Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Misery Loves Company"


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.”

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