“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Virgil, stopping his charge.
Rona jammed her palm into her forehead repeatedly. “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”
Virgil gave her a puzzled look.
“I can’t believe it took me three whole days to figure it out. You’re a real genius, Rona. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid,” said Rona shaking her head in disappointment at herself.
“Are you having a conversation with yourself?” asked Virgil.
Rona took a moment to inspect Virgil. He was a short kid, and skinny; clearly of East Asian heritage. Although his hair was brown and highlighted, the roots were growing in jet-black. Rona could tell by his clothes that his parents were well off, though not excessively so. They could stand to do a better job with his laundry, however. His clothes had a faded stain on them. He was a cute kid, though not a pillar of confidence; nor did he exude any kind of magnetism. He blended into the background. In fact, he seemed…rather average.
Rona had to admit, she was expecting a bit more.
“Come on! Let’s get it on already! The clock is running!” shouted one of the students from the bleachers. More students chimed in.
“Let’s see some action!”
“You can do it, Rona!”
“Kick his butt!”
“Grab her booty!”
“Quit stalling, McFeeney!”
“I’m not going to wrestle you,” said Rona, folding her arms across her chest. Virgil looked surprised. Coach Yval laughed. The class awed. “I want to wrestle Andy Mowry!”
A collective “Ooooooo” sounded in the crowd.
They all looked at Andy. He laughed it off, but the other kids kept staring.
“You scared?” called Rona.
Andy snorted. He made his way down the steps. “Have a seat, McFeeney,” said Andy as he took Virgil’s place face-to-face with Rona. “I knew you couldn’t wait to have your hands all over me.”
Andy charged. Rona sidestepped, and using his momentum threw him to the mat face-first. She wrapped her legs around his torso and squeezed. He attempted to break her grip but she was too strong. Andy rolled and thrashed, but she gave him no space. The other kids cheered as they watched. Rona gave up her grip and allowed Andy to turn over. As he did she used his own momentum against him, flipping him over and throwing him flat onto his back. She held his shoulders down on the mat. Andy thrashed and kicked in an attempt to get up but Rona held him steady. A look of surprise and embarrassment was written in Andy’s blue eyes. But Rona wasn’t finished yet. She called on an energy deep within herself. She brought it forward, changing the color of her eyes from dark brown to a deep and unnatural yellow glow. She was careful to make sure that only Andy saw the change. He screamed in terror. With the strength of fear, he pushed Rona off of him, got to his feet and bolted across the gym towards the exit. He never stopped screaming until he disappeared through the exit and the door slammed shut behind him.
The entire gym was silent.
They moved almost in unison as they looked at Rona, then toward the door, then back at Rona again.
Rona shrugged. “Does that mean I win? I’m just a girl, I don’t know things like this.”
No one said anything.
“What the hell was that?” said Coach Yval, breaking the silence. “Are you a cage fighter or something?”
“No, she’s just awesome!” said Coach Lawler, giving Rona a high five. The girls in the gym cheered and chanted Rona’s name. The boys looked on in shock. Rona bowed graciously.
The announcement came that the storm had cleared and school was officially dismissed. A crowd of students surrounded Rona praising her performance and asking what her secret was.
“I…um…have a lot of brothers,” said Rona, disinterestedly. She searched the crowd for Virgil but he was nowhere to be seen. “Could you guys excuse me?”
“Where you going?” shouted Brittany as Rona pushed past the crowd and ran to the exit.
She didn’t see Virgil outside either. He couldn’t have gotten far. She had to find him.
“Hey you owe me a walk home, Sir!” said Heather as she ran up to Virgil.
“Hey!” said Virgil, embracing her. The two walked and talked and for a moment Virgil forgot all about the fact that he had to meet with Lee tonight. Heather was good company. They were just about to pass the spot where they had run into the old lady, the other day, when Virgil heard shouting from behind them.
“Virgil!” said Rona as she ran up to join Virgil and Heather.
“What do you want?” asked Virgil.
“I, um, just wanted to apologize for how I acted in the cafeteria,” said Rona, scratching her head.
“Okay,” said Virgil. He and Heather turned and walked away.
“Wait!” said Rona.
Virgil turned around and threw his hands up in the air.
“Uh…lovely weather, we’re having.”
“No. We just had a crazy rainstorm,” said Virgil. “I give you points for kicking Andy Mowry’s ass but you’re really weird, ya’ know that?”
