This is a quick demo interplay using the Don't Rest Your Head gaming system in a play by post format, some of it was typed on a phone so the quality can be hit or miss...
It's a highly narrative but with dice system that allows for very freeform gameplay.
*Opening Scene - *
As mentioned, you haven't been sleeping lately, at all. Sleep terrifies and you've been living on whatever it takes to keep from falling asleep. You're starting to get worried though that the lack of sleep is starting to affect you mentally.
On the way home from work you saw a building you've never noticed before, an alleyway that you don't remember, an intersection that had two manhole covers where you only remember it having one. You're debating which is worse, going crazy or dying of fright in your sleep.
Your house thankfully looks like it always has and you make dinner, well put it in the microwave at least and go eat it in front of the TV, watching re-runs. As you flip through the guide you spot a new channel but it's blank at the moment and idly wonder if they're going to raise your cable bill to pay for it.
Eventually you make your way to the rest of the house but stop as your bedroom door comes into view. What the hell? There's a section of a sheet from a newspaper stuck on it with masking tape. Flipping on the hall light to get a better view the headlines read "Satan Slasher Nabbed!"
Below that is a picture of you, face contorted in anger, a picture you simply do not recognize. It's a tight shot, showing you being shoved into the back of what can only be a police car. Someone's playing a prank on you surely, one of your so called friends is being a prime asshat.
You go over and read the article which looks like someone spent some time manufacturing, it reads like a real article. Describes how the alleged [your name] was arrested at the scene of another slasher attack, lists the history of the slasher [13 young women found so far, more assumed.]
But the date on the paper is for tomorrow and the name of the paper is the local one like you'd of thought for a joke but is for some paper called the Daily Oracle.
Ripping the sheet down, angry, you stop short as a bloody hand print hidden under the newsprint comes into view. The blood [surely it's fake] still fresh and red. You touch it, its tacky and it 'feels' like blood.
You push your bedroom door open. One of those cheap Walmart flex neck lamps is next to the bed, the light bent around so it illuminates the sheets. You've never seen that lamp before. [Or have you? whispers some frightened back part of your mind.]
Sprawled out on your bed is a body, naked although most of the flesh is covered in red. Long slash marks criss cross over the body, forming symbols although most ones you don't recognize but there's no mistaking the pentagram carved into the chest. The sheets are soaked with blood, the edges of the wounds glisten.
And protruding from the center of the chest is your best chef's knife, the one with the ceramic blade you spent your whole bonus on this year. And on white texture handle is a bloody handprint that somehow you know matches the one on the door. And somehow you fear
You're not sure how long you stare, brain clouded with shock when there's a loud pounding from the front room, a heavy fist on your door. An authoritative sound, one heavy with meaning.
A stilted voice, barely muffled by the solid door echoes through your house, "This.is.the.police.. Open.the.door."
Oh crap. Do I run out the back door or window? Do I try to overrun the cops? I didn't hear a siren. That's not good.
I gotta run. There's no way in hell letting the cops take me will be good for me.I'm heading into the bedroom, try to lock the door, block it with a chair. Then I'm going to wrap the chef's knife with a t-shirt, pocket it, and head for the window. My goal is to get away. ASAP.
[Notes: The player won a conflict roll but Pain dominated causing him to lose the knife.]
"You quickly but trying to be quiet close the bedroom door and drag a chair over and shove it under the door knob. A t-shirt is ripped free from a hanger and with no small amount of squeamishness you pluck the knife free, the metal grates on the bones of the rib cage, sticking.
For a terrible instant you think it's not going to come free but the sound of your front door being smashed open gives you encouragement to yank it out hard. It slips from your tshirt covered hand and slides across your floor leaving a streak of red. The sound of footsteps storming in has you scrambling and you lunge toward the window as your bedroom door thuds and the wood of the chair creaks.
