CHAPTER THREE: THE STRANGER IN BLACK
“Hey, check this out!” James was reading the newspaper when I was with him and Gary in the Shady Palm Café the next day for lunch. “It says that there were more weird sightings around that secret military base in the desert yesterday.”
“Base 15?” Gary asked. “Is it even for the military, though?”
“I dunno,” said James, shrugging, “but something else happened there!”
“You and your sci-fi stories,” said Gary, dipping his fry in ketchup.
“Three people saw this one,” James continued. “They said it was black and looked like it had wings or something. Like some sorta animal. How do you explain that one?”
“Simple,” said Gary as he took a sip of his drink, “three people out in the desert were smoking a little grass and started seeing things.”
I giggled a little bit, and James got irritated.
“Ha ha, very funny,” James replied indignantly. “Then how do you explain that THREE people saw the same hallucination?”
“I don’t know,” said Gary, sounding a little entertained. “Maybe they all smoked from the same plant.”
“Well, I think it wasn’t a hallucination,” said James, folding up the paper against the creases. “These kinds of things could happen. So, okay, here’s my theory.”
“Here we go,” Gary muttered.
“I say that this recent sighting has some kind of connection to the destruction of the secret military Base 15,” James began.
“Man, I don’t think so,” said Gary, dripping honey mustard onto his chicken sandwich. “Base 15 was destroyed a few years ago. That’s old news.”
“Would you just listen to me?” James snapped.
“Fine, fine,” said Gary, “go on.”
“Anyway, this sighting might have something to do with that,” James repeated.
There was a short pause with an exchanging of looks.
“Is that it?” Gary asked.
“That’s it!” said James, looking satisfied. “What do you think of my theory?”
“You didn’t even back up your theory with any evidence,” said Gary, trying hard to keep a straight face.
“Ah, you just wait,” James told him with a confident smile. “You just wait.”
Gary couldn’t help himself from laughing.
“Listen to yourself,” he said. “You sound like one of those crazy people who air their own radio shows from a van and talk about aliens and government conspiracies!”
“Man, come on!” said James. “Why don’t you ever take me seriously?”
“Because I’d rather keep my sanity, that’s why,” Gary replied curtly.
I chuckled as James raised one eyebrow at Gary, then he muttered something under his breath. He picked up his hamburger, took a big bite out of it, and gazed out the window.
Something deep inside me began to stir. The mentioning of Base 15 bubbled up some weird feelings in my stomach.
“What happened to Base 15?” I asked Gary and James. “I know it was destroyed, but that’s it.”
“Well,” said Gary, “that’s about all everyone else knows, too. They didn’t even give an explanation about it.”
“Yeah,” said James. “Normally those government guys come up with something to try and cover up the truth, but they didn’t say anything about this one.”
“Kinda makes you wonder if anyone really knows what happened,” said Gary, “or if they didn’t find any survivors.”
The weird feeling continued, and I couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was, but it was some kind of negativity. It wasn’t fear or sadness … just an ambiguous discomfort. I watched a lady push a stroller down the street as she passed the window we were sitting next to, wondering if it was her child, and wondering if my mother had done that when I was a baby.
We continued to sit and eat for a little longer. James went back to his newspaper as he clutched his food in his other hand. He looked strangely professional as he read. I slowly ate my food, thinking more about Base 15. My bacon cheeseburger was delicious, but the flavor started to blend in with the background, becoming part of the surrounding monotony that filled my life with its colorless hues. I took a sip of my soda, and it had the same gray taste as my burger.
“It sure did get dark really fast,” said James through a mouthful of his hamburger. “It’s not even three o’clock.”
He was right. I looked at the sky through the window, and ominous clouds seemed to have come out of nowhere. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky as we walked through town earlier. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“I think we should hurry up,” said Gary. “We might get caught in a storm on the way back.”
“Too late,” said James.
Rain had already started coming down heavily. Everyone in the restaurant groaned. By this time, it was so dark and rainy outside that I could hardly see across the street. I thought about the forecast on the news that morning, but I couldn’t remember what it said about the weather that day; the weatherman’s bowtie looked like licorice and had distracted me.
As I was about to finish my fourth bacon cheeseburger, there was a bright flash of lightning and a loud clap of thunder just as the front doors burst open. Everyone in the café stopped what they were doing to see a man with scraggly black hair slowly walk inside. His eyes were hidden in his shadow, so I really couldn’t see his expression too well. He was wearing a worn out black trench coat that was dripping water.
“What’s with that guy?” James whispered.
“Shh!” Gary hissed.
The man’s thick shoes clopped against the silence as he ever so slowly worked his way to the counter, leaving a trail of rainwater behind him. I saw that Bernie was giving him a curious face. Something about the man didn’t feel right, though. There was an uneasy feeling that lingered in the air as he walked through the restaurant. All eyes were on him.
