This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Crisp, clear November weather pours in through a window as a man in his twenties stands near, looking down at the cars rushing past the road below his apartment. His dark eyes follow their progress quietly, one hand holding a phone up to his ear while the other runs distractedly through his hair.
Aaron Fisk finds himself wondering about the people in the various cars, their lives and where they’re going, as he turns around and walks back and forth in the living room of his apartment, trying to find anything else to focus on in an attempt to maintain his sanity while his mom’s voice comes from the phone pressed to his ear, talks on and on about the latest family drama between her and his grandmother. Finds himself wondering if his neighbors can hear him walking around restlessly, answering now and again when he can get a word in edgewise. “Mom,” he finally says, having little choice but to cut in mid-sentence, his head starting to throb at the unceasing deluge of words. “Mom. Mom!”
She finally stops, sounding a little peeved. “What is it, Aaron?”
He sighs and checks the clock nearby, blinking a time or two. It’s that late? Damn... “Look, I really have to go. I have to be at work in half an hour. I’ll call you later when I have a minute and we’ll try to figure out when we can have dinner or something.” This seems to appease her and she lets him go with little drama after that, Aaron resting his forehead against the phone once it stops flashing call ended at him.
His job’s nothing fascinating, a simple retail job, but he likes it well enough. It keeps him afloat and helps him afford the one bedroom apartment he’d called home for almost two years now. He can’t complain, considering some of the financial difficulties he sees or hears about every day from friends or customers not quite as lucky as he’d been.
After another moment of blissful silence, he takes a breath and stands up, shuffling some papers around as he looks for his things. He’s an aspiring author, leaving lists and plot outlines and numerous other things laying around his already small apartment, in an attempt to get something together that a publisher will look at some day and say Hey. I see a best seller here. He can’t even imagine what he’ll do if that day ever comes, but for now, he’s comfortable with his life as it is.
Smiling faintly, he locates his keys under his couch and stuffs them in his jeans pocket, cell phone and wallet going in the other before he leaves the apartment, locking it behind him securely. He wanders along the landing to the stairs leading to the parking lot when he hears the neighboring apartment door open. “Hey, Reno,” he says without even having to look.
“Oh, hey,” his best friend greets him, auburn hair glinting in the early November sun. “Heading to work, huh?”
“Yep, where you headin’?” he asks, pausing momentarily at the top of the steps to look behind him before continuing on, unsurprised when the slightly older man follows him down to where their cars are parked next to each other.
“Louis wants some coffee,” he shrugs. “Says the stuff we currently have at the apartment tastes like tar. And I’ve got the day off so I’m obliging.”
“You’re a good boyfriend,” he laughs, nudging him. “Come to the store, we got a new shipment in just yesterday. I’m pretty sure I saw Louis’ favorite brand mixed in there.” At Reno’s raised eyebrow, he laughs, holding a hand up in defense. “Hey, when you work at a grocery store, you kind of get good at memorizing these kinds of things.”
“Hmm,” Reno says, lips twitching into a smirk. “I’ll be watching you, my friend. Last thing I need is someone else going after Louis, he’s handsome enough, I have to beat them off with a stick.”
Aaron laughs out loud at this, rolling his eyes. “No offense to Louis and his good looks but I don’t swing that way. Not even for you two.”
“That wounds me,” Reno shrugs, batting his eyes at his best friend in an overly exaggerated way. “Well, I’ll see you there.” Waving, he drops into his car and prepares to leave, Aaron watching for a few moments before he remembers that he’ll really be late for work if he doesn’t start moving right away.
“Crap!” he hisses, quickly slipping into the driver’s seat and stabbing his keys into the ignition, starting the car. He relaxes slightly when he sees that it’s not as late as he’d feared, but drives off hurriedly anyway, not wanting to risk it depending on traffic. Thankfully he arrives with five minutes to spare and settles in, greeting the coworkers that he passes on the way to get rid of his jacket in the office upstairs.
As he settles in at what’s been deemed his cash register for the next few hours, quickly setting things up there before his first set of customers come through with their long line of groceries, he feels something creep up his shoulders, Aaron surprised at the pure force behind the sensation as he begins shuddering despite how comfortable it had felt a moment earlier. He considers asking the next register over if anyone there had felt any sort of draft, but he ultimately lets it go, not wanting to seem weird to those waiting to be rung through by him. Finally he turns and greets the girl waiting behind a cart, nodding at her. “Hi. Sorry for the wait.”
After a long day of ringing other people up, just to get taken off of his register when the store gets busy and there’s more than enough people running cash registers but not bagging or getting carts, he’s relieved to return to his car and just breathe for a minute. The Thanksgiving rush seems to be starting early-- or people are just desperate for post-Halloween sales on candy?-- and he knows the next three months until after the Superbowl and Valentine’s Day will seem like a slow, drawn out torture. He hadn’t even seen Reno, who had probably spotted how long his line was getting early on and wisely avoided it, ducking out through the self check-out or express lanes.
He’s finally gotten the energy to start his car when that feeling drifts down his spine again, Aaron shivering in response to it. He frowns, twisting this way and that. No windows in his car are open, the doors are all sealed tight, there is no logical explanation for him to feel anything out of the ordinary. Shaking his head, he decides to ignore it and pulls out of the parking lot, quickly heading for his apartment. Once he finishes fighting through enough traffic to almost feel like he’d moved to Chicago, he comes to a stop at his apartment complex and doesn’t even bother pausing to take a minute and just look up at the place that he loves being able to call home, like he normally does. Instead he gets out of the car quickly and walks up the stairs, wanting nothing more than just to close himself off for awhile.