Realizing I don't have time to return for the knife, I open the window, duck out, and close the window behind me (hey, it might confuse the cop if he's a dumbass). The fire escape gets me down to the ground and I'm off at a run. To quote Umberto Eco, "if you're running from the police, head for an alley. No police force can cover them all." I do not want to be picked up. I'm kind of pissed at myself for dropping the knife; a key piece of evidence and a handy weapon. I have a sinking suspicion it has my finger prints on it. And that's got me a bit worried. Crap, and I forgot the damn newspaper, too. I'm going to toss the bloody tshirt in a dumpster somewhere along my escape route. hopefully, my uncanny intuition [cause-effect power] will help me run away from the cops and not into them. "Trust your feelings Luke," was probably never meant to cover escaping from a murder, but hey desperate times and all that.
[Player won conflict again which reduced the obstacle he was facing down to a single cop at the moment]
As your feet speed over the concrete you hear the sounds of a whistle split the air behind you. It's echoed instants later, once, twice from the direction of your house.
You glance back and see a cop lurch into view right before you disappear into the dark mouth of an alley. Did he see you? Then just what you saw registers. The cop had a large key sticking out of his back. Slowly turning. A wind up key.
You pound down the alleyway. It seems dark. Darker than it should be. The air is filled with foul odors and you stumble and are at risk of falling.
A whistle blast echoes and reverberates down the alley. Behind you! You spin and outlined against the street lights is a dark form running in a jerky gait but one scary. A pair if red glows, they can only be the cops eye gleam at you as he runs after you.
Glowing red eyes and clockwork keys are not a good thing. The gamer in me has lots of ideas on how to react. The character however wouldn't be so analytical. Flight or fight here. If the alley is narrowing, dead-ending, or etc. then I'll have to face the thing and try to disable it. Somehow. The key being the obvious, um, well, key to disabling it. If the Alley continues, then I'm going to keep trying to lose it. Knocking down trash cans, etc. to try to make pursuit more difficult. It's gait is jerky. That implies that this thing isn't graceful or highly mobile; time to start looking for a third dimension to my escape: going up and over obstacles rather than just pounding the side walk left or right, forward or back.
"The alleyway walls seem to close in, perhaps it's the darkness, perhaps it's actually getting narrower. Two red eyes are drawing closer and far in the distance you can see two more pairs of them, mere pinpricks. That's when it hits you, this alleyway has gone on for a very long time with only the occasional door on the brick walls and the occasional fire escape, rusted and decrepit hanging down."
I use it's lack of speed and fine motor control against it instead of treating it like a human. I grab a trashcan lid and throw it at the thing's face. While it jerks to react to that, I duck behind it and twist the key out of it's back. Sadly, this doesn't turn the damn thing off like I'd hoped. But it does seem to slow it's reactions; maybe it's winding down without the key? I don't have time to figure it out. Instead, I shove the thing into the wall, hard. It slumps down awkwardly off balance. As it starts trying to right itself, I take off back the way I came. Shit. The alley has gotten longer since I ran in. Righto. Time to find a door that's not locked and try my luck along that path!
[Player won the conflict roll again but again Pain dominated the interaction which is blended into the narration]
"With the key removed there's a viscious ZZzzzzzzzziiiipppppppwwwhhhrrrrrr sound, as if a giant coiled spring was unwinding all at once. The cop who at all appearances aside from the red eyes appears to be otherwise normal starts spasming, his limbs moving at lightning speed, flailing around.
You can't pull back in time and one arm smashes into your side and you go flying sideways to smash into the wall. The cop spins and twitches like a man caught in a lightning storm for several seconds, the length of time it takes you recover and sit up, gasping for air. Chips of brick fly up pelting the walls as it smashes them and then quickly it starts to spin down."
"You climb to your feet, only then aware you still hold onto the big silver key. Inscribed across its face is a 6 digit number, 815631 and the words "Property of Officer Tokk".
You start to head back the way you'd just run, but spastic footfalls echo faintly in the distance and there in the far distance you can see two angry red glows, two pairs of angry red glows.
There's a click, much louder than it should be from a little way down the alley and a door opens up and a man steps through. He's dressed in a wrinkled suit although expensive and carrying a briefcase in his hand. He looks around, spots you. In his other hand is a piece of paper and you can see a photograph on it along with blocks of text. Light streams from the through the doorway along with massive crowd babble and noise.
He looks at it and then at you and nods to himself and then checks his watch. He drops the page and it falls neatly into his suddenly open briefcase which snaps shut with a disquieting organic sound Mmmmm.
