I’m tired. I’m worn. My heart is heavy from the work it takes to keep breathing. I’ve made mistakes and let my hope fail. My soul feels crushed by the weight of this world. By the weight of my world and what is happening under that very tree right now.
Staring in the yard beyond the doorway, a singular massive live oak stood proudly in inky night. Yet its foliage laid about the ground surrounding it; a testament to its sickly nature. Leaning back against the massive trunk sat a square faced, ebony stubbled young man breathing softly. Tom, my boyfriend, my bondmate and the guy whose waves of sorrow lap at the shores of my conscience. We feel each other’s emotions, recognize each other’s pain and can’t ever lie to each other. Tears cloud his eyes as he stares into the clear moonlit night. Winking motes cast starlight on him, making the sharp lines of his moist jaw sparkle. Rubbing the thick championship ring on his left hand, he sighed.
“Then Gwen, I need too, if you aren’t going out to him.” An older man, tall and broad with a receding hairline stood behind, uncomfortably so. Oiled tan leather wafted into my thin nostrils as he impatiently adjusted its caramel fur collar. It blended perfectly with his remaining long, stringy hair. Dr. Volkov wearing his favorite jacket and jeans at 1 am.
“I can’t. It’s too oppressive.” Blowing out a heavy breath, I looked away from the askance gaze he cast every time I said that. That disbelieving, pathetic look he held because he’ll never understand. He can’t. He’s not a member of the Assembly. I am. So is Tom now. I pulled him in.
I hop back one step from the gunmetal doorway as Dr. Volkov passed. Shush of denim filled the downtown night overriding the soft whirr of air conditioners. It overrode the sniffs of Tom’s pain as that drove knives in my heart. I know I should say something, anything. Better yet, sing. Christina Perri’s song ‘Human’ queues up. I ignore it for now with only a heavy sigh and my ring hand clutching my chest.
Soft crunch of dead leaves and dry bermuda grass mock me. The oppression remained. Mine own burst of travel twenty minutes ago plowed into this problem. Five steps; a mere four feet from the doorway and I’m frozen in horror, struck by a wrecking ball of salty death. The humid night air and woody fall scents blotted out by coppery smell of blood and rotting fish. Only there is no fish, dead or alive, visible or invisible. Just an vast, walled in empty space. Off in one corner a hot tub rests beside a weather worm couch with matching chairs. None of these are near the tree or me. Nor is the small pool on the far side of the space. Its rippling, sapphire sheen glowing from internal illumination.
My six pack abs brush against my tight white peplum dress as I twist frustrated. Feels like a crab on ice. As my phone chirps the hour a vast golden light illuminates the tree; its ethereal glow hauntingly tragic. Tom shook his head, hidden beneath. He can’t see me yet knows I’m there.
Dr. Volkov paused just short of the tree’s branches. “I understand.”
“How the hell could you? You’re alone.” He gazed at the stars again, then at the thick ring on his finger. The inscription bore ‘World Champion 2009’ on it. Same as mine. Platinum sparkled as he held it before the man. “I’m bonded to her.”
“You love her. She loves you. Her wounds run as deep as yours.”
“I bound her wounds. I held her when she cried. She poured salt on mine when the time came.” He sighed again, wistfulness mixed with tears.
“Tom, you know she didn’t mean it. Since your mother discovered the truth about this summer, brutal doesn’t began to explain her actions. I did what I could. You still live with me. Well, technically…” His oblong, pasty white face cracked a broad grin. He whispered something to which Tom nodded amused. Probably about Tom being legal.
With a frustrated sigh, Tom pushed his lean, muscled body up. “I didn’t tell Gwen because, you know. Her plate is full. She believes she can be a recording artist, an competitive cheerleader and Princess of the Assembly. Being a mermaid princess is tough enough and still she insists on holding onto the trappings of a surface life. Then there is the Piscine.”
He punched his hand, shaking it after. “She’s dauntless. That’s one of the reasons I love her so much. Between what the Assembly is and the Piscine’s ever-present enmity for them, I didn’t tell Mom. Who told her? Why the hell did she think that was okay? Being drunk is never an excuse. She would tell them herself. Now? I don’t know anymore. I don’t know HER anymore.”
A gale of hurt whipped across the rocks of my mind forcing out a cringing frown. Dauntless? No. He is. He’s been through so much with Lorelei and I. I doubted him up until we bonded. Was so angry when he did. Accident or no, it’s still permanent. Moreover, I do love him, even as I denied it to his face many times. He wouldn’t relent. Finally after I became Princess, I let him in. We are a part of each other; even if I don’t understand his love. As for my diversity of projects, I can be all three if I balance it right. What would tip that balance? Things like this or a piscine attack. I can’t afford either. Not that I have a choice anymore.
In a wicker basket beside the door rested the remnants of the last contest here. Styrofoam balls logoed with a stylized BS10. Target hoops for them long since pulled down. I remember what happened in LA on the real set this mirrors. I remember watching. More death. More horror. This place wasn’t supposed to emulate that.
“I have no answers.” Dr. Volkov rubbed his palms against his indigo jeans as he tapped his leather combat boots together thoughtfully. “Allie asked to live here.”
Tom looked past him toward the back wall of the white washed sandstone monstrosity the two of them lived in. Flaking paint in his periphery pointed to a darkened blood light with a sun bleached sign beneath it. Even as darkness hid the words, he read silently, ‘Hot set if light lit’.
“I agreed,” Dr. Volkov said triumphantly.
Tom shook his head, dejected. “Uncle Mark, Allie always said you ‘creeped’ her out.”
Mark smirked. “Well, her choices were more abuse at Debbie’s and her boyfriend’s hands or live here with us. You’re of age, you know.”
Tom groaned. “Don’t remind me. I’d rather everyone think I’m a big 16 year old rather than an average 19 year old still going to school as a sophomore.” His gaze moved from the crimson lamp, focusing on me still shadowy against the glass door. Off to my right rose our big brother in sandstone; Lafayette parish courthouse. He stared at what remained visible above towering walls; the final four floors seen through barbwire topped chain-link.
“That’s the magic of what I do.” Dr. Volkov flashed a suave smile. Tucking his yellow dress shirt back into his jeans, he took a step back walking toward a mirrored glass rectangles implanted along the inner back wall. Security camera constantly recording hid behind that glass. Their mates lined the other side of the walls facing the courthouse and the parking garage. Nothing hidden. ‘I can’t afford it,’ he said when I asked the first time. Circling the live oak, he stared awhile, awash in golden halogen glow. He shook his head. Hopelessness clutched his expression. The tree is dead, a grisly reminder of what we both knew his family became.
“You need to come inside. Gwen’s upset.” He announced as he completed a full circuit. Realizing what he said, he sighed deeply. “Sorry. You know that. She says she’s afraid to come out here.” Tom looked up at the stars again. He coughed. “You know that too.” Tom nodded without looking back.
I am NOT afraid to come out here. I can’t. Death is buried out there. A loud feminine groan echoed, followed by a whoosh. A Styrofoam ball landed beside Mark’s boots. “I came out to get you before she resorts to more dramatic things. You need to talk to her.”
“I can’t talk about Allie. Not yet.” He wiped his face, the smile fake and failing.
“I understand. Nevertheless, she will be here soon. I actually expected her hours ago. You’ll have to say something.”
Tom stared at the ring again, then at me, my honey blond hair streaming in the moonlight. Another ball whizzed by them. Athletic caramel thighs kissed night as I squatted down, pulling more balls against my clingy, sleeveless white mini dress. Blond pixie, that’s me in surface form.
“Like what,” he asked. I felt him shove my insecurity and annoyance to back hallways of his mind just as I shoved his sorrow, worry and confusion into mine.
“Let her do for you what you did when Lorelei died,” Mark looked back at me, grimacing when another ball whizzed by, striking the back wall.
‘Run’ by Snow Patrol queued up, spiraling my mood into a dark, dark place brimming with misery. I miss her more than everything. We were simply too late to stop it. The very fact he lets Dr. Mark Volkov bring her up as if she’s a dead pet is why I don’t care where the balls land now. It’s not as if they are going to do anything more than sting.
“I tried to stop a madman. I failed. I did it because I couldn’t bear her suffering. Not after all she did for me. For us. I still can’t.” He stared right at me, gestured to the streetlights and then the shadows. A singular buoy of joy floating amongst our sea of turmoil. Our song; ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey. It’s how we met and the second song I sang to him. I do believe that’s when he fell for me. Still the pain and struggle are real.
“You are as stubborn as your father. Go to her.” He caught the ball just before it hit Tom in the face. Tossing it to him, he walked towards the couches hidden in shadow on the porch beside the glass door. Tom shook his head and ran towards me.
I hurdled another ball as he came. Heaviness gnawed at my conscious edge at it struck home. Yet inside my mind, there still ran an ever scrolling list of beautiful songs, jingles and arraignments. As a siren, I could grab any one of them regardless of when they existed. It didn’t matter the language. I know several. Yet none seems to fit.
Tom paused just short of me. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to handle what happened,” he said in his silky voice. Only this time it carried a tinge of sadness. “I wish I could sing my emotions out.” He whistled the chorus of ‘November Rain’ by Guns and Roses.
“Being dark, brooding and mysterious isn’t how.” I sniped, brushing a honey golden strand from my eyes.
“You are in the backyard, you know.” He flashed a smarmy smile.
“Nice try but I’m in the doorway.” I waved my arms around the doorframe of the open black glass door, trying to look contrite. A single ball still remains in my hands as I bat it back and forth mentally scanning what I jokingly call the ‘Eternal Billboard® chart’. Where are all the apology songs when you need them?
“I’m not coming in.” Tom turned away halting after a step. Frustration and love fought like competing explosive waves, drowning everything else. So I poured all my pent up angst, fear, and horror into the ball before it left my peach nailed hands. The sting radiated across my back as the ball tagged his. He turned back, the wince still evident. “I do love you.”
Tears ran down, carrying away the delicately laid golden glitter from last night’s sideline cheer event. A ragged sigh rumbled up. “I love you too but I can’t say I’m sorry if I don’t know why.”
Closing the distance, he rubbed his palms down my cheeks pausing at my thickly muscular shoulders. Minty breath filled my senses as he nuzzled my neck, inhaling cheap hibiscus and vanilla perfume. Passionate warmth enveloped me. Chills coursed down my spine. Anger dissolved, replaced with that longing for companionship I held even since Lorelei passed on.
“I felt you. Wanting to be sorry is enough for now. I just can’t.” He said as he clutched me into his robust arms, red eyed. I melted inward, playfully scratching his back.
This time when the song cued, I released it happily. The backyard melted away into an vast arena where screaming fans squealed. Up on a raised stage I stood before a red microphone with a chocolate brown acoustic guitar strapped to me. ‘Everything has changed’ swarmed around me filling the space with a soft peace as I played and sang. Tom stood with a guitar too, playing as well. A ghostly Edward Sheehan floated over him just as Taylor Swift floated over me. Walking and playing on the round maroon stage, glow sticks waved as we sang a chorus. He sang one then we finished together. Sparkles of warm light coated his face with an easy smile. The raging sea of emotion finally flattened into a serene mirror.
Like brilliant fireflies fleeing a brushed shrub, the vision collapsed. Mark stood pleased. “Wow. I can see why you got that contract, Gwen. Without being tranced its liquid honey and fluffy clouds when you sing.”
Soft chuckle escaped as his fawning adoration provoked derision. Honey and clouds? No. Try one moment of perfect beauty. While I know the purpose is to immobilize people so they stop attacking and become suggestible, it comes out when I’m too emotional. Like now. Great moneymaker too. Or so I’ve been told.
“I’m working with Dr. Kasz tomorrow. He and my Uncle are building my album instead of others.” I grinned wickedly, giggling to myself. Destiny won’t get a solo career if I occupy Dr. Kasz’s time. Poor Destiny, so sad. She’ll become like Hayley Williams now. Of course at the same time sharks will rain from tornadoes in LA.
Mark stared at Tom who raised his hands. “It’s the other person who lost out she’s laughing about. I’m unsure who.” Suddenly, his eyes grew wide. Glancing at his watch, he grimaced. Worry, dread and sadness breached the clear surface. Yet they all popped like a blown bubble, except the worry. It remained, breaking against the coast again. “What?” I asked my mirth shattered.
“It’s just after 2 am. Don’t you have cheer practice in the morning?” Sad exhale as he looked back to the sky, rubbing his head.
“Yes. You are coming with me.” I stared, punching his shoulder.
“What about Aria and everything else.”
I paused, hazel eyes locking with his. Sharply tugging my dress over my way too flat butt, I stretched on suede bootie tippy toes and whispered. “I haven’t forgotten. Neither should you.” Kissing his sharp nose, I trotted across the living room to the other open door; tossing the final ball into his tight black t-shirt masked six pack.
That door shut quickly leaving me in a 10’ by 5’ hall. Pushing through the second door, I came into a vast open space occupied by various medical testing equipment, beds, overhead lights and racks upon racks of supplies. Off to one side stood a tiled mustard cube rotated forty five degrees. An opening in it spilled out white light and pungent cleaners.
Pivoting around, the back wall façade I just stepped through opened before me. A typical 1950’s American home complete with faux porch. Oddly on the porch sat an upright piano all dark, its ivory yellow with age. Covered in a plastic drop cloth, a couch just a small distance from the door still remained. An empty, silent camera stood sentinel beside it.
Shivers rolled down my spine as I glanced jerkily around. Massive empty space larger than our school gym stared back. Grey concrete floor below and steel girders in a crosshatch pattern way above. Scattered around the gloom, more things covered in sheets, random tan partitions and a glass room filled with cabinets with contained vials of various colors.
Directly ahead with its mocking amber glow, an rectangular opening twice of the size of the last door. Seconds flew as I sprinted to and through it. Another hall unfolded split into a t shape. Continuing my hurried rush forward, I came to a glass partition. Hands pressed the glass as I halted, scrambling for the door handle along the solid clear mass.
Obscene illumination cast wicked shadows across a tall, petite woman dragging a rolling suitcase through the open doctor’s office door not more than forty feet away. Yet that waiting area held a calm, soothing aura. The white marble floor had a hint of cobalt in it, like veins of an elderly man visible through his translucent skin. Maybe the sheen simply reflected back the pale baby blue covering the smooth walls. Each wall featured several alcoves on which pamphlets rested, hawking various active trials. Above the pamphlets, carved into the wall, a sideways ES.
She stopped at the empty receptionist desk squatted by the back of the room, scowling at the vacant seat. No one at all in the small waiting area. Then it struck. That’s Allison Blake, one of Aria’s sycophant friends. A sophomore like me who transferred in from Detroit in mid-2007. Perfect skin, gorgeous face when not pouting. She’s not a partier. She’s a Wolverine like me. Gold, just like me. Yet she hasn’t been to the gym in months. I don’t remember seeing her at all this week. What’s she doing here?
Brushing away the annoyance, I crouched behind an bookshelf containing a central cutout on each section. She whipped back a shoulder length mane of umber and chocolate, gazing around like a spooked cat. Then she tapped on the forward glass partition door, stretching on her grey Uggs® to see beyond the glazed wall just inside. No motion, just well-lit silence stared back. Leaning the suitcase against a row of maple leather seats, she jerked down a columbia blue peter pan blouse, tucking the errant bunched tail into indigo skinny jeans. Red puffy eyes kept skittering around as she pounded on the glass shouting something so muffled that it seemed silence.
Dragging out her smartphone, she stabbed it then shouted at it. Pulling out my own, I saw its way after two am. Shudders griped me as I realized I might have to sleep in this creepy place. Bad memories of that month after Lorelei’s death. So much guilt and longing. My sister is gone. I miss her so much. I sang to bury the pain deeper in that secret place even Tom couldn’t feel. He calls it my ‘danger’ song. It scares him so much that I rarely sing it anymore. There are others equally meaningful. Evanescence ‘Wake me up inside’ for one.
Tears pooled in her azure eyes, marring the smoky eye shadow as she stared back at me not even knowing I was there. “I’m sorry, Allison. I can’t let you back. Doctor Volkov would rage at me for it,” I heard myself say as she slumped against the glass door separating the waiting area from the exam rooms; her body sliding down in an exhausted pile. Her head lolled back against her Coach case. Racking sobs clustered around deep sniffs as silent ragged breaths continued.
Digging out a tiny bottle of Everclear® from her scuffed and scarred muddy leather purse, she untwisted the bottle and drained it. The bottle fell out of her limp hand rolling under a seat.
Fury burned. “Why can’t anything ever be easy?” No escape tonight. That meant I had to go get the self-titled ‘GraveRobber’: the illustrious Dr. Mark Volkov to figure out why Allison decided to sleep here. Loving Tom was one thing. I slept beside him before. Not here. I can’t stay here, not anymore. Whatever energy or spirit hates me now. Its malevolence claws at my being even here in front of the partition 40 feet from freedom.
Rage bears me as I retrace my steps halting in front of the same front door on the faux porch. The knob isn’t a locking kind, oh no, it just a normal knob. Whoever built this, built the lock into the floor and top frame of the door. You have to grip the knob and push the pad embedded into the floor to open it. That’s when it’s unlocked. When actually locked, the faux mailbox acts as handprint scanner. At least that’s what Tom did earlier when I arrived.
The door clicked open revealing the hallway again. That door was always unlocked. In the appallingly ugly entry area, I shouted, “Doctor Volkov!”
Worry, longing and concern washed over me as Tom sucked in a breath. From out of the kitchen he caught me as I crossed the living area just before the massive memory wall filled with women and men. Twelve images stared back, mine being the final one at the bottom. I stopped before it, her eyes screaming with frustration. Turning away, I grabbed my varsity jacket from a bean shaped bar stool. Pivoting out of his grasp, I threw it on and headed towards the spiral staircase when his arm clamped onto my wrist. My fury met his resistance like so many times before.
“I only have one of these,” I growled as I peeled off his hand from my golden jacket’s black leather sleeve. Its left arm bore a gigantic white cloth 2012, ‘class of’ twisting banner flowing through the center. Beneath it were FHHS and two megaphones. The first bore a cursive freshman inside and the second a ‘jv’. My right arm held a stylized gold star with a clawed wolverine paw inside it.
“Like I don’t?” He sighed. “This is far harder than I ever expected it would be.” He nodded his head towards his own matching jacket with water drops where my megaphones were, laying on the chair beside it.
A short snort echoed. “Your time with Aria should have gave you some indication.” Shaking my head, I paused before walking again towards the staircase buried amongst a massive redwood wall decorated in sixties period airline memorabilia. Borne from him, disillusionment, anxiety and betrayal swirled in eddies along peripheral walls of my mind. Exhaustion also floated. Yet they always remained small in comparison to the love. Love of my strength and will. Even my fury he loved. It was enough to choke me in sticky jelly.
Stopping short, I stepped to the grey short couch nearby and sat. Pushing down my dress out of habit, I looked to him softly, waving my hands in a ‘come here’ gesture.
“Talk.” I stared, calmly waiting as he sat uncomfortably. “I feel your pain. Something is seriously wrong.”
“Yes, we did this two years ago. I dragged you here even though you swore nothing was wrong. Only you were suffering from Philia brought on by your sister’s death.”
I bristled. All that loss and heartache surfaced again, clutching my heart. I still ask why it had to happen. “I bloated up. Your uncle, Dr. Volkov saved me with those injections.”
His smile grew teeth. “He started it. The remnants of that resurrection serum actually cured you. You are still recovering.”
Blowing out a heavy breath, I stared at him, irritated. “That’s not why I sat down. You’re deflecting. What’s wrong? There is this hopelessness that’s gnawing at my consciousness, so you are swimming in it.” A purposeful yet sympathetic gaze and soft smile beckoned. He sighed in return. “It’s a family issue. I don’t want to burden you.”
Dark stare returned, my hands sliding to my hips. “Do I have to say it?”
“No. When we met, I was on the run from my mother. She hooked up with the wrong men after my father left. A particularly foul one thought he would use me as a punching bag. He got a trophy to the back of the head as well as a busted nose and a black eye. Only Mom and Dad had two kids; me and my sister, Allie.”
Tears leaked as he spoke. “Is that why…”
“Part of it. I wanted stability and someone to love me for me. Lorelei and you always treated me with honesty, dignity and respect. Especially that moment she imbued me with the ability to operate the gates. I remember you were the dining car devouring fresh fruits and croissants.” A small smile twisted his lips.
“Staying up all night does that.” I sighed, amused by the memory. The train ride of destiny; our first meeting. “Finish. You know my family history. I need to know yours.”
Blinking away tears, he exhaled. “When I didn’t return and Uncle Mark called, Allie pushed Mom to move here. She knew I finally broke free and wasn’t coming back.”
“Of course you didn’t tell her we just had a psychopathic football coach go on a murderous rampage in a school. Murders are all too common in East Detroit.” I frowned realizing what I said. He blew it off.
