Raven

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CHAPTER 2 – Searing Memories

Calm. Friend. Safe. More as reflex than strategizing, Matti struggled to fill her mind with feelings as her thoughts formed words to accompany them. I will not harm you. I am safe for you. You are safe. I will help you. I am your friend. I will protect you.

She had no idea what she was doing. But if she didn’t calm the animal that was here first, she would have to either fight it or go back into the furnace.

Wishing for more confidence, she projected more feelings of safety, calm and goodwill. I will make your feet better. I will make you safe. I will help you.

Fear … confusion … fear ….

The feelings of danger and warning that had swamped her at first evolved to hope and relief, but still edged with uncertainty, all overlaid with fear.

Fear … uncertainty … fear … hope … fear ….

Her confidence swelled, and she tried again. Come to me. I will help you. Come to me.

The frightening growl changed to a whine. The orange eyes blinked and swept from side to side as the animal looked out at the raging fire and back into the darkness.

Come to me. I am friend. Come to me.

The crouching shadow-shape began to inch forward, and the terrified animal whined again.

Hope … fear … hope. Protection?

The fear was still there, but hope was beginning to overshadow it. She had to build on that. Protection here. Come to me. Safety with me. Come to me.

The dog soon became clearly visible as Matti’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was dark, probably black.

And big! Oh, my God, how could I fight that? Can’t let it sense my fear. Turning her thoughts outward, she projected, Come to me. I will sooth your feet.

When the dog was close enough to touch, she could see it was probably a black Labrador retriever. She reached out her hand to just in front of its muzzle and the dog sniffed it. Gradually, the feelings she received increased with hope and lost all but a bare shadow of reluctance. Though diminished, the fear was still there.

She slowly pulled her hand back and at the same time projected, Come to me. Come closer. I will sooth your feet.

The dog crept forward on its belly and stopped before her, its muzzle resting on its forelegs.

“Good boy,” Matti said softly. “That’s a good boy.”

She continued to project thoughts of calmness and goodwill.

“You just lie there and relax. Huh? Okay? Here, let me see what your feet look like. Let me just ….”

Moving slowly, she lifted one of the paws enough to peer at the bottom side in the dim, flickering light. After confirming the other one was similarly injured, and assuming the back feet were probably burned, too, she edged back out to the little pool at the edge of the concrete floor. The heat was brutal, but she had to remain there for only a moment, just long enough to dip the strip of cloth torn from the bottom of her shirt.

The dog had not moved when she crawled back to its side. She continued to speak in a voice to echo her soothing thoughts while she squeezed little streams of water onto each of the dog’s feet.

“But, how did I get here? Did you call me? I would have missed this place if you hadn’t pulled me up short. I’d have just kept right on running until I …. ’Cause I …. My family –”

Her mind screamed. With a flinch of reflex and a blink of closing shutters, she dropped the too fresh memories like a searing-hot potato snatched and immediately dropped back into the embers at the edge of a campfire before fingertips – or a fragile psyche – had a chance to blister. Horrid events faded behind veils of shadow leaving only docile mind-pictures of disconnected but tolerable scenes.

As she ministered to it, the dog didn’t move except to raise its head from its legs and peer back at her when she bathed the back feet. Afterward, she sat beside the prone animal and gently stroked its quivering back and side.

The firestorm sucked air from beyond the hills at its perimeter, drawing it in a rush through canyons and valleys and creek beds. It quickly depleted any hole of oxygen as the voracious flames fed. If Matti’s hole had not been open to the river at the other end, she would have suffocated while she baked within moments of entering the tunnel. Instead, she and the dog merely suffered the dank odor of the buried creek and connecting storm drains as the air from the river rushed past her to spew from the tunnel and stoke the flames.

While the fire raged outside the dark refuge, Matti sagged to lie beside the dog. As weary as her tortured body was, it was her mind that threatened to collapse beyond retrieval. Turning her face away from the blazing light, her eyes closed, and, as veiling shadows eddied across her consciousness, she slid into the escape of dreamless sleep.

When Matti opened her eyes, the face of the dog was only inches away. She must have jerked, because the dog’s eyes popped open and peered into hers. Neither moved for a moment, then Matti picked up the shred of shirttail and crawled over to look out the tunnel entrance.

