The ride was tense and silent. Charlene insisted on driving even though she hadn’t slept and the sound of the road rolling away beneath the car was drowned out by the raging in the young woman’s head.
She had killed someone.
The man Jesse referred to as old Richard had terrified Charlene as much as anything ever had, and probably would have killed Cricket if she hadn’t interfered. She couldn’t stop picturing his horrible smile and those impossible teeth. His face was now imprinted in her mind as the personification of evil. He had been sent by Nash and probably had something to do with her dad’s death.
None of those things made Charlene feel better about having killed him. He was a human, just another man, and she had ended his life.
“If you need to sleep,” said Cricket after nearly an hour of silence, “I could drive for a while. I actually slept pretty well before they showed up.”
“I’m fine for now.”
“What’s the matter, girly?” came Jesse’s harsh voice from the back seat. “Having trouble with what you did back there?”
“Not as much trouble as I have with what you did. You’re sick.”
“You should just ignore her,” said Cricket softly. “When Nash gets his hands on a Lyric... well it’s almost impossible to get them away from him. He plants a thought, somehow, and it’s like poison.”
“Poison my ass!” shouted Jesse. “It’s the truth. Nash has been around longer than anyone knows. He speaks for Helios and Eos and Selene. We’re trying to open the world’s eyes!”
“You burnt that place to the ground,” replied Charlene through gritted teeth. “The manager... there were people there and you just killed them without a thought. How do you explain that, if you’ve been sent by some benevolent acolyte of the gods?”
“Every war has casualties, girl.” Charlene found Jesse’s eyes fixed on her from the rear-view mirror. Her stare was angry and scared as she spoke, “For every one of them we kill, three of our own die at their hands. We have to be strong and ruthless or it’ll be us in the fire.”
“Liar!” yelled Cricket, now turning around in her seat. “It’s you people that kill and destroy, we only defend ourselves.”
Still watching Jesse in the rear-view, Charlene saw the woman put on a bitter smile. “Is that so?” she asked. “Tell me, Charlene, since you met the old lady here, how many of Nash’s people have you seen die? Have you seen any of us kill a single person?”
The questions caught Charlene off guard. Again, old Richard’s face swam through her memory, then Jimmy Red’s. Other than her mother, Charlene had never seen anyone die before that boy came to her shop. She wanted to cry. She wanted things to go back to normal. She didn’t want to be special and she didn’t want to be involved in all of this. She and Mac had both already killed people, and she didn’t even fully understand what the fighting was about.
“It was only because we were defending ourselves,” said Cricket gently as she laid a hand on Charlene’s shoulder. “Nash sent these two after us, and the boy back at your shop. If we hadn’t done something they would have killed us.”
“We weren’t there to kill anyone,” said Jesse.
“You burnt that hotel... all those people,” said Charlene finally. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“There were no people,” said Jesse. “We rounded them up and stuck them in the room at the end of your building. They’re scared and tied up and crammed together, but they’re alive. Can’t say the same for old Richard, can we?”
“You attacked us!” yelled Cricket defensively. “Why should we believe that you removed people before you started those fires?”
“Did you see anyone? Don’t you think that someone would have run out of one of those buildings while everything was happening?”
“Not if you killed them!”
“SHUT UP!” yelled Charlene. It was all too much for her and the sounds of the women arguing no longer meant anything. It was just more background noise to stop her from being able to think. She looked back at Mac in her rear-view and found herself wishing that they could be alone. Talking with Mac always made things seem clearer.
She was tired and stressed and her heart had yet to slow, so she rolled her window down about halfway and lit a cigarette. The first drag was calming as it rolled through her mouth and down into her throat. She watched as the smoke danced from the end of her pill and then was pulled through the window, out into the night air.******
“I just need you to be there, in case they show up,” Nash spoke into the shiny black telephone. “If Jesse isn’t able to convince her, then you know that Cricket will bring her, and her golem, to you.”
The office was silent except for the light hum that came from the receiver against Nash’s ear. He stared at the empty chairs that sat across the desk as he listened. The light in the office was dim and only thin strips of blue were able to slip through the wooden blinds that hung from the large window. The thin man’s suit seemed to melt into the darkness of his black, leather chair, and his pale face stood out like a candle beneath his shadowy hairline.
