Short Stories by Rick Jankowski

Speculative and Sensitive Fiction

I've been on a writing hiatus for a few years and wanted the first story I wrote after returning to be a bit edgier and darker.  I also wanted to visit an alternate universe. (For a story that opened a similar writing vein, see my story, Switching Sides.) In this tale, we travel to a different part of the multiverse - one with foreshadowing and symbolism - and crows, lots and lots of crows . . .

Paper Trail

 Curtis bit off a chunk of his burger and dark red sauce trickled from his lips, staining the edge of his scraggly blonde mustache. He took another bite, chewed it with his mouth open and pointed the remains of his sandwich toward the far end of the food court. Barbecue sauce dripped onto the white plastic table top where it pooled into a sticky mess.

“Rick,” he said, the scalp under his brush cut reddening, “I’m telling you that guy in the blue jacket is up to something.”

Rick started to turn in his seat, but Curtis hissed at him. “Look,” he said, “but don’t look. You know what I mean? I don’t want him to know I’m wise to him.”

Rick rolled his eyes, then slowly turned his head. “You mean the skinny guy with glasses, big beak, no chin? The one under the mall’s TV screen? He looks pretty harmless.”

The skinny man looked up from a cell phone and Rick shifted his attention to the overhead TV. On screen, a leggy blonde in a form-fitting black dress and stilettos wiggled into a silver sports car and drove it around evergreen-lined, mountain curves.

“Hey, Ricky, my boy, eyes off the babe on the TV,” said Curtis, snapping his fingers. “Listen, as mall security, I can tell you stories about harmless looking people that will melt your ear wax. And the skinny guy’s name is Avi.”

Curtis shoved the rest of his burger into his mouth and chewed vigorously. His jowls jiggled. He opened his mouth to speak, but a boy with a diamond earring and a girl with a buzz cut squeezed past and sat at a table next to them. A spicy smell filled the air. Curtis’ nostrils flared. “I should have ordered tacos, too.” he said, and then he leaned toward Rick and whispered, “I know for a fact that every night Avi steals old packing paper and broken-down boxes from Macy’s. He’s a clerk there.”

“That really a crime? Sounds more like he’s just taking garbage?”

Curtis chomped on a French fry. “Yeah, that’s what the manager said. She doesn’t give a crap. But I do. I think he’s up to something. Something big. That’s why I hid a GPS tracker in his jacket and snuck one in his car too.”

“You what?”

“I went on-line and bought some state-of-the-art tracking devices from a place called Seifers.com. Got them cheap cheap in the bargain bin, but they’re guaranteed to be undetectable. You slip them where you want them, then sync them with an app you download on your phone. Let’s you track someone to within a foot of where they’re standing. Shows you their surroundings in full color 3D. So this morning, I followed him into Macy’s and when he took off his jacket, I slipped a tracker into his pocket, then I went out to the parking lot, popped the trunk on his car and hid one there.”

Rick crossed his arms in front of his chest. “That seems a bit much – even for you.”

Curtis waved a French fry. “You won’t be doubting me when I get named mall cop of the year and get the thousand dollar award to go with it.”

Curtis stiffened. “Don’t turn around,” he said. “Avi’s done eating and is on the move.”

 Curtis wiped his mustache with a napkin, then brushed crumbs from the table onto the floor and retrieved a leather jacket from the back of his chair. “Here’s where we part ways, Ricky boy. Time to test drive my new high-tech toys. ”

Curtis’ stomach jiggled as he hurried from the mall. The sun was low in the horizon and dark clouds were building in the western sky. He scurried across the blacktop toward a dark blue four door sedan parked under a stand of maple trees that skirted the edge of the parking lot. He opened the driver’s side door, scooped up a pile of fast food wrappers that littered his seat and plopped them onto the passenger side. After settling behind the wheel, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket, set it in a holder on his dash board and swiped through his apps.

“There you are,” he said and he poked a stubby index finger at a black icon with the word, Seifer’s, emblazoned in red script across it. His screen turned white and then the profile of a Bald eagle appeared. An American flag rippled behind the eagle. Slowly, regally, the bird turned its head toward the screen. As it did its features elongated, rippled, changed into those of a man with silver flowing hair and steely, grey eyes.  The man wore a uniform with epaulets on the shoulders, ribbons on the chest and razor-sharp creases.