“Corktown’s thin blue line. They paid for the move and the house. They still her basic utilities. Mom said she blames herself for him attacking me. I think she didn’t trust me living with Uncle Mark. Especially when she discovered he was known as ‘the Graverobber’ around here.” He shook his head, dismay twisting his frown darker and tighter than I ever saw since that fateful, bloody day.
I shivered. Guilt flooded my mind as memories of all those lies I told my Dad about Doctor Volkov. Mom knew because Mom is like me only a traveler instead of a siren. “Yes. Mom never understood how he could make those vials considering he’s not a part of the Assembly. I discovered more than I ever wanted to know. Still…”
Dr. Volkov coughed, walking down the spiral staircase. His stare piercing; a frown pursed fat lips. “I knew things. Yes, I am very much aware that my exploits in the back streets and bayous gave rise to my infamy. It’s all true. The drug market, submarket; the times I wondered why I ever got in.”
Gray eyes crawled over my petite, taut hills and valleys, evaluating in a doctoral way. My stomach knotted and pulse quickened as I gripped Tom’s hand. Exhaling heavily I almost missed the rest of his statement. “The Blood Market and love market; sometimes, I wonder why they need me at all. None of it connected with the Assembly until you found me. It wasn’t until you, I discovered they were the Piscine.”
Tom nodded. “Warriors of Dagon, Piscine, and Ichthys infernalis. All are names I read of these weird hunters who brought back skulls and carcasses–”
The weight of the names of villainy crushed me. Miasma of evil based in Taiji, Japan. Blood soaked pain caught my breath as tears flooded, dripping on the maroon carpet. He froze, staring, feeling my horror. “I’m so sorry. You were trying to comfort me and now I hurt you again.”
Before I could stop it, ‘Everybody’s Fool’ by Evanescence fell out complete with Amy Lee imagery. As it faded, I shook my head, feeling his inward rage against himself for wounding me. Yet I still held a distasteful grimace. “Don’t apologize. You didn’t know. I’m just too sensitive.” Still, he pulled himself beside me, stroking my honey locks before surrounding me in a tight muscular embrace. My gaze fell on Dr. Volkov who stood beside the couch, tapping his foot and glancing at the office door.
“They embody evil. A long held hatred drives them to destroy us along with the dolphins. It’s unfathomable even with all the knowledge we possess. Yet their hatred continues to seethe, boiling over on specific days across the centuries. The surface knows those days very well. Blames them on certain people or events never knowing the truth. WE do.” I leaned my head on Tom’s shoulder, more worn than after seven hours of conditioning. “The Assembly always knows.”
Softly shaking his head, he scowled. “It’s been several years since I dealt with them. They are the reason I could make White Onyx to begin with. They gave me accurate charts, tools and books for my continued services. When we parted ways then never retrieved them.” He paused, glancing at his phone. Worry lines creased his forehead as he sighed, worry falling on Tom before his attention returned to me. “Our last meeting was a month before Tom arrived. I was gifted with two bodies for research. I buried them in the yard because I could do nothing else with them. They looked human. Not the odd hybrid creatures I’d seen repeatedly.”
Disgust filled me as I bit my lip. Tom felt the same thing along with disappointment and pain. Rubbing my teeth to get the pink gloss off, I squeezed my Louis Vuitton® Voyage Messenger bag, feeling the soft leather as I glared. He returned the stare with the same measure. “Please. You are no angel. You’d bend people to your whims if it would serve you.”
Dr. Volkov sighed, his face pensive and regretful. “For the record, Lorelei knew. I don’t know how. She confronted me while I tended to the tree. I apologized, explaining what I just said. She forgave me. She also said that one day the tree would bloom again. Something about ancient prophecy.” He shrugged, dismissive. “It happened just after the ‘Healing Rain’.” He turned to me, expecting a response. As if I can make it rain. Engineers make it rain. No one can make rain that heals people. Not even us. I frowned, staring at the midnight blue low shag carpet.
“I stopped dealing with them because it was evident they wanted to use me in their holy war against you. I am on neither side. Remember what I said when you first passed through?”
I did. It still galls me that he can be that callous to my suffering. To anyone and still call himself a doctor. It’s why I guess he enjoys the moniker ‘GraveRobber’. He blinked, staring. He actually expected me to say it. With a sigh, I rose. “I don’t care about you or them or what special gifts you have. I don’t need you or your secret society in my life. I am doing this for Tom.”
He smirked. “Good. You remember. Are you staying the night?”
“Only if I can’t leave.” I spat back, whipping my head towards the door. Frustration floated on my conscious waves. His at me for snarking at his uncle and mine for being stuck in this dark place. Tapping his index finger to his cheek, he gestured to Tom about the front door. “I need to check on something. I will be back.”
I rose, kissed Tom’s forehead and crossed the space in three steps.
Doctor Volkov gave me the once over then gestured to the door. We moved thought the rooms and hallways quickly until we were back at the same place I saw Allison collapse. “I saw her in the waiting room.” I said pointedly to his disbelieving face.
He opened the glass partition door then paused. Sharp scent of rubbing alcohol wafted over me. Soft moaning also floated unbidden. He turned back, beholding my disquiet. “You said she was…”
“Allison Blake. She goes to my school.” I glanced longingly at the final doorway and maybe a few hours of sleep.
He stepped over to the sleeping form, pulling her up. “Oh no.” He froze, a look of despair etched suddenly. Walking to a handset phone on the wall outside the room, he lifted the phone part, tapping in some code. Less than a minute later, Tom appeared. Hope filled his oval face yet underneath sorrow, fury and fear swirled in a vortex of pain unlike any I ever felt. “What’s wrong? Seriously.”
Shaking his head, he slipped beside me. Warm chocolate eyes gazed into my hazel ones so tenderly I wanted to melt. His hand stroked my cheek as he said. “I believe my mother and her boyfriend raped my sister.” He sunk to his knees, weeping. “I’m sorry to burden you.”
Air emptied my lungs as I gasped. Covering my mouth with my hand, I dropped to my knees as well. “We are in this together.” Morose washed away the placidness. “Is that why she is coming?”
Dr. Volkov shook his head, gesturing towards the floor.
“Yes.” Suddenly, ‘Falling inside the black’ by skillet roared from him. Rapid staccato reverberated causing all light to slowly ebb away. I stood in dusky twilight, watching his streaming tears. Heartache drew crow’s feet as his chorus of misery echoed all around. Doctor Volkov stopped his forward motion, brief horror masked by stoic calm.
Yet as that song faded, no catharsis came. No release like always. No peace. Something remained missing. His horror and cold fierce rage kindled within, tamped only by love and responsibility for me. Deep within there stood this yawning cavern of loss. No matter how much convincing, cajoling or outright shoving neither ever changed. The last six months proved that. Yet a sense of failure enveloped him now. “Stay. Meet her. I think you two can hit it off. She’s a lot like you.”
Looking at the final door, longing gripped me. I had cheer practice in several hours. In twenty four I present the next song on my album so they won’t fill it with garbage they think will sell. I know what WILL sell. It’s part of being a siren. Yet Tom’s pleading look and heaviness matched my own. “I’ll stay. I’m sleeping with you then. No spare bedroom this time.”
He chuckled at my deadly serious gaze knowing it meant sleep only. We don’t do anything else yet. In time maybe. As much as it irks me, here I have to. Evil energy is simply too concentrated anywhere else.
“Your sister’s awake.” Doctor Volkov’s relieved words flew from beside the front door. He looked over at where Allison groggily awoke. As I stood beside Tom, I felt his joy and sorrow as he felt my shock. Allison Blake is Tom’s sister. Her bedraggled look connected to my exhaustion, and Tom’s bittersweet joy slammed tsunami like on my mind’s beach. Tears pooled beneath my eyes as ‘Coming Home’ by Skylar Grey fell out. Then I did.
Staring into the starless void stood a guy with a triangular face and wavy auburn locks. “I don’t see it.”
“Of course you don’t. The streetlights are washing it out. You can’t see any stars here. That’s my point. I never saw any until that night Tom left me in the moon pool. There above me winking, thousands of iridescent motes beautiful in their grandeur, streaming starlight upon me.” Irritation cloaked my voice as I stood on grey booted tiptoes, pointing at the location of Alrescha, almost masked by glowing haze.
He turned into me, clutching my arm, wrapping it around his neck. Coal eyes met dark chocolate. “He made his choice. You made yours.” Cocking his head, he nuzzled my lips for a moment. Warmth poured over me, distracting me from the gaping hole torn in my soul. Sharp stabs replaced the normal racing heart, heat in the loins and flush of blood in my face. “I can’t do this,” I mumbled, tapping him backwards gently.
He pulled back, worry in his gaze. “What?”
“Shouldn’t the crew be here by now?” I rested my hands on my hips, smoothing down my crimson button down short dress. Stepping back to me, he slid his hands over mine. It felt luxurious. Warmth and tingly joy followed as hands continue, stroking lithe hips; strong and smooth but still petite. Thumbs rubbed my inner thighs as he inhaled deeply. Kisses peppered my neck. The pain howled as desire washed over it. My chest tightened as did other tender areas. Dampness crept in. “Does it really matter? The night’s young and you have nowhere to go.”
The pain burst from desire’s drowning, swallowing it as one downs a beer. I shoved him away, eyes boring into his own. Anger and fear mixed. Why don’t you understand? You were there with me in the Throne room. You saw her destroy my life and steal my crown. My own Grandfather did nothing but make it official. Even cheerleading is almost gone now.
He glanced around then shook his head. “It’s still early.” A dopey half smile held mirth.
Folding taut, thickly muscular arms under my tiny A cups still engorged, I shook her head, disgusted. “3 am. This is Tom’s revenge.”
“Aria, no, it isn’t. The Graverobber has never shown partiality before. Why now?”
“Because Winston,” I emphasized his first name for effect, “We didn’t know Tom’s relationship to him before.”
Winston stood silently staring, kindness radiating. “Not everything is about Gwen.” Yes it is. She ruined everything, just like I said she would. My glare immolated him for all the heat within it. Storming away, I slammed through the wooden front door, looking back and only seeing a hand sized imprint left as it stuck in the wall.
He swiftly followed looking over the room. There remained several Titans, each in various states of stupor. Many of the guys I didn’t recognize. Some held red solo cups. Others now sported whole bottles of various alcoholic products. Others came from his football team; Wolverines yet that number dwindled considerably since a practice started at 9 am. Still others with football jackets wearing Spartan heads, pumas or other logo on them sat, stood or otherwise held a fixed position. Obviously college age kibitzed, working the room for drunken hook ups. Smartphone flashes popped like firecrackers.
The tall, statuesque Balor twins milled about in matching busty powder blue lace bra thong sets, having just graduated months ago. Their dirty blond ringlets hung past their shoulders as they double team flirted with a thin wiry guy. He drank with them, grinning like a speed freak. Other women both high school and older joined guys at the hip or danced. One brilliant fire red head vomited into the trash can; another brunette behind holding her hair. A mixed bag of ethnicity clichéd out and partitioned off, most she knew nothing off. Few stared back at her with any interest. Those that did held disdain or pity.
Shaking her head, she glanced around the nasty, filth smelling living room. Wolverettes left long ago, their spirit paraphernalia still scattered about the black leather couch along the wall. Only a trickle of them ever come. Wolverine Gold? They never come. Competition season starts in a week, so intense single day training became several days of full outs. It was always me, Gwen and the Balor twins. Gwen and I couldn’t get drunk because of who we are and the twins didn’t give a damn.
A DJ wearing a gas mask spinning electronica at the turntable. Five or six scantily dressed college girls dancing around it. Others bumping and grinding to the beat, mingling. Still others making out on the lone amber couch pushed against the opposing wall. It looked like they moved some of the furniture to put in a trampoline. Another naked redhead with carpet matching the drapes bounced unbidden. Her bright vacant smile matching her tattooed, barrel shaped body.
Emptiness filled the void where the warmth and pleasure dwelt. Halting in the empty, unmolested kitchen, I opened the light caramel cabinet, pulling down round Christmas glass. Foreclosed home abandoned with most furniture intact. Bank gave up on it so it’s a party house now.
He came in as I salted the glass and filled it with tap. “Everyone hates me now. Wolverine Gold thinks I bailed on them because I couldn’t do the final full out that won Worlds. Black thinks I’m a bitch because I didn’t try out for them. The Wolverettes think I’m a bitch because I got on the team without trying out. And…” I sat the glass down beside the shiny stainless steel sink softly then grabbed a blue patterned china plate flicking it at the hallway wall. It exploded. Razor shards embedding into the wall and ruddy shag carpet. “I am forbidden to sing on Saturdays. Gwen ruined everything, just like I warned you.” Another plate exploded.
“Homecoming will be different. Wolverines still support you. You are still fierce. You are still a champion.” He pointed to the platinum ring on my finger just above the NCA champion ring. “A world champion. So Tom took your spot. We substitute all the time. It doesn’t change the fact you were a part of the team the entire time.” Another dopey smile formed, yet it failed to create a counterpart.
“They still blame me though. No one but Andrea will even talk to me now.” I unscrewed the top of the salt shaker pouring more into the cup again. He stared past me. For behind me, the bay window revealed an empty, unkempt backyard and another house beyond. Through their open window sat an infinity saltwater pool. My Uncle’s friend’s house. One I freely accessed with permission. It’s where I revealed myself to Winston. It’s also where Tom bonded with Gwen. The best and worst day of my life all wrapped up like a summer roll. My back stiffened, fury filling my face as the memories unspooled.
“So I took the golden ticket. The waitress didn’t need it. I do. Yet Gwen got it back to her. How?” Filling the glass with more tap, I stirred it with a red nailed finger. “At least I got that phone from Ian McDonald, Ella’s father, while visiting Belmont. Otherwise, this year will even be more of a wash than the last.” I shook my head then threw another plate. He caught it, spinning it in his hands. Dropping it unbroken, he shrugged. “You never mentioned why you went to that Intermediate school?”
Glaring, I shook my head. “Some of the instructors are Assembly.”
He smiled, holding out his hands. “Homecoming will be different. You’re my escort. You will have the biggest corsage there. Mums, stuffed dolphins, Hibiscus, the works.”
I stared silently, unsure. A giddy burst leapt as I embraced him. Desire drowned the pain so much that fled. “Gwen cannot steal anything else from you. You are still a cheerleader; you can still sing and record. So you sing on Friday nights.”
I looked up from leaning on his chest. “Coach Grace won’t allow me to sing and cheer at the same time.” I said it as if a stench rose, scrunching my nose while furrowing my brows. Winston nodded gently.
In my best Coach Grace voice, “Repercussions from our decision to use live music I am laying squarely at your feet, Ms. Darri. I remember you convincing us it could be done without distraction.” Winn chuckled at mocking higher clipped intonations. “There is an official ACCD rule prohibiting it now. I was given a choice to lose one bid or send one less squad. I opted for one less. Wolverine Silver which would have qualified in medium won’t go now.”
“I honestly don’t know what to do with you. This behavior is not what I have come to expect out of you. Be thankful we still had an open spot on the Wolverettes. Even that can be lost if I hear of you singing, plotting to sing or discussing singing while in uniform, on school or gym grounds or at an official school or gym function. Do you understand?” I angrily shook my head, sighing at the pointlessness.
“She’s angry because it tainted her win. ESPN2 got embarrassed. I remember commenting online why there was no footage on the live broadcast of the winner. Every replay since has Wolverine Gold instead of Maryland Tsunami Tide.”
Aria giggled. “We’re fab. Thanks.”
A sharp chirp belched from his jean pocket. Glancing at his text message, he shook his head. “Here you thought Tom sabotaged us? Ben Krawl of the Gravecrew said the delay resulted from a gang battle at another house. They waited 45 minutes then abandoned it. Its toast now.”
“Which? I thought there were no gangs here.” I asked curiously. Of course that’s not entirely true. Piscine tend to mill about but never enough to cause issues. My uncle makes sure of that.
“Doesn’t say. Goes on to discuss that they had to get Graverobber’s attention. He’s dealing with the arrival of his niece. It took them awhile.”
“So if they’re coming, we can go. I want to do some swimming before I go home.” I grinned at him brightly, cajoling him into using one of his final transfigurations before he reverted to completely human. Stroking his shoulder, I pleaded, repeating please several times.
“Next door?” He glanced at the house on the other side of the window.
Warm memories surfaced again as well as dark ones. I want those gone, banished to the Challenger deep. “Yes.” I nodded, stretching on my tip tops to peck his cheek. He stroked my sable hair, letting it flow through his fingers.
“I love you, Winn.”
“I love you too, Aria Darri of House Natal,” He whispered in my ear in assembly, the mermaid language. I chuckled because it was the only words he knew.
Soft vibrations rippled as she ran back up the stairs. Undergarments, goldenrod tank, maroon shirt and compression shorts clutched to her naked chest now ruddy. Forcing them all into the hamper, she dove into the shower. As water burst forth, the sound of the slamming bathroom door still echoed. Steamy water poured, turning peachy skin angry red. Loofah scrubbed parts harshly. Soapy hair forced eyes shut and there she remained. Still the nudging continued.
“They’re gone. You OK?”
“No. I’ll manage. I always do.”
Voices filled my awareness as I discovered I wasn’t watching a young girl showering. I happened to be staring at acoustic ceiling tiles, mottled grey like Risso’s dolphins. Burning sensation warmed my cheeks as Tom’s chocolate Axe® filled my nose. His terror abated to worry, even though he held a tight yet bright smile, hands still gripping my shoulders. Whispering, he asked, “Can you stand?” Knowing that if I pushed him away, he’d hover that much closer, I let him help me sit up. Allison, who was across from me, stood up, patting her outfit down.
“Eat a breath mint before you talk to your brother.” Dr. Volkov said matter-of-factly.
“He’s here?” she snarked, staring at Tom. “I figured when he became 18, he would abandon you too.” She blew into her hand, examining her nails. I knew what I saw was her showering but didn’t know why. That gift worked only in politicos. Something I am not. Gifts are unchanging. The only one with a touch of all we called ‘Circlemaker’. Last one died 300 years ago ending the line of House Onnas.
Shoving it away, I focused on the surroundings. In the waiting room, check. Discarded White Onyx vial lying on the carpet, check. Furious Allison Blake cursing as she dug around her purse for a tin of breath mints, check. Irritated yet trying to be stoic Dr. Mark Volkov hovering beside her, check. Seems hovering is a family male trait.
Soft tap on her shoulder and she shrugged it off, grousing, “I have some in here somewhere.”
“Black hole still in your purse, I see.” Tom said eyes joyfully alight.
Spinning around, Allison fake smiled back. A sharp slap echoed leaving a rouge handprint across Tom’s cheek. Yet his suave smile remained. “You broke your promise.”
“So I did,” she remarked, hugging him tightly. “You said we would be free. I believed you. I don’t blame you for what happened. I blame them.” She placed her right index finger against ruby lips. He sighed, exhaling heavily, tearing up but trying not to. Rage swirled at my coasts again like spears driven into sand awaiting use. I sighed, grabbing and squeezing his hand. He squeezed back. My other when to my cheek. Shared pain is the worst.
“I am so sorry.” He released me to hug her. “What is going on?” Again, she repeated the gesture. Tossing in a mint between bubble gum pink lips, she sucked on one before tucking it into the space between her cheek and jaw.
“What can you talk about?” He asked taking my hand again. Dr. Volkov kept moving in and out of the doorway, his conversation disjointed. Something happening outside. More of a reason to not want to stay here. I promised though.
“Her.” Allison pointed to me. Here is comes. How do I know Allison Blake? She was a member of Wolverine Black, our senior level five all girl squad. Coach Rouxles pride and joy at Grace Cheer. She showed up raggedy, raw in her style. Yet she endured. I wanted her on Gold. Begged Coach Grace. Finally she relented.
We connected despite her lack of appropriate outfit or anything stylish. Friends until Aria started with the mini concerts Saturday mornings months before Worlds. When Black got 3rd at NCA, her friends took it out on her. In return, she blamed me. I pushed back. Aria as always sympathized with her. It was just after Worlds I realized she had fully turned on me. Fully one of Aria’s groupies. Serves her right. Yet she still wears her championship ring. Black got 3rd at Worlds.
“Mom’s boyfriend hates you. Said your kind ruled the world, making all of us slaves. He mentioned that you were illuminati. Even blamed you for the school shooting.” She laughed heartily.
“My kind? What exactly is my kind? You know me!” I asked sharply as Tom squeezed my hand tighter. Restraint and concern fought against my disgust. Love and forgiveness fought against the desire to pop my claws forward just enough to draw furrows across her cute face. Her ‘I’m hot and I know it’, made up porno face. I never wear that much makeup even for comps.
“He wouldn’t elaborate. Always watched Alex Jones and Coast to Coast AM. Believed them too.” Eying me, Allison grinned tightly. “I always knew Aria told the truth about the Worlds rumor.” Looking to her brother, she frowned before biting her lip. “Did you really sleep with her to rattle Aria enough to get pulled? You aren’t even a cheerleader.”
Subconsciously, my claws appeared. Then the anger got drowned by wave after wave of deep sadness. Turning from her, I caught his eyes and knew. “She’s in pain. She doesn’t mean it.”