He’s not sure what’s wrong with him, it just feels like he’s being watched. And he hates it, especially since he can’t see anyone nearby to be watching. He only feels worse when he enters his apartment. The feeling lingers, creeps up his spine for the third time in a day. “What the hell is going on with me?” he groans, slumping down by the door and dropping his keys and phone on the floor around him, only caring enough to kick the door shut before leaning against the wood paneling. He still feels like eyes are burning a hole in the back of his skull, shaking his head back and forth against the wall. He’s never been the paranoid type, he can’t figure out what this feeling is otherwise though. “What’s going on...”
He’s almost scared to move but finally, he presses a hand to the wall almost an hour later and drags himself up right. Supper, some TV and a bit of writing before bed is on the agenda, and he has to check his email too. While heating up a frozen meal, he boots up the beat up laptop that’s waiting patiently for him on its usual place on the desk and plays around on the Internet, answering his emails and rolling his eyes at things said on Twitter or Facebook. When the microwave beeps, he checks the food and puts it in for a little more time before returning to the computer.
Earlier still on his mind, he goes to a search engine and types in, Feel like I’m being watched. No one around. As he waits for the results to load, his chin resting in his palm, he grimaces. “Looking up health or mental issues online always comes to one conclusion-- brain tumor.” He smiles mirthlessly, tilting his head as one result after another mentions anxiety and paranoia, or a number of other emotional issues. He winces and stands up when the microwave begins beeping incessantly, sounding as impatient to get the food out as he is to finish eating already so he could continue on with his evening, have some fun that doesn’t include looking up possible symptoms online.
A couple of hours later, he’s sitting in front of his TV, laptop now with him on the couch, when it happens again. He stares suspiciously out of his window, pacing back and forth a few times, when his phone rings. He almost jerks out of his skin at the sudden music blaring from the small device, quickly grabbing it. “Hello?”
His eyes widen at the disproving voice on the other end, a different kind of feeling creeping down his spine as he remembers. “Oh, mom, right. I’m sorry, work was insane. I forgot to call.”
“That’s not like you,” she says, sounding a little mollified.
“I... yeah, I’m just tired,” he says, resting the phone against his forehead as she talks on.
“You’re alright? Maybe you need some more vitamins, or--”
“No Mom, everything’s fine. I promise, I’m ok, just holiday rush is starting early I think...”
“This early?” she responds, sounding incredulous.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “This early.”
“I’ve told you before, you should look for a better job, Aaron. Or what about publishing a book? Are you still trying to do that?” she asks, her voice digging into his confidence like mothers are so good at.
“Yeah, I know, I’m trying.” He lifts his eyes skyward, mouthing softly Why me? before turning his focus back to the conversation. “Anyway, um. Like I said yesterday, we should have supper at some point.” Just please leave the judgments about my job to yourself, he thinks, somehow succeeding at keeping the annoyance mostly from his voice. “When and where would you like?”
“Anytime’s fine, and honestly we can just order in pizza or something, I’m not that fussy.”
Another pause, Aaron taking the time to bite back every comment he could make about that. “This weekend then?” When she agrees, he smiles slightly. “Yeah, that sounds fine.”
“Are you sleeping well? Eating well?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m sleeping fine,” he says, suddenly fighting a yawn. Great, she made me think about how tired I am... “Eating fine too.” He can sense she’s about to ask further embarrassing questions so he intercedes, “Mom, please stop worrying. I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Alright, alright,” she says, sounding a little annoyed at his knowing her so well. “You know you’re welcome to visit me at any time. It doesn’t always need to be scheduled.′
He shakes his head fondly. “Yeah, I know, I’m welcome anytime.” He grimaces, forcing out a polite, “You’re welcome here anytime too, you know that.”
She laughs, proving that she knows him just as well as he knows her. “Don’t lie, Aaron.”
“... Just call first,” he admits, grinning sheepishly as she huffs. “Love you Mom.”
“Love you, Aaron. Good night.”
“’Night.” He hangs up, relieved when silence resumes around him. Staring out of the window, he watches again as the numerous cars of different makes and colors travel down the street leading towards a turn off to an interstate, the familiar sight bringing a small smile to his face. Reluctantly pulling himself away from the view, he adjusts the drapes before walking into the kitchen, getting a glass of water and moving on to his bedroom. A change of clothes and brief stop in the bathroom later, he sinks into his bedding, overjoyed at being able to relax fully. For now, his neighbors are quiet, the cars driving by the building nothing but a soft purr in the back of his mind, the sheets are nice and warm, and everything is perfect. He’s honestly not sure how long it’ll last, but for now he’s determined to make the best of it, and his thoughts fade away quickly as sleep overwhelms him minutes later.
Bright light in his eyes. He grunts, batting a hand in front of his face, but there’s nothing there to explain it. Cold seeps into his spine, down his legs, and he swallows, discomfort growing by the minute. He groans faintly and rolls over, trying to find the warmth and comfort that he’d been enveloped in only minutes ago, but it’s somehow long gone. He gives up on trying to reclaim it and sits up, blurrily glaring ahead of him. It takes a bit for his sleep-addled mind to put the pieces together but when he does...
A wall. That’s all he can see. A blank, grey slab wall. He peers at it, scrubbing a hand over his mussed hair, and shakes his head. “Where am I...?” His bedroom wall is a soft yellow, with striped wallpaper bordering it, mostly because he’d never had the time, interest, or energy to change it before moving in, so he knows immediately that this is not his room. The realization is like cold water’d been dumped over his body, adrenaline rushing through him so quickly that he feels shaky, light headed. “Where am I?” he repeats, trying to ground himself.
