The following is the first chapter of an original tale by yours truly. Fan fiction can be fun, but this story is where my heart truly lies. The best way to describe it is Samurai Jack meets Doctor Who with a dash of Harry Potter.
"Where the hell is the fire department!?"
As the Old Man looked at the burning apartment building, flames erupting from its windows like fiery spirits, he wondered the same thing. His daughter and he made their way through the crowd gathered to watch the spectacle, trying to get a decent view. He didn't know what it was about tragedy; something about it always fascinated him. Throughout his entire life, he was glued to the news reports about various events such as the 2001 Attacks, the Spill of 2010, the Poverty Riots of 2017, the Second Revolution of 2024-2027. He didn't enjoy the tragedies, far from it; he just appreciated the interruption to the monotony of his life.
The air was filled with the foul odor of toxic smoke and the roar of the flames. The people around the Old Man were chattering amongst themselves excitedly; he supposed they were as taken with tragedy as he was.
"— jah!? Where's Elijah!?"
The Old Man almost ran right into a woman who was nearly hysterical. She frantically grabbed the collar of his coat. "Please! Have you seen a young boy? He's about seven years old, with a blue Fox Squad shirt and green sweatpants! He has curly black hair!"
Images saturated the Old Man's mind; images of him pushing the woman to the ground, laughing at her grief, telling her that her boy was probably burnt to a crisp because she was too stupid and selfish to make sure he got out safely. Only, the Old Man knew these images were not of his creation. It was the Shadow, trying to make the Old Man believe he really was such a despicable person.
Fighting the darkness, the Old Man gently grabbed the woman's shoulders. "Calm down. Where did you see him last?"
"He was in his bedroom!" the woman sobbed. "When the fire alarm went off, I yelled at him to come with me…I assumed he was right behind me!" Tears ran down the woman's face, and the Old Man felt for her. He looked at his daughter. If she had been in the apartment building, he would feel the exact same way.
"Why didn't you go back and get him?" he asked the woman. It came out more accusing than he intended.
She looked down, her face sagging with shame. "I…I can't."
"Why not!?" the Old Man snarled.
"Because I'm scared, all right!?" the woman snapped. "I don't want to die!"
"But it's okay for your son to?" The words left his lips before he could stop them. Damn you, Shadow!
"Jesus, Dad!!" the Old Man's daughter said.
The hysterical mother struck the Old Man across the face, hard. He knew he deserved it, no doubt there. "How dare you!?" the woman hissed through her tears.
The Old Man felt his face redden in shame. "I'm sorry…that was uncalled for, and I shouldn't have said it."
The woman glared at the Old Man and stormed off.
"What the hell is wrong with you!?" the Old Man's daughter asked, her eyes venomous.
He didn't answer; he just looked at the distraught mother's heaving back. He wished he could have explained everything to his daughter. Somehow, though, he didn't think telling her he had voices in his head would go over very well.
The Old Man looked at the building again, the smoke shrouding it like a dark embrace. Flames were shooting out of almost every window. He didn't hear any sirens. He thought of his daughter and granddaughter. What would he do if they were the ones in there?
He took his daughter's hand. She tried to pull away, but his grip was like a vise despite his seventy-one years. "You're a great kid, you know that? You've made me damned proud."
"Dad?" the Old Man's daughter asked, uncertainly.
He just smiled, and hurried over to the mother. "What floor do you live on?" he asked her, his heart beating fast. Am I really about to do this!?
The woman stopped, turning around. "Why does it matter to you?" she spat.
The Old Man's heart felt as though it would burst out of his chest; his stomach was doing calisthenics. "I'll get him for you."
The woman stared at him. "What?"
"What?!" the Old Man heard his daughter gasp.
"I will. I'll get him for you." Despite feeling as though he was going to vomit, the Old Man felt determination and purpose he had not felt in decades.
The Old Man's words finally received a small smile from the woman. "I appreciate the offer, I really do. But you look like you're about seventy years old."
"Seventy-one. What floor do you live on?"
The woman shook her head. "You'll never make it."
"Neither will your son if no one helps him. Look, this isn't the first choice for me either. But the firefighters aren't here, and your son is running out of time."
"I have a daughter and granddaughter myself. Do the math. Now what floor!?"
The woman just stared at the Old Man for a moment. The Old Man noticed the entire crowd was watching the two of them silently. Looks of disbelief were on most of their faces. A couple of them even made snide comments. Something about "decrepit" and "zombie."
