This short story was inspired by a vivid dream in late 2009. The third part is essentially verbatim from the dream, with only the most minor changes to help flow and consistency. The first two parts are separate inventions, designed to build up and prepare the environment for the final act.
Shadow in the Distance
It was a bright and clear day. It was the day that began tearing my life away from its foundations and sent it spinning slowly toward the abyss. It started like any other day. Breakfast. School. I stole a cookie from a weaker kid. Homework. Sitting with my parents and sister in front of the TV.
It's hard to say if the shattering effect came from within the TV, or from within the room around it. But I'm ahead of myself. The seeds of this poison flower were sprouting long before this cold, crisp, fateful day.
"Mom," I whined, "the other kids say I'm a mutant."
It was a common childhood theme. Someone is always picking on someone. The bully and the victim twist and turn in a dance, changing places to and fro. As I grew, I began to become aware of a difference, which for a child can be condemnation. My mother, petite with tightly curled blonde hair and perfect blue eyes looked down at me.
"Why would they say a mean thing like that?"
My father, a slightly taller yet pale-skinned blonde, with darker hazel eyes and a disproportional small button nose, was not yet home. He often worked late at his law firm. Tonight was no different.
I stared into her eyes. Even at the tender age of 9, I felt that there was something "off" about me, about our family. The original focus of attention was my nose. My father's nose was unusually small, and my mother's nose was on the petite side of normal. But my nose stuck out, straight out, from between my eyes before arching sharply down. It was huge, ugly, and looked like I'd been punched in the face.
Such a punch, I felt, was likely to happen sooner rather than later if I didn't get an upper hand at school.
"Honey," she cooed, "You're my baby, and not a mutant."
I think every teenager feels like their parents aren't really their own. Every teenager feels like their parents don't understand, or maybe aren't even related. But this was different.
I was a tall and lanky teen, with darker skin than either of my parents, an olive complexion that almost looked like an excessive suntan. My nose was still malformed, maybe even moreso than before. It looked like a fleshly L had been welded to my face. Both of my parents had small noses. My hair was brown, unlike my parents. I could see my mother's features only in my eyes, ears, and the curliness of my hair. Otherwise, I felt completely alien from my family.
I was pouting on the couch, shrinking from the fading light of the winter day. The television news banally reported on car crashes, weather, and the wins and losses of local sports teams.
"In breaking news, police say that the Red Lake serial killer has been captured today at a home near Medford. Eric Belford, 41, has been a suspect in over two dozen murders and several rapes in the western Oregon region over the last twenty years. Belford is being held without bail at the Jackson County Jail."
A strange sound filled the room, and at first I thought the reporter on the TV had run over her foot with her chair, or something. I realized that my mom was screaming, crying. My father, normally quiet and stoic, rushed to her side, and helped her out of the room. In a matter of seconds, I was alone and baffled at her strange behavior.
The news correspondent moved on to another local story, an unemployed mother of three whose house had burned down.
The trial had completed with remarkable dispatch. Six months after his arrest, Eric Belford was convicted of all counts and sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences at a maximum security prison on the eastern side of the state.
There was never any explanation for my mother's breakdown, and so far, there hadn't been a repeat. Mostly, I had stopped wondering about it and went on with life. It was summer now, hot and a little humid, and I enjoyed the air conditioning inside on the warmest days when my friends were out on camping trips with their families.
I found out about the conviction not because I had any special interest in the case, not knowing anyone personally affected by the killer's rampage, but simply because it was on in the background. It was, perhaps, just by chance that I glanced up when I did. If I hadn't, maybe a lot of things would have turned out differently.
He was on TV. Orange jumpsuit, chains on his hands and feet, and an inextinguishable fire of anger in his eyes. But immediately I saw the nose. He had my nose. I grabbed at my face, but all the familiar forms were there. Still, I was stunned to see the same hooked nose that was on my face residing on the face of a killer. His skin, too, was the dark tan like my own. And then, as-if in response to my gasp, he turned to face the camera.
His eyes bored through the camera, through the cable line, through the TV, to me. His mouth moved, although no sound came out. I saw him, and I am sure that somehow, he saw me. Immediately everything fell into place.
