Holly Gray © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“Do you believe in magic?”
Jack didn’t believe in a lot of things: politics, soul mates, religion. Stage magic, all of it. She sure as hell didn’t believe in anything supernatural.
Work, traffic, humidity—those she believed in. Not that she didn’t employ a little whimsy in her life. She liked reading novels, especially a rousing space opera or an angsty, dystopian handwringer. Any piece of fiction penned by Noelle Stevenson, illustrated or digital, enjoyed a prominent place in her leisure time. She loved science fiction movies as social and creative commentary. And the wicked special effects.
Fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen she found funny and topical. Had she any close friends, she could have discussed some of his biting social commentary.
But believe in any of these fictions, magical or not? Of course not. Jack Whitaker was a rational person. The walls in her tiny apartment, bare of anything but two Firefly posters and a magazine clipping of a black-and-white picture of blues singer and lesbian icon, Gladys Bentley, echoed only her voice, both literally and symbolically. Work as a security guard satisfied without stimulating. On the occasions she felt a tingle for socializing or, heaven forbid, physical touch, she booted up her laptop and binge-watched the latest postapocalyptic series.
Once, she had believed in big ideas like spirituality and a wife and kids. She’d since grown up.
Most of this changed in mid-July on her way home from work at the aquarium in Timuca, a small city in Northern Florida. The day started off as tidily as usual, although traffic seemed a bit less hectic and the day much sultrier than usual.
“Do you believe in magic?”
By the end of the day, when someone with feral memories posed the question to her, she answered differently than she would have just twelve hours prior.
Jack liked office birthdays. The aquarium staff usually celebrated big with banners, hats, and lunch at a nearby Cuban restaurant. Beyond signing “Happy b-day. Jack” to the group card, usually adorned with cartoon animals, Jack rarely participated, but the leftover cupcakes often ended up on her desk.
“Come on, Jack. Is Mario really fifty if no one is there to witness it?” Cameron, one of the aquarists and the only other out lesbian at the Northern Florida Center for Aquatic Mammals (pronounced “nafcam” by locals), had wheedled. Come to think of it, Cameron’s sexual identity was probably why her coworkers had sent her to fetch Jack.
Jack had raised an eyebrow. “But if I go, who else will keep the animals safe from fires, terrorists, and four-year-olds?”
“When have we ever had fires or terrorist attacks here?”
Grinning, Cameron had shaken her head and made a shooing motion as she strode back to the waiting group.
On that day in mid-July, Jack ate lunch, a PB and J and a canteen of water, in one of the visitors’ chairs by Apollo’s underground tank. Apollo, a bottlenose dolphin, glided through the water, body lean and silver, mangled beak still raw. They’d taken him in two weeks ago after fishing line had wrapped around his beak, sealed his mouth, and sliced into his skin. Their wounded warrior had come a long way since they’d removed the fishing line and gorged him on huge sums of fish, squid, and clams.
The transparent walls of Apollo’s aquarium stretched high above Jack’s head, opening aboveground into the humid Florida outdoors. Down here, however, Jack sat alone, cast in rippling blue shadows as the healing dolphin circled near her, smiling his beaked grin despite his pain and confinement. Apollo, maimed by human carelessness, greeted visitors with companionship and warmth.
Sometimes Jack didn’t understand marine animals. She admired them, found their silent acceptance healing, but she wished they would smarten up and stay clear of damn humanity. God knows she had.
When a large family of tourists swarmed down the steps to coo and shed a tear or two for the plight of wounded sea soldiers, Jack rose, issued a professional smile, and relocated to Lucille’s aquarium. As crisscrossed as she was by propeller scars, the old manatee remained the center’s star and matriarch of her crew. Jack didn’t mind sharing her lunch with the quiet, languid creature with the slow-blinking eyes.
As expected, two hours later, four chocolate cupcakes landed on Jack’s desk. She promptly devoured one and offered the rest to the security guard who took over at five.
Around five thirty, Jack stepped out from the aquarium’s aquatic environment and into northern Florida’s. Midsummer afternoons in Florida weren’t made for tourists. Hell, Florida summers overwhelmed anyone who didn’t delight in dog paddling through torrential late-afternoon downpours. Even seven soggy summers hadn’t acclimated her to July in Florida. She jogged through puddles to her eleven-year-old dark-blue Ford.
