Michael Siciliano

43 year old stay-at-home father, legally blind. 3 publication credits 1) Interview with George RR Martin published in Guardians of Order roleplaying core rulebook. 2) Seeding Day, Kzine, Issue 6, May 2013. 3) Another Life, The Colored Lens, June 2013

43 year old stay-at-home father, legally blind. 3 publication credits 1) Interview with George RR Martin published in Guardians of Order roleplaying core rulebook. 2) Seeding Day, Kzine, Issue 6, May 2013. 3) Another Life, The Colored Lens, June 2013

Continuance

I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.

I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.

Where am I?

I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?

A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.

Think, damn it. Think.

My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.

I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.

A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.

My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.

The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.

My suit…

Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.

The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.

The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.

The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.

I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.

I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.

“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”

Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.

Lobby. Hurry.

The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.

Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.

I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.

The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.

The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.

“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”

No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.

I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.

The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.

Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.

My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.

A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.

Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?

The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.

All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.

A Dose of Treachery

I trudged up the gravel path as the summer sun attempted to smother me. Sweat dripped down my brow and stung my squinting eyes. Shoulders aching, calves straining, I pushed myself forward. I wondered, as I often did, why the temple had been built atop a high hill rather than next to the well. Water sloshed inside the buckets when I jerked back from a flitting insect. I daydreamed of pouring the water over the top of my head.

The trail, bordered on either side by flowering bushes and slender beech trees, led up to the place I called home—a squat, columned temple built from beige stone. Mid-day glare radiated off its graceful curves, rounded pillars and bulbous dome. Beyond, puffs of cotton floated amid an endless azure expanse.

Mistress Eskelle stood atop the rise in her drab prayer robes, long white braids dangling at her back. Two strangers, one tall and one short, stood with her. “Lazio!” called Eskelle, her tone urgent. “Leave the water there and come greet our visitors.”

I lowered the buckets and wriggled out from beneath the bar. We rarely received visitors. Apprehension stole over me as I hurried over.
The first of the two strangers was a girl, roughly my age, which is to say newly an adult. Auburn hair, green eyes, and a freckled face marked her as an Easterner. She watched me approach, but looked away when I tried to meet her gaze.

The second was an older man. Tall and thin, he stood straight as a pillar. His long black beard hung clean and well-groomed. Thick eyebrows, beneath a wrinkled brow, strained to meet above the center of his eyes. A thin-lipped frown gave me the impression he was used to looking down his nose at people.

“Lazio, our esteemed visitors are from far Abados. This is Paltos Xerax-Thal and his apprentice Lanna.” Eskelle motioned to each as she named them.

My mouth dropped open and my heart skipped a beat. A Paltos. Wizard-councilor to the King. I knelt immediately, bowing my head. “Your lordship,” I mumbled, not sure if I’d used the correct honorific.
“You may stand,” Xerax-Thal said. His voice rumbled like a landslide.
I straightened, keeping my eyes fixed on the tops of my shoes. The girl snickered at my sudden submissiveness.

“Come inside and rest. We will talk as my boy prepares us tea,” Eskelle said.

I glanced up to see the Paltos nod. “That would be most welcome. We have travelled far, and could use a respite. Even so, events unfold as we speak.”

Events? What events? We lived simple lives out in the lowlands, far away from the machinations of the great cities.

“Of course, Paltos. Please, follow me.” Eskelle turned and strode back to the temple. She rarely moved with such purpose of late. Her joints had been giving her problems.

Xerax-Thal and Lanna followed, and I brought up the rear. It gave me time to appreciate the Paltos’s apprentice. She had a lithe, feline grace that brought a blush to my cheeks. I admired the hypnotic sway of her hips as we entered the temple, noticing too late that Lanna had glanced back. A private smile and an arched eyebrow told me she knew exactly what I had been doing.

Another Life

I don’t know what I am. Maybe I’m a God. If so, I’m the worst excuse for a God that’s ever been. The only thing I can be sure of is that I’m not normal.

The first time it happened, I had just woken up from a nightmare. Something malevolent had been chasing me through a twisted corkscrew of a hallway. I lost my balance and fell. As I rolled onto my back, I caught a glimpse of something jagged descending toward my face.

