Screeching tires echoed through Jim Malone’s head as he struggled to open his eyes. The light stung his cornea as his eyelids peeled away from a thick mucus crust. Head pounding to an erratic rhythm, (1, 2, skip, 1, skip, 2, 1…) Jim felt his whole body lying on a hard warm surface. Sirens screamed and intermittent horn honks blasted from no where, gained intensity and began to fade in volume before Jim could gather his bearings. I can’t remember, he thought as his vision slipped into focus, how I got here at all. I’m lying on a sidewalk and I need to get up and figure out what’s going on.
Finally moving his arms, Jim pushed himself up to one knee. Rubbing his pounding head, he got up to his feet and scanned his surroundings, searching for something familiar. A broken analog bank clock stood directly above him, hands stopped around 10:15. He inspected the area further without making any steps. I’m in some downtown, he thought, there’s some palm trees, some closed up shops, some tall buildings down the road: I’ve never been here before! His head swam as it continued to pound its erratic beat. Two street signs indicated the corner of Central Avenue and 8th Street.
Head still pounding and confused, Jim felt a bulge in his back left pocket. I never keep anything in that pocket, he thought as he reached with his left hand. Jim gripped the contents tightly and pulled out a crumpled envelope. Hand shaking, he thought, I don’t remember putting that in there.
Jim uncrumpled the envelope and found an address scrawled hastily in his own penmanship:
Dr. Kathleen Morlock
246 West 17th Street
New York, New York 10031
A stamp was placed crookedly on the top right corner of the envelope but there was no return address. Jim ran his fingers over the surface of the paper. Absent mindedly, as if in a trance he said aloud in a scratchy voice, “A mailbox… I need to find a mailbox.” I don’t remember, he thought as he tried to access his defunct memory, writing any friggin’ letter.
Jim scoured the surrounding cityscape for a mailbox, but saw nothing. Nothing but closed down businesses and boarded up windows, he reflected. Finally, after standing in place since he arose from the sidewalk, Jim took steps toward what looked like the heart of downtown. Stumbling at first, the pounding in Jim’s head intensified sharply. Ignoring the pain and confusion, Jim pushed his body forward.
After five minutes of walking down Central Avenue, Jim spotted a business that looked open with a hand painted sign above the door. The building was noticeably narrow and long. As Jim approached the establishment, the sign came into focus and read, THE DROP CLOTH TAVERN. What a stupid name for a bar, Jim thought with amusement. He chuckled to himself and the pounding in his head subsided. I just needed to laugh, he mused to himself. Trying to relax and come to terms with reality and his lost memory, Jim walked up to the door, grabbed the handle, pulled the door open and walked through the threshold.
As Jim walked into the narrow building, he found himself in a huge, airy high school gymnasium. Jim stopped dead in his tracks, thoughts racing incoherently. Struggling to form cohesive ideas, he said aloud, “There is no way this is the inside of that building I just walked into.” Jim felt his body shaking with terror and confusion. Turning back to the door he just walked through, he pushed it open and stuck his head through the doorway while hanging on to the wooden frame. He saw a carpeted hallway with numbered doors that looked like a run down motel built in the 1950s and completely neglected since the owners cut the ribbon at the grand opening. Lime and mildew stains ran halfway up the stucco walls and cobwebs cluttered the medium height ceiling. Jim practically jumped back into the gymnasium and slammed the door shut.
Okay, okay, Jim thought, this is a dream, you trans-locate when you walk through doors: Don’t panic! He felt fresh sweat form on his forehead and it dripped down around his eyebrow onto his cheek before it fell off his face. Nope, not a dream, he concluded. Jim’s breathing intensified as he attempted to come to terms with his situation. Well, I have no memory of how I got on the sidewalk, I have a letter in my pocket I don’t remember writing, I was in a city I’ve never been to before and I wind up in completely different locations when I walk through doors like I’m in a damned Tardis from Doctor Who or something. These thoughts raced through his head in different orders and swirled into a mashed ball of reasoning, memory and speculation.
Jim heard a rustling that interrupted his thoughts and reasoning and he crooked his head to the right. On the bleachers of the gymnasium stood an extremely tall black bird headed man wearing a black suit and holding a large silver pocket watch connected by a chain to his vest. Jim gasped and fell backwards against the closed door, fumbling for the handle. Absolute terror gripped his body as his motor functions stuttered. The bird man stared ominously at Jim and made no sound. The bird man’s huge eyes devoured Jim’s fragile grip on reality and sent pangs of fear up and down his spine.
