Monday, November 16, 2015

"PYROMANIA"


LONDON, 1212 A.D.
            As dusk deepened into night over the rank, muddy streets of the city, injecting a touch of chill into the warm July air, the slight figure of a young woman scurried by the closely gathered shops and dwellings as if she were late for an important engagement. She kept her eyes down as she went, navigating the muck beneath her feet with such nimbly practiced precision that the almost paper-thin shoes she wore remained mostly unspattered. One thin hand held the side of her ragged skirts above her ankles, and she stayed as close to the edge of the path as she could, avoiding the mire of dirt, liquid and filth that clogged the middle. Her rapid progress through the side alleys of Southwark went unnoticed as her small, wraith-like form slipped past in the gloom of early evening.
When she reached the intersection of her path with a larger, busier one, she melted around the corner and picked up her pace, her destination finally within view. Snippets of conversation, laughter, shouts, and coughs drifted to her ears from open doorways and dim interiors. She ignored them all, focused on getting to the last two-story building at the end of the lane, its thatched roof looming above her as she approached. Stopping before it, she gazed up at the darkened single window set high in the wall facing the street. Her eyes slowly slid down to the closed door and widened. Releasing her hold on her skirts, she lifted her fingers and rested them on a symbol carved into the wood. With a light, reverent touch, she traced the circle, stars, crescents and crosses tri-sected with straight lines.
“A’za-kaal” she whispered softly.
Dropping her hand suddenly, she pushed on the door forcefully. It opened easily, swinging inward to reveal murkiness within. She paused and looked from side to side up and down the lane. Life bustled all around her as men, women and children conducted their nightly routines as they had the previous night, and the night before that, and the night before that one. The pungent odor of cooking food, hearth smoke and waste layered the air. Singing and loud voices from the neighborhood tavern cascaded on the dank breeze, and she could hear the cries of babies and animals mingling together and becoming almost indistinguishable. A snarling grimace contorted the young woman’s lips as she looked and listened. Stepping over the threshold of the house, she went inside and shut the door behind her.
***
At 7:34 p.m., screams ripped through the Southwark section of London as an entire lane of wood, straw and thatch structures disappeared beneath a haze of fiery smoke. Residents on the north side of the Thames snapped to attention as the sound of stridently pealing bells echoed over the dark, turgid waters of the river. The undulating glow of red climbing into the sky with unearthly speed beyond the south entrance of the Great Bridge fed the panic rippling through the growing mass of onlookers. Within minutes, a crowd had formed amongst the houses and businesses constructed there and a cacophony of noise swelled from it as if the Bridge were alive and breathing.
In Southwark, all semblance of normality had vanished into thick clouds of acrid, noxious vapor. Building after building erupted into a rapidly spreading inferno as dry straw and wood touched hungry, grasping flame. Confused and terrified, those who only moments before had been eating, talking, sleeping and imbibing were running haphazardly through the mud, wailing and seeking refuge. In the midst of it all, the young woman walked slowly and deliberately with her hands outstretched, revealing scorched palms and blistered fingers. Her worn, faded skirts trailed the ground, the fastidiousness of previous hours long forgotten. The heat of the blaze around her plastered long strands of pale hair to her forehead with sweat, and she appeared to wander aimlessly, lost in a trance.
A short distance beyond the ravaged lanes, her meandering path eventually brought her to an open square and the large church that presided over it on the eastern side. Her mouth dropped open in awe as she walked across the broad flat stones towards the towering fa├žade of the gothic structure, now awash with golden light. Terror-stricken refugees stumbled and pushed by her as her faltering steps carried her closer to the smoldering walls, but she proceeded as if she alone was witnessing a divine event. At the base of the wide stone steps leading up to the huge double wooden doors she stopped, craning her neck backwards to peer into the inky black sky. A cloaked hooded figure perched on the edge of the roof, unmoving and static as a statue. She gasped and raised her arms towards it, her face a mask of rapture. In response, the figure extended an arm outward and opened its hand high above her face. Hundreds of tiny, glowing, blood-red embers spilled down, twirling in sparkling eddies throughout the square. The young woman laughed in delight as they floated into her hair like gems, leaving tendrils of smoke in their wake.
As she fell to her knees at the foot of the burning church’s steps, the scorching night wind caught the ember shower in its path and blasted it to the south entrance of the Great Bridge. Over the writhing throng below, the embers broke apart into glittering clusters that came to rest gently on the wooden frames and burrowed into the thatched roofs. They gusted into open windows and doorways, landing on straw pallets and piles of cloth, seeming to leave only smudges of ash behind. In this manner they made their way to the north side of the Bridge like a cloud of swarming butterflies illuminating the dark. Less than an hour later, the black surface of the Thames was bright as noon in the reflected light of what once was the Great Bridge of London. Within the mass of dumb-stricken spectators gathered a few hundred yards away on the shore, a little boy watched as bodies dropped into the river from the smoking walls above, and overladen boats capsized into the rushing current, dragging luckless passengers underneath. As he gazed mesmerized into the conflagration before him, he thought he saw an angel swathed in robes hovering amongst the shifting flames, a solid dark form set against the fire in the sky.

***

THREE
            “Mommy, look. There’s a snake in the sky.”
            The young mother attempting to hustle her five-year-old daughter into the car so she could drop her off at daycare paused for a moment in confusion.
            “What are you talking about, baby? Come on now, Mama’s gotta get to work.”
            The little girl tugged stubbornly at her mother’s hand and dug in her heels.
            “Look. Right there.”
            Glancing upwards, her mother swept her eyes across the cloudless, bright blue sky above their neighborhood in Highland Park.
            “Honey, there’s noth—“
            She stopped short and gasped.
            “Oh, my God” she murmured, staring towards the vista of the San Gabriel Mountains looming to the north.
            An enormous plume of greyish-white smoke was rising in a neat column from somewhere in the foothills of the mountain range, extending far into the atmosphere. It was impossibly sharp and clear against the brilliant azure surrounding it. The feature that had caught her daughter’s attention, however, and was now riveting her own was its top. It bulged out into space from the straight pillar beneath it in a formation oddly reminiscent of a snake’s head. There even appeared to be eyes where gaps in the layers of smoke had drifted open. The mother shuddered and unconsciously tightened her hold on her daughter’s hand.
            “Lord have mercy” she whispered. “That is really weird.”
            “It’s scary, Mommy” the little girl said, her pixie-ish voice trembling.
            Pulling her eyes away from the eerie sight, the mother opened the back door of her car and urged the girl towards it.
            “That’s smoke from a fire, honey. It’s not really a snake.”
            “Fire is dangerous. We’re not ever supposed to play with it” her daughter said as she climbed into the car seat strapped into the back seat.
            Her mother nodded emphatically in agreement.
            “That’s absolutely right.”
            The little girl twisted her head to look out the window at the smoke cloud hovering in the distance.
            “Is the fire going to get us, Mommy?” she asked.
            “No, baby. It’s very far away and there are lots of firemen going there right now to put it out as fast as they can. You don’t need to worry about it, okay?”
            Her daughter looked doubtfully at her mother.
            “Are you sure?”
            Sighing, her mother finished fastening the belts securing her daughter into the seat and straightened up.
            “Yes. I’m sure. Now let’s go see your friends.”
            As she eased the car into the street and began rolling away, the mother glanced uneasily in her rearview mirror at the ominous cloud hanging in the sky behind them. It really did look like a giant snake rearing backwards to strike. She shivered and moved her gaze forward.
            “They’ll put it out in no time. Too many expensive houses up there” she thought to herself and decided to put the whole thing out of her mind and get on with the day.
***
            At 2:20 pm, Miri pushed away from her desk and stretched, extending her long, slender arms high above her head. She grimaced slightly at the stiffness she felt in her neck and decided to hit the 7:00 pm yoga class. Standing up, she turned to go to the kitchen and grab a snack to fend off the mid-afternoon yawns when her fellow paralegal, Steve caught her attention.
            “Hey, have you been over to Maricela’s desk?” he asked as Miri rounded the corner of her cubicle. She paused and looked at him questioningly.
            “No. What’s going on at Maricela’s desk?”
            “Oh, man, you gotta go check it out. It’s the most bizarre thing. Come on” he said excitedly, waving his arm for her to follow him.
            Miri shrugged and gamely trailed after him to the other side of the massive office space laid out on the forty-fifth floor. Maricela’s cube was set next to the huge floor to ceiling window facing the north side of the skyscraper they occupied. All those working on that side of the floor enjoyed a spectacular panoramic view of downtown, its northward environs and beyond that, the dusky greenish-brown line of the San Gabriel Mountains. As Miri and Steve approached, she noticed that there were already five or six people gathered around Maricela’s space staring out the window.
            “What’s everybody looking at?” she asked as they joined the rapt group.
            Maricela peeked around the neatly suited bodies surrounding her as she heard the question.
            “One of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure” Maricela stated. “I’m trying to find out what’s going on right now.”
            Her face disappeared as she bent her head back towards her computer screen. Steve pointed to the window.
            “Look.”
            Miri stepped as close as she could behind the blockade of co-workers and peered out. When her gaze found the object of everyone’s fascination, she almost forgot to breathe. The panic she was so familiar with, that she had tried desperately to escape for the past nine years came over her in an inevitable, engulfing tide that she was powerless to resist.
            An immense cloud of smoke hung over the mountains to the west, staining the pristine clarity of the perfect fall sky like a ton of dynamite had been detonated there. As if that wasn’t enough, there was a dinosaur-sized snake hanging over the hills with long, bared fangs and slitted eyes that seemed to blink as the wind pushed the smoke. The chatter of her co-workers receded to an indistinguishable murmur and Miri succumbed to the fear.