“You are where you belong,” a bland, emotionless voice tells him. He spins around and finds himself face to face with the only light source in the room, what had disrupted his sleep so thoughtlessly. A screen, larger than any TV he’d ever seen in his life, covering nearly one whole wall, with a pale face peering back at him. He stares at it incredulously, not sure what exactly’s going on, if this is a nightmare or what. “This is no dream or hallucination,” the voice continues, waiting impassively as Aaron examines the screen, even daring to take a step or two closer. “I am Ser.”
“That’s supposed to mean something to me?” Aaron wonders, unable to stop himself in time. He blanches but the dark haired man barely responds to the impolite question, his equally as dark eyes only flashing slightly. “Ser who?”
“Merely Ser,” the voice continues on tersely. “You are defensive. There is no need, you will not be harmed here. I simply wanted to meet you.”
“Meet me why?” he demands, growing more and more on edge with each passing moment. “Who are you? Where am I?” The last he remembers is going to bed, falling asleep peacefully. He’s now not even sure if that was reality or a memory tampered with somehow. He swallows, moving in a circle as he looks the room over, not liking this in the slightest. Ok, Aaron, he tells himself, clenching his hands into fists. Take it easy. Don’t overreact, don’t let your imagination run wild. Just breathe. There has to be an exit here, even if you can’t see one right this moment.
Ignoring the monitor flickering against his skin, he continues to peer at the walls, even glancing up at the ceiling now and again. “Where’s the exit?!” he finally snaps, coming to the horrible realization that there isn’t one, that he hasn’t just been overlooking it this whole time as he had hoped. “Oh God, what do you want with me?”
The man calling himself Ser gazes upon him, his eyes dark and uninterested in these strained words. “Calm down, Aaron.”
“How do you know my name?!” he demands, growing only more frenzied. “I’m a simple retail worker, my family has nothing you would want! I- I mean, I think. What do you want?” He’s starting to sweat, his body reacting to his tension and horror.
Ser says nothing for long moments, watching him closely. “You are beginning to hyperventilate,” he tells him vaguely. “There is nothing worth you responding like this. Calm down.” When he doesn’t listen, his breaths only growing more frantic, Ser grimaces-- the first true expression that he’s shown since Aaron’s woke up in this room. “Very well. Alison!”
Startled by this sudden exclamation, Aaron gasps and shudders, choking down a full breath. As he watches on with frantic green eyes, a girl appears out of seemingly nowhere, he blinks and she’s just... there, scaring him further and sending him backwards until he trips over his feet and falls on his ass. She looks like she’s somewhere between wanting to kneel down to check on him and fall over laughing herself, but opts to do neither, watching him with a gaze disturbingly similar to Ser as he struggles back to his feet. “Who are you?” he asks faintly, pressing a hand to the nearest wall. “Does he have you held hostage too?” His eyes flickering from the screen to her, he finds himself unable to resist asking a third, more pressing question. “How the hell did you get in here? There’s no doors or windows, or... or anything.”
She looks at the screen as well, unimpressed as she approaches it with her hands on her hips. “Now, Ser, what have I told you about freaking out your recruits?” The dark haired man in the monitor barely responds to her voice either, looking like he’s heard this only a million times in the past. She sighs and shakes her head, pointing a finger at the screen. “You need to listen to me when I tell you how to handle people. Did you really drag him out of his bed with no advanced warning?”
“It was the most opportune time,” he finally says, the girl shaking her head in disbelief at this, long brown hair going every which way. “I cannot help it if he was unprepared.”
“Oh why do I bother with you?” she mumbles, turning from the screen and approaching Aaron, her hands raised to show she means him no harm. “Hello, Aaron. It’s nice to meet you.” He sputters over her knowing his name as well, but has no time to figure out what to ask before she’s talking again. “My name is Alison Wilson.” She holds one of her hands out to him as if she expects a handshake, and even when he doesn’t rush to reciprocate, she doesn’t move from this awkward looking position. “The guy in the TV screen who makes me look like a social butterfly is, as you have probably been told already, Ser. Don’t look so worried, neither of us are here to harm you.”
She turns back to the screen. “Could you try to not make people faint before I get here? They always look like they’re about to start carrying around a rape whistle everywhere after five minutes with you.” Ser says nothing to this and she huffs at him, turning back to face Aaron with that calming smile back on her pale face. “As I was saying, you’re safe here.”
He swallows and finally finds his voice. “Where am I?”
“Well, I would like to answer that question for you,” she tells him. “But even I don’t know the answer to that.” When he begins to look even more panicked, she grabs him by the arm and leads him over to the wall, pressing down on his shoulders until he slumps against the cool surface, eyes fluttering shut. “Trust me, it is unnecessary information. After we come to an understanding, Ser here will send us both home as easily as he’d brought us here.”
“How?” he asks faintly, only growing more confused with the girl’s uninformative answers. “I don’t understand any of this.”
She glances over her shoulder at the man before facing Aaron once more. “Alright, I suppose you’re just going to find out anyway, huh?” Resting a hand on his arm, she smiles gently up into his face. “He has abilities. Whenever one of us needs to be... elsewhere... he teleports us there.”
“Abilities,” Aaron mumbles, pieces of the puzzle slowly clicking into place for him. “I know what this is.” He suddenly laughs, shaking his head at himself. “I know exactly what this is.”
She raises an eyebrow at him and he smiles back at her, surprising her at how quickly the tension in his shoulders drains from under her fingers. “Oh? What is it then?”
