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What Hasn't Been - Chapter 2
The tale continues
This is chapter two in the FINAL installment of my Department for Mutated Persons series.
Read Chapter One here:
Javier pressed the white-washed board into place, and after taking a moment to assess its placement, began hammering it into the slot on the old wall. This was their relationship, the old church and him. They both fell apart piece by piece, but only the church was getting put back together.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled, his tired eyes taking in his craftsmanship. Javier’s dog, a golden retriever named Blanco, sat next to his master, his tail swaying across the aging hardwood floors - a streak of clean wood among the other dusty boards.
“Father? Father,” a voice called out from the sanctuary hall.
“Hank, I wish you’d stop calling me that. Haven’t been licensed in years,” Javier grumbled, sliding his knee up and leaning on it as he stood.
“Then why wear the collar?” Hank asked, his red cap in hand and breath shallow.
“Sometimes we do things by vocation and not ceremony. Did you need something?”
“Yes, of course. There’s a young man in the road. Seems out of sorts,” Hank gasped. Instantly, Blanco ran out the chapel’s front door, eager to investigate. Javier cleared his throat and clapped his hands together, a puff of dust jetting into the air. He stepped out into the road and looked at the young man beside the road.
“Are you okay, son?” Javier called out.
The man sat up, blinded by the shining desert sun. He shook the dust out of his hair and glanced up at Javier.
“I don’t know,” the man answered.
Javier held a hand out to him. “What’s your name, son?”
“I… I don’t know.”
Javier groaned as he pulled the man up from the bleached asphalt - he knew heat stroke when he saw it.. “Let’s get you inside. It’ll come back to you.”
The young man removed his dusty red hoodie and hung it over one of the sanctuary pews then sat. He chugged the ice water Hank had fetched for him in one pronounced gulp.
“How long were you out there?” Hank asked.
“I don’t know,” He replied, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“Where you from?” Hank asked.
The young man rubbed his scruffy jaw and held the glass out. “I don’t know. Could I get more?”
“Sure,” Hank sighed, taking the glass back to the kitchenette.
Javier looked at the young man. He was in his early twenties, maybe. Skinny. Tired. Likely traumatized somehow. And the sun had baked his brain to boot.
Hank brought back a fresh glass of water. “We should call someone, no? Sheriff will have a better time sorting it--”
“No,” the man interrupted. “No, I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“Son, you’re in no condition...” Javier started, and his voice trailed. He cleared his throat. “You need help.”
“Cops won’t help. Never do,” the man muttered, his eyes fixed on the loose floor boards.
“The cops are fine here,” Hank defended. “Always looking to help if you need it, and you need it.”
“Hank,” Javier crossed his arms. “It’s fine. We can let him sit awhile in here. The cool air will do him some good.”
Hank pulled his cap back over his balding head, nodded, and fought the urge to grind his teeth.
“I’ll get back to the repairs, then,” Hank said with a flat smile.
The man sat in the pew next to his hoodie, a deep sigh pressing out of him. He appeared unraveled to Javier, like many of the souls who wandered into his chapel.
“What brings you to New Mexico, stranger?”
“Never been before… I guess?” the man answered. “What brought you here?”
“My congregation, of course,” Javier answered, his arms stretched around his empty sanctuary. He smiled, his eyes narrowed. “To be honest, it was the warm, dry climate. I’m not getting any younger, and I’m not really set up for retirement.”
“That’s not it either,” the man answered back.
“Oh?” Javier laughed. “Tell me then, what brought me out to fine New Mexico?”
The man didn’t answer, which at first frustrated Javier, then it unnerved him. The laughing smirk soon faded to wide, glazed eyes and thin lips.
“Forget it. My brain’s just boiled.”
Javier nodded and walked past the man, patting him on the shoulder. “Well, you just take your time, son.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Javier was back to his repairs. The old chapel creaked with even the slightest hint of wind. It didn’t matter how many times he swept the front entry; there was always a fresh sheen of dust and dry, beige dirt coating the battered floor boards. Javier would gently sweep it out again into the open road, and - as soon as he returned to the foyer - the wind brought it all back in with him. He muttered with a smile. No words, just guttural musings. It was all a part of the week. The old chapel, the repairs, the sunday service, and then it all began again.
