Halo: The Unchained

Going to summer camp is just about the worst decision Ryan Winters has ever made. Spending three months with a bunch of idiots who think "tru dat" is correct grammar is certainly not his idea of a good time. But, according to his adoptive mother, he isn't good enough at pretending to not be a mutant. So, off to summer camp, trying to spend more time with the human persons so he can learn how to be a human person. There is only one problem:
Ryan isn't who he says he is.
In a desperate attempt to keep his past hidden, Ryan tries to navigate life at the campsite while drawing as little attention as possible. But, when an unlikely person discovers the truth, Ryan is forced to choose between the fate of the world and the life he has always wanted to live. Now, Ryan has never thought of himself as the type to help people.
Little did Ryan know, all it would take was an interdimensional messenger, his ex-best-friend, and a giant robot from hell to prove him very, very wrong.

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3. Campfires Are Filled With Lies

Campfires Are Filled with Lies

“Alright, Jared, tell me again.  From the beginning. This time, I want details.”  The low flickering light distracted me in a way, making it hard for me to listen to the man who was speaking.  Honestly, it was hard to focus on anything other than how it swayed back and forth behind Steve’s head.  With the way it was swinging, I felt like Steve was about to slam his fist on the table and yell at me about where I was on the night of January 12th, like in one of those old black and white detective dramas.  

Okay, maybe not.

I leaned back in the rusted, iron chair that stood in the middle of the room marked ‘INTERROGATIONS,’ and threw my feet onto the table, crossing them in a casual way.  “Ok, for the last time, it’s Ryan. Ry-yan.  Has a better ring to it. Second, you know the deal.”  I gestured to the brown piece of paper sitting in between me and certain death. “You sign that written contract saying you won’t give me back to those people, and I will answer all of your questions.”

Hearing my birth name almost made me want to throw up. But I guess I would have to get used to hearing it again. Jared. Poor, little, mutant Jared. Not exactly the reputation I wanted to have, but it was what I got, so I had to just make it work. And I had spent so long trying to build my reputation as plain-old, regular, human Ryan. It was almost depressing, really.

Steve looked down at the paper, then back up at me, unamused.  “That’s a napkin from the camp cafeteria.”

I shrugged, crossing my arms over my chest.  I had figured that it was going to be a long shot, so I was prepared.  “Guess I’ll just have to contact your superior and tell her about that little stunt you pulled in Jersey.”  I let a little sly smile settle onto my face.  Was there something that happened back in Jersey that Steve wasn’t proud of?  Probably.  Hell if I knew, but the way Steve’s face twisted up into a scowl told me there was something he was worried about.  Call it a lucky guess.

Or call it having a mother who worked for the literal Government.

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, but I would.”

Steve groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose as he grumbled in annoyance.  “Fine.  I will suggest to child services that they look into your case.  Now tell me what happened.”

I pointed at the paper.  “Sign it.”  I watched Steve grumble again and take a pen out of his shirt pocket, signing his name on the napkin contract I had prepared the day the campsite had been invaded by the police. And with good reason. The summer wasn’t even over, and I had almost been killed by giant robots (countless times), exposed myself to most of the senior class (plus a rather nosey FBI agent and half of the local police force), got stuck in literal Hell, broke out of literal Hell, traveled across a series of other dimensions that (apparently) exist, challenged the literal devil to a fight to the death, and finally, (because apparently all that wasn't enough) blackmailed said nosey FBI agent. It wasn’t exactly turning out to be the summer vacation I was expecting.

Steve slid the paper back towards me, glaring the whole time. “How did you even manage to stay hidden for so long?” He looked me up and down, clearly judging me. Probably wondering how in the world a stupid kid like me managed to avoid the authorities for most of my life.

I shrugged. “Hair dye and colored contacts, Steve. Hair dye and colored contacts. It’s not all that difficult to figure out.” I took the piece of paper into my hands, looking at the signature sitting at the bottom. I know it sounds stupid, but just seeing Steve’s signature made me feel safer. Maybe I wasn’t condemned to a lifetime of sadness after all. Maybe, just maybe, if I told him my story…

He would believe me.

“Alright, fasten your seat belt.  Just remember, you asked for this.”

