I’m launching a Kickstarter for this bad boy in a few weeks, (there, I said it so I have to do it now) so I thought I’d publish the updated version of the first section of Ms. X. I’m getting some great feedback from people on this . . . many thanks!
Think of this story as . . . Wonder Woman meets Deadpool. With a little bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in.
Raney Winter was your typical Gen-Exer – with all the stereotypical Gen-Ex problems, issues, and insecurities: crushing debt, self-doubt, grey hairs, blah blah blah. Her life was the balancing combination between multiple failed attempts at finding her place in this world, helping her best friend and his partner solve crimes at his floundering detective agency, and keeping her cat happy.
Then one day she woke up and discovered she could fly.
Follow Raney’s journey to find her new identity, save a city, and maybe – along the way – save herself.
by Marti Kole
He sat on the wall next to me, perched upright like a human. Big and beautiful, his breath was hot and smelled sweet. Purple and gold scales covered the dragon’s body, glimmering in the sun as he breathed in and out with a slow cadence. His legs dangling over the side of the wall, the dragon hummed a little tune as he kicked his feet back and forth in small motions. Little stones fell off the wall in small showers where his hard- scaled heels tapped the rocks, and the pebbles clattered down the side of the wall into a blackness I could not see past. I giggled.
The dragon turned his head to the side and down so he could see me. I was sitting on the wall next to him– cross-legged, my chin in my hands. He huffed a tiny bit of cotton- candy smelling breath into my hair as he boomed out his question. “WHAT . . .” puff, “is so . . .” puff puff . . . “funny?” He finished with a huge puff for emphasis at his irritation.
Chin still planted in my hands, I rotated my head upwards to face the dragon’s big purple snout. “You’re humming Puff the Magic Dragon,” I giggled. I could not see his eyes to gage the dragon’s reaction to my statement. His snout was so large and so close it took up my current field of vision.
My face was surrounded in cotton-candy breath as the dragon snorted a laugh. “I suppose I am.” He turned back to look down, watching his legs swing underneath him. The large beast heaved a medium-sized sigh.
Leaning over and reaching up, I put my hand on his enormous elbow . . . well, a purple scale on his elbow. One scale was the size of my palm. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I was sincere. “You’re really quite a menacing dragon.”
He huffed. “Apparently not. You’re supposed to be running and screaming.”
“It’s my MO.”
“I appear in the dreamer’s subconscious, representing some insurmountable problem . . .”
“Yes,” I said encouragingly.
“. . . and then they run screaming from me . . .” I nodded.
“. . . and in their terror, I chase them over this cliff.” I nodded again.
The dragon raised his clawed hands to the sky and thrust them downwards in a dramatic motion towards the black abyss below us. “And then they go plummeting over with the wonderful sound of a Wilhelm scream– plummeting to blackness before they wake up in their beds.”
I tried to look sympathetic.
The dragon snapped his head to look at me. “This is what I DO. This is my PURPOSE. I live in the dream realm and remind people they are scared of something in real life, and if they don’t face it, they’ll plummet down a metaphorical pit!”
A crystal pink tear appeared in the corner of his eye. I thought about reaching up to wipe it away, but there was no way to do that without climbing up the side of the dragon, and I decided that wasn’t a great idea at the moment. He wiped it away, and another one appeared after it.
“AND I’M CRYING. DRAGON’S DON’T CRY!!!! We also don’t have cotton-candy breath. And we don’t sit on walls with humans, singing human songs about dragons!!!”
I couldn’t help it. I giggled again.
I hesitated. The dragon glared at me. I opened my mouth. “It’s just . . .”
“Yes?” he growled.
“It’s just . . . your voice. It sounds like John de Lancie.”
He did not look amused.
“You know? He voiced the character ‘Q’ on Star Trek the Next Generation, and Lauren Faust based the character of Discord on that character . . .”
The dragon looked confused. “Lauren who?”
“Lauren Faust. She recreated My Little Pony. She based the character of Discord on . . . “
The dragon stood up on the wall this time, wings outstretched . . . wow. I didn’t notice he had wings until he stood up. Anyway, wings outstretched, and roared, “YOU’RE TELLING ME I SOUND LIKE A PONY?!?!?!?!?!”
“Well no. Discord is not a pony.”
“WELL WHAT IS HE?!?!??!” the dragon roared.
“He’s uh . . . well, I think he’s some sort of dragon.”
The dragon pondered this information for moment. “Oh,” he said, sitting back down. He resumed his foot-swinging.
I leaned in towards him. “You know, it’s not your fault.”
“It’s just that I can lucid dream.”
“And that means I not only know that I’m dreaming,”
“. . . but that I can often control the dream.”