"Welcome to Seifer’s app, Curtis," the man said. His voice was deep and resonant. “I’m Commander Belial, and I’m here to congratulate you on your shrewd purchase of Seifer’s Nowhere to Hide tracking system. At Seifer’s, we pride ourselves on offering products and services that exactly fit the needs of our customers. For a low, low price, you’ve purchased a device that will bring you the reward you truly deserve. Here at Seifer’s, we know the devil is in the details, so our systems are guaranteed to track anyone or anything anywhere in the world. Each tracker appears as a color coded icon on the 3D animated maps we supply. And these maps are so detailed that you can see road signs and buildings and even interior rooms. Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map has nothing on us. There’s no place in this world that anyone can hide from you. Swipe to the left to access your tracker icons. Then follow your prey.”

“Ready or not, Avi, here I come!” said Curtis. He swiped and a 3D map and two blinking icons appeared. Hey, the blue one looks just like Avi’s car. He laughed. And the green icon is a skinny little guy with a big nose just like Avi. Looks kinda like a bird.

He leaned toward his phone. And that’s the road that runs north of the mall. He must be driving past McDonald’s right now. I can see the arches. The animation looks almost real. This app was worth every fricking dollar.

Curtis shifted his car into drive and stepped on the accelerator. The leaves of the maple trees fluttered, displaying silvery undersides as he sped past. “Mall cop of the year,” he said to himself, “All I have to do is follow the blinking icons and that reward money will magically appear in my PayPal account.”

Glancing at his phone screen, he turned left and, a block later, he turned right. As he drove, winding oak-lined boulevards gradually gave way to gritty congested streets with brick store fronts and narrow gangways. He’s heading into the city, thought Curtis. He extended his arm and patted his cell phone. Doesn’t matter, there’s no place he can hide from me and this little baby.

Thirty minutes later, the blue icon stopped, then the green icon separated from it and moved along a sidewalk.

He must have parked and got out of his car, thought Curtis.   He drove another block, then put pressure on his brake pedal and glided to a stop.  The sun had set. In the gloom, lights from passing automobiles filtered through his driver’s side window, casting half of his face in light and half in shadow.

He’s just around the corner. Best I follow on foot.

Cell phone in hand, Curtis exited his car and hurried down the block. He turned the corner and scanned the neighborhood. Oak trees framed both sides of the street, their branches arching and touching in the middle, creating a shadowy tunnel of green and brown. The homes on the block were dark brick bungalows with cement stoops. The light of evening television shows flickered from their picture windows, casting an eerie blue light upon the cement sidewalks. High in one of the trees, a crow cawed in annoyance as Curtis stalked into his kingdom.

Curtis glanced at his phone. On the backlit screen he saw a door open and close. He glanced up. There’s his car, halfway down the block. He must have gone into a house, but which one?

As Curtis moved down the block, a front door opened. Avi stepped out and glanced Curtis’ way. Curtis scurried behind a tree and stood with his back against it, breathing hard. Almost saw me, he thought. Then he smiled and brought his phone screen up to his eyes. Don’t have to be out in the open to watch him though, do I? On screen, he watched Avi’s icon slide toward the car. The icon hovered for a minute, then it slid back toward the house. A moment later, it slid toward the car, then back toward the house, then back again.

It’s like watching an old pong game, thought Curtis. Cautiously, he craned his neck around the tree and observed Avi retrieve several cardboard boxes from his car, balance them precariously in his arms and carry them towards the house. As Avi approached the steps, a breeze kicked up and the top box teetered. A scrap of brown packing paper spilled onto the ground. Avi quick-stepped and stomped a foot on the paper to keep it from blowing away. Then he set the rest of the boxes down, and on bended knee, gathered the errant scrap. He folded it carefully in half and then in half again before he tucked it back into the box. He scanned the ground for anything he’d missed, then picked up his stack and disappeared behind the front door.

Avi, thought Curtis. What are you doing? What’s so dang important about a scrap of paper?