He gives you a nod and then steps back through the doorway which starts to slowly shut behind him.
Your ribs flare in pain and the jerky sound of footfalls grows closer.
Keep the key. Follow the man through the door.
A blast of exotic odors assails your senses as you step through the door, lights flare and scream for your attention, voices call out to come see their wares, cajoling, insulting, calm or excited, whatever the seller thinks will work.
You've emerged into the middle of a teeming crowd of people, all kinds of people, it's like a madman's nightmare of an ancient persian bazaar that cuts across centuries.
To your left a ancient old hag who hasn't seen 100 in years leans forward, "2000 for 5 years dearie! You won't find a better offer! What's five years of your life, you're still young, 5 years will only make you more mature! Okay 2100, final offer!"
On your right a suave ivory skinned man, literally the color of old ivory, stands naked except for a necklace and an obvious display of excitement. His face is rather dreamy and vacant and he smiles, his under lit by the the rainbow colored glow of the necklace. He catches your eye, "Pleasure necklaces, finest in the bazaar. You won't need seek out companionship every again. All for the mere cost of a few memories sir. Come, avoid frustration and disappointment in seeking solace in others. He opens a case on the counter before him, the case bears a tri-part symbol in yellow and black on it. Lifting out a necklace similar to his own he beckons you, "A 60 second trial, guaranteed to be the best 60 seconds of pleasure you've every experienced. All for the worthless cost of the memory of your first kiss."
Suddenly something hits you in the back and your ribs feel like molten metal charged with lightning as the pain flares.
"Well well, lookie here boys. Fresh meat."
Behind you are three biker types although their flesh is pierced all over, chains, nails bent in rings, spikes protrude from everywhere. Their heavy leather clothing has bones attached to it, finger bones or even larger and each wears a necklace of teeth, human teeth and things like look like pieces of dried fruit, things you find yourself avoiding looking at too closely.
"And what do we do with fresh meat?" the one in the middle asks.
And in sync the other two growl, "We eat it up yum!" and flash smiles filled with teeth filed to needle points and razor edges.
Yeah, this is going to go badly.
"Hello boys! How's business? Everything going well these days? No run-ins with Officer Tokk, I hope?" While I'm spinning that inane prattle, I reach out to the leader and whichever of the other two goons looks biggest. I find the most strategically placed piercing -- the one that seems to be tapped into the most nerve bundles. And as I say Tokk, I grab those two piercings and I pull down as hard as I fucking can. Then I run through the Bazaar. After the man I was following, if I can see him in the crowd.
[Player invokes his Madness talent which allows him to see cause and effect in detail.]
"Something flares inside you and your field of vision is filled with numbers, percentages, forces, vectors and links between everything you can see. The world is frozen for an instant but it's way more time than you need and you're ready when everything snaps into motion again, almost bored by that time.
You punch out with the key directly into a piercing on the goon to the left and then drag it sideways into a bundle of metal located near the collarbone of the leader. The first one is just reacting as the pain reaches his brain and he screams and spins. The leader drops to his knees just in time to catch the jagged shiv held by the first in the throat. A spray of arterial blood blasts out drenching the face of the third.
He screams and staggers back, crashing into the old hags counter and smashing it flat. She screams in anger and clamps her hands on his head and you see him visibly age as she grows younger almost too fast to see. The first completes his spin in time to stab it into the thigh of a heavily armed passer by who without pausing pulls semi automatic 12 gauge pistol and there's a huge boom and when the smoke clears the headless corpse of the first goon topples backwards."
The fight seems to have been fun while it lasted... but I'm going with flight. This shit is too freaky to hang around waving my privates in the air.
"Lost by the sudden massive violence you've been subjected to, from finding a body in your bed to fleeing from wind up cops to opening doors into other worlds by all appearances to being able to with two single light touches cause the deaths of three people, you find yourself suddenly in the center of an empty space with bodies bleeding out while a crowd gathers to watch. You hear murmurs, "that's a key, a cop key." and as that whisper races like lightning through the crowd they start to look around, raising up on their tip toes and as if on cue you hear a whirring clicking noise in the distance and the jerky thuds of feet pounding the pavement.
