I wish I could tell you that I saw a bright white light, some kind of tunnel and that I met my dead grandma and grandpa, that sort of thing. In the end it was like I'd fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I opened my eyes, expecting to be in pain. In a hospital, or maybe still lying on that road with Joe—that fucker—standing over me watching me die.
Instead, I was lying in bed and felt fine. Where I was it was warm and quiet. Nearby was the faint sound of traffic. I opened my eyes and sat up.
I was in an unfamiliar bedroom. The bed I was sitting had a hard, single mattress and was barely more than a cot. I hadn't even been under the covers. I'd been laying on top of a scratchy army blanket and resting my head on a ancient looking pillow.
The room itself was quite small. There was a plain wooden door opposite the bed. A small desk with a chair tucked under it on one wall and an armoire on the other wall. Even with the small amount of furniture the room felt crowded. It was the size of a prison cell. The floor was bare concrete with a single area rug in the middle, a muddled mess of blue and red colors in a simple pattern.
Up above the bed just under the drop ceiling a long rectangular window let in sunlight and the faint sound of bird song.
A basement. Where the hell am I?
I should have been freaked out, but for some reason I wasn't when text appeared in the air in front of me. It almost felt natural, like this was nothing to be alarmed about.
San Tadeo, California, 07:35 Thursday March 05, 2020
Safe House: Martin McLean's House
Walking in the Light
I wiped my hand through the text that floated in the air in front of me. There was nothing there. It had no physical presence in the world. As if it sensed that I wanted it gone, the words quickly faded away.
Am I hallucinating? Is this some kind of coma?
I looked down at myself, and was happy to see that I was the same me I always was. The clothes I was wearing weren't familiar. A pair of boxer shorts and an undershirt that I didn't remember owning. But I was still me.
I stood up and stepped onto the cold concrete floor.
At the head of the bed was a tiny wooden bedside table, scarred with scratches and a few paint spots. It had an ancient looking lamp on top, and a single drawer. It was completely empty.
"Where is my phone?" I muttered.
It had been in my pocket when Methhead had shot me. If my hallucination was right, it was the next day and I was somewhere called San Tadeo. I'd never heard of it, or Martin McLean. He shared my last name, so maybe he was a relative I didn't know about? I still had no idea about the hallucinations, but maybe I was recuperating here?
Did they take my phone? What about my keys and my wallet? If this is some kind of afterlife, it sure is a crappy one.
There weren't any dead relatives to greet me. No clouds full of angelic beings, and no hellfire. Maybe I was really lying in a hospital bed and this was just a particularly elaborate dream. I had them sometimes, after all. Dreams that seemed entirely real, with fully developed places and people. Even after I woke up they still made sense, even if they were alien. I had a suspicion that dreams were sometimes more than just your brain sweeping the dust out of the corners.
I opened up the armoire and had a look inside. It was nearly empty. A pair of button-down shirts in white and blue hung beside a black suit in a plastic dry-cleaning bag. On the bottom shelf of the armoire were four neatly folded stacks of clothing. Blue jeans, t-shirts, socks and underwear. None of which were mine.
"What the hell is going on here?" I muttered to myself.
I moved to the door and opened it as quietly as I could, looking out. The door opened silently on well oiled hinges. Clean white walls extended to my left and right. I eased out quietly, seeing stairs leading up to the left and another doorway at the end of the hall on the right.
I really could use my phone right now. Google maps would tell me where I was, and I could get an Uber to come get me. Wherever San Tadeo was, they definitely would have Uber.
I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to go upstairs just yet. I turned right and moved toward the closed door at the end of the hall.
Something caught my eye on the left wall—a flash of reflected light. Mounted on the wall was one of those framed mirrors where when you looked into it, it would put a hat on your head. I saw myself in the mirror wearing some kind of military hat, the one with the visor. The hat looked good on me even if my usual shaggy mop of black hair kind of ruined the effect by poking out around the edges.
The door at the end of the hall opened easily, exposing a laundry room with another basement window. The walls and floor here were concrete, leading to a drain in the middle. There were no exits other than the one I came in.
I closed the door and made for the stairs.
A deep, male voice reached me in the basement easily from upstairs. "Francis, I hear you moving around down there. Come upstairs and eat breakfast, the day's wasting away."
