“Sylvia, where are we going?” I moaned, as I staggered alongside of my roommate. “Can’t you explain to me what’s going on?”
“Can’t you shut your mouth for a few more minutes?” she shot back, her feet moving so fast I could barely see them move at all. That yoga seemed to be paying off. I, on the other hand, was practically drowning in my own sweat.
“Who were those people?” I panted, still more than a few paces behind her. “Who’s this sister they kept talking about?”
Sylvia stopped in her tracks so abruptly I slammed into her and sent us both toppling in opposite directions.
“God, Essie,” she groaned, scrambling to her feet. “This is already hard enough.”
“What’s hard enough?” I rasped, taking a considerably longer amount of time to get up. Once my vision became less blurry, I could see our location with more clarity.
We were in an alley, one I had never seen before. Just as well, too, since it seemed to have taken us hours to get there. “Where are we?”
Sylvia gave an exasperated sigh, like she was trying to explain quantum physics to a three year old. “It doesn’t matter, okay? What matters is that you’re not back at that bar in a bloody mess.”
Bloody mess? “What happened back there? Why did you punch that woman in the face?”
She rolled her eyes. “Why didn’t you?”
I didn’t really have a response to that. Luckily, she continued.
“Look, Essie, there are things you don’t know, and…” Her voice trailed off, and she began to pace.
I raised my eyebrows, struggling to process what was unfolding right under my very eyes. Sylvia Bauer was nervous. You could tell by the way she moved, trembling from head to toe, her fingers knitted together like threads in a blanket. But what could possibly have this effect on her? This was Sylvia, for God’s sake. The same Sylvia who had just sent Eyebrows tumbling over the barstool. If anyone was invulnerable, it was her.
But there she was, the freckles over her eyebrows pinching as her feet carried her back and forth across the street. And it unnerved the hell out of me.
“Sylvia, what is going on?” I whispered, my voice sounded much more mouse-like than I had intended. “That woman back at the bar—”
“Is a bitch,” she finished. “A total, utter bitch.”
“Right,” I mumbled quickly. “I kind of figured that after I was catapulted under the bar counter. Look, is she your long-lost cousin or something, because I promise I’m not judging—”
“Damn it, Essie,” Sylvia snapped. “Of course she’s not my cousin. If she was I would have killed her for real.”
“So then who is she?”
My roommate paused for a moment, looking up towards the sky. There was something wet on her forehead, and if she was anyone else in the world besides Sylvia Bauer I might have assumed it was sweat. However, under the current circumstances, I was more inclined to believe it was bird poop.
“She’s a friend of your mother’s,” Sylvia said slowly.
“My mother’s?” I repeated blankly.
“Yes,” she clarified. “And trust me, I’d rather shower with an aardvark than spend another moment with that woman, but unfortunately right now I need her help.”
I felt a headache coming on. “For what?”
Sylvia shook her head vigorously. “Not important right now.”
“What is important right now?” I asked, my voice rising. I honestly couldn’t take it anymore. Crazy shit was going down and nobody was willing to tell me anything, yet it seemed so shocking to everyone that I hadn’t figured it all out yet. It was time to get some answers, and I swore I wouldn’t stop until—
“Essie! Do you mind?” Sylvia snapped. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to save your life, and you aren’t exactly making it easy for me.”
I threw my hands up into the air in exasperation. “Save me from who? The people at The Spirit? But—”
I couldn’t finish that sentence, because Sylvia had grabbed my earlobe and was yanking it across the street with an efficiency I didn’t know was possible. She continued to transport me for another few minutes until we reached a car I had never seen before.
“Get in,” Sylvia hissed, releasing her death grip.
My hand shot up to my ear, which by some miracle was still intact. After I had managed to put the searing pain behind me, I gargled, “W-What?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of—” Before I could utter another word, I was shoved into the backseat of the car, my forehead slamming hard into the window.
