first moment he cut the body free. The tread marks left from the sole of the boots were standard issue military grade. The defensive wounds came from a basic training weapon to teach hand to hand. The busted knuckles were consistent with the result of a bare fist against the new J22 combat body armor. But it was the rope that was the dead giveaway —bungee, high strength towing cable, machine processed. That kind of rope was Resistance issue only. When put together, this man was ambushed and killed by a group of fellow Tech-Com soldiers.

He put all his weight on his back leg, while he rested an arm over his raised knee. His other hand tugged on his chin with an arched forefinger and thumb in thought. The basic question in detection of a murder, as taught to him by his mother, was always to ask one question—“Who gains?”  When he closed his eyes he could still hear the stoic innocence of the beauty’s voice. It was the best question to ask in any circumstance. But with the absence of any evidence to the contrary this death, like so many these days, seemed unnecessary. What did these soldiers have to gain from killing this man? What did he have or do to earn such a terrible end?

His assassins beat him viciously, which at any one point could be for any myriad of reasons. He gave reproach or insult. There was a past hatred, grudges, or blood vendettas. All of these seemed like a valid reason for the beating. But … why hang a man? Why not just beat him to death in your passion? They also used a bungee cord. Any man about to be hung hopes that the fall would break his neck, killing him instantly. But with the type of rope his killers used, it would almost be impossible to break a neck. They wanted him to suffer, wanted him to die slowly, coughing on his last gasps of air in his burning lungs. The brutality had all the makings of a hate crime, but without a known prejudice. 

“Why?” A dark voice asked the blank eyes staring up at the immerging stars above. “Who gains?” His voice was muffled behind an old blue scarf as it carried his thoughts out to the dusty plains of desert beyond the ruined tinder box of a once sparkling cityscape of a once modern civilization below.

He gave a long muffled sigh while he observed the body one more time, trying to find any clues he might have missed. He knew that in the world he lived in sometimes death had no reason. That days on the battlefield people where there yesterday and this morning, but gone tomorrow. But that was war, this … this was different. This death, this atrocity was crossing a line. There were doing things of questionable morality for survival, and then there was killing just to kill. This was the markings of cruelty that only a human can do to another, a senseless hatred that no machine, their great enemy, could ever know.

The shadowed figure once read a book that claimed that human’s developed fists for no other reason than to fight … one … another …

He tilted his head in an inherited quirk when faced with the interest in his new discovery. While the dead man’s left hand was flat, which allowed the figure to deduce the corpse’s origins, the right was still balled in a fist that had gone chalk white. The discoloration made it easier to see the darkening crimson of the lacerations on his knuckles. But within one of these lacerations was a something embedded in the wound. It could be a thorn, a piece of gravel, or even a flake of bark. But there was a possibility …

He reached out and lifted the dead man’s fist. With his other hand he dug back into his bandoleer and extracted a pair of small forceps. It took several increasingly effort filled tugs to extract the sharp item from the South American born man’s knuckle. On his last tug the index and middle fingers became straightened severing the nerve that the sharp object was embedded in. 

Holding up the item into the last threads of light available, a grimly satisfied smirk showed in hardened eyes it was held close to. It was what he had hoped it would be. In the fight the veteran had cracked one of his killers in the mouth. He or she must have had their mouths open when he hit them. The older man broke one of his killer’s teeth with his blow. In doing so a part of his attacker’s tooth was embedded in the knuckle. If the former soldier put up that much of a fight, then his killers would’ve checked themselves into a med station close by. Anyone who had lived in this ruined, cursed world knew that no wound however small should go unattended or risk the chance of going to sleep one night and never waking up again.

It was a good start.

His silhouette was now completely covered in darkness as he stood over the body. The wind caught his coat one last time while standing in respectful attention. “Duerme en paz, hermano. La pelea terminó.” He bowed low before parting with the dead soldier.

But as he turned to leave, the first strands of moonlight began to peak over the mountains behind, causing something in the corpse’s now half closed fist to glint. It was tiny, but enough to catch the man’s turning eyes. He halted his departure from the scene and glared in study to the shadowed outline in the middle of the pale palm. Squatting, he made use of the forceps again as picked the glittering item out of the man’s hand.

Suddenly a semblance of a whole picture of this horrible murder was beginning to form in his mind. Like a terrible ship wreck rising from the ocean, a motive began to surface from the depths of the figure’s mind with the presence of the tiny metallic item. The elegantly crafted ring was cheap, forged from foraged copper lining, topped with a single shimmering stone …

 And two sizes too small to fit the dead man’s fingers.


