Read Strength Online

Authors: Angela B. Macala-Guajardo

Strength (4 page)

BOOK: Strength

Roxie started running. She didn’t know where she was going but found herself bolting along the shoreline towards an empty construction site barred off by caution tape waving in the breeze. She found it odd that there weren’t any construction machines present, even though she’d heard them beeping and revving last week. Still, she slowed so she could step over the yellow caution tape, then sped up as she moved around the few large dug-up pits. She knew legally she should have avoided the area, but her guilt was still too close. A straight line would be far faster than having to go half a mile to either side.

To her frustration Roxie realized she was going to have to take a roundabout route anyway. A limestone pit two hundred feet across and twenty feet deep impeded her path. She didn’t want to chance getting stuck when she found out the hard way she couldn’t leap deep pits in a single bound. She ran along the lip in hopes of taking the shortest possible detour, finding loose pockets of gravel here and there.

And then she lost her footing and fell onto her knees as her momentum carried her down and forward. She braced her hands to catch herself, but more rock fell away and she tumbled into the pit.

She landed with a heavy thud on her back on a slab of limestone, and a small landslide of dirt, rocks and pebbles scurried to join her as she absorbed the fall. Her head hurt a little and her shoulder blades ached as if she’d been slapped there. No severe pain anywhere.

She inhaled the earthy air as she looked up at the morning sky. It was still foggy with patches of blue showing here and there. Tears blurred her vision. She sat up and wiped them away, blaming them on all the dirt she’d kicked up. She hugged her knees to her chest, giving herself a minute to collect her thoughts before attempting to get out of this hole she was in.

Who was she and what did it mean to be an Aigis? No matter what, she had to find a new way to fit in. She’d go crazy if she didn’t. What had that drink done to her?

The ground shifting underneath startled Roxie to her feet. She made a dash for the pit walls and half the pit’s flooring gave out.

Down, down, down Roxie fell into the dark abyss, her stomach filling with butterflies and every limb taut. Her initial pencil dive twisted into a belly flop. She twisted so she was staring up at the hole, reaching vainly for the light.

Just great.
I’m going to fall to my death and no one is going to know where I went.
Roxie envisioned her body splattering like a watermelon once it found the rocky bottom. Even if anyone did find her, no one would know what to make of the pulpy mess.

The opening disappeared.
Am I dead, just like that
? She figured she was no longer in the hole, but she still felt like she was falling.

Something huge and warm caught her, and the falling sensation stopped. It felt like she was cradled in a giant hand, fingers adjusting their grip. She relaxed her body, letting the hand of God or Death, or whatever, bring her to justice for the harm she’d inflicted on Grandma. The hand had a mischievous, excited aura. Roxie wondered if this meant that she’d be judged negatively, even though it
been an accident. She wanted to wriggle free but fear of a harsher punishment for trying to run kept her still.

The hand lifted her into daylight, then set her on solid grassy ground. For some reason her place of punishment looked just like the shores of Lake Erie, complete with the hole-ridden construction site she’d died in.
Wait, maybe I’m a ghost.
But why a ghost?

The enormous hand attached to an equally gigantic body. The hand cast a shadow like a cloud on a breezy day as it retracted and set itself, fingers spread, on the thigh of a massive, kneeling leg that was easily three times as thick as Roxie’s height. Roxie traced up the arm across the torso that loomed over her like a skyscraper with a tattered shirt draped over it. Both giant hands rested on the giant’s thighs, his arms bent like a bulldog’s and ready to trap her if she tried to run. She looked in the face of this supreme being, unsure if she was ready to accept her judgment. He stared back at her with intense grey eyes. Hers went wide.

It was Daio.





Chapter 4




All the blood left Roxie’s face and her throat constricted. She held up her fists, knowing she had no chance of outrunning someone a hundred times taller than her. She felt like a mouse trapped by a lion.