The clock in the chapel hit like a gong, the noon hour breaking up the work of the day. Javier dusted himself off and went into the kitchenette to fetch his food. Hank was busy working on some much-needed repairs.
Javier found himself lost in the mechanics of his day - repairing, sweeping, then lunch - when he was startled by the young man once again.
“My name’s Alan.”
Javier was looking at his lunch, a tupperware of rice and beans with shredded cheese on top. He couldn’t recall having put the lunch together or pulling it from the fridge, but there it was before him all the same. Javier stabbed his fork into the food and peeked up at the young guy.
“I take it your head’s right again?” Hank replied, his voice muffled under the kitchen sink.
Alan looked over at the pair of legs dangling out of the cabinetry. “I guess,” he replied. “Still not sure what’s real or not.”
“Welcome to the land of enchantment,” Javier replied. “The sun’ll do that to you.”
“God dangit,” Hank grunted, his frame jostling in the cabinet, his head pinging on the pipes. “Shit… err, sorry, Father. I need to go up to town. Do you mind if I take Alan with me? Could use a hand.”
“Fine with me if he’s okay to travel,” Javier said, looking at Alan, who shrugged and nodded.
It was a small town: one main street, two stop signs, and a few blocks of neighborhood. Hank pulled his old silver pickup truck next to the hardware store.
“I’m going to hop in and get washers ’n whatnot. Can you go to the diner and order me a burger? Tell Joan it’s ‘Hank’s order’ and she’ll take care of it. And get whatever you want.”
Alan nodded and hopped out of the cab. The diner was a 1950s relic motif with hot-rod red trim and chrome accents. Alan opened the door and sat at the bar. An older woman with platinum blonde hair and deep red lips came up to him.
“What’ll it be, hun?” she asked, her voice dried up and soft.
Alan looked at her name tag: Joan. “Hank wants a burger.”
The woman’s eyes lit up at the mention of Hank’s name. “Oh, of course,” she said in a high-pitched tone. She turned her head and yelled toward the kitchen, “Double with cheese and bacon, extra onions.” She turned back to Alan. “What’re you having, sweetie?”
Alan looked into her brown eyes. “Whatever you think. Never been.”
“Just passing through?”
“Aren’t we all?” Alan responded with a wry smile.
The server chuckled, her eyes squinting and her cheeks stretching into rosy knots. “I’ve got just the thing for you.”
Fifteen minutes later, Joan returned with Hank’s order and a sandwich for Alan in a white paper bag.
“Here you go, sweetie. I put everything on Hank’s tab.”
The diner doorbell jingled as two more customers entered. The man and woman took their seats at the bar and the man pulled a menu out of the napkin holder that served as a stand for it. He rifled through the pages and put the menu back in one deft movement.
“Are you sure this is the place? Doesn’t seem like anything special,” the man said under his breath.
“I’m telling you, there was an energy spike down the road this morning. Just keep your eyes peeled,” the woman replied with a snap.
Alan grabbed the to-go bag and got out of his seat. Something wasn’t right. They didn’t look like law enforcement, but Alan wasn’t waiting around to find out. If they got into a fight in the diner, a lot of innocent people would get hurt. He walked toward the door, but just as he passed the two strangers, the man reached out and grabbed Alan’s arm. His eyes darted from his clenched arm to meet the man’s stare. “Can I help you?”
“Can I ask you something?” the man asked.
“You just did,” Alan replied, blinking slowly.
“He’s got you there,” the woman snickered. The man gave her an intense stare and glanced back at Alan.
“I can’t give you directions. I’m just passing through,” Alan explained. “Now please, let go of my arm.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask,” the man continued, ignoring Alan’s request. “We heard something happened this morning…”
Alan leaned forward, and the man felt his feet gravitate closer, until they were both eye-to-eye. “I don’t care what you heard. You’re going to let me go, and I’m going to walk out of here. You can order the pie and quiz a local.”