                                          Many Years Ago 

There was a certain sterile environment that could always be found in every cellphone store in the country. One might never find it in any place in the world than right in this very niche shopping establishment. In most stores such as a grocery there was a certain quality of “lived in” that was well felt. There were thousands of people a week coming and going, buying essential items for everyday life. In the hobby shops and other electronic stores there was a sense of familiarity, openness to the store. But in the Cellphone shop, there was an untouchable alienation in the colorful stands filled with the customizable and clocked up processors of the brand new models. A person going into a place like this was like a car dealership. Rarely did you leave with your first choice, if you leave with anything at all.  It was a place filled with tawdry sales people fighting for commission, who liked to talk.

It was perfect.

“Just this? I got a sale on some upgraded versions.”

“Nah, don’t own the upgraded version …”

“What do you got?”

“2.0, pretty reliable.”

“Yeah … if you don’t get …”

“Electrical surges.”

Both young men chuckled mirthfully at the shared knowledge that they verbalized in unison. The salesclerk, a junior at USC, thought he had a hook in his teenage counter-part. The boy had messily styled dark hair, dingy rugged clothing, hard ass look of rebellion. The handsome kid didn’t look like he knew a thing about technology. They’d call him back in training “easy money.” The clerk recounted the training video’s advice and hoped the commission would help him on the road to taking Debbie Nicks, the first chair of the University Orchestra, to dinner on Saturday before the formal. But little did he know that the young man wasn’t shopping for technology.

“It’s periless, man. I tell yea. You never know when a freak electrical storm is gonna hit … that’ll be thirty-six dollars.”

“Yeah … I heard that you guys had a bit of one over here, yesterday … Here, forty.”

CHING!

“It was weird. But I mean it could happen anywhere you know … a couple of months ago I read one of them tore open a parked bus, like just tore it in half! Can’t be too careful, especially with a 2.0 in your pocket, you know what I mean, Chief?”

“Heh, was yours as bad as that?”

“It was pretty bad, there was a construction crew in the alley over here when it hit. Apparently it appeared above them, big ball, you know … some Bill Nye shit, man. Here’s four for you, recite? Bag?”

“Recite … heard it was pretty messed up.”

“Yeah, one of the guys got covered in cement, got all hard around him, died of dehydration from the concrete.  Another guy got his neck broken by some spooked naked homeless guy in the alley. Police came by and everything. Hell of way to go. I’d hate to be that guy’s mom.”

“Sounds like the same thing with the bus. Did the homeless guy steal the Worker’s clothing too like that red head did with the bus driver?”

“Nah, he ran off completely buck ass nude. It’s a wonder no one has caught him yet, with no clothes on and all that.”

“It’s Los Angeles, there’s probably about half a dozen of them fitting his … description, really, nude?”

“I know, man. My brother’s girlfriend works as a barista across the street. She told us she saw some hunched over naked old man ringing the cement worker till he died, and then he ran deeper into the alley.”

“This one, right here?”

“Yeah …”

“Sounds nuts.”

“You know what’s nuts, you still carrying that 2.0 model …”

“Alright, see you later.”

“Wait … I mean, is that a promise?”

DING!

The door to the store opened into the gloomy late spring morning in the Southern California hills. The light and cool noon air was stiff and sullen in the grey obscurity that whispered rain. The vivid colors off the white and red Spanish architecture of the galleria seemed muted in the dreary weather. It didn’t stop the kind of culture and shoppers that famously fluttered around the area of golden handled doors, and unique entrances to the high end shops that demanded a certain status of wealth to shop at them. Seemed like a strange place to begin.

The young man had been walking down the street, only to stop and bend down to untie and retie his shoe as a camera crew followed a familiar woman with a famous rear end down the street. He couldn’t let himself be even in the background of a shot. One slip up, one disinterested glance in the background of a show by the right person and a lot of things could go wrong. He watched them leave before he stood up again.

A phone buzzed in his dark blue field jacket as he continued his search for a dark back alley and yellow tape. He sighed when he knew he didn’t need to look at the ID to know who it was that was calling him. There was a guilt inside him that knew he had agreed to come here under false pretenses, and that his absence from what he said he would be doing made him a bit of an asshole. But he knew that what had happened yesterday and to find out the truth of it all was important, that this was his life, his real life. When he answers the phone, that won’t be him, that would be someone else that he wished he could be.

“What?” He sighed.

“Way to flatter a girl.”