Finally, the woman nodded. "All right. We live on the fourth floor. Apartment 402."
"Thank you." Shit, I didn't really expect her to cooperate. Now I suppose I'll have to do this. What are my options?
The Old Man closed his eyes, thinking. I need something to filter out the smoke. He saw a young woman with a bandana. "Can I borrow that?" the Old Man asked, gesturing to the girl's bandana. The girl took the bandana off, handing it to him.
The Old Man saw a man with a water bottle. "I need that," the Old Man said, grabbing the bottle. Empty. Damn it! "Does anyone have a full water bottle?"
A couple of teenagers handed over their bottles, and the Old Man soaked the bandana. He took off his coat, leaving him clad only in a loose-fitting hoodie and sweatpants. He soaked his clothing as well, then walked to the front of the crowd. As he gazed up at the inferno, he questioned his own sanity.
"You won't do it," the Shadow rasped in the Old Man's mind. "You're a coward, and always have been. You'll just stand there. You won't risk your life for someone who's already dead."
"This is your chance," the Eagle's voice, filled with thunder and wisdom, boomed within the Old Man's head. For his entire life, the two voices had spoken to the Old Man, trying to get him to do either good or evil.
I'm scared, Eagle, the Old Man thought to the spirit.
"I know. Decide what to do about that fear."
"You don't want to die," the Shadow hissed. "Think about what you would be giving up!"
The Old Man considered the Shadow's words. He thought about going back to his dilapidated one-bedroom apartment, as he had every night for forty years. He thought of his daughter and their constant fights. His granddaughter in college in Florida. The cancer ripping his body apart, how exercise was just barely keeping it at bay. There were gene therapy treatments, of course; but the idea of living another century repulsed the Old Man. He knew there were better worlds, better lives, out there. He wanted to experience them, more than anything.
The Old Man turned to his daughter. She shook her head. "Dad, no. Please."
"I have to."
His daughter's eyes were misting. "Why…?"
"You know why."
"But…I need you." The words were hollow. The Old Man and his daughter both knew she hadn't needed him in over thirty years.
The Old Man kissed his daughter's forehead. "Damned lucky, you know that?"
"That even in this hell, I managed to get the perfect daughter."
Then he was running, ignoring his daughter's screams to come back. He heard cries of "stop, idiot!" and "damned fool!" from the crowd, but he was already almost to the entrance of the building. As he bolted through the as-yet unsinged door to the apartments, he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and tied the damp bandana around his face, covering his nose and mouth.
The hallway was smoky, but the Old Man didn't see any flames. He stayed low, trying to keep his head at an angle to prevent the smoke from irritating his eyes. He reached the stairs and hustled up the steps as fast as his aged body would allow. He liked to think he kept in decent shape, but the reality of his age was not lost on him. The days of bounding up the stairs two or three at a time were long over.
As he took the final step onto the fourth floor, he was greeted by a hallway wreathed in flame. He sprinted down the hall, dodging falling plaster bombs and burning beams. The heat was horrible, but after spending an hour in subzero temperatures, the Old Man was almost relieved for the heat.
He arrived at the woman's apartment, nearly tripping over a ladder left laying out in the middle of the hall. The door was wide open, no doubt left ajar by the woman in her haste to escape; the Old Man rushed inside.
The entire apartment was falling apart. The Old Man could barely see, the smoke was so thick. The heat was nearly intolerable; the flames were illuminating the apartment very well, though.
"Help!" The child's voice was coming from one of the bedrooms, and the Old Man hurried over to the room, weaving in between blazing furniture. His feet were sweltering from the heat of the fire in the apartments below, and he fought the urge to pass out.
The Old Man saw the kid huddled in a corner by the window of the bedroom. The boy's eyes were wide with terror, his mouth locked in screaming. A burning beam had collapsed in the middle of the room, cutting off the boy from the door.
"Hang on, kid!" the Old Man yelled over the chaos around them. "I'll get you out of here!" Somehow.
The child's eyes widened even more. "Wh-who are you?! Where's my mom?!"
"Tell him. Tell him his mother is a coward who left him here to die," the Shadow hissed.
No. No way. I'm better than that. "She's safe, and outside. She would have come back to get you, but she breathed in too much smoke. So you'll have to make do with me."