September 2005. Miri was 15. It was still as hot as the dead of summer and Miri was miserable over it. School was going to start in a week and a half and it was gonna be a hundred degrees outside. So not cool, like literally. There was nothing worse than schlepping a backpack around and sweating buckets while doing it. She wasn’t even going to want to get her hair done for the first week. What would be the point? It would just frizz out after half a day. So much for trying to look decent.
            She was lounging on the couch in the den watching the Cartoon Network with a Coke Slurpee and a can of Pringles. Later, when the sun was lower, she was planning on getting in the pool and staying in it until dinnertime. She felt too sluggish to do anything else. The weather outside was weird. Besides being gross, dry and hot as an oven, the sky was a nasty washed-out pale blue, so pale it wasn’t even really blue, it was more white. And the atmosphere was heavy and still, as if an invisible blanket had been laid over everything.
            Her family home sat right at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in a community nestled in the foothills called Altadena. Even though there was a mountain practically in the backyard, it looked like a thin screen of gauze was pulled over it because the air was so hazy. Nope, she was writing off today and hoping tomorrow would be better. A sudden loud thumping that made Miri think of a stampeding herd of cattle began coming towards the den. She rolled her eyes and sat up straight. Ten seconds later, her nine-year-old brother Max barreled into the room. She grabbed the TV remote, steeling herself.
            “I’m not changing the channel!” she pre-empted. “It’s cartoons anyway. You oughta be happy.”
            Max didn’t even look at the television, instead barely halting his galloping pace before he fell on his sister.
            “Whoa!” she exclaimed, scooting to the side quickly. “Watch it, Max! Where’s the fire?”
            He gaped at Miri in surprise.
            “How’d you know?” he asked, obviously disappointed.
            She did a double take.
            “What?”
            Max pointed to the large sliding patio door next to them and jumped up and down excitedly.
            “There’s a fire, there’s a fire!” he shouted.
            Miri winced at his volume and tossed the remote onto the couch.
            “Take it down a notch, pal. You’re like, right in front of me.”
            Unable to contain himself, he lunged forward and took her hands.
            “Come on! Let’s go see it.”
            “I don’t want to move, Max” she grumbled.
            “Come on” he insisted. “It’s cool.”
            She sighed heavily and pushed up, giving in to appease him. Max got on her nerves a lot, but she loved the little pipsqueak. She would never say it to his face, but he was cute as all get out.
            “All right, all right, let’s go” she muttered.
            He enthusiastically bounded out into the kitchen and headed for the foyer with Miri trailing behind. When he opened the front door, the acrid smell of smoke assaulted her nostrils and she wrinkled her face in disgust.
            “Eww! Oh, my God” she blurted out, covering her nose with a hand.
            “Watch your language” Max piped up, parroting the reprimand she usually got from their mom when her tongue slipped.
            She shot her brother a mean side-eye and walked onto the porch. The cloying heat enveloped her instantly and combined with the overpowering stench, she started to feel sick. The haze had thickened, filling the air, and it seemed like they were standing in a room full of inveterate cigarette smokers.
            “What is going on out here?” she said, her words muffled by the palm she had slapped over her mouth.
            Appearing unaffected by the toxic environment, Max gestured eagerly at the mountains behind the house.
            “Look!”
            Miri’s gaze traveled in the direction of her brother’s finger. When it reached the nearly invisible brown outline of the hills, she gasped. A pillar of smoke billowed into the sky just beyond the ridge closest to their street. Tiny particles of ash floated in the stagnant air and landed on the cocoa skin of her bare arm. She brushed them off, grimacing.
            “I think it’s big” Max said, fascination lighting up his face.
            “That seems awfully close to us” she replied. “Ugh, it’s making my eyes burn. Go back in the house, Max. You shouldn’t be breathing this stuff.”
            She held up a staying hand in anticipation of the protest that was coming.
            “Go inside and tell Mom and Dad.”
            Max pouted and returned indoors, swinging his arms despondently. Miri glanced at the smoky hills once more, then followed him in, shutting the door firmly.

By five o’clock that afternoon, the blaze had crossed the ridge above Miri’s neighborhood. Big fire engines blocked the entrance to her cul-de-sac street, and the slowly deepening dusk glimmered with flashing red emergency lights. Many of the residents were milling about on the sidewalk watching the smoldering hillsides anxiously. Her mom and dad were watering down the walls and roof of their house along with all of the vegetation surrounding it. Max was ensconced in the den in front of the TV, his earlier ardor having cooled considerably. The mood of uncertainty and tension within and without had finally reached him, and he was now silently engrossed in Spongebob Squarepants, methodically licking an Otter Pop.
            Miri had tried to retreat to her room and ignore the goings on outside. But her window faced the burning mountain, and as the hours had dragged on she had become more and more enthralled by it. She was also more afraid. Feeling like she needed to know what was happening, she decided to walk to the bottom of the street and see what she could find out. When she arrived, several people she recognized hailed her and her hopes for new intel grew.
            “Miriam!”
            A Caucasian woman in her early fifties waved to her. Miri groaned. It was Ms. Weideiger and she certainly was a talker.
            “How are you, dear?” the woman asked as Miri approached.
            She gestured at the hill and shrugged.
            “Kinda freaked out.”
            Ms. Weideiger patted her on the arm reassuringly.
            “Oh, it’ll be all right, honey. They’ve got it under control. You know, this is the third fire I’ve been through living up here. The last one was in 1993…”
            Miri nodded, distracted by the bizarre view above them. There seemed to be hundreds of tiny campfires glowing on the mountainside. They flickered all over the rocky slopes, clustered amongst the scrubby brush.
            “What are those?” she asked, mesmerized.
            Ms. Weideiger waved her hand dismissively.
            “Those are just embers. They’ll burn out eventually. Nothing to worry about, dear. The firemen will stay around until they’re gone. Say, how are your mom and dad? I’ve been meaning to come over and catch up with your mom…”
            Miri wasn’t sure Ms. Weideiger knew what she was talking about. Sure, the embers up on the hill seemed harmless enough at the moment. But there were so very many of them. After listening to her prattle on for five more minutes, Miri decided she’d had enough. She excused herself as politely as she could and headed back to the house. Halfway there, she stopped abruptly. Max was standing in the middle of the street, his diminutive form difficult to make out in the gathering dusk.
            “What the—“ she muttered.
            She continued trudging up the sidewalk, the incline of the hill making her thigh muscles burn. Waving her arms, she tried to get his attention.
            “Max! Get out of the street!”
            He remained where he was, looking at her as she got closer. It was already too dark for her to see his face clearly. She had no idea what he could be thinking. He was old enough to know he should stay out of traffic.
            “Hey, Max!” she shouted, annoyed.
            The wail of a siren began, rising from a low whine to an ear-splitting howl in a rapid crescendo. It came from behind Max’s still figure as a huge fire truck rounded the curve at the top of the street. Miri’s eyes grew wide and she flailed her arms wildly. Max still didn’t budge.
            “Oh, my God” she whispered in horror. “MAX!!”
            She broke into a run, aiming straight for him. He looked tiny and fragile in the approaching headlights of the massive engine and her heart lurched painfully. As she got within a few feet of him, he suddenly moved faster than she had ever seen him do before. He darted onto the sidewalk and ran up the street, nearly disappearing in the gloom. As if cued to her dilemma, the streetlamps blinked on. There was just time for her to see Max veer off onto the concrete footpath that gave access to the hiking trails. Those trails were now a hazardous minefield of simmering embers and choking smoke.
            “Oh, shit” Miri breathed, her stomach knotting with fear.
            She sprinted after him, praying he would be slowed down by the darkness. Her own progress was limited by the lack of visibility and she almost tripped twice as she made her way along the narrow footpath. Miri fought the urge to burst into tears. Instead, she told herself he had to be right ahead of her, he was only nine, he couldn’t get far. She continued to call his name, straining her ears for a response.
            The path bent to the left and when she rounded it, she saw that it dead-ended at a closed gate. Max was nowhere to be seen. She knew from her own forays on the trails  that the dirt road beyond the barrier led deeper into the hills and ended at a small canyon about half a mile in. There was no way she was going to find him if he had gone down there. The smoke was much thicker than on the street and Miri’s eyes and throat stung from it. She was going to have to get help. The prospect of leaving Max alone here killed her. But she didn’t know what else to do. Groaning, she tossed her hands up in frustration and turned to go back. An unexpected gust of wind brushed her face and a loud rustling by the gate spun her around again.
            “Max?” she said hopefully, peering through the murky, ash-laden air.
            Miri froze, glued to the spot where she stood. About five feet away on the other side of the gate, something was watching her. It wasn’t a person, at least not one like any she had encountered. At eight feet tall with unnaturally slender arms and legs, it looked like a caricature of a person with a smooth bald head and mottled skin that gleamed in the last vestiges of light fading from the sky. The face was blank, as if there were no features there, and it didn’t have any ears or fingers on its hands.
            She couldn’t reconcile what she was seeing and unconsciously stepped backwards. Two red eyes winked open in the empty face of the thing, and she instantly was reminded of the myriad glowing campfires that dotted the hillside below them. Next, a slit of a mouth appeared and the creature hissed a sibilant, eerie sound that pushed Miri squarely into fight or flight mode. Opening her jaws wide to scream, she gasped as the air in her lungs was neatly sucked out. A wall of flame leapt high at the thing’s back, soaring twenty feet. In the sudden brightness, Miri could see it plainly. It was a giant snake, one that had arms and legs and stood upright.
            Heat scorched her skin and she flung an arm over her face. Squinting against the glare, she peeked out. The creature had disappeared. Confusion clouded her mind. She staggered from side to side, blinded and helpless as the curtain of fire advanced towards her. A man’s deep voice spoke out of the haze.
            “I got you, little lady. You’re okay.”
            Miri turned to see a firefighter in full gear beckoning to her. She moaned as relief flooded through her.
            “Let’s get you out of here” he said, firmly taking her by the arm.
            She sagged into him and allowed herself to be guided back down the path. When he returned her home, she slumped beside him as he told her parents where she had been found.
            “Miriam! What on earth were you doing?!” her mother exclaimed. “Don’t we have enough to worry about without you being nosy and endangering yourself?”
            Miri began to explain but the sight of Max standing in the kitchen silenced her words. Relief swamped her for the second time and she came back to life. Slipping by her exasperated mom and dad, she ran to him and snatched him up in her arms.
            “Oh, my God, Max!”
            He wriggled in her grasp and made a face.
            “Eww, you stink!” he groused, pushing against her hug.
            Sniffling, she released him with a deep scowl.
            “Why did you run onto the trail?! Why didn’t you wait for me?” she demanded to know.
            He looked at her blankly.
            “What?”
            She crossed her arms, getting angry.
            “You know what! First you were in the middle of the street, which you know you aren’t supposed to do. Then you ran from me!”
            Max was totally confused.
            “No, I wasn’t.”
            She snapped.
            “Oh, yes, you were!” she shouted, her voice tinged with hysteria. “I saw you!”
            Their mother intervened.
            “Stop yelling, Miriam! Max has been here watching TV. You’re the one who disappeared.”
            Miri stared at both of them, flabbergasted.
            “But— No, I saw him in the street.”
            Her mother shook her head emphatically.
            “You did not see your brother outside. He has been here the entire time. It must have been someone else you saw.”
            The room began to slowly spin around Miri’s body, like a carousel picking up speed.
            “Then who…”
            Her vision reduced to a tunnel with the kitchen and everything in it shrinking to miniature size. She heard her father speak from a long way off.
            “Grab her! She’s going down!”
            She fainted dead away, eased to the floor by her mother and father. When Miri woke up later, she had become a full-blown pyrophobe with hints of paranoia thrown in for good measure.

“Miri! Hey, are you all right?”
Her eyes fluttered open and she was sitting in a chair with four of her co-workers peering down at her nervously. She realized where she was and straightened up.
“Did I… did I pass out?” she asked in a breathy voice.
Steve bent down next to her, obviously concerned.
“Sort of. You kinda zoned out there for a minute.”
Nodding shakily, she attempted to get herself together.
“I’m okay. I’ll just go get a glass of water.”
Maricela touched her gently on the shoulder and prepared to bustle off.
“No, no, you sit. I’ll get it for you.”
She walked away and the others gathered around her dispersed also, clearing Miri’s view of the window. The enormous smoke cloud over the mountains was still there, its uncanny shape appearing even more ophidian. It now had a long sinuous body that flared into a distinctly serpent-like head and the eye holes were larger, slanting back in a watchful gaze over the city. It seemed to be looking directly at her, pinpointing her exact location on the forty-fifth floor. A strong shudder vibrated through her frame and her breathing became shallow and quick. Her eyes went wide and glassy as a soft whimper escaped her lips.
“Oh, man” Steve muttered. “She’s freaking out. What do we do?”
“Call Jody!” someone else said. “Get her now!”
Miri stared at the cloud, lost in terror while the chatter of her co-workers vanished into the white noise buzzing in her ears.

An hour later, she sat behind the wheel of her car, sent home early by Jody, the firm’s floor manager and her supervisor. She was very still and silent, her thoughts flittering like the pages of a kid’s flipbook. Reaching for her purse, she pulled out her cell phone. It slipped from her nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor. After two more tries, she finally managed to dial the number she sought.
“He—hello?” she stammered. “I need to see Dr. Fuller as soon as possible.”
She swallowed hard, listening to the voice on the other end of the line.
“No, I’m not suicidal. Yes. It’s an emergency.”