The drive could have been any ride home. Hip-hop blared from the speakers. Her windshield wipers thumped a heavy beat as Jack planned a dinner from the eight or nine ingredients in her fridge.
Amid a vigorous internal debate on the merits of spaghetti versus canned green beans, Jack caught movement a hundred or so feet ahead.
“What the hell?”
On her right and at the mouth of an alleyway, a fistfight raged. Well, a lot of rage, a bunch of fists, but not much fight. A broad figure pounded someone huddled on the ground, arms hugging their head. As she watched, the attacker swung their fists once, twice, four more times, always driving them into the soft sogginess of the cringing figure.
Jack swerved into the rightmost lane without signaling. Her car slowed to a crawl.
Her eyes oscillated, on the lookout for a parking spot. A second later, snorting at the inanity of parking legally while some asshole beat a victim to death, she slammed to a halt in a red zone a few dozen feet from the alley.
Jack flung open the door and dove into the susurrant steaming rain. Only now, outside her car, she could hear the impact as the fists drove home.
“Hey!” she shouted. She was no more than thirty feet from the two people, but the attacker continued without pause.
“Stop it!” Jack ordered as she sprinted toward the attack. The closer she drew, the clearer they became. The attacker, a tall woman with white hair and an incongruously pointed face, ignored Jack as she pummeled the motionless figure on the ground. “I’m calling the police!”
Jack halted a few feet from them, vibrating in indecision. The attacker had white hair. A senior? But she fought brutally. Jack wrapped her hand around the phone in her pocket. The person on the ground had stopped struggling. For all she knew, they’d died in a defensive posture.
“Back off!” Jack yelled, pointing stupidly at the white-haired woman. You know, in case White Hair wasn’t sure who she was yelling at.
When the woman crashed her fist down against what looked like the other person’s neck or shoulder, Jack’s indecision crumpled. She barreled into the attacker. White Hair grunted, pitched to her left, but did not fall. Jack hunkered down, ready for her return attack.
The woman lifted her eyes, yellow eyes. Unnaturally bright-gold eyes that flickered and reflected the argent light of the sodden afternoon. Eyes that gleamed like some kind of…of cheesy werewolf flick. The gray afternoon brightened as Jack’s focus intensified. Her nostrils flared, sucking in air and raindrops.
White Hair snapped forward, unnaturally fast. Jack barely had time to recognize movement before she found herself sprawled on the wet cement, White Hair straddling her middle. Although the other woman was taller, Jack was no lightweight. With a grunt she hadn’t heard from herself in years, she thrust her hands forward, partially dislodging the lady with the creepy yellow eyes. She rolled over, freeing her torso. White Hair’s fist drove toward her, but Jack blocked while bucking, earning a forearm to the face. Jack placed her heels near her butt and bucked, hard, her left leg thrusting with extra vigor. The other woman toppled to Jack’s right, and with tingling arms, Jack shoved her off.
Close to simultaneously, the two fighters leapt to their feet. They faced each other, postures defensive.
White, jaw-length hair notwithstanding, the other woman was no older than forty-five.
“I don’t know what’s—” Jack began.
“Shut up!” White Hair shrieked, a high-pitched, piercing yell.
Jack took a breath, another, until her breathing had settled into something more rhythmic. “Get out of here,” Jack growled. “The police are seconds away.” White Hair probably didn’t know Jack lied.
The woman flitted her eyes, those bizarre, big-pupiled yellow orbs surrounded by cloudy whites, from Jack’s face to the prone person lying ten feet away. Back to Jack. She blinked, and her face smoothed into a cool impassivity.
Jack tensed when White Hair leaned forward. “I’ll see you soon,” the white-haired woman fluted in a voice so cold and high-pitched Jack was surprised the air around her didn’t turn into snow.
You think the weirdest shit sometimes.
White Hair straightened, turned, and strolled down the sidewalk away from Jack’s car, hands tucked casually into her jeans’ pockets. She probably whistled, too, some jaunty pop song from 1944 to complete the role of nonchalant city dweller.
