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Guest Writer

Part Nine: You don't know how bad it can get
by Jess Gulbranson

Mel lost his motel in a poker game in Part 1; he met a man who claimed to be an alien in Part 2; in Part 3, he found himself in alien surroundings; in Part 4, Mel befriended some strange beings looking for barroom trouble; Part 5 seemingly found Mel back on earth, face to face with a green-sweatshirted man who otherwise looked exactly like Mel; in Part 6, Mel discovered the parallel world of Stumptown; in Part 7, he happened upon Frank Burley, the man he needed to find; and in Part 8, Frank ran headlong into some gunfire in the streets of Stumptown ...

Part Nine: You don't know how bad it can get
Mel woke to music, blaring, from somewhere beyond his head. He stretched to find that he had been curled up in the fetal position, though he found the couch he was on much more comfortable than the heating duct from way back when. Mel blinked and looked around. He was surrounded by junk: books, gadgets, objects d' art.

"Ah yes …" he said. "Frank's place."

From somewhere in the depths of the loft, the sound of junk cascading to the floor joined that of the wild punk rock. Mild cursing chimed in, and, as it came closer, Mel caught sight of the flat's owner.

Frank Burley was dressed in what appeared to be some sort of paramilitary uniform. Black boots and gear accented black fatigues. A number of weapons dotted his stocky frame: the Colt six-shooters, a shotgun, grenades and countless knives. A spiked German helmet topped off the whole mess.

"I take it we're going out today, Frank," Mel understated.

"That's right. Up for breakfast?"

Mel thought it over. "Sure thing. Why the get-up?"

"Dress for the occasion. Guess what, Mel?"

"Uh, World War I isn't over yet?" Mel snorted.

"We're going to have a little discussion with your better half. Maybe I can persuade him to assist you in getting home. Or wherever it is you want to go."

"Frank Burley, diplomat. Has a nice ring to it."

"Whatever you say, Mel."

Mel stretched and rose from the couch. An afghan fell off as he stood. "Let's go, then. I don't suppose you have Denny's in this world?"

"You mean Donny's? That we have, but they aren't ever open, and you can't smoke. I was thinking Chinese for breakfast. Dim sum and coffee."

Mel followed Frank out of the loft. Once on the street, Mel was struck by how unnaturally calm it seemed. The danger of the previous day seemed somehow to have subsided, so that this early morning was quiet in a way it should never be in the city. Frank hailed a cab.

"Are you sure this is safe? I mean, you hardly stepped out the door yesterday when it turned into The Wild Bunch out here."

Frank shrugged. "I called in a few favors while you were sawing logs. Between the boys in blue, the Russian mafia and the Yaks, the streets got swept pretty clean last night."

Mel recalled the previous evening. Over freezer-burned tater tots, he and Frank had talked about all manner of things. For about five minutes, that is. The stresses of traveling between worlds and being kicked around overall had brought him low. Mel slipped backwards into the couch and was asleep within moments. His head was resting comfortably on an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter.

At some point in the night, someone had thrown the afghan over him.

Inside the cab, Mel set to figuring out what was in store.

"Well, after some grub I think we ought to get moving," Frank said. "It's been pleasant company, but I'm sure you're eager to get home. So, my plan is this: We walk right in. Guns blazing, if necessary. This wouldn't work ordinarily, but your evil twin is going to be plenty curious. The full-frontal approach is just to get his attention."

"With your arsenal," said Mel, "we shouldn't have any problem."

"That's right. Once in, I don't think we should have any problem getting what we want. I'll make sure of that."

The cab dropped them off in Chinatown, just down the street from the porno shop where Mel had done his first searching in the world of Stumptown. Frank led them into a shabby-looking building. After a smoky elevator took them upstairs, the two stepped out into a gleaming, gaudy restaurant. A steaming buffet table dominated the main length of the room.

"Dim sum," mumbled Mel, "breakfast of champions."

He grabbed a plate and made a blitz into the exotic buffet. The bite-sized combinations of pastry, noodle, meat and vegetable seemed fairly palatable. Then Mel found a chafing dish of what appeared to be chicken feet. Deep fried.

He collared a waiter. "What the hell are these?"

"Part of neck … very tasty, sir."

Mel had never seen a chicken with a foot for a head; tasty or no, he avoided the fried claws.

At a table, Mel spread out his finds alongside Frank's enormous portions.

"So, tell me what the plan is once we get inside."

