Old Man Young Man, Bright Then Dark
As the Security Officer approached and the basketball rolled into the grass, Dexter Max was acutely aware of his knuckles. He could feel the bloody, burning patches getting sticky and itchy where they’d split. Soon they’d be chapped and cracking.
“Hold it.” the Security Officer said, his voice distorted. Mikey Tucker groaned and tried to struggle to his feet.
“Hold it!” the Security Officer said again, aiming his Expediation Gun at Mikey’s back.
“Whoah.” Dexter said hoarsely. “Whoah! Wait! He didn’t do anything! I mean I fouled him and he got mad, but it’s fine! We’re fine now!”
He had forgotten that a Security Officer passed through the park every night. Dexter couldn’t say whether it was the same one each time or whether it had never been the same man more than once. They all looked more or less alike in all that armor and padding. They sounded alike too, their voices distorted into a mechanical croak by a scrambler installed behind the mirror-shields masking their faces.
“Stay on the ground.” the Security Officer said, shaking the Gun. You had to learn to tell from their body language if they were agitated-that damn voice scrambler.
Mikey was dazed. He was rocking his head from side to side, seeming not to see the Security Officer or hear Dexter.
“Mikey, stay down!” Dexter pleaded, but instead Mikey began to stand. The Security Officer reached behind his back for one of the riot battons that peeked over his shoulders like wings. The baton cracked against Mikey’s scalp, leaving him sprawled against the concrete again, his limbs spasming.
“Stay down!” Dexter cried again, but at this point that was about all Mikey could do. The Security Officer was definitely riled now-he was pounding away on Mikey with rapid, jerky thumps.
“He’s down!” Dexter screamed. “Hey! Stop!”
He meant to just grab the Officer by the wrist. But once he felt the baton glance against his ear, once the jolt of pain shot down the side of his body, he was back in the fight. His fist was a brick. His arm was spring loaded and a red curtain fell over the world. The Security Officer’s mask was a reflective target.
Sharp granules of plastic dug into the bloody valleys between his knuckles. As he watched the Security Officer fall, Dexter thought of a Christmas card he’d made in fifth grade by drawing a tree on a piece of construction paper with a glue stick then dousing it with glitter.
The Security Officer stared up at him through the shattered mask. Dexter looked down at his hand and saw that he was clutching the riot baton.
The Security Officer scrambled for his Expediation Gun.
“Crime,” he said quickly, his true voice audible now under the drone of the scrambler. “Assault with a deadly weapon. Verdict-”
“Wait.” Dexter said, dropping the baton. “Wait!”
“-guilty.” he said, pointing the Gun. “Sentence.”
He pulled the trigger.
If he had to pick a worst part, Dexter would probaby say that it was telling his mother. When she first saw him, she screamed, first with horror, then with fury. She burned hot for all of ten minutes before she ran out of breath and choked on a sob. Dexter went to comfort her, but she pushed him away.
He couldn’t really blame her. He couldn’t know what it was like from her end. He’d never been a single mom. He’d never had a seventeen year old son come home looking sixty. After she locked herself in her bedroom, he could stil hear her crying some more, talking to her own mother on the phone. Dexter looked in his mirror, examining himself. His face hung off of his skull like a wet rag. He tried a dozen different expressions to make it cling tighter. He even tried holding the excess skin up with his fingers.
Getting out of the house the next morning was the hardest thing Dexter had ever done. Every routine task-taking a shower, brushing his teeth-revealed some gruesome new byproduct of his metamorphoses. Bloody, oversensitive gums. The pop and creak of his joints under the hot water. A shriveled ballsack that seemed to hang halfway down his leg. But he carried on, willing himself not to think.
“I’ve gotta get high.” he realized suddenly. He dressed himself in jeans and a white t-shirt that hung limply off of his sloped shoulders. He had to hold up his pants to keep them from falling to the floor.
Dexter raised a hand to block out the white sun and began his five block trek. Three blocks in, his shirt was coated in sweat. He was lightheaded and had to stop to breathe, so he sat down in a front yard, hugging his knees. He wouldn’t have needed more than five minutes to recover, but in two a squad car skidded to a stop in front of him. Dexter scrambled to his feet.
