Read Strength Online

Authors: Angela B. Macala-Guajardo

Strength (8 page)

BOOK: Strength
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Chapter 7

 

 

 

Aerigo and Roxie reached New York City without further adventure. It took two school buses half an hour to pick up where the Blue Eagle Express had to leave off. The first hitch revolved around everyone wanting to sit on the same bus as “Superman.” This caused a few arguments but solved itself by the immutable number of seats.

Aerigo and Roxie claimed a front seat in case they needed to act upon another delay caused by Daio. The tourists filed in right behind and next to them, everyone beaming at Aerigo as they shuffled by. Dozens of people asked to shake his hand, of which he humbly obliged. Rox, who’d been forced to sit on the outside again, cringed from their outstretched arms in front of her nose and wished everyone would just hurry up and sit down. She didn’t feel jealous, just annoyed. Several people even asked to get their picture taken with Aerigo and he told them “Later” in a voice that didn’t hold much promise.

Once both buses were full and their doors closed, Aerigo dropped back to sleep for the rest of the ride, encouraging his fellow passengers to look at something more engaging.

The second snag took place hours later: traffic. Rush hour, New York City traffic on a Monday evening. Miles of stop-and-go congestion, bored commuters, and angry people honking horns at other cars trying to squeeze into adjacent lanes. The majesty of the most famous city in America gradually engulfed them as the sun sank lower.

They made it to the Bronx by 6:30 PM. Roxie gently woke Aerigo and together they took their packs and hurried off the bus without giving anyone a chance to ask for a photo op. Several people called after them but Aerigo kept walking as if he hadn’t heard. Roxie followed him south and west along the streets, toward the Hudson River. The sunset twilight was muddied by the myriad street and window lights.

***

Roxie had been walking a couple of steps behind Aerigo, off to one side, with her backpack slung over one shoulder when someone bumped roughly into her and yanked off her pack.

He ran.

“Hey!” She stared in disbelief. No one had ever stolen from her before, much less right before her eyes. Aerigo caught the man, grabbed a swatch of his shirt, and lifted him off the ground with one hand. He brought the thief’s face close to his own, lit his eyes in a brilliant shade of red, and thumped the guy in the stomach. The thief’s wild eyes reflected the glow before passing out, and his head dropped forward.

Aerigo caught Roxie’s pack as it slipped free, then roughly deposited the thief against a cement building. “C’mon,” he said, handing over the pack.

Roxie stared at the unconscious man. She still couldn’t believe that someone had tried to steal from her, but Aerigo’s will to move on compelled her to follow. She strapped her backpack firmly over both shoulders, then jogged up to his side and made sure she stayed next to him, wanting to hold his hand. But was she supposed to feel grateful or embarrassed? She moved her feet a little quicker.

Aerigo glanced at her for one awkward second. “What?”

“I just… that thief…”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Roxie bowed her head and resumed plodding forward alongside him. If he wasn’t going to make a big deal about it, then neither would she. She just needed some time to stop feeling embarrassed about not handling the situation herself.

“Now what?”

“Huh?” Did she just accidentally speak her thoughts aloud?

“You just said my name, didn’t you?”

Roxie filed through her memory of the last five seconds. “No.” It came out more as a question than an answer. Was she suddenly not remembering what she did again, like with the food?

Aerigo looked away and froze, Roxie tensed as well. He cast a searching gaze at her. “You sure you didn’t hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Never mind.” He resumed walking.

What was that about?
Roxie mentally goaded her feet to move and caught up to Aerigo. That surely wasn’t nothing, but she decided it would be better to let it lie for now.

They traveled the rest of the way in silence, listening to the noise of cars, milling people and shoes slapping on pavement. Around eight at night they reached 12th Ave and West 55th Street: the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. Aerigo studied the port and they crossed 12th Ave to West 57th Street, a road abundant with towering hotels.

Roxie and Aerigo entered a hotel with glass doors. The floors were polished marble with a red carpet leading straight to the reception desk, also marble. The high walls were covered with paintings, and plants accented the area. The hotel had a rich, homey feel, and Roxie suddenly realized how tired she felt as they reached the reception desk. With the aid of Grandma’s credit card, she booked a two-bed room.

