False Dawn #22: “Life or Something Called It”
Part Three of Four: Normalcy or Lack of It
Short Story Format
Devin Leigh Michaels
The chill of my runny nose slaps me awake, and I wish I’d slept with a ski mask on. Why would Kainoa’s family ever put down the A/C so low?
That’s when the fireplace crackles and pops.
My eyes snap wide, and the blue fire ravenously devours the blackened wood in the hearth. Over the flames is a kettle, like how people used to cook in the olden days. To the left is a kitchen area, not modern but elaborate with knives, pans, pots, a small bar, and what appear to be black diamond countertops. Just behind the kitchen is a thick, wooden dungeon door, and to the immediate left is another, more inviting opening with a stained glass window of a dragon breathing fire.
I push up on the plush but worn couch I’m on. It’s comfy, cradling my bottom and ensconcing me in its warmth. I wrap the afghan—someone must have laid it across me at some point—about my shivering shoulders and bent knees and wait.
So…where am I? Looks like Skadoia, but—
The dungeon door opens, and my heart sinks. Definitely Skadoia because there’s Kalidas, hungrily grinning at me.
“Well, if it isn’t the hybrid.” He drops a knapsack onto the kitchen counter. “What brings you to our little black hole?”
“I…uh…I don’t know.”
“Of course you don’t.” He enters the living room, holding two cups. As he nears, I hold my legs just a little tighter, even as he offers me one of the glasses.
I don’t take it.
“Oh, for crying out loud…” He takes a sip of both, swallows, and then offers me the cup again.
Ew, Kalidas’s spit…but at least it’s drink.
“So you missed me.” He flops down in one of the recliners, a leg over an arm. “I don’t know if I should feel flattered or violated. You didn’t call first.”
“So, what’s been up with you? Using your powers to sneak into government facilities? Scare teenage girls? Perhaps make a movie career?”
A blast of blue flames puffs outside the window behind me, and I turn to see the last flare dissipate. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that came from a dragon’s exhale or something.
Kalidas curses—loudly. “You better go, kid. Apparently, my to-do just list got longer.”
As he stands and guzzles down the last sip, I call him back. God, I don’t know why.
“Why…Why did I come to you? You—You—” used to torture me. Maim. Mark.
“Because I’ll do this.”
“Kalidas —” The door flies open, and Amaris—the Skadoian Lord’s second-in-command—rushes in—“—our lord says he will force you to watch Jersey Shore if you keep him wait—”—and stops. His widened eyes meet mine, and thank God it’s not like those romantic comedies.
And Kalidas backhands me across the face.
I awaken to sweat and twisted blankets. The sun cracks the horizon line, and in the darkened living room, I curl up under the blankets.
I really miss Lance and Casia.
RIDGEWOOD, NEW JERSEY
It takes me forever to fall back to sleep, but when I awaken for the day, the world smells of bananas. It’s been a while since I’ve had one, but you never really forget the smell, kinda like burnt pizza or Lance’s sneakers.
I fight against the attacking sunlight but eventually surrender, dragging myself out of bed. The clatter of forks and plates perk my interest before I even enter the kitchen, and when I do, I have to blink against the normalcy that is breakfast. The whole family gathers about the table—Kainoa, his little brother Krisk, his cousin Mattie, his parents—Rena and Artemis—and his uncle, Sawyer.
“You want some more syrup, kiddo?” Kainoa asks of the ten year old on his lap.
Hey, Kainoa’s hair is black? I thought it was blue. And his eyes are green. When did THAT happen, and no one notices? The family seems to go about their daily routine like yesterday never happened.
“Wait. What do you mean Bucky wasn’t blown up?”
“NBA lock-out? Ah, who cares? Thank God the NFL—”
“—don’t get me started on cheeseburgers and waffles—”
“I like the GAP!”
“—sass me back. You know you’re not supposed to be out that—”
“Who says ‘sass’ anymore?” I quip, and the entire table glares at me. Really intimidating.
“Well, look who decided to greet the day,” Rena—Kainoa’s mother—puts an arm about my shoulders. She ushers me toward the table and the only empty seat. “You like banana pancakes? Oh, what am I saying? Everyone loves banana pancakes.”