“Riley …” He hinted of a misstep in decorum with an irritable huff.

“Oh come on, John, you’re like three shops away!”

“…”

“Ugh … stickler, God!”

There was a combination of buttons that were pressed on the other lines key pad. John Connor knew that he was probably more like five shops away now, and if he were Riley he’d also be annoyed. But for some reason whenever he was away from home, and by himself he seemed cursed to be ever haunted by the disembodied voice of his mother that brainwashed him into inheriting personal ticks. The idea of turning into Sarah Connor didn’t exactly make him feel any better when talking to his girlfriend on the phone. 

“Feel better?”

He rolled his eyes. “Sure …” Today wasn’t the day for this kind of grab ass of dialogue. John Connor was in the middle of the hunt, and somehow he still had to play boyfriend. Sure, he knew he was spoiled. A beautiful, perky blond, with amazing curves, and seemed to accept almost everything he does. But maybe that was why he couldn’t sleep at night, made him question every phone call and smile. She never minded anything he did, provided that he tells her about it, about himself.

“Well you shouldn’t!”

There was a tone in her voice that was slightly annoyed, only slightly. “Why’s that?” He asked flatly, checking an alley. His eyes narrowed when he saw the crime scene tape, ripped in half. He paused his advance while he committed to the conversation before going in.

“You promised to come help me pick out my dress.”

“I didn’t promise you, I said I’d take you.” He switched hands with the phone, checking his watch for the time.

“It’s the same thing.”

“Riley, come on, do I look like a guy who knows a thing about prom dresses?”

“Didn’t you ever go shopping with your mom or something?”

“Riley, does my mom look like she knows a thing about prom dresses?” He asked rhetorically.

“Ugh, Cameron then?”

“Just pick one, and call me so I can help you pay for it.” He rolled his eyes. He began tapping his foot.

“Don’t you want to see it?”

She whined playfully. “I’m going too eventually, aren’t I?” He said with a stiff patience. 

“But that’s months away … who knows what can happen in a couple of months?”

He tightened his teeth in mounting irritation. “Give me five minutes, Riley, please?” His calm was starting to crack. There was a long pause from the other line.

“It’s your lucky day, stickler, I’ll give you seven.”

He didn’t even say goodbye as he hung up. Riley had been strangely distracted at the end. It was what he needed to call the phone conversations that usually made him feel a sense of normality. But those tit-for-tat teenage conversations didn’t make him feel at home. In a strange sense of opposite, the scrounging around a damp alley cocooned by roles of crime scene tape made him feel more himself than one night with the blond girl quipping at a television commercial on his sofa.

Like most things in this city, nothing was really original. Ideas used and reused, repackaged, renovated, and rebranded. That was the history of all of the buildings in Los Angeles, the finger prints of what had come before usually was all over an alley. Not three hours dry and the concrete already had a layer of grime on it. The white plaster and Spanish tile of the redone building seemed to have stopped at the front. In between the two stores was wall to wall red brick of the original design. The city had always been good at hiding its true face. They were in the richest, spotless, and most modern part of town, filled with glass and holographs from projectors in the windows of the high tech gadget stores. Yet, just one trip down its alleys and it made John feel more unsafe than ever. In the steam filled narrow there was a disconnected, forgotten, payphone with a vintage McDonalds sponsorship sticker slapped on the side. The rusted base was planted in the ground at a leaning angle. It was joined by a host of washed out and faded advertisements nailed and stapled into the muddy brick. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the LA Coliseum, some hair band from the early 80’s called Tahee Cain. They all greeted John as he walked carefully.  He noticed the tire tracks in the layers of grime from the cement truck.

He stopped at the man sized imprint of a body on the newly paved ground. He crouched in front of it and shook his head. Any decent person would’ve refilled the hole. But he guessed they weren’t being paid enough to have empathy, and plus it looked like no one had even been in this place in twenty six years. Further down the alley was a powder blue garbage dumpster, a brave color for being in Trojan territory. It had all the old tags of street art that John recognized from his childhood. This seemed like as good as any place for a time displacement. Out of the way, forgotten, it beat appearing on a busy intersection naked as the day he was born with his mother huddled against him.

But beyond that fact, he had actually never heard of a time bubble opening above ground. It seemed strange and out of the ordinary. He wouldn’t believe it at first, but the fact that there were no signs of scorch marking or burnt out debris to dispute the clerk’s story. So he looked up and frowned in puzzlement. All he was looking for was in fact above him. Both retaining walls of the buildings had angled damage, as if the brick had been eroded away with a welding torch in a sphere design. He also noticed the usual scorch markings of the electrical interlude before the opening of the bubble all over the brick close to the roof.

