See below for an excerpt from episode 2, “Resurrection City, Part I.” And click here for the beautiful, eerie introduction to Bag Men: Vanguard (Volume 4).
Christopher Troy Myers
January 21st, 2070
New Sacramento, R&D Quad, Health & Wellness Building
“My new partner reminds me of my mother. I killed my mother.
“Goddamn, that sounded terrible. Hey, don’t get me wrong. You know the story. I didn’t want to do it. I had to. You know how it is.
“Sometimes I think I killed my little niece and nephew, too, on the darker nights.
“I don’t drink anymore. Haven’t touched a bottle in thirty years. Maybe that’s the problem, or part of it. I’ve been having the dreams again, lately. Always the same idea and the same old house, though sometimes the wallpaper is a different color, or the couch is on the other side of the room. The dreams make me relive it, over and over. Decades of burying it, and it’s bubbling up to the surface now. Maybe I’m just an old man. Maybe what I’m living through now is what Robert Frost meant by, ‘The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.’”
Troy sat on the Spartan, gray felt chair in Dr. Jones’ neat, white office. After letting his eyes wander over the various books, Troy took a sip of water from the tall, clear glass set on the coffee table that separated doctor from patient.
Dr. Jones looked up from her pad at him. She smiled softly, reassuring him that she was patiently waiting for him to continue.
Troy switched gears, then. He had to lay the groundwork before getting to the grit.
“My mom was a nice lady, from what I remember. Never drank, never spoke in anger. Ass in seat every Sunday in the pews. We were — she was Southern Baptist. Used to say ‘The Lord provides.’ Whether she was consoling Auntie J. when her husband died, or whupping my ass, that was her favorite thing to say.
“Well, the Lord provided her with the flu. And, this being around 2027, 2028, in Georgia, we slipped through the cracks of the national health care service. We had a house, so we were ‘too rich’ to be broke, but too broke to buy things like socks and heat. Sometimes. Not all the time. Anyway, we were way too proud to ask anyone for anything. Even though it got awful cold in that rickety house of ours. I think the walls must’ve been duct-taped together. So, what with my mom down with the flu and all, I thought: heat and socks. Need to keep her neck warm and her feet warm. Didn’t need any doctor to tell little ten-year-old me that much.
“I stole a lot of socks from the store. I must have looked like one fat, lumpy kid, huffing it out of that Walmart.
“When mom didn’t get better, I finally started asking for help. I asked everybody. Friends at school. Teachers. The principle, even though I didn’t trust that bitch. That was a long time ago, though. I barely even remember any of it. Mark — that’s my older brother — was off at College out of state. Hadn’t seen him in a couple years. My dad died when I was a kid. Mom didn’t ever say how.
“Nah, I can’t even remember most of the details. What I do remember is that no one helped my ass out. I also remember that my mom was dying. When the flu drug out for a month, two months, what was I supposed to do? I was just a kid. Around that time, Cartoon Network got shitty before disappearing altogether. The only thing on TV was news.
“News about people dying of the flu.
“Then I got real scared, so scared I could feel it from my throat to my tiny, ten-year-old nuts. Not too long after, maybe even the same day, the blonde on TV — I remember it clearly being a blonde white lady, but who knows?, could be wrong — she was saying to stay inside. There was just a hell of a lot of sirens out. Blue and red against the ceiling of my bedroom. I had a Phantom Menace poster on my ceiling.”
“Phantom Menace?” Dr. Jones asked.
“Right.” A faint grin slipped over Troy’s features. “I keep forgetting I’m old enough to be your dad. Man, the world lost a lot, didn’t it? No more Star Wars. No more simple stories about good and evil, where good always wins. I liked that shit as a kid.”
“Star Wars? I think I read about that once. Or another patient mentioned it in passing.” Dr. Jones rubbed her chin. “A film series?”
“Yeah, Doc. They were movies. Maybe they were shit, but nostalgia paints everything rosy, doesn’t it?”
Dr. Jones nodded. Her voice soft as a cat snoring, she said, “You said you were having nightmares.”
“I’m getting to that. In the dream, it’s always red and blue lights, like I’m at some kinda of fucked up rave. But — and here’s the kicker — it ain’t my mom whose head I’m bashing in with a ten dollar hammer. It’s my partner’s.”
