I set out aimlessly, but soon realized that I was heading in the general direction of the crashed 747, out just beyond the Disney parking lot. Black smoke billowed into the air. I stumbled to a stop, trying to clear my wobbly head. I was still dizzy, and probably suffering from some kind of shock; definitely dazed and confused. I turned and looked back; I couldn’t make out Coach’s Lincoln. The “Angel” still loomed in the sky. My sense of time was seriously out of whack, but the sun was high in the sky, perhaps at its zenith—early afternoon, then. I turned back toward the column of smoke and began shambling forward, a latter-day Anti-Moses following the signs to the Promised Land we all deserved.
Among my other problems, I was barefoot. Soon, I had enough wits about me to realize that my feet were getting scorched as I wandered down the wide blacktop lanes from Goofy to Donald. I moved into the shade next to a big SUV and took a moment to reset my bearings, such as they were. In typical Disney fashion, the parking spots in this area were neatly filled in, with only the occasional gap created by early birds already gone for the day. Most of the scattered people in the lot had been standing at the ends of their lanes waiting for the next shuttle train. Some still were, gone tharn with shock, waiting for help that wasn’t ever going to come.
As I stood for several long moments in the shade of that SUV, I understood how they felt; there was a part of me that wanted the same thing. Stay put, do nothing, wait. Wrap myself in the numbing blanket of traumatic shock.
But only a small part. My mother used to say, “Let’s do something, even if it’s wrong.” I shook off the stasis and started toward the 747 again. Heading for another patch of vehicular shade, I saw an open driver’s door and the lifeless hulk of another body that had tumbled to the ground below.
I knelt down next to him; a big, middle-aged black guy, looking for all the world like he’d curled up in that odd spot for a little nap. I glanced up into the minivan. Plainly a family car, but Mom must have taken the kids away and joined one of the clusters of survivors that were forming along the tram path.
Dad here was wearing good, solid, leather sandals, the kind with the size imprinted on the bottom: 13. Perfect. I slipped them off of him, smiling a bit in spite of myself at his socks, one black, the other navy blue, both with that little gold seam across the toes. “I know,” I said quietly, “you’ve got another pair at home just like ’em.” I put the sandals on and adjusted the Velcro straps. As I stood I said, “Thanks, Mister. I mean it.”
Inside the van, on the floorboards in front of his seat was a wide-brimmed straw hat. I grabbed that as well; another perfect fit. I was about to walk away with these prizes when—for the umpteenth time—I had to grab and rewrap Coach’s blanket around my waist. My involuntary benefactor at my feet wore cargo shorts with a heavy trucker’s belt; I didn’t like the idea of raiding his person again, but I sure could use that belt.
It took some effort to wrestle it from his body, and by the time I was done, I was really starting to feel ghoulish. I had been considering trying to remove his shirt, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. But I didn’t mind helping myself to whatever I could find in the van.
A light-blue windbreaker, probably Mom’s, a bit small, but better than nothing. Half a bag of Doritos, which I ate immediately as I kept pilfering. A Triple-A map of greater LA, which I folded tight and slipped into my new jacket pocket. A pair of sunglasses. A flashlight, which was useless; clearly nothing electrical was going to function, so I abandoned it. Finally, the real jackpot: an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Swiss Army knife.
I was just backing out of the van doorway when a voice close behind me said, “Sir, what do you think you’re doing?”
He startled me. I swung swiftly around, the open knife still in my hand. It was a parking lot attendant, and I had just scared the bejeezus out of him. He backed up hard, shouting, “Whoa! Hold on!” Then he tripped over his own feet and slammed down roughly on his ass.
I folded the knife, slipped it into a jacket pocket, and held out both hands. The kid was already starting to crabwalk backwards, which matched pretty well with his backpedaling attitude: “It’s okay, mister, take what you want, none o’ my business—”
“Relax. I’m not gonna hurt you.” He was seventeen, maybe eighteen years old, a big, clumsy puppy of a kid with a seriously bad haircut. He stopped scuttling back; his eyes relaxed a bit, and I could see that he was trying to process the apparition that was me: Straw hat, mirror shades, shaggy blond hair and beard, a ladies’ jacket, complete with embroidered daisies on the pockets, a tartan blanket/kilt held up by a broad black belt, a pair of sandals, all stretched over my 6-foot-5 frame. Ridiculous.
I took off my sunglasses, then offered him a hand. He decided to take it, and stood up with my help. “What’s your name, son?” I asked, although I could see his nametag.
I offered my hand again. “I’m Graham.” We shook. He relaxed another notch or two. I decided against trying to explain my pilfering; the picture I represented had to be worth at least a thousand words. Besides, what could I say that would make my situation with Marcus any better?
So I made it about him: “What are you doing out here, Marcus?”
