Mitch Warren had an itch on a body part he couldn’t scratch while standing on a busy downtown street. Ducking into an alleyway, he stood beside a sleeping homeless man and reached into his jeans. He scratched contentedly for a minute until a woman with flaming red hair stopped right in front of him with a look of interest, then disgust. Mitch blushed and quickly pulled his hand from his pants.
Maybe too quickly. His stainless steel watch band nicked a small piece of tender flesh, and he screamed like a little girl at the exact same moment he realized the redhead was Judy.
Judy and Mitch had been work associates for a while but had never dated and barely talked, though he’d always wished they would. Mitch could see the fear and pity in her green eyes after his high pitched scream.
Standing up straight, he struggled to keep his face composed despite the tears in his eyes. “Hi, Judy. So, umm, you move? I mean, that is, I never see you near this bus stop in the mornings.”
Judy’s face was a portrait of loathing and she looked at him like he was a worm. Mitch knew his foolish office antics could be unbearable but the way she was glaring at him now made him feel like a child. Despite what she was probably thinking, this was not a sexual cry for help tucked away in a disgusting alley with dirty men.
Judy stared at him and he felt his face quiver.
“Yes, Mitch, I did move. I had to move, for your information. I moved because you were freaking out the little old ladies that lived in my apartment building by always following me home. The co-op kicked me out. Apparently they don’t like their residents having friends who always have their hands down their pants. Whatever that itch is, you really have to get it checked out.”
A blush crept from his neck to his ears. “You know exactly why I’m itchy.”
“Hey, we all used the cream. It’s not our fault it didn’t work for you.”
She turned and walked away. Not wanting the conversation to end – this was the most they’d spoken in the two years they’d been working for the same government agency – he stepped over the homeless man and followed her.
“Judy, wait! I have to tell you something. It’s more than just an itch. I have to tell you why I left the agency.”
“Tell it someone who gives a damn,” Judy said, flouncing off, her red hair shimmering in the bright summer sun.
“But it’s important,” he bleated, hobbling after her. “You may be in danger.”
“God, you’re impossible, Mitch. You think I don’t know why you left?” She looked at him with pity, and he thought he saw a little guilt in her eyes. He knew she’d been involved in his dismissal.
The expression on her face hurt him.
“Please.” He touched her arm with the same hand that had been in his pants a minute before and she grimaced. “What they told you, it’s not true. You need to hear it from me.”
Judy’s green eyes flashed. “Tell me now.”
He glanced up and down the alleyway. The homeless man mumbled something in his sleep. “Not here, not now. Meet me tomorrow morning at High Park, by the pond. I’ll explain everything.”
She sighed. “Fine. But you’d better realize this changes nothing between us.
The next morning she was waiting for him on a rickety park bench, watching the geese float around in the calm water.
“Judy,” he said, coming up behind her. “Thanks for meeting me. I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I wasn’t sure, either.” She turned around and frowned at him, eyeing his hands. Mitch had jammed them in his pockets, but it’s like she knew he desperately wanted to scratch himself. “So what’s up? Make it quick.”
He took a seat beside her and she moved away slightly. “Remember the homeless man in the alley?”
She raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.
“Well, forget homeless,” he said, looking around. “Think CIA. Jesus, they’re everywhere.”
Judy’s face was skeptical. “And just why are they following you?’
“It’s this.” Mitch reached into his pants.
Judy stood up so fast the goose loitering nearest them flapped its wings in surprise. “You shit! I’m outta here.”
He yanked his hand out of his pants. “Judy, no! It’s not what you think!”
But she was already gone. He slumped back into the park bench and the goose squawked at him. He resisted the urge to kick it.
A movement caught his eye, and suddenly he was aware he was being photographed. Through the trees he thought he saw a man in a sleek black suit. A blue light was blinking in his hands. Was it the camera? His mind flew back to the homeless man in the alley. The blue light – he’d seen it there, too.