You put your head down and push your way through the crowd, they split before you like the red sea before noah or perhaps more correctly, like an ancient mariner who killed a albatross.... You run until your lungs are gasping and you're coughing up blood and still you run until you find yourself in a dank, run down section of urbanism. Strange graffiti mars the walls, layer upon layer of it. Some of it glows with an unhealthy purple hue. Mold covers the walls and the air is damp and you just know it's unhealthy to breath. But at least you appear to be alone, perhaps there's safety in being alone. "
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DRYH characters have two talents, one Exhaustion and one Madness.
The Exhaustion talent is something any normal person can do, it's just for that character as they get more tired, the more Exhaustion dice they have in play, they can do it better. To pick an Exhaustion talent if you think of any standard Skill in any given RPG, you'll be in the ballpark. So your Exhaustion talent might be Diplomacy or Mechanics or Melee or Shooting or Persuasion or Perception etc and so one. As you add Exhaustion dice to your roll, the better you can talk people into buying snake oil or ice boxes, or the better you can see and hear until eventually you can hear a fly stumble in mid-flight or read the fine print of a contract with Satan.
The Madness talent is more uber. It can be something as mundane as Flight or Teleportation if you're really stuck for creativity. Just pick a power out of any super hero rpg and go with it. The problem with those is they end up very unitasking. If you were to take say Energy Blast as your MT, it's not going to be much use for you when you're trying to sneak into the Daily Oracle to try to stop the presses before the evening edition with the headlines of your death are printed. And the Oracle only prints true news stories.
But if you're feeling a little more creative I've outlined examples of Talents below and the various effects you might get by burning Madness on them.
Madness Talent 1 -
"No matter where she went, the clicking of nails soon followed, echoing down alleyways, around corners in halls,always out of sight but never out of mind. In the distance were always the sounds of yips, barks and growls, playful, neutral and aggressive and everything in between. And the odd thing was the sounds mimicked her own emotional state."
Use your Madness:
1-2 dice - canines are friendly to you, regardless of their training or instructions. They show up as you need them, a bloodhound if you need to trail someone, an attack dog if you have concerns for your physical being, a golden doodle if you're feeling down.
3-4 dice - packs of dogs stream from just off camera to your aid, your own senses sharpen and your teeth extend and sharpen, you can run fast and forever and if you wish assume the classic half man/half wolf shape.
5-6 dice - Cerebus and Fenris are yanked to your location in an instant to deal with your problems, you can assume the shape of any canine, command any creature with any relationship to dogs who is instantly submissive to you
What you are becoming:
If you use your power too long and too hard your humanity begins to fade, you spend more time in dog form, around dogs and less time among humans. In the end you become The Den Mother (or if you're male, The Alpha Dog)
Madness Talent 2 -
"All your life nothing's gone right for you in the little ways and the big. Your tv breaks the week after the warranty expires. Your cars are always lemons. If someone finds a pie, you find an empty plate. But lately things have taken a turn for change and the shoe is on the other foot."
Use your Madness:
1-2 dice - Minor things go wrong in your favor. The cop's radar gun fritzs as you go past at 100mph. Traffic lights get hung on green. The systems go down at work just when you needed a day off. The mugger's gun misfires blowing his hand off."
3-4 dice - The welds give out in a lamp post just as you're accosted by three gang bangers and it falls critically wounding them. Your bosses pace maker shorts out right before he was about to fire you. A computer glitch causes an ATM to spew itself empty as you try to take out $20. A fire breaks out in the apartment due to faulty wiring of the man who stole your woman killing him allong with everyone else.
5-6 dice - Everything that can go wrong, does in a city block. Utter chaos ensues yet leaving you untouched.
What you are becoming:
As bad luck surrounds you it starts to stick to you, forming an every larger bubble of bad luck. Little things go wrong to those around, friend and foe alike without your control until eventually you become a pariah, unwanted and unloved by anyone. You have become, The Murphy.