“You.” A Security Officer droned, stepping out of the car and making for Dexter. “Move along. You’re loitering.”
“I’m going!” Dexter wheezed, holding his hands up in the air. “I’m gone already.”
“Do you need an escort to the shelter?” Dexter had heard some pretty fucked up stories about the Jamaica-Queens shelter. He’d heard them secondhand of course, but he still wasn’t in a hurry to find out if the place really pulled double-duty as a dark place to shoot up and a recruitment center for bumfighting rings.
“I’m not homeless.” he muttered.
“Whatever you say old man.” the Officer said, turning back to the car.
Dexter ignored the stares and gasps he got when he arrived at Andre’s, holding a fistful of twenty five sweaty dollars and promising five more later. Andre told him to forget the five and have a seat. He and his roommates were watching a Shark Tank marathon. Dexter didn’t move from his spot on the sofa for two hours. The others were quiet, their eyes only breaking from the T.V. when it was time to take a hit from the bowl being passed around the room. Next to Dexter sat a boy that’d been a down-the-street neighbor since they were both seven and who’d busted Dexter’s collar bone playing football in the backyards.
Two episodes later Mikey showed up in the same clothes he’d worn the day before. He was plastered with sweat, and there was forgotten a cigarette tucked behind his ear. The second Andre let him in, Mikey’s eyes fell on Dexter and widened. Dexter could see angry red criscrossing his iris where he’d burst a blood vessel. Andre invited him to come in, but Mikey shook his head, bought his bag and ran off. Dexter didn’t stay much longer. His next stop was work.
Mr. Kozak sighed and balled up the grease soaked wrapper from his lunch as Dexter told his story, a few stray fries skidding across his desk. He tossed the ball of wax paper in the trash and scribbled a few words on a post-it note that he stuck to the desk facing Dexter.
“Read it.” he demanded. Dexter squinted. He leaned down so his nose was almost touching the note and strained.
“Your eyes are shot.” Kozak belched. Dexter glared at him.
“No they’re not.”
“Yes they are. You took too long to read names.”
Dexter wanted to reach across the desk and choke him through his fat neck, to throw him up against the wall and spit in his face.
“I unload trucks. I can see well enough to do that.”
“You have to read the labels. It takes you too long to read labels, you waste time, time is money. No good. Like Rosie. Remember Rosie?”
Rosa had been a cashier at the front end. Dexter had gone to middle school with her. She had had light brown eyes and a smile that seemed too big for her face. Security Officers caught her in the parking lot before a high school football game with a bag of weed. She’d made the mistake of making a run for it and they’d hit her from the back, taking fifty years. The impact had knocked her off of her feet and her hip had shattered against the concrete. Since she couldn’t stand at the cash register anymore, Kozak had fired when she came in for her next shift. She was the reason Dexter had thought to come and beg for his job.
“No.” Dexter had responded. “Not really.”
Back home, Dexter climbed wearily into the shower and moaned as the hot water burned feeling back into his fingers, toes and private parts, relaxing the knotted muscles in his back and shoulders. He dried himself and dug through his drawers for some kaki pants and a button down shirt he used to wear to church. He looked at least a little more at-home in them than he had wearing saggy jeans. He ran his hand over his chin and felt sandpapery stubble.
There was a knock at the door.
Mikey didn’t want to come inside. He didn’t look at Dexter’s face. He just stared down at his sneakers and muttered
“I think I can help you.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “How? You gonna help me get to bingo night? Pick up my meds?” Mikey shook his head.
“My brother knows a guy.” he muttered. “Who knows someone else. Who knows how it works. Expediation.” Dexter opened his mouth to to tell him to fuck off, then paused.
Mikey’s brother, as it turned out, knew a guy who’s dad had known a guy in prison decades ago, before Expediation. After he was released, The Man In Question was caught comitting an armed robbery. They took twenty years, and according to Mikey, The Man barely broke stride. The same thing happened when he was caught six months later in a stolen car. He was immune.
