Terence Crawford did not stop walking as a faint glimmer caught his eye, but instead meandered over to the gutter. Round, flat, black-encrusted silver… just a nickel.
He bent down and picked it up anyway. That made eighty-seven cents so far today: seventeen pennies, a dime, a quarter, and now seven nickels. A ridiculous amount of loose change to have in one's pocket, and still less than a buck.
Why couldn't people lose their paper bills more often? Maybe then Terry could afford a snack every once in a while.
Where to next? Terence never had a plan when he went out walking; down one alley, follow this empty street until he hit the apartments, take a left and turn back around at the dead-end… He'd been down this particular stretch of potholed paving a few times, knew that he was getting close to the slummy row even he was afraid to walk near. Too many drugged-up nobodies and bums and criminals of the less gentle persuasion. No, here was a good place to turn around.
He looked up and sniffed. The air smelled less like the spoiled cheese reek of the local dumpster and more like rain. A heavy coolness began to settle on his skin.
Yes, it would definitely rain soon. He'd have to find cover.
He trotted over to the nearest abandoned warehouse, which wasn't that far of a trip. Almost as soon as he clambered over a rusted-out pile of corrugated siding and into the dimness of the building, a few timid drops began to fall onto the asphalt. Even as Terence was adjusting his eyes to the dimness, the metallic plink of rain turned into a steady drumming far overhead.
What the building had once been used for, Terence couldn't even begin to guess, but it was dry, so for now it was a serviceable shelter.
Flakes and giant chips of miscellaneous debris crunched underfoot as Terry made his way further into the enormous space. Between the vast emptiness he could gradually see patches of dark that formed themselves into creaking beams and rusted cables and chains; off in the distance were pale brown patches which were evidently filth-covered windows.
He wouldn't have been surprised if he was waltzing through a cloud of asbestos, but why worry? As long as rusted nails kept themselves out of his fraying sneakers and his foot, he was fine. It was good to be dry, if not especially warm.
Terrence shivered a little and shoved his hands down into the pouch of his old hoodie, for what little good that did. The air was definitely colder now, and starting to sink into his skin. He silently damned his scrawny ass and its inability to keep itself heated properly. Of course he had to leave his jacket back at Rick's this morning…
Terence was debating whether or not he should try to get some kind of fire going when he tripped over something large and soft.
Usually this would result in him cursing loudly and kicking the offending object, and there was nothing stopping him from doing just that.
However, he wasn't expecting it to groan at him afterwards.
He jumped back in a hurry, then froze. This was the sort of thing that got a guy in trouble. You don't just go around kicking people; they might have friends off in the shadows waiting to return the favor.
Terence's book-it-or-stay instinct battled fiercely but briefly with itself, apparently deciding that sticking around for a minute wouldn't get him killed. So, he remained frozen.
At first he thought that maybe he'd been hearing things, but, in retrospect, most big, squishy things moaned after hitting them because they tended to be people. It must be some bum or squatter holing up in the building.
But, as soon as that thought came, it was dismissed. No, Terence hadn't noticed any of the usual signs of habitation; no assorted junk, none of the particular aromas of unwashed persons.
Well, now that the adrenaline was starting to wear off, Terence found himself more than a little curious. What sort of person slept in the dust and asbestos without their two tons of crap to keep them company?
Terry pulled out his lighter to illuminate the answer.
Chk. Chk. Ah, there, it caught, damn cheap-ass lighter. Now…
"…What the fuck—?"
Terence let his thumb slide off the lighter, and the warehouse was swallowed whole by shadow. Maybe it was the adrenaline still in his system, but he was shaking.
It had been fairly person-shaped, but… What had he just seen?
Of course having the lighter going for a second had ruined his night vision, but by now Terry wasn't sure he wanted a second look. He thought he knew what he saw, but what the hell had he seen?
Whatever it was, it wasn't some run-of-the-mill drifter, and it (thankfully) wasn't a corpse, near as he could tell. No, it had moaned, so it couldn't be dead. Unless he had been hearing things?
Well, shit. Now he had to look again.
He thought briefly about cats that stuck their noses into business that wasn't their own, but readied his lighter again anyway. No, he was still shaking—must have had a second dose of adrenaline.
Maybe this was a sign.
Chk! Nope, there was the flame again, and—
Terence stood for a long moment, feeling as though he may as well give up trying to make sense of whatever this mess was. This was well beyond his area of expertise.