What the actual hell? Jack stared a moment at the outline of White Hair’s bra straps through her sodden, button-down shirt.
A raindrop slipped from her hair and into her left eye. Shaking her head, Jack slid across the wet sidewalk to the still figure. Heavy raindrops sizzled along the concrete. “She left. You okay?”
Jack hesitated once again before leaning down and touching the figure’s arm. The person still didn’t move. Time to call the—
The figure groaned, lengthily and piteously. They stirred then, and arms fluttered away from their head.
“Gone?” a male voice quavered.
“Gone,” she confirmed. “Hey, man, let’s get you—”
“We have to go get her!” the man insisted. He untucked his head from under his arm and turned it enough to take in Jack’s bedraggled, thoroughly drenched appearance. She could feel her short hair sucking up the soggy afternoon and conducting it all under her shirt. Yeah, hero she wasn’t.
“We must get her!” he repeated.
He must have had his head hit a few too many times. “I think it’s best if the white-haired lady stays away.”
“Not her!” he hissed, apparently striving for ferocious, but his voice trembled along the thread of air.
“Yeah, okay,” Jack soothed. She hunkered down next to him. “Let’s get 9-1-1,” she muttered, fumbling in her pocket for the phone.
Jack could only see one of his brown, heavy-lidded eyes, but it widened in something like horror. Water dripped into it, and he blinked rapidly. A shaking hand unfurled from his torso and grabbed her wrist. “We can’t get the police involved,” Brown Eyes gasped. “They’ll find her!”
“You’re not making sense, buddy,” Jack gritted. She didn’t like being touched. “We need to get you some medical help.”
“Phooey. I don’t matter,” the man said. Had he really said “phooey”? Who says that? “We need to keep the woman safe. I don’t mean Adler. She’s the one who did this,” he said impatiently when Jack started speaking. “I mean my charge. I failed her.”
“Yeah, sorry, man, but I have to call for an ambulance,” Jack said. She yanked her arm free and drew her phone from her pocket. Cradling it against her chest, shielding it as best she could from the rain, she used her left thumb to enter her code.
“If you do, you’re responsible for two deaths,” Brown Eyes rushed.
Jack hissed a sigh. This was so not going the way she expected. Ferocious beatings, a yellow-eyed woman, a battered man refusing medical treatment—a once-disturbing situation had slithered well into weirdness. Jack wished someone else would stop and take control of this entire messed-up scene. She gripped the phone and scowled, but she didn’t pull up the dial pad.
Brown Eyes uncovered more of his face. Red flowed from a nostril and across his lush, Mediterranean lips. His other eye squished in a swollen, puddinglike mess of red and purple.
“I’m in charge of someone of immense importance. Adler doesn’t want me. She wants her. And I told her enough to lead them eventually to her. I didn’t want to, but Adler…” He dropped his eyes. “My charge is in danger. You have to take me to her.”
Jack furrowed her brow and glanced around them. Who had dropped her into the middle of some TV police drama? What was this—a social experiment? Bad casting?
“We’re going to get you to a hospital,” she said, enunciating slowly and carefully. Once again, she pushed the button on her phone.
“She’ll die!” Brown Eyes yelled and struggled, groaning and whimpering, onto all fours. He lifted a leg, trying to place his foot flat against the ground and stand, but his foot skidded. He dropped with a cry onto his belly on the ground.
“Hey!” Jack gasped.
“If you call the ambulance or the police, I’ll run away from here!” he vowed. Jack wasn’t certain he was capable of it, but desperation seemed to infuse him with some kind of manic energy. “If you take me to her, I’ll go to the hospital afterward.”
She considered telling him he was making the pretty big assumption that she cared what happened to him. Remembering her scuffle with the white-haired harpy, she gritted her teeth.
“My charge is going to die if we don’t get to her right away!” he insisted, once again raising his torso on shaking arms.
“Stop it! Damnit! At least let me help you.” Jack put her hands under his arms and helped him first struggle to his knees and finally to his feet.
