By Thomas R Clark
© 2020 By Thomas R. Clark All Rights Reserved. Don’t Pirate my free story, ya dirty bastards!
A trio of soldiers in full battle dress, holding M4 Carbines, moves with precision through a smoke-filled building in war-torn Pakistan. Using the frames of doorways and corners for cover, they snake around one another. Bright flashlights allow them to watch one another’s back as they maneuver through the dusty darkness.
An observer could learn much about them, despite their faces being covered by goggles and masks. The dress on their uniforms relayed many details. A flag patch on their left shoulder identified them as Americans. Yet more patches on their right shoulders indicated these men were special forces, skilled and determined fighting men. Single copper bars, embroidered on the fabric of their helmets and uniform’s lapel, revealed their military rank, that of a junior officer, the second lieutenant.
“All clear,” Dan Roberts declared and raised his left fist. His companions stopped and relaxed their guard.
“Thank you for pointing out the painfully obvious, Lt. Dan.” Scott Groverston quipped in response. He lowered his M4 and flipped back his night vision goggles, revealing his brown eyes. Roberts followed suit, as did their companion.
“You know where you can shove your Lieutenant Dan?” Roberts said. He gave his friend a menacing, albeit comical, scowl.
“If only you had the legs to catch me.”
Dan flipped Scott the bird. Their mutual friend, Lt. Walter Ball, laughed out loud and snorted as he chuckled.
“Da’ fuck are you laughing at, Lieutenant Ball?” Roberts did little to hide his own laughter under the guise of authority in his tone.
“You’ll have to ask Jen-nay!” Ball replied before more laughter overtook him.
“Get your shit together, Forest. We really shouldn’t be fucking around in an insurgent hideout in a country we’re not supposed to be in,” Dan said, gathering his composure.
“True, true. I’d rather be back at camp. I put a brisket in the smoker and it’s been cooking all day. I’m fucking hungry.” Ball long ago assumed the nickname of Smokin’ Walt, after bucking the company cook with his jerry-rigged smoker. Made from parts of fifty-five-gallon drums, a sink, and a HUMVEE, the smoker and its contents often delighted the bellies of Echo company.
“Oh, hell yeah, I’m down with that, too,” Groverston interjected.
“Then let’s finish this patrol and make sure the rest of the building is clear,” Roberts said, and the trio went back to business …
“One day three blondes are walking down a beach and stumble upon a magic lamp in the sand,” Walt said as the trio made their way out of the building. They discovered no threats or enemy presence, making this another late evening cakewalk in the warzone. Walt loved telling jokes after a cakewalk job completed, they were his cigar for a job well done, “They dig it out and POOF! A genie appears. He’s pissed he was woken up, so he gives them one wish each.”
“Why one wish each?” Dan questioned, “That’s pretty cheap-ass of the Genie.”
“Who fuckin knows, there are three blondes, one wish each!” Walt continued, “The first blonde wishes to be ten times as smart as her friends. POOF!” Walt flicked his fists open, “the genie turns her into a redhead.”
“Redheads steal souls. They’re not known for their brainpower.” Scott added. Walt ignored him and continued with his joke.
“The second blonde wishes to be a hundred times smarter than her friend. POOF! The genie turns her into a brunette.”
“Poof? Again? How many times are you gonna say the same thing?” Dan added.
“You’re worse than a cell phone going off in a movie theater, you know that? Anyhoot, the third blonde wants to be a thousand times smarter than the other two put together. But she wants to keep her hair color.”
“ POOF!” Scott shouted from behind them, “You know why I drag ass when Walt tells his jokes?” he didn’t wait for them to answer, “so I don’t have to hear the fucking joke. But this one? This one I’ve heard bits and pieces of it and need to know how this ends.”
“The genie turns her into a golden retriever.” Walt snickered at his punchline. Scott stopped walking and shook his head in disapproval.
“Really? A Golden Retriever?” Dan questioned, “why not a Corgi, aren’t they blondish?”
“You tell the joke, you tell it with a corgi, Lt. Dan. I fell back on the golden retriever.”
“Remind me again to not listen to your Dad jokes,” Scott added before continuing on out of the building. Walt faced him down.
“You, too?” he asked Scott, who only shrugged in response as he walked by.
A chirping phone alarm interrupted their banter.