Mikey’s friend’s father picked him up in a blue Chevy Malibu. Dexter waved to the man behind the wheel as he descended the front steps. He’d gotten some old-man-clothes from a Goodwill, and a long, tan jacket that protected his thin body from the wind. He didn’t handle the cold as well as he used to. He climbed into the passenger’s seat with a sigh, greeting the driver with a nod. The man was in his sixties, but he’d gotten there the old fashioned way. It hadn’t taken Dexter long to learn the difference between the naturally aged and the Expediated. There were subtle signs to look out for, even in the ones that didn’t run around in denial, breaking bones and giving themselves heart attacks.
Dexter thanked the man as he dropped him off at a nondescript looking house surrounded by chain link fence. As Dexter walked through the gap in the fence, two mottled-grey pitbulls emerged from either side of the house, charging. As their barks cut through the dull morning, the front door swung open.
“Hogan!” boomed a deep voice. “Ray! Get over here!” The Pitbullls wheeled around and bounded back to the house. They darted in between the big man’s feet.
“Sorry ‘bout that.” The Man In Question said. He was still standing in the house, in the shadows, just beyond the light. “You can come on in.” Dexter followed him.
“You want anything?” The Man called. He was in the kitchen, a dark room sepperated from the area where Dexter sat by a counter. Dexter could hear him banging around, moving pots, pans and dishes. He heard the sizzling sound of something on a frying pan. “Hungry?”
“Nah.” Dexter said. His mouth was dry and the contents of his stomach felt like they’d been curdled by the sour air. “Thanks though.” The Man chuckled richly.
“You know,” he said, “I usually wouldn’t agree to meet someone like this. But Nate’s a good ol’ friend of mine. Made my days in prison a little more bearable.” Dexter heard him flip the thing he was frying and squinted, trying to get a better look. All he could see was a hulking shape, clad in a white t-shirt.
“Thanks.” Dexter said finally. “Heard you got hit with an Expediation Gun.” The Man chuckled again.
“You heard right. A couple times. I heard the same happened to you.” Dexter nodded.
“Just once. Got in a fight with my friend. Didn’t see the Security Officer.”
Dexter’s eyes adjusted to the musty darkness. The blinds were drawn and light fell on the carpet in rows of gold bars. The corners were filled in with stacks of mildewy pro-wrestling magazines, with a few copies of Hustler spliced in, and the ceiling was stained with blotches of congealed cigarette smoke the color of stomach acid. Dexter could feel the sharp end of a broken spring through the couch cushion. One of the pitbulls, laying by the side of the couch, growled softly as he shifted around trying to get comfortable. He heard the wet slap of The Man scooping his meal onto a plate, then the scrape of a fork, followed by a sigh. The Man turned to Dexter, standing just beyond the reach of the window’s light.
“Look man,” he said. “I agreed to meet you ‘cuz Nate asked me to. But I can’t set you right. And I can’t tell you who can unless I know you won’t bring Security Officers down on me.”
“I won’t.” Dexter said quickly.
“I can’t know you won’t bring the Security Officers down on me” he continued, “unless I know you know what you’re dealin’ with. And that means scarin’ you. So stay calm. I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
The Man set his plate down on the coffee table. On it was something black and greasy, congealed into chunks and sticking to the glass.
“A long time ago,” he said, and then for emphasis “a long time ago, I was the baddest. Me and my partner, we was the fuckin’ boogeyman in this town. I was the reason you locked your door. And I just got worse and worse. And one day I got so bad...”
The Man stepped into the light and suddenly Dexter felt like he might lose control of his bowels and take a squirting shit, down both pant legs and onto the dirty carpet.
“I changed.” The Man finished simply.
It was like his entire body had been chapped over with the glossy coating of a scab. Every inch of skin was shiny and transparent, the flesh beneath rancid. Rotten meat stuffed into shrink-wrap. His eyes were clouded over, his pupils and irises barely visible through a milky mist.
“And that change kept me alive a long time. Longer than anyone’s s’posed to live. My partner too. So the Feds decided we’d lived long enough. Shit, they sent half an army to come take us down. My partner didn’t make it, but I got away. I’d end up in prison soon, after takin’ another name, but that day I got away.” The Man In Question stepped back into the shadows and Dexter realized he hadn’t been breathing. He inhaled and choked. He started coughing. The Man continued.
