False Dawn #5: “The Big Gulp”
Part One Of Two: The Universal Pancreas
Short Story Edition
Devin Leigh Michaels
As if being hunted by Skadoian Warriors wasn’t bad enough, Ral and Co. are now being chased by a Green Beret platoon looking for the Universal Pancreas. Say what?
“The Universal Pancreas”
PEACHTREE CORNERS, GEORGIA
Behind the wheel, Lance slams the heel of his palm against the horn, making the machine groan like a fog horn. Sitting outside a rest area off I-85, he sighs and falls back into the driver’s seat. “I dunno. All Tony’s words seemed like gibberish to me.”
“The Black Prince? Crossing-over? Seeing the Light?” From the passenger seat, Casia remains calm, flipping through a celebrity gossip magazine. “He certainly couldn’t have meant you.”
“I know, right? Can’t die. Can’t be judged. Can’t—”
“—clean the car once and a while?” Casia motions to the KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King paraphernalia on the floor and in the cup holders of the SUV.
Lance narrows his eyes. “Hey, I don’t see you picking up a trash bag and tossing some shit out.”
“When are we? In the Middle Ages?”
“You know, it was great for the first—oh, four thousand years and then BOOM! In one decade, your gender gets it into your head that you’re equal, and it’s all downhill.”
“Oh, please.” Casia rolls her eyes and walks her fingers up his arm like legs. Upon her nails dance tiny flames. “My gender has been working yours since time immortal.”
Lance’s mouth opens slightly as her once innocent smile becomes saucy, and he slams the horn once more. “We’ll, uh, we’ll make Ral do it.”
Her flames fade into smoke. “Fair enough.”
Meanwhile, I barely drag myself out of the bathroom, down the cracked concrete sidewalk, pass the vending machines, and crawl into the backseat of the Blazer. My stomach swirls like I took a ride on the Titanic, and my mouth salivates worse than Pavlov’s dogs.
From the front seat, Lance smiles with that “I-told-you-so” expression, his elbow hitched on his chair. “Wow. I knew that sixth chilidog would return for a sequel.”
“Not—*gulp*—now, you jack—”
“Sixth? Really?” Casia chimes in. “I thought he downed seven.”
Oh, please, no…
“Maybe it was actually that triple mocha shake he had at Sonic—”
The hot, foul bile rises in my throat almost faster than I can slap my hand over my mouth and throw open the door. I’m not going to make it! I’m not going to make it!
In the SUV, Lance sits back with a satisfied smile. “It’s like shooting Perishables.”
Casia once more reads her magazine, only to grant the men entering the bathroom a fleeting glance. “The phrase is ‘shooting fish in a barrel.’”
“I don’t need them in a barrel, dame. They’re just so easy.”
So this is it, huh? I survive Skadioan Warriors, Starweavers, mercenaries, and deranged kidnappers for what? To die because of a bad chilidog.
Oh, here it comes again.
I’m going to kill Lance and Casia…or at least I would if it were possible.
As my mouth expels things I don’t even remember throwing down my throat, the bathroom stall clicks open. My bathroom stall.
I finish what I start, for the most part, and wipe my long sleeve across my clammy mouth. “Dude, occupied—”
The man behind it’s no slouch, either. He’s built like a Mack truck, the kind that would hide Optimus Prime, and his venomous eyes remind me of a snake just before it lunges for the kill. Of course, a crew cut makes me think the guy just returned from a tour in Iraq.
“Okay, kid. Move or lose it.”
I put up one finger, praying that he doesn’t just shoot, and expel hopefully the final chilidog. He’s patient enough to wait, probably knowing that might have ended up on him. The gun isn’t a great stomach relaxer.
The only thing that’s really helping me to keep it together is Skadoian Warriors don’t use guns. Who they’re fighting usually shake off the bullets, and believe it or not, stabbing an immortal hurts like hell, according to Lance. Prolongs the pain. For people like me, y’know—mortals—it really doesn’t matter. Blades or guns, it’s all painful and deadly.