The receptionist slid the keycard across the counter. Aerigo pocketed it and headed for the elevators. Roxie trailed behind him, her legs feeling heavier with every stride.

Her eyes fought to close, and she felt like she might fall asleep while walking to the elevator. Aerigo pressed the ‘up’ button and a bell dinged as two brass doors slid open. She pushed the round button with the number eleven on it when they got on, and the doors closed. Vertigo seized her when the elevator jerked into motion. She teetered on one foot, her arms spread. Aerigo press one hand on a shoulder, and she found herself standing on two feet again.

Roxie swayed. She wasn’t ready to fall asleep, although her head was drooping. There was their room to see, things to think about, and a chance to watch some television.

When the elevator doors opened, Roxie mechanically followed Aerigo down the quiet hall. He swiped the keycard and led them inside. Roxie deposited her backpack next to the bed closest to the door and sat on the stiff mattress. The last thing she remembered was reaching for the television remote before passing out.

***

Aerigo maneuvered between the beds and laid Rox on her back, then placed her hands so they were folded on her stomach. She looked so young, so innocent and helpless.
And so much like her… A little taller though, but she’s not Druconican
.

Part of him wanted to get as far away from Rox as possible. Her appearance stirred horrible memories he badly wanted to forget, yet dogged his thoughts almost every day. At the same time, some of his most precious memories swirled in with the painful ones, and he found himself wanting to take Rox in his arms and hold on tight.

Aerigo dropped both packs on the floor, sat on the empty bed and unhinged five buckles on each boot. It was a relief to be taking them off for longer than to just change socks after so many days of wear. He washed his face into the bathroom, then returned to the bed and lay on his back, hands folded behind his head. He studied Rox, wishing she didn’t look just like Sandra. But no amount of wishing would change things. He’d deal with it later. He needed to focus on doing a better job of protecting her and get them to their next destination.

Aerigo’s sleep debt buried his roiling thoughts back down and he was asleep in minutes.

***

A ray of sun poked insistently at his eyelids, starting his brain into wake-up mode. He sat up and stretched the sleep out of his limbs, then glanced at Rox, who appeared to not have so much as twitched during the night. Aerigo showered and dressed, slung a backpack over each shoulder, plucked the sleeper off her bed and was out of the hotel before ten. The same receptionist was at the front desk when he returned the key and paid the bill. She looked askance at the sleeping girl in his arms, but didn’t say anything.

The morning was warm and humid. Rays of sunlight lanced between the tall buildings, and the air smelled of salt, oil and car exhaust. Vehicles congested the street like a bustling colony of mostly yellow ants, honking and revving engines with self-importance. Aerigo was amazed he hadn’t heard all this inside the hotel. To his right lay the Manhattan Cruise terminal, their ticket off Earth.

“Whoops!” exclaimed a familiar voice.

And to his left stood Daio, smirking.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

 

“I knew I was close, but not this close,” Daio said with a little laugh. “This city is so packed with people, it’s impossible to mentally pinpoint your location. It’s a little annoying.”

The port lay two blocks away. Enough distance to bolt for it, but not enough to find a proper hiding spot with Rox in his arms. Confronting Daio right there on the sidewalk didn’t appeal to him either.

“But it looks like luck is on my side today.” He gestured with his chin to the sleeping girl and grinned. “What did you do to tire her out? You dog, Aerigo.”

Eyes warming in response to his mounting anger, Aerigo widened his stance and glanced at a row of giant bows looming over a short glass building.

“We going on a ship again? What is with you and seafaring on this planet? Oh! Maybe it’s a honeymoon cruise you’re planning this time! You two seem to be starting off pretty well.”

“Just shut up.”

Hunching his shoulders, he looked away, then snapped upright and held up a finger. “I know! I’ll pick out a ship for you!” He started running for the port.