“They took something from him.” he said, picking up his plate and gouging the glistening black stuff with his fork. “And they changed it. And they put it in those guns. The first time I got hit with one of those fuckin’ things I knew. It’s the same.” He shoveled a forkful of the stuff into his mouth. As he chewed, Dexter nodded.
“If anyone can help you,” The Man said, “It’s the company that makes those Guns. They’re close. Upstate.” Dexter nodded and stood.
“Thanks.” he said, breathlessly, staggering backwards. “Thanks.” He pulled the door open, making his way outside. He heard The Man chuckle on last time. The pitbulls trotted at Dexter’s heels, escorting him across the lawn.
“Good luck man!” he called. “I’ll be prayin’ for you!”
Dexter headed home, planning to get on a northbound bus the next morning. But after packing his bags, looking up the name of the company online and shouting his plan through his mother’s still-locked door, he knew he wouldn’t sleep that night. So he went to the Port Authority. It didn’t take long before he found a bus heading upstate. By the time they were jerkily navigating their way out of the city, pinkish-grey light was peeking over the skyline. He hated looking at his shrunken, raisen-bran reflection, so once they were on the open highway, he tried to sleep. But when he closed his eyes, he saw those sharp barbs launching from the Expediation Gun, digging into his chest like fangs. He felt the life and years being sucked out of him through the wires leading back into the weapon. Dexter shuddered and pulled his jacket over his face.
New Day Solutions was in Ithaca, not far from the college campus. Dexter studied a map in the bus terminal. He was still a mile and a half from where he needed to be. Already chilled to the marrow, he started to walk.
Ithaca was a city of hills so steep they seemed almost vertical. Walking up and down the inclines, Dexter was afraid he’d fall and dislocate something, or break his hand catching himself, or crack his skull like brittle glass. He began to sweat. Finally he found himself at the University. Even before, he would have felt out of place here. Now he might as well have been a leper, or a zombie, or a fucking white-walker straight out of the Land of Always Winter. Clusters of students stared, squinting through hangovers, with backpacks slung over their shoulders and sweathshirts emblazoned with the University’s big red logo. Dexter walked faster, behind some buildings he guessed were full of classrooms, through a row of dormitories and past a student union that looked like a fucking Harry Potter castle, and all at once he was off campus. And there it was. New Day Solutions, a building ribbed with jutting chrome arches and panelled with wide, bluish windows. Shakily, he passed through a parking lot packed with Hybrids and Smartcars, approaching two swinging glass doors with steel and mahogany handles.
Inside it was quiet. There was a woman behind a chrome reception desk shaped like a crescent-moon, but she didn’t look up when he entered. On the wall was a massive oil painting of a Security Officer in full armor on one knee, offering a daisy to a little black girl. Standing behind them was a white haired man wearing a blue, pinstriped suit, a red tie, and a benign smile.
It occurred to Dexter jarringly that he didn’t have a plan. Evidently he was supposed to find the creators of the Expediation technology and-what? Bribe them? Threaten them? Demand they turn him back? Take their picture and use it to publicly shame them on Twitter? The receptionist finally looked up, her face illuminated by a radiant smile, complete with the flash of antispectic-white teeth and a sparkle that lit up her spearmint green eyes.
“Well hello there!” she said, speaking in a voice Dexter would have reserved for puppies and toddlers. “Are you here for the tour?”
“Well.” Dexter said. “Yeah. Yes ma’am.”
“Oh, fantastic!” she said. A pink flush darkened her cheeks, clashing with the cinnamon hair spilling down her shoulders. “And look at that! The rest of the tour group is here!” Dexter looked over his shoulder. A group of children was streaming into the lobby, their big yellow bus idling outside. Each one wore a color-coded bracelet that matched them to another child in the group. The buddy system, Dexter remembered. His buddy had always been a girl named Amanda who liked sour apple lip gloss.
“You must be Mrs. Hollander’s class!” the receptionist said brightly. The teacher brusquely shook the receptionist’s hand. “If you’re all ready, we can start right away!” A few of the children were looking nervously up at Dexter. The receptionist tucked a silver clipboard beneath her arm and punched a password into a keypad. There was a click as a door to the side of the reception desk unlocked.
“You can all follow me!” she said, brightly.