***
Penny stared out the window of Leland’s dirty black F-150 as they coasted down the hill towards Sunland proper. She tried to ignore the reek of gasoline on her hands and clothes, but the pervasive odor lingered in her nose, and she kept remembering what she and Lee had done. The entire day felt like a surreal dream. It was a dream she wasn’t going to wake up from either. She glanced over at the silent man driving and tried to find the nerve to speak. As if sensing her thoughts, he looked at her.
“You all right?” he asked.
She paused before answering, unsure of herself.
“I guess.”
Another heavy moment of quiet passed.
“Listen…” Penny began, “I can’t go home now. I don’t think I can act like nothing happened, you know? It just…”
She trailed off, losing the words.
Leland nodded, tightening his hands on the steering wheel.
“I know. I can’t go home either. Not that I really have a home to go back to.”
Penny glanced at him and chewed on her bottom lip. She should be afraid of this man. He had appeared out of nowhere knowing who she was, looking grim and determined. And then for absolutely no reason she had gotten into his car, bought ten gallons of gas with him and proceeded to start a fire in the dry hills above that was bound to turn into a major clusterfuck. She really should be terrified. But she wasn’t, at all. He seemed so sad, and tired and resigned, as if his fate was chosen and nothing was to be done to alter it. She felt bad for him.
“Well… what should we do?” she asked.
Lee stopped for a red light and considered the streets around them thoughtfully.
“I think we need to get away from here. Go somewhere else and see if… what did you call her? Sheila? See if Sheila contacts us.”
Penny cast him a doubtful look.
“Do you think she will? I mean, we did all of this for her, right? Did we?”
He continued staring out the windshield until the light changed, not speaking. Finally he responded in a low voice Penny struggled to hear.
“You know why we did it.”
She shook her head slowly.
“I’m not sure I do.”
Lee didn’t talk again until he pulled into the parking lot of the motel. Once he was in the space in front of his room, he withdrew the keys from the ignition and turned in his seat to face the girl next to him.
“Do you really believe you don’t know why you went with me today?” he asked gravely.
Penny shifted uncomfortably beneath Lee’s steady gaze.
“She showed you something, didn’t she?” he went on. “A… a vision of some sort. Right?”
Reluctant to answer, a moment passed before she answered.
“Yeah. She did.”
Lee nodded, leaning back against his door.
“How did that vision make you feel, Penelope?”
Penny did a double take, surprised.
“How did you—Oh, never mind” she grumbled. “Don’t call me that, okay? I hate that name.”
Not missing a beat, Lee asked again.
“How did you feel? When she took you with her. Did you fly?”
She stared at him, astonished.
“Yes.”
“I did too, when she took me with her the first time, when we met.”
A distant expression of longing came over Leland’s features.
“I’ve never felt anything like that before. It was amazing.”
He leveled his eyes at Penny and she saw the determination and singular purpose.
“I know I want to experience that again. Many more times. Don’t you?”
She held his gaze for a long minute and sighed.
“Is this where you’ve been staying?”
Lee grunted an affirmative and opened his door.
“We can rest for a bit here, then we really should go.”
He held up his hand quickly.
“No. Wait until I go inside, then follow me. I want to make sure no one’s watching.”
Slipping out of the truck, Lee looked around carefully before unlocking the motel room. He gestured to Penny and went inside, leaving the door ajar. She sat in the stillness, thinking about what Lee had said. Remembering. Streaking through the thick tropical air in the cannonball’s wake, sparks dancing all around her as she and Sheila sought their target in the village square. The impact, the sensation of exploding into thousands of shards of brilliant light, and drifting lazily in the aftermath on an eddy of soft breeze as the flaming palm trees bestowed a shower of fiery gems onto the landscape below. Lee was right. She had never felt anything remotely akin to that, and she indeed wanted more. The decision made, she climbed out of her seat and darted furtively into the room, shutting the door behind her.
In the motel office, the blinds snapped closed as the front desk clerk stepped away and returned to his chair.

***

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Misery Loves Company"

CHAPTER TWO

           
Inside the cool, echoing lobby of OneWilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, a bell dinged with hushed sophistication in the gleaming, brushed steel bank of elevators lining the back wall. A second later a famished crowd of skirts, suits and dresses rushed out in search of lunch. Miriam Crown, 32 year old paralegal with Smith, Finch and Woodman on the forty-fifth floor was one of the last ones out, tagging slowly behind the rapidly vanishing others as she perused her smartphone. The low heels of her immaculately white pumps clicked across the polished floor as she made her way to the doors leading to the midday sun. While she was hungry, Miri wasn’t looking forward to leaving the pleasantly dusky, air-conditioned environs of the office building. It was September 27th and the temperature had taken a sudden rise for the worse this morning after a week’s respite from the blazing heat customary at this time of year. Finally reaching the row of tall, heavy glass doors facing the street, Miri sighed and pushed one open. She hated getting hot and sweaty and then having to go back to the office feeling sticky and grimy. It always put her in an irritable mood for the rest of the day.
As she left the door and walked towards the wide concrete steps that led down to the street, a gust of warm, sultry wind enveloped her, blowing silky strands of her long dark brown hair across her cheeks. The scent of baking desert sand accosted her nose and the dry, slightly gritty air brought wetness to her eyes. An involuntary sense of dread squeezed Miri’s heart within her chest and she muttered an unmentionable word beneath her breath. Santa Ana wind conditions were entirely common in Southern California. They could happen at any time during the year, although they were most likely in the fall months. Nothing unusual or particularly ominous about them, unless one had the misfortune of being allergy prone. At least that’s what the local TV weatherman would undoubtedly say. But what many Angelenos had come to understand, whether they were born here or transplanted, was that the Santa Anas more often than not meant fire season had arrived.
Reaching into her purse, Miri pulled out her sunglasses, slipped them on and walked down the steps to the sidewalk. Her original plan for lunch had been to get a salad from the little deli around the corner and eat it next to the fountain in front of the Metro Rail station. She decided to get something and go back to eat it in the office kitchen instead. The Santa Ana winds gave her the serious heebie-jeebies, and there was a very valid reason for it. Miri reached the deli and entered, immediately heaving a deep inward sigh at the sight of the line snaking around the counter. With a growling stomach and no Plan B, she found the end of the line in resignation and settled in, reflexively reaching for her phone to kill the time. Pulling up the Internet, Miri typed in “Southern California wildfires current” and hit “search”. The first hit in the list read “Crestline wildfire consumes 30 acres and continues to grow”. Miri frowned, recognizing the feeling of anxiety that was beginning to uncurl inside her gut.
Closing the website window, she hit the button on the side that powered off the screen and put her phone back into her purse. She inhaled deeply, crossed her arms and turned her attention to the menu high on the wall behind the deli counter, even though she had known what she was going to order when she walked in. Every time the fires came, the same rabbit hole opened up, threatening to draw her down into a hopeless tunnel of fear, panic and irrationality. She had to learn to see the signs and take the proper action before she lost control of her emotional faculties. For crying out loud, she had been in therapy for this since she was 15 years old. One would think she’d know what to do by now.

At approximately 11:45 am on Tuesday, September 27th, a large Ford 250 pick-up truck pulled into the parking lot of a Motel 6 on Sunland Boulevard. From a distance the truck looked almost gray, but upon closer inspection it became apparent it was really black beneath the thick layer of dust and grime that coated the paint job. The truck rolled to the very back corner of the lot and idled for several minutes in a space before the engine cut off. Five more minutes ticked by, and then the driver door slowly opened. Leland climbed out of the truck, looked carefully at his watch, shut the door and walked over to the office at the front of the property. A strong, hot wind bowed the trees around him, sending leaves and bits of trash skipping across the ground in front of his feet. Lee glanced at the sky above, scrubbed to a hard, bright blue and remembered the calm mildness of only 24 hours before. What a difference a day made.
The rattle of a battered wall-mounted air conditioning unit greeted him as he pulled open the office door and stepped inside. A middle-aged man sat behind the desk nursing a mug of coffee with a newspaper spread out in front of him. “Good morning, sir. May I help you?” he asked politely, his voice tinged by an exotic-sounding accent. Lee nodded tersely, unsmiling. “You have a room available for the week?” he asked. The clerk turned to the computer at his left elbow. “Yes, sir, we have quite a few rooms open for the week. Would you like to book one?” Lee swung his gaze around the walls of the tiny office, his hands shoved deep into his jeans pockets. “It’s easy to get into the mountains from here?” he asked. The clerk transferred his gaze from the computer screen to Lee. “Well, yes, it is. There are a few roads that run from town directly into the mountains. Are you planning on doing some hiking, sir?” Lee met the clerk’s eyes briefly, his expression flat and empty. “You got anything at the back end on the bottom floor?” The open friendliness of the clerk’s face altered subtly, and he surreptitiously looked Lee up and down before replying. “Yes. The rate is $42.50 per day.” Lee withdrew his wallet from his pocket and stepped up to the desk. “I’ll be here through Friday.”

