The first thing I noticed was that my mouth was dry. The second thing I noticed was that my entire body hurt. I rolled onto my side and pulled my blanket up over my head, then stopped…wasn’t I supposed to be dead? Had it all been a dream? Hadn’t I already decided it all made much more sense as a dream? I couldn’t decide which part was more fantastic, me having a date with Erin Medrugada or the psychotic human-generator. I snorted to myself and stretched out my arms and legs, careful not to dislodge the blanket, wincing at the aches in my stiff muscles. Had I worked out yesterday and somehow forgotten about it? Maybe that’s why I was so hungry.
“’Bout time you woke up.” Said a gravelly voice which ground my thoughts to a halt. I slowly reached for the corner of the blanket and pulled it down off of my face, blinking in the sudden brightness. When my vision cleared I swallowed once, hard, and wished it hadn’t.
A man leaned against the back of my closed bedroom door. A large man. Wearing black leather boots, steel-toed with thick soles, blue jeans and a white tee shirt stretched tight across a heavily muscled torso. His arms, folded lightly across his chest, were covered in strange tribal tattoos spiraling down from under his sleeves to the back of his hands. For a second, I could have sworn I had seen the ink writhing. Maybe I was still dreaming. Around his neck he wore a crystal, of all things, wrapped in thin gold wire and attached to a thick black cord. His dark brown hair was thick, falling to his shoulders in tangled waves. From the ocean of hair rose an angular face, with a square jaw, covered in dark stubble just short of being a beard. His eyes, though, were easily his most striking feature, deep set under a heavy brow, they were the deep gray of angry storm clouds and seemed to glow with inner lightning. He looked menacing. He looked like a scary biker version of my father.
“Are you ok, Itch?” I looked down toward the tiny voice to find Zoe curled up in a sleeping bag in the corner, just like she used to when she had a nightmare. How long had it been since she’d done that? Zoe being there only made the whole scene more confusing. It was a relief to know she was safe, but relief didn’t lessen my confusion.
“What’s going on?” I asked groggily, pushing myself into a sitting position.
“We’ve been waiting to see if you’re going to pull through.” Scary biker dude answered with a shrug. I felt Zoe flinch.
“Pull through?” I asked absently, “What happened?” I really hoped I hadn’t wrecked my car.
“Don’t you remember anything?” Zoe looked at me with a worried expression.
I tired to think back, but all I could remember was my crazy dream. “Not unless I kissed Erin Madrugada last night, and then tried to face down a comic book super villain. “ I laughed, then immediately realized what a mistake that was, when my brain crashed against the shoals of my skull.
It was hard to imagine two people who looked more different than the two of them, yet the stares both Zoe and Mr. Tattooed muscle-and-fitness directed at me were identical.
“Your parents really never told him nothin’, huh?” I assumed the question was directed at Zoe, but those terrifying eyes never left me.
“No,” Zoe whispered. She was staring at me too, and frankly all of the attention was starting to make me a bit uncomfortable-not to mention the fact that I still had no idea what the hell was going on.
“Are one of you going to tell me what the hell is going on?” I tried to keep the annoyance out of my voice, but from the looks I got, I wasn’t entirely successful. “Please?”
I quickly tacked on, which seemed to mollify them slightly.
“Itch…you did kiss Erin Madrugada…” Zoe seemed to be struggling with something more to say, she looked like she was on the verge of tears and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. She picked at some lint on her pillow. “And….”
“And the electricity-throwing murderer didn’t come from a comic book, “Evil-dad-clone finished impatiently.
“Okay.” I smirked, playing along. “And who are you?”
“This is our Uncle Baird.” Zoe quickly interjected, still sounding nervous.
“It’s just Baird, squirt. No Uncle.” He directed a withering stare Zoe’s way.
I was definitely still dreaming, I realized with relief, that was the only reasonable way to explain such a bizarre conversation. I closed my eyes and tried to will myself to wake up. After a few seconds I hesitantly opened one eye and looked around-nothing had changed. “All right, let’s say I believe you. Why would the walking lightening rod be trying to kill us?” Somewhere amid all of this madness there must be a thread of logic that at least resembled reality.
“That’s a rather….involved story.” Mr. Gravely voice, Baird, answered evasively. “Suffice to say, you and that sneak have a history.” For a moment, rage distorted his features and blazed like a noon sun in his eyes. I had only thought he looked terrifying before, now malice rolled out from him in waves. “More so now that before.”