“I’m having a dream about a Sci-Fi show, of course. I am still in bed, back in my apartment, safe as can be... this is all just one huge dream.” He sighs, looking so relieved at the realization. “So you’re the hot chick that all science fiction shows must have to entice the male audience, and he’s the enigmatic overseer of everything that very few people understand, even in the final season, and... yeah, I’ll wake up at daybreak and this’ll just be another weird story idea that I’ll probably toss out in a few months when it doesn’t really go anywhere.”
She blinks a few times. “Well, I’m conflicted on whether to laugh, slap you, or feel flattered.” Standing back up, suddenly a lot less sympathetic towards him, she moves back towards the monitor where Ser remains, quietly overlooking all of this. “You sure know how to pick ’em, Ser.”
He peers at her. “Well, I did pick you.”
“Touché.” Sighing, she turns back to the young man. “Sorry to dash your hopes, but this isn’t a dream.” She grimaces. “I’m not some hot chick designed to attract the attention of nerds like yourself.”
“Hey!” he protests, standing quickly. “I’m not a nerd.”
“Says the guy whose first thought is he’s having a dream about a Sci-Fi program,” she snarks back. “As I was saying. This is real life. You are not asleep in your bed, Ser is not some late night snack induced attack of your subconscious. If you can stop hypothesizing about what we are and what’s going on long enough for me to tell you, you’ll learn all you want to know and probably more.” When he looks somewhere between chastised and angry, she smirks. “Now what do you say we start over from the beginning, hmmm?”
“Fine,” he grumbles, looking like a scolded little boy somehow as he stares at his feet.
When she next speaks, after taking a few minutes to see if he’ll remain quiet, which he does, she sounds more herself, less angry school teacher. “Alright then. As I was saying, I’m Alison Wilson. He’s simply known as Ser. And you, my friend, are Aaron Fisk. I will tell you how exactly we know that a little later on.” She points a finger back at Ser. “He has abilities. He can do things you’ve probably read about in books and seen on TV and thought weren’t possible. But they are... and that’s where I, and maybe you, come in.” She stands taller and looks him in the eye, waiting a beat before continuing, her voice lowering to show that her next statement is very important. “I am a member of a group of people around the world known as Piaculum.”
She smiles slightly, obviously proud of this affiliation. “Piaculum are comprised of people Ser has selected. They go, they save and protect people out there who are in trouble.” Her eyes losing a little of their shine, she continues on reverently. “I myself have protected people from natural disasters, each other, anything that is life-threatening.” She rests a hand on her chest, fingers digging into her shirt, bunching the fabric up briefly before releasing it with a deep sigh, a vague expression that Aaron can’t decipher passing from her face as quickly as it’d arrived.
“He has selected you now to do the same,” she says suddenly. Time stops, everything stops.
He stares at her for long moments, not understanding. “Wha-- what?”
Her smile growing bit by bit, she approaches him once more and rests both hands on his shoulders, staring deep into his eyes. “I was the Piaculum for the state of Illinois. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to continue working with the diligence I have previously. Ser required a replacement for me.” She takes a deep breath, her eyes reflecting sadness and acceptance so deep that he thinks he may drown in it, being this close to her. “He has chosen you.” Her fingers dig into his skin briefly before she releases him, trouncing away to stand by Ser’s screen, the faint glow reflecting off of her hair and making it gleam. “Do you accept?”
He stares once more. Then he laughs uproariously. “Accept what? Oh come on, I know you say this isn’t a dream but what else could it be?” He smiles across at her, barely able to contain his mirth. “Listen, I’ve had quite a few really intense dreams in my time. They’re usually something like this. It’s the one bad thing of being a writer with an overactive imagination. You get to sleep and boom, attack of the weird crap. I’ll wake up in awhile and things’ll be normal again.”
She looks even more impatient this time around and steps closer to him so he can look her in the eye. “Ser, I think we need a demonstration,” she says quietly. “Got anything for me?” Aaron’s about to step back, somehow intimidated by this wisp of a girl, when she reaches out and wraps her fingers snuggly around his upper arm.
“Hey!” he cries out, trying to shake her loose. “What do you think you’re doing?” One second he’s in this quiet, dark room and-- blink-- the next, they’re standing in the middle of a road, the moon gleaming down across their faces. He stumbles away from her and looks around, shaking his head. “No way. Where.... where are we?”
“We’re near Yuton,” she tells him, her voice wavering slightly on that one simple word. He turns to look at her and is startled by how ill and breathless she looks suddenly. Before he can ask, she holds a hand up and glances around. “Come here.”
“What?” His words die away yet again as she walks purposely up to him and presses her hand to his forehead, closing her eyes. The scenery before him changes yet again, to a car driving along the road he was just standing on quickly. As he watches, something happens-- it swerves to avoid an large animal dashing across the road-- there’s a sound of squeeching tires and scraping metal as it flips, crashing into the underbrush before rolling back down on its top and coming to a complete, eerie stop.
Her touch leaves him, things returning to normal with a sharp clarity, and he stares at her, horrified. “What was that? What are you doing to me?!”
She stumbles back and wipes the sweat off of her forehead, struggling to breathe. She looks even paler than she had before touching him but now he’s a little less interested in her well-being, which seems to her liking. “We don’t have time for questions,” she tells him. “We need... we need to...” She wavers again but collects herself, digging her fingers into her palms as she forces herself to spit out the words. “We need to save the person you saw in your vision.”
“Vision,” he laughs at her. “Oh please! What next, I’m going to gain some magical ability to save the world?”
She grimaces at his lame attempt at sarcasm. “If only it was that easy,” she sighs. “No, you’re going to have to figure out a way to save him on your own.”