Dr. Jones flipped a few pages back on her yellow papered notepad. “Corporal Meadowlark.”
“That’d be her, yeah.” Troy’s hands rest on his knees. He balled them into fists. “Look, I’m not the violent type.”
Dr. Jones held up her hand. “Please, Troy. There’s no need for rationales, here. I’ve told you before that you should think of my office as a safe space.”
He snickered, rubbing his eyes. “Ain’t no such thing.”
She smiled kindly. “Pardon the expression. What I mean is, we’ve all had to do things we aren’t proud of. Especially those of — forgive me for saying so — your generation.”
“Thanks for making me feel old twice in as many minutes, Doc. I guess I am turning fifty-three next month. Damn.”
“Well, we can’t have you retiring on us just yet,” Dr. Jones told him over her tortoise-shell glasses. “Back to the dream, and the memory that you believe it was inspired by.”
I took a minute to collect my thoughts. “Yeah. Okay, yeah. So, there was the flashing lights, red and blue. I must’ve fallen asleep sometime before three in the morning. I know because I set an alarm for then to check up on mom.”
“It wasn’t two o’clock, or four? Three, exactly?”
“I’m sure. Or, maybe it just got stuck in my head that way. Okay, point taken, Doc. Anyway, it was late.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to annoy you. Just trying to gauge how much you remember exactly, or think you do.”
“I know. For the records. This is all being recorded. I know the drill.” Troy crossed his arms and then his legs. He uncrossed them. “So. Yeah, right. Checking in on my mom. Bringing her tea, or juice, or something. The room was too quiet, was the first thing I noticed. She should’ve been making noises. She hadn’t been breathing well for weeks. Rattling in the throat.”
“Then what happened?”
“Got real quiet. It’s hard to describe. Can’t really get just how fucking scary it is to suddenly hear almost nothing at all.”
“Was your mother dead by this point? Was this when she,” Dr. Jones tapped the head of her pen against her pad, “came back?”
“Yeah.” Troy’s head sagged, his chin brushing his chest. “She fell out of bed, suddenly. I thought she’d got better, stupid little kid that I was. But I knew within seconds that there wasn’t nothing left of my mom in that thing.” He gulped down the remainder of the water in the glass. “It came after me, not looking at me, but through me. You know? And it wasn’t making any sound. In the movies and TV shows, they were always gasping and wheezing. But what’s dead and don’t breathe ain’t gotta — ain’t even able to make a sound.” He closed his eyes. “She was so strong for someone who’d been in bed for months. I hid in the closet, she ripped open the door. I locked her in the bathroom, she practically punched through the wall to get at me. And she didn’t care how bloodied she got chasing me. She was unstoppable. The only thing that saved me was that I was a bit of a runt for my age. Else she’d probably’ve caught me and snapped my neck.” His shrugged then and his tone was blasé. “All that happened in about a minute or two. Then, when she followed me into the kitchen, I killed her. Not a peep from her, even then.”
“You killed her with the hammer?”
“Cracked her head like a chestnut. But I was just a kid. Took more than a couple hits.”
“How did you know to go for the head?”
“I didn’t. She — I mean it — slipped on the floor tiles. Her head was within reach. I figured it was it or me, so I did what I had to do.” Troy let slip a croaking laugh. “I was lucky, really. All those ‘gangstas’ you heard about in the next few weeks, riding around in their cars, doing drive-bys. They were too dumb to get that you couldn’t kill a Drunk unless you blew their heads off.” His voice trailed off.
Dr. Jones said, “How did that make you feel?”
He looked up at her. He blinked. “About those thugs? Couldn’t care less. I was looking out for Number One by then.”
“I meant your mother. How did you feel when you did it?”
Troy cocked his head. “Nothing, at first, except anger. I was pissed that she’d abandoned me.” He paused. “Huh, that’s funny.”
“I guess I didn’t know that mom wasn’t mom anymore. Not at the time. I can’t remember for sure if I knew she’d died and, uh, reanimated. I was just angry. She came after me. I panicked.”
“You did the only thing you could do.”
Troy stared at her. “Does that make me a murderer, Doc, if I wasn’t sure if she was still her or not, and I killed her anyway?”