When the man reached the counter, it was obvious that everybody was holding their breath to hear what he was going to order, and I found it odd that one person could suddenly attract the unwavering attention of an entire crowd.
“Give me a hamburger.” His voice was deep and demanding. Something about his voice made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
“Will that be all, sir?” Bernie asked casually.
“Did I ask for anything else?” the man asked darkly. Without taking his eyes off the stranger, Bernie rang up the price. Everyone watched as the man thrust his hand into his pocket.
“He’s got a gun,” James whispered frantically. “He’s gonna shoot Bernie!”
“Shut up,” Gary muttered nervously.
It turned out the man didn’t have a gun. He pulled the money out of his pocket with a tight fist, then dropped it on the counter. The clinking of the coins was as loud as firecrackers in the dead quiet restaurant. More thunder broke the silence as Bernie gave the order to the kitchen. All of the employees in the back were watching the man through the window.
While the stranger in black waited for his order, he just stood over the counter and supported his weight on his arms. He didn’t budge a single inch, and water continued to drip from his scraggly hair onto the counter. I felt very uncomfortable about the situation. I looked over at James, and he seemed scared. Too scared to say anything. Gary just watched the man very closely, as if studying his every move. I had never seen him look so intense.
The rain was coming down heavier than before. Thunder rolled over the town like a giant bowling ball. Lightning split the sky like a hatchet striking dried wood. The man had to have been very hungry to have walked through such weather just to arrive at a small restaurant like the Shady Palm Café. What was he doing out in the rain, anyway? Part of me felt sorry for him, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling he was giving me and everyone else.
Without warning, those annoying visions returned to my head. They were flashing frantically this time, like a movie projector going out of control. I had a feeling that they were trying to tell me something about the man that was giving everyone the creeps, if only I could piece them together. I wanted to know what they were trying to tell me, but I couldn’t make them out at all. There were too many of them and they were appearing too fast. I could tell Gary and James were both witnessing the same thing as they grabbed their heads.
The visions stopped. I tried to imagine what the boys were thinking. Why did they see visions at the same time as me? Even if they were a part of puberty, it would seem highly coincidental for us to have them simultaneously.
Nobody seemed to want to move from their spots as the man received his food tray. Everyone was probably too afraid he’d shoot someone if anyone moved wrong, and his trench coat was big enough to easily conceal a firearm. He examined his hamburger, not caring that he had an audience. He held it up to his nose and sniffed deeply. Then he grasped the bun firmly and removed it, revealing a slimy blob of spit that stretched between the top bun and the meat. The tension in the restaurant grew as he let out a rattled breath, then slammed the bun back onto the hamburger.
The stranger marched up to Bernie, stomping loudly with his heavy shoes with the hamburger in his hand, then thrust the burger into Bernie’s face. I saw the kitchen employees quickly move out of sight through the window.
“What is this?” he demanded threateningly, slamming the food onto the floor, causing it to splatter on the linoleum. When Bernie didn’t answer, the man reached across the counter and lifted him off the ground by his collar. “Well?”
“Leave him alone!” Every soul in the café turned their attention to Gary as he stood up. A flash of lightning followed by a shout of thunder made the lights flicker. “Put him down now!”
“What are you doing?” James choked.
The man released Bernie, then turned to face Gary. With the different angle of light, I saw his eyes were stern and frightening. For some reason, I didn’t seem very scared, but I was still uncomfortable.
The man walked up to Gary and stopped right in front of him. Gary was significantly shorter than the man, making me feel tiny as I remained seated. I could see his face up close, and it was strong, scarred, and appeared solid. More thunder shook the restaurant.
“Hey, don’t get involved, kids!” said Bernie as he moved in closer. The man and Gary both ignored him.
“If you were smart,” the man said as he stood over Gary, “then you wouldn’t mess with me.”
“If YOU were smart,” Gary shot back, “then you wouldn’t have come here in the first place. You had no right to —”
The stranger thrust out his hand with his palm facing Gary. As soon as he did, the lights flickered and Gary was sent flying backward through the air. The floor beneath the man imploded like a trampoline with a huge weight in the middle, crushing the tiles downward. James and I were knocked to the floor by a burst of energy that felt like a hot gust of air. Our tables and chairs were pushed out of place, and our food rained to the floor around me.
“Gary!” James shouted, jumping up.
Before I could get back up from the ground, I felt a brief, but very strong rush of pure hatred … absolute loathing … a feeling so guttural that it scared me. My head throbbed once, and there was a sharp pain in my chest, making me unable to move. In an instant, it vanished. I clutched my chest, wondering what had just happened.