“Who’s got a phone on them?” Dan asked. Scott and Walt shook their heads in response, “well there’s one in here someplace. Find it.” The men set about looking for the source of the ringing. Tables and chairs were tossed around. Cupboards yanked open revealing empty shelves.
“Here it is!” Scott announced and his friends joined him, one to either side. Inside a jar, on a bench in the corner, the glow of a phone broke the darkness. Scott peered inside the jar and saw a ringing flip phone, maybe twenty years old. Over the top of it, a star of David within a circle painted on the surface, wrapping around the device’s sides. He reached in and withdrew the phone. A thick patina of dust covered the phone.
“For the love of God, bro, that’s huge.” Walt declared.
“I told you I would find the big ‘un!” Scott returned.
“You sure as hell did! What the fuck is it?” Dan asked.
“It’s an old Blackberry flip phone. From the mid to late ‘90s, one of the first pocket-sized flip phones. And it’s still ringing.” Scott answered. The phone pulsed light in his hand.
“How do you know this shit?” Dan asked.
“I’m a tech specialist. I’m supposed to know these things.” Scott rolled his eyes, “ya know what’s fucked?”
“What?” Walt and Dan asked in unison.
“These old phones only had a battery life of like half an hour,” Scott added, “You’ve seen the old movies, with the giant-sized car phones people used to have? Most of that was a battery.”
“Okay, and it’s been sitting in there on standby for twenty-five years and we woke it up?” Walt said.
“No. Standby wasn’t a thing on those old phones.” Scott pushed his helmet back on his forehead. The lights on their M4’s lit a circle up around the trio.
“Do you think it’s a bomb trigger?” Dan questioned.
“Nothing has blown up, has it?” Scott replied. Walt grabbed the phone from Scott. “What are you doing?” Dan reached to take the phone from Walt, but Lt. Ball jerked his arm back.
“What’s up with this, Ball?” Dan said.
“What does it look like? I’m going to answer it.” And Walt opened the Blackberry up.
The flip-phone’s blank mini-screen lit up the room. Dust floated throughout, creating drifting orbs in the smokey light.
“Okay,” Walt laughed, “it’s a dud flash bomb. The old battery couldn’t handle the upgrade. D’oh!” The men laughed in relief, too busy staring at the light to notice the shifting light and darkness.
Behind them, all around them, their shadows morphed, creating something. It drew the light from the phone, from their flashlights and from their powered equipment until none remained. The dumbfounded trio of soldiers stood in darkness, unaware of an ethereal presence standing among them, blending in.
“What happened? It was an EMP?” Dan questioned.
“I doubt it,” Walt answered.
“Me, too,” Scott corroborated, “But something is going on.”
“No, shit, Dick Tracy,” Dan snipped back. “Why did you have to open the fucking thing?”
“What thing? The phone?” Walt replied.
“Yeah, the phone!” Scott admonished his peer, “I had it under control. And you had to go and grab it and open it.”
“And how is that a problem. A twenty-five-year-old phone isn’t going to drain the power out of our smart-gear, lights and cameras.” Walt defended his action. “Something else is going on. I wonder if there was an EMP somewhere.” He handed the phone back to Scott. “Here.”
“Why do I want it?” Scott asked.
“You found it, right?” Walt waited until Scott took the phone.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Scott stomped away, a look of disgust covering his face. He knew Walt’s words rang true. An EMP would do this, and they fought an enemy full of surprises, “Come on, let’s get back to base.” Scott closed the phone and dropped it in his uniform’s side pocket. Then the three soldiers made their way out of the remains of the building and returned to Echo Company’s base and Smoking Walt’s brisket.
They didn’t see the being following them, hidden within the traversed darkness. And when they got close enough to the American outpost, the thing blew ahead of the men, riding a gust of hot air.
The last thing Walt, Dan and Scott expected to find in their tent was the old man laying on their couch, smoking a cigar. Dressed in a bathrobe and dirty blue jeans, his face pocked and wrinkled, he didn’t look to have a care in the world. The old fellow laid there, stretched out like he owned the fucking thing. A long, thick mustache and goatee stood out on the man’s face, with streaks of grey running through the dark hairs. A dirty scruff of facial stubble covered his cheeks, offsetting the beard and mustache. He held a skewer of beef with his free hand. He appeared happier than a pig rolling in a dog dirt smoothie. And smelled about as bad.