“I am weird. But I was hoping we could be friends anyway. You see, back home in my village, neighbors are highly regarded and…it’s customary that we become friends. It’s actually a sin for us not to become good friends—in my culture, that is.”
Virgil stared at Rona for a few seconds. Rona smiled wide.
“Virgil, if you want to hang out with your friend, I could walk home by myself,” said Heather.
“No, no, no. I’m not having this moment taken from me again,” said Virgil. He put his arm around Heather and began walking away. “Goodbye, Rona.”
“Wait up,” said Rona. “Can I come?”
Virgil didn’t answer. He and Heather just continued walking.
Heather didn’t live too far from the school. In less than twenty minutes they were standing at the front door to her house. They exchanged phone numbers.
“Thank you for walking me home,” said Heather. She planted a kiss on Virgil’s cheek. Virgil beamed at her as she walked up to her door. He gave her a goofy wave, making her laugh before she waved back and shut the door. Virgil turned around and walked back to the street, holding the cheek where he’d been kissed. Rona popped up in front of him seemingly out of nowhere. Virgil leaped in the air with surprise.
“What the hell?” he shouted.
Rona gave him a wide, innocent smile. “I just wanted to see…how your walk went.”
“Are you kidding me? You followed me?” said Virgil in disbelief. “You’ve just gone from socially awkward to downright scary. How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t want to know you. I don’t like you. I don’t want to be your friend.”
“And I get that,” said Rona. “But I was hoping we could put the past behind us and forget about it. Let’s start fresh. Let’s meet up later tonight and get to know each other.”
Oh…yeah…tonight, thought Virgil. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach. He turned and began walking away from Rona. “Trust me, you don’t want to go where I’m going tonight.”
Rona grabbed his arm firmly. “What? Where are you going tonight?”
“Let me go,” said Virgil.
Rona did. “Virgil, if there’s something wrong, some kind of trouble that you’re in, I may be able to help.”
“No one can help me.” He turned to walk away.
Rona leaped backwards, summersaulting in the air and landing in front of Virgil. His mouth dropped open as he gawked at her in silence.
“I tried it your way, Angelica,” muttered Rona. “Okay, Virgil, I need to talk to you. I’m not exactly who I have been telling everybody that I am.”
“Then who are you?”
“I’ve been sent here to protect you. I’m your guardian angel.”
Virgil chuckled. “My guardian angel?”
“Yeah. You’re in danger.”
“And you’re going to help me?”
“Shouldn’t you have wings and a halo or something? Shouldn’t you be all warm, and full of wisdom?”
“I am warm and full of wisdom,” said Rona, folding her arms across her chest defensively. “And I don’t have wings or a halo because…because I don’t need any of that stuff right now.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Virgil. “I don’t believe in God or angels or any of that crap.”
“And that’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t change anything. I’m still here, standing in front of you. You’re still in grave danger.”
Virgil continued walking, Rona followed by his side. Virgil had seen some crazy things in the past week and his idea of what was possible had been expanded but he wasn’t ready to start believing in God or angels just yet. His brain couldn’t process that at this time. It was going into overload as it was. On one hand, if Rona was telling the truth, if she really was an angel sent from Heaven, then what did that make Lee and the Hoods? Something too terrifying to think about. On the other hand, if Rona was lying or worse, delusional, then by involving her in this mess he would be risking her life. That would be defeating the purpose of him meeting Lee tonight, which was to make sure that no one else got hurt. As loony and surly as Rona was, he didn’t want to see her get hurt, let alone be the cause of it. Even though she could apparently jump several feet into the air and beat up Andy Mowry, she’d be a match for one of the Hoods. They were a lot tougher than Andy. He would have to face this alone.
Rona had said all that she could think to say; she had said more than Angelica had wanted her to say. Although it was clear that Virgil didn’t quite believe her, she could tell by the look on his face that he was entertaining the idea. He had seen something that had scared him. Rona didn’t know what, but she knew it had something to do with where he was going tonight. There was no way she could convince him with words. She would have to find some way to prove it to him. The two of them walked in silence until they got to their respective homes.
“Where are you going tonight?” asked Rona as Virgil walked up the steps to his house.
