False Dawn #21: “Life or Something Called It”
Part Two of Four: Tolls
Short Story Format
Devin Leigh Michaels
REVERE, MASSACHESETTES, SIX DAYS PRIOR
I pretend this is a dream. I pretend the sweet aroma of burnt smores isn’t the best thing I’ve ever smelled. I pretend the soft Twizzlers against my five o’clock shadow don’t tickle my chin. I pretend the warm body against me can’t burst into flames at any moment and kill me—for the fifteenth time.
Instead, I pretend that the woman I ensconce is the love of my life, and no matter what, I’m going to smell smores and feel Twizzlers for the rest of my poor, pathetic existence. I pretend that if I asked, she’d take me.
Because believing anything else at this moment will make me eat a bullet.
I know Happily Ever Afters aren’t for me. I know it’s not fair to love her. I know she deserves so much more, and yet…
I want to smell smores for the rest of my life.
“Fate is cruel, Ral,” a quasi-familiar voice echoes through my thoughts. “I’m not a fan.”
Ral, my responsibility, fights everyone and everything. I’m so proud of him.
“This, coming from Destiny?”
I take a deep breath, stealing another whiff and settling my chin in the crook of Casia’s neck.
“It’s… complicated. Every event is connected to another and another, and the past is just as important as the present or future. I won’t damn today for yesterday, Ral. Will you?”
“What can I do?”
Casia shifts to get more comfortable, her hands upon my cheek.
“Get me free. Then I will end this. WE will end this.”
I wish this moment could last forever, but I know it can’t, especially when I feel the cool trigger of the blaster against my finger.
“Yeah? Really? If you’re sooo powerful, then how did they get you the first time?”
“Maybe because he couldn’t shut up.”
By the time Ral and Nile whirl toward me, I’m already kneeling over Casia, my blaster pointed directly at Nile’s chest.
I’m not going to let this sonvabitch hurt Addy’s kid. “How’d you find us? Where’d you get the kid?”
Kainoa’s eyes narrow, and a dangerous, almost deadly look envelopes his face. Like I care. “What’re you—”
“It doesn’t matter. I won’t go back, and I won’t let you take the kid again. Ral, get behind me.”
Ral steps in front of Nile. Is he mad? “Lance, what’re you on? Kainoa didn’t take me. It was—”
The door’s kicked open; lights blind us.
Casia shifts underneath me, her hands out. “RAL! DUCK!”
Fire burns toward the affronting party, and I add my own blaster fire. Whoever they are—and I pray they aren’t who I think they are—retreat through the door, and Ral—damn, he was shadow-walking again. Darn kid.
I grab Casia’s wrist. “Flame on!”
She glares at me. “You did NOT just say that.”
I grin. “Well, you did start the fire, Billy Joel.”
She teleports us.
FIVE YEARS AGO
I lived in the ocean. Our family owned this great little beach house, and I loved every moment of living there—until that day.
As I forged the sand toward his family’s deck, a chocolate hand grabbed my wrist. The owner was a bathing beauty with a pink bikini and cherry lips. She was WAAAY too old for a fourteen year old, though it didn’t stop me from admiring the view.
“You like what you see, babe?” I placed a hand on her arm. “Time for a real man in your life?”
She flipped down her sunglasses, so her purple eyes glittered into me. The shen flipped me over her shoulder. “No man is ever good enough for me, Lance.”
“Lance?” I gasped and winced, rubbing my sore lower back. “You have the wrong person. Name’s Joshua. Joshua Sterling.”
“Oh, I wish that were true. You have no idea how much.” She kissed me on the cheek and patted my wrist once I stood. “In four years, two days, seven hours, and eighteen minutes, you’ll NEED me, and I’ll be there. Damnit, I’ll always be there.”
Then she faded into the beach-goers on the sand.
Yeah…that wasn’t weird.
Shaking his head, I ignored the dread in my stomach and tugged down his wetsuit in exchange for a long-sleeved T-shirt. When my old man with graying hair and swimmer’s trunks raised his eyes from the grill, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Whoo. Waves are kicking my ass today, Pop. Whatcha got?”
“Hot dogs and don’t swear.” Brandon Sterling wrapped an arm about my neck and ruffled my spiky hair. “A long shirt in ninety-degree heat? What’re you hiding, kiddo? A hickey?”
“Yes, because hickeys are usually on arms.” I flopped down into a beach chair and grabbed a coke from the cooler. “Mustard and sauerkraut, por favor.”
“Learning Spanish in school now, are we?”
“Uh…” I shrugged. “Not really. I’m in French. Guess I picked it up somewhere.”
“As long as you’re not picking up girls and piercings yet, I guess I should be—JOSHUA!”
I jerked at the bellow and shrugged. “What?”
His father glared pointedly down my wrist, where a serpent’s tongue licked the veins.
I barely breathed. “Would you believe it isn’t mine?”
I flicked the Defender in the ear, waking him from a probably not-so-sound sleep. “Hey, there, Lackey. Ready for our first date?”