He tried to process this as he stood, but the sidewalk was wobbly beneath his feet. Before Mitch knew what was happening, he was crawling on the cold ground toward the man in the black suit as all of his clothes disengaged from his body. Someone or something was controlling him.
The breeze felt good on his naked body. He felt the wind lick over his chest, his legs, and then his bare, but shapely, ass. The park was eerily quiet.
Black Suit smiled smugly when he crawled closer, speaking to someone Mitch couldn’t see. “I told you he’d be easy to get. A wimp.” The man paused, listening, fingering his nose stud and Mitch realized that the small diamond chip was really a cell phone. “Keep on as planned. Of course, if we could get the broad that would be even better. I’ll try after I put him on immobilization for six hours. Start counting those big bucks, baby. We’re on a home run. Fucking A, I’m going to get laid tonight when this is all over. And nobody cheap this time. Last skank gave me crabs.” He laughed, still fiddling with the stud.
“Judy… where’s Judy?” Mitch gasped, writhing naked at Black Suit’s feet in the cold morning grass.
“Shut up, I’m on the phone,” the man said. “Want to meet me later?” he said again into his nasal bud. “I’m buying.”
“Do you know who you’re working for?” Mitch whispered, reaching out and clawing the man’s ankle. He could no longer feel his legs.
Black Suit looked down at him and grinned. “Do you?”
It was the last thing Mitch heard before the world went black.
He woke up in what seemed like minutes to find himself lying on a cold metal table, arms and legs strapped down and his itch more unbearable than ever. On the steel table beside, rows of surgical instruments were laid out neatly. The walls were mint green but he couldn’t make out much else. The strong, hot lights above him were almost blinding. An operating room?
The door swung open and Elvis Presley, complete with sideburns, a white leather suit, and blue suede shoes strode in. The light bounced off the shiny rhinestones bedazzled onto his collar.
Mitch gasped. “I thought you were dead.”
“Do I look dead?” Elvis answered. “No, I just put that story out all those years ago. Wanted to switch from rock ‘n’ roll to brain surgery.”
Mitch swallowed hard. He was either dreaming or in a drug-induced haze. His focus swooshed in an out, sliding from a blurry blot that sounded like Elvis Presley to a clear picture of a magenta man that looked and sounded like the King himself. He blinked, trying to minimize the starburst in his vision from the bright lights.
A voice, familiar somehow, leaked from what looked like a crack of a door that broke up the perfect sea of white-on-white. Mitch tried swivelling his head in the direction of the voice, but couldn’t. He gave up after a few seconds. Staring out of the corner of his refocusing eyes made him even more woozy.
Naked, laying on the cold metal table, the walls expand and collapsed. He was like a particle floating inside a lung.
He forced himself to focus. If I could just get my left hand free, I could scratch my damned dick.
It was hard to believe that after all this, he was still itchy. Unlike with the others, his itch had never gone away. The cream had worked for Judy, but it helped that she didn’t remember. Neither did the others. Everyone’s memory had been erased before they’d been returned, and they’d been implanted with some stupid memory about a work retreat, a weekend spent camping in the woods where they’d all contacted poison ivy.
If only they knew the truth. The implantation hadn’t worked on Mitch. He remembered everything. The fear seared his belly like a fireplace poker because he knew what was coming.
Elvis Presley wasn’t really Elvis Presley. Black sideburns, an uncanny resemblance and a white outfit, yes, but it wasn’t Elvis. The realization saddened Mitch, because if this wasn’t Elvis, then Mitch wasn’t dead. He was here. Again.
The scalpel touched his stomach and he screamed.
Elvis-who-wasn’t-Elvis sighed and moved the scalpel away. “Again with the screaming? Will I need ear plugs?”
“Fuck you. Just kill me already, motherfucker,” Mitch said, tears running down his temples.
The man smoothed down a greasy sideburn, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “You don’t think we’ve been trying? It never takes. It would seem you’re the man who can’t die.” A smile played on his liver lips. “Too bad you’re not the man who can’t feel pain.”
The scalpel entered Mitch’s belly and a skinny trail of red followed the sharp metal. Mitch’s eyes rolled back in pain, and the harder he tried to stifle his screams the louder they got.
