CHAPTER THREE - SURVIVOR
The Ghost pushed Freyr back. Though it was a spirit, it seemed to have physical strength or maybe it was Freyr’s own strength draining away that caused him to fall onto his back, for his hands to release the tender hold he had on his mother’s head, and for him to lay nervelessly on the ground as the Ghost crouched over him like an obscene bird of prey. He could not move. He could hardly blink.
Freyr would have laughed, if he could have made any sound, because he realized he had never really believed that Ghosts were real. He had lost that child-like innocence of believing in things like Ghosts and unicorns. But now he knew. They were real. They were impossibly, absolutely real. He had never doubted Wakahisa when the Japanese businessman had told him of the Ghosts, but he hadn’t thought they would be so … again, his numb mind came up with only one word: real. Maybe he had believed them to be a metaphor or something.
The Ghost’s hands were on his shoulders and Freyr let out a rattling gasp when the Ghost touched his bare skin. It felt like dry ice was being pressed against his flesh. His shoulders immediately went numb, but painful prickles running up and down his arms. But he couldn’t scream. He didn’t have the strength and he was so cold. He felt like he was … drowning. Just like Wakahisa said.
His mind slipped into the past.
“What does it feel like? When a Ghost touches you?” A thirteen-year-old Freyr had finally gotten up the courage to ask Wakahisa. He wiggled his bare toes and looked at them rather than at the Japanese businessman.
They were in the garden of his parents’ home. The sun shone down on them brilliantly. The air seemed golden. No day could have been further from the darkness of evil spirits than that day. Maybe the brilliant light had given him courage to ask. He glanced over at the Japanese businessman. His handsome, muscular figure was dressed in gray pants and a white button-down shirt. Wakahisa had rolled up his sleeve revealing defined forearms. Freyr dragged his eyes away from the flexing of those muscles.
Wakahisa had paused in his raking when Freyr asked the question. The Japanese businessman was working in the rock garden that Freyr’s parents had set aside for him in their large back yard. Freyr and Wakahisa had been tending the rock garden while they had been talking of inconsequential things and suddenly Freyr brought up a subject that he knew to be taboo. But Freyr so wanted to know. The cobalt eyes were really the least thing that set Wakahisa apart, but it was an intimate thing. Freyr was pretty sure that his father didn’t even know the answer to the question he had asked.
When Wakahisa did not answer after a long time, Freyr was about to apologize for the question, but then the Japanese businessman said, “It is like … drowning.”
The Ghost perched on Freyr’s chest. It was not as heavy as it should have been for its size. He could not tell if it was male or female. It had long black hair and wore a white robe. It looked to be a hakama, which is a robe tied at the waist that falls to the ankles worn by men or women. The face was sexless. It had white, white skin as if drained of all blood and, of course, of all life. It had a slash for a mouth. There were two slits for nostrils. And finally, it had black, bottomless eyes.
“It is as if,” Wakahisa continued, “you are at the bottom of the blackest ocean. There is no light. It is so cold that you feel like your body might shatter with a sudden movement. And the pressure … the pressure is unbelievable. Like your soul is being squeezed out.”
The Ghost leaned down until its eyes were the only thing that Freyr could see. Black. Black. Black. They were empty. They were merciless. They were inhuman. Ghosts were supposed to be the spirits of the former living, but looking into those eyes, Freyr couldn’t believe that. This thing couldn’t have been human or whatever had transformed it into what he was seeing was monstrous.
What happened to you? How did you become this? Freyr thought.
Not that the Ghost cared. Freyr found he had no will to move or to resist in any way. The Ghost grinned. That slash of a mouth widened, revealing triangular-shaped teeth that were as white as its hakama. It seemed to be gloating over him. Like a tick that wanted to fatten itself on his life’s blood.
You want to kill me. You want to feed. So hungry. So empty. And what about me? Am I empty?
His eyes flickered over to his mother’s body. Her head was turned to the side. He could not see her face, just the lush fall of her hair. Tears pricked his eyes. She was gone, gone, gone. His beloved mother. He could still hear her voice in his mind. He could still smell her perfume. Her body was not rotting yet. The thought of her decaying had him gagging, but it was a soft sound even though it was wrenched from his very soul. The Ghost had taken even his ability to mourn.
She was dead and he had not been able to save her. She was dead. His mother was dead. And now the Ghost wanted to make him dead, too. Would she be there to welcome him? Or if one died by a Ghost, did one simply cease to exist?
What happened to her? Who or what killed her? What does the phoenix mean? Freyr thought.
The Ghost tilted its head to the side. It’s long black hair shifted over the white hakama and Freyr remembered once more.