Aerigo kicked at Daio’s chest, connecting with nothing but air, then swung his other leg, which swished harmlessly over Daio. Aerigo executed an upward kick meant to shatter jaws, or at least wipe that mocking grin off Daio’s face. Daio lost his balance as he dodged backwards just in time. He fell just inside the curb, then rolled along the sidewalk and sprung to a fighting stance.

“Ha ha! I’ve got the upper hand this time! Feel free to put the girl down to make things easier for you.”

“And give you a chance to steal her?”

“Aw, you read my mind.” Daio kept smiling. “So whatcha gonna do? I know where you want to go next.”

Aerigo narrowed his eyes. Daio dropped into a lax fighting stance and bobbed on the balls of his feet. He threw a few swings but never put his weight into them. Aerigo dodged backwards and countered with fierce kicks to Daio’s chest and head, all of them slicing only the humid air. He was trying too hard to keep a firm yet painless grip on his living cargo.

“Just tell me which ship you’re boarding and I promise I won’t try to pull anything for the rest of the day.”

“When’s the last time I actually trusted you?”

Daio was still smiling, but his eyes glowed red and he dropped his fighting stance. He sidestepped to a parallel-parked car and kicked the rear bumper, sending the car into the air with as much effort as if he’d flicked a soccer ball over another player’s head. The car flipped upside-down and Aerigo caught the rear bumper with an outstretched hand as he draped Rox over his shoulder. Daio rounded the car and reached for Rox and Aerigo kicked him in the gut. Clutching his stomach, Daio fell onto the sidewalk like a sack of potatoes. Aerigo pushed the car and it dropped onto all four wheels with a suspension-ruining thud.

Daio pushed himself to his feet, grabbed an SUV three cars down and sent it flying into the busy streets.

Aerigo weaved through the moving traffic at superhuman speed, then hopped onto the back of a pickup truck, shrugged off both packs, pulled Rox into both arms and presented his back to the SUV. It felt like someone had just smacked him with a giant bat, but at least he’d saved anyone from getting crushed. The SUV dropped onto the rear of the pickup, rolled onto the hood of the car behind it, smashing it, then came to a rest, cradled between both vehicles.

Hefting his packs over both shoulders, Aerigo blocked out the stinging pain and rushed for another airborne car headed for an intersection. With Rox draped over a shoulder, he jumped and caught the car midair with his free limbs. Gravity pulled them into the busy intersection and traffic came upon them like bowling balls. Aerigo landed on his feet and dodged out of the swerving traffic as metal crunched, tires screeched, horns honked, and swearing and screaming filled the air. But no one got killed.

Aerigo ran at Daio, who was reaching for another car. Aerigo thrust out an arm and spread his fingers. “Sedal!” A sonic burst of air hit Daio. He went wide-eyed and still.

“Yyyouuu... ssssuh—ck...” Daio said, forcing the words out.

Aerigo checked Rox for injuries as he watched Daio painstakingly force his limbs from a reaching to a running posture. As much as Aerigo wanted to beat up Daio, it wouldn’t make a difference. “That hex should keep you out of trouble long enough.”

“Dooesnnnnn’t... Mmmah... terrrr...” he said, stretching his arms and one foot only inches closer. “Thiiisss... spelllll... iszzz... weeeak... hhheeerrre...”

It was true. Aerigo had learned the hex of slowing on another planet. Magic was at its most potent when used on its respective planet. On top of that, Earth was almost devoid of Crea. Instead of an hour, he’d bought himself maybe five minutes, although all he really needed was a one minute or two. Plenty of time, and plenty of people to blend in with. Aerigo began jogging for the Manhattan Cruise Terminal.

“Waaait... ffforrr... meeeeeee!”

Aerigo turned and jogged backwards as he waved good-bye.

“Iii... haaate... yyyouuu!”

He tilted into a run faster than the human eye could follow, leaving
very
many pedestrians staring in confusion at Daio, along with all the collateral.

Aerigo bolted among the labyrinth of cars and the throng of humans going in and out of the Manhattan Cruise Terminal, and slipped in unnoticed as a lady held a door open for an elderly couple. He slowed to a halt at the back of a wave of partitioned lines, then placed a hand on Roxie’s forehead. She was still passed out and unharmed. He whispered a spell that would deter any from noticing a girl in his arms, then read from an overhead list of cruise ships departing for the Bermuda Triangle that morning. Several of them had Bermuda on their list, but not the full name. Maybe that was how they referred to it here? That had to be it.