“Well, I, you know, show people where to park,” he said lamely. His hair was constantly falling over his forehead and across his eyes. He reminded me of George McFly from Back to the Future. I repressed a grin.
“Yeah, I know. But what are you doing now?”
His eyes got a little watery as the panic he’d been keeping at bay started coming back to him. “I dunno, sir. I don’t know.”
I couldn’t let him go this way. I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Listen to me, Marcus. You’re fine, right? Focus on that. I know you’re confused and you’re scared; so am I. So’s everybody. But you and me, we’re okay, aren’t we?”
I gestured with my head. “You know a plane just crashed, don’t you?” He nodded. “Then you know there are people over there that need help, right?” He nodded again, but his brow began to furl. “So how about you come with me, Marcus? See what we can do.”
He frowned. “I’m not supposed to leave my post,” he said quietly.
I resisted laughing out loud. Instead, I nodded. “I know.” I needed him to work it out.
“Except on breaks,” he said pitifully.
Now I smiled. “Okay. When was your last break?”
He looked at his useless watch. “I dunno. Hours ago.”
“Then I’d say you’re overdue. Come on, pal, let’s break on out of here.”
He managed a lopsided smile of his own. “Yes, sir,” he said.
We walked away with a purpose, passing within a loud shout of a cluster of parking lot refugees. One guy called out, “Where are you guys going?” although I would have thought it was obvious. I was about to answer when Marcus spoke up: “Out to the crashed plane,” he shouted. “To try and help.”
We walked on. The same guy hollered “Wait up!” and with a few words to his group, he and three others jogged after us. Two twenty-something couples; Scott and Lisa, Keith and Kellie. We made our introductions on the hoof. Keith, a lanky surfer-dude type, was the only one who saw fit to comment on my unique wardrobe: “Nice threads,” he said. “Very fashion forward.”
I started veering our route off to our right, planning to investigate the pyramid/shield effect sealing off the park. The two couples dropped back a few paces—I turned and saw them exchanging troubled glances. Marcus stayed with me at first, but soon protested. “Sir?” he said. “You don’t want to go anywhere near that thing.”
This surprised me. “Really? Why not?”
“We just can’t, that’s all. I tried already. A lot of us did. But we couldn’t.” Behind him, the others nodded agreement.
We were still getting closer to it. The low hum was more intense, if not exactly louder. Finally, Marcus fell back. I turned to him. “What?”
“We’re getting way too close. I can feel it in my guts. Last time, I threw up everything but my lungs. I ain’t goin’ through that again.”
“Fine. Don’t believe me. Go ahead on. You’ll see.”
“Look. I believe you. But I still have to check it out for myself.” I turned and walked slowly towards the pyramid.
From inside, at a distance, it had appeared nearly transparent, with a golden shimmer. Subjective time within had plainly accelerated many-fold; we had all seen the 747 suspended in mid-air. But here on the outside, the gold was opaque, with a weird over-sheen of purple, rippling with energy. As I got even closer, I realized that it was also darkly reflective, not unlike the mirror shades I was now sporting. The hum ramped up; I could indeed feel it in my bowels, like sub-woofers cranked up to eleven, but it was certainly bearable.
Then I came to the edge, the “event horizon” where the pyramid met the tarmac of the parking lot. Here two realities collided, and my brain didn’t know what to do with the data my eyes were providing. The last few inches of asphalt seemed to be moving, like the moiré effect you see when someone wears the wrong pinstripes on TV, or the strobing phase-shift of wheels appearing to turn in the opposite direction. Or one of those op art illusions where a static image seems to swirl on the page. All of those things; none of them. Another Angel paradox.
It was hypnotizing. My head began to throb. I turned to look along the border until it crossed through a parked car. It wasn’t crushed or damaged; it simply disappeared into the shield. I shuddered as I realized that some people may have been caught half-in, half-out of this terrible thing.
I stepped closer, close enough to reach out and touch. I extended my hand. About six inches from the surface I felt a searing cold on the palm of my hand, as if I’d just laid it on a block of dry ice. I wanted to pull it away, but instead I pushed forward.
Tiny bolts of lightning arced away from my fingertips. My hand was bathed in electricity, a cotton-candy swirl of St. Elmo’s fire. My vision blurred. The ball of fire seemed to expand. In it, I thought I saw a face. Gabriel’s? Then that familiar dismissive wave. The image collapsed into a brilliant flash, a thunderclap, and a mule-kick to my solar plexus.
I must have been knocked unconscious for a few seconds. Given my day so far, that was no big deal. I opened my eyes. I was effectively blind with the after-images of that flash, but I could just make out the silhouettes of five figures standing over me. I was flat on my back, the wind knocked completely out of me. In a few more seconds I’d be able to breathe, but I can’t say I was looking forward to it. Once my spasm-locked muscles let go of my ribs there was going to be hell to pay.