“Well, look what I’ve caught,” Daio said, his voice booming, “a little runaway Aigis.” He slapped his hands on the ground a good fifty feet to either side of Roxie and brought his massive face within ten feet of hers. Morning fog swirled to reclaim the air where Daio’s head had just been.

Roxie could make out her skewed reflection in both slate-grey eyes, including specks of golden yellow that were her eyes.

“And quite the catch at that.”

“What do you want?” Roxie tried to sound authoritative, but she heard the strain in her voice.

“Oh, come on. It shouldn’t take much imagination to figure that out.” He brought his face closer, teeth bared, and Roxie punched him upside the nose. To her surprise Daio’s head jerked to the side and his eyes went wide. Both Aigis stood still a moment, absorbing the sheer force of the blow, then Daio’s face retreated a little. He touched one side. “Someone’s a lot stronger than they were yesterday. Kudos for catching me off guard.” He sniffed, which sounded like the deep hiss of hydraulics, then dropped to his elbows, his hands poised on either side of Roxie.

“Leave me alone!” Roxie’s voice came out in probably what sounded like a squeak to Daio, who laughed. His foul breath washed over her, making her eyes water. Roxie knew it was a ridiculous thing to say, but she wasn’t able to stop herself from saying those three words any more than she could stop her eyes from showing how terrified she was.

Daio clamped his hands around Roxie, leaving just her head and hands exposed. She accidentally punched herself in the jaw when her elbows were sandwiched against her chest. She flexed her jaw a couple times, then tilted her head back and let out a cry as the hands squeezed her. When she inhaled, maybe a mouthful of air made it back into her lungs. That wasn’t enough air. She needed more but she couldn’t get it. She pushed with every ounce of new strength, managing to make room for a full breath right before her arms gave out. Daio squeezed her and Roxie cried out a second time. At this rate her legs would snap, collarbone break in two and ribs shatter. She could feel her bones starting to splinter.

Roxie opened her mouth and bit down on a fold of flesh, desperate for air. Daio roared and let go, spilling her onto the ground. Roxie dropped to her hands and knees, then collapsed onto her back, her limbs lacking the blood to support her, and every bone searing with the pain of shin splints.

“You little bitch! You bit me!”

Daio kneeled over her, eyes glowing a molten red, and one hand clamped in the other. She flopped one arm across her chest, blood pounding back to where it belonged. Gulping in air, Roxie rolled onto her stomach and forced herself back to her hands and knees. She had to stand and fight.

Daio sucked on the skin between one massive thumb and forefinger, then came at her again with both hands. The fingers made a cage around her as she held one hand away with her feet and the other with her back and arms. Modest light came in between the gaps in the fingers, yet plenty came from above, and the air inside was warming. Roxie figured she could keep herself from getting crushed. Maybe.

One arm slipped on something slick and she almost lost her concentration. The wetness bore the same stench as Daio’s breath and she realized it was his saliva. “Ugh!”
At the same time the spit gave her an idea.

Roxie’s knees were drawing closer to her chest and at the same time her shoulders hunching toward them. She envisioned herself being folding in half like a taco and every muscle in her legs and back tearing from lack of flexibility. Roxie pushed harder with one leg and curled in the opposite shoulder, causing her to slide onto the film of saliva. Roxie pushed with the last of her might and slipped up and out of Daio’s grip. He tried to catch her again but misjudged and sent her flying through the air. Roxie landed in the limestone pit she’d fallen into earlier, right next to the hole. She rolled upright and scooted away from the hole, not wanting to count on Daio to save her again, even if he would.

A shadow passed over her and down rushed one giant hand. Roxie rolled out of its way, surged to her feet and decided now was a good time to find out if she could leap large pits in a single bound, or at least climb out. Pretending she was jumping for the rim of a basketball hoop, she crouched low. Her limbs and joints burnt and ached in protest as she took in a deep breath. She shot her arms upward and sprung into the air.