Shivering and unable to break the stare, Jim finally pushed the door open and practically jumped through the threshold. Looking through the door before it closed, Jim saw the bird man look down at his pocket watch. At least he didn’t follow me, Jim thought as he panted and tried to calm himself down. What the hell is going on with me?
Lost in thought, Jim found himself in a darkened meeting room lit by an old fashioned light bulb projector that whirred and hissed. A man stood beside the machine and 3 other men and one woman sat around a table. Jim kept himself crouched and hidden behind a filing cabinet. Presently, the standing man was in mid-sentenced and Jim heard him say, “…and so, we will be able to implant the ability to bend reality and trans-locate. By combining time travel technology with human perception, reality will become relative to our soldiers’ wishes. The sea change in ability will aid in assignation, espionage, the apprehension of terrorists and the propagation of misinformation, thus reestablishing the dominance of our currently flagging intelligence agencies. Through frontal lobe brain surgery, we have the ability to…”
“We don’t need to sit through your techno-babbly again,” a man seated to the right of the projector interrupted. “I want to examine the profitability and sustainability of this project. You remember profit, don’t you Steve?” The man stood up and placed a transparency on the projector. “Direct your attention to the screen lady and gentlemen. Sit down, Steve,” he ordered as Steve sat down grumbling to himself. “This is Kathleen Morlock. She invented a traditional Wellesian time machine while in our employ. Since we moved forward with the perception implants, Morlock disappeared with a working prototype of her time machine.”
Another man chimed in, “She’s our biggest threat; running around time as she pleases!”
“This wild card will inhibit the stability of this investment and needs to be eliminated. I am certain that she will intervene and disrupt our experiments and implementation of this program. Now, to stop her, I suggest…,” he paused as he reached for another transparency. As he placed the slide down, his audience gasped in unison. Scrawled in red marker, the machine’s light bulb projected the message, “GET OUT OF HERE JIM!” and a quickly doodled picture of the bird man with an arrow pointing to the standing man. Jim’s eyes widened as he noticed for the first time that the standing man wore the same suit as the bird man he encountered moments earlier. “Aw, Christ,” the standing man said absently. Jim stared at the swinging silver chain of the pocket watch for a second and then dashed toward the door he came in, pulled it open and ran through.
Jim carefully left the door ajar. There’s no way, he thought, those suits can follow me. I think I’m getting the hang of this. Suddenly, Jim felt a presence behind him and turned 180 degrees away from the door and faced the apartment. Startled, Jim saw the bird man directly in the front him. Terror once again consumed Jim, but this time he stood his ground instead of stumbling and falling.
“What do you want from me!?” Jim screamed a little louder than he intended.
Saying nothing, the bird man pulled out his pocket watch and tapped the glass three times. Click, click, click. Calmly, he placed the watch back in his pocket. Jim could not resist the threatening and gripping stare of the bird man. The huge eyes, large round black pupils bordered by hazy yellow circles and bloodshot white seemed to pulsate and breathe. As the eyes lulled Jim off his guard, the bird man reached out menacingly with a feathered hand and took an aggressive step toward Jim. Above the bird man’s right shoulder, Jim saw the word “RUN” scrawled on the wall in dripping red. Jim broke the trance, his heart skipped a beat and he bolted out the open door.
Finding himself in a long hallway with numbered doors, Jim ran as fast as he could, not looking back. Maybe they can follow me, he thought as he ran, and maybe I can outsmart them. Who’s leaving me these messages? These clues? My first impulse is that I’ve been through this before and I’m leaving them for myself. That’s stupid. If I’ve been through this before, how would I go to the same locations every time? Is my path programmed? I assumed this doorway gimmick whipped me around completely randomly. One way to find out…
He saw a door open slightly to his left and a closed door to his right. He stopped running and looked back down the hallway. Nobody. Suddenly, he saw a young female maid with a cleaning cart working her way through the rooms. Jim ran up to her and stopped at her cart. Startled, she cringed but grabbed the cart firmly in defense.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m sorry to startle you. I stayed in room 613 last night”, he said, pointing to the adjacent door, “and I think I forgot my wallet. Can you open the door?”
She looked at him sheepishly, still angry from being startled a few moments earlier. “Is against company policy,” she mumbled in a thick Russian accent.
“Please, ma’am. I had a lot of money in there. I’ll give you fifty bucks from the wallet if you open the door.”