“Why are you doing this?”
Pseudo Elvis smiled. “God told me too. When the Good Lord talked to me on that old toilet, you remember, the press was all over it. God said to me, ‘Elvis, go forth and help the damned and heathen and especially those who dick scratch to find the road to the great guitar in the sky.'” He looking down at Mitch, still cutting. “And I said, ‘Of course, Lord.’ Then he zapped me through Duke med school, I did my residency at Vanderbilt, and here I am. Sending the chicks back to the Good Lord.”
It suddenly occurred to Mitch that he couldn’t feel the pain in his belly even though he saw Elvis’s scalpel continue to slice layer after layer. “Hey, dude,” Mitch said, drunkenly elated at the lack of pain. “I don’t feel a thing, man.”
Elvis’s mouth pressed into an even thinner line. “Bullshit. You’re in agony. Shut up.”
In response, Mitch began to whistle Great Balls of Fire.
“That’s not an Elvis song,” Elvis-who-wasn’t-Elvis said, cross.
“I know,” Mitch answered dreamily. He looked over and saw the belts tying him down were unhooked. The Good Lord’s doing? He sat upright, surprising Elvis, and sucker punched him before the man could say another word. The scalpel clattered to the floor.
He opened the door to the operating room and peeked out. He was in a hospital, as he suspected. A nurse sitting at her station looked up, and he winked at her. She looked back at her computer screen as if she didn’t see him.
Standing right in front of her, Mitch pulled on his dick and did an exploratory scratch.
Her eyes looked right through him, blank. No reaction.
Mitch walked past the nurse’s station, copping two stale doughnuts and piling them into his mouth. He ducked into the staff locker room to look for something to put on. A not-too-horrible suit – jacket and slacks only – was hanging on a coat hook inside and he donned the clothes quickly.
Back out in the hallway, he smiled as the nurse grabbed her heart. Now this was something you didn’t see every day – a suit with no body strolling through the main lobby.
Once outside in the fresh hair, his thoughts turned to Judy. His stomach growled as he passed a hot dog vendor and he stopped to stick a sausage into a bun. The kid manning the stand screamed and took off running.
Mitch started whistling again as he dumped ketchup and mustard onto his sausage. First Ghost Riders in the Sky and then Amazing Grace.
“Mitch,” a calm voice said from behind.
He took a bite of his hot dog and turned. Judy stood only inches away. He held out his food to her. “I love you. Want a hot dog?” His cheeks felt moist and he realized he was crying.
Judy ignored his declaration of love and fixed herself a hot dog with the her usual precision. A moment later, she turned to him. His armpits tingled with sweat.
She took a bite of her sausage. “Eat up. We don’t have much time.”
“You can see me? For real?” Relief flooded through Mitch’s invisible body.
“Of course I can see you,” she said, irritated. She handed him the rest of her hot dog. “Hurry up. We’ve got to get moving.”
“Where are we going?” he asked, secretly wondering why she hadn’t reacted to his ‘I love you’.
Judy smiled and Mitch realized then that he’d never seen Judy so clearly. He’d always thought she was pretty, and maybe it was the way the sun was catching her face right this moment, but he’d never laid eyes on anyone so beautiful. Her copper hair fanned around her shoulders and her large jade eyes sparkled under perfectly tweezed brows. She took his breath away.
“Where are we going?” Mitch asked after he found his voice.
She tossed her hair and started walking. “The ceremony, of course.” She laughed. “You’ve suffered enough. Now you can be one of us.”
“What ceremony? Wait,” he said, touching her arm. “I’m not sure I want this.”
Judy turned and her eyes blazed. “What you want has nothing to do with it. You’ve been chosen. Hold on tight to me now. We’re going up.”
Mitch looked down, no longer feeling the pavement as they began to float upwards, slowly at first, and then with more speed. He clutched her hand, embarrassed by his fear. The city spread out beneath them. “My God,” he breathed.