Freyr stirred as he realized what Wakahisa had said and what was potentially the meaning behind it. “Blackest ocean? Black Ocean?”
The Japanese businessman turned to face him for the first time since the subject had come up. He was smiling though it was faint and rather ironic. “Yes, Freyr-kun. Black Ocean.”
“You -- you named your company after how you felt when you were attacked?” Freyr asked.
“It was the most monumental thing that has ever happened to me,” Wakahisa said.
“But so much has happened --”
“Yet is was just me … and the Ghost. No other forces. No other considerations. No other factors,” Wakahisa said. His gaze was distant and somehow cold. “It was me at my purest.”
Freyr wrapped his arms around himself. It was to stop him from touching Wakahisa, from wrapping him in an embrace. The Japanese businessman allowed Freyr to touch him and he touched Freyr, but it was always careful, planned. Freyr knew that Wakahisa loved him and Freyr loved Wakahisa in return, but touch was … almost forbidden.
“Does the blackness end? How do you get away the Ghost? How do you survive it? Freyr asked.
The Ghost caressed Freyr’s face with deadly cold fingers. It felt like icy water was dribbling over his cheeks and down his chin. His skin burned with the cold. When those fingers went to his throat, his breathing became wheezy and distressed. Freyr’s eyes widened. He was suffocating as if being crushed by thousands of feet of water. The Ghost made a sound like a chuckle. It was laughing. It was pleased.
A spurt of anger had Freyr wanting to buck the ghost off. Surely if he could just jerk his whole body upwards, the slightly heavier than air Ghost would go flying. But Freyr’s hips remained stubbornly still against the ground. A flare of panic raced through Freyr. If he couldn’t move then he couldn’t get the Ghost off of him. If he couldn’t get the Ghost off of him ...
“At the moment when you believe the end is near you must … choose,” Wakahisa said. His cobalt eyes grew distant again.
“Choose? You mean choose to live?” Freyr asked, assuming the will to live was the most important part of facing down a Ghost. Though in his thirteen-year-old mind it was hard to imagine anyone failing such a battle except the very old. After all, who did not wish to live?
But Wakahisa shook his head. “Choose to be … what you truly are.”
“I don’t understand,” Freyr said.
“At our core, Freyr-kun, we are something more than what we portray to the world.” Wakahisa leaned on the rake.
“Isn’t everyone different than what they portray to the world?” Freyr asked.
“Yes, you are right. We all tell lies about who we are,” Wakahisa said. “But there is something more. There are those who are truly more than anyone will ever know. And those -- those are the ones … that are in danger.”
He looked at Freyr then in a way that had the thirteen-year-old squirming.
The Ghost leaned down. It’s lips brushed over Freyr’s forehead. Freyr drew in a gasping breath. He could not breathe! And the pressure and cold hurt like nothing he had experienced before. Everything was so black. So, so black. It was like there was no light, like there would never be any light again.
“In that moment, Freyr-kun, there will be nothing but you and the blackness,” Wakahisa said. He turned back to his raking. “It is a test that only the most extraordinary are given. It is a test that only the most extraordinary of those pass.”
It was then that Freyr noticed that Wakahisa had turned his responses so that it was not about Survivors generally or potential victims of the Ghosts, but about him. As if Freyr would one day have to pass such a test.
The Ghost dragged its lips down the bridge of his nose. His skin seemed to shrivel away from its foul touch. Freyr knew then that the Ghost was going to kiss him. It was going to place its foul parted lips over his and suck out his life or soul or whatever it was that made him exist. The fingers of his left hand twitched in horror and he felt a few soft strands of his mother’s hair move under them. If he let the Ghost kill him, if he went without a fight, his father would be left with a dead wife and dead son.
Conrad Brand, for all his strength, would be destroyed by that. He would soon follow after them. Freyr knew this. He could almost see his father with a gun across his knees and a glass of whiskey at his side as he prepared to kill himself. Freyr couldn’t do that to his father. Wakahisa’s face also flashed before his mind’s eye. What would the Japanese businessman think if Freyr didn’t at least try to fight? Freyr might not be extraordinary, let alone the extraordinary of the extraordinary, but dammit, he was not going to die like a lamb being led to slaughter.
Not giving up! Not giving up! NOT GIVING UP!
The Ghost’s mouth brushed over the tip of Freyr’s nose and was about to dive in for that blasphemous kiss when Freyr acted. He took all of his love, his rage, his drive, his passion and he imagined it was like a ball of pure light in the center of his chest. As he added his emotions to it, it grew and grew and grew until he swore he could see its radiance inside of him.
