Authors: L. A. Weatherly
Tags: #General, #Fiction
I could see it in my mind: the slightly battered counter where Alex and I had checked in the night before, both of us so tired we were reeling. It had been covered by a sheet of glass, with a motel map on display underneath it. There’d been an old-fashioned bell too, the kind with a little button on top for guests to ring for attention. The inane details beat through my head, feeling dark and ominous. I had to go there.
Concern came over Alex’s face. “Willow? What is it?”
“I’m fine, I just...need to go check something,” I got out.
I could see him start to protest at the thought of me leaving the motel room; then he realized what I meant. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Be careful.”
I nodded. And taking a deep breath, I went within, reaching for my angel.
She was there, waiting – a radiant winged version of myself; the halo-less angel who was part of me. Her wings were folded gracefully behind her back, and I saw that
hair was short too now, framing her serene face. My shoulders relaxed a little. Just being near her was a caress.
With a mental flick, I shifted my consciousness to hers and lifted out of my human form. My angel wings stretched wide; I passed through the motel roof with a shimmer, soaring up into the Colorado late afternoon.
Even at a time like this, it gave me a stir of pleasure. I was still getting to know my angel self; for most of my life, I hadn’t even known she was there.
The chill of November stroked my wings as I flew to the reception building. Another brief ripple as I glided through the wall – and then I saw the clerk from the night before, talking on the phone with one elbow propped on the front desk. He was staring at a TV that was on in the corner of the lobby.
On the screen, my school photo smiled back at him.
“Well, I couldn’t say for certain, but...yeah, I’m pretty damn sure,” he said. “They got in about ten last night, looking dead to the world; then this morning they asked the manager to have the room for another night. They’re still in there now. Been there all day, as far as I know.”
Fear clutched my throat. At least he didn’t realize Alex had left for a while, to go buy the hair dye and scissors. I swooped down and landed; under my ethereal feet the carpet felt strange, insubstantial. Back in the motel room my human form still sat on the bed, with Alex’s fingers linked tightly through mine.
“They’re supposed to come down and pay for the extra night soon; you want I should hold them for you? Oh, okay...yeah, I see...”
Behind the desk, another clerk stood waiting with wide eyes. When the man hung up the phone, she said, “Well?”
“She said not to go near them; they’re sending someone right out. There’s a squad car coming now – it’s just a few blocks away.” He shook his head. “Man, wouldn’t it be wild if it
them? Dangerous fugitives, holed up in a sleepy little place like Trinidad—”
I didn’t hear the rest; I was already speeding back to our room in a flurry of wings. I found my human self again; merged. My eyes flew open. “The desk clerk from last night – he’s recognized us,” I burst out. “The police are on their way.”
Alex swore as he lunged off the bed. “Okay, forget staying – we’ve got to get out of here,
.” He undid his jeans to strap on his holster and pistol under his waistband; when they were securely hidden, he ducked into the bathroom and grabbed up the eye pencil and hair dye stuff, shoving it all in the shopping bag it had come in, along with the long strands of my hair that had fallen to the floor. He swiped a motel washcloth over all the surfaces, removing any sign of the dye, and stuffed that in the bag too.
Trying to stay calm, I fumbled for the black pumps that were the only shoes I had now. Then I heard what was being said on TV, and glanced up. My hands slowed and stilled.
“...a dramatic new development which has just been released from law enforcement officials in Pawntucket, New York. This was the scene last night on Nesbit Street, at the former home of suspected terrorist Willow Fields...”
Aunt Jo’s house appeared on the screen. I heard a ragged gasp; realized from someplace far away it had come from me. I sat frozen, my mind unable to process what I was seeing.
The house where I had lived since I was nine years old was in flames.
There was no doubt, even with the trembling footage that looked like someone had taken it on their cellphone – it was Aunt Jo’s run-down Victorian home, crackling and crumbling to the ground. Even the garden ornaments in the front yard were ablaze. I could just make out one of the gnomes, standing enveloped in flames like a weird fire spirit.
The picture changed to blackened ruins, with firemen picking through them. The entire second storey of the house was gone, with only dark, skeletal fingers sticking up here and there. I stared at a smudged piece of lavender wall. My bedroom.
“...cause unknown, though local police suspect vigilantes from the Church of Angels might be behind the blaze. Early reports indicate there were no survivors. The bodies of two women have been found in the ruins, thought to be Miranda and Joanna Fields, the mother and aunt of Willow Fields...”
On the TV screen were two body bags on stretchers, being carried out from the house’s charred remains.
STARTED TO SHAKE AS
the world thudded in my ears. On the screen one of the firemen slipped on the rubble; I stared wordlessly as the too-human-shaped bag shifted on the stretcher.
“Willow!” Alex was crouching in front of me, his voice almost harsh as he gripped my shoulders. “I’m sorry, but if we don’t get the hell out of here, it’ll be us next. Come
Somehow I managed to nod. I couldn’t breathe; my entire body felt crushed by the weight of what I’d just seen. Mom.
. I got up and took the small photo of myself with the willow tree from where I’d placed it on the bedside table, shoving it numbly in my jeans pocket. It was all I had left from my old life now. Alex kept the TV on as he edged the door open, peering out. “It’s clear,” he whispered, half-turning and holding out his hand to me. “Don’t look like we’re in a hurry. But be ready to run.”
No survivors, no survivors.
The words beat through my skull as we walked to the parking lot, holding hands. The only people in sight were a couple unloading their things from a car; neither of them looked at us. As we reached the motorcycle, Alex handed me the helmet and shoved the plastic bag in the storage compartment. My fingers felt thick and clumsy as I worked the helmet’s straps.