He stares. “You’re serious. What the hell do you expect me to do against a car accident?! I’m not even sure if the accident happens here! This section of highway all looks the same as far as the eye can see, in case you missed it! Just grass and cornfields! How the hell am I supposed to know?!”
She sighs, resting a hand on her collarbone as she watches him. “It was here or near enough,” she says quietly, visibly not in the mood to hash this over. “Ser wouldn’t have brought us here if it wasn’t.” Taking a few, uncoordinated steps away from him, she turns. “This is your do or die moment. You can save the person in that car, or you can let them get in that wreck. I can’t choose for you. Ser selected you for a reason because he sees something in you and, I’ll be honest, even though I’ve only known you a brief while, I think I see it too. Underneath all of the uncertainty and bluster, there’s a kind of courage and strength in you that all of us Piaculum need to survive.” As he gapes on, she stumbles into the cornfields and disappears from sight. “I’ll leave you to it,” is the last thing he hears from her.
“Oh fabulous!” he exclaims, feeling suspiciously close to throwing a tantrum right there, despite being a twenty three year old man with a job and aspirations, too mature to even consider such things under normal circumstances. “Where are you going?!” he yells off in her direction before turning his attention back to the road before him. He’s still not sure what to do but the subtle sounds of an engine is cutting into the quiet surrounding him, a speck of a car growing bigger as it nears him. The larger it gets the more he knows, with a sinking kind of dread, that that is indeed the car he’d seen in the vision or whatever it was. He swallows, looking around. “What do I do... what do I do?”
He ducks into the brush, trying to think, and it’s only when he hears more movement nearby-- possibly the animal that the car had been trying not to hit? possibly Alison?-- that he takes his chances. Pulling himself free once more, he dashes out into the middle of the lane and outstretches his arms, hoping that the car will stop in time. He watches as the car speeds his way, planting his feet to fight off the natural instinct to run to safety. No, not yet... not... Thankfully the driver’s instincts are spot on when things in his car’s path aren’t moving, and he stops rapidly, the brakes on his car squealing as he comes to a stop uncomfortably close to Aaron’s midsection.
The sound wakes up the world around them, a deer suddenly bounding out of the brush nearby where Aaron had just been hiding. As the driver stares at him from his windshield, he holds his hands up in breathless apology and stumbles back, his legs shaking hard enough to send him toppling back onto the rough pavement along the side of the road. When he hears a car door slam in front of him, he gasps and tries to scramble backwards, overwhelmed by a sudden certainty that the man he had locked eyes with briefly will end up being a mass murderer traveling these country back roads on his way to his next target. See what I mean by overactive imagination? he thinks, looking up as a pair of legs covered in jeans comes to a stop in front of him, a hand outstretched.
“Are you alright, young man?” a simple, deep voice asks, waiting patiently as he collects himself enough to look up the rest of the way, coming face to face with deep brown eyes framed by salt’n’pepper hair, the man’s lips turned in a confused frown. He waits until Aaron finally realizes what he’s waiting for, reaching out and taking his hand, not sensing anything malicious out of him after all as he’s pulled to his feet.
Though, he can’t help but think, that’s always how horror movies go, right? “Yeah,” he coughs out. “I’m ok. So--sorry about that. I... um.” Come on, Aaron. The one time you need your overactive imagination to kick in... think of something, man! “I live in a farm down the road and some of our livestock got loose earlier this evening. I thought maybe they came this way, so I was trying to cross the street to check the opposite cornfields. I didn’t see you coming until it was too late.” He holds his breath as the middle-aged man peers at him, weighing his words.
Finally he accepts this and releases Aaron’s hand, brushing some dirt from his sleeves. “Well, young man, I hope you find your cattle. And stay out of the road when traffic’s coming next time, huh?”
Nodding bemusedly, the young man sighs as he turns back to his car. “Thank you,” he says, not sure if he’s speaking to the man himself or whatever that had caused the situation to end as easily as it had-- he had survived, the man is unaware that he was ever in any serious danger, and the deer that he thinks must’ve been the cause of the accident he’d seen in his vision remains unharmed. He watches quietly as the car pulls away from the side of the road and drives off, his eyes shutting afterwards. “Damn,” he breathes as he hears footsteps venturing up behind him. “What the hell was that?”
Alison doesn’t even flinch at the venom behind his words, watching as the car once more becomes a far away speck of nothingness, the engine sounds dying away and leaving the night quiet and peaceful as the world resumes sleeping on around them. “That was a Piaculum’s duty,” she tells him softly. “That was a taste of the sacrifice and rapid decisions you’ll have to make if you decide to join my cause. Ser’s cause.”
He watches the fading red lights on the car for a moment longer before turning to her, lips parting slowly as he tries to find the words for what’s at the forefront of his mind. “If I hadn’t stopped him before he reached where the deer bounded out, what would’ve happened to that guy?”
Her green eyes lock on his, her lips twisting as she swallows heavily. “He wouldn’t have been found in time. He would’ve died, Aaron.” She watches as a flood of many different emotions pass across his face, releasing a soft, painful breath. “You saved his life, which is all we wanted you to do. From here on out, it’s up to you where this road takes you. Ser nor I nor anyone else will force you into this life, I understand how hard it can be, possibly more than most. Hopefully more than you yourself will ever have to realize.” She steps forward and kicks at a smooth white pebble, watching with a small smile as it skips across the asphalt, disappearing into the cornfield as if it’d never been there.
