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(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)
“I’m telling you, that umpire messed it up, big time. That was a safe!! Look, here’s my proof. Look!!”
Jack Mercer leaned over, slightly disinterested in the argument his best friend, Nick Sturges, was having with another kid in the front seat. Nick was waving his smartphone, trying to take advantage of the free wifi available on the school bus they were riding on.
To Jack’s eyes, sure enough, it looked like the umpire indeed made the wrong call. The “ump” gave the home base out on the bottom of the eighth, and more crucially, robbing the final, decent chance for a storybook comeback for the visiting team, the team Nick was emotionally invested in.
Jack shrugged his shoulders and chimed in. “Yeah, well, does it matter now? Your team still lost in the end, Nick.”
“No, no, no. Okay, fine. Sure, they lost, but they shouldn’t have in the first place, right? This whole thing’s a conspiracy, you know? The league doesn’t want my team to advance to the playoffs, I’m telling you right now.”
Jack shrugged his shoulders again. He wasn’t a baseball fan to begin with, and neither was he much of a believer in the grand theory of the big guys playing unfair over the small guys. “Whatever you say, Nicky. Just make sure you don’t mention your fondness for wild conspiracy theories to a stranger – they might end up with a notion that you’re a nutcase.”
Nick sulked and was about to put away his phone when it chimed; a message had come through. After a quick read-through, he exclaimed aloud.
“Holy c**p, man. Check this out. Sue just sent me this,” said Nick, as he hurriedly handed the phone over to Jack.
On the screen, there was an image, a blurry one, of two figures fighting. It sent a chill down Jack’s back because he recognized the location where the fight was taking place.
“Jesus, Nicky. That’s our school, isn’t it? Is everyone there alright?”
Jack’s little sister was also attending the same high school. He was rightly worried about her safety. Also, his other friends were there, too. As luck would have it, only his class was on this paid-for field trip to the downtown museum of the natural science.
“Relax, Jack. Sue says these two Supers fleeted by the school’s football field, that’s all. No one’s hurt.”
That was a good news to hear. Sighing in relief, Jack leaned back in his seat by the windows and accidentally met with Emily’s eyes. She was looking at him curiously with softly shimmering eyes.
Quickly, both of them averted their gazes, faces dyed slightly in red. But soon after, Jack felt a bit foolish for doing that. He hadn’t done anything wrong here; no reason to look away in embarrassment. So, he raised his head and tried to stare back but Emily was already talking to another girl next to her, her focus no longer on him.
Jack felt incredibly stupid in that moment. To him, Emily, his ex-girlfriend, didn’t seem too broken up about their break-up. Maybe she was more mature than he was. Maybe she knew how to handle disappointments better than he did.
Whatever, from where he sat, Emily didn’t really seem to mind – about everything, while Jack was having a hard time accepting it.
That was why he felt so stupid right now. And at the same time, deeply discouraged about the prospect of getting back together. After all, it was his mistake that led to the break-up. To this very day, he still could not, for the life of him, figure out why he did what he did.
Nick was oblivious to his friend’s girl troubles, too busy checking out the posts made in all the social media platforms he was a member in.
“According to the eyewitnesses, the two Supers have moved on from the suburbs. Apparently, they are heading towards the city. Huh, this field trip might get canceled, after all,” said Nick.
“I think there’s a bigger issue than the possibility of our trip ending up as a waste of time, Nick.” Jack shook his head wryly and spoke.
“Yeah, that too.”
Nick furrowed his brows while replying to Jack.
“How long ago was that image taken?”
Nick’s friend, who was arguing about the baseball earlier on, asked.
“According to Sue, maybe five, ten minutes, tops.”
Jack sat up slightly in his seat. The amount of time described sounded like a lot to him. A Super, depending on the type of the superpower, could easily reach the city limits from the school in a matter of minutes. He found it strange then, when he, who was sitting by the window, could not see the two battling Supers flying – or jumping, running, whatever – by the highway.
He felt something was wrong. As to what it was, he didn’t know. And as to why he felt it, he couldn’t tell that either.
A small, insistent voice was rising up inside his mind. But he wasn’t sure of what it was saying just yet.
But that noise became much louder when the school bus suddenly lurched to a halt. As a matter of fact, when Jack looked outside the window, he saw that every car on the highway R-35 Northbound had stopped for some reason. Up ahead, a massive traffic jam had developed. Quickly, the sea of unmoving cars was increasing dramatically behind the bus.