A police car was just coming down the street as we roared off in the other direction. I hardly noticed. I clung tightly to Alex; over and over, I kept seeing the two body bags. Had Mom come out of her dream world before it happened? Had she known what was going on? Oh please, no. The thought of her being scared and trapped, unable to get away, hurt so much I thought it might kill me. I huddled against Alex’s back as the cold mountain air rushed past, keeping my eyes closed and trying not to throw up.
I’m not sure how much time passed; it could have been minutes or hours. But sometime later, once we’d crossed the state line into New Mexico, Alex turned off the highway and into a small town. When we came to a service station, he pulled in and parked the bike out of sight behind it. My legs felt stiff and unreal as I climbed off, as if I were a zombie just crawled from the grave.
Alex’s face was tight with sympathy as he put his arm around my shoulders. “Come on, we’ve got to talk,” he said. He steered me into the restroom.
Talk. The word seemed alien; I found myself turning it over for different possible meanings. I stood hugging myself as he locked the door behind us. Somewhere deep within, I could feel the tears waiting like a tidal wave. If I gave into them, they’d sweep me away, drown me for ever.
Alex’s hair was ruffled from the wind as he turned to me; his hands gripped mine, feeling warm and strong. “Willow, listen,” he said urgently. “The more I think about it, the more this doesn’t make sense. I mean, yeah, the Church of Angels might want your mother dead, but why would they target your aunt, too? Everyone in Pawntucket knew that the two of you didn’t get along, right?”
I shook my head, too shell-shocked to get where he was going with this. He was right, though. It was a small town, and Aunt Jo wasn’t the type to keep her complaints to herself. Everybody had known how put-upon she felt having to support the two of us, even with the money I sometimes brought in from my psychic readings.
“Plus, your aunt believed what the Church said about you running off with a secret boyfriend, so why have her killed?” Alex went on. “It helps their story if she’s around. And if the target was your mother, it would make more sense to just stick her in a home somewhere and then quietly get rid of her. You don’t do away with people by burning their house down – there’s too many ways it could go wrong.”
A headache spiked my temples; I could hardly take in the meaning of his words. “Alex, what are you saying?”
He hesitated, his hands still holding mine. Finally he said, “This may sound weird, but can you try to sense your mother?”
The realization thundered through me. “You...you don’t think they’re really dead.”
I could see the conflict in his eyes: his reluctance to get my hopes up versus whatever he was thinking. “I don’t know,” he said. “But this doesn’t feel right. The house burning down that way just seems too convenient, somehow. Almost like something you’d do for show.”
I swallowed hard, barely daring to hope. “It could have been a – an unruly mob, though. People
burn places down sometimes. And people die because of it.”
“Yeah, they do. Look, I could be totally wrong. But just try it, okay? Try to sense them.”
I almost didn’t want to try; didn’t want to allow myself even this small amount of hope, only to be disappointed. I took a deep, shuddering breath, attempting to clear my mind enough to focus.
I envisioned her soft blonde hair, so like my own natural shade; her green eyes that used to sparkle with recognition when they saw me. The smell of her, which wasn’t shampoo and wasn’t body lotion but a mixture of both, plus something else that was just
my mother – a smell that when I was little I wanted to curl up in for ever. Even later, when she’d stopped responding to anyone at all, I’d still sit close to her sometimes as she sat lost in her dreams, breathing in that scent and wishing for things to be different.
It didn’t take long for Mom to be firmly in my head; she was never far from my thoughts. I stretched my mind out, drifting, searching. Was she out there, anywhere? Please?
Endless minutes went past. I stood against the cool porcelain sink with my eyes closed, trying not to force things, despite the thudding of my heart – the tiny agony of hope that had sprung up within me. Don’t push, just relax...drift...
Mom, are you there?
Nothing. Darkness. My throat tightened as the hope flickered and died.
And then, somewhere in the emptiness, I thought I caught something – the faintest hint of a presence. I reached out, exploring it cautiously...and in a rush, a wild jumble of sensation swept over me. Mom’s smell; her voice; her
She was content. She was safe.
“Alex, she’s alive, she’s okay!” I cried. “I can feel her!” I flung myself at him, hugging him hard; he caught me up, laughing, and lifted me briefly off the floor. At first I thought I was laughing too, but then I realized the tears had come after all – that now, when everything was all right, something in me had snapped like a frayed rubber band and I was crying as if I’d never be able to stop.
Alex’s arms tightened around me. “It’s okay,” he whispered, his lips moving in my hair as he rocked me. “Shh, it’s all right, everything’s okay...”
I tried to answer and couldn’t. I’d thought she was dead. Oh god, I had really thought my mother was dead. Distantly, I felt Alex pick me up and sink to the cracked tiled floor, his arms still firm around me. He didn’t say anything else; just held me close and let me cry, stroking my back and occasionally kissing the top of my head.
Finally something resembling calm started to return. I pulled away, swiping at my damp cheeks. “How did you know?” I asked shakily. “How?”
He brushed a strand of hair from my temple. I could see the depth of his relief. “I didn’t – I just really, really hoped I was right. Is your Aunt Jo okay, too?”
Shame scorched me like a flame-thrower; I’d forgotten all about her. But when I checked, she was fine. Actually, better than fine – she seemed happier than I’d ever sensed her. I let out a breath. Aunt Jo and I had lived in the same run-down, full-of-clutter house for years without becoming close – in fact, there’d been times when I hated her – but knowing she was all right made me go limp all over again.
I felt battered as we stood up, as if I’d been pummelled by a hundred fists. I reached into the cubicle for some toilet paper to mop my face. “So was the fire just a cover, then? Someone must
want the world to believe that Mom and Aunt Jo are dead.”