Virgil made a decision: he wasn’t dying tonight. Nor was he getting captured. He’d have to think of something. He ran to the kitchen and grabbed a kitchen knife that was just big enough to be an effective weapon, but still small enough to conceal. He found his throwing stars in the place where his mother hid everything she didn’t want him to find. It was time to put all of that training to good use. He made sure to hug all of the members of his family once they came home. Just in case. He even sent a text to Erk, Ali, and even Vanessa, letting them know that he cared. He slipped out of the house just before sunset, and headed toward City Park.
Rona dressed in the clothes that Angelica had made for her. She had a feeling she was going to be getting into a fight tonight. It took longer than she wanted to get out of the house, due to all of the excitement about her gym performance. It seemed the whole family wanted to talk to her about it. By the time she was finally able to slip out, she could see Virgil riding away on his bike. He was too far for her to follow him. She debated asking for a ride, but didn’t want to risk Brittany or Ashley wanting to come with her. She would have to go on foot. Pulling her map from her pocket, she dashed off into the sunset.
City Park was a big open place. There were buildings that housed exhibits close to the streets. But the rest of the park was grass, a lake and trees as far as one could see. Virgil didn’t have a plan. He debated not looking for Lee at all, but figured that by doing so he would just be delaying the inevitable. Figuring that the Hoods and Lee would want to meet in a place out of sight of other people, Virgil rode further into the park. The further in he got, the less people there were. It was a cool evening and the ground was still wet from the earlier storm. Not ideal weather for a picnic. Eventually Virgil came upon two different paths. He didn’t know which to take. Stay on the right path, he thought, before riding down the path on the right. He hopped off of his bike and walked with it searching the area for Lee. His heart raced and his palms sweat. He tried to control his breathing as his teacher had shown him in Ninjitsu class.
“Whiteboy, ”said Lee. Virgil whirled around to see Lee behind him, not even ten feet away. Virgil let his bike fall to the ground and stood with both hands at the ready.
“I’m here. What now?” said Virgil, unsure if he wanted an answer.
“Come with me,” said Lee.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” said Virgil defiantly.
“I was hoping you would say that,” said Lee.
He lunged at Virgil.
Rona came upon two different paths, one on the left, and another on the right. Virgil had to have gone this way, thought Rona. She was on the right track.
Virgil tucked and rolled out of the way just as Lee landed where he would have been. He turned around, pulled a throwing star from his pocket and launched it in Lee’s direction. Lee put his forearm up, blocking his face. The throwing star plunged into the flesh of his forearm, causing him to cry out in pain. He tugged at the star with his other hand. As he did so, Virgil hurled another star, this one finding its mark in Lee’s cheek. Lee let out a roar. He ripped the throwing star from his cheek and turned his eyes to Virgil—but they were no longer Lee’s eyes. They had changed to the tiny-pupiled, glowing eyes that had been haunting his dreams. Lee threw his head back and let out a loud gurgling call. Out of nowhere, Hoods popped up on all sides. Virgil ran to get his bike, but one of the hoods jumped out right in front of it. Virgil changed direction, while pulling the knife from a makeshift sash in his belt. Another popped up in front of him. Virgil slashed the Hood across the face with his knife. The man behind the mask hollered in pain. He tore the hood from his face and placed his hand over his eye.
It was the construction worker.
But his face had changed.
His eyes were like Lee’s and the others. His nose was gone and so were his lips. There was a row of shark-like teeth in his mouth. When he looked at Virgil, Virgil froze where he stood. It felt like his brain was overloading and everything was becoming a haze. One of the Hoods grabbed him by the throat and lifted him into the air with a claw-like hand. He removed his hood to reveal, the face of the police officer from the first night at the construction site. His eyes glowing fiercely.
“Finally,” he said as he closed his hand around Virgil’s throat. Virgil didn’t struggle. His whole body went numb.
“Oh my god! What is going on?” said a panicked voice.
All of the Hoods turned in the direction of the voice.
“What are you guys?” she said, placing both hands over her mouth in shock. The police officer nodded to the construction worker, and he made his way over to Rona. “Please don’t hurt me,” she pleaded, getting down on her knees.
“Sorry, Doll, but you’ve seen too much. I can’t allow you to leave,” said the construction worker as he walked up to the kneeling Rona. He shook his head and smacked his teeth. “And you’re such a pretty girl too.”
He reached down toward Rona’s throat.
Rona grabbed his wrist just before he reached her. “And you’re butt-ugly.”