She turns back to him and rests a hand on his forehead, watching as he leans into her touch, as if he expects what she’s about to do. “The decision is yours. When you know what you want to do, what path you want to take, just call out my name. No matter what time it is, where you’re at, I’ll come to see you. Whatever you decide, I’ll accept and won’t try to change your mind. I promise.”
And just like that, everything shifts yet again, she disappears and he’s back in his bed, staring up at the ceiling of his apartment while sweat drenches his pillow down to his sheets. “What was that?” he mutters, shocked and disoriented. He wants to get up and think, try to work through what he’d just witnessed, what all just happened, but he’s tired and he’s weak and... He gives up on getting out of the warmth of his sheets and rolls over, punching his pillow a few times before falling asleep once more.
When he awakens once more, it’s daybreak and the sun is gleaming across his face, leaving him to believe-- again-- that everything he’d gone through the night before after going to bed had been some kind of very strange, very vivid dream. Except that there’s grass stains on his hands, down the back of his pants, and... a smooth white pebble laying on his pillow. He picks it up, the disturbed look on his face slowly becoming one of dawning acceptance as he gives up the fight.
“Piaculum,” he murmurs out loud, as if testing the strange word on his tongue. “Huh.” Getting up, he begins his day in a fog, mind still stuck on Alison-- Ser-- that weird room-- everything he’d been introduced to the night before. A shower helps only slightly, a change of clothes making him feel more human. A quick breakfast of toast and eggs helps him regain some strength before he goes out to his car. He leans against it, letting the cool steel bite into his skin while he runs a bare hand along its hood. “I don’t know what to do,” he admits to thin air.
He wants to do the right thing, yes, and learning that if he hadn’t done what he had done the night before could’ve resulted in that man’s death is a very sobering thought, but he’s not sure if he’s the best for such a job as this. He tilts his head until it rests against the driver’s side door, remembering the horrible sound as the car had flipped in his vision. How many more will suffer similar fates if I don’t accept? Or is it as simple as Ser picking another person to replace Alison? He stares up at the blue sky overhead, shaking his head. I doubt it. If it was, they wouldn’t have pushed at all for me to accept, right? I would’ve laughed in their faces and they would’ve gone on to the next person.
He stares at his hands and grimaces. “So there has to be something special about me that they can’t find in just anyone. But what?”
“Talking to yourself again, Aaron?” he hears from behind him, turning hurriedly to find a curiously grinning Louis Sullivan standing on the staircase leading down to the parking lot. “You better watch that, anyone else would start asking questions.”
He laughs awkwardly, relieved that it’s Reno’s significant other who’d found him in the middle of such a strange monologue with himself and no one else. “Oh you know how it is,” he tells him, trying to brush it off as nothing. “Us writers, we get in the middle of plotting a scene out and there’s no stopping what madness will come of it. Talking to ourselves, sometimes even acting the damn things out...” As Louis laughs, he waves a hand around as if to dismiss the awkward scene he’d just walked in on. “So how’s your novel going?”
One of the many things they’d bonded over when Aaron had moved in was that Louis too was an aspiring author, the two young men encouraging each other while Reno rolled his eyes in fond exasperation and tried to get his best friend and boyfriend to focus on anything other than their latest plot or character idea. “Oh, it’s going. A few more pages and I might get past that Must Toss Out sensation. It somehow is managing to feel promising and like utter crap all at once, but I think I can salvage it.”
“God do I know what you mean,” he laughs. “I had an idea just recently where...” He’s about to go into in-depth detail about his latest novel catastrophe when his phone beeps warningly, his eyes widening. “Oh crap, I have to go or I’m going to be late for work!” Waving at a laughing Louis, he jumps into his car. “We’ll finish this discussion later, huh?”
“Yeah, man, don’t want to make you get fired,” the sandy haired man agrees, waving back at him. “Come over for supper, it’ll be a surprise for Reno.”
Aaron pauses at that, laughing again as he thinks about how his best friend always responds when anyone drops in unannounced. “Yeah, he’ll love that.”
Louis has never been the kind to accept no for an answer, however, calling out before he slams his door and peels out, “See you later then!”
Thankfully the day at work goes normally, Aaron relieved to be back at what he knows-- manning the cash registers until the last hour of his shift, when once more things get too busy and he’s called over to bag for awhile. He’s in the process of filling one of the bags when he looks up and over, eyes locking on a middle aged man with familiarly styled hair taking his things to the next lane. Aaron’s heart skips a beat as he wonders if it’s the man from the night before, if he’ll recognize him, and what’ll come of it if so... I’m supposed to be a farmer, he thinks, dread swirling within him. Not working at some grocery store a few hours away. Just my luck that he’ll be here?! Maybe Ser and Alison did this on purpose-- maybe...
His thoughts cut short as the man he’s staring at turns to face him, Aaron’s breath leaving him with a whoosh as he realizes it’s not the man he’d saved, just some other customer who barely even glances over at him as he walks on by. Aaron thumbs his eyes before turning back to his job, trying to catch up in bagging all of the groceries that had backed up while he’d been lost in his frightened thoughts.
“You alright?” the cashier, Ellie, asks him once the customer who’d been patiently waiting for him to pay attention to her groceries had left, looking slightly disgruntled despite his apologies to her. “You kind of zoned out there for a bit and looked really pale, I was about to call for an ambulance if you didn’t start answering me soon.”
He grimaces at the prospect, forcing a smile. “Yeah, Ellie, I’m ok. Just didn’t sleep well the night before.” Which is a lie, last night’s sleep had been... well, once he was back in his own bed, one of the best sleeps he’d had in awhile. He had woke up feeling rested and rejuvenated, something he hadn’t really felt since his early teens. But it was as easy an excuse as any other, so he’d gone with it.