I tapped his palm with my ring finger to show my claws. He stroked my face softly before turning back to her. “Allie. Please. While its none of your business, Aria got herself bumped by actions she did alone. I allowed them to get the ring. That’s why Coach Grace got me one. I earned it just like Gwen did. Just like YOU did.”
“So other than the expensive purse and dress why would he hate you? You are no more Illuminati than I am.”
I yawned, retracting my claws. “Only those who stand and fight have haters, I’m used to it.”
Allie dug around in the purse again. Extracting a pearlesque hair clip with an inverted bull horn, she held it out while pulling out an inverted bullhorn necklace complete with leather strap. “Take it. You being here proved Jeaux is just as much an idiot as he’s an asshole.”
I took the clip, rolling it over in my hands. Shock then joy rippled within. She kept looking to Tom and Dr. Volkov, unsure. Only he still bobbled in and out the doorway.
“What is it?” Tom asked, focusing on me. I nodded. Not a house artifact as much as a piece of House Cetus jewelry. Old House Cetus from before my grandfather changing the sigil to a white star on a red split pendant. “Where did you find this?” Delight and horror mixed in my eyes while her triumph faded to discomfort.
“Mom had it. I stole it from her when I left. Apparently, he gave it to her as a gift. Something about control. Being on that shrimp boat made him crazy.” She pulled the necklace on struggling to clip it shut. She slapped Tom on the back of the head. “Help me.”
He slipped behind Allison, attaching the bronze clips together. “Did he say anything else about it?”
She shook her head. “He thinks that you got sucked into the Illuminati. That happened the day before…” she paused, gulped and exhaled. Defeat tightened her cheeks.
“He brought in a lot of high end food and booze. Nothing I could eat. He kept going on about how the other shrimpers finally invited him into this club. Something involving fish and Dagon. Several names he used. I actually asked if that was the same Dagon from the bible. He laughed said, he believed so. That Dagon fought Israel in the deep past.”
Everyone froze. I gulped, looked to Dr. Volkov, trembling. Stepping back inside, he closed his widened eyes a second. Shaking his head, he tapped a app on his phone. Tom beheld me and shivered himself. “Allie, Dagon, really?”
Sour expression curled her lips. “You don’t believe me?”
Dr. Volkov displayed an image on his phone. “Like this?” the image displayed a spotted, cracked gray statue of a long bearded male with thick arms holding a lantern in one hand while the other was upraised in greeting. Scales coated his legs and feet stopping at his waist. A fluke emanated from his feet. On his head rested a rounded hat with three waves attached; one vertical and two horizontal. Traditional Dagon from middle eastern mythology. Numerous statues still exist. Most notably one greets people in the Taiji whale museum.
“No. Not like that at all.” She shook her head. “I stole a tiny statue too, figuring I could pawn it.” Allie withdrew a sock wrapped bundle, gently unfurling it.
Carved from jade, its bore webbed feet. Fine scaling covered its entire body. A bulbous head sprouted numerous sucker coated tentacles. A ring of human eyes seemed to transverse that head along were a nose would be. Beneath it, thick flaps scored in lines hid dagger teeth. Two sets of arms terminated with webbed, taloned hands.
I grimaced, sighing more relieved yet disgusted. Asakku are dangerous, just not to the Assembly the way the Piscine are. Roving in pods, they stake out areas to float in, consuming everything. Occasionally they will even use plastic to generate protection shells. Either way, they are testing him. Allie pushed the statue into Dr. Volkov’s hand, glared at me and stomped over. “He calls it a Kraken.”
I shrugged, rolling my eyes. Dr. Volkov nodded while Tom held a placid expression which masked his amusement inside.
“One final thing.” Allison pivoted, facing me, her brow furrowed. “You bring me over to Gold then abandon me. Why?” Folding her arms under her petite bust, she stood in the doorway, blocking it.
Clenching my left hand, I felt her stinging contempt. Tom cocked his head, suddenly curious. Introspection scrolled as surprise mixed with humor. That humor grew into a flood which only fueled my annoyance as much as Allison’s tone. “I’m a flyer, Allison. Doug’s my base and Amanda is my back spot. This annoying guy is also my base if he wants to compete.” Hesitation, uneasiness and worry built when I said it, knowing it would provoke that. “I never abandoned you. You stopped coming over and hanging with me.”
Shaking her head, she walked back to her bag, zipping it up. “Tom, why?” Tears smeared her mascara further, the obvious black patches marring her complexion.
“Why what?” He asked, his brow furrowed, the confusion damping his glee at discovering an inside joke.
Then it struck me. “You never told me.” I punched his shoulder hard. My displeasure fell across his shores breaking against the walls of his embarrassment. He shrugged, any mirth gone. Allie shook her head again, tears leaving side trails across her face. Grabbing tissues off the reception deck, I handed one to her. “We were both at Worlds. Both won as a part of Gold. Yet you never mentioned anything about Allison Blake. You didn’t even stare at her.”
“I never intended to go, Gwen. Circumstances changed that, remember?” He insisted, bristling from both our stares.
“Why would he? He stopped living with me and mom three years ago.” Savage gaze from Allie to Tom caused sorrow to chew in back of my mind. “This is the first time we’ve actually spent time together since the holidays. At Worlds I got nothing from anyone save Pey and Nicole. She even asked.”
Shock connected with his contrite sadness. “You never said anything was wrong.” Tom replied his hands raised. “You also made your dislike of Gwen well known.”
“You never asked,” Allie bit back. “So am I your sympathy project again, Gwen? Why do you suddenly care now?”
“You’re family for starters,” I said with cold shivers running down me again. Tom glanced at her then to Dr. Volkov who poured over the statue with a small wand.
“No, you’re not.” Turning away, she tossed the tissue into the trash. Covering the distance between herself and me, she glared enough to prompt my eyes to narrow and turn azure. My claws threatened to surface again. Clenching my fists to keep them in, I blazed at Tom who shrugged unhelpfully. A tight frown contracted with the light in his eyes. That perennial joy that he still holds that we are together. Love or no love, I still don’t get where that comes from.
“Family?! Seriously? You aren’t married…OMG.” She staggered back as if a ghost gut punched her. More tears rained from her, raccooning her eyes and streaking her remaining makeup. Sliding back to the couch, she dropped heavily, shaking her head. “Tom, you could have at least told me.” She moaned, oval face in hands. Sniffs rose as tawny hair fluttered. “I thought we trusted each other at least when it came to family?”
“We do. I couldn’t tell you because it would do exactly this.”
Signing heavily, I knelt beside her. “I was ill last year. Still healing now. I care because you are Tom’s sister. You’re a good person and from what I remember, a good cheerleader.” My gaze flicked to Tom whose contrite sadness threatened to overwhelm me. At least, worry began pooling along with confusion.
She kept shaking her head. “No, I’m not.” She flicked her hand dismissively. Wheeling on Tom, an icy stare transfixed him. “You told her nothing about me? Did she even know I’m your sister before today?”
I shook my head, sighing. Staring downward, she closed her eyes, weeping. Ten feet from the door and I could sleep off the night. Yet, it already escaped me. Sorrow drowning me. Evil assaulting me so nothing left to do. The truth always brings peace.
Raising my hands above my head, I flipped onto the opposing couch to Dr. Volkov’s dismay then closed my eyes. An train car formed with a much younger Lorelei arguing with a much younger Tom. My song calmed him down. It changed everything. Overlaying that, Allie harshly accused current Tom of abandoning her to live free with me. That he rejected her for me. He disagreed pointing out that he left to help her. Suddenly, I understood a little why he loves me so much. He can. I am as broken as his family is.
Sorrow and anger fell as a pattering torrent; a drum beat against the steel of the empty Via passenger car; Ontario still rushing swiftly by. The song remained, embracing her. Reaching out, I saw the violinist stroke the bow across, weaving warmth. Arguments fell away leaving nothing but that and sonorous piano. Oceans (where feet may fail) by Hillsong United began.
Drums and soft guitar joined in harmony as I stood watching young Tom him stare at me in awe. Pain filled eyes sparkled as Lorelei relaxed, singing with me.
Harmony flooded the tiny metal box, mixing with sounds of travel and reflected off the leather seats and overhead bins. Young Tom fell into a seat enraptured. Soft umber eyes smiled gently focused on me. Fitful breeze stirred up, fluttered my, at the time, platinum hair. Eddies swirled wrappers and receipts about. Fog rolled amongst our feet, dampening the carpet. It would lead to the delay in Toronto.
The chorus repeated several times. Each time I took a step forward.
At the close of the song, Lorelei embraced him. A soft whisper spilled “I am not your enemy. You aren’t mine. Be at peace today.” As the vision dissipated, everyone stared softly. Tom held a wistful grin. Dr. Volkov’s concern clouded over the joy in his eyes. Allie remained blank, almost sad.
“That was beautiful,” she said as she zipped up her bag, shaking off the trance.
“Thank you. I can help. I’m not your enemy.”
“You’re not my friend either.” She frowned, sighing. “That can change.”
“Good. You want come with me to the CheerHouse this morning?” She stifled a yawn. Sleep is a luxury now.
“Why? It’s too late for this year.” Allie looked to Tom who shook his head, still grinning. He rubbed his hair, his ring flashing in the light.
“You have a ring as well. Tomorrow is the final day before Coach sends the team roster in. If you are on the roster, then you are a part of the team and can go to all the comps.” Stifling another yawn, she blinked, her brows furrowed. “We can get you up to speed easily.”
“She’s getting you back on Wolverine Gold,” Tom said, amused.
“Yes. There is an unfilled spot due to injury. Unlike Aria, Coach Grace isn’t angry with me. She believes I was dragged into Aria’s master plan, discovered the disruption and tried to stop it before it embarrassed Grace Cheer. She told me herself how proud she was that I recognized the problem. Then scolded me for trying to handle it on my own. She punished Aria by linking singing to cheer. Do one, lose the other.”
Soft chuckles erupted as I pulled a scorpion, brushing Tom with the sole of my foot. The stretch is needed. Shifting to a needle, I held it for the seconds required before I did the claw slash. Catching Tom’s proud amusement, I locked in his gaze. “You are stunting with us today, no excuses.”
Allie laughed so hard she coughed as she mirrored my moves then moved into a standing double. “I base and tumble mostly. You know this.”
A smile cracked before yawning. “I’m fine,” she said as Dr. Volkov approached, evaluating me like a shark does its prey. He shook his head. “You are tired and overtaxing yourself.”
Still, I am well again. I can manage this. Tom caught my pleading gaze.
“As much as you feel you don’t believe you need it, I agree you should take it. Didn’t we agree?”
Soft sigh rumbled under my breath as my nose wrinkled in protest. “Later then.” The vial gun held another vial of white banded grey fluid Dr. Volkov called White Onyx. He shrugged, handing it to Tom. “It’s almost 4. Are you sleeping here or at your place?” He asked again, eyeing me.
Stifling another yawn, I nodded. “Yes. I am sleeping with Tom tonight.” Shaking his head, Dr. Volkov opened the main entrance door wide. Warm moist night air swam over the cool central air flow. Outside, a thick guard in solid black held an AR-15 across his chest. “Only the GraveCrew returns. No pass until 7. Door is locked.”
“Understood. Door is locked,” he repeated while maintaining his gaze into the fluorescence hazed inky night.
A loud yawn echoed amongst all of us as we journeyed back to the living and bedroom area. Once in the living room she walked down the wood paneled hallway to a bedroom filled with colored blocks.
I watched her go in then looked back at Tom who stopped and stood beside me. “Thanks.”
“None needed.” He kissed my forehead.
“Again none needed.” He leaned against the seemingly out of place double doors in the vast open space.
I beheld him, embarrassment a undercurrent at my conscience edge. “You going to open the door or sleep on the living room couch?”
Sheepishly, he turned the stainless steel nob. Stark tile clad everything all in various shades of blue. Azure complete with rippling wave patterns covered the ceiling and top two feet of the wall. Gray-blue tile with a raised edge banded the room at eye level followed by a band of checkerboard Egyptian blue and cobalt tiles two high. Finally, a cerulean mosaic ran the remainder of the walls and floor, marking various depth indictors including shallow just beside a distinctive blue-green streaked polished wood trophy case filled with swimming trophies large and small. The single king size bed encircled with nylon pool ropes and cadet grey dresser sat against the deep end wall raised on a dais tiled like the remainder of the room.
I paused at the door as Tom walked in, pulling clothes off and tossing them into a jade laundry basket. Sporting mustard boxers, he approached with a suave grin upon his face. “Pool room, Mark called it. Your overnight bag is in the closet.” He walked past me to the bathroom but paused when I still didn’t move. “9ft wall is where it is.”
“I can’t.” Walking from the doorway, I collapsed on the living room couch. Tom ran up beside, kneeling. “You have to sleep. That anxiousness will quell.”
“It’s not anxiousness. There is a darkness that lives out there now. It’s fighting against me.” Sad, exhausted eyes stared back. “It’s always been here.”
Looking towards the muted, glowy black glass door, he sighed. “Still…” Sliding beside me, he stroked my flaxen hair, gently embracing me. “I’ll sleep in the lap pool with you, OK?”
“Lap pool?” I stared, more surprised than anything. “Where?”
“Other side of my room. This was a set once. It was to mirror something in LA. The owner lost it when he went bankrupt so Uncle got everything. It’s the correct Olympic length salt water pool but one lane wide.”
My disbelieving hazel eyes beheld him. “Seriously?”
“Yes. Come on.” He scooped me up into a cradle and ran. Into his room, he slid up to the wall marked ‘Deep End’. An slight discoloration in the grout revealed a hidden door beside his dresser. Pushing in the seashell tile, the door popped open, the tile, a handle to move it.
Overhead lighting reflected off the azure water slapping softly against the polished sandstone edge. Two midnight blue buoy robes strung within inches of the sides swayed with the tide. Gentle humming filled the air along a salty tang.
“Completely chlorine-free salt water pool,” He said as he rested me beside the peach padded white diving block.
“Thanks.” Weak smile creeped up as I sat on the block, breathing in moist air. “This was really used as a set?”
He pointed to the camera dolly track embedded into the sandstone floor along the opposing wall. “Yes. Where the towel rack is used to be where they set up the wide shots. You can put your clothes on the bench there.”
Climbing onto the diving block, he shifted into diving stance. A seamless slice through the water followed as he burst forth beside me.
I shimmied free of the dress after a quick unzip. Purse landed on top the crumpled pile. ‘Take care of them and they’ll take care of you’, Aria always commented when we’d travel to Ondine. Aria hated crumpled clothes. She’d always fold them meticulously. Clothes are coverings, nothing more. Still…
Unsnapping my bra clasp, I let the lacy thing fall away, covering myself with my arm, chuckling. The anxiety is mine. Am I that afraid to show him my skin? He’s seen it numerous times. I’m not perfect. My ankles are fat. The lines on my abs grow deeper every day. Even my left boob is lopsided. B cups flounced as I moved my arm away.
He glanced at the fan arrayed ribs of my pink bra unable the mask the smile. “You’re beautiful. You always have been. It’s the little things that make it that way. Like that bay scallop bra.” Tom tossed up the boxers. The splat landed beside the bench splattering droplets along the wall.
My lacy coral thong slid off with a show of leg, revealing a smooth, hairless mons. I never shave because hair never grows below my seam, just beneath my belly button. The thong landed on the top of the pile as I back flipped in, rising beside him. Wiping salty water from my eyes, I nodded softly, slick flaxen tresses raining droplets around as I bobbed beside him. “We’ll get through this together. I’m sorry; it’s just this place…so much death here.”
“I wish I knew how to remove it,” he said, nuzzling my neck. I shoved him off. “If Aria committed herself to being a regenerist as much as she is to being a singer on Broadway, she could.” Shaking my head, I grew serene. A burst of rippling, glassy luster flowed around, creating a translucent sheen. From waist to feet, tanned peach skin transfigured into vermillion scales arrayed in a diamond pattern. Flukes folded out of the sides of my feet. Breasts scaled over in the same manner as my hips. Tā moko tattoos ran along the sides of my neck from the base of my ears to gills just beneath clavicle. They remained closed as I floated above the water line.
He followed suit, his genitals covering over in a fleshy pouch while his legs scaled metallic gold. Similar Tā moko tattoos ran along the sides his neck, less intricate yet broader. Same held true for his gills. Seemingly bigger, they weren’t open, only reddening with potential use.
Embracing, he lifted my hair from off my neck, revealing a jade-azure sea wave birthmark. Three waves and four dots floated above it. A gold nine point star rested above that. I pivoted around, staring tense. “Why do you always do that?”
“I like seeing it. Is that so wrong?” A sly smile creased his lips. Leaning my head against his shoulder, I shrugged. “No. Have you ever seen yours?”
“No. Not that I have tried.”
Yawning out the remaining air in my lungs, I slid beneath the surface allowing warm, salty water embrace, my gills fluttering. Settling just before the checkerboard mosaic bottom. He rolled down to my side. “I was coming.” Words reverberated from his tattoo, bouncing within the pool walls. “Doors work on voice command too.”
I grinned, closing my eyes, as I snuggled up to him. “Thanks.” He snuggled back and as everything faded, I felt peace.
I groaned. Why is it the days I can sleep in are the only ones I never get too? My green gold scales turn almost jade as I breach the infinity pool’s surface. Inhaling deeply, my lungs inflate and gill covers shut as I search around for the repeating musical chunk. Tā moko sparkles as clean azure drops fall back. Sliding under and bursting forth at the other end near the towel wall, I focus on my buttery-soft leather in pewter hobo bag, winking from the halogen light across the many studs. “Who would call at 3:30 in the morning?”
“Don’t know,” Winn offered groggily, stretching while maintaining his balance on the ruddy inflatable raft. Paddling to the edge, he dove out, padded over to the bag and grimaced. “Reagan Dawn.” He said as he stared down. Glancing around the austere Natatorium, its large bay window revealing the party house just beyond its well-manicured backyard, he sighed, looking over at me. I think he knew the night was over.
“Nice. Bring it here,” I hissed. Pulling myself completely out, cold concrete contacting my firm scales with a shivery chill as I sat on the edge. One doesn’t set above the water while in True form, no matter what all those statues say. Its uncomfortable, cold and can damage sensitive membranes. That leads to nasty bruising when back in surface form. Shifting as to not scrape my dorsal fin along the surface, a wave of rippling, glassy sheen enveloped my scales reverting them to flesh. I pulled out the smartphone. “Five calls?”
He shrugged. “It’s important?”
Squeezing the callback button a little too hard, I let it ring. Why is Gwen’s friend calling me? She never does that now especially after the incident at the Orlando airport.
“Aria?” Reagan’s voice answered with noticeable relief.
“Why now?” I hissed back, my feet tapping softly against the wet concrete. Winn, who sat beside me, looked over, weary. I’m completely flushed now.
“Gwen is in trouble. You should feel that.” A long pause sent sounds of a massive central air unit blowing in the background as well as what sounded like a roar in the distance. Letting Winn hear, he stared at me. “Machine buffer. Someone is buffing the floors in the background.”
“Feel what, Reagan? She’s asleep. As was I before you woke me.”
“That’s just it.” A deep sigh rumbled through. “Such friend you are. Thanks for answering but never mind.” With a click, the call ended. Gently setting it down, I wanted to scream, to claw her and make her wish she never dared suggest I didn’t belong on Gold. I worked hard all season to get us to Worlds. We won. We won NCA on that old music too. Yet, I was the fall guy for the debacle. So, if she thinks that a tinny plea from across the country will change anything, she’s wrong.
Placing the phone back into its face up spot, I pushed the bag from the edge. Suddenly a wave of dark broke over, chilling me in a different way. Listening to the silence, I focused in on where Gwen was. She slept in a pool in Tom’s place. Boiled! As a siren in true form, she erects a song field as a defense mechanism when asleep under water. Only one group would know what that is. Warriors of Dagon. They must think this is their lucky night.
Standing up, I balanced, perfectly focused on Gwen’s location. “Towel off and get dressed. We have to save the princess.”
“What happened?” Winn asked loudly as he tossed me a towel from the rack.
“She’s asleep in True form in the pool at Tom’s.”
Winn flashed a dopey smile yet his coffee eyes went dull. Pausing his towel off for a few seconds he asked the obvious.
“Yes, We were doing the same thing. Difference is: I’m a regenerist. Predators will get poisoned if they approach me. Sirens erect a dome of sound around them.
Winn nodded, yet I saw he still didn’t quite grasp it. “Get dressed.”
After I finished toweling off, I ran to the dryer to retrieve my clothes. Can’t have Dad smell beer, muck and the other nasty party smells on me. Tossing Winn his jeans and Eddie Durant T-shirt, I dug around the bag for a black photo clutch. Within it rested images of every local Warrior of Dagon. Evil bastards find it sport to slaughter us, our lower brethren and even dolphins. Them they eat or sell to aquariums.
Pulling out the picture Uncle Lee gave me yesterday morning, I showed the bullheaded, tight lipped man with the jet black crop top to Winn. “You see him recently?”