I didn't recognize the voice, but I had to assume that it was Martin. I wasn't pleased that he called me Francis. Sure, it was technically my name, but everyone called me Frank. They had since I was little kid.
The voice was neither friendly nor unfriendly, and I decided that there was no use in pretending that I was still asleep or sneaking around. There was only one way out of this basement, after all. I went up to meet my long-lost relative.
I walked up the stairs to a landing. Several pairs of shoes were tucked into a niche, and two light grey coats hung on coat hooks. A deadbolted exterior door was right there, and through a small square window I could see the side of the house next door, a plain white stucco.
I could unlock the door right now and escape, if I wanted to. No one was here to stop me. Whatever the text that I had hallucinated earlier was, it said this was a safe place. It felt like it, at least.
Another short step of stairs led into the a small, orderly kitchen.
I walked up the stairs, looking around. There was a simple table with two chairs along one wall and a row of counters and cabinets along the other. An ancient fridge and stove were tucked into gaps. Whoever Martin was, he sure didn't believe in spending a lot of money on his kitchen. Something I'd only seen in period TV shows and movies hung on the wall—a green landline phone. It had a long, spiraling cord connecting the curved handset to the cradle on the wall.
On the opposite side from where I'd entered there was a doorway leading to what was obviously the living room. I could see a large front window looking out onto a street, as well as a shag carpet and part of a brown leather love seat by the window.
I heard creaking leather as someone stood up, and then Martin was in the doorway.
Martin was a fit older man, slightly shorter than me but in much better shape. His hair was iron gray, cut close to his scalp in a military style. His eyes were muddy brown, and his complexion a deep tan from spending a lot of time in the sun.
Martin frowned as he saw me. I studied him right back, trying to pick out a family resemblance. I'd never seen the man before.
Text appeared above his head, shining and bright. It wasn't like the display in a computer game. The words didn't literally glow. It was more like hidden, metaphorical sunlight was illuminating the words. It was more a feeling than something I could see.
|Martin McLean, Staff Officer (D4), Colonel USAF, retired|
"Francis, now that you'll be living with me rather than my brother—God rest his soul—you have to know that there are rules. One of those rules is that we dress before we leave our rooms, son. Go back downstairs and get dressed, then come up here and we'll eat. Understood?"
"Hold on, I've got some questions. Who's your brother? And what's with this text above your head? And who are you? I've never met you, why am I in your basement?"
More text appeared in front of me.
|Reputation Change: Martin McLean -1|
|New Reputation: Tolerated (13)|
I lost reputation with Martin? What the hell.
"I will not brook any foolishness from you, Francis. You know perfectly well that I'm your uncle. I'm willing to grant you some leeway in your behavior due to death of your father, but my forbearance only goes so far, young man. You will get your shit together."
Anger had crept into Martin's voice, but I didn't care. What he'd said shook me.
"What the hell are you talking about? You're telling me my dad is dead?"
|Reputation Change: Martin McLean -1|
|New Reputation: Tolerated (12)|
Another point lost? Well shit, he was pissing me off too. I wondered if he was seeing the same messages but with my name instead.
Martin's face hardened, and in three long strides he was directly in front of me. His face was inches from mine and his eyes bored into me.
"I will not have you using foul language in this house, Francis. Return to your quarters immediately and get dressed properly. Return promptly and we will eat breakfast. After, I will inform you of your duties and obligations to this household. Is that clear?"
Martin's voice fairly crackled with anger, and his physical presence so close was intimidating. Unnaturally so. I'd had guys try to intimidate me all my life. In high school, hell, even in grade school kids would pick on me—or try to. Dad taught me to fight back, and I had. I wasn't a big guy, or a strong one, but it didn't take strength to fight a bully. They wanted to pick on weak people. Kids that wouldn't fight back. I was never one of those kids. Bullies didn't scare me.
Even so, Martin in my face was downright terrifying and I couldn't explain why.
I cast my eyes downward, backed off and hurried downstairs.
As soon as I was out of his presence, the fear left. I didn't know what had come over me. I just wanted to do exactly what he'd said, immediately. Even though the fear was gone, I didn't dare to defy him. I needed to hear what he said, and maybe get some answers. Maybe he could tell me why was I seeing text in the air like I was in a video game. I didn't even really play video games, but I recognized that's what it looked like.