“Hi, boys. Long time no see,” the old man said in perfect English after tugging the stogie out of his mouth. He bit off a chunk of meat. His mouth still full, he continued to chew as he spoke, “this is delicious. Who made it?”
“Never mind who made it,” Dan interjected, “Who the fuck are you, why are you here, and why do you stink like patchouli and ass?”
“That was rude,” he shot a stern stare at Lt. Roberts. “Is that any way to treat a guest in your home? I asked who made this.”
“I did,” Walt answered. He aimed his M4 at the stranger on their couch.
“To fucking die for! So good,” levity returned to the man’s expressions.
“You heard the man. Who are you?” Walt asked the stranger. All three soldiers pointed their rifles at the guy on their couch.
“I’m Aloysious, but only my mother calls me Aloysious. My friends call me Skip. You are special friends, so can call me Uncle Skip.”
“Special friends?” Dan said.
“Yes, special friends.” Uncle Skip reiterated.
“Scott, where’s your Axe?” Dan asked his friend.
“In my footlocker.” Lt. Groverston marched over to his bunk and belongings.
“Please guys,” Uncle Skip pleaded, “you already have machine guns. No need to break out the archaic weapons, is there?” He rubbed his neck with a free hand.
“No, it’s body spray. You fucking reek like a wet goat dipped in vomit chowder, dude.” Scott removed the can of body spray from his footlocker and sprayed the couch and its squatter. A cloud of mist hovered around Uncle Skip for a moment, then something weird happened. The cloud didn’t dissipate. It swirled before their eyes, creating a spinning vortex in the air.
Scott watched this unfold, too transfixed to realize the vortex launched straight at him. It struck the can of body spray, jerking his hand and arm back in the process.
“What the fuck?” Lt. Groverston exclaimed. The scent of the perfume relinquished control back to the eye-watering stench emanating from Uncle Skip.
“Sorry,” the man said, “I’ve been known to scare perfume back into its bottle. Looks like I did it again. Damn, I do need a bath, though.” He sniffed at each of his armpits and mocked gagging in response.
“Enough of this bullshit!” Lt. Roberts ordered. Dan’s attention focused on Uncle Skip, “Why are you here?”
“You freed me. Now I’m indebted to repay you for your unselfish act,” he shifted from laying on an elbow to leaning against the back cushions of the sofa.
“Freed you? From where?” Dan pushed for the details he wanted to hear.
“Let’s see, I think today was day,” he licked a grimy finger and lifted it to the air. The fingernails on his hand were black with some unimaginable substance, composed of sweat, snot, and ass. “Ah, yes. Day seven thousand and two hundred and twenty-nine of being trapped in that blasted thing. Let’s see you go almost twenty years without a bath and smell as good as me.” The trio of soldiers groaned in response, “Come on, really? It’s not that bad, is it?” Uncle Skip turned his head left and right, sniffing his pits in the act, “Okay, maybe it is. Wow. That’s dank. How in the fuck can you guys handle being around me? It’s burning my eyes.”
“Why do you think we tried to spray you with cologne?” Walt spoke up, joining the conversation. “We can’t even smell my brisket, you stink so bad. Do you need a shower or something? We have one here you can use.”
“I’d rather just air out if you don’t mind. I’m not a fan of portable water. But thank you all the same.” Uncle Skip adjusted himself, again, this time pulling his legs up. He wore flip flops and his toes were misshapen. The nails resembled claws, with the tips puncturing the soles of the sandals. “So let me tell you what you have for consolation prizes, gentlemen.”
“Consolation prizes? For what?” Dan asked.
“I thought we’d established this already. Walter over there opened the cell phone some heathen pricks trapped me in a couple of decades ago. As a result, I owe you sexy mother fuckers something in return.”
“And what’s that?” Scott questioned the man.
“A riddle. And if you can solve it, well, you get a lot more in return.”
“Like what?” Walt inquired.
“Like whatever you desire. But first, well, you need to solve my riddle. And I’ll give each of you a crack at it.”
“What happens if we don’t get the riddle?” Dan brought up a good point, and his friends nodded in approval of this.
“Nothing, you guys can’t handle. You’re in a warzone, right?” Uncle Skip sat upright on the sofa and took a long, hard drag off his cigar. A long cone of ash fell off, tumbling through Skip’s robe, and disappeared before hitting the floor.
“That’s not a very promising answer.” Walt indicated.
“The riddle is simple.” Skip stood up. “Who owned more foresight in the past than those in the present?”