“He’s a shrimper. Dad knows him. He’s been to the house once to settle a poker debt, I believe. Why?” Dopey smile again with clear sharp eyes. Suddenly, awareness hit him and he groaned. “He’s one of those people you all hate, isn’t he?”
Sadly, my dumb jock boyfriend is right. “Where do you think he would be now?” I asked softly, cautiously. Hope shined in my smile. He grinned back. There’s a pool hall in downtown dad plays at. He’s probably leaving now. Don’t you think we should go to Tom’s?”
“To do what?” I snarked, gritting my teeth. “I’m out of water so I can only heal.” Then it struck me. My artifact! I can use that. Walking over and hugging him, I whispered. “Thanks.”
“His name is Jeaux. That’s for lagniappe.”
Shaking my head at his extra gift, I hug him again as we lock up and walk out to the car.
Thirty minutes and an explanation later, my black Mini Cooper® zoomed silently down empty downtown Lafayette streets. Of course, Winn’s dad and Mom were separated so he was indeed out playing poker. He said that Jeaux left early with two other men; one dwarfish, another towering yet wiry. I wore ‘Halo’, my golden torc, as a means to defend myself if caught in a situation. I don’t like to explain why I heal rapidly. We all do. Sirens are the slowest because they can sing. Damn her for dragging me out here.
As we turn down one street, nothing changed until we shoot by him. We turn left and pull into the parking lot behind a closed parking garage. “You ready for this?” I asked, remembering the last time I held a knife with intent. His squeamishness quashed it. “There’s not another way?” he nodded, a resigned look on his face.
“No.” Shining jet hair flew as I shook my head. “Hold my hand.”
He scowled, grasping my hand tightly. I hate doing this but there didn’t appear another way. Closing my eyes, I focused on the area around us, allowing the lights to shine as if we weren’t there. Feeling a thicker rippling sheen settle like a downy coat draped on me, I looked at the side view mirror. Nothing but the parking lot. We were invisible. Technically, light folded around us. A gift only regenerists have. I nodded to him as I released his hand then snuck up as close as I could without him seeing. At least the black circles of my irises blended into the night.
Pacing beside the small U-Haul® truck, Jeaux scowled. Motion flitted in the trucks mirror. Spiraling around, he saw only downtown Lafayette asleep. No cars, no motion, just silence, wind and his fearsome physique reflected off the metallic paintjob of the box truck. Broad shoulders, barrel chest and taut musculature rippled as he stretched. After glancing at his watch again, he scratched the top of his head, tousling charcoal strands of his carefully sprayed coif askew. Scrubbing his flat stubbly chin, he starred at the door to the Jefferson street épicerie.
“Can’t go to the Circle-K or the quick stop. No, we have to go to the only place that sells fresh fried crawfish pies at 3 am,” he mumbled as he glanced around again, noticing nothing save a soft breeze against his skin. A giant well lit silver fleur-de-lis with ‘Jefferson Épicerie’ across its center buzzed in agreement as he stared beneath it for signs of his two partners. Two men’s backs appeared through iron bar covered bay window bedecked with signage advertising Marlboro® reds, Abita® Amber, and Savory Simon upon a gold fleur-de-lis background. Only the fluorescent glow made it hard to discern if they got the pies yet. “Wish Hubig’s made crawfish pies, and then all this wouldn’t happen.”
After another minute of silent staring, the tallest of the two sauntered out. There didn’t seem to be a lot of muscle on his lean and wiry frame, but his hands bore the calluses of hard work. A small plastic sack shouting thank you swung from his right wrist. He searched the area before approaching the packed truck. “Were you seen by anyone?” Umber eyes tightened. He brushed a cinnamon ringlet back over his ear, rubbing thumb and finger together.
“No. We need to get there now.”
Brows furrowed. “I make that decision, not you.” He turned away, opening the truck with a grace reserved for those who knew how to run. Deep fried, crawfish flavored air swarmed him as Jeaux slid in beside. Shutting the door, the other popped open, their third companion floating in. Short, almost dwarfish in his stoutness, his face revealed numerous cheek and nose scars. Closer to a shattered porcelain doll, he shoved the half eaten pie into his thick lipped maw, motioning forward with one hand while gesturing with the other.
I snuck beside the truck window staring inwardly. He glanced at me briefly, shuttering and jerking his gaze away.
‘What, Jim?” the leader asked as Jeaux shook his head.
“Allon!” He smiled, still chewing. “Thanks for making the pie run. Now we get down to the GraveRobber’s.”
The leader sighed; furrowed brows looked as he turned. “You ready to retrieve what was stolen?”
“Yes,” Jeaux said relieved. “I didn’t think the stupid slut was that smart.”
Jim glared at him, his bald pate shining in the rising moonlight. “Smart? You think she knows?”
“Why else would she take that statue and not the cards in my wallet? She took her stuff, my cash and that statue. When we get there, I’m going to f%$k the s%#t out of her for doing it.” His heavy Cajun accent skewed his curses yet both caught his intent.
Leader cast a cold, dark stare. Silent fury rested behind his eyes. “No. You won’t.” Even with his own light accent, his words were clear.
“Why the f%$k not?”
“Because if she’s there, she in his quarters.” He shook his head. “When you were approached we told you this was about ridding the world of mermaids. That they rested control from us. You still believe this?”
Jeaux calmed, blowing out a breath. “Yes. The illuminati rules us as slaves. What do you think the h1N1 pandemic is? That antivirus isn’t to cure us–” Leader held his hand up.
“Yes, we know. Their leaders are hidden using puppets to take the fall. I remind you, we are Piscine, warriors of Dagon. We are legion and cannot be stopped. So if she knows the true purpose of the statue, she must die before she becomes one of them.” A gleam in the leader’s eye echoed his speech. “If not, then you can do as you wish provided you don’t get caught.”
“Don’t get caught.” Jim added gruffly, draining the last of his lemon ice with a slurp of his straw. “It’s bad enough that the statue rests inside GraveRobber’s compound. At least he knows what it means. He’s still on our side.”
Jeaux shrugged, hiding his boredom. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Stepping back from the vehicle, I shook my head disgusted. GraveRobber is a Piscine? No. He knows about Gwen so he can’t be. Still…why do I do this for you, Tom? Angry growl caught Winn’s attention as he swiveled from his position on the back of the U-Haul®. “Get off of there,” I whispered, trying to pull him free before the truck drove away.
Too late. As my hand shot out, hard asphalt stuck his side. Speeding tires masked his sharp moan as he looked up with sad, pain filled eyes. In the distance, the U-Haul® sped on to its destination; the GraveRobber’s behemoth clinic and residence.
Taking his hand, I jerked him up. That lasted for a second as he winced in pain, collapsing on his butt, me falling on top of him in a dramatic movie style romantic fall. Staring into his muddy eyes, real pain radiated back not as hidden by his controlled breathing as he thought. Dissipating the light bending cloak, I shifted my weight to cover him. He groaned but didn’t shove me off. He just stared, confused and hurt. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s my fault.” He winced, breathing heavy fish and rice breath.
“Did you break something?” The soft whisper filled with worry as hands rubbed his sides and any other parts they could reach. Everything felt fine. No swelling along his robust legs and arms. A dirty smirk held as he attempted to roll me off him. Only his left arm wouldn’t move. His right hand gripped my butt cheek.
Brushing it off with a brief, serious look, I rolled off him, landing beside his left side. “Move you left arm.”
He leaned up and stared at me, annoyed. “I’m trying.” It still hung limp.
That holstered knife with its jade inlayed whale bone handle scraped my leg as I raised his arm up and watched the pain radiate, contorting his face. Coughing fit continued for a minute as anger mixed with the pain. “Can’t you just dump your healing magic onto me?”
“To do what?” I barked back, irritated by the suggestion. “This is different. You are injured. I have to find where to heal.” Tamping down my glower, I bit my lips while thinking. “It will hurt.”
He sighed, glaring. “Obviously, princess.”
“Don’t mock me if you want to use that arm tomorrow. I wasn’t the one climbing.” Turning away to ignore his gaze and focus, his right hand pivoted me to face him. “What?” echoed savagely as I focused on his left shoulder.
“Sorry. My entire shoulder is on fire. It’s dislocated. Can you pop it back in?” He grinned feebly.
My dumb jock boyfriend is endearing in his ignorance sometimes, Other times it’s just annoying. That’s today. I am granddaughter of the King Vann Natal. I am a regenerist like him. I can heal even better than Gwen can sing, Yet he asks me ‘can I pop his shoulder back in?’ Sure, let me sucker punch your sack first. Instead, I respond politely. “Yes but it will hurt as much a ball punch.”
“I know. The things I do for you, Aria Natal.” He grinned feebly again.
Laying my hands on his shoulder rather than gripping it to move it manually, a golden glow enveloped the area. As the glow intensified, a slow arm pull stretched the shoulder muscles, popping the joint into place. Winn screamed for a few seconds while crying as the pain eased. Letting him work his arm some, I kept up the glow to dissipate the soreness and banish the pain.
“The things I do for you, Winston Eire.” I said as I pulled him to his feet. “We still need to save her. They probably arrived by now.”
“Only one way to find out.” He pecked my cheek then sprinted to the Mini®. Me, I jetted across the street to mini mart. All that healing sucked energy out of me. Time for a fried crawfish pie and a lemon ice.
Three minutes later, he stared up at me as I handed him a lemon ice. “What?”
“Waiting til the last moment, mon cheri?”
“And? I was hungry.”
He chuckled as he slid into the car. “No one’s up. Gravecrew’s done. However, they say there is a massive amount of foreign cars in their parking lot, like 10. They went to the backup site to wait it out until morning.”
“Just great.” I shake my head, hiding the fear that maybe Gwen won’t get out of this. Healing her will make it worse between us because then she’ll feel obligated. Leaving her will guarantee I never see the throne, ‘halo’ on my head or not. Of course, ‘Say Something’ by Great Big World featuring Christina Aguilera appears in my mind right then thanks to it. Like I need a dark, sorrowful breakup song right now. Into the car and off we go.
“Thoughts,” I ask as we turn on Rue Vermillion, the white sign sparking amongst the minty streetlight poles.
“Why do the street signs change color?” A sly grin peaked out.
Shoving him with a free hand, I snatched a glance. “About this catch o’mess.”
“What do they think they will accomplish? Courthouse is up the street.” The smile faded like fog replaced with brooding worry. As much as she hurt both of us, we still count her a friend. At least I do. She’s a fellow sister of the assembly, high borne of House Cetus. There’s not that many of us now; maybe a couple hundred out of all the houses and their banners.
I snickered as we drive by the federal courthouse and its blind justice heads sliced flat. Empty head blind justice, they called them. “What are you going to do if there’s twenty people there?”
“Sing.” A dark frown creased my lips. “What else can I do?” Turning on Buchannan we finally could see the sandstone warehouse rising pitifully against its rivals; the parish courthouse and a parking garage. Both were north and north west respectfully. Still it blended well if you had no clue it was any more than a doctor’s office and research facility.
True to the reports, there were cars in the back parking lot. Circling around, we parked across the street behind a stand of cypress fluttering in the muggy night breeze. Cloaking in the car, we ran toward the still idling U-Haul®. Inside, Jeaux laid asleep, slouched back against the cab wall.
“Walk over to each of the vehicles and tell me what you see.” I whispered as I snuck over to driver side door and peered in.
After a minute of the dwarfen guy writing in a notepad, he jabbed Jeaux in the side with pencil. “What the f%$k?” He mumbled, jerking up.
The dwarf grinned darkly. “Don’t need you sleeping.” He pointed to the massive sandstone wall that rose before them. Imposing in its silent grandeur, it ran several hundred feet in either direction from where they parked. A canopied doorway waited in the center, glowing like a white beacon in the moonlit night. Well as much as it could, considering the copious streetlights in the parking lot.
“Jim, was it you or Kent that jabbed me?” He glanced around then realized the obvious. Only Jim was in there with him.
I heard Winn shout. Everyone looked out the window. Fortunately, they saw nothing but their leader, Kent waving at them. Me, I saw Winn running carrying a yellow prop weapon. “It’s an assault shotgun. Only its stock,” he pointed at the long rod jutting from its back and ending in a metal hatch pad, “and barrel are bright yellow. I think it fires stun rounds.”
Looking at him stupefied, I bit down. Singing right now would cause more problems. Slowly, I spoke as I reviewed it, “Stun rounds?”
He produced the bandolier he’d been carrying in his other hand. Looking like what Chewbacca worn on ‘Star Wars’, it sparkled in the halogen lights. Each cylinder had black fins on one end and four prongs on the other. “Tell me they aren’t going to use these?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.” He twisted the shotgun over so I could see the handgrip and trigger. It didn’t look like any shotgun I’d ever seen. It looked like a prop weapon from ‘Fringe’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Yet when he loaded five black finned cylinders into it. It hummed to life.
Behind us, the numerous other parked trucks began disgorging their members until a small group of 20 gathered around. All older men, some as old as dad, some younger. None around my age.
Kent drug a wood crate from a Ford F150 super duty, hopped upon it and began speaking something motivational yet totally uninteresting. More propaganda about how evil we were. That since 1913 we conspired to steal the worlds wealth away from them and make sure they were slaves. How we drown their children and destroy their livelihood. None of it was true. WE own the worlds wealth because we were here first. 3500 BC our first city was established. Antarctica began use around then too.
Ignoring everyone, Jeaux keyed on something odd beside the doorway. A slumped guard, his assault rifle still in his hands. He sparkled like swaddled in a force field. Above him bore a sign: Violators will be met with deadly force. This is your only warning.
No other guards stood about. None other seemed to be on patrol. It looked like a peaceful warehouse that proclaimed via the canopy: Dr. Volkov: Biomedical research, traditional medicine & holistic remedies. Yet everything shimmered. His frown confirmed what I saw. Gwen asleep, generating a protection field. Only her field shouldn’t be that large. A fraction of that maybe. I shouldn’t be able to see it from here. What is going on?
Kent looked to Jeaux more amused than cross. “Done with your analysis?”
“Yes. What’s the plan?”
Soft shake of the head. “Had you been listening you’d heard it. Frontal assault. You and me, we stay here until the door is open.”
A loud scream followed by several grunts drew their attention back to the wall and its doorway. Bodies struggled, staggering away from an area several feet from the door itself. One person drew a knife and ran only to strike nothing but open air the same distance from the doorway. Ripples in a sparkle pattern flew from where his ejection happened as pink sparks burst briefly.
Kent held a grim gaze, shaking his head. “She knows.”
“How?” Jeaux asked, marveling at another violent toss from the force field, this one ending in a sickening crunch and stench of feces as that lifeless person landed on the pavement.
He simply pointed at the doorway then the sky. Every time a body struck, rainbow ripples flowed like a stone striking a pond’s surface. “Siren protection field. We wait.”
“Then what? Dawn is in three hours.” Jeaux glared, cracking his knuckles. Veins popped on the sides of his head. “She will escape with it.”
“No she won’t. That field only lasts as long as a siren is asleep. GraveRobber’s smart. Still, the siren will awake. Then we get the statue.”
Rubbing my head, I walked away from them towards where Winn was. The bandolier was on him now. He cradled the loaded shotgun. The glee on his face cheered and scared me. “You can’t keep that.”
“Oh but I can. It’s a limited series automatic shotgun called ‘Maul’: Multi-shot Under barrel Accessory Launcher. It can fire tear gas and dummy rounds too.”
Gritting my teeth, I glared. His smile vanished, his gaze hardening. “Aria, I know you’re afraid but this is the real world here. As much as I hate it, they want you dead. I won’t let that happen. I failed you once. If this is what it takes so be it. Besides, it’s painted as a prop so it doesn’t attract suspicion.”
Shaking my head, a growl exited my lips. “We’ve defended ourselves for thousands of years.
Kent turned my way, suddenly silent. Walking over with his hand out, I saw IR scanner in it. In the midst of that chaos, simultaneous events happened. Winn shot Kent. Me, out of my mouth sang ‘Bodies’ by Drowning pool. Not the best choice if you want to question someone later.
Silent, smooth pool water reflected my willowy yet small busted frame as I flicked wet coffee hair back. Another incredulous stare at the phone again. “Why do I put up with her?” I snapped as I dialed Gwen’s number one last time. “Come on!” I barked, frustrated. When voicemail answered, a headshake followed. “I’m coming and I don’t care if my parents, the king or Poseidon and Dagon are standing there, I will help. You’re my bestie.” Dropping the phone into my cheap leather purse, I grabbed a towel from the natarium rack and tied it around my fat waist. I’ll never understand why with all the full-outs, strength training and tumbling I do I have this massive caboose. It’s as if the LORD above said, ‘We know Reagan has an Indian mom so let’s give her a fat ass.’ Sigh, now this.
Vast grey concrete consumed walls up to the arched dome ceiling. Small bleachers rested on each side of the Olympic length salt water pool. Fluttering from central heat, small banners proclaiming victories hung from steel rafters. Striding by the starting blocks Malcolm caught my eye hovering as he always did. “Are you spying on me?” Jovial smile leaked out. He’s a creeper for sure but he’s my creeper.
“No. Just maintaining the pool as always. Have to make sure it’s clean. Coach Carson bitches way too much about balances.” He grinned back, chuckling. “You are leaving early. Problem?”
My smile dissipated. “Yes. No worries. I’ll be back.”
Softness held his eyes as worry lines formed. “Be careful. You are more than a one dream soul.”
Confusion gripped as my lips pursed. “Thanks?”
Inside the locker room, the towel dropped away with a damp plop, revealing a soggy jade pareo still wrapped around my waist just below my belly button. If it’s one thing I can do, it’s tie a pareo. Quick pull on the knot it fell free as well. “Why am I so big down here?” floated up. The perennial question spoken in our empty school locker room. Its silence breached; its dingy crimson lockers sentinels to endless swim team questions.
Toweling and dressing in skinny jeans, uggs and my thick jade sweater, my seashell bracelet returned to my wrist. Finally reaching for the hand sized scallop shell resting at the back of the locker, it came forward easily, shining warmly in the cold hard fluorescent light. Glistening as if it were wet yet totally dry, I caressed it in my hands. “So how am I going to explain this?” A grin parted my lips as I rose, purse on my arm and the shell clutched tightly.
Out into the Monarch bedecked beige plaster hallway lined with crimson lockers exhausted by time and use, Malcolm stood leaning on a 44in dust mop. “You’re up to something. I thought you were leaving.”
“You know me so well.” A wink accompanying a beckoning hand gesture summoned him near. “I need you to trust me with something.”
“More than sneaking into school after hours to use the pool?” He grinned back playfully.
“Yes.” My eyes rolled unconsciously followed by a soft head shake. “I am going to vanish for a few hours yet my car is going to stay here. When does your shift end?”
Thoughtful concern rippled across his Latin face. “Seven. Why?”
“If I don’t meet you in the western commons by then, use our code.”
He laughed again. “As long as it’s only you, OK.”
I grinned back, flicking my hair heading toward the location. “It’s always me. Who else is here?”
Turning my head, he did exactly what I expected. He shrugged. It’s as if he knows something but doesn’t want to share. This has been going on ever since I got back from Ondine shortly before Gwen became princess. Dag, do I miss being able to go swim in our capital city.
“I’ll move it if you don’t make it.” He said as he walked away.
The western commons arrayed out like a cafeteria only without the kitchen. Groupings of tables interchanged with ruddy brick pillars checkboarded the open area while vending machines rivaling a Japanese streetside ran along the walls. Above them, cigarette windows allow shafts of light to fill the mammoth space. Outlets and lamps dotted the pillars casting fluorescent lighting upon ancient bolted steel tables and benches.
Walking toward a niche between the battery and bento box machines, I paused at the final table before them. “Stay empty for me.”
Withdrawing the scallop shell, I sat at the table before them. When my fingertips touched it, the uneven surface of the rippled shell warmed me, tickling slightly. That tickling became a tingle then it seemed that I reached out of one location and into another, and yet sensed them both.
Unsure how to open it, it sparkled along the edge. Standing it upright, its sides folded open beneath my touch, dividing along the seam. The brilliance that emanated from within swirled around me blotting out the vending machines. Only a wisp of the table remained. Before me floating an infinity symbol rippling and pulsing as I gasped in shock and delight. Like a rippling pond pushed by wind it radiated an ethereal turquoise glow. As I took hold of it, it flared and engulfed me.
Unclenching my eyes, I stood beside a azure and kelp comforter bedecked bed. As focus returned, confusion reigned. “Pool room? Why would anyone sleep in a room that looks like a pool?” Sighing, I pivoted around looking for a door or opening. To my right, stood a wooden trophy case with a mate to the scallop shell resting open on the bed. The infinity symbol seemed muted hardly glowing at all now. “The tunnel lasts only twelve hours, that’s what she said. So where am I?”
Sitting on the bed, I focused on Gwen’s location. Behind me in a long thin pool floating beside Tom. His arms held her waist. Sweet. Wish I had a guy like that. “At least she knows how to hide. Behind the wall in another room is where I’d pick too,” bounced off the tile preceded by a heavy sigh.
