Rona awoke from Brittany shaking her. She gave the girl a puzzled and tired look before sitting up and rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” said Rona, tiredly.
“We’ve got to go to school.”
“It’s a Saturday,”
“Rona, it’s Monday. You slept the entire weekend. You wouldn’t wake up for any reason, not even to eat. If you weren’t snoring so bad we would have thought you were dead! That must have been one rough soccer game. Are you okay?” asked Brittany with a concerned look on her face.
“Yeah,” said Rona. “Let me get dressed.”
“No. You need a shower,” said Brittany. She placed her shoulder under Rona’s and helped her to her feet.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Rona checked herself out in the mirror. Her body had healed up nicely. The swelling over her eye had disappeared. The cut on the bridge of her nose was gone, as well as her busted lip. Her ribs no longer hurt and the pain in her neck had subsided. The muscles in her limbs felt stiff and a little bit sore, but that could have been because she hadn’t used them in days. She didn’t look or feel the worst for wear for someone who was just kicked around the city by the enormous feet of a giant, just a couple days prior. She had recovered brilliantly—physically.
Psychologically, was another story. Rona hadn’t been in a knockdown, drag-out fight in ages. And she hadn’t been on the wrong side of a pummeling in even longer. Although she had survived the encounter, and hell, Goliath had even declared her the winner, it still felt like a loss. She hadn’t beaten him. He was still out there, waiting for a rematch. Not because he was angry, but because he enjoyed it. Goliath took pleasure in fighting. Every blow Rona had landed, Goliath had welcomed. She couldn’t hurt him. She’d dropped him off of a ten story building, but she couldn’t hurt him. Yet, he could hurt her at will. She wasn’t in the shape she had been in a hundred years ago when she was fighting regularly, and he had tired quickly against Goliath. She knew she didn’t have the strength to match him. But most frighteningly to Rona, she didn’t know if she had the mettle for these types of fights anymore. She definitely didn’t take the sick satisfaction in it that Goliath did. Fighting slower, weaker, overmatched opponents had made her arrogant. Getting slapped around by Goliath had been more than humbling, it was debilitating.
Every apprehension Rona had about accepting this mission was like a jackhammer in her mind, noisy and penetrating. Perhaps she wasn’t cut out for this. Perhaps Angelica could find someone better suited for it. The fight with Goliath had reawakened the very real possibility that she could fail. That Virgil could end up dead because she wasn’t up to the task. Rona couldn’t live with that.
She showered, got dressed and headed downstairs. She was starving. She ate four servings of breakfast. Claire looked relieved to see Rona eating again, but she still had concern in her eyes.
“You can stay home today, if you’re not feeling good,” said Claire, as she rubbed Rona’s back in a motherly fashion.
“I’m okay,” said Rona, patting Claire’s hand affectionately.
“Are you sure? Because I’m going to be doing some shopping this afternoon and you could come with me. Besides, I have to buy you some new gym clothes, anyway,” said Claire.
“What?” said Rona with sudden alarm.
“I threw out the ones you were wearing. They were torn and stained. And they smelled awful,” said Claire.
“Where’s the garbage?”
“It’s outside, in the front but–”
Rona was in mid run before Claire finished speaking. She dug through the first trash bag she saw, brushing aside dirt, grime and rotten food. Eventually she found all of the parts of her outfit. They were decorated with trash, and Claire was right, they did smell awful. Hopefully Angelica wasn’t exaggerating when she said they were self-cleaning and would repair themselves. Rona brought the clothes back inside, waved off Claire’s apology, making up some story about them being knitted by her late grandmother, then took them upstairs. She hung them up in the closet, hoping the smell of garbage would be gone from them by the time she got home.
Virgil was waiting on the porch when Rona, Brittany and Ashley walked outside. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Rona. Virgil exchanged cordial greetings with the girls. Rona opted to take the bus with Virgil instead of riding with Julio and the girls.
“What happened?’ asked Virgil as if the question had been welling up in him for days.
“I got my ass handed to me,” said Rona.
“You see? I told you not to go. I told you,” said Virgil.
“Stuff it,” said Rona. “It was going to happen sooner or later. It’s better that it happened without you being there, than for it to happen by surprise later. What did you do all weekend?”