“And stop things lik-”
“Like dragons driving you over a cliff. I know.” The dragon’s wings drooped a little further as he sighed again. “It’s just– I haven’t ever been stopped before. Not once. I’ve met lucid dreamers, but never any who have actually stopped me. Much less befriended me.”
I looked at him in surprise. “You consider me a friend?”
He sat for a moment, realizing what he’d said. “I guess I do.”
We sat in silence for a bit longer, watching the small pieces of stone that he was kicking off with his swinging feet fall to the blackness.
“Well,” he said. “I suppose I should be going. Other dreamers to terrorize and so forth.”
“Righto,” I said, standing up on the wall. “Well it’s been awfully nice chatting with– yyyAAAAAAAHAHH!” Losing my balance, I tipped sideways and over the edge of the wall.
“ANDREA!!” the dragon cried, leaping to his feet. Headfirst, I plummeted downwards into the blackness, watching the startled dragon’s face get smaller and smaller as the blackness got bigger and bigger until it wrapped around me . . . .
Puff, the magic dragon . . . lived by the sea,
And frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Honnah Lee . . .
Little Jackie Paper . . . loved that rascal Puff,
And brought him strings and sealing wax . . .
and other fancy stuff . . .
– Puff the Magic Dragon
by Peter, Paul and Mary
My eyes flew open. There was a stone in front of my face. I blinked. No. No, it was a grey ball of fur– laying on my pillow next to my head.
I looked to my left. The sun hit my eyeballs. It had been up for hours, and its cheery light shone around the edges of the bedroom curtains. I scowled at the dreary brown pieces of fabric hanging like limp rags from the curtain rods. I had bought them on clearance until I found something I liked better. So far I hadn’t gotten around to finding anything better. I sighed.
My sighing cued purring next to my right ear and I rolled my head back in that direction. The grey ball of fur on my pillow blinked at me and yawned. I scratched her behind the ears. She purred a little louder and stretched her front paws out, flexing her claws. I mimicked the gesture, admiring my shimmery light purple painted nails. “Sweet kitty,” I cooed at her. She yawned. “Mouse, I couldn’t agree more,” I told her. She flipped her tail around her nose and curled back in a furry ball. Oh, how I envied her. No troubles. No responsibilities. No crappy job. In my next life, I shall be a cat.
Wait. I didn’t have a crappy job. I didn’t have A job. Better economy, my asshole. The thought depressed me enough to keep me in bed, and I snuggled deeper in the covers.
A sunbeam snuck around the side of the ugly brown curtains and hit me in the eyeball. “I know!” I snarled at the sunbeam. I took a deep breath. “I am grateful for . . .” at a loss, I stopped. I was working through this Law of Attraction book– one of those new age ideas that in order to get new, happy things in your world, you have to vibrationally attract them. One of the activities in the book was to be grateful for five things when you get up in the morning. This was hard for someone with depression problems. “Situational depression” my therapist called it. “My life is fucked up” I called it.
I swung my feet around parallel to the floor and hovered there for a minute. “I am grateful for Mouse,” I said, half-hoping she’d give me a pitiful mew or something to beg me to stay in bed. Mouse offered no disagreement or confirmation.
I put my feet on the floor and stood up. Fucking floor was freezing.
I reached for my house shoes and shoved them on my feet. Purple and fuzzy, they surrounded my toes in warmth and comfort. “I am grateful for house shoes,” I stated.
On closer inspection, I realized I could see part of a little toe poking out of the side of the thread-barren house shoes.
I sighed, and sat back on the bed. I immediately stood up again, stretching my arms above my head and running my hands through my long blood-red hair. I’d gotten the energy to get up– I’d even managed the energy to put on house shoes– and I’d befriended a dream dragon. An imaginary accomplishment, but I was listing it anyway. “I am grateful for dream dragons.” That was a weird one, but it ticked the list up to three items of gratitude. I only needed two more.
“I am grateful Christmas is in a month.” That one was pretty much true. I always liked Christmas.
Squaring my shoulders, I straightened my thin frame and stood tall. I decided I would leave the bedroom today. I would find things to be grateful for, and I would try not to entertain any negative thoughts. I would have an interesting day. Ooooo, I liked that. “I am grateful for interesting things,” I added to the list. There. Five.
Feeling better about life in general, I took a step towards the bathroom.
A horrific KA-BOOM shook the building, shattering the windows of the bedroom, and knocking every thing off every shelf and wall. I hit the floor, palms down, cracking my head on the laminate wood. A single gray streak shot off the bed, and cowered under the dresser, hissing. My ears ringing from the sound of the blast, I sat up and examined the tiny cuts in my hands from the window glass. I could feel the blood trickle down the side of my face from a small gash in the right side of my forehead. From outside the broken windows, I could hear cries and screams, and car horns and general panic.
