Aegis (Cover and Title Page)

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AEGIS BY K.J. HOLLOWAY

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Millennial Publishing, LLC

Copyright © 2016 All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher.

kjholloway.com/millennialpublishing

millennialpub@gmail.com

Cover and Illustrations by Erik Ly: http://erikly-art.blogspot.com/

Millennial Publishing logo by Albert Lino

 

 

You can download my book for free on Smashwords and barnesandnoble.com or purchase it on Amazon. Or you can read it for free, right here on this site!

Prologue

She fell. Like a falling star, she plummeted from the sky. From beyond the sky. A new sensation gripped her: pain. But she didn’t cry out. Nor did she did struggle against the agony. Even as her bones solidified and snapped into place, and every fiber of sinew gripped the bone, she accepted the pain. An unfamiliar thumping beat the inside of her chest. Hot blood flowed like lava through her newly formed veins. For a brief moment she could feel her wings. They were powerful and fully realized, with brilliant white feathers and a span too wide to measure.

Then they burst into flame.

It started small, at the pollex, but spread until it engulfed the entire wing. She watched tearfully as each feather wilted and the whole of her wings curled up, turned to ash, and then disintegrated.

“No,” she said; more a whimper, uttered by vocal cords that she hadn’t previously possessed.

What was she without wings?

Her wings had carried her through the Celestial realm. With them, she had traversed the limits of the Celestial Plane. They had been a symbol of her status and power. They were more than just a part of her, they were who she was. And now they were gone. Forever. The pain of loss pierced her very essence.

She jolted from the impact of penetrating Earth’s atmosphere. The speed of her descent increased as her body rived the clouds. The air tore at her skin. Her bosom heaved up and down, begging to breathe in some of the air that ripped at her. The fire dissipated and now she felt nothing but the cold. So cold. So lonely. She looked over her shoulder and saw the ground getting closer, and closer. Earth, with its lush, green pastures; bright, shining sun; crisp, blue oceans; and majestic mountains, was nothing but an arid wasteland compared to the home that she knew. She closed her eyes and resigned herself to her fate.

She deserved this.

She had failed her mission.

She had failed everyone.

She hoped the impact would destroy her; end her pain; erase her shame.

But she knew that there was no hope for her.

No solace, no clemency.

She hurdled towards the earth, feeling it growing closer.

And closer.

And closer.

Then she felt nothing.

 

That was nine hundred ninety-eight years ago.

 

You can download my book for free on Smashwords and barnesandnoble.com or purchase it on Amazon. Or you can read it for free, right here on this site!

Chapter One: Rona

Rona couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right with the world—literally. It wasn’t functioning properly. She’d felt it for some time now, and despite her best efforts to ignore it, the feeling had grown stronger, even keeping her awake at night. The wind blew through her long, wavy, sapphire-colored hair. She pulled her jacket tighter, shielding herself from the cold air. She peered up at the moonlit sky just as a bolt of lightning cut through the air, illuminating her brown skin. The clouds were just starting to move in. It was beautiful and eerie. And yet, something about it felt unnatural. As if nature was breaking its own laws. It was a feeling that she couldn’t describe, but could no longer ignore. Now, she wanted answers. The first raindrop fell, landing squarely in her eye, causing her to blink rapidly and wipe at it. The next few fell with increasing succession until a downpour began. Rona pulled her hood over her head, tucked her chin and ran towards the entrance of the bar across the street.

 

Ward sat at the bar staring into an empty beer bottle. He put the bottle to his lips and leaned back as far as he could, hoping to extract one last drop from the stubborn bottle. No such luck. He placed the bottle down on the bar and called to the bartender. “Gimme’ another,” he said, in a slurred London accent.

“I think you’ve had enough for one night. Why don’t I call you a cab?” said the bartender.

Ward wrinkled his nose in indignation. He pushed the empty beer bottle toward the bartender, almost falling from his seat as he did so. “You must be new here. I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough. Another.”

The bartender reluctantly removed a bottle from the cooler, popped the cap and pushed it over to Ward, who grabbed the bottle and took a large gulp. The bartender grabbed the end of the bottle and forced it back down to the counter.

“You gonna’ pay for that?” he asked, more of a statement than a question.

Ward pulled out his wallet. He turned it upside down and dumped a hefty amount of coins onto the counter. The bartender’s face twisted in revulsion.

“I’m not accepting that.”

“Why not? It’s money in-it?”

The bartender’s face went flush. “That’s your last beer,” he said as he raked the coins into his hand. “Then you’re outta’ here. I’ll call you a cab. You’ve got five minutes to finish that.” The bartender stormed off.

Ward took a big gulp of the beer, belched, and then set it back down on the bar.

Nature was calling.

He stood up and headed toward the bathroom, but something caught his eye. In the back of the room sat three big men clad in black trench coats. Each of them eyed him with hatred. He recognized them. Fear shot through him, as he hastily returned to his seat. He knew that if he left that seat he was a dead man. Not even the bathroom was safe. He chanced a glance over his shoulder. The shortest of the men, a dark-skinned man with a goatee, made a pistol with his fingers and pretended to fire it in Ward’s direction. Ward tore his eyes away. He took a sip of his beer, ever so slightly, but it still made a gulping sound as it went down.

 

The wind slammed the door closed behind Rona as she entered the bar. “Whew!” she said as she wiped rainwater from her forehead with her sleeve. The bar was just the right temperature. And the perfect amount of not-raining. She didn’t bother scanning the room. The man she was looking for would be at the bar—and likely inebriated. She sat in the first empty seat she saw, before brandishing her ID for the bartender to see.

“Wow, you look so young for your age,” said the bartender. Rona smiled. “What can I get you?” Rona shrugged, took a look around and pointed to one of the taps. “You got it.”

The bartender came back with a tall glass of dark beer, filled to the brim. He placed it in front of Rona, taking the dollar bills from her hand in exchange. She leaned over and took a whiff of the beer, recoiled in disgust, and pushed the glass away. She scanned the bar until her eyes met Ward’s. A smile brightened his features as he recognized her. He looked like he was about to shout her name, until she furtively placed a finger in front of her lips, silencing him. He settled back down in his chair and waited. Rona walked over and sat next to him.

“I need information,” she said without looking at him.

“Is that how you greet all of your friends?” asked Ward.

“We’re not friends, Ward. I don’t have friends.”

“Well perhaps you would have friends if you weren’t so flippin’ rude all the time. In the six years that we’ve known each other we’ve spoken for exactly twenty-two minutes and nine seconds, including this conversation; I know we’re not besties. But, there is a such thing as common courtesy, a lesson you yanks never took to. ‘Hello, Ward, how are you?’ and perhaps a little eye contact, that’s all I ask.” He downed the rest of his beer in one gulp.

Rona turned to him, opened her eyes wide and emphasized every word as she spoke. “Hello, Ward, how are you?”

“I can’t complain, thank you for asking,” said Ward, his bright smile emanating even from his blue eyes.

“How was that?” asked Rona.

“I’ve had better,” said Ward.

Rona laughed. She reached for her untouched beer and pushed it in Ward’s direction. “Here, have a drink.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Ward. He leaned forward to grab the drink but fell forward, tipping the glass over. Rona caught the glass in one hand, before it spilled, and caught Ward with her other hand before he fell off of his stool. She lifted him upright with ease. The commotion grabbed the attention of the bartender.

“Is this idiot bothering you,” he asked.

Rona waved it off. “I’m bothering him.”

“Lucky guy,” said the bartender as he filled a cup of water, placed it in front of Rona and left.

“ ‘Lucky guy’? He obviously hasn’t met you.”

“ ‘Idiot’. He obviously has met you. I was kind of hoping that you wouldn’t be this…impaired. I’ll come and find you tomorrow when you’re less intoxicated.”

“I have only two modes: drunk and hung over. Trust me, I’m a lot more fun when I’m drunk,” said Ward, taking a sip of beer. Besides, if this was a matter that could wait until tomorrow, you wouldn’t be out in this nasty weather. How can I help you?”

Rona looked Ward up and down. He looked thinner than the last time she’d seen him. His reddish brown hair was unkept and it looked like it had been a few days since his last shave. Perhaps he’d fallen on hard times. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for oracles to be self-destructive.

“You’re the oracle. Shouldn’t you know already?” asked Rona as she took a sip of water.

“Oh, we’re playing that game, are we? ‘Guess what’s on my mind.’ Well, I’m an oracle, not a mind reader, Love.”

Oracles always made you ask. They got a kick out of making you work for the information even after you’d paid for it. And they never gave a straight answer. Ever. Dealing with them and deciphering their coded language was an acquired skill. Rona had run into every type of Oracle in her day. Some had been children; others wise old sages; some had been priests; others, sailors; and some were drunks. She found that she preferred the drunks. Drunk oracles, like regular drunks, seemed to speak the truth. And they were a lot less holier-than-thou. Of all of the oracles she’d ever met, Ward was the least obnoxious. But she still didn’t quite know what to make of him. On the few times she had called on him, he had given her good information, which made her wonder who else he was giving information to. She had to choose her words carefully and not reveal any more than she needed to. She didn’t trust him.

Then again, she didn’t really trust anyone.

“Something was stolen from me. I want it back.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Rona took a moment before answering. “My lucky stone, someone stole it.”

A brief look of surprise crossed Ward’s face. Then he snickered.

“What’s funny?”

“Pardon me if I don’t believe you. Who would steal your lucky stone?”

“That’s what I want you to tell me.”

“It’s a rhetorical question, Love. The answer is: no one. Have you checked the couch cushions?”

Rona folded her arms across her chest. “I wouldn’t have lost it. It was a gift.”

“I’m still finding it hard to believe that you are the superstitious or sentimental type. I can’t help but wonder if there are more important things that you wish to discuss,” said Ward, giving Rona a dubious look.

Of course there were.

“Nope,” said Rona. “If you could just tell me where I can find what I’m looking for, I’ll be on my way.”

“Okay,” said Ward, shaking his head in disappointment. “But first, let me tell you that there is no such thing as luck. ‘Luck’ implies coincidence. And there is no such thing. Everything happens for a reason. I think there is a reason that you came out here tonight, and it has nothing to do with luck or stones or any other bollocks. You made the decision to come and find me, tonight. What we call coincidence is in fact the cause and effect of decisions being made somewhere at some time. Sometimes decisions made before we are born or a million miles away affect the decisions that we make today which in turn affect others. Each decision has power, each has consequences.”

“Um, okay. So, are you going to make the ‘decision’ to tell me where my lucky stone is?”

“I think you’re missing the point, Love.”

“My name is Rona.”

“Rona, haven’t you noticed that something seems amidst? The average person suspects nothing, but someone like you, who is a bit more, let’s say: tuned in, definitely notices that something is going on, something big.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, thought Rona. Not wanting to overplay her coyness, she said nothing.

“That’s what I thought. The universe is out-of-whack for some reason. Up is down. Left is right. Nothing is as it should be. There is something going on, and I’m afraid it’s far more important than your lost trinket. Aren’t you the least bit interested?” asked Ward.

“Tell me,” said Rona, attempting to hide her anticipation.

“For a price,” said Ward.

“I bought you a beer.”

Ward chugged it. “What beer.”

Rona glared at Ward for as long as she could stomach him.

“Goodbye, Ward,” she said, rising from her chair.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” said Ward, “I’m a wee bit pissed. Please don’t leave.”

“Have a nice night,” said Rona, pushing her chair in. “And take a cab.”

“I need your help. They’re gonna’ kill me.”

“Been nice knowing ya!”

Ward tugged at Rona’s arm. She gave him a dangerous look.

“Please,” said Ward, staring into Rona’s eyes. On his face there was no smile, no snark; only fear.

Rona resigned herself to her chair. “Who’s ‘they’?”

Ward gave a barely visible head tilt toward the rear of the bar. Rona reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a Compaq mirror. She opened it, angling it just enough for her to see over her shoulder. She scanned the room with it, taking in the many people in the bar. It didn’t take long for her to spot them. Three of them in the back. Trench coats. Scowls. Trouble. She folded the mirror back into her pocket.

“I’m not getting involved in whatever mess you got yourself into,” said Rona.

“Come on, we’re friends,” said Ward, with a smile.

Rona shook her head in disagreement. “How do I know that you don’t deserve exactly what these guys are about to do to you?”

“They’re going to hang me by my intestines.”

“Gross,” said Rona. “Who are they?”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Rona smacked her teeth and shook her head. “Don’t think so.”

“Avon salesman?” said Ward with a shrug.

“Doubt it. Why don’t you call the police?”

“There’s no way I’m leaving this building alive without your help. Trust me, I know— I’m a freaking oracle for crying-out-loud! I’ll tell you anything you want to know, but you have to promise to help me.”

“No promises. Start talking, and hurry up, it looks like they’re getting impatient.”

“Okay,” said Ward, with new found urgency. “Tonight, you’re going to be offered a choice. Your decision will affect the course of your life from this night forward. I don’t know who is going to offer you this choice or why, but I know that bigger things are happening. Things that even I don’t quite understand.”

So she hadn’t been imagining it. Something was off. Rona didn’t know if this conformation made her feel better or worse.

Ward continued. “I can’t explain it. Things are happening too fast. I know that no matter what you decide, things are never going to be the same.”

“Should I be prepared for a fight?”

“Aren’t you always?”

“Touché. Do I know the person that will make this offer?”

Ward thought for a moment. “I think so. In fact, I think that you know a great deal more than you let on.”

“How much do you know about me?” asked Rona, before taking a sip of water.

“I know that you’re beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

Ward held out his hands toward Rona as if studying a work of art. “I mean, your features are absolutely flawless. Big brown eyes, long eyelashes, a personal preference of mine.” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “A cute nose, full lips, even skin tone, decent height.” He clenched his fists. “A tight, shapely, athletic body.” He cuffed the air around his chest. “Nice…demeanor.”

Rona cocked her head to the side. “You’re weird, Ward. And you smell funny.”

Ward sniffed himself. “Both true statements, I must admit. I also can’t help but notice that in all the years I’ve know you, you haven’t aged. Not a day. Not one bit. Not one wrinkle, not one sag in the skin, not one hair out of place. I mean, I know black don’t crack, but this is a bit excessive. Oh, I don’t mean to offend you, I’m not entirely sure that you are black or Latina or what you consider yourself; but I am sure that you aren’t even human. At all.”

Rona smiled and shrugged.

“Fair enough.” He leaned in a little closer and his expression and tone turned more serious than Rona had previously seen. “I challenge you to remember who you are; to commit to something damn-all the consequences; and to protect someone simply because they need you.”

“Protect who?”

“Me, of course!” said Ward. “They’re coming.” Ward took Rona’s cup of water and chugged it down in one gulp.

Rona noticed through her peripheral, the three men in trench coats moving towards them. She didn’t turn her head to meet them, instead she watched from her periphery. The men moving toward them ranged in size from big, to bigger, to biggest. They moved at a slow but deliberate pace. These were no ordinary thugs. They had training, possibly military. Within seconds they were all within touching distance of Ward, surrounding him on all sides.

“Hey gents!” said Ward, to the men. “How’ve you been? It’s so good to see the whole gang here.” Ward nodded his head to each of them. “Terrance,” he said to the first man. The man nearly growled in reply. “Donny,” he said, to the second man, who returned a polite nod. “Isaac,” he pointed at the biggest man. Isaac made no gestures, facial or physical.

Ward wasn’t needlessly babbling, he was feeding her information in case she decided to help him—which she hadn’t yet—giving her a glimpse into who each of these men were just by their initial reactions to him. Just from that brief exchange Rona decided to fix her attention on Terrance. He had taken charge of the confrontation, and anything that would happen from this point forward would begin with him.

Terrance grabbed a stool and placed it between Rona and Ward, nearly pushing Rona out of the way as he sat down, facing Ward. Rona moved back a few inches and watched the interaction.

Terrance was average height, but he was a block of a man, wide and powerfully built. He’d had a scowl plastered on his face during the entire walk over to Ward, so Rona wasn’t at all surprised by his rudeness. He was a dark-skinned man with a smooth goatee. The edges of his fade were impeccable even in the back.

“Terrance, how you been? Gimme’ a hug, mate,” said Ward, as he leaned forward to embrace Terrance. It took only one of Terrance’s catcher’s-mitt hands to push Ward back down. He fell, hard on to his stool. Rona winced. This was getting interesting.

“You thought you could run?” said Terrance, through clenched teeth. His voice matched his look perfectly. “You thought we wouldn’t catch you? We will follow you to the ends of this Earth.”

“ ‘Fraid I don’t know to what you are referring,” said Ward, his voice quivering.

“Don’t play dumb,” said Donny, his voice a deep, gravelly sound with a hint of a country accent. “You know why we’re here. It would be better if we stepped outside to…discuss things.”

Donny was quite tall. He had a salt-and-pepper mustache, making him more distinguished than the other two men. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. To an untrained eye he almost seemed benign, but Rona could see the steel in his eyes. The way he moved reminded her of a cobra moving through tall grass; the kind that you didn’t see until after it had bitten you. Deadly, was too drab of a word to describe him.

“I’m through talking to this clown,” said Terrance. “I’m about three seconds from dragging him out of here.”

“We’re going to give you one last chance to walk out of here of your own volition. Do it. Like a man. You don’t want your lady friend getting caught up in this,” said Donny, tipping his hat to Rona.

“Yeah, wouldn’t want my brains getting all over her,” said Ward.

“I don’t mind, actually,” said Rona with a wink.

“Shut up, bitch,” Terrance spat, over his shoulder.

“Did you hear what he just called you, Rona? You gonna’ take that?” asked Ward.

“Doesn’t bother me,” said Rona with a smile. She downed her glass of water. The tension in the air was building, reaching a tipping point. Rona prepared herself for whatever was coming next. She made sure to keep a close eye on the biggest man of the group, Isaac, who seemed to be carved out of stone. He was even stone-faced, which gave Rona the impression that thinking, wasn’t his role in the group. But Rona could tell that whatever he did do, he was good at it. She had gotten a feel for the other two, but Isaac, with his expressionless face and long black ponytail, was still a wild card.

“Enough! I’m gonna’ put a bullet in him right now!” said Terrance. Rona took note as he shifted his weight to his right side.

He was right-handed.

And packing.

“Take it easy, rookie,” said Donny.

“I got this,” said Terrance.

Donny gave a long sigh.

The room went silent and everyone in the bar seemed to be fixating on their conversation. Even the music had stopped. The bartender walked over. He had a look of alarm on his face. Terrance placed his hand inside of his trench coat.

“You’ve got to the count of three, before I do you right here,” said Terrance in a low and dangerous voice. “One.”

“Hey, you guys are going to have to take that outside,” said the bartender, his voice quavering.

“This is your last warning, son,” said Donny.

“Two.”

“Rona. Help,” said Ward.

“I’m calling the police!” said the bartender.

“Three.”

Terrance pulled a semi-automatic pistol from his jacket and whipped Ward across the face with it, toppling him over his stool and onto the floor. He took aim at the bartender, whom was dialing numbers hastily on his phone, seemingly unaware of the gun pointed at him.

Rona took action. She kicked Terrance hard in the back of his knee, knocking him off balance. A shot rang out. A bottle shattered. Everyone in the bar screamed and took cover.  Terrance whirled around and pointed the gun at Rona. With inhuman speed, she kicked one leg over the other, pinning Terrence’s gun hand down onto the bar. Using the momentum gained, she placed her hand on the bar, and kicked Terrance in the jaw with her spinning heel. Terrance hit the floor and didn’t move. In the scramble, Rona hoisted herself onto the bar and landed in a crouching position facing the other two men. They both reached for their guns, but, Rona leaped over their heads, landing behind them. Isaac had his gun drawn and was raising it when Rona smacked it from his hand. Donny pointed his gun at Rona. She grabbed his wrist and twisted it in a counterclockwise motion, forcing him to somersault and land on his back. His gun and cowboy hat falling to the floor. Isaac grabbed Rona in a bear-hug from behind. He squeezed, but Rona broke his grip effortlessly. She placed her hands on the floor, and kicked backwards at the same time. The kick landed square in Isaac’s gut, sending him stumbling into a nearby wall before collapsing to the floor.

“Don’t make me use this,” said Donny, “I’d hate to shoot a lady.” He had gotten back to his feet and now had a pistol pointed at Rona. His breathing was heavy, but his voice was steady.

Rona knew that he meant business. But she didn’t give him time to make good on his threat. She tucked and rolled past Donny’s gun, grabbing his ankle in the process. When she rose, she spun Donny around and around by his leg, ultimately releasing him, and sending him sailing into the wall on the far side of the bar. He bounced off of the wall before crashing into a heap on the floor. He didn’t move.

Everyone had their phones out. Ward emerged from under a table rubbing the side of his jaw where Terrance had struck him. His expression was a mixture of glee and awe. Rona wasted no time.

