Bad news, his email starts. I don’t think I’ll be able to grab you your stuff this time.
This time or… for the forseeable future.
Holly frowns, though not because she feels entitled to this stuff he’s doing for her. She frowns because it means something’s changed for him, and from what little she knows of his job, it’s probably not for the better. Especially since, as strange as it sounds, he seemed to enjoy bringing her groceries.
She probably won’t get an answer, but she figures that it won’t hurt to ask: Why? Is everything ok?
Let’s just say there’s been a complicating factor. It begins with “security” and ends with “guard”.
Holly laughs to herself – the sort of ugly-sounding but honest laugh you can snort out when no one’s around – and smiles at the fact that his sense of humor has been coming out more and more over the weeks. He doesn’t seem so… miserable.
But she wonders what he means by that. Surely, whatever facility he’s in enlists security guards by the dozen? And none of this mall cop stuff, either, but the real deal. Why would one make or break this whole thing for him?
It’s ok, she replies. I get my cast off in less than a week anyways, and you’ve done MORE than enough already. Not only wasn’t I expecting you to do this more than once, but I wasn’t expecting anyone to do this at all.
She gets up from the couch, remembering to take a look at the clock on her phone and is surprised to see that it’s almost midnight. Holly pauses, though, and knits her brows together, thinking that she might suddenly have a two and two to put together.
It’s almost late enough for him to be in the area, is her guess – and while he didn’t explicitly say that he was doing a run tonight, she’s thinking that it’s heavily implied.
The whole thing gives her second thoughts, but she’s not sure why. She hasn’t arrived at a “four” yet, but… it feels close. Eerily close.
Thinking about the guy, about the whole situation, has required a certain amount of suspension of disbelief for her. She can accept that he’s hooked up to a bunch of machines somewhere like someone in The Matrix, she can accept that he’s been at this for too many years, but the details, when she’s thought about them, paint a distorted picture. Things don’t add up. But it’s been a few weeks since she’s given up trying to piece them together.
Except at weird moments like this – reminders that he actually exists someplace.
Or maybe it’s that she feels like she exists someplace.
I’m a little angry at myself for not seeing this coming, but… I guess the joyride’s over. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, alright?
He still insists on being at it, huh? Holly chuckles a little to herself, then gets ready for bed. She decides that it was nice while it lasted, and still, even though he’s told her not to, she feels indebted to this stranger.
She’s about to send that off by itself, but decides at the last minute to add: And if you ever find yourself in the area, mi casa es tu casa.
As she falls wearily to sleep, her phone lights up with a notification. The preview text displays the entirety of his reply:
I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.
She doesn’t hear the gentle hum of anti-gravity thrusters or the strangled, vented air outside her bedroom window, before the mysterious sounds disappear into the warm night air.
The next morning, Holly sits down to some scrambled eggs in her last flour tortilla. There’s a notepad in front of her, some bank statements and a few other things – she’s sitting down to sort through her finances.
And it doesn’t look good.
The cast comes off soon enough, and while she has enough to pay for that – I hope – she doesn’t have enough for next month’s rent. Or next month’s groceries. Or next month’s electric. A dull panic sort of wells up in her belly like a coiling snake but she takes a deep breath. It’s not a matter of whether she can do it or not – it’s a matter of whether she can do it without asking somebody for money.
Holly jots some things down; she does some math. Soon, the page is full of numbers and nonsense and she’s left staring at it with impatience, like if she gives it the stink-eye long enough it’ll cough up something more satisfactory. But it doesn’t and it won’t.
“Gotta get a fucking job,” she sighs, slumping in her chair.
Easier said than done without a computer.
Some years back, tablets and smart phones overran the computer market, and affordable computers started to go the way of the dodo – or boom box, rather. Desktop computers became a thing for the workplace, so the few models that were left skyrocketed in price, and the average home user had no choice to to start using tablets. But for somebody like Holly, even those were just beyond affordable. Thankfully, 99% of what she ever needed the internet for was available on her phone, but for applying for jobs? She needs a desktop.
With a groan she picks up her phone and starts searching for a local FedEx.