“Well alrighty then,” I said out loud, seated amongst all the broken glass. “That qualifies as interesting.”
Rattled, I stayed griping the floor for a minute in case any more blasts followed the first one. Time ticked by, and no more kabooming commenced. Broken glass was everywhere. I was bleeding. Ignoring these two facts, I decided instead to check on my cat. I stood up, grateful for the hard-bottomed house shoes (ooooo, does that count as another bit of gratitude for my list?) and shook the glass out of my black and white checkered pajama pants and black tee shirt. “Kitty kitty?” I called softly. I had seen Mouse bolt under the dresser, so I assumed she hadn’t been injured, but I wanted to make sure. Walking over to the dresser and leaning down, I saw angry eyes glaring at me. “What are you pissed at me for? I didn’t cause the . . .” I stopped. Earthquake? In Harmony? Did we have earthquakes? I guess the New Madrid fault was within range– it threatens to destroy a good chunk of the midwest when it shifts. Made the Mississippi flow backwards or something eons ago. But this didn’t feel like an earthquake. Like I’d know what one felt like– but somehow I knew this wasn’t an earthquake.
I looked at irritated cat eyes. “Look, fuzz ball, you can’t run around this room until I get the glass cleaned up. And you might get out of one of the windows. Please come out like a good kitty?”
Mouse was not in the mood to be a good kitty. Five minutes and five thin bloody scratches on my left arm later, her fuzziness was removed from under the dresser and unceremoniously dumped in the bathroom. I slipped inside the room with her and closed the door.
I turned towards the bathroom mirror and inspected the cut on my forehead. It was hard to tell if there was any bleeding anywhere else on my head, as my hair color was a deep red and blood would blend right into it. It was easy to see blood gushing down my face, but I should probably deal with my hands before I used them to bandage my head. I examined the cuts on my palms. They didn’t look bad– just surface gashes. I carefully washed my hands, then poured peroxide on the palms accompanied by “OW OW OW OW” noises. I wrapped my hands in a thin layer of gauze, then wiped and peroxided the gash on my head. It didn’t look bad, just bleeding a lot. I think head wounds bleed a lot. Must’ve heard that on some movie or something. I applied a Star Wars bandaid to my forehead.
I shook my long hair into the trashcan in case any glass was settled in it, and checked for any other bleeding body parts. Looking in the mirror, I decided to add a number six to my gratitude list. “I am grateful I do not look my age,” I told my reflection. If connecting with my high school friends on Facebook taught me anything, it’s that we do not all age equally. Somehow I had been blessed with good genetics, and had been pegged as low as a 20-year-old. Few people knew I was actually 38. A lady is allowed to lie about her age and her weight. Rail-thin in my younger years, I’d fluffed up to 140 when I was married. Lately stress and depression had brought me back down to 115. I call it the “I Forgot To Eat Today” diet. It’s probably not the healthiest thing in the world.
Exiting the bathroom, I shut the door quickly behind me so Mouse couldn’t get out. Searching through the mess, I found my cell phone unbroken on the floor. I added that fact to my gratitude list. “Up to seven– look at me,” I muttered.
“NO SERVICE” my cell phone cheerfully informed me, and I shoved it in my back pajama pants pocket. I crunched across the broken glass-covered bedroom floor and opened the door. Giving an audible whistle, I looked at the wreck that was my living room.
Every picture was off the wall, shattered on the floor. Every item on every table was also on the floor. The little blue Christmas tree I’d spent two hours assembling earlier that week was tipped over against the couch. My big screen tv that I’d hung from the flimsy little arm on the wall– was actually still holding nicely. I walked over to it and pressed the power button to turn it on. The arm still held firmly to a chunk of wall on one side and the tv on the other as the entire apparatus plunged to the floor at the touch of my hand. “Of course,” I grumbled. That was stupid anyway. The electricity was probably out. I turned and flipped on a lamp. Nothing.
Alright. I’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Leaving my apartment, I walked down the stairs to the front door. I hesitated, then opened the door and stepped out on the front porch.
Out on the street, it was a madhouse. People were running and screaming, arms flailing. Giant fireballs rained from the sky.
Ok, it was none of that, but that’s what I thought I’d see.
Instead, the streets were filled with people– most of them were doing what I was doing . . . staring around and blinking in confusion at the other people staring around and blinking in confusion. The sound of car alarms filled the air. Most of the Christmas decorations on the electrical poles hung firmly, but a few were on the ground. I noticed a piece of sky in the distance that was discolored, and realized there were plumes of smoke rising into the air.
