Musings, ramblings, etc.
- Death’s Game 24: Delores Garlandby Robert JL Phibbs
There’s a faint beeping. The air is cool. My eyelids are heavy, and my limbs feel like they’re tied down by thick, leather straps. My body aches with a dull but intense pain. It ebbs and flows, but it is always there. I’m dreading what I’m about to see before opening my eyes.
If I hadn’t been such a fool I’d be done with all this. Eyelids open. The ceiling is pale and tiled. If I hadn’t been so greedy it’d all be over. I’m in a hospital bed. My hands are wrinkled, my limbs thin, my joints swollen. I can barely move my fingers, let alone clench a fist. If only I’d just ended it when I had the chance.
You did what any of us would have done, Rebecca says. Don’t you remember what I did when I realized you were in my body?
But if I had just destroyed my anchor, we could all be at peace.
Rebecca falls silent, and the air remains heavy. No matter how you want to spin it, some mistakes are too grave brush away with kind words.
There wouldn’t be any peace with Gerard on the loose, Isabel finally says. Ally, too, for that matter.
Ally. The name is poison to my mind. Fucking Ally.
We’re with you from now until forever, Victoria. Isabel is feigning confidence but I hear a tremor on her voice.
A gust of wind rattles the window above my bed. The sky is dark and angry outside, a blackened void hanging above the lights of the city. Rain pelts the glass. The life-support machines’ beeps fade in and out.
So this is Gerard’s punishment? The body of a terminally ill woman, stuck in a hospital bed, in pain, longing to have the strength to just hurl myself out the window? The Cruel Man better be up here soon, or else I’ll just die of boredom.
I hear stirring behind me in between gusts of wind. Wheels faintly creaking. The subtle scratching of legs rustling through linen. Pained breathing. My neck creaks like the wheels as I turn toward it.
There’s a man in the bed a few feet away from my own. His features are bruised and discolored. His arm is in a sling. Bandages cover his exposed chest and his hair is matted with blood.
The face, what’s exposed of it, twists into a grin. At least, I think that’s what he’s going for, but to be honest I cannot be certain. His eyes are fixed on my own.
“Victoria,” he quietly breathes, “you’re finally awake. I was getting worried.”
The voice strikes a chord. I recognize it at once, while the eyes and, finally, face come along a few beats later. Albert. In the same body as he was during the attack.
“You? What the hell—” A coughing fit cuts me off. “—is going on?”
“You’re in the body of a woman named Delores Garland,” he says, struggling for breath and gesturing to the patient sign hanging against my hospital bed. “Lung cancer.”
He tries to straighten, but groans against his own weight until finally just giving up and lying back down. “To give you a chance.”
“At revenge.” Arm shaking, he reaches into the bag on his bedside table and pulls out a pulsating, glass orb. My heart flutters as it gleams in the light. “This is yours. Gerard can’t hurt you anymore, but you can hurt him.”
“How did you…” Maria’s last moments rush back to me. “It was you who picked it up!”
“Yes, it was.” He looks away, ashamed. “One of my teammates blew himself up with a grenade.” He gestures to the bandages that cover his chest and torso. “Killed just about everyone in the room except for me. Gerard, the people on his team, they just left their hosts. I’m stuck in this body until I can figure out how to get another one of these.”
“What about Gerard’s anchor?”
“That’s the million-dollar question.” Albert says. “I’m such a fool. I really thought we had it.”
“How do I get revenge without it?”
Slowly adjusting himself on the bed, he winces. “We have to find it, but if we do he’s just as mortal as I am.”
I’ll admit I like the prospect or revenge, but I’m exhausted from this whole ordeal. A long, merciful sleep seems more inviting even than anything. “What if I refuse to help?”
He looks taken aback. “You don’t want a chance to live forever?” It’s painfully obvious in this moment that, though Albert is not a monster like the rest of Gerard’s team, he is less like me than he is them.
“Absolutely not. I lost everything I cared about the day Victoria took a bullet to the face.”
He holds out my anchor, grimacing through the pain of moving. “I can destroy this if that’s what you really want, but I just thought you’d be more on-board.”
Victoria, you’ll never be at peace if you don’t bring down Gerard, Isabel says through a pregnant pause.
It won’t matter if I’m at peace, I’ll be dead.
“All you ever wanted,” I say, feeling my old and weary body tremble, “was use me to for your own ends. What about what I want?”
“I didn’t just want to use you.” He holds up the glass orb, pears into it. “But now, you’re the only one I have left. Oswald is dead. My own was destroyed. Not everyone we had on our team was there last night, but anyone who wasn’t can’t be trusted.”
“Do you know who gave him your anchors?”
He looks away in shame. “I have no idea. We hand-picked everyone. I thought we knew who we could trust.”
“Well, you did pick Vaughn and the person who betrayed you,” I say. “Maybe you’re not as good a judge of character as you thought.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind next time I risk my life to save you.”
“You didn’t risk your life, you just passed by on the way out.”
“Look, you’re the only person I have left.” He pauses as though he wants me to consider it. “I’m all alone other than you.”
“Why would I want to risk being under his control again?”
“He wasn’t lying when he said you had talent.” Albert lowers the anchor to his bed. “You’re exceptionally good at this, especially for someone so new to it. I mean, you didn’t give up anything until he put that Ally woman in your head.”
My body is suddenly flush with guilty sweat. “I’m so sorry. She forced it out of me.”
“I know, it’s okay,” he says. I can’t tell how genuinely okay he is with it, but I’m all he has left now so I suppose it doesn’t matter.