My mom used to make apple, but I keep it to myself. Rena reminds me a lot of her.
A plate clanks to the table in front of me, heaping with pancakes, and I dig in. Across from me, the African American girl smiles. “You in an eating contest or something?”
I wipe my mouth on my sleeve, and Kainoa cringes. Yeah, it’s not my shirt. “Uh…sorry. Been a while since—”
“Don’t listen to Mattie,” Sawyer replies. “Put humus in front of her and watch out! You might lose a hand.”
“Oh, please,” Artemis injects. “Mattie’s not half as bad as Kainoa and sushi.”
Kainoa waves his fork. “How’d this become about me?”
“Who’s Kalidas?” Krisk’s little hand tugs on my sleeve.
…uh, what? “How do you—”
“You talk in your sleep.”
I swallow hard and manage an awkward shrug. “Just some guy I knew from when I was a kid.”
“You’re still a kid,” Artemis replies.
“Well, from when I was a kid-kid.”
“Is that like a baby goat?” Mattie laughs, then rolls her eye at the glare from her father. “What?”
“So…” Rena wipes her mouth with a napkin. “Tell us, Ral. Where are you from?”
“Wayne…uh, New Jersey.” Why does this seem like an interrogation?
“Seriously?” Kainoa hits my shoulder. “Dude, we’re in Ridgewood.”
“No shit?” There’s silence at the table, and I cringe. “Uh…sorry? You don’t swear…AT ALL?”
Kainoa leans over and mumbles. “Not in front of the kid in front of my mom.”
Rena slaps him on the back of the head and takes his empty plate. “And now you would be getting two weeks not helping at the headquarters—”
“Oh, shoot. Just my luck,” Kainoa bemoans with a smirk.
“—but since you were held captive, I’ll commute it to time-served.”
He mouths my way, so his mother can’t see, “Damn.”
Rena still smacks him again. “So, Ral. Where are your parents? Are they home? Where can we drop you off?”
“Um…” I cringe again and shrug. “I, uh, I don’t know.”
Artemis cocks his head to the side. “You don’t know?”
I answer with my particular motion of choice—The Shrug. “I dreamwalk, kinda like Jayden did, and…”
At the mention of Jayden, my mouth dries. Jayden’s dead. I mean, even if he and Rio weren’t among those collected by the Defenders, Sierra ran him through with my sword. There’s no way he could’ve survived that…right?
“So you can find your parents that way by dreamwalking?” Sawyer asks, his plate abandoned and looking at me like I have three heads.
I shrug. “Maybe…but it’s no worries. If you wouldn’t mind just dropping me at a transit station, I can—”
“We’re not doing that.” Rena drops more pancakes in front of me. I haven’t even finished the first stack! “Kainoa, maybe you can follow his parents’ worldlines and see where they are?”
Kainoa shrugs. “And maybe while I’m at it, I can end hunger and grant world peace.”
I know where this is going. “Nah, it’s cool. Really. My parents find me or I find them. It’s not a prob.” I’m already half way to the living room door. “I’ll just grab my things.”
And possibly steal a clean pair of jeans from Kainoa.
But when I turn into the living room, Kainoa’s there, blue hair and all. Then, in a flash, his hair’s black again, his eyes green. “Abusive childhood, huh? Those are never fun.”
“Leave me alone.” I push past him relatively easily and grab…well, nothing. Other than the clothes I received from the project, I don’t have anything else with me.
I start toward the front door when a muted scream stops me.
“I was tortured and made into an assassin by my grandfather.”
I cannot have heard that right.
Kainoa’s not looking at me, but instead, with hands shoved in pockets, he winces and shrugs. “Rena and Artemis are my adoptive parents. My biological dad was killed by my grandfather, and Leilani, my birth mom, was afraid my grandfather would kidnap me and use me for his own purposes, so she gave me to Rena and Artemis. Eventually, my grandfather did get me, and I’ve only been back with my mom and dad two years now.”
“For his own purposes…?” Smack me, please. “Your powers.”