I looked around to see any familiar faces– not sure why I bothered, I didn’t really know anyone on my block, even though I’d lived here three years. Everyone seemed as puzzled as I was, so I decided not to ask anyone anything. I closed the front door and walked back up the stairs to my apartment.
I lived in a little house that had been converted to apartments. I lived on the top floor, a nice couple named– Smith? Smitty? Smi. . . something– lived on the main floor, and the landlord lived in the basement. I knew the Smi-somethings were out of town this week, and the landlord was probably at work, so no need to check on them.
Would any of them check on me if they were home? A question– I guess– that’s not relevant at the moment.
I went back in my apartment and crunched across the living room to the kitchen. No glass in here– no windows. My dishes seemed to be intact as well. I took a bowl out of the cabinet and headed for the bedroom. Back in the bedroom, I shoved on a pair of black jeans, socks, and black lace-up boots. I grabbed a Baja Hoodie and a tee shirt from my closet, putting them on as I crunched across the glass to the bathroom door. Slipping inside the door, I filled the bowl with water and set it on the floor. I pulled back the shower curtain to find Mouse cowering in the bathtub, tail twitching. “Don’t look at me with that tone of voice,” I quipped. “I can’t let you out of the bathroom until I get all the glass cleaned up.” I pointed at the water dish. “Here’s fresh water. You can lay on . . .” I grabbed a clean towel off the shelf and laid it beside the water bowl. “. . . this, and if you need a kitty box you can use . . .” I looked around. “Uh . . .” Mouse glared at me. “Well, just improvise,” I shrugged. Mouse did not look amused. “Be a good girl, sweet kitty– I’m going to go see why the sky is falling.”
Walking down the steps of the little house, I debated the best way to try and get anywhere. It probably was a bad idea to get in my car. No telling if the roads would be blocked, with everyone freaking out.
Hmmmmm. People would be freaking out. Should I go back inside and get my handgun? I’d had a carry permit for going on five years now. Was actually pretty decent with the thing, and nailed plenty a target. My instructor at the gun range had tried to convince me to do tournament shooting, but I wasn’t into that. One of my foster dads taught me to shoot, and I had a natural knack for it. Decided to make it official in my adult years and get a permit. I turned around to go inside and get it, but then spun back around when I remembered it wasn’t inside. I looked to the right and the left sheepishly– wondering if anyone had seen my strange 360 dance. No one had.
Deciding the car was a bad idea, I walked to my bike, chained to a tree by the mailbox. I unlocked the bike and threw my leg over. It was usually a little too cold to ride a bike in December, but the weather had been unseasonably warm lately. Ok, which way to go? I looked again towards the black plumes of smoke rising from the southeast outskirts of the city. Noticing that everyone else seemed to be going in that direction, I decided to head north instead of south. Pointing my bike, I began to pedal.
North Instead of South
Walking in the door of Angel Investigations, I chimed out my usual sing-song “Hellll- OOOOOO!” greeting. In college, one of my music professors always entered a room like that, and several of her students (myself included) picked up on the fun and melodic habit. Professor Johnson was a pleasant, but professional lady. She never hesitated to offer praise where she felt it was deserved, but was just as quick with criticism and disappointment. Prof. Johnson had the unnerving ability to make you feel like you were three inches tall, and do so with an unwavering smile on her face. McGonagall meets Snape on a good day kinda combo.
I heard Professor Johnson died recently. Cancer, not a snake bite through the neck at the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
My word, I have a morbid inner dialogue. Good thing no one else can hear that.
“Hellll-OOOOOOOO???” I chimed again– adding a questioning uplift at the end this time. “Did the alien attack get you guys?”
I weaved my way around debris and broken furniture strewn across the small lobby. The little Christmas tree originally on an end table was laying on the floor– along with most everything else that was on a table or wall in the lobby. “Hello?” I called, this time minus the singing. My heart increased pace. It was too quiet in here.
“Hello?” a weak voice called from the back. “Raney? Help . . . “
I burst through the office door, concern written all over my face– which turned to exasperation as to what I found on the other side of the door.
“Not funny, you two. I panicked for a second.” I frowned at my friends. Dean was punching buttons on his phone with a furrowed brow, perched on a cardboard box sitting on an arm back chair. Gabriel was picking up books off the floor, shaking glass out of each one before placing it on the top of one of five categorized stacks. He looked at me and grinned. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist messing with you. It’s just so easy to do.”
Looking at my childhood friend from top to bottom, I took in his sandy blond hair and slightly muscled physique. Gabriel Jones was always one of these guys who looked athletic but didn’t have to work out much to define his muscles. I was always taller until he surprised me in a crazy teenage growth spurt, and stayed a couple inches taller than me ever since. Gabriel was dressed in his usual neat blue jeans and wrinkle-free flannel shirt. He wore flannel no matter what the weather.
