Wednesday evening, 10:26 pm . . .
Ricky took us by Ms. Josephine’s shop so she could grab her passport and some clothes. He asked her—politely—to not bring any insects, arachnids, or snakes due to some obviously strict international flight standards prohibiting such cargo. Reluctantly, she agreed.
Now we’re waiting in the front lobby of a private airline company named, MillionAir, while he talks with the pilot—a cute girl named Amy—who usually handles Ricky’s family’s private jet. And by the way they are treating all of us, I’m pretty sure that ugly gross rich is probably the same thing as super wealthy.
They ask for all of our travel documents and all I have is my Texas Driver’s license—that I just got in the mail two days ago. When they asked about my passport, Ricky got somebody on his cell phone and handed it to the receptionist. She did a lot of nodding and said, “yes, sir,” about 15 times. My passport, they informed me, would be waiting at the private airport in Atlanta, Georgia when we arrive there in less than three hours.
So I guess we’re going to Atlanta, first.
About 20 minutes later, we are being driven out to a large hangar where a monster-sized plane is waiting. They refer to it as a G-5, and I don’t know what that stands for. Ricky says something about 47 million. I guess the G means something expensive.
This looks like something oil barons would have, I said as we made our way up the steps to the plane.
Ricky replies, “A plane should be like your second home in the sky. It should make you feel as if you’re in a lavish luxury suite.” And I know that he must have just read that in some brochure.
Anyway, Ms. Josephine and I, we’re almost in shock as we settle into the leather couch in the living room! This plane, it has a living room. My apartment barely has one of those. My apartment could fit twice in this plane.
Yeah, I think to myself. I’d much rather be depressed and feeling sorry for myself in a plane like this, than in my dumpy old apartment. Ricky’s right: rich people problems are much better than poor people problems. I’ve decided to make sure I’m rich at some point.
Amy—our captain—she has a wonderfully pleasant voice. She instructs us to relax, have a nice flight, and that we should be in Atlanta in a little over two hours. That’s depending on a low-pressure system that we may or may not have to fly around.
Oh, in case you’re wondering, I’ve got the Book of Sighs sandwiched between my white t-shirt and my stomach. I feel the need to be in close proximity with the book at all times.
As we taxi to the runway, I pull out the book and study the back cover. I’m not relaxed enough to be able to see the map that is supposed to be there, but I do see the squiggles, so that’s a good sign.
I don’t think I have a degenerative brain disease anymore.
As I feel the book on my body, I realize that there are no signs of advanced schizophrenia.
Most likely, there is no tumor. Never was.
All of this craziness, it’s real. It is happening. If I was a Rorschach Inkblot, people might see a butterfly, or a tree, or they might see a reincarnated saint.
My hands on the book, I lean back—the leather couch sinking in and hugging me . . . consuming me. I close my eyes as Ms. Josephine stares blankly out of her window. She’s probably thinking of her homeland of Haiti—a fact we learned when she gave Ricky her passport.
I look at her, and I’m glad she’s here with us. I feel safe and protected by her. As if evil can’t conquer us when she’s in our corner.
And she says, without turning away from the window, “. . . dere is evil out dere, much stronger dan me, child . . .”
But her words are lost on me as I fade. My eyes close and the picture I see is of a face. Kristen’s face. I miss her so bad it hurts. This is the part of love that they don’t advertise. The pain of separation. I feel kind of like what I imagine a drug junkie must experience when he can’t get his fix. I can still feel her lips on mine as I fade off into the darkness.
And we’re flying.
Thursday morning, 1:06 am . . .
I’m startled awake by the announcement that we’re landing in Atlanta in the next few minutes. Strangely, I don’t feel cold. Usually, after a trip across to the Deadside, I shiver for hours on end. But oddly, I feel quite warm. Hot, even.
Ricky is on a computer, on the Internet, looking-up maps of Damascus, Syria. He looks over at me as I shuffle and yawn. “Might as well go back to sleep, St. Jack. We’re going to refuel, get your papers, and haul ass to Madrid.” And then he turns back to his keyboard.
I glance over at Ms. Josephine, who seems to be staring at me through her half-open eyes. I wave to her, but she doesn’t respond.
“She’s asleep,” Ricky says, without looking back. I’m so predictable that he knows I’m waving at her without actually seeing me do it.
That’s kind of spooky, I tell him. Sleeping with your eyes open. How is that even possible?
He shrugs. I shrug. He types. I close my eyes, again.
I’m really tired. This destiny stuff will wear a guy out.
