The Stray Child
Roderigo yawned. He hadn't slept since he was on the plane, which granted hadn't been more than a few hours before. Still, he was exhausted, and he focused his remaining energy on finding a plane that would take them to Miami.
Pity the airport was closed. The headlines were dominated by an incident at Miami International, where hours before a plane had ignited on the runway. Over a dozen passengers were killed, including two senators and the Japanese prime minister, and the incident had forced several jets to make emergency landings for inspection. Trying to find an alternate route home led to its own problems, as it appeared the cabs and buses around the country were flooded with requests by stranded passengers desperate to get home. These problems were compounded by the fact that, for whatever reason, Bat wasn't answering his phone.
The sound of smacking lips behind him almost made Roderigo jump. Turning his head, he saw a young boy standing at the base of the hotel stairs, an ice cream sandwich in his hand and chocolate smeared across his face. The child seemed to be staring blankly into the distance, chewing each bite in an almost emotionless fashion. Roderigo turned back to his phone and continued his search.
Then the child spoke, his voice almost sinister in tone. “Mister,” he asked, his mouth filled with ice cream, “is your name Rod?”
Roderigo turned to face the child, who was now shoving the last bite into his mouth. The boy pointed toward the treeline, at the same area at which he'd been staring. “Mister, I think that old man is calling you.”
Roderigo sighed. “Kid,” he said, attempting to form a gentle tone, “I don't know anyone here.”
The boy shook his head. “You're Rod Somers, right?” he asked. It was eerie.
“How did you know my name?” Roderigo asked, his voice hardly expressing his shock.
“I told you, that old man is calling you.”
Roderigo set his phone down and stared toward the spot, searching for the person in question. He caught a brief silhouette, a hunched figure in a farmer's hat holding the handle to an old cart and motioning for him to follow. Just as soon as he saw it, the figure was gone, fading into the shadows as if it had never been there to begin with. There shouldn't be anyone here,” he thought. Not anyone who knows me.
After a moments hesitation he stood, placing his phone in his pocket. “Thanks kid,” he said, taking his first reluctant steps toward the treeline. He seemed to catch sight of the figure again, moving deeper into the forest. Although it seemed crazy to go after, his curiosity had gotten the best of him. Against his better judgment, he followed.
* * *
"Damn," Roderigo though, staring into the darkness around him. He reached into his pocket, removing an old oil lighter, and with a swift flick of the flint he managed to bring a little light to the pitch black of the cave. Roderigo did not care for these places; he'd only followed the sound of the wagon's wheels, but after a few minutes inside he could no longer see, and he was beginning to doubt that the old man had entered.
What he did see was the faint outline of a path, a narrow road that seemed to only recently have been exposed. It crawled steadily toward the bowels of the earth, twisted and creeping ever so slightly downward. Roderigo could still here the creak of the wheels, and the clanging of wood on rock in the distance.
He sighed. Everything he knew about caves told him to stay get out now, but he felt compelled to venture further. There seemed to be some other force fighting against his own will, a faint struggle that he only barely was aware of. That couldn't possibly be the case though, and while he had felt such a sensation before it was only his mind lying to him, a mere delusion that he had no control. But something about this feeling seemed different, more real that even reality itself, and he forced himself to step with caution, but he could not bring himself to turn back.
Soon the floor seemed to break into a natural stairway, a deep, spiraling ladder into the abyss. The ground to the his right seemed to fall away, a deep pit that seemed to fall deep into the Earth. He hesitated to check how far down it went, although it seemed the path followed it to the very end.
He began to see shapes out of the corners of his eyes, dark shadows moving just beyond the light. It shouldn't have bothered him, but he felt threatened by their presence. Even with the occasional hallucination he was not prepared. Here, in the darkness of the cave he felt watched and menaced, as if the shadows were taking sinister forms. He knew that if he turned back now, they would attack him, and as crazy as that thought was he could not discount it. He had no choice but to go deeper.
He wasn't sure how long he kept walking. His feet felt blistered and sore, and his calves and lungs ached. Soon the glow of his lighter seemed to bounce of ground, outlining a path to the center of the chasm. Had he reached the bottom? He couldn't be sure, but he felt he had been moving for at least an hour.
The stairs seemed to melt into the cavern floor. The light of the flame seemed to burn brighter, giving him the clear view of a massive room. As the light around him began to grow warmer and more vibrant, he realized that a much large flame burned in the near distance, its own glow casting shadows off the stairs that encircled it and climbed far above him and beyond his sight.
