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.

***