“Come on!” she said as she grabbed Ward. She burst through the doors of the bar with Ward in tow. She ran so fast that Ward couldn’t keep pace. She half carried, half dragged him down the sidewalk. They didn’t stop running until Rona felt like she had put enough distance between them and the bar. She let Ward rest as she peered around the corner for signs of the police or any other inconveniences. She didn’t see anything. She could hear the sound of sirens, but they were at a safe distance.

“Okay, I think we’re safe,” said Rona. She turned around and saw Ward with his back to her and his head leaning backwards in pleasure.

He was urinating on the side of a building.

“Ward!” snapped Rona.

“Sorry, I’ve been holding that in for quite some time,” said Ward, apologetically. Rona turned around and gave him time to zip his pants up. “Almost lost it in the trousers, back at the bar. Good show, by the way! You’ve got some moves. You saved my life.”

“I saved the bartender,” said Rona. “Now tell me what I want to know.”

“Okay, you’ll find all of the answers you’re looking for and more at the Fairview Cemetery on the west side of town.”

“Okay, take care of yourself, Ward. Forgive me if I don’t shake your hand,” said Rona.

“Oh, right,” said Ward with a bashful smile. “Cheers.”

She hailed a cab the first chance she got, settling into the back seat. “Fairview Cemetery, please.” She removed her lucky stone from her pocket, tossed it into the air and caught it with the same hand. Oracles possessed a wealth of knowledge, but also enormous egos. They had to be challenged, coerced into talking, made to believe that volunteering the information had been their idea from the start. They never ever gave you information if it seemed like you wanted it too badly. They were adept at fleecing the overeager. She placed the stone back in her pocket. It was also safer to poke around if it didn’t seem like you were poking around. Not that getting into a bar fight was exactly inconspicuous. She was sure that was going to bite her on the ass at some point, but she couldn’t worry about that tonight. Something big was indeed happening and tonight she was going to get some answers. Whether she liked them or not.

 

You can download my book for free on Smashwords and barnesandnoble.com or purchase it on Amazon. Or you can read it for free, right here on this site!

Chapter Two: Beseeched

Rona felt anxious by the time she arrived at the cemetery. She had to be prepared for anything. She reached inside of her coat pocket and ran her fingers over the length of her Elnign dagger. It was a twelve inch blade with a long, red rope attached to the hilt, making it effective in both long and short range combat. One could never be too cautious when wandering through a graveyard alone at night.

Rona opened her door and surveyed the area. She wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, just a stone’s throw from a bus stop, which meant getting home would be a nonissue. She paid the cab driver then walked up to the large imposing gates that surrounded the cemetery. The gates were locked and the cemetery was closed but Rona leaped the fence and landed on the other side without making a sound. She paused in a crouched position, taking in her surroundings. The moon provided minimal lighting which made it tough to see too far in the distance. She placed her palm down flat on the ground. The earth was so wet, that her hand sank a few centimeters into the dirt as she did so. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Wet earth made it difficult to feel the vibrations that traveled through the ground, but it was her best bet at seeing what was out there in such limited lighting. Aside from the movement of some small rodents and insects, she couldn’t discern much. As far as she could tell there was nothing larger than a stray cat moving around in the cemetery. But she couldn’t be sure.

She could still hear traffic in the background and smell the scent of freshly cut grass as she stood up and began walking through the cemetery. Her feet sank a little into the Earth with each step. Pausing at the first headstone she reached, she knelt down to read it:

 

Here Lies Marvin L. Roodhouse

Devoted father, Husband, and Son

You will be missed

 

At least that was a good sign. As far as hallowed ground was concerned, graveyards were tricky.  As long as the people here were laid to rest by people that had cared about them, that would afford some protection against unwanted entities. It was the arcane graveyards with the unmarked graves that one should avoid. The not-so-dearly departed, buried only to be forgotten. Their headstones would read: “good riddance and burn in hell” had anyone bothered to put one there.

A bit of assurance worked its way back into her as she proceeded, being sure not to step over any headstones. She tried her best to make as little noise as possible as she searched for whatever Ward had said she would find. There was no one there. No homeless people, burglars or teenagers; no undertaker making rounds. And yet, Rona couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t alone. The thought of being watched made her skin prickle.

Some sort of structure appeared up ahead. It was too large to be a tomb or grave marker. Dabs of drizzle began falling by the time Rona was close enough to make out what she was looking at. It was magnificent. A statue of an angel kneeling down on one knee, its hand on a sheathed sword. Its wings were spread out, almost to full length. They were extended horizontally, providing shelter  underneath them. The look on the angel’s face was confident and strong. Although the eyes were simply stone ovals, there was something about them; something beneath the stone exterior. Melancholy perhaps? At the base of the statue read: “Angelus Custos” Latin for “Guardian Angel.” Rona sighed deeply as she stared, hypnotized by the grandeur of the work.

The wind picked up and a sudden feeling swept through Rona. She wasn’t alone. She drew her dagger from her jacket and twirled it around by the rope, searching the area and preparing herself for an attack from any direction. There was someone else there, someone that she couldn’t see. Her heart rate increased and her breathing grew deeper as she searched the area. She caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. She whirled around and with lightning speed, hurled the dagger toward the figure behind her. The blade whizzed through the air, spinning like a windmill as it flew toward the young woman standing akimbo against a tree. Rona yanked the rope on the hilt, stopping the blade in midair, an inch from the woman’s face. The blade dropped harmlessly to the ground at the woman’s feet. The woman didn’t even flinch.

Rona recognized her.

“Angelica?” said Rona, drawing out the name a little longer than she needed to. A stew of emotions came to a boil when Rona saw Angelica’s face. She was speechless. The two of them stood frozen in position.

Angelica was truly beautiful, confident, and radiant. She was a few inches shorter than Rona. She had an olive complexion and rose-pink, shoulder-length hair. She wore a long white trench coat that hung down past her knees. It shifted as she stood up to her full, unimpressive height. She placed her hands calmly into her coat pockets.

“Hello, Angerona. You look good. Strong. Healthy. I love the hair,” she said warmly. Her accent was reminiscent of Victorian era England. Her voice was soothing and gentle.

Rona wanted to run over and embrace her, and tell her how much she had missed her and how happy she was to see her, but something inside of her held those impulses hostage. Angelica waited patiently. She just smiled a warm smile.

“Angelica? What are you do—how did you—why—what’s going—huh?”

Angelica gave a good-natured laugh. “All good questions. And I have answers, but first, let’s find a dry place to stand, out of the rain.”

“It’s barely drizzling,” said Rona, looking up at the sky. At that moment a rainstorm erupted. Rona took cover under one of the wings of the angel statue. She beckoned Angelica to follow. Angelica obliged, walking calmly until she stood next to Rona under the statue’s massive wing.

“Aren’t you going to get your Elnign Dagger?” asked Angelica.

“Oh, yeah,” said Rona. She dragged the dagger to her by the rope. She wiped the dirt and grass off on her pant-leg, before wrapping the rope around the hilt, and placing the dagger in her jacket pocket. “Sorry about throwing it at you, I didn’t know it was you.”

“Well, I most certainly hope not! I’m sorry if I frightened you. You’re a bit on edge these days, I see.”

“You have no idea,” said Rona. She noticed that Angelica was completely dry despite the downpour. “Could you make yourself corporeal? Just for a second?”

“Perhaps,” said Angelica. She closed her eyes and tilted her chin up in deep concentration. Her image faded in and out for a split second before coming back into focus.  “Ah, yes I’ve got a little bit left. Why do you as–”

Before she could stop herself, Rona ran over and embraced Angelica with all of her might. She lifted the smaller woman off of the ground and squeezed tight, leaning her head on Angelica’s shoulder.

“It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you so much,” said Rona, her body shaking a little.

“I’ve missed you too,” said Angelica. “It’s a good thing I don’t need to breathe.”

Angelica’s image flickered again and Rona found herself holding nothing but air as Angelica’s body passed through hers. She let out a sigh then walked over to the edge of the cover, reached out and filled her palms with rainwater. She doused her face with it, wiping her eyes vigorously. She faced away from Angelica and placed her hands on her hips. She threw her head back and exhaled loudly.

“Sorry, I guess that was the last of my power for now,” said Angelica.

Rona waved it off, without turning to face her.

“How have you been?” asked Angelica.

Rona scoffed rudely.

She reached for more rainwater and wiped her eyes.

Angelica waited.

“I’m maintaining,” said Rona, turning only her head and talking over her shoulder.

“You look tired.”

“I’ve been having some trouble sleeping the last couple days.”

“That isn’t good. You need to be resting. And eating well. You should be taking care of yourself,” said Angelica, shaking her head.

“I’ve done a pretty damn good job of taking care of myself, for the past millennium, thank you very much,” snapped Rona.

“Fair enough.”

The two stood in silence. Cars zoomed by on the highway, off in the distance. A frog chirped nearby. The pitter-patter of the rain kept a steady rhythm.

“Why are you here?” asked Rona, turning to face Angelica, and folding her arms over her chest. “Since I haven’t seen you in nearly a thousand years—not once—I take it this isn’t a social call.”

Angelica bit her lip.

“Well?” said Rona. She pointed to the sky. “Did He send you?”

“Not exactly,” said Angelica.

“Then who? What’s going on? Spit it out!”

“We need to talk, Angerona.”

“Stop calling me that! It’s Rona, just plain old Rona.”

“I’m sorry,” said Angelica, a pained expression on her face. “I know you haven’t seen me, but I have checked in on you from time to time. It isn’t as often as I would like, but I haven’t forgotten about you. I know you must be angry and feel so alone. I would never abandon you, Angerona. I would never…”

Angelica buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

A lump formed in Rona’s throat. She fought back tears of her own. “It isn’t your fault, Angelica. None of it is your fault. I’m just pissed off at the world. I’m sorry. It really is good to see you. It’s just…I don’t know…I wasn’t expecting this.” She ran her hands through her hair in frustration.

Angelica nodded. She wiped her eyes and smiled at Rona. Rona smiled back and leaned against the statue.

“I know it’s sudden. But it is important.”

“Did you really check in on me?”

Angelica nodded.

A small smile forced its way onto Rona’s face. “So what brings you here, now?”

“Brace yourself for the things I’m about to tell you.”

“I’m ready.”

“We need your help,” said Angelica.

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Heaven. Heaven needs you,” said Angelica gravely.

Rona stared at Angelica. Then burst into laughter. The laughter became so hysterical that she lost her balance and almost fell out into the rain. She laughed until tears started to form. Angelica stood in silence.

“This is serious.”

Rona continued to laugh. She gathered herself just enough to speak between laughs.

“Heaven—Up There?” She pointed towards the sky. “Needs me? God himself—is asking about me?” She continued to laugh until it became difficult to breathe.  “Get outta’ here! You almost had me. Who put you up to this?”

“I beg your pardon?” said Angelica, quizzically.

“Oh come on, Angelica, you aren’t cruel enough to come up with a joke like this. Whose idea was this?”

“This is no joke, and no laughing matter, I assure you.”

“I thought you were just going to warn me that there’s some impending doom, or something, and just tell me to be careful. Not all of this ‘we need you’ crap,” said Rona, between laughs.

“It goes deeper than that. Just, please calm yourself and hear me out. Please,” plead Angelica.

“Okay, okay. Whew! This oughtta’ be good,” said Rona, wiping tears from her eyes.

“Chaos has–” began Angelica.

Rona snickered.

Angelica shot her a look.

“Sorry. It’s all out now,” said Rona. She beckoned Angelica to continue.

“We are at war. As we speak, demon hordes are gathering. This is no mere posturing; this is an all-out invasion force. We’ve dispatched our forces to meet theirs but we’re being driven back. We’ve been able to hold them in the Nether realm, just outside of Heaven, but I fear it’s only a matter of time before they cross over into Heaven. I don’t believe that they are looking for small gains. I think that they plan to take Empyria.”

“The city of God?” said Rona, her attention growing. “That’s bold even for Lucifer. There’s no way they can succeed.”

Angelica gave Rona a grave look. “They’re driving us back. I don’t know how much longer we can hold them off. Their numbers are many and their power extraordinary. I fear the worst is yet to come.”

“What do you mean?”

“This is no minor skirmish. It looks like the beginning of a Celestial War just like The Inferno.”

“Huh,” said Rona arching an eyebrow. Fighting between Heaven and Hell was nothing new. In fact, there were choirs of angels in Heaven that were tasked with doing just that. Most of the time no one on Earth ever knew about it. But a war of this magnitude would definitely throw off Earth’s equilibrium and cause all sorts of problems. Freak storms, natural disasters, energy imbalances, changes in the natural order could all persist. This was what Ward had meant when he said up was down and left was right. The Earth’s energies were so out of whack that even the oracles were having trouble understanding. If this war spilled over onto Earth just like The Inferno had, it could be the end of Earth…again.

“As of yet, there’s been no sign of Lucifer or any of his generals on the battlefield. It’s possible they’re still holding back. Waiting for something, perhaps.”

“I still don’t get it. Why doesn’t God and the Archs just eliminate the threat? I mean, without Lucifer or any of his generals leading the attack, the rest of Satan’s hordes won’t have the nerve to stand against them,” said Rona.

Angelica didn’t respond. The look in her eyes was desolate. She swallowed hard and Rona could see a tear forming in her friend’s eye. “Our Father is missing,” she said staidly as she sucked back tears.

Rona stood horrified. It felt like she’d been stabbed. Confusion added to the horror as she shook her head, not wanting to believe what she was hearing. She tried to keep her voice from shaking. “What do you mean?”

“Our God, He…He’s missing. Gone. I know it doesn’t seem possible…but it’s…” Angelica began weeping.

Rona had felt apart from God for a long time, but this solidified the fact that she was alone. This was worse than she ever could have imagined.

Angelica wiped her eyes and gave Rona an apologetic smile. Rona attempted to smile back.

“I know it doesn’t make any sense, but He just disappeared. Without a trace. The Archs are doing all they can just to keep the Earth from falling apart. Everyone’s got their hands full. This is the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced. This is our darkest hour.” said Angelica, breathing deeply.

“You don’t think something has happened to him do you? I mean who could kidnap God?”

“That’s just it; it’s impossible. Not even Lucifer himself could best Our Lord in a fair contest,” said Angelica, as if she had been telling herself that for a long time.

“Lucifer doesn’t exactly play fair, ya’ know.”

“Yes, I know. Anyway, no cause for alarm. I’m sure God is just testing us. He must have a reason to go off on His own, although I don’t know why He would choose such a turbulent time to conduct such a trial.” Angelica breathed loudly and said, almost to herself, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

“I think I need to sit down,” said Rona. She walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. Angelica followed suit. “This is insane,” she said, shaking her head. Angelica nodded in agreement. “Okay, I understand. Heaven is in a bad way. But why contact me? There’s nothing I can do about a war on the Celestial Plane. Where do I fit in all of this?”

“Well,” said Angelica, her voice perking up. “There has been another development. Demons from Hell have found a way to break the laws of The Aegis and manifest bodies, here on Earth. They’re mission: find and terminate the life of a human.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Where does a human fit into all of this?”

“We’re not sure. All we know is that Hell is after him. And for that reason alone, they mustn’t be allowed to have him. As you know, the Aegis forbids celestial beings from fighting a battle on Earth. Therefore we are asking you to take up the mantle of Guardian once again and protect the boy from harm,” said Angelica.

“So that’s it? You want me to babysit some kid that you’re not even sure is important?”

“Oh, we’re sure he’s important. We just aren’t clear on how or why, at least not yet,”

“Why should I help? Heaven hasn’t exactly done much for me in the last millennia.”

“Ah! If you can successfully defend the human and protect him from harm then you can have your Divinity restored. You’ll be able to rejoin the Choirs of Angels again. You can come home,” said Angelica, her face lighting up.

Rona’s jaw dropped and she sat in shock.

“Impossible. My banishment is forever…” Rona’s thoughts drifted off and memories flood her mind.

“We can make it so!” said Angelica, her voice saving Rona from drowning in a sea of her own memories. “These are turbulent times and if you will help us in our time of need, then I’m sure God will forgive your past transgression. He’s all about redemption.”

“For the humans. Not for us. How do you know any of this, anyway? God is missing. It isn’t exactly like you could run it by him and see what he thinks.”

“I’m sure of it,” said Angelica confidently. “I have ways of knowing that it can and shall be done upon completion of your mission. That is a promise. And I cannot lie, so you know it’s true.”

“Wow,” said Rona, rising to her feet.

“Indeed,” said Angelica. “We need you. Will you help us?”

“No,” said Rona. “I’m sorry.”

She turned and walked away.

 

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Chapter Three: Taking Oaths

Rona instantly regret being so short with Angelica. She had come off as bitter and rude and Angelica hadn’t deserved that. But how dare Heaven ask her for a favor after all of this time?  They abandoned her, marooned her on Earth—granted, they could have done much worse, but that was beside the point—and she had accepted her fate. In fact, she was just beginning to relish it. She had learned to navigate the ins and outs of Earth pretty well; how to mind her own business and stay out of trouble; how to stay unattached and uninvested. Most importantly, she had learned how to look out for number one. And now they were asking her to look out for some kid that she had never even met. No thank you. She didn’t owe heaven any favors. It wasn’t like they’d done her any.

She caught the first bus that showed up and planted herself in the rear seats. Fatigue began to set in, so she rested her head on the window. She did miss Angelica’s company, but she didn’t want to hear any more about this mission nor entertain any more fantasies of returning to Heaven. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

“Just hear me out,” said Angelica.

Rona jolted. “Angelica! What the hell?”

“I’m just asking for you to listen for a moment,” said Angelica.

“I’ve heard everything you have to say and the answer is still ‘no’. What part of ‘no’ do you not understand the N or the O?”

“I didn’t tell you that the human that Hell is after is only a 14-year-old boy.”

Rona thought for a second. “Still not doing it.”

“Why not? I don’t understand,” said Angelica.

“Because Heaven doesn’t need me. They’ve gotten along for the last nine-hundred-sixty-three years, seven months, fifteen days, twenty-two hours, and eight minutes without me; and they’ll get along for the next millennium without me.”

“But, Rona, if you don’t help there might not be a next thousand years. There might not be a tomorrow. This mission is that important.”

“Maybe it isn’t. Have you guys even thought this through? I mean what if this is just an elaborate hoax by Satan to keep you guys chasing shadows while he goes after the real prize?”

“Personally, I think that’s what the war is. I think he’s trying to keep us occupied while he goes after the child. In fact, I don’t think that they even know that we know about the human. Without you we’re in trouble.”

“You’ll think of something, Angelica,” said Rona with a yawn.

“You are the plan. You’re my first and only pick for the job. And you’re this child’s only hope.”

“I don’t know, Angelica. I just ca–” Rona began, but then something caught her eye. She wiped her eyes in bewilderment.

“Okay, don’t freak out,” said Angelica, motioning for Rona to be calm.

“Why is that bear playing the saxophone?”

“You mustn’t overreact.”

“This is a dream,” said Rona in sudden realization. She looked out the window and saw that the bus was driving underwater. One of the dolphins made an obscene gesture at Rona with his fin. A handsome merman with ripped abdominal muscles swam up beside Rona and kissed the glass.

“You were sleeping so peacefully,” said Angelica guiltily.

“You’re inside my head,” said Rona.

“I didn’t want to wake you…”

“You invaded my dreams!”

“I know it’s a breach of trust but we needed to talk…”

“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” shouted Rona.

 

She awoke to see everyone on the bus staring at her. It was morning. She’d been riding on that bus for the entire night.

Although the bus had driven her across town and back before finally dropping her off near her home, Rona relished the extra rest. It had been the best sleep she had gotten in weeks. She picked up the morning paper before making her way up to her condo. She turned the key and opened the door slowly, half-expecting Angelica to pop out from behind it. But the place was as empty as ever. Rona couldn’t subdue a little disappointment as she stepped in and closed the door. She took a shower, changed clothes, and ordered some blueberry pancakes delivered from the bakery down the street. They turned out to be just the right amount of delicious. She sat down on the couch and read the newspaper.

The economy was still in the tubes, the troops hadn’t come home yet, and there had been another environmental disaster. She turned the page and saw that her little barroom skirmish, the night before, had made the paper. There were no real details and no one apprehended. Yawn. She turned the page again and saw the image of a mother draped over the casket of her teenage daughter whom had been killed in a car accident. Rona winced from the pain on the mother’s face. No one should have to die so young. Then again, everyone died young in comparison to Rona. This world was already screwed regardless of the war between Heaven and Hell. There was nothing she could do about that, right? She threw the paper in the trash.

