Chasing Power (Sample)
Samantha could say, with 98.7% certainty, that she was not crazy. The 1.3% deviation came from the fact that most insane people did typically think they were sane. But in this case, Sam felt reasonably certain she was right.
Her problem lay in convincing the woman standing in her doorway of that fact. The man hovering in the background didn’t bother her. He was a larger man of forty some odd years, actually pretty fit for an on-campus security guard and fairly tall. His prematurely gray hair had been shorn short—definitely a man who took his job seriously. Muscle, Sam thought. He was no threat.
No, the person that she should and would have to focus on today was the one who had knocked on her door, the African-American woman wearing a nice pink blouse. Pink was meant to be a reassuring color, subconsciously disarming aggressive tendencies. Samantha remembered this from the psychology course she’d been forced to take as part of her General Education credits.
This woman introduced herself as Dr. Carson, the head of the university’s mental health facilities, or Beth as she asked Samantha to call her. Samantha preferred to take comfort in formality:
“How can I help you today, Dr. Carson?” she asked.
“Can we come in?” Dr. Carson said, her voice level, nonthreatening.
Sam pulled the dorm room shut behind her with a desperate smile. “I’d like to, but ah, it’s a bit messy in there. Maybe we could talk in the rec room?”
“We don’t mind a little mess.”
This was not a little mess. Sam’s room could technically be classified a disaster area. Broken glass littered the floor along with remnants of coffee mugs and light bulbs. Even her own roommate had decided to take refuge with a boyfriend until Sam could get things under control.
But they didn’t know that. Probably didn’t know that. She hoped to hell they didn’t know that.
“Well, I don’t want to be embarrassed.” Or placed under observation. “Let’s step outside, shall we?” With a smile of her own, Samantha led the woman down the hall to a relatively private area set up for students to gather. She was a senior, but this would be the first time she’d ever used it. Samantha didn’t exactly enjoy company.
She sat down on the stiff campus couch, and Dr. Carson sat across from her, again with a smile.
“Ms. Gibson, this is just a routine check-in. Nothing to be worried about. Very typical.”
It was easy to tell when someone was lying: they stated the obvious. They held their hands out and declared that they were honest; they smiled and told you how religious they were. If it was routine, Dr. Carson wouldn’t have had to say so. The fact that she was telling Sam there was nothing to be worried about meant the exact opposite.
“I understand what happened last week was traumatic for you. It’s not often we are faced with the prospect of death, of our own mortality. And it’s not easy.”
Sam nodded along with the sentiment. Yep, more stating of the obvious.
“So it’s understandable that you may be having troubles readjusting in class. But I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about what happened.”
“I’d rather not,” Samantha said. The woman’s face darkened. Crap, wrong answer. Samantha smiled, looked for the right buzzword: “I mean, I’m still processing everything, you know. Trying to figure out how I feel.”
“It’s a tough time, Samantha. I can work with you, and your teachers, to come to an agreement on what we should do next.”
“Well, we can maybe try some anti-anxiety medication. Or maybe,” seeing the distasteful expression on Sam’s face, the doctor hurried on, “just talking about it would help. It seems possible that you could be suffering from post-traumatic stress. I just want to let you know, if you need help, you can always come by the counseling center.”
Post-traumatic stress. That sounded plausible, but it required follow-up appointments, possibly a regular visit. She didn’t have time for that.
“Sure,” said Samantha, “I’ll think about it.”
Samantha closed the door with a sigh of relief, feeling like she had dodged a grenade. Now she could focus on bigger problems. Like her room. Sam was normally a neat freak, but in the past day or two, she’d started slipping. Or rather, things had started breaking, and she just couldn’t keep up with them.
For example, she owned exactly four mugs. Three of them were now in pieces. One in the trashcan, two on the floor. She’d replaced the light bulbs five times in the last two days, and stray pieces of glass still managed to elude the dust buster. Two dinner plates lay shattered across her desk, though heaven knew how that had happened since she could have sworn they were intact when she’d gone to sleep.
She stared bleakly at the wreckage, wondering where to begin. Her head was starting to ache, a dull throb. No, no, no, she thought, not again. Maybe a nap would help.
Next door, a neighbor blasted Pink Floyd. Sam sat down at her desk heavily, covering her ears. The screechy violin of a music student joined the cacophony, a fourth chair practicing Vivaldi.