If he could imagine what happened, he’d have to say that the displacement must have taken place above. From the tire tracks on the floor the time traveler must have landed on top of the cement mixer, dumping the pay load all over one of the workers as told from the imprint were they pulled him out. Once landed this old man, whoever he might be, must have broken the other worker’s neck in his disorientation. Without seeing what happened or have access to the body, John assumed it must have been a machine by the method of death.

There was a fire in his gut over helpless anger, knowing that the only way to track this one is to keep a close eye on the paper and the web for more deaths. Curiously he moved forward through the alley, looking for any sort of clue that might save some poor unwitting soul’s life. He sometimes, like Sarah, wondered how many people had to die. How many more sacrificed before it all ended, if it ever ended at all.

At the back of the alley behind a chain linked fence was a covered parking lot filled with expensive cars. Their make and model was obscured by a steaming manhole that billowed stacks of hot air to the surface. The closer John got, the more humid and uncomfortable the environment. The humidity and smell was like stepping back into the rainforests and jungles of his childhood.  Closer to the end of the alleyway, near the manhole at least one of many mysterious smells could be identified. He placed his hands in his jacket pockets as he squatted in front of the item of his curiosity.

 It was the corpse of a common alley cat. She was lying face down in a draining puddle, her head turned at an odd angle. John squinted in disgust at the sight of the feline’s stomach opened up. Her ribs where shown in the open and a pile of intestines were crowded around her broken paws. It looked as if some large, vicious animal had ripped out her insides, before breaking her neck and discarding the body.

Suddenly there was something dangerous in the air. He felt the wind change and now amongst the smell of heated water, was something raw and dusty. The closest he could describe it was the sent of left over ember and ash after a campfire had been doused. There was a prickle that went up the back of his neck and his breath became ragged, as his heart pumped faster. The anxiety of knowing that you were being watched by a predator filled his chest. Slowly and cautiously he used his gut to pinpoint the location.

Behind the stacks of steam and fence, amongst the high class cars in the lot something hunched in the shadows. John could make out the outline of wizened, ragged stubble of white on a strong jaw. But amongst the very little he could make out there was always the striking red eyes reflected in the dimmed light. They watched him from the dark of the garage with a look of repressed aggression and a stoic sense of puzzled curiosity. But even then there was no mistaking that they were eyes of a pure killer at the top of his food chain.

BUZZ! BUZZ!

John flinched at the vibration of his phone within his jacket. He swiftly removed it from his pocket with the intention of dropping whoever it was at the very moment. He did a double take from the familiar number back to the fence only to find that the predatory eyes had disappeared as had the large muscular shadow. Squinting hard, John tried to get his vision past the thick stacks of white steam to the darkness beyond. He strained till he hurt himself and his phone came alive again. With one hand he rubbed them in irritation as he answered the angry buzzing with a long agitated sigh.

This time there was what sounded like hard taps of passive aggression on the opposite line’s number pad. Her beeps corresponded clumsily with the code.  “There … happy?” There was a sickly sweet whip to her bitter voice.

“Ecstatic.” John replied dryly, blinking hard before giving a second look at the parking garage to see a group of oblivious young people piling into a yellow Hummer. Riley sounded a good deal more miffed at him in the five minutes that they had been separated by phone line. He knew something must have happened in the store. In this part of town there was more of a likely hood that a nasty exchange had taken place in his absence. Riley Dawson could be called many things, most positive, but in this part of town she stood out like a sore thumb.

“Your five minutes are up, Cat Fancy.”

John stood to full height still watching the empty garage carefully. “You said seven.” He challenged distractedly. There was a growl of a sneer that he could somehow see her making as they spoke.

“What’s the difference?”

He rolled his eyes and decided to give up the ghost. “How about two minutes according to the laws of the universe.” He answered with a huff of … he wasn’t quite sure what to make of his encounter with whatever it was or how he should feel about it.

“Oh yeah, and when has the laws of the universe ever applied to you, John?”

He began to slowly trudge out of the alleyway back into the populated street. “Depends on which scientist you ask … If you don’t believe in String Theory than they don’t apply at all.” He scoffed in the mouth of the narrow corridor. He watched overhead as the grey clouds, had grown a shade darker, and had become heavier since his time at the crime scene. 

“Whatever, Smart Ass, just come meet me at the store down the street from your cellphone place.”