He took a blind step backwards and bumped into someone.

“Careful!” a man said.

“Sorry.” Aerigo turned around. The man looked to be in his late thirties. He gave the man no more notice until he turned around and looked right at Rox.

The man shrugged, hauled his suitcases a few steps, then stopped and shook his head, as if trying to clear his thoughts. He turned around again and squinted at Rox. His hazel eyes widened. “There
is
a girl in your arms!”

Aerigo turned, trying to shield Rox from view. “I couldn’t wake her.”

“Is she okay?”

“Just very tired,” Aerigo said carefully.

The man looked at Rox, then Aerigo, and then at the ship schedule. “Here. Follow me. The both of you need my help.” Baggage in tow, he lunged towards the glass doors leading to the docks.

“Why are you so willing to help?” This man didn’t feel like one of Nexus’s minions, but there was always the possibility. Yet maybe this man was Baku’s doing, the god’s own subtle way of helping him along.

“This isn’t the place to talk. We’re kind of pressed for time.”

Aerigo began to believe more in the latter. He followed the stranger, albeit with his guard up. His acquaintance headed off a man collecting boarding passes. The man pulled out a wallet and flashed an ID that made the pass collector go pale and exclaim, “Why, welcome aboard, sir! So sorry for the confusion.”

“Not a problem,” he said, stuffing his wallet back in the breast pocket of his button down palm tree shirt. “Those two are with me.” The man turned with his back to the pass collector and winked at Aerigo. “Up we go.”

They ascended the gangway and headed for the stern. A minute later a deep, baritone horn sounded and the ship disembarked.

***

Hmm, that’d be decent timing if that were Aerigo’s ship. Better hurry!
The slowing hex had worn off right before he’d heard the powerful note. His body lost the feeling of trying to move while still under the effects of sleep paralysis, and he almost tumbled headfirst into the pavement from the sudden ability to move. Daio slipped through the glass doors he’d seen Aerigo disappear through, around the many lines of people to the other side with aid of his own superhuman speed, and hooked a left along the quay, in the direction the note had originated. Several piers down, a huge white ship started backing out into the river. He could barely sense both Aigis’s presence on the ship, two little ants in a bustling hive.

Daio spotted a gangway leading three stories up towards the river. He thanked his luck as he ran up it unnoticed. At the summit he pivoted, aiming for the ship, and made a superhuman jump for the vessel. A stretch of water splayed out under him, and then he landed somersaulting on the lowest deck. The deck wasn’t that wide. Daio was abruptly cut off mid-somersault when he collided like a battering ram into a white metal wall. He sat clutching the top of his head, eyes squinted shut, teeth clenched, and let out low moans until the pain dulled. “This ship is a damn fortress!” His neck and spine felt stiff and sore from the impact, and they throbbed when he saw a dent the size of a grapefruit. He massaged the back of his neck as he stood.

“Hey, use the stairs next time if you want to get to one of the lower decks,” said a man.

“Huh?” A man uniformed in a white naval outfit frowned at him.

“I just saw you land in front of me. Use the stairs next time if you know what’s good for you.” The man stood erect with his hands clasped behind him, heels of his shiny shoes together and cap tilted to one side. He looked to be pushing forty.

“Aye aye, captain,” Daio said halfheartedly. He now had a headache and needed to find a good spot to lie down for a few minutes.

“I’m not the captain. Now get moving.”

Daio headed for the bow, hoping that Aerigo had chosen to hide near the stern. He couldn’t sense the other Aigis in the multitude of people any more. This meant that they were far enough apart to stay hidden from each other. The more distance the better.

Daio found several rows of plastic beach chairs and picked one near the middle. Many men and women were already working on their vacation tans. He took in the elevated view of Manhattan, an endless view of glass, metal, iron, and smog, then set the chair flat and plopped onto his back, a forearm shielding his eyes from sunlight.

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