She popped a VHS tape of General Hospital into her VCR before lying down on the couch. Usually the exploits of Luke and Laura were enough to ease her mind but she found herself unable to pay attention. All she could think about was how much she missed Heaven. Her time on Earth was littered with bad memories; memories that would often hijack her mind and heart without warning. Wouldn’t it be nice to go home and leave all of this pain behind? She pushed those thoughts from her mind. She had a million reasons why she couldn’t do this mission.

Though, at the moment she couldn’t think of any.

She heard a noise and sat upright. “Angelica,” she said, trying to hide her excitement. “Angelica?” No one was there; she was still alone. She sighed. Maybe Angelica couldn’t appear inside of her apartment without being invited. Rona was a little fuzzy on some of the laws of the Aegis, but it was a possibility that that was one of them. So she went for a walk. She sat in the park until the sun went down, before returning home. She placed some B.B. King on the record player. The thrill is gone, he crooned from the speakers. She flopped down on the couch. I guess Angelica isn’t coming back, she thought. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so harsh to her.

The thrill is gone away from me.

Although, I’ll still live on.

But so lonely I’ll be.

“I feel like I just orbed into 1985.”

Rona smiled. “You’ve been in my apartment for two seconds and you’re already judging?”

“Just making an observation. I do love this song, though.” She swayed with the rhythm as she moved through the apartment. “He doesn’t play it much Up There. Don’t you have any amenities?”

“Sure. I’ve got running water, indoor plumbing, a stove, heating. You have any idea how much easier refrigerators have made my life? I even have a color television. That’s all of the amenities I need,” said Rona, sitting up to look at Angelica.

Angelica was seated in a chair at the counter inspecting Rona’s toaster. “You do know that there are later models of telly being produced now. And DVD players.

“What do you know about any of this stuff?” Rona laughed.

“Well, I like to stay current on all of the human’s little inventions and gadgets. I find it simply fascinating that they’ve shown such ingenuity. Ooo an answering machine; I haven’t seen one of these in ages! How long have you lived here, anyway?” She ran her fingers along the textures of one of the paintings on the wall.

“Not sure. What year was the Watergate scandal?”

“How do you pay for all of this?”

“Someone’s nosey.”

“I don’t mean to pry,” said Angelica.

“It’s okay. I’ve got some accounts and assets in different places. You don’t stick around for over 900 years without learning a few tricks of the trade.”

“Bravo,” said Angelica with a delighted smile.

“You hungry?” asked Rona as she made her way to the kitchen.

“No, I’m okay.”

“Oh, I forgot, you don’t eat,” said Rona, as she rummaged through the refrigerator.

“This jacket is smothering me,” said Angelica. She removed her white jacket to reveal two beautiful white wings. She gave them a good stretch before relaxing them and sitting down on the couch. Rona hopped up onto the counter with a half-eaten bag of marshmallows.

“So,” said Angelica. “Have you considered–?”

“Nope.”

“An—Rona, why not?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“That isn’t the real reason.”

“Yes, it is.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“I most certainly am,” said Rona through a mouthful of marshmallows. “I’ve been waiting a long time for the Powers-That-Be in Empyria to ask me to do something for them, just so I could say ‘no’. I’ve wanted to stick it to you guys for quite some time.”

“You wouldn’t just be sticking it to us, you’d be ‘sticking it’ to everyone and everything in existence.”

“You guys can have your war—my money is on you guys—and then you can come and find me when all of this is over. You don’t need me, you’ll do fine.” Rona paused and thought for a moment. “Just do me a favor and let me know when things get heavy so I can pack a go-bag.”

“You can’t run from this.”

“I can and I will,” said Rona, tipping the bag of Marshmallows so that they flowed into her mouth.

“We won’t win without your help.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“No, we can’t!”

The force of Angelica’s voice jolted Rona. She stared at her friend, swallowing her food without chewing. The apologetic expression on Angelica’s face was sincere enough to melt away Rona’s momentary resentment.

“You can lie to me, Rona, but not to yourself.” While Angelica’s expression had softened, her tone had not. “I understand that you’re hurt, and angry, and you feel alone, but you’re not a nihilist. I refuse to believe that you would allow the destruction of so much just to spite Heaven. I refuse to believe that. What is the real reason, Angerona?”

Rona let out a sigh and hung her head. “I can’t do it, Angelica. I don’t trust myself to be able to do it,” She took a deep breath. “I can’t handle that kind of responsibility. I can’t take on another Charge. You remember what happened last time I was a guardian. What if something like that were to happen again? What if I fail? I can’t live with that. Not again. Find someone else. Someone better.”

“Oh, Rona,” said Angelica. “I would not have come to you if I didn’t think you were the right person—the best person for the job. I need you to see that. Your past experiences, be they your victories, or your defeats, have molded you into the person you are today. You have to let go of the past in order to embrace the future.”

“Take me back with you,” said Rona, coming over resting her head on Angelica’s lap. “I would be more help to you guys on the battlefield in the Celestial Realm.”

“I can’t,” said Angelica with a frown. “You’re needed here. This is the most important job in the world. Quite literally. I need you to say ‘yes’. Then you can stick it to Heaven once your mission is complete and you’re back in Empyria.”

Rona laughed. “Oh, Angelica, you know I’m gonna’ do it. I’m just not ready to give the official word yet. I just need some time, I guess.”

“Very well,” said Angelica rising from the couch, her body passing through Rona’s.

“Wait, wait,” said Rona, “Don’t leave now. I mean, could I get you some tea or something?”

“Rona, there are other matters…”

“Stay. Just for a little while. Please.”

Angelica sat back down. “Some tea would be delightful.”

They spent the next couple of days together, just catching up. There was no talk of war or the mission.

It was the happiest Rona had been in a very long time.

 

The girl fled in terror. Fear had given her speed she hadn’t known she possessed as she sprinted down the alley, almost slipping on the rain-soaked concrete. The rain made it even more difficult to see in the moonless night. She didn’t know where she was or what direction she was going. She tried to call for help, but the all-out sprint had sapped almost all of her available breath. The streets were almost empty as she came upon a homeless man sweeping the street with a broom.

“Help! You have to help me!” she pleaded. The silver-haired, dark-skinned man looked at her in surprise, but didn’t respond. “You gotta’ help me. Please.” The man continued to stare at her without saying anything. The girl peered over her shoulder. She could hear them coming.

She tried to lose them by running around as many corners as she could without going in circles, but they were right there on her heels. She reached for her cell phone and dialed “911” but the phone slipped from her hand. She thought about kneeling down to pick it up, but the danger looming not far behind caused her to change her mind. Instead she screamed: “Help! They’re going to kill me! Please, somebody help!” as loudly as she could before continuing to run.

Her legs grew weary, her breathing difficult to control. Her heart threatened to leap from her chest. But she couldn’t stop running. They’d catch her! They were too fast. They were too strong. Their faces…their eyes…they weren’t human! The girl knew they would hurt her. She climbed into a nearby dumpster and pulled the top shut, trying to control her breathing—trying to silence her heartbeat. She couldn’t see them but she could hear them moving around outside. She covered her mouth to hide her whimpering. And she prayed as tears streaked from her eyes. She prayed.

Then something ripped the lid from the dumpster and she found herself staring into those eyes.

 

Pitroth liked to make an entrance. His loyal followers had gathered inside of the building, chanting and awaiting arrival. He fed off of their energy, the chorus of their voices invigorated him. He would make them wait a little while longer. He pulled the hood over his head, completely concealing his face, while he contemplated the perfect way to appear before them. Should he appear from flames, or merely from smoke? Should he darken the room and then appear from the shadows? He could always make his voice appear first, booming from all directions, causing his crowd of Infernal to search frantically for him before he appeared before them. Bombastic displays of power further enthralled them to him, further intoxicated them. It made them thirsty for power and he became their reservoir.

But these were just parlor tricks, not real power. He hadn’t shown them his true power yet. But soon he would show them. Soon they would all see the heights to which he could rise…that was it! It was time to be seen.

“Infernal!” Pitroth’s disembodied voice echoed from every wall in the hall, causing silence from the gathered followers. From smoke, he appeared amongst them. They stepped aside, making way for his entrance. “Infernal!” he boomed again. They inclined their heads towards him and began to chant in low voices. Pitroth began to levitate above them. His followers couldn’t help but look up at him, as they fell to shocked silence. Pitroth floated slowly across the hall, and up onto the balcony as his followers watched. He landed and peered down at them. Each of them was clad in black hoods and that concealed their faces, but he could feel their gaze on him. It didn’t matter what he said or did from this point, he had them; their attention, their admiration was his.

“Infernal,” said Pitroth, “We have acquired the final sacrifice.” The crowd began to chant. “And tonight, one of you has earned the right to become a full-fledged member of the Infernal. Peter, step forward.” One of the hooded figures began to move to the front of the crowd. The others parted to allow him through. All the while they chanted at a low rumble. The hooded man kneeled. “Your faith has proven worthy. Do you accept him as your lord, your savior, your master?”

“Yes!” said Peter.

Pitroth smiled beneath his hood. One of the Infernal brought him his staff. He aimed the end at Peter and let forth a blast of energy. The beam hit Peter and he fell to the ground convulsing. The blast hadn’t hurt him, in fact, it had done nothing at all. Peter was repeating the movements that he had seen other Infernal do during the ceremony a dozen times before. Peter had been an Infernal for some time now; since the day he had first partaken. This was just a formality, but a necessary one. There was power in ritual.

A crowd of Infernal gathered Peter up and lifted him high into the air. The crowd departed, carrying Peter above them as he lay still. From the corner of his eye, Pitroth saw a figure clad in a red hood staring at him. Unimpressed. Judging. As always. “Now it is time for you to do your part,” he told the Red Hood. Wordlessly, the Red Hood departed.

Pitroth could feel his power growing.

There was nothing that could stop him now.

 

Rona found Elimu sitting under a big tree. He had been fiddling with something, but had stopped when he’d seen Rona. He hid the item behind his back.

“What was that?” asked Rona, with a mischievous smile. She lunged at Elimu who dodged behind the tree just in time.

“It’s supposed to be a surprise,” he said, peeking out at her from behind the tree.

“I hate surprises,” said Rona, placing her hands on her hips.

Elimu laughed melodiously. “What is life without a few surprises?”

“Give it to me.”

“Ah-ah, close your eyes.”

Rona did. Elimu came up and placed something smooth in the palm of her hand. She opened her eyes and saw an onyx stone almost the size of her palm sitting in her hand. In the middle of the stone was a perfectly rendered carving of an elephant.

“Do you like it?” asked Elimu.

“Oh, I love it!” said Rona leaping into Elimu’s arms, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck, and kissing him on the lips. “Where did you get it?”

Elimu pointed to the sky. “The stone came from up there. Like you. I carved the elephant myself. You remind me of the elephant.”

“Have I put on weight, my Love?” asked Rona, turning her head to look at her back side.

Elimu laughed.

The sound was the closest to Heaven Rona could ever hope to get again.

He kept laughing until she joined in. She hit him in the chest with what she thought was a light tap.

“Ow! You see, that is why. You are so strong. The lion may be the king of beasts, but it is the elephant who is the queen. She leads and protects her tribe. As mighty as the lion is, he does not dare attack the elephant. She is the most powerful of all of the animals. And you, like her, are powerful.”

Rona smiled. She kissed Elimu as passionately as she could, but she could sense that he was deep in thought. “What is it?”

“The elephant never forgets,” he said. “And I want you to always remember me.”

Rona released her embrace. She stared into Elimu’s dark brown eyes. She held up the stone. “I will never ever lose this.”

Elimu laughed. He smiled at her the way that only he could. “Someday I want you to throw it away.”

“What? No. Never.”

“Someday, when you are ready I want you to toss it as far away from you as you can. One who will live as long as you will amass many stones. And you will not be able to carry them all. Some, you will need to throw away.”

“I want to keep it because you gave it to me.”

“Remembering me, this moment, is all that matters. Not the stone itself. One day I will be in your past. Tossing the stone away will not mean forgetting the past, only no longer carrying the weight of it. Instead, carry me here.” He pointed to her heart. “But do not toss it away today, because I worked very very hard on it.”

Rona roared with laughter.

“But someday. When you are ready.”

Rona wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.

 

The sudden appearance of Angelica behind her interrupted Rona’s day dream. She slipped her lucky stone back into her pocket where she always carried it.

“Say I agree to this mission thing or whatever, are you sure you can get me back into Heaven?” asked Rona, turning around to face Angelica. Angelica drew an “X” over her heart and raised her right hand in oath. “Protect the kid, that’s all? No super-hero stuff?”

“Keep the child safe. That is all,” said Angelica, her face lighting up in anticipation—literally.

“Okay. I’m in.”

“Yippee! Welcome back, Guardian Angel.”

 

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Chapter Four: The Mission of A Guardian

“I know I don‘t have to tell you what you’re up against.” said Angelica. She sat on the bed watching Rona rummage through her closet. “These demons are relentless and uncaring; and likely impervious to most mortal weapons. They’re ruthless killers with vast resources and power on Earth. They won’t be pleased with you standing in their way so take care out there and watch your back.”

Rona pulled a rubber duck from the closet, squeaked it twice and then tossed it behind her, into the heap of junk she had created by her bed. “No problem.”

“Rona, I’m serious, I mean if anything happened to you, I’d–”

“What happened to this kids real Guardian Angel?” interrupted Rona. “Let me guess, she disappeared too.”

Angelica nodded gravely.

Rona rolled her eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“We scoured Empyria and all of Heaven in search of her. Not a trace found. As if she had never existed,” said Angelica distantly. “You’ll be the kid’s only Guardian.”

Rona punched her hand with an old boxing glove until a cloud of dust formed, then tossed the glove onto the junk pile behind her. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t the laws set down by the Aegis prevent any of this?”

“Satan knows the Aegis as well as anyone. It doesn’t seem possible that they could be breaking them. Perhaps they’ve found a loophole,” said Angelica.

“Hmmm,” said Rona, trying on an oversized gardening hat with a flower on the brim. “So how is this guardian thing going to work, anyway?”

“Well I’ve arranged for you to meet with The Mechanic, whom will help you from here,” said Angelica. “But the basic gist of it is that you will be enrolled in the child’s school as a foreign-exchange student.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Rona “What’s a foreign-exchange student?”

“Well, uh, that’s when a student from one country goes to live with a family in another country and goes to school there. It’s a good way for kids to learn each other’s culture and thus gain tolerance and understanding. You know how humans are,” explained Angelica.

“Do I have to go to another country?” asked Rona, as she turned to look at Angelica with a pair of oversized sunglasses on.

Angelica chuckled. “Nope. You just have to say that you’re from another country.” said Angelica, slyly.

“Angelica” said Rona in disbelief. “Are you asking me to lie?”

“No, not exactly. I’m asking you to act; to play a part. Perform! To be the star of your own personal play,” elucidated Angelica.

“Oh,” said Rona sarcastically. “You mean lie.”

“I mean use the truth to your advantage. You are from out of town…look Rona, I’m not sure how straight we’re going to be able to play this one, that’s why I need you to improvise. It’s important that you stay incognito. Our mission is a secret one.”

“Riiiiiggghhht. So where is this ‘character’ I’m playing, supposed to be from?”

“The Mechanic will fill you in on the details and provide you with all necessary paperwork,” said Angelica.

“Who is The Mechanic?”

“A friend, who helps me out from time to time.”

“You’re being a little shady, these days, Angelica.”

“I’m sorry. This is a super-secret mission and there’s only so much information I can provide. I can’t even tell you the child’s name.”

What?” said Rona.

“It’s not me!” cried Angelica. “The laws of Aegis govern how much I’m aloud to affect things here on Earth. Including how much information I can give.”

“Yeah, yeah. Those pesky laws that the demons keep breaking, but we’re forced to obey. At least I know it’s a ‘He’ that I’m looking for. Since that is what you keep saying,” said Rona giving her friend a sly smile.

“I might have let that slip.” Angelica winked.

“So how do I find this kid?”

“He’ll be the first kid you run into,”

“Whatever,” said Rona in exasperation.

“What are you looking for in that closet?”

“Something to wear.”

“Well, it just so happens that I might be able to help with that,” said Angelica, cracking her knuckles audibly, and then raising her hands as if preparing to cast a spell. “I’m aloud to provide you with one thing to help you on your mission.”

“Really? Okay, lay it on me,” said Rona, standing up straight with her arms outstretched, her palms facing Angelica. She didn’t feel anything as Angelica used her powers, but she knew when it had been completed. She looked at her reflection in the mirror on her closet door, and recoiled in horror.

She was clad head to toe in a tight, leather bodysuit. It was a sleek shade of black that seemed to reflect the light from the bulbs in the ceiling. The top portion of the outfit was low-cut to point of being almost non-existent. Her bellybutton was exposed and her back was covered only by two intersecting straps. She had a whip on her hip and two eight-inch heels on each foot. The tightness of the outfit made turning around to glare at Angelica all the more difficult.

“What?” said Angelica, shrugging.

“What do you mean ‘what’? Look at me!” said Rona, pulling the straps on her top to give her breasts support.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with it? Where do I begin?” said Rona “What if I’m fighting a demon and my heel breaks? Or better yet, what if I’m gaining the upper-hand on a demon and one of my boobs pops out?”

“I think you look ravishing!” said Angelica. “It’s hip. It’s modern. Not to mention sexy. It’s all the rage among super-powered gals.”

“You clearly don’t know what it’s like to really have a woman’s body. I want to whoop some demon a—butt,” she held up the whip. “but this isn’t what I had in mind. I’m not going for ‘ravishing,’ I’m going for practical.”

“Okay, so what do you suggest?” asked Angelica.

Rona told her.

Angelica turned her face away as if bracing for impact as she worked her magic once again.

The outfit changed in an instant. Rona checked herself out in the mirror. A blue denim jacket with a gray hood now covered her shoulders. Underneath she wore a sleeveless blouse, red on the top with an arch at the midriff, where the color changed to black. Tight, yet unrestricting, formfitting pants attired her lower body. Her hands were clad in black gloves that turned fingerless halfway up the fingers. On her feet were black, high-top sneakers. She moved and bended to get a feel for the new outfit.

“I don’t like it,” said Angelica in disgust. “It’s…it’s…”

“Perfect,” said Rona.

“If you say so. You’re the one that has to be seen in it. The material is blessed so it should provide you some protection against mystical forces.”

She gave Rona a solid punch in the breast.

“Ow! What the hell is wrong with you?” said Rona. She attempted to return the blow, but Angelica’s image flickered and Rona’s hand passed harmlessly through Angelica’s body. Angelica stuck out her tongue and blew Rona a raspberry.

“I was just demonstrating the protective capabilities. Physical attacks and mortal weapons can still get through, but their impact will be somewhat lessened. It will also repair itself if damaged. And, it won’t fade in the washing machine. Just be sure to follow the instructions on the tag.”

“Huh?”

“I’m just kidding; you won’t have to wash it. It’s self-cleaning.”

“Angelica, did you just make a joke?”

“I did.” Angelica smiled. “You’ll have to remove the uniform for its cleaning and repairing properties to initiate. And it could take a bit of time until it’s combat ready again, depending on the damage. Anything else you’ll be needing?”

“How about a weapon?”

“I’m a Messenger. I can’t do weapons. Only protections.”

“I guess I’m good, then.  First chance I get, I’m grabbing the kid and we’re skipping town,” said Rona.

“Afraid not. We’re not exactly sure why these demons want this boy, but it’s probably because of the person he’ll become in the future. We are afraid that taking him out of his element may prevent him from ever fulfilling whatever destiny he has been given. Lucifer will have won by default. You see, if we change anything about his life, his family, his friends, his environment, he may never become the person he is predestined to become,” said Angelica.

“Great,” said Rona, sarcastically. “What am I supposed to tell this kid? I mean, won‘t my presence there effect his destiny?”

“That’s another thing. We are also afraid that any Celestial interference may also deter him from his path. That is why he must not know of the danger he’s in or of your true origin. You have to stay out of his world as much as possible. No one else must know either for they may become targets of Satan’s wrath or indirectly affect the boy’s destiny. The less anyone knows, the better,” explained Angelica.

“So let me get this straight.” said Rona, running her hand through her hair in frustration. “You want me to protect this kid without telling him who I am or what danger he’s in; to somehow keep an eye on him 24/7 without ever being seen as suspicious or just plain weird.”

“In a nutshell.”

“You know, I’m starting to remember why I didn’t want to do this. Can I call in some help on this?

“Like who?”

“Know any Knights of Templar, perchance? They guard the Blood Gage, they could help me guard this kid. I hear they’ve got a ton of resources.”

“I’m afraid not. You’re going to be mostly on your own out there. I wish I could do more. And I’ll answer your every request within my power.”

“What if I’m killed in action? Do I still get into Heaven?” asked Rona.

“That would be tricky,” said Angelica sympathetically. “The mission is to protect the boy. It isn’t over until there is no more threat.”