“Sat on my ass in the house. Every time I went by your house, they told me you were sleeping. That must have been some ass-whooping. What happens now?” said Virgil.
“Go on with the day as usual. Keep our eyes peeled for demons. Meet at your locker between every class. Take the bus home, together,” said Rona. “Hope for an uninteresting day.”
An announcement came over the loudspeaker during first period.
“Attention all students. I regret to inform you that one of our students, Stacy Chavez, attempted to commit suicide this past weekend. She is in the hospital. Her condition has stabilized but doctors are unsure whether or not she will wake up from her coma. Here is her visiting information…
…Also, Mrs. Vale will be on hand, to talk to any students who may need counsel. Thank you.”
“Are you okay?” asked Rona, as she found Virgil rummaging through his locker.
“Yeah,” said Virgil, unconvincingly.
“That girl, did you know her? Was she a friend of yours?” asked Rona.
“She was just an acquaintance, but we’ve gone to school together since elementary school. It’s just weird, that’s all,” said Virgil.
“Yeah, I know. These things happen. You never know what’s going on inside someone; what they’re going through, ya’ know?” said Rona.
“It isn’t that—I mean it is—but it isn’t,” said Virgil, closing his locker. “The last two times I saw Stacy, she didn’t look so good. That was outside of Mrs. Vale, the school psychiatrist’s office.”
“Maybe she was getting help.”
“I know, I know. It doesn’t make sense, but I got a really weird feeling the last time I was in Mrs. Vale’s office. I don’t know. It’s weird. I can’t explain it,” said Virgil.
“You don’t have to,” said Rona. “I’ll look into it.”
“Next,” called Mrs. Vale from inside of her office. Rona entered. She tried to put on an innocent face as she walked in the room. Mrs. Vale was seated behind her desk. A flash of shock came over Mrs. Vale’s face when she saw Rona. For some reason it made Rona smile as she had a seat in the chair in front of the desk.
“Hello, I’m Rona,” she said sticking out her hand.
Mrs. Vale made no moves. She just stared at Rona. “I know who you are. Word around here is that you’re a bit of a troublemaker.”
Rona placed her hand over her heart in mock horror. “Those are nasty allegations, Mrs. Vale. I’m just a teenage girl trying to do the right thing.”
Mrs. Vale stared at Rona, clearly not amused. “What is it you want, Miss Rona?”
“One of our students attempted to commit suicide,” said Rona.
“And why does that concern you?” said Mrs. Vale, harshly.
“I just wanted to talk,” said Rona.
“Well, I don’t have time today. I have a lot of students to see that were actual friends of Miss Chavez. If you want to talk then schedule an appointment with the guidance office,” said Mrs. Vale.
“Fair enough,” said Rona. “It was nice meeting you,” she said as she stood up and stuck out her hand again.
“Goodbye, Rona,” said Mrs. Vale without acknowledging Rona’s hand.
“Now, you’ve got me very curious,” said Rona, settling back in her chair.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mrs. Vale over her tiny glasses.
“I said, you’ve got me curious.”
“Whether you’re a demon or not,” said Rona with a smirk.
Mrs. Vale sighed in exasperation. “Rona, demons are not real,” she said as she removed her glasses and gave Rona a serious look. “I am beginning to think that you are in need of therapy, but it may be beyond my scope. I’m going to recommend you to a colleague of mi–”
Rona reached out to touch Mrs. Vale’s face but Mrs. Vale caught her wrist before she could. The sensation of Mrs. Vale’s grip was hot, hotter than any human. The pressure of her grip suggested supernatural strength.
Mrs. Vale scowled.
“Who are you, really?” said Mrs. Vale, her voice a much deeper pitch than before.
“I told you, already. I’m just a teenage girl,” said Rona with a smile. “Who are you?”
“We will have the boy and the Blood Gage!” growled Mrs. Vale.
The Blood Gage? So they were after it too. That changed everything. That raised the stakes higher than Rona wanted to think about at that moment.
“Goliath is going to kill you and drink from your skull!” said Mrs. Vale in an inhuman voice.