***

The only familiar thing that surrounded me, was the groans of others.  I mean, who could blame them?  The trees smelt like nature and there were no outlets for them to charge their precious little iPhones.  We were in a completely unfamiliar environment— the real world.  How scary.  We had to learn to adapt to everything— the forest, the sky being unlit by street-lamps, the smell.  38 teenagers who had never been out of the city plus a foreign environment they had never been exposed to— also known as “outside”— was not the best idea the school had ever had.  

Alas, we had to be there, or many of us would flunk junior year— or Mommy and Daddy thought it would be a “learning experience.”  My parent specifically. For some reason— that is completely beyond me— Sheila thought it would be “good for me” to “spend a little bit more time around human persons.” Apparently, I wasn’t good enough at pretending to not be a mutant, which meant I had to spend the entire summer hanging out with the idiots who thought that “tru dat” was correct grammar.

Also, I may or may not have failed history. But it wasn’t like that was my fault. He just spoke so slowly. I nearly tore out my hair once. Sitting in that class was like sitting through slowly having your skin peeled off. Needless to say, I learned practically nothing.

Still, if I had to spend my entire summer suffering, I would have appreciated it if the teachers had put me in bunks with people other than that idiot jock and the weird goth kid. I swear they did that on purpose. Out of everyone in the entire school, Josh and Tyrin were the two people I hated the most.

Suddenly, everyone was staring at me.  Have you ever felt the stinging stares of 37 of your peers who probably didn’t like you and definitely wouldn’t talk to you if it wasn’t for the absurdly perky camp counselors? I almost thought they expected me to jump up and sing for them, and I could feel vomit boiling in my stomach.  The fire in the middle of the large circle of logs pretending to be seats crackled and burned with the intensity of the sun, seeming to stare into my soul with the rest of the campers.  I knew what they expected from me.  Campfire stories: part one.  There was only one option.

“Pass.”  There was no way I was going to start dancing around like a monkey for a bunch of people who wouldn’t even be listening to me if they didn’t have to be.  They weren’t exactly people I wanted to get to know. And I was fairly sure that the feeling was mutual.

The idiot jock punched me in the shoulder.  Ow!  Who does that?  I mean who unironically does that?  Not anyone from this generation, I can promise you that.  “No passes.”  He mocked, sending the campfire crew into a small fit of giggles.  Oh, how hilarious.  The popular jock picking on the little mysterious geek.  How original.  To be fair, Josh was the king, and everyone knew it.  So of course, it was totally fine when he decided to pass. Double standard much?

Every fiber of my being wanted me to shout at him, and finally say everything I had been holding back for years.  But, I refrained— because, you know, I’m such a great person and all.  Plus, I didn’t have a death wish on that particular day.  “I have a story.  I just don’t think you guys would be able to handle it.”  That was the best response I could have given at that point.  After all, excuses were the secret to getting out of every situation.

Or, maybe not.  The campfire-crew immediately began protesting.  Everyone was insisting that “they could handle the story” and “come on, we’re adults” or “seriously, you expect to get out of it that easily?”  Really, I shouldn’t have expected anything less.

“It’s ok, Ryan, just tell us the story.”  A sweet, velvet voice danced into my ears.  I admit, my cheeks reddened slightly, and I couldn’t help but feel my heartbeat a little harder.  My eyes traveled to her— Gigi.  She was the girl of every man’s dreams— well, maybe that was an exaggeration. But she was definitely mine.  

Her fiery red hair coupled with the little freckles dotting the area around her nose were mesmerizing.  And her eyes…  Her eyes glowed with emotion and genuine love for the world— something I had lost and come to miss.  I rubbed the back of my head nervously, instantly regretting the choice to look her in the eyes.  I couldn’t say no to that face.

***

“I’m sorry, how is this relevant to the story?”  Steve’s face was numb with boredom, and it looked like his eyes were about to melt out of his skull.  I uncrossed my arms and removed my legs from the table, putting up one finger in a ‘hush’ gesture.

“Um, excuse me, I was talking.  They don’t pay you to be rude, do they, Steve?”  I crossed my arms again. Just because I was stuck in a dark room in a rusted chair that made my back ache didn’t mean I couldn’t have a little bit of fun. Call it revenge for handcuffing me.  “I told you, you asked for it.  The whole story, starting from the beginning.  This is the beginning.  Now, where was I?