“Great,” said Rona. “No health insurance. No retirement plan. Do I at least get dental?”

“Rona, time is not a luxury we are afforded. You’d best be off soon.”

“One more thing,” said Rona.

Angelica perked up with curiosity.

“I have a few rules of my own before I fully agree to this. If you deny any one of them than I say ‘screw it’ and go back to watching my stories. One: I do this my way. I will try to follow your instructions as best I can, but I’ll be making the command decisions from the ground. I need you to trust me and back me, okay?”

“Granted,” said Angelica.

“Two: You keep me informed on what is going on. Give me any information you can, even if it doesn’t seem pertinent. If you know it, I want to know it. And I’m expecting you to be there when I call you.”

“I will do my best,” said Angelica.

“And lastly: If I decide to walk away from this at any time—for any reason—I get to do so. No consequences. No questions asked. And you don’t bother me with this again.”

Angelica swallowed then nodded wordlessly.

“I guess that will be all, then,” said Rona.

The two of them walked outside, Rona carrying a duffle bag over her shoulder and dragging a suitcase. She had changed back into jeans and a t-shirt. The day was hot and muggy, but Angelica still wore here white jacket.

“I’d best be off,” said Rona.

Angelica stared at her, a little misty-eyed.

“Don’t you dare,” said Rona.

“I’m not. I’m not. I just wanted to say. I’m proud of you. And thank you,” said Angelica “I love you, Angerona.”

“I love you too, Angelica. Well, time to go be a teenager.”

“Are you sure you know how?”

“Yeah. I was an avid watcher of 90210.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Take care.”

“You too.”

Rona hailed a cab and was off.

 

Rona entered the warehouse and saw cars in different states of damage and repair throughout the building. Some were up on lifts, others seemed to be just piled one on top of the other. Rock music blared from a radio on the counter. The smell of fuel and oil reeked, and made Rona’s nose hurt. She searched the area for signs of life until she saw a pair of legs sticking out from under a Volvo. The torso of the person was completely under the car and apparently working vigorously. Rona walked up to the pair of legs and leaned down.

“Excuse me.”

The legs didn’t seem to hear her so she said it a little louder.

“Huh, oh, if you have delivery please put it on counter,” said the voice from under the car.

“No, um, I think I’m here for pick up, actually. My name is Rona.”

The pair of legs stopped working and slid from under the car.

“Do you need a hand, sir?” asked Rona, placing her duffel bag on the ground and offering her hand to the mechanic. When the head came from under the car, Rona saw that it was a woman. She took Rona’s hand, pulling herself to her feet. Rona’s hand practically disappeared in the woman’s. The hands were rough like gravel and oil-stained. She was well over six-feet-tall, and her long, blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She had icy blue eyes that seemed to pierce Rona to the bone. When she let go of Rona’s hand, she left a greasy film on it. Rona looked for a place on her person to wipe them off.

“Sorry about that,” said the woman, in a thick Russian accent. “I’ll get you a towel. Come.”

The woman walked over to the counter, reached underneath it and pulled out a towel and a bottle of hand-sanitizer. She tossed both to Rona. Rona caught both, one in each hand.

“My name is Helga, by the way,” said the woman as she lit up a cigarette.

“I’m Rona.”

“Rona, Rona…I know that name. Oh yes, you’re the angel-girl that’s going off to save that kid from demons, right,” said Helga.

“Um, are you the Mechanic?” asked Rona, unable to hide the puzzlement on her face.

“Did you not just see me working on a car?” said Helga indignantly.

“Touché,” said Rona. She had thought that the Mechanic might be a codename or something, not a literal mechanic. She couldn’t think of anything she needed less than an actual mechanic.

“You’re Angie’s friend, right?”

“Angie?”

“Yeah, Angelica’s angel friend?”

Rona nodded.

“Hold tight, I got some stuff for you in the back,” said Helga before disappearing into the back room.

Rona waited at the counter pondering what exactly she was waiting for when a man emerged from an office room down the hall. He was as tall as Helga, but had darker hair. He was a portly fellow, with a dirty white t-shirt and a soda bottle in his hand. He walked up to the counter.

“Can I help you?” he asked with a thick southern drawl. He spit brown liquid into the soda bottle.

Rona couldn’t hide her disgust. “I think she’s helping me.” She pointed to the back room where Helga had disappeared.

“Who is? Helga?” said the man. He turned to the back room and yelled to Helga. “Helga, who is this?” he said, pointing to Rona.

Angie’s friend,” said Helga from the back room.

Rona turned away and stared at the exit. Who the hell were these people and how did Angelica know them? On second thought, she decided she didn’t want to know.

“My name’s Chuck,” said the man, putting out his hand for Rona to shake.

“Rona.” Rona shook his hand without turning to look at him. His hands weren’t as rough as Helga’s.

“So you’re that Angel-broad, huh?”

“I be she, and she be me.”

“I see you’ve met my wife, Helga. She’s really a sweet woman once you get to know her.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Helga emerged from the back room, cigarette firmly in place in her mouth and carrying a box in her hands.

“Go through this with her,” she said before walking around to the other side of the counter. She grabbed Rona’s duffle bag and suitcase.

“Hey, um–” protested Rona.

“Calm yourself,” said Helga as she took the luggage and placed it on a conveyor belt. She flipped a switch and the conveyor belt moved the bags through a large, whirring machine.

Chuck took out some of the contents of the box and placed them on the counter.

“Here’s your student I.D.” said Chuck, handing Rona a small card. “Your new name is ‘Rona Klevapravatdubrongs.’ And you are from the Island of Djaotongosenia.”

“Where? I’ve never heard of that place,” said Rona.

“That’s because it’s a tiny island with only like 500 people on it. We didn’t want to risk you running into someone from the same country and blowing your cover,” said Chuck.

“Great. So now I’m supposed to be from someplace that I know nothing about and have a name I can’t even pronounce.”

“Ain’t nobody else heard of neither. I can guarantee ya’ that. So that pretty much gives you free reign to make up whatever you want about it,” said Chuck with a laugh.

“More lying. Should be fun,” said Rona. “Where am I going?”

“Denver, Colorado,” said Chuck, pronouncing “Colorado” as “Colerada.”

“Colorado? Isn’t it cold there?” said Rona.

“Colder’n day-old cat shit.”

“Colorado is nice. 300 days of sunshine, and the winters are not so bad,” said Helga as she scanned Rona’s bags.

“What the hell do you know about sunshine? You’re from freakin’ Siberia!” said Chuck.

“I’m from Belarus,” said Helga. She cursed at Chuck in Russian.

“I don’t understand half of what she says in English,” said Chuck.

“Oh red alert! Red alert!” said Helga as she removed Rona’s Elnign Dagger from her duffle bag. “You cannot take this on the airplane.”

“I can’t?” said Rona.

“Of course not!” said Chuck. “It’s a weapon. You’re not a Muslim are you?”

“Oh Chuck, leave the poor girl alone. She doesn’t have time for your nonsense,” said Helga.

“I’m just joking with her. Relax,” said Chuck.

“Don’t joke with her. She’s not interested in you,” said Helga.

“Helga, I’m not—will you shut the hell up!” said Chuck.

Helga ignored him. “No liquids can go on airplane either. If you have any toothpaste, hair spray or lady-toys you might want to put them in the checked bag.”

“Great,” said Rona. “Well what can I bring on the plane? How am I going to get my dagger?”

“We’ll mail it you. Don’t worry, we have our ways,” said Helga, handing the dagger to Chuck, who disappeared in the back room with it. Helga waited until Chuck was out of earshot before saying “He’s really a good man, once you get to know him.”

Rona nodded vigorously. She was going to have a serious conversation with Angelica about who she was associating with these days.

“Okay we just have to run you through the computer. This could take a minute. It is old computer,” said Helga.

“Can’t we speed it up just a little. I have a world to save,” said Rona.

“Everyone is saving the world these days. Hey Chuck, we got someone out here who’s saving the world.”

“Another one?” said Chuck from the back room.

“You see? Every day we have people coming in who are saving the world. Your world-saving is not any more important than anyone else’s world-saving.”

Chuck came back from the back room.

“Here’s your passport,” he said, handing Rona the document.

“Where did you get this picture?” asked Rona.

“We have our ways,” said Chuck.

The computer finished whirring and beeping.

“Okay, there. You’re processed,” said Chuck “Now for the documents, services, shipping and handling, plus expenses and equipment, that is going to run you…”

Rona’s jaw dropped when he gave her the figure.

“You’re charging me?” asked Rona in shocked disbelief.

“Yeah. Business don’t run on smiles and hugs,” said Chuck.

“Oh Chuck, we’ll let her slide just this once,” said Helga.

“No Helga. You can take your Commie-ass back to the Soviet Union with that mess! ” said Chuck.

“Oh, come on. She’s Angie’s friend,” said Helga wrapping one of her arms around Chuck’s waist and using the other one to walk gently up his chest. She pouted before kissing him gently on the side of the mouth.

“Oh, okay. Just this once, hear?” said Chuck.

Rona bowed graciously.

“Thank you so much for all you’ve done,” said Rona. “Which one of you guys is flying the plane?”

 

Coach. They were making her fly coach. I guess Heaven is on a budget, she had thought as she’d bought some overpriced food. Either that or this mission wasn’t quite as important as Angelica had said. She pushed thoughts like that from her mind. A flight is a flight. She had once crossed the United States on a horse and it had taken considerably longer and been far less comfortable than any flight. Though, flying had become a colossal pain since she’d last done it. Security was more invasive and everything took longer. She had to wait in a long line just to board, and when she got to the front, she was told that she couldn’t bring the food on the airplane and was forced to throw the whole meal away. Next time, she was taking the bus.

Rona made her way down the crowded aisle, almost tripping over a small child, and getting elbowed in the face by man putting his luggage in the top compartment. She finally found her seat by the window and sat down. Immediately following, a very large and slovenly man sat down next to her. A putrid smell invaded Rona’s nostrils. The man’s smell was so horrible that Rona noticeably wretched. She turned her head away, pressing her nose against the glass as if trying to push it through the glass. It didn’t work. The smell followed her nose. It was so gripping that it made her eyes water. She buried her head in her jacket.

“How’s it going?” asked the man.

Rona gave him the thumbs up but didn’t remove her face from her jacket. The man’s breath found her anyway. A mix of rotten fish and wet dog. It lingered in the air. She was going to have to hold her breath for this entire flight—or until she passed out, didn’t matter which. The engines on the airplane were firing up and she could hear the last few passengers finding their seats. This was going to be a miserable flight, she thought as her breath was beginning to build up, threatening to escape at any moment.

Then she heard a familiar voice.

“Excuse me, my good man,” said Ward, “Would you mind trading seats with me?”

“Why should I do that?” said the stinky man.

“Well it turns out that this is my wife,” said Ward.

Rona wretched.

“You see, we had to buy separate tickets so we ended up getting split up. But we were hoping that a kind gentlemen like yourself wouldn’t mind switching out with one of us so that we could sit together. We really really want to sit together. Isn’t that right sweetum’?”

Rona nodded vigorously.

“We just can’t stand to be apart from each other, right babe?”

Rona nodded.

“Every moment I’m away from her, her body yearns to have me near. She craves my warm manly, embrace; touching every inch of her body at all times, right honey?”

Rona glared at Ward.

“Anyway, what do you say, mate?”

“I don’t know. I’m all comfy here,” said the stinky man.

“Oh, did I mention that my seat is in first class?”

 

“Bit of stinky fella, wasn’t he?” said Ward as he buckled his seatbelt. Rona eyed Ward, a slow smile forming on her lips. Ward smiled back. “I gave up a first class seat to sit with you, if that ain’t friendship, I don’t know what is,” said Ward with a schoolboy smile. Rona’s smile grew a little wider. “I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘thank you.’ But take your time. What? Did I pour it on too thick with the ‘yearning’ comment?”

Rona smiled wide enough that her teeth began to show. She leaned in close enough for Ward to feel her breath on his neck. He turned his head to face her, smiling from ear to ear. Rona gently touched his face, she moved her fingertips down his neck and chest. Then she grabbed his crouch. Hard. Ward yelped. The woman in the seat across the aisle looked over at them. Rona motioned with her head for the woman to turn back around. She did.

“We’ve got a problem, Ward. That problem is that we’re actually not friends. So that makes me wonder what the hell you’re doing on this flight? Could all just be one big ‘ol coincidence, except that I know it isn’t. You see, a first class ticket suggests to me that you bought your flight last minute and that was all they had left. That leaves one possibility. That you’re following me. And I don’t like being followed. It puts me in a bad mood. Now, I’m going to let go, and you’re going to tell me what you’re doing here. And, I hope I like your answer, I really do. If not…” She shook her head, gave one last hard squeeze then let go of Ward.

He lurched forward in pain and stayed that way for several minutes. “Why do women always have to go for the stones?”

“It’s like grabbing a man by the brain,” said Rona. “Now, talk. Start at the beginning. Why were those men after you in the bar?”

“Well, I’d first like to say that strong-arm tactics don’t work on oracles. We are people of many talents, but the one that we are best at, is not getting ourselves killed. That makes it pretty difficult to follow through on threats against us.”

“Well, you’d be good and dead had I not interfered back at that bar.”

“That’s true. But you did interfere.”

Rona opened her mouth to retort, then closed it again. Crap, she thought, he was right. He had never lost control of that situation. Instead, he had used her. Oracles were crafty like that. She had underestimated Ward but she wouldn’t make that mistake again. She watched him closely. What was his game, now? Did he know about her mission?

Her expression must have betrayed her because Ward immediately gave her a disarming smile. “Look, I know we don’t know each other that well, but I’ve always liked you. I’m honestly not trying to trick you. I’m one of the good guys, really.” He paused as if to gauge her reaction before continuing, “Besides, I owe you my life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. And I’m not following you, but I knew you’d be here so I made it a point to talk to you before we took off.”

“Why?”

“To warn you.”

“About?”

“Where you’re going isn’t safe.”

Rona sat patiently and waited. She studied Ward’s carefully; trying to read his body language, his facial expression, anything that might speak true if his words were speaking false. She noted that he was better dressed than she’d ever seen him in the past, and clean shaven too. That could be nothing, or it could be everything.

Ward continued. “Shit is about to hit the fan and you’re about to walk right into it.”

“The shit or the fan?”

“Both, respectively. So watch your step.”

“Thanks for the advice.” She leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes. “Wake me up when we get to Denver.” The engine roared and Rona’s momentary peace was rocked as the plane took off turbulently.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of flying, Love,” said Ward.

“If I were meant to fly I’d have wings,” said Rona, sitting up in her chair. “I take it you’re going to Denver to escape from your three buddies from the bar. Why were they after you, anyway?”

“I took something that didn’t belong to me,” said Ward. “But it didn’t belong to them either.”

“What did you take?”

“A drink?”

“You took a drink?”

“No, would you like a drink?” Ward pointed to the stewardess that was moving up the aisle with a drink cart. He ordered two small bottles of whisky. He offered one to Rona, but she refused. “You are one tragically sober individual.” He downed his drink in one gulp.

“Maybe you just have a drinking problem.”

“Well, judge not lest ye be…a judgmental something-or-other, I forgot the rest.” He downed the drink he had offered Rona in one gulp, then belched.

“You were saying. About what you took.”

“Oh, I wasn’t saying, and I’m not about to start now. Besides, it wouldn’t matter to you anyway.”

Something about the look he gave her suggested otherwise. She didn’t know if he had done it consciously—she didn’t think he had—but the last statement he had made hadn’t been entirely true. She studied his body language more carefully as she asked her next question. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m taking it someplace safe.”

Another untruth. Rona didn’t know what it was, something in the tone of voice that was different from the way he normally spoke; more measured, more careful.      “Well, leave me out of your little schemes this time.”

“Deal,” said Ward, with a grin.

This last lie made it a trifecta. He was up to something and it was giving her an uneasy feeling. She didn’t like the idea that he was following her to Denver. Somehow, this feeling was intensified by the way he’d gone out of his way to make his presence known. What was he hiding? As much as she distrusted Ward, she didn’t feel threatened by him. That could mean he was no threat or that made him all the more dangerous.

“I don’t trust you, Ward.”

“Good. Your enemies will hide in plain sight, but your allies will be the people that you trust the least.”

Rona didn’t know what to make of that. She pulled her hood over her head and leaned against the window. If Ward interfered with her mission she would deal with him accordingly. For now, she would have to file him away under “unknown.” She had accepted that she was embarking on this mission with more questions than answers, and now it was time to turn her attention to the mission at hand. She closed her eyes and tried to envision the types of dangers she’d be facing and how to prepare. She thought of all of the things she would need to prepare herself. She tried to figure out just how she was going to find this kid. She wondered what he would be like. In fact, she was eager to meet him.

Anyone that Heaven and Hell were both vying for must be nothing short of extraordinary.

 

You can download my book for free on Smashwords and barnesandnoble.com or purchase it on Amazon. Or you can read it for free, right here on this site!

Chapter Five: Virgil

Virgil pulled gently on the joint, and inhaled the resultant smoke. The joint was starting to burn his hand and he had the fleeting thought that maybe if he didn’t smoke so much, he could remember where he put his roach clip. He sat on the roof of the house, legs crossed, watching the sun peak out from behind the clouds. It was beginning to drizzle. Maybe there was a storm coming, he wasn’t sure. From where he sat he could see the outline of the mountains out west. It was one of the many reasons he liked coming up here. He loved gazing at the Rockies. The other reason was to keep the smell of weed out of his room. His mother still poked in there from time to time. He only hoped that the neighbors didn’t see him. Their house was close enough, but there was a large tree between the two houses that provided some cover. It was still a couple of hours before he had to get ready for school, but after the dream he’d had there was no way he was going back to sleep.

He could still feel the hands around his throat, squeezing.

It felt so real.

He had a couple of hours to kill, which he could do by straightening up his room some. Perhaps he could start with the pile of laundry on his floor that was beginning to resemble the Rocky Mountains. Or he could just go online for a couple of hours. The internet won out. He logged into his FaceSpace account. A big picture of him and his family popped up when his profile loaded. His mother sat with his little sister on her lap. His sister, Celeste, had been just a couple years old when the picture was taken. Her hair was auburn and her smile was full of baby teeth. His mother had the look of someone who had practiced smiling to the point that she’d gotten it down. Her long brown hair draped over her shoulders, framing Celeste’s face. His father never smiled. He was wearing his dress-blue Air force uniform. His blue eyes looking hard at the camera and his balding head, reflecting the flash. But Virgil stood out the most in the photo. He didn’t share his family’s Caucasian features. His hair was jet black. His eyes possessed the Epicanthic folds that marked his East Asian lineage. He’d been adopted as a baby. He didn’t know anything about his true parents. Nor did he care. As far as he was concerned, the people in this picture were his real family.

He clicked on his homepage. He had no new messages. Although a couple of people had “liked” his last post about how he thought Coach Yval was actually the spawn of Satan. He clicked on one of his friends’ profile. A girl named Vanessa Alvarez. She had curly black hair and a naturally tan complexion. Her eyes were light brown, matching the light brown freckles on her nose. As far as Virgil was concerned, Vanessa was the most beautiful girl on the planet. And today he planned to win her back.

He had lost track of time while watching some Parkour videos when suddenly there was a knock at the door.

“What?” said Virgil.

“Are you up?” asked a prepubescent voice on the other side of the door.

“Yeah.”

“You know you have to take me to school today,” said Celeste, swinging Virgil’s door open.

“I know,” said Virgil, annoyed. “Get out.”

“It stinks in here,” she said as she closed the door.

Virgil took a quick shower and found some semi-clean clothes to wear. He put his contacts in and straightened up his hair a bit. The black roots were starting to show beneath the brown but he liked the look, feeling it added something. Celeste was already seated on the couch dressed and ready when Virgil got downstairs.

“We’re gonna’ be late,” she said.

“No we’re not, calm down,” said Virgil, as he rummaged through the fridge. “What are you taking for lunch?”

“Can you make me a sandwich?”

“I’ll give you the supplies and you can make your own sandwich,” said Virgil as he gathered some ham, cheese and bread from the refrigerator.

“I don’t want to make my own sandwich. You’re supposed to do it.”

“Oh, come on, CC, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put a sandwich together.”

“Then why don’t you do it?”

Virgil hesitated for a second. Then he stuck his tongue out at Celeste and made a face. She stuck hers out at him and made a face of her own.

 

Virgil locked the door and took Celeste by the hand. The two walked down the porch steps together and out onto the side walk. Virgil waived at the neighbor, Mr. Armstrong, who was getting the mail.

“Virgil,” said Celeste.

“Sup?”

“Don’t get in trouble at school today,” said Celeste.

Virgil laughed. “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

“I’m serious. I heard Mom and Dad talking last night. They were talking about military school. I think if you get in trouble again, they’re going to want to send you. I don’t want them to send you away.”

