The next afternoon, when school lets out, I walk to my car, alone, thankful for another normal, uneventful day. I walk through the gate and head down the sidewalk away from the student parking lot. This morning the lot had been full so I’d parked on the street a couple of blocks away.
The sun is warm and the sky is that perfect clear blue you only seem to get in the desert so I don’t mind the walk. Birds fill the air with their songs as they flutter from tree to tree. I pass a group of sparrows bathing in a roadside puddle, and as I watch them fluff and flap in the water, I begin to feel happy. In fact I’m grinning when I get to my can. I fish out my keys out.
Through the glass I spot a small dark pile of something on the car seat that was not there when I locked the door this morning. I lean closer and I am struck with disbelief as I gaze down at a…a dead bird? Through the window I can just make out its soft gray feathers, the thin, delicate feet, toes forever curled in the air.
I fumble with the keys. It takes several tries before I am able to pop the lock and tug the door open. Cold trickles to fill my belly as my eyes zero in on the dead bird. I see now that it’s a small dove. Blood spatters dot its head and neck, and as I watch, two flies compete for the space around its staring black eye. Poor, poor thing…
My eyes go to the windshield where tiny blood splatters on the glass tell the story of how it smashed itself to death trying to get out. Now throughout history the dove has represented peace and life renewed and as my eyes return to the small broken body on the seat I begin to think that I might be looking down at a really bad omen… And just how did it get in here anyway? My narrowed eyes go to the partially opened back window. As I gaze at the crack, I find it doubtful that a bird would for any reason squeeze itself through. I mean it’s not like there is anything in here that would have lured the poor creature in…So weird…so very weird…
I draw a deep breath and let the weirdness go as I turn my thoughts to cleaning up the mess. On the floor, I spy a discarded paper towel. I reach for it and carefully scoop the dead bird up just as the tune of a passing ice cream truck drifts to my ear.
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…
I back out of the car and am in the process of standing, holding the small body carefully as my legs flex and my back straightens. My chin comes up just as the last refrain of the song fills my ears… Life is but a dream….and BAM…the world around me flashes a brilliant white.
Blinded, I swoon and grab for the car door just as everything goes black. My hands flail out to find nothing but empty space. I pinwheel my arms as panic seizes me. The air leaves my lung in a whoosh as I feel it happening, coming at me in a rush, bearing down on me like a speeding train and I am powerless but to stand there and bear witness as a great rushing sound fills my ears and matter blows by me in a thousand pin-pricks of light.
This isn’t real. This isn’t real. Just ride it out. Get a grip. Just a few more seconds and it will be over. I close my eyes, draw a breath and attempt to calm myself. The panic releases its grip on me. I let it go and become aware of the fact that I feel incredibly light…weightless even. I take another breath and reality shifts as my awareness expands so that I am suddenly pointedly aware of everything. Then, the very next second, before I even have time to draw a breath, or even blink, the roaring sound in my ears stops and the world goes quiet.
It’s almost over. Another second and I will open my eyes…The moment passes, and another. Still nothing changes. I blink hard but the darkness doesn’t give. It only seems to tighten around me in the constricting way only claustrophobia can wrap its victim in, pressing down tight until all of the air is squeezed out of the lungs...I gasp. The sound is loud in my ears and I start. The realization clues me to the fact that I can hear. I push my awareness out to discover that I can feel the ground firm beneath my feet.
I flutter my eyelids trying to see anything but the darkness is complete. It presses in but this time instead of panicking, I move my attention to what I can register. I can hear. I grip on the realization as I draw another breath and I hear the air rush in through my nose. I cross my arms over me chest and realize I can feel the thumping of my heart and the skin of my forearms under my palms…and the air on my face and arms is neither hot nor cold... and there is no wind…the air is still…
Am I outside? I tilt my head to see that no stars wait above. There is only the darkness of a great void…except for the floor.... I move my attention to my surroundings and notice that a vague but pleasant scent of some warm spice like a mix of cinnamon and clove floats in the air.
My eyes begin to adjust to the low light until I can see that I am standing on a smooth floor in a room huge and open. A dark cavern or a cavernous room, I really can't tell which because it is just too dark …and it seems to be completely empty…but for the smooth floor.
I am wondering what I might do, what I should do, when far across the space, I register a small puddle of blue light in the darkness. I watch as the light grows to become a brilliant, iridescent indigo. It fills me with wonder. Slowly, carefully, I shuffle toward it, scooting my feet over a floor that is so smooth and flat, it encourages my feet to lift in larger, quicker steps as I press forward, eyes on a light that is not a puddle at all, but more of a glowing blue orb, or maybe a ball of blue fire? I watch in fascination as it seems to float freely, hovering in an empty expanse of darkness.