Curtis edged close to Avi’s car and peered in. Completely empty. All the paper he took must be inside. He checked his phone. On screen, Avi’s icon moved down a hall.  He’s walking through the kitchen, thought Curtis. There’s the fridge and stove. And there’s a couple of doorways. Probably lead to bedrooms. The green icon stopped. Hmm, another door. It’s got a window in the upper half. A rear entrance? Must lead to the back yard. Curtis watched the icon retrace its path, once, twice, three times. The icon finally stopped for a few moments near the back door. The door swung outward and…

“Dang it!” shouted Curtis, his face turning scarlet. He tapped rapidly at his screen. “It’s gone,” he said to himself. “The icon is gone.” He scrolled down until he saw blue. The car icon is still there. Where’s Avi’s icon? He bit his bottom lip and tapped at the screen again. Of all times for this thing to stop working.

He closed the app and then re-opened it. Darn, still gone. No time to reboot, but when I get home, I’m gonna call Seifer’s and blister someone’s ear. Well, I can still do this the old-fashioned way.

Curtis surveyed the house. Curtains are drawn. He can’t see me. He glanced around the left side of the house. A small window, but no door on this side. Scuttling a few steps to his right, he peered into a gloomy gangway. No door here either, but there is a privacy fence. What is ol’ Avi hiding? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

He crept down the walkway. High above, the crow began to caw. Curtis glared into the night sky. Shouldn’t you be asleep like a good little worm-eater? He bent, found a rock and flung it into the tree. The crow fled to safety across the street. From high in its new perch, it scolded him. Curtis slowly extended the middle finger on his right hand and then continued his path to the back of the house. Weeds curled across a narrow sidewalk and the smell of mold filled the air. He stopped when he reached the fence. It was over six feet tall with tightly butted wooden pickets. There was a gate set in the middle.

Too high to climb over. But maybe… He pushed the gate. It creaked open. Some security fence. People are so stupid, he thought. He slipped through. Looking at the back of the house, he blinked rapidly and placed his hands on his hips as he stared at a blank, brick wall.

Where’s the fricking door?  He thought

***

            The rain fell gently from a rock-colored sky. Inside his car, Curtis reached for a paper cup, brought it to his lips and grimaced. He lifted the lid, added a packet of sugar, sipped and smiled. The inside of his windshield fogged, so he cracked open his window. His windshield gradually cleared. He powered on his phone and the blue and green icons appeared.

            The reboot seems to have worked, he thought. He watched Avi’s icon move around the kitchen, then roam to one of the bedrooms. After a few minutes, it floated toward the front door. Curtis slumped in his seat. Between the gaps in his steering wheel, he watched Avi step out of the house, pause to check his cell phone, and then walk to his car. Curtis laughed aloud. Avi, man, you got the skinniest dang legs.

            After Avi drove down the block, Curtis rummaged through a small black case and retrieved a set of flat, metallic tools. Sometimes you’re the cop and sometimes, when your prey is on his way to work, you’re the burglar. He selected a tool and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Exiting the car, he strode briskly. The sidewalk was slick and his shoes slapped the pavement. He glided down the block and around the side of Avi’s house. He stopped near the small window and inserted his pick into the latch. After a couple of seconds, the latch opened. He grasped the sill, tugged and the window slid noiselessly upward. He returned his tools to his jacket pocket and climbed inside.

            Tiny bedroom, thought Curtis. Single bed, small dresser and a night stand. He rifled through the dresser drawers. Ol’ Avi doesn’t own much - some socks, underwear, a couple pairs of pants and a phone charger. Curtis poked his head into a second bedroom. Completely empty. He checked the living room at the front of the house. A sofa, chair and clock, but no TV, no stereo, no art work, no personal pictures, no plants, like he doesn’t really live here. A wooden floorboard creaked and the sound echoed as he hurried toward the back of the house, where his app had shown him …

“Are you kidding me,” he said aloud. The app was right. There was a door. He touched it. It’s solid, real, made of aluminum. He ran his fingers through his hair and his heart beat madly against the inside of his chest. His hand trembled as he reached for the handle. What am I scared of? It’s just a door.