Irritated at the practical joke, I contemplated punching my friend but decided instead to hug him. Then I punched him. Gabriel feigned extreme pain, clutching his arm and dropping the book he had in his hands. “OOOOowwww!!! You little. . .” but he broke off when he noticed my bandaged hands and grabbed my wrist, looking concerned. “Raney! Did you hurt yourself? Are you ok?” He touched my Star Wars bandaid on my head.
I nodded. “Just a few scratches. I’ll live.”
I patted Dean on the head with a bandaged hand instead of hugging or punching him. He appeared deep in button-pressing and I didn’t want to disturb him.
“Network down?” I asked him.
Dean McGowan’s dark brown hair fell into his eyes as he leaned closer to the phone screen like that would help. He had rolled the sleeves up of his light blue button-up dress shirt, and I swear he’d pressed his khakis. Maybe that’s why Gabriel’s flannel shirts always looked so neat and wrinkle-free. I’ll bet Dean irons them. “Mmm,” he replied to my inquiry.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I responded.
Looking around for a place to sit and finding none, I opted to help clean up the mess. Gabriel had strung lights everywhere in celebration of the upcoming holidays, and what was once festive and pretty was now tangled around piles of papers and books. Walking around the room, I started picking up papers, shaking out the glass, and stacking them on a table in the corner. “So, any buzz on what happened?” I asked, picking up a thick file folder labeled: “Mrs. Vanhusen’s Lying Cheating Asshole Husband” before tucking the papers inside and placing it on top of a stack of other case files.
“Nothing so far,” Gabriel said. “Dean’s been trying to get on the internet any way he can, but so far everything’s down. No electricity, no internet, no cell service.”
“I assume your family is ok?” I asked, directing the question to Gabriel. Dean and his family are . . . estranged.
Estranged is a polite way to put it.
Gabriel nodded. “I was over there for breakfast just a half hour before the blast hit. Mom and Dad weren’t planning on going anywhere until this afternoon, and my sister was still in bed when I left. They’re far enough outside the city I doubt they were hit at all.”
I picked up a pencil cup on Gabriel’s desk, removed the pencils and pens, dumped the glass on the floor, and returned the writing utensils to their home. His name plaque was dangerously close to the edge of the desk. I picked it up and wiped the front off with a sleeve. “Gabriel Jones, Professional Private Investigator” it read in neat serif lettering. I started to set it down and realized there were shards of glass where I was about to set it down. “This is such a fucking mess,” I stated. Looking for a rag or something to wipe off his desk, I opened a bottom drawer and spotted a box in it. “Ah!” I exclaimed. “I thought I’d left this here.” I pulled out a handgun. Nothing special, but it fit my hand nicely, and it was a nice weight. The Walther PPK pistol had been a gift from the foster dad who taught me to shoot. “Use it to scare off people, not to hurt them,” he’d said. I’d never done either. Injured plenty of targets, though.
I shut the desk drawer, and little shards of glass fell from the bottom of the desk onto the floor. “How in the HELL can pieces of glass get in every crack and crevice?” I inhaled sharply. “BERNARD!” I looked at Gabriel. “Bernard?”
Gabriel shook his head. “He was sitting on this bookshelf when I left last night, and as you can see . . .”
I could see. The bookshelf was now a pile of books and boards.
“That’s why he started with the books,” Dean stated without lifting his head from the iPhone. I walked over to the pile o’ bookshelf.
“Bernard?” I called. Gabriel kept picking up books and shaking glass from the pages. He tried not to look worried. “He’s a tough little guy, Gabriel,” I said, putting my hand on my best friend’s shoulder. He’s been through worse. Remember the Broke Baker case?”
Dean snorted, but did not look up from his phone.
Gabriel covered his face dramatically. “Don’t remind me!!! I thought he was a goner!!!”
My childhood friend/drama queen Gabriel runs a detective agency called Angel Investigations. Get it? Gabriel? Angel Investigations? He’s also a HUGE sci-fi buff, and he’s a bit tickled that he can use the name Angel Investigations from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Well, actually a spin-off of Buffy called Angel, but no one really remembers the spin-off. Gabriel and I have been friends for as long as I can remember, and we both devoured every book, movie, tv show and comic related to anything science-fiction or general weirdness growing up. These days geek girls are everywhere. I did it before it was cool.