Waning daylight bathed the world just visible beyond a churning haze of brown smoke. The tangle of brush that had filled the creek bed was long since reduced to smoking, black skeletons standing amid drifts of ash, but flames still flickered in many of the trees beyond. The tops of the houses visible near the creek wore crowns of dancing flames, and the deep roar of conflagration in the receding distance told her the nightmare was not over.

After she sipped enough of the stagnate liquid from the palm of her hand to ease her parched throat – she was sure she recognized the muddy taste with the salty seasoning of settled ashes – she dipped the rag and sopped up brown water from the little pool. The dog raised his head when she scooted back beside him, then lowered it again when she began dribbling the soothing stuff onto his injured pads.

With the worst of her memories still filtered out, her terror seemed to be back into some semblance of control. But with her mind still emerging from the fog of sleep, she resisted delving back into pain. Instead, she focused her attention on caring for the frightened and hurting animal. Soothing him with a stream of softly spoken words as well as trickles of water, she began to mull over the puzzle of what led her there.

“So, what was it you did? And how? Or was it me? What did I do? Did I do something? I don’t remember doing anything but running. I sure didn’t know you were here. I didn’t even know here was here. I was just going blind. So, how did I hear your … your thoughts? Is that what I heard? Your thoughts … your feelings? And I think I saw what you saw – the fires coming down the creek …. Nah, no way. How could I have heard your thoughts? That’s like … what? Telepathy? Are you a telepath … or am I?”

With the fearful uncertainty of opening a box that she knew contained the worst horrors she could imagine, she allowed her thoughts to probe back into her nightmare – picturing and supposing.

Momma sitting at the kitchen table, nudging the yarn ball across the floor for Barnaby to chase. Dad, sitting beside Momma, laughed as the silly kitten pounced, then he looked out the window when –

It was like prodding at a fresh and bloody wound, one in which her very flesh had been ripped apart, and she recoiled at the sudden and searing mental pain. No, she can’t go there, not yet. Better to go back to before and work her way slowly up to the horrors.

She wondered how much time had passed since the ending of the world had begun. She could have sworn it had been days, even weeks. Those hours – it had to be many hours, at the very least – were all jumbled together in a montage of images that swirled around in kaleidoscopic confusion. She couldn’t even be sure which events followed others. But when she forced herself to think about it logically, about how far she could have run in this small town without running right out of it, she realized it had to be only a few hours from then to now; much less than even one hour at the time she had first scrambled into this hole.

Matti glanced at the watch on her wrist, a birthday gift from Uncle Joe, and realized that sometime since she had left the market she had smashed it against something hard enough to shatter the crystal and dent the face. Both hands were gone. She didn’t remember hitting anything, but there was so much she didn’t remember, shied away from remembering.

Wincing, she delved deeper.

She had been walking back home from the little corner grocery with a quart of buttermilk. Her dad had talked her into making one of her buttermilk cakes. He –

No! As though she had touched her hand to a hot coal, she flinched away from the fresh memories of Momma and Dad. They would have to come later, when the mental scab had at least begun to form.

… So, she had hitched a ride to the store with Uncle Adam. It hurt to think of him, too, but she didn’t know if he was alive or dead, not like – No! … He had visited her family almost every day of his leave. Today, when Adam started out the door, she recalled with a quivering lip, he called out, “See you later, Champion.”

That had been his nickname for her since the first time her dad had brought him home for the holidays. She was six at the time. Sometimes it seemed like just yesterday, other times it was like forever ago. The nickname referred, not to her various abilities, but to the spark plug that he claimed she reminded him of due to her boundless energy and fire. After he had been at the house for a couple of hours that first day, he pulled a boxed spark plug out of his pocket and showed it to her, pointing to the bold lettering on the side. He helped her to read it, to pronounce it by sounding out the letters. Then he said that was her. She smiled at that treasured but distant, therefore painless, memory.

With aching heart, she recalled running after him today as he was leaving, catching him as he got into his car and asked if he would drop her at the store, and he said sure, hop in. As always, she yakked the whole way about half a dozen different things. He always teased her that she must have very good lungs to be able to talk continuously without ever taking a breath. He said she was like a friend of his that played a trumpet in a symphony orchestra. Adam described one piece he played, a long, rapid fire number where it you couldn’t tell when he took even a quick breath, some nearly impossible technique he called circular breathing. He said she must have learned to talk with circular breathing.