“They’re not,” said Virgil as the two arrived at the elementary school building.

“So you promise you won’t get in trouble today?” asked Celeste.

“I promise,” said Virgil.

With that, Celeste hugged him then raced up the stairs and into the building.

Virgil took the bus over to Park Hill, hoping to catch Erk before he left for school. He wasn’t answering Virgil’s texts but more than likely was still at the house. Virgil couldn’t help but laugh at the scene unfolding in front of him as he arrived. Erk was outside in the street as his grandmother hurled articles of clothing at him. She was screaming at him and punctuating every sentence with a projectile.

“You no good…” she said as she launched a sneaker at her grandson to finish the sentence. Erk caught the sneaker in midair and placed in on his foot, while dodging the second sneaker in the process. Erk could be pretty agile when he wanted to be, thought Virgil.

“Hey Grandma Jones,” said Virgil.

“Oh hey, baby,” said Grandma Jones. “Do you mind keeping my idiot grandson out of trouble today?”

“I’m on it,” said Virgil. Grandma Jones hurled a backpack at Erk, which he caught. She closed the door as Virgil walked up to Erk and the two clapped five.

“You’ve got some Parkour moves there, bro!” said Virgil. “Have you been practicing?”

“I have,” said Erk. He was a little bit taller than Virgil, but his Afro gave him another couple of inches. His skin was the color of mahogany and he possessed a long slender frame. “I was watching some sick Parkour videos last night. Have you been practicing?”

“Nah, man I haven’t been doing much of anything lately. I’ve barely even been going to Ninjitsu,” said Virgil.

“Yeah, you are looking a little chubby,” said Erk with a laugh.

“Screw you! So what’s Grandma Jones mad about?” asked Virgil with a laugh.

“I broke curfew last night, when I was hanging out with Alice,” said Erk. “She wouldn’t let me leave, bro.”

“What do you mean ‘let you’?”

“She kept saying that we were, you know…gonna’ do stuff. I ended up just taking her to the movies and then out to dinner. Did you know that McDonalds doesn’t have a dollar menu anymore? Now I’m flat broke.”

“Why do you put up with her?”

“Dude, have you seen her?”

“Yeah, she is hot, I’ll give you that.”

“Does my ‘fro look good, dude?” asked Erk, adjusting his hair with his hands. “She didn’t give me time to look in the mirror; just started throwing me out.”

“You don’t look any uglier than usual. How much trouble you in?” asked Virgil.

“Eh, she’ll get over it. She just keeps saying that she’s too young to be a great grandmother. She took my phone. I’ll be grounded for a few days but I’ll probably be good by this weekend,” said Erk confidently. “Got weed?”

“Nah, I smoked my last one this morning, after I woke up,” said Virgil.

“Oh Wake and Bake!”

“Bro, I’m waking and baking, I’m baking before breakfast, I’m baking after breakfast. I’m baking for lunch, I’m smoking after lunch. I’m smoking before dinner, then again before bed. I’m out of control, man. I don’t know what’s up with me,” said Virgil, shaking his head.

“You’re stressed out,” said Erk.

“I think you’re right. I had the dream again. The one about Miss Tilley,” said Virgil.

“Which one? The one where she’s in that red dress or the one where she tries to kill you?”

“The one where she strangles me in front of the whole class, while wearing a red dress,” said Virgil. “It felt so real, man. The look in her eyes…it was inhuman.”

“Oh,” said Erk. “How did she look in that red dress?”

“Hot as hell. It was offset by the fact that she was in the process of killing me. But, yeah she looked great,” said Virgil.

“Hahaha. I’m just playing. Look, Miss Tilley isn’t trying to kill you. She’s just a substitute anyway, so it’s not even like you see her that often.”

The two friends waited at the bus stop for the RTD bus.  They passed the time by attempting to run, and jump off the bus stop bench, and cling to the cover overhead. Neither could quite get it down. Erk almost fell face first on the sidewalk, while Virgil landed painfully on his back on one attempt. They kept trying until the bus arrived. Shortly after they boarded they made their way to the less crowded space towards the back.

“I hope Ali has some weed. I have a test today and I need to be thoroughly high before I take it,” said Erk.

“I’m not going to class today,” said Virgil.

“So, what else is new?” said Erk.

“I’m getting Vanessa back today.”

“What? How?” asked Erk, the alarm audible in his voice.

“I’ll tell you later, when there aren’t so many ears around,” said Virgil, motioning to the seats across from them that contained to other Les Freakly students.

“I think you should let that one go,” said Erk.

“Why?” asked Virgil.

“Brace yourself, man. I was on FaceSpace last night and I saw that Vanessa had ‘liked’ one of Darren’s pictures; the one where he has his shirt off. I don’t know, bro, people have been seeing them together a lot. She changed her relationship status on FaceSpace from ‘single’ to ‘it’s complicated’.”

“ ‘It’s complicated’ because she still has feelings for me. The only reason we broke up in the first place is because I was getting in trouble and stuff, but I’m not doing those things anymore. I don’t tag stuff anymore. And I haven’t talked to Lee or the gang in months. She was just worried that I was heading down the wrong path, but I’m good now,” said Virgil.

“Yeah, I’m glad you’re not chillin’ with that cat, Lee, anymore. He’s trouble.”

“He’s cool, he just has a rough life. He’s still my boy, but if I have to leave him alone for a while in order to get Vanessa back, I will. Whatever it takes.”

“When is the last time you talked to her?”

“I don’t know. She’s been ignoring my text messages.”

“That’s usually what people do when they don’t want to talk to someone,” said Erk. “You guys had a good run, man. You’ll always be her first kiss. It’s just different now. Move on, brother.”

Virgil shook his head. “I can’t. What we have is special. If I give up, it’ll be like losing the most important person in my life. Her father has been really sick and I’m sure she’s just confused right now,” said Virgil. “I’m going to win her back. You’ll see.”

 

 

Ali was waiting for them in the alley between the gym and the main building. He was sitting on the steps with his head down when they walked up.

“Yo yo! Got weed?” said Erk.

Ali didn’t turn to face them. He just held out a freshly lit joint in their direction. Virgil went to grab it, but Erk got to it first, taking a puff and blowing smoke in Virgil’s direction.

“Thanks, man,” said Erk. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Don-Juan-Hammers-chubby-cheeks-Master-Splinter died this morning,” said Ali.

Virgil turned to Erk and mouthed the words: “who,” Erk whispered: “His hamster.”

“He was only a couple of years old, man,” said Ali, accepting the joint being passed in his direction.

“I’m sorry to hear that, man,” said Virgil. “What happened? Cancer? Diabetes? Suicide?”

“I don’t know. One minute he was fine, then he just died. He was laying inside his cage, not moving. Then I picked him up. He looked at me as if to say: ‘You got the Juice now,’ then he kicked his leg one last time, and he was gone. He died in my arms, man!” said Ali, reenacting the drama that had unfolded, by holding up his brown hands and simulating staring at his dead companion with his dark brown eyes.

“He died in your arms?” said Erk, holding back a laugh.

“Well, not in my arms, cause he was just a little-ass hamster, but he died in my hands!”

“You’ve seen one too many movies, Ali,” said Virgil, he and Erk exchanging grins.

“You don’t understand, V-man. That got me thinking. Death, man. It’s coming for all of us. And you never know when it’s going to show up. All you know is, you can’t stop it,” said Ali sagely.

“Amen,” said Erk.

“You better get right with God,” said Ali.

“I thought you were Muslim,” said Virgil.

“I am. I’m talking to you. You better get right with your God,” said Ali.

“I don’t have a god,” said Virgil.

“You don’t believe in God?” asked Ali in surprise.

“Nope. He’s a straight up atheist,” said Erk, shaking his head at Virgil.

“So? What’s wrong with that?” said Virgil taking a long drag of the joint, then hiding it from view as a couple of students walked by.

“It’s just weird. Who do you think created the Earth and the stars?” asked Ali.

“I don’t know. Steven Spielberg.”

“Touché,” said Ali. “But who created Steven Spielberg?”

“George Lucas,” said Virgil.

“He’s kind of got a point there,” said Erk.

“Look,” said Virgil. “You guys could mock me for not being able to prove that there is no god, but you can’t prove to me that there is one. Watch.” Virgil looked up at the sky and raised his hands. “If there is a god, say something. Send me a sign.” He waited a few seconds and then turned around. “See?”

    Illust #2 copy

“Wait! Wait!” said Erk. He began convulsing and making gurgling noises. “Virgil!” he said, in a mystical tone. “Viiirrrrrggillll! You are going to helllllllll!”

“Shut up!” said Virgil, as he hit Erk lightly in the stomach.

The three of them laughed.

“So, what’s this plan you’ve got to get back Vanessa?” asked Erk.

Virgil told them.

“Do. Not. Do that,” said Erk. Ali was almost on the ground laughing.

“What? It’ll be hilarious!” said Virgil. “You just don’t get it, but she will. We used to watch Samurai movies together all of the time. She loves this kind of stuff.”

“I’ve got to start taking Ninjitsu!” said Ali.

“I think it’s funny. Ali thinks it’s funny. But we’re both high,” said Erk. “You shouldn’t do things that you come up with while you’re high.”

“I didn’t come up with it just now. I came up with it last night,” said Virgil.

“Were you high last night when you came up with it?” asked Erk.

“I don’t remember.”

“That’s what I’m trying to say!” said Erk.

“Don’t listen to him, Virgil,” said Ali, placing his hands on Virgil’s shoulders. “If you love her, then go and get her. Because life is short. One minute you could be running along on your little hamster wheel, eating pellets and drinking water through a big metal straw. Then the next minute, you’re dying in somebodies’ arms, scarring that person for life. Go for your dreams, son.”

“I’m going to do it,” said Virgil.

Ali cheered.

Erk sighed.

“Hey, are you getting really good at Ninjitsu?” asked Ali.

“I’m getting pretty good with throwing stars. I’ll show you after school.”

“Awesome.

“Hey!” cried a voice in the distance.

A janitor all but ran towards them, but they all scattered before he could catch up with them.

 

When lunch period came up it was time to make his move. He made his approach in a confident stride, gently sidestepping other cafeteria students and round lunch tables as he moved. As he neared her table, Vanessa spotted him. She smiled weakly as he made it to her table. Vanessa’s friends, one by one, began noticing Virgil too. All talking amongst the friends ceased at his arrival.

“Vanessa, can I talk to you for a second?” said Virgil.

“I’m eating,” said Vanessa, turning her eyes away.

“This won’t take long,” said Virgil.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” said Jocelyn, one of Vanessa’s friends.

“Jocelyn,” said Vanessa, holding her hand in a halting position. “What, Virgil?”

“I just wanted to say,” said Virgil, kneeling down on one knee.

Vanessa’s eyes grew wide with horror.

“If you do not want me, then I humbly offer my life. I will commit Seppuku for you!” He drew a pair of chopsticks from his pocket and held it out with both hands, the pointy end pointed towards his abdomen. “I have draped, thy blue flag over this dagger and am prepared to use it at your beckoning, to end my life,” said Virgil, he drew a butter knife from his belt and held it like a katana blade. The motion drew a startled reaction from Vanessa’s friends. “When this ritual is complete, you must sever my head from my body with mine own blade.” He placed the butter knife on the table next to Vanessa. He pointed the makeshift dagger at himself once again and held it at the ready. “Just say the word, Shogun!”

What the hell is wrong with you?” said Vanessa, standing up sharply from her chair in anger. Virgil sat in silence, one knee on the ground and a pair of chopsticks with silk wrapped around them pointed at his stomach.

He suddenly felt silly.

“You’re not going to kill yourself!” said Vanessa. This got the attention of other students and the lunch monitors.

“Vanessa,” said Virgil, rising to his feet. “It was only a joke.”

A joke? You don’t joke about killing yourself! That isn’t funny!” said Vanessa. A lunch monitor came over and stood between Virgil and Vanessa. Vanessa’s friends also rose from their seats and gently restrained her.

“Vanessa, I was just…remember the movie Hara-kiri? We watched it together…I was just trying…” Virgil began, but the look in Vanessa’s eyes silenced him. This was the exact opposite of the reaction he was hoping for. Other students around the cafeteria started snickering and mumbling. Virgil gazed around the cafeteria and saw all eyes were on him. Some people looked amused, others confused. He suddenly felt very alone in this crowd of people. “I’m sorry.” He reached out, but one of the lunch monitors grabbed his wrist.

“Go to the principal’s office, now!” she said.

 

“I’m sorry to call you in from work, Mrs. McFeeney,” said Principal Goodman. His tone gave away nothing. Virgil couldn’t tell if he was on his side or not.

Pam McFeeney, Virgil’s mother sat in silence, next to him, across the desk from the Principal. She wore business casual attire, an off-black skirt and a white button down blouse, her brown hair in a tight bun. She crossed her legs and folded her arms across her chest. Virgil sat in silence also, his head hanging low as he fidgeted in his lap.

“It’s just,” continued the Principal. “That this is a very serious offence. Your son caused quite a disturbance in the cafeteria this afternoon.”

Pam pursed her lips together tightly and nodded.

“It is policy that when a student threatens to harm himself or someone else, that we search the student’s locker. Upon a search of Virgil’s locker, we found these…” Mr. Goodman reached into one of his desk drawers and pulled out a Ziploc bag with three ninja throwing stars in it, and placed in on his desk.

Pam stared down at Virgil, but he didn’t dare look back. He was all too familiar with his mother’s ability to incinerate him with a look.

“These, alone,” said the principal. “Are grounds for expulsion.”

“Now hold on a second–” began Pam in a panic.

“I’m not saying I’m going to. It’s just that because of our Zero tolerance policy, I could. However, because I don’t believe Virgil means to hurt any of his classmates, and since only me and one of the janitors know about this, I’m willing to make it go away.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Pam.

“However, it is on the condition that Virgil see the district psychiatrist,” said principal Goodman.

Pam stiffened up. “My son does not need a psychiatrist.”

“Mrs. McFeeney, your son threatened to commit suicide in the cafeteria.”

“Oh, come on! My son was not going to kill himself with a pair of chopsticks and a butter knife. He is not crazy. He’s just an idiot,” said Pam. She turned to Virgil to add emphasis. “A big, giant idiot.”

“Ma’am no one is suggesting that Virgil is crazy. But he’s been cutting class, he brings weapons to school and he threatens his own life. Jokingly or not, this is something that we have to take seriously. And looking at the facts, there does appear to be some issues that need to be resolved. This is hardly Virgil’s first time in my office.”

“And I agree with you. Virgil’s father and I will take care of our idiot son when we get home. He doesn’t need a psychiatrist.”

“But, Mrs. McFeeney, the problem could be something that is going on at home.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” said Pam, leaning backwards as if she’d been physically struck.

“I am not calling your parenting into question. Please don’t take it that way. All I’m saying is that a psychiatrist would be beneficial for him. He might tell a professional things that he wouldn’t tell you. We’re lucky enough to have one of the best psychiatrists in the state working in our district. We just want her to talk to Virgil, that’s all.”

“No that’s not ‘all’,” said Pam. “I know what these ‘professionals’ do. They want to take my son, and they wanna’—they wanna’ tell him he’s broken and that only they can fix him. That all of these natural feelings and emotions that he has are some form of sickness. They want to diagnose him with ADD and ADHD, and LMNOP, and whatever other acronyms they string together on their Scrabble boards.

“Then you wanna’ dope him up on every kind of drug on the market until he barely knows who he is anymore. Then you want to give him some more pills to correct the effects of the last pills, and then again and again; until he’s so strung out that he needs a cocktail of pills just to get through the day. Then you want to send me the bill! Well, I’m not going to let you turn my son into a junkie. I’m not going to let you diagnose him with something that is going to follow him around for the rest of his life!”

“Well, he’s not going back to class until he’s looked at by a professional,” said the principal.

Pam said nothing.

“I can schedule an appointment with the premiere child psychiatrist in the area. She works at several schools in Denver and Arapahoe counties. She’s very good. And you’re welcome to sit in on the meeting if you’d like. I probably won’t be able to get him in to see her until next Monday. Unfortunately, I’ll have to suspend him until then.”

“You’re going to suspend him for the whole week?” asked Pam in horror.

“Yes, but so that he doesn’t miss too many days of school, I’ll allow him to attend night school for the week.”

“That’s great but what am I supposed to do with him during the day? I can’t miss any more work, and I don’t want him sitting around unsupervised,” said Pam, glaring at Virgil. “If my son had any judgment whatsoever, then I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

“There’s this new program we’re implementing. It’s a sort of a community service program. The students are driven from place to place where they perform community service projects during the day. It is supervised by a member of our faculty. He’ll have to be here at the school at 9:00 sharp, and a van will pick him and the other students up. This teaches public service, teamwork, and discipline. Also, it’s worth one credit towards graduation. But there is a limit, Virgil, just in case you’re thinking of graduating on credits earned by getting in trouble. He can start tomorrow.”

“Great,” said Pam. “He’ll be there. Who’s supervising it?”

“One of our substitute teachers. Her name is Miss Tilley.”

 

You can download my book for free on Smashwords and barnesandnoble.com or purchase it on Amazon. Or you can read it for free, right here on this site!

Chapter Six: Troubled

It was a silent walk to the van for Virgil. His mother barely even looked at him as the two walked out of the building and down to the parking lot. Virgil felt nauseous. When they were a couple of feet from the van, she stopped, turned around and glared at him. She placed her hands on hips and shook her head. At five-foot-ten, his mother towered over him, even in her flats. She struck an imposing figure that Virgil didn’t dare challenge. He hung his head, refusing to look. His mother sat down in the driver seat but waited a few extra seconds before unlocking Virgil’s door. He got in silently. The van screeched out of the parking lot.

“Mom, I’m so so–”

“Shhhhh!” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear your voice right now.”

Virgil sat tight, gazing out the window. He couldn’t have felt worse. He’d made a fool out of himself in front of the whole school. He had broken his promise to his sister about not getting in trouble. He’d been suspended from school. And worst of all, he had pissed off his mom. The woman that loved him the most, now wanted to choke him. She thought that he was an idiot. And the girl that he loved, thought that he was a suicidal nutcase. The weight of it all kind of made him wish he had used a real dagger.

He glanced over at his mother and saw tears forming in her eyes. She wiped them away before they could fall. “How could you?” she finally said. “I mean, how could you bring weapons to school? You know better. And not going to class?”

“Mom, I brought those to school on accident. I forgot they were in there. I wasn’t planning on using them on anybody or anything,” said Virgil.

“That isn’t the point! The point is, you could’ve been expelled today! Luckily Mr. Goodman is such a nice man. He didn’t have to give you a second chance. I have to get back to work. I’m going to drop you off at the house and you’re going to write Mr. Goodman a thank you letter, thanking him for not expelling you.”

“Yes Mom. And Mom, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean for all of this to happen. It all started as just a joke. It wasn’t supposed be…” Virgil buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

“I know, sweetie. I know,” said Pam, reaching over and caressing Virgil’s hair with affection. “And you’re not an idiot. I’m sorry I said that. I was just mad. But you do have to start using better judgment, okay? I like Vanessa, and I wouldn’t mind seeing you two get back together, but if she doesn’t want to, then you have to let her go. If she doesn’t want you, it’s because she doesn’t deserve you.”

Virgil straightened back up and wiped his eyes.

“I’ll do whatever the school wants me to do. The community service, the night school, the whole nine. Just please don’t send me to military school.”

“Military school?”

“I heard you and Dad talking about military school last night.”

“That was for your cousin, Chad. He’s thinking about going. We’re not going to send you away, Virgil. No matter how much you want to get away from us.” She smiled at him.

He smiled back.

 

Virgil finished the extra chores that his mother had given him as quickly as he could. He relaxed in his freshly cleaned room and decided to browse the internet for a while. He had no new messages and he’d watched all of the new Parkour videos that morning. Out of sheer boredom he clicked on a local news story. The screen went black for a split second before an advertisement popped up. Virgil almost walked away, hoping to grab a pop before the actual video loaded, but the image of a scantily clad woman appeared on the computer screen, luring him back to his seat. The woman crawled toward the camera on all-fours, a rose gripped firmly between her teeth. The scene flashed to another woman dancing on a pole. She climbed up the pole, then flipped upside down, holding herself in place and spreading her bare legs wide. She made a kissing face at the camera. A voice came through the speakers:

“Come down to the hottest club in the Denver area: INTRiGUE. There’s dancing, drink specials and girls. Lots and lots of girls. Come on down to INTRiGUE, located on E Colfax, in Aurora. Must be eighteen to enter, twenty-one to drink. INTRiGUE.”

   A couple of images of people dancing followed and the commercial concluded with a beautiful woman planting a firm kiss on the camera and leaving a perfect, lip-shaped lipstick stain on it.