Judy’s feet dangled in the air next to his. “Here, take this.” Before he could protest she pushed a small aqua pill into Mitch’s mouth. His fear and trepidation disappeared in an instant. This was actually fun.
“Judy, I love you,” he said again, pulling her closer to him. “Tell me. Is the ceremony our wedding?”
Her lips pressed together and Mitch saw that she didn’t like the question. She took another tablet out of her pocket, large and gold and black like a stone, and handed it to him.
He obediently swallowed. The pill caught in his throat and it took a few seconds for him to choke it down. The feeling of peacefulness increased.
“The ceremony is all that counts, Judy. I know that. We need as many people as possible if this crazy world is going to be fixed.” He spoke the words even though they didn’t seem to make sense and Judy rewarded him with a smile.
They began their descent, landing moments later in a huge field filled with thousands of people. On the top of a huge flat rock, a very old and wise-looking man was speaking.
“Congratulations my children,” the old man said, his voice deep and commanding. His white hair danced in the breeze. “You are chosen. We are chosen. Tomorrow you will begin classes, but for now, eat. And dance!”
Food was everywhere and raucous music resounded throughout the field. Following the crowd to the buffet table, Mitch fixed himself a steak sandwich. He stood back, observing the celebratory crowd, contentedly chewed the tasty steak and drinking a liquid he couldn’t quite identify.
It was completely dark when he started to feel sleepy, and as his eyes closed he could feel people moving around him. New clothes were being slipped over his body and he heard himself sigh, a feeling of superiority sweeping through him. He was a special person, wasn’t he? He would be taught to fly. He’d persuade Judy to marry him and they’d start a family. He loved her so much. He drifted off to sleep, only vaguely hearing the little feet coming into the room by his bed. A scented paper covered his nose.
“Yes. I think I can do that,” he said to one in particular. Then he laughed. Life was wonderful when you could feel yourself morphing into something much more powerful than you ever imagined.
Mitch opened his eyes. His brain was fogged and it took a moment for his surroundings to become clear. As the room came into focus, a wave of heartache rolled over him.
What kind of shit was I smoking last night to have a dream like that?
None of it had been real. Judy had died a few years ago in a terrible car accident. She’d been on her way to see Mitch and he’d never gotten the chance to tell her how he felt. He’d lived with this anguish for years, hoping if he smoked enough weed the dreams would stop, but lately they’d gotten worse.
Feeling stiff all over, he got out of bed and headed to the bathroom. He turned on the shower to let the water warm up, then grabbed his toothbrush and twisted the faucet open. He was afraid to look at his reflection because he knew his face would be puffy and his eyes would be bloodshot. He way overdid it last night.
Squeezing a generous amount of toothpaste onto his brush, Mitch finally looked into the small bathroom mirror.
Judy stared back at him through the fogging glass, her green eyes narrow and accusing. His toothbrush falling into the sink, Mitch looked down and saw his stomach open neatly from sternum to belly button, just the way Elvis had cut him. He watched his blood drip onto the white tile.
The world disappeared.
The homeless man watched as the white dude in the black suit with the unfortunate Elvis sideburns snored peacefully beside him in the stink of the alleyway, muttering incoherently.
What the fuck was up with these guys? They came to this part of town, they bought their weed, they smoked up and then they passed out. They could never handle their shit. Mind you, Romeo was puttin’ a little extra something in the weed lately, and whatever it was, it was makin’ all the vanilla dudes flip out.
Whistling Amazing Grace, the homeless man searched through the white dude’s wallet. The driver’s license said Mitch Warren. White dude name if there ever was one. Pulling out a dollar bill, he pressed it to the man’s nose, wondering if Mitch would wake up. He didn’t. Good.
Searching Mitch’s pants with dirty hands, the homeless man knew the stash had to be somewhere on the white dude. He could almost taste it now. First the smell, then the burn at the back of the throat – Romeo made good shit. Pricey shit.
His crusty fingers brushed over Mitch’s crotch lightly. A white hand slapped his away.
“Stop,” the white dude mumbled. “Itchy.”