Why couldn’t these people just be quiet? Shouldn’t they be packing for summer vacation? Sam clutched the pillow over her ears. What had she been thinking when she decided to live in university housing? No amount of money saved could be worth this torture. In the hallway outside, a guy stumbled past her door and paused to throw up in the hallway, three steps short of a bathroom.
As she shifted again, Sam elbowed the mug of tea on the desk—her last one—spilling black liquid all over her schoolbooks. She leapt up with a mutter of disgust just as the light bulb in her desk lamp exploded, spattering her with tiny shards of glass.
“Damn it!” Doggedly ignoring the voice in her brain that asked what drove light bulbs to spontaneously explode, she brushed the glass off her books, embedding most of it in her arm. Wincing, she groped under the bed for something soft, found an old sweatshirt, and hurriedly mopped up the mess. It was only when she was sure her schoolbooks were safe—she couldn’t sell back ruined books—that she turned her attention to her arm, gingerly picking out the glass splinters.
When she finished, she sat back and stared at the broken lamp. One broken light bulb was no reason to lose it, but this was the sixth this week.
No longer able to handle the constant clamor and howl of the students, or the apparently endless number of things breaking, crashing, and exploding around her, Samantha grabbed her coat and headed for the door. She needed peace and she needed answers, and she could only think of one place to find both: the library.
Samantha kneeled in the dusty stacks of Doheny library, in between two of the countless rows of stainless steel Gorilla shelves filled with non-fiction books and Masters’ theses on just about every subject existing. What seemed to many a dreary labyrinth was to Sam a haven. There was something magical about the smell, the press and weight of so many words and ideas. Here, with possibilities and solutions within reach, her headache at last began to ebb.
Rubbing the back of her neck, Sam pulled a promising title off the shelf—wedged in so tightly she almost pulled the rest of the books off the shelf with it—and rocked back on her heels. She looked through the gap on the shelves.
Only to see someone staring back at her from the other side. The eyes locked with hers. They were the prettiest man eyes she’d ever seen, kind of a light green color. And with the contact came a feeling of something, relief almost. Like a piece of her life had just clicked into place. The suddenness, the completeness, of the connection held her there for a second.
Then Sam remembered where she was: crouched in the windowless fourth floor of Doheny stacks—whose shelves were so maze-like, lines had to be drawn on the floor to guide students back to the elevators—far away from anyone else, having eye sex with a total stranger.
She leapt to her feet, stumbling backwards in her eagerness to escape the connection. Abandoning all the books except the one in her hand, she ran down the row, made a few abrupt turns, and slipped out the emergency exit.
Ten minutes later, safe and sound in the reading room, basking in the warm glow of the tall, stained glass windows, Sam began questioning her rash decision. It wasn’t the connection she missed, she told herself, but the books. There had been some good ones there, darn it. Maybe if she waited long enough, the guy would go away and she could go back and collect those books she’d left behind.
“Advanced Theories on Electromagnetism and the Human Brain. Sounds interesting. Or like a headache waiting to happen.”
Glancing up, Sam found herself looking into those green eyes again. Only now she could see the rest of him. She gasped. Out loud. Embarrassed, she tried to cover herself and wound up choking on her own spit.
Smooth, Samantha thought, really smooth.
“Gesundheit?” he said. Wisely, he did not try and pat her on the back, or Sam might have had a full-fledged stroke there on the spot. Finally catching her breath, she cleared her throat, struggling to regain her dignity. It’s a miracle he’s still standing there, she thought. Cute was an understatement for this guy, but it was all her brain could come up with.
Late twenties. Either a grad student or maybe a young professor, with a wiry but muscular build. Dark brown hair and a self-conscious puppy-dog “please like me” expression. Despite better intentions, Sam found herself smiling back. Right, her good sense chimed in, encourage the stalker. That’s always a good idea. Realizing her little voice had a point, Sam steeled her expression and arched her eyebrow: “Thanks for returning these. But I don’t need a book to give me a headache.”
”Really.” It wasn’t a question, and from his tone, Sam got the impression he’d been expecting that answer. The way you expect the final piece of a jigsaw to slide in to place. An awkward silence descended.
Crud, Sam thought, he’s cute. And he might be flirting with me. How do I handle this? I don’t want him to not flirt with me. Think; what would Annie do?
Damn. Her roommate would lean forward and present her breasts, and Sam didn’t have nearly the décolletage or the absence of shame. She’d have to settle for conversational wit. Yes. Witty repartee. She could do that. Sam cleared her throat, “So, whatcha doing in the library?” OK. Maybe wit wasn’t in the cards for her, either.