He'd have to give Rick a call.
Terry made it all the way to the payphone before realizing he'd be left with almost nothing but pennies after this call.
Oh well. He could always pick up can collecting again.
A pause. "Who the hell is this?"
"Marc. You are you?"
"Marc who? I'm not important, listen— is Rick there?"
"Tully. And no, Rick's out."
"Then what the fuck are you doing at his place?"
"I'm crashing here for a few days."
Oh, for the love of…
"I said it's not important, just—"
"If you know Rick, I can leave a message for him."
"No, I need to talk to Rick."
Another pause, a little longer than the first.
"I need some help with something. I don't want to go to the police… I thought Ricky might know what to do."
"Hey, if there's a body—"
"No! No, it's, uh, not like that." He hoped so, anyway.
"What is it you need help with?"
"I, uh, I don't really know, I just, uhm. Listen. I don't know if I can trust you, you know? I dunno who the hell you are."
Silence, this time from the other end of the line. Terence waited, fished around in one pocket. He needed a cigarette.
"I have a car. Where are you, I can swing by if you need one."
He could have sworn the son-of-a-bitch was laughing just then, but gave him a rough idea of his current whereabouts. "Oh, and, uh, could you bring some blankets or towels or something?"
"Sure, can do. I'll be there in five."
"Right… and, uh, thanks." Terence heard a click, and the line went dead.
Well. All there was left to do was wait.
Terence was on his third cigarette when a rusted-out jalopy made its way around the corner and squealed to a stop in front of him. He was in the process of stamping out what was left of the butt when the car door opened and the driver stepped outside.
"You the guy who called?"
The stranger looked to be about six-six or bigger, not especially muscular but probably able to take Terence down without much effort. The long Samson locks of blondish hair and the big, dumb grin on his face gave the impression that he probably wasn't in the habit of picking fights. He might not be feral, but he wasn't exactly soft, either.
"Yeah, that was me."
The stranger—what had he said his name was? Marc, that was it—looked Terence up and down briefly, then scanned the concrete ruins of the vacant lot. "So, where are we going?"
Terence nodded over his shoulder, saying, "It's over in that warehouse."
Marc crossed his arms and nodded, too. "Right. So, about the nature of this "problem" of yours…?"
Terry sighed. "It's not drugs, and it ain't a set-up or nothing… I don't know what it is, okay? I just need you to look at something for me."
Marc laughed good-naturedly enough. "Ha, that's not vague or sketchy at all, is it? I'll play along, though—you look like an honest enough guy."
Terence would normally beg to disagree, but he wasn't in a position to turn away help just now. He began making his way toward the rear of the warehouse, Marc trailing a few feet behind.
"So, I gave you my name, what's yours?"
Terence didn't bother turning around, but kept walking. "You can call me Terry, I guess."
"Terry," Marc repeated. "Bit old-fashioned, isn't it?"
"I dunno, maybe. It's my name."
"Got a last name?"
Thankfully, the only noise after that was the crunch of gravel and assorted rubble as they crossed the lot and walked into the warehouse.
Terence had his lighter handy; he'd have preferred some sort of flashlight or even a torch, but he couldn't find any decent kindling. The small light did its work, though, illuminating the debris-strewn floor if little else. Thousands of tiny shadows flickered and moved as they passed by.
He walked across the warehouse floor, mostly blind. Where had he left it? It wasn't too near a corner, if he remembered right, but had it been on the left or right? Or coming or going, for that matter. Shit. He should have paid more attention to where he'd come from, but everything looks the same in the dark.
Terence's feet apparently had a better memory than he did, because before long he caught sight of a person-sized lump through the gloom.
"Is this it?" Marc asked.
"Yeah," Terry said. "Go see for yourself."
Marc paced forward slowly, making surprisingly little sound for someone as big as he was. The way he walked, too, reminded Terence of a big cat, like he'd seen on television when he was a kid.
Maybe his initial assessment was off a little bit.
Marc paused a few feet from the thing and did nothing for a few very long moments. Finally, he waved Terry forward.
"Gonna need some light."
"Right," Terry said. He swallowed, and dragged his feet forward. They seemed to have gained a few pounds since the last time he used them.
He hadn't had any plans when he'd called for Rick, but he'd sort of assumed he wouldn't have to go near that thing again. But, he did anyway. Reluctantly.