That was the first time in Virgil’s life that he ever wished a commercial had been longer.

The news story followed.

   “Hi Jim, I am around the corner from Sheridan Blvd in West Denver where it appears police have found the cellphone of Nicole Harris. As you know, if you’ve been following the story, she is the teenage girl who disappeared a couple of nights ago. Police have just discovered the cellphone that she used to call 911 on that fateful night.”

The screen flashed to a subtitled image of the 911 conversation.

Operator: “911, what’s your emerg–”

    Harris: “Help! They’re going to kill me! Please, somebody help!”

The sound of the girl screaming sent a chill down Virgil’s spine.

The screen flashed back to the reporter on the scene.

“Police are examining the call as we speak. They are also scouring the area for clues that might help them with the search. There is a $10,000 reward being offered for anyone who can give information that can lead to the discovery of this young woman. For live updates log onto www–”

Virgil closed the video when he heard the doorbell ring.

 

“What the hell, man?” said Erk, walking through the front door and shutting it behind him.

“I know, I know. This is the part where you say ‘I told you so,’ right?” said Virgil as the two made their way up the stairs to Virgil’s room.

“I was going to, but you just stole that glorious moment from me,” said Erk. “Wow it’s pristine in here.”

“Yeah, part of my punishment is to do some housework,” said Virgil, as he sat down in the office chair next to the desk. Erk sat down on the bed. He told Erk the whole story of what happened in the cafeteria and the resultant consequences.

“Wow, that’s crazy,” said Erk, shaking his head. “The good news is, I talked to Vanessa and I think I was able to smooth things out with her. I let her know it was a joke and that she shouldn’t get too worked up over it. But, V-man, I really think you should just let it go. Give her some space.”

“You’re probably right,” said Virgil.

Erk let out a mock gasp. “Are you…agreeing with me?”

“I don’t think I could face her anyway. She can do better.”

“Aww, come on, bro, don’t talk like that. You’re the man. There’s other girls out there and you’ll find one sooner than you think.”

“You wanna’ here something psychotic? Sometimes I imagine that the school is burning down and Vanessa is trapped in one of the classrooms by herself. I run up the stairs, brave the flames and rescue her. Then she gives me one of those ‘my hero’ kisses, ya’ know?” said Virgil, his eyes drifting up to the ceiling.. “I wish I was some kind of hero. People would look at me different. Vanessa, my mom and dad. It would give Celeste a reason to look up to me.”

“She has a reason: you’re her big brother.”

“I know. I just wish I was something special, sometimes. Something more.”

Erk launched a pillow at Virgil’s head. Virgil deflected it, but before he knew it, Erk was on him, hitting him with another pillow.

“Quit being a douche!” yelled Erk, as he pelted Virgil with the pillow over and over.

“I’m pouring my heart out to you, butthole!”

“Well—stop! You’re fine, bro. You don’t need to change yourself for some girl,” said Erk.

Virgil gave his friend a pound then changed the subject. “So how’d your test go, anyway?”

“I’m pretty sure I bombed it. I kept wanting to write: ‘Steve Spielberg,’ as an answer for everything. Problem was: it was a math test,” said Erk.

Virgil laughed. “Yeah right, you don’t fail tests.”

Erk shrugged as he walked over to the window and gazed out of it. “You’ve got a good view here. I bet you could almost see inside one of these girl’s windows.”

“You’re a creep,” said Virgil.

“Oh please. As if you don’t own a pair of binoculars,” said Erk.

Virgil smiled. He opened the drawer next to the bed, pulled out a small pair of binoculars, and tossed them to Erk, who caught them expertly.

“You heard that Brittany and Ashley are getting a foreign exchange student?” said Erk as he peered through the binoculars.

“I couldn’t care less. That has nothing to do with me,” said Virgil.

“Maybe she’ll be hot. Maybe she’ll be the one to make you forget all about Vanessa. Maybe you’ll be able to see into her room from here,” said Erk with a laugh.

Virgil laughed.

 

Virgil ate dinner in his room. He checked his FaceSpace profile. Vanessa was logged in. Everything in Virgil wanted to send her a message and apologize, but he fought back the desire and instead looked at other posts. He was about to log out when Vanessa messaged him.

“Hi,” she said.

Virgil didn’t want to answer back too eagerly, so he waited a few minutes. When he felt enough time had passed, he messaged her back. “Hey.”

“I’m sorry for freaking out at lunch. I know you were only joking,” Vanessa messaged a few minutes after she received Virgil’s message.

“Yeah, I’m sorry it wasn’t funny, lol. I didn’t mean to scare you,” wrote Virgil.

“I know. It was just the thought of you doing something to yourself that I couldn’t deal with,” said Vanessa.

“I miss you. You haven’t been answering my texts or calls,” said Virgil.

“I miss you too. I’m sorry, I’ve just been really busy,” said Vanessa after what seemed like a long time. Before Virgil could begin typing a response, she added “But I think we should take a break from each other.”

Virgil’s heart sank. “What do you mean? You don’t want to talk to me anymore? You’re like my best friend and the most important person in my life.”

Eternity came and went before Vanessa responded.

“I don’t mean forever. I just want to take a break. I need some time and some space. You’re heading down a bad path, Virgil. You’re cutting class. You’re high every time I see you. I worry about you. I don’t mean to hurt you, but I think we’re on two different trajectories. I’m sorry. I care about you but you need to get yourself together. Please don’t message back. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad. Just give me time, okay? Thank you. Good night. Sorry. Take care.”

And with that, she signed off.

Virgil slammed his laptop shut.

 

“Virgil Mcfeeney, wake up!” said Miss Tilley. “You think you’re special?”

Virgil opened his eyes and glanced around the classroom. The clock said it was after school hours. He must have been in detention. There were some familiar faces there, and others that he didn’t recognize. Miss Tilley was leaning against her desk at the front of the room. She was wearing a sultry red dress that fit tightly to her a-bit-too-slender body. Her short black hair was styled perfectly. She gazed at Virgil with sensual green eyes.

“What are you going to do if I don’t?” said Virgil, defiantly. “Give me detention?”

“Pay attention, Virgil! She’s just trying to help,” said Erk. He was seated adjacent to Virgil. There was an intense look on his friend’s face. Miss Tilley made her way over to where Virgil was seated. Her hips moved side to side like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Her movements were so erotic that Virgil couldn’t look away even if he’d wanted to. He placed his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. Miss Tilley placed her hands down on his desk and leaned her face so close to his that their noses nearly touched. Virgil’s eyes wandered involuntarily to her cleavage.

“Oh, Virgil, what am I going to do with you?” asked Miss Tilley, her voice sweet and alluring.

“I could think of a few things,” said Virgil, his eyes still staring down the top of her dress.

Miss Tilley snatched Virgil from his desk by his throat. Virgil made a futile effort to pry her hands away as his eyes met hers. Only they were no longer the beautiful green they once were. They’d become inhuman. The pupils had shrunk almost to the point of nonexistence, and they glowed. The room became darker. All of the students in the room fixed glowing eyes on Virgil. They bared their teeth hungrily. Even Erk. Virgil felt like a cornered deer surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. Fear shot through him. Miss Tilley smiled wider and her eyes became even more intense. She squeezed Virgil’s throat tighter. Virgil couldn’t muster the breath to call for help. The pain and fear was overtaking him.

“The eyes are upon you!” said Miss Tilley in a deep and hollow voice. A voice that could come from no human. “Young man!”

Virgil awoke in a cold sweat.

 

Virgil didn’t go back to sleep after the dream. This was the third day in a row that he’d been unable to get a full night’s sleep. The fatigue was beginning to wear on him.

Also, he was out of weed.

He could tell this was the beginning of what was going to be a long day. At least he didn’t have to walk Celeste to school today since his mother didn’t trust him, even with that. He took a shower and slipped into some clean clothes. He walked downstairs to an empty house. He poured himself a bowl of cereal and ate casually as he waited to begin his community service duties. A key turned in the front door, and in walked Brian McFeeney. He was fully clad in military garb, and toted with him a small duffel bag.

“Hey Dad, you forget something?” asked Virgil, between mouthfuls of cereal.

“No,” said his dad, placing his bag down and pulling up a chair across from Virgil. “Actually I wanted to have a quick word with you. Your mother and I are a little bit worried about you. You’re not really contemplating…”

“No! It was a joke, Dad,” said Virgil.

“Oh, okay, just making sure. You know I’m here for you if there’s anything you ever need to talk about. But I need you to keep your nose clean. Stay out of trouble. I don’t want you to end up getting into a mess that no one can help you out of. I just don’t want anything bad to happen to you, is all.” He paused. “Have you ever thought about military school, son?”

Virgil’s jaw dropped in horror. “Mom said that you guys weren’t going to send me away.”

“We’re not going to send you if you don’t want to go. I’m just asking if it’s something that you would consider. You know, to get away from it all. Plus the discipline and skills that they would teach you there would go a long way. I did it and so did my brothers and sister. Your cousin Chad is doing it. It can be very beneficial,” said Brian.

Virgil sat in silence.

“Just something to think about,” said his dad. He walked over, gave Virgil a hug around the neck, kissed the top of his son’s head, then left.

 

Virgil took the bus to school and waited for the van to take him to community service. It wasn’t long before a blue minivan pulled up and Miss Tilley stuck her head out of the passenger window.

“Hey Virgil, you ready to get started,” she said, her voice as sweet and mellow as ever. Virgil was a little bit apprehensive, given the dreams he’d had about her recently. However, the kind-faced sunglasses-clad woman in the van barely resembled the woman from his dream. Her hair was more disheveled and she was wearing a Metallica T-shirt. Virgil climbed into the van and found a seat by himself in the middle.

“Hey McFeeney!” shouted a familiar voice from a couple of seats behind. Virgil didn’t turn to acknowledge the source of the voice. “Hey McFeeney, I heard about your little reenactment of The Last Samurai in the cafeteria, yesterday.”

Virgil gave him the finger. “Shut up, Mowry.

“Oh, my love! If thou doust not want me, then I shall taketh mine own life,” said Andy Mowry in a mock thespian voice. He plunged an invisible dagger through his heart and pretended to fall forward onto the shoulder of Julio, who was seated next to him.

“Oh, how romantic!” said Julio, the tall, lanky brown-skinned kid next to Andy. The two of them laughed heartily.

“Why don’t you shut your mouth,” said Virgil, his blood beginning to boil.

“You do know that Darrin is tapping that, right?” said Andy, with a smile that exposed his chipped front tooth.

“I’m pretty sure I could hit that too,” said Julio.

Andy laughed. “I would like to have it added to the record, that my buddy Julio can also hit that if he chooses.” The two began making loud, obscene sucking and moaning noises.

“Cut it out, you guys,” said Miss Tilley.

“What are you going to do? Give me detention?” said Andy.

Virgil’s blood went cold for a moment. Just a dream, he thought.

Their first assignment was downtown picking up trash on the side of the Sixteenth Street Mall. It was an outside mall with only pedestrian traffic, or the occasional bus or trash vehicle passing through. The group had spread out in order to do their garbage collection. The weather wasn’t bad and Virgil found himself daydreaming. In his fantasy he was again rescuing Vanessa, this time from an evil kidnapper that looked a lot like Andy Mowry. Virgil was awoken from his thoughts by a female voice.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi,” said Virgil.

“That guy, Andy is a bit of a tool, huh?” she said.

“You have no idea,” said Virgil.

“What’s his deal, anyway?”

“You ever have, like, a nemesis?” said Virgil, as he choked an invisible Andy. The girl laughed. “Well, he’s mine. The worst part is, our dads work together, so they think we’re best of friends.”

“Wow, that’s rough. I’m Heather, by the way.”

“Virgil.”

Their next stop was at a construction site of the mostly-finished new building rising into the Denver skyline. It had already overtaken the World Trade Center as the tallest building in the city despite the fact that it was a couple of months away from completion. Besides the fact that a few cranes still stood around the site and the entrance was still fenced off with a “Do not enter” sign, the building looked mostly finished.

“Okay, everybody fan out. Be careful. Don’t touch any of the construction materials. Stick to the outside, and don’t go onto the construction site,” said Miss Tilley.

Virgil gazed around at all of the dangerous equipment surrounding the site. So this was how Miss Tilley was planning on killing him? By making it look like an accident. Most of the construction workers didn’t seem to notice the students, and those that did regarded them as a nuisance. But there was one worker that just stared at Virgil. Really stared. The look on his face was blank. The look in his eyes was eerie. It creeped Virgil out so much that he looked away. He chanced a glance back to see if the worker was still staring.

He was.

“Hey Pete, you wanna’ give us a hand?” said another worker. The staring worker slowly turned around and walked away.

“I’m not going anywhere near that site,” said Virgil sternly.

“Why not? It looks so safe for a couple of kids. What could possibly go wrong?” said Heather sarcastically.

“I wish I’d smoked up before I came out here today. I’d settle for a cigarette,” said Virgil. Heather reached into her pocket and pulled out a pack.

“Got two left,” she said.

They snuck away and lit up.

“Ah,” said Virgil, blowing smoke from his nostrils. “You rock.”

“I know,” said Heather. “So, what ya’ in for?”

“A failed Seppuku attempt. I tried to a convince my ex-girlfriend to either get back with me or allow me the honorable death of impaling myself with chopsticks while she severed my head with a butter knife,” said Virgil, dryly before taking another puff of his cigarette.

Heather nearly fell out laughing.

“Needless to say, she refused,” said Virgil.

“That’s hilarious! She didn’t laugh?” asked Heather.

“Nope. I got sent to the principal’s office.”

“Well I think it’s hilarious. I would so have definitely taken you back,” said Heather with a smile.

Virgil smiled back as their eyes met. She was a petite girl. Slim and cute, if not remarkably so. Her brown eyes matched her brown hair. “So what are you in for?”

“I called Mrs. Brown the ‘C’ word,” said Heather. “Apparently that’s frowned upon, ‘round these parts.”

“Where you from?” asked Virgil.

“Down south. I moved here a couple months ago with my mom. This city blows.”

“That it does.”

“You’re like, the only cool person I’ve met since I moved here. You want to do something tonight?” asked Heather.

“I can’t tonight. I have to go to night school.”

“Ditch,” said Heather nonchalantly

“I can’t. I actually have to do what I’m supposed to do and be where I’m supposed to be or it’s off to military school. I really have to clean up my act so I don’t embarrass my family anymore.”

“Okay,” said Heather, a hint of disappointment in her voice. “But give me your number and we’ll do it some other time.”

Virgil was about to give Heather his number when Andy bumped into him from behind. Virgil pushed him in retaliation, but the shove barely moved the larger boy.

“You want to try again, McFeeney?” said Andy.

“Ooooohhhh, I think he’s getting mad,” said Julio, covering his mouth with his fist.

“Come on. Do something. Show me some of those ninja moves,” said Andy.

“That’s enough!” said Miss Tilley, stepping in between them.

“Yeah that’s what I thought,” said Andy.

Virgil stormed off in the direction of the van. He climbed in and sat in silence until everyone was loaded up and the van pulled off. The van dropped them off at the school and Virgil began walking home. Rain fell from the sky in little droplets, threatening that a much larger storm was eminent. Virgil was halfway up the block from the school when he heard a car horn. Miss Tilley pulled up in her electric powered car. The engine had been so silent that Virgil hadn’t heard her pull up. She beckoned him into the passenger seat.

“Crazy weather we’re having,” said Miss Tilley once they were on the road. Virgil didn’t say anything. She continued. “Climate change. Freak storms like these are happening more often. Tornadoes, typhoons, hurricanes. We have to do something.” She looked over at Virgil. “Did you know that all it would take is one lightning strike in the right place to wipe out power to downtown?”

“Nope,” said Virgil, still staring out the window.

“It’s true. One bolt of lightning can produce an electromagnetic pulse—or EMP, I know how you kids just love acronyms—that can fry wires and blow electrical equipment.”

“Cool,” said Virgil nonchalantly.

Miss Tilley dropped him off at home. “Virgil, I think you’re going to do great things someday.”

“Thanks,” said Virgil as he shut the door.

 

After dinner, he got himself together and took the bus to night school. The night crowd at the school was different. It was evident that most of them were troubled teens, older students, or teen parents. Virgil felt somewhat out of place amongst them. He didn’t belong there. He wasn’t a troubled teen, was he? Class was as boring as ever. The nighttime teachers seemed disinterested. As if they had a day job that paid the mortgage, and taught on the side just to cover the car payments. It was of little consequence to Virgil, who was just there to do his time and be done with it. Learning wasn’t the goal. But, man did going to night school make him miss day school. During the break between classes, he went down to the edge of the school campus, to what had been dubbed “the smoker’s corner” to see if he could bum a cigarette. Virgil was about to ask one of the kids for a cigarette when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey, Whiteboy!” said Lee. Virgil whirled around to see Lee standing behind him with a big smile on his face. A mix of emotions overtook Virgil. Lee was Virgil’s oldest friend. The two of them had been in the same class back in the fourth grade, despite the fact that Lee was a couple of years older. He’d been held back once when he first immigrated from Korea, then again a couple of years later. Lee was the first person Virgil had ever smoked weed with. He had given Virgil his first cigarette from a pack that he had stolen from his alcoholic father while he slept off a hangover. Everything that Virgil knew about Asian culture, he had learned from Lee. Since Virgil had been adopted by white parents, Lee had made it his mission in life to introduce Virgil to his “real” heritage. Since they didn’t know the specific nationality of Virgil’s birth parents this meant: Korean music, Japanese movies and Chinese food—hoping to cover all bases. He had given Virgil the nickname “whiteboy.” Despite the fact that Virgil did have white parents, and felt no shame of that fact, it was still a nickname that he didn’t care for—though he had never said so to Lee.

Trouble followed Lee like a carriage follows a horse. His mother had abandoned the family when he was young, and his father spent most of his days in a drunken stupor, so Lee had been tasked with raising himself. This meant small-time drug dealing and the occasional burglary. He had a rap sheet by the time he was thirteen and had done a couple of months in a juvenile detention center by the time he was fifteen. He had been the one to teach Virgil how to use spray paint to tag walls. Virgil had even gotten quite good at it. But it only took one run-in with the law for Virgil to call it quits and rethink his life. Luckily for him, the arresting officer had known his uncle Jay. Jay smoothed the situation over before Virgil’s parents could find out. Lee wasn’t so lucky. He was sent back to juvie. That was the incident that made Vanessa break up with Virgil. That was when Virgil decided that he and Lee shouldn’t be friends anymore. This was the first time he’d seen Lee since the night they got busted.

“Lee! Hey man, how are you? I thought you dropped out,” said Virgil.

“I did. But I changed my mind; decided to finish. I’m trying to stay out of trouble,” said Lee, offering Virgil a cigarette which he accepted. Lee was an inch or so shorter than Virgil. He wore a Yankees baseball cap, with the brim slightly off center. His jeans sagged just below his waist and his sneakers were of the latest style. Virgil had to admit, Lee had swag. “Did you get in big trouble that night?”

“No, Jay got me off.”

“I wish I had a cop for an uncle,” said Lee. He smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “You still with that fat girl?”

“Vanessa? She’s not fat, man, come on.”

“She’s fat, bruh.”

“No, she broke up with me.”

“Oh, thank god! You don’t need someone like that trying to change you.”

“Good to see that you’re doing good,” said Virgil, changing the subject.

“Yeah. Still broke though.”

“I know the feeling.”

“No. You don’t.”

Vigil took a puff of his cigarette.

“This trying-to-be-good thing is the worst!”

Virgil smiled.

“Are you in night school now?” asked Lee.

“Just for the week.”

“Okay. I guess I’ll be seeing you then,” said Lee.

Catching up with Lee made the next few nights go by quickly. Virgil had to admit, he had missed Lee. Despite the baggage he brought, he was a good person at heart. Virgil was sure of it. One night Lee asked Virgil to meet him down at Sixteenth Street Mall.

“Let’s take a walk,” said Lee once Virgil had arrived. The mall was bustling with activity. Pedestrians moved hastily down the sidewalk, while tourists stopped to take pictures in the street. Bicyclists dodged around sanitation workers as they sped down the street of the outdoor mall. Each store seemed to beckon Virgil in with their bright lights and sale signs.

“What’s up?” asked Virgil.

“I want to do some shopping,” said Lee.

“Well, you’re in the right place.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“Um, did you need to borrow some money, because my allowance is frozen at the moment?”

“Nah, bruh, I have a plan to score some cash but I need your help.”

Virgil stopped in his tracks, giving Lee a dubious look. “I’m in enough trouble as it is, man. I can’t be getting involved with anything illegal…”

Lee laughed. “Your uncle would just swoop in and help you out anyway. But no, it’s nothing illegal. Did you hear about the disappearances?”

“I heard about one girl that disappeared.”