Notes: This is Terri’s first actual Scene in the game after going through the intro story (see previous posts Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 ) and it’s here that we delve into the actual game play mechanics of DRYH which are deceptively simple but allow for a lot of tension in the players as they choose what resources to throw at a problem and the repercussions of doing so. The scene is based on what Terri put down as her answer for What Just Happened? which is what the narrator uses to invest the player into the world.
Narrator - “Terri, the street is almost empty and you note it as odd given it’s lunch time. You get a sense that people for some reasons they can’t quite put a finger on have found it expedient to not be here at this time. Behind you the coffee shop is still a swirl of pure white as the confetti continues to swarm inside but stops at the edge of the door in a razor sharp line. Inside you can hear the voices of the two customers and the counter girl although muffled and you can’t make out what they’re saying but they seem rather excitable.”
Terri - “Do I see the Little Sister? If she’s not in sight then I’ll follow where this guy leads for now. He seems to know what he’s doing. I still don’t know his name right? I’m going to ask him, “Hey! Suit! What the hell is going on?”
Suit - He’s spinning in place at the moment, his eyes flicking all over. “Suits as good a name as any. There’s power in names. Shit! Duck!”
Terri - “I dive forward without even thinking about it.”
Narrator - “A Little Sister has appeared directly behind you and that nasty looking knife slashes through the air above your head. As you scramble to your feet you spot another one of them standing a few feet away from Suit. Her terrible mouth opens in a large shark tooth filled smile and the dark sockets of her eyes seem to gleam with a horrible intelligence. Suit yells at you, “Lock one down with your eyes! Don’t let them move!”
Terri - “Oh this is so not good! I stare at the one I’m looking at now and yell, “Now what?!””
Suit - “Unleash your Madness! It’s our only chance! We just need to get away so we can slip through a gate, it’s almost 13 o’clock and the Ways close then.” and you hear the snaps of his briefcase locks opening.
Narrator - “At his words the burning and motion under your skin increases ten fold and your mind makes whatever dark horrible connections it needs to with the madness latent in your body and you start to realize the power you have and get some idea of what you can do with it. The knowledge sickens you but leaves you feeling empowered, perhaps for the first time in your life. There are a small number of Little Sisters in this conflict, between the two of you, you can lock down two of them but that leaves any remaining free to move about with those wickedly sharp knife. They weren’t expecting the Suit though for what its worth. I’m bringing a Pain 6 to this conflict.”
Terri - “Okay let me get this straight now, I get my 3 discipline dice right? I can add 1 Exhaustion to the roll and as many Madness as I like up to 6?”
Narrator: “Right but there are draw backs. The pool with the highest string of numbers dominates the results so if Exhaustion dominates then you get another exhaustion die added to your character semi-permanently leaving you with 2. Because once you bring out the exhaustion, it takes effort to get rid of it. But with Exhaustion in play you can invoke minor or major uses of it and guarantee some successes. If Madness dominates then you have to use up one your Responses, either Fight or Flight for the resolution narration. If Discipline dominates then you get to get rid of one Exhaustion or un-check one Response. And if you hit 6 Exhaustion or run out of Responses then you’ll Crash or Snap.”
Terri - “What about Suit, how does he play into this?”
Narrator - “I’ll control his actions primarily but you can definitely suggest things. For this conflict you’ll probably end up each facing a single Sister due to the way the scene is playing out. In other conflicts it might be a “One character does the heavy lifting and another does the assisting.” kind of resolution.
Terri - “Okay I’m going to add 3 Madness and 1 Exhaustion to my 3 Discipline and roll that.”
Narrator - “Cool, and because you’re bringing out the Exhaustion die you can invoke it as a Major use and that means you get a guaranteed 1 success for each Exhaustion and on top of that you get any successes you actually roll on those dice.”
Terri - “_rolls dice_ Okay I’ve got... ugh, only 2 successes, my highest string is Discipline with a 5-4-4.”
Narrator - “I’ve only got 2 as well so players win ties but just barely so it’s going to be a close call. My pain is a 6 so Pain dominates and I get one Despair coin. Now tell me what just happened.”
Terri - “I scream and then bite my right wrist open where the scars are. The pain is horrible but I bend my wrist like spiderman and a stream of spiders flows out and flies through the air to land on the crazy no eyed butcher knife slasher pre-teen bitch child in front of me and they immediately start biting her, injecting her with venom and spinning strands of silk on her body causing her arms and legs to get bound.”
