Fall seven times,
stand up eight.
Abe Fallows was enjoying the rare winter sunlight in Seattle’s tiny Pioneer Station Park, frequented primarily by drug dealers, the indigent and those hurrying past. While cold, the sun felt warm, the wind wasn’t bad, and he couldn’t spend another day in the shelter. As he lay with his head tilted back, his arms spread wide and his muffler wrapped around his neck, he noticed someone approaching, glancing at the various vagabonds huddling in the small park. Figuring it wouldn’t hurt; he reached for his cup, still damp from his morning coffee from the shelter.
Seeing Abe, the man changed direction, heading towards him. He was older, wearing a dark trench coat with the collar turned up, a gray wool ski cap, and carried a decorated metal cane. He was clean shaven and a bit portly. Abe held his cup up, rattling the change in it. The man smiled, reaching into his pocket.
Abe lowered his cup, not waiting for the donation. “Wait, I know you. You changed your appearance, but I’d recognize you anywhere. You’re—”
“Shh,” Phil said, holding his finger to his lips. “The fewer people who identify me, the better.” Rather than using the cup, Phil handed him a folded bill.
Abe shook his head adamantly, not even glancing at the denomination. “I’m sorry, there’s no way I can take anything from you. You’ve already done so much for so many. You’ve given us all hope.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Phil said, waving the praise aside. “But this isn’t a gift. I’m hiring you. I’ve got a task I need your help with. Ask someone to watch your stuff; just don’t tell them who I am.”
Abe continued shaking his head. “For everything you’ve done for us, I’ll do anything you want for free.” Throwing his blanket off, he used the low brick wall he was leaning against to stand. “Let me talk to Frankie.”
Abe rose, faster than he usually did, but then it wasn’t every day he was visited by someone this important. This was the man who’d single-handedly emptied Philadelphia’s homeless shelters, curing the mentally ill, hiring those without ready job skills, and giving everyone he couldn’t cure hope they might still eventually be. He’d suffered for such largess, as a surgeon brought a suit against him, backed by his hospital, forcing Phil to undergo an unwanted surgery which resulted in the loss of his unique ability to help others. Since then, he’d been in hiding, running from one city to another, avoiding the spotlight, rarely remaining anywhere for long. Always intensely private, he was more upset at his inability to aid those coming to him—even though they asked nothing of him—than he was unappreciative of their admirations. He wanted no recognition, he only wanted to help those no one else could or would. The medical professions’ pills were ineffective, and even then, they were expensive, requiring regular doctor visits which few homeless could manage. Few doctors ever volunteered to meet the homeless on their own turf, treating them as equals rather than creatures of pity or scorn.
Abe wanted to brag, pointing him out to everyone, but was curious what Phil wanted. Abe knew he no longer retained his abilities since his abortive surgery, yet he was also aware Phil was involved in research into the beings he once combatted.
The claims—repeated endlessly by the homeless whenever they met—were that mental illnesses weren’t caused by people’s malfunctioning brains, but by invisible creatures from other worlds who came here only to inflict as much suffering as possible on the poor and destitute. Knowing their afflictions weren’t of their own volition meant the world to the mentally ill, even those with little hope of reaching Phil in Philadelphia. It meant their mental illness was part of a larger war against an alien race intent on mankind’s destruction—recasting the homeless from helpless layabouts to front line warriors combating the invisible aliens the rest of humanity didn’t care about. Realizing that, they refused to give in and accept their depression, schizophrenia or addictions. Instead, they chose to raise their heads, facing their difficulties head on, taking their prescribed medications but arguing with doctors about reducing the amounts to more manageable levels so they could think clearly enough to improve their lives.
Abe was familiar with the mental illnesses, having his own issues. Despite a strong work ethic, an unfortunate incident caused his life to crumble and ever since he’d struggled with them himself, eventually accepting it as his wont in life. Now, however, he knew it was anything but.
“Frankie, could you watch me shit? I’m … going for a walk.”
He glanced up, noting Abe’s benefactor behind him, facing the other direction as he studied the decorative totem poles along First Avenue where it bisected the park.
“You know better than goin’ off with some stranger ya don’t know. He might want anything. We’re best supporting each other.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout ‘em,” Abe assured him. “I knows ‘em. I’d trust ‘em with me life!”