My wet heaves fade into dry heaves until I can eventually stand, albeit leaning against the wall. The tiles feel cool upon my cheek, and I barely keep my eyes open enough to see the commando’s angered face and past him, his three partners. They all look like him—angry at world, which apparently includes me.
“Do I…*gulp* know you?”
“No, but we know of yer uncle and yer ma,” the light-skinned woman on the left with brown dreadlocks and a pierced eyebrow said. She looks to be about my uncle’s age and muscles to battle him, too. “We want ta know where th’ stuff be at.”
“…S—Stuff? What stuff?”
The man holding the gun grumbles, “The Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Universal Pancreas. Don’t deny it. You know where it is.”
“The Universal Pancreas,” I repeat. “What? Already have the *gulp* Universal Stomach?” I could sure go for it right now.
A dark-skinned man with dark eyes sparkling with hope came forward and placed a hand on the commando’s shoulder whose pointing the gun at me. He was older than the rest of them, in his mid-thirties, with a wise face and short hair. “We know Adeline and Connor used one of the aforementioned objects. That means they had to know where the source was, and by extension, so must you.”
The bile rises in my throat again, but I find the strength to stand on my own. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. My mom and uncle went missing six months ago. You want to ask them, be my guest.”
The original commando lunges forward; my back throbs like an open wound. Man, is he fast. So is gun, which presses again my cheek. “Spill the words or we spill your blood. Your choice.”
“Wow. Did a bus unload?”
Casia looks up from her magazine and blinks at the line forming before the men’s room. “No, not that I saw. Maybe they’re all just waiting for Ral to finish.”
Lance furls an inquisitive eyebrow. “You really think the Jumping Bean in the middle of all that wants to wait?”
Casia shrugs. A second later, both throw open their doors.
I sound like a broken record, I know, but seriously—I’m going to die.
“Man, I don’t know what you’re—”
A hard slap across the face stings my cheeks long after the hand leaves. Still, puke free for a whole five minutes. I’ll take all the little victories I can get.
The older man’s hand gripped the commando’s shoulder once more. “Gavin, there is no need for brutality. The boy will tell us in good time.”
In good time? Oh, I so do not like where this is going. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know!”
“Then you will tell us what you do.”
The man with the gun—Gavin—backs away and motions with his weapon for me to head toward the back of the bathroom. Not many rest areas have them—I know this for fact—but a choice few do have doors to the outside in the rear. Wonderful.
I follow their lead because me and guns just don’t go well together. I silently mourn the toilets, already feeling the hot salvia swish in my mouth, and as the door opens, I know it’s not from whatever I ate.
Gavin and the crew allow me out first and direct me to the left. I hardly step outside before I feel a swift breeze of movement and the discharge of a gun. A flume of flames roars across the back door, and by the time I pivot, Lance’s wiping off his hands on his jeans and Casia’s rising from a kneeling position. A wall of fire entraps the commandos inside the bathroom.
“Like shooting Perishables,” Lance chuckles.
FYI: Grass does not taste good.
Flat against the ground, my shoulder piercing from its dive into the dirt, I fight Lance’s hard hand on my head to see an Asian American woman with dark sunglasses and a tight skirt with knee-high boots upon a Hummer, using us for target practice.
Casia blocks my view a second later and drops to the ground, igniting the dry blades again. Her glowing eyes glance over her shoulder.
Lance leaps to his feet, dragging me along with him as the flames grant us suppressive fire. Still, the commando shoots, her bullets nicking the grass next to our heels, but the fire raging behind Casia diverts the commando’s aim enough to let us live.
Diving into the back seat of the Blazer, I see the front door of the restroom unlock, and the rest of the commandos rush to greet us. By then, Lance has already shifted the car into reverse and we’re merging onto the highway.
I tip my head against the rest and gulp down grass and bile. “My God. We must be freak magnets.”
“We?” Lance objects.