An overweight teenage girl in jeans and a black T-shirt sat at a bus stop on a quiet side street near Sunland Boulevard, wearing a morose look on her face. In spite of the sullen frown and slumped shoulders, it was plain to see that she was quite a pretty girl. Clearly, however, she was not aware of it. Hunched over and staring at the ground, the girl resembled a giant crow, dark and brooding. Her shoulder-length brown hair fell around her face in messy hanks, obscuring her eyes, and her pudgy hands fiddled with a phone. Long, slender wires connected to earbuds wound their way up to her head and she nodded slightly in time to her music.
Penny Delgado had ditched school and was waiting for the bus to take her to her father’s donut shop in Lakeview Terrace. He would act like he was mad about her ditching, but she knew he really didn’t care and would be happy to see her. She would hang out with him for the rest of the afternoon in the dim, muggy, sugary smelling strip mall shop and he would tell her stories while he drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. When he closed up at four o’clock, he would drive her back over the hill to Sunland, or Deadland, as she liked to call it. Her mother didn’t get home from work until after six, so Penny would have an hour or two alone before the barrage of questions and nagging would begin. “How was school?” “Did you try to be social today?” “Get your hair out of your face.” “Do I need to put you in therapy?” “Talk to me.” “What’s wrong with you?” “Why don’t you try dressing like a girl?” “You could be attractive if you just tried, Penny.” “Stop eating so much junk food, you’ll lose weight.” “Stand up straight, look at me and don’t mumble!” It made Penny want to start screaming and never stop. She wanted to scream until her throat was raw and her mother’s ears were bleeding. It was very obvious that she was fat, miserable and had no friends. She had no idea why her mother insisted on reminding her daily of those facts. Her father never brought any of those things up though. Sometimes she would complain to him about how her mom constantly nagged her and wanted her to be a perfect little girly-girl, and he would just smile and listen. Then he would pat her on the knee and say, “Don’t worry about it, mija.”
Penny’s mother and father had been divorced since she was five years old. She couldn’t remember any time when they had lived together as a family. Several times in the last few years, she had asked if she could live with her dad, but they both always said no. Her mother had gone into histrionic fits and her dad had only shaken his head and told her it was best that she stay with her mom. She didn’t get it at all. Lately she had begun to wonder what would happen if she just ran away and showed up on his doorstep. Would he make her go back? Would her mom make a federal case out of it? She was thinking it might be worth the risk.
The skin on the back of Penny’s neck suddenly began to crawl and she had the distinct and unpleasant sensation of being stared at. It was one she was familiar with. She was often observed and whispered about at school as she walked down the hall to her classes or sat alone in the courtyard eating her lunch. The eyes upon her left skittery, creeping trails across her flesh, like a multitude of invisible spiders retreating underneath her hair and up the sleeves of her shirt. They always made her walk faster, drop her head lower and will herself to disappear into thin air to escape their judgements. Jerking her head up, she glanced over to the left.
A girl was there, perched on the top of the bench with her legs anchored in a V shape on the seat. She was dressed head to toe in black, from her faded, much-washed T-shirt and silver-buckled leather jacket to her skintight leggings and heavy Doc Marten boots. Her glossy dark hair was cut in a drape on one side of her head with magenta frosted tips brushing her shoulder. The other side of her head was nearly bald, cut very close to her skull so that it looked as if she only had peach fuzz there. Her skin was pale, seeming to radiate against the bright redness of her painted lips, and the thick black kohl around her exotically shaped eyes gave her the startling appearance of a life-size anime character. At the sight of her, Penny gasped involuntarily and quickly shifted her gaze away.
“Hey.” Penny heard her speak but she did not respond. She didn’t have much to say to anyone at any given time, and she certainly had no idea how to talk to this MTV wannabe. Looking down at her phone, she checked the time and immediately shrank inside. The bus wasn’t due to arrive for another 15 minutes. “Shit”, she muttered under her breath. A sharp sting unexpectedly popped on Penny’s hand and she jumped. The girl had thrown a rock at her. “Ow!”, she exclaimed, turning her head to glare at the weirdo stranger. “What’d you do that for?!” The girl sat with her hands clasped together nonchalantly, looking at the cars driving by on Sunland Boulevard. “I don’t like being ignored”, she said mildly, her tone as casual as if Penny had asked her when the bus was coming. “It’s a pet peeve of mine, you might say.” Penny continued to glare, rubbing at the tiny red spot that had bloomed on the side of her hand. “I don’t even know you”, she snapped, anger giving her the courage she usually lacked in social situations. The girl swung her gaze to Penny’s heated, outraged face. “Well, I’m trying to change that,” she said. Disconcerted by the statement, the irritation Penny had felt began to fade into fear-tinged suspicion. Pulling the buds out of her ears, Penny unplugged them from her phone and stuffed them into her backpack. She glanced up and down the street, trying to look unconcerned under the keen observation of her new companion.
“So what’s your name, kid?” Penny shrugged nervously at the question, not answering, and wished with all her might that the bus would show up early. She knew it was a wish made in vain however, since the buses around here were considered on time if they showed up ten minutes after their scheduled pick-ups. Her mind raced, generating desperate plans of escape that would require more bravado than she believed she possessed. She could always just get up and walk to the nearest stop on Sunland Boulevard. By the time she got to it, the bus would probably almost be there anyway. Or she could just sit here and ignore this chick. She had the right to not talk to people if she didn’t want to.  Her line of vision was suddenly filled with silver buckles and greyish-black T-shirt and she sat back on the bench in startled surprise. The girl was standing right in front of her now with her hands in her jacket pockets.
“You don’t listen so good, do you, kid?”, she said in a softly mocking tone. Penny swallowed hard, blinking rapidly in embarassment and discomfort. “I asked you what your name is.” In a breathy, mumbling voice, Penny answered. The girl leaned in towards her, cupping a hand to her ear. “Didn’t catch that”, she said loudly. The anger that had fueled her only a moment before rose again inside Penny’s throat. “My name is Penny”, she said, equally loudly. “What’s it to you anyway?” The girl rocked back on her heels, smiling broadly in satisfaction. “Oh, there you are. I knew you were in there somewhere, Penny D. Nice to meet you, finally. You can call me Sheila.” Penny’s mouth hung open in a disgusted scoff. “What do you want? Why are you talking to me?”, she asked.
Sheila walked the few steps back to the bench and sat down a good foot away from Penny. “How’s that?”, she asked sarcastically. “Is that enough personal space for you, Princess?” Penny shoved her backpack against her side and under her arm. “Look, just leave me alone, all right? I don’t have any money. I’m just waiting for the bus.” Frustrated, she shoved her thumb into her mouth and began chewing furiously at the already ragged nail, her other arm clenched tightly on top of the backpack. She could feel the stranger’s eyes upon her and it was making her feel like a bug underneath a microscope. A long moment of silence passed while Penny chewed her nail and willed her unwelcome company to disappear. Gathering her courage, she finally looked over. “Sheila” remained sitting at the end of the bench, patiently observing.
“What?” she barked irritably. “You’re not very happy, are you, Penny?” Sheila asked. Uttering a disgusted sigh, Penny turned away and rolled her eyes. Sheila continued, unfazed. “You’re 16 and you’re a big girl. It’s a given that you hate school. I’m fairly certain you don’t have many friends, if you have any.” Penny slowly turned her head back, staring and mute. “Your parents are divorced and you don’t have any brothers or sisters. You’re lonely, depressed and miserable. Am I right?” With her eyes huge in her face, Penny’s mouth dropped open a little. Unease washed over her in waves. Goosebumps raised on her skin, and she suddenly realized the girl on the bench with her had known her last name started with a D when all she had offered was her first.
“Have you… have you been following me or something?” she asked, her voice emerging in an almost whisper, low and hollow. “Am I right?” Sheila asked again, her eyes dark and unblinking. Penny glanced wildly around, searching for possible help. The street before her was empty of traffic and the whooshing ebb and flow of cars on neighboring Sunland Boulevard was almost two blocks away. “How… how did you find out all those things?” she asked faintly, feeling as if all the blood in her body was beginning to percolate and boil. “Are you watching me? What do you want?” Sheila suddenly inhaled deeply and sat back, crossing her arms. “Why would I need to do that? I learned everything significant about you the moment I sat on this bench.” Penny frowned, not comprehending, and Sheila waved her hand dismissively. “I need you to help me with something very, very important now. Of course I will compensate you for your assistance.” Penny stared at Sheila apprehensively. “What do you want me to do?” Sheila extended her hand and laid it on Penny’s thigh before she could even blink. “I’ll show you.”

Leland stretched out on top of the double bed in the motel room with his back against the headboard, flipping robotically through channels on the 25” color TV. With the curtains drawn completely closed, the flickering images provided the only light within the cool, dark gloom. Lee stared straight ahead, his eyes glassy and unfocused, his finger pressing the channel button on the remote repetitively. Talk shows, infomercials, ads for cash advance loans and an old episode of “Gunsmoke” flashed by in a rhythmic stream until the screen was suddenly filled with flames. Rising out of his slouch, he leaned forward, intently studying the early afternoon news program he had hit on. Across the bottom of the TV, a banner graphic read in capital letters, “Breaking News”, with the name “Crestline” appearing just below it. The video being shown displayed a raging orange-red wall of fire chewing its way through a thick stand of pine trees on a hill. This was his fire and how it had grown in the space of twenty-four hours.
Grabbing the remote, he thumbed the volume control up. “…appears to have started at some point yesterday.” A young male reporter spoke into the camera, sandy blonde hair blowing around his handsome surfer boy face in the wind. “The prognosis for this fire doesn’t look good right now as the Santa Ana winds have picked up overnight and temperatures have soared into the 90’s.” The view cut back to the burning hillside, and Lee stared as if in a trance, overcome with awe. He almost couldn’t believe that he had created the spectacle of devastation playing out in front of him. Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes and a hard lump rose in his throat as he watched the majestic pines of his childhood mountains wither and blacken in the swirling columns of flame. They had been there for decades, reaching higher inch by excruciating inch, year after year until finally they had scraped the sky, the forest floor below blanketed in the shed detritus of painfully slow growth. And in the course of only a few hours they had virtually disappeared, fed to the savage mouth that he, Leland Davis, had opened. He had never felt as powerful as he did at that moment.
Awareness shivered across Lee’s skin and he turned his head quickly to fixate on the thin slice of sunlight visible at the bottom of the door. He gazed at it and held his breath expectantly, as if waiting for a shadow to dim the threshold. His cell phone began buzzing on the small bedside table. Lee jumped involuntarily, startled. Swiping his hand across his face, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and picked up the phone. The screen display read “Terri.” Lee cursed, staring at his wife’s name and realized he hadn’t thought about her or his kids for two days. He had not thought about anything since he had met a ghost on that path in the woods.
The phone continued to buzz insistently in his hand. Lee pressed “talk” and lifted the phone to his ear. “Hello?” he said. He was surprised by how raspy and unused he sounded after not speaking aloud for two days. “Lee? Oh, thank God. Are you all right? I saw the fire on the news and called the house but you didn’t answer. Did you have to evacuate?” Terri’s voice streamed out of the phone, thin and distant. Leland had the sudden, surreal impression that she was impossibly far away, like she was on the other side of the planet or the surface of the sun. She was definitely too far to reach now, and it dawned upon him that it no longer mattered.
“Leland, what’s the matter? Are you there?” Lee straightened his spine and inhaled deeply. “Everything is fine.” For a moment there was silence as neither of them spoke further. “Well, where are you?” Terri asked, her tone threaded with aggravation. “On the road” Lee responded flatly. “What’s going on at home?” she asked. “Do we need to go get our valuables?” Lee drew in another deep breath and rubbed his palm up and down his thigh. “I have to go. You won’t be able to reach me for awhile.” Lee felt Terri’s agitation rise through the phone like a tide about to spill into his lap. “Leland! For God’s sake, could you at least tell me if I need to go save my pictures and documents? You should be worried about—“ Lee hit the “end” button. A few seconds later he powered the phone off completely and tossed it back onto the table.
Remaining on the side of the bed, Lee sat with his hands in his lap, gazing at the empty white wall across from him. Advertisements on the TV played in the background, their sound receding further and further from his consciousness like objects in the rear view mirror of a speeding car. A giant curtain of fire stood before his blank eyes, extending far above to a point he could not discern, shimmering from yellow to orange to red and back again. The heat radiating from it bathed Lee’s face and sweat beaded on his upper lip and cheeks, sliding in moist tracks down to his chin.
In the center of the curtain, a small white spot glowed and grew, slowly bleeding into the vibrant colors around it. Lee watched it silently as it expanded outward, seeming to bulge into the empty space between himself and the writhing flames. A primal sense of apprehension began to grow within him, keeping pace with the circle of white, and he leaned backwards, seeking more distance. The spot continued to grow, now triple its original size. As if being held hostage, Lee stared at it in fascination and horror, the soft gray of his T-shirt stained completely dark with sweat. Without warning, it suddenly ceased pushing outward and froze into place, taking Leland aback. Several beats passed, the curtain now static and unmoving. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the spot of white began to collapse into itself, racing backwards to its barely visible point of origin.
 Lee sighed deeply, finally moving to reach up and wipe a hand across his wet forehead. As if on cue, the curtain of fire billowed outward and disgorged the enormous fiery head of a tiger. Leland gasped in shock, scrambling backwards on the bed until he came to rest on his elbows, staring up at the impossible monstrosity hovering above him. The head floated in mid-air as if on a stalk, its brilliant mane undulating and flowing out of the burning curtain behind it, and the twin points of its eyes glowed with pupil-less white-hot light, pinning him with a malevolent glare. Slowly, it cracked open its jaws to reveal a set of fangs that made Lee think of elephant tusks. It growled with a primitive sound that made the furniture and walls vibrate, and Lee felt as if his heart was seizing inside his chest.
He realized he was panting in terror, fresh sweat pouring from his face and body. The heat had become nearly unbearable, and he dimly registered that the curtain of fire had spread to engulf the entire wall, and was crawling onto the ceiling in rolling, grasping waves. His lungs stung from the air in the room getting sucked into the hungry inferno, and Lee knew if he didn’t move now, he would die from smoke inhalation. As he feebly attempted to move his arms and legs, the head drew back and lifted higher in the air, continuing to keep him fixated with its eerily empty gaze. Then it lunged at him with razor teeth exposed and mane flaring outwards, a deep, glass-shattering roar emanating from its maw. He screamed hoarsely, and the entire room exploded into a ball of fire.
Lee shouted and jumped to his feet, his eyes opened wide to stare around him in fear and confusion. The motel room appeared just as it had when he checked in that morning. The TV continued to flicker on the low dresser in front of the made bed, and the gloom created by the drawn curtains still masked the interior. Disoriented, with his heart pounding out of his chest, Lee fought to catch his breath and stem the tide of adrenaline washing through him. Looking at the wall next to the bed, he saw a sea of fire in his mind’s eye. Approaching it cautiously, he laid his palm flat against the cool, innocuous plaster. He could not escape her. She would always be able to get to him. Lee hung his head, his eyes sliding closed in weary resignation. He had made a pact that could not be broken. He may as well make the most of it while she had a use for him.
On the bedside table, Lee’s cell phone began ringing. He stared at it, his pulse picking up once again. He had turned that off. After allowing it to ring for a few seconds more, he walked over and picked it up. The display read “Unknown Number.” With his heart in his throat, he answered. “Hello?” he said hesitantly. As he listened to the voice on the other side of the line, Lee’s face gradually changed, settling into an expressionless mask. “Yes. I can come now. Where is she?”, he said into the phone calmly. “I’ll be there in five minutes.” Lee ended the call and slipped the phone into his pocket. Picking up the remote from the bed, he switched off the TV, retrieved his keys from the dresser and opened the door to step out into the hot, windy afternoon beyond.