It took a few months before I could figure out how to bring up what I seen. One particularly bad day, at a silent dinner table, it just came out. "I saw that guy, that serial killer. They showed him," I opened.
My mom stared at me for a moment, and then got up and left the table.
My dad's coughed. "Your mother and I love you very much," he said, "and that's what matters most in any family."
So it was true. The kids were right. I was a mutant.
Shadow among Us
Almost five years had passed since I found out the truth about my family. Was it the truth? I had never asked again, and they had never brought it up, and I had never again seen Eric Belford on television, or anywhere else. The rise and fall of high school, with dating and cars, sex and a little bit of drugs, with a job and finally, my own apartment, life went on.
And there I was, eighteen and on my own, older, tougher, angrier. I saw both fire and fear in my eyes, like I didn't know what I was capable of, or maybe I just didn't know what to do with it. Empty beer bottles littered the apartment and a layer of dust and grim covered everything. A small laptop computer ran an MTV video feed, but I wasn't watching.
I wasn't watching until I heard the name.
"...Belford negotiated a special agreement last week. He will lead investigators to the bodies of 11 victims in exchange for serving out his sentence at a comfortable minimum security facility in the Willamette valley..."
I switched to the local news website to find out more about this agreement.
The families had demanded closure, and after a bit of work with the district attorney and a judge, it was decided that Belford's sentence would not be reduced, but instead, he would be offered more comfortable and lower security accommodations in exchange for revealing the location of a number of bodies. Naturally, some of the victim's families were opposed to this process, but ultimately their voice did not win out.
The facility in question was very rural, nestled in the foothills between the I-5 corridor and the coast. The facility didn't even have a fence, because there was no town for miles around, and the inmates were generally low risk, non-violent offenders. They had never had a prisoner like Belford, and there was substantial unease at the facility, according to the news.
Near the end of the article, the news revealed that Belford was having a public reception at the facility to celebrate the agreement which he was quoted as saying, "will help the families achieve closure from the horrible things I have, unfortunately, done to them". I could read the falseness even through the written words.
And yet there it was. A public reception. A date, a time, a place. The facility was a few hours away, not close, but not far either. The date and time happened to be a day I had off work. I felt drawn, I felt that I needed the closure myself to find out if I was really a mutant, if I was, in fact, some horrible monster, the product of an atrocity, or if I was just an angry "young adult", as my parents friends liked to call me.
The narrow, two-lane highway winds endlessly through the trees. A cold overcast hangs low above the tree tops, and occasionally bouts of fat raindrops hammer on the windshield. A printed map, slightly crumpled, lay in the seat next to me. After several hours and what feels like a complete transition from civilization to ... something else ... I stop the car in a gravel parking lot.
The facility itself, South Salem Penitentiary, consists of a half-dozen low, drooping buildings and a few fenced in areas. It could be a rural college, or perhaps a logging camp or mining town. Stepping out of the car, the air is crisp, perhaps even a little thin, and fog forms in front of my breath. The place seems quiet, too quiet, and for a moment I want to get back in the car and drive, drive, drive away, leave this place.
The reception will be held in a small building on the edge of the grounds. The building itself does not look like a prison building -- no fence around its perimeter, no bars on the large windows. I do notice cameras watching from the rooftop corners, and a uniformed, armed guard and metal detector at the door betray its purpose.
After inspecting my wallet, keys, coat, and being cleared by the metal detector, the guard nods me into the building. The reception area, obviously decorated by either family or, more disturbingly, fans of Belford, is adorned with platters of small snacks, punch and tea, and even paper streamers. The room is divided into three sections: the entrance leads into the middle section, with partial walls providing some separation from each of the larger, side sections. Several large windows, which surprisingly, are open, grace the room. The open windows admit cold, crisp mountain air which mixes with the electric heat from the room's baseboards.
A number of people, probably a dozen or two, are already present. Some are excited, friends of the killer, looking forward to being able to hear from him and visit him more regularly. Most, however, are subdued, frustrated, or just waiting for a chance to see or speak to the killer, a chance perhaps denied to them in court.
I wander between the three sections, glancing at the cameras on the ceiling and the various expressions on the faces. Waiting... Waiting...
A movement in the crowd. Is it him?