The man looks at me with frightened, wide eyes, and I’m sure the dagger in one hand and a cestus covering the other don’t help his nerves. Ah, well. I’m not here to give him a mani-pedi.
Thrusting down the knife, missing the Defender’s arm by mere millimeters, I lean over the man’s chair and get right into his face. “I know our meet cute didn’t go as well as either of us would have liked, but like any romantic comedy, that doesn’t mean this relationship can’t work. Tell me what I want to know, and I won’t hand you a bouquet of your fingers.”
“What? Or why? Come on, man. Don’t stutter. It’s not attractive.”
My face hardens as much I try to keep it neutral. Damn thing just doesn’t listen sometimes.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Lysander Starbuck, haven’t you?”
The man’s eyes quiver just a little more. Huh. He’s more afraid of Lysander than me? Let’s change that.
I backhand the guy across the cheek with my cestus. Imagine a brick wall hitting you. Now add a Mack truck, and you’ve got an idea of what my punch feels like.
“Let’s try this again, shall we? I’m looking for Lysander’s grandson. Kid goes by Nile. Mind telling me where I can find him?”
Bloody, the guy mumbles something, and I lift his chin with my sword. “What did I say about stuttering?”
IN THE THROES OF TIME, THREE YEARS AGO
I didn’t remember how I got there. Not really. One moment I was scratching my forearm in the locker room, wondering how I was going to cover up yet another tattoo—this one a dragon’s tail—when cable cord cut into my wrists, my hands held above my head. I hung helplessly—sorta—in the middle of an open room. Tied to the window frames, the curtains revealed the magnificent garden, slanted roofs, and golden tapestries of the Kamakura Dynasty in Japan. Trust me. I know. I was there once.
“You are an anachronism yourself, aren’t you, Mr. Sterling?”
My dark eyes ricocheted to the elder man emerging from the shadows before me.
He leered. “Or do you prefer Mr. Evans?”
“Hello, Lysander. Heard you went insane. How’s that treating you?”
Lysander, with his monolithic figure and horrible smirk, sauntered forward, playing with a glittering cestus in the low candlelight.
“Tell me, Mr. Evans. How is it that you can defy the rules of the Fourth Dimension?”
Yeah, sanity fled him awhile ago. “What can I tell you? Rules are made to be defied.”
“What about laws?”
Okay…who was the Asian kid with the blue hair and eyes? He was freakier than that girl from NCIS.
“Ah, Nile, this is Lance Evans. Mr. Evans, allow me to present my grandson, Nile. He likes to get more…hands on, if you will, when it comes to uncovering anomalies.”
Of course he is.
I beseeched the ceiling when my entrails ran crimson.
The New Jersey Turnpike is a bittersweet memory, especially as I stop at the toll booth. “It costs HOW MUCH now?”
TWO YEARS AGO
“Another tattoo, Mary. ANOTHER ONE! I swear that boy is rebelling, doesn’t want to go to William Paterson.”
“Well, can you blame him?”
“I—I don’t know, Brandon. I just don’t know. We bathed him, clothed him, fed him, gave him anything he wants except the movie Showgirls and no curfew.”
“We need to punish him when he does this, not pacify—”
“I’ll call Sawyer, see if he can—”
“Can what, Mary? Talk to him? Give him electroshock therapy!”
Casia leans over my shoulders. “What exit were you?”
We pass the new Meadowlands Stadium. “Ten. I used to go up Route 287.”
Donnellie looks out the window. “So who plays there? The Cyclops and the Planes?”
“Jets and Giants,” I mumble. “Saw the Giants beat the Bills once. My parents took me…”
We spoke very little after that.
TWO YEARS AGO
I winced at the words, though I should have known they’d be coming. Sitting on the top stair, I listened to every word screamed, felt every dig as it tore through my chest, ignored every tear that dribbled down my cheek.
The Sterlings…they wanted to send me to college. They wanted me to become a doctor. They simply wanted their little boy, but I was never theirs. Not really. I belonged to someone else, some THING else, and as much as I tried, I never belonged there.
They knew that now, and this was easier. This was for the best, I told myself, as a car horn cut through the angered blares.
Mary growled, “I will not let you or anyone hurt him.”
We pulled off of Route 17, heading toward Ridgewood.
TWO YEAR EARLIER
I grabbed the pre-packed duffle on my bed.
“What’s next, Mary? Drugs? Guns? What will it take for you to see the truth?”
Four years, two days, seven hours, and eighteen minutes later, I looked out my window to see Donnellie in a Mercedes sport car, tears glimmering in her eyes.
“That’s not our little boy up there, Mary!” Brandon shouted as I launched out the window. “It’s our grown-up thug!”
Darkness cools the air as I cock my blaster and hold my sword. The Cape Cod house looks so unassuming, so pedestrian, I don’t know how it can be so wicked.
But I’d seen the evil the people inside were capable of, and I cock my weapon. I won’t let them inflect their terror upon Ral.
Behind me, Casia smirks, her eyes glowing in the darkness. “You have to ask?”
Donnellie holds her own gun. “This…This is not going to go as planned.”
“Not much does with us, but we don’t let it stop us.”
To Be Continued…