Narrator - “Awesome and great use of the Pain domination! The Little Sister screams, loudly and pain rips through your ears and you can hear glass breaking around you as she’s covered in neo-spiders. Narrator rolls some dice for the Suit There’s a strange fast fluttering noise behind you and you turn and look to see Suit holding his briefcase open and a stream of paper is flying out of it and bathing another Little Sister. Her skin is instantly flayed as thousands of tiny slices appear in it, growing deeper and deeper as more pages hit her. The screaming stops and you turn to see the spider covered Little Sister gone. There’s gasping for breath from the Suit and you see he looks tired, almost swaying, papers are fluttering down to land on the empty street and you look to see that the other Sister is gone too.”
Suit - “That looks like its...”
Narrator - “*gasp, gurgle, ouch* and he chokes as the tip of a butcher knife emerges out of his chest, the smiling blank eyed face of a Sister peers around his body at you. “Run! he screams at you, the subway station around the corner, there’s a gate there the maintenance door in the lobby!” and blood sprays out of his mouth as the knife is ripped free, pulling bits of organs with it. The Sister licks the blade as you watch in horror.”
Terri - “I freak! I take off running, heading for this subway entrance.”
Narrator - “Behind you as you race off come wet thudding noises and horrible chewing sounds. The pain in your wrist is bad but not so bad it distracts you. In fact as you glance at the wound you see it’s been woven shut with silk and the bleeding has stopped. You sprint down the street and find the entrance to the subway station and stumble down the steps, from behind you hear the high pitched giggling laughter of a young girl, and it’s getting closer.”
Terri - “Aeeeiieeee! I do a baseball slide under the turnstile and spring up again to try to spot the door he mentioned!”
Narrator - “You have no trouble finding it, it’s the only spot of color, it’s decrepit green paint job shining in your vision.”
Terri - “I hope it’s not locked! I charge over at it and rip it open!”
Narrator - “It pulls open and there’s a odd click in your head and through the doorway you see a busy street but it’s night and the people are... odd, nay freakish looking. And everything is in color, almost everything anyway and some part of you is relieved to finally see the world in color again. Behind you the slow light footfalls are almost drowned out by the scraping of metal on concrete, as if someone was running a wickedly sharp knife along the wall of the stairwell leading down into the subway.”
Terri - “I jump through and slam the door shut!”
Narrator - “As you do that, you notice the door is grey in color and you hear the bonging of a great clock, once, twice, and again. There’s a thud on the door and the knob starts to turn in your hand with irresistible force. In the back of your mind you’ve been counting the chimes of the clock and as the 13th chime strikes the door knob stops moving and the door becomes colorized, a dirty greenish brown. Around you the denizens of the Mad City ignore you, except for those that don’t, as they go about their business of survival.”
Terri - “Well crap, now what?...”
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Watching the other customers come and go, the single guy behind the counter trying to take care of them all while other workers wandered around in back doing not much of anything was soothing. What would have pissed her off any other day, left her simply in a waiting mood. A mood of expectation but neither one of excitement, nor one of dread, just expectant.
Finally it was her turn to approach the counter and without a word the guy behind the counter disappeared into the back and then emerged carrying a white tub with a small amount of mail in it. She scooped it out, barely a handful of envelopes, mostly trash and some bills from what she could see. She snatched a loose rubber band and bundled the mail up, the snap of the rubber particularly loud as a hush had settled in the lobby. It was as if everyone had decided to stop talking all at once.
She glanced around, everyone seemed intent on something, their own thoughts or dust motes in the air as far as she could tell. Later on a hazy memory of a nature show would bubble up and she would make an odd connection to the people around her. She’d remember the sudden stillness of a herd of gazelles when they sensed a predator nearby, each trying not to attract the lion’s attention and the sudden stillness of the people in the post office.
She pushed through the line, people seemingly ignoring her but stepping aside as she approached and then pulled up short as the lobby windows came into view.