Jack turned his attention back inside the bus. He could hear his classmates grumble and complain about the sudden hold-up. Nick, in turn, was looking at him and asking, with a simple tilt of chin, what he could see outside. Being friends for a long time meant they could communicate just fine like that.
“Something’s not right,” said Jack. “I think… we should get off the bus. Just in case.”
“But why?” Nick asked, clearly puzzled. But then he was slightly stunned as Jack’s face became deathly pale. “Hey man, you okay? You look bad, like, really bad.”
Thick beads of sweat dripped down Jack’s pale forehead. Upon noticing the sweat trails, Jack wiped them off with his black wristband, a gift his younger sister gave him during his 17th birthday a month ago.
“C’mon, let’s go and talk to Mr. Johnson,” urged Jack as he quickly got up from his seat.
Shrugging his shoulders in defeat, Nick stood up as well. The two of them approached the teacher in charge of the trip, one Mr. Johnson, to get the permission to leave the bus.
Johnson’s answer matched Nick’s expectation perfectly.
“What?! Not happening, guys. Get back to your seats, Mercer, Sturges. No way I’ll let you guys off the bus when we’re sitting in traffic.”
Unsurprisingly, their teacher forbade them from leaving the bus. After all, in a litigation-happy country like the States, it paid to be cautious of pretty much anything that had the potential to be taken to court. But Jack was not deterred. If anything, he was getting even more motivated to leave.
“But Mr. Johnson, we need to get out of here, off this bus right now. It’s important!!”
Jack’s voice rose up, drawing the attention of the rest of his classmates towards him.
Frowning, the teacher raised his eyebrow and asked back. “Why? Why do we need to leave the bus?”
Jack was going to say his intuition was telling him to get off the bus, but then, stopped. It was obvious, even to him, how absurd that sounded. Never mind also sounding like an excuse as well. No one, short of being a loon or a drunk would accept his reasoning, just like that.
“Oh, c’mon, Mr. Johnson. Look at him. Just look at Mercer. He needs fresh air. I think he might be getting car sick. Or something. I mean, if he ends up hurling, might as well he do it outside, right?”
In the nick of time, Nick came to the rescue of his friend. He spoke casually but what he said looked more or less plausible when viewed from Johnson’s perspective.
Besides, when the possibility of Jack’s half-digested breakfast decorating the bus’s interior was brought up, the kids who heard it raised the commotion. That also helped to force Johnson’s hands.
The teacher studied Jack’s face for a second longer before opening his mouth. “Fine. But stay near the bus, where I can see you guys. And you come back on board when I call you, got it?”
“Will do,” Nick beamed brightly as he grabbed his friend’s arm. He exited the bus with Jack in tow.
It didn’t go the way Jack envisioned, what with his class thinking he had a weak constitution but it had to do, for now. And once some outside air got into his lungs, even though it was heavily laced with the exhaust fumes of all the idling cars around him, Jack did feel a little bit better.
Nick patted his back and asked with a grin. “Feel better?”
“Maybe,” Jack smiled back, before changing the direction of his gaze toward the front of the traffic. He could see the silhouette of the city’s skyline, and a long line of cars standing still. There were some drivers who had disembarked from their rides to see what the hell was going on as well.
“Wanna check out the front? See what’s causing this hold-up?”
Nick whispered to Jack after checking the inside of the bus. Apparently, Mr. Johnson was on his phone, speaking rather animatedly to someone. Probably the principal of the school or the director of the museum’s guided tour to let them know there would be an unavoidable delay in the schedule today.
In other words, their strict minder was not minding them at that moment.
Nodding his assent, Jack motioned with his chin, not saying anything else. And in a blink of an eye, the two boys hurriedly ran forward, weaving past the parked but still humming vehicles.
As they went past an SUV, Jack saw a kid, about 10 years old, sitting in the back and staring at the outside with a bored expression. Their eyes briefly met, and the young boy smiled impishly. Jack returned the smile and gave the boy a small wave, too.
Less than a minute of running later, they arrived at the place where the police had cordoned off the highway. There were lots of people pacing back and forth near the barricades, manning their phones, looking rather worried.
Jack led his best friend over to a police officer who was the nearest to them and asked.