As he found a spot next to the large stranger, he saw that Marc was studying what he could see of the lump, and standing very still while he did it. As the small flickering light began to touch the edges of the body on the floor, Terry saw Marc's eyes widen by quite a bit, but otherwise he did nothing.
After a while, he spoke.
"What's wrong with him?"
How Marc even knew it was a "him" eluded Terry.
"I have no fuckin' idea, 's why I wanted Ricky down here to check it out." Terence was trying hard not to stare directly at the thing on the floor, but he caught sight of the dog-faced something in his peripheral vision.
Marc squatted down, hands planted on his knees. "I don't think Rick would be much help. This is more of an Agent Mulder sort of thing, from what I can tell."
Terence felt a brief panicky jolt go down his spine. Government agents? Shit, come to think of it, of course this was exactly the sort of thing that shady spooks in reflective sunglasses would be involved in. He deeply regretted getting involved with the damn thing at all, now—he wanted no part of freaky science experiments or men in suits spiriting him away to some hidden facility because he was a witness to whatever the fuck was going on here.
"S-shit. So what do we do?"
Marc merely shook his head, frowning. "Well, we can't leave him here."
That got Marc's attention, and he turned and stared at Terence as if he'd asked why they had to bail a friend out of jail. "For chrissake, look at this guy."
"I'm trying not to—"
Now it was Terry's turn to stare.
"It's hurt? It's hurt? Oh, Christ, just what we need, an injured whatever-the-fuck-it-is. Marc, do you know what an injured animal does? It fuckin' fights, it doesn't care if you're trying to help it, it don't know no better—"
"Hey, calm down—"
Terence stepped back. "No, I won't calm down, how the hell can I even think about calming down? There's probably a black van full'a fuckin' spooks waiting outside to swoop in on us all because I found the damn thing! We don't even know what it is!"
Marc must have been some kind of God-damned Buddhist for not getting riled up like Terence was. Too much hair, but otherwise he wouldn't look out of place in an orange robe and sandals. He merely waved Terence down. "Stop yelling, then, if you're so scared of government agents. Of which there are none, by the way."
That didn't stop Terence from straining his ears to hear walky-talkies and crunching gravel, but he shut up. He wasn't too proud to accept sound advice if the advice was good.
"That's better," Marc said, and waved back toward the prone figure. "Now help me carry him back to the car."
Terry responded by letting the light go out, crossing his arms tightly and backing away. Marc sighed very audibly.
"Aw, come on, man. Don't bail on me."
"Ain't touchin' it. And why do you keep calling it a guy?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
Terry answered in the negative by not saying anything.
"Look at its clothes."
"Clothes don't mean anything," Terence started, and forced himself to re-light the lighter and take a peek. He'd never noticed it wearing anything before, which wasn't unreasonable considering that it was nearly pitch-black in the gutted building, but now that he took a proper look, he saw that it was indeed wearing something. The clothing itself looked ridiculously normal; pants, a loose shirt with some kind of pattern on it. No paper doctor's office rags, no collars or muzzles, nothing scanty or exotic. Terry was almost disappointed.
No, that would be a lie.
He probably wouldn't be able to handle anything so obviously out of the ordinary.
"Fine," Terence said after a long moment, "Looks male enough to me. Can we please get outta here?"
"Sure," Marc began, and scooped up the lifeless figure.
Terry just about had a heart attack.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
Marc grunted. "Getting out of here, obviously."
"Keep that thing away from me—"
"Christ Almighty," Marc groaned. "Turn the light back on, I need to see where I'm going."
"No, fuck that, I'm outta here."
Terry heard the giant huff angrily through the darkness. "If you're going to run off like a coward, at least bring me the towels and stuff before you go."
Terence opened his mouth, but thought better of it. He readily admitted to himself that he was a coward to the core, but he usually tried not to be a dick on top of that.
"F-fine, I'll be right back." With that, he turned and ran towards the grey rectangle of light that was the door. Miraculously, he didn't trip over anything on the way out.
The back door of the rusted-out heap of Marc's car was unlocked, and only stuck a little when he tried to yank it open. Inside was a pile of several large, faded beach towels and several of the nicer small ones. Terry recognized a few of them, and felt a twinge of regret at knowing he wouldn't be able to use them again.
They were nice towels.
