The Stranger by RichO copyright 2023

 The squeaky hinge was the first alert; followed by the shadow projecting down the stairs. John sat alone at the foot of the stairs staring at the video wall that hadn’t worked in years. Dust lingered in the air highlighted by the light coming from the now opened door. John slowly moved his hand to the grip of his 10mm. An empty beer bottle and an empty ashtray were positioned just to the side of the 10mm. John never let anything block his reach to the handle of his gun. John was always prepared in case a scavenger came looking for some salvage. None ever came. That was good, since there were only two rounds in the clip. I really need to fix the lock on that door, John thought.

 “Hello? Is anyone down there? Please, I need help. I’m coming down, please don’t shoot,” The stranger said.

“Come on down,” John said. “Nice and slow with your hands on the handrails. “

 The slow methodical footsteps, and the creaky steps of the stairs gave John all he needed to know where the stranger was. John’s hand was still on the grip of his 10mm.

 There at the foot of the stairs blocking the view of the blank video wall, was a small thin person. The stranger held onto the handrail, as if securing a quick exit. The stranger wasn’t noticeably male or female. John could see the stranger’s bright blue eyes and short rusty colored wavy hair. The stranger was wearing a loose-fitting tan shirt and blue jeans.

 “What do you want?” John said.

 “I’m sorry to disturb you, but my vehicle broke down a few miles back. I wonder if you could drive me to the nearest [???]”

 John understood what the stranger wanted, but he never actually heard the word after nearest. It was a strange word, but John somehow understood what it meant.

 “Sorry, I mean to the nearest oa-mall,” the stranger said. “I have spare power cells.”

 “Come on, let’s go,” John grumbled.

 John’s vehicle was not a car as such, as it had no wheels. It glided a few feet above the ground. There was no sound from an engine other than a very faint hum.

 There was no road, just rolling hills and valleys ahead. A heads-up display projected a stripe on the ground ahead like the augmented reality that was once was popular. The stripe was showing where the road used to be. At times the stripe was a dashed line to show the vehicle was following a more direct line off the old road.

 The sun bore down on both passengers through the broken tinted glass dome that barely served as a top to the vehicle. Wind periodically deposited dry sandy dust through the cracked dome.

 “Is this a 76 model?” the stranger said.

“Yes,” John said.

 That was all that was said during the one-hour ride to the oa-mall. The heads-up display indicated that they had arrived at their destination. There were no buildings in sight, no trees, and no visible vegetation anywhere. 

 John got out of the car and started walking into what looked like open desert.

“Come on, it’s a few hundred feet over here,” John said.

 The stranger followed without hesitation, walking slowly with an obvious limp.

 John and the stranger stopped at a single door that stood alone in the wasteland around. The door appeared suspended in air. Nothing was behind or on either side of the door. There were two buttons on the door and a keypad.

 “Do you want to take the escalator or the elevator?” John said.

 “I hope you don’t mind, but could we take the elevator?” the stranger said. “My feet have had enough walking. I think I pulled a muscle in my leg trying to fix my vehicle. I don’t think I can stand much either.”

 “Fine, what floor?” John said.

“Fifteen. I thought we could get something to eat. My treat. It’s the least I can do. You have been so kind.”

“Fifteen it is,” John said.

 The door opened to a small compartment that just appeared behind the opened door. Pull down seats lined three of the walls of elevator compartment. John sat opposite from the stranger staring expressionless.

 The ride was short and silent. The elevator didn’t just go up and down, it also traveled sideways. Because the stranger mentioned eating, the elevator stopped at the restaurant court of the fifteenth floor and right near John’s favorite cuisine, Italian. Each oa-mall (short for oasis mall) was constructed below the surface. There were multiple levels with small parks and gardens. Each level was several square miles in size. The restaurant courts on the fifteenth level recreated not only the cuisines, but also the settings and ambience of all the regions of earth. The ceilings for each floor displayed the current sky based on the local time. At night, the sky with the stars and moon could be seen. Couples often sat in the parks looking at the milky-way projected above just as it would be outside at ground level.

 Most humans chose to live in the residential levels of an oa-mall, but not John. He preferred his dark, dusty shelter with the blank wall. To him it was easier that way. The house that used to be John’s family home was gone. He had built the shelter as his man-cave. Now it was his fortress of solitude.

 John and the stranger took a table just inside the restaurant. The menus showed the specials for the day and ask what John and the stranger wanted to drink.

 John ordered a beer. The stranger ordered water.

 There was no waiter or maĆ®tre d’ or greeter. The menus took the order, and the drinks were brought by a small robot. After the drinks arrived, the menus asked if the two were ready to order.

 John ordered a salad, an order of breadsticks and a pizza. The stranger ordered some pasta with a marinara sauce.

 People in the restaurant were staring and murmuring about the stranger. John squirmed in his seat, trying to hide his face with one of the menus. Each time John put the menu to his face, the menu asked John if he wanted to order something else. Annoyed, John slammed the menu down on the table, and tossed his napkin over it.

 “Would you please excuse me,” John said. “I need to use the head. Sorry, I mean, the bathroom.”

“Yes, of course,” the stranger said.

 John started towards the bathroom, but after checking that the stranger wasn’t looking, he headed straight to the door. John walked a few feet through the door and stopped.

 This is wrong, John thought. This how we treated each other before.