He nodded, and then nodded again before speaking. “I’m not asking you to risk yourself. Answer her questions. Do what they ask of you. Just keep them there until I arrive.”
Silence again. Nash stood from his chair and walked to the window, dragging the long, curled cord with him. He spread two of the blinds with his fingers and peered outside as he listened to someone speaking from the other end of the line. The moonlight struck his black irises and they flared purple against his reflection in the window.
“Yes,” he said curtly as he released the blinds with a snap, and turned back to his desk. “It should be simple, and you will be well compensated as soon as I have dealt with Cricket.” His voice was cold as the corners of his lips turned up into a hateful grin.
“Fine, then. I’ll see you soon.” He placed the receiver gently back onto its cradle and pulled one of the small desk drawers open. From the drawer he pulled an icy, black pistol. It was thick and heavy looking, though it had a snub nose and it fit perfectly into his large hand. Nash weighed the gun, turned it over several times, and then slid it easily into the inside pocket of his perfectly tailored jacket.
His smile faded as he adjusted his tie and straightened his lapels. He ran a hand gently down from his collar to the pleats in his slacks, humming an old war tune, the kind that would normally be played by a mournful horn section, as he went. He slid the jacket’s gleaming buttons into their respective holes, and then patted his stomach until the jacket was perfectly flat.
He was still humming as he grabbed the soft, black fedora from its hook on the door and left the office.******
Other than the sounds of the fires dying down through the shattered window, the motel room was silent as Old Richard began to pull himself together. Anger stirred in the darkness as the broken creature on the floor used another of his devoured lives to bring himself back from the abyss. The nearly dried blood that pooled beneath his torn and broken face began to flood back from where it had been spilt. Old Richard’s milky white eyes filled with color once again and his skin stitched itself together.
Soon, it was finished. The man that was no longer broken lifted himself from the floor and looked around slowly. He sniffed at the air half a dozen times, seemed to find what he was searching for, and made his way out the door and into the burning night.
One life was spent, but there were half a dozen more just waiting to provide him with what he needed. They had planned to let the bystanders live, but that was before.
He opened the door to the hotel room and smiled as the faces of his meal stared back at him in silent horror.******
Rain poured hard and fast on the roof of the wooden cabin. The sound was steady and relaxing as Charlene sat before the hearth with her head rested on her father’s shoulder. The fire danced hypnotically and they didn’t speak. Charlene felt as if she had escaped something frightening and harsh, but the feeling didn’t make sense to her. Everything was so peaceful, what could be wrong?
Her neck felt sore from resting in the same place for so long, so she moved it from her dad’s shoulder on her left, to her right, where her dad was sitting. She laid her head on his shoulder and sighed happily.
“The tea is ready,” came her mother’s voice from the kitchen. Charlene watched as Bernice sat next to her and laid the tea tray on the floor, in front of the hearth.
Charlene took a cup and handed another to her father, “Thanks, mom,” they both said at the same time. They all laughed as they sipped tea from Bernice’s favorite china. “It’s so nice here,” said Charlene as she watched the sun setting on the horizon, sinking into the ocean like a pirate’s ship. She scooted and adjusted the towel that they were all sitting on. There was sand everywhere, but it didn’t matter. What else would you expect when you go to the beach?
“I wish we had thought to come here sooner,” said Charlene’s father.
“That’s alright,” she replied happily. “We’re here now.” The ocean pushed forward and back as they watched. The sound was mesmerizing as the waves crashed beneath the crooked skyline. “I miss you, though,” said Charlene for no apparent reason. Why would she say that? Thinking about it made her feel uncomfortable.
“Haha, well we miss you too,” her mother and father replied in unison. “Charlie.”
“You two are silly,” she said as the new city highway rolled away beneath them. The air was chilly as it rushed through the window, but she didn’t mind. It was refreshing and she loved to watch her mom’s bright red hair whipping around in the breeze. It was so alive, not like when her hair had turned gray and oily... Charlene didn’t know where the image came from, but she knew she didn’t like it.
“I can’t wait for you to see the shop,” said her dad happily. “I know you’re going to love it! CHARLIE.”
“I do love it,” she replied. “There’s no reason to yell, dad.”
“CHARLIE,” said her parents, again in unison. “CHARLIE.”
“Wow, you are being weird,” said Charlene as she took a sip of her mother’s tea. She looked into the fire raging in the hearth and was shocked to see a mouth open in the center of the flame.
