2. Looking for the...
“Who are you? What is this? What’s going on?” The voice was full of gravel and each question was more of a barked command. “Identify yourself!”
“Liam Crobb, sir,” Liam answered promptly, looking down at the elderly man in fraying pajamas. He was standing at the bottom of a set of stairs connecting the catwalk to the nearest catch. This wasn’t the first time Liam encountered someone from the military, but this was definitely the oldest soldier who’d visited.
“Why are you out of uniform?” The old man eyed Liam suspiciously.
“I’m on leave,” Liam said with a shrug.
The last soldier he’d met here had been a twenty-two year old woman who told him to call her Madge, and she’d been friendly enough until he’d helped her onto the catwalk. Then she’d taken him prisoner or hostage or whatever it was she’d done by pointing a gun at him and demanding to know where she was being held, not believing that the reality of the grey was real until she discharged a nine millimeter round into his chest at close range and it hadn’t done anything other than be really loud. This obviously retired soldier just seemed…
“What is this place? Where’s my room?” the old man asked. “Where’s Heltie?” he added, mostly to himself, turning his head to glare at his left hand as if it had recently betrayed him. Liam looked in the direction his senses told him was backwards and saw a plain, windowless door typical for inside a hospital only a few turnings away. “Where did I leave my glasses…?” the old man muttered, patting at his worn out pajamas as if they had pockets.
“I think you left them in your room?” Liam offered the question kindly. The old man’s head snapped up and his eyes squinted into a glare.
“Who’re you?” he demanded, the question barked roughly.
“My name’s Liam. I’m visiting here,” Liam introduced himself again.
“Here?” the old man looked around again, squinting harder, before looking down to pick at his pajamas as if having forgotten he was wearing them. “Where did I leave my glasses…?” he mumbled again.
“Did you want me to help you find your glasses, sir?” Liam offered. The old man blinked up at him as if seeing him for the first time.
“What a nice young man,” he said, smiling. “Yes. Help would be good. I can’t seem to remember…”
“Where your glasses are,” Liam said, returning the smile.
“Yes. My glasses,” the old man repeated. “Have you seen them?”
“I haven’t seen your glasses, but I’ll help you look.”
“I’d really appreciate that.”
The old man smiled vaguely in the direction Liam was standing, but then his eyes glassed over and he just stood there at the bottom of the stairs. Liam hummed a song he remembered the tune of, but not the words for, and walked down the steps.
“My name’s Liam. Can I help you find your glasses?”
“My glasses… yes. I’m having a hard time seeing today. Do you work here?”
“Yup. I’ve been here a while. This is my first time seeing you, though.”
The vague answer and a gentle tug were enough to get the old man walking up the steps. Liam stayed to the side that dropped into the catch, keeping the old man close to the railing. Not sure what else to talk about, but understanding that he needed to stay talking so that he continued to be viewed as friendly and non-threatening, Liam talked about university and some of the classes he’d been taking. They shuffled slowly after reaching the catwalk and turned toward where a hospital door was waiting. Liam introduced himself a half-dozen more times, learning that the old man’s name was Davis.
“Like the last name, but I’m first,” Davis joked after introducing himself. Then his smile faded and his steps faltered to a stop. They were still a right turn away from reaching the door, but Davis hadn’t noticed it yet. Liam was pretty sure that was a good thing.
Davis stared around at the grey, his eyes squinting in a search for identifiable details. His free hand drifted up to wrap over where Liam’s fingers were holding his arm. Davis was larger than Liam by more than half a head in height, and his weathered frame had likely been double the younger man’s weight in the old soldier’s prime. A shudder ran through the bigger man’s body and he tucked closer to Liam’s side.
“It’s all right, Davis. I’ll help you,” Liam assured him quietly.
“Promise?” the old man asked, speaking out of some point in his childhood.
Davis held onto Liam’s hand tighter as the younger of the two started leading the older toward the door again. After a few stuttered steps, Davis’s strides lengthened to the pacing of a man younger than the current count of years in his body. He glared suspiciously at the hand Liam was keeping on his arm but bit back any words he might’ve said, grinding his false teeth instead. They reached the plain, windowless hospital door quickly and Liam stopped to look up at Davis. The same soldier who’d barked questions at him earlier was staring back.
“I know you won’t believe me right now, but my name is Liam Crobb and I am here to help you,” Liam stated quietly. Davis only scoffed in silent reply. “I don’t know what’s on the other side of this door. It’s likely going to be something bad. I promise I won’t leave you behind.”
Davis’s gaze sharpened into alarm and confusion and then swept into anger. Liam barely had time to inhale to ask what was going on before he was slammed into the door and the half-breath he’d taken was knocked back out. His feet dangled uselessly above the catwalk as Davis held him at the larger man’s eye level by the younger man’s throat. Liam knew that Davis was trying to strangle him. He also knew that it was impossible to choke the life out of someone who wasn’t living and, because of how things worked in the grey, whatever pain he experienced from his throat being crushed would be fixed in a few moments once the cause was removed. The rage in Davis’s eyes was met only with the waiting to be set down in Liam’s.
“What are you?” Davis demanded, his grip flexing tighter.
Liam attempted to inhale so that he could answer, but his throat was completely choked off. He tapped at Davis’s hands with a finger and stared pointedly at the old man. Davis dropped him as if Liam had suddenly erupted into flames, stumbling back two steps and staring with mounting horror as Liam calmly waited the few moments for the pain to subside so that he’d be able to talk again.
“You’re having a near-death experience,” Liam stated once he could. “I’m here to help you get through it.”
“A near-death…?” Davis looked down at his clothes and picked at his pajamas as if never having seen them before. “I don’t…” he began, and then his voice faded as he started patting his torso. “Where did I leave my glasses?” he mumbled.
“Do you need some help?” Liam offered, keeping his tone friendly.
“I don’t know,” Davis admitted, his hands slowing as he squinted toward where Liam was standing. “I was looking for something, but I don’t... my memory isn’t what it used to be,” he said with a self-conscious smile, his tone full of apology. “Heltie will know what it is I’ve forgotten,” he said, his hands falling to hang slackly at his sides.
“Do you know where we can find her?”
“Heltie is… she’s…” Davis’s smile faded and his eyes dropped to glare at his left hand. The moment stretched out in silence.
“Hello, Davis,” Liam pulled the old man’s attention with a cheerful greeting. “Gone out for a walk?”
“I… yes… I think I…” he squinted at the grey, searching for familiar details in the broad nothing and only barely noticing the nearby door. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice uncertain as he squinted at Liam.
“I’m Liam. I work here.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.”
Davis nodded, fronting as if he recognized the younger man, and offered zero resistance when Liam took the older man’s arm in hand and led him toward the door. The handle clicked open smoothly under Liam’s hand, and then there was a second click when the door was half-way open.
“Down!” Davis roared, throwing himself and Liam to sprawl across the catwalk. Flames followed the burning heat that belched out around and above them, the sound of the explosion a physical impact that left only numbing silence.
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