There’s one nearby – just a mile or two away – and once again, it becomes an issue of getting there. She’s got to get to her car, drive to the location, get out of her car and to the place… no, wait: she needs gas. Alright, so get to her car, drive to the gas station…
The young woman falls forward, letting her forehead hit the table with a faint thunk.
“This is a goddamn nightmare,” she whispers to herself. “A goddamn fucking nightmare.”
As she hobbles into the FedEx, preparing to spend a stupid amount of money for access to desktop internet, she wishes that her friends were here. Wishes she just could have gone to Gabriel’s house to use his machine to job search – the same machine that she used to choreograph her move up here. (The thing was 10 years old; practically an antique.)
But nope. There’s no Gabriel, no Natalie, no Frankie, no Hunter, no Martin, no Julian, no Manuela, no Daniel. No cousins, no aunts or uncles… and definitely no Cecilia, Heather, or Ernest. (They made that pretty goddamn clear.)
Just some guy named Galen, who lives god-knows-where and helps her out for god-knows-why.
Holly settles down at a station and sticks her ATM card into the machine before it lets her use it. Once the clock starts ticking, she doesn’t waste any time opening up three different job hunting websites as well as a few classifieds sites.
It’s going to be a long afternoon.
A few hours and about a dozen applications later, it dawns on her that this might not work.
That all of this might have just wound up being an exciting and extravagant failure – and yest another “I told you so”.
Outside she sits on the edge of a brick planter box and decides to spend the money to dial up one of her friends. Talk minutes had long since been surpassed by data in terms of affordability, and actually speaking on the phone was rare outside of professional environments. But when your last words to a familiar face were an angry “goodbye”, that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
“Oh my god, Holly!” exclaims the girl on the other end. “How’s it going up there? How’s your leg?”
She wipes her forehead and sighs, smiling a little at hearing Frankie’s voice on the other end. “It’s going,” she says. “And the leg is… goin’ too.”
“How much time you got to talk? You don’t sound so great.”
“A couple minutes. Look, I just… I gotta bitch to somebody. I’m sorry.”
She chuckles a little, but the smile quickly deepens into a frown again. Where to start? “I have no money and I don’t know what to do.”
“Ouch. Is it that bad?”
“I had some crazy good samaritan pay for my hospitalization, but… that was just the beginning. I got $1100 in the bank to get the cast off, but rent’s due, and -”
“You qualify for disability? Food stamps? Section 8?”
Holly shuts her eyes tight and clenches the muscles in her face. “For just a month, maybe two? No. Shit wouldn’t kick in until I didn’t need it anymore anyways.”
Frankie’s thinking on the other end of the line. She has no money, and they don’t know anybody with enough money to help either. They’re all living hand to mouth. “What about that good samaritan of yours?”
That gets a good laugh out of her. “No. No, no, no, no, no. I’m not gonna ask him for anything. He, uh…” she trails off, thinking about the food. “He was too good to me to begin with.”
“Where does he work? Maybe he could get you a job, at least.”
Holly stops to consider this, but shakes her head. No – the man is hooked up to a machine almost 24/7. And you seriously thought he might be able to just walk up to HR and ask, “Hey, we’re not looking to hire any baristas any time soon, are we?”
Galen probably doesn’t even remember the taste of coffee.
“He’s not from around here,” she mutters.
“Well,” Frankie says after a long pause. Despite the name, she’s got a pretty elegant voice, or so Holly always thought – if she keeps up the smoking, though, that won’t be the case for too many more years. “What if you have to move?”
That’s the elephant in the room that Holly’s been trying to dance around for a few hours now. It’s hard not to think about how much more smooth this would have been if she just hasn’t up and shattered her leg during her first weekend out here.
Frankie’s voice brings her back to the conversation. “Would coming back to Salt Lake really be that bad? I mean… we’re all here.”
The very idea of being in the same town as her family makes her sick to her stomach right now. That would mean no easy excuses not to go to the birthday parties or the weddings or the funerals. “Most of you don’t like me” just wouldn’t fly.
“Yeah, well, so is the uncle who asks how much money I make working the fucking streets,” she murmurs.
Frankie’s family lives there, still, and she hasn’t spoken to them since she was kicked out of the house at seventeen. She knows what it’s like.