It took me a moment to work enough moisture into my mouth to respond. “ I don’t understand.”
Zoe looked like she might explain, but again Baird cut her off. “Not now, Squirt, give him a chance to wake up first. “He turned to me then, more composed, but I recognized the barely restrained anger lurking just beneath the surface. “Take a shower. Get dressed. We’ll wait downstairs.”
Zoe gave me another worried look on her way out the door. I wasn’t comfortable with her and Mirror universe dad being alone, but she didn’t seem scared of him, and I needed some time to collect my thoughts. I sat there for a few minutes trying to make sense of everything. It didn’t do any good. Nothing fit: People throwing balls of energy, the appearance of an Uncle I’d never heard of, a date with Erin Magrudaga. I concentrated on the memories of the last one, lingering on the details, if I was going to wake up and discover that all of this actually was a dream I didn’t want to forget a single moment of the good part.
Eventually, I was forced to admit I wasn’t waking up. Continuing to sit around staring off into space wasn’t helping me get the answers I needed either. I slowly stood, wincing several time from the pains lancing through my body as I moved, then headed towards the bathroom with a resigned sigh. I vaguely recalled the optimistic feeling I’d had the last time I made this walk. It already seemed like another life, though between Erin and the craziness afterword I wasn’t sure whether or not I should mourn the former existence.
The shower helped clear my head, leaving me more confused. When had my life become a bad graphic novel? More importantly-how had my life become a bad graphic novel?? I was fairly sure this wasn’t something that I could blame on Zoe-a situation both unexpected and new. Would anything in this new world be familiar? After the shower, I spend a long time combing my hair and getting dressed, much longer than I normally did. My procrastination was rooted in the hope that if I didn’t go downstairs and face the madness it would all simply go away. Seemed reasonable enough. It didn’t take me quite so long to come to the unfortunate realization that, eventually, I would need food. I was really hungry.
I made my march down the stairs to the gallows. Actually, finding a noose hanging from the ceiling and a burly maniac in a black hood couldn’t have surprised me more than what I actually found in the living room. Or where the living room used to be. The entire back wall, which once contained the window, I remembered static-cling jumping through, was blackened. There was a ragged and charred hole where the window had been and a foot-wide smoldering furrow was burned into the carpet running from the hole to the kitchen. Holy crap.
Both Baird and Zoe sat waiting for me at the kitchen table. Amazingly, the table was untouched by any sort of damage. For the first time since waking, I really looked at Zoe. She was a mess. Her hair was tangled into clumps, her eyes were red and puffy above tear stained cheeks. I had never seen her so un-composed. I glanced angrily at Baird, wondering if he was the cause, if he was….well, I was aware how very little I could do about it. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try. I could feel the rage snarling inside of me….
“Easy kid. This isn’t my doing.” Baird locked eyes with me. He hadn’t spoke as though he was trying to be reassuring, he spoke as if he was on the verge of snapping my neck. Everything about this supposed uncle screamed dangerous. I suddenly had no doubts that this man had killed before. Maybe many, many times. I swallowed hard and turned back to Zoe. “Zee, are you alright?” she started to nod, but began to sob half-way through. I stood to go to her, she beat me to it, running around the table into my arms. I smoothed her knotted hair with my hands as she cried into my shoulder. “Okay”. I looked over her to Baird. “ I think I’m ready to hear what you have to say.” Zoe tried to say something, blubbered instead and cried harder. This was serious. I steeled myself for the worst.
“It’s your parents,” Baird explained without sympathy or compassion. “That smug little prick you took out last night got them.”
“What do you mean?” My voice echoed in my ears.
“Billy and your mother, they’re dead kid.” Baird was very still as he answered. Strangely. There was no immediate sense of grief-shock yes, and concern for Zoe, but no grief. That couldn’t be right. Did that mean it wasn’t true? No, Zoe wouldn’t be crying like this if it wasn’t true. Was I broken? What kind of monster doesn’t feel grief for his dead parents? Maybe it just hadn’t hit me yet, that’s possible, right?
“I told you. The guy you fried last night got them.”
“I fried?” Fresh shock was evident in my voice, even to me.
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you are.” Baird shrugged his massive shoulders. “ I figure he must’ve underestimated you. Either that or her wasn’t as good as they say he was.”
“You knew him?” It seemed like such an unimportant question to ask at a time like this. Baird didn’t seem to notice.
“Knew of him,” he qualified with another shrug. Did anything ever faze this guy? “Squirt? Go upstairs and get cleaned up. We’ll wait.”