The vivid memories of their last words, her telling him about a character in her story and him offering to give her a ride back home, echoed in her mind like the closing of a distant door. When she got out at the store, just before he drove away, he told her that he did like her – the character in Matti’s story. He said he thought she sounded great, sort of reminded him of someone he knew. Of course, he meant Matti. And then he drove away towards downtown where he probably –

No! Don’t go there, yet! Old memories – just stick to old memories.

She had grown up listening to her mom and dad telling stories about Adam. He and her dad were Navy SEALs together, and then her dad had taken a medical retirement after losing half of his left leg on a mission. Matti was eleven at the time, and she well remembered those days after he came home, of tiptoeing and whispering. They seemed to go on forever, and the nights filled with nightmares.

Adam and her dad had joined the navy some years apart, her dad being older by a decade. But when they met in the SEALs and discovered they were from the same small hometown in the coastal hills just an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, they became good friends. They often took leaves at the same time and got to know each other’s families. Adam’s dad lived on a ranchette just north of town, but his mother had been gone for years. After Matti’s dad had brought Adam home that first time, he and her family melded so well and so comfortably, she couldn’t remember what it was like without him.

Matti flinched at the sound of a loud explosion not far from the mouth of the tunnel, probably another propane tank on someone’s barbecue. The black Lab tensed but didn’t rise. After a few moments of her continued stroking and mumbling soothing sounds, as much to herself as to the dog, the quivering again diminished.

Matti let her mind drift back, once more, to the time just before her mind threatened to shatter.

After Adam had driven off and she started back home with her quart of buttermilk, the first flying saucer that looked more like a caroming, tailless stingray came sweeping over the oak-forested hills south of town, from the direction of San Francisco. Three or four more followed, and as each one swept over the town, it began to shoot.

Her first impression of the flying saucers had been how hokey they were, shooting ray-guns, flickering beams of light like a laser show. It was so old-fashioned, like the death-rays in those old movies from the sixties or seventies, or even before. It had taken several seconds to sink in that it wasn’t a movie. It was real. They really were shooting up her town, her neighborhood – her house!

Momma!

Gritting her teeth, now, to the pain, and fighting to contain her breaths to slow and deep intakes through her nose followed by slowly exhaling through her mouth, she recalled that once she started running for home, the fear swelled within her that she might be too late to help Momma or Dad or Jamal – no, her brother wasn’t there. He had left the house a couple of hours earlier.

The few blocks to her house seemed to take forever. Like in a sleeping nightmare when her legs wouldn’t move as fast as they should, and her steps weren’t as long as they should be, she seemed to never get any closer.

When she finally did arrive at the house, it and the houses on either side were spouting flames from every window, blazing like beach bonfires piled too high with driftwood. Other houses in the area were burning, but few were as fully engulfed as hers. It must have been one of the first to be hit. She screamed for it to stop, but it wouldn’t. She screamed, pleading for her other world to come back, a world in which she had known the security of love and laughter, but it whisked ever away from her like the swirls of smoke that choked her, and a conviction as demanding of heed as a falling mountain thundered that she would never see it again.

She remembered spinning around and back and forth until she saw one of the horrid things in the sky. It was coming back across the neighborhood and shooting as it darted about, and then took off back to the north and west toward downtown. She could still visualize how each time that beam flickered down, another house burst into flame, or a car would erupt in a fireball, or trees would suddenly turn into giant torches.

Tears streamed down both cheeks as she recalled spinning back toward her house and shouting and crying. She screamed names, and pleas, and demands, and finally, as she sank to her knees with her face buried in her hands, just gibberish because of a creeping numbness that robbed her of her tongue and lips. Momma and Dad and Barnaby were in there, and the heat was so intense she could get no closer than the sidewalk. She remembered, now, how the weight of the scene inside the house that her mind conjured up, of voracious flames feasting on everything dear to her, was so terrible it seemed to crush the breath from her body.

The dog suddenly yelped and tensed its legs beneath it, but it didn’t launch to its feet. Instead, it swung its head about to peer straight into her face, locking eyes with her as though seeking assurances that she could still be trusted. Guilt tweaked at her heart when she realized the relived nightmare had stoked her strokes over its back with too much energy. She resumed gently kneading the back of its neck and back and muttering soft words. After a brief pause, it began to relax again.