The line crackled with static. He glared at the phone while he snapped it shut. Now he was more convinced than ever that something was going on at that dress shop. Being his mother’s son, he’d give almost anything to not have to walk into whatever drama was brewing. There were more pressing matters to speak of.  But with no leads or more clues in the real reason he had come to this place, he really couldn’t find another excuse not to go. With a resign huff he made his way down the street.

Overhead, perched on top of a red tiled roof, a hunched figure sat stoically. It watched the young man passively navigate through bushels of women. They all looked the same, young and middle aged. Each wanting to be the other in their style of dress and attitude toward one another, a pursuit of happiness never found in a repeating revolving door of material want and age envy.  They stuck to their groups, like traveling packs of wildebeest, carrying fancy shopping bags. In the first clap of ear popping thunder, it watched everyone go into a managed sprint in their high healed footwear as they scattered. Meanwhile, ever calm, John Connor folded up his collar hunching down for protection from the intruding droplets only moments away.

In a flash of a new Lightning bolt, dangerous red eyes glowed bright.

DING!

The first thing John noticed about “Bows before Hose” was that the stereo was turned up more than any self-respecting person might want too when playing the Pop Music they were. By the time John had jumped from 1999 he was still reeling from the crazed boy band epidemic and the rise of the Spice Girls. Coming into 2007 he found that the sound of the bane of his existence had somehow been perverted into some strange mixture of the same tired recycled lyrics and a mind numbing, repetitive club sound. In John’s opinion it made everything seem trashier. But while he questioned the self-respect of the owner and manager, he couldn’t question the angle they were playing too. It was after all prom season and the more teenage girls they attracted the better for profit.

The store was run of the mill for the real-estate they were on. Usually the stores in this part of town had some sort of gimmick that oozed uniqueness and expense. But the mediocrity might be more telling than any other detail John could surmise. It was a status-quo store. One good look around at the one and two piece dresses, the mermaid, and short skirts all on the metal racks, the wooden paneling and pearly white painted walls … you could go down La Brea and find the same stuff and prices. But if you were a teenage girl and told your friends that you bought your dress in the hills, it just might earn you points in the popularity rackets. Suddenly John was relieved that he didn’t go to High School anymore to be surrounded by that culture.

From the moment he entered he drew stares. John was sure that he wasn’t the first guy to come in here, but then he was by himself.  But the girl behind the counter gave him a once over of interest. The older business woman in the back with the helmet hair and striped pant suit looked disappointed knowing he wasn’t there to buy. There were a group of younger girls huddled, chattering in hushed whispers and giggles. He wasn’t sure if it was because they thought he was good looking, or if they were mocking him for walking into a dress store on his own. But then he wasn’t the only guy there surprisingly.

“Morris?” John strode past racks of endless sequence to a young Hispanic teen rocking back and forth on his skater shoes. The boy flinched at the call of his name, nearly tipping over a scantily clad chest piece. It would seem that the curiosity of solving a mystery involving the existence of the manikin’s nipples had possessed the boy in “The Cure” vintage t-shirt. His guilty look of shame as he held a tipped over manikin in a salsa pose quickly was replaced with jovial surprise at the sight of his old friend.

“John?” He laughed as they met in front of a display of feather lined purple sequence dresses. They grasped hands in a firm greeting and gave a half hug with a shoulder touch and pat. “What are you doing here, man?” He asked tossing away John’s hand in a playfully abrasive manner that only teenage boys could.

John sighed wearily. “Ah, Riley … Prom.” He motioned his head to the back.

Morris nodded. “She asked you?” The spiky haired youth seemed impressed. In the pressure cooker of raging hormones, Riley Dawson was obviously well equipped to be the fantasy of many young men in the halls of Campo de Cahuenga High School. 

The green eyed teen frowned. “I don’t think we even discussed it.” It suddenly dawned on John that he was helping Riley with her prom dress and yet he hadn’t even considered going himself. What the hell was he even doing? It was these moments that made him question himself. All he ever did was argue with Sarah on how he wanted a normal life and yet his instincts when alone was to consider it all a baffling waste of time. Given prospective from other people, he sometimes wondered how good of a person he was truly becoming. Somewhere deep down he knew he was making the woman he loved more than anything’s life so hard over a principle he himself found fruitless.

But his response to his guilty revelation was to give a scoffed laugh to his friends commiserating chuckle. There was an awkward silence as John looked around to find what exactly had brought Morris here as well, other than to perv on the life sized dolls. Then it dawned on him.