He turned the handle, swung the door open and stepped forward. His knees buckled and he grasped the door frame. Whoa, he thought. Everything’s spinning. I think I’m gonna heave. He staggered forward, gagged and swallowed hard. That’s a little better. He took a deep breath and another step. Much better and the room has stopped spinning. Must have been that coffee on an empty stomach. Got to cut back. He rubbed his face with his hands and then looked around. What the? This isn’t Avi’s yard. It looks like some kind of warehouse. He looked up. A couple of stories high and filled with stacks and stacks of paper. Where am I? He touched a nearby stack. Hey, this looks like Macy’s logo. It’s the stuff Avi’s been stealing. He’s obviously been at this a long time, but …

There was a scraping sound behind him and then a small throat-clearing cough. A flush spread across his face and he turned slowly around.

“Dang,” said Curtis, his voice rising an octave. “I thought you were at work.”

Avi stood in the doorway, a blue-black crow sat on his shoulder. Its pupils constricted, the crow bent his head, opened its beak, and hissed.

“What are you doing here?” said Avi, his mouth a gash in his face.

“Take it easy,” said Curtis, eyeing the crow. “I can explain.”

The crow hissed again. Avi caressed the bird’s head. “Otto doesn’t like you. Seems the two of you had an encounter yesterday. Not a good idea. Otto holds grudges and his beak is razor sharp.”

Otto fanned his tail feathers, leaned forward and cawed loudly. As he did, Curtis stepped backward and bumped into a stack of paper. The pile tumbled towards Avi, who raised his hands above his head to protect himself. Screeching, Otto flapped his wings and flew toward the ceiling, alighting on a steel cross beam. As Otto screeched from his perch, Curtis turned and sprinted down an aisle, knocking over stacks of paper as he fled. Stomach jiggling, he dashed to the end of the row, turned and ran down another aisle. Stacks of newspapers towered above him. Finally, breath ragged, heart beating madly in his chest, he stopped and listened. Nothing, no footsteps, no cawing crow, I must have lost them. He took a deep breath, exhaled and then pulled out his cell phone. He checked his tracking app. Dang, he thought, it’s not working again. He took another deep breath. I need to get out of here before that freaking crow comes looking for me. That feather-head is nasty.

Curtis peered down a corridor. There. At the end of the aisle. A set of double doors with light streaming in. Might be a way out. Staying close to the stacks of paper, he hurried toward the doors and pushed them open. Once outside, he stopped and surveyed his surroundings. His right eyelid quivered and he clenched and unclenched his fists. He stood on a wide terrace with a low metal railing. Overhead, twin suns blazed in a violet sky. Otto perched on the railing, his head tilted to one side. The suns glinted in his ebon eyes. Next to Otto stood Avi. He whistled, a high shrill whistle, and dozens of crows landed on the rail. They jostled one another for position, making clicking sounds that rattled in their throats. Avi caw, caw cawed and they grew silent, their pinpoint eyes trained on Curtis.

Curtis’ back stiffened and he glowered at Avi. “A warehouse crammed with paper. A sky out of Star Wars. Where am I? And how did you find me? I didn’t see you or that dang crow following me?”

Avi narrowed his eyes. “You think you’re so smart? Planting tracking devices on me? Well, I know more than you.” He retrieved a cell phone. “Otto’s a great friend and a good sentry, but he can’t do what the latest tech can.” He turned his phone toward Curtis, who leaned forward to view the screen.

“Seifer’s App!” said Curtis, his shoulders slumping. “You tracked me through the warehouse?”

"Check your jacket pocket."

Curtis hesitated, then slipped his hand into his pocket. Using thumb and forefinger, he retrieved a silver strip.  "A tracker," he whispered. "Thinner and shinier than the ones Seifer's gave me."

“I bought the deluxe inter-dimensional version, so I could find you anywhere in your world or in mine.”

“What are you talking about?”

Avi whistled, a long low whistle. Several crows sidled along the railing, creating a space in front of Curtis. Avi tilted his head. “Look and learn.” 

Curtis moved to the end of the terrace and peered over the edge. In the sky, starlings created intricate and hypnotic patterns as they murmurated between tall glass and silver buildings. To his right, a deep blue body of water rose to meet the horizon. Below him, cars glided on asphalt roads. He furrowed his brow and turned toward Avi.

“It looks like downtown Chicago. But it ain’t, something’s wrong - I mean besides the two freaking suns!”

