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© 1996-2010
æthereal FORGE ™

The MUD Slide

Iconoclast -- "The Laundrymen"

The Laundrymen...by aeon

A hawk shrieked from somewhere beyond the treeline as the first few raindrops hit the windshield of the old gray pickup truck, running slowly down before dripping off and spattering the ground with dirty little plips. The smell of decaying pine trees hung heavily in the air, mist curling like curdled cream around the truck's tires as the sun peeked over the horizon. Despite the early morning chill, the air was already a thick soup of moisture and mosquitoes that threatened to get much, much thicker.

Two men emerged from the woods, walking quickly to avoid the coming storm. The taller of the two pulled a key from the pocket of his dull gray coveralls, sliding it into the driver's side door and quickly hopping inside, leaning over to unlock the other door. The second man walked to the back of the vehicle, opening the tailgate and tossing a large laundry bag into the enclosed bed, shutting it and heading over to the passenger side of the vehicle. Every movement was crisp. Precise. Practiced. But urgent. By the time the shorter, broader man had leapt inside and slammed the door, both the truck and the thunder had started rolling.

The driver sat slouched in his seat to keep his scabbed head from brushing against the pickup's rusty roof, but as the truck bounced its way down the trail, rain and mud spattering the windshield, his head hit the ceiling, opening old wounds and creating new ones. He grimaced and did his best to ignore the hurt, readjusting his dark sunglasses and glancing over at his companion.

His stocky companion didn't see the glance. He was staring out the window, left hand holding the dash for support, right hand busy clasping a bloody handkerchief to the back of his bald, scarred head, elbow dangling outside the open window. Aside from less hair and more mass, he might have been the exact twin of the driver, as they both wore the same loose gray coveralls, the same muddy boots and, despite the gray weather, the same black sunglasses.

The truck bounced one last time as it hit the bottom of the hill, groaning as it hit a small ditch and lurched violently onto the paved road that surrounded the slope. Both men breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief, muscles relaxing only slightly. If they'd made it this far, they might very well make it all the way. But only if their luck, and their meager supply of gasoline, held out.

Realizing that it was safe to let go of the dashboard, the smaller man reached down and turned on the radio. Country-western music crackled its way from a single broken speaker in the door, but the noise filled a void that neither of them had known was there, helping to cover up the sound of the rusty muffler. What it didn't cover up was the screaming from the back of the truck, which they ignored. They were still being pursued, and the need for distance outweighed her need for comfort.

She would soon learn that there were worse things than discomfort.

She screamed and cried for the next thirty miles, her screaming the only noise that increased in intensity as they drove. The rain spent itself quickly, turning into a constant drizzle that kept the windshield clean and helped clean off the mud that had caked the entire truck. Even the static on the radio faded away as they drove downhill through the thick forest, ears popping as they got lower and the morning air grew thicker and hotter. Twenty minutes later, the trees thinned out altogether, leaving them amid a thick murky soup of humid air and a few small homes that marked the outskirts of Killhawk, Pop. 1,745.

Just in time, too. Their luck may have held, but their gas was almost gone, so the driver pulled to a stop in front of a small laundromat before the fuel line went dry.

Grabbing identical gray caps from the dashboard, the men exited the truck and walked to the back, the taller grabbing the kicking, screaming bundle and the other grabbing an empty 3 gallon fuel canister. A wordless agreement took place, and the shorter man walked quickly towards the nearest gas station, while the driver slammed the tailgate shut and carried the squirming laundry bag towards the laundromat, praying that it would be empty at 11:00 on a Sunday morning.

It was not.

Icy cool air from an overworked air conditioner turned the beads of sweat on his neck to ice as he peered around, looking for security cameras. There were none. Sensing his relief, and feeling the cooler air already, his "passenger" stopped squirming and allowed herself to be carried inside and set down on the floor. Across the room, the laundromat's other adult occupant was currently fussing with her barefoot daughter's bloody nose. Both looked to be walking that increasingly thin line between middle class and poverty level; worn faces, worry lines and plain, worn clothing told a story filled with plenty of small, harsh words and gray pictures.

"Didn't I tell you not to use your sleeve? Didn't I? Now look? I have to wash this again. I don't want to be here all day young lady." The girl moaned as her mother grabbed the sleeve of her dress, lifting the girl off the floor for a moment before her arm shook free and the dress slid off her head, leaving her naked but for a pair of white panties. The 4 year old had barely begun to shiver with cold before her mother opened a dryer, grabbed a damp dress from within the tumbling mass, slammed the door shut and yanked the dress over her daughter's head. The blood-stained dress went into a much larger pile leaking from a massive gray laundry bag.

Satisfied that she was occupied with her own concerns, the man took a chance and unfastened the top of his own bag, peeking inside at the dirty little face inside. Old tears had tracked across her grimy face and into her muddy hair, but she appeared intact.