She doesn’t get a chance to answer before the next round of groceries begin being placed on her lane and she has to start ringing another customer up, finishing with them a few minutes later and turning back to talk to him until the next one. “Well, you go home tonight and get some decent sleep, huh? Last thing you need is to be seen slacking around because you’re sleep deprived. Lemme guess, neighbor woes? I’ve seen your place, it’s right by the street too. I couldn’t sleep easily there either.”
He smiles, ducking his head as she continues talking. “Nah,” he refutes, shaking his head. “It wasn’t the neighbors, or the street. I’ve lived there long enough that I’m kind of used to both things. Besides my next door neighbors are really the quietest people ever,” he admits. And it’s true, Reno and Louis even fight quietly, Reno too closed off most times to really lay it all out there in a screaming match and Louis never wanting to disturb the people in the apartments around him, also desperate to avoid drama at all costs. “Just had a lot on my mind, is all.”
“A girl, huh?” she teases him, chuckling at the look of shock on his face. “Aw, c’mon, you twenty-some year olds are all the same. If it’s not sports, it’s a girl, and if it’s not that, you’ve got more than sleep to worry about.”
He takes a breath, sorting through the paper sacks and plastic bags just waiting for the next pile of groceries. If she only knew, he thinks, shaking his head with a weak smile.
Returning to his apartment a little over an hour after that conversation with Ellie, he’s relieved to avoid seeing both Reno and Louis, tossing his keys onto the couch and sinking down next to it as he stares out of the window at the darkening night sky, street lights flickering to life and shining into his apartment window just enough for him to see around. It’s a simple room, sparsely decorated, but he’s proud of what does fill the area. Couch, chairs, an entertainment stand, desk for his computer... other small bits of furniture that he couldn’t find a place for in the other rooms. They’re average, but they’re his...
He’s hungry but not in the mood to make anything to eat, not that that makes any sense, nor order anything in, just wanting to be alone with his thoughts for awhile. Though he had initially been glad for the time at his job, the distraction of all the customers and regularity, it had been a repetitive murmur in the back of his head that he really did need to make a decision soon, summon Alison and tell her what he wants to do with Ser’s plans for him.
Deciding to dwell on it in the silence and darkness of his apartment, he doesn’t move, closing his eyes against the reality around him. Remembers the blank look on Ser’s face, the tiredly hopeful look in Alison’s eyes, the sickening crash of compacting metal as the car accident from his vision had happened... how rapid his heart beat had been as he’d stood in that road, waiting to possibly be killed there and then, so far from home with no one but Alison around to know what he had been attempting to do, what he was even doing on the outskirts of Yukon, Illinois, so far from home at such a ridiculous time of night.
He breathes deeply, in and out, in and out, trying to come to a decision. When exactly it all clicks together, he’s not sure, but soon enough, he’s sitting up, shaking his head. He knows what he has to do. Staring out at the cars zipping by the main street, its passengers blissfully unaware of the turmoil rattling around within him only feet away, he crosses his arms over his chest. “Alison,” he calls out clearly, sensing more than seeing when the girl appears in the room behind him, as if she’d been waiting for his call all day long. Which, he reflects, peering at her reflection in the window, she probably had been.
“You’ve made your decision,” she says, hand slipping from the folds of her sweater to rest at her side. “What’s it going to be?”
He turns slowly and locks eyes with her, swallowing a time or two in a weak attempt at moisturizing his cracked, dry throat. “What do I have to do?” When she looks confused, he tries to explain. “When I accept this-- what will my responsibilities be? People will start to wonder if I begin to disappear for long periods of time, if I miss work. I can’t lose my home... no matter how many people I help.” He can just imagine having to move back in with his mother, answer all of her questions every time he is abruptly gone to help with whatever Ser or Alison needs. It’s impossible, leaves him feeling a little ill. “There has to be something--”
She holds a hand up, stopping his rambling comments. “You’re in luck,” she tells him, smiling slightly as he stares back at her. “You’ll never have to worry about such things because... well, when you’re taken away from here, time stops. Did you notice when you returned here last night, it felt like you hadn’t missed any sleep?” When he nods, she clears her throat, taking a step closer to him. “It’s because you didn’t. You left here at 1:36 AM, and you returned at 1:36 AM.”
“How?” he whispers, unsettled by the prospects of this, the amount of power it must take... more than the visions he’d had, more than teleporting from place to place, more than a room with no doors or windows, more than anything he’d thought or envisioned since he’d been returned to his home. “What are you?”
She shakes her head, seeing the fear in his eyes and humbled by it. “I am merely human, like you. Ser, however, holds this ability. How, I don’t know. I do, however, know that his goal is only to do good with it. He means no harm to you, or anyone else, Aaron. That’s why he chooses people like me, like you, to save other people... like that man you met last night.” She gives him a minute to digest this, turning to look around his half lit apartment. “When I first met Ser, he seemed this menacing, all-powerful man. He could take me from my bed in a split second, send me to some unknown place, and there’d be no way for anyone to find me, help me.
“But it took very precious little time for me to accept that, underneath all of the ridiculously powerful things he somehow manages to do, there lies a pure soul who only wants to help people, stop death... Obviously he can’t save everyone, but he does as many as he can, dividing his strength among numerous other chosen like you and I.” She turns her gaze back onto Aaron and smiles slightly. “I know this is daunting, overwhelming. I felt the exact same way when I was selected. But Aaron, I promise you it’ll be fine. Given enough time, you’ll feel confident in your choice. And, if you can’t trust Ser right now, then please, trust me. I’ve been in your exact position and I would never send you down the wrong path. That all said, in the end, this is your decision to make.” She reaches out to him, waiting with a patient look in her eyes. “So what’ll it be?”
