My Problem With Rogue One

Overall, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a pretty good flick. As the fourth movie in the series and the second in the past two years to feature the Death Star or a Death Star-like-doomsday-device, it had to separate itself from the others while still retaining that Star Wars feel. Mission accomplished. It’s a fun action-adventure romp full of fun characters, great action and a descent script.

It is, however, not a perfect movie. The first half is kind of a jumbled mess and there are plot threads that don’t really go anywhere. The re-shoots are very apparent as many of the moments and lines from the trailer don’t show up in the movie itself. The two main characters: Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, are somewhat bland, despite the actors themselves giving good performances. But all of these issues could have been solved if the writers had made just one major change.

Jyn and Cassian should have been the same person.

What I mean is that the character of Cassian was not needed and all of his dialogue and backstory would make more sense coming from Jyn.

[ Spoilers Ahead ]

For instance, there is a line in the movie where Cassian says to Jyn: “I’ve been fighting in this revolution since I was six-years-old.” or something to that affect. Being that the movie opens with Jyn having her family taken from her and subsequently being brought into the revolution by Saw Gerrera at about six-years-old, this line would garner more sympathy from the audience coming from her, because we witnessed how it went down. Instead, it comes from a character that we hardly know, and at this point in the movie haven’t even decided if we liked or not. A line that could have been a sympathetic character moment just becomes expository background noise.

Having more characters in a story is a weakness if it means having to water down other characters. A movie is only so long and that means there is only so much time we get to spend with each character. The more we get to know and sympathize with a character the more [SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS] tragic it is when they meet their demise. The more we, as the audience, would feel it and view, not just their death as a tragedy, but their lives. At the end of Rogue One, instead of feeling a powerful emotion for one character, our sympathy is split between the two of them and is far less potent.

The issue with the movie jumping back and forth in the beginning could have been solved by eliminating this one superfluous character. Imagine if the movie jumped from Jyn being a child to her offing some guy in an alleyway just for thinking about snitching. That one scene would have given her some much-needed character depth and shown the audience just how much she had grown and changed since we’d last seen the character. Instead, it is Cassian who does this in the beginning of the movie. When I saw that in the movie my only thought was: “who the fuck is that?” “Is he gonna’ betray everyone?” It left me with a bunch of questions then promptly jumped to the next scene. What could’ve been a badass introduction to a character that we were already invested in was wasted on a character that we didn’t know.

Combining these characters would have not only cut down on the confusion of the beginning of the movie, but could have eliminated some of the plot threads that went nowhere. Like Cassian’s attempt to assassinate Jyn’s father. How much more interesting would it have been if it had been her sent to assassinate her own father and had to make the decision of just how far she was willing to go for the rebellion? It also would have eliminated the confusing plot thread of Cassian having to find Jyn, so that they could find Saw, so that they could find Jyn’s father, so that they could find the plans to the Death Star. Not to mention eliminating that cheesy death fakeout then miraculous reappearance just in a nick of time at the end.

If Jyn didn’t have to split screen time with Cassian than not only would it have given the character more agency, but it would have allowed her to become the answer to the Mary-Sue that was Rae from the Force Awakens. It would have been nice to see a complex female hero on screen that made decisions and didn’t have to share her screen time with a counterbalancing male equal. With this one simple change a character that was passable could have become iconic and a movie that was good could have become great.

The moral of Rogue One is never have two characters where one will do.

Happy Veteran’s Day

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Veteran’s Day was made to remember and appreciate the sacrifices of the brave men and women whom have fought and died for this country, as well as those that still do.

Pre-Revolutionary War and just after, the American people were weary of the idea of a standing army. They feared that a military made up of career soldiers could be used by the government as a means to oppress the people. George Washington had to fight extremely hard in order to build and maintain a standing military that wouldn’t be seen as an oppressive force but as defenders of liberty.After WWII, the idea of the military as a force for good, as protectors of the great nation of America, was firmly established. Though that image has been tainted by the rise of the military industrial complex and the general ugliness of war, we should still honor and respect those who serve.

But it doesn’t stop there.

When I joined the army, I did so with the idea of protecting people and defending those that could not defend themselves. When you swear in, you swear to protect the United States from threats both “foreign and domestic.” That soldier’s commitment to defending the United States from foreign and domestic threats is something that we should all take to heart. As the threat of fascism, climate change, and war has come to our doorstep, we need to stand up and fight against it. This doesn’t mean taking up arms against the government (necessarily), but it does mean doing your part to fight injustice.

America is its citizens, not its government. If the government is out of touch with its citizens it is our RIGHT to reign it in.

The most important lessons to learn from our veterans are those of duty and sacrifice. At a time when our society is becoming increasingly individualist, we must remember that soldiers believe the opposite. They stand in unity and understand that it is a cohesive unit that accomplishes a mission, not an individual. Soldiers fight for everyone’s freedom by giving up their own. They commit to duty and know that while they may not live to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice, society as a whole will benefit.

Being a soldier means trudging through the marsh, against enemy fire, against a hostile environment. And yet, the idea of turning back is never an option. They know that their mission is too important.