Thursday mid-morning, 10:46 am . . .
“Hola! We’re in Spain!” Ricky celebrates as he shakes me awake. He hands me a large envelope with tons of papers in it. I look at it, confused.
“Customs,” he tells me, “. . . they’ll usually do an inspection, ask you some questions and stuff. Just be polite and don’t mention anything about opening a doorway to Heaven, or saving the world. That might significantly delay our take-off.”
Ms. Josephine, she’s the real kind of awake now, shuffling through her large purse of curiosities. I cross my fingers that she didn’t bring anything creepy, and literally that second she smiles to herself, looks up at me, and then back into her bottomless purse.
Thursday afternoon, 2:39 pm . . .
Since we left Madrid, the three of us have been discussing the location of this hidden doorway in Damascus. We’ll be landing in the next few minutes and there’s a nervous energy swelling between us.
Ricky’s got several pages of maps printed out, thumbing through them as he talks. “The part of the city that we’re going to is very old. From what you’ve said, we’re going to be on the northern wall of the Muslim quarter.”
“What,” I asked as I chewed a bite of chicken breast, “does that mean?”
“Da old city,” Ms. Josephine said as she pointed to a printed page, “. . . it’s broken into four sections. Quarters. Christian and Muslim quarters are on top, and da Armenian and Jewish quarters are below. Where you describe the door, it’s between the north-eastern edge of da Christian quarter and da northern edge of da Muslim quarter.”
I’ve read about the Muslims and the Christians. I wondered, don’t they hate each other to death? Seems like a religious powder-keg. Looking at the map, I’m curious how these rival religious groups have somehow managed to exist in such close proximity, since the beginning of recorded history, when the rest of the world is blowing itself up?
What do these Syrians know that everybody else doesn’t?
“Tolerance,” Ricky said with a sigh. “They understand the need for religious and spiritual tolerance.” That Ricky, every now and then, he’ll surprise you.
“Along da northern wall,” Ms. Josephine said almost reverently, “. . . da doorway to da other side must reside. Somewhere between Herod’s Gate and the Damascus Gate. But I don’t know ’ow close we can get.”
We both turned to Ricky. He scratched his head, looking at maps of Damascus from every direction. “I pulled it up on Google Maps, but you only get an overhead, so it doesn’t help us, really. There’s a road that runs parallel. Sultan Suleiman. It’s not too far from our hotel.”
He did some figuring, a lot of squinting, some teeth grinding, and said, “We might be able to get close enough, in a private vehicle, to see it with binoculars. But remember . . . this is still a dangerous place.”
“Especially for Americans,” Ms. Josephine warned.
“I’m not just an American,” I told them. “I’m a reincarnated saint. I’m going to save all of our waiting souls.”
And both Ricky and Ms. Josephine look at me, about the same way a maniac holding a machine gun to my head would if I tried to explain that.
“Yeah,” Ricky mused, “. . . you tell al Qaeda that, see what kind of response you get. They’ll have your ass on Al Jazeera, denouncing democracy while some guys in masks salivate behind you.”
Ms. Josephine mentioned something about some bodyguards. Ricky nodded, “Yeah, I’ve got two Syrian military dudes that are going to be our private chauffeurs for the next couple of days.”
Then he turns to me, “How long is this saving the world thing going to take?”
I glance at the book, itself an individual on our team. I look over the pages of maps, at Ms. Josephine, and back to Ricky. Whether or not I should be, I’m confident.
I tell them, “All I have to do is open an invisible door, or whatever . . . not too difficult. The book is the key. I use the key and that’s that.” I shrugged. “Easy day.”
“Tings ain’t never as simple as dey seem,” Ms. Josephine said eerily. She could read a recipe for pecan pie and make it sound spooky.
“Maybe,” I propose to them, “we’ve already done all of the heavy lifting. We found the book. We translated it. I met the spooks. I met the ghost. I crossed over to the Land of Sorrows—several times, in fact. We chatted with the Deadsiders. They told us what has to happen. Now we just open the door.”
That didn’t seem to ease their tension.
Ricky glanced at his watch, “We’ll be on the ground soon. Let’s gather up all of our stuff and get ready to save the world.” And he says it like we’re just stopping off at a friend’s house to help him clean out a garage.
As we were getting our things together, finishing off a glass of Dr. Pepper, he nudges me, “Hey, you know the difference between a friend and a real friend?”
No, I shrug.
“Friends help you move.
Real friends help you move dead bodies.”
I don’t know, but I’m fairly certain that Ricky and Ms. Josephine are real friends.