Walter repeated Uncle Skip’s words. “That’s it? The whole riddle? What are you a sphinx in disguise?”
“You can’t answer a riddle with a question, but, yeah, something like that. Is that your answer? You did free me, so it’s only fair I give you the challenge first.”
“Damn if I know. Who was more proactive then,” he searched for the words to use, pausing as he did, “than somebody now, right?”
“I think I already said it was something like that, yes,” Uncle Skip assured him.
“I mean, I have no idea. I guess I pass.”
“Take a guess at least, come on,” Skip encouraged Walt to say anything.
“Okay, me. I’m ahead of things now than I was when I was younger. Or smarter than I used to be, just like my Dad joke today.” He watched Skip’s grin turn to a frown.
“I’m sorry, the answer is not you.” He shook his head. “Who’s next, who’s got the legs for this? Lt. Dan?”
“Excuse me?” Lt. Roberts spoke up, “What did you call me? What did you say about legs?”
“I’m sorry, Lt. Roberts, it’s your turn. What’s the solution to my riddle?”
“Fuck if I know. I want to know why you called me Lt. Dan.”
“Is that your final answer? Or don’t you have the legs?”
“You know what? Fuck you, Uncle Skip, you think you’re a funny guy, now don’t you?” Dan’s face turned red in anger, “I’m not about playing your game, buster, I’m out of here. And when I come back, with more friends, I want answers from you! Come on, Walt!”
“Tell me how you really feel, Lt. Dan.” Uncle Skip continued his sarcastic attack. Dan ignored him. Lt. Roberts joined Lt. Ball and together they stormed out of their shelter. Lt. Groverston stood alone, with Uncle Skip, in the tent. He shook his head.
“Hold that thought!” Scott said to Uncle Skip and followed his friends out.
“I’m not going anywhere, my fair sir,” was Uncle Skip’s response. He sank deeper into the cushions of the couch, nibbling on the skewer of meat and toking on the rancid cigar.
“Guys, what are you doing?” Scott ran down his friends. They were on a mission, walking at top speed.
“What are we doing?” Dan replied, “what does it look like we’re doing? We’re going to get a couple of MP’s so they can take care of Uncle Skip, send him to better accommodations than our tent.”
“Better accommodations? Like what’s better than our pallet and seat cushions do-it-yourself couch?” Walter interjected.
“The brig,” Dan said without hesitation, “with steel bars and a hole in the ground to squat over with those nasty fucking feet,” Dan said with a scowl. “Listen. We don’t know who he is, where he came from. What’s he doing in a US Army base in Afghanistan on the Pakistan border, showing up right after we make an excursion into foreign soil? He looks anglo, but I bet he’s a dirt-eating goat-fucker like the rest of the mountain men out here.”
“Not to mention he’s probably a spy, which would explain his perfect English,” Walter added.
“That’s the point I was making, Walt.” Dan corrected his friend.
“Yeah, I know it was. Just repeating it in Layman’s terms.” Walt said.
“Of course you are,” Dan paused, focusing on why they were having this conversation. He hated being interrupted, but it was all the rage with the kids today, he gathered. Or at least with Walt and Scott. Everyone gained exoneration when the conversation derailed from further interference.
A HUMVEE whizzed by, kicking up a cloud of sand and dirt. Another followed before the dust settled, and then another.
“Yeah, you’re right, something is fishy about him, and I don’t mean his stanky ass. Go do whatever, I’ll go back and cover him, make sure he stays put,” Scott said.
“A’ight,” Dan nodded, “See you soon,” and the trio separated.
Scott dashed back to the tent. Uncle Skip slept, snoring on the couch. The cigar, stuffed in his hand between his ring and middle fingers, still burned. A long ash of cigar shook and fell into Skip’s bathrobe.
“Oh, there you are, finally made it back. Well, now Scott. Let’s get back to the game at hand, shall we? Since you found me, I guess you get last dibs at winning my lottery. So tell me, who is smarter in the past than those in the present?”
Scott didn’t answer right away. Instead, he found himself distracted. He heard the distant, and distinct, whistle of incoming ordinance. This is odd, are we under attack? he thought. Uncle Skip walked, well, rather he floated, past Scott, and retrieved more of Walt’s brisket from the smoker.