The rain had died down a lot by the time he made it back inside, and only the top towel was a little damp. Marc either didn't notice or didn't mind, and took the largest towel from the pile in Terry's arms and started wrapping up the figure, which had made its way back to the floor in his absence.
"Can you hand me one of those old ones?" Marc said. Terry complied without a word, and shortly heard a series of ripping noises.
Terence fished out his lighter and brought back the tiny flight. If only he'd bothered fixing it to have a taller flame, so things would be easier now. Or if he'd brought a flashlight. Well, it wasn't like he'd known he was going to be fooling around in a dark warehouse, helping a stranger wrap up an extraterrestrial or a mutant or something.
Life was funny like that.
In the slightly less dim light, Terry saw several strips of old beach towel laid out across Marc's legs. He was pleased to note that the good towels were still intact. "What are you doing now?"
"Making bandages," Marc replied simply.
Marc stopped and gave him an "isn't it obvious" kind of look, which seemed ridiculously childish coming from a very large, grown man sitting cross-legged in the dust. Terence stifled a giggle.
"Look at his head," he began, before remembering that Terry refused to get close enough to take a good look. "His head, there's dried blood on it. Must've hit it somehow, and wandered in here."
Hit his head, or had his head bashed in. Terry shivered anew, and looked in vain for some sinister shapes moving around in the darkness. "So, what, you're not gonna try to take it to the hospital, are you?"
Marc laughed. The dryness of that sound couldn't be blamed on the air, the relative humidity being what it was.
"He does need medical attention, and a hospital would be his best bet, but there's no telling what'll happen to him once we get there."
Or happen to us, Terry added silently.
"So, what happens now?"
"Now," Marc said, rising carefully to his feet, "we go back to Rick's to wait and see."
That's exactly what Terence was afraid of.
"Alright," he said slowly. "But don't expect me to stick around. And I call shotgun."
Marc smiled in the gloom as he stooped to pick up the figured that looked suspiciously like a mummy. Or a murder victim. "Sounds good to me."
The rain had stopped completely by the time they made it back to the car. Terry didn't feel like taking this as an omen.
The ride back to Rick's felt like the longest five minutes of Terry's life. In spite of the road being, except for themselves, completely empty, he was on edge, always looking out the windows for any sign of police or government agents or mad scientists. He had also managed to convince himself that they hadn't done a good enough job covering the body sprawled across the back seat; maybe a toe was poking out, and of course that'd be all it'd take for someone to blow the whistle on their little operation. Terence wanted to look back and check to make sure they hadn't missed anything, but he was too scared to do even that.
They were maybe a block away from Rick's when Marc finally spoke. He'd been respectfully quiet until now.
"Oh, for cryin' out loud, if you don't want us to look suspicious, then stop acting like you're trying to hide something!"
"I can't help it!" Terry snapped. "I'm trapped in a car with a strange body—if someone stops us, we're fucked!"
"No one's going to stop us," Marc sighed. "Look, we're home already. See, no one's out this time of day."
Terence took a good long look up and down the street before opening the door and sulking out. "We still need to get it inside." Marc had apparently already reached that conclusion and had stepped around to the back of the car. He eased the limp bundle into his arms and kicked the door shut behind him. Terry jumped at the noise, and glanced around. If anyone heard, they didn't seem to care.
"Mind opening the door?"
Terry jogged over to Rick's stoop. "Sure, he never locks it. No one fucks with Rick's stuff, they know better." He demonstrated the former point by turning the knob and pushing the door open, just in time for Marc to carry the thing inside. Luckily, no stray body parts flopped out of the mess of towels, but Terry closed the door again in a hurry.
The light in the living room was already on, but none of the regulars seemed to be around. Well, Jaime probably wasn't around enough to be considered a "regular," but Adrianna was. She seemed absent for the time being, and that suited Terence just fine.
Having her gone simplified matters, and she was a bitch anyway.
Marc was about to set the bundle on the couch when Terry stepped forward a little.
"No, not there. Uh, take it to the back room. The second door on the right."
"Aw, I was gonna call dibs on that one," Marc said, but started walking in that direction.
"It's Jaime's anyway," Terry said. "He's never around, though, so he won't miss it."
The door was slightly ajar, so Marc gently nudged it open and walked inside. "Room looks pretty bare."
"Has a bed, 's all it needs."
