Part Three: A Wok About Town

Todd looked Trace Harding over. He had no choice but to take the man at his word that this wasn’t some performance piece. That the man in front of Todd was not, and had never heard of Mickey Rourke.

Which led to some questions on its own. Had Harding ever been out of his bedroom? Did he not have a TV, or anyone who could look at him?

Todd cut off that line of thinking. If there was one thing Harding didn’t look like, it was a man who would put up with any bullshit. As Todd gave serious thought to his situation, what Harding said hit him.

“The same reason I am?” Why was he here? Sure, he wanted to see if Dave was okay, to maybe help if he could, but wasn’t there something inside of him, some nagging feeling that had gotten his hackles up?

“There’s no time,” Harding said. “The resonance is fading. Can’t you tell that?” Todd didn’t understand, but Harding pressed on, not expecting an answer. “Listen. Just do as I do.”

Harding reached his left hand toward the spot that had made Todd dizzy. As he did, Todd noticed a slight increase in the air pressure. And he could feel, if not hear, a thrumming, a sort of… Well, he was stealing Harding’s word, but it felt like a resonance. It kicked up in … what? Tone? Intensity? It did kick whatever it was up a notch as Harding reached inside his jean jacket and gestured with his left hand. The resonance increased even more, and then cut out.

Trace Harding was standing in front of Todd, fidgeting under his jacket, arm outstretched; Trace Harding was gone, leaving Todd gaping at the seam that had sucked the man up.

***

Stephen leaned against the wall of the shopping mall, breathing heavily. He was almost positive that he was at Southgate mall, but he was having a hard time seeing clearly. He could feel the blood trickling down his leg.

Closing his eyes, Stephen sank to the ground and tried to focus on getting his breathing under control. At the same time, he fought off the lure of unconsciousness. Where was everyone? Shouldn’t people be shopping, or at least loitering?

Shifting in an attempt to get more comfortable brought a stabbing pain, and Stephen lurched over, grunting. Realizing his face was pressed into a puddle, Stephen straightened, grunted again at the pain of sitting up, then gave up trying to get comfortable. This wasn’t a good place to rest.

Uselessly, his thoughts turned to his cell phone, left in a drawer at his desk, across the river. He’d been thinking of how to make it back there, or to a place to shower and change, and put this day behind him, but — and he stifled a laugh at the thought, fearing how much that would hurt — he realized that the hole in his middle would ruin any clothes he changed into, anyway. What he needed was an ambulance and a hospital. Or, at the least, a needle and some good, strong thread.

Stephen realized he was slipping into delirium and shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.

Obviously, something had to be done for the bleeding. So, he took off his jacket — the grey tweed one he had for casual outings on the weekend — and ripped his shirt open.

Wincing, Stephen saw that the wound was gaping. Blood wasn’t gushing, but the trickle was persistent. In agony, he pulled the shirt off — gingerly, so gingerly. He had to lean away from the wall to pull it off all the way, which pulled at the wound, sending a fresh supply of blood welling out. Balling up his shirt and hoping for a clean spot, Stephen gritted his teeth and pressed the shirt into the wound. He held it there, tightly, as long as he could.

***

“What the fuck, man?”

Stephen opened his eyes. He’d dozed off. A figure, a man from the voice, was approaching furtively. The man stopped a safe distance away.

“I’m the mayor,” Stephen said. It came out more as a gurgle than a statement.

“You fucking guys can’t sleep around here, man. You fuckin’ hobos are the reason my employees won’t take the trash out. This ain’t my job.” Stephen could hear the sounds of trash cans being emptied.

“Sure, they’re all hot chicks, so I say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ Hard to argue with you bums sleeping here.”

“What time is it?” Stephen managed.”

“What time is it? Fuck you time is what time it is.”

The man turned and started walking away.

“Time you fucking left. I got one more trash-run at closing. I’m bringing my phone. If you’re still here, I’m calling the cops.”

“I’m the mayor…” Stephen tried to be firm, but he was fading. Better if this guy called the police. But Stephen couldn’t hold on to that.

“And I manage the Wok Box. Who gives a shit?” the manager yelled over his shoulder before disappearing around the corner.

To Stephen’s bleary sight, a figure appeared out of nowhere. Thinking it was the manager again, he said, “Call the cops.”

“You look like shit,” the man said. His voice sounded like rocks being dragged across cement. Stephen squinted, but the sight just wouldn’t resolve itself.

“You sound familiar,” Stephen said.