He stares at her, absorbing the unwavering determination in her gaze. She looks sincere, certain of her words. He closes his eyes briefly, takes a few more breaths. “I accept,” he finally whispers, blindly taking her hand and squeezing it. Opening his eyes once more, their gazes lock. “I will be the new Illinois Piaculum.” Her lips twitching-- he’s not sure in happiness or acceptance-- she leans up and touches his face once more, her fingers grazing along his temples and he almost expects another vision of death and destruction, but it never comes, instead a simple, calming power growing under his skin, pulsing through his veins as it overwhelms all of him, whiting the world out completely.
When he comes to once more, he’s sprawled out across the couch he’d left earlier before summoning her to his apartment, sweat sticking his shirt to his skin for the second time in twenty four hours. He coughs and winces, somehow feeling both raw and complete all at once, as if he’d only been half of a person before, as if... as if he’d always been meant to contain this amount of energy and power. He sits up and looks around, finding the brunette sitting across from him on a chair, looking even more pale and shaky than she had on that road in the middle of nowhere the night before.
He gingerly rests his feet back on the floor and, standing, walks over to her, even his steps feeling off as his body adjusts to all of the new sensations coursing through it at once. He rests a hand gently on her shoulder and watches as she looks up, eyes dull and smile wavering despite how normal she tries to look, obviously not wanting him to worry. But it’s too late, his brows knitting together as he kneels down by her, resting his hands on her knees. The last thing he needs is Alison passing out in the middle of his apartment, after all. “Are you ok? Is there something you need?”
Whatever she had done when she’d placed her hands on him had opened up a new level of understanding in him, he could sense things that he hadn’t even considered in the past. Just the simple action of placing his hands on her had given him an insight-- she’s ill, weak in a way that simple sleep and food can’t rectify. He peers deep into her eyes, deducing that it’s something she prefers to ignore, not have to discuss at any time. Especially now, when she’s in a strange man’s apartment, trying to hold herself together. And so he backs away, removing his hands. Immediately his connection to her disappears, leaving him cold and disconnected with only his own thoughts and feelings to focus on. “What did you do?” he continues when she ignores the first two questions. “What is all of this?”
As she stands, forcing herself to seem in control, unruffled despite how pale and out of breath she remains, he retreats to give her the space to keep the illusion up, although he stays close enough to help her in case she should lose all strength yet again. “I did what needed to be done. You’re open to Ser’s powers now,” she tells him, only wavering a little as she wanders away from the chair that’d been holding her upright while he came back to himself. “Since we are merely humans, we can’t do what needs to be done on our own. He needs to be able to share his powers with us, or else we wouldn’t be able to see the visions, or teleport where we need to be to help people.”
She’s finally gaining some color back, her breath coming easier, and he relaxes, allowing her to take more than a few steps away from his position in the middle of his living room. “Ok,” Aaron mumbles, trying to understand this. “So when I’m needed, he will show me what’s going on and I’ll be sent off to the next city?”
She shakes her head, however, confusing him more. “It’s not that simple. You need help at first, and that’s where I come in.” Her eyes gleam with a subtle kind of strength as she turns to face him once more. “I’ll be accompanying you on these missions, and helping you control Ser’s power as you need it. We can’t let you run off without proper understanding of what’s expected of you, what’s to come. How best to handle certain situations. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure it doesn’t affect your responsibilities here. I promised that already, remember?”
He isn’t sure what exactly she means but nods simply, finding it almost ridiculously easy to trust her. “Yeah, I do. I trust you.” She smiles, looking surprised at how easily the words flow from his lips. “Are we... going to do anything now?” he asks, almost looking forward to learning more about this thrumming he can feel beneath his fingertips, throughout his body.
She looks amused at his impatience to get started but shakes her head. “No, I’m sorry. We’ve done enough for one night. Trust me, you’ll be tired of seeing me soon enough. For now, rest. Live your life. We’ll get started soon enough.” She turns to stare out of the window once more before looking over at him. “By the way, just for curiosity’s sake, where are we exactly?”
He blinks a time or two before chuckling. “Oh. Peoria.”
“Small world,” she says softly. “I live in East Peoria.”
He stares at her. “Are you serious? We live so close to each other, but I don’t remember ever seeing you before.”
She smiles again, lifting a hand to rest against the cool pane of glass keeping them from the outside world. “Well, Peoria isn’t exactly a small place. There’s a lot of people here, we might’ve passed each other by over the years and not realized.”
“This is true,” he concedes.
Turning back to face him, she tilts her head. “I’ll see you soon, Aaron. Be careful and don’t tell anyone about any of this, alright? I’m sure you already deduced as much, but they wouldn’t understand it. We can manage it if we had to but it’d slow everything down if you’re stuck in some mental hospital doped up on meds, right?”
He laughs, nodding slightly. “Of course, I won’t tell. Don’t worry.” He flexes his hand, still feeling the power there, and thinks there’s no way he’d want to share this knowledge with anyone. It’s something that’s completely his and no one else’s, and that’s how it’ll stay...
She nods, smile slipping slightly. “Alright then. Ser!” And just like that, he’s alone once more in his apartment, turning to look out of his window as well. The carpet is still warm where she’d stood, a soft, cinnamon-y kind of perfume lingering on the air. If not for that and how different he himself feels, he’d almost consider it as yet another attack of his subconscious.
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