“Welcome to New Day Solutions!” the receptionist said, sounding as though she had to strain to contain herself. “This ‘office’- if you can really call it that, houses over 200 employees-or, as we call them, Problem Solvers! The building is open 24/7, so Problem Solvers can come and go as they please, but even so, most work 40 hours a week or more. And it’s not hard to see why!” She gestured to their surroundings as she led them through a plaza. Three bookish looking men and a purple-haired girl were immersed in a game of pool. On a couch by the window, another Problem Solver was napping. Further along, a Chinese Problem Solver and another with a braided beard played ping-pong by a coffee bar. The woman behind the bar had a face cluttered with dramatic piercings and her ears sagged with the weight of black gauges.
“We’ve got everything our employees need here, including...” on cue, the woman at the coffee bar produced a tray of sample sized cups. “Coffee!” half the children chirped in unison, mobbing the bar and extending sticky fingers toward the tray.
“Kids. Line. Form a line.” their teacher said, noncommittally.
“Yes, we like our coffee here at NDS-And speaking of caffeine-fiends, here comes Josh!”
A tall black man in designer jeans and a t-shirt approached the coffee bar. He was model handsome and muscular, and his smile matched the receptionist’s in its unrelenting radiance.
“I’ve got to have my double shot red eye at 3 P.M.” he said, grinning at the barista who responded with an affectionate ‘oh, you!’ sort of smirk. “Otherwise...” He rested his head on the receptionist’s shoulder and feigned obnoxious snoring. The whole class giggled as they slurped up the black sludge congealed at the bottom of their drinks and licked the whipped cream from their upper lips. Dexter had dated a girl who’d been in their high school’s play. She’d somehow convinced him to come watch her perform, and the acting had been only slightly worse than this. Josh had clearly been in this show before, and he was no De Niro. He was barely even a Pacino. DiCaprio? Getting warmer. Dexter looked to the teacher for some inkling of recognition, but she was tapping away on an iPhone.
“Hey, wait a minute...” Josh said suddenly, crouching down to eye-level with the students. They stood at full attention. “Do you guys like basketball?”
Josh and the receptionist led the tour group up a spiral staircase at the far end of the plaza. On the second floor more Problem Solvers beamed at Dexter as though they were pleased as punch to have a sweaty, exhausted looking 60-some year old black man staggering through their office. Dexter began to sweat all over again when he noticed a pattern in the Problem Solvers. They passed a pretty blonde girl, a flannel-clad guy, a man with a lumberjack beard, a musclebound tank in a Black Flag t-shirt, and an asian girl. Then a man in suspenders, a girl wearing the One Ring on a chain, a man in a Pac-Man t-shirt, a woman in workout clothes and a hispanic guy. One in five was a minority. It wasn’t “roughly” one in five either. It was on the fucking dime.
At the gymnasium, Josh showed the students how to make a jump shot. Dexter stood nervously on the sideline, glancing at their teacher from the corner of his eye. She was drafting a long E-mail on her iPhone and occassionally glancing up to glare at her class. The receptionist was examining a document on her clipboard, making the occasional mark with a red pen. Slowly, Dexter shuffled sideways to stand next to her. He cleared his throat and the receptionist looked up.
“Hope you don’t mind this little detour.” she said, crinkling her nose and smiling mischievously. “We just love to have a little fun with younger tour groups while they’re here. You’ve probably guessed that we try to keep a playful vibe circulating in the workplace-we thrive on youth energy here. Plus, who knows? Maybe some of these kids will like what they see enough to become NDS Problem Solvers some day!”
“No. No it’s fine. I just was hoping you might tell me a little more about the company. Maybe the stuff you might leave out of the tour for younger folks.”
“Oh, of course!” she said, delighted. “Well, as you probably know, our trademark technology is the Expediation Gun. Twenty years ago, nearly three million people-one in every hundred adults in the United States-was incarcerated, and the federal government formed a comittee of congresspeople, police, intelligence experts and academics to find an alternative to long term incarceration.