A bright spot of color was shockingly red against the grey of her world. A small girl, perhaps 7, perhaps 9, stood outside on the sidewalk. The red of her dress was like a beacon on a foggy night. The girl stood bare of foot in spite of the chill in the air, standing in a empty space in the middle of the sidewalk and the people passing by swerved and shifted to go around her and did so without giving any sign they were aware of what they were doing, at least consciously.
The girl was facing the window, her face white, palest of white but with dirty brown smudges upon it. As clear as the face was though, the child’s eyes were sunk in odd shadow.
‘Like Morticia, only in reverse...’ she thought to herself.
Terri stared for several moments, skin itching and burning, feeling the girl staring back and then she jerked as something slammed loudly in the back of the post office. She spun, as voices rose from deeper in the building, arguing about fault or blame. She almost knew what would happen before she turned back and was not surprised to find the girl gone from view.
Mail gripped tightly she exited the post office, slowly opening the door and glancing in all directions before stepping out. Outside the world moved on, people glancing at her and then looking away, the obvious “Just another junkie” thoughts written all over their faces.
Lacking any better ideas she headed back to the halfway house, taking a different route than the one that she’d taken earlier. The grey skies overhead darkened on the trip and fat raindrops started to fall on her, cold and wet. The temperatures plummeted, turning her breath into clouds of white fog.
The trip was miserable and made more so as every now and again she spotted a bit of bright color in her vision. A door that shone orange, a manhole cover in in a deep rust brown, a man in a brown trench coat and fedora who entered a alley way ahead of her and was nowhere to be seen when she passed the dark opening. These moments of color at odds with the grey of the rest of the world.
She kept her head down after that, focusing on the sidewalk at her feet and hurried as fast as her flagging energy would let her. It was almost ten by the time she reached the house The usual lot of junkies, derelicts and rejects were up and moving about. They were already working to establish the pecking order of who would get lunch first because inevitably there would not be enough to go around.
She dropped the mail off in Big Frank’s office. He smiled or rather his mouth smiled at her. He gave her a thumbs up as he rattled on with someone on the phone about funding. And as she left came the scratch scratch of his pencil.
Heading up to her room, she changed clothes, as always surprised that no one had stolen them while she was out. ‘But then who’d be desperate enough to want them.’ she thought as she looked them over. At least they were dry and the duct tape covered the worst of the holes.
She still had two hours till noon and the bare stained walls of her room offered little distraction. Downstairs again, this time to the tv room where the small TV was showing some talk show about wife beaters and the women who loved them.
The sixth time in as many minutes that she caught herself glancing at the clock on the wall to see what time it was she realized it was going to be a long time two hours.
Unable to sit still she went to the kitchen and pitched in to prepare for lunch. The kitchen manager was a taciturn older woman named Agnes who didn’t question the help, just put Terri to work. As usual lunch was some soup with vegetables and bits of meat who's provenance was better left unquestioned.
Chopping vegetables and scrubbing pots in the warm kitchen helped drive the chill from her bones and by 11:30 she was almost too hot. Tossing her apron at the pile next to the old washing machine she grabbed her coat from where she’d hung it over the big baking oven. It was almost dry and scorching hot against her skin.
Outside the rain had stopped but the cold continued and the wind was like some hungry beast intent on stealing what warmth she had just gained.
It was a struggle pushing against it but the Starbucks wasn’t that far away, only a few blocks. The change in the city though was like night and day, one street she was stepping over hojos and the next was filled with fancy shops and the smells of pastries and coffee houses.
It was not an area she’d frequented since... quite awhile and with long practice she blocked that thought before it could started.
She was there several minutes before noon. The weather had drive most of the walkers indoors. Looking up and down the street she found a nook at the side of a heavy set of stairs that gave her a good view of the Starbucks and settled in to wait. She knew better than to go inside, without any money and given her appearance they’d roust her out in short order or worse call the cops.
Sharply at noon by the clock on the bank sign down the street she saw the man from that morning round the corner and disappear inside the coffee ship. He appeared no different than he had that morning. Same grey suit and striped tie and worn shoes, the silver briefcase swinging from his left hand. Only she noticed that he had color about him, his tie had red stripes on it. She wasn’t sure if she’d missed them this morning or if it was a new sign of her deterioration.
