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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