“And it was like a sea of dragonflies were swarming all around the place…”

“Dragonflies?” Anthony raised his eyebrow at that as Sol threw his grey trench coat around and through his arms.

“That’s right, except they had scorpion tails.” Sol padded at his pockets as if looking for something.

Anthony opened the door and stepped outside. “So wait, there was a sea of dragonflies swarming around a giant field of tall plants or stocks of something or other.” He said recapping the dream Sol had been telling him. “What are you looking for?”

“I feel like I’m forgetting something…” he checked his pockets one last time before he remembered what he was looking for. Putting the leather tobacco pouch in his inside coat pocket he stepped outside into the dimly lit morning world of InnerCity.

Their apartment was one of the few buildings left that had not been turned into foundations for the Upper City Level of this ever advancing town. The sky could scarce be seen from this far below the mammoth buildings rising thousands of feet into the sky, successfully blocking any rays of sunlight that might grace the dying city below.

“So where were we?” Anthony said trying to pick the story back up in a vain hope that it might eventually begin to make sense. They were headed towards the closest transit stop about two blocks east.

“Well, we were all going to get off the old combustion powered vehicle but something was wrong,” he continued. “I can’t really remember it just now, something about a dude trying to suppress out freedoms and the guy next to me was outraged about it. I dunno, seemed like we were creating a new country and trying to base it off the old United States government, like separating the powers and such. But this guy was after the power or something.”

An old newspaper blew across their path slowing just enough in its wind-carried spiral for Sol to note the year as 2016, about two years before the world powers had crumbled along with the populations of most major cities. He smiled at the thought: it really was something in the water.

The thin paper folded tightly around the dried tobacco as his fingers rolled it onto a nice thin cylinder. Looking up he saw his friend Anthony sipping at the steaming liquid that he had ordered. As he felt the cylinder roll into perfection he lifted it to wet the remaining paper with his tongue. He then began spinning it around his fingers surveying the location. Someone paying for their coffee inside dropped their change. The cigarette came to rest between his middle and ring finger as the change clanked to the floor. For a moment his head tilted slightly and his eyes glazed over seeing into a past memory

“Freaking out on me Sol?”

“I’m sorry, what was that?” he brought himself back to the present, shifting in his chair slightly.

“You were sort of staring off into nowhere for a while there.” Anthony set down his drink and sat back against the stool.

“Sorry, I’ll have to work on that.” He looked over to Anthony and half smiled, pulling a match out of his coat pocket.

“How long are you going to keep that up?” Finishing the drink Anthony tossed the empty cup into the trash nearby.

“Something sweet to rot my teeth.” Sol looked up and smiled at the woman who had been gazing at him from behind the counter. “I’ll give it up in a year or two.”

“Sure thing; you wanna get out of here?”

“In a moment.” He lit the match on the concrete table surface, watching the flame eat at the wood. “Order me a French Vanilla?” He lit his cigarette and waved out the match, taking a short drag as he did so and letting the smoke drift lazily from his mouth.

“Sure,” Anthony waved to the lady behind the counter, who started towards them instantly.

“Can I help you?” she asked leaning her hand on their table.

“Would you get this loser a tall Almond Late`?”

“Almond?” questioned Sol, raising an eyebrow and setting his cigarette in the ashtray.

“Trust me,” Said Anthony and she left to make the coffee.

Sol watched her feat as the woman returned to deliver the fresh Almond Late`. As her foot rose over the threshold of the door it seemed to him as if everything suddenly became intolerably slower than it should have been. And his focus drew itself to what seemed like a black snake, or rather the shadow of one, passing purposefully in front of her foot. The woman tripped over her feet and fell forward, the lid to the Late` cup coming off and shooting the hot brown liquid out towards him. Sol’s eyes widened as the liquid transfigured into a horrid steaming wraith, screeching at an unbearable pitch.

And then it all came back into normal time and the coffee splashed onto his dark grey coat. The thick trench coat managed to block the heat from searing his skin, but startled as he was, he jumped up suddenly, knocking over the stool from which he sat and wiping at his coat frantically. After a few moments he calmed down and saw Anthony helping the girl from the ground.

“Are you all right?” he asked then, coming over to help her up.

“I am so very sorry,” she said with worry in her voice, “So sorry…”

“It’s no problem, here take my hand.” After what he had just seen he found himself unusually calm. She began to dab his coat with napkins trying to make up for the mess. “It’s quite all right, don’t you worry about a thing; are you ok?” He said in a soft voice of his.