“Shit!” I grunted. “What the hell—” The locks clicked and the car sped off, lurching me forward in between the seats and then wedging me so tightly I couldn’t move the muscles on my face. I groaned a few times, but there was no answer, and it didn’t look like I was getting one for a very long time.
The one thing I could deduce from this tormenting ride was that whoever was at the wheel was most likely the worst driver I had ever encountered. We made turns that I was pretty sure hadn’t existed until the moment I had entered the car. Not to mention the fact that it felt like we were moving a million miles an hour. I had never even seen Sylvia drive like this, and she was pretty reckless on the road. I didn’t have a license, which was probably a good move considering the fact that my salary didn’t even come close to paying for a car.
I tried to recall if I had seen the car before, but I knew I hadn’t. It had been a bright orange Volkswagen with ruby red tires, which was most likely something that would have stuck with me through the years. The point was, I had no idea who I was with, where I was going, or why I was getting there. It seemed like Sylvia had been pretty sure of herself, but I wasn’t sure if her instincts were necessarily to be trusted, based on what I had seen that afternoon.
We kept speeding along for at least an hour, and just when my eyelids were beginning to feel heavy, the car halted and I heard voices.
“They’re gone,” said a man’s voice. I thought I recognized it from somewhere, but it was muffled from my current position, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “We’re safe.”
“Are you sure?” asked Sylvia firmly. “Because I’m telling you, that woman is more stubborn than an ox and more resilient than a cat jumping out of a window.”
“Come on, Syl,” the man said gently. “Don’t get paranoid now. You can trust me, all right?”
“Sorry,” she muttered. “I just feel like I could have put an end to this. Killed her while I had the chance.”
“You did everything you could,” the man assured her. “If it’s anyone’s fault it’s the girl’s, for showing up like that.”
“Hey, don’t blame this on her,” Sylvia snapped. “She’s just a slow learner, that’s all.”
“If by slow you mean she can’t tell the difference between a flying saucer and a turkey, then I would agree,” the man returned gruffly.
They said a few more things, but the only words that were going through my head at that point were “what,” “the,” and another pleasant term that rhymed with “fire truck.”
Had the apocalypse finally come? Maybe all of those stupid movies had had a point after all. Because in this universe, I was pretty sure than any guy that tried to comfort Sylvia Bauer would have a hot poker up his ass in three seconds flat. And by the sound of it, and assuming the “girl” he was referring to was me, it seemed like he deserved it.
“Hey!” I yelled, struggling to pull myself up even though I was painfully aware I had absolutely zero upper-body strength. There was no answer. Sylvia and the mystery guy just kept chatting away without a care in the world. “Hello!”
Suddenly, I heard a shuffle of feet, and then the door flung open. Light flooded in so fast for a second I thought I might drown in it, but then I felt four arms dragging me across the seat and into the open air.
“I still don’t see why we had to bring her,” the man complained as my eyes were making their final adjustments. I saw Sylvia first. Her hair was a bit out of place but other than that she seemed as calm as ever. That was an immense relief, because if Sylvia started to lose it then I wasn’t sure what I’d do.
Then I looked around some more, and the vague feeling of safety melted away like paper in an incinerator. It looked like we were standing in the middle of the desert. There wasn’t a Costco or an Applebee’s or even (God forbid) a McDonald’s anywhere near us. In other words, we were in the middle of nowhere.
“I told you, he wanted all of us, not just me,” Sylvia said. “She’s not safe if she stays there.”
I turned around once more, and finally I could get a clear image of the guy Sylvia had brought with us. He was tall and muscular, like a smaller, slightly less impressive version of Dwayne Johnson, and had green eyes and flat brown hair. I stared at him for a second, confused. Then I remembered and my breath caught. He was one of Sylvia’s “suitors,” the one who was less lame than Sam Pleach, but not by much in my opinion. But what in the world was he doing here? I was under the impression that Sylvia hated him just as much as she hated shopping malls, or salad with too many croutons.