“Oh yeah, the campfire.”

***

In the end, there was no way I could say no to Gigi’s brilliant smile.  I would tell her a thousand stories if she wanted me to.  The others I could have gone without.  “Fine.  I guess it’s alright if you think you can handle it.”  As expected, I got a chorus of eye rolls in response.  Now, if only I could think of a story.  It couldn’t be that hard.  I mean, all I had to do was appeal to all the cliques at the same time.  Unfortunately, I was neither part of a group or liked by a group.  I was there because it was amusing, and because my Mom wanted to go on some special trip with her bible study to Europe and she didn’t trust me enough to leave me the house to myself.

But that was fair, especially what had happened the last time she left me alone.

Finally, I decided on a story. What could be better to bring together a camp of cliques and one, lonely misfit, then a nice, calming horror story? Ghost stories come easy to me. One perk of being a mutant— using your powers for personal gain.

“Well, I did some research on his camp, and—”

“Oh, come on, you can’t be serious!  Lame!”  The idiot jock punched my shoulder yet again.  It was becoming a habit of his.  I hoped it wouldn’t carry over to the nights that we were forced to spend together in our cabin. Seriously, it was enough that I had to deal with him at school. What God did I piss off to make me have to spend the entire summer with that idiot too?

If I was going to lie out of my ass, I wanted to have some fun with it, and there was no way I was going to let someone like Josh ruin my story.  He had done quite enough to me already.  “Layoff!  I’m serious!  This is a true story.  Just trust me and listen!”  The planets must have been aligned, because by some miracle, the campfire crew was on my side, and Josh shrank back into his log-seat. Victory: Ryan.

“As I was saying, this camp has a secret.  Like any good campsite, it has its fair share of ghost stories.  But I’d say this one has a particular flair.  They say 10 years ago, a little…”  I paused to scan the woods.  Honestly, I was disappointed.  There were only a handful of barely visible figures floating in between the trees idly.  Nothing that could help me.  I mean, come on, this is a campsite in the middle of the woods!  Where’s the Hollywood flair?  The mystery, the suspense, the murder?

That was when I saw her, barely poking out of the trees.  Her eyes were pure white— like her eyes were rolled back in her head— and she was staring right at me.  It sent chills down my spine, and I grinned.  Perfect.  That was just the type of drama I needed.  I made a little motion for her to step forward.  No one else could see her, so it was a safe bet.

But it came at a price.

I tensed as my mind blared, flashing with foreign images.  A lake.  Water everywhere.  Hands blocking the path to the surface, holding me down.  Splashing, thrashing, no one around for miles.  Alone. My chest tensed, and I couldn’t breathe. I was suddenly way more aware of everyone staring at me. Watching, waiting, waiting, watching. How long had I been quiet? I should probably continue soon, before they realize that I—

Then, it was gone, in one final breath, like the end of her life.  It was a dangerous thing, playing with the memories of the dead.  It hurt more than I could ever put into words.  So, if you ever wondered what it feels like to die, I can tell you without a doubt that it hurts more than anything. But, I didn’t decide to dive into her memories so I could throw myself into some existential crisis.  I wanted a story, and it was a story I got.  I could use it to my advantage.

Fuck, I was telling a story.

“A young child, a boy, around seven, snuck away from the campsite.”  She was watching me.  She knew I could see her. They always do. It was like some freaking ghost sense or something. The clouded white of her eyes slowly faded, revealing vibrant blue irises that were so deep and rich I felt like I could see the ocean moving in her eyes.

The cheerleaders leaned forward, suddenly interested.  They had always been a sucker for ghost stories.  I knew I had them reeled in the second I started. Still, it was strange that my story was getting attention for once. I was getting attention for once.  “He thought he wouldn’t be followed.  All he wanted was to see the Lake, but the mean camp instructors wouldn’t take him.  So, he took it upon himself to find it.  Only he wasn’t alone.

“There was a man in the woods.  He patrols the forest at night posed as a ranger, looking for wandering children to snatch up from local campsites to fulfill his twisted fantasies.  He followed the boy quietly, slowly, all the way to the glistening water of the lake that was hidden by trees. And there he waited.” I paused for dramatic effect, peering around the camp fire. The murmurs had died down, and most of the people were actually listening to my story.