“Officer, can you tell us what’s going on here? Why is the highway blocked off?”
The person they chose was a gruff-looking, slightly overweight highway patrolman in his forties, with a 70s pornstar mustache and the matching aviator shades to boot. He was slowly chewing on a gum in a rather showy fashion as if such an action made him look like a tough guy.
The patrolman pointed his thumb behind him and spoke in a practiced monotone. “Some stuff about two Supers duking it out. The area up ahead is dangerous and thus the road is closed for a foreseeable future. Please return to your vehicles until the situation is under control. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Nick was going to retort to the robotic and disinterested cop when Jack intervened, shaking his head slightly. It was better not to poke a sleeping lion with a stick, so to speak. Who knows what kind of dissatisfied life this man may have lived? No point in setting off a bomb with a smart comeback that wasn’t really necessary.
So the two of them began walking back. Since they knew the cause of the traffic, they needed to get back to the bus before their punishment grew larger.
But they couldn’t take too many steps forward – because there was a small splattering sound coming from behind them, which was soon followed by another, softer splat. Then, a disembodied head, still wearing a helmet, aviator shades and all, rolled by the feet of two shocked boys.
When they turned around to see what happened, they saw a pool of gore where the patrolman was standing a minute ago. That wasn’t all; there were other pools of blood, and some of the barricades were in the middle of melting down as well.
Just beyond that, two figures, one hovering in the air, while the other, dashing across the ground, busy firing green plasma-like substance at the hovering figure.
When that green substance struck a car next to Jack, the metal on the vehicle hissed, and began melting.
Needless to say, people began screaming. And quickly, all hell broke loose.
Jack grabbed shocked Nick and wordlessly ran. He ran hard, pushing and shoving the screaming walls of people, disorganized and stumbling over themselves to get away.
By the time Jack ran past the SUV with the kid in the backseat, there were several loud, thumping explosions coming from behind him. Cars were going boom everywhere.
The concrete below them buckled and twisted at the resonating shock waves.
Gritting his teeth, Jack desperately tried to regain his balance. Nick had already fallen over on his rear, unable to endure the quaking.
Another loud explosion, this time sounding closer than before. Even the faint, distant heat of the flames reached Jack’s cheek, sending another bout of chill to run down his spine.
Jack helped up his friend to his feet and they resumed running. The school bus was now in view, and the faces of confused passengers could be seen beyond the glass.
Jack hurriedly waved his arms, frantically trying to draw their attention.
“Get out of the bus!! Run!! Run!!”
He shouted. Nick too, waved his arms like a madman.
But other than the teacher, no one had come out of the bus. Johnson climbed out and was about to receive the boys angrily when his complexions changed.
It happened when Jack got near the bus. A stray shot from one of the two Supers struck the unmoving bus. The resulting explosion shoved Jack into the side of a delivery van, while Nick was forced into the back of another SUV.
When he recovered his consciousness, Jack found himself in agonizing pain. He wanted to scream out but he could not form any sound in his mouth. He wasn’t sure where he was, he felt completely disoriented, and his entire body ached and hurt like crazy.
He groaned and tried to wade out of the cradle of bent metals. His clothing, which was already in shreds, got further torn to bits as the material got caught on the sharp edges.
Some even sliced his skin, drawing out more blood. But Jack couldn’t feel that. As he freed his trapped body from the metal confinement, he fell head first on the ground. The asphalt below felt cold against Jack’s skin.
Blood seeped into the cool and gray ground below, dying it several shades darker.
Even though it was cold, the surroundings were only getting hotter.
Jack could see a sea of flames, burning brightly all around him. Cars, buses, vans, trucks – whatever – were burning, like a field of flowers on fire.
Jack heard the faint and distant screams of the victims and the panicked running footsteps of the survivors. From where they came from, he couldn’t be sure. Were they near? Were they far? Nothing made sense. He was too dazed and in pain to think clearly.
The dancing shadows of others painted the picture of a maze of total confusion and disarray that had cast its vice-like grip in the area.
Jack crawled on his front, trying to get near the burning wreck of the bus. The smell of cooking human flesh filled the air, making him want to hurl.
Before his blurring vision, he saw the remains of the bus that, only a moment ago, he was riding on.
Only a moment ago, he was seating inside, talking to his friends about a ball game.