Roxie made it a little over halfway up, about ten feet, then held onto the granite wall with her hands and toes. There was an earthy crash right below her that caused the wall to vibrate. Roxie scrambled up the wall as fast as she could find purchase, but half the time chunks of rock broke in her grip. She heaved herself over the rim and log rolled away. Roxie sprung to her feet and started running, then almost fell as the ground vibrated again. Five semicircular gashes, each as wide as her torso, were carved into the rim of the pit. She found her balance and ran for the chain link fence a hundred yards ahead.

Daio backhanded Roxie and she sailed front-side first into the fence, then fell to the ground. She hurried to her feet, grabbed the fence in both hands and started tearing a portion off. Since there was no way she could outrun the span of a giant’s arm, she needed something to defend herself with. Daio plucked the segment of fencing out of her grip and chucked it aside, which was what she hoped he’d do. She ran to one of the bare iron poles and tore it out of the ground. A cylindrical block of cement came up with it, sending a cloud of dirt through the air. Roxie gripped the bare end and swung the cement end at Daio’s incoming hand. As she bashed the second knuckle joint, a finger jabbed her in the gut, which sent her sprawling onto her back. Daio let out a yelp and reached out to grab her. Roxie pulled the cement end to her, pointed the other end skyward, and held on tight. The raised end stabbed the giant hand, sending it recoiling.

“Okay, time to take away your new toy, kid.”

Daio made a horizontal swipe and Roxie held on, not wanting to give up her protection. The giant lifted both her and the pole in the air and started jiggling it. The jiggling felt more like going through tumble dry in a clothes dryer. She lost her grip and fell on her back with a wet thud in a bed of mud and weeds. A second later everything went dark and Roxie’s entire body went afire with pain. The light returned, Daio’s hand hovering over her, dripping muddy water.

Each breath hurt. Tears filled Roxie’s eyes. She gasped for breath as her brain absorbed the initial wave of pain. She wanted to just lie there and give into the agony and cry, however she didn’t want to die. She peeled one arm, then the other out of the mud, every movement just as painful as her breathing. Her legs stayed stuck so she pushed herself into a sitting position, the effort almost getting her arms re-stuck after she freed her head.

“Kid, I’m amazed at how much of a beating you can take and still get up,” Daio said. “You really are something. But still not enough.” He got to his feet and loomed over her like a skyscraper.

Roxie twisted, freeing one leg at the hip, followed by the other. On her hands and knees yet again, she went wide-eyed and her vision blurred as weight bore down on both patella. She dropped into the fetal position with a squelch and hugged her knees. Getting squashed like a bug must have torn every tendon in her knees.

“Uh oh, looks like someone’s down for good this time,” Daio said. “What a shame.”

Not wanting to give him the satisfaction of beating her, Roxie gritted her teeth and forced herself to her hands and knees, and then to her feet. Her ankles felt no better than her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she brushed them away, but couldn’t clear her vision.

“Shoulda stayed down, girlie. Now I can hit you again without feeling bad.” Gasping, Daio snapped his gaze to his right. Aerigo was running right at him. He reached for Daio’s near leg with both hands and grew to the height of Daio’s knee. Daio yanked his knee out of reach just in time. Aerigo lunged for him again and shot up to the height of Daio’s waist as he missed. Daio kneed Aerigo in the jaw, sending him backpedaling until he regained balance. The ground quaked under his footfalls.

“Looks like I’ve worn out my welcome,” Daio said. The ground vibrated as he jogged to Roxie. Smiling, he raised a booted foot behind him.

Roxie tried to run but the sticky mud and the pain in her limbs allowed her only two steps before something huge kicked her in the back and sent her flying out over Lake Erie. The lake and the sky took several turns in being below her until she hit the water shoulder first, sending her body into a series of cartwheels, and then totally underwater. She flailed and popped back to the surface, coughing and spitting water. She slipped back under, too tired and beaten to tread water. Roxie flailed again, but took in more water than air when she came back up. She knew how to swim yet lacked the strength to put her knowledge to use.