“And she’s not any safer here,” the man protested, whose name, I just recalled, was Trevor. “Who’s to say he won’t decide to kill all of you after all?”
This seemed to set Sylvia off. “You’re an idiot,” she growled. “You know nothing about him, do you?”
It was hard to stand up straight, but at least my throat was still working. I took a few steps back, inhaled slowly, then let out a blood-curdling scream.
Sylvia and Trevor whipped around, throwing me glares that could have burnt right through me and all the way to China.
I screamed until I was out of air, and then I cleared my throat. “Well,” I continued, “as nice as it’s been listening to you guys reminisce about some crazy dude for the past hour, I think it’s best to cut to the chase, don’t you?” I eyed them both expectantly. They exchanged looks for a moment, then sighed and scowled again. “Oh, don’t look at me like that,” I groaned, crossing my arms. “Trust me, I don’t want to be here right now. I didn’t ask for any of this. In fact, I’d rather just wake up and find out that this whole bloody week has just been a bad dream, and I’ll drag myself out of bed and sit at my boring office all by myself surrounding by boring people who don’t think I should be dropped off at the corner of crazy street and psycho lane. And then I’ll hop on the metro, probably managing to twist my ankle or break my nose or dislocate my shoulder on some pole somewhere along the way, and after spending a few days trying to perform my own surgery since no way in hell can I afford a hospital, I’ll decide to spend my evening in a bar with a lampshade on my head in front of people I barely even know, doing a terrible and highly embarrassing rendition of the cupid shuffle to Come on Eileen. But instead, here I am, in the middle of the damn desert next to a car that looks like it came straight out of Sesame Street, hungry and confused and thirsty and all alone except for a woman whose most thrilling conversation starters usually include the phrases “we’re out” and “of toilet paper,” and a guy who I had always thought was secretly a stripper or a member of the mafia or at least an extra in Fast and Furious. So I’m a bit grumpy. Now if you don’t start telling me what the hell is going on here I swear I’m going to take this car and throw it off a cliff with you two in it.”
There was an extremely long and unbearable silence, during which I was beginning to wonder if Trevor and Sylvia had even heard me. I was making a lot of long speeches lately, and my gut was telling me they weren’t all getting through the way I wanted them to. Just as I was losing hope, Sylvia took a step forward and spoke.
“Essie, listen to me,” she said quietly, a trace of urgency flickering in her light brown eyes. Her tone made my mind stop racing and instead of throwing the car off a cliff, which moments before I had so desperately wanted to do, I found myself simply staring at her, jaw dropped, wondering what she could have to say next.
“I never wanted it to happen like this, all right?” she said slowly, carefully. “But it doesn’t look like we have a choice anymore, so if you could please just—”
“Oh, quit it, Syl,” Trevor interrupted, his oversized arms crossed over his oversized chest. “You don’t have to tell her anything. She’s been nothing but rude to us this entire time. Pretty ungrateful, if you ask me.”
Frankly, I had had enough of Trevor and his grossly over exaggerated biceps. “Well, excuse me, Vin Diesel,” I snapped, “but I don’t believe anyone asked you.”
Trevor threw his hands up and shook his head at Sylvia, as if my very existence was completely and utterly her fault. “God, Sylvia. When you said we were bringing her I didn’t know she’d be such a—”
“Hey!” Sylvia growled, giving Trevor a shove that, despite his size, was enough to knock him straight off his feet. Unfortunately, he grabbed onto the side of the car, but I chuckled for the efforts. “Don’t talk to Essie like that, all right? She’s just a kid.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he shot at her, “and kids are slow. I’m telling you, she’s going to get us killed.” He scowled. “If I had known she was going to be screwing everything up, then maybe I wouldn’t have come.”
“Would you just piss off?” Sylvia demanded. “You’re being a jerk.”
“I’m being realistic.”