“Now, That’s just gross,” said Rona. She ripped her hand from Mrs. Vale’s grasp and took up a fighting stance. Mrs. Vale let out an animalistic snarl then leaped through the window, crashing through the glass, before Rona could close the distance on her. By the time Rona got to the window and peered out of it, Mrs. Vale was gone. They were on the first floor so she hadn’t fallen. There hadn’t been enough time for her to escape on foot. She must have gone up, thought Rona. The Infernal seemed pretty adept at climbing. Rona prepared to follow her, but faculty and students burst into the office. They stared at Rona in shocked silence.
“Um, Mrs. Vale just stepped out,” said Rona.
Rona spent the rest of the school day answering questions. She explained to the principal and a host of bewildered staff the Mrs. Vale had told her that she had just remembered something important she had to do, then promptly leaped through the window. The police had come to investigate but they didn’t detain Rona—against the insistence of Principal Goodman. Rona found Virgil by his locker at the end of the school day.
“I heard that in a fit of roid-rage, you threw Mrs. Vale out of the window,” said Virgil with smile.
“All I did was talk to her and she jumped out of the window,” said Rona with a shrug.
“And I’m sure this is not the first time that’s happened to you.”
She hit him.
“What? You drone on and on sometimes.”
“How about I throw you out of a window?”
“That sounds counterproductive to protecting me. What did you find out?”
“Well, let’s just say, she’s batting for the other team,” said Rona.
“She’s a lesbian?” asked Virgil.
“What? No, uh—I don’t know. She’s a demon, Virgil,” said Rona.
“Really?” said Virgil. He couldn’t say that this had come as a total shock to him. After all, this was his life now; demons and angels. But somehow the thought that he had sat in the room with—hell, had a conversation—with a demon and hadn’t even known, was unsettling. Sure, she gave him bad vibes, but other people had given him bad vibes before and they hadn’t been demons—or had they?
“You okay?” said Rona.
“Yeah, just processing things.”
“Don’t worry too much. She won’t be bothering you anymore. I’m pretty sure she just resigned. I’m gonna’ make sure it’s permanent.” She slammed a fist into her hand.
“You mean you’re gonna’ kill her?”
Something about that made Virgil uncomfortable. “But she’s just an old lady.”
Rona gave him an affectless look. “She’s a demon, Virgil.”
“I know…but do you have to kill her?”
“No,” said Rona, mock-sympathy in her voice, “I’m just gonna’ send her to a farm upstate, where she can be happier.”
Virgil pressed his forehead against his locker. “This is all too much for me.” He sighed, gathering himself. “Mrs. Vale gave me some pills to take.”
“Did you take them?” The alarm was evident in Rona’s voice.
“No, thank god. They’re at the house though.”
“Okay. Show me later.”
“What’s the plan now?”
“Well, first I’m going to drop you off. Then I’m gonna’ swing by the hospital and check on—what’s her name—Stacy,” said Rona, ticking off her plans on her fingers.
“I want to come with you,” said Virgil.
“No, Teenface. I told you, you’ll be safe at the house,” said Rona.
“Please!” said Virgil, closing his eyes and clinching his fists. “I would just feel, I don’t know, I prefer to—it would just make me feel–”
Rona placed her fingertips over Virgil’s lips, silencing him.
Rona often resented her immortality, felt sorry for herself even, but a short walk through a hospital can change anyone’s perspective on their own life. Being surrounded by so many sick and dying, made her grateful to be immortal. She never had to suffer with illness. She was unburdened by thoughts of dying a slow death on a cold hospital bed. In just a few days, she had healed from a beating that would have killed or crippled any human. It wasn’t her strength, or her speed, or her stamina, that set her apart from humanity. It was this; freedom, not from death, but from this manner of death. Feeling her body deteriorate over time; slowly dying from the inside—it was something she never had to prepare for. It was something she never had to worry about. It was something she never had to think about. That was what made her not-human.
But hospitals weren’t just places of death and suffering. Miracles were performed routinely. Healers chased death away; set bones; prevented disease; healed the sick and wounded; performed complex surgery; and even brought people back from the brink of death. While elderly patients passed away in one wing of the hospital, babies were being brought into the world in another. People were living to unprecedented lengths. Diseases that Rona had once seen cut down some of the strongest people she had ever known, were now just footnotes in history—at least in some parts of the world. Hospitals: a battleground of sickness and health, deterioration and recovery, life and death.
