Tuesday, September 8, 2015


"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



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.”


   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...

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