The Ghost paused. It felt something. It shifted so that it’s black fathomless eyes looked at his chest rather than at his lips. Freyr felt it scrabbling over his body as if looking for the source of what disturbed it. The Ghost paused with its face exactly above where Freyr imagined the ball of light to be inside his chest.
Now is the time. Now is the moment. Now I need to be free ...
Freyr mentally thrust the ball of light right at the Ghost.
Let this work! FREE ME!
The whole alley lit up as if illuminated by a white-hot flare. It was blinding. Freyr could only feel the Ghost detach itself from him. He thought he saw it rise up against the blackness of the sky, but the ball of light followed. There was a scream. It was like nothing he had ever heard. It felt like it ripped a few threads of Freyr’s sanity to shreds. His mind reeled for a moment. He wasn’t sure what was real and what was fake. The light grew brighter, the scream became louder, and then … then the light and the scream faded away.
Freyr stared up at the night sky.
The alleyway was dark. The light pollution from the city obscured most stars, but there were hints of the Milky Way. It was beautiful. It was almost peaceful. Tears streamed down Freyr’s cheeks.
I’m alive. I’m … still alive.
The stars spun overhead. He could feel the world turning beneath his back. For one moment, Freyr felt as if he were connected to everything. Joy and anguish rushed through him. He shook with the power of that moment. He would not be able to explain it, even to himself, what that moment was like, but he would never forget it. His head lolled to the side. He saw his mother’s hair.
Mom … Mom ...
Freyr must have passed out, because the next thing he knew someone was pointing a flashlight directly into his face and shaking his shoulders.
“Freyr! Shit, Freyr! Are you dead? Please say you’re not dead!” It was Jake.
Of course, it’s Jake. It would be.
Freyr raised one arm to shield his eyes from the bright light. He was surprised he could move at all. When the Ghost was on him, he had been almost completely disconnected from his body. His limbs had not been his own. Now he spread the fingers of his his right hand before his eyes. He saw the sky between his digits.
So beautiful. Yet his eyes pricked with tears again.
Or perhaps it was the bright shine of the flashlight that was emanating from Jack’s comm that was causing his eyes to water. He blinked furiously.
“I -- I’m alive,” Freyr rasped out. It was then he remembered that his mother was not and his soul shook inside of him.
“Thank God! Fuck! Fuck! What happened? Is that -- is that your mom?” Jake had evidently just seen his mother’s body.
My mother’s body … no … NO!
Jake was just a dark shape flashing his phone everywhere, blinding Freyr. “When you didn’t come back up with her, I thought something must be wrong, but … fuck! I had no idea that it would be … would be …”
Freyr struggled to sit up. He had to see his mother. He had to make sure that she was truly dead. Maybe he had been wrong earlier. Maybe she really was just unconscious. But his mind knew that wasn’t true. The Ghost would have gone after her before him.. She was as extraordinary as they come. But the Ghost had ignored her. Because she was dead. Gone. Dead. Gone.
Freyr stuffed back a cry. “My -- my mom … someone … someone killed her.”
He tried to remember what he had seen, but it was all so vague. The only definite thing he knew was the strange phoenix burn on her clavicle.
Freyr noticed then that Jake was strangely silent. His roommate was crouched a few feet away. His flashlight was illuminating Freyr’s head.
“Get that out of my face, Jake! I can’t see!” His eyes seemed more sensitive to light.
“Hey, Freyr,” Jake sounded odd, off, even for him. There was a tremor in his voice. None of the swagger. He seemed to be moving away from Freyr, too. “What ah -- what happened …”
“Need -- need an ambulance. My mom,” Freyr got out. He was still struggling to get up. He had no strength. He sagged back down on his elbows. He could feel his legs, but they wouldn’t obey him. He couldn’t stand, that was for sure.
“What happened to your eyes, Freyr?” Jake’s voice was high, tight, afraid. He was definitely moving away from Freyr and his mother. Down the alleyway, back towards the street.
He’s running. He’s running away from me, Freyr realized dully. He couldn’t think why at first.
“Jake! Jake! Don’t go! We need help! An ambulance!” Freyr called after him even as he flopped over onto his side and then onto his front. He was going to crawl to his mother.
“An ambulance? Yeah, sure! I’ll get you -- you an ambulance!” Jake’s voice was distant now. Jake’s comm flared to life and Freyr heard him say into it, “911? There’s a guy here you need to come get. Yeah. You need to come get him. Like right now. He has the Ghost disease.”
Freyr froze. His blood had gone to ice. His heart thumped in his chest painfully. Ghost disease. Jake thought he was infected, contagious, needed to be quarantined. If it was just Jake’s ignorance there wouldn’t be a problem. But many people felt like Jake. The United States government being one of them. Freyr couldn’t even find it funny that Jake evidently didn’t have a clue that the man he admired so much, Kei Wakahisa, was a Survivor, too. He heard Jake rattling off the address, not that the police needed it. They would trace Jake’s comm signal. He felt a well of cold ice form in his belly.