I take a quick step and the orb begins to pulse and as it does, the room flashes brighter, and it is a room. In the growing light I register large light-colored stone slabs that make up the floor and thick pillars standing in rows. Then the strangest thing happens. The orb gives a small bob right before it spews out a plume of dark smoke that shoots up to the vaulted ceiling. I’m watching, eyes wide, lips parted, as the plume of smoke falls gracefully to the floor where it gathers and thickens as it takes on details to become a smoky form of a giant man. I can’t tear my eyes from the metamorphosis, but can only watch as the smoke becomes mass, condensing into the form of a man standing…well not really standing, it’s more like he’s floating because his legs from the knee down have yet to form.
My eyes glide back up to his face and that’s when I am stunned by the sheer size of him because he is huge. At least ten, maybe eleven feet tall with a chest as broad as a whisky barrel. I shift my gaze from his smooth, expressionless face and closed eyes, to the four large wings blazing from his back. I drag them over his corded shoulders and muscled arms to the blue orb set in his chest. The orb flickers to the rhythm of my heart and I realize that it’s his heart I'm looking at…the pulse of an alien heartbeat.
The realization is startling and my heart flutters as I lift my eyes to see him fix narrowed, red fiery eyes on me, eyes that send a bolt of fear to knife through my chest. “Rachel!” His voice is an awful hiss, like the crackle of wood as it is consumed by fire. I cover my ears and cower, I can’t help it.
“Rachel-l-l,” he hisses again as he leans toward me, a giant focusing all of his attention on a tiny mouse. My heart flutters yet I cannot move. His gaze holds me paralyzed. I can only watch as his wing come down to slowly fold around us, a cocoon of white feathers that sets my skin to glow with the heat of him. He throws off heat like a furnace, like he is made of fire itself. I cringe back as he leans closer to smile down at me, a flash of large dangerous-looking teeth in a leer that fills me with fear so bright my knees buckle and I fall to the ground.
...Then I’m back on the street, kneeling on the asphalt, wedged in the open doorway of my car in a day bright with afternoon sun.
I blink and draw a sharp breath. The birds are singing, I catch the last notes of the ice-cream vender before his truck is out of range. I draw another breath and wait for a reaction but this time, there is no thrashing, no fit. Just me blinking up at the bright day while asphalt digs into my knees.
I sit back on the road and gasp. A tear slips from my eye and streaks down my cheek before I register the small movement in my hand. I glance down to find I am still clinging to the small body wrapped in the paper towel. I ease my fingers back as the towel begins to wriggle and when I open my hand, the dove lifts its head, eyes alert. It looks at me and I can't believe it. I'm just reacting when I lift my outstretch hands to the sky. Then the dove flies away in a flurry of beating wings.
I gaze shell-shocked after it….Strange, so very strange… My stomach pitches and begins to roll as I blink at the street. What just happened here?
I pull myself to my feet and turn to look in the open door. Was any of it real? The drops of blood that still dots the window and the seat prove that at least some of it was real. Maybe the poor thing was just stunned? I latch on to the notion and shake off the numbness that is threatening to blanket over me as I grasp at the reality all around. I white knuckle the door of the car. The black foam flexes under the pressure of my fingers. Beneath my feet I feel the solid street. I draw on my senses to fix my mind to this reality, the sun warm on my skin. The sound of a car racing by is enough to release me from the spell but my stomach is still rolling as I turn my thoughts to cleaning up the blood.
Behind the passenger seat on the floorboard is a discarded fast-food bag. I reach for it, eyes on the logo. I keep my car fairly clean and I can't remember the last time I picked up food at that chain. I wonder how long it’s been tucked there, waiting for this purpose. A peek in the bag reveals a stack of white napkins and I take them and wipe the seat and the window down as my mind drifts to going home.
I know that Mom is still at the shop and the house is empty…The fact makes me stall. Instead of getting in the car, I walk across the street and toss the garbage in a dumpster. I breathe deep and then I close my eyes and check in. I move my attention from the top of my heard down to my toes, looking for trouble but finding instead everything feels normal. My breath is even. My hands are steady. My muscles feel strong. I can’t detect any ache or weakness…Whatever I’d just experience doesn’t seem to have left a mark on me. The only thing I can rule out this time is that the odd experience was a dream because I know with utmost certainty that I was not asleep.