I woke with a shout, my heart-racing, arms and legs tensed. I lay dazed, barely able to breathe, trying to remember my own name. Rain pattered against the window just above me, while gusts moaned to one another in the dark.

Lightning struck with a sudden flash of light and a loud crack. My mind clenched and a stab of pain pierced my skull. Something inside me lurched.

One moment I was in bed, an after-image swirling across my vision, and the next I was somewhere else.

I stood on a hill, overlooking a city. A giant mushroom cloud dominated my field of view. White hot at the base. Yellow as it extended up. Red as it billowed outward. Dark gray at the rounded top. Each color shot through with streaks of black. It was beautiful and horrific at the same time. Larger than I could have imagined.

Two more, smaller but no less ominous, perched on the horizon.

I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I tried to turn away, but I was frozen in place.

Nothing moved. Nothing at all.

Ahead of me, an older couple clutched one another. A woman in a bright pink coat cradled a dog, crouched on a nearby sidewalk. Two guys, roughly my age, one wearing an Orioles baseball cap, froze halfway out of their rusted Ford Mustang.

Terrified and awestruck, I stared at a picture of nuclear Armageddon, and felt very small.

Not a single sound intruded on the hellscape. Not one car horn, not a single voice, not even the wind. Just empty, eternal silence.

This isn’t real. It’s another nightmare.

But it wasn’t, and in a flash I knew why. I wasn’t Bobby MacDonald, senior at Robert Murrow High School, candidate for class valedictorian.

No. I was Benjamin Joseph Shelton, senior foreign relations adviser to the President of the United States. B.J. to my friends. Benji to my wife, Melissa.

I was both at the same time. I knew everything about Bobby MacDonald. Every last detail of my nerdy little life. I remember asking Jenny Byars to go to prom with me. I remember getting Eric, Jason and Glenn to come over on a Friday night to watch the premier of Battlestar Galactica. I remember cursing at my mom and the resulting slap across my face. I remember my dad breaking down in tears when my granddad died of a stroke.

Those memories were me. Bobby MacDonald.

But I also remember catching a quick out from Skip Morris at the goal-line just as time expired. I remember my Bar Mitzvah. I remember asking Melissa to marry me at my parent’s lake house, and the joy of holding my newborn baby girl for the first time. I remember bringing my dog, Buster, to the vet to be put down. I remember the giddy, surreal feeling of meeting President O’Neil for the first time.

And because I was Benji, I knew the city was Washington D.C., and I knew why, most likely, there were mushroom clouds blooming all over the United States.

Eleven days ago, from Benji’s perspective, one of our Dart-class surveillance subs, the USS Lansing, disappeared. Intelligence reports placed her in the East China Sea and the top brass were ninety percent certain the Chinese had captured her. I attended one high-level meeting after another. The Pentagon had to bump my security clearance for a meeting with the President and Joint Chiefs. If I hadn’t been so terrified, it would have been a thrill.

The White House got me a hotel room ten minutes away, and a town car to chauffeur me. I hadn’t seen Melissa or the kids since the whole thing began, though I talked to them on the phone each night.

The whole situation spelled disaster. The Chinese postured, we blustered. It spiraled out of control. The UN stepped in. President O’Neil took us to DEFCON 1 earlier today, Tuesday, September 21, 2027.

Queasiness overtook me. It wasn’t 2027. It was Monday, January 21, 2013. Barack Obama had begun his second term, the East Coast continued their recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and a sick horror clenched my stomach at the thought of Sandy Hook.

I stared at the freeze frame in front of me. Nuclear devastation. An event that Bobby MacDonald could barely grasp, but one Benji Shelton could.

This isn’t an XBox game or a movie. It’s real. All too real.

I desperately wanted to cry, but couldn’t. A wild panic grew in my chest, flooding me with an insane desire to scream, long and loud.

Pain shot through my skull again.

When I opened my eyes and saw the dim outlines of the ceiling in my room, a burst of relief overcame my fear. My room, not Benji’s. I twitched a finger, wriggled my toes and raised a knee. I let out a shuddering laugh before dissolving into helpless tears.

At some point, emotionally exhausted, I blacked out and slept.