Dr. Jones set down her pad and steepled her fingers. The perfect cliché of the caring therapist. “Troy, let’s be clear. You couldn’t have done anything differently, or you very likely wouldn’t be here at this point. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. You wouldn’t be an invaluable member of the community that is the Republic of Sacramento.” She picked up her pen and paper again. “And, personally, I think morality has probably taken a strong turn for the pragmatic. Considering the times we live in. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Troy nodded. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Now: the dream.”
“Oh, boy.” Troy swallowed. “Could I have some more water, maybe?”
Dr. Jones indicated the shiny, metallic thermos beside him. “Help yourself.”
He poured himself a full glass and took a swig. “Cotton mouth, all of a sudden.”
“Troy.” True to character, she shot him an amused look over the rim of her glasses. “Now you’re stalling.”
“You caught me. Okay. Umm. So, the red and blue lights, just like they were when the cops and ambulances were flying by our house that night, all those years ago. I’m standing over my mom. She’s in bed. Her head is turned away from me.” He tried to hide the fact that his hands were shaking by folding them in his lap. “I’m holding the hammer over my head. Then, her head turns and she’s not my mom at all. She’s my partner. Dara is about the same age as mom would’ve been back then.”
“What do you do, in the dream?”
“I, uh, I bash her skull in with the hammer.”
The warmth fled Dr. Jones’s face as she made a note. “How old are you? I mean, how old is the dream-you? Are you a grown man?”
“No, no. I’m ten years old again.”
“And the figure that alternates between your mother and Corporal Meadowlark, what does she do?”
“She looks up at me, just before I hit her.”
“There’s no struggle? She doesn’t come at you, like the body of your mother did after it reanimated?”
Troy shook his head. Dr. Jones scribbled another note.
“What does it mean, Doc?”
Dr. Jones looked at him like a horse breeder might look at a potential purchase. Quickly, her face assumed that warm, easy smile she’d fostered. “In the end, it’s just a dream, Troy. It’s only important for what it symbolizes. If you’re asking me if I think you want to murder your new partner, the answer is, of course, ‘no, I don’t.’ I don’t believe you’d be violent with her, or with me, or with anyone of your fellow citizens.” She uncrossed her legs. Her eyes wandered to the clock above Troy’s head. “Looks like we’re just about out of time.”
Taking that as his cue, Troy got to his feet. He reached out to shake Dr. Jones’ hand.
As he opened her office door, she said, “This was a good session. I think we really made a breakthrough today. Look at how open and honest you were with me, where before you were shut up like a clam. When you first came to me, I’m not afraid to admit, I didn’t ever think we’d break so much new ground so fast.”
“Maybe I was looking for someone to talk to. You’ve been good, Doc. My last appointed psych — well, let’s just say that I’m sure he had his hands full with me.”
She reached up to pat his shoulder. “You’re making progress. That’s all that matters. Everything is an adjustment.” Retreating behind her desk, she added, “Speaking of, I hear you’re headed out tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Out past Free Flagstaff. Can’t say beyond that.”
“I understand. State secrets, et cetera. But that’s a long way.” She shook her head sympathetically. “And, talk about adjustments: not only do you have a new partner, but you’ve been assigned a new overseeing Agent, too. The bigwigs must trust you like no other.”
Troy shrugged. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Without another word, Dr. Jones tapped her pencil-sized recorder. For the first time since they’d started meeting last year, her veneer of calculated professionalism fell away and her face was clear of any mask. She told him, “Listen, Troy, I know Agent Morris. Though maybe not that well. I doubt anyone does. Anyway, he isn’t a bad man. But you don’t want to get on his bad side.”
Perplexed, he could only say, “Thanks, Doc.”
She turned the recorder back on.
“See you next week.” She assumed her practiced smile again. “Be safe out there.”
“You too.” Troy closed the door.
In the hallway, he accosted the water fountain, drinking deep. He got so thirsty when he was nervous. That might have had something to do with the days when he was younger, as he was making his way across the country. He’d nearly died of exposure, dehydration, and starvation. To say nothing of the roving gangs of psychos and the hordes of Drunks he met along the way. That’s why he drank like a camel drank, he liked to think. To prepare for dryer days.
And he sure as hell felt nervous then, as he pushed open the glass double doors of the Health & Wellness building and squinted into the bright sun of a Sacramento morning.
See, what he hadn’t told Doc Jones was what he thought the dream meant: he suspected his new partner of being a Sleeper.