Roxie’s body rose with a swell of water, then plunged back under like an anchor after it passed. She reached for the surface, but the last of her strength had finally given out. Her lungs burned for air as she fought against her reflex to inhale.

A strong pair of normal-sized arms grabbed Roxie under the shoulders and hoisted her to the surface. Roxie gulped in air and feebly paddled her arms.

“I’ve got you,” Aerigo said. “Just relax.”

Roxie grabbed hold of the arm wrapped around her torso and rested her head against Aerigo’s neck. Next thing she realized they were gliding through the water as if they were tied to a motorboat cruising at medium speed. The strange thing was Aerigo had his legs fully extended and still. His free arm was stretched ahead, reaching for the shore a couple hundred yards away. They were trolling along way faster than humanly possible.
she surmised.

When they reached waist-deep water, Aerigo took Roxie in both arms. Roxie let out a cry and reached for her legs. “Aerigo, my knees! Put me down!”

“We need to get back to your house as quickly as possible. I have a healing balm in my pack.” He ran for the forest, his feet padding along the sand, then the tall grass superhumanly fast.

A healing balm sounded great. But facing her grandmother? Not so much. “Is she okay? I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

“I know. All she has is a headache. You surprised her more than anything.”

Guilt welled in her battered chest. “Your eyes are glowing red.” Was he angry with her for her carelessness and running off?

“I’m furious with Daio; not you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I shouldn’t have let him live last night.” They entered the forest and Aerigo sped along the path. The canopy flew by in a blur of greens, browns and splotches of light. Roxie shut her eyes so she wouldn’t get dizzy.

“You must’ve had a good reason to.”

Aerigo kept quiet a moment as he ran, then said, “We used to be friends. He’s not who he once was.”

Roxie wanted to know what happened but her body must have run out of adrenaline. The pain increased tenfold. She urged through clenched teeth for Aerigo to hurry, then started moaning. The longest and most excruciating minute of her life later, they reached the back porch. It felt like her knees were being held together only by her skin, and her whole body felt like Daio had stepped on her, instead of squashed her with his hand. Aerigo sidestepped inside and the screen door screeched shut behind them.

“Oh, my god! What happened?” Grandma said.

“Where’s your nearest shower tub?” Aerigo said.

“This way!”

Roxie recognized the path down the hall, and then the acoustics of the bathroom. She opened her eyes when she felt the ceramic tub touch her skin, then screamed once her full weight settled on it. She gasped for breath as she tried to find a way to take in air without it hurting. Every bone in her body had to be broken, or almost broken. She hugged her arms to her chest and raised her knees so her feet were flat in the tub.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Grandma said from the doorway.

Aerigo reentered the bathroom with a bottle full of a clear oil. “Rub this all over her.” He popped open the cap and squeezed a generous portion into Grandma’s hands. “Rox, I apologize. This is going to feel worse before it feels better.”

Before she could voice her question, she understood what Aerigo meant. The oil felt like it was burning her skin off. Roxie screamed again and started begging them to stop. The fire spread over one arm and leg, then the others, over her stomach and back and neck and face and hands and feet and hips and knees and ankles and elbows—everywhere. Roxie stopped her pleading and broke into sobs. She wished she’d never run off.

Roxie heard her grandmother sniff. She squinted open her eyes and discovered she wasn’t the only one crying. Then she noticed Aerigo’s eyes were aglow, strangely with a swirling of blue and red, the colors of sadness and anger. She’d never seen her eyes do that, nor been told they have. They glowed one color at a time; not two.

“Turn on the water and set it at room temperature,” Aerigo said.

Grandma turned the handle and water gushed over Roxie’s toes. Her heart started beating faster as she watched Aerigo pour more oil in the water. Thankfully, the water’s touch brought relief, instead of pain. Roxie tried stifling her sobs in hopes of encouraging her grandmother to stop crying as well.

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