I get in the car but only sit there until the warming sun spurs action. I start the engine and as it comes to life, I realize I don’t want to go home. And that I absolutely do not want to go into the bookshop. I need some company but I also need anonymity. I decide to stop by the public library.
Yeah, I know I work at a bookstore what could I possibly need a library for? Well, right now I need it for normalcy and distraction but in truth the library is a fix for the book junky in me. I relish the free exposure to new and old titles.
I pull into the parking garage and park close to the library’s entrance. My jangling nerves begin to settle as I walk up the familiar path. Though I’ve been here a zillion times, the odd modern building still draws a curious glance. The curved roof is set at an angle so that it curls down sideways and the vaulted entry is composed completely of panels of glass. I push through the glass doors where rounded white-plaster walls reach up to a towering ceiling and the smell of dusty, old paper hits me washing the rest of the tension away as I divert my thoughts to the hunt.
I start in the new books area and right off find a new Holly Black, which I eagerly snatch up because I love her. In the YA section an interesting looking book titled The Girl with All the Gifts catches my eye. I pull it from the shelf and stack it on top of the Black and begin a pile.
I spot a girl ogling, Alden Bell's And the Reapers were the Angels and before I can stop myself, I start to tell her how good it was, “A lyrical zombie novel that's magical in its descriptions. I mean, it’s the extinction of mankind yet the world continues on and it is still a beautiful place.” My mind flits to the book I’d just finished another apocalyptic tale and I add, “Oh, and if you like it you should give Birdbox a try.”
She gives me an odd look so I snap my mouth shut and give her a tight smile afraid that I might have weirded her out. I turn to go, but before I round the table, I see her walk to a table and sit down with the copy.
At the circulation desk I see my good friend Ian and I stop to chat. Since elementary school, Ian and Patrick have been my closest friends. I mean I've had girlfriends too. But relationships with girls are just so much harder and have so much more drama. None of those friendships have come close to what I have with Patrick and Ian. All three of us are book geeks and horror fans. I don't mean those dead-teenager movies where some freak goes berserk. No, we love a good creature flick like The Babadook, Sinister, and It Follows. We also each share a fascination with everything paranormal. It was because of this tenacious interest, that our club, Ghost Hunters Go, was spawned. Yeah, I know, so we're nerds, but we have fun and our association has kept us happy, stable and grounded.
Ghost Hunters Go meets the third Friday of every month at the shop and we address everything about ghosts and ghost hunting. The boys so want to make contact with a ghost but I decided when we first started to play it really low-key so as to not freak them out. So far I really haven't had to tone anything down as our club meetings mostly consist of retelling tales, reviewing books and movies or talking about how awesome it would be to explore some far-off supposedly haunted location. The two times we did go out for an actual hunt, we snuck into a couple of small, local cemeteries after dark with our night vision camera, voice recorders and EMF detector but all we recorded were a few rabbits and the glowing eyes of a cat hiding under a bush. The only bleep the EMF detector emitted was from #51 in the entry. It was a solitary blip and we joked that the guys must be restless from being trampled on.
Ian smiles when he sees me. “Rachel, I was just thinking of you.”
I grin up at him. “You were?
Ian and Patrick and I went to school together until freshman year when Ian was shuffled off to Brophy, an all-boys prep school. Since then he sometimes feels left out of the loop. He gives me a long look. “Yeah, Patrick told me about what happened.”
The smile freezes on my face as his words conjure up the odd experience with the dove because it’s not what happened. It’s what’s happening. It has not ended. It is not over. I drop my eyes so he can’t see the effect his words have on me. “It was nothing. I'm fine.”
“He told me that too.” I glance back up and take in his warm smile. “Got any ideas for Ghost Hunters?”
The monthly club meets Friday night. If we didn't come up with some ideas soon, we'd be destined for another 'wouldn't it be cool?' conversation. I make a face and confess, “No. I was hoping you did.”
He tells me about a book he just read titled, Three Men Seeking Monsters, the misadventures of three British guys that’s now being made into a movie. Then he tells me about a haunted hotel that just opened for tours in Tucson.
I’m about to reply that while a haunted hotel investigation sounds intriguing, it’s certainly not something we can put together for Friday night when we both spot his supervisor, Mrs. Keenen, coming out of the back and our conversation grinds to a halt. “Text me any ideas,” I tell him.
He nods and I give him a quick squeeze and depart before Mrs. Keenen makes it to the desk.