“You … found someone to go with you?” He smiled while giving him a congratulating shake of the shoulder. “Congrats man.” He complimented with honest admiration. It had been really hard to see the kid with a girl. The last time they had chatted some females up, John had been the guy’s wing man. Sadly Morris was trying too hard and when he squirted milk from his nose at his target’s passing unfunny pun, they agreed to give it another six weeks before trying someone else. 

There was something confused in the boy’s eyes after John’s congratulations. “What are you talking about, you knew that.” He said with a chuckle, punching John in the shoulder lightly.

His brow furrowed. “Knew what?” he asked with the shake of his head.

Morris turned his head and looked around. “Come on, man.” He laughed after a double take, as if John was trying to pull a fast one. “You were there.” He punched John again.

“John!”

Squinting in confusion the young man followed the call of his name to the blond figure sweeping toward him. Riley dramatically appeared to break up the boys conversation and her dress seemed to do all the heavy lifting. She wore a two piece skin tight dress of black sequence. The top was a formless black handkerchief tied onto her bare pale back like a bikini. Her bare midriff was on full display down to her tight sequenced skirt that shimmered in the store lights. It left little to the imagination in the constriction and the high slit up to almost her curvy hips.

“Paint me like one of your French girl’s, Squinchy!” She announced dramatically with upturned wrist attached to her forehead, leaning back against a wood enclosed rack of accessories. John stared at her for a long moment, though not as hard apparently as a shell shocked Morris who looked to be on the verge of going blind. His jaw hung open as John remained cool under her obvious attempt to get some sort of reaction out of him as per-usual. 

He gave one glance at Morris who seemed to have been frozen into a human statue and sighed. “Is that the one you really want?” he asked, scratching behind his ear, ignoring Morris. Riley just frowned playfully.

“What do you think?” She asked.

“You’re gorgeous …” Morris said finally. John frowned and turned to his friend, crossing his arms. “I mean … it’s gorgeous … on you.” He quickly fumbled over his words.

Riley smirked smugly, nodding her head victoriously. “And what do you think?” She asked, turning to John.

“It’s perfect …”

John had immediately quirked his eyebrow toward Morris who had once again answered for him. Both teens watched the youth distractedly take a hold of one of the manikins under arm, staring at Riley. John cleared his throat into a fist and leaned forward.

“It’s, uh …”

“Curvy …”

“Alright, why don’t we just go somewhere to talk about it in private?” John motioned Riley toward the back end of the store. In passing he patted Morris on the shoulder with a shake of his head as they departed leaving the boy to watch blond teen go while still cradling the manikin.

 The girl led the way toward the dressing rooms. It wasn’t that John didn’t admire what he knew Riley wanted him too. It just felt all so forced, like she was trying too hard. He couldn’t help but feel like all of this had to do with whatever had gone on in his absence. She was any young man’s dream, but all of this was starting to make him wonder what she was trying to prove and to whom.

There was a little plaza at the end of the rows of wooden racks and stiffly fibered carpets that made up the dressing room area. Decorated white tile lined the floors that had three separate waiting benches screwed into it. In between the four curtain drawn rooms was a triangular groove within the wall with twin mirrors on each side.

“So what do you think?” Riley gave the dress a twirl, when she returned he could tell that she was expecting a certain answer from him.

He gave her a long look. “Is this what you really want?” He asked poignantly with doubt ever present in his voice. The girl looked playful, if not grudging underneath at John Connor’s usual inherited Sturm to her devil-may-care attitude.

“Can you imagine me showing up in this Slave Leia outfit, and your mom answering the door?” She laughed.

A cold shiver went visibly down his spine. “I’d rather not.” He admitted.

She laughed at his glazed face of fear at even the thought of the scenario. “What do you think? too square for her?” She asked with a suggestive wink.

“She’s worn worst.” He shuttered again at the hammering of repressed memories beating on the gates of his frontal lobe.

“You’re joking …”

“I wish I was.” He sighed. “I’m going to ask you again, is this really the one you want?” he asked with a more stern voice. The tone he used to speak with her seemed to touch a cord. The lack of interest in what she was doing and plotting stung her into a defensive shift in personality. There was even a glimmer of annoyance. These were all little things that he was sure that the girl hadn’t bothered to wonder if he noticed.

She looked around, before she spoke. “You can’t say it, can you?” She asked in a huff.

John glared. “Say what?” He sighed.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?”

“What do you want me to say, Riley?”

“To say I look nice, that I’m beautiful, John. Is it that hard?” She was pressing him and it didn’t feel like it had anything to do with the dress.