"Fair enough." Marc set the long lump down on top of the sheets, and started unwrapping it. Terry tried to suppress a brief tingle of fear, and had some success. "Where is Jaime? I haven't seen him yet."
"Dunno," Terry said. "With his boyfriend, maybe, or shooting up in an alley, or dead in ditch someplace. Haven't seen him in a while."
Marc looked back from his de-toweling with a frown. "I seriously hope you're joking."
Terry just shrugged. "People do what they want."
"Isn't he your friend?"
"He just crashes here, same as me."
Marc grunted. "Good to know. There," he said, stepping away from the bed. "Finished."
Terry caught a glimpse of a doggy-looking foot, and decided it was time to step back out into the living room. He could go for a smoke, too. Marc followed him onto the couch and plopped himself down with a great sigh. Terence glanced back down the hall, saw that the door to Jaime's room was shut, and let himself relax. Being in the warm room helped.
No one turned on the television.
"So," Marc said, after letting the silence drag on a little while, "Why are you here?"
Terry snorted. "None of your business. Told you, I just crash here."
"You don't have any family?"
"Christ, d'ya want my life story? There's nothing that needs knowing, an' besides, I could ask you th' same. Why the hell are you crashin' at Rick's?"
Marc waved airily. "You've seen my car. I'm just a poor vagabond traveling the country, sleeping wherever he can find a place to rest his head. Our mutual friend Rick generously offered me a place to stay for a while."
"So you're a bum."
The conversation died after that. Terry eventually noticed his left knee bouncing up and down on its own, and decided that he should get up and move around. He pulled himself off the couch and stalked toward the kitchen. He really needed a smoke, but he was too paranoid to step outside.
Rick didn't have many rules, but smoking inside was against one of them. Maybe two, if you count the one about cleaning up ashes.
"I'm gonna get a beer," he called back over his shoulder to Marc. "You want one?" He heard him turn around in his seat.
"Can you even drink?"
"Sure I can, I'm good at it."
"Legally, I mean—never mind. Yeah, toss one over."
Terence obliged him, then sat down. Rick always got the cheap stuff, so he threw it back in a hurry. Marc took his time, however, and had time to watch Terry's face contort in a grimace.
"So you're 'Good at it,' huh?"
"Shut up, I gotta calm down somehow."
Marc chuckled, and took a small sip. He didn't make any strange faces. "What's to be nervous about? It's a nice day out, if a little overcast, and here we are, two guys getting to know each other over some beer. It's not like the unconscious, bleeding alien-slash-mutant in the next room is awake or anything."
Marc winced a little. Terry noticed how big and white his teeth were.
"Sorry, not trying to get you worked up or anything, but the situation is kinda funny, isn't it?"
Terence took another big gulp and finished off the can. "No, not really." Actually if he let the alcohol work a little… No, still not funny. He was feeling slightly less antsy, though, and that was something. He'd wait a while before grabbing another brew.
"So, whadda we do now?"
Marc leaned back against the cushion, stared at the water-stained ceiling. "I'm not sure. Just wait for now, I guess. See if that guy wakes up. I'll have to check on that head wound sometime, sooner rather than later. I left the rags on, but we really oughta get some real bandages. Antiseptic solution, too. Speaking of, does Rick keep any in the house?"
Terry nodded slowly. He started to feel heavy.
"That's good. I'd imagine it'd come in handy around here."
"Yeah," Terence murmured. The booze was definitely kicking in by now.
Marc must have noticed him nodding off, but kept talking in a low voice. "Of course, I should get everything cleaned up before he wakes up, save him some medical-induced trauma. It's like you said before about injured animals, but the same goes for people, too, yanno? People in a tight spot can get violent, lash out at others."
Terry nodded again, caught his head falling forward. "Damn, tired. Gotta sleep. I… Oh. Shit."
"My room's next to Jaime's."
Marc stood up, beer still in one hand, and motioned graciously toward the couch. "Go ahead. I can find another spot."
Terence had just enough time to mumble a "thanks" before curling up long-ways on the couch and passing out.
Marc looked down at the thin figure lying on the worn and stained furniture and shook his head. The poor kid was a lightweight. He sipped quietly at his beer again, set it on the kitchen counter. He'd forgotten to ask where the first aid kit was, but he could find it. He would let the exhausted teen sleep, for now.
He might need to save his strength for later.