“If you’re sure, though if you ain’t come back soon, I’m calling someone to check on ya.” However, Frankie grabbed his artificial leg, strapping it on so he could reach Abe’s spot if necessary. “Be sure to take your whistle and mace.”
“I will. I never go nowhere without ‘em. My momma don’ raise no fool! And don’ worry, I’ll be back to collect me stuff, though I don’ know how long we’ll be. I thinks he’ll buy me some grub.” That was something virtually all the homeless understood, accepting aid from strangers in the form of food—even if you didn’t completely trust them.
“Just be careful,” Frankie suggested, concentrating on his leg rather than the stranger behind Abe. It was clear he hadn’t recognized him. When Abe turned, Phil was already heading down First Avenue, almost to Yester Way. Worried, Abe trotted after him, not wanting to risk disappointing him.
“We need a quiet corner where we won’t be disturbed,” Phil said as Abe caught up.
“Won’t be disturbed, or won’t be seen?” Abe asked, dropping the poor speech he adopted to fit in with the other homeless. They never trusted the well-educated. Even though he was rusty at speaking in full sentences, Abe was eager to impress Phil.
Abe directed him down James Street, which cut back in a diagonal direction. “I thought you couldn’t do the things you used ta?”
Those two simple words almost caused Abe’s heart to cease. He clutched his chest, jogging forward so he wouldn’t fall behind. This was beyond a mere miracle, this was positive Divine intervention. He didn’t know what he’d done to win this opportunity, but he wasn’t about to squander it by asking stupid questions.
Abe Fallows wasn’t the type people typically granted favors to. A big, stocky man, he served in the army in Afghanistan, tracking down Al Qaeda agents until an improvised explosive incapacitated him. He was medevaced to Germany and then San Antonio, where they performed several emergency surgeries. They’d managed to extract the shrapnel, but they left pronounced scars which disturbed people. Worse, he suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which would throw him into fits of panic at the slightest disturbance, scaring those around him.
Discharged with only a twenty-five percent medical disability, he couldn’t land a job because of his unstable personality and his looks. Unable to work, he lost his home and then his wife. Not wanting to scare those he cared for, he set himself apart and ended up living on the street, which is where he found himself now.
He possessed a large, ugly scar running down the side of his head where they’d operated, something he shared with Phil. The sides of the scar were still an alarming pink. He had another crossing his nose, making it difficult for people to look him in the eyes.
Despite what had happened, he was still a decent man who only wanted a chance to prove himself. Somehow, Phil, a man who’d seen the invisible, saw his hidden potential. He wasn’t about to disappoint him. He may never get this kind of opportunity again.
“There’s no place you won’t be noticed in the park, but there is an alley just beyond the Pioneer Building where the druggies shoot up. Someone might stumble across us, but they’re more interested in a fix than in who we might be.”
“Lead on. Don’t worry about anyone troubling us.” Phil raised his cane. “I have protection.”
Abe turned left at the Marcela’s Cookery into a narrow alley where the tall buildings blocked the sun, allowing the cold to penetrate his heavy coat. As he led Phil down the alley, ending up behind a few empty dumpsters, Phil turned to him. He unbuttoned his trench coat, folding down the lapel hiding his face, and began circling him slowly.
“What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Abe Fellows.”
“Well, Abe, you can’t move, for obvious reasons. I haven’t battled these before, so I’m unsure what to expect. I’m a bit out of practice, but at least they have no reason to suspect I can affect them. What is it you suffer from? I can see the depression, but that’s not as severe as your main concern. Your dragons are few and small, but the others might be tricky.”
“I have PTSD … You’re actually gonna cure me?” Even realizing it was counterproductive looking a gift horse in the mouth, he couldn’t stop himself. “Why me? I mean, no one ever gives me a second glance. I can’t accomplish nothin’ if no one offers me the opportunity.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a full-time job for you. It ain’t always easy, but it’s vital. Here, you’ll need these,” he said, passing him something.
Glancing at it, he saw a tiny bit of plastic and a thin, miniature flashlight. His mouth went dry. He recognized and knew how to use them. He’d heard the stories repeated multiple times. Like everyone with mental illnesses or living in the streets, they recounted them endlessly.