I chuckle through the thickening salvia. “Yeah, I guess me. After all, who else hangs out with a Cursed Immortal and a Were-Phoenix?”
“What’d those people want with you?” Casia demands, sitting halfway around in her seat.
Why does she sound like she blames me for this? “They said Mom and Uncle Connor hid something. The Universal Stomach or Liver or—”
“Pancreas,” Lance interjects.
“Yeah.” My stomach gurgles, and I fall across the backseat. “What’s that?”
Casia settles in her seat facing front. “I heard Connor and Addy speak of it once or twice.”
“Me, too, and with other Sojourners, but they always stopped talking when I came into the room.” Lance says as the SUV rocks with a tight curve.
“Maybe whatever that pancreas is,” I add as I suck in dry heaves, “it’s why the Skadoian Warriors took my parents.”
“Sounds plausible,” Casia agrees, “but we’ll have to talk to a Sojourner.”
Lance curses loudly.
“What?” Casia says, annoyed. “Where are we going?”
His voice hardly rises above a whisper. “I only know where one Sojourner is—Urban.”
Casia follows suit and curses.
My stomach finally settled, I close my eyes. “Who’s Urban?”
The tires squeals with protest. The SUV jerks, and I slam face first into the back of Lance’s seat. My stomach awakens; I scrounge for a bag.
I curse, too, and lose everything that’s left in my stomach.
Lance’s smirk radiates in his jovial voice. “Like shooting Perishables.”
“Boo, you want pizza or Chinese?” Terri yells up the stairs just before the doorbell rings, pushing her dreadlocks out of her bright face.
The lyrical woman’s voice blares over the TV’s volume and the incessant ringing, “How about a little bit of both?”
“Sounds—” Terri opens the townhouse’s doorway to see a man and woman in dark suits and sunglasses glaring at him. “—good. May I help you?”
“Terri James?” The woman flashes her badge. “Special Agent Skylar and Special Agent Towne. We’re hear to see Donnellie Jack—”
A loud thump reverberates from the top level.
“—son. Move aside!” Skylar forces her way through and races toward the stairs.
“Hey! Hey, don’t you need a warrant or—ack!”
Towne elbows the woman in the head before rushing after his partner. He finds her standing alone in a messy bedroom with Elvis songs playing softly. The curtains wave with the breeze flowing in from the open window, but Skylar focuses on the open physics book across the paper-ridden desk. The agent picks up the book, and an avalanche buries her shoes. She shows her partner the scribbles upon the equations in what looked like several different languages.
A small smile creeps upon her lips. “Looks like we found breadcrumbs.”
Even with my head stuck in a sidewalk garbage can, I still hear Casia and Lance’s prattle.
“He hasn’t stopped.”
“We gave him Emetrol.”
“He threw it up.”
“What do you want, Birdbrain? To take him to a clinic? What do you think the nurses are going to say when we don’t have insurance? Or they notice him from those milk cartons?”
“He wasn’t on milk cartons.”
“No, but he’s been on Wal-Mart walls.”
I pick my head up from the garbage can to glare. “I’m fin—ugh!” Yeah, dry heaving through that sentence totally won Casia’s argument. Of course, the muggy, stifling air of a hot Savannah afternoon draws more sweat to my brow and pretty much makes this garbage smell worse than a whole dump.
“Look, we have to get him hydrated somehow before he—”
The squeal of bus brakes cuts off Casia, and Lance pats me on the back. “The bus is here. Sit tight, Page.”
I finally swallow down enough bile to fall to the bench next to can and watch as Casia and Lance move toward the tan trolley bus. A man in his mid-forties with graying temples and a snarky laugh leads people off the bus in a polo shirt.
“Thank you very much for taking the Paula Deen Tour of Savannah. You know what they say—Great country cooking comes from Crackle Barrel. Thanks a lot and don’t forget our Ghosts of Savannah Tour.”
“Which just has to feature you, right…Urban?”