"Let's just eat," said Frank through a mouthful. "Never talk business while you're eating."

"Fair enough."

They began to dig in, the only customers in the restaurant so far. The Chinese chatter of busy waiters was soothing; very normal despite the weird appearance of the food. Mel was able to keep his mind off the events to come, at least for a little while. When the dim sum no longer disappeared down their gullets, Frank cracked his knuckles and stood.

"It's time," he said, peeling bills off a bankroll and throwing them onto the table.

Mel sighed. He was not looking forward to another run-in with his green-shirted counterpart.

Outside, Frank hailed another cab. This one took them to the trainyard.

"Well, Frank, I think I'm ready if you are."

"You sure you don't want a piece?" asked Frank, gesturing to his portable arsenal.

"No … a zapper is one thing, but guns and bullets just seem to take me back to a time I'd like to forget."

"I forgot you were a vet. Well, once more into the breach, as they say."

They walked between lines of train cars. Mel noticed that many were rusty, with moss between the wheels and rails. The Stumptown trainyard was heading into disuse. Mel navigated back to where he remembered Dimpe's train to be. As they rounded the corner, Mel's first sight was a flash of green against the stationary car. Smith.

"There's your boy, Mel. It looks almost too easy. Let's go get you home."

Frank led Mel to where the counterpart waited, leaning indolently against the train car's stairs. A perverted grin twisted the face above the green sweatshirt.

"Something's wrong," whispered Mel.

"Just cold feet, Mel, we're almost home free."

They were closer, and Smith rose as if to greet them. He waved slowly, the grin never faltering. Frank was looking this way and that, on edge.

"Frank, something is very wrong."

"We've come this far … we can't stop."

But Frank did stop. He turned to face Mel. "Look," he said, "for an out-of-this-world SOB, I like you, Mel. I'd like to think we're friends."

"We are."

"Then trust me on this. We have one shot at your evil twin there. Let's take it. And if what Doubting Tom tells me is true, there's a Frank on every possible world, and a me who's just as cantankerous. So wherever you end up, look for me if you need help." Frank clapped Mel on the shoulder. "C'mon, let's do it."

Mel nodded, and Frank drew his six-shooters as they began walking again.

"Looky, looky, a spook and a spook-hunter." Smith's voice was eerily similar to Mel's, but high and cracked, almost hysterical. "Strange bedfellows, eh boys? Looks like serious business."

"Don't fuck around, Smith," replied Frank. "We're here to send Mel home, and I think you know how." As he spoke, Frank cocked the hammers on both pistols.

"Funny you should mention that," said Smith, whipping out the zapper. "I modified this here device."

Frank didn't even have time to raise his weapons.

"Don't try anything funny," continued Smith, "I want to gloat before I off you."

"Something is wrong," offered Mel.

"Shut up, spook!" Smith was screeching now. "Where's your sheet? I guess you don't like it here in sunny Stumptown. Well, you don't know how bad it can get."

"What does he mean by that?" Frank asked.

"You're about to find out, boy-o." Smith pointed the zapper near his own feet and fired. A patch of ground twisted and distorted – looking like a piece of movie film projected while melting. Smith's grin never faded; he jumped in the hole and was gone.

Mel looked at Frank, recognition passing between them. They ran forward and jumped in.

The change was sudden. It was stiflingly hot, even in the shade of skyscrapers. A number of people in rags were tearing each other to shreds in the middle of the sidewalk. Blood ran into the gutters. Looking around, Mel noticed Smith maybe 20 feet away. He stood underneath a window with a sign that read: SALLY'S PUB – BEST IN RIP CITY!

"Get him!" Frank was growling like an animal. Smith was aiming the zapper near his feet again. Mel started toward him when some of the bloody vagrants got between them. Mel put his shoulder down, but before he could charge, the people fell with a thunderclap. Frank was putting his Colt pistols to good use.

"It's just going to get worse, boys. Catch me now!" Smith zapped, jumped and was gone. Mel and Frank were right behind him.

This time, darkness. Mel could still hear growling next to him that belonged to Frank. Where was Smith?

A match flared in front of them, illuminating Smith's hand. The light revealed a throng of man-shaped, thirsty devils surrounding them. Fangs gleamed in pale faces.

"Shit," said Frank. "Vampires."

"I told you it would get a lot worse," said Smith. "Welcome to Portland."

He blew out the match and was gone.

Find out more about Mel in our archives.

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