Without warning and with Phil behind him, a knife blade thrust by him. It turned blood red, and without time to think, visions of being attacked flashed through his mind. But before he could do more than flinch, the knife turned silver again, as if by magic.
“I told you not to jump.”
“Sorry, my PTSD makes it difficult for me not to.”
“Well, if you can keep from losing it, I’ll take care of that for you.” Phil continued circling him, glancing at things Abe couldn’t fathom. “They don’t look overly dangerous. In fact, they’re almost lackadaisical—until you jumped, that is. Now they’re alert, ready for anything. Try to relax, maybe with some deep breathing.”
“It don’t help. I’ve tried multiple times.”
“Then think of being free of them. Hopefully that’ll keep you focused.”
“How many are there?”
“Two dragons, but another three … Viking Berserkers.”
Abe turned, considering his savior. “Say what?”
“That’s what I said. They’re wearing fur loincloths, body paint, and they’re carrying swords.”
“It’s not quite what I’d expect, but warriors are … strangely apropos.”
Abe heard a loud ‘thrack’ behind him, followed by Phil muttering, “Oh shit!”
Without hesitation, Abe blew his whistle. Phil’s feet shuffled around, his breath coming faster, so Abe turned to see if he could help.
“I got one, but only wounded it. Your whistle bought me some time. Hold on …”
With little warning, his arm flew out, casting something into the air. It unfolded, ensnaring something Abe couldn’t see, which resisted—trying to escape—but unable to.
“Step on the net,” Phil instructed, no longer as panicked.
“You got it, boss!” Abe grasped the other end of the net hovering in the air which Phil was pulling down. Phil kept yanking his hand away, only to switch hands. Dragging the net down, Abe was shocked how powerful these invisible beings actually were. No one had ever seen them, aside from Phil, so no one had warned him how strong they were. From the descriptions of their size, he’d never expected such brute strength. He realized how dangerous they were, but assumed their danger lay in their claws, speed and agility.
“Be careful, they’re different sizes, so a couple may slip out if given half a chance.”
Instead of acting individually, the berserkers began issuing orders, which the dragons appeared to obey. One Viking pushed forward, chopping at Abe’s fingers with his sword. Seeing its opportunity, the dragon raised up, lifting the net, while the others tried to slither out.
“Geez!” Abe yelled, recoiling but not releasing his hold, pulling back hard enough to knock his attacker off balance. This was too important to surrender, even if it cost him his whole hand.
“Hey, bitch, concentrate on this!” Phil thrust his knife between the netting and the lift keeping it aloft disappeared, causing that section to drop. Abe yanked the net the rest of the way down, jumping back and stomping on it with both feet, spread as far apart as he could manage.
“Sorry about that. Normally they concentrate on me. How badly are you hurt?”
“Not bad,” he said, glancing briefly at his finger. “Don’t worry about me, is the thing secure?”
“Things. There’s another dragon, though it’s wounded, and another …” his cane smashed down, “two berserkers, though they aren’t going anywhere.” Phil seemed to enjoy waiting to act. Abe realized he was tormenting the creatures, the same way they targeted Abe, taking glee in their panic and despair.
“Are you gonna kill ‘em or not?”
“I will, but I want you to experience what we’re dealing with. This is your life from here on out. I selected you, because few people look at you. With you by my side, I’m hoping they won’t look long enough to identify me. While I can fight invisible monsters, your power is granting me your invisibility.”
Abe shook his hand. A line of blood speckled his fingertip. “I’ll need to bandage my finger sometime. I don’t quite live in antiseptic conditions.”
“Not to mention the condition of these creatures. While the dragons groom themselves, the Vikings are a bit … grungy. I don’t think they bathe often.” Phil glanced up, keeping his cane handy in case one tried to escape. “You aren’t injured? He hit you with a two-handed blow with his sword.”
“He drew blood, but for as strong as they are, it did surprisingly little damage.”
“That’s ‘cause they can only partially affect physical things. They can call, prod or pull, but they can’t do much harm. I’ve never known them to cause physical injury to anyone besides me before. I’m guessing he exhausted himself, phase-shifting enough to hurt you. His friends are attacking your boots. Good thinking wearing combat boots, by the way.”