He nodded. “It might be … especially when I’m not the one you’re doing this for.” He replied hotly. John Connor was his parents’ child. In both Reese and Connor families when pressed too hard they tended to lash out and John showed his heritage.

Stricken by his words, the blond backed down. “What do you mean?” She looked uncomfortable.

“What do you think you’re trying to prove by doing this?!” Emerald orbs got darker. 

There was a sudden blankness to crystal colored eyes. “I’m a teenage girl, John. We like to do stuff like this …” her voice seemed to take a different, unfeeling tone.

John grabbed Riley’s hand and turned it up. She watched him check her palms. “I guess you memorized your lines, pretty good this time.” She ripped her hand out of his grip. “That bull works on lighters, not prom dresses. If you got something to tell me you best say it now.” He warned her.

Cornered, the girl reached out and slapped him in the face. All in the store turned to watch the exchange at the echo of violence. In the aftermath John didn’t flinch, or cover the red hand mark on his face. There was something dangerous in his eyes though as he stood silently watching the very breath the girl drew.

“Forget it, forget you, forget all of it.” Riley stormed away under his murderous glare to one of the rooms. She entered and quickly drew the curtain back behind her with an angry slide of rings on metal. When she was gone, the teen rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.

Turning he paced away from bench and tile, back to carpet. He leaned on the first wooden rack he could find and gave a calming breath, letting it all drain out. The endless wheels of his mind turned like complicated clockwork as he watched a surly store clerk tug in contest before finally ripping a manikin from Morris’s grip.

 He had gotten under Riley’s skin in a bad way this time, so much so that she had resorted to violence. Though it seemed strange that her needing him to complement on her dress seemed extreme, he still came to the conclusion that it was something else. But that seemed to be the problem with Riley in general. Fun, bubbly, and boundless energy, Riley Dawson at the end of the day still had something else on her mind when she was with him. He was starting to piece it together, but his theory needed hard evidence before he let it blow his life apart. If what he thought every night as he went to bed was in fact true, it would mean that all the bridges he had burned and people he was hurting for just this ounce of normality would had been for nothing.

He wasn’t sure he could handle that.

“John?”

The minute it he heard the stoic voice of angelic innocence that spoke his name with such reverence and affection that it destroyed him, John knew what was going on with Riley. Like every day since the moment she asked him his name in some classroom a thousand years ago, her very presence brought out an aggression of a tortured man.

“I should’ve known.”

Playing wing man to Morris, watching TV with Riley, all of it was that which was expected of John. That is what everyone thought John wanted, normalcy. But it wasn’t. What John Connor wanted was so far from the normal life he had once dreamed of. In the dark of the night he wanted just one thing, one impossible thing that pained his very soul. Every day was pushing a boulder up a hill to fix himself after his great aching heart filled with such longing had torn him apart like a flock of hungry crows. What John Connor wanted was the one thing he could never have, that traveled ever in his shadow as he led her through a never ending underworld, ensuring that he could never turn around to look at her.

When he turned to face the cyborg sworn to protect him, he wished he hadn’t. A slender girl slowly appeared from behind a curtain. She wore a strapless evening gown made of a glimmering fabric the color of light peach with silvery sequins traveling down the sheer material like rivers of light. Her creamy tanned skin was scrubbed and moisturized till it shimmered in the light. While silky chocolate ringlets spilled glossily down her bare back. There was just the ghost of an ever present look of everlasting affection for the boy standing in front of her. Riley Dawson was dressed to seduce and distract, but Cameron was the opposite— a pillar of purity and virtue, the angel.

There was something almost hurt in her golden eyes when he averted his with the cover of his hand. Like a bright light, it seemed to pain him just to see her this way. “What are you doing here?!” he asked angrily.

“Shopping for a prom dress.” She replied without missing a beat.

“Why?” He chanced a look and knew it was a moment too long. He was captured by her and there was no turning back now.

Golden eyes seemed so blank, and yet it seemed as if he was the only one who saw something inside. “I was asked, you told me to say yes.” She explained with a tilt of her head. It hit him even before she could finish. It was the day they attacked Sarkissian’s hideout, the dead thug in the trunk. He had been so desperate to get home he had barely given it a thought when Morris asked.

“Well who the hell, told you to come here?!” He shouted at her. A part of him was filled with a helpless jealousy, an angered fire over the blunder.