The man grabbed for Stephen’s jacket and then reached for the mayor’s face. Stephen tried to wince back defensively, but there wasn’t that much left to give. When the man’s hands left his face, Stephen realized that he was now wearing his glasses. When had he taken them off?

He slumped back, recognizing the man across from him.

“Mickey Rourke?” Stephen said, his head bumping against the wall of the Wok Box.

Trace Harding stared at him.

“I have it,” Stephen said, regaining a little of himself. He vaguely remembered the light tan of a nearby house as he pried at the siding of… What was it? Was it a blue house? A pink house? He remembered the siding came away, and Stephen had been able to tuck the papers away. He hoped that there hadn’t been too much blood at that point. It would be a near dead-giveaway.

“Where?” Harding’s voice lost all conversational tone and hardened to a command.

Stephen tried to shuffle backwards, but there was nowhere for him to go.

“You promised me help.” He removed his left hand from the wound and gestured to himself. “Where were you when this happened? How am I going to get out of this?”

Harding looked over his shoulder then back at the mayor.

“Help should be on the way. I’m working on it.” Harding seemed almost apologetic.

“You’re despicable, Harding. Does he know not to trust you? Tell him, from me, not to trust you.”

All sympathy left Harding’s face then.

“Where is it? Give me the pages?”

“You owe me something, first,” Stephen glared back. “You’d take the pages and be gone. They were a little insurance policy, so why would I help you first? Go. Send help. Keep your word and I’ll get you the pages.”

With a disgusted grunt and a shake of his head, Trace Harding reached under his jacket and stretched out his hand; Trace Harding was gone. Stephen closed his eyes and relaxed back, hitting his head against the wall of the Wok Box again.

Part Two: Gone Without a Trace

 

The origin of the bear would become hotly-debated on the Internet in the following days. The reason for the debate came down to two immutable facts: Things that cannot be known are seen as safe, fertile ground for debate because the participants cannot be proven wrong, which is the secret fear of anyone who posts an argument on the internet; and everything that is stated becomes a hotly-debated topic on the internet, from the best take-out pizza to sports, and even such topics as whether murder is wrong.

The mystery of the bear would be something that people would wonder at, but only Dave had been paying attention.

For someone who was as irretrievably bored as Dave was, that afternoon at Galaxyland, anything out of the usual was notable, and anything notable was a flotation device to which such a victim of boredom would cling for the last vestiges of sanity.

The scene did not start as a bear attack. As with a lot of gigantic catastrophes, this started small.

There was nothing striking about the man who stumbled down the aisle between rides. Nothing striking about his appearance, that is. His gait, his lack of navigation skills, and his impressive vocabulary of expletives marked him out as someone to be observed. It wasn’t the number of words that the man knew that made his swearing so interesting, it was the way he combined the usual words, peppering in the occasional innocent noun. Dave felt like he should be taking notes.

Eventually, the man’s lack of coordination led him to flatten a young woman whose appearance Dave had marked out as striking. Apparently he wasn’t the only one, as a half-dozen young men strode to the old man, outrage painted on their faces. Dave watched as security guards, swaggering under the weight of imagined power and the supposed awe of the casual onlooker, approached the scene.

The man disappeared from Dave’s view, surrounded by men who would stand up for this winsome lass who would then be so amazed by their chivalry, not to mention their machismo, that she would immediately choose out one to love all her life. Or something like that.

Instead, Dave heard some guttural noises, and then a growl that was all bass, and increasing in volume and ferocity.

With the synchronization of the truly terrified, or maybe a long-practised dance troupe, the entirety of the man-herd jumped back, turned one hundred and eighty degrees, and ran for their lives — chivalry, the forlorn hope of snuggles, and the young woman forgotten.

Dave understood that it was a matter of evolution. Man would chance almost anything for a chance at reproduction, but the prospect of losing their lives in the effort made any chance at the girl a diminishing prospect.

As for the girl herself, she had just rolled over and now stared into the face of a grizzly bear who was putting the finishing touches on a roar that had drowned out every sound in the park. The poor young woman scrambled out from underneath the bear and paused, seemingly amazed at the fact that she was unscathed, then also ran away.

Dave didn’t run. This was the best thing that had ever happened at work, and he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to watch the whole thing. And anyway, he was a safe distance-

In a couple of leaps, the bear was directly in front of him.

“The fuck?” the bear said, something that didn’t initially register with Dave. It was understandable, given the expectations people have of bears, but the bear didn’t seem to care about Dave’s expectations.