Penny’s eyes flew open and she gasped loudly, sucking air into her lungs desperately, as if she had been underwater for a long time. Sitting up rapidly, she looked wildly all around her, feeling completely lost. She had to squint against the hard, bright sun and for a moment she couldn’t make anything out until her pupils had time to adjust to the sudden influx of light. She was sitting on the same bus bench as she had been before, her backpack next to her with her earbuds stuffed haphazardly into the front zippered pocket. Lifting her hand to her brow to shade her vision, Penny scanned the length of the bench and realized she was alone. Sheila was gone.
Trying to quiet her panting breaths, she eased her back against the hard slats of the bench and gripped her backpack to her side, her fingers clutching at the canvas material. Her mind spun frantically, trying to reconcile the reality of where she found herself now with that of where she had just been moments before. And where had that been, exactly? Penny closed her eyes, inwardly sighing in relief at the respite it gave her from the blinding light of the early afternoon sun. She had been somewhere near the ocean, one she had never seen before, except maybe in movies or on TV. A tropical island covered in vegetation so green it had looked to Penny like it had been doused with emerald paint. The sea surrounding it had also been unbelievably colorful, with about five shades of blue that radiated out from the beach, first with a ring of water so clear she could see schools of fish wriggling by in it. Beyond that, the blue gradually became darker and darker in ever widening rings until they finally faded into the open ocean, stretching out to the horizon in an endless swath of navy, interrupted only by caplets of white foam on the waves breaking upon the surface.
On the island, not far from the beach, had stood a fort constructed out of some sort of beige stone. Flags rippled from the corners of the parapets, emblazoned with symbols that Penny didn’t recognize. Men in uniform ran along the top of the fort brandishing guns with long barrels, shouting and gesturing to one another. Below them, hidden within chambers built into the face of the fort that pointed towards the sea, the muzzles of cannons flared as they spit their iron payloads into the air. Penny watched as the heavy balls arced through the sky wreathed in smoke, coming to land in the water around three ships that were in the harbor. They responded with cannon fire of their own that crashed into the thick trees and earth around the fort, sending huge plumes of debris floating up into the air.
The next thing Penny knew, she had been standing in the middle of a cobblestone road that ran through some sort of village square. A large bronze statue of a man rose from a stone platform in the center of it. Small birds the same color as the island’s trees and shrubbery perched on his shoulders, their animated chirping inaudible beneath the thunderous roar of munitions coming from the coast. All around her, people dressed in old-fashioned clothing ran in panic, shouting and crying out in fear as the echo of cannons cracked in the air. She watched them dispassionately, studying the odd-looking storefronts with wooden signs suspended from chains hanging over the doors and the iron lantern posts that had containers of oil inside them behind panes of glass.
A prickle traveled up the back of Penny’s neck and she turned, her eyes opening wide. Sheila stood at the side of the road beside a tall palm tree, her hand resting on its ridged trunk. She looked different than she had on the bus bench in Sunland. Her hair was long now on both sides, and hung almost to her waist in thick, glossy, black curls. They shone against the pristine white of the ground-length robe she wore which seemed to glow in the midst of the dark green foliage around her. As Penny looked at her, wondering why she had appeared in this strange dream she was having, Sheila locked gazes with her and smiled. A jolt of electricity crackled through Penny’s body and she gasped as dizziness and nausea overcame her. Her surroundings began to fade, the color bleaching out of the birds, the statue, the people and the sky. Sheila’s hands grasped her arms and while Penny sank back into her embrace, she whispered to her, “See how it will be with me, little one.”

Penny hung motionless over the sea, a steady current of air holding her in place half a mile above the gently rippling waves. Far below, the ships in the harbor looked like toy boats sporting greyish-black, featureless flags that were torn and frayed around the edges, belying their lack of country and intention to plunder. She cocked her head to one side and looked over at the island fort, now pockmarked and chipped from cannon fire, smoke billowing in great clouds from the smashed parapets. The small village behind it appeared to remain intact, and soldiers clad in scarlet and white scurried along the jungle path towards it, their muskets hoisted on their shoulders. Penny spreadeagled her arms and legs, her head falling back into the soft cushion of air that supported her. She began to descend slowly, the fabric of the white robe she wore plastered to her body by the buffeting wind.
Once she was within ten feet of the mast on the ship closest to her, Penny stopped and lifted her head. The shouted orders of the men on deck drifted up clearly to her high perch, and she watched intently as they ran like ants back and forth. A cannon concealed below the decks discharged and the entire ship shuddered with the recoil. The expelled ball burst into the air trailing sparks and smoke in its wake. About a minute after, the resulting explosion echoed back to the ship from the massive hole carved into the crumbling front wall of the heavily damaged fort. Anticipation mounted within Penny, her lips curving into a grin. Placing her arms at her sides, she dropped to the deck, her hair whirling in a dark cloud around her face as she came down. Her bare feet hit the damp wooden boards without a sound, and none of the disheveled, frantic men took any notice of her.
She walked to the side of the ship and nimbly climbed up onto the edge, gripping a nearby rope for balance. At this level, the acrid stench of gunpowder hung heavily in the air and the constant creaking of the ship assaulted the ears. The water of the harbor was deep, black and flat, a fitting cemetery for unknown sailors. Planting her feet widely and firmly, Penny stood on the edge of the ship, her toes curling over the side in a vise-like grip. She waited patiently, listening to the muffled activity directly beneath her in the hold as the crew strained to load the cannon, position it and light the fuse. With the last interminable seconds counting down, Penny drew in deep breaths of the pungent sea air, opened her palms flat to the sky and released her grip.
The cannon discharged with a deafening burst, hurling the ball inside into a deadly arc towards the battered fort. Penny followed in its wake, sparks kissing her streaming hair and leaving tiny smoldering pinholes in her robe. She trailed the smoking ball of iron until it slammed into the left side of the structure, disintegrating the weakened wall into a cloud of dust and particles. Continuing on a trajectory deeper into the island, she aimed for the heart of the village nestled in the tropical jungle. The town square came into view as she soared over the tops of the gently swaying palms, and the glint of bronze in the sun caught her eye. Her lip twisted into a grimace. “Release me”, she hissed, her voice trembling with rage.
Penny hit the statue with the force of dynamite, her form enveloped in an immense fireball. The statue disappeared within the crater created by her impact, and the square immediately lit with overlapping waves of liquid flame that rushed through the cobblestoned pathways like a tidal wave.  When Penny reflected upon it later, she would have to admit that her favorite part had been watching the giant palm trees drop their smoldering fronds onto the houses and carts far below, like so many glowing rubies being scattered over the earth by the unseen hand of a benevolent god.

Penny heard a vehicle pull up and stop in front of her bench, and she slowly opened her eyes. A dirty black F250 truck sat idling, the man at the wheel looking at her steadily. She gazed back at him warily, wondering if he meant to get out or move on. He turned the engine off, leaned across the passenger seat and lowered the window. “Are you Penny?” he asked. His voice sounded gravelly and hoarse, as if he had a bad cold. Penny eyed him silently, then looked up and down the street. When he didn’t get an answer, the man sighed in exasperation and tried again. “I asked you a question. Are you Penny Delgado?” Penny gathered her backpack closer to her side and reached into the front pocket, wrapping her fingers around her cell phone. “Why do you want to know?” she asked. A haunted expression flitted over the man’s face for a brief moment and in a soft voice that she almost couldn’t hear, he murmured, “God, you’re so young.” Taken aback, Penny blurted out, “Yeah. I’m Penny Delgado. Who are you?”
 Leland glanced in his rearview mirror, then down the street through the windshield. “I was sent to pick you up. Get in.” Suspicion crept into Penny’s eyes and her hand tightened on the phone. “Who sent you to pick me up? My dad?” Lee swung his head back towards her. “I think you know who sent me” he said quietly. Penny’s face flushed and her entire body began to bristle. “Was it—was it Sheila?”, she asked. “Is that what she told you her name was?” he asked. Penny nodded, feeling confused and afraid. But not afraid enough to get up and run.
“Who is she?” she asked. Lee said nothing, settling back into the driver’s seat. Penny’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I want to know what she did to me” she stated, her voice gaining strength. “Then get in the car” he retorted. Having reached an impasse, Penny regarded him silently, her mind spinning like an out of control top. “Are you going to hurt me?” she asked in a trembling voice. Lee shook his head emphatically. “No.” After a long pause, she continued. “Are you going to take me to her?” Lee stared out at the empty street in front of him. “I believe she will come to where we are going.” Penny regarded him with uncertainty. “And where is that?” Lifting his fingers off the steering wheel, Lee pointed towards the brown hills smudged and faded by haze and smog. “Up there.” He turned back to Penny, waiting for her answer.

Penny sat motionless, her hand still holding the phone inside the pocket. She withdrew it and looked at the display, her fingers caressing the pink case and gliding over the screen. The phone beeped as she powered it off. Standing abruptly, Penny shoved the phone into the depths of her backpack and reached out to open the passenger side door. She climbed up into the elevated seat, fastened her seatbelt and looked at Lee expectantly. “Let’s go” she said. The engine growled to life as Lee turned the key in the ignition and pulled into the center lane. “Just go straight up this street until it ends” Penny said. “There’s an access road at the top that goes into the hills.” Lee nodded in acknowledgement. “We have to make one stop first” he said, making a U-turn to head back down to Sunland Boulevard. “Why?” Penny asked. Leland glanced at Penny’s face, then turned his attention back to the road. “We’re going to need gasoline. A lot of it.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

INCENDIARY DEVICES: A SERIAL NOVEL

"Is it possible, that by telling these tales, one might indeed save one's self?" - The Arabian Nights




A serialized fiction inspired by the tales of Scherezade, Charles Dickens and Stephen King.
                                                         
A new chapter posted every week!
                                               
Suspense, drama, romance, thrills and chills!!