Gabriel has owned Angel Investigations for– oh, somewhere around ten years now. I love him to pieces, but he’s not very good at it. Still, somehow, Gabriel’s gotten a good amount of clients. I think it has something to do with him being listed first in the Yellow Pages– although a lot of it is search engine SEO stuff that Dean does to put Angel Investigations at the top of the web search results. Most of their clients are crazy, and very few cases have gotten Gabriel’s oh-so-prized “SOLVED” rubber stamp across their files, but it keeps him busy and happy. Dean is also a huge science fiction/comic book geek, and was initially excited about the name Angel Investigations, but later tried to talk Gabriel out of it . . . said the Jesus freaks would think he was a Christian-based detective agency . . . and then they’d burn the place to the ground when they discovered the Christian-based detective agency was run by a gay man.
We then had to talk Gabriel out of Homo-Loving Detective agency, and listen to his anti-LGBT-asshole-religious-nutbags rant for the rest of the evening. I suggested “Drama Queen’s Detective Agency” which Dean found hilarious, but Gabriel not so much.
The top listing for Angel Investigations in the Yellow Pages still works for the old-timers who still use the Yellow Pages, like the Broke Baker case. He was a baker NAMED Baker (I can’t make this shit up) and he had declared bankruptcy. Hired us to prove one of his employees ran off with a bunch of money, but instead we wound up finding the money hidden in a fridge (again, cannot make this shit up) at his bakery. When we reported it to the police, the dude vanished, but not before running off with the cash and leaving all the kitchen and bathroom sinks on, flooding his bakery and causing a huge amount of damage. He had hired Gabriel to try to add credibility to the “I was robbed” story. Angel investigations was the one who wound up being robbed– the guy didn’t pay the boys any money, and they reported Mr. Baker to the police. When Gabriel and Dean opened the door to the bakery for the cops to show them the evidence, they all got splashed in the overflowing flood– knocking Gabriel down and soaking him from head to toe– and his backpack. His backpack where Bernard was. He was inconsolable until Dean and I got Bernard all dried out and back to his normal fluffiness.
Oh– I should mention Bernard is a teddy bear. My full-grown adult best friend has a teddy bear.
Not just any teddy bear, mind you. Bernard is an anthropomorphized furry ball of attitude and sass. I created this monster years ago when Gabriel was in a state after a bad day at school. Back in the days when Gabriel and I were kids, boys who liked boys and girls who liked girls stayed quiet about such inner dialogues except to close friends and family. They waited until college before “coming out.” Gabriel played by the rules, and never told anyone but me about his crushes. But children can ferret out children who are different, and Gabriel was often bullied and beaten up. In the fourth grade, he received the name “Gay Boy Gabriel” from some idiot jock, and the horrible name stuck with him through the entirety of our grade school and high school days. The kids soon shortened it to “GBG” so the teachers wouldn’t realize what it meant, and they would yell: “GBG has STDs!! GBG has STDs!!” even though the miserable little brats probably had no idea what an STD was.
One day, after a particularly bad instance of bullying that not only included that charming little ditty, but a wedgie incident in PE class that ripped the band off Gabriel’s underwear, I sat with Gabriel on the floor of his bedroom after school. He was quiet, and just stared at the floor. I went in the kitchen and made him a peanut butter and honey sandwich– his favorite– and set it on the floor beside him. He just sat there in a lump. I grabbed a brown teddy bear off the bed, and sat the furry little guy in front of me. Gabriel continued to stare at the floor.
I hopped the bear a few inches in front of me, and sat him on the ground. Gabriel didn’t move. I hopped the bear a few inches closer, and sat him down again. Gabriel moved only his eyeballs to the right slightly to look at the bear. I hopped the bear a few inches to the right, towards the plated sandwich. Gabriel’s eyes followed the bear. The three
of us sat quietly for a moment, then in one fell swoop, I grabbed the bear and made him pounce on the sandwich. Gabriel jumped, then leaped for the sandwich. “Too slow!!!” I cheered, and sat the bear on my lap, making his paws clasp the sandwich above the bear’s head in triumph.
Gabriel giggled, and loudly called the bear’s name– “BerNARD!!! Give me back my sandwich!”
I made Bernard shake his head, and do a little dance, still holding the sandwich. Gabriel dove for the sandwich, and I had Bernard jump on the bed, drop the sandwich, and flip off Gabriel.
Ok, a teddy bear has no fingers to flip off anyone, but I could do an arm-against-arm motion with a paw raise that simulated flipping off. Gabriel fell on the floor laughing, and I continued the charade, having Bernard look over the side of the bed at Gabriel on the floor, with a paw over Bernard’s face shaking his head in silent teddy bear laughter. Then Bernard threw the sandwich at Gabriel, and hit him square in the face. Gabriel and I laughed so hard we cried, and . . . well, a character was born.