With no visible way in, a dilemma appeared. Tom, Gwen and Aria live in Lafayette, Louisiana yet sirens don’t generate a protection field while on the surface unless they perceive serious danger around. Tasting the air said the field covered at least this room. Whatever caused it should be outside it; logical, right? So, I leave to room, moving softly into a paneled hallway that quickly terminated into a kitschy 60’s airport themed living room and kitchen.
At the end of the massive space, beside a spiral staircase stood a gun-metal double glass door tinted black bearing a white center stripe. Her protection field felt higher here not smaller so pushing open the doors, humid night air slapped my air conditioned face. Electric guitar squealing, cymbals and very deep, guttural, and unintelligible growl punched my ears. Behind and above it a repetitive chant that supposed to represent moshing echoed. Don’t even need to focus because Gwen would never sing Black metal. Another head shake; “Aria. Of course you would twist that ‘Drowning Pool’ song.”
Realizing what I said, a bitter laugh fell out. This is why regenerists aren’t sirens. Auroras caught my eyes. Even in the bright halogen light of the small open backyard, they could be seen cavorting across the sky. It hit me as sure as a branch from the dead oak tree in the center as I wandered about.
Warriors of Dagon, specifically hunters, are attacking the field right now. Aria is fighting them. At least she came. Still it shouldn’t be so large to attract the attention of hunters. Unless…
Sensing the death all around me, I knelt down onto the dry leaves feeling for a sense there were bodies. Grimacing, I knew the truth. Several were buried here. It’s what killed the tree.
Walking to the tree itself, I felt another song floating in the ether. Gwen singing in her dreams. ‘Worn’ by Tenth avenue north, one of her favorite songs when she’s in pain. What if… A large grin blossomed as I looked up towards the stars. “I need your help, LORD. Without you, people will suffer. Gwen needs your help.”
Ancient words tumbled from my lips. Assembly words used millennia ago in our own rights. Only something seemed different. Her field is far larger than she should be able to generate. Eyes widened in shocked joy. Tom is a circlemaker. That’s the only explanation. The first in three centuries to have a sample of all gifts as well as the first of a new major house. Wow.
Placing my hands on the tree, the words continued to flow. Suddenly, the air rained soft, shiny cloudlets. They floated to the ground resting for a few moments before vanishing. Relaxing finally, I slid down. Leaning back against the tree, I saw life glowed within it now. How long I didn’t know.
I stand where I also did so many times before. Inside Coach Sylvan’s office at Taft High. The Stairmaster® in the corner with a cup holder stained abundant protein drink splashes. Beside it, the metal desk with cranberry stationary covering it. A burnished name placard front and center. The west wall trophy case, a rich sepia, standing proud and overflowing with sideline cheer trophies. Old analog TV in the corner still warm from recent use. Soft cranberry leather chairs with the 4 initials of the school on their back. Dented file cabinets bedecked in ribbons and overflowed with more trophies. Stuffed billboard of notes and pictures of a highly successful cheerleading coach. Tiny NHSCA banners hung from the ceiling. Everything cranberry and cream suffused with morning’s golden light.
Rich brown leather chair faced the back wall, a tall thick necked woman with a tightly cropped mane of ruddy maize barely masking a tattoo of the marine shield with ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body’ resting in it. She leaned forward exposing the tattoo more as Tom stepped in.
Silent minutes after, Lorelei still in her Shooting Stars uniform and jacket ran in. “Coach?”
Sylvan looked out, her worn expression brightened. “What can I do for you, Lorelei?”
“I came to–” fell out before a hogshead barrel sized imp, pig faced with thick jowls stormed in. Brandishing a Glock®17, he cast blank stares around, focusing on Sylvan. “Be gone!”
His arm jerked as a thunderclap shook the room. Blood splattered across the trophy case behind as her lifeless head cracked against the glass, rouge and grey oozing from the wound along her hair line.
Lorelei stood frozen as the man turned, aimed and fired. Tom dove at him, the bullet gouging the flesh above his right obliques. Turning away, the man felt Tom’s thick muscular fist slam the back of his head causing a stumble. Tom rolled the imp up, banging the shooting arm just enough that when he fired the bullet entered the imps mouth rather that over his shoulder like he intended. Sticky gore spattered everything, drenching the floor and bulletin board. Lorelei stood shaking, barely breathing as gray chunks, and viscous bloody fluids dripped and fell from her strawberry blonde hair, masking her band of copious nose freckles. Tears ran from her eyes.
Shoving the now dead and partially decapitated man off him, he shoved the gun into the corpse’s mouth before rising.
Lorelei exhaled, pivoting and stepping from the pooling blood. “Why are you here?”
“I couldn’t let you die. Not like this. I would never forgive myself.” He pulled a hanky out of the dead man’s pocket, wiping her face and hair gently. Stinging radiated across his torso, like a bad sunburn. She pointed at the growing stain on his Forest Hills Beavers swim team t-shirt. “You were hit.”
“I’m fine.” He smiled beneath the grimace, continuing to wipe the blood and other fluids from her with a towel from the chair. Pink specks had settled, staining the jacket even after several wipes. Her white Nfinity® shoes were half crimson now. “I’m here and I won’t let you go, no matter what.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen. You aren’t supposed to be here. I…” More tears flooded down as she crumpled into his arms. “She needs you far more than I do. I…” Heavy weeping crushed the remaining words as he cradled her.
“Don’t go. I need you. Your House needs you. Coupe de Monde needs you. The assembly needs you.” Small strokes along her cheeks stifled the sobs as the aroma of death began to saturate their air.
Tears fall again as I kneel down before them. The memory frozen at last fixed point Tom held. This is where my mother and I arrived. Three days later we stand Lorelei in Antarctica with all the rest of the members of the Assembly who depart life. Yet this is her final gift to me; his sacrifice. As always, I sing ‘Broken Hallelujah’ by the Afters followed by ‘Amazing Grace’ written by John Newton with the original Olney hymn chorus attached. ‘New Britain’ the actual music attached remains a melody of William Walker. Curse of being a siren. I actually know who writes and produced everything. I know if the person uses a stage name too. If something is stolen, sirens have to return it or it’s lost. Being lost can change everything, so its forbidden. House Oannes enforced that. Now, they are gone as well.
Rising, I turn to the window that faces the parking lot and dumpster. A lot of freshmen were tossed into there as initiation. Rajesh for one. He was the first. Bleeding from a gut shot, he fell beside it, unknown for hours. My life is filled with so much death. Why?
Well-kept grass and cars still remain. Sun still shines on this last day of the school’s life. Two years and six months ago from this memory, I found the resurrection serum here in this very room. With these very things before me. Only that will be the first time I step in. I waited in the hall then. Tom came out to me carrying her, his shirt ruined.
Pivoting around as the sudden gasp and squeal, I stare into the horrified eyes of Allison Blake. Tears pour from her brown pools as sympathy mixes with sorrow. “He spoke of this. I wish you had.” She held out a hand to hug me.
“How did you get here?” A frown settled in.
“I don’t know.” I stared at her silently unsure.
“Jeaux always rambled about garbage like this. Connected dreamscapes, Talking minds, remote viewing as if they existed. I blamed bored writers. I never believed any could be–”
“Real?” My frown deepened into a scowl. “It’s very real. You’re very much a part of it.” The memory of now surfaced and I realized it had to be Tom. “Allison.”
“Call me Allie. Whether I like it or not we are sisters now.” A grimace twisted her face as she walked out of the room. Following her, she didn’t stop until we were before the trophy case near the front doors. Covering almost the full wall, it held numerous trophies including one that I now know is made of my house artifacts.
“What if we were more than that?”
She wheeled around, a hard, contemptuous stare, brown to my dream azure. “I’m not like that. I like the ‘d’ thank you very much.”
A low growl rumbled from within. “That is not what I meant. We are teammates and linked through Tom. Only he’s now a high lord of the assembly. When I become Queen, he’ll be my consort king. We will LIVE underwater 30 ft. down in our capital city.”
I expected her to snort in derision, say something bitchy or walk off. Instead, she stared. It’s if I told her Justin Beiber is a 52 yr. old pedophile named Michael Cole. By the way, that’s true. It just hasn’t happened yet. “Allie?”
“All of this! ALL OF THIS! IT’S REAL?” She screamed, turned and wailed on the dream Plexiglas® doors of the trophy case.
Another deep sigh. Quashing my desire to slap her, a simple nod came. “I haven’t always been princess. Aria was until she stole Christina’s Golden Ticket. Her grandfather gave the title to me because I finished the requirements first. Tom stood by me through it all. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be princess at all. Aria would have gotten away with it.” A deep scowl as I looked down the hall that ended facing the trophy case. Students frozen running in fear. Others slumped on the floor, staring off as their life and dreams faded away.
Allie stopped, tears smearing her mascara again.
“I lending you my waterproof mascara. You can’t go around looking like a raccoon all the time.”
Shaking her head, she exhaled heavily. “So you all just let everyone believe what that want to while you secretly rule us?”
I snorted. “Really? You believe Jeaux now?”
“You said…you were princess of the mermaids. He hates them. However, he believed you existed. It’s hard not to believe him now since you admitted he is right. Unless something else is missing?”
I nodded. “He hates you.” I poked her in the chest, a little more forcefully as she stepped back, the wince still on her face.
“So? He hates you more.” She turned away, took a step then turned back.
“I can defend myself. You can’t.” That frown lightened, releasing a sigh. “We are sisters. We are both suffering. I can’t fix that. I can help you defend yourself.”
“How?” Twisting a piece of hair, she searched the area around. The red striped white tile, the maroon lockers, the grass clipping suspended in the frozen air of the dreamscape. I saw her flicker and knew my time with her was short.
“Stay with me. Please?” I pleaded, forcing on a smile.
“How?” She responded, her face filled with sudden fear.
“Become one of us. One of the Assembly. We can do in the Vermillion outside my house.”
As she faded away, she nodded. Me, I walked out into the sunlit parking lot. Mom’s car still sat amongst the others up front. We were there for a parent teacher meeting. Funny how life and death always intersect? The dream always ended here, me looking back as police ran into Taft High’s main entrance. I saw that on loop so many times, yet it’s missing.
Instead a tall gentleman in a jeans and an off white/grey plaid button down shirt stood strumming his electric guitar. He adjusted thick black rimmed glasses before brushing tightly cropped platinum hair from his eyes. Two other males appeared beside him, both similar is proportion also with guitars. Behind them appeared a drum kit with a seated band member, a deeply bronzed to almost jet skinned man, drumming softly.
They began to sing, yet nothing, no voice nor guitar crossed my ears. Running to them, I tripped on the curb, tumbling through them. Dusting myself off, I realized my error. Matt Maher stood before me with band, singing.
“Why can’t I hear it?” I groaned.
Tom’s voice answered back. “Because you don’t believe in the song. You come here often to remember the death.” He frowned, more distraught in face than in feelings.
Biting my lip, I circled them. “You saw what happened.”
“Yes, but I have to believe in more. Lorelei said something odd while on the ferry. She told me I would witness death being trampled by itself three times. Then she said you would be involved each time. Already spooked by her discussing her own passing, I didn’t think about it until we got back from Antarctica. Lorelei passed in the same room you found the resurrection serum. Death trampled itself that time and I witnessed. You were involved.”
I shook my head, confused and exhausted. “I found the vial because of that lady with Dr. Volkov spoke of ‘Ghost Town’s’ transformation. She hinted it hidden there by someone.”
“You know who. You don’t want to admit it because it disrupts your world view.” He shook his head, frowning. “You found it because you went to the room to see it. Why? You know.”
“I had hoped it would work on Lorelei,” I growled frustrated with his questioning and the silence.
“Why didn’t it?”
Sharp glare cut into him. “It wouldn’t open for me.”
He shook his head. “You are still missing it. It’s far more simple that you think.” He vanished in a puff of vapor as I glared into the silent drum kit. Hissing, I clenched my fists. “I wanted my sister to live again. I want to hug her and talk about all the time she missed.”
Sinking to my knees, I looked beyond the band to the death beyond. Frozen horror spilling out chilled me. Yet that vial had to be in that drawer that day. Then it struck me. Exchange.
Guitar music poured like rushing waves into the silence. Matt’s voice reverberated against me as drums filled out key moments. The song? ‘Christ is risen’. I should have known. Lorelei always believed as does Tom. Me? well…working on it. As I sung with them, warmth melted away the pain, the sorrow and the loss. As it faded, I knew something marvelous happened outside.
However, I also knew that I need to do something else. Something to break this cycle of visitation. Walking back down those crimson halls now speckled with fresh, dripping color, I stopped before the room. Copper penny scent gripped my nose as Tom stood in the hall carrying her. As I opening my lips I knew. The song doesn’t start here.
It starts in the Choir room. Down the short hall just outside the door, it stood. As I approached this place I never ventured before in my mind, the room formed from memories and news reports. White speckle vinyl tiles glowed in the harsh fluorescence. Checkerboard maroon and brown acoustic damping tiles hung from the buttercream back wall underneath the high, thin unbarred windows. A wooden three tiered amphitheater style seating system hunkered against the back wall well-worn yet glistening in the sunlight. Birch bookshelves leered still holding their hymnals, sheet music binders and tomes of arcana. The center of it all: a black Baldwin baby grand piano. A thin, wiry man looked in disgusted surprise at the doorway. The piano man, his wispy white hair, a frozen flutter. He was a big man and a friend of everyone. Earl convinced us both join the same team when the first issues with us cropped up. Kent became a problem later after the train ride.
In fact, Kent hadn’t always despised Lorelei. Once they loved each other. Shae Nyx forever jealous of her, caused the friction. Everyone knew; yet it was silent. He did it skulking. She always complained to me only about how he thought his special show choir would take him places. Indeed it did, they won as many Choir championships under Matthew Breaux as Coupe du Monde won at Worlds. In truth, it stood as Shae’s vehicle to fame in LA.
She stood two feet from him staring at the slit windows near the ceiling, enraptured with what they were singing. Her dusky caramel skin sparkled in the fluorescence, pinkish tan lips parted just so. Flawless smoky eyes like mine yet a broad nose. I love my petite nose as did Lorelei. She said how much Shae disliked hers. Crimson dress hung from her although it seemed hazy.
The band of twelve, multicultural as they were motley sat hazy; sharp faces a mix of interest, delight and realizing horror. Nevertheless, him and his band of twelve remained the catalyst leading to the shooting. It made no sense. Then again neither did the vial resting in the drawer. So I opened my lips and let New Song’s ‘Arise My Love’ pour out. Funny that a song about resurrection would heal me in this dreamscape. Now if it could only heal her.
Kent flopped about, arching and contorting. His screaming face, a rictus of pain attracted no one but Jeaux who stood silently, swinging a broom handle over him, vainly trying to knock away the stun shell clamped to Kent’s chest.
Knocking it free finally, it skittered across the grounds landing at my feet. I finished Drowning Pool’s ‘Bodies’ with a fake guitar flourish. Unlike Gwen, even when I wear Halo, I see nothing different. No artist playing live around me. No wispy avatars of them over me. It’s just music.
Jeaux spun around trying to source the music but as I matched his motion he figured it came from Kent. Poking him with a stick, he didn’t see Jim awaken and approach.
“Where in the seven hells did that come from?” Jim spat, scanning across. Others shouldering similar weapons marched over, grim. Three stood, staring at Kent who kept breathing heavy, gnarled up in pretzel twists.
“It’s that dome. It keeps bouncing the shots.” One popped off, gesturing wildly.
Jim and Jeaux stared at him, a short, fat man with pudgy jowls and rubber arms. “I can’t run. What else was I supposed to do?”
Winn turned to me, all smiles, pointing. His other hand he held up open. Only five left. Six if Kent still breathed. I sighed then yawned. Pre-dawn was upon us. That meant two things, neither good. Gwen would awaken soon, refreshed, collapsing the field. The warriors here knew this and planned on making a final assault then.
“You know it’s Nautical Twilight so we only have a short time left to wait. Can we agree that the field is impenetrable?” Jeaux looked at the rest of those assembled, wielding the broomstick like a bō staff.
The others nodded. “So what do we do? Our fallen lie about. We need time to retrieve them,” the pudgy guy remarked, a handkerchief covering his mouth and nose. Jim shook his head, squatted down and helped a groggy Kent stand. “The fallen are lost. There is time for them later. Now is a time for patience and consecration. We must hear Dagon’s voice when it calls. It speaks to us now. Do you not hear?”
With a perverse grin, Winn raised his rifle and whispered. “I do. He wants you leave Gwen alone.”
Sliding in front of him, I rested my hands on the rifle. “There are too many, too close.” I whispered it, exhausted by the drain to keep us both cloaked. Pushing the rifle down, I almost missed what happened.
“The dome is pulsing again.” Jim shouted as he shuffled backwards toward the truck. The others bolted towards the far end of the parking lot. Only Jeaux stood his ground, glaring hatefully at it. “So? What does it matter?”
The dome’s sheen turned golden, ejecting sparks which fluttered down like gossamer clouds. Only these ignited anything they touched. In seconds every corpse became a horrid torch adding that stench to the already foul air.
Winn brushed one off his shirt, shaking his hand as if it were burned. Watching him, I noticed the soft melody riding the wind. ‘Titles’, the formal name for the instrumental track ‘Chariots of Fire’ played.
“Run!” I shouted at him shoving him hard. Bolting away myself, I felt the sonic blast of the first vehicle exploding, metal bumpers and wheels streaming overhead. Glancing behind me, I saw him hunkering as he ran, stopping just short of my Mini Cooper®.
“What is happening?” Winn blurted out, breathing heavy, horror etched on his face.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand anything. The dome is too large. It certainly doesn’t rain fire. A fire attack is a Warrior gifts. Neither of our houses have Warriors in them.” I opened the car door, huddling inside. Dispelling the cloak, a wave of release engulfed me. Opening my eyes, I expect Winn to be beside me. Inside he still stood outside, firing the rifle. Tracking his direction connected to the U-Haul® truck across the parking lot. Three bodies lie before it.
Winn opened the passenger side door. “Problem solved.” He scowled.
“That doesn’t kill.”
“I know. Let’s go. When they wake up, it will be in either a hospital or a jail cell. They won’t bother us or Gwen anymore.”
I wasn’t convinced. As much as I hate death, I need them that way. Then another explosion rocked the car, more metal, plastic and glass raining down upon us. That was enough. This held all the makings of a terrorist attack now.
“They need to be dead,” I said flatly, driving towards them.
“No they don’t,” he growled, staring at me. “Murdering them only perpetuates the problem.”
“Winn, I don’t have time for your pacifism,” I snarked. “You heard them. They hate me. You too. They NEED to be dead.” I glared at him briefly after sliding to the side of the truck. Only Jim remained on the ground. Focusing on him, I felt nothing. No life force, no pulse and fading warmth. He’s a corpse now.
Jeaux’s voice softly rumbled from beneath the truck. “You said she was alone. Undefended.”
“I said no such thing. I said she was inside with a siren. I didn’t expect her friends to defend her.” Kent raged back.
“I did. Now look. Kenji is a fool for tapping you. You are a fool for attacking a siren.” He exhaled heavily.
“That’s not a normal siren field. She has someone else with her. The GraveRobber has something to do with this.”
Then it all came together. Damn Lorelei. Damn her for not at least telling me before I fell in love with Tom. Gritting my teeth, I tore the rifle from Winn’s grasp. He glared back, reaching then just stared as I opened the door. “I’m shooting the U-Haul®. I need a round.”
“No. I won’t be a party to you murdering them.” He whispered softly and slowly. Leaning in, I pushed my face to his, letting my nose touch his. “I changed my mind. However, they can’t escape the police. Understood?”
He pulled a round out of the bandoleer. “Then what?”
“I trance them back to GraveRobber’s.” Slotting it in, I opened the car door and fired. No recoil really just a slight shake. The U-Haul crackled with electricity when the round struck the grill with a shunk. Both rolled out immediately and jumped away. Yet before they ran off, I struck them with Nine Inch Nails ‘Head like a Hole’. Oh they were definitely getting what they deserve.
I drew myself out of the car and walked over to them as I finished singing. “Both of you will return to GraveRobber’s parking lot where you will await the police. You will explain who you are and that you did it to destroy us. You will call us mermaids. Now be gone.”
Kent stared at me, a wisp of a smile and a twinkle in his eyes as Jeaux ran off, sprinting across the street into the fire and black smoke that peppered his parking lot. Then he turned and ran himself, whistling ‘Blood to Bleed’ by Rise Against. Cold shivers poured down my back. He can’t be tranced, He holds one of those amulets, pendants whatever. Shae gave it to him. He’s not that smart. Damn Shae and her hatred of Lorelei. And we let her get away.
Winn rested his arm across my shoulders, leaning his head on mine. “I’m proud of you.”
Looking into his eyes, I sighed. Why can’t you understand this isn’t a choice for me? If I have to kill to protect the Assembly, then I have to. I can’t wait until Gwen is faced with the same choice. Then again when she is, that will be delicious. “Thanks. I did my best.” A wan smile matched his grin.