                                                                 
Please come inside.
 A.C. Thompson



***



EGYPT, 391 AD

           
At this late hour, Cassius was alone on the wide path that led up the hill towards the great structure standing in silhouette at the top. The sky was clear and dark, and the large full moon sailing in the west obscured any starlight from being seen. The Mediterranean rippled far below to the left, waves cresting and shimmering in the ethereal light. Cassius trudged up the hill, the edge of his cloak gathered up in one hand to keep it from trailing in the dust of the road. All around him the night was still and in the back of his mind he became aware of how quiet it was. No nocturnal insects trilled; no evening birds chirped. As he passed the thick patches of grass whispering in the breeze and the rounded shadows of clumped vegetation, he felt as if he were the only person alive on the earth. The thought made his heart ache with loneliness.
With his free hand, Cassius pulled his cloak closer around his throat even though the evening was mild and the light wind felt refreshing on his heated cheeks. Up ahead, the great royal library loomed, hulking and majestic. Carved marble pillars stretched to the sky, gleaming starkly white in the moonlight and the massive stone steps leading to the main doors made him think of a tomb. Banked oil lanterns glowed all along the front of the building in wall sconces and hung from immense iron chains high above the doors. In the courtyard before the library, an enormous statue of  Ptolemy stood, his arm raised to the heavens, as if inviting the gods to descend and admire his greatest achievement.
And what an achievement it was. The royal library contained the largest and most diverse collection of philosophical, academic and scientific documents known to man. Travelers came from all parts of the civilized world to partake of the storehouse of knowledge Cassius approached. The histories, maps, charts, letters, sacred texts and other countless items within comprised a priceless treasure, one that reinforced Egypt’s importance in the world. Nothing like it had ever existed before and Cassius was not at all sure one would ever come into being again.
When he finally reached the top, Cassius paused in the large, immaculately maintained courtyard and turned to gaze down at the vast black expanse of ocean shifting restlessly below. In the gloom and silence, the massive temple of knowledge at his back, Cassius felt inconceivably strong, invincible even. Raising his hands, he pushed the hood of his cloak away from his face, letting it fall down his back. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply of the tangy salt air, savoring the feel of the breeze caressing his face and stirring strands of hair across his brow.
He felt her then, watching him from the shadowed steps of the library. He knew he would not see her when he turned around, but she would be there. She had only shown herself to him once, the first time he became aware of her presence. He had dreaded and longed for it ever since, but he understood in a way he could not have explained that he would not see her with his eyes again. Nevertheless, she was there and the time had come for Cassius to act.
Turning, he skirted the towering statue and began to ascend the wide steps. As he reached the top, the coppery scent of blood drifted to Cassius’ nostrils. The royal guard that watched over the library at night lay crumpled at the entrance, run through by each other’s spears. Unsurprised and undeterred, Cassius tugged and pulled at the bodies until he had made a space large enough to crack open one of the large, ornately decorated doors. Once the grisly task was accomplished, he removed a wall lantern and slipped into the dark recesses of the library.

Cassius wandered through the cavernous aisles filled with shelves that extended from the floors to the ceiling floating high above and gazed with wonder at the thousands of scrolls arranged carefully upon them. The interior of the library was airy and spacious, and large tables with low stone benches were scattered throughout. Graceful statuary and urns filled with luxurious flowers adorned the spaces, and the dusty aroma of papyrus mingled pleasantly with the perfume of the plants. Tall sculpted columns stood at intervals in the center of the building and waxy, dark green vines twisted and climbed around them nearly to the roof. Alcoves had been built into the walls where scholars could sit out of the way of foot traffic to pore over their finds undisturbed. It truly was the most beautiful structure Cassius had ever seen and he moved through it reverently, the reddish-gold light from the lantern casting a warm circle of light at his feet.
As he approached the center of the library, Cassius stopped walking and tilted his head to one side, as if listening for some barely detectible sound. After several seconds had passed, he set the lantern down at his side. Lifting his hands to his throat, he unfastened the clasp of his cloak and let it fall to the floor. He reached down and picked up the lantern, beginning to walk deeper in, moving towards the far back corners of the structure. His eyes scanned the shelves and walls as he went, searching. When he came upon a bas relief portrait hanging along the eastern wall, he had found his target. The regal visage of an ancient queen stared severely out at him from a golden frame, her sightless marble eyes penetrating the space before her. Two tall stone urns sat on stone pillars on either side of the portrait, overflowing with lush green foliage and fragrant pink and red blooms.
Cassius carefully set the lantern down next to a pillar and solemnly gazed at the portrait of the queen. Reaching out, he gently ran his fingertips over the smooth marble of her nose and brow, sadness darkening his eyes. Then slowly, as if a mask were being drawn over his features, Cassius’ expression transformed as he stood still looking at the queen. A look of malicious anger sparked in his eyes and his forehead tightened in a deep frown. His cheeks hollowed and his lips thinned, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. Bending down, he picked up the lantern at his feet and strode back to the center of the library, his aimless meandering of before come to an end.
Cassius placed the lantern on a bench and walked over to the closest set of shelves. He began pulling armfuls of scrolls down and piling them in a heap in the middle of the floor. His work continued until the scent of papyrus was thick in his nose and there was a sizable stack. Retrieving the lantern, he carefully set it beside the gathered scrolls and surveyed what he had done. Sweat had beaded on his forehead and cheeks and he panted slightly from his exertions. A faint sigh escaped his parted lips and he blinked several times, his eyelashes damp and spiky over his flat, expressionless gaze.
Reaching up to the neckline of his plain linen tunic, Cassius grasped the fabric firmly in his hands and ripped the garment away from his chest into two halves. There, in the center of his chest, a freshly etched symbol gleamed faintly red against his smooth olive skin. It depicted a circle with four stars placed inside of it at the top, bottom and on each side. Above and below the circle, the shapes of crescent moons had been cut and on the outside edges of the circle were two crosses with multiple lines intersecting them from their middles to their tops.
Bending, Cassius picked up the lantern and slid open the panels on each of its four sides. Within, the banked flame flickered as the influx of fresh air brushed across it. He set the opened lantern down on top of the piled scrolls and walked away, back to the front of the library. He returned several minutes later carrying a pot of oil in both hands. Cassius faced the scrolls, his back to the entrance of the building and raised his arms high above his head. “Aza-k’aal”, he called out, his voice sounding hushed in the quiet of the library. Wetting his dry lips with his tongue and swallowing, Cassius spoke again, louder and more authoritatively. “Aza-k’aal!” Then, appearing to summon all of his reserves of energy, he shouted as loudly as he could to the silent stone walls and the high arching ceiling. “Aza-k’aal!” He poured the oil he held onto the lantern and the scrolls, emptying every drop onto the makeshift pyre.
Dropping his trembling arms to his sides, Cassius studied the drenched mound in front of him with trepidation. Nothing stirred, and he watched with dismay as droplets of oil gathered at the edges of the topmost rolls and dripped slowly down. His shoulders slumped in despair and the pot slipped out of his fingers to roll a few inches away with a clattering thud. Disappointment washed through Cassius like a chilling tide and for a moment he was unsure of how to act next. As if examining possible scenarios in his mind, he soon lifted his chin, his body straightening in resolution. He would check the dead guard for flints to strike a flame with.
Some of his discomfiture dissipated, Cassius turned back towards the entrance and took a step. The low sound of hissing halted him in place. As his head twisted to the side, about to look behind him, he felt heat bloom against his cheek, sudden and intense. The pile of scrolls was in full flame,  already reaching to the ceiling in a matter of seconds. Cassius turned to face the pyre, taking a few slow steps back. His eyes slowly tracked upwards, following the line of fire and he gasped, falling to his knees in the orange glow. An enormous bird hovered high above him, its wings outstretched. The bottom tip of the tail almost brushed the floor many feet below and the tuft of feathers at its crown pushed against the ceiling in ripples of color. It was composed entirely of flames,  lengthening and flowing like liquid as it hung in the now smoky air, staring down at him.
Cassius’ body shook as he reverently gazed at the vision before him, oblivious to the fire now racing to the walls and the shelving, climbing the columns rapidly and curling the green vines into wispy ropes of ash. Acrid smoke stung his throat, eyes and nose, but he continued to kneel in front of the bird, wonder filling his face. As the embers floating in the now dense air struck his arms and chest, sending lashes of pain throughout his body, he stretched his fingertips towards it in longing and whispered, “Aza-k’aal.” The giant bird reared back its fiery head to peer down at Cassius’ prostrate figure and hissed in a voice sibilant and deep, “Release me.”

                                                                   ***

ONE
         
   On the edge of a winding two-lane road high in the hills above San Bernardino, he crouched alone in the crisp still air, gazing at the lights of the city below that were beginning to wink out as the sun rose in the eastern sky. His clothes were wrinkled and disheveled, his hair stuck out in greasy-looking tufts and his chin sported several days’ worth of salt and pepper stubble. He had climbed over the wide protective railing that separated the narrow mountain highway from the treacherously steep hillside and was bent down low, resting on his haunches. In the muted light of dawn, his figure blended in with the browns and blacks of the scrub brush and the greys of the soil. At this hour, few cars passed by and the ones that did whipped around the curve too quickly to see him there, just on the other side of the barrier. With his shoulders tense and hunched and his eyes sweeping the view from side to side, he appeared to be waiting for a cue, a call to action. A large red gasoline canister sat on the ground next to his dusty workboot-clad feet.
            As Leland sat beneath the clear silent sky and looked out at the massive suburban sprawl resting at the base of the mountains, an odd thought occurred to him. Had every moment that hung seconds before everything changed feel the way this one did? Before the trigger was pulled, the wrong turn was taken, the incorrect door was opened or closed, the unfortunate decision was made… had that moment before every single one of those fated events felt as sharp and real as this one? Or had they been like most moments, not particularly special or important? He blinked rapidly and shook his head as if trying to dislodge an irritating prickle from his mind. Leland knew why he was here. He needed to do this thing for her. Then she would take him to that place where he felt good again, like a whole man. The price was high and he wasn’t going to be the only one paying it. No, he was doing a very, very bad thing here. But deep down where it counted, he just didn’t care. Somehow she had known he wouldn’t and that’s why she chose him. He understood that.
            Leland stood up straight and grimaced. He was 43 and his legs ached from crouching like that, but he couldn’t risk anyone seeing him from the road before it was time. He had to follow through. Glancing around first, he picked up the canister and looked over the hillside he stood on. A thick grouping of brittle, dry brush to his right and up a little ways caught his attention and he began moving towards it. The soil was rocky and loose and he had to step carefully to avoid slipping and tumbling down the steep embankment. There was no telling how far he would roll before he came to a stop and he was fairly certain there would be broken bones once that story was told. The canister was full to the brim and heavy and sloshed as Leland made his way to the chosen spot. By the time he reached it, sweat beaded on his forehead and his breathing was labored and shallow. Setting the canister down again, he bent forward with his hands on his thighs and gasped in mouthfuls of air. There, with his back to the road and his lungs stinging, the hair on his neck rose and he knew she was here.
            Leland slowly straightened, the hectic pace of his breath calming. He knew he wasn’t going to see her, but feeling her presence was enough. Excitement began to uncurl in his body. He was anxious for her to see. Reaching into his back jeans pocket, Leland withdrew a thin white hand towel and a silver Zippo lighter. He bent to the canister, unscrewed the cap and pushed half of the towel inside, allowing it to soak. Pulling the towel out, he lifted the canister gingerly and began splashing gasoline all around him in a broad circular pattern, making sure to liberally douse the thickest parts of the brush patch he stood by. Once he was done, he tossed the canister away and stood with the towel and lighter in his hand. Pungent fumes overpowered his nostrils and he swayed on his feet slightly, the acrid scent making him lightheaded.
            Leland held the sodden towel up with one hand, the thumb of his other resting on the flint wheel of the lighter. “And now it all changes”, he murmured to himself. Positioning the lighter beneath the towel, he flicked. Flame bloomed, gobbling up the material in milliseconds. Leland hastily threw the towel into the brush at his feet and watched as it instantly ignited and grew, rippling away from him like a living creature.
He instinctively stumbled backwards, his eyes wide with awe and dismay as the fire lit an ever widening path down the hill. “Oh, no”, he breathed. “What have I done?” An early morning breeze kissed across Leland’s damp forehead and he shivered. In his ear, a husky female voice whispered, and Leland’s eyes closed in bliss. “You released me, Lee”, she said, her delight obvious. “And now I will release you.”