 John turned around to head back into the restaurant. The stranger stood in the shadow of the doorway. John saw the frown on the stranger’s face. It was that, ‘what have I done’ frown.

 “Damit, come on, let’s go,” John said.

 “Don’t you want to finish your meal?” the stranger said.

 “No, I’m not hungry,” John said, “Let’s find you a place to stay. I’m tired and want to go home. I have a wall to stare at.”

 “Okay, I got to-go boxes just in case,” the stranger said.

 The stranger walked up to John and took his hand. John immediately pulled the stranger’s hand off of his.

 “What’s the matter?” the stranger said, “Don’t humans hold hands?”

 “Yes, but not with strangers,” John said.

 “Are you upset?” the stranger said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to upset you or embass you. “

 John stopped, straightened his arms and clinched his fist desperately trying to suppress his anger. His frustration wanted to explode, but instead John sat down on a nearby bench, and buried his head in his hands. John slammed his fists on the bench and stomped his feet. John tried stop the flood of tears dammed up behind the wall he had erected around his emotions. But the deep-rooted feelings found a crack and shot right through John’s thick wall. The stranger saw John’s tears and the angry grimace on his face.

 “Why are you crying?” the stranger said.

 “I know what you are. You saw how the people stared at you in the restaurant. Damn you and your kind! Why didn’t you come sooner, and stop them? Now it’s gone. No trees, no flowers, nothing but empty rolling hills. ‘We come in peace,’ you said. There is nothing left, but oa-malls sunken into the desolate landscape. Well, screw your peace! You came too late. The only peace we have now is the silence. No birds singing. Not even a freaking cricket. We are left with nothing!”

 “I am truly sorry. We didn’t come here. We have been here from the beginning, to keep the others in check. But humans chose to follow the wrong voice.”

 “Why didn’t you stop them. You had the technology! Why didn’t you take control?”

 “We aren’t here to take control. That is not our nature. It would not have been allowed. We are to guide and hold back as long as we could the influence of the others. But the choice was always in the hands of the human race. Don’t you understand?”

 “All I understand is that I sit alone in a small dark room staying at a video wall that used to work. It used to show movies of this world. Now it just collects dust. I don’t know where my family or my friends are. I can’t even talk with them, even if I knew where they were, because my damn phone is nothing but a slab of useless electronics. Why couldn’t you have put it all back the way it was?”

 “John, may I use your name, or should I call you JD?”

 John stiffened up, turned his head and look straight at the stranger.

“My friends call me JD; you can call me John.”

 “Alright, John. I don’t have all of the answers to your questions. It is difficult for me to convey to you why. All I can tell you is that it was necessary. We often learn from our experiences. Sadly, we do not often learn just because we are told what must happen.

 “My people are not that different than you. In fact, we were once human. We like you are descended from the same man and woman, but eons ago we… Hmm…I do not have a good word for this. I want to say that we ascended, but that is not really accurate. We changed. We reverted back and transformed into what we were designed to be in the beginning. That is the best I can do. We are Shomrim.

 “The others are not human. They once were... Again, I do not have an accurate word. They were once what humans call, “angels”, but they became more like humans. In the book, you call, “The Bible”, the others are called, Nephilim. They are the Fallen Ones. Am I making any sense?”

 “Not really.” John said. “We consider you aliens, especially since you appeared out of nowhere and said you were here to bring peace. Angels to most humans are just another fairy tale. Something you might have learned in Sunday School, or if you played video games.”

 “Yes, well, the others are closer to being the aliens,” the stranger said. “They are not humans. They chose to come to earth long ago. They wanted power and control over the world of humans. They still do. Right now, they are only bound for a millennium.”

 “I still don’t get why your kind let it get so bad. Why did you wait so long?”

 “I can’t give you a good answer to that, except that we don’t control the timetable. Only One knows the schedule. We only know what we need to do next. Right now, we are here to help humans rebuild, before the others are unbound. We cannot do the rebuilding. That is something humans must do. First, humans must decide that they want to rebuild. Many have and are now in training.”

 “You created the oa-malls!” John said, “Why can’t you just put it all back the way it was?”

 “The ‘oa-malls’ are just a stop-gap measure to help humans survive and reestablish their existence. They provide a safe-haven and a glimpse into what life was on earth before the End. The next steps will be the most difficult ones. Yes, we could rebuild it all. We have that ability. But remember when you were a kid, and you built something with your own hands?

 “Do you remember how you took care of the thing you built more than something that was given to you? Humans did not protect what was given to them. Hopefully, now they will protect what they create. They now know what a world looks like mostly barren and no longer teeming with life like before. They now know what it is like to travel across a desolate world without trees, birds and wildflowers. Hopefully, they will want to put it all back the way it was. It is going to be their choice.

 “The question for you, John, is whether you will help or just sit day after day in front of that blank video wall?”

 “I don’t know.” John said, “Sounds like a task bigger than just one man. I mean I do have a wall to watch.”

 “Humor is good. Come on John. Let me buy you a drink. We can talk more about it. And maybe we can find your family and friends. I do have that ability, and I am allowed to help in that way. And please take my hand. Let me help you up.”

 John took the stranger’s outstretched hand and slowly stood up.

 “Ok, but I’m buying. After all, you got the food. Speaking of, let’s get the drinks to go and eat in the park, I am suddenly hungry.”

 “Sounds like a good plan to me. “

 “And, uh, call me JD,” John said.

 “Will do. Oh, and my name is Kira.”