She pulled the construction worker down by the wrist and bashed an elbow across his jaw. He dropped to the ground and didn’t move. All of the Hoods stared in shocked silence for a second. Then they charged Rona. She leaped to her feet, grabbed a rock from the ground and hurled it at the police officer. The rock smashed him in the face and he fell backwards, dropping Virgil to the ground.
Rona leaped into the air, coming down with both feet onto the face of one of the Hoods. She turned, catching an oncoming kick in her hand, and countered by tripping the would-be assailant’s other leg. She held tight to the leg she’d caught, and spun, using him as a weapon to knock over two more Hoods, before letting go and sending him sailing through the air and crash landing in the brush. One of the other Hoods caught Rona by surprise, wrapping both arms around her torso and running with her until her back slammed into a tree.
“You guys are strong,” said Rona. She reached up, snapped a branch from the tree and jammed it into the Hood’s eye. He screamed out in pain and pulled the branch from his eye. Rona snapped off another branch and jammed it into his other eye. The Hood went down in a frenzy. Lee leaped through the air at Rona. She stood her ground, planting her feet firmly. When Lee was in range she landed a hard punch on his jaw. Then ducking into a split position as Lee’s forward momentum continued. He crashed onto the ground and slid several feet in the dirt. Most of the Hoods were beginning to run away. The police officer growled at Rona and charged. He swung a punch that Rona dodged easily. She effortlessly dodged two more, before catching the last one and pulling the officer forward with the momentum. He stumbled forward, and Rona hopped on his back and wrap her legs around his torso. She wrapped one arm around his neck and grabbed the top of his head with the other one. In one hard motion, she twisted the officer’s head completely around. He fell forward and Rona hopped off just in time for the hood to hit the ground with a thud. She ran to attend Virgil who lay still on the ground. She heard rustling behind her and turned around, ready for action. The officer rose to his feet, twisted his head around with his hands until it faced the right direction and then ran off with the other Hoods. Rona surveyed the area for any more trouble. Most of the Hoods had run away, but some were still on the ground unmoving. Great, thought Rona. She’d be able to question them later.
“Virgil. Are you okay? Virgil. Virgil!” yelled Rona as she cradled him in her arms. His eyes rolled back into his head. His body shook involuntarily. Foam formed in his mouth. Panic overtook Rona. She had seen this look a hundred times.
He was going into shock.
Virgil opened his eyes. It was dark outside and cloudy. He sat up and looked around. He’d been lying on the ground in the middle of what appeared to be a wooded area. It was impossible for him to tell where he was or how long he’d been there. Getting to his feet, he gazed up at the sky. It looked like it was about to rain.
“What happened to you?”
Virgil turned to see his mother standing a few feet from him. She was biting her lip and fighting back tears. Virgil had never seen his mother this distraught before.
“I…I…don’t know. These past few weeks have been…I don’t know…insane. I don’t know what’s going on or what to believe anymore. Please don’t be upset with me,” said Virgil.
“Why didn’t you come to me? Maybe I could’ve helped!” said his mom, tears flowing down her cheeks.
Virgil’s heart sank. “Mom, I’m so sorry. I thought I could handle it alone—I really did. I don’t know what to do. Mom, I’m so sorry. Please don’t cry.” His own tears forming. His mother lifted her head and walked forward. Virgil lifted his arms to embrace his mother.
But she walked right through him.
She kneeled down in front of a headstone, buried her face in her hands and wept. She sobbed loudly and screamed in fury.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” said Virgil, hurrying to be by her side.
Then he saw it.
The gravestone was his.
“Why, why, why. Why did they take my son? He didn’t know how much I loved him—how much I needed him. I want my son back. I want my son back. Please, give me my son back,” she said as she sobbed.
Virgil backed away slowly. This was a dream, a nightmare. He would wake up any minute now. The sky cracked open above him. The clouds formed a great beast with lightning for eyes and a tornado for a mouth. The beast roared. Virgil took off running as fast as he could, ducking branches and leaping over tree roots. He heard Celeste’s voice echo through the forest.
“You promised not to leave me!”
I’m sorry, thought Virgil as he ran. He could hear the beast roar as he made his way to the edge of the forest. There stood what looked like Rona.
But she was far too old to be Rona.