One day earlier
Bright early morning sunlight streamed through the unshuttered windows of Leland Davis’ mountain cabin living room, piercing his Jack Daniels soaked eyelids as he lay sprawled on the couch. He groaned irritably and shifted around on the worn cushions, his large frame rolling precariously close to the edge. After several minutes of unsuccessfully trying to bury his head from the persistently growing glare, he finally sat up, his feet thumping heavily on the wood floor. He ran his hands roughly over his face and squinted open his eyes, gazing blearily at the crowded coffee table in front of him, overflowing with empty bottles and ashtrays. Jeff and Tyrone, his drinking companions from the night before, were both still asleep amidst the detritus, Jeff laid out flat in the recliner with his feet sticking straight out and Ty on the floor in front of the fireplace curled into a ball with his head tucked under his crossed arms.
            Leland sighed as he realized he was the first one awake. First one up made coffee – that was the rule. Moving slowly, he pushed himself up, swaying slightly as he stood. Every bone in his body ached and for what seemed like the thousandth time, he solemnly declared to himself that he would no longer drink the way he drank last night. He ruefully eyed the empty J.D. bottle in the middle of the table and picked it up as he began to make his way into the kitchen. At least throwing it away would make him feel like he was starting to make good on his promise. However, a few steps away from the couch, he had to pause as deep, rattling coughs wracked his body. While the stale, bitter taste of cigarettes flooded his throat and mouth, and nausea rolled through his stomach, Leland found himself making another familiar vow in his head. He honestly didn’t know why he punished himself this way, all in the name of “unwinding”. Lord knew he had been punished enough already.
            Leland straightened his spine painfully and continued to shuffle towards the kitchen, the empty bottle dangling loosely from his fingers. As he entered the small space, he paused just inside the doorway and gazed at the desolate view before him. Practically every available surface was covered with dirty dishes and utensils and the sink was overflowing with pots and pans. Cabinet doors stood half opened as if they had been rifled through by a thoughtless gang of marauders. The trashcan by the outer door was full to capacity and stinking. Leland leaned against the side of the refrigerator and sighed, rubbing his hand up and down his face in exhaustion. If Terri could see this mess, she’d have an aneurysm on the spot. Lee’s chest heaved in a silent, humorless laugh. Not being harangued and ridiculed 24/7 was worth the lack of housekeeping, he figured. He just wished she had removed herself and left him his kids.
            Lee shook his head sharply, ignoring the stabbing sensation in his temples from the sudden movement. It was too early to traipse down that particular path in memory lane right now. He moved further into the wasteland and scanned the cluttered counters for the automatic coffee maker. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, he spotted it behind a tilting pile of dishes and bowls with the ends of various spoons and forks sticking out around the sides. It became clear to Lee’s still fogged mind that he was not going to be able to make coffee until he did some clean-up duty.  Squaring his shoulders in resignation, he walked over to the pungent trashcan and set the empty Jack Daniels bottle on top. He supposed he should start with taking out the trash and opening the windows. At least then the stench would dissipate.
            It took him several minutes to get out the door to the sideyard with the offensive trashcan in tow. He had quickly discovered that only removing the bag was not an option unless he wanted a week’s worth of festering garbage all over the already less than pristine floor. So much had been crammed into the can, there was no way the bag would hold if he had tried to pry it loose. As Lee lumbered out the door pulling the surprisingly heavy can behind him, he made a mental note to take out the trash every day from now on. Lately he had become more and more enlightened as to how much his now absent wife had done around the house on a daily basis. He had to give her props for that, no matter how begrudgingly. However, he refused to harbor any guilt over it either. He had done his part making sure the bank account was always filled and her ATM card was never declined. It wasn’t like he had been having fun while she was cleaning and cooking and watching the kids. Driving a truck ten to fourteen hours a day, six days a week was no party. But apparently having a nice, quiet home with neighbors you couldn’t see or hear, towering trees in the front yard and a view of the city far below that was on postcards hadn’t been enough.
            Cold, clean air struck Lee sharply in the face as he stepped onto the fine gravel covering the sideyard to the cabin, and the dullness lingering in his brain vanished like mist in a brisk wind. He paused for a moment, taking in cleansing breaths and the corners of his eyes welled with moisture. The scent of pine trees was strong in his nostrils and he inhaled it deeply as he trudged towards the Dumpster at the edge of his property, dragging the overladen can. The sound it made bumping over the ground seemed too loud in the stillness of the morning and Lee gritted his teeth irritably. It was his own fault he was being subjected to this godawful noise and disgusting stink because he had let the house go so badly. Anger gurgled in his belly, raw and irrational. At 43, he didn’t want to be alone in a dirty house, with empty bedrooms he was afraid to open because he didn’t want to see the deserted beds that belonged to a little boy and little girl who weren’t there.
            Lee blinked his eyes hard, his gaze fixed ruthlessly to the ground in front of him as he continued to pull the trashcan towards the Dumpster. Goddamn Terri. He didn’t want to be thinking about her, not yet. He hadn’t even had coffee yet, for chrissakes. And deep down, he knew he didn’t want to be thinking about Chris or Ella either. But he couldn’t look at that straight on. He should always want to think of his babies, shouldn’t he? He was their dad. That was his job. It was just that he felt like he had been fired from his job and now he didn’t know what to do with himself. Lee heaved an unconscious sigh of relief as he reached the Dumpster and drew to a halt. He needed to focus his attention on something else. He threw back the top of the Dumpster, then bent down to grip the bottom of the trashcan to lift and up-end it into the container. As he grasped the bottom and stood up, he grunted with effort. It occurred to him that the heaviness was probably from bottles that should have gone into the recycle bin. A lightbulb went off dimly in the back of his mind. Now he got why Terri used to rail on and on about that. No shit – it made perfect sense now. Hindsight was indeed 20/20.
            Lee got the trashcan onto the edge of the Dumpster and began to shake out the contents. It required quite a bit of effort, he was again surprised to find, since everything in it was tightly compacted from repeated shoving of more trash into the can. He shook vigorously, thumping it on the edge until a shower of cans, bottles, boxes, crumpled pieces of paper and scraps of food fell out. Grimacing in distaste, he completed his task and flipped the top of the Dumpster closed. Lee brushed off his hands, picked up the now much lighter can in his fingertips, turned to go back to the cabin and immediately stopped dead in his tracks.
A huge dog stood only a few feet away, directly in the middle of the path between Lee and the house. He had no idea where it had come from. He knew all of the owners of the nearest houses and none of them had dogs like this. Lee very slowly and consciously set the trashcan down beside him and straightened to his full 6’1” height, assessing the animal carefully. This was the largest dog he had ever seen. Standing as it was, its massive head was level with his thighs. It had an absolutely black coat, so sleek and shiny that it almost appeared to be wet, and giant paws that looked as if they belonged on a bear or mountain lion. No tongue lolled out of its mouth, its jaws shut for the moment. The fact that it wasn’t growling and baring its teeth would have made Lee feel a bit more at ease if not for its eyes. They were sharp and intelligent and he felt as if they were tracking his every breath and slightest movement. It was like being watched by a person – a hypervigilant, unpredictable and dangerous person.
 The dog remained perfectly still and silent, its eyes trained on him like a target. Lee looked around, hoping to find an early morning exerciser who would claim the thing. No one was visible. He gazed at the house behind the interloper on the path, knowing that neither Tyrone or Jeff was awake yet. Yelling for them would be a pointless endeavor and the noise might agitate the monster. A sardonic chuckle bubbled up in Lee’s chest as the absurdity of the situation dawned on him. He must look an utter fool, trapped at the Dumpster in his wrinkled slept-in jeans and T-shirt, his hair sticking out in tufts, stubble lining his cheeks and bloodshot cartoon horror show eyes. Dropping his gaze away from the dog, Lee scrubbed both hands up and down his face, feeling the exhaustion in his core sucking away his energy like a drain. He almost didn’t care if the damn dog attacked him. He felt completely defeated. Going to the hospital for stitches and a rabies shot just didn’t seem like it would be that odd an event at this stage in his life. Get it over with, he decided. Just go for the legs or arms, not the throat, he thought. Exhaling deeply, Lee dropped his hands to his sides and raised his face to the path, bracing himself for the deep, vibrating growl and the flash of white razor fangs.
The dog was gone. Lee blinked rapidly several times, feeling disoriented and confused. The path lay empty and quiet, chill morning breeze skipping along to caress his cheeks. Quickly he glanced around, disbelievingly. There was no sign of it whatsoever. A sensation of fear began to unfurl in Lee’s belly and he vainly searched the yard for the freakishly large black dog that had been only feet away from him literally thirty seconds earlier. When nothing came into his view, he began to walk the farthest perimeter of the property, peering through the pine trees and down onto the two-lane road below. As he crunched through fallen pine needles and leaves, the sound of the wind sloughing through the tops of the trees high above began bringing goosebumps to the backs of his hands and neck. He suddenly felt vulnerable and exposed, visible to eyes that he could not see but who could see him. Lee paused his search and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. There was no dog out here. “Yep”, he said to the air. “I do not drink whiskey anymore.”
Lee stretched his head back and closed his eyes, inhaling the clean mountain air deeply into his lungs. He then shook his head sharply, trying to dislodge the dull fog of hangover and depression from his brain. When he opened his eyes again, the empty trashcan laying lopsided on the ground caught his attention. Right, he thought, his focus regained. The business at hand. He strode over to the can, picked it up and turned back towards the cabin. Wash the dishes, clean up the damn kitchen and make coffee. Then roust those bums and kick them out of his house. Lee walked into the kitchen door, making sure to let it bang loudly behind him. “Don’t think about the dog,” his mind whispered to him as he passed through. “It’s not real.”