She hurried across the street, dodging a yellow cab, not a Yellow one, but one that gleamed with a yellow color under the grey light of the street lamps. Inside a welcome warmth embraced her and at a back corner she saw the man. He sat facing the front with his briefcase and two cups already in front of him. He was waving her over even before she had stepped through the door. Somehow she got the feeling that he didn’t miss much.
The coffee shop was almost empty, just a couple of customers who looked her over and then pointedly looked elsewhere. A teenage girl behind the counter who frowned in her direction then shrugged when she saw the man waving at her.
“Sit down. No, not that one, never sit with your back to a door, sit here beside me.” She sat and then accepted the cup of coffee he thrust at her. “Hope you like it with cream and heavy sugar, you look like you can use the calories.”
The coffee was sweet, almost too much so and rich with the cream and quite possibly the best thing she’d tasted in months.
He shifted in his seat, stared at her for a few moments and then shrugged, “Okay let’s get this over with.” He paused, obviously collecting his thoughts and then continued. “You’ve joined a fairly elite group. You’re not sleeping, you’re not a Sleeper any more. In most people this isn’t a big deal, they stay awake for awhile and then go back to sleep and all is well. But for some... for some who stop sleeping they end up Awake and for them going back to sleep is signing a death warrant. You’re one of the latter.”
“Understand. Yeah, I didn’t either at first.” He pointed at the other customers, “Those people? They’re awake but Sleepers. Us, we’re awake and Awake. Their lives are normal, they get up, they go to work, they cheat on their taxes, they go on cruises. Us, our lives are much.... more.”
He gestured with one hand at their surroundings, “This, what you think of as home, as your world? This is the City Slumbering. It’s everything you’ve known it to be since you were born. But there is also the Mad City which is here, just not here. I’m losing you aren’t I. It’s hard to explain...”
He thought a moment and then swung his briefcase up on the table and opened it and two pages slipped out into his hand. He held them up, one in each hand. Shaking the left one, “This page is the city as you know it. Got it?”
She nodded, not really sure but wanting to appease him.
He shook the one in his right hand, “This page here? This is the Mad city.”
He brought them together and then crumpled them up into a ball.
“See how the pages are now together and yet still separate? That’s the world as you’re about to know it. The two cities are entwined yet separate.” He pulled a gold pen from an inside pocket and stabbed it into the ball a few times. “And these are the gateways where one can pass from the City Slumbering into the Mad City and back again.”
“The Mad City?” she shook her head, “I don’t see...”
He sighed and checked the heavy watch on his wrist. “Okay we still have time. Ever read any science fiction? Fantasy? No? Okay, this is so much easier with the geeks. Picture twin cities, fraternal, not identical. Now take those two images and superimpose them on each other. That’s what you have here. Two cities that are the same yet different, my god are they different. And the somnolent have a hard time seeing the other but the mad, the mad can see both.
The Mad City is everything horrible, creepy and dreadful that you’ve ever pictured in your life and more. The monsters under the bed are sometimes real and they come from the Mad City. Sometimes the shadows in the closet aren’t shadows and they come from the Mad City. When people disappear without a trace and no one seems to care? That is the doing of the Mad City and those that leak over into the City Slumbering.
It is a city ruled by Nightmares and Fears and populated by the Hollow Men, a city where souls are the least of things bought and sold. A place where death is very low on the list of things to be feared.
And the Awake can pass between the cities in certain places and certain times. They can pass freely between the City Slumbering and Mad City using the passages between. Well except when the clock chimes thirteen. Then the ways are blocked until the 13th hour has passed.
Speaking of which it’s getting close.”
She looked away, twisting the cup in her hands and started to speak when she saw the girl again. Standing outside the coffee shop staring in and the same trick of shadow hiding her eyes. The cardboard cup crumpled in her hands, spilling the dregs of her coffee down her legs.
She reached out and gripped the edge of his coat, the material soft, almost silk like in texture in spite of its woolen appearance. He snapped his briefcase closed and then slammed it down on top of the pile of loose papers on the tabletop and exhaled sharply.
And a blizzard exploded into being inside the coffee shop.
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