“This is so good.” Uncle Skip reminded Lt. Groverston as he bit off a chunk of the meat. A loud explosion rang through the compound. It shook the ground and rattled the tent. “So what’s your answer? To the riddle? Who owned more foresight in the past than those in the present?” The base’s alarms rang off. They were under attack.
“What’s going on?” Lt. Groverston demanded.
“Nothing that wasn’t already planned out.” Uncle Skip said and took another bite of the brisket.
Scott felt around the pocket on the side of his leg. The Blackberry flip phone’s hard plastic shell bulged in the fabric. This knowledge complicated Scott and his decision making more so.
Who had more foresight then, than we do now? Scott thought, keeping his mental processes to himself. Shit, he didn’t know if this asshole could read minds. He hoped not. And what did he just say? Nothing that wasn’t already planned out … this sounded far too similar to the cadence of Uncle Skip’s riddle.
And then it clicked in unison with the impact of another mortar.
“The mother fucker who trapped you in the phone.”
“You said, what? Huh?” Uncle Skip raised an eyebrow as his jaw dropped and a mouthful of brisket tumbled out. The masticated beef splattered onto the dusty floor at the man’s gnarly feet.
The whistles of incoming mortar shells filled the air. A screaming Lt. Walter Ball ran into the tent, a trail of smoke billowed off his person.
His head blazed afire.
He took three steps and fell, face planting in the dirt at Uncle Skip’s feet. The fire spread and engulfed his whole person. Lt. Daniel Roberts, who followed, came in behind his immolating friend and stopped at the entrance.
“This is all because of you, you motherfucker!” Dan screamed at Uncle Skip. He raised his M4, “Move, Scott, I want to shoot the stanky-ass motherfuck-”
The whistles raised in pitch and an explosion followed. Lt. Roberts disappeared in the smoke. The concussion sent Scott to the floor and extinguished the fire burning on Walt’s dead body.
Uncle Skip floated back to the couch.
What sounded like a full suitcase fell through the ceiling panels and into the tent.
Lt. Dan’s lifeless, legless body landed on top of Walt’s smoking corpse.
“I said, whoever the Ali Baba motherfucker was that put you in that fucking phone is the answer, yes.” Scott pushed himself up and stood. He withdrew the phone from his pocket “I want my friend’s back and I want you to go back into this fucking thing.” he opened it, “Now.”
“Oh come on, can’t we make a deal? I’ll give you all the Jim Bean you need for the rest of your life. You can have your friends back, even.”
“Do I look like Kid Rock? You’re giving me my friends back anyway. You heard me, motherfucker, get back inside the fucking phone!” Scott pointed the blackberry at Uncle Skip. Or what used to be Uncle Skip.
Skip’s feet transformed into large talons. His back cracked and lurched with a curve as the robe melded into his skin and formed great wings attached to his arms and back. His head elongated, producing a protruding canine snout with long, pointed teeth. The Djinn revealed its true form to Scott and his dead companions.
“No!” It howled, “don’t send me back in there! Nooooo!”
“A deal’s a deal, and I solved the riddle, fucker!” Scott pointed the open blackberry at Uncle Skip, bathing the ancient monster in its light. Sand and light swirled about the Djinn, creating a vortex engulfing the creature, breaking it down to molecules of dust. The vortex lifted what remained of Uncle Skip up and poured the being into the phone. The granules of sand drained away as the gravity from another plane of existence called home one of its denizens.
Scott snapped the phone shut and it disappeared from his hand.
“That’s odd.” He said aloud. The tent returned to normal as if nothing happened. Walter and Daniel stepped back into the tent as he spoke.
“What’s odd, Axe Man?” Walter asked his friend.
“Oh, nothing,” Scott replied. Both Walt and Dan were standing next to him, dressed in full battle gear. He saw himself, too, saddled up for the occasion. A strange sense of Deja Vu flooded him. The sun settled in the east. How could it be morning, now? Did a day pass?
“Okay, then,” Lt. Roberts spoke up, “we’ve got a lead on some insurgents in a compound on the other side of the valley.”
“Isn’t that in Pakistan?” Scott inquired. His mind wandered. Or did a day rewind?
“Does it matter? We’re soldiers, we have a job to do,” Lt. Roberts said, “Let’s roll!”
As they exited their tent, Scott wrinkled his nose. Something lingered on. At first, he couldn’t place it, then it all came back as they loaded into an all-terrain transport.
The smell of stale cigars, bad decisions yet to be made, and regret hovered in the air …