The man released his grip, but he couldn’t tell if it was by his will or Alan’s. Alan shook his paper bag and nodded to the pair. The TV running in the kitchen flashed with big, bold red letters declaring an emergency announcement, while ticker tape ran on the bottom edge of the set. The audio trailed off as Alan exited the diner.
“We interrupt your usual programming to bring you an emergency bulletin from our regional desk. We are re-issuing our statement from last night with more information on the events being reported out of ...”
Alan heard the audio continue as made his way back to the pickup, stopping mid-step as he heard his name in the reporter’s alarmed tone.
Hank sifted through a box of loose nuts and washers sitting on one of the hardware store shelves.
“You need help finding it, Hank?” the store’s owner asked from behind the cash register.
Hank kept his concentration on the task at hand. “I just need a three-quarter inch for the pipes,” he replied over the din of clanging metal pieces. He shook the box up and made another scan of the metallic mass. “Ah-ha!”
Hank pooled the loose parts into his hands and put them on the counter.
“That church ever going to get fixed?” the owner asked.
“God, I hope not. Haven’t had a steady job like this one in years,” Hank joked.
“Well, I guess I have to hope you stay on the job too, since you’re the one keeping me in business,” the owner replied as he sifted through Hank’s pile of metal and pecking keys on his register, briefly pausing to point at the TV bolted to the corner behind him “Your visits and the damn news are the only company I get all day.”
“So, what’s happening now?” Hank grumbled. “More of those freaks causing trouble, I bet?”
The owner groaned. “Yep, some nutjobs broke out of prison.”
“Hey, turn it up, would ya’?” Hank asked.
“An unprecedented escape occurred yesterday from a government detention facility where detainees under the mutation deviance act were being held. The identities of the detainees are unknown at this time, but among the group are known terrorists connected to Alan Mitchell.”
As the anchor spoke, a photo of Alan flashed on the screen, and Hank’s jaw dropped.
The anchor continued, “Nearly one year ago, Mitchell and several members of his terrorist organization broke into federal property in an attempt to destroy crucial government resources. The Department for Mutated Persons security personnel thwarted the attack, but not before young Mitchell died and several terrorists escaped.”
Hank pulled out his wallet and put it on the register while his eyes remained locked on the screen.
“However, in recent months, there has been a groundswell of conspiracy theories surrounding Mitchell’s death, including those who believe he is still alive. On today’s program, I have one of these conspiracy theorists, and he will discuss his theory with you today…”
Hank fiddled with his change when the owner read out the total. He dropped the change onto the register, his hands shaking.
“Everything okay, Hank? You see a ghost?”
Hank pulled his cap off his head and mopped the sweat from his brow. “I- I think so.”
Alan approached Javier on the cemetery grounds where he was working. The sun was setting and Javier glimpsed Alan’s silhouette painted against the purple sky.
“You seem to be doing better,” Javier observed.
“Head still hurts a bit, but the meal helped. Still foggy on the details though,” Alan said, scratching his arm roughly.
“Hopefully it’ll go away soon,” Javier answered, pulling a clump of weeds from around a headstone. “You remember anything else?”
“I asked you earlier why you were here. You lied,” Alan answered, deflecting the question. He pointed at the headstone a few inches from Javier’s face. “He’s the reason.”
Javier looked at it with sunken eyes and put his handful of pulled weeds on the ground. He didn’t look at Alan.
“He got sick, and you came to live with him until he died. This isn’t your church. It was his.”
Javier swallowed the lump in his throat, feeling warm tears mixing with the sweat on his face. He put a shaky hand on the headstone. Hank didn’t even know the truth, that Javier had come to the church because of his father. Javier looked at Alan, his eyes bloodshot from the mix of dust and tears. He coughed and a cloud of dust and spit billowed out into the air.
Alan held his hand out, and Javier reluctantly took it, then Alan lifted him to his feet. They looked into each other’s eyes.