Bernard became our comic relief– our way of cheering each other up when we were down, or a way to just let loose and be silly and childish and funny. Bernard had a major attitude from the start, and his MO is stealing stuff and brandishing attitude whenever needed– usually with one of us yelling “BerNARD!!!” at him when he’s caught. The little brown bear also usually watches movies with us, and is a huge Superman fan. When Dean and Gabriel started dating, Dean bought Bernard a Superman suit from Build-A-Bear, and I knew Gabriel had found the perfect match.
“BERNARD!!!” Gabriel had lifted a dictionary and found the stuffed bear underneath. Dean looked up from his phone.
I leaned down and picked the bear up. “He doesn’t appear to be . . . oh oh.” I looked at Gabriel, extreme concern on my face.
“What?!” Gabriel cried, grabbing the bear and beginning to examine him. Dean even looked up, concerned.
“He’s PISSED you left him here last night. Says you should’ve taken him home.” Gabriel’s face was close to the bear, examining him for damage. I took one of Bernard’s paws and punched Gabriel in the face.
“Ow!” Gabriel winced, then hugged his bear. “I’m glad you’re ok, Bernard. Seems like he’s his old self.” Dean grinned and returned to his phone. Gabriel took off Bernard’s dark brown neck bow and shook it to remove any glass shards, then brushed the bear off and set him and the bow on an empty shelf. The shelf crashed to the ground.
“You’ve got quite a bit of clean-up to do here, my boys,” I said. Gabriel sighed.
We spent a few hours cleaning up, moving broken furniture and other items into the lobby in a neat stack of debris. Five garbage bags later, you couldn’t tell anything had happened in there. Well, except for the stacks of books because of lack of bookshelf, empty holes in the walls where pictures and shelves had fallen, and the glaring lack of a window.
“Do you think we’ll have to worry about looters?” Dean asked, frowning at the window.
“Well, you guys are on the second floor,” I commented. “They’d have to scale the wall to get to you.”
Gabriel stuck his head out the window and looked down. “Yeah, and that doesn’t look fun.” He leaned back inside and turned around, surveying the room. “Besides, there’s nothing in here to steal. No money, nothing of value. If they want the couch in the lobby and the coffee maker, they’re welcome to it.
“Coffee maker broke when it was knocked off the table,” Dean reminded him, returning to his arm chair.
Gabriel sighed. “Of course it did.”
“Hello?” we heard a familiar female voice from the lobby. Gabriel grinned and kept silent. I whacked him on the arm with the back of my hand. “Hel-LO?” the voice called a little louder. I opened my mouth to answer, but Gabriel clamped his hand over it. We began scuffling like two kids fighting over a candy bar.
Dean continued the joke. “Clove? Help . . .” he called weakly. On the floor now scuffling with Gabriel, I threw a book in Dean’s direction. Gabriel’s sister Clove walked in the door, directly in the path of the book.
“HEY!” she recoiled. She crossed her arms, pretending to look cross. “Very funny, guys.”
“They did the same thing to me,” I said from the floor. Gabriel was sitting on my torso, holding Bernard on my chest who was taunting me. “I tried to stop them from being mean to you, but . . .” I gestured helplessly with the one arm I had that was free. Bernard pounced on it.
Clove Jones looked around, brushing a strand of her unnaturally-white hair out of her face. It was a stark contrast to her outfit– which was entirely black. Black skirt, black shirt, black boots. I bought her a tee-shirt last year that says, “I’ll stop wearing black when they invent a darker color.” She wears it all the time– although today she’d opted for a lacy pull over. “You guys did a good clean-up job,” she complimented. “Except for the broken window and missing bookcase, it doesn’t look like anything hit nearby at all.”
Dean sat forward in the arm chair, looking excited. “Something hit somewhere? Do you know what happened?” Gabriel rolled off me and sat resting against his desk. I removed Bernard from my arm and put him in my lap, sitting cross-legged next to Gabriel and listening intently.
Clove nodded, pulling up one of the other arm chairs usually reserved for clients. Her and Gabriel beat the snot out of each other when they were children, but when she hit the angst-ridden teenage years, Gabriel became a fierce protector of his little sister. Her real name isn’t Clove. She earned that nickname in college for her love of clove cigarettes.
Another piece of her bleached-white blond hair fell out of her ponytail and in her eyes. She shoved it behind her ear as she began. “All I know is what I’ve heard from the crew at the coffee house. Electricity is out all over the city, and several cell towers were damaged, so phones are down. Emergency buildings are running on backup generators so they can get information quickly, and police officers are providing information to groups of people in person.”
Dean looked impatient. “AND??!”
“Aliens!” I cheered, holding Bernard’s arms upwards in a gesture of triumph. Dean and Clove looked in my direction, mildly irritated.