"Can I come out now?" she whispered. Good. That was one point in her favor. She'd learned not to raise her voice. If you stayed quiet, you didn't get hurt. He shook his head, bringing a finger to his lips.

"But I'm hungry," she said softly. "My tummy hurts." He nodded and pulled the strings closed over her head before she could say another word, looking for a vending machine. There were two, both next to the haggard woman. She was currently absorbed in a yellowed fashion magazine, unconcerned that her bloody-nosed grubby little daughter was poking around in the lint between the dryers. It didn't seem too big a risk to fetch a candy bar, he decided, wandering over.

He was halfway there, hands in pockets, when he realized that he had no change in his coveralls. No money at all, in fact. He'd left everything behind during their flight. Now what? Maybe there was some change in the glove compartment. He hated leaving his bag unsupervised, but it was just a little girl and her mother, and walking back to the bag would seem overtly suspicious. Erring on the side of paranoia, he decided to go out to the truck.

Plunging into the hot stew outside the laundromat, he opened the passenger side door and rooted about in the glove compartment. Apart from a few pieces of paper, a burned-out shockrod and a few old tissues, there was nothing. He sighed, slammed the door, and leaned heavily against the truck, which rocked slightly on soft shocks. As the truck settled, he peered through the glass at the vending machines, seeing the woman's face reflected in the glass. She looked up, and their eyes met somewhere between a chocolate bar and a bag of pretzels.

It was no more than a second, and then his eyes left hers, and he started walking back towards the laundromat. Inside, the woman rose and reached in her pocket for a few credits, sliding one in and then thinking about her selection. As he entered the building, she looked reflexively towards the door, and as they shared a smile he looked past her to the machine. That one. Pick that one. With a blank stare, she turned to punch in a code, and with a soft plunk, the candy fell from its shelf to the bottom tray.

"Dammit," she said, retrieving the candy as he approached. "What was I thinking? I must be losing my mind." She noticed him standing there, and grinned slightly as she shook her head.

"Do you want this one? I can't eat peanut butter. Allergic." He smiled and nodded, accepting the candy bar as she held it out towards him. He reached back into his pocket as if to retrieve some change. No, really, he thought, and she waved him off.

"No, really. Forget it. It's only a credit. No big deal. It's a gift."

"A giff," said the woman's daughter, who'd mysteriously appeared out of nowhere again. She rammed into the back of his legs, but he'd felt her coming, so he was braced for the impact. "A giff. My nose huwts cuz of da aicondishunner. Do you wike apples?"

"Where have you been, Melissa? You're all dirty again!" She looked furious. Melissa ducked behind his legs. She mumbled something.


"I was washin' cwoze," she said guiltily. She pointed at the large gray bag he'd carted in. He concentrated on not letting any trace of emotion cross his face and smiled, sweating. "I got lots of laundwee to do." She sniffled.

"Get over here," said her mother, furious, grabbing the girl by her now-filthy sleeve. "I'm sorry. She's such a bother. Now sit down and leave the nice man alone. Look at you? You're filthy again! Where did you find mud in here?"

His gut lurched as he walked around the last machine. Muddy handprints covered the floor next to an empty gray laundry bag.

Panicking, realizing he could not call out her name without alerting Melissa and her mother to the girl's existence, he pretended nothing was the matter and returned to his chair, closing his eyes and looking around. There she was. Chasing ants around behind the dryers, out of sight. Damn. He needed a distraction. Some excuse to go behind the dryer and fetch her. Something to get the others to look the other way.

He got his distraction.

A short staccato burst of automatic gunfire echoed from down the street. Before the first short 3-round burst had blended into the second, he already knew what was happening. Their luck had run out.

Melissa's first instinct, of course, was to dart to the front window to peer out. Her mother's first instinct, of course, was to try to stop her daughter from doing that. His first instinct was to stop both of them from going anywhere near the window, but he pushed instinct back behind a wall of logic and bolted behind the dryers to grab the girl. Falling to his knees, he clamped a hand over his little escapee's mouth to prevent her from squealing, then backed out, staying low to the floor, and shoved her, headfirst, back into the bag.

Melissa giggled, darting out of her mother's grasp and around the row of washing machines that separated the laundromat into two halves. Her mother followed. Then the world stopped.

He could feel the stares before he looked up, but he still looked up, straight into the eyes of a terrified mother and a curious little girl. Neither seemed to know which was more scary - the sounds of gunfire or a man shoving a little girl into a bag. Wordlessly, she picked her daughter up and began to back away. But she paused, looking at the bag he held. She wanted to save what she could - herself, her daughter, whatever clothing she could grab. But the other girl...what about her...? He could feel her emotions boiling over, threatening to explode. Calm down, he thought. Stay calm and we'll get through this. Calm. Calm. But it was no good. The adrenaline was flowing, and her mind was racing, and she was entirely unreachable now.