The boy's expression brightened a little. "Okay! Get me out of here!"
The Old Man looked around the apartment, searching for anything he could use as a lever to get the beam out of the way. The Old Man finally found a long steel pipe laying on the floor, after what seemed like hours of looking. He carefully touched it with the back of his hand. Fortunately, it was only a little warm. The Old Man picked up the pipe and a piece of wood and hurried back over to the bedroom. He wedged the pipe between the beam and the floor, and put the board under the pipe where it met the beam. The Old Man took a deep breath, coughing from the smoke, and pushed with everything he had.
The beam didn't budge.
"Now you see. You are weak. The kid will die, and so will you," the Shadow laughed.
The Old Man tried to ignore the Shadow's words, focusing on the pipe. He tried to lift the beam out of the way again; again, he failed. Damn it!
"Dude, you're useless!" the kid snapped.
Useless. The kid's right, I am, the Old Man thought, sinking into the quicksand of self-pity. Always have been. Sometime you can't win, no matter what you do. No matter how hard you try, regardless of how persistent you are, you always fail. That's the real world; it doesn't have a neat beginning, middle, and end like fiction does. Most of the time, people just fade away like morning fog against the afternoon sun. I could give up. My body certainly wants to. I could walk away, let this kid burn to death.
The Old Man blinked, fighting his growing despair. I'd just kill myself anyway, for failing to save him. I failed so many people in my life, especially myself. Just for once, I want to do something right with my life.
The Old Man pulled the pipe out a bit, so that as little of it as possible was under the beam. He pushed as hard as he could, and with a crash, the beam dislodged and hit the floor. At the same time, the Old Man felt his shoulder pop. Figures. Pain shot down the Old Man's arm as he dropped the pipe. Suddenly, there was a creak and loud groan, and the beam went right through the floor, leaving a gaping hole filled with fire.
The kid and the Old Man looked at the hole, then at each other. "What's your plan now, genius?" the boy asked, with more than a little attitude.
"Shut up," the Old Man snarled without thinking. He looked around the living room again. As he looked around, the kitchen burst into flames, the fire spreading quickly across the living room. "Crap!"
There's got to be something I can use to help this kid across the hole! He looked around desperately; a glint through the apartment door caught his eye. "The ladder!"
The Old Man grabbed the ladder, and pulled it into the apartment, into the bedroom. He scooted one end across the hole. "Take the end!" he yelled over the inferno.
The kid shook his head. "You're crazy!"
"Fine! Sit here and die then!"
The kid grabbed the end of the ladder. The Old Man knelt on his end. "Okay, now come on!"
For once, the kid did what he was told without lip. The boy crossed the ladder quickly, and with a sweep of the Old Man's arm, he guided him out of the apartment. As they ran down the hall, the Old Man heard a wall burst behind them. "Keep moving!" he shouted as they reached the stairs.
They flew down the stairs, and the Old Man was thankful that for once, gravity was working with him instead of against him. The kid and the Old Man rushed down the hall, coughing from the smoke.
"There's the door!" the kid yelled.
The Old Man heard a sickeningly familiar creak and groan above them. "Shit!" The Old Man swore, shoving the boy out towards the door just as the ceiling collapsed. The Old Man tried to get himself out of the way too, but was knocked to the ground by a pile of flaming plaster, steel and wood. He felt something tear through his body even as he was pinned to the floor. The heat was excruciating. The Old Man strained to look through the fire between himself and the door, and saw the boy running across the parking lot without so much as a glance back. You're welcome, the Old Man thought bitterly.
He didn't know if he was screaming. The pain was overwhelming every other sense. What's going to happen to me? Am I going to cease to exist? Am I going to another Hell? Christian Heaven? Muslim Heaven? Eagle, help me!
No answer. The Old Man felt the laughter of the Shadow in his head. "I give you this last chance. Accept me as the true God, and I will allow you to ascend to my Kingdom."
The Old Man hated the part of him that wanted to accept the Shadow's offer. The Shadow had made the Old Man's life hell since he had been a Young Boy. At this point, nonexistence would be blissful by comparison and another hell would just be redundant. No, Shadow, the Old Man thought through the agony. I'd rather cease to exist than accept you as any god, let alone mine.
The rage of the Shadow was primal. It was as though a tornado was twisting around the Old Man's body, howling winds tearing into his soul. He felt himself grow lighter and the world fade into nothingness...