“Studying for finals and—holy cow, look at the time!” The man made a show of glancing at his watch in surprise: “Geez, I’m gonna be late for class. Gotta run, but I’m sure I’ll see you again, Samantha!”
“All right, see you—wait a second—” When had she told him her name?Sudden blinding pain shooting through her temple put a stop to the reaction. Sam swore, grabbing the bridge of her nose while flashes of light obscured her vision. When the pain faded, the man was gone and one of the two other students in the library was looking at her strangely.
The world, Sam thought, conspires against me. Sitting down heavily in her chair, she went back to her books.
A few hours later, Sam pushed the heavy inlay door of the library open and blinked in the sudden darkness of the outside world. Checking her watch, she realized that it was already past nine. Oops. Her stomach growled, reminding her that her quest for answers had gotten in the way of dinner too.
Many of the books, like Past Lives and Present Lies, fairly oozed BS buzzwords and magical thinking. But one or two had presented genuine evidence of...something.
Samantha had never really delved into neurology, but the more she learned about the human brain, the more she’d wanted to know.
And so she stayed late, investigating admittedly questionable titles out of curiosity, if nothing else. She waded through the heavy text and multiple citations, hoping to find something that struck a chord of reasonability because...again, her mind came up short of a viable excuse.
Because the whole thing, she finally admitted to herself, was just plain weird. And modern science, as she knew it, couldn’t quite explain the accident, or the headaches, or the myriad other strange things happening to her that all had to be linked somehow—if she could only find the common thread.
Bottom line, Sam was tired of answering “I don’t know.” She was tired of the headaches, of thinking that she might have a brain tumor. She’d always loved solving puzzles, but she enjoyed understanding them more. Finding out how the pieces went together, the logic behind the construction. There was a connection between the exploding light bulbs, the headaches. She knew there had to be, because they’d all started happening after her accident last week.
Intent in her thoughts, Sam almost didn’t notice the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. Years of living alone, however, had ingrained in her a natural caution and suspicion that worked even when her brain was otherwise occupied. She stopped, taking stock of her surroundings. Nothing.
The campus of her school was well lit, creating a false twilight in the darkness. She crossed the college commons now, the flat plateau of the University bookstore steps rising to her left. The well-groomed hedges of a small park to her right. Bending to tie her shoes, she checked out her surroundings. One or two students were still wandering around, grabbing snacks, visiting girlfriends. But then there was one person—definitely not a student.
And it wasn’t the guy from the library, either. Unlikely as it seemed, a man his late thirties, the picture of impeccability in an Armani suit, perfect silvery blonde hair pulled back into a simple ponytail, shadowed her. He sauntered, rather than strode, endeavoring to look casual. But he couldn’t quite disguise the purpose in his steps.
Samantha quickened her own pace, cursing herself for spending so much time chasing dust motes in the library. She didn’t want to lead this man back to where she lived. Because he was following her, that she knew for certain. The way a doe knew a hunter had locked sights on her.
OK, time to think, what was that sensible thing they never did in the movies?
Doing a fast U-turn, she doubled back to the bookstore and took the steps three at a time. Standing at the glass doors, she could see that one or two employees were still closing up at the registers. A security guard was beginning the rounds. Sam began knocking on the door, the sound a hollow bell in the night. The guard looked up and over. Sam made a gesture indicating urgency. She mouthed, “I need help.”
Coming over, the guard unlocked the door.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m being followed.”
“Followed?” The security guard poked his head out the door and made a show of looking around: “Now just who do you think is following you?”
“Him.” Samantha pointed to Armani.
The guard watched as Armani strolled by, swinging a briefcase: “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said, her heart pounding as Armani approached.
“But he’s not even stopping, see?”
Armani passed the building and kept walking. He didn’t so much as glance at Samantha as he continued past them. Within moments, he’d turned a corner and was gone. The guard smiled at her with fatherly warmth and condescension.
“A lot of people take the same routes,” the guard said. “He looks like a finance professor to me.”
“I know every finance professor on campus; he’s not one of them.”
“A guest speaker, then.”
“But he was—”
The security guard raised an eyebrow. Sam sighed: following her or not, Armani was gone now. What difference did it make?
The guard offered to call the campus cruiser for her. Sam refused. She wasn’t that far from her dorm. Besides, she didn’t feel much like waiting forty minutes for the car to arrive, only to get lectured on how not-far it was to her room. Campus cruiser was made up of work study students, reluctant to actually do any of the work they were being paid for.
Taking a deep breath, assuring herself it was only paranoia—not a stretch, all things considered—Sam left the safety of the bookstore.