As she stood upright, she noticed he was her height, maybe an inch taller, and scrawny. His black T-shirt, emblazoned with a neon-pink logo of a local dance club, hung several inches below his hips. The cuffs of his black khakis pooled around his burgundy canvas shoes.
Brown Eyes panted against her. Blood still flowed from his nose and possibly his mouth, and he crossed his arms tightly across his stomach—probably internal injuries. Jack shook her head at herself, at him.
“If you—” He stopped, doubled over for a moment, groaned, and straightened. “Hurts less,” he muttered. “If you don’t help me, she will die, and I will run away from here. Two deaths, Jacqueline.”
“How do you know—?”
“Two deaths!” he roared, baring his teeth, whether in pain or annoyance she had no idea.
“Okay, okay,” she snapped. “I’ll take you to this person, and then we’ll all go to the damn hospital, all right?” She gritted her teeth and tried to remind herself he was addled from his smackdown.
“Okay.” His voice had calmed into a breathless shimmer of sound.
“But, for the record, this is really effed up.” One arm around his bony middle, one under his elbow, she led him step by tiny step toward her car.
She heard weary amusement in his voice. “You won’t think so once you meet her.”
He stumbled, and she tightened her hold. Given his small frame, she could probably carry him, but she worried she’d injure him more. Better to keep him talking, keep him here. “So, uh, who is this person? Some kind of celebrity?” People visiting Miami occasionally drove through on their way to Tallahassee or St. Augustine.
Brown Eyes groaned a chuckle as they approached her car. Very carefully, she opened the back door on the passenger’s side and helped lower him inside. He sat upright for an entire three seconds before toppling to his left and landing with a splat on the mostly clean, dark-gray upholstery of her back seat. With a grunt, he lifted his legs and tucked his feet up. Blood from his nose seeped outward and soaked gently into the cloth fabric.
This whole thing sucks. Jack closed the door and scurried to the driver’s seat. As she screeched into traffic, Jack peered into the rearview mirror and could just make out the man’s shoulder.
Should she shuttle him to the hospital, regardless of his story? Maybe his beatdown had scrambled some brain cells. Or hell, maybe he’d already been, as Amaya would have called it, a few blackberries short of a pie. Was she making the right decision, believing, or at least humoring, him? She sighed and banged a sodden fist against the steering wheel.
“Where are we going?” she demanded, frustration thickening her voice.
“Way more important,” Brown Eyes slurred.
“She’s way more important than any celebrity. She may be the most important person you’ll ever meet.”
God, what had she gotten herself into? This creepy man, who spoke like some kind of movie cliché, who cared more about this woman—real or fictitious—than his own life, who mysteriously—
“Hey, how did you know my name?” she asked.
A moment passed. Two. Jack glanced in the rearview mirror and couldn’t see the man’s shoulder. Was he—?
“You okay back there?”
Rain sliced through the air, plunked against the windshield, and carved its way downward.
“Hey, guy, everything all right?”
Despite the heavy rain, Jack glanced over her shoulder and into the back seat. As soon as traffic allowed, she pulled over, exited the car, and yanked open the back door.
He was gone. Brown Eyes had disappeared from her car. His blood still stained the upholstery, and a long, cylindrical wetness darkened most of the seat.
Where the man’s head had rested sat a credit-card-sized piece of plastic, emblazoned with a pizza chain’s logo and phone number. She stared at the card, and her cell chirped like a dolphin, the cutesy sound she’d assigned arriving texts. Jack reached a slow hand into her pocket, drew out her phone, and slid a finger across the unlock bar.
A text message from a local number. She tapped the icon.
Go here jack. 3552 crescent rm 102. Use card.
As she squinted her eyes at the words, another arrived.
Dont get police invlvd or adler will kill girl.
Seconds later, another.
Take girl home. Will contact l8r w more instructns.
Jack texted back.
Are you the hurt man?
A minute, maybe ninety seconds, passed.
Ur actions decide girls fate. Think hard jack.
She stared at the words. Minutes passed. Jack bounced her eyes between the wet seat and the four messages. Sighing, she tucked her cell phone and the key card into her left pocket, closed the door…and hesitated.