A few minutes later I was dressed, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and socks. There was a pair of running shoes by the door. There weren't a brand I wore or even recognized but they fit me perfectly, despite me never having seen or worn them before. Next to them was a pair of black leather dress shoes that I definitely didn't own.
Suitably dressed, I returned to the kitchen. Martin was in the process of cooking up a panful of scrambled eggs, and the smell of food hit me, causing my stomach to grumble.
Martin was dressed in a pressed, short-sleeved button-down shirt, slacks and black leather shoes. I wondered if he was planning to leave to go to work, or if this was just how he dressed normally. The text over his set his head said he was retired, after all.
"That's better, if only just acceptable. Try to have some pride in the way you dress, Francis."
"Martin, my name is Frank. No one has called me Francis since I was little kid," I said.
"Fine," Martin agreed.
"Now, will you please tell me about my father? You say he's dead, but how can that be? I just saw him yesterday and he was fine. How did he die?" I asked.
Martin looked at me again, stirring the eggs absently. A hint of sympathy crept into his features.
"Sit down and let's get some chow into you. You seemed fine yesterday, but maybe you're in shock. Once you've eaten, maybe I'll run you down to the hospital and have a head doctor look at you. Sit, sit."
Martin dished eggs onto plates, setting one down in front of each chair. I sat and Martin joined me on the other side of the table.
"Eat and then we'll talk."
Martin picked up his fork and started shoveling eggs into his mouth. My stomach grumbled again, reminding me to eat. The food wasn't anything special. Eggs, salt and pepper mixed in a pan and fried. Still, it filled the hole so I couldn't complain. Martin was done a few minutes later, and so was I.
"Now, Dean asked me months ago to take you in when he died. He knew it was coming, of course. We all did. He's left me a little money to keep you in food and clothing until you get on your own feet. It's not a lot you understand. Your father has never been rich. It won't send you to college, but you won't starve."
I thought about what he said, processing it. He was right, Dad hadn't been rich. He was a welder. He made a good living but wasn't rich. Two big things about Martin's statement stood out, however. One, he hadn't been sick. And two, his name wasn't Dean.
"Dean. Your brother's name is Dean? My father?" I asked.
"As you well know, Francis."
The sympathy that had been in his eyes was beginning to leach out. Maybe he thought I was screwing with him.
"Here's the thing, Martin. My father's name wasn't Dean, it was Murray."
|Reputation Change Not Applied: -1|
|Reputation with Martin McLean at lowest possible: Tolerated (12) (Family)|
Martin really didn't like people talking back to him. Luckily since I was family my rep wasn't going to get any lower, but how did it start off so low?
"I don't know what you're playing at, Boy, but I won't have it. I've told you how things are. Let me fill in the rest of the blanks. Your responsibilities here in this house are quite simple. You will keep your quarters clean and orderly. That means a properly made bed and everything stowed where it should be. I will be inspecting your quarters regularly, be aware. I will require you to pay rent of $600 per month. I think you will find that this is a very reasonable amount for this neighborhood. I will give you a thirty-day grace period. After that, I'll expect rent at the first of every month.
I started to open my mouth to speak, but his frown deepened, and he just kept talking.
"Finally, and I say this just to be thorough, as you know how I feel about this already. There will be no walking in shadow while you live in this home. If I ever see a shadow item in this house, you're done here, do you understand?"
I didn't. I didn't understand most of what he had just said. First, inspections? He was going to be checking my room to see if I'd made my bed properly? What kind of bullshit was that? Second, rent? That one really got stuck in my craw. The whole thing with shadow I didn't even know where to begin.
"You want to charge me rent? You just said Dad gave you some money to take care of me."
"He did. But it won't be enough. Even so, you are a young man and need to learn to earn your way. You can't have me taking care of you for the rest of your life. It's time to go out and get a job, son."
"And what are you talking about when you say walking in shadow? I don't know what that means," I said, confused.
"Listen, I've had just about enough of this malarkey. I'll have no criminals in this house, and that's all walking in shadow is, a way for criminals to hide who they are. I don't care what the first amendment says about it. If I find that you are a criminal, then you will no longer be welcome in this house."