“Guys!” I interrupted. “You still haven’t given me any answers, you know. Now if I don’t get them on the count of three, I’m going to scream again. And if I still don’t get them after that, I’m going to get in that car and leave you two here to fight on your own time. Am I clear?”
“What the hell kind of—”
“Am I clear?” I repeated.
It looked like Trevor had a few more words to say, but after a painful glance from Sylvia, he shrugged his elephantine shoulders and gave a sigh that could have taken out the entire population of China.
“So it’s like this,” Sylvia started. “You’re—”
But that sentence was cut off by the beautiful and beloved sound of screeching tires. I whipped around and watched in disbelief as another car pulled up next to ours, a black van that looked like it could fit an entire army, or at least a reasonably large S.W.A.T. team.
Sylvia jumped into action. In one efficient swoop she had grabbed Trevor and I, wielding the longest knife I had ever seen right in front of her face. Before I could even react I was crouched behind the car, a devilishly gigantic hand covering my mouth.
Not again, I thought, but this time, I figured it was best to just shut up and see what information I could make out, since so far rudely interrupting wasn’t doing me any good.
There was a silence. It was hard to see Sylvia’s face, but I could see the hand that was holding the knife (where the heck did Sylvia get a knife?) trembling, and I could tell something about the person in the van was troubling her. I wondered if it was whoever they had been talking about before, or maybe Eyebrows, who had decided she wanted to get my roommate back for dislocating her jaw.
“Who the hell are you?” Sylvia demanded.
Another silence. Trevor’s hand tightened a bit over my face, probably from nerves, and then I heard Sylvia groan.
“I said who the hell are you?”
The person cleared his throat, exhaled loud enough for me to hear, then said, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Then my stomach dropped, and I thought screw shutting up and waiting. I jerked out of Trevor’s grip, sprung forward like a slingshot, and found myself standing roughly three feet away from the guy who had managed to turn my life into a living hell all by pretending to read a newspaper.
“There you are,” Jack breathed in relief the moment he saw me. I blinked, as if expecting to clear my vision.
He took a step towards me. “God, I’ve been trying to reach you for—”
Then it all came back to me: mainly the fact that he had caused my friends and even myself at times to think I was insane; plus his repellent grin, his cheeky remarks, and his disgusting, blue-gray eyes. “You son of a bitch,” I snarled, then I wound up and punched him right in the stomach.
Newspaper grunted and lost his footing a bit, but in the end he stayed mostly upright. “What…was that for?” he growled, grimacing while clutching his stomach for dear life.
I shrugged. “Not quite sure, exactly,” I muttered. “But honestly I feel a lot better now.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but Sylvia, who could apparently sense danger like a well-trained poodle, leapt forward. Before I could stop her, she karate-chopped Jack once again, this time sending him crashing to the ground. He let out a few hideously high-pitched expletives and tried to get up, but in another very efficient move she had him pinned to the ground with her absurdly long knife.
“Sylvia, wait!” I shouted, before she had injected it into his jugular.
Her head snapped towards me and she scowled as if annoyed that I had interrupted a perfectly sound murder. “Yes?”
I bit my lip and glanced down. “Uh…” Newspaper was staring at me with wide, desperate eyes. “Well…”
“Essie, do you know this man?” demanded Trevor, who had risen angrily to his feet like some monster ready to strike.
I paused for a second, regarding how utterly helpless he looked. Very different from the Newspaper I knew. The one I hated.
I sighed. “Sadly, yes.” I brushed my hands off on my pants and knelt down next to Sylvia. “His name is Jack Miller, and he’s got the IQ of a guinea pig and the manners of a chimpanzee.”
Sylvia’s face changed. “Jack Miller,” she repeated. Then she thrust the knife forward again and hissed in his ear. “You’re related to him?”
“Yes,” he stammered. “Yes, I am, but I’m on your side.”