“Aliens!!” Gabriel agreed, duplicating Bernard’s triumphant upward arm gesture. The silence in the room was deafening.
“Not aliens?” I said sadly, lowering Bernard’s paws.
“Not aliens,” Clove said solemnly. Gabriel dropped his arms too.
Dean looked grim. “A bomb?”
Gabriel got uncharacteristically serious. “A terrorist attack?”
“A suicide bomber?” Dean suggested.
Gabriel and Dean then traded suggestions rapid-fire.
“A car bomb?”
“A dirty bomb?”
“A downed airplane?”
“A pipeline explosion?”
“Aliens?” I threw in again. Disapproving stares again.
“If you idiots would give me a chance,” Clove sighed. We all leaned forward. Clove paused for dramatic affect. “It was a meteor.”
We all leaned back with a unanimous “Oooh.”
Clove continued. “It hit the atmosphere above Harmony, burst into a fireball, and what was left crashed into pieces on the outskirts of the city. Most of the meteors hit-”
“Meteorites,” Dean corrected.
“What?” Clove looked irritated.
“When a rock is in the atmosphere, it is called a meteor,” Dean schooled. “When it hits earth it’s called– ”
“–a meteorite. Yes, I got it, Professor Tyson,” Clove teased.
“Actually,” Dean said, “It’s Dr. Tyson. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a doctorate in . . .” Clove’s piercing glare silenced him.
Clove continued. “Most of the METEORITES hit outside the city. The largest number of them landed on– and destroyed– Montgomery Stadium.”
“Signs from the gods an evil corporation shouldn’t have branded our football stadium,” I muttered. The small group nodded in agreement.
“Wait, don’t you work for Montgomery Inc.?” Dean asked in my direction.
I wrapped my arms around Bernard and rested my chin on his head. “Officially, I’m independent contract, so no. Technically, I DO work at their headquarters, so yes. Albeit part-time. Albeit I don’t want to. If a meteorite took out that building I’d be quite pleased.” I realized what I said and amended. “An EMPTY building. Empty.” I gestured to Clove to continue.
“Hundreds of people have been hurt– some really badly. Cuts from shattering glass and debris, and also burned eyes from those who saw the thing hit.” The boys and I winced at the idea of burned eyeballs. “Death reports are coming in– a family was killed in a car accident, a man was speared in the head with a piece of plate glass window. . .” she paused, then finished sadly, “. . . and a hotel by the stadium collapsed.”
“Damn,” I said. “This close to Christmas, there’s probably a lot of people who were staying there.”
We sat still, pondering this in silence.
A minute later Dean broke it. “Ah! I have internet!” Clove leaned over and Gabriel and I jumped off the floor. We all crowded around the tiny screen. Dean had a cell phone video someone had shot from a moving car on his screen. We watched as the shaky video showed a fireball streaking across the sky through the front car window. The fireball plummeted towards the ground, smoke in its wake, becoming brighter and brighter until the whole screen was white. Then there was a horrific BOOOM!!! and the picture came back. The car was stopped, pulled to the side of the road, windows shattered. Other cars were also pulled over. Someone was screaming. The video ended.
“Well, that was somewhat horrifying,” Clove said matter-of-factly.
“How’s this for horrifying?” Dean said, focused on his phone screen. We all leaned in again.
“I am– well, I was– on the second floor of the hotel,” a voice was saying. The video was black, except for a couple of specks of light. “I can move, but I can’t see a thing other than what my phone will light up,” the voice continued. “I can feel blood running down my leg into my shoe, but I can’t tell how badly I am injured. I can crawl around, but I can’t find a way out of here.”
I inhaled. “O-my-god that’s someone trapped in one of the buildings that fell.”
Dean nodded. “They’ve been recording on Facebook live for a half hour now. No one knows where in the rubble they are. Rescue crews are trying to get to them, but the whole thing could crash in at any second.”
Clove looked grave. “And the whole thing would be streamed live.”
Gabriel reached across and put his hand over Dean’s phone. He gently pushed it down, looking Dean kindly in the eyes. “Sweet man, put the phone away. We need to keep the battery as long as we can anyway.”
Dean held the top button on his phone and turned it off, clapping his left hand over Gabriel’s hand still on the phone. Dean has a steady demeanor, but a soft soul. His face stayed firm, but I could tell he was deeply rattled by the thought of someone trapped alive. He leaned down to bump Gabriel’s forehead with his own in a gesture of affection, then stood up and walked out the door.
Many thanks for reading.
To see Raney with her powers in action, check out another section further into the book – Angel Down.
– SPOILER WARNING – It does skip further into the book, so be prepared for slight spoilers.