I totally had them hooked. I began again, my voice sharper as the story grew more intense.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Josh quivering. Take that, asshole. “By the time the man struck, there was no reason to scream.  The boy had wandered far from the campsite, and the man was too strong for the boy to get away.

“But the boy was a fighter.  He wanted to go home, to see his parents.  He wanted to live his life.  He was too young to die.  He lashed out at the man, screaming as loud as he could, and praying that someone would find him.  But actions have consequences.  In a fit of anger, the man threw the boy into the lake, watching the water cover the boy’s head.  Water filled the boy’s lungs.  There was no way to scream anymore.” I paused again, my voice trailing off and getting low, bringing the story down from the climax.

I couldn’t help but peek at Josh again out of the corner of my eyes. He was squirming a little in his seat— trying to pass it off as boredom. But I knew better. He was totally terrified. Last time I saw him squirm that badly, we were in the middle of a horror movie marathon! God, it was too much. If anything, I was twice as motivated to make the story as dramatic as possible.  

“In his last seconds of life, he realized there was no escape.  He let the water consume him, accepting it as his grave.  But he wasn’t going to go alone.  Using every last bit of strength he had, the boy yanked the man down by the ankles.  The man slammed his head on the edge of the dock, and there was a sickening crack!  The water turned red with blood.

“It was years before the man’s body was fished out of the lake, but the boy was never found.  What the boy didn’t know, was that the man carved the name of the little boy into the dock, just before blood loss took him: Jared Hall.”  As soon as I said it I knew I was going to regret it.  But, hey, the story needed a little flair. And what was more dramatic than an infamous kidnapping case? Everyone gasped, whispers flying across the campfire. Ok, maybe it was a bit too dramatic. I had to get their attention again.

“Some say the man’s spirit is still here, thirsting for revenge.  Some have seen him wandering the woods, searching for the boy who ended his life.  But he can never find little Jared, whose body was lost to the Lake.  So, every first campfire of the summer, the man gets his revenge by blowing out the campfire at exactly eleven o’clock, and snatching up one person to drag to the lake, where they will never be seen again.”  OK, they stopped talking. That actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  What a surprise.

A little whimper came from one of the drama kids, who was hugging the girl next to him tightly.  I should have remembered his name because he was pretty much always on the stage with Gigi, but somehow, it wasn’t important enough. (Ok, maybe I was just jealous.) “But…  Tonight is the first campfire.”  Wow… he actually bought that BS? I was good, but I wasn’t that good. They were probably messing with me. How rude.

“Oh, come on, he just said that to freak us out!  He’s not being serious!  I mean, really, Jared Hall?  In this campsite?  What an obvious lie!”  Josh shot out of his seat, pointing an accusatory finger at me.  

I was offended.  I mean, yes, that was true, but he didn’t have to go and say it like that.  Besides, he was totally falling for it. I saw him quivering! He couldn’t hide the fact that he was a total wimp when it came to ghost stories from me. I knew him far too well for that to work. Nine years of friendship came with more than just a frequent flier rewards card. I crossed my arms.

“Alright, what time is it then?  Want to see if I’m lying?”  I challenged.  Oh, great.  Me and my big mouth.  Josh groaned and rolled his eyes, but he looked at his watch anyway.  It was 10:59. Which meant I could still pull something off.  I looked back at the girl in the woods.  Her eyes were filled with an emotion that could only truly come after death: relief.  Her story had finally been told— even if it did have a little Hollywood flair.  But there was still time to do one last thing.

Five…

She silently thanked me for trying my best.  I responded that it was no big deal.  I wanted to help.

Four…

She insisted on doing something to repay me.

Three…

I glanced at the fire, then back at her.  I had a plan, but would only work if she helped me.  It was about the one time being able to see and communicate with ghosts would be useful.

Two…

She nodded, signaling that she knew what to do.  Her eyes clouded back to the same white as before as she drew energy away from the fire, causing the light to flicker and dance as it suffocated.  Josh slowly sat down, his eyes locked on the campfire as he waited in anticipation, ready to prove me wrong.

Got ‘em.

One.

 

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