False Dawn #10 : Survivor’s Guilt
Short Story Format
Devin Leigh Michaels
“Don’t forget. The knife’s only for—”
I roll my eyes and click the glistening dagger into the holster at the small of my back.
“I won’t forget, Lance.”
“Stay close to us at all times.”
Casia has always been a worrier.
“This isn’t a game.”
No, it’s not, but the gear is still freaking awesome. Black cargo pants, a black belt, a dagger, and Maiden’s Glory strapped to my waist and right leg. Across from me, Casia looks refreshed from her time recuperating, her scepter’s fire glowing more intensely than blue lightning. And Lance—Lance is strapped with more weapons than I even knew existed.
He looks once to Casia, his face chiseled from pure diamond. Casia nods once. He turns to me. “Ready?”
The motel desk “manager”—Dil—counts his beer tops upon the grungy “front desk” and debates whether to make a fort or exchange them with Jimbo for that automatic waffle grilling machine. A shish of air brushes his graying bangs from his eyes, and he looks toward the door.
It’s not open.
Then why are there two nobodies in front of him?
Dil jumps back and pulls a rusty knife from his greased and ripped jeans, and the younger of the two teens rolls his eyes. The older, more dangerous young man keeps a stern, bloodless face. “We need a room.”
“I’s only take cash, and youse better be payin’—”
A green wad thumps against the counter, much to Dil’s delight.
“Is that enough?”
“Rent’s up in sixth months. After tha’, I call th’ coppers.”
“We’ll be gone.”
And they are by the time Dil looks up from the money.
It takes a while to know Lance. Seriously. At first, you think he’s this big, tough, reincarnated immortal who has seen and done everything (and perhaps everyone), but as he lifts Casia out of the car, holding her protectively in his strong grip, he looks broken, lost, and scared like he’s just lost his best friend.
He almost did.
But that’s not what really makes him vulnerable. Oh, he’s worried about Casia—we both are—but it’s what I said two seconds ago that makes him squirm.
“Mom would kill you if she knew you brought me here.”
It’s true. The motel is a cross between a strip club and a bowling alley bar with prostitutes drinking outside of rooms and drug deals going on inside. We have the room at the end of the strip. I do my best not to barf when we enter.
It’s not clean, and in fact, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been cleaned since the 70’s. Stained curtains cover the windows, and the carpet was, I think, at one time, beige. It’s more like poop brown now. The sheets practically glow like nuclear waste, and Lance gently places Casia down on the bed like she’s Sleepy Beauty.
“Come on,” Lance urges. “Let’s get something to eat.”
I glance back at Casia, who looks like she’s been through the war, but she’s peaceful, her face calm. Lance shuts the door behind me and pushes me toward the car roughly. When I turn to tell him just what I think about that, he’s not even paying attention to me. Looking left, then right, he stares down each of the drug dealers outside our door. His message can’t be clearer if he shouts it.
“Leave her alone, or I’ll kill you.”
I don’t doubt him, and by the averted eyes, neither do the riffraff.
As I swing into the shotgun seat of our newest ride—a blue Camaro—I find myself mumbling, “She’ll…She’ll be okay, right?”
Extended mortals don’t die this easily. I mean, they’re invincible. Casia’s invincible.
It takes a moment, like Lance is reassuring himself, but he flashes me one of his patronizing smiles. “Of course. Casia’s tough. She’s a survivor.” He winks my way. “So are you.”
I know he means it as praise, but as I watch him stare hopelessly out the window, I feel like being a survivor is a curse.
Twelve-thirty A.M. practices suck, but if Lance and I don’t want to be caught by the police, we have to do this away from watchful eyes.
Not that anyone in this place will call the cops.
The backhand from Lance stings worse than a knife slash.
I can take down two metas in less than five seconds.
Managing to swipe, I still don’t hit him.
I can even survive being sucked into a Skadoian Warrior, but with Lance—
The gravel shifts under my feet. My kneecap gives out, and Lance effortlessly knocks the sword from my hand. “AGAIN!” This time, he doesn’t retrieve it for me like he usually does.
—I’m still just a page.
Huffing, Lance swipes his sword blade off on his sweatpants. “What’s with you this morning?”
“Nothing!” I shout.
He shrugs. “All right.”
The pain in my side registers before I realize I’m flat on my back again. Lance’s looking down at me with humorless eyes. “Wanna talk now or do you want me to kick you around a little more?”
“How do you pay for gas?” I spurt.
Lance’s eyes furl, and from my back, it looks like one caterpillar scurrying across his forehead. “What?”
“The money, to pay for gas, food, even Casia’s fire-resistant shampoo. Where does that come from?”
As I slowly sit up, Lance falls cross-legged across from me. He ruffles his hair and wipes his sweaty face in the front of his shirt. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Ral. I’ve learned how to set up bank accounts, clean money, change it over from one lifetime to another. I’ve…let’s just say I’m not hard-up for money.”
I reached over for a water bottle. “Then why don’t stay in hotels—better ones, like a Marriott or at least a Motel 6?”
“You’ve been on the walls of WAL-Mart.” He cringes like he’s fighting pliers pulling out his teeth, his lip dragging on the right side. “I wouldn’t like to go to jail…AGAIN…”
“Who’s Joshua Sterling?”