The man pauses from helping an elderly lady off the bus to sideways glance at Lance. “Sorry, kid, I think you have me mistaken for someone else. Now, your girlfriend, she can always mistake me for someone else.”
Casia’s nose wrinkles. “I think I just got Ral’s sickness.”
As Urban heads to greet more passengers, Lance gives chase. “We’re not here for us. We’re here concerning Adeline and Connor Dawson.”
“Like I care.”
Before Urban rounds the corner of the trolley, Lance pounces and slams Urban against the side. “I’d make you care.”
I can’t see them, but my stomach has settled enough to let me stand.
In the meantime, Urban points a long, piercing glare to scrutinize Lance’s unrelenting face. “Oh, how the hell are you still being reborn, Spear?”
“It’s Lance, and it’s been over two hundred years.”
“I know. I was hoping to never see you again.”
“Trust me. The feeling was mutual,” Casia grumbled, her usual calm eyes burning.
Urban rolls his eyes and bangs his head back against the trolley. “Oh, honey, and here I thought you might be Jailbait, but you have got to be—what? Two-twenty? Two-thirt—”
“All right!” Casia twirls her specter from her bag and jams it into Urban’s shoulder. “Look, Addy and Connor are missing, and we think it has to do with their immortality.”
“So? Good riddance.”
By the reverberating thump from the opposite side of the trolley, I know Lance has slammed Urban into it.
“Listen, you sorry-excuse-for-a-Sojourner, Addy and Connor have done a lot for you, so you better help us—”
Urban raises his hands in a surrender formation. “Kid, you can throw a temper tantrum all you want, but it’s not my fault they stayed too long at the fair. Why they would ever wait for Perishables to tar and feather them is beyond—”
I turn the corner of the bus.
Urban blanches considerably, and his hard, unsympathetic eyes soften just a tad. His voice drops to a whisper. “Adeline’s or Connor’s?”
The bile, for the moment, dissolves. “Addy’s.”
When Lance’s hands uncoils from Urban’s collar, the seemingly older man staggers forward to get a closer look at me. He’s…kinda creeping me out.
“How old are you?”
“I can see that. How old are you really?”
“Urban…” Casia approaches tentatively. “He’s a Perishable.”
Now, Urban looks terribly sad, his eyes averting from mine. “It’s a mistake. It’s just a horrible mistake.”
I raise my chin. “I’m not a—”
“Yes, you are,” he insists, his wrinkled hand coming up to touch my cheek. Like I said—creepy. “You all are.” Then, he heaves a loud sigh and leans against the trolley. “Sojourners are Immortal, but we don’t keep our dashing good looks alone. We’re true Immortals, which means old age can’t even kill us. We need the Eternal Essence to stay young and blend in with the Perishables.”
“Wait.” Lance comes to Urban’s side. “You’re helping us?”
“…Because I made a mistake once, too.”
Silence steals our words for a long moment before the Paula Deen Tourists start grumbling, and only then does Urban begin once more.
“The Essence follows from one plane to this one before flowing straight into Skadoia.”
WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL
“The legend reads that it is the salvia of the god-like being Zenith and simply drinking the water can grant someone a limitless lifetime,” Urban’s voice repeats in my head.
As I walk under one of the arches and see the large pool complete with a massive fountain in the middle and small funnels of water about the brim, I’m too shocked to realize my own stupidity.
“In Zenith’s Landing, it’s known as the River of Life.”
Before us is an imprint of Harry S. Thurman with the words next to it, “The heroism of our troops…was matched by that of the armed forces of the nations that fought by our side. They absorbed the blows, and they shared in the full ultimate destruction of our enemy.”
“In Skadoia, it is called the Obsidian Run.”
Casia covers her open mouth with her hands as the water glistens off the stone. Even Lance, who’s never unnerved, circles about his heel, his face drained of all color.
And I—I just can’t believe it. “Guys…”
“In this plane, it is known as the Elixir of Life, the Universal Pancreas—”
“…this is the Fountain of Youth.”
TO BE CONTINUED…