Five minutes later, her head started to ache again; a dull pounding that numbed her other senses. She tried to tune it out, along with the rest of the world, in an attempt to escape the pain. Ten minutes after that, she realized that somehow, in concentrating so hard on staving off the headache, she’d missed a turn. It was difficult to admit, since she’d walked this route hundreds of times. But everything looked different in the dark. At least, that’s what she told herself as she stared in consternation at a street sign that could have been written in Greek, for all she comprehended.
“Thirty-fifth?” she said to no one in particular, “How did I wind up on Thirty-fifth?” And she didn’t even recognize the name of the cross street.
“Excuse me, miss?” A chill went down Sam’s spine at the cultured voice. “You look a little disoriented.”
Armani stood behind her. A few feet away, smug smile playing on his lips. Heart pounding, Sam took a step back, suddenly short of breath. Armani took a step of his own to close the gap. “Do you need help, miss?”
Sam tried to think of a reply, but the pain in her head blocked out almost all rational thought: “I—no—I just—” She couldn’t even stutter out a protest.
Armani moved forward: “You don’t look too well.”
“Stay away from me,” Sam said, and took another shaky step back from his approach, heart pounding. Her brain may have been addled, but she still knew danger when it smiled at her blandly.
Armani held his hands out: “I only want to help.”
She tried desperately to think of a counterargument, something she could say to make him leave. But he kept advancing, and her headache kept increasing. Stop! Think! But her thoughts were muddied, her head and heart pounded in unison, and Armani was within arm distance, reaching out, and he was going to touch her. No!
Samantha spun on her heels and took off running. She’d sprinted two blocks when she realized the gravity of her error. The streets in this area were more deserted than the last. She fumbled for her cell phone, pulling it out of her pocket and shakily dialing 9-1-1. She waited as the phone rang, and rang, and rang. This was the middle of Los Angeles, and 9-1-1 was giving her a busy signal.
Stupid, Sam cursed to herself, stupid. Stupid. Stupid. She needed to get to a place where there were people, where the apathetic couldn’t just walk past and pretend they didn’t hear her calls for help. She’d have to backtrack. Another block, still no people. How the hell could a city this overpopulated be so deserted? It just didn’t make sense!
Armani dogged her steps, toying with her, taking his time. Digging down into her reserves, Sam put on an extra burst of speed and managed to increase the distance between them—almost half a block now. But the boost had its drawbacks. Sam felt a familiar constriction in her lungs. She reached for her inhaler and realized, with a sinking feeling, that she’d dropped her purse.
Don’t think about suffocating, she told herself, think of where you’re going to go. She could take a turn down the next street. Do a loop and head towards the nearest major street. Maybe she could find a bus stop.
She turned right at the next corner. Spotting an alley, Sam got an idea. He was too far back to see her—she could cut through the alley and retrace her steps. Then, maybe, she could slow down and breathe. Warning bells rang in her subconscious, but Sam ignored them. This was her only chance. It had to work, it would work—aw no.
It didn’t work. Dead end.
Sam stumbled to a stop, wheezing, struggling desperately to get her lungs to absorb oxygen. Little dots punctuated her vision. Dead end? Now that was something that did happen in the movies. Right before the girl was saved by the superhero. Or killed. Depending on the genre.
Sam knew that, with her luck, it would most likely be the latter. Two miracles in one week were more than any mortal could hope for. God, she needed to get out of here, but she couldn’t run if she couldn’t breathe. Placing her hands on her knees, she crouched behind a dumpster and tried to control her wheezing. The dim glow of a streetlight cast a long shadow as Armani crossed the entrance to the alley. Please don’t stop here, Sam thought, please keep going. I’m not here. I’m invisible.
If God existed, he wasn’t listening. Armani turned down the entrance to the alley: “Not too many places to hide? Or is transition just muddling up your mind?”
What the fuck? Sam silently cursed. Wonderful, just brilliant. The disgusting part was that his suit remained impeccable, his hair neat and tidy, and his shoes shiny and unscuffed. Already feeling dirty, exhausted, and shabby, it was enough to make her sick to her stomach. Time for Plan B. Now that there was no use for hiding, maybe false bravado could buy her a chance.
Sam straightened and strode out from behind the dumpster, hands on her hips, a well-practiced glower on her face. “Can’t you just consider me harassed and go back to whatever tacky neo-nazi villain catalog you crawled out of?” She hoped he wouldn’t notice the gasping breath she had to take every fourth word.