“I didn’t want to tell you earlier because I didn’t trust you,” Alan explained. “Now I realize that’s not important. I think they’re coming for me.”
A bullhorn crackled and echoed in the open air. Alan tilted his head to one side; raising a coy eyebrow and waiting for someone to speak. But no one did. It was like a gunshot. Alan still couldn’t remember a time there was a warning shot. This one was an opening salvo of intimidation.
“What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into, son?” Javier said, his voice faint and wary.
“I didn’t ask for any trouble, Father. But it’s here,” Alan replied.
Alan and Javier made their way through the darkening chapel, flood lights peaking through the front entrance doors, illuminating the cracking tile with jutting rays of luminance. Javier pushed the door open, the beam of light outside widening until it was blinding him; he held his free hand out in front of him to block the light.
“Alright, nice and easy. Come out with your hands up!” the bullhorn bellowed from the road. “Is there anyone else in the building, Father?”
Javier looked at the doorway to the chapel. Alan stepped out, and presented his hands over his head. The police swarmed with activity. The man with the bullhorn pulled out his phone and responded to the operator on the other end. “Yes, identity confirmed. Requesting backup to take the suspect into custody.”
The voice chimed in with a metallic tone and scraping white noise. “Affirmative. Agents are en route. Standby.”
“What’s this about, Jonathan?” Javier asked, his hands bobbing in front of his sightline, trying to block the headlights overpowering flood.
The sheriff stepped out from behind his vehicle still holding the bullhorn. “We believe this young man is a known fugitive. That’s as much as I can share, Father,” Jonathan explained. “Will you come with us, son? We have questions for him.”
Always with the questions. They wouldn’t like the answers. Alan squinted through the bright light and offered his outstretched hands. The sheriff pulled handcuffs from his belt and shakily wrapped them onto Alan’s wrists.
Another vehicle, a jet-black utility vehicle, skidded as it came up to the other police vehicles. One man stepped out of the driver’s side and he waved the sheriff over. Alan glimpsed the driver’s-side panel, emblazoned with the DMP logo with huge, bold serif letters. It was too dark to see anymore, but Alan didn’t need more confirmation. Alan considered his options. If he caused a disruption now, someone might get caught in the crossfire. He didn’t want to do that to Javier.
The sheriff and the agent were talking in urgent whispers. Alan strained to hear, but nothing was intelligible. The agent pointed to Alan. The sheriff took off his hat, scratching the back of his neck and shaking his head; the agent didn’t respond to his irritation. The agent adjusted his tactical helmet, a matte black meant to disappear in the dark, and waved Alan over. As Alan got closer, he recognized the man from the diner.
“Get in,” the man said. Alan hesitated. The man nodded toward the car. “Now.”
The other agent, a woman in all black, exited the passenger door and met Alan near the driver’s side door. She grabbed him by the shoulder and pressed him toward the back of the car, then grabbed Alan’s head and lowered him into the backseat. The other agent went back to his door.
Alan observed his two latest captors. He waited for them to do something – anything -- that would communicate their intentions. But one thing was clear: the two were not with the Department. While on the outside the car looked like a Department cruiser, the inside was lacking. There was no barrier between the front and backseats. The front seat didn’t have a computer or any radio equipment.
“Let’s get you out of here, Alan,” the male agent said.
Before Alan could question his tone, the Sheriff was shouting – gun raised at the vehicle – demanding that they get out.
“I told you not to turn on the light,” the male agent chided the female agent.
“Just drive!” she shouted back with wide, nervous eyes, and the tires squealed; the vehicle peeling out in reverse, the metallic pings of gunfire scattering across its hood.
The man put his arm across the passenger headrest and stared back into the night, adjusting the wheel to get around their obstacles. Then, as the gunfire erupted from the other men in the sheriff’s department, the agent swerved and the car swung around to face the opposite direction.
The sheriff watched as the car’s headlights went out, and the vehicle was engulfed in the shadows of the night around them. He went for his walkie-talkie and was met with harsh static on the other end. He threw the walkie to the ground and motioned for all of his men to get in their vehicles.