Martin was getting pretty worked up, his voice rising as he got angrier. The fear that I felt earlier from him was starting to creep back in, squelching my desire to ask any further questions.
Seeing that I had nothing else to say, Martin continued.
"I will make an appointment for you at a head shrinker to look to whatever's ailing you. Until that happens, I expect you go out and look for a job. JMC at the strip mall nearby always has help-wanted signs out front. You could try there. I bought this bus pass for you, if you need to get around further afield."
He produced a paper card from his breast pocket and laid in front of me. It was a plain green and black card with San Tadeo Transit printed on the front, along with barcodes and numbers.
As I looked at it, text appeared.
San Tadeo Transit Pass, March 2020
The ??? in value was strange. Did that mean I didn't know the value, or I was lacking the skill to determine the value or what? Another mystery to file away for later. I stowed the pass carefully in the front pocket of my jeans. Without a wallet to put it in or my phone to keep it flat in my pocket I was afraid it'd become wrecked.
Martin stood up and cleared the plates, stacking them near the sink. He turned back to me.
"I'll do these dishes, but don't get used to it. You'll have to carry your weight with chores around here, as well. Get yourself ready and go out and find a job. I expect not to see you back here until 1800 hrs. You understand? When you get back tonight, I'll give you keys. Today, I want an earnest effort from you find yourself employment."
I was clearly dismissed, and Martin turned to the sink and began filling it with water.
"Do you know where my phone is? It's an Android, white with a silicon case?"
"What is this nonsense, Boy? If you need to use the phone it's right there on the wall. If you make a long distance call you'll be paying me for it at the end of the month along with your rent."
I didn't dare press him on this. The evidence that I was in some kind of alternate world was beginning to add up. I was alive, for one. Martin still had a landline in 2020. What would happen if my reputation with him dropped too much? I didn't want to find out.
I stood up and pulled the phone free from its cradle on the wall. It was heavy and felt solid in my hand despite being made from plastic. A steady tone came from the top half of the handset, another thing I'd only heard on TV and movies—a dial tone.
It was then that I remembered that, aside from 911 and 411, I didn't know any phone numbers.
Even simple cell phones from decades ago would let you store contacts. Who still remembers a phone number?
I looked blankly at the keypad for a minute before punching one of the ones I did remember in. 411.
An actual human answered the phone, startling me.
"What name?" the woman on the other end asked.
"Murray McLean," I replied.
"Los Angeles," I replied again.
In the corner of my eye I could see Martin shift to look at me.
"I'm sorry sir, I'm not finding any Los Angeles in California. Do you know the closest nearby municipality?"
"You can't find Los Angeles? The biggest city in California and you can't find it?" I asked.
"I'm afraid I've never heard of Los Angeles, sir. If you want the biggest city, that would be San Tadeo."
It was clear that, somehow, I was no longer in the same world. A world where directory assistance was a human instead of a robot and the woman on the other end didn't know a city named Los Angeles. That world surely wasn't the one I came from. Tension I hadn't even known had been there left me.
I'm either in a coma, or I've been transported to another world, or I'm dead. Either way, this isn't real life anymore.
"Thank you, ma'am," I said, and hung up the phone.
Martin was still looking at me but said nothing and turned back to his dishes.
I could see why he must think that I was insane. If I really was in a new world, Martin was my only ally so far. I couldn't afford to piss him off any further. At least, not until I could see how this new world worked.
"Thanks for breakfast, I'm going out to look for a job. I'll see you at 1800 hours, sir."
"Very well," Martin said, glancing those over his shoulder as I left the room.
|Reputation Change: Martin McLean +1|
|New Reputation: Tolerated (13)|
Seeing the rep number go up instead of down was a welcome change. A little respect went a long way with my uncle.
Seconds later, I stepped out of the house and into the glorious sunshine of a San Tadeo morning.
I'm a tech consultant and a part time author (full time during this plague).
I have five books currently on Amazon, my Land of Dreams series and my new sci-fi series The Last Enclave. They're both gamelit/litrpg.
Capo is an experiment to see if I can make gangster a legit subgenre of Gamelit/LitRPG. I hope I can pull it off.