She raised her eyebrows, evaluating him for a second. Then the knife loosened, and she stood up. “Talk to me,” she commanded, squinting at him. “If you’re not working with him than why would you be…” Her voice trailed off and her face changed. “Wait a second. You’re—”
“Yes,” Jack grumbled, gritting his teeth. “But before you stick that knife near me again, please know that I’m not here to kill you, all right?” He attempted to hoist himself up, but just fell down once more.
Trevor crossed his arms, not convinced. “Then what are you doing here? How did you know we were here?”
Jack hesitated for a moment, eyes fixed on the ground, and if I didn’t know any better, I would have thought he was even blushing a little. “I followed you,” he murmured.
My eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”
“I said I followed you,” he snapped, still avoiding my gaze. “If you must know, I was worried. I mean, for God’s sake, is that such a goddamn crime?”
“You were worried?” I asked skeptically. “I’m not your pet hamster, Miller. Besides, what could you possibly be worried about?”
He buried his face in his hands. “Look, if anything, you all should be thanking me,” he hissed. “But from what I’ve seen so far, you all have a bit of trouble showing your undying appreciation.”
“Thanking you for what?” Sylvia demanded, crossing her arms. “Stop being such a drama queen and tell us what you know.”
“Drama queen? I’m not the one sticking knives on people’s necks every time they move a muscle.” It looked like if he had the choice, he would have kept complaining all day, but one glower from Trevor and he decided to move on. “Anyway,” he added with an angry edge, “I know where he is. I’ve been tracking him ever since I…” His voice trailed off. “You know.”
“No, I don’t,” I protested, but no one seemed to hear me.
“Tracking him how?” Sylvia prodded suspiciously.
He bit his lip. “I know some people. A pretty spunky couple with enough time on their hands for year-round Tai Chi lessons. And of course, they have friends as well—”
“I’ve heard about you,” Trevor interrupted. A smile spread over his face. “You really are his cousin, aren’t you? The shy one.”
Newspaper smiled. “Things have changed.” He paused, then said, “Death will do that to you.”
There was an awkward silence. Then they all laughed softly, slowly, as if sharing an inside joke. Frankly, I couldn’t see how death was funny, or Tai Chi, for that matter, but I concluded that it was a good thing for all of them to loosen up. At this rate, we were inches away from braiding hair around a campfire.
It was getting dark now. The sun was only a beam of red on a navy blue sky, and I knew it wouldn’t be too long before it disappeared completely.
“You were going to give me answers,” I reminded Sylvia, breaking the hush.
She frowned. “In the morning.” Then before I could stop her, she stepped into the car and collapsed into the seat. After a few seconds, it became clear that the only thing I was getting out of her was a snore, and not a dainty one either.
Trevor moved to join her, and I grabbed his arm.
“Please,” I implored.
For a second, I thought I saw sympathy flicker in his eyes, but the flash was gone just as quickly as it had begun, and his face tightened. “Go to bed, kid,” he said, then he locked the car door behind him and looked away.
I stared at the two of them for a second, wondering how in the world they thought I was going to sleep after all of this. “Shit,” I mumbled. “Shit, shit, shit!”
“You’ll probably have to go in the woods.”
I jumped, realizing I had forgotten he was there. “Just shut up,” I snarled, leaning against the car.
His eyebrows furrowed for a moment as he considered me. “Why?” he inquired. “Why do you hate me so much?”
“And why shouldn’t I?” I shot back. “What is there about you to like?”
He grinned. “Fair enough.” None of us spoke for a minute. The sun was just a thin line now over the horizon.
“Who are you?” I asked quietly.
Jack frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I think you know,” I said simply. Truthfully, I didn’t know exactly what I meant myself, but I did know that something was going on, something bigger than Jack Miller or my job or my roommate. I couldn’t be sure when I had figured it out, but somehow I had, and the feeling tugged at me like a cold winter wind.
He sighed, glanced at me, then focused back at the horizon. “I’m dead,” he said.
Then the sun disappeared, and the night began.