“Other than her hands being a little bruised she’ll be fine,” Anthony interjected.

“Would you like me to get you another drink, on me?” she asked hopefully.

“Oh no, don’t worry about it, we have to be going anyway. Maybe some other time?” she nodded to his offer and stepped back into the store to mind the gawking and ready to order customers. Anthony and Sol began to walk towards the bus stop.

“…And I ran and ran until I found myself inside a crystal ball, and there I grew old and died.”

“That’s really crazy Sol.”

“I know.”

A great gust pushed at them as the transit vehicle lowered to the ground. The papers and trash littering the streets were pushed far into the darkest corners of the Alleys. Though it was just after 3 o’clock PM the area was dark enough to be illuminated by the primitive street lamps, erected over the two hundred years since the reconstruction had begun.

Anthony was pulling out his bus pass and preparing to board the bus when Sol suddenly had a sick feeling climbing up and over him.

“Are you ok man?” Sol looked for the source of the voice but saw nothing more than a murky fog and in the fog the dim outline of the monstrous metallic bus. Squinting his eyes he took a step towards it, hoping this was another passing illusion, but he soon came to a halt as with each step he felt like he was walking towards a large and dangerously out of control fire.

“What’s…you…ing…” It was Anthony’s voice coming in segments, very unclear. Sol was breathing hard enough to get a rush of oxygen to his head and managed:

“Go on, I’ll wait for the next one.”

Something like: “You sure?” in response and Sol waved his hand telling Anthony to Go.

As the transit car lifted from the ground, blowing his coat around him, Sol’s vision suddenly cleared and his nausea dispersed. He looked up to see the receding lights of the vehicle pass on upward to the main city level. Looking around him Sol decided to roll a cigarette for himself. The streets were deserted and hollow, giving this part of town a strange ghostly feel.

Pulling out his leather pouch, he was about to look for the papers when suddenly a white school bus with blue stripes pulled up and stopped directly in front of him. A dark and disgusting gas was spewing from the back of it and the engine was very noisy. A combustion engine? Something seemed oddly familiar about all this. The bus driver, a thin woman in her mid forties, opened the door and looked out at Sol expectantly.

“Well?” Sol looked around to make sure he was the only person she could be talking to, then stood and made his way towards the bus.

“Where is this thing heading?” he inquired.

“Where do you need to go?” the lady returned.

Though it was extremely out of the normal as far as he could tell, Sol boarded the bus nonetheless, showing the driver his pass and taking a seat in the third row next to a slightly overweight man with dark curly hair. The bus was filled with many people of different height, stature, make, and so on.

The bus started moving and it was a rather bumpy ride as the streets were no longer taken care of by the city. Jolting along for about twenty minutes Sol was concentrating hard enough on not becoming ill that he didn’t notice they weren’t going into the city where he lived but rather out of it, and for a vehicle made before the reconstruction it seemed to be moving quite up to speed. They were far outside the city within an hour with the towers receding quickly.

It was three hours of hard travel and in that time he got to talking with his neighbor about several subjects surrounding politics. Colin Well was his name, formerly a businessman, just ready to finish his life when this bus came along and picked him up. It seemed no one knew exactly where they were going, just that they had to go. Sol felt like he had a pretty good idea. While they had been talking he had pulled the pack of tobacco out of the leather sack in his hand and noticed something else rather familiar. Sifting Tobacco Companies logo: a dragonfly with the tail of a scorpion.

The bus pulled into a small station in the middle of nowhere and picked up one last person. It seemed the front seat had been reserved for him and he took it without much glance at the rest of the passengers. Sol saw that he was a thin and very pale old man with long white hair flowing down over his back, a perfect contrast to his black suit. He held a walking cane in his left hand and carried a very cold presence with him.

The sun was setting as the dull grassy fields gave way to tall lush plants of a magnificent and healthy looking green. Everyone on the bus seemed drawn to the windows except Sol and also, it seemed, the well to do man in the front seat two rows ahead of him. While the people gazed at the plants making obvious speculations as to where they were going, Sol watched the man intensely. Something familiar…

The bus had stopped, and before people could stand the old man rose as if to make an announcement. “Welcome, all of you, to the Sifting Tobacco Company Plantation,” he began. “My name is Arterous Mayn. You may or may not be aware that for the last couple of months you have all been using our product. You may also be unaware that all of you have been subject to very strange events lately, perhaps déjà vu, or maybe a series of hallucinations, dreams may even have been reenacted during your every day activities.”