This veteran’s day, don’t just thank a vet for their service, learn from their duty and sacrifice. We can’t turn back now. The mission for justice, freedom, and life is too important.

Happy Veteran’s Day to all who’ve served and those that still do.

Why Millennials (Bernie Supporters) Are Refusing To Vote

This is the most important election ever! I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Hell, you might even have said that before. But that’s what they said the last time and the time before that. That’s what they always say. This election is no different than any other–and that’s the problem. Once again the election has come down to the two last demagogues standing, duking it out for the enrichment of themselves and their constituents. One of them is a racist and the other helped send millions of black people to private prisons for often nonviolent offenses. One has rowdy and sometimes violent rallies; while the other voted for a war that cost thousands of American lives, a million Iraqi lives, costed trillions of dollars, and destabilized the middle east–then did it again. One is a rich asshole and the other just works for them.

Oh, you’re still reading? Still not enough reasons why many millennials are not motivated to get to the poles this year? Okay.

Well, millennials are sick of this shit. We’re not just being told to vote, but told who to vote for. We can’t vote for Donald Trump for obvious reasons, but we can’t vote for Gary Johnson because he doesn’t know where Aleppo is (as if any of us is basing our vote one what is going on in Syria). We can’t vote for Jill Stein because she doesn’t exist. So, in other words, go out and Vote for Hillary Clinton or else. No one gives a shit whether or not you agree with anything that she stands for. If you vote for Trump the world will explode. If you go third party it will split the vote, resulting in a Trump victory thereby destroying the world, it’ll be all your fault. So fuck you, vote Hillary. You have no choice.

We’re onto the game and we’re deciding not to play.

The older generations don’t seem to understand why we feel no civic duty to uphold a system that has long been corrupted. They’re so used to not rocking the boat and going along and hoping for the best. They compromised and compromised until they had nothing left to bargain with and now find themselves feebly begging to hold on to what they’ve got left. Unable to imagine a better world, they’ve simply given up fighting for one, instead they’ve tied their fate too tightly to the maintenance of a corrupt system that continues to sell them out. They’ve learned to eat their shit sandwich and not talk with their mouths full, all the while closing their eyes and telling themselves it’ll all work out. And now they’re surprised and even outraged that we refuse to do the same.

It was the indifference of the previous generations that allowed wages to stagnate, benefits to disappear, prison to overflow, the ecosystem to be raped, and the wealth gap to increase. They passively participated in the electoral process without ever stopping to think about what exactly they were voting for; or what the agenda of these people they were voting fr actually was; or ever really demanding anything from those that were supposed to be serving them. That was the political climate that allowed for candidates like Trump and Clinton to thrive.

It’s easy for liberals to point out that it was the policies and campaign strategies of the right over the past five decades that paved the way for such a despicable candidate as Donald Trump. Their blatant racism, anti-intellectualism, bible thumping, and worship of the wealthy could only have culminated in a candidate of this ilk. However, liberals have trouble admitting that it was their constant compromising, backroom dealing and all around rightward movement that paved the way for Bernie Sanders.  Bernie showed that things didn’t have to be this way. Candidates didn’t have to accept big donations from large corporations and that we could talk openly about alternatives to the traditional way of doing things. He showed millions of millennials that they weren’t alone and did have a voice.

That’s why he had to be destroyed.

And now his supporters are being asked to switch gears and vote for Hillary lest risk the reign of Donald Trump. These are the same fear tactics that the right has been using for decades. Millennials aren’t falling for it. We’re refusing to be bullied or coerced into voting for someone with whom we fundamentally disagree on just about everything. I didn’t support Bernie Sanders the man, I supported his policy positions and that didn’t change once he dropped out. I didn’t suddenly become for fracking or TTP, two things Hillary is in favor of. Rather than voting for the lesser of two evils like good little team players, a lot of millennials are opting out and refusing to play the game. It’s a form of silent protest against politics as usual.

The image of the “millennial” as a twentysomething keyboard warrior, still living in his mother’s basement ignores the fact that a lot of us are well into our thirties. We’re battle-hardened veterans (some of us literally) who’ve seen some shit and done our homework. Sure, we don’t like Trump because of the things he does on television, but we don’t like Hillary for things she’s done behind closed doors; far away from any video camera, where she and her constituents, in the most undemocratic way possible, make decisions that affect the world. Voting for the lesser of two evils is no way to promote change. It’s actually proven to be a step in the opposite direction of progress. The first step in doing what works is to stop doing what doesn’t. That could mean voting third party or sitting it out altogether until we’ve repaired our broken democracy.

There was an episode of The Simpsons where aliens took over the bodies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, planning to get elected president in order to enslave humanity. At the end of the episode they are discovered by the horrified citizens. Now standing on stage, without disguises and with everyone aware of their evil agenda, one of the aliens arrogantly says “It’s a two-party system, you have to vote for one of us.”

No we don’t.

Aegis (Cover and Title Page)

Cover hi res

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.

 

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 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.

 

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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.”

 

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