“I know. Let’s go home.” I said before a kiss knowing that I would have to drag those bodies across the street before we could.
Gently flowing water greeted me when I woke. Tom’s thickly muscular arm draped around my abdomen, anchoring me to him. Not wanting to wake him, I slid sideways free. As he rose upward, I shifted his arm over him, kissed him on the cheek and surfaced. That evil energy that suffused the air last night vanished. Instead, a radiance unlike any I’d ever felt. Peace and serenity wrapped in joy.
Transfiguring back, I toweled off and dressed in a ‘Wolverine eyes on wolverine prize’ initialed sports bra and black Nike® pro compression shorts. My phone said seven am. Two hours I need to be at the CheerHouse, my gym and where Grace Wolverine Gold resides. First I need to see if Allison is still willing to transfigure or if that was a dream. Opening the door, my hand went to my mouth in shock.
Reagan Dawn stood before Tom’s bed fumbling with an opened scallop shell in which an infinity symbol floated. Sign of head of house it was. Although today only seven existed. One of each of the major houses. Tom’s rested in his trophy case. House Cetus was in my trophy case as I was princess making me that, technically. Mom handled that business though. House Natal was on a bookshelf in the library of Aria’s house. How Reagan got one was a question for later. “Reagan?”
“Gwen?!” She flew into me, hugging tightly. “My parents are going to be pissed. Still it’s wonderful to see you survived the night.”
“Survived? Yes, I hate this place but it can’t kill me.” Not that it didn’t try.
She shook her head as if I didn’t understand. “Warriors of Dagon attacked last night. Your dome defeated them.”
Horrified, I looked around then ran out into the hall. Nothing changed. “They broke in?”
“They couldn’t even get to the front door from what I understand.” Reagan sighed.
Turning back, she stood behind me, sweating in a fuzzy jade sweater, skinny jeans and uggs. “I can’t get back. I need to now.”
“When did you leave?” I asked as I walked into the kitchen to grab the gallon of Gatorade® from the fridge. Pouring her and myself a glass, I glanced to the open glass door. The malevolence of last night still gone. The peace seemed stronger, beckoning.
“Three.” She frowned, pursing her lips.
“It’s takes five hours to charge.” I stared at her knowingly, not saying that she stole it. Evidence does lie.
“My uncle visits at eight. He will want to formalize the transfer then.” Reagan said it softly, staring at the floor, torn.
Ok nothing is making sense this morning, “Reagan, what is going on?”
“I became head of House Apzu yesterday. Uncle felt I knew enough about both worlds to replace him so he can retire. He will remain on the White Council until you ascend but that’s it. All other House business falls to me.”
Her excitement seemed tempered with frustration. “So why are you here?”
“I detected you in danger. Called you numerous times. Called…” She paused; her lips pursed yet her eyes held anger. “Aria. I called her several times. She didn’t seem interested. She did come. Sang ‘Bodies’, of all things.
Ash floated into the door way, settling on the floor like unmelted snow. Setting my now empty glass down, I walked to the doorway. Soft ash particles filled the sky. Reagan stepped beside me. “I slept out here last night under the tree because it seemed comfortable after I cleansed it.”
“Cleansed it?” I repeated, shocked by the ash, the sirens and the chopper sounds outside.
She nodded, pleased. “You did far more.”
Walking outside, I made it all the way to the tree without effort. Sitting on soft clay beside its trunk, I leaned back and stared at the wall before me. Then, without warning, ‘Worn’ by Tenth Avenue North fell out. As the music flowed, dawn broke amongst the clouds. The backyard lights shut off, filling the space with brief twilight before golden sunshine warmed the area.
As the second stanza swam around, all the brown, dead leaves scattered about the backyard rose from the ground. Turning green and vibrant again, they reattached themselves to their branches one at a time. Tear stained shock echoed from Reagan’s face as she rapidly glanced about the rising leaf cloud.
With its chorus of drums, cymbals and piano accompanied by electric guitar reverberating off the walls, I felt the ground shake softly. Dirt clods rolled away from two distinct strips of ground near me. As the final clay floated off, two greyish males floated upward wearing golden edged pareoes and clutching message tubes. As they approached the tops of the tree, they hovered before standing up and drifting back down, pink and healthy.
Grass sprang up around me, soft and vibrant as the men touched down on it, now fully awake. They looked to Reagan who recognized them immediately. Strings of assembly poured from her, responding to their questions. Then, they stopped speaking, looking in awe of everything. Especially me.
As the song ended, I closed my eyes, figuring I would open them to Reagan stressed and dead leaves everywhere. No, I opened them to Reagan and the two men staring at me patiently yet overjoyed, Allison sitting at the inside piano now relocated beside the exterior couch and Dr. Volkov with a pained expression.
“Someone tell me what just happened.” I asked, glancing at everyone. The first male approached and bowed, speaking in assembly. “I am Amrit Dipika of House Mira, a banner house of House Apzu. Thank you for restoring me, Princess. I have no means to repay you.”
“Restore you?” I said standing and brushing myself off.
“Yes. You put life back. Lady Apzu said you are bonded to a circlemaker. Your song did its job. We knew we would witness the prophecy fulfilled, even as we lay dying. Our hope, our faith never failed us.”
Dr. Volkov walked over, halting before me. Horror still held his eyes. “There’s a problem outside.”
“What?” I spoke in English, softly.
A bitter frown twisted his lips. “Channel 3 news, Police, several ambulances and a rig to collect the burnt vehicles. Otherwise known as a terrorist attack in my parking lot.”
Gazing into the sky, haze masked the dawn. Acrid scents rode the breeze: burnt plastic and fatty pork slathered on coppery charcoal. One of the worst ever, it’s blackened human flesh. Covering my nose briefly, I noticed as I followed an ash piece floating back toward Reagan and Allison that it vanished when I beheld the tree.
“You don’t smell that?” I asked, shocked concern wrinkling my nose.
Allison nodded. “The smell of death rolled in melting plastic? Yes, but it fades when the breeze stops.”
Reagan turned over her shoulder, perplexed. A brief frown at Allison before a flurry of ‘Do you smell anything bad?” in Assembly to the males gets nods without displeasure. She turned back to me, her lips pursed. “I don’t, Gwen. Whatever you’re smelling is not there for me. All I smell is fresh grass and the sickly sweet sap the live oak is generating as it continues to awaken itself.
Dr. Volkov glanced at her as if she went insane, shook his head and exhaled heavily. “Tom’s up. My guess, he’s outside looking at his truck. I fortunately store my vehicle in the parking garage next door.”
Tom indeed stood beyond the wall, grim and furious. Intensity of focus also lead my belief he’s speaking to police about it. “Is my car still there?”
Volkov snorted. “Surprisingly yes. Dented but the glass is intact. No one seems to understand how when Tom’s truck got thrown atop another two spots away.” Simple. My Holden Cruze sports gorilla glass sapphire glass composite windows and a steel body. It’s a custom job. A single gift to help me mourn. Dad never did understand why I wanted it like that. Yet he said nothing as his job prevented him from being at Lorelei’s memorial service. That contractor better never cross my path. I will not be responsible for my actions.
Sighing, I looked to Amrit and shook my head. “We will finish this later. May your waters be warm and full of life.” He bowed, repeating the phase.
Volkov stood silently, waiting impatiently as if he expected me to explain the events around him. “If you think I know what happened or why it happened, you forget. I remained here all night. I know as much as you do.”
He snorted derisively. “And them?” He waved his hand at Reagan, Amrit and Devi who whispered his name to me while Dr. Volkov spoke.
I stepped from under the tree as he did, walking around him and towards Reagan and Allison. Motioning them to follow me, I watched as He stood staring into the tree, everyone else following me out of the backyard and all the way to the living room couch.
“Reagan, meet my sister in bond, Allison Istan.” Allison shot a quizzical look as she shook hands with her. Reagan then gazed longingly back at Tom’s room. “I’ll get you home however; you need to call your uncle–”
“Already done. I bit the hook. Had too. He’s fine with me being here. However, Dad’s furious and Mom’s ‘disappointed’. So He’s going to ‘have a conversation’ with them.” She flashed air quotes as she said ‘having a conversation’ frowning as she did. “I don’t know.” She collapsed on the couch, head in her lap.
Allison sat beside her and just hugged her warmly. “Why are they angry with you?” Reagan sighed then glanced up at me. “Long story. So?”
“Going to the CheerHouse. Allison is a part of Wolverine Gold; she just missed our inaugural practice. Right?” I looked at Allison with a confident smile.
Soft sigh escaped pursed lips. “Yes. I can’t be late again.”
A beautiful idea popped into my head. Looking back to Reagan, “Go get the scallop. I have a better, safer place from you to go from.” As I nudged her with my eyes, Tom walked through the doors. Waves of frustration slap the shores of my peace. He caught my smile and hugged me tightly. “You did something amazing, didn’t you?”
“We did, circlemaker.” I said as I held him at arm’s length.
“Can someone explain what a circlemaker is?” Allison asked arms akimbo. Tom looked to me from her then back at her. “Allie, there are seven archetypes of Assembly members. Circlemakers…” He paused, suddenly realizing the truth. Tears pooled in his eyes. So I finished. “are the only ones to have all the gifts. They can sing, heal, see events and do other things. Our last one died childless 300 years ago. All of us thought the archetype lost.”
Reagan walked out with the scallop shell and my jacket. “I thought you might want this.” Sad eyes stared as she held it out.
“I’m sorry you don’t have one.” I said as I shrugged it on.
“Not your fault. Their sideline are prima donnas and pretentious bitches who don’t even believe I’m an athlete. They view me as a dancer.”
I shook my head as I walk to the door. Tom stepped ahead opening it for me. “I need to come out before you. I said nothing to the police about guests so hopefully they are done.” Worry, anger and exhaustion bubbled under a forced half smile as he opened the entryway door.
The open space before us remained the same as we passed through. Allison paused with Reagan both staring at the porch. “Why does it look ripped from Pleasantville?” Tom beheld Reagan running a finger across the pickets and sighed. “Because it was. This place used to be a back-up set for ‘Be Safe’.
Allison looked around, shaking her head. “I remember that show. It got pulled because of that attack.” She grimaced, shivering. Walking beside me, she looked forward, whispering, “How much time?”
“Forty five minutes. We’ll make it.” I nodded, stealing a glance to her.
Tom grimaced himself. “The knifing they broadcasted live. Uncle brought this place on the cheap as the network scrambled to pay the fine.”
“Ok, but why all this?” Reagan asked, procrastinating or digging. I don’t know which. I do know that when she asks incessant questions, she’s pushing for something to be said. Then I realized. Amrit and Devi weren’t with us. OMG.
“It’s a perfect mirror copy of their last season so they could test everything for editing. Where is Amrit and Devi?” I stared, displeased.
Her face dropped. “Stuck back inside. I thought they walked to the living room with us but–”
The door opened revealing Devi helping a limping Amrit through. “My sincerest apologies, Princess Cetus and Lady Apzu. We got lost and encountered the ruler of the manor. He seemed much displeased, wishing us to leave. When we stated we knew not how, he threw this at us.” He held Allison’s statue, frowning.
Reagan’s eyes lit as she tore over to them both. Squatting on her haunches, she clasped Amrit’s swollen right ankle whispering in Assembly.
“You have no need to apologize. You did nothing wrong. He does.” Waving my hand while staring at Tom, I paused. He shrugged, softly shaking his head. “I apologize for my uncle injuring you. He’s under a great deal of stress now so this attack only makes that worse. It doesn’t excuse his behavior.”
“No, it doesn’t. Nevertheless, I don’t speak your language and it looked as if I would be attacked. Enough violence happened tonight.” Dr. Volkov spoke from the entryway.
Switching to English, “My language? Its Assembly. Like it or not, it’s yours now too.”
Adjusting his tan jacket, he blew out a breath. “You know why Switzerland never fell to Germany in World War two?”
All of us who understood the question shook our heads. Tom sighed, taking my hand. Despair replaced the fear. It floated on frustration. Yet peace from what happened still gripped me. I let it seep into him, hoping to wash the negativity away.
“Why, Uncle Mark?” Allison said curiously as I watched Tom slowly eak out a real smile.
“Attrition. The Nazis discovered that while they could take most of the country they couldn’t take the mountains. The Swiss military strategy was a strategy of organized long-term attrition and withdrawal to strong, well-stockpiled positions high in the Alps known as the ‘National Redoubt’.” He stared at me, anger flashing in his eyes. “The idea was to cause huge losses to German forces and render the cost of invading too high.” He changed his gaze to Reagan who shrugged as she stared back coldly. “This is my National Redoubt. I am not nor do I want to be involved in your war.”
“Seriously?” Reagan spat, her eyes alight. “You aren’t surrounded by the Piscine. Also Nazi Germany and the Allies repeatedly violated Swiss airspace to the point that over a 1000 soldier were interred at the wars close. Even a city suffered bombing at the Allies hand.” She stepped up close to him, close enough to pick a piece of lint off the tawny fur of his jacket. “We aren’t your problem. Don’t make yourself ours.”
He turned to me, smoldering rage masked by a flat smile. “Princess?”
“He’s Tom’s biological uncle, Reagan.” I said exasperated.
Hissing, she stepped back then walked our way, shaking her head, mumbling to herself something that sounded like a prayer.
“Dr. Volkov, we still have a deal. However, when I ascend I will be fully well. On that day, you will be required to choose a side. Don’t squander your gift because you don’t want to fight.”
He glared at me, shook his head and closed the door. Reagan walked in front and stopped. “Why didn’t you back me up?”
Tom answered, his frown deep set. “He makes ‘White Onyx’.”
Horror crept across her features as she stepped back. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t be. I wanted to do that for months. It will be fine. We need to get to the CheerHouse.” I pushed through the hallways, the offices and reception until we finally opened the front door. Bright sunlight struck us illuminating the chaos roiling about. In front of it all, knelt Kent Brandon handcuffed. His lanky form bore defeat gracefully unlike his bull like companion.
Allison hissed; her face a mask of rage. Throwing the statue at the bull headed man, she screamed. “Here’s your statue back, Jeaux.”
Clattering echoed as I shifted, trying to get the kink out of my back. Twisting and stretching to no avail, I opened an eye to the persistent rapping sound. Two men stood outside my black Mini® cooper’s window. One dressed in midnight blue with gold piping around his chest pockets stood back arms folded underneath them. A golden badge in the shape of Louisiana shined in eastern sunlight. The other man in a lighter yet still dark blue police uniform peered inward, his nightstick striking the window.
“I’m awake!” I yelled, sitting up. The first gave way to the second, with his piercing ice blue eyes and inky black hair cropped short under his ‘smoky the bear’ hat. “Ms. Aria Darri?”
“Yes.” I nodded stifling a yawn. I’m still in the car and we are still in the parking lot. Bloody boiling fish, we are still in the parking lot.
“Ma’am. Where are you?” He said dour, eyes boring into me.
“In a parking lot in downtown Lafayette, near Dr. Volkov’s medical facility. My friend Tom Istan lives there. Dr. Volkov is his uncle.” I smiled brightly as he looked back at the other officer now on the phone. In the corner of my eye, SWAT troops approached. They halt behind my car, looking for Dagon knows what.
“Your uncle is looking for you. He expressed extreme worry to the Superintendent.” He shook his head, annoyed. “Are you well?”
Winding down the window, muggy air left me breathless. “I’m fine, officer. Can I go? I’m sorry. I had a long night and fell asleep here.”
A member of the swat team motioned something to the other officer who whispered into midnight blue’s ear. “Not yet. We do need you to move your vehicle to Dr. Volkov’s parking lot so we can check it for residuals?”
Residual what? Then I remembered. They think there was a terrorist attack involving bombs because of all the cars exploding. Bloody boiling fish. Both Gwen and Tom’s cars were in the parking lot. If her precious Holden gets damaged I will never hear the end of that either. I have no idea what Tom would do if his truck is gone.
“Ms. Darri? Now would be a good time unless you have a reason for being here?” The officer spoke politely yet his cold blue gaze remained empty of warmth.
Winding up the window, I turned the key still in the ignition and drove off the parking lot. As the officers shrunk into the distance, relief flooded me. They don’t know I caused this. All they think is Jeaux and Kent did it. In truth, they did. I simply stamped it for everyone to see.
Pulling into the parking lot another officer in midnight blue halted me; a walkie in his ear. His blonde locks and sharp cheekbones directed my attention to his amused grey eyes. He nodded once then waved me in. Tapping on the glass once, he flashed a predatory grin. “Ma’am, we need you and sleeping prince charming to leave the vehicle while we check it.”
Sighing, I leaned over to the glove box and pulled out my weapons permits. As I did, the SD chip from Ian McDonald’s phone, then his phone itself slid out, cracking Winston’s left leg. He dove up, smacking the ceiling and crumpled back into the seat. “What the %^$#!” he shouted as I stared at him softly. “We need to get out. The police need to verify we didn’t get caught in last night’s attack.”
He stared at me, genuinely horrified before waking up completely.
“Sir, I need you to get out.” The police officer’s stern voice masked my sigh as I unlocked the doors. Once out, I popped open his door. “Now, unless you want to answer questions.” I whispered.
Stumbling out, he glanced around as he stood. His gaze focused on the doorway as he cursed again. Following it, I ignored the burned out car corpses, the body bags stacked beside a barricade to Kent and Jeaux handcuffed behind their backs, seated on the ground. Beside them stood two SWAT members facing us. They cast suspicious glances our way before staring back into the distance.
As if morning couldn’t get worse, the front door to Dr. Volkov’s office swung open. Gwen, Tom, Reagan, Allison Blake and two people I don’t recognize flowed outward, pausing and staring at Jeaux and Kent. Everyone seemed disgusted save Reagan whose sharp gaze caught mine. While we stared, Allison hurled an object towards Jeaux. It shot way over him as she screamed his name.
Tapping Gwen’s shoulder, Reagan pointed to me. Sighing, I shook my head. Please don’t come over here. Just don’t.
“Aria?” She shouted, gesturing at me. Her smile appeared happy go lucky but I knew better. That’s her ‘knife you in the back’ smile. Tom glowered, nodded once.
“You’re going?” Winn asked, annoyed. “She’s not worth it.”
Hugging him openly, I whispered. “If I don’t now, it will be in the CheerHouse where I will lose.”
“I’m going with you.” He chunked the phone into the back seat of the car, it sliding into the crack along it. Distastefully scanning him, I shrugged as he frowned. “She’ll goad you into saying something.”
“No she won’t. And no you aren’t. Picking a fight will only lead to problems we can’t solve. Remember, we slept in the car.” I pecked his cheek, warm fuzzies fluttering in my heart. He pecked me back, softly. “I won’t let her bully you.”
I let his warm, comforting hand clutch mine then slide away as I walked toward them. Breeze flicked the certificates and plasticized cards in my hand, reminding me that the police would find weapons in my Mini®.
“Miss Darri?” New midnight blue announced, as a SWAT member held before me the MAUL Winn used last night. Frowning, I walked to him holding out my licenses. “I have a license for that.”
Bemusement cluttered his sharp features. “You do?”
SWAT, his thin onyx face hard and shiny, snidely rebutted. “It’s an experimental weapon, Miss Darri. I doubt that.”
Interesting thing about American law enforcement. Most are clueless about the rest of the planet existing. I handed New midnight blue my golden Queensland driver’s license, Queensland miscellaneous weapons & theatrical weapons license as well as a Louisiana DPS automatic weapons permit. Add that to a Australian and US passport and my Louisiana driver’s license and I held up six items. He took them from me, sighing as he flipped through the passports. Shaking his head, he showed the DPS one to SWAT who groaned loudly.
“You know what this is?” He growled softly.
“MAUL built by Brisbane-based company Metal Storm®. They released them to law enforcement and paramilitary earlier this year for non-lethal deterrent. It fires shock rounds.”
New midnight blue stared at me coldly. “Numerous ones were found here. However, they were also found by your car. Good news,” His predatory smile returned. “They can’t ignite flesh. All the dead died of blunt force trauma before being immolated.” Under his breath, he mumbled ‘the rich’ and handed the cards and passports back. “Have one for a dagger?”
“Yes,” I chirped darkly back, matching smile for smile. “Also a sai.”
He waved me off with a disgusted grunt as SWAT walked away with MAUL. I didn’t care. It wasn’t really mine and I held those licenses so I could have weapons when I’m in Australia. They just solve so many problems here.
Looking back one last time at New midnight blue who wouldn’t stare at me now, I trotted over to face Gwen and her bitch squad. If Regina George existed as a person, Gwen would be her.
As I got closer, Allison Blake, supposed friend who helped me with ‘Jar of Hearts’ caught my gaze. She choreographed the video exactly how I described it. Trying out last year on Wolverine Black, she switched to Gold after Nikki’s wash out.
Of course, at my public banishment, she abandoned me as well. Such friends I have. I’m surprised Andrea isn’t here. Oh that’s right, she’s an eighth and her family consciously ignores our existence.