Only a moment ago, he was avoiding making eye contacts with Emily, too scared and stupid to make up with her.
Only a moment ago, his life was normal, unremarkable, safe. He was a normal kid, living a normal life.
Yet, here he was, lying in the rapidly forming pool of his own blood.
The two Supers, the two responsible for the carnage, had already flown past, uncaring and forgetting about the cost they left behind. To the two of them, this battle was more important than the lives of some faceless numbers making up the statistics.
Helpless tears formed at the corners of his eyes, from the immense pain, from the immense anger, from the realization of what had happened right before his eyes.
He crawled a bit more forward, dragging his broken and bleeding body. There were bones protruding from his left shin. His left shoulder was dislocated; collar bones, most likely shattered. Numerous cuts and bruises, bleeding profusely all over. Clothing ripped and shredded, singed by the flames. Many internal organs damaged and bleeding. His lungs were slowly filling up with liquids.
Yet, he never stopped crawling closer to the bus. In his blooming madness, he desperately hoped that someone, anyone, might have survived the explosion. He thought that if he got there, maybe he could save a life.
The crimson blood seeped into his eyes, coloring the world red. He couldn’t see anything properly anymore.
He raised his only working arm, wiping away the blood and then trying to grasp the burning, twisted metal of the bus, flames dancing beyond it.
His palm began to sizzle when he finally managed to grab the exposed, heated metal frame. Jack’s mind ignored the pain and pulled himself closer. He weakly shouted out Emily’s name. He called out other names. He called out for anyone.
But there were no replies. Not a single one.
The despair he felt during that moment took away the last of his strength. Jack limply fell, and rolled on his back. Now, his vision was filled with the bright but pale blue sky blighted only by the rising smoke plumes.
Jack felt breathing becoming harder. He was slowly drowning in his own fluids. He knew, almost instinctively, that he was going to die here. He didn’t want to give up, but the prospect of not suffering through this horrendous pain seemed rather appealing to him right then.
His consciousness began to flicker. His eyes swam. All colors from the world seemed to drain away, turning his vision black and white.
In this colorless world, even the ambient sounds were lost. Now, Jack was trapped in a world of vacuum, alone. But because of the utter isolation, even the smallest changes could be easily spotted.
And so, Jack caught the sight of something red, slowing rising from the burning wrecks. One by one, numerous mists of blood-red crimson rose among the black smoke. From the van he crashed into, from the car next to him, and most of all, a lot of the red mist rising from the school bus.
He watched, at first stunned and curious, then in horror, as these red mists began to rise in every place where things were burning and people were lying dead.
The red mists rose up to around six feet in the air, before swirling and coalescing into oval shapes of various sizes. Some were large, some were small, some were in between. One common thing they all shared, though, was their color – red. Crimson red, like the freshly spilled blood of the sacrifices doting this very highway.
As these oval shapes became more clearer, Jack shuddered involuntarily, his mind reeling uncontrollably at the bizarre sights occurring around with him as the epicenter.
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And when the oval shapes finished forming into solid objects, Jack felt all the hair on his body stand up.
There were faces trapped inside the oval shapes. Screaming faces full of agony and terror. Worst of all, each of the numerous crimson oval shapes formed from the bus contained screaming faces of everyone Jack recognized. There was one with Emily’s face in it, even.
Jack was petrified. He felt his heart freezing up with fear of the unknown. An urgent desire to escape this place filled him up but his rapidly stiffening body wouldn’t let him.
Why is this happening?! Is this a hallucination? Am I seeing things?!
He wanted to call out for help, call out to Emily’s screaming face captured within the oval…. crystal. He just wanted someone to hear his cries.
But no voice came out. Instead, only the blood that had filled his lungs gurgled out of his mouth.
Am I going to die like this? Jack thought bitterly. I haven’t done anything yet. I haven’t even achieved a thing. But, like this, I’ll die?!
The sky above seemed calm, regardless of the carnage unfolding on the ground. It seemed distant, uncaring. It seemed as if none of his pain and suffering mattered in the grand scheme of things, in the flow of the cosmos and all that stuff.
A powerful rage rapidly built up inside his heart. His eyes were literally reddening with pure madness. He wanted to curse the sky for its indifference, he wanted to curse the two Supers for putting him in this situation, and he wanted the overturn the unfairness of it all by his own hands.
Only if he had power.