“Are you deaf?” the bear pressed. It had an accent. Dave was pretty sure it was Russian. It certainly sounded like Arnie in Red Heat. But he couldn’t be sure. Maybe that was just a bear accent.

“No, I’m not deaf,” Dave said, “I just don’t see a lot of talking bears.”

“Oh, this. Yes, well,” the bear said. Dave thought maybe it sounded less impatient. “This is just a way to repel the rabble. You did not run. Why is this?”

Dave was sure, now. It was a Russian accent. Even the way he talked sounded like Drago’s manager from Rocky IV.

“Listen. I get real bored. I mean, like,” and Dave mimed hanging himself, which he supposed was probably classless, but he was excited. It was a chance to talk to a fucking bear. That didn’t happen very often. “Besides, you let that girl up, so I figured you didn’t mean harm. If you were going to eat someone, it would probably be her.”

That stumped the bear. Dave laughed. He’d stumped a woodland creature. Next, he’d be facing off against a squirrel for Final Jeopardy! or something.

“You are either very brave or very stupid,” the bear said after a thoughtful moment, if a bear can be thoughtful.

“Well, there’s no saying I can’t be both,” Dave said, realizing that getting cheeky with an animal that outweighed him by several hundred pounds and seemed to have a short fuse was a good way to a bad end, but he figured he was pretty safe.

The bear laughed.

“That is a good point. A good point! Now, we should go before somebody calls your Fish and your Wildlife.”

“Go?” Dave thought fast. His foster mom always told him not to talk to strangers or accept rides from anyone he didn’t know. Then there was the stench of alcohol on the bear’s breath. He had to tick off another mom-saying, not to ride with anyone who’d been drinking, but hell, he was almost thirty now, and he didn’t even live with his mom anymore.

“Yes. Hop on. We go!”

The bear got low and Dave climbed on. They walked forward, disappearing. The people stuck riding the Mindbender didn’t notice.

***

Todd sat in the living room. The TV was off. The bags of snack food he’d bought for tonight’s LAN party were all open and in varying stages of consumption. He and Garrett and Cindy had eventually just called it off.

Dave was the problem. He’d flaked out. Which was weird, because Dave never flaked out. He got pissed off, sometimes he came over high and was useless, and he got bored or rage-quit, but he never all-out flaked out.

Garrett, Cindy and Todd could have played on their own. They had those nights where Dave had quit in the middle and spent the rest of the night watching TeleToon Retro, but Dave was the one with the regular job, and that came with a car. Cindy and Garrett would have been willing to ride the bus to Todd’s house, but with their gaming rigs, night-time bus roulette was a game they weren’t willing to risk.

So, Cindy and Garrett had begged off, not even interested in an online raid or anything. They were having “them” time, which left Todd alone in the house again.

He’d tried being mad at Dave, but that hadn’t changed anything. Being mad at Dave never did change anything. Dave was Dave, and he wasn’t going to change just because someone was angry at him. He’d tried texting Dave, tweeting him, even calling him, but that last hadn’t even rung, it had just gone to voicemail.

Todd tried another tack, which was to stalk Dave’s timeline. There were a couple of tweets from the night before, some retweets, and a couple complaining about work, from work. Dave wasn’t the most active participant on Twitter, but when his shift was slow, or when Dave was bored at work, he would send his thoughts out. Especially boring shifts were always a source of entertainment. Even when he was busy, Dave usually had the time to post one or two comments throughout the day. But there was nothing after that second work post. Not even any replies to his followers.

Switching away from Dave’s feed, Todd noticed that #westEdBear was trending locally. He read some tweets, arguing about the ethical treatment of bears in malls, then some about Edmonton’s legal stance on circuses, and even some about overly-restrictive gun laws, then finally some scattered reports about either an old man or a bear, mauling a woman at Galaxyland. Nothing was said about where the bear ended up, but there was a link to a story about some people who were sick on the Mindbender after twenty-five minutes.

Todd looked back to Dave’s earlier tweets.

Mindbender again. Dare me to say something and I will. #fireMePlease

There were some replies that Todd was sure Dave would never say on the job, but he was definitely working the Mindbender today.

Todd grabbed his pizza-and-beer fund and called a cab. It wasn’t like there was anything he could do, but he needed to know.

Galaxyland after the rides were shut down was a depressing place. All that crap looming overhead and complete silence competed with the expectation that one had of the place when it was operational. At least the lights were still flashing.