Approaching Jeaux and Kent, the guards sneered at me. I nodded toward Gwen. Both turned towards her and when they did, I kicked a stone on the ground at Jeaux. It stuck his back hard enough that he shifted forward as if he would stand. The guard beside him, wacked him with his nightstick hard enough to knock him face forward into the concrete.
As I walked by, I grinned. “First Samuel 5:3”.
“Don’t talk to the prisoners.” First guard barked with hooded brown eyes, flat pinched lips and an almost invisible nose. Only a head taller, he shook his stick at me.
The other, broad and beefy, sighed. He stated softly. “I doubt bible scripture is a secret code. It’s a scripture about how the angels knocked the statue of Dagon on its face after the Jewish ark of the covenant was placed beside it.” Realizing what he said, he chuckled derisively. “You know what he said.”
“Yes,” I whispered, stealing a glance toward Gwen, who grimaced. “They have called me a mermaid numerous times. Do I look like I have a tail?”
My hands rolled down my sides as I pivoted back and forth. Beefy guard shook his head again. “No. You don’t.”
“She can sing,” Jeaux retorted as he fell backwards. My gaze fell on Gwen whose disgusted sigh resounded amongst Angry guard’s dive to pull him up.
Allison for her part kept looking at either of us with barely contained rage as if we were to do something. Tom kept a hard yet placid gaze connected to her. He kept shaking his head, and mouthing ‘no’. To Jeaux, she wouldn’t look.
Gwen’s face darkened. “Sometimes, Aria.”
“What?!” I retorted stopping just before them.
“Drowning pool? Nine inch nails?” Reagan sniped, rolling her eyes.
Allison seemed quiet, sudden smile on her face. “Allie? No wicked retort?” I hissed. She focused on me. “No. I feel sorry for you. You have so much and yet…” She frowned. “I know your truth.”
‘That I’m a mermaid? It’s a popular belief. People killed others to get to me.” Both guards sighed, Angry first. He hauled up Jeaux who hid a fist full of gravel. Throwing in into Angry’s face, he dashed off away from them with Beefy and Allison bolting after.
A frustrated sigh erupted from Tom as his head shook. His eyes ignored mine as Kent twisted looking at all of us, his new guards of the moment.
“Gwen. Should have known. Wet spun gold draped from porcelain. Jasper gems observe our world with stunning radiance. Ruby lips kiss the air with glory.” He smiled, bowing as well as he could. “I remembered. Did you?”
Gulping, she closed her eyes. “Water rises to meet her as she strides along its surface. Sinew and strength grace the sunlight in each stroke. Yet as the day rises so do her glory. She is star of the morning, the restorer of the breech.”
“Can someone explain why you are quoting poetry,” Tom asked, looking at me like I knew. Bitter ice gripped my heart as I caught his needy gaze. “No.”
“Aria!” Reagan sniped. “Tell him!”
“No. I’m not giving her any more power.” Bitter, harsh chuckle followed those words as I turned toward Winston standing by the Mini® waiting.
“More power, daughter of the night? I heard the song you chose.” Kent looked at him, amusement dancing in his eyes. “Your service to Dagon is far more through than mine. Yet you deny him just like you deny yourself.”
“I won’t be lectured by you. You have no idea what I have been though. What was stolen from me?” I shoved the cards and passports into my purse before I broke them. Gwen stared at me, her gaze cold and hard. Tom kept shaking his head.
“You dare disrespect the Princess?” One of the unknown men said in Assembly. Snapping to him, he wore a bright golden orange pareo draped like a that of a Hindu priest. His curly ebon beard hung to his collarbone matching the mass atop his turbanless head. Dark sable eyes judged me, his sharp beak nose downward cast.
“You address Lady Aria of the House Natal in that manner?” I snapped back. Reagan waved him back, dour pinched lips as she glanced around. “They are of my House.” Then she held up a scallop shell.
“Why are you here, Aria?” Tom asked finally.
“To save your sorry ass. I was called by Reagan who plead because she couldn’t help.”
“I hadn’t told my parents yet. Turns out they adopted me when mine died shortly after I was born. I’m of Apzu not Ushas which he translated to Dawn when he emigrated here thirty years ago.” She blew out a breath as she glanced at the time. “It’s almost 7:30.”
“Not that it would matter.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. “The golden child can do no wrong.”
Kent laughed scornfully. “She hates you more than Shae ever hated Lorelei.”
“I don’t hate you, Kent. You weren’t involved in Lorelei’s death. Neither was Shae as much as she probably would have loved to be.” Gwen sighed, eyes wide with sorrow.
“No. Why can’t you let her be queen? It would be so much easier for all of us.” He shook his head, pity twisting his lips. “Brent was a fool. One of us until he snapped. Blame her for your sister’s death. She instigated it. She taunted him about his failures.”
I never taunted Coach Delamort. I simply reminded him in the five years he’d been coaching they hadn’t won more than a handful of games. He had no business berating Winston, especially since he volunteered to help. We didn’t even go to that school. Of course, I didn’t know he’d snap. Gwen at least ignored his comment. “Neither of us went to your school.”
Kent simply shook his head. “You know I had nothing to do with their death or the car’s destruction.”
“I know. You still have to leave us alone. I don’t make policy.”
“Yet.” He insisted as the guards came back, dragging Jeaux’s corpse like a beached and bloated whale, bloody and foaming. Allison walked silently behind. Drenched in blood, her outfit torn down the front exposing a lacy b cup. Exhausted smile didn’t mask the black eye or swollen right cheek. Nor did she cover the motley bruises forming as she stood.
Reagan ran to her immediately. “What happened?”
“I found him first. Turns out he wanted me dead. I wanted him in the same condition. I won.”
“And?” Reagan looked over at Angry and Beefy who continued on as if nothing different happened. “The official report is he fell on rocks repeatedly. He broke his neck the final time.”
Wide eyes glared at her in recoiling horror. “You…”
She shook her head, droplets of blood flicking to the ground. “No, Marcus did.” She gestured to Beefy who halted beside Kent. “Jeaux was trying to rape me…again.” She stared at the ground, her fist balled up. “As much as I want you to do it, Reagan, I need to see if Aria is willing.”
“Aria,” she shouted at me as if I didn’t hear her.
“Now you need me?” Bitterness again. I so wanted her to suffer but she is a wolverine. We stick together. Slinking over, I knelt to her knees, placing my hands there. “Enjoyed it, did you?”
Reagan just coughed, intense frustration flowing in waves off her. “Are you really that callous?”
“Are you really that self-involved? This isn’t her first vicious deed.”
Allison shrugged. “I survive.” Turning to me, she smiled, all toothy and bright. “We had a deal. You don’t spill and I don’t either.”
“You chose a side today.” I said flatly
“I went home.” Allison commented happily. “You should too. Be who you are.”
Looking up at her, all purple and crimson, she grinned sweetly. “Go on.” Golden mist flooded from the tips of my fingers spiraling around her, enveloping her in brilliant warmth. “So am I training with you today?”
Her calm, curious question made me gulp. It made me want to scream. I did nothing. I couldn’t without stopping her healing. “Stop twisting the knife. You STOOD there when she banished me to Wolverettes.” Glancing at Reagan, she covered her mouth with her hand, masking laughter. It shone in her eyes.
Inhaling, she glanced back at Gwen and the guys and said, “Karma, Aria. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving girl.”
“Reagan!” Tom shouted. She turned back and saw Gwen slumped over in his arms, shivering. Looking around, I caught glimpse of Winston talking to one of New Midnight Blue who held a cellphone. Mine slid from my purse which meant only one thing. It’s his or Ian’s. Winston kept shrugging and New Midnight Blue tossed the phone now in pieces into my Mini®. The chip he crushed in his hand. He flicked his hand away then walked off.
“I’m done.” I said, letting the mist fade and absorb into her peachy skin.
Allison sighed. “Whose music did you steal this time?” Cold contempt held her eyes. “Oh and thank you.”
“I did it because I had to. Not because you deserve it. You want to play the game?” I let the bitterness mix with my fury. I hissed softly. “I know you did it. Was he your second? Third? How many did you actually snuff in Detroit?”
Allison slid over, and whispered grimly. “You are hopeless. Here, I thought I was self-involved. You are the queen of that, aren’t you?”
“I should have never trusted you,” screamed out.
“You wouldn’t got revenge on my brother if you hadn’t. You must really hate Gwen.”
“I don’t. I just want my dreams. Broadway and a career in music. I won’t rule so why can’t I have that? So a few surface people lose out. This time the music is lost, isn’t it? Poor Ella.”
Gwen stood up, still shivering. “If I miss practice, I swear…” She exhaled heavily, eyes ablaze.
Tom kept fumbling in her messenger bag looking for a vial of White Onyx when Reagan rested her hands on Gwen’s shoulders, enveloping her in a golden glow.
Kent stood bemused as Beefy and Angry watched dumbfounded. Beefy looked over at Allison questions on his face.
She nodded. His gaze connected with mine. “What?”
“He’s telling the truth, isn’t he?” He shook Kent briefly, who chuckled.
“What would it change? I have legs, don’t I?” Bitterness coupled with sarcasm. “I didn’t do anything.”
“But sing ‘Bodies’ by Downing pool and steal Ella’s Grammy.’ Gwen remarked, glancing at the guards and Kent. “You want a song? Take this.” Suddenly, sharp guitar rolled as “Bitch” by Sevendust poured out.
I simply don’t like metal rock. Sometimes there simply is no better choice. So as the ghostly visage of Vince Hornsby sporting his trademark bandana skull cap and blue flame electric guitar shredded and the voice of Lajon Witherspoon entranced the non-assembly members in earshot, I focused on Aria glaring. Finally, she flashed the victory sign fiercely and stormed off. Lajon’s ghostly dreads shuffled as he pranced across the ethereal stage, his deep growl shouting how she was surrounded by evil. Bittersweet considering everything that happened.
Still her exit solved one of the three problems. Kent and Allie remained. Kent actually swayed with the music, a twistedly bemused expression focused on Morgan Rose seated before his Pearl Masterworks Series Drums with Ziljian cymbals. Gaunt faced Rose sported dusky dreads himself even though he’s a member of the Hair club for men. That’s what dad always said about the old bald guys on tv. The other two men played back up as the song continued its dark chorus. Tom stared upward, listening to it but his mind seemed elsewhere. Angst, despair, heartache and compassion fought within him. Snippits of Kent brought regret and longing yet no peace.
No peace came even when the song ended. Looking over at Kent who frowned as Rose sparkled away like digital image in a turned off tv, I breathed out. “Kent is innocent of all charges. He’s simply a bystander who caught Jeaux carrying out the terrorist attack here. A primer for the courthouse. Look where we are.” I yelled as loud as I could, my voice echoing in the distance.
Reagan’s stare confirmed the horror Tom radiated within my skull. Yet Kent stood silent, hand over his mouth like he covered a cough. “I’m the princess, Kent. Not Aria. She’s nothing other than head of House Natal. That alone is enough drama for one lifetime.”
Tom nodded, his worry seeping through the cracks in my confidence. I have to believe someone. Yet before I spoke, Angry jerked his keychain out. “I don’t know why but I agree with LPD and state troopers over the radio.” He unlocked Kent’s cuffs as he spoke. “You are like these kids, caught in the middle of an terrorist attack. In the future, don’t approach a known fugitive. Just don’t. You never know what could happen.” He gestured to Allie, still caked in drying blood.
Marcus looked at Angry and nodded. “All of you need to go. From your own chatter we have enough statements. Gwen, is it?”
I nodded, stepping over to him. He held up his hand to stop me. In a whisper, he gestured toward Jeaux sightlessly staring into the sky. “We all have seen enough for one morning. We also know that Dr. Volkov always attracts weirdness. That being said, Brock and I aren’t going to say anything about you or Allie or anything your friend did simply because we can’t prove it. To us, there are no mermaids or assembly members. This is a terrorist attack lead by that man lying dead over there. He escaped and unfortunately was killed during it. That happens far too often down here.” He grinned, a thick toothy grin, yellow and maroon. As his thick lips frowned in thought, Kent shifted beside him. “We agree that nothing happened here last night into this morning. Right, Gwen?”
“Why?” I whispered, wondering if Marcus would say what I thought he would. He sadly did. “Anything other than a terrorist event, would result in everyone coming down to the station. I honestly have no desire to look at more paperwork or ICE this morning. He,” a head tilt toward Jeaux, “can be processed with the rest of the corpses. So, Nothing happened.” He nodded his head hopefully, watching me hawkishly. I nodded mine twice then stepped back.
They whistled towards the another person wearing a badge and holding a folded black plastic square split by a zipper. I looked at Kent, shrugged and walked towards my car still setting near the front, scratched and dirty but seemingly undamaged. Tom’s frustration came to a head as he paused beside it.
“My truck?” He said sharp and clipped. I shook my head, letting the keys dangle in my hands. Reagan paused beside him, shaking her head. The two guys which her chatted in assembly unsure themselves.
Tom’s truck laid upright but at a 45° angle upon a white Mazda 3 hatchback. The back tires crushed its windshield and roof inward. The truck bore scorch marks along the passenger side. The car looked a mess, blood and gore spattered about it, within it and beneath it. Around it were all this burned out shells of various size cars and trucks.
Covering my nose as I approached the grotesquely fat man in grey named Bill standing beside another State trooper, I paused before them. Patience floated with sorrow while hope rowed the sea of my discontent within. Bill finally noticed me standing nearby and nodded. “Can I help you?”
“Can you move my boyfriend’s truck off this car. He needs it.”
Bill laughed heartily, weeping as he waved his arms around himself. The trooper exhaled heavily, staring down at me, contempt in his eyes. “Miss, I don’t think its salvageable. It will be at least an hour before we can get to it.”
“No. No. I got the rig right here. If she wants him to have it. I’ll do it.” He shook his head, as he walked off still laughing towards his rig parked beside a tree.
As I walked back, I looked over at everyone hovering around my car. Kent still stood with us. Reagan stared at him coldly. Tom simply stared upward.
“Why are you still here?” I gazed briefly at Kent, before reaching for Tom’s hand. He jerked it away before we touched. Frustration and sorrow still gripped him along with deep confusion.
“I don’t get it. You know what’s going on.” He suggested off handed even as his eyes telegraphed the seriousness.
“I do indeed. So this once, I’m going to explain for everyone. Since no one seems to trust me.” My gaze raked across everyone except the guys who remained fixed and silent when I spoke. “Grace is unmerited favor. Mercy is letting someone off who did you wrong. Yes, I am princess. A member of another high house just crippled another young artist. She will never be as famous now because she will miss her window. That phone was her window. What is worse is she didn’t take any songs. She simply destroyed Ella’s means of becoming famous in the US, period.”
Reagan grimaced, confusion etched until Allison whispered about the phone. Her eyes grew like saucers. I nodded. “I gave you what was stolen from Ella; grace. I also gave you mercy for your crimes against me, Tom and Allie. I did that because of what you said.”
Kent suddenly looked past me at the taxi pulling up at the corner beside Local 3’s news truck. The journalists all stopped what they were doing, as a statuesque woman with cherry wood hair all curled in spirals dug herself from its back. Slamming the door, she marched over in satin blue Dapp® heels, a Black leather mini-skirt, striped silk Oversized Keyhole Shirt and onyx mini jacket bedecked in clasped pockets. Shae Nyx in the flesh, now a fashion icon.
“I came as soon as possible. What happened?” She sized me up, ignoring me thereafter.
“Failed attack in the parking lot. I was asking Gwen a question which she’s hedging about.” He stared at me, patient suddenly.
I’m not hedging. I said exactly what I meant. “You blame Aria for the school shooting. I believe you. Therefore you are free.”
Shae spin around and stared at me like I declared it was raining fish. “Where did you get that idea?” Kent kept shaking his head, waving his hands in an x pattern. Shae ignored him completely. She moved her towering, lithe frame in to a blur of motion before hovering over me. Her dusky caramel skin smelt of cinnamon and lilacs as her voluptuous peach bra peeked out. Staring up, I frowned. Fifteen minutes. Why? “Kent blamed her.”
She snorted. “She was a buzzing insect to Coach Delamort. He snapped because Coach Sylvan took his funding for the new locker room for herself. Your precious sister knew about this and rallied the school to support Coach Sylvan. If anyone is to blame motivating him to shoot 20 people, it would be Lorelei.”
In the background, the sound of Tom’s truck rolling off the Mazda and bouncing as it stuck, jarred her. Glaring that way, she sighed. “Kent, you wanted a ride. I’m here. Let’s go.” She pointed to the still waiting cab. Flashbulbs went off near one of the other camera sets as she shook her head. Yet a dark smile curled her lips. “Hope you enjoy the footage.”
Kent laughed as he walked off. Behind him, stood Bill still smiling himself. “It’s off. Anything happens it’s on you.”
Tom shrugged, trotted over and looked underneath. After opening the doors and grimacing, he caught the troopers gaze. “I live here so this stays.”
The trooper shrugged. “It’s an active crime scene. You have proof?” He stared at me as I stood, arms akimbo. Everyone else had climbed in and buckled up. I felt his concern about it dig in. Fear, ire and disillusionment bathed my hope as he dug out his wallet.
Finally walking over, he slid into the passenger side. “They’re towing it to the first parking spots once they get the techs to comb it.” He pasted a hopefully expression on. “It should work still.”
“It will.” Reagan replied. “We have ten minutes. How far away is Grace Cheer?”
I stared into the rear view mirror as I backed up. “Ten minutes away.”
Before me stood a bronze colored stone gymnasium. Its black roof borne a huge golden star inside wolverine paw just like on my sports bra, only this one glowed radiantly. Beneath it on the stone wall illuminated golden letters spelled out ‘Full of Grace® Cheer and Dance’. The copyright symbol remained dark, a tree swallow nesting inside the r hole. Of course today I don’t have to come in. However, if I don’t, Gwen will sabotage things even further. Why can’t she just let me have what I need to become the person I want to be. Ella didn’t need that now. She has plenty of time before she can hook up with an A & R rep. I need songs now.
“Where are we now?” Winn mumbled from the back seat, his eyes half open. Opening the back door, I crawl in on top of him. His eyes open staring into mine. “Aria, quit doing that! Its creepy.”
With a snort, I slide back out before he shoves me out. “I told you not to fall asleep.”
“Four hours. I need more than four hours.” He moaned, pushing himself out.
“So do I. However, I need damage control more. Circle K is across the street beside Julien’s Po Boys. Get me some coffee?” I gazed doe-eyed at him, holding a sad pout as I looked all bedraggled.
“The things I do for you.” He shook his head as he walked off. “I better be able to get in this time.” He shouted.
“Use Booker field entrance this time then.” I shouted back as I stared up at the illuminated logo. The copyright symbol flickered on as the swallow left. “Just like me,” mumbled out as I walked along the sidewalk towards the back entrance.
Before all this happened with Christina’s golden ticket, I could enter through the front. Inside is a beautiful onyx and gold marble lobby. The star and paw are carved into the facing wall next to the gymnasium hallway doors. All around the symbol is white signatures of everyone who has aged out of the all-star level. Team pictures of Gold, Black, Silver, Onyx, Bronze, Copper, Tin, Ebony, Sable, Coal, Pitch, Amber, Aurin, Lemon, Sand and Ink squads in year order graced the walls on the other side. Through the doors is the hallway of trophies that leads into either the locker rooms or the main gym with its 6 spring floor mats, tumbling track and foam pit. In the rafters hang all the banners won including our the gyms first second Worlds win; the first for Gold.
Yet if you enter through the Booker field entrance, you have to use your ID to open the door, be greeted by concrete and signs reminding you of school rules. One doorless direction, straight to the locker rooms. Through them you go out to the single spring floor mat. The locker room is actually separate form the all-star one surviving Katrina. So its almost as old as the building. The building is old. The rafters have two banners. There is a trophy case with a smattering of small trophies, spirit sticks and plaques. Beside it is five uniforms behind glass, each different. They all say Wolverettes on them. That’s it. No love here at all.
As I pull open the door, Michael is in the hallway, shocked and pulling at his umber beard. “Didn’t expect you here today. There’s no practice. Gold and Black are doing comp choreo.”
I shrug. “Then I can work on my tumbles. Yeah me.” I move towards the locker room and he’s suddenly in front of me. How does someone as large as him move so fast. His towering bulk blocks the way completely. “Aria, tell me what’s wrong?”
“I’m hated by everyone and shunned by the team I worked hard with. I just want to practice.” I cast a pleading look. Nothing. He’s worse than dad really. “Please?!”
He snorts, looks down at me like with this warm, peaceful look. “Why haven’t you apologized? She still has the spot for you. You know she’s the kindest Coach of all the teams.”
“Umm?” He notches an eyebrow.
“It’s Gwen.” I sigh and drop my backpack beside the wall.
He adjusts his stance and relaxes. Yet, he doesn’t move from the locker room doorway. “I don’t know what happened in May. I do know you did get your ring. Give a heartfelt apology. You don’t have to socialize with Gwen. And I know you want to be on the other side of that wall.” He pointed to the center of the wall beside him which marked the back wall of the all-star area.