Rona didn’t like hospitals.
Eventually she and Virgil made it to Stacy’s room. There was a woman by Stacy’s side, rubbing the comatose girl’s head. She looked at Rona and Virgil when they entered the room. The woman had Stacy’s features on a woman that had aged quite a bit more. Rona guessed that it must’ve been her mother.
“Are you friends of Stacy’s?” asked the woman.
“Yes ma’am,” said Virgil. He walked over and introduced himself and Rona.
The woman, Tina, was in fact Stacy’s mother. “Stacy didn’t have very many friends,” said Tina, almost to herself. “I don’t know why she would do this.” She appeared to be fighting back tears.
“She didn’t say anything or leave a note?” asked Rona.
“No. Nothing,” said Tina, her voice strained. “I don’t know. We haven’t talked as much as I would’ve liked. I’ve been working a lot. Her father is a piece of…it’s just hard; doing it all on your own, ya’ know?”
“Yes,” said Rona.
“Just keep my baby in your prayers,” said Tina.
“Of course,” said Virgil, solemnly.
“They’re saying it’s fifty-fifty that she might not wake up,” said Tina. Then she broke down. She sobbed loudly and her body shook with sorrow. Rona walked over. She took Tina’s hand in her own and squeezed gently. She hummed in Tina’s ear, soothingly. As suddenly as she had broken down, Tina stopped crying. She looked at Rona with an almost trance-like calm.
“Shhhhh,” said Rona, as she held and rubbed Tina’s hand.
Tina wiped away her tears with her free hand.
“Go and get something to eat,” said Rona.
“No. I can’t leave–”
“Shhhhh,” said Rona, soothingly. “You need to take care of yourself in order to be strong for her. That means eating. That means resting. Go and get something to eat. We’ll watch over Stacy until you come back.”
“Okay,” said Tina, her voice calm and trance-like. “I’m going to go and get something eat.”
She rose and left wordlessly.
Virgil stared at Rona in shock. “Did you just hypnotize her?”
“Not exactly,” said Rona. “I gave her solace. I subdued her pain momentarily. In that state of comfort and peace she was receptive to a suggestion. When people are in a state of sorrow or pain they forget to do things that they need to do. I simply eased the pain, then I reminded her. I can’t hypnotize people, only put them at ease. Solace.”
“That’s kind of a cool superpower,” said Virgil, getting lost in his own fantasy.
“You wouldn’t be able to use it to get laid, Virgil.”
Virgil watched as Rona placed her palm on Stacy’s forehead. He placed himself in a position where he could see Rona and keep a look out. Rona rubbed the sleeping girl’s forehead and hummed a soothing melody in her ear. Stacy stirred briefly. After another moment, she stirred again. This time she groaned audibly. “Shhhhhh,” said Rona. With that, Stacy’s groaning and movement subsided. Her breathing which had become hyper, relaxed back to normal. “Shhhhhh. Calm,” said Rona as she rubbed Stacy’s head. Stacy’s muscles relaxed.
“What happened to you?” asked Rona.
“I took a lot of pills,” said Stacy, her voice low and trance-like.
“Why did you take so many?” asked Rona in a soothing tone.
“Because…because I wanted to kill myself,” said Stacy. With that the muscles in her arms and legs tensed. A grimace formed on her face. And although she didn’t open her eyes, tears were forming in them.
“Shhhhhh,” said Rona. The sound of Rona’s voice seemed to calm Stacy down. The grimace melted away and her body relaxed back to normal. “What made you want to kill yourself?”
“The Eyes,” said Stacy in a strained voice.
Rona gave Virgil a look.
The hairs on the back of Virgil’s neck stood up.
“Tell me what happened,” said Rona.
Stacy swallowed hard before beginning: “I was having bad dreams. I was seeing things—horrible things. I thought I was going crazy. I went to Mrs. Vale. She said she would help me. She gave me these pills. She told me they would help me sleep better. But they didn’t. My dreams got worse. I stopped sleeping. Then I saw them during the day. The Eyes! They watched me everywhere I went. I went to Mrs. Vale for help. She told me she would help me…but…but…” her voice broke. “She’s evil! She took me somewhere. She did things to me. They all did horrible things to me.”