“It’s not that easy, Miss Gibson. I gave you the option of coming quietly.” He raised his hand. As ridiculous as it seemed, there was something in that gesture that implied a threat. A lingering potential hummed, malevolent, in the air around it.
They said the best defense was a good offense. Growling, Sam leapt forward, preparing to claw the man’s eyes out, punch him in the groin—whatever, it would come to her and it would be dirty. Instead of forward, however, she found herself flying backwards, colliding with the brick wall. Her head followed in short order, slamming into the implacable wall. She slid to the ground. Mass times acceleration equaled... ouch. Her ears rang.
No. No way had she just magically flown backwards. Sam forced herself to her feet, her brain rushing to find some logic in the situation.
Before it could, something big and metal slammed into her. Sam was thrown to the ground, her legs pinned under the dumpster that, last time she had checked, had been several feet away. And Armani still stood on the other side of the alley. He smiled condescendingly and cocked an eyebrow: “Done yet?”
Again, Sam tried to push herself up. It was no good. Not only were her legs pinned, it was at such an angle that she couldn’t do much more than prop herself up with her arms. Still, she tried to wiggle loose, pushing at the impossibly heavy dumpster with no results.
Ignoring her struggles, Armani made a show of checking his watch. He clucked his tongue. “OK, kiddo, your persistence is admirable but I’m already about twenty minutes behind schedule. Which means I don’t have time for the full theatrics.”
Armani straightened his jacket and dusted off a piece of invisible lint. Without deigning to bend down, he swiftly kicked Sam in the side of the head. Lights flashed, stunning her so she didn’t have a chance to fight back as he placed his alligator loafer squarely on her neck.
“You see, the trick to this little maneuver here is to apply enough pressure to restrict breathing, without crushing the ribs or windpipes. That way it’s not obviously a murder. It’s a little tricky. I admit, I haven’t perfected it yet, but practice makes perfect, they say.”
No way. This was not happening. Sam grabbed at his leg, her mouth opening and closing like a gasping fish on land. Headaches—fine, she could handle that. The accident, the fainting, lights flashing, cups exploding, whatever. But a man who could throw her around without physically touching her? Flying dumpsters? This was taking things too far. She began desperately wishing she had a brain tumor and this was all just a massive delusion. But that would be too easy. Delusion or not, Sam was fading fast. She needed to fight back.
What if—what if she did what she did on the bus?
Except, she didn’t really remember what she’d done on the bus. Just that the world had seemed to slide into focus, that she’d felt a strange energy fill her and—that was it.
But it couldn’t be that hard. After all, if Armani had done it, she could too, right? Spotting a brick a few feet away, she decided it was time to find out.
She focused, attention zeroing in on the brick. She let the anger fill her, the same righteous fury she’d felt on the bus. For a moment, she seemed to feel the pull of something around her, the bend and weft of potential. And then, nothing. The brick stayed put. Maybe she really had been imagining things. Maybe Armani had pushed the dumpster himself. Maybe her seriously deprived brain was playing tricks on her. Maybe this was just the worst asthma attack she’d ever had in her entire life.
Sam’s chest spasmed, working to pull in oxygen. Her lips felt fuzzy and numb. Desperately, she tried to form an idea, some effective defensive action, but her mind blurred. Connections between thoughts faltered. Movements turned choppy. The world became distant.
A homeless man, drunk, rumpled, and bedraggled, stumbled into the alley. Sam’s heart leapt with hope and crashed. A drunk bum was no match for, well, whatever Armani was. Her captor turned, staring with a look of derision. “Leave.”
The bum tripped over a garbage can, falling further into the alley, his words slurred, “I just was wondering if could you... if you maybe could...”
Help me, you idiot! Sam screamed mentally, turn your head! Look at me! Woman dying, ten yards to your left! Please! Tiny little lights danced in her vision, and the world started to spin. Now the homeless man looked in her general direction. Yes, yes! But he only squinted at her, as if he couldn’t quite focus on her face, and half-bent over to regain his balance.
“You should probably go now.”
The drunk held his left hand up, grinning lopsidedly, “Hey man, whatever it is you’re doing, it‘s cool. I’ll be going soon, I was just wondering if, if—Ah hell. I forgot my line.”
The drunk straightened and shrugged, “Oh well.” He brought his right hand up. She caught a quick flash of something—a brick? It was heavy, and dark, and collided heavily with Armani’s face: “Let’s see how pretty you are after that!”
And that, of course, was when Sam blacked out.