Todd walked quickly to the Mindbender, wanting to get this over with and get out of here. As he approached the roller coaster, though, raw sensation set his nerves on edge. Colours swirled in his head and a powerful vertigo hit him.

Clutching his head, Todd lurched forward, on the brink of falling, but then the spell passed. He stopped tingling, the world stopped spinning, and his equilibrium reasserted itself.

Like a child, touching an element for a second time to see if it still hurts, Todd spun on his heel and walked, more tentatively this time, back the way he had come.

In a flash, the vertigo came again. Todd had half-expected it, and so the assault on his senses didn’t hit him as hard this time.

Looking up, he saw the world staggering by. But if he held his head perfectly still, everything resolved itself. If he moved his eyes only, the world appeared as it should be. However, moving his head at all made everything spin crazily, which led to more moving, and on, down a vicious cycle of dizziness.

Eventually, Todd got to the point where he could hold his head still and look around, and anticipate the dizziness when it came. He took a look around. He saw the last remnants of the park-goers tugging at reluctant children, trying to get them out the door. He saw anxious employees, obviously interested in nothing so much as ending their day. But he saw something else, too.

It looked like a seam — a transparent, if slightly-refracted vertical line right in front of him. He reached out his hand. He was sure he could touch that seam.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a familiar voice said, cutting through Todd’s focus.

Todd spun to see who had talked, and lurched sideways, ending with an undignified sprawl on the linoleum floor. Looking up, Todd started to rise, then slumped back, doing a double-take.

“Mickey Rourke?”

“Who? No,” the man said, reaching out a hand to help Todd up. “My name is Harding. Trace Harding.”

Todd allowed the man to help him to his feet, and took the moment to make sure he wasn’t going crazy.

Clad, head-to-foot in denim, Harding was at least a half-foot taller than Todd, and his brown hair, streaked with silver, was pulled back from a face that looked like it had suffered at the hands of a plastic surgeon. That face was tanned — too tanned for November in Edmonton, and the man was built like a brick shithouse. If this wasn’t Mickey Rourke, then Mickey Rourke had never existed.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you that you look like Mickey Rourke? I mean, it’s amazing. You have the same face, the same build, the same voice. Are you-”

“I told you, my name is Trace Harding. I’ve never heard of this Mickey. I’m here…” Harding trailed off and looked at Todd, speculatively. “I’m here, apparently, for the same reason you are.

Part One: A Party to Assault

On a quiet street in a house leased until the end of August, per the agreement, though with a wink-and-nod agreement for the next school year, Todd McNamara taught English as a second language while he did his best to think of other things.

Normally, you could be happy to be living alone in a house, paying one-sixth of the rent. Todd, however, thought about where he wasn’t.

Roger Smith, Bill Tanner, Grant Hilche, Warren Douglass, and Ben Wilson dominated Todd’s thoughts, rather than the young Chinese lady who was paying for his time.

Todd and his student sat at the shabby kitchen table — Tanner and Hilche had gone in on the thing, thinking it would be hipster-chic, and Todd supposed it was, but he was over that fad; it just looked shabby — and Todd went over verb conjugation again.

Smitty had a pretty sweet internship in southern Alberta, kicking it with some corporate types. Tanner was back home in Ontario for the summer, but he was pulling in a couple grand every week to make coffee for his dad’s tax company under the guise of a “cooperative education opportunity.” Everyone knew that Tanner would be going back there after grad to follow in Dad’s footsteps, but he’d paid for most of the furniture, which looked like it came from a thrift shop, but didn’t, and his dad sprung for the extreme internet connection, so nobody ever had to miss out on whatever it was they were into, be it Netflix, a Skype girlfriend, or, as it was in Todd’s case, online gaming.

In fact, four of five of Todd’s room mates were out of town, making lots of money, or making connections and securing their futures. The fifth, Warren — he didn’t like anyone calling him anything but Warren — was doing some work at the University over the summer, but he stayed at his girlfriend’s house, so Todd never saw him either.

If Todd were being honest with himself, he would admit that online gaming and his own failure to kick his own ass into gear were to blame for where he found himself, staring at a sheet of paper, trying to read it upside down while his student wrote. Teaching English as a second language sounded promising. It paid enough for him to cover the meagre rent while student loans covered all his other expenses, but most importantly, it was fall-out-of-a-boat easy. Prep-time was a matter of clearing off the table and finding his books. Todd believed that there was enough stress just trying to pass courses, and if the internship program didn’t want him, he wasn’t going to strain himself for a buck.

