Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
And you still don’t have the right look
And you don’t have the right friends
Nothing changes but the faces, the names, and the trends
High School never ends
Bowling For Soup – High School Never Ends.
Helen Browne’s back fit snugly into the curve of Jack Mora’s chest. Their bodies were as physically close to each as they could be and still be wearing clothes. His oversized jacket wrapped around them both keeping them warm form the on shore breeze that blew across the San Diego harbor. If there was one word that summed up Helen’s feelings right now it would be safe. Safe in the arms of the man she loved and who loved her in turn.
Helen had teased him about wearing the ridiculously large 3X jacket, but Jack had a plan, he always has a plan. Wrapping it around the both of them it created a feeling of intimacy and privacy in an otherwise public place. Pulling back her long auburn hair, he kissed the nape of her neck. Jack had shaved that ridiculously long beard that he had grown in Afghanistan, still the skin of his lips tickled her nick. She let out a half sigh and a half giggle.
He took her hand and guided it in to the jackets pocket. Reaching and probing, her fingers found a small velvet cube. She with drew, but knew what it was before she opened it. Helen stared at the ring for a moment not sure what to say. “Marry me.” He whispered in to her ear.
“Jack.” She whispered. She wanted to say yes. She wanted to say yes more than she wanted to breathe. She couldn’t though, still she couldn’t force her self to say no either. “Jack…It just…the war…everyday you are gone I worry about losing you and Brian…” Helen’s brother was a SEAL team member, he had been the one who had introduced her and Jack in the first place, and was still somewhere fighting terrorists overseas. “I know this sounds dumb, but to lose you would kill me, to lose you and be married would, be twice as hard.” Tears began to roll down her checks.
“I know that’s why I am not going back.” He said softly.
Helen couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Quitting the CIA isn’t that like deserting the army?” She asked.
“Not quitting transferring. They are in a desperate need for a Pashto speaking analyst. It will mean moving to Virginia…”
Helen began to sob more. “Jack…I can’t ask you to take a desk job…It not you…”
“I’ve done my duty for my country, and I still will.” He insisted.
“But to give this up…”
“Give up what, risking my life every day, never knowing who wants to kill you in your sleep. Covered so deep with dirt and grime you think you will never get clean, I think I can live with out that.” He laughed.
“You love your job.’ She insisted.
“I love you more.”
The tears turned to tears of Joy. “I love you… yes, I want to marry you.”
Jack was getting use to the disorientation from what the scientist of Sanderluer Island called the dreaming. It was like that lost of time one experiences when they wake up but only more debilitating. He tried to force the haze from his mind by sheer willpower, but he seemed to be able to make it leave if he relaxed and let it float out form him.
As he became more cognitive of his surroundings, he realized that the sky was gray, the color of a Nazi tank. The sun was a pale small white light, whose photons seem barely able to pierce the dark and ominous sky. Arizona Annie stood before him, no longer the cartoon character cowgirl. Now she wore a catholic schools girl uniform, if Catholic school girls wore uniforms designed by over-sexed fourteen year old boys. Her skirt was so high he could see her white panties, and her white shirt was buttoned only by the lowest button, so that he and anyone else looking could he half exposed uncovered breasts. He looked down at himself, his beard was gone and he was no longer wearing the BDU’s he had worn in The ‘Stand. Instead he wore the same uniform he had worn at St. Benedict’s more than a decade before.
“Why the change of clothes?” He asked trying not to manifest a tone of annoyance, and condescension.
The woman shrugged, “It’s the zeitgeist of the loci or the spirit of the place.” She pointed over Jack’s shoulder. He turned his neck to see what the girl was pointing at. Behind him was an old red schoolhouse. A schoolhouse designed by a ten foot tall Vlad the Impaler. It had wrought iron grates on the window, each iron bar studded with sharp barbs incrusted with dried blood. Twin steel doors stood fifteen feet high, each had a door knocker with a human skull. To one side was decrepitated and worn swings and a rusted jungle gym covered with concertina wire, on the other side was a grave yard.
Annie’s oversized eyes seemed to focus on something far away. Slowly her cowboy hat and holster rig with its twin peacemakers materialized. Jack thought this seemed to look even more fetish like, if that was possible. Turning his attention to the school he seemed to sense some form of malevolence. “Thousands of people subconscious fears and resentments from their academic career, all manifested in one place.” Annie said in a forbidding tine.
“That sounds ominous.” Jack deadpanned trying to take in the tactical implications of what was before him. On the steeple of the school a brass bell swayed in the cold wind. It mournful cries echoing throughout the landscape.
Annie gave Jack a wink with one of her large eyes. “Hear the bells Tex, class is starting.”
Jack hadn’t been this nervous since his first battle in Fallujah. He walked up the large steps and looked at the humongous doors. Annie seemed to be reading his mind. “How else you think a school looks like to a scare kid? It looks big.”
