“Wake up, sleepyhead!”
I awoke to the shouting and kicking of my bed. It moved a bit with each kick. I felt damp and cold. I opened my eyes. Dad was soaking wet.
“Why are you wet?”
“Took a shower.”
“Did you bother drying off?”
“All the towels were wet. Look around. You’ll see why.”
I sat up in the bed which, I realized, was sopping. The motel room was virtually nonexistent. The roof and most of the walls were missing. The wall housing the door and the picture window looking out onto the parking lot was still there. The four walls housing the bathroom, amazingly, still stood as well. Maybe that was what they meant by “stormproofed” for our protection.
“You should shower up too. The van’s starting to smell weird.”
“It smelled weird when we found it.”
“Anyway, you should think about showering.”
“Okay okay. Just... let me get my bearings.”
The flame sat on the nightstand, blazing away. It rested atop the laminated history of Truculent (sic?), unharmed also. Now I guess I knew why they bothered laminating it. I slid out of bed and looked around.
Dad took a deep breath.
“They’ve been predicting the big one for years. I guess it finally happened.”
Looking out over the town I saw a bunch of buildings that looked like crooked, whittled down teeth and a lot of rubble. In other words, it looked even worse than when we had first entered the town. People picked through the rubble, looking for personal belongings and, maybe, loved ones. None of them looked the least bit surprised or unhappy. This was part of their day played out on a massive scale.
“Jeez,” I said.
“Jeez is right,” Dad said.
“You’ve been here before?”
“A long time ago.”
“When you tried to find grandfather?”
He nodded his head.
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
“Hard to say. From what he said, the Nefarions never died. They could be killed. Usually by a storm or during a rite of passage...”
“A rite of passage?”
“Sure. Aside from the typically stupid rites of passage most adolescents undergo, the Nefarions also have to sail out upon the Malefic Ocean, using only a leaf from one of their gargantuan palm trees, and stay afloat for two weeks. A lot of them end up dying this way but, for those who return, he has his pick of the village girls. Unfortunately, this virtual rape is their, the girls’, rite of passage. Not many of them die this way but some are undoubtedly traumatized for life. Anyway, if left to their own bodies, aside from outside influences or acts of God, your average Nefarion will live forever. Or, at least, what we think of as forever. It may be only a few years in their time. So, I guess we’ll find out if their immortality is genetic or environmental. I would say if it’s genetic then your grandfather is most probably dead. If it’s environmental... well, your grandfather would probably have done something to get himself killed by this point anyway.”
“You’re probably right. Guess I’ll go shower now.”
I sloshed through the wet carpet on my way to the shower. I didn’t really see how this was going to make me feel any cleaner. Taking off my wet and dirty clothes just to shower and put them back on again but at least the water would be warm and that would feel pretty nice right about now. I wondered if the van was still outside. Stepping into the bathroom, I looked up and noticed it still had a ceiling. I shut the door, stripped off my clothes, and stepped into the shower, getting it good and hot. There wasn’t any soap or shampoo in the shower so I just stood under the beating stream of hot water until the water began to lose its heat.
When I emerged from the shower, through the steam, I made out the shapes of ten men. I stood there for a minute, waiting for the steam to dissipate, hoping these guys were maybe just part of the steam. Maybe the steam merely suggested their shapes and I filled in the rest. As the steam lifted, however, I noticed they were still there. The one in the front held my damp clothes out in front of him. I dressed, knowing it would not help to ask for any privacy. I didn’t really feel too ashamed to be seen naked in front of this group of people. Something about them suggested they weren’t really human. They all looked like older men. They all looked the same. So I thought about simply trying to ignore them. If they were there for any specific reason, I assumed they would make that reason known without letting me get too far. Like when a cop shows up at your door, you usually don’t have to ask him why he’s there. You either know or he tells you, first thing.
Once clothed, I slipped through the group of men and exited the bathroom. I almost expected Dad to be missing, like maybe they had already loaded him up in their car or van or whatever. But Dad still stood in the middle of the room, looking out over all the destruction. He stood, I guessed, because any place to sit would be wet from the previous night’s storm. The group of men followed me out of the bathroom.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Ready as I’ll ever be. I can’t believe we slept through all this.”
“Well, we were pretty tired. Had a long day yesterday. Not that I even really know what a day is anymore.”
“Time does become a little... confusing. Out here on the edge.”
“The edge? The edge of what?”
“The edge of civilization. The edge of the world. The edge of consciousness. The edge of anything really. Does this feel like the heartland to you?”
“Not exactly. Do you know if the van’s still out there?”
“Do you know why these people are following me?”
“Yeah. The ten guys dressed in black suits behind me. You don’t see them?”
“Nope. Just you. Are you sure you’re ready to travel?”
“Does it really matter? Is it like we can just lie around the room and rest?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Neither do I. So it’s probably best we get going.”
We opened the door to the motel room, even though it would have probably been easier to walk around the wall. The van was out there. It had a very large rock on the roof. A boulder, I guess. The roof was all smashed in but it looked like it would still be drivable. If we could get the rock off. The rock would have to add at least a couple thousand pounds. It was nearly the size of the van.
“Guess we should get that rock off, huh?” Dad said.
“I can help.”
We both went to the driver’s side of the van and tried to lift the rock from the roof. It wouldn’t budge. The ten men began crawling onto the roof of the van. Five of them got on one side of the rock, five of them stayed on the other side. In unison, they all bent down and put their fingers under the rock.
“Ready?” I asked Dad. “Lift!”
And we lifted just as the ten men lifted and the rock easily slid off the other side of the van and landed with a solid crack in the parking lot.
“That was a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
The ten men then climbed down from the van, most of them dusting off their cave black suits.
I ran back into the room and grabbed the flame. I was determined to forget it yet but, if I did and I was meant to take it where it needed to be, then I guessed it would find me somehow.
I heard a gunshot and turned just in time to see one of the ten men collapse onto the pavement of the parking lot. Looking further into the distance, I saw the eagle-headed man duck behind a building. They were shooting at us!
“What the hell was that!” Dad said.
“I think the Nefarions are shooting at us. We’d better go.”
We hopped into the van and the nine remaining men filed into the back of it.
“Are you sure you don’t see those guys?” I asked Dad.
“I really don’t.”
“They helped us move the rock off the van and I’m pretty sure one of them just took a bullet that was intended for one of us.”
“They’re probably your bodyguards. Be thankful you have them.”
“But it doesn’t seem right for you not to be able to see them.”
“Really? It doesn’t seem right? What about this seems right to you?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
“That’s right. Nothing is right. It hasn’t been right for a long time and it will not be right until we return the flame.”