            By four o’clock that afternoon, Lee was ready to climb the walls. The house was relatively cleaned, Jeff and Tyrone had been dispatched in the morning after sobering up enough to drive, and there were no chores left to do. He didn’t feel like watching TV or getting on the computer and he would be damned if he started drinking again just because he was bored. No work was scheduled for the next few days either. Inside the cabin, Lee roamed from room to room, avoiding the upstairs as if it harbored a plague. His days off had once been precious to him, blank spots in the week when what he faced now had been welcomed – the prospect of doing nothing. But today the house was empty and loneliness was eating at Lee’s guts. He decided to take a walk into town. He didn’t know what he was going to do when he got there, but at least he would be breathing fresh air and not pacing a hole into the floor from feeling incarcerated.
            Grabbing his jacket and a baseball cap, Lee left the house through the kitchen door. As he stepped out onto the graveled sideyard, the monstrous dog he had seen that morning swam to the surface of his mind. He instantly looked around, as if he expected it to be lurking somewhere nearby, waiting for him in a vulnerable moment. There was nothing outside the door but tall pines whispering in the breeze. It occurred to him that maybe he had imagined the whole thing as his brain had been attempting to detoxify from excessive alcohol consumption. Stranger things had happened.
The day was mild for late September in the Southern California mountains. It was usually still very warm this time of year, but the temperature hadn’t risen above 75 degrees all week. Beyond the tops of the trees, the sky was pale blue with no clouds. In the back of his mind, Lee observed that it was a lovely day. The observation seemed very detached from the rest of his thoughts, however, as if it were someone else’s and he was just making a note of it. The only real feelings he seemed to have lately involved fear, anger and self-pity on a continuous, commercial-free loop.
            Lee shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and started walking down the long, sloping drive that led from the highway to his house. Several other properties shared the drive with their own shorter driveways branching off of it to various parts of the hill they were all on. No one else was visible as Lee trudged by, his boots crunching on fallen leaves and twigs. When he reached the bottom of the drive, he turned right and continued, walking on the side of the asphalt two-lane road that headed to the main street of the small mountain community. There wasn’t much traffic up here any time of the day, and for the most part, Lee’s progress was silent and alone. He concentrated on placing one foot before the other, staring down at the blacktop he was walking on. As long as he stayed focused, thoughts of his vanished family remained at bay.
About ten minutes into his trek, Lee rounded a bend and abruptly stopped moving. About ten yards ahead, the huge black dog from the morning was standing in the middle of the highway, perfectly still. Lee’s pulse began hammering wildly at the sight of it, and he stood frozen in his tracks. He realized that beneath the instinctive flight or fight response he was having that he was oddly relieved at the same time. Seeing the thing again proved that he was A) not crazy and B) not experiencing the DT’s. The dog remained in place, staring at him with that unsettling intelligent gaze. Lee slowly looked around, listening for any approaching cars that might solve his immediate problem. It was so big that only an F-150 or SUV would be able to fully take it down. Anything smaller might get totaled from hitting it head on. Lee swung his eyes back to the middle of the road and cursed out loud. The dog was gone again. Blinking his eyes hard, Lee turned in a circle quickly, searching the landscape in vain. There was absolutely no sign of it.
The pulse point in Lee’s throat began throbbing and a tide of dizziness suddenly swept over him. He swayed on his feet and the prickle of sweat popping out on his face made him swipe his forehead and cheeks unsteadily. Panic took hold of his mind, moving fast to claim the rest of his body, and he lurched into movement. Walking briskly, he scanned the area surrounding him restlessly, looking back over his shoulder and into the trees to his right. No animal of any kind was anywhere to be seen. Lee pulled his cap down tighter and took a deep breath, attempting to quell the unmistakable fear growing in his gut. Seeing things that weren’t there was not a good sign for him at all. His mind turned unexpectedly to Ella and Chris. If he had any hope of partial custody or even regular visitation with them, he had to be as straight as a goddamn ruler. He wouldn’t get past the courtroom door if Terri or the judge had any inkling he might not be all together. And beneath those thoughts, lay the core truth of his rapidly increasing unease. There might seriously be something wrong with him, something potentially too big and broken to fix.
A low, primal growl vibrated through the air, making Lee snap his head around so fast he almost gave himself whiplash. The road remained empty, as did the trees he walked beside. Full-fledged terror rose from his stomach, and he dimly felt the gorge rise in his throat and his bowels loosen. Lee started to run, his feet pounding flatly against the asphalt. He could feel the dog’s eyes on him, planning and preparing the attack. About 20 feet ahead, he saw a dirt path at the edge of the highway veering away into the thinly wooded area to his right. In retrospect, without so many hormones flooding his bloodstream, Lee would have easily determined that the best course of escape was to continue in a direct forward line all the way to the main drag of town. But in the frantic environment of panic that was controlling his brain at the moment, diverting onto the path before him made perfect sense. He reached it quickly, sprinting at the flat-out pace he was, and swung onto it to head into the tall trees shivering far above.
Lee squinted his eyes as he traveled down the path and slowed his speed. A woman was coming towards him, strolling casually with her hands in her over-size sweater pockets and gazing up at the trees. Bringing his steps gradually from a run to a jog, and then to a walk, Lee looked behind him, trying to swallow the uncomfortable lump in his throat. The path was clear and quiet. He heard birds chirping and insects buzzing, but no growling. Breathing heavily, he wiped his shaking hand over his face and grimaced. “Hello.” Lee jumped involuntarily. The voice addressing him was dusky and rich, with the faintest hint of a accent nestled deep within it. Turning to face it, he immediately felt self-conscious. The woman was now only a few feet away. “Are you all right?”, she asked solicitiously. He suddenly was very aware that his shirt was soaked with sweat and his chest was heaving. “Uh… yeah” he said weakly and cleared his throat awkwardly. “I, uh… I thought something was out here.” He took off his baseball cap and wiped at the wet hair clinging to his forehead. Seeing her gaze at him in confusion, Lee shrugged defensively. “An animal, there was an animal” he explained. She continued to look at him intently. “Oh? A wild animal?” she said. Lee slapped his cap back onto his head and sighed, resting his hands on his hips. “No. I don’t know, maybe, actually. It looked like a dog, but it was the biggest, meanest looking dog I ever seen” he replied. The woman raised her eyebrows and nodded. “And you saw it here?” she asked. Lee frowned at the question, annoyance creeping into his voice. “Yeah, I did.”
With his tension and focus of a few moments before interrupted, Lee examined the woman furtively. She looked young and stood about 5’6”. Her dark brown hair was thick and carried a sheen that reminded Lee of highly polished antique woodwork. There was an exotic quality to her features that he couldn’t quite place. Her eyes were large and dark and her skin was pale and creamy looking. She had a curvaceous figure that he couldn’t help noticing beneath the long chocolate brown sweater she was wearing and the skintight black leggings that sheathed her legs. An ornately scrolled gold-colored barrette held her long hair back from her face. Lee thought she appeared a bit incongruous out here in the woods. Looking at her made him think of coffee shops and libraries, or some crowded cosmopolitan city street lined with taxi cabs and steam hissing from the manhole covers.
“You live around here?” he asked. She continued to stand before him with her hands still concealed in the pockets of her sweater, her eyes unwavering and deep. “No” she said. Lee jerked his chin in response. “Well, you should be careful wandering around out here. There are animals, even if you can’t see ‘em right now.” Her lips tugged upwards slightly in the ghost of a smile. For some reason, it put Lee on edge, like she knew some joke he wasn’t aware of. “I’m not wandering around. I know exactly where I’m going” she responded. Lee looked at her hard, not sure what to make of her remark. “I don’t think you know where you’re going though” she added. “What?” he snapped, definitely irritated now. “What are you talking about, lady?” Withdrawing a hand from her sweater, she crooked a long, slender finger at Lee. “Come here. I want to tell you something” she said. Lee gazed at her for a moment before glancing around at the path and trees again. His earlier unease was seeping back into his skin, and the weird woman in front of him was making it worse. “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing out here. It ain’t none of my business, all right? You have a nice day, lady” he said, swiveling on his heels to return to the highway.
“Leland” she called. Lee stopped dead, his back turned to her already. He noticed that the pulse in his throat was beginning to pound again. “Come here” she said, the softness of her tone threaded with steel. “How do you know me?” he asked in a low voice, hoping he was successfully keeping the tremor out of it. He wasn’t able to stop himself from shivering however, when she suddenly appeared at his elbow. “How don’t I know you, Lee? I know all of you”, she answered. With great trepidation, Lee slowly turned his head to look at her face. She was smiling warmly up at him, the gold pin in her hair gleaming in the sunlight falling through the trees. The youthful loveliness of her face captivated him then, the depth of her black eyes soothing to his jolted nerves. “Now listen to me, Lee. I need you to do something for me. Then I’ll do something for you. An even exchange of services. Deal?” Lee regarded her with a lost expression on his face. “What can you do for me?” he asked, puzzled. A broad smile broke across her face. “I’ll show you” she said, taking both of his large, sweaty hands into hers. Her hands, delicately pale and immaculately manicured, were the last things Lee saw before he lost consciousness.

                                                                 ***

He stood in the middle of a sea of grass stretching far away to the horizon’s edge, rippling in the hot wind blowing across the savannah. All around him it undulated in waves, dry and brittle to the touch, toasted to a rich golden brown by the ruthless sun. Sparse groupings of bushy-topped trees sprouted about half a mile at his back, but the vast plain was devoid of any other vegetation. High above him, the sky was filled with billowing grey cloudbanks, their undersides gleaming with a copperish tint in the fading afternoon light. The heated air pushing against his skin carried the itch of electricity, and he could see flashes of lightning illuminating the interior of the clouds. Staring at them, he felt a longing so piercing it took him by surprise.
The plain appeared empty of life as he looked about him, but somehow he knew life was there, very close by. He realized he could sense where it was without viewing it with his eyes, which also was a surprise. Behind him in the stands of trees, two lions lay concealed, their tawny coats blending into the brown of the grass. About a mile to the west of them, a quickly evaporating pond of brackish water was hosting a straggly band of birds. Several miles to the northeast, a small herd of antelope were grazing, their noses rooting through the desiccated weeds in search of edible stalks. The buzzing song of myriad insects played in his ears, and he even felt the tiniest of creatures just beneath the surface of the earth, burrowing and milling. And here he stood, not belonging and waiting.
The vibration of thunder traveled through the air and he straightened, his anticipation sharpening. His bare feet were planted firmly apart on the ground and his arms hung loosely at his sides, his entire being thrumming, as if he were a tightly pulled bow about to be fired into forward motion. Closing his eyes, he focused his attention on the mass of clouds hanging over him, his inner vision continuing to see the intermittent pattern of light blinking on and off within them. The skin on his body prickled and jumped as the gathering energy raced all over him, from the soles of his feet up through his core to his scalp, crawling and shimmying. In his mind, he saw the arc of lightning dart out of the belly of the sky and reach for him, so fast a blink would render it invisible. He opened his eyes just in time to be blinded as it struck him squarely in the face.
As his skin split open and the flesh of his torso melted, Lee experienced joy such as he had never known was possible. He spun upwards, wind rushing past him in a warm, caressing gust until he came to hover many feet above the savannah. The land stretched out below him in a flat, seemingly endless expanse, quiet and unsuspecting. Seething with power and hunger, he coiled himself into a ball and aimed at the ground, shooting downwards with the velocity of a bullet exploding from the chamber of a gun. He screamed as he descended, his voice echoing across the empty plain, “Released!” The fireball slammed into the tinderbox of dry grasses, shaking the ground. The savannah ignited in a shower of red, yellow and orange that spread out in a circle from ground zero and escaped into the distance, dragging a train of black smoke behind it like a wispy, funereal veil.
                                                               
                                                                 ***
 Leland came to facedown on the ground of the dirt path. Raising his head slowly, he looked around through bleary eyes, the light of afternoon having faded to dusk. He sat up painfully, the joints in his legs and hips groaning from chill and stillness. With a start, he got to his feet, glancing wildly in every direction. At the far end of the trail, cars hissed by softly on the highway as commuters to the city made their way home for the evening. He was alone on the path with the trees, and the indigo-hued sky above. Brushing his hands off on his jeans, Lee turned back towards the highway and began walking. The gas station in town closed at 8 pm. He had to get home, pick up the gas canister he kept in the garage and get back over here to fill it up. There wasn’t much time.
          

                                                                                 
                                                                              ***


                                                               TO BE CONTINUED...