I still couldn’t see worth a damn. I wondered if this is what Saint Paul had felt like on the road to Damascus. Come to think of it, in light of current events, this may have been exactly what Paul had felt like.
Through the ringing in my ears, I could hear Marcus’s voice: “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?”
That jury was still out. I rolled up onto one elbow. Finally my ribs won the battle and my lungs opened up. I fell back again and looked up at my little crew, still fuzzy to my flash-blind eyes, standing there like mannequins. With my second breath I said, “Well, are you guys just going to stand there, or are you going to help me up?”
The four newcomers looked at each other, and made no move to help. Marcus stepped up and extended a hand, then practically yanked me to my feet. The sudden rise was too much—my stomach rebelled, and I was just able to break away and stagger a few steps before I threw up. Let me say this: if Paul of Tarsus had just scarfed down half a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos twenty minutes before his epiphany, the entire history of the Church might have been completely different. As my brother likes to say, yikes.
Still, now I felt better. I straightened up and tried to look around to get my bearings. My vision was still a bit iffy, but now I could see that the pyramid was a good ten yards away. That had been some mule-kick. I turned back to my new friends. I attempted a smile. “I’m okay,” I said feebly.
Marcus stepped up and handed me something. Turned out to be my sunglasses. I put them on. “Thanks,” I said. “This helps a lot.” Although, of course, it didn’t really. It would be at least another hour before my vision was back to normal.
Kellie stepped out of their little group, pulled a water bottle from her backpack and offered it to me. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then seemed to think better of it. I took the bottle, but before I could step away for a little rinse-and-spit, the other girl, Lisa, cleared her throat and spoke. “Damn, mister, that was… amazing. Who are you?”
That seemed to break this weird spell of silence between them; now they all tried to speak at once, none of them saying anything that made any sense. I held up my hand by way of saying, “hold on a minute,” and they all suddenly stopped. They were staring, three out of four of their mouths agape. I looked over to Marcus. “What?”
Marcus found his voice. “Your hand.”
I looked at the palm of my raised left hand, the same hand I had reached out to the pyramid. My entire palm, fingers and all, was a bright blood red. It looked raw and wet and altogether awful, but as I flexed my fingers it felt fine. It was just another weird after-effect, and would fade away as the day wore on, but obviously these kids saw it as some sort of stigmata. Again, yikes. I had to nip this in the bud. I turned my palm back toward them, wiggled my fingers a bit. “Know what this is?” I asked. They all shook their heads. I wiggled my fingers again. “A micro-wave.” They stared. “Get it? Micro. Wave.” They stared some more. “Come on, guys. It’s just a stupid flash-burn or something. Relax.”
Suddenly, mercifully, Marcus spoke. “Ha. Microwave. I get it. Good one, sir.”
“Graham,” I said. “Please. Call me Graham. All of you. And stop staring. You’re gonna give me a complex.” The girls chuckled half-heartedly. That was more like it. I finally stepped aside for that little rinse-and-spit I so desperately needed. I purposely dribbled a bit on my chin. I dabbed at my beard with my bright red hand, then looked up with an oh-shucks roll of my eyes. “Drinking problem,” I said. This time the guys chuckled a little.
I tried handing the water bottle back to Kellie, but she shook her head. “That’s okay, mister. Graham. You keep it.”
Now we were getting back to normal. “Wise choice,” I said wryly. “Listen, gang, thanks. Really. I mean, you warned me about this thing and I was too stubborn to listen. Thanks for hanging in there with me.” They muttered shy protests. “And, hey,” I added, “I learned my lesson. The next time we come across some giant glowing force-field situation, one of you guys can go and touch it, okay?” I had intended to say, “I promise I won’t go near the thing,” but as I was speaking, I knew I shouldn’t make any promises I didn’t intend to keep. What difference did it make? I didn’t know, but I knew I had every intention of trying a different approach to that pyramid, first chance I got.
The afternoon was turning cloudy. I turned around, scanning the sky for the towering angel. The clouds had apparently closed in over it. Good. I looked over at the smoke still pouring into the sky a few hundred yards away. The others followed my gaze. I nodded subtly at Marcus, trying to convey that he should lead the way. He seemed to pick up the cue. With a simple “Let’s go,” he started walking.
As we began, I spotted my straw hat on the ground a few yards off and I swerved over to pick it up. When I did, it fell apart in my hands, as dry and brittle as thousand-year-old paper. Soon the only thing left in my hand was the cloth chinstrap and the two little metal grommets that had threaded it through the brim. The rest of the hat had turned to dust. I bundled up the cord and slipped it my jacket pocket, then hurried to catch up with the others.