“I’m literally Destiny, and the mantle’s passed down through my biological family. When a kid gets all the power, the parent loses it. My grandfather doesn’t have any left, so…it’s just me.” He shrugs again and leans against the spine of the couch. “Look, I’m not saying I’ll understand everything that’s happened in your life, but I can try. And my parents have dealt with weird stuff since I was born. Trust me. Whatever happened or is happening to you, they can handle it.”
Y’know, when you fight to the death with someone, you tend to trust ‘im, for better or worse. “My mom is an immortal queen who was kidnapped and forced to marry this shadow lord who rules a dimension of darkness. My uncle’s trying to save her in said dimension, while my older brother and sister—a cursed immortal and a were-phoenix—try to figure out how to do that from here.”
Kainoa nods thoughtfully for a moment before yelling, “MOM!”
Upon a plateau at dawn, a man with sharp claws, shaggy hair, and bloody teeth rises from the burning carcass of what appears to be a person with fiery wings.
The man wipes his chin on his trench coat sleeve and snarls, “Tastes just like chicken.”
He jumps off the edge and disappears into the snowy mountains.
RIDGEWOOD, NEW JERSEY
So…yeah. I’m standing in the middle of Kainoa’s living room, wearing black cargo pants, an over shirt, and a black undershirt. On all of them is a blue phoenix wrapped about the number four. Kainoa’s dressed similarly but has a blaster strapped to his left leg and a dagger holster strapped to his rights shoulder.
His parents stand opposite us but no worries. This isn’t intimidating. Not at all.
Okay, maybe a little.
“You ready?” Kainoa asks.
I shrug. “Sure.”
“Okay, I’m going to follow your worldline back in time just enough to find your brother and sister, then follow their worldlines to the present to find out where they are. Sound cool?”
Rena clasps both of us on the shoulder. “We’ll be right behind you, boys.”
“You know, if I had a nickel for every weird thing that’s happened to me in the last year or so—“
“Please.” Kainoa snorts and his hair and eyes do that blue thing again. “Like anyone is really NORMAL.”
He reaches for something just at my shoulder and seemingly tugs. I feel nothing but EVERYTHING. My life literarily flashes before my eyes—backwards. Project: Avatar. Rio. Jayden. I avert my eyes as I see his death, but it doesn’t help the sudden stabbing pain I have in my own chest. He was killed with MY sword. It’s my fault.
“It’s not your fault,” Kainoa grunts.
“How can you say that? It was my—”
“Take responsibility for what you can control. Jayden was killed by a psycho. You can’t control a psycho.”
“Sounds like you speak from experience.”
“Like I said, I WAS the psycho. Once. Not so long ago, either, but I’m not now, and…”
And now we’re in the hospital.
“…you don’t look so good.”
Younger Me’s in a bed, breathing through a tube, with Casia and Lance fighting—Agents Towne and Skylar? Casia throws a few fireballs while Lance jumps over my bed and protects me, his sword out to slice.
“Give us the boy!” Towne screams, using his telekinetic powers to throw a bedpan at Casia. Skylar presses her back against the hallway wall, just out of sight.
“He’s not your TYPE!” Casia ducks the attack and throws another flare.
A hand grabs Future Me—or is it Current Me’s—wrist tugging me beside the bed. “Is that—Is that your brother and sister?”
“Yeah,” I thumb. “Casia and Lance. They tried to stop Towne and Skylar from taking me.”
“That’s your brother?” he demands.
Perspiration beads on Kainoa’s forehead. His blue eyes jump back and forth.
“Tell me that’s not your brother!”
Towne uses his powers to lift the massive equipment by my bed and chuck it through the window. Casia burns a protective flare, but Lance hits her with his blade. “You can’t do that! The oxygen!”
The thumping of a helicopter, followed by the gale winds, pounds Kainoa and me from behind, and he snatches my shoulder again. In a blink, we land in his living room again, his parents over us.
“What happened?” Artemis demands. “Why aren’t you following Ral’s worldline?”
Kainoa rubs the back of his head. “Ral’s brother—He’s—”
The front door’s kicked open, and in rush Lance, Casia, and Donnellie. In one hand Lance holds Krisk who’s squirming in the headlock. In the other, he points a blaster.
“Hello again, Defenders.”
Kainoa gulps. “Joshua Sterling.”
TO BE CONTINUED