But she’s got tough love in her, too. “Well you’re gonna be livin’ on the street if you don’t do somethin’ soon.”
Yeah, I know. I guess I was just hoping you’d have the magic cure somewhere up your sleeve.
“I’ll see about the job thing,” she lies, trying to make her friend at least feel like this wasn’t a total waste of time.
“At least you can’t say you didn’t try, then.” A pause. “And look – we’re not gonna let you wind up on the street, alright? Unfortunately that means Utah, honey. Now I’m gonna let you go because I’m sure this is getting expensive,.”
“Thanks,” she says, blinking something back. “I’ll uh… I’ll keep you guys posted.”
“Take care of yourself. I’ll talk to you later.”
Holly stares at a couple cigarette butts on the ground in front of her and watches a car pull out of the parking lot before she checks her phone. The little “call ended” dialogue on the screen says that $3.18 will be applied to her next bill.
She’s suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to throw the phone across the parking lot, but she settles for clenching her teeth and sucking in a loud breath from her nose before grabbing her crutches and heading off.
“Guy said that his regulars could hear it every week like clockwork,” says one of the men at the table in the Albuquerque apartment. It’s been five days since they started on the Billings case, and two of the younger men just returned from a visit to the city themselves. “Here are shots of the street.” The one with the red ponytail, a twenty-six year-old named Ryan, puts takes some photos out of a folder in front of him and neatly lines them up on the table for everyone to see.
“We consulted with a local ghost hunting organization,” says the other, named Oscar. “The building is only twenty years old, and if it’s a paranormal hot spot, they’re not aware of it. Most importantly, though, is that because the building is new, a lot of the electrical is properly done and up to code. We took a few EMF readings, and there was nothing out of the ordinary.”
The eldest and founder of the small group, Mark, rubs his chin. “And the owner heard it too, so we can cross drunken tinnitus off the list.”
Ryan gestures to the photos again. “We could find no structural reason for the sounds, either. No equipment that might have a reason to run at that hour. No construction going on, no buzzing from street lighting, no… nothing.”
Mark stands up to pace. “But there’s still the question of why there are sounds and no suit.”
The other two look at each other. “Cloaking,” Ryan says. “Cloaking technology is the only thing that fits the evidence.”
“Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains -”
Mark stops and holds up his hand, none too impressed. “…however impossible, must be the truth. I know. But we don’t have cloaking technology. Nobody does.”
“Nobody has anti-gravity technology either, and yet the suits do,” Oscar grunts, folding his arms.
Mark sighs, placing his hands on the table and eyeing his proteges. “Cloaking tech that good is as good as impossible. Eliminate that too, alright?”
“So what, it’s swamp gas, then? Venus?”
“I’m not going to let you hand this over to MUFON. This is too good.”
There were times when Mark wanted to strangle the young men. “I didn’t say we were going to hand this over to MUFON… yet. Besides, we have a reason to place suit number six in Billings now.”
Mark reaches into his folder and pulls out a photo of a young Latina: she’s got a soft face in spite of a strong chin, a brown complexion made darker by days spent outside, and short-cropped hair with a small top-knot.
“A backpacker reported missing not long ago. Name is Holly Mendoza, recently moved to Billings. She was found at the bottom of a ravine in the Beartooths a few days later, found by the Eastern Yellowstone wilderness search and rescue unit. Number six was dispatched during that mission.”
Oscar and Ryan exchange looks, trying not to give the impression that either of them is beside himself with excitement.
“So she encountered it,” Ryan suggests, sitting up straight.
“It’s a tempting possibility.”
Oscar shakes his head. “No, that’s a probability, Mark. She’s in Billings, the suit is visiting Billings. What’s possible is that Holly Mendoza is in active communication with this thing.”
There’s a long silence as everyone ponders what this means.
Mark rakes his fingers through his thinning hair and he slumps over the table a little, as though the weight of this case is a burden becoming heavy to bear. “Oscar, write MUFON and see if they can’t advise us on best practices when interviewing an abductee. I’d like to find out if this Mendoza girl won’t maybe talk to us.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Maybe she’ll give us enough to read between the lines.”