Her hair was streaked with silver, her skin hard like sandpaper. She was clad in a style of armor that Virgil didn’t recognize. A cracked breastplate and chainmail that looked like it had been torn or cut in battle, leaving her arms exposed. Various scars riddled her face, neck and arms, one of which ran the length of her face. She looked taller and more muscular than young Rona. There was a hard look in her eyes, one of strength and also of pain. And something else. Although her eyes didn’t glow, there was something there that wasn’t quite human.
She was terrifying.
“You have to come with me!” she shouted.
“No!” shouted Virgil.
“You have to! It’s the only way!” said Rona even more sternly.
“Please, Virgil. There’s no time!”
“No! Noooo!” said Virgil, turning around to run back the way he had come. The rain was too heavy and he could barely see anything. He tripped over a root and tumbled to the ground. The beast roared and the ground beneath him rumbled. Without warning, it cracked and he plunged into the darkness below.
“I think he’s waking up!” shouted Celeste with glee.
Virgil opened his eyes to see his whole family gathered around him. The light in the room was too bright and their faces blurry, but he could make out enough of their features to know it was them. They were all shouting in celebration until a concerned voice told them to keep it down.
“Give him some space,” said the nurse. She shined a flashlight in Virgil’s eyes. “Can you tell me your name?”
Virgil opened his mouth but no sound came out.
“Does the name ‘Virgil’ sound familiar?” asked the nurse.
Virgil did his best to nod. “Where…where…”
“You’re in the hospital, Virgil. You were in some kind of an accident. I need you to try not to move. I’m going to get the doctor. I’ll be right back.”
“How long was I out?” asked Virgil, as he devoured another cup of Jell-O.
“A couple of days,” said his mom. “I was so worried. You don’t remember anything?”
A jolt of pain shot through Virgil’s neck. An image of an inhuman face flashed before his eyes. Then it was gone. “Nope. Not really. In fact, the last few days or so are kind of a blur.”
“Someone found you passed out in the park. They called 911 with your cellphone and then carried you to the street. They said it was a female voice on the 911 call, but she was gone by the time the ambulance got there. She probably saved your life,” said Virgil’s dad.
Another image flashed before Virgil, this time of a girl fighting off multiple inhuman attackers. Then it was gone.
“We’re just glad you’re okay,” said his mom, placing her hand on top of his and squeezing gently.
“Yeah!” said Celeste, giving him a hug.
Over by the door, Virgil could see Jay. He was sitting with his arms folded across his chest. His lip quivered for a split second then stopped. He turned away before Virgil could see anything else. Then he got up and walked out of the room.
Virgil slept better that night than he had in a very long time. No nightmares. No tossing and turning. He slept through until the early afternoon. He woke up feeling like a million bucks. Erk and Ali stopped by to visit him. His father stopped in later in the evening and had brought a bucket of chicken with him. Celeste gave Virgil a card she had made that had a cute poem inside of it. Virgil had read the poem out loud and gave his sister a big hug. Even Vanessa called to check on him. That made Virgil’s day. He should wind up in the hospital more often. Now, if only he could remember what he had done to get hospitalized in the first place…
“Hey, Virgil,” said his neighbor Claire as she walked into the room with flowers. She was followed by Brittany and Ashley, who gave Virgil a smile and wave.
“Heeeyyy! Thank you, ladies,” said Virgil as he accepted the flowers and the hugs.
“We just wanted to check in on our favorite neighbor and make sure that he was alright,” said Claire.
“Much appreciated,” said Virgil.
“Oh, have you met our new foreign exchange student, Rona?” asked Claire, pointing to the doorway as Rona walked in.
Pain shot through Virgil when he saw her. He cried out in agony. Bad dreams and images flashed through his mind. Eyes that floated in the middle of the night. Running away in a panic. Fighting a friend. Faceless monsters. He buried his head in his hands as he tried to fight the thoughts off. Claire, Ashley and Brittany rushed to his side.
“Virgil, are you okay?” said Claire. “I’m going to call the doctor!”
“No, I’m okay,” said Virgil, still wincing with pain.
“I’m gonna’ wait outside,” said Rona.
Virgil’s symptoms eased when Rona left the room. Could she have been the cause of it? Virgil looked up at all of the concerned faces in front of him. He motioned that he was okay. He was great, in fact. He hadn’t felt this good in a long time. If he wanted to keep it that way, perhaps it would be best if he stayed as far away from Rona as possible.