“There’s been a string of them recently. The last girl must come from rich parents or something because they’re offering a $10,000 reward to anyone that provides information that leads to them finding her. They must really want her back, cause I know for a fact that if I disappeared, no one would even come looking for my ass, let alone offer money to find me,” said Lee.

“What are you saying?”

“Let’s find that chick and make ourselves some money.”

 

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Chapter Seven: The Eyes

“That’s why I need you to talk to your uncle. See if he has any leads that could help us,” said Lee.

Virgil thought for a second. “I don’t know, man. That sounds like a stretch. Besides, I don’t need the money.”

“Then give your cut to me!” said Lee. “I’ve already got some other people on board, but I would really like it if you would be a part of this with me. I’m trying to go legit here, man, but living ain’t cheap. But don’t do it for me. Do it to help the missing girl. You never know where this kidnapper creep is going to strike next. What if he comes after that chubby girl that you like, or your sister, or you? Then you’ll feel kind of stupid for not doing anything to stop him. We’ll be heroes! And if we happen to make a little bit of money for ourselves in the process, that’s cool too.”

Virgil thought about how horrible he would feel if something were to happen to Celeste. He thought about how big of a hero he would be if he solved this case. His parents would be proud. Vanessa would be proud too. She would have to take him back. She would have to talk to him again at least. He imagined the photographers snapping pictures, the reporters asking him questions, and the hero’s welcome he would get when he returned to school. That would be awesome. What could go wrong?

“Okay, I’m in,” said Virgil.

The next day Jay showed up in his police cruiser to pick Virgil up from community service.

“Thank you so much,” said Virgil as he buckled his seatbelt. “Let’s get the hell outta’ here.”

Jay laughed as they pulled off. Jay was Virgil’s mother’s younger brother. And he was Virgil’s favorite adult in the whole world. He was barely in adult for that matter. He wasn’t even twice Virgil’s age. He’d been more like a big brother to Virgil than an uncle. In fact, Virgil didn’t even call him “Uncle James” when his parents weren’t around. To Virgil, he was just “Jay”; he hated being called “Jimmie,” which is something Virgil’s mom apparently still hadn’t figured out.

Jay was a handsome man, clean-cut and fit. He stood a bit over six feet and the uniform made him look even bigger. He had short, dark hair that he didn’t bother with, aside from the haircut. He had hazel eyes like Virgil’s mother, but that was all they had in common.

“My nephew—the perp! I see they’ve got you on the chain gang out there,” said Jay with a laugh.

“I know. Bring a few throwing stars to school and you wind up doing hard time,” said Virgil.

“You brought throwing stars to school? You gotta’ be smarter than that, dude,” said Jay. “All this over a chick? You see, let me explain something to you: women come and go. You can’t trust what they say, even if they say they love you. You see, women are taught to be selfish, and they’ll pick their feelings over yours—every time.”

Jay was recently divorced, with a young son that he barely got to see.

“Besides, I told you, all of that Ninjitsu stuff is garbage. Krav Magra is where it’s at. That’s the stuff they teach Israeli special forces,” said Jay, taking a sip of coffee. Virgil didn’t know anyone who drank as much coffee as Jay.

“That’s what you keep saying. So I heard there’s a girl who went missing a few days ago,” said Virgil, deciding to dive right into it.

“Yup. There’s a few people that have gone missing,” said Jay.

“Is there a connection?”

Jay shrugged. “Hard to tell.”

“You guys don’t have any leads?”

Jay shot him a sideways look. “Why are you so curious, Bud?”

“Just curious,”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Fine. I heard there’s a $10,000 reward for any information leading to their discovery, so me and some friends were wondering if we could help out with the case.”

“Really…” said Jay. “How much do you and your friends know already?”

“Nothing really. Just that there are six kids missing. That’s why I’m asking you if you could give me any information.”

“And what exactly are you going to do with any information I give you? You and your friends are not thinking of putting yourselves in harm’s way, are you? Or doing something stupid and getting yourselves in trouble and expecting me to bail you out again?”

“Of course not.”

“Because you realize that this is a police matter, right?”

“Absolutely.”

“And if you did find out any information, you would call the police, right? And I don’t mean texting me, I mean calling the police, as in actually dialing 911, capiche?”

“Yup.”

“You’re not doing this to impress that girl, are you?” asked Jay, once again giving Virgil the sideways glance.

“No! I mean, not really. This is strictly business. And I want to keep the streets safe for others. If I can help in any way, I would like to do so. So are you going to give me some info, or what?”

“I can’t,” said Jay. Virgil threw up his arms in surprise. “What kind of adult would I be if I allowed you to do this? You kids don’t know what you’re getting into and you can’t be trusted with information like this. That’s why I keep it in this classified, police folder.” Jay pointed to a stack of folders between him and Virgil. “You see that? It says ‘classified.’ It’s evidence, for police eyes only. There’s lots of valuable information in here, but I can’t allow you to see it.”

They pulled into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant.

“You’re not going to go through the drive-thru?” asked Virgil.

“Nah, I’m just gonna’ run in and get a cup of coffee,” said Jay. He stared at Virgil intently.  “I’ll be back in ten minutes. I’ll be gone exactly ten minutes. I do not give you permission to look through these folders. And I do not want to catch you going through my personal stuff. Do I make myself clear?”

Virgil nodded and held back a smile.

Jay got out of the car. “Ten minutes,” he said before slamming the door shut.

Virgil waited until he was inside the building before he rifled through the folders. The top folder contained a profile of one of the missing people that Virgil didn’t know anything about. It contained a picture as well as a few tidbits of info. A pretty, black girl with braided hair, named Diane. She had last been seen leaving school a couple of weeks ago. Another profile was of a thin white boy with red hair. There wasn’t much information about him, besides his name and address. The next boy had last been seen after soccer practice. There were the profiles of two more girls in the folder that Virgil skimmed before coming to the profile of the girl he’d seen on the news the other day. She wasn’t a particularly good looking girl. In fact, she was quite unattractive to put it mildly. Her eyes were too far apart. Her lips were nonexistent. Attached to her picture was another photograph. This one of a black man with a salt-and-pepper beard. Virgil recognized him instantly. His name was Ben. He was an old, homeless guy with whom Virgil had played chess on occasion down at Sixteenth Street Mall—and had gotten thrashed. In fact, one of his life’s goals was to beat Ben one day. This picture was mug shot, apparently, taken a long time ago.  Ben had a record. Who would’ve thought. He seemed like such a nice man. The picture had a sticky note on it that said: “person of interest.” The next folder held a couple of pictures of the construction site. He didn’t have time to do any more snooping. Jay was walking up to the car as Virgil returned to sitting still with his hands in his lap.

Jay opened the door and hopped in. He handed Virgil a burger and fries before starting the engine. “So you want to help people, huh?” he said shaking his head, as he pulled out of the parking lot, while taking a sip of coffee.

   That night Virgil met with Lee and his friends, this time at the edge of the city, a few blocks from Sloan Lake where the girl, Nicole’s cell phone had been discovered. It was a chilly autumn night. The clouds had blocked out the moon, making it even darker around this part of town. Lee made introductions once Virgil arrived. There was an older kid named Charlie, a small girl named Jen, and her brother Van. They got right down to business soon after.

“I can’t find any connection between them. They all went to different schools, and in a couple of cases, lived in different cities. I don’t even think any of them know each other. All they have in common is their age,” explained Virgil as he passed around some notes he had taken from Jay’s folders.

“They think this guy, Ben, did it?” asked Lee.

“I don’t think so. It just said he was a person of interest. I kind if know him. He seems like a pretty nice guy. I couldn’t see him hurting anyone, let alone abducting them,” said Virgil.

“He sounds like a freaking pervert to me,” said Lee.

“I told you, I don’t think he’s involved. He just happened to be around here when they found the girl’s cell phone. They don’t think he did it, just that he might have seen more than he’s letting on.”

“Well if he knows something, then why didn’t he tell the police? What’s he trying to hide?” asked Lee.

Virgil had no answer.

“Let’s find him.”

illust#4

 

Lee moved with a purpose. So much so, that Virgil didn’t even try to keep up. He and Charlie hung back, and walked at a more reasonable pace.

“So, what are you going to do with your share of the money,” asked Virgil.

Charlie grinned. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a business card, and handed it to Virgil. It was a VIP invitation to the club, Intrigue, that Virgil had heard about the other day.

“That club rocks!” said Charlie.

“You’re going to spend two grand at a club?”

“It’s so worth it. It’s also a massage parlor! The best massage you’ll ever get, my friend. It’s got, like, a hotel too. It’s basically the coolest place imaginable. You should check it out.”

“I’m not old enough,” said Virgil attempting to hand the card back to Charlie.

“Hold on to it. I know the owner,” said Charlie, pointing to the name on the bottom of the VIP card.

“Carmine Adder” it read.

Virgil shrugged, and placed the card in his pants pocket.

They spotted Ben down one of the alleys, rummaging through a trash bin. Lee began speed walking towards him, but Virgil grabbed him by the shirt sleeve and motioned for him to stay back. “I’ll talk to him,” Virgil whispered before walking towards Ben. “Ben, sir, excuse me.”

Ben didn’t appear to hear him as he kept rummaging through the dumpster. He pulled out a bunch of plastic bottles and threw them in a shopping cart already filled with bottles and cans.

“Excuse me,” said Virgil again. This time Ben turned to him. A look of recognition showed on his face. He smiled at Virgil and waved politely. When he caught sight of Lee and the gang moving towards him, his look changed from friendly to alert. “Don’t worry, I just was to ask you something.” Ben’s eyes were full of caution. “There was a girl that disappeared from around here a few days ago. She was a friend of ours and we just want to know if you’d seen anything. Anything at all. That’s it.”

Ben didn’t say anything.

Lee had an impatient look on his face.

“Please help us if you can. You don’t have anything to worry about. We’re not going to tell the police anything that you tell us,” said Virgil.

Ben didn’t take his eyes off of Lee. The look on Lee’s face was slowly changing from annoyed to dangerous. Virgil got a bad feeling. Ben was slowly turning away from them as if he was preparing to make a break for it.

“Ben…” said Virgil.

“Get on the ground, you sick bastard!” yelled Lee, pulling a revolver from underneath his shirt. It all happened too fast for Virgil to react. Shock, fear and confusion rushed over him. He reached for Lee’s gun hand, but Lee pulled it away and gave him a dangerous look. Virgil threw his hands up in surrender. Ben obeyed Lee’s order by getting down on both knees. He shut his eyes tight and shook his head, begging for his life.

“Shut up!” yelled Lee. “What did you do with them? Answer me! Where are the kids you kidnapped?”

“I didn’t…I swear,” said Ben, shaking his head.

“He didn’t do it,” said Virgil, trying to stay calm.

“Then who did? What did you see?” said Lee.

Ben opened his eyes wide. “They weren’t human. They wore hoods. But their eyes…their eyes…”

“What about their eyes?” asked Virgil.

“They glowed,” said Ben. Fear shot through Virgil. Those were the eyes that Miss Tilley had in his dream; the inhuman eyes that the rest of the classroom had taken on. Ben had seen them too, only he’d seen them in person. Ben’s tone seemed calmer as he described the eyes. “They say that the eyes are the window to the soul. But behind those eyes there is no soul. Nothing alive. Nothing…of this world.” Ben looked up at Lee as if examining him. “Your soul is dark, tainted.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Are you on crack?” said Lee, anger in his voice.

“Yes,” said Virgil, placing his hand on top of Lee’s gun and lowering it to the ground. He moved so that he was between Lee and Ben. “He’s clearly high. He doesn’t know anything, he didn’t do anything. He’s just a crazy old man. You can go, Ben.”

Ben stood up. He recovered his shopping cart full of bottles and ran down the alley.

“You’re gonna’ let that creep get away?” said Lee.

“What are you doing with a gun? You’re going to get us in trouble,” said Virgil.

“This is to get us out of trouble. We need to be prepared. Just in case,” said Lee.

“The construction site downtown. The new building,” called Ben from down the alley. “The construction site,” he repeated and then disappeared around the corner.

“Okay, let’s go,” said Lee.

“Go where?” said Virgil.

“You heard him. The construction site,” said Lee.

“I’m not going anywhere tonight. I have a curfew,” said Virgil.

“Whatever, Whiteboy, we’ll go without you. Come on guys,” said Lee, turning to walk away. Virgil grabbed his arm.

“Wait until tomorrow night and I’ll go with you. You’ve got to clear your head, man, before you get us in serious trouble. Let’s all just go home and cool off tonight,” said Virgil.

Lee reluctantly agreed. “Tomorrow night. Midnight.”

Lee was apologetic the whole next day. Virgil spent his last day of community service mulling over the night before. Lee was a loose cannon, but he was Virgil’s friend. And Virgil was one of the few people that Lee could count on. Virgil couldn’t abandon him. However, it wasn’t Lee and his gun that bothered him the most, it was what Ben had said. Glowing eyes, just like the ones from his dream. Was it possible that both he and Ben were going crazy? Or was something really going on?

That night, after dinner Virgil snuck out through his bedroom window. He rode his bike to meet Lee and the rest in Lower Downtown, dubbed LoDo by most. It was a Friday night and the streets were filled with partiers. Mostly college kids. Police were out too, making sure nothing got out of hand. No one paid any attention to Virgil or the others as they found their way to the construction site. They circled the block a few times, hoping to gauge the atmosphere but from the sidewalk everything seemed serene. They got as close as they could to the site without going onto the property.

“I think I hear something,” said Jen. She leaned her ear as close to the fence as she could. “Sounds like singing.”

The others followed suit. Virgil could make out the vague impression of voices coming from inside of the unfinished building. The singing had a rhythm to it, but no notes, no melody.

“Sounds like chanting,” said Virgil. They exchanged glances. It was weird that anyone would be at the site at this time of night, let alone having some kind of meeting. Virgil had heard enough. “Okay, I’m creeped out now, I’m going home.”

“But we haven’t even discovered what’s going on yet. We have to go in,” said Lee.

“No,” said Virgil, pointing to the no trespassing sign. “I promised my uncle that I was not going to get in trouble. We could get arrested for trespassing if we go in there. I’m not going.”

“What are you kids doing?” shouted a voice.

They all jumped with surprise. A cop was walking up on them fast. Lee panicked and was about to run, but Virgil grabbed his arm. He wouldn’t have made it far before there were cops surrounding them. The best thing to do was make it look as innocent as possible.

“Hi officer, we were just on our way home from choir practice when we thought we heard voices inside of the construction site,” said Virgil.

“You heard voices, in there?” said the officer, taking out his flashlight and shining it into the structure. “I don’t hear anything. What did it sound like?”

Everyone looked at Virgil. “It sounded like…chanting, officer.”

“Chanting? You kids been drinking?” asked the officer turning his flashlight on them.

“No sir, my Grandma died of drinking, we would never,” said Virgil, shaking his head rapidly.

“Come on,” said the cop. He unlocked the gate and walked into the courtyard beckoning Virgil and the others to follow him. Virgil and Lee exchanged glances and then reluctantly followed. “Show me where you heard the voices.”

They walked through a metal door and into the building. Once they were inside of the building all noise from the outside seemed to fade. It was dark, but Virgil felt better knowing there was a cop with them. There was no more chanting as they made their way around construction material and through the unfinished ground floor of the building. It was eerie being inside of an uncompleted building; hard to see anything outside of where the police officer pointed his flashlight. They walked into a big, dark, open space when the officer turned to them and shined his flashlight in their direction. Virgil and the gang stopped in their tracks.

“I don’t hear anything,” said the officer.

“I swear we heard something,” said Virgil.

“Well, what did it sound like?”

“Like some kind of chanting, sir,” said Virgil.

The officer pondered for a second. It was tough to see him with the light shining in their eyes. He was just a dark silhouette in a dark room. Virgil shielded his eyes from the light.

“You kids better not be screwing with me,” said the cop.

“We’re not,” assured Virgil.

“Chanting, huh. Did it sound like this?” said the Officer.

He began chanting.

Terror pierced Virgil.

He was blinded by the cop’s flashlight as the sound of his chanting filled the area, more voices joining in as Virgil and the others stood in horrified silence. A half dozen hooded figures leaped from the shadows. Virgil and the others scattered. Virgil attempted to run back toward the exit, but without the cop’s flashlight leading the way, the path they had come from was completely dark. He tripped over something in the darkness and landed underneath a gaggle of construction material. He chanced a look back and saw that two of the hooded figures were chasing Jen, while Van struggled to get his shirt loose from the grip of one of the Hoods. Instead he let the shirt be torn from his body and ran in another direction. Lee was firing his pistol randomly, the sound accosting Virgil’s ears. Lee had his eyes clothes and his head turned away as the gun moved up and down with each flash and bang. Two of the bullets struck the cop. He fell backwards.

Then he got back up.

And he looked pissed.

His eyes began to glow, the pupils shrank. They could be seen clearly even in the limited light available. Lee’s gun clicked several times with no bang or flash. The cop ran at Lee with unbelievable speed. Lee let out a scream as the cop grabbed him and hoisted him into the air. The cop had dropped his flashlight and Virgil ran to recover it. Just before he reached it he felt someone pull at his ankle, sending him crashing to the floor. He looked behind him and saw more glowing eyes underneath a dark hood. Virgil stretched his arm out as far as it would go, his fingers able to maneuver the flashlight just enough for him to take hold of it. Once he had a good grip on it, he swung the flashlight as hard as he could, bashing it across his attackers face. The blow stunned the Hood momentarily, but again he reached for Virgil. Virgil swung the light again, this time it impacted on the Hood’s jaw and he stumbled backwards a couple of steps, releasing Virgil from his grip. Virgil got to his feet and made a break for the exit. The repeated blows he had dealt the Hood had damaged the light and it flickered on and off as he made his way through the area; leaping over what he could and tripping over the rest. But he stayed on his feet and kept running.

He emerged from the site, scrambled over the fence and found his bike where he’d left it. He didn’t look back as he rode away. He didn’t call for help, fearing that more police officers with glowing eyes who would answer. He didn’t even know what direction he was riding in, as he put as much distance between him and the construction site as he could. Pedaling with a strength and stamina he had never before possessed, he eventually found himself out of downtown and in the nearby Five Points neighborhood.

Five Points had a well-deserved reputation for not being the safest neighborhood, and normally Virgil wouldn’t have stopped there, but he felt a lot safer in there than he did downtown. He took a moment to catch his breath and looked around trying to gather where he was and in which direction was home. The streets were virtually empty as far as he could see. He could hear the sounds of cars driving and that gave him some comfort. Footsteps approached from around a building. Probably a drug addict or street walker, Virgil thought.

One of the Hoods rounded the corner in front of Virgil. His eyes met Virgil’s and Virgil cried out in terror.

With the strength of panic, Virgil took off riding in the opposite direction. He glanced behind him. Not only was the Hood keeping pace, but he was gaining! He ran with inhuman speed and no signs of struggle. It was like something out of a movie. Virgil pedaled as hard as he could; himself given enhanced strength from the power of adrenaline. He rode through stop signs and traffic lights, deciding it would be better to take his chances with oncoming traffic than to allow himself to be caught by the Hood. Five Points wasn’t an area Virgil knew well and he didn’t want to risk riding in circles. Or worse still, cornering himself. Virgil raced down the street, lurched as far forward on his handlebars as he could go. He searched the streets for a way out, and searched his brain for a plan. Finally, there seemed to be a stroke of luck. To his right was a steep, downhill street. He turned right and pedaled hard. The break in speed was enough for the Hood to close range and take a swing at him. Virgil felt the impact of the Hood’s fist slamming into his back wheel. Luckily, there wasn’t enough behind it to knock Virgil off balance. Virgil pedaled harder, willing himself to push forward. His legs were on fire and his adrenaline reserves were wearing thin. He made it to the hill just as the Hood attempted to deal another blow, one that would’ve been more damaging. Virgil’s sudden increased speed got him out of the way just in time. He held on tight as his speed rapidly increased on the downhill slope. The Hood kept pace with him, even at this speed. But eventually the downward momentum overtook the hooded figure and he tumbled forward and rolled down the hill in a way that would have made Virgil laugh if he wasn’t so terrified. Virgil faced front again, just as he was nearing an intersection at top speed. He didn’t try to stop. He held on tight, closed his eyes—and prayed.

To God.

To Buddha.

To Steven Spielberg.

To whomever!

He sped through the intersection, as two cars slammed on their breaks just in time to allow him safe passage.

Every muscle and every bone in Virgil’s body told him to stop, but he didn’t. Not until he’d made it all the way home. He dumped his bike in the front lawn and ran up the porch steps. He came right through the front door. He slammed it shut and locked the door. He collapsed with his back against the door and passed out.