“She was a complete psychopath. It was her idea to torture Catarina to try to get information on Gerard.”
“Yeah, I figured after finally meeting you that there must have been something odd going on. I think she was trying to make you lose yourself in the violence so that she could take full control, and it was easiest to attack Cat.” He pauses, a smile stretching across his face. “Thankfully, you didn’t break.”
“So? Gerard still got what he wanted from her in the end, whether I resisted or not.”
“But don’t you see? If anyone can bring him down, it would be the two of us.” He hesitates before continuing, but his voice is quick and excited when he starts up again. “I can train you in secret. He thinks you’re dead, your soul is unbranded, he doesn’t know I have your anchor, and you’re already stronger than someone who’s in the Immediate Family. We could do this.”
I gesture to the orb. “You have my anchor. I don’t. I’m not some tool to be used by whoever controls my soul.”
He looks it over in his hand, then puts it softly on the desk between us, as though it’s fragile and priceless, which it very-well is at this point. It rolls slightly before coming to a rest.
“It’s yours whenever you want it,” he says, leaning back, his eyes shifting from the anchor to my own. “You can destroy it and die within the next week. You can try jumping into a different host. You can leave me here and forgot all this ever happened.”
“But,” he says as I reach toward the anchor, “it would be a waste to do any of that, and you know it as well as I do.”
A rush of familiarity hits me as soon as my fingertips touch the anchor. It feels warm and inviting. It feels like home. I pull it to my chest, caressing it in my fingers. “What happens when I’m done?”
He lets out a long, drawn out breath. “In the unlikely event that we actually succeed, you’re free to do whatever you want.”
The thoughts coalesce for a moment. “If he catches us we’re worse than dead.”
“Yes, I know, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Are you?”
Deep breath. Memories flashing in quick succession. Memories of pain, of loss, of wicked laughter. Memories that make the knuckles of my free hand go white and my jaw clench.
The look he gives me is one of betrayal, and the gasps inside my head are nearly enough to make me change my mind.
“No. I can’t do to someone else what Gerard did to me.”
“But if you’re skilled you can do it without destroying their mind,” Albert protests. “My host is still alive and well.”
“Except you destroyed his body if not his mind, and he has no say in the matter.” Albert glares at me, dumbfounded. “No matter how evil Gerard is, I cannot stoop down to his level and abduct poor souls who have no say in the matter. Find someone else to manipulate.”
Delores’ arms are weak, but strong enough to push my anchor off the bed. The glass shatters, and a cold wind blows out the door.
Chapter 23 here.
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- On Turning Thirtyby Robert JL Phibbs
Apologies up front if this rambles a bit. I have a love-hate relationship with running and have gone through cycles for years where I run all the time and then abruptly stop because it’s so awful. I’ve tried other types of cardio, but nothing else has ever worked as well for me.
I was overweight as a kid, so much so that that I didn’t smile with my teeth in pictures because it gave me a double-chin. In fifth grade we did a time capsule in September to see how much we’d change by the following June. Part of that was a weigh in, and when the kid behind me saw my weight he proudly yelled “Yes! I’m not the fat kid anymore!” These are a couple egregious examples, but just about every day in adolescence included some hit to my self-confidence and mental well-being, and by the time I was in high school I had ballooned despite the fact that I was in multiple sports and lifted weights year-round.
For twelve or thirteen years I was uncomfortable with how I looked, until I made a point of getting into running in college and lost a bunch of weight over the course of nine months. Since I had back surgery in high school, running doesn’t just bring me cardio pain but also sciatic pain as well, which shoots down my legs into my feet and can sometimes be so bad that it keeps me up at night. Of course, the pain is there regardless of whether I’m running, and gets worse with less physical activity, so it’s no excuse not to work out.
As of my thirtieth birthday, which was yesterday, it’s been nine years since that summer where I got intensely into my cardio fitness. Of course as we grow older it’s more difficult to keep up with our physical activity, either because of life or work demands or the general fragility that comes with age. I tweaked my back playing flag football in 2018, for instance, and even two and a half years later the resulting sciatica down the leg I always thought was the “healthy” one is still effecting me.
I write all this preamble not for sympathy but to say that I am not a natural runner or in no way predisposed to being physically fit. Everything I have in my fitness is earned, be it good or bad. It’s been twenty-two years since I first realized I was “the fat kid”, and I suffer minor insecurities every single day that harken back to that time. I’ve gotten good at laughing them off or ignoring them, but they’re still there. What I’ve gotten much better at since college, though, is celebrating the simple fact that I’m out here trying to stay fit when there are so many things in life that encourage us to be sedentary.
I may never have a six-pack like I wanted in high school or college, but that’s never going to stop me from trying. I got a Fitbit a few years ago to track my heartrate, because I figured it was a simple and important way to see how I was doing. I was excited to turn thirty this weekend, if only because I knew it would put me into a new cardio fitness category of men in their thirties instead of twenties. My cardio fitness score is fifty-two, which is good for a man in his twenties. For a man in his thirties, though, which I now am, it’s very good.
It’s almost embarrassing that I care about the Fitbit cardio score as much as I do, especially considering I don’t know any of the science behind it, but I was thinking about it on and off for months leading up to my birthday. I’ll never be the superhuman some of my friends are, and I’ll always have the stretch marks from the near-obesity of my youth, but at the end of the day that fat eight-year-old who didn’t smile in his pictures because of his double-chin has grown into a man who has very good cardio fitness for men of his age. I’m pretty damn proud of that.