“CHARLIE,” said the dancing fire. “Charlie, wake up.” The fire began dancing higher and wider until she could feel the entire house shake. It was frightening and oddly soothing at the same time.******
“Charlie!” shouted Cricket as she jerked the steering wheel from the young woman’s hands. “You fell asleep!”
Charlene took her foot off of the gas pedal and allowed Cricket to guide the car back onto the road before she stopped it. “I’m sorry,” she said, as the images from her dream began to quickly fade away. Her heart hurt as the pictures of her mother and father became less and less defined in her memory.
“What the hell is your problem?!” shouted Jesse from the back seat. “You almost killed us!”
“Shut it,” replied Cricket as she patted Charlene reassuringly on the leg. “It’s alright, hun. Maybe you should let me drive for a bit.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay,” answered Charlene. “I’m sorry everyone. I need to stretch my legs for a minute anyhow.”
“What about me?” asked Jesse. “Do I get to stretch my legs?”
Charlene smiled. It felt like she hadn’t done it in ages, and it felt good. “Sure. Mac will you help her out?” she asked as she and Cricket climbed out of the car.
The moon was barely visible, now, and the mountains to the east were rimmed with a golden orange light as the sun readied itself to rise. They found themselves in a valley, with no trees or homes or even other cars on the road around them. Charlene stretched on her toes, with her hands high above her head and the last of the night’s chill running across the small exposed portion around her navel, until it became hard to breathe. As she released her muscles she exhaled deeply and her vision blurred around the edges. Cricket was making similar motions on the opposite side of the car, while Mac was dragging Jesse out of the back and setting her on her feet.
“I have to get some sleep,” said Charlene as she looked around at the flat empty landscape. “I just need this day to end.”
“Well,” started Cricket, “if you let me drive, you can rest and I think I have an idea of a place we can stop.”
“I don’t want to stop. I just want to get to the Barings and get this over with as soon as possible,” said Charlene as she pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
“Can I have one of those?” asked Jesse awkwardly. Mac had her leaned against the car so that she wouldn’t fall in her bindings. She wriggled and shifted and bent her knees over and over. “I can’t properly stretch, I can’t move my hands and I need a damn cigarette. Please?”
“Sure,” answered Charlene kindly. She walked slowly around the auto with a smile as she relished her own freedom of movement. She pulled another pill from the nearly empty box and set it between Jesse’s lips. She then pressed the cherried end of her own cigarette against Jesse’s and waited as the bound woman inhaled and her own tobacco began to smolder.
“Thanks.” Jesse rested her head against the side of the car and closed her eyes as she took a deep pull from the pill.
“So where are you thinking of going? Why shouldn’t we just get this trip over with?” Charlene asked.
“I was just thinking that those two caught up with us pretty damn fast. I’m not sure if we can stay ahead of Nash and his people for long, but there’s a man that lives near here that might be able to help us.” Cricket slowly stretched one arm across her chest, and then the other. “If nothing else, I can contact Amelia.”
“Amelia. She’s like a high priest, a leader for us. She’s also the only one of us who really knows Nash.”
“Where is she?” asked Charlene. She was having a hard time concentrating, but knew that this new name could be very important. “How would you contact her from here?”
“Like I said, there’s a man that lives near here. He’s a Lyric, but he’s not really involved. He knows everyone, though, and he’ll help. For a price.”
Jesse suddenly fell into a coughing fit, hacking and wheezing and trying to keep the cigarette from falling from her lips. After a moment of watching, Mac helped her to stand up straight again and although her face was blotchy from lack of oxygen, she was smiling widely.
She coughed once more and then chuckled, “You’re talkin’ about Neil, aren’t you?” she asked before taking another drag from what was left of the cigarette still hanging from her mouth.
“Who’s Neil?” asked Charlene.
Cricket shot Jesse a filthy look before answering, “Neil is...”
“Haha, I knew it!” Jesse jumped in. “That old man won’t get in the middle of this, and you know it.”
“Who is he?!”
“Neil has been around for a long time,” answered Cricket. He’s got a pretty special talent, but he stays neutral.”
“And he ain’t gonna change that for you!” laughed Jesse.
“However,” continued Cricket with a poisonous slant in her voice, “he owes me a favor.”