Our founder, Richard Helm, was among those saddled with the burden of finding a solution. Helm was a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, and he applied his experience working on the European Youth Movement, Project MKULTRA and Operation Mockingbird to find an ingenious solution-Expediation Technology! With the help of scientists and engineers from around the world, he created a working prototype in under a year, less than half the time it took to complete the Manhattan Project! The solution was too radical for the rest of the committee, but Helm believed that he could still the revolving-door of the prison system for good. That’s when he founded New Day Solutions!”
For a moment, Dexter thought he saw Josh pause in the midst of teaching one of the girls how to bend her knees before shooting, but it was only a split second before his attention was again focussed on the students. The receptionist plowed on.
“Within a few years of the first Expediation Treatments, many states began to phase out their prison systems and state-sponsored police forces. The Expediation Guns, as they exist today, were first carried on patrol by Security Officers on the five year anniversary of the organization’s founding. On that day, we opened our first office-in one of the prisons we’d rendered obsolete! We’ve since moved on to a new state of the art facility where we’re working on more new and exciting technologies, but despite the change in location our focus remains the same. We still dedicate ourselves to finding constructive, progressive ways to make the world a more efficient place.” Dexter hadn’t heard anything he hadn’t already read on Wikipedia.
“But the Guns,” he interjected. “How do they work? Have they ever not affected someone? Has anyone managed to reverse it?” The receptionist didn’t say anything. The grin remained plastered to her face, but he could see in her eyes that she was confused, or afraid.
“And how about our friend over here?” Josh called. The entire class was gathered around him in a mob, entranced by the ball spinning on the tip of his finger. “You want to show us some of your moves?” Dexter realized he was being addressed.
“Oh, no, no.” he said, shaking his head and backing up. “I haven’t played in years. Wouldn’t know the ball from the basket.”
“Years, huh?” Josh said, smiling queerly.
“Long time.” Dexter said, apologetically. Josh grabbed the ball with both hands and heaved it at Dexter. Reflexively, Dexter caught it, hugging it to his chest. Josh’s queer grin became an ugly smile. Dexter dropped the ball and stepped back.
“It’ll be artichoke when you get there.” Josh said. Dexter didn’t understand. The students were staring. Even their teacher looked up from her phone.
“Well, that was fun!” the receptionist said, clapping her hands uncomfortably. “Let’s move on with the tour!” They filed out, one by one, with Dexter in back again. Josh picked up the ball and held it under his arm, watching them leave.
Dexter could feel beads of cold sweat running down his forehead and he had to clench his fists to keep his hands from shaking. There was a low hum in his ear, drowning out the second leg of the tour (which consisted mostly of the receptionist reciting a honeydipped version of the speech she’d performed for him minutes before). On each level there were more baby-faced Problem Solvers to toussle the students’ hair and show them something “really cool” they were working on.
As the receptionist and the class and the teacher entered a room lined with cabinet style arcade games on the fourth floor, Dexter hung back, letting the door click shut. He backed up the way they’d come down the hallway and decended the steps, trying not to draw the attention of anyone in the plaza.
At the bottom was a door, partially hidden from view behind the staircase. He nudged it open and slipped inside. A light flipped on, white and stinging, revealing stairs that led straight down. The tour and the spiral staircase in the plaza seemed to be directing guests up, Dexter reasoned. So it stood to reason that downstairs was the place he wanted to be. But if he was caught in the basement, there would be nowhere to run.
At the foot of the steps was a long hallway, lined with doors. Behind the doors were offices with concrete walls, populated with the occasinal metal desk, dusty and unused, and a few file cabinets, empty except for a few stray manila folders and paperclips. Dexter investegated, room by room, followed by motion sensor lights that illuminated wherever he walked.
Finally, he came to a locked door. Above the steel handle was a keypad, like the one he had seen the receptionist use to open the door to the plaza. He tried typing in “newday” and was promptly informed that he had two failed attempts left before the entire building went into lockdown. Dexter cringed. The receptionist had said that New Day Solutions was founded twenty years ago, hadn’t she? He punched in the year of the company’s founding. One attempt left.
Dexter felt like crying. He couldn’t risk another attempt-if they hadn’t noticed he was gone already, they would find out quickly enough after the alarm system was set off. He leaned back against the wall and took a deep breath, trying not to cry.