“Good, good,” Todd said as Yu-Min spun the paper toward him. She nodded, smiled a half-smile, and started piling her books up. As she placed them into her bag, the familiar teal Ford Taurus wagon pulled up outside his house. The synchronization between mother and daughter was as eerie as it was consistent, and it was as disconcerting as how oblivious he’d been to the time.

Yu-Min left without a word and Todd dumped his books in his room, sat down, and turned on the TV — another benefit of rooming with Tanner.

Flicking past channels unconsciously, Todd let the mindlessness pull him along. Dave, Cindy, and Garrett were coming over tonight to play some games, but that was hours away, and if he wasn’t happy with his situation, doing mindless shit for cash instead of getting his career off to a start, he could at least medicate it with TV. Better than stewing in his own juices.

***

A quick stop for a breath, and then he had to keep moving.

Propped up against the peeling puce siding of a tenement in south-central Edmonton, Stephen Mandel panted far more than his physical exertions could account for. The difference was made up in the blood that trickled down his stomach.

He clutched the papers, now shifting them to his left hand. When had they gotten so damnably heavy? Either they were much heavier than paper should be, or he was down more than a quart. Mandel couldn’t say. Mayors were not very often the victims of knife attacks, and in his tenure, this was his first.

“I never voted for you,” his assailant had said, almost a sad look on her face as the knife flashed, glinting in the light. Mandel laughed at that memory, winced at the pulling of his wound. It couldn’t have happened that way. That was the way it happened in books, not in real life.

She wasn’t a good assassin, no matter how it had happened. She’d slashed sideways instead of jabbing the knife in, and had obviously not penetrated past the muscle. That, along with the look on her face after she’d cut him, told Mandel that this wasn’t her day job.

Mandel coughed, and realized that he’d been day-dreaming. He had to keep going. She might have been an amateur, but if he stood here, bleeding, she would find him, and if these cursed papers were any indication, he wouldn’t have the strength to fight her off again.

Shifting the papers to his right, grunting at the effort, he set off again, stopping once to hide his burden, and then lurching off again, this time to find help.

***

Children screamed.

If there was one lesson that Dave Baker would take from his time at Galaxyland, which he’d come to think of as Vegas minus the desperation, grime, and money, it was that children screamed.

They screamed when they were happy, like on a ride. They screamed when they were scared, like when the ride was something like the Mindbender. They screamed when they didn’t get what they wanted. And they screamed when mom or dad was dragging them out of the park.

You’d think that all that screaming would break the monotony of the place. Hell, you’d think there wouldn’t be any monotony at all, working in the happiest place on Earth. Or at least the happiest in this part of the city.

Dave had come to Galaxyland, though it hadn’t been called that, when he was younger. He’d ridden the rides, and he’d had his time screaming, too. So when he saw the ad for his current job, it had been all enthusiasm and hopefulness.

And it’d been good for awhile, but now it was just boring. Nothing ever changed, and he was so bored.

The coaster roared just over his head, and Dave looked up, wondering just how long he’d let this group ride. Lost in his thoughts, as usual, he supposed. That should be a good thing, too. He was supposed to see Todd and the others tonight, and that was always a bonus, but lately, he couldn’t get out of his mind just how much his job sucked.

“Hey, Baker! Baker! You gonna let those guys off, or what?” Here it came.

“Uh, sorry, Mr. Jackson. Yeah, I’ll let them off.”

Jackson wasn’t content with that answer, though, so he continued.

“This isn’t some charity we’re running, Baker. These people pay for six minutes of entertainment. Not eight and a half, not ten. Get these people off. For God’s sake, you’ve got a two-run lineup out there.”

Jackson was a big one for keeping the customers moving, and keeping lines short. Or looking short, at least. Dave supposed he could sympathize with the guy a little, or he would if Jackson weren’t such an asshole. It didn’t help that the guy was younger than Dave and had been working there less time.

As the outgoing riders got off the ride, some looking a little the worse for wear — how long had it been? — Dave started in with his spiel for the ones about to start. He’d keep this group down to six minutes.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Mindbender. Seating will begin as soon as the door opens. Then, get ready to have your minds blown.”

Dave was sure that should be exciting, but he was coming to realize that nothing was exciting. Nothing ever would be exciting again. Galaxyland was where dreams came to die, and Dave would live the rest of his life in dull monotony, in drudgery and toil, so excuse him if he couldn’t rouse any life in his voice.

He was just so fucking bored.

And that’s when the bear attacked.

On to Part Two

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