He glanced down. “Yeah, I see the scuff marks, though they’ll have trouble cutting thru the steel reinforcements.”
“What the ‘ell are you doing?” someone in a business suit passing by shouted, causing Phil to glance towards the street.
“We’re attracting attention. I’d like to interrogate these, but we don’t have time. Let’s finish up and get you taken care of.”
Lifting his cane, Phil swung in overhead with both hands, only it never connected with the ground. The net collapsed, though little mice-sized things kept shifting, trying to wrestle free of the fine mesh.
“The dragons are done, I took out another berserker.” He thrust his switchblade forwards, but the blood which appeared disappeared immediately. Phil paused, waving the blade around, teasing his foe, before thrusting forward, the net finally settling to the ground.
“It is. Never having dealt with these before, I’m unsure how much of your problems are due to them and how much is physical brain damage. However, we’ll discover that together. If nothing else, your depression is gone, so you should be able to concentrate again.”
He motioned for Abe to back up. He did and Phil collected the net. “Let’s grab a cab and get out of here. If anyone observed me flashing that knife, the police may come calling. Work on your story in case we’re stopped,” he cautioned, as they both ran for the street.
“It looks like lunch was a good call.” Phil sat back, observing Abe dig into his steak.
“Aside from what the food bank provides, it’s slim pickin’s. I don’t often get real sirloin.”
“Well eat up. You deserve it.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t do much.”
“You’re still learning your way, though you did well on your first try. After you’re done, I’ll take you shopping for some new clothes, but don’t throw away what you have, as you’ll still need them.”
“Trust me, after living on the street for so long, I don’t toss nuthin’.”
“I’ll also rent you a room nearby so you can shower.”
“That’s nice,” Abe said, cutting off another juicy slice. “But I gather you’re building up to something.”
“Alas, I am. While I’m hoping your help will allow me to escape notice, I still don’t dare show my face much. I need you to build a team. At least one other person, maybe two if you think they’re dependable. You’ll be bouncing between parks, but sleeping in the hotel, keeping me apprised of the prime targets—those in the most desperate shape. Once they get the hang of it, I’d like to take a more measured approach. I really want to question these beings, figuring out what each does and what they’re weaknesses are.
“I’ve spent a lot of time considering why I failed—aside from getting caught that is. I’d rather work smarter, taking my time to identify the best strategies, choosing my targets instead of jumping in whenever I meet someone in need. The longer we can avoid exposure, the more I can prepare. Once we do, we’ll be inundated with the curious and the desperate, leaving us little time to think.”
“It sounds like a plan.” Abe set his knife and fork down, considering Phil. “Despite your worries, after that initial scare, I haven’t suffered any more episodes, even though you were fighting for your life. I was trained to react to danger, rushing in when everyone else hesitates.”
“The odds were stacked in my favor, though I’ll be more careful the next time I face those damn Vikings. Your combat experience is encouraging, though I doubt it’ll be necessary. If anything, I need someone to run interference, holding off anyone intervening until I fight off anything attacking me. Unfortunately, that sometimes involves confronting armed cops—putting yourself between them and me.”
“Although I have some scar tissue in my brain, I’m guessing the PTSD is separate.”
“Probably, but I suspect the physical injury opened up a susceptibility, allowing these things to affect you with minimal physical contact. With luck, as long as you don’t open yourself to them again, you should be safe indefinitely.”
Abe motioned for the waitress. “I’ll take the rest to go, thank you. For now, I’d like to clean up and consider possible candidates. Don’t worry, I won’t let you down. How … free am I to select people? I mean, can I include friends just to help them out, or are you worried about the locals noticing.”
“I’m looking to keep a low profile,” Phil said, laying enough money to cover the tab beside his plate. “Previously, I got in trouble trying to do too much, too fast. Now, I prefer taking things slowly, learning as I go so I’m better prepared to make a bigger impact. I trust I can’t keep things quiet for long, but I’d rather remain under the radar for as long as possible.”
“In that case, let’s hit the road. Now that you’ve given me this opportunity, I’m eager to earn my keep. I won’t disappoint you, believe me.”