"Stay away...I...she...let her go...please...don't hurt us...don't hurt her..." She sputtered, backing towards the door now, laundry bag in one hand and daughter in the other, oblivious to the black vans he saw creeping down the street.

"No..." he croaked, startled at the sound of his own voice. "Irma..."

"Irma? Is that her name?" Confused, scared, horrified, she started crying, lifting her daughter into her breast and hiding her face as events unfolded around her. "Take her out. Don't hurt her. Don't hurt Irma. She's just a little girl."

"Yes...no...not her...I..." he tried as she went on, his vocal cords trying to form sounds he hadn't needed to make, hadn't been allowed to make, in over 6 years.

"Let her go, please..." she said, torn between fleeing with her own daughter and staying to help the strange little girl in the bag. A few hundred yards away, black-suited figures spilled out of the two vans and began their sweep. It was a matter of minutes now. Maybe seconds. He had to get past her, had to get out now before the trap was shut. "Why? Why are you doing this to her?"

No time to try reason - reason was too far away. But there was always the alternative. Removing his sunglasses, bloodshot eyes staring into hers, he prayed she was close enough, and his smile evaporated. He reached out towards her, prodding her, provoking her, pushing her emotions to a boil. Her mind flooded with chemicals, and her defenses fell. He stepped closer. Closer. And then all at once he had her, and in a rush, it spilled out of him and he was inside her. Her face went blank as she dropped her dirty laundry and her daughter, who began to wail as she landed in a heap, head smacking the linoleum floor. But mommy couldn't hear her. Mommy couldn't see her. Mommy was elsewhere.

In a box.

Seven years in a box. Not enough room to stand up. Hundreds of boxes. One for each of them. For the tests. A lifetime of tests. Prodding instruments. Electrodes pushed through your skull. The sizzling sound of cooking flesh. The sharp cut of the scalpel. The implants and wires, recording their every thought. Perfecting them by destroying them. Slowly dissecting their minds. Bit by bit. Just volunteers. But that wasn't enough. Then came the others. And then the children. Born in a box. Living in a box. Dying in a box. The children. Like Flora. 4 years old. Ripe for the picking. The perfect subject. Like a fresh peach, ready to be plucked. A blank slate ready to be drawn on, then broken to reveal what was beneath the surface. A decision. A risk. The five of them planning. Agreement. Then the waiting. Waiting. An opportunity. Laundry duty. Dirty clothing in a bag. Fear. Grabbing two children. The fence. The sentries. Watching the others die. Blood. So much blood. Then there were two, plus one, and a truck, and a hill, and hope. And now, not even hope.

The sending took only a few seconds, but even that was too long. There wasn't enough time to convince her further. He could risk no more. Enough time to do get past her, to do what he had to do. Ignoring her tears, ignoring the shock she was feeling, ignoring the tears of both little girls, he grabbed the gray bag from the floor and shoved past the stunned woman, knocking her to the floor beside her daughter. He knew what had to be done. He hoped she did, too. Take her, he thought. Take your daughter and protect her. Don't let them get her, too.

Stumbling to the door, praying for the first time in his life, he plunged into the heat, fumbled the key into the lock and tossed the lumpy gray bag into the passenger seat. Was there enough gas to spark? Yes. He gunned the engine, switched gears and started down the street towards the only avenue of escape left. Bullets sprayed the sides of the pickup as he raced past the men in black jumpsuits, past the black vans with "Institute for the Research of Mental Anomalies" painted on the side in gray block lettering, past the bloody remains of his erstwhile companion, a frigid void where a warm mind had once been. He patted the quivering gray bag beside him and smiled. They would all be there soon, in the void. But at least this was a way out. Away from the pain.

The engine coughed and sputtered, but there was no time to refuel. Nevertheless, he pulled into the gas station.

And into the gas pump.


They eventually recovered most of the truck, but they never found much of its passengers. An arm...an ankle...a shredded, charred gray bag...a few bloody scraps from a little green dress...these were catalogued, dropped into baggies and tossed into a van without a word. Nobody really minded the gore. They'd seen it before. But the little dress was somehow too much. Different. Worse, perhaps. But they pushed it aside and slammed the van doors shut, quickly forgetting what they'd seen. They were gone by noon, in plenty of time for lunch. Not all of them could eat.

Only a few bystanders were questioned before they left, including the woman with a bagful of dirty laundry and a daughter with a bloody nose. She nodded and sobbed and nosired her way through, having seen nothing, of course, and eventually they went away and left her to her laundry, which, as it turns out, didn't take nearly as long as it should have, due to the fact that a whole bag of it was missing.

That, and the fact that she had her two daughters to help her out.

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