He cautiously pushed open the imposing door, it squeaked an eerie tune and revealed a corridor that not only seemed to be larger than the school was outside, it stretched to the horizon. The walls were covered in graffiti, thing like I HATE MYSELF, WHY CAN”T HE LOVE ME? and I AM UGLY. Jack Mora wasn’t a forensic expert but he was sure some of the scrawled words were written in blood. This was he speculated, the fears and angst of adolescent mind made manifest.
Taking a step in he asked, “How far we going?”
Behind him Annie replied, “Till you find what you are looking for Tex, till you find what you are looking for.”
“What’s that?” Jack asked.
“Don’t reckon I know, but you will when you find it.” Annie responded in a pseudo-cryptical tone.
Jack advance down the dark hallway. The graffiti grew thicker and more self deprecating. They had gone about a thousand meters when he saw the body. It had long blonde hair and wore a green and white cheerleader’s uniform. The girl’s body except for her hair was completely composed of ash. Her clothing unsigned, as if she had burned from inside in some kind of spontaneous human combustion. Jack got on his knees to examine the body.
Behind him Annie said. “If it makes you fell better, she probably wasn’t real.”
“Huh?” Jack asked not sure what she meant.
“I mean she probably didn’t exist in the outside world. A dream projection, some guy’s version of the perfect teenage girl or some dreamer’s version of herself twenty years and forty pounds ago, but when she woke up the dream form stayed until it just burned itself out.”
Getting up Jack asked. “What other types of dream forms are there here?”
“Here? They probably keep with the school motif but in the entire Dream lands, everything anyone has ever dreamed.”
“That a lot of dream forms.” Jack said in amazement.
“That’s why they don’t last long after the dreamer wakes up, usually.”
Jack was about to ask her what she meant by that? When a roar came from behind twin wooden doors. Annie nodded to Jack giving the tacit order to move on.
With years of house to house urban fighting under his belt Jack slowly approached the doors and pushed one back. It gave out the same horror movie creek that the min doors to the school did. Inside was a gymnasium over a hundred yards longs, graffiti incrusted wooden bleachers were pulled out from the walls. A broken basket ball hoops hung from fifty feet above the hardwood floors. Red balls like the ones used in dodge ball laid under the backboard, some normal, but one was nearly ten feet high, another was made of metal, yet another had large spikes protruding out of it.
It was not natural for a human to look up when they entered a room. The army had a lot of trouble teaching recruits in Iraq to immediately raise their vision up when they entered an apartment where insurgents may be looking down from a hole leading to the floor above, with a Kalashnikov. Jack had picked up the habit from since his first tour in the ‘Sand Box’. He saw a vaulted ceiling stretching a hundred feet in the air. A bird’s nest of pipes crisscrossed the top of the gym. Pipes carrying nothing nowhere, Jack surmised. Jack could see something quickly dart between the lead pipes.
Annie sauntered over to the bleachers and plopped down, languidly stretching out she said nonchalantly. “Final exam time, Tex.” And gave him a look that indicated he was on his own.
Looking back up Jack so the thing drop the hundred feet from the top of the ceiling. It was a ten foot long snake, but its skin was a boney carapace. With a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. “Another dream projection?” He shouted over his shoulder desperately trying to get any tactical information on the monstrosity before him.
“Not exactly.” The cowgirl-schoolgirl replied. “We call them bottom feeders, they are the natural fauna around these parts, About as smart as a dumb dog, they are naturally aggressive and territorial.”
The Snake thing lunged at Jack, who tried to will his Beretta or M-4 in to existence, the way Annie did with her six-shooters, but to no avail. He threw himself to the ground, the snake thing jumped over him.
Jack moved in to the top of the basketball key. Once in Afghanistan, he’d seen a spec force operator from Utah grab a snake by its tail and flick it like a whip cracking its back killing the animal immediately. He waited until the snake tried to strike a second time, this time when he went under it he then grabbed the snake’s tail, and tried to crack. But instead of damaging the creature it turned back on him nearly taking a bit out of his hand. Jack pulled back his hands letting the thing go.
The snake thing seemed to become angry and renewed his attack on Jack. “Come on you can do better than that Tex.” Annie chided, but there was a tone of concern underneath her barb.
Jack began to scramble toward the bottom of the key. He sensed rather than heard or saw that the snake was striking again. He grabbed the spiked dodge ball and pivoted and twisted back on his attacker. A sharp spike caught the snake thing under the jaw, and protruded out from the other side of its neck. The thing spasmed and died. Jack dropped the improvised weapon to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Annie sliding the six-guns back in to her holster. She was watching his back after all. “Good job, Tex.”
Adrenaline still pumped though him. “Now what teach?” He asked, still ready for a fight.
With a sly smile she responded, “Now you wake up.”