Freyr had only heard the rumors about what happened to Survivors not as powerful as Wakahisa to avoid the long arm of the law. What he heard was routinely bad. Survivors were put into secret government facilities all over the United States. Supposedly, they were tested extensively in the hopes of finding a cure for a disease that didn’t exist. The Survivors never saw their families again. They were simply deleted from their old lives and disappeared into a governmental black hole.
Kei … I have to call him! I have to let him know what’s happened. I’m not getting out of this alley in time to avoid the cops. In fact, he already heard the sirens coming and his legs were still numb. I’m going to be locked away! I’m going to be quarantined!
He didn’t know if Wakahisa had enough power to get him out of this fate or, if not that, at least for the Japanese businessman to tell his father what had happened to him. The fear of his current situation overwhelmed his grief, allowing him to act rather than be frozen by despair.
Kei … Kei … Kei will know what to do!
He brought up Wakahisa’s personal number on his comm. He prayed the Japanese businessman would answer. There was the slightest delay as Freyr’s call was routed through Black Ocean’s encryption network, but finally Wakahisa’s voice came over the line, “Freyr-kun. What a pleasant surprise! I was just thinking of you --”
“Kei! Something terrible’s happened!” Freyr cut in.
“What has happened?” Freyr could sense Wakahisa was sitting up straighter in that still way of his.
“Mom’s dead. Killed. And I’m -- I’m a Survivor,” Freyr got out. He actually reached up to touch the soft skin beneath his eyes. He couldn’t feel anything in his legs. The sirens were nearly deafening. Adrenaline squirted into his system. “They’re coming. Jake called the cops. They’re going to quarantine me!”
“Your locator tells me you are still at school,” Wakahisa said, his voice clipped, one of action. He was clearly tracing Freyr’s location and trying to figure out a plan.
Kei will figure something out. Kei will fix it. Oh, please, let him fix it!
“Kei … I’m scared …” Freyr bit back the words, but everything that had happened: his mother’s loss, the Ghost, and now this was just too much. He swiped at useless tears.
“Freyr-kun, you must hang on. You must not lose up. I will come get you. I will --”
The connection was abruptly cut off. The sirens were there. Freyr frantically tapped on his comm. It was dead. A communications blackout. They had cut him off from communicating with anyone.
Kei … please come … please, please come ...
Freyr turned his head to see the mouth of the alley. Jake was standing in a pool of light cast by a street lamp. He was talking to a figure dressed in hazmat gear and pointing down the alley towards Freyr and his mother.
Yeah, fuck you, too, Jake. Guess we won’t be rooming together anymore, Freyr mentally spat.
Freyr had a momentary satisfaction as one of the suited figures grabbed Jake. He thrashed, trying to get away, pointing furiously down the alley. Freyr guessed that he was trying to claim he hadn’t been that near Freyr, that he wasn’t infected, and didn’t they realize that he had called them? But it was no use. They had no problem taking him in. Jake was hustled away and ushered into the back of a van.
What are they going to do to him? Freyr swallowed shallowly. What are they going to do to me?
Three hazmat suited figures began to stride into the alley. Their footsteps echoed. Panic thumped in his chest.
You must not lose hope! Wakahisa’s words echoed through Freyr’s mind.
Freyr dragged himself on his hands and knees to his mother. When the officials got to him, he would be with her. They wouldn’t part them. Stones dug into the soft pads of his fingers and a few shards of glass slice through his knees. But he ignored the pain and the hot gushes of blood. He curled around his mother as he heard the respirators of the figures.
“Do not be alarmed,” a man’s voice said to him. There was an electronic buzz to it. It made him sound inhuman. Just like the Ghost.
“We are here to help you,” a woman said.
“Leave me alone! I’m not infected! You know that Ghost isn’t a disease!” Freyr shouted as he held his mother’s too still body against his own.
“We know that you are afraid,” the woman said. She was at his left and crouched down beside him. “That’s understandable. You’ve gone through a trauma. This woman -- we were told it is your mother. She was killed by the disease --”
“NO!” Freyr shouted. “The Ghost came after she was already dead! Something else killed her! Someone else did it!”
The third suited figure was also a man. He said dryly, “We need to get these two off the street. No more talk.”
“I’m not diseased! This is wrong!” Frey screamed. “Don’t touch me! Don’t … don’t … don’t …”
They had stuck him with a needled in the shoulder. The stars reeled. Once more, the world went black and Freyr fell into unconsciousness.