Summer theater teaching devoured me whole and has been rolling me around its molars for the past months, but I’ve been gloriously spat back out into the world! Gonna celebrate by putting up a little free fiction.
This is a story I wrote some years ago. I shopped it around a few places. The third or fourth, an anthology, accepted it, to my great joy. A month or so later, I received the crushing news that the entire anthology had been canceled. Over the next few years I kept sending it around, secure in the hope that somebody else would pick it up, since it hadn’t taken that long the first time. That hope was false. It’s been sitting around on my hard drive haunted by its tragic past, and it’s time I shrugged off its weight and let it fly free.
Theo Harper awoke instantly, his dream snapping away like a finger gun rubber band. He rose foggily from his bed, stripping off his tan cotton pajamas as he walked to his dresser. He dressed in a grey button down and olive khakis.
At this point, he noticed that it was three fourteen in the morning. It was only that startling discovery that made him realize something was wrong. His body was ticking along, walking, dressing, brushing his teeth, without Theo’s involvement. Not in the active sense, at least. These things were being done by him, but he wasn’t doing them.
He tried to stop. He didn’t. His arms, legs, hands, even eyes, would not move at his heed. So whose heed was it? Nobody’s, or someone else’s?
It was bizarre being so dismayed in his mind with none of that dismay expressed by his body. He wasn’t sweating or trembling. His body kept moving, as if it were wondering where his brain had gone but decided to go about its business anyway, figuring that it would catch up.
His relaxed physicality slowed his racing mind, helped him to think. Just as he got down to the problem of what in the name of everything that had ever been named was happening, someone helpful started to tell him.
A faint sequence of chimes dinged inside his head. Following was a friendly male voice speaking with a pleasant, regionless American accent.
“Good morning! My name is Tom, and I’m a representative of a private intelligence organization. Your corporal assets have been temporarily requisitioned for use by – agency name redacted! – in an operation crucial to national security. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
At this point Theo was walking out of his front door, car keys in hand, heading for his light blue coupe.
“We appreciate that you may have questions, - Mister! – Harper! - However, due to the sensitive nature of this operation, information will necessarily be limited.”
Theo got into the driver’s seat, turned the key, slipped out of the driveway with the engine baying and gunned it down the residential street. He was thankful for the sharp handling of whatever was impelling his limbs. The little V4 swung around the first corner expertly, accelerating to a speed Theo had never experienced in a ground vehicle.
“Neuromonitors indicate that your anxiety level is exceeding comfortable tolerances,” said Tom with an audible reassuring smile. “We will now engage entertainment protocols for your peace of mind. Surface memory scans indicate that you enjoy – funk! – music. Please stand by.”
All things considered, ‘Brick House’ was probably not the song Theo would’ve chosen to calm someone barreling through a residential area at 90, but he appreciated the thought.
The car heaved onto a larger street, weaving through traffic. The volume of the music playing in Theo’s head bumped up as doppler-shifted horn blares and engine roars joined the ambient soundscape. Theo’s eyes darted to the right a few degrees and spotted another car tearing along a perpendicular road a few hundred yards ahead. Theo felt himself ease off slightly on the accelerator.
“We are pleased to inform you,” said Tom’s voice, cutting off the funk, “that our agency will cover fully any vehicle or medical expenses that may be incurred as a result of this requisition.”
Theo executed a complicated maneuver involving pedals, wheel and handbrake that made the car pivot to the right in a blink. Theo’s mind filled with panic as the car’s terrible momentum carried it into the intersection, skidding sideways with shrieking tires. It swept right into the side of the other car Theo had seen, and the impact shocked and deafened him.
He was intact save a few bruises as he unbuckled his belt and stepped out. He’d come to a stop on the road’s shoulder, and the car he’d intercepted had skidded clean off into some thick bushes. He walked towards it.
“Haaaaang in there!” said Tom. “The operation is nearly complete. We thank you for your patience.” James Brown started to play as a dark-clothed figure kicked open the busted door of the other car and took off into the woods.
Theo turned at the squeal of tires. Another small, ordinary car, much like his own, pulled up next to his. A woman about his age got out, dressed in casual clothes, a pen and a small notebook poking from one pocket. They looked at one another.
“Took off for the woods.” Theo was startled to feel himself speak aloud, in a flat, even tone.