“Like what?” said Virgil, his hands clasped over his mouth and nose, in a horrified expression.
Rona silenced him with a glance.
“Bad things,” continued Stacy. “They burned me. They marked me.”
“Where did they burn you? Where did they mark you? Can you show me?” asked Rona.
Stacy’s hand moved out from under the blanket. Slowly, it made its way up her body. Eventually, her index finger pointed to her chest. “Here.”
Rona motioned for Virgil to turn away, and he did. She pulled down Stacy’s hospital gown to uncover the spot she was pointing to.
“I don’t see anything,” said Rona, puzzled.
“It’s inside,” said Stacy in a pained voice.
Although Virgil couldn’t see where Stacy was pointing, fear welled up inside of him.
“You can’t see it,” said Stacy. “But I can feel it. They wanted to make me like them. They wanted to turn me into something. Some thing! I didn’t want to. I got away. He told me that the eyes were upon me; that I couldn’t hide. He told me he was going to kill my mom. I don’t want him to kill my mom,” her voice broke once again. “So I did this. So they can’t make me do terrible things. So they won’t hurt my mom. I want them to leave her alone. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Rona.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I couldn’t help the others,” said Stacy.
“Others? There are more like you?” asked Rona.
“Yes. There are other kids. They’re so scared. I couldn’t help them,” said Stacy.
“Where are they?” asked Rona.
“He has them. He’s holding them captive. He’s waiting for something. He’s looking for something.”
“Who is He?”
“He’s a bad man. He’s a very bad man,” said Stacy.
“Does he have a name? Where is he keeping the others?” asked Rona with sudden urgency.
“I can’t! I can’t. I’m so tired,” said Stacy, her body tensing up again. “I’m too tired. I’m scared. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Rona, soothingly. “Rest, child. Rest. It’s going to be okay. Is there anything else that you can tell me?”
Stacy raised her hand slowly. She pointed at Virgil. “They want…him.”
Virgil whirled around in horror. Rona lowered Stacy’s hand and rubbed her head soothingly. Stacy calmed back to her subdued, comatose state as if she had never moved or spoken at all. Rona fixed the covers over her.
“Your mother needs you. Come back,” said Rona soothingly. “Come back, Stacy.”
Just then, Tina walked in. She had a bag of food in her hand. She smiled when she saw Rona and Virgil. “Thank you,” she said, walking over and giving Virgil a kiss on the cheek, and then Rona. Rona rose from where she was sitting and allowed Tina to take her place by her daughter. Tina rubbed Stacy’s head and spoke soothingly in her daughter’s ear.
“That was…kind of awesome,” said Virgil as he and Rona walked down the hallway of the hospital.
“Well, being ‘awesome’ is one of my many talents,” said Rona.
“Well, that was, by far, the coolest thing I’ve seen you do,” said Virgil.
“Stick around,” said Rona with a smile.
“Did you heal her?”
“No. Like I said, I just soothed her. It unburdened her for a moment and allowed her to tell me things that she’s been wanting to tell somebody. It’s no different from what happens when you hug someone who is sad, or hold someone’s hand to let them know you care. It’s no different from comforting a crying baby, or from what her mother is doing right now. It isn’t healing. It isn’t hypnosis. It’s just, kind of like love, I guess. Not making them do things, but allowing them to do things.”
“Does it work on everyone?”
Rona shook her head. “Sometimes people are beyond comfort.”
“I still think it’s pretty cool. You’re like a Jedi,” said Virgil.
“A Jedi? Isn’t that the guy from that movie: Star-something-or-other?”
“Star Wars! You saw it?” said Virgil.
“Yeah, long time ago,” said Rona. “I didn’t care for it.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s like the greatest movie ever!” said Virgil.
“No. Casablanca is like the greatest movie ever,” said Rona matter-of-factly.
“Oh my god, I have so much to teach you,” said Virgil. He stopped suddenly. “Just out of curiosity, did you ever do that, Solace-thing to me?”
Rona stopped. “Yes. Once.”
“Did it work?”
Rona turned around. She gave Virgil a half smile.
“Maybe a bit too well. It made you forget.”