A woman enters, pale, gray skinned, with long straight, artificially straight, dyed, artificially dyed hair. Her dress is elegant, formal, to some degree, and fake to another. Perhaps cheap. It doesn't fit, maybe. Two children enter with her. A girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, looks around intently, seeking for something, someone.
The boy is a few years older, 10 or perhaps 11, and in his face I see my own. I stop, openly staring, although he doesn't seem to notice me across the room. The skin tone, and the nose. The same nose. The hair. I see myself, a younger version of myself, he is a living photo of myself from years ago.
The women, whom I now recognize as the wife of Eric Belford, looks exhausted and at her wits end. I remember her from the courtroom, from a plea to the judge for leniency. I remember her asking the judge not to leave her children, just babies at the time, fatherless.
The girl looks up at her mother, "Where's daddy?"
"Daddy will be here soon," she replies, leaning over her daughter and brushing away her hair. The other side... That even serial killers might look normal on some level. Did Eric Belford have a job? A mortgage? A dog? Did he wave to his neighbors in the afternoon or volunteer at church?
The boy interjects. "I'm going to see daddy first!" he shouts, slapping his sister hard across the face. She falls to the floor and bursts into tears.
"Fredrick, please..." his mother begs. Already, the anger and violence of his father are manifesting strongly in the boy. She's unable to control him.
We the Shadow
My eyes were drawn from the distraught mother to the doorway, now blocked by a confident guard. His blue uniform was crisp, with a shiny badge on the shirt, and his hand rested on a modern semi-automatic pistol in his belt. He had a youthful, strong build and short, military-cropped black hair. He surveyed the room, and all conversation dropped away.
"We're bringing in the prisoner," he stated distastefully. It was clear that Eric Belford that arranged for this little get together as a condition of revealing the location of the bodies. It was definitely not a standard issue jail-house procedure.
He stood aside from the door, and Eric Belford the man, now nearly 50 years old but with the same chiseled features that had jumped out from the screen years before, entered. He was clothed, as expected, in an orange jumpsuit, but was not handcuffed. Behind him, two more guards entered: a petite woman who appeared to compensate for her lack of physical size with an inner fire so strong I could see it burning within her eyes, and an older, white haired man probably counting the days until retirement. Both of them wore the uniforms and displayed holstered pistols. Behind them, the entrance guard who had operated the metal detector moved in the hall so he could supervise both the room's single doorway and the building's main entrance.
I watched through the small sea of people, watched that familiar nose and familiar skin, as he embraced his wife and knelt to speak with his children. From a distance, perhaps, in another life, he could be seen as an ordinary family man. Just another man, one of many, living in a normal house, working a normal job, raising a normal family. But up close and in this life, it was clear that something was off.
I watched as he greeted his fans and scowled at his enemies, at the families of the victims, and I watched them shrink away from him. Whatever choice words they had formed, built, and percolated hour after hour before coming here; the precise sentences formed and crafted to spit in his face, all of these went away. The malevolent strength, in person, was too terrifying to stand against for ordinary men and women, unaccustomed to real adversity.
And slowly, passing through the crowd, he came closer, closer...
The guards had spread out; the young lady when the section of the room I was in, and the older man went across to the opposite section. The muscular guard who entered first remained near the door.
And then he was there. Face to face. Nose to nose; skin to skin. I saw him and he saw me. I was him and he was me. I felt blush, light headed; the sounds around me faded into a dull whistle. "Are you my father?"
No preliminaries. No introduction. I immediately felt embarrassed and silly. How would he even know who I was? It was a bizarre thing for anyone other than a young child to say.
How do you recover from a misstep like that? I wanted to take it back, to take back coming here, to take back seeing this on the television, to take back accusing my parents, the real parents who had loved me and raised me, not this monster, this false parent. I wanted to take back the violence that had, I realized in a moment of clarity, been visited upon my mother. I wanted to take back my very life.
"Yes," he said. "I remember your mother. I can see her in your eyes. She was a worthless whore who was asking for it. I just gave her what she really wanted."
It was physical, really, like a school-yard blow to the stomach. His eyes unchanged, unflinching, he walked away, disappearing into the crowd. And I gasped for the thin air, the thinning air, the lost air, the lost life. Why would anyone believe such a man? But I didn't need to believe, I needed to disbelieve. I needed to take it back. To take back my words, to take back coming here, to take back seeing him on the television, to take back accusing my parents, the real parents who had, no, not just that, who DID and DO love me and raise me. I needed to take back the violence that had been visited on my mother and, ultimately, to take back my very life.