Her eyes lit up but she eyed him cautiously, “I no trust you. But this room next. Move.” As she opened the door, Jim ran through it and continued running down a city sidewalk. Damn, this is weird, he thought. I wonder what that maid saw as I ran through that door. He heard a maniacal chuckling echoing against the buildings coming from above. He looked over his right shoulder and saw a 6 or 7 story parking garage. Jim shuddered as he saw the outline of the bird man on the roof of the building. Jim thought furiously as he looked forward and continued to run: how did he find me? And why haven’t I found a damn mailbox yet?
Downtown once again, a frustrated Jim Malone stopped running and caught some breath. This is the same city, he thought, these guys must be fucking with me. Maybe they can see me right now. I can hear them laughing at me.
As Jim’s thoughts jumbled and mashed together, he passed a newspaper vendor. The vendor, at least 80, had no teeth and scabby skin all over his body. He held out a newspaper at Jim. Absently, Jim grabbed the paper, trying not the stare at the abject creature’s crusty arm. I need a distraction, he thought, something to ground my thoughts.
As Jim looked down at the newspaper, it looked like a collage of words and phrases. Headlines mashed together to form incoherent messages: “The Natural World Long Awaited Clash… Once the New Kid, Silver One Will Follow… Long-Awaited Flow Hero Lend Fish…” Blinking heavily, Jim stared at the paper again. The words seemed to fade and pulse intermittently on the page. Jim threw the paper on the ground and looked up at the ailing vendor. “What is this crap?” he asked harshly.
“I don’t control the headlines, mister,” he rasped.
“Never mind. I’ve wasted too much time here anyway. Is there a mailbox in this city or no?”
The old man did not reply but simply raised his rotting arm and extended a purple finger toward a building behind Jim. “Thanks,” Jim squawked curtly as he turned to run. Around the far corner of the building, Jim found a blue mailbox. “Finally!” he said aloud to no one. He took the crumpled envelope out of his back pocket and shoved it into the mailbox.
Immediately after dropping the letter, Jim sensed a presence to his right. He turned and felt riddled with fear because he expected the birdman. Instead a young woman stood there and she quickly moved to embrace him. Jim, it’s me, Morlock. I got your letter. I’m going to get you out of this.”
Baffled, he pushed her away and asked, “How did you get here in 2 seconds?”
“We’ll have time for answers later. We’ve gotta go; we’re being monitored. We’ve only got two minutes to make this work.”
“What’s happening to me? Every time I go through a door I end up somewhere different. But I seem to be following a predetermined path. And this crazy bird guy keeps following me around and staring at his damned watch,” Jim mumbled, pauses thoughtfully and continued, “I don’t think this is the first time I’ve been through all this…”
“Shut up for a second. I’ve got to concentrate,” she commanded as she pulled out a tube and large screwdriver from her coat. Suddenly, she noticed a man dressed in a black suit lurking in the shadows of an alley. She left Jim mumbling to himself and rushed toward the man. Jim recognized him from the meeting and definitely recognized that suit. Jim tried to speak but his lips were dry and his throat scratchy. “Don’t, that’s the…” he began, but she wasn’t listening.
Morlock pounced on the stranger and shoved the screwdriver up to his neck. “Still after me, Jenkins!? I got to him first! Tell your bosses they can’t steal a human soul and get away with it!”
Calmly, Jenkins spoke in a soft, menacing voice and said, “Your language paints progress in such a negative light.”
Morlock slapped him across the face. “That doesn’t even make sense! I’m getting Jim out of this circus act!”
Jenkins’ mouth curled up into an evil grin. “You’re too late! Look!” he said in a satisfied voice as he pointed to the street behind them. Morlock turned her head and saw that Jim was gone. Simultaneously, Jenkins pointed a gun to Morlock’s temple. As she turned her head back around, the blood rushed out of her face as she saw the huge bird man staring her directly in the eye with a gun pointed at her skull.
Jim opened his eyes and found himself under a highway overpass. The desolate landscape flooded Jim with loneliness and failure. He crumpled to the ground and slammed his fist on the pavement, screaming, “I can’t get away from this garbage! Release me from this nightmare,” he looks up and sees only the bottom of a highway. No clouds, no sky. “I can’t stand it anymore! I can feel my atoms separating and my brain is oozing out of my forehead! There’s no way out! I can’t breathe!” Jim’s vision faded and his thoughts violently clashed and jumbled inside his head.
A long black sedan rolled up to the corner of Central Avenue and 8th Street. A door opened and big arms threw Jim Malone out onto the sidewalk. The door slammed and the car squealed its tires and sped off recklessly. Screeching tires echoed through Jim Malone’s head as he struggled to open his eyes.