Lance blinks. “Where…Where’d you hear that name?”
“The robot guy called you that.”
Lance cringes again, this time like he’s getting a nasty burn.
“Who is Joshua Sterling, Lance?” I demand again.
Sighing, Lance steals my water bottle and takes a long gulp. “It’s my given name for this lifetime. ‘Lance’ is a derivative of my name from my first lifetime, and I picked up ‘Evans’ along the way.”
“So…your parents named you ‘Joshua’?”
Lance shoots up and gargles the water.
He doesn’t turn, only stalks forward.
“Lance!” I follow, but he still ignores me. “JOSHUA!”
He stops just before our room and whirls toward me. “You are never going to bring up that name again. You’re going to forget that you’ve ever heard that name, and if you ever, EVER call me that again, I will skin the flesh from your bones and feed you to a Skadoian Warrior myself. Do you understand?”
Even as I reach for my sword, Lance flicks me in the nose. “Don’t bring the toothpick out, or you’ll find it somewhere not so nice.”
He disappears into the room. I decide to wait outside for a while, let him cool down. I obviously hit a nerve. There’s a lot to Joshua Sterling I don’t know, a lot about Casia I don’t know, and then it hits me.
I’m traveling with strangers.
When I enter the room, I see Lance sitting next to Casia’s bed. They’re talking lowly, and Lance is kinda, almost, sort of grinning. It’s…nice.
When he sees me, he excuses himself into the bathroom, and a few seconds later, the shower squeaks on.
“Ral…” Casia calls.
I focus upon the fiery princess in the bed. She’s the big sister, aunt, cousin twice removed I’ve never had, and at the same time, I don’t know her from the prostitute next door.
Still, when she puts out her hand and beckons, “Come here.” I oblige.
She moves over on the bed, making enough room for me, but I just sit. “I’m all sweaty, Casia.”
“You think I care about that?”
Her eyes glisten like a little baby’s wanting to cling to another, and I lay down next to her. She rests her head on my shoulder and knots her fingers with mine. She smells like charcoal and firewood, but I don’t care. She’s alive; that’s all that matters.
“You are one stubborn son of a gun, y’know that, kid?”
In this business—whatever business Lance, Casia, and I are in—you learn one thing very quickly.
You’re never safe.
I didn’t know that when I lived in New Jersey with my mom and uncle, and for the first time in six months, I feel safe again.
“Seriously,” the lighthearted voice continues. “I mean, when I was your age—which was, well, let’s just say a LOOONG time ago—I was scared of going out hunting on my own, and here you are projecting between dimensions.”
I slowly open my eyes, and through the darkness, I see my uncle’s tired face looking down at me. He’s still chained with his wrists above his head, but somehow, he manages to smile.
Mom and he have the same kind smile.
“Hey, kiddo. Wakey, wakey.”
Connor resituates himself in his bonds, and—oh, God. He’s bleeding. Crimson slips down his forearms from his wrists.
“Ah, this?” He shrugs awkwardly. “Paper cut. What you need to do is wake up now.”
I sit up and cringe at the damp, stale tiles underneath my sweatshirt. “What do you mean, wake up? I am awake.”
“Are ya? Really?” Connor smiles when I stand before him. Hey, I’m up to his shoulder now. “How do you think you got here, Ral? Teleportation? You might have powers but not that one.”
“Powers?” I inspect his chains and take out my lock picks. Thank you, Lance, for teaching me illegal shit. “I don’t have powers. Casia—”
Connor sighs. “Wherever you are, you’re in trouble and scared. That’s why you came to me—to feel safe.”
Yeah…that’s not at all embarrassing.
“But that’s the last thing you are here.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle Connor. We’re going to get you and Mom out of here.”
“Yeah. Lance, Casia, and me.”
“Lance and Casia are with you?” Suddenly, his face melts of tension. “Oh, oh, thank God.”
I have to stand on my tippy toes, but I can reach his chains. “So, how’s the party? Think we’ll fit in?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no. Do NOT come here. Do you understand me?”
“What? How can you say—”
Connor jerks away from my hands. “Ral, you tell Lance and Casia. You tell them to stay away from here, you understand?”
“What? Of course not!”
“Please. If you trust me at all, you’ll stay away.” Connor snatches me by my hair and pulls me close to press his lips against his forehead. ‘And maybe one day you’ll forgive me for this.”
I never see the hit, only jerk awake in the silent hotel room. I look to the left, then right. Lance has finally passed out in the chair next to our bed, this time sitting by me. To my right lays Casia.
Even when she’s injured and he’s pissed…they still care about me.
Yeah, we’re strangers, but damn if we’re not family.
I lay down on my left cheek and wince.
Standing in front of the Poe bust in Richmond, dressed in my cool new uniform, I smirk at Lance and Casia. “Ready.”
Casia nods once. “Good. Let’s go save Addy and Connor.”
Lance puts his hand up to the bust of Edgar Allan Poe, and the eyes shimmer the same blue fire as Reger’s flames. I close my eyes as a coldness sweeps over me.
I want the red pill.
I want the red pill.
I DON’T WANT THE RED PILL.
I open my eyes, and all I see is darkness.