Avi’s voice softened. “You’re right. This is Chicago, but my Chicago, not yours. That’s Lake Michigan. Seifer’s is here too. It seems to be in every universe. They sell cool stuff, but you have to pay close attention to what they tell you or things can go very wrong.”

Curtis’ voice became a whisper. “Two Chicago’s? How in the world?”

 “You almost got that question right, but it should be ‘how in the worlds’.” The door in my house is a portal. You found it with your app and crossed into an alternate universe. And, while lots of things in my dimension are the same as in yours, there are differences. Besides the suns, I mean. Take another look.”

Placing both hands on the railing, Curtis stared at the city. The crow nearest to him edged closer and sharpened it’s beak against the metal.

“I don’t… wait a minute.” He pointed. “There’s Buckingham Fountain, but there’s no Grant Park. It’s all cement. There’s no trees.” He craned his neck over the side. “There’s no green anywhere.”

Avi’s head seemed to sink into his shoulders. “In your universe, millions of years ago, you evolved in parallel to primates. Here things are different. Somehow, eons ago, avian DNA ended up in our strands.” He stroked Otto’s head and Otto clicked his beak and nuzzled him. “Crows have generational memories and sometimes I hear them chatter about ancient realm hoppers who traveled the dimensions and experimented with the creatures and humans they encountered. Crows do love to tell tales, but this story might be true. A dimension traveling race may have altered us – or maybe you were the ones altered. If they could surf from dimension to dimension, imagine what they knew and what they could do.”

Curtis looked back at the double doors. “All that paper,” he said. “What’s that about?”

“We’re humans similar to you, but because of our avian background, we nest,” said Avi. “And, over the eons, we’ve used most of our trees and bushes and grass to make the material we need for our young. We always need more, so I travel the multi-verse in search of it. It’s made me rich.” Avi rubbed his neck. “And tired. I thought I was the only one in both our worlds who knew how to travel between the dimensions. And now, here you are and I don’t know if I can allow that.”

Curtis swallowed hard and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his neck. He took a step toward the double doors, but several crows hopped between him and escape. Avi cawed, the crows answered and the sound echoed through the city. The crows surrounded Curtis. Their beaks clicked and their throats rattled as the light from the twin suns glinted off their razor[R1] -sharp beaks.

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Curtis, holding the palms of his hands toward Avi. “Wait a minute. I’m getting an idea.  You’re a smart business man and me, I’d follow a buck to the end of the earth - and with the right tech, even further…

The crows hopped closer.  “Talk fast,” said Avi. “The crows really don’t like you.”

***

“Yeah, babe,” said Rick, tapping his earbud, “I’m on my way. If I make all the lights, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Rick depressed the accelerator, then a few seconds later his car shuddered as he jammed on the breaks. “Dang, babe. Just got caught at that long light on Southwest Highway. It might be twenty-five.” He glanced at the car in the lane next to him. His eyes opened wide and he laughed. “Babe, you should see the car next to me. It a freaking hoarder mobile. The whole thing is filled to the roof with paper. There’s a teeny little space for the driver to sit. I’m gonna inch up and see what kinda weirdo… Whoa, babe, I’ll call you back. ”   

Rick beeped his horn and depressed a button. His passenger side window slid noiselessly down.

“Yo, Curtis,” he yelled.

Curtis glanced out of his window, then lowered it. “Hey, Rick,” he said. “Been a while.”

“Yeah, months. We thought maybe you got arrested or went to Afghanistan to do contract work or something. You dropped off the face of the earth.” Rick pointed an index finger at Curtis’ car. “What’s that all about?”

Curtis lips curved upward. “This, Ricky boy, is the pot of gold. I’m in the import- export recycling business now. Made a deal with a guy and got a huge territory – worldwide. I convinced him to concentrate on exploring other areas. He said if I do well, he’ll add new dimensions to my work. Oops, light changed. Gotta go. Boss has his way of tracking me.”

As Curtis pulled away, Rick tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. Peeking out of the paper- crammed back window of Curtis’ car was a huge blue-black crow. A silver strip glinted around its right leg.  The bird turned pinpoint eyes in Rick’s direction, opened its beak and cawed.