Everyone started to panic as Gary flew backward and hit a window, causing it to crack. I saw the man flee out the door as James and a few others tried to help Gary up. Bernie and another customer ran after the man, barging out through the doors into the rain as lightning lit the sky. They walked back in, looking as if they had come out of a pond.
“Damn, he’s gone,” said Bernie, shrugging.
“How’d he move so fast?” the other customer asked.
One of the employees had called the police, and they arrived on the scene shortly after. Everyone who was in the restaurant at the time was being interviewed by different officers, including us.
“So, what you’re saying is you were standing here,” the officer said to Gary, pointing to the damaged spot next to the table we were sitting at, “and he punched you across the room … and into that window way over there?”
“For the last time,” said Gary, “it wasn’t a punch. He didn’t physically touch me. I didn’t feel any actual contact. It felt more like a super powerful gust of wind.”
“It’s true!” James added. “The window cracked when Gary hit it! See?”
“Is that what happened, young lady?” the officer asked me.
Words failed me, so I just nodded.
He looked at the three of us, then focused back on Gary.
“Are you hurt?”
Gary rotated his shoulders and stretched his back, checking himself for injuries.
“Uh, it doesn’t seem like it,” he replied. “I’m a little sore, but it’s probably fine.”
“But you hit that window and cracked it badly,” said the cop, looking skeptical, “after being punched, er, BLASTED across the room.”
“He’s not lying!” said James. “I saw it happen! Look, the table and stuff got knocked back. The frickin’ floor is, like … well, just look at it!”
The cop scratched his chin, then said, “Well, I think this is going to need a lot more investigation.” He turned to Bernie. “Until then, you’ll just have to close the restaurant. There’s probably evidence all over the place,” he looked at the damaged floor and window, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Do whatever it takes,” said Bernie gruffly. “Just find that creep.”
“Alright, kids,” the cop told us, “let’s wrap it up for tonight. We have to get back to the station before this rain floods the streets too badly, which might be soon at this rate. I’ll give you three a ride home.”
The three of us got into the police car just as the other officers started to close off the Shady Palm Café. The rain was warm and soothing, reminding me of a shower, and the smell was oddly pleasant. When we arrived at Gary’s house, the rain hadn’t lightened up at all. I sat in the back of the police car with James as the officer escorted Gary to the front door, which Gary’s dad opened.
“Krystal,” said James in a low tone, “what the hell happened?”
I searched for an answer, dug for one … excavated the linguistic part of my brain for an answer. If only I could just say something, even random words scrambled together. The rain pounded on the top of the police car, acting as a blanket of white noise that covered my thoughts and echoed between my ears.
“Something scary.” That was the unearthed response to James’s question, and he didn’t seem to pay attention.
The officer told Gary’s parents about everything that happened. They looked confused from where I watched, their concerned and baffled expressions persisting even through the downpour. Before dropping James off at his house, the officer told James he would call later that night to talk to his parents, who weren’t home at the time. When I was taken back home, I was told the same thing.
“Okay,” I said, getting out of the police car.
“I want you kids to look after yourselves,” the cop told me. “We’ll catch this guy, so don’t worry.”
“Okay,” I said again.
Once back in my room, I sat on my bed to think about what had just happened. To relieve the stress, I turned on my stereo and played some metal music. The heaviest music always calmed me down, although Jack and Laura weren’t too fond of it. The shredding guitars could shred through my anxiety and depression, and that was all I cared about at the moment.
Leaning back onto my bed, I spent the rest of my evening wondering about Gary. He took that hit really hard, and I was worried if he was badly hurt. He didn’t seem like it, but I was still concerned. Just what kind of attack did that man use? I had heard of chi waves in martial arts, but I didn’t know much about them.
I sat down at my desk and took out my sketchbook. Drawing was my favorite hobby, and I hadn’t drawn at all since I had moved to the new house. My pencil always seemed to move across the page by itself. I was told by my parents that my family had good artistic abilities. My real parents, that is.
Later that night, Laura came into my room. I turned down my stereo to hear what she had to say.
“Hey,” she said quietly, “we heard a message on the answering machine from the police.” She rubbed my face with her hand. “We called them back and they told us the story. Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s very unfortunate for something like this to happen just after we moved here,” said Jack as he walked into my room.
“We’re here if you need anything,” said Laura, hugging me. Her embrace felt dissociated and lackluster, as if there was a numbing barrier between me and her.
“I’m okay,” I said, smiling weakly. I squeezed her tighter, pressing myself harder against her in hopes of finding some warmth, but to no avail.
“That’s good,” said Laura, kissing me on the cheek. “Dinner will be done in an hour.”
“Okay,” I said.
When Jack and Laura went downstairs, I turned my music back up and continued drawing. The empty shells were concerned for me.