A moment later, she slammed the trunk closed. No one there either. Later, back in the sanity of her tiny apartment, she’d spoon green beans from a can and laugh at her indecision, maybe shake her head at the sheer oddness of the day. She was sure some kind of pattern, or at least a logical explanation, would shed some understanding on what right now seemed like an inexplicable situation.
“I’m not so sure I should be taking instructions from someone who obviously lacks basic punctuation skills,” she groused. Nonetheless, Jack slid behind the wheel and navigated toward a cheap motel on Crescent Drive.
Crescent Moon Motel. This got better and better. At least the downpour had dried up on her way over. Now, the pavement seethed with murky puddles and the air with humidity. Jack would probably mold by the time she returned home.
Speaking of which, to which “home” was she supposed to take this endangered, super important personage? Hers? The woman’s? Oprah’s vacation house in Miami?
Jack knocked on the door to room 102. After a minute and with a bit more firmness, she knocked again. Sighing, she used the key card and swung the door open. It banged against the wall.
The motel room was cheap, threadbare, and designed with the most nauseating patterns known to humankind. A stained-white popcorn ceiling stretched overhead, held up by striated walls colored a sickly yellow. Throughout the carpet, orange-and-red-circled patterns swirled, occasionally and inadvisably mating. Even the seventies would have rejected the dance of reds, golds, and bronze in the bedspreads. At least the colors had faded over time.
Jack entered the room. To her left, two double beds, both slept in and unmade, sat within two feet of each other. To her right, a medium-sized TV slumped atop a tiny dresser that desperately needed another coat of varnish. Further ahead on her left, the bathroom door looked ajar, but maybe the woman did her business in the dark with no concern for privacy.
“Anybody here?” she called out.
Maybe this was all some kind of prank. Her coworkers, maybe? Kris, her neighbor, had an odd sense of humor.
Or perhaps the yellow-eyed Adler had already come.
Jack stepped inside, closed the door, strode the few steps to the bathroom. Nobody.
Sighing, she turned around. What was she supposed to do? Go home? Text the punctuation-challenged person? Her fingers fumbled in her wet pocket.
On her way back to the door, she halted, turned to her right. A large, ugly wad of comforter crumpled between the nearest bed and the wall.
Jack stepped into the narrow space. Yeah, the comforter didn’t have enough padding to warrant that much mass.
“I’m here to help,” she said quietly.
The mound on the floor remained still.
Jack hesitated. Then, with a quick lunge, she snatched an edge of the comforter and yanked it toward her.
The woman lay prone on the floor, her hands bunched against her sternum. She was maybe in her late twenties and pale, likely of Western European stock. Everything else about her was brown: her large, curving frame was clad in an ugly brown dress that pooled on the floor beneath her, and she stared up at Jack through tangled brown hair that curtained startled brown eyes.
“I’m here to help you,” Jack repeated. “Your…friend sent me.”
Brown Eyes’ all-important charge continued to stare at her.
Jack extended a hand. The charge’s clenched tighter.
Jack straightened. “Totally harmless,” she said, and thumped her chest. Her fist made an unfortunate squishing noise against soggy fabric.
The woman in brown remained still. Jack wasn’t entirely certain she spoke English. Or if she spoke at all. Jack exhaled in exasperation.
“Look, the bad people are coming, okay?” She carefully enunciated each word. “You”—she pointed at the woman—”and me”—she gestured toward herself—”need to go.” She used her fore- and middle fingers to mimic walking.
The woman blinked. Until that moment, Jack hadn’t realized she hadn’t yet done so. Jack leaned down and extended her hand. “You can trust me,” she said as gently as she could manage. Jack wasn’t so sure about this whole surreal situation, but she agreed with the disappearing man that this woman needed help.
The charge’s hands unclenched by degrees. Jack worried about Adler or someone else bursting in at any moment, but she kept a small smile, one she hoped looked patient and harmless, pinned to her face.
“Come on, sweetie,” she cooed. “We need to go.”
Ever-so-slowly, the woman in brown lifted her right hand and extended it toward Jack’s left. A cross-body pull would have been easier, but—
The woman clasped her hand.