The cyborg girl watched him with a long gaze. Finally she bowed her head in a silent yield. “I’ll leave.” She agreed. It felt like someone was hammering his insides to watch her turn and reoccupy her changing room. Covering his eyes again, he never felt worse in his life in that moment.

There was a deep anger that he couldn’t explain or control. It was just the way she looked at him, the devotion in her menial tasks concerning him, the way she hung off every word he ever said. It was hard feeling the way he did and knowing that it was all more than Riley had ever done for him. It was even worse trying to make a normal, ordinary, and sanctioned relationship work ever surrounded by perfection. The constant battles the two girls fought and for what? What future did he have with Cameron, and yet she still made it harder for him coming after Riley like this, prodding the blond girl.  He was ever tortured knowing his love came to no end. Wondering if everything he longed for was a preprogrammed response of a killer and anything else was in his head that could get him killed. But she was beautiful and innocent, filled with a naivety of the world that made her so easy to fill your heart with. John Connor may be a legend someday, but till then he was only human. How could he not fall in love with her, how could anyone not?

He strode forward without thinking, without caring. He followed her to her dressing stall and opened Cameron’s curtain. The girl had just slipped the zipper down her back when he entered. She looked up as he came inside with surprise.

“I’m sorry …” He apologized. Closing the curtain he stepped closer. “I’m sorry.” He repeated again with a sigh. He reached out and touched her hair with an instinct of someone in deep regret. He stroked her hair once. Her eyes following his hand alerted him of what he was doing. He quickly retracted his hand and cleared his throat. He squinched his eyes shut and gave a deep breath. “I’m sorry.” He said one last time. Wordlessly he turned to leave.

“John?”

The way she said his name it was like hitting a brick wall. He couldn’t move and escape the way she said it.

“Yeah?” He didn’t turn around.

“Can you zip me up?” She asked with a delicate courtesy.

He returned to her and her golden eyes and nodded without a word.  Moving closer, she turned away from him. He could feel the warm skin of her bareback as he began pulling the zipper up. In the tight confines he was enticed by the girly shampoo she had always bought, somehow knowing how much he loved the smell of it. Still fresh from the morning shower it was like a narcotic so close to his nostrils.

He didn’t know who he was and maybe he didn’t even care when he buried his nose into her ringlets whiffing it gently. So close to one another it was like being under a spell, bodies being controlled by a universe of feelings. The small space was toxic with all that had not been said and never could be. Cameron turned her head watching him, as his hand reached up her bareback when he was done with her zipper. Cameron reached out a slender hand capturing his cheek with the red mark. There was such an intensity of hormones and repressed feelings that at the gentle touch of his skin, the care in her rubbing of the mark, a single tear fell from his green eyes. Her response was puzzled and yet her face lightened. In golden orbs it was as if no one else was in the world but John. There were no words needed when they gazed into each other’s eyes. John was faltering inside, his heart bursting with longing, hurt, and so much love. He needed her, needed her in every way a sentient being needed another.

Slowly the gap began to close between them. Both occupants feeling not themselves and yet showing to one another what they had become in sight of each other every day without absolution. It was madness and a curiosity, a journey into a bottomless pit and not ever wanting to turn away.

“Cameron?”

Their momentum was halted by the voice of reason. Not a voice in their head or in their space. It was the voice of Morris standing outside the changing rooms wondering where his future date had gone too. John didn’t take the final plunge into madness that morning. While their friend called for Cameron again she turned away from his lips. He gave long breath into her curls and closed his eyes. She let him rest his head against her curls and his hand on her shoulder. They collected themselves in a moment of calm before she allowed herself to move away from John. Before she exited, Cameron gave one last gaze of something sparking behind the great wall of stoicism, before departing back into the real world.

 Everything hurt and nothing made sense in the emptiness of the tight dressing room. John Connor’s heart raced and mind lost any amount of function. It was like walking into heaven and having the gates closed right in front of him. Paradise’s ethereal warmth and light a step away, a beauty like he had never seen before just in his embrace and yet so far away. 

It hurt so much he wanted to die.

Stepping out of the dressing stall like a man dazed, he watched with hardened eyes as Morris reacted in the only appropriate way. He was speechless and stuttered over the cyborg, it might have been the happiest he’d ever seen his friend. He’d never let a soul see how haunted he was over it, holding himself up only by a wooden handle on a rack. A buzz from his phone and the punching of a code accompanied the sight of a blond haired girl in a familiar leather jacket storm out into the rain.

“Yeah, mom?”

“What’s wrong, John?”

The young man’s hurt green eyes met his protector’s across the store.

“Everything.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


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