He approached the flame with caution. Near it was the familiar hunched figure, still engulfed in shadow; he was perched on the edge of the wagon, leaning over to gather warmth. It seemed disturbingly familiar to him, wearing a wide brim hat and sporting a empty smile, reminiscent of the figure in his brief dream, only without the jagged teeth and with the figure of an aging hermit.
"Please sit," the old man said, his shadowy hand motioning toward a rock by the fire. He eyes seemed to be squinting, but like his smile they were empty, as if they had seen all there was to the world and cared for none of it.
With great reluctance Roderigo closed his lighter and took his seat. Even with the sounds he had heard, the wagon bothered him. The old man was too thin and weak to have brought it down, and had he done so, it should have tumbled off the stair and pulled him with it. Roderigo should have asked about it, at least he thought so, but he couldn't bring himself to speak. Even if it was a hallucination, it wasn't worth it, and he decided that trying would only make him look foolish.
Before he could begin to process those thoughts, the old man spoke. "You're Roderigo Somers, are you not?" he asked, his voice sounding far younger and more sinister than he appeared.
Roderigo flinched. "How do you know my name?”
"That's unimportant.” The old man sneered. His ragged smile was now glaringly visible, a stark contrast to the empty grin he'd had before. “I have something of a deal to make with you," he said, leaning toward the fire.
"Deal?" Roderigo asked.
The man was completely unaffected by the flat delivery; if anything, he became even more enthusiastic. "You were born on June 6, 1961, were you not?" he asked.
Roderigo thought that it was more than a lucky guess. In fact, the question was impossibly specific, and the only way the man would ask was if he already knew the answer. The question made Roderigo feel very strange, as if the man was feeling around inside his head, searching for something that went beyond his questions, something that words alone could not convey.
"Yes," Roderigo replied. His voice showed more than a hint of anxiety, and their emotional depth only added to his discomfort. his voice showing a hint of anxiety.
"And you joined the United States Navy in 1982, correct?"
Now Roderigo knew it was more than a guess. Even still, Roderigo felt compelled to answer. “Yes,” he said, shifting on his seat. He felt unable to stop, and though he attempted to do so he continued, “I was in the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen.” With that, a bit of his willpower seemed to returned, and he managed to ask the question that was most prominent in his mind. “How, exactly, do you know this?”
The old man brushed the question aside. “If I am not mistaken, you were a combatant in Operation Earnest Will. Is that correct?"
"Yes," Roderigo replied. He felt very lightheaded, almost as if someone's fingers were reaching inside his skull, draining away his thoughts and energy.
"I'm sure you had an exemplary service record," the old man said, “and I have no doubt you could have gone far. So why then, were you discharged in 1992?"
"I developed schizophrenia," Roderigo said. He was beginning to wonder if he was psychotic, blabbering to a lamppost on a street outside his hotel room, but he still could not shake the feeling that this was happening. Even when he reminded himself that it always seemed real, he was sure this was somehow different, that it was not a delusion.
"Thank you," the old man said. He leaned back in the cart, his body falling further into shadow. At last Roderigo felt sure he was hallucination, but at the same time he was unable to ignore him or back away. This bothered him greatly, as even when he felt like his illness had hijacked his sense he could always resist if he was aware of the trick.
"Now," the old man said, "I want to offer you that deal I mentioned. I know you are experienced with a blade--you're as close to a master as your time allows. I'd like to give you a rather unique one, a special weapon that comes with a few perks. In exchange, I want you to meet the master I serve. Do you accept this deal?"
Roderigo wanted to turn it down. He felt that playing along would further compromise his sanity, drive him further into psychosis. But he felt like the decision had already been made, that it was beyond his control. “Yes,” he said, fighting with every ounce of his strength, “I do.”
Confirming his suspicions, the only man vanished into the darkness, dissipating into shadow. The fire sizzled and went out, as if a giant breath had blown it away. It was pitch black, so dark that Roderigo couldn't even see his hand in front of his face, but as he flipped open the lighter an unnatural light fell from above, shining through a hole that could not exist. Almost immediately something inside began to move, and with horror Roderigo realized that he was staring into a tear duct on an impossibly massive eye. When it opened, he ceased to wonder if it was all real, and with a nervous laugh he prayed that he was merely insane.