I had wandered across the room, over to a far corner. I was full of fear, of loathing. I found myself for the first time truly afraid of the monster, having seen in his eyes, seen my eyes in him, and I knew his evil. I found one of the guards, the older man, sitting beneath one of the open windows, surveying the crowd.
"Strangest thing I've ever seen," he commented to me as I sat down next to him. He shook his head and sighed, seeming older and more tired than he first appeared. I didn't reply, didn't engage in idle chatter or probing questioning, I stared down, at the floor, full of my own fears and faults and failing. I was still afraid. I could demand to leave, although the guards wanted to take Eric back out before anyone else left. Security reasons, they had said.
I didn't demand. I didn't have the energy to demand. I wanted, needed to take back my life but I couldn't feel a life left to take back.
I saw the shoes, thin white shoes, with the orange pant legs. I looked up, painfully, slowly. I suddenly felt a resurgence of fear and was very glad for the guard sitting next to me.
"So," he addressed me curtly, "how does it feel?"
"What.." I stammered weakly.
"How does it feel to be the son of a killer?" His mouth twisted into a cruel smile.
I breathed in. Tried to breathe in.
"I don't believe you," I said, my voice quivering.
His smile vanished. "What."
"I don't believe you are my father." I stated, this time more firmly, maybe with the energy of anger and adrenaline rather than true conviction or courage.
He stared, then looked over at the elderly guard, who suddenly seemed much too frail. Eric tapped, a rough tap, almost a slap, the guard on the shoulder.
"I'm ready to go," he said curtly.
The guard slumped slightly. His eyes were closed, and he made no motion to respond. Panic surged through my veins. "He's dead," I gasped.
Eric didn't need time to think or plan. In a single fluid motion, he reached down and removed the semi-automatic pistol from the guard's holster, and disappeared into the crowd.
No one else was near enough to have noticed that change of power that transpired, and I didn't know what to do. The guard shifted, then opened his eyes and looked up. He was alive! "Your gun," I stammered at him, "He took your gun."
The guard seemed disoriented, and groped hopelessly for the weapon. "I must have fallen asleep," he muttered.
The air in the room shattered with an echoing bang. Voices unified at once in terror, screaming, crying, this way and that. The open windows presented an escape for the crowd, an escape most preferable for some reason than the door, which was out of my sight.
Suddenly the air was sucked from the room, or so it felt, sucked into a second bang, an explosion, an echoing impact like an asteroid striking the Earth. The crowd ran as one, and the old guard tried to stand and regain control, but they grabbed him, pulled him, seeing only the open window behind him, they stepped on him, and stomped him down. Boots and shoes, high heels and sandals, impact after impact as they climbed over him. I watched from a mere two feet away, huddled in a corner, terrified of the masses. Blood began to dribble from his nose and mouth, and then the footsteps were gone.
A third shot rang out, and then silence.
I grabbed the old man, and shook him, tried to wake him again; but the battering against his head, face, and neck placed in so deep a sleep that I was unable to rouse him. He slipped to the floor, and the blood dripped from his nose and mouth, slowly forming a pool around his motionless head.
Stunned, panting breathlessly in the thin air, I struggled to my feet. I could, from this corner, see only the body of the guard, and no one else.
My eyes were drawn, in slow motion it seemed, to the window that many others had escaped from. But my feet were motionless, glued to the spot. I hear nothing. No voices, no sound. The air is gone. I cannot breath.
A shadow, a figure. Eric Belford comes into view. Blood splatter mars his orange jumpsuit, and in each hand he holds a pistol, limply, as if he has not a care in the world. Again, he walks to me, but this time I have no reprise, no sanctity, no escape.
He looks at the expanding blood pool around the elder guard's head, and nods. "Nicely done," he says emotionlessly.
We walk through the empty room, over the bodies of the other three guards, executed each with a single shot to the head. We stand outside, breathing the thin air, a deep silence spreading for limitless miles in every direction. "I promise," his eyes now meeting mine, boring into mine, drilling into mine, "I promise to teach you everything I know."
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