“I’ll track. You support,” said the woman in an equally colorless voice. The dash through the woods was quick and at times acrobatic, the woman and Theo sprinting and dodging between trees as she followed their quarry’s path and he hung back. This was even stranger than the car ride, as his body carried him along and he felt every step and every underfoot branch, no idea where the subsequent step would fall.
“We are approaching a situation that may result in an antagonistic encounter!” said Tom. “Many find this unpleasant to observe. Soothing nature sounds will now be employed.”
And they dashed through the woods in pursuit of a mysterious enemy as a rushing, heavily bird-populated waterfall filled Theo’s hearing.
Theo stopped suddenly and looked out from behind a tree. The woman had cornered the man in a small clearing, and was closing in to take him down.
The waterfall noises started to go staticky.
“We are …riencing… blems with th…” was all Tom had to say before a prickling sensation ran up Theo’s spine and he realized that he had control again. He saw the woman’s body shake just as she was about to lunge at the man. The man took advantage of the opportunity given to him, reached into a jacket pocket and pulled a gun.
The man hadn’t seen Theo. He could stay behind the tree and probably be fine. This spy business wasn’t his affair, and he didn’t even know the woman. Now that he was back in control, all of the fear, excitement and confusion of the past few minutes was finally absorbed by his body. An adrenaline spike so massive it was physically painful struck, turning his blood to electric slush. Every shred of instinct in every synapse was baying at him to run, run, run.
As the gun came up, Theo sprang from his spot behind the tree, half tripping himself in the process. He struck the man full on and the gun went flying into the undergrowth. As he turned to fight, three quick jabs delivered with the skill of a lightweight prize fighter dazed him, and a grabbing, throwing move he couldn’t follow had him flat on his back. The man, a scraggly-haired, pale guy with something small tattooed at the base of his throat, knelt over Theo, popped a switchblade from another pocket.
The knife was angling for Theo’s eye when an orange-sized rock connected with the back of the man’s head, and he collapsed beside Theo, who scrambled to his feet.
The woman had a frantic, shocked triumph in her eyes. She dropped the bloody rock and looked down at the man with the fascinated glee of a momentary lapse of civilization.
“Thank you,” Theo said, recovering his breath. “You saved my life. I don’t think anyone’s ever saved my life before.”
“Just returning the favor,” she said, smiling up at him with a thrilled glint in her eyes.
“It’s been a bizarre morning, but… kind of exciting. Do you have any idea what just happened?” He looked at the unconscious man.
“I don’t,” she said, looking to the man, then back at Theo with a curious smile. “Maybe we should talk about it. Over a drink, or something.”
Theo tilted his head with an odd grin.
“I think that’s a very good idea,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Theo.”
She held out hers.
“I’m-“ she stopped, and her expression flatlined. The prickling sensation returned.
“We apologize for the disruption of our signal,” Tom said, as the woman turned, searched the man on the ground, pulled a cable tie from his pocket and used it to bind his wrists. “The issue has been resolved, and the mission is now over. The contribution of your assets bought our agents time to arrive on scene, and they will be here momentarily. You will now be returned to your home and compensated for your time, as well as any expenses incurred!”
Bootsy Collins launched into a low down bass solo as Theo watched the woman walk off into the darkness of the woods.
Every morning for the past week, Theo had carefully flexed each limb and digit, re-checking that he could.
He’d then sit up and let out a long breath, looking around his little room in his little house, and listen to the clock tick for a minute or two. Then get dressed for work, and walk out the door after tossing down whatever edible was within arm’s reach.
When he walked out the door one week after the incident, there was a car sitting in his driveway other than his own. He recognized it.
He also recognized the woman standing next to it.
“Madeleine,” she said, holding out her hand.
Theo walked forward and took it, holding onto it for a moment and gently letting it slip free.
“How did you find me?” he said, the events of the early morning a week before running back through his mind.
“I saw which way your car left,” she said. “I chose the closest town and looked for somebody named Theodore. It’s an uncommon name. Maybe I absorbed a little of that spy stuff. So… breakfast? And see where the day takes us from there?”
Theo looked at her, at the car, at the street.
“Absolutely,” he said. “While we still have a say.”
He watched his house recede in the distance, smiling at the unknowable future.