He imagined rejoining the tour, claiming he’d gotten lost on the way to the bathroom, shuffling back across Ithaca, riding the bus home, spending the first night of the rest of his life old and aching, and suddenly an unexpected calm overtook him. The idea of accepting failure and going home was comforting, not because the prospect of returning empty handed wasn’t miserable, but because he knew he could handle it. He could survive. Dexter took a deep breath, and gradually the urge to cry subsided. He could handle it. He was alive. He could survive. He hadn’t felt this calm in days. For a moment, he paused to enjoy the steadiness of his heart and the clearness of his mind. And from that moment emerged seven words:
“It’ll be artichoke when you get there.”
Dexter opened his eyes and saw the door transform from a tombstone to a gate. The fact that Josh had told him the password meant that he knew he would come here, but that didn’t seem to matter now. He had to know.
Inside were rows and rows of Expediation Guns on what looked like charging docks, a thousand soft hums coalescing in a monotonous roar. He walked past shelf after shelf, through row after row, to the metal trunk at the center where all of the system’s arteries seemed to meet. There were forests of rainbow colored wires and cables sprouting from its base, and on top was something draped in a blue tarp, the sort you might rake leaves into.
The something was moving. Dexter approached, trying to stay calm.
“Hey.” he said. “Hey! Anyone in there?” He heard a sound he didn’t know how to classify, a low, gasping rumble. As he got closer, a familiar, necrotic stench choked the last of the calm out of him. Gingerly, he peeled the tarp away.
A black, fetid hand slammed against his throat. Dexter tore away and fell, screaming, knocking over a shelf of Expediation Guns with a crash.
“Get-back...” It said, tugging at the dozens of tubes and wires feeing into its arms and face. “I need... More medicine... Before...” Its eyes, almost completely white except for faint beads of black at their centers, focussed on Dexter. Its lipless mouth quivered, pink fluid dribbling down its chin.
“Who are you?” he croaked. “Did my partner send you? Tell me!” Dexter’s hearbeat was hurting him. He forced himself to stop screaming and nodded, trying to command his quaking body to stand.
“Please.” he said. “Please. Take me. So long. I don’t know how long it’s been. Please, please.”
“Can... Can you make me young?” Dexter gasped. “Can you reverse Expediation?”
“Please, please, please...” the thing cried. “Sucked ‘em dry for years and never once thought... Sucked ‘em dry an watched ‘em shrivel ‘till they... Oh, lordy lordy lord, I’m sorry I sucked em’ all down, I just loved to watch ‘em squirm, just wanted to be a young man, just wanted to keep havin’ fun, oh, have mercy, have mercy have mercy...So long, so long, so long...” Dexter’s adrenaline kicked in. He picked up one of the guns on the floor and tucked it into his belt. He crossed the length of the room, finding one last file cabinet. He crammed the folders he found into his jacket pockets.
“Please!” the thing screamed. “Please Lord, please!”
“I’ll come back.” Dexter said, making for the door. “I’ll come back with cops-real cops, and helicopters, and lawyers, and the army... I’ll come back. I’m sorry.”
“Please!” it moaned. “Please!”
“I’m sorry.” Dexter said, pushing the door open. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” He kept saying it as he ran down the hall, as he bounded up the steps, gasping for breath. He crashed through the door to the plaza, breaking into a sprint.
“Think fast.” Dexter felt something hit his chest and before he could think, his arms wrapped around it. The force knocked him back, and he sat down hard on the floor, folders with labels like “Operation New Day” and “Project Fountain” spilling out of his jacket.
Slowly, Dexter looked up. Every Problem Solver in the building was behind cover, pointing an Expediation Gun at him. Dexter looked down at what he held in his arms, then up at Josh, standing opposite him, smiling.
“Knew it.” he said.
“What are you waiting for?” Dexter looked up. On the spiral staircase stood the receptionist, looking like she might cry. Next to her stood a child, older than the students on the tour but too young to work at New Day Solutions. He wore a perfectly tailored blue suit, pinstriped, and an angry-red tie. It was he who spoke.
“I said what are you waiting for? Hit him!”
The basketball rolled out of Dexter’s hands. It bounced a few times, then rolled to a stop. He saw lightning. Bright, then dark. Then bright again.