“Can I think about it?” I asked dejected because I know she’s disappointed with me, the team hates me and Gwen does everything to push my buttons. There is nothing wrong with singing ‘Bodies’ when they are hitting the ground.
A sudden frown, sad and torn twists his mouth down. “Normally, I’d say yes but today is the last day of this season to get back over. Also Gwen found Allison Blake and called to explain where she was. If you go over now and apologize, she’ll put you on Black.” He smiled softly.
Another sigh left my lips. “I will, Coach Michael.” His eyes lit up because he knew I was being honest. Don’t know why but he always saw through me. Never judged me about it either. He knows I’m too good to be over here.
Walking back out, I almost run into Winn with the coffee. “Problem?”
“No. I’m going to abase myself so I can get back some of this year.”
His half smile formed even as confusion shone in his eyes.
Before he spoke, I said. “I’m going to apologize.” Then I realized he bought four. “Why four?”
“It felt right?” He smiled hesitantly. Well my dumb jock boyfriend is helping out again as Coach Grace loves Circle K coffee.
Reappearing in the front again, I noticed the flagstones born star and paws carved in as well. All the others work out of Warehouses and we have this beautiful facility. Why is this always a struggle?
Winn whistled and I looked up and around unaware it was him until the second time. He held the door open with his free hand. As I passed through Coach Grace stood in the lobby, surprise in her coal eyes. Willowy, she stood with her hands to her sides even though her left kept rubbing her fingertips. Characteristic auburn odango now ombré, her pink lips frowned as her smoky eyes gazed sadly at me. I almost turned around. I stopped when Winn stepped in and gestured a coffee to her.
“Why are you here Aria?” She asked, her kind tone razor edged.
“I came to apologize for the mess I caused Worlds to become. I take full responsibility.” My eyes stared at her still defined six pack abs and Nike® pro compression shorts. Had she not worn a sports bra that said Coach on it, she’d blend in with the others cheerleaders here.
“All of it?” Surprise filled her voice making me want to crawl away, hide in a blue hole. Looking into her gaze, I nodded. “All of it. I drug Gwen into the idea because I needed help to pull it off.
Giggles erupted from an older man walking down the stairs behind the sign in desk. He looked like Patrick Swayze, who sadly just passed on, only bearded and less gaunt. He shook his head at me then tapped his Rolex, pointing at Coach Grace. She shook her head, shaking her head towards the glass. I knew she meant Gwen and Allie but for me to get back in, I couldn’t say anything.
Winn walked to him and handed him a cup of coffee. “Thanks, Winston. Nothing like Circle-K in the morning. Is this a bribe?” He beamed, his eyes alight with sardonic glee.
“Um, No, Mr. Grace it isn’t. It was just an idea. Besides I already finished the English assignment you gave us.”
I sighed, shaking my head. Oh yeah, He teaches English two at Forest Hills. “Winn did that all on his own. I drag him with me.”
Coach pursed her lips. “You seem to do that a lot. You have great leadership skills, Aria. Just poor decision making. So what else can I do for you?” She stared, waiting. No emotion. Just waiting. So annoying.
“Can I have my place back?” I stared back, pleading in my eyes again. As much earnestness as I could muster. I didn’t expect anything. Still I could say I tried.
“Why?” She remarked as serious as I ever heard her. “You are an excellent level five cheerleader when you want to be. I need girls and guys who are on all the time. Not because its ‘the in thing’, or it achieves something.”
I nodded, frowning. She walked over to me, lifted my ring hand placing it in my view. “I gave this to you because you earned it. You drove the team as hard as Gwen and Emily did. I know what it’s like to go hard and never get to a podium. So why should you have it back?”
“I want to be a part of Gold again. I want to win again. There’s no hope on the Wolverettes.” Sighing heavily, I turned away and was caught by Winn.
“There is no glory on the Wolverettes, you mean. NHSCC isn’t enough for you?” She looked back over her shoulder towards the glass again. Then she looked to her husband who shrugged. “I delayed it an hour. I wonder what her delay is?”
Desperately hiding the smirk that formed, I knew. Reagan Dawn and her business is the delay. I’m of the royal house of the entire assembly and yet I beg like a surface person for a spot on a team that would stab me in the back again. I’m crazy. I need it for the future. I need those followers.
“My guess the police.” He commented. “Angela, no matter what, you know about the deadlines.”
She grimaced as she stared back at me. “Because I screwed up like you did and got a second chance. I will give you the same. You will be on Black because I need you there to drive them to victory. Gold is full. Promise me, right now, I never see you do what you did in Orlando again?”
“I promise. Never again.” All the heaviness melted away as I said that. It’s like sirens singing while the water caresses my scales. Pure bliss.
“Oh, you still can’t sing. I don’t trust you on that.” She tapped my shoulder. “To be fair, Gwen can’t either. However, she can use her music for choreo. If you want, I need it tomorrow. No craziness. It has to be you.”
Mr. Grace stared at Coach, shocked. She stared back, eyes alight. Some secret code because he smiled knowingly. Turning back to me, she looked shocked that I still stood there. “Go. What are you waiting for?”
“Um, locker assignments, uniforms, you know.” I caught sight of Gwen’s car pulling in. It seemed everyone was still with her. Damn, I want to see this.
“I never removed you. We can talk new uni, Monday. Go. Take him with you.” She shooed me away again.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Mr. Grace said as I dragged Winn through the doors and towards the locker room with its golden tiles and steamy goodness. There, straight ahead, still with my name on it, rested my locker. My combo still held it shut.
“So what lie do you think Gwen will spin this time?” Bitterness covered his words as I spun through the combination.
“None. She’ll tell the truth and use it as a cudgel.” I said flatly as the lock popped open. All my bras and shorts remained just as I hung them and oh the bows, still crisp. I tore off the Wolverettes bow and grabbed a ‘black attack’ one. Winn stood staring, confusion twisting his face. “A stick. She’ll use it as a stick to get Allison back on. Why would Allison want to be touched by foreign guys if she had actually been abused?”
Winn shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Because she didn’t. She did something else. Got caught and then ran to Tom to be bailed out.”
“She made it up?” He said incredulous.
“Yes, she did. We do that sometimes when we want attention or when we want someone punished who rejected us.” Looking at the entrance, I smiled as everyone flooded in. Home for the moment. Hate me, love me. It’s still home.
The star and paw logo always makes me peaceful whenever I drive up. We truly are blessed in our gym. It’s unlike any of the others in it’s a dusky bronze building with a high windowed tar colored roof. It’s more massive than any other and its owned by Coach Grace because she does the Wolverettes.
Shaking my head as I pull into a back parking spot, I notice someone standing outside. Mr. Grace, my English Lit teacher. Well he teaches English two as well but I had Brubaker, that old crone instead. English three is supposed to be Mrs. Hastings, an 81 yr. British woman who lost her family in a railway crash at the close of World war 2. Gosh I am tired. Tom comes over and grabs my hand as I pause before the car.
“I can’t do this. Allison can’t either. You have too. She’s waiting,” He says as everyone is standing outside the car. Reagan and the two assembly members are milling about.
Grabbing my Nfinity® backpack out of the trunk, I turn to Reagan. “You OK?”
“I got myself into this. I can get out of it.” She nodded, wiping the sweat off her brow. She looked miserable still in her winter garb, yet she smiled, shooing me towards the front of the building.
Allison, on the other hand, froze. “How am I going to let anyone touch me?”
Tom hugged her but his face said he knew nothing. Only sorrow and hope swirled with in him. My fear mixing with his creates bad things. Now is not the time for that.
Fast walking towards the canopied entrance, I noticed Mr. Grace stood before the open door, sipping on Circle-K coffee. “She’s waiting on you inside.” He watched Reagan for a moment then shut the door. Coach Grace in her auburn odango, ‘coach’ sports bra and Nike® pro compression shorts, stood unsure.
Svelte and sporting abs more defined than my own as well as shoulders and forearms rivaling Tom’s, she made her presence felt. Regarding Allison blankly, she finally asked, “What happened?”
As Allison told her sordid horror story, I realized that I did see her run up to the shower when I woke up last night. Tom’s abilities are bleeding into me. That’s scary and wonderful. It means I’ll have the most control a siren has in almost a thousand years. It also means I can damage people easily. I should be in Ondine, working with a trainer, channeling this in true form. No, I’m in my gym saving my sister in bond’s cheer life.
Coach Grace’s face held horror unlike I’d ever seen. “Are you sure you are up to this?”
“Yes, Coach. Gwen reminded me why I should be here instead of hiding.” Allison glanced at me, a mix of anger and sorrow. “So I want to be on Gold again. Can I?”
“Yes. You can.” Coach wiped tears from her eyes with a napkin Mr. Grace handed her. “We’ll try to be as sensitive as possible. I’ll have to let Bruce know.”
Bruce, aka Coach Kroll, lets him call us that. Sweet man and a force to be reckoned with. He actually won the silver in Vault at the very same Olympics Coach Grace attended. “Will he take it well?” I said quickly, digging in my backpack. When no answer came, I looked into disappointed shock on everyone’s face but Allison and Tom.
He stared silently but underneath distraught flowed. Allison sighed, softly shaking her head. Yet Coach Grace looked fierce. “I don’t understand what you mean, Gwen?”
That’s when I realized what I said had transmitted. In Assembly, ‘Will he take it well’ means does he understand the gravity of the situation. In English, I just attacked his honor and called him a misogynist. “Sorry. I’m worried. Bruce is one of the most honorable men I know.”
Coach’s glare dropped in intensity. “He will understand.” She breathed a sigh of relief. “Have you settled on a song for our choreo?”
“Yes, Coach. I have the USB stick in my backpack.”
She nodded with a humph. Mr. Grace smiled. “Good, I look forward to hearing what you chose. You always contrast Aria.”
That’s when the bottom dropped out. As the wash of disappointment, anger and frustration built reflected between us, I must have glared at Coach Grace.
“Don’t give me that look, Gwen. I told you she’ll get her place back when she apologizes for her behavior at Worlds. She did this morning. She’s on Black now.”
“Sorry, Coach.” I pasted on a fake smile and ran through the doors. As I walked down the first part of Trophy Hall, I paused before ours; 2009 small coed world champion. “Am I wrong to be angry?”
He stood behind me, stroking my back. “No. However, you knew she wouldn’t stay over there forever. Wolverettes’ coach is great but he’s swimming against the tide with Aria.”
A sigh rippled from within as I grimly nodded. “The struggle is real.”
“When has it ever not been?” He asked as we arrived at the doorway separating men’s from women’s locker rooms. “So am I stunting or not?”
“Yes, if Bruce oks it.” His amusement hugs my awareness while he flashes his sly smile. He won’t admit but he does love it. I could get him here permanently if his swimming schedule didn’t conflict with us. Hugging him tightly, I shove him in the men’s locker room. If I am getting anywhere today, I need to get her to at least be manageable. Another sigh rumbled forth as I trudge in.
Aria stands beside her locker, her back to me, dressed her black ‘flight crew’ sports bra and black Nike® pro compression shorts. When she pivots around her delight vanishes. “Don’t start. I had to grovel to get back.” She hissed, her nose squished and her brows furrowed.
“Ok,” I folded my arms beneath my sports bra. “You do realize that wearing ‘halo’ still won’t give you access to Ella’s song list. You ruined her career here.”
“As if I care. When will you realize that famous surface people are still nobodies to us. You’re the princess and you act as if you’re still a normal siren,” she barked in Assembly as best as she could, considering the tone sounded less intimidating without the water.
“Good. I’m claiming ‘Royals’ then. It will work well on my album. Oh and congratulations on getting Coach to give you a choreo song.” I sneered. “I’m using one that I think you will love.” I remained speaking in English knowing that the other girls ignored me. All but Ardor Hooves, lithe yet broad shouldered, she had bulked up over the summer. She stared straight ahead, her eyes sad. “I don’t know why you hate each other.”
“I don’t either. Ask Aria to explain. Or better yet why don’t you sing it?” I hissed as I stormed to my locker. It remained near hers so I grabbed what I needed and headed out to the mats.
Massive lighting and the soft sway of the Worlds and Nationals banners softened my frown. Tom wearing his generic exercise shorts and a ‘We are Golden’ T-shirt stood by. “We’re good. Bruce seems amused by all this. What she say?”
“Nothing of note. You remember me showing you ‘Dark Horse’?” I smiled wickedly. He nodded. “That’s the music. I got the shout outs and the mixes in. It’s all originals. Stuff no one will sing for years. I have to be careful. Once I become known I won’t be able to do this anymore.”
Allison got up and ran to me when she saw me. Her face awash with tears, she shook. “I can’t do this.”
She wore a matching outfit to mine and I knew if she bailed Aria would be with us again. So I looked at Tom. Let’s see if he really is a circlemaker.”
Whispering, I leaned over. “If I cause you to forgot the fear and pain for today will that help? Tom got a special gift when we bonded.”
Tom looked at me confused but kept silent. I said in assembly, “Aria’s in tune with ‘halo’. Focus on it and channel those thoughts into love for your sister.”
It’s a very naughty thing I suggested but it’s also something that only a circlemaker could do. It’s an urban legend my uncle and mom would tell when she told me and Lorelei bedtime stories. If it works, Aria’s healing energy will pour into Tom. Then if he truly is a circlemaker he should be able to channel it into her if I sing. Which leads me to song choice. Don’t have to ask permission if everyone is tranced.
Yet when I opened my mouth, Tom whispered, “You need to forgive Aria first.”
She had just walked out on the floor and was being hugged and welcomed by Black. So I did. “Lord, I forgive her. Forgive me.”
An energy like no other and that peace from this morning fell back on me. As I took Allison’s hands, Bruce shouted that we all needed to join me in prayer. Well I guess what I was going to sing was a prayer of sorts.
Lauren Daigle’s ‘How can it be’ enveloped the room with that same peace I felt. Just as I expected, gold spirals of energy weaved around Allison’s head as she grinned at me. The only thing missing was the wispy visage of Lauren. I could see her in my mind’s eye yet out on the mat, nothing.
As the broken chains of her Allison’s pain fell way, a brunette from Black approached me. She smiled brightly. “May I use that?”
Looking her over, I grinned being silent until the trance time ended. “It’s yours, Lauren.”
“How did you know my name?” She asked, surprised. “I don’t think we met.”
“We’re family.” I grinned brightly, hugging her briefly. She pushed off, unsure then ran back. Aria shot a look at me, shook her head then turned back. She rubbed her head near the circlet though.
Bruce looked around at everyone. “Are we ready?”
“No. I would like to say a prayer,” Tom asked.
As he did, I thanked the Lord for having the healing work and giving her that song. In 2014 it will do wonders. That’s what being a siren is. You are supposed to see the beauty of this world through us. Its home too, you know.
Pacing about the car, I look over to Amrit and Devi, still marveling that they live. Each told me how the Piscine In Taiji murdered them as a message to us in 2006. Even more interesting is the scrolls they hold speak of the ‘repairer of the breach’, which foretold a series of events to happen after a major house is replaced. My newly discovered granddad who until yesterday I knew as Lord Apzu, spoke of that prophecy as critical. Yet to me critical is getting home. Home to Golden Valley, Minnesota. Current temperature 45° F.
Right now it’s a cloudy 75°. Humidity is the same. Gray clouds like flayed squid gathered about, threatening rain. The scallop tells me it will be available to use in roughly ten minutes. So as I look up at Amrit gazing around the area again, I noticed another car enter the parking lot.
Since Gwen left, several did this. Each time, car enters, parks and disgorges teens just like Lucky Charms at home. Only this one parks beside us. Out pours people who I have never seen and Lord Apzu. Broad of girth with round features and dusky skin, he stands beside the opened door of the limo waiting. Opposite him is his bodyguard, a mammoth man, pale and severe. Nodding once to me, he glances over towards the gym, purses his lips and nods towards to door.
I have no problems getting in and neither do Amrit and Devi, who aren’t drenched in sweat. Lord Apzu evaluates them as if they are a new prize, ignoring me until he deigns to.
“They are who were buried beneath the tree?” He frowns, staring. Hands folded, we all sit in blessed cool comfort.
“Yes, Grandfather. Amrit and Devi were murdered in Taiji and brought her by the local Piscine cell. Their corpses were given as payment to Dr. Volkov for apparent services rendered on several other trawlers.”
Lord Apzu shifted uncomfortably, rubbing his thick golden ring on his left hand with a forefinger. His right subconsciously rubbed a scar beneath his right jaw. It’s obvious only when he touches it. “Your opinion of this daesh?”
Daesh: One of our curse words. It means villain, hated adversary or murderer. Something you call someone when you want to defame them.
“He’s a problem,” I say in assembly. “However, he’s also Tom’s uncle. So Gwen asked me to leave him to her.” I am allowed to privately address my friends without their titles to him. Lord Istan and Princess Cetus is too stuffy. Even Lady Apzu will take some getting used to.
He nodded, folding his hands again. “I spoke with your parents. They understand finally what is going on.” He paused, looking at my hands before continuing. Sorrow seemed to fill his eyes. My hands remained in my lap. I don’t fidget. “Unfortunately, they still remain intractable. Beyond acknowledging who I was, they maintain that being hidden is the best solution to our mutual problem. So I didn’t tell them what I am going to tell you.”
Over his right shoulder the security guard passed a tight roll of white papers sealed with our house seal; a chain linked together via six sides. “You are still registered in New Jersey. Your father never registered you in Minnesota under your surface name.” He took the scroll and handed it to me. “Break the seal.” A grim resignation held his voice.
The first paper revealed an New Jersey court order revealing my emancipation from them. Then the real truth struck me. He holds proof that I’m related to him. I look over, the sadness reflecting between us. “An empty seat is a serious matter. They simply didn’t understand. You do. I can’t begin to explain how proud I am of you.”
By my reckoning there’s about twenty five hundred members of the assembly now. That’s the lowest we have ever been at since its founding seven thousand years ago. Pure born like myself can live up to a thousand years. Back then we had ten times that amount.
The paper beneath that one is the original adoption decree, proving that Arnold Dawn and Asin Ushas Dawn are not my blood parents. His serious gaze from the paper to me spoke volumes. “I know you want to get back to your friends. However, I want you to look at the last document before you decide.”
That document differed from the others in many ways. Golden assembly script upon thick kelp paper. Both our seal and the royal seal at the bottom beside three signatures. My DNA report; who I am. As I read it, I realized a truth that escaped me long ago. “That’s not possible.”
His grimness grew deeper, tears pooled on his eyes. “As I said, an empty seat is a serious matter. Yours has been empty for too long.”
I shook my head, oblivious of the scallop, of Amrit and Devi, of even the plush black leather seats. “My daughter, Aja vanished on 9/11. Her name is inscribed in the memorial. Read aloud each year. So when I met the Dawns in 2005 I laughed. She looked so much like you. Acted so much like you.”
He sighed heavily. “Part of the restorer of the breach involves a lost daughter being restored after she herself resurrects three. I don’t know how else to say it.”
“They stole me and lied to you and everyone else about it.” Numbness saturated my mind. He nodded. “So why can’t I remember past 2001 then?”
“A rod punctured your skull and damaged your…”
“Hippocampus, your lordship,” the security guard said in a gravelly voice.
“You were caught in the destruction of the Marriott World Trade Center. Your healing ability saved you but those memories pre-2001…” Lord Apzu shrugged, tears dripping down his face.
I don’t know what to say now. I guess I resurrected myself too. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Yes, you do. Right now, Arnold and Asin wish to be a part of the surface. The punishment for their crime is exactly that. Permanent exile. However…” I placed my hand up. He stopped.
“There is only one person to go back for; Malcolm.” I sighed, trying to hold it in.
“The caretaker of the high school you attend?” He chuckled. Confused, I ask. “How old am I?”
“18 in 2001. You are 26.” He grinned. “He isn’t assembly. However, He is of the red shield. So he knows the truth. Come home, Aja.” He pleaded, his hand making a come here motion.
“I will. One condition.”
“Call Me Reagan.” I smiled a broken smile. I now can’t go back. They won’t accept me. “So where is home now?”
“I know you are wondering where you will sleep. Where you will finish school,” He chuckled again. He moved the kelp document to the final one, a diploma from Constance Billard school for girls. I graduated in 2001. “I happened to own a house here as well. It has a beautiful natatorium. It’s sadly adjacent to a foreclosed house used for parties.” I chuckled. I knew exactly the place. It’s where Tom and Gwen bonded. Wow.
“I will stay there. Thank you, — Father.”
He leaned over, hugging me tightly. “You mother will be so delighted. I can finally share the truth.”
I grinned at that. Moreover, I felt Gwen singing. OMG Tom is healing. Finally I can have friends again. I guess I really am home. He tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Take me to the Lafayette house.”
The tears dry now, he holds a playful grin. “Malcolm is waiting there with your car. Let’s say I had a private cargo plane waiting for it. Your stuff will arrive by Tuesday.” That’s when I realized, he’s just like me. Thinking two steps ahead. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you. And welcome home.”