Jack gasped and fell in a sprawl atop a warm lap. The tiny room, with its nicotine-yellow walls and carnivalesque decorations, dimmed. Her hand grew hot. A feeling of lightness, of wonder, spilled inside her head. It felt as though she’d plummeted downward on the steepest roller coaster ever built. A grin cracked her face; a gasp spiraled outward.
Then, something slammed into her body, a heaviness that threatened to tumble her in its undertow.
She gasped again, felt her lungs fill with something heavy and rank. A blow of fear and anger punched her in the chest as she huddled in a closet with a small brown boy, her baby brother, Damien. She blinked, and a cheap cooking tin arched through the air toward her head. Jack ducked, closed her eyes, and when she reopened them, she laughed when a shorter woman shook a damp turban off her head to reveal a dismayingly orange puffball of hair. One indrawn breath later, and a young girl yawned and curled in Jack’s lap while petting a purring cat.
Jack opened her eyes to find clumps of Amaya’s hair, no longer orange, scattered across her pillow. Inhaling the stench of disinfectant, the odor of soiled jeans. Listening to the drone of doctors and the hiss of life support. Gone, all of them gone—Amaya, Izzy, Pickles, Damien, Bea. The ballooning feeling in her chest, the trembling of weakness and pain and anger in her arms, the scalding of unspoken words.
And then blankness, smoothness, the complete lack of color. Sounds muted, smells faded, and objects blended. White on white on white. Quietude and boredom and sameness.
Where she lived.
The balloon expanded into her throat. Jack gasped, then whimpered.
I have, I would, I could…
No. Teeth bared, Jack jerked free. Wiped damp eyes with trembling hands. Fumbling, mumbling, sight adjusting to the sudden returning glare of the hotel room. She realized she sat astride the woman in the brown dress. Jack lurched to her feet.
She stood in silence, tucking sensations back into their proper spaces. Each image in a box. Every sensation in a safe. The knot untangled in her chest as the air remembered to flow. Colors regained their brightness. Jack wiped her hand repeatedly on her damp slacks.
What. The. Hell.
Jack stared hard at the woman. Had she done that? No, wait. A better question: What the hell was that? She hadn’t merely remembered; she’d actually felt Damien’s hand in hers, the tickle of cat fur sliding through the whorls on her fingertips.
“What just happened?” Her voice sounded hoarse, the voice of someone who’d cried a long, long time.
The woman stared at her, this time without a trace of her previous fear. Her lips sat neutrally on her round, lovely face.
No. To hell with this, this weird shit. I’ve been dropped in the middle of some kind of bad graphic novel. I should…go. Just leave. She peered first into the charge’s gentle brown eyes, then at her plump, long-fingered hand.
“What is this?” Jack demanded. “All this?”
The woman, of course, did not respond, did not even indicate she’d heard. Jack scrubbed her mouth and sighed.
Okay, the one thing she knew: this woman was in danger. Well, probably. Provided she believed the disappearing man and the apostrophe-less texter, who might or might not be the same person.
Brown Eyes’ illustrious charge certainly looked in need of rescue. She couldn’t even talk, for god’s sake. This situation may feel like something straight out of a B movie, but Jack would think of ten different explanations once the adrenaline faded from her system.
“All right. Let’s go,” she sighed. She pressed her lips together, squared her shoulders, and, once again, extended her hand to the prone woman.
The woman in brown reached out. Jack inhaled, rocked forward, and grasped her hand.
Nothing happened. Jack shook her head. Had she—? No matter. It was time to get out of this place. Questions could come much later.
Jack helped her to her feet.
Brown Eyes’ luminary stood awkwardly, her too-large dress drooping far enough in the front to reveal she wore no bra. The heavy brown garment slouched to the floor while gentle curves pressed against the rough, stretchy material. Who the hell had dressed this poor thing?
The woman took a stumbling step toward her, and Jack noticed they were about the same height—close to five-and-a-half feet. Whereas Jack embodied a stout musculature, the woman in brown was all plumpness and curves.
Through their linked hands, Jack drew this mystery woman, this woman who, according to a disappearing man, might be the most important person she’d ever meet, into the soggy Florida afternoon.