All of these things had happened to Sol in the past few days, hours even, and he sat up in interest. The man continued:

“All of you on this bus are the first and only users of our priceless weed, grown to perfection by use of the best genetic engineers in the world to breed the perfect plant. Unfortunately these sudden hallucinations were completely unexpected and even more unfortunately would label this plant as an illegal substance. The government would come in and burn all our hard work to the ground if they were to find out about these, and so we must ask all of you to stay here on our plantations, completely provided for by us, but you will never leave.”

This last statement started a series of chaotic chatter among the passengers; Sol’s neighbor, Colin Well, was practically riotous with statements along the lines of “The violation of basic human rights” and such. However, Sol sat completely motionless, hardly affected it seemed by what the man had said. Something else was bothering him but he couldn’t seem to figure what it was, something about this Arterous Mayn character.

“Now if you will all come with me I shall show you to your accommodations…” the Pale man began to exit the vehicle, and slowly the people followed one by one out the door.

“Are you going to go man?” Sol looked over at Colin, being suddenly stirred from his thoughts.

“Oh right, sorry.” They stood and followed the rest of the people out of the vehicle. Stars could been seen in the evening sky but it was still bright from the sun being just over the horizon. Arterous was leading the group through the tobacco stocks to their destination and Sol noted that they all looked like cows heading to the slaughter. Colin was now going on about how they were probably going to supply them with free health care and a good package along with the free living conditions.

“Doesn’t something just seem slightly off about this whole thing?” Sol interjected. “Why would they test this new tobacco on us without our written consent and then bring us out here in the middle of nowhere to live peacefully for the rest of our meager lives?”

Colin looked at him as if he couldn’t comprehend what Sol was saying and continued on as if he hadn’t said anything. The rows of tobacco they had been walking through came to a sudden end and Sol saw the old man holding open the door to a concrete compound while the people continued into it single-file. Walking through all that fresh tobacco had given him the sudden urge to stop for a smoke, and he had happened to have been using all his nervous energy on the bus to roll one. A nasty habit.

Sol put the cigarette into his mouth and lit it with the match in his pocket. As he was inhaling he noticed Arterous Mayn’s eyes widen slightly and he beckoned for Sol to come aside for a chat. Sol did just that, still breathing in the intoxicating fumes. He was surprised that none of the others had done the same, he doubted many of them had to roll their own.

Arterous took the cigarette from Sol’s mouth and threw it to the ground giving it a quick stomp. “Sorry son, this is a smoke free area.”

“How ironic,” it was then that Sol noticed the very subtle scent of petroleum. “Flammable chemicals present or something? Is that smart to have in the center of your plantation?”

“Please follow the others into your new living area.”

“Something sweet to rot my teeth…” Sol was studying the man intently, something on the tip of his brain, he couldn’t quite grasp

“Mr. Well, could you help your friend Sol here into the compound with the rest please?”

Colin looked over at Sol. “You coming man?”

“Not just yet, I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”

“Mr. Mayn would like you to come in now.” Sol didn’t know what he was thinking but his stomach was churning with acid and his heart was racing. He could see everything had a reddened tint to it, except the old man’s eyes, they were yellow, and brightly lit with fire. And he saw bones were littering the ground where he stood. The sky grew overcast and the stars were blotted out.

And in that moment he ran, and knew that Colin his bus-mate was in close pursuit. The stocks were writhing with worms all around him and the ground was crawling with black beetles. Glancing back he saw that Colin was only steps away and gaining. In a moment he was reaching out to grab the back of Sol’s shirt, and just as he got a hold of it Sol tripped and they both began to tumble down a steep hill, littered with small trees. Gaining speed they were rolling over each other when a tree broke their fall. And from a quick glance it seemed it had broken Colin’s back as well.

Sol continued to run, past a stream and across a small ravine, deep into a great forest he had not noticed. He ran for hours before he collapsed from exhaustion. He leaned himself against a large structure and began to catch his breath. His vision was clear again and he took that moment to throw his leather tobacco pouch far from him. It bounced off a nearby tree trunk tearing away some moss with it.

Something else peculiar: the tail of a scorpion where the moss had been. Sol stood and wiped away the rest of the moss from the trunk and saw the insignia of the Sifting Tobacco Company imprinted on it. Turning around he saw that the structure he had been leaning on was really a giant green house covered in moss from years of neglect.

He remembered his last conversation with Anthony: “And I ran and ran until I found myself inside a crystal ball, and there I grew old and died.”

(Continued with Sifting Scholars)

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