“Where are we going?” I asked for her.
Zoe merely nodded and headed out of the kitchen, still crying, with her face in her hands. I watched her go, wondering if she should be alone, almost following after her until I realized there wasn’t anything I could do. I’d probably end up making things worse-I never knew what to say.
“You should probably eat something,” Baird suggested. “You’ve been out of it for a while.”
“About a day.” He looked me over as he answered. “You okay?” His voice still held no hint of compassion, merely curiosity.
“I think so.” I wondered if I sounded as surprised as I felt. I couldn’t tell.
“Good.” He nodded once, then turned his head and stared off into space.
Nice guy. It didn’t seem like a good time to ask any of the hundreds of questions I had, which was something of a relief because I had no idea how to ask them. Or if I really wanted any of the answers. Accepting Baird’s story probably meant I was insane, but the whole world seemed to have gone insane, so at least I fit in for once.
I made myself a bowl of cereal and ate in silence.
After an eternity, Zoe reappeared wearing a long black dress and looking only slightly less disheveled-she somehow managed to make it look affected though, as if a tear-streaked face and red-rimmed eyes were the perfect accessories for her outfit. It seemed a strange moment for me to suddenly have an idea why so many people were in awe of my little sister. Had she always carried herself with that quiet dignity? Maybe I was too close to the painting to fully appreciate its beauty. Maybe I was just a self-centered jerk. Was that why I wasn’t crying too?
“Okay. I’m ready.” She sniffled, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
It’s an odd feeling, to be inspired by your little sister. Here she was, obviously falling apart, and yet pulling herself together and holding up a brave face. I hadn’t squeezed out a single tear to the memory of my parents, hadn’t even felt a twinge of grief, and I still felt like I might vomit. I choked it back. If I was an unfeeling monster that it should be easy to be strong for Zoe. I was going to have to take car if her now. I certainly wasn’t going to leave it in the hands of this Uncle Baird character, the guy didn’t look like he was responsible enough to raise a goldfish. I was already starting to sound like my father.
Baird’s ancient truck sat in the driveway, depreciating property values for miles, I was sure. Covered more in rust than that faded mint green paint that still stubbornly clung to its side in several places, it was hard to imagine it actually running.
“Uh, I think we’ll follow you in my car.” I said, unable to take my eyes off of the ugly scrap. It was kind of like seeing a horrendous car wreck-as much as you wanted to look away, you just couldn’t.
“Get in the truck.” He growled. I really didn’t want to ride in that death trap, but I really didn’t want to argue with Baird either….and since Zoe was already heading for the truck…I hurried ahead to wrench the door open for her. I stopped as I noticed the gun rack hanging in cab’s back window. The rack itself wasn’t very surprising, the truck was probably full of country music and cans of chewing tobacco too, but what was hanging on the rack, well, that was another story. The solid black pump-action shotgun had a barrel easily twice the size of similar guns I had seen, yet somehow more menacing was the sword on the nook above it. With a blade nearly four feel long, encased in a black leather sheath, and with a handle that looked like it was made of some sort of bone, yellowed with age, the sword looked like something out of another age. Who the hell carried a sword on a gunrack? Okay, who the hell carried a sword period?
I stood there holding the door open, staring at the sword, while Zoe climbed past me into the truck. Baird noticed my preoccupation and smiled affectionately at the weapon. “admiring Merlin?” His voice sounded less gruff as he pulled the covered blade lightly. “I never go anywhere with out him.”
“Why did you name your sword Merlin?” I asked as I climbed in next to Zoe. It was hard to take my eyes off of the sword, it felt like sitting with my back to a viper.
“I didn’t. That’s his name.”
“What’d you name your gun?”
Baird turned to face me with a look with a look which clearly questioning my intelligence. “Why would I name a gun anything?” He shook his head as if the whole idea where completely ridiculous.
Zoe looked from me to Baird and back again with a slight smile while she rubbed at the bottom of her eyes with the edge of her sleeve.
“I know what you’re thinking, Squirt, and you’re wrong,” Baird grumbled with a quick turn of the key. The truck sprang to life with a deafening roar.
“Whatever you say, Uncle Baird.”
“Is it all right with you two if I pretend like I know what you’re talking about?” I asked with exaggerated seriousness.
Baird growled something I couldn’t understand over the noise of the engine. Zoe actually barked a laugh as she leaned her head on my shoulder. Apparently, there was a lot going on, aside from the obvious, that I didn’t understand. Nothing new there.