 

“Get up. Get up. Get up. Before they see you,” said Celeste as she tugged on Virgil’s shirt until he woke up. It was still dark outside and Celeste was in her pajamas. She helped Virgil to his feet and pushed him from behind as he hazily made his way up the stairs. She urged him to be quiet as he creaked up the stairs. Virgil heard stirring in his parents’ room. It sounded like their father was getting out of bed. Celeste ran around Virgil and continued down the hallway. She burst into her parent’s room just as he was about to open the door.

“Daddy, I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!” she said as she ran into her father’s arms. Virgil could hear his father comforting Celeste and that gave him enough time to get to his room undetected.

He owed Celeste a lollipop.

He slept for a short eternity before waking up sometime in the midafternoon. It was Saturday so no one bothered him. That day he only left his room to go to the bathroom or to eat. He texted Lee all day but never got a reply. He tried to put the events of the previous night as far from his mind as he could. It couldn’t have happened, at least not the way he remembered it. He told himself that he must have imagined most of it. But he still couldn’t reach Lee. That gave him a sinking feeling. He couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. No one would believe him. He couldn’t call the cops. He was afraid of the cops right now. Lee would turn up eventually. He would say how his phone had died and he didn’t have his charger. Everything was going to be fine tomorrow. But today, Virgil wasn’t leaving the house.

That night Virgil had trouble sleeping. His entire body ached from the scuffle and ride home; both of which had perfectly rational explanations, of course. Maybe if he smoked a little bit of weed that would help. He locked his door and rummaged around until he found just enough weed to get his mind right. His parents were home so he would have to smoke on the rooftop. He went to his window and opened the curtain.

Two giant, glowing eyes floated in midair outside of his window. Their tiny pupils fixed on him. They glowed ominously at him from behind the tree outside. Virgil let out a yell and shut the curtains to shield himself from the giant, evil eyes. He jumped back in the bed and pulled the cover over his head. He was in trouble. Real trouble. There was no one in the world that could help him.

 

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Chapter Eight: Foreign Exchange

Rona’s airplane landed in Denver Colorado, though it looked to Rona like they had landed in the middle of nowhere. She had been out west a couple hundred years back. When it was just the frontier and there were no large cities. Just farmland and small homesteads. From where she sat, it didn’t look like not much had changed. Getting off of the plane seemed to take longer than getting on. Everyone took their time retrieving their carry-ons and gathering their children before getting off. She didn’t have time for this. She had a kid to protect and a world to save! She contemplated pushing through all of them but then she remembered that she was just a 14-year-old girl and not a former angel. The mission had officially begun and it was time to start acting the part.

Eventually she made it into the terminal. It looked only marginally different from the last airport. If Rona didn’t know any better she’d swear that the pilot had flown around the block a couple of times then landed at the same airport hoping no one would notice. As soon as they emerged into the terminal, Ward began walking off down the corridor without saying a word. He was a good ten feet away when Rona called to him. He turned around, hands in pockets, smile planted firmly on his face.

“Not gonna’ say ‘goodbye’ ?” asked Rona.

“ ‘Goodbye’? This isn’t goodbye,” said Ward, confidently.

“If I need you—IF—how do I find you?”

“Find me? Just look for Ward,” said Ward. With that he pointed to the sign in front of Rona directing travelers to baggage claim.

“I hate you,” said Rona. “With a passion.”

“I feel it ya’ know; the passion between you and me,” said Ward with a smile.

“Take care of yourself, Ward.”

“Cheers.” He walked down the corridor in the opposite direction of everyone else.

Rona walked briskly through the airport, following the signs toward the exit; another thing that seemed to take forever. She had been on pilgrimages shorter than this. Every time she turned around she had to hop on some damn train or go up and down some stupid escalator. How big was this freaking airport anyway? At long last she reached the end of the terminal. She could see the exit doors and the moonlit night beyond them. Ah, fresh air and personal space. Families ran to greet some of the arriving passengers. Even the smelly guy that had sat next to her on the airplane was eagerly greeted by a group of people. Rona wandered over to the baggage conveyor belt. More waiting. Thus far this mission was a grueling exercise in tedium. Her luggage finally arrived just before her patience left. Okay, she thought, now where do I go? She wandered over towards the exit doors that read: “Ground Transport,” and stepped outside into the brisk Colorado air. She searched the area for a clue of what she was supposed to do next.

To her left was what appeared to be a teenage girl. She was a pretty, Caucasian girl with bleached-blond hair. She held a sign above her head that read: “Rona K,” in big, beautifully written letters. The girl was waving the sign from side to side, her hips moving inverse with her arms, but in the same rhythm. The girl flashed the sign at every passerby she saw. When her eyes met Rona’s, she flashed the sign in Rona’s direction. Rona waived in acknowledgement and made her way over to the girl.

“Rona?” the girl asked with a big pretty smile that revealed beautiful, white teeth.

“I be she, and she be me,” said Rona, offering her hand to the girl.

“Oh my god!” said the girl. She ran over and hugged Rona tightly. Rona’s eyes widened in surprise. She attempted to return the hug, but was only able to muster enough affection to pat the girl’s back lightly. “Oh my god, you’re gorgeous!” The girl let go of her embrace. “I love your hair! Can I touch it?” She ran her fingers through a loch of Rona’s hair.

Rona’s first instinct was to chastise the girl and establish some boundaries, but that was what Rona, the angel thinking. What would Rona, the teenage girl from Dano—whatever—do? Rona searched her thoughts for all of the shows she had watched about teenagers, Happy Days, 90210, Saved By The Bell, Dawson’s Creek, trying to find some inspiration.

“Like, Oh my god, you are too…also…gorgeous,” said Rona, channeling Melissa Joan Hart from Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and attempting to match the girl’s enthusiasm and inflection.

“Wow, it’s so good to meet you! My name is Brittany Armstrong and you and me are officially sisters. The rest of my family went to the bathroom, but they should be back any minute,” said Brittany looking Rona over with bright blue eyes.

Almost as if on cue, a group of people came out of the airport and began walking in their direction. Rona knew instantly that they were the Armstrongs. The mother smiled widely and offered Rona a hug. Rona accepted. Brittany’s mother, Claire, was a spitting image of her daughter. She had a few more lines in her face but they were mostly concealed by her make up. The two could almost pass for twins. Behind her was a pair of actual twins. Two boys with light hair, Clive and Dave. They clearly hadn’t aged into the double digits yet, and they shook Rona’s hand, disinterestedly. The father, Roger was a tall, thin man. He was noticeably older than Claire, but still quite handsome. He had a kind face and a good handshake. Roger carried Rona’s bags to the van, making Clive and Dave begrudgingly help him. They piled into a minivan and headed out.

“It’s so good to finally meet you!” said Brittany, once again hugging Rona. “Welcome to Denver! You’re gonna’ love it here.”

“Yeah, I was kind of expecting there to be more…I don’t know…buildings,” said Rona, gazing around at the nothingness that surrounded the airport.

“They wanted to expand the airport so they ended up having to move it from the city to out here where they could have more room. The actual city proper is about ten miles away,” explained Roger.

“How was your flight?” asked Claire.

“Flying sucks. Next time I’m taking the bus,” said Rona. The family laughed as they cruised down the airport highway. Rona was suddenly taken aback by something she saw out her window.  “Whoa! What the hell is that?”

“Oh, that’s just the devil-horse statue,” said Claire. “It’s creepy as I don’t know what.”

“Yeah, they say it’s cursed. It killed its creator,” added Brittany.

Rona peered at the cobalt statue, rising into the night. It reared ominously and stared down with fiery red eyes. “It gives me the heebie jeebies.”

Brittany laughed. “Sometimes you sound like you’re from the east coast.”

“Yes, and you have a very mature-sounding voice,” said Claire.

Crap, she was blowing it. “Um, thank you,” said Rona, unsure of what else to say.

“So, tell us about you,” said Brittany, anticipation evident in her voice. “I want to know everything!”

Everything? Rona didn’t even know everything about who she was supposed to be. This was going to be harder than she thought.

“What’s it like where you’re from?” said Brittany, her smile and eyes wide with excitement.

“It’s…uh…wonderful. Truly great. In fact, I’m getting homesick, already.” The whole van gasped. “I’m just joking,” Rona, reassured.

“What language do you guys speak there?” asked Brittany.

“Oh…um…oh-um,” said Rona.

“Owum?” said Brittany.

“Yup. Owum,” said Rona.

“How do you say, ‘Hello,’ in Owum?” asked Brittany.

“Uh…I—should really be working on my English,” said Rona.

“Okay,” said Brittany. “I just want to know as much about you and your people as possible. Do you guys have TV?”

“Uh…”

“Brittany, don’t grill her too much. She’s a young girl, leaving home for the first time, visiting a strange country. She’s probably got some culture shock. Give her a chance to settle in,” said Roger from the driver’s seat.

Rona liked Roger.

They had been driving for a good fifteen minutes before city lights began to appear. They turned onto another highway and continued driving until they reached their exit. They made a right turn down a city street.

“Are you hungry, or anything?” asked Claire.

“Yeah we could stop anywhere you want and get you something to eat,” said Roger.“ We can pick up anything you might need while we’re out here too. You name it.”

“Well, there is something I could use,” said Rona.

 

“Are you sure, that’s all you want?” asked Roger, skeptically. He held his card preparing to pay for the pile of maps that Rona had placed on the gas station counter. There was one map of the state of Colorado, one of Denver, as well as one of each city in the area.

“Hold on a sec,” said Rona. She walked over with another pile of maps. This time, maps of bus and light rail routes, as well as schedules.

“Anything else?” asked Roger. Rona thought for a second. She went down one of the aisles and came back with a bag of marshmallows.

 

“You really have a thing for maps, huh?” said Brittany once they were back in the van. Rona nodded. She stuffed another pile of marshmallows into her mouth as she followed their route on the map with her finger.

“You’re just going to eat that entire bag of marshmallows?” asked Brittany, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m sorry,” said Rona. She angled the bag toward Brittany. “Did you want some?”

“No, thank you! Waaaayyy too many calories.” said Brittany.

“Your loss,” said Rona, her mouth full of marshmallows.

Brittany laughed jovially. “Rona. You. Are. Awesome.”

 

Illustration #3 ver2

They stopped for some takeout before turning down a residential street and pulling into the driveway of a big house. Most of the houses in the area were big and beautiful, at least as far as Rona could make out in the darkness. They opened the door into a spacious living room, decorated with the flavor of a dozen or so different cultures. A Japanese style Shoji screen stood in one corner of the room. A dream catcher hung on another wall. A small statue of an African goddess stood next to the TV. It was eclectic, but homey. It was clean, yet lived-in. They set the food on the dining room table, parallel to the living room.

There was a tiny staircase that led to the Kitchen which overlooked the living room. There seemed to be a wall missing between the two rooms as you could clearly see over the counter of the kitchen, directly into the living room. Rona was impressed, although she gave an exaggerated reaction that she felt her teenage, island persona would have given.

A golden retriever came from the back room and greeted Rona with a curious sniff. He attempted to rise up and lick her face, but she leaned back and pushed his snout away before he could. Rona laughed as she pet him, poised to dodge another make-out attempt. There was a giant family portrait on the wall over the sofa. It must have been taken a while ago. Clive and Dave looked like they were barely above walking age in the picture. Rona cocked her head to the side as she gazed at the picture. There was something odd. In it, there appeared to be two Brittanys! Both with light hair, blue eyes and cute wide-eyed smiles. They were dressed identically in matching Easter dresses.

“Brittany, you have a twin sister?” asked Rona, quizzically.

An emotion flashed across Brittany’s face but it was fleeting and Rona couldn’t place its meaning. “Yeah,” said Brittany, but her voice didn’t have the same upbeat inflection that Rona had grown accustomed to. “Twins kinda run in our family. Obviously.”

“That’s our other daughter, Ashley,” said Claire. “She’s upstairs in her room. You can meet her. Come on, Brittany, let’s go see if Ashley wants something to eat,”

The three of them walked up the stairs toward Ashley’s room. Rock music bleared with increasing volume the closer they came to Ashley’s room. They reached the door at the end of the hall and Claire knocked. There was no reply. Claire gave Rona an embarrassed smile then knocked again. She slowly opened the door. Loud, angry rock music assaulted Rona’s eardrums. There sat Ashley. She had her eyes closed as she banged on a set of invisible drums. Her hair was dyed jet black, with a purple streak on one side. Her eye makeup was purple tinged to match her hair. It was evident that she didn’t watch her weight as closely as Brittany did. She was a little thicker, but she shared Brittany’s features almost to a tee.

“Are you hungry, Ashley?” said Claire.

“Go away, Mom. I’m conducting a séance,” said Ashley, opening her eyes to glare at her mother. Her eyes were the same brilliant blue as Brittany’s.

Claire sighed. “This is Rona, the exchange student that’s going to be staying with us, remember?”

Rona smiled and waved. “Hi.”

“Escape while you can,” said Ashley dryly. “Go away. You guys are letting the spirits out.”

“Come downstairs and eat, Ashley,” said Claire as she shut the door. She walked passed Rona and Brittany, wordlessly.

Brittany shrugged. “Don’t pay her any mind. She’s like that,” said Brittany.

They walked downstairs and gathered around the dining room table. Roger and Claire served the take out on ceramic plates. Ashley joined them once everyone had already begun eating. She served herself and sat down between Rona and Roger.

“You rocking-out up there?” asked Roger smiling in Ashley’s direction.

“I was,” said Ashley, returning her father’s smile. He stroked at her hair teasingly, and she pulled away with playful laugh.

Claire broke up a budding food fight between Clive and Dave, while Brittany attempted to describe her friends to Rona in agonizing detail. Eventually Rona found herself becoming the subject of most of the conversation. She attempted to answer every question as vaguely as possible.

“What’s the food like where you come from?”

“It’s delicious.”

“Do you have any hobbies?”

“Silent reflection.”

“What are the boys like back home?”

“They’re hot.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Several.”

They laughed awkwardly at that last bit.

They cleared the table. Ashley went back upstairs to her room. Clive and Dave were sent off to bed. Claire went to the kitchen to clean. She urged Brittany and Rona not to stay up too late, because they had school in the morning. Brittany helped Rona bring her bags up to her room. Apparently there was a leak in the guest room so Rona would be bunking with Brittany for the time being. The thought of sharing a room with someone for the next few weeks—especially someone as relentlessly bubbly as Brittany—made Rona miss her old life. At least it was a big room and she’d have her own bed and some space. When they were done dropping the bags off Rona and Brittany joined Roger on the couch in the living room watching TV.

“Feel free to watch whatever you want,” said Roger as he idly flipped through the channels. Roger must have flipped through fifty channels before something caught Rona’s eye.

“Go back!” shouted Rona. Roger obliged, clicking backwards until Rona told him to stop. It was a news story. It showed the picture of a teenage boy, with a caption at the bottom that read: “Still Missing.” Rona’s heart rate picked up. She asked Roger turned up the volume.

 

Police still have no leads on the whereabouts of Alex Martinez, who disappeared a few weeks ago. This is coupled with a few other strange disappearances that police are not sure are related. The disappearance of Jessica Albright, just a few days ago, still have police baffled…”

 

The alarm on Rona’s face must have been evident. Roger placed his hand on her shoulder reassuringly. “This is a safe neighborhood. Nothing like that is going to happen to you. Don’t worry.” Rona ignored him and instead watched the news story intently.

“Disappearances are not uncommon in a big city, but it is the nature of the disappearances that is baffling. All teenagers. None of them known to wander off. And then suddenly they just disappeared without a trace. Police are unsure what to think. But one thing is for certain: after the first forty-eight hours, the chances of finding a missing person—alive—gets slimmer and slimmer…”

 

“I need some air,” said Rona.

“Okay, do you want me to go with you?” asked Brittany, a look of concern on her face.

“No, no, I’ll be fine,” said Rona as she walked out the front door. She paced back and forth in the front for a moment. Then, overtaken with frustration, she ran up the street until she was a few blocks from the Armstrong residence, and out of earshot of the family.

“ANGELICA!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. There was no reply. “I know you hear me! Angelica!”

“Pipe down, young lady. It’s late,” said a raspy-voiced old man with a cane who was passing by. “What’s a young lady like yourself doing wandering around alone at this time of night, anyhow?”

“Don’t screw with me, Angelica. I’m not in the mood,” said Rona.

The old man straightened up. His wrinkles melted away and he shrank several inches until he had the form of a young woman with pink, shoulder length hair. “You rang?” said Angelica with a pleasant smile.

“I’m too late!” said Rona, slamming her fist into her palm as she paced back and forth in front of Angelica. “I just saw on the news that there’s been a string of unsolved disappearances of teenage kids. It has demon stench all over it, I can feel it. One of them may have been the boy. Am I too late, Angelica? Tell me!”

“I can’t tell you anymore than I already have, Rona. The Aegis forbids it,” said Angelica.

“I’ve got to move. I’ve got to find this kid tonight, before they do.”

“Calm. Calm,” said Angelica.

Rona stopped pacing. She faced Angelica, placed her hands on her hips and breathed deeply. “I can’t stay with these people. I have to drop this façade, it’s a waste of time. I’ll find some other way. I can survive on my own.”

“You can, but you don’t have to. They’re a lovely family.”

“Yes, they’re very nice. And I could be putting their lives in danger.”

“They’re safer with you than without you.”

“Protecting them isn’t what I signed on for. Just the kid, remember? No super-hero stuff?”

“Guarding this family is…more than I could ask from you,” said Angelica.

“That’s because you know that you don’t have to. Oh boy, Angelica, I am your sucker,” said Rona shaking her head in annoyance.

“You’re not my sucker, you’re my hero.”

“I gotta’ find the boy.”

“And you will. You’re on the right track,” said Angelica. Her features became that of a crippled old man once again, and she began walking down the road. “There’s nothing more you can do this night. Go home, young lady, and get some rest. You have school in the morning,” said the raspy voice.

Rona found her way back the Armstrong house. Brittany was waiting for her on the porch. Her face lit up when she saw Rona. She ran over and hugged Rona tight. Rona laughed.

“Is everything okay? We’re not driving you crazy, aren’t we?” asked Brittany with a motherly concern in her voice.

“No, everything is fine. I just…like to take walks in the middle of the night, from time to time,” said Rona.

“Oh, it’s part of that ‘silent reflection’ hobby of yours,” said Brittany.

“Exactly.”

Brittany took an obnoxiously long time in the shower. Rona sat on her bed waiting with a towel wrapped around her body and toiletries in her hand, her leg shaking impatiently. Ashley walked by the room. She did a double take when she saw Rona sitting there. Rona pointed at the bathroom door across the hall with her toothbrush, then pointed to an imaginary watch on her arm.

Ashley laughed and came to stand in the doorway of the room. “Just so you know, I wasn’t really performing a séance when you came by my room earlier. Everyone in this house thinks I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. I just want you to know.”

“Why do you care what I think?” asked Rona.

“I don’t. I’m just saying…”

“Well, thanks for the heads up, but I already knew that. Séances don’t involve heavy metal. They involve colored candles, and incense. As well as special kinds of chalk and knowledge of the occult,” said Rona.
“How do you know all of that? Do you believe in ghosts?” asked Ashley with growing interest.

“Sure.”

“Have you ever seen a ghost?”

“Many.”

“You’d better be careful or they’re gonna’ start thinking you’re as nuts as I am!” said Ashley with a laugh.

“Oh, I am nuts. And I don’t care one anyone has to say about it,” said Rona with a wink.

“I like your style, Rona,” said Ashley with a smile.

“And I like yours,” said Rona, pointing to Ashley’s hair.

She finally got to take a much anticipated shower. She dried off and wrapped a towel around herself. When she climbed out of the tub she saw Brittany was at the sink brushing her teeth. So she just wasn’t going to have any privacy living here, was she? She stood next to Brittany and began brushing her teeth as well.

Brittany spoke through a toothpaste filled mouth. “I can’t wait to take you to school with us tomorrow. You’re going to love it. I can’t wait to introduce you to everyone. I have the coolest friends. Wait ‘til you meet my boyfriend, Julio…”

“Oh shut up about Julio,” said Ashley as she came in the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. “Julio, oh Julio,” she said, imitating Brittany.

“No one was talking to you. I’m talking to my new sister,” said Brittany.

“She’s my sister too,” said Ashley, sticking her tongue out at Brittany. Brittany stuck her tongue back out at Ashley.

Rona snuggled up nice and cozy in her bed. It was comfortable enough. Although she did have to listen to Brittany drone on and on before the kid finally passed out. Rona sat awake for a little bit longer. Tomorrow she’d begin the search for the boy. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack but she had no other choice. It may even be a good sign that there had been these disappearances. It could mean that the demons were unsure of the boy’s location as well and were trying to narrow it down by kidnapping different kids. Rona rubbed her lucky stone and hoped that the demons were having worse luck than she was. She could only hope that she wasn’t too late.

 

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