“Bullshit.” Jesse straightened up as well as she could in her metal bonds and forced her stare towards Charlene. “Neil was a mercenary for hire. He’s not religious and he don’t care about the gods and their war... he don’t even believe any of it. He won’t help nobody anymore. Even for money.”
“I don’t want to waste anymore time,” Charlene said to Cricket. “If this guy won’t help us, there’s no reason for us to go to him.”
“He will, Charlie,” replied Cricket. “If nothing else, he’ll let us use his phone and give us a safe place to sleep for a while.”
“You’re livin’ in dreamland,” Jesse interjected. “Neil isn’t the kind of guy that’ll let you just walk up to his place and say hi.”
Charlene dropped the butt of her cigarette and stepped on it until the cherry was completely gone. “That’s enough.”
The sky was pink and flirty, just waiting for the sun to rise and tickle its few spattered clouds. Charlene guessed it was around five in the morning and she knew that she needed to sleep. She rubbed her eyes roughly and tried to shake the weariness away, without success.
“Fine, Cricket,” she said finally. “You can drive. Take me somewhere I can sleep. Is that alright with you, Mac?”
“With me?” he asked, looking up suddenly. The mechanical man had been using an oil stained rag to clean soot and dirt from his chassis. He hadn’t said a word since they had gotten out of the car and Charlene was amused that she seemed to have caught him off guard. “I know that you need to sleep, Charlie. Stopping seems like a wise choice.”
“That settles it, then,” said Cricket, obviously chipper about winning the argument with Jesse.
After much grunting and groaning from Jesse, Mac packed her back into the car and the group was loaded up and on the road once again. Before they were even up to speed Charlene was annoyed with Cricket’s driving. The older woman gripped the steering wheel too tightly, like she was afraid it would get away from her, and slowly roamed from one side of the road to the other, and back again. Charlene gritted her teeth as Cricket took the curves of the road either too widely or too tightly, and wished she could be asleep as the woman accelerated or used the brakes at random intervals. It was clear that whoever had taught Cricket to drive had not been as good a teacher as Charles Patrick Collins.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep with Cricket at the wheel, but when she was finally able to close her eyes without fearing for her life, it was his face that she thought of. She remembered her father, with his stubbled chin and checkered shirts, his musky cologne and black leather boots.
Always feeling distant from her mother, Charlene had wanted to be just like her daddy. She thought of her childhood, when she saved his broken and discarded tools and used them to put odd bits of metal together around gears and sprockets. Instead of dresses, Charlene always begged her parents to buy her coveralls and leather boots with thick black strings. Her dad would laugh as she tried to clean up oil spills and made even bigger messes on herself while her mother watched, nonplussed, from the doorway. It was always her and her father, with mom somewhere off to the side.
Then, one day, Charlene had her first period right in the middle of her dad’s workshop. She was scared to death and Charles just looked on like he was watching something die. “I called your mother,” was all he said as he paced back and forth, doing everything he could to avoid eye contact. Eventually, Bernice showed up, helped her with clean clothes and gave her a stiff talk about the cost of being a girl. Charlene just nodded the whole time and told her mom she was ready to get back to work.
And she did get back to work, but things weren’t the same. Her dad still smiled and laughed and told her he loved her just as frequently as always, but something was off. He didn’t pick her up anymore when he hugged her and he didn’t tickle her or put her to bed. The cost of being a girl. Charlene got used to it.
Then the Euros dropped a bomb on some island where people worshiped dragons and monkeys. Before anyone knew it, the king of the Euros was in a full on war and decided he wanted more land, and there was lots of land in the west to be taken. Charlene’s dad got drafted to defend Helios and the rest of the west coast from the Euro invading forces. Then she was left with only her mom.
Bernice was uptight and proper and had no idea how to handle a daughter that only wanted to play with machines. They lived together and ate together and, after a time, even learned how to talk together. But it wasn’t a close relationship, nothing at all like Charlene had had with her father. Even after she built Mac, Charlene missed her dad every day that he was gone on duty.
But that had been nothing to the way she felt now, knowing that he would not be returning this time. As the road hummed away peacefully beneath her, and Cricket hummed horribly next to her, she had to fight the urge to call out to daddy. She needed him more than ever, but just like that day when her first period arrived, something big had changed that was going to keep him away. This time for good.