As if to heed his call, the red crystals began floating towards him. Towards Jack.
As he howled silently in anguish, those crimson oval crystals converged on him, like a greedy pack of hyenas jumping on top of a felled prey. Their screaming mouths were wide open and twisted cruelly, as if trying to devour him alive.
But rather than eating him alive, the crystals were directly absorbed into Jack’s body, one by one.
Jack stopped his soundless screams and watched the whole thing unfold, shocked and surprised. Even though it was happening to his body directly, Jack couldn’t feel a thing. He couldn’t even move a muscle. All he could do was to watch, unable to resist.
The crimson crystals rushed towards him from almost everywhere – not just from the burning bus. And he could see there were so many of them, these red…. souls.
And when the final one entered his body, Jack’s vision grew dim. His mind sank deep within his own subconscious. It fell like a tiny pebble, dropped into a deep, dark, bottomless well.
Jack’s mind spun as he fell and fell ever deeper, until a tiny spot of light manifested itself within this unending bleak darkness.
Then, the spot exploded into a kaleidoscope of dazzling color, swirling and dancing and overwhelming him. Jack tumbled around within this crazy light show like a stray sock inside a spinning washing machine, until the world around him opened up. Before his stunned eyes, a landscape was materializing like a mirage, then as something real and tangible next. Like a sudden projection of a 3D image, the whole world slammed into him, sucking him in.
Jack, at this point, was clearly left shocked and confused. He had no idea what was going. Was this the afterlife? He was half expecting the famed Pearly Gates to appear and the presiding angels to welcome him, but this….
The world before him was not heaven, he was quite sure of that.
Because, he was staring at some kind of an ancient world.
Jack was standing on the balcony of a huge stone tower, a spire, overlooking the ancient city below. In the distant horizon, he saw dusty, desert-like plains and savannahs that stretched forever, and a clearest, bluest sky he had ever seen overhead. And even further than that, like a mirage, a huge structure that stretched beyond to the sky.
Turning around, Jack witnessed the inside of the spire, where lavish decorations of gold and silk were everywhere, emanating the charm of some mystical, Oriental realm. And before his dazed eyes, he was greeted by the sight of a gorgeous, scantily-clad raven-haired woman who simply exuded effortless exotic charm. She was lying next to a huge, saber-toothed tiger, affectionately stroking its luxuriant fur.
She lifted her gaze and met Jack’s dazed eyes, and with a hint of mischievousness, she beckoned him closer.
Her sweet, full lips parted and whispered a word.
Jack frowned, trying to listen. But try as he might, he could not hear her.
“Who are you?”
Jack asked. Yet, his lips didn’t part. More correctly, his body wasn’t speaking. Rather, it approached the woman and lied down next to her, slowly embracing her.
Then, the images before him blurred and began fading away.
Jack waved his hands, trying to reach out. But the images dissolved away, leaving behind only the empty darkness.
“Were they…. memories? My memories? But…. it can’t be.”
Jack muttered to himself, utterly confused at this point. As he pondered, the inky blackness that had surrounded him began to glow in eerie red. Jack became greatly alarmed.
“What is it this time?!”
Soon, the darkness was overcome by the blood-red color exploding from everywhere. The Red Souls that were absorbed into him began to appear one by one, rotating and spinning all around stupefied Jack.
There were so many in here, Jack couldn’t even begin to count the sheer numbers.
He nervously gulped, scared and undecided. Yet, in the end, his curiosity won over. Jack hesitantly reached out and touched the nearest crystal.
It felt warm and hard. It shuddered a little, but remained there, still slowly spinning. Nothing else happened other than that.
This only made Jack even more confused than before. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He felt like he was trapped in here and that he had to get out somehow, just that he had no idea how.
He felt frustrated. He felt powerless and lost. He felt so alone and confused. Totally miserable.
Among the spinning Souls, Jack tried to locate Emily’s face. He remembered absorbing one with her image in it. He thought that maybe he could at least try to talk to her. Or something similar. Anything to stop himself from going crazy.
If he hadn’t yet crossed that threshold already.
But before he could, he felt his chest go bump. Then, out of the blue, he heard voices. Distant, indistinct voices, calling out to him.
The crimson world quickly faded away, and Jack weakly opened his eyes. When he did, he was staring at the concerned faces of the paramedics, trying to revive him.
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