Easing herself back into the nightmare, she remembered she couldn’t catch her breath, no matter how hard she sucked in air. All she could do was scramble to her feet and run, running to find someplace she could breathe. The running must have done it because she hadn’t passed out, but she couldn’t stop running, either.

No matter where she ran, houses were burning, and those that burned started others burning, and trees, and cars, and it seemed her whole town was on fire. She thought she could recall falling to the ground several times when she tripped or ricocheted off something; that could account for the broken watch. She thought she remembered encountering other persons, but her recollections were so jumbled and confused she couldn’t be sure.

Matti lay beside the dog with her arms hugging it as she sobbed, burying her face in the black, sooty fur. It raised its head briefly and whined in answer but remained where it was.

Curling into a fetal position while clutching the dog like a security blanket, she slid, again, into dreamless sleep.

She had no way of knowing how many hours later she awoke, although it was dark outside. She sat up and looked around when she realized that the dog was gone. It wasn’t just relocated to a less crowded space in the tunnel; it was gone, somehow having eased out of her sleeping grasp without waking her. Either it had taken great care to not waken her, or she was nearly comatose…or perhaps it was simply used to being around sleeping children. Was that where the dog had gone, back to where the children, perhaps, still slept, or, more likely where they …. She had to make a deliberate detour away from pondering the fate of those children.

Back into her fetal position on the cool, concrete floor and facing away from the terrible world outside, she gazed into the blackness of the tunnel and looked back, once more, at the recent past.

Her brother, Jamal, was not at home. At fourteen, he and some friends had gone out earlier, maybe to a favorite neighborhood park to hang around and scheme how best to impress the giggling girls that always seemed to show up. He and Rafael, his best friend, tended to – suddenly, an image exploded in her mind, a memory of a face, and she couldn’t stop the playback.

Matti and Marisa had been like sisters since the third grade. Friendly competition between them gave more impetus than the entire remainder of the student body for each one to push to greater academic and athletic achievement. Marisa pounding at her heels drove Matti to set new Petaluma High records for both the four-forty hurdles and the one-kilometer run. The threat of Matti taking the win in floor gymnastics provided the incentive for Marisa to do it. While helping Marisa prepare for NCAA fencing competitions with challenging practice sessions, Matti’s own skill became almost as great. It was Marisa’s face that she now tried to force from her mind’s eye. But she was compelled to look, again and again, into her best friend’s eyes.

Over and over, the scenes of memory cascaded forth:

Running from her burning home, Matti is desperate to get to Marisa. Marisa lives only a couple of blocks away, but maybe the fires aren’t there. Maybe Marisa can tell her what to do to help Momma and Dad. Maybe Marisa can protect her. She frantically runs to Marisa’s house, but the fires are there, too.

Marisa’s house is burning, flames shooting from every window. But Marisa is outside, lying on the front lawn, and her hand is reaching out for Matti, clenching, grasping. Matti cries out with relief when she sees her more-than-sister and runs to her.

When she draws closer, though, she sees that Marisa is hurt, bleeding where a large piece of twisted metal protrudes from her chest, possibly a piece of an exploding car or propane tank. It’s been driven into Marisa’s chest like some misshapen, grotesque dagger, and it’s killing her. Matti kneels beside her and cries her name, and Marisa looks up at her. Blood foams from her mouth as she says something, but her words are lost in all the noise around them. Matti cries over and over for her to say it again, or to say something else because if she is still talking, she is still alive. But, even as she pleads, she watches Marisa’s eyes go slack. They don’t close. They just become soulless, doll’s eyes, and Matti knows her best friend forever is gone, never again to share a secret laugh or to strive with her for excellence.

The hard, concrete floor of the tunnel numbed her side, and the darkness of the void before her offered scant comfort. No matter how hard Matti’s hands pressed her temples, that horrible, final scene played over and over. And it always ended the same with Matti screaming into the smoke-churned sky.

Matti couldn’t remember leaving Marisa’s side. The next thing she could remember were impressions of cool, soothing darkness invading her thoughts as she ran amid the flames.

The memory of Marisa’s dying roiled with her last images of Momma and Dad and Jamal and Uncle Adam, and she curled up into a tight ball on the concrete. With her eyes clinched against flickering reflections of orange light that still bathed the world beyond the tunnel, and with her mind tighter yet against thoughts of the unwelcoming world that awaited her if this horrendous night ever ended, she welcomed the black pit of oblivion into which she slid.

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