from Chapter 42.
Angelfire fell asleep after that. A few minutes later he woke up, and shook his head like a wet dog.
“Man, I just had the weirdest dream that I turned into a giant magnifying glass, and then the sun set me on fire. And before that, you know? I don’t remember what happened.” His eyes glanced up to the cloudless sky, trying to remember. “I killed that lady.” His face crinkled and I grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Listen to me: You killed her because you had to. She had a gat. You killed her in self-defense. You can’t afford to let your fear take hold. You got that? I can’t explain why other than to tell you that it’ll make the demons come out. Do you understand me?”
His tiny, dim eyes stared back at me. “No, but I believe you.”
“We gotta get out of here,” I told him.
“I got a question for you about that man and woman back at the campsite,” he said.
I positioned the raft so we could step inside.
“The guy. He was speakin’ some kind of other language.”
“It’s called Navajo,” Sam said.
“But where were they from?”
“Another place,” Sam said.
“Another planet?” Waymore asked.
“Nooo! Another time,” she explained.
“Let’s just get off this island,” I interposed. “We need food.”
“While I was sleeping just a little while ago, I had a dream about that man and that woman. That they could only speak half a language, and they wanted Sam because she had the other half. They came from another place, like a universe or something. It had been our universe once, but it’d broken off and become something else. I only killed that lady ’cuz she had a gun, right?”
“Right.” I set my hand up high on his shoulder. “We really get going, okay?”
“Okay. You’re okay, right? Like, you wouldn’t do nothin’, wouldja?”
“No. Do what?”
He stood there with a crinkled frown. He wouldn’t move until I promised him.
‘Cuz the man in the dream, he warned me about you, but I couldn’t understand it ’cuz it was only a half-warning.”
“I wouldn’t do nothing to you, Waymore.”
“I’m hungry,” Sam said.
I looked down river. If some rafters came by, we could always beg food, but if some rafters came by, chances were real good they’d be after us for the boat we stole or the woman Waymore killed.
Some boats rounded a bend about a mile downriver. The boatman in the lead pointed at us.
“C’mon,” I said, grabbing Sam’s hand and limping down the beach. Waymore followed.
“You’ll have to carry her for now,” I told him.
“But I don’t want him to carry me. I want you to.”
“I can’t, honey. My leg.”
He set her in the raft.
“But one thing you have to avoid,” I told him as I eased myself in the boat. “You can’t panic. You can’t flip out like you been doing, Waymore.”
“The panic attacks just come outta nowhere, man.”
“If you feel one coming on, stay away from Sam. Okay?”
I thought about stranding him here, but we needed him. And we needed Angelfire.
“Shove us off,” I said.
Waymore pushed us out into the water, then dumped into the raft. We let the current take us, and all I could do was hope the rafting party wouldn’t catch up. But they did. They had paddles. And then I heard the whirring, and looked back saw that they had a motor, too. And then I heard the thunder, and looked ahead and spotted the rapid, probably the most violent yet.
The north bank was only about 30 feet away, and it had a narrow sand beach. I grabbed Sam and shouted to Waymore over the rush—
I dove in with Sam, praying the silted undertow didn’t drown us.
“My backpack!” she said.
“It’ll slow us down,” I said, but Waymore tossed it to her.
Waymore stood in the boat, frozen in panic. He looked ahead and saw the rapids approach, but he couldn’t jump. Finally, he shouted a warrior’s cry and did a cannon ball into the water.
I held onto Sam with my right arm, swam with the other, kicked with my one good leg. We had help from a riffle that helped tow us shoreward. I could only work the left side of my body, and that steered us directly toward shore. If I’d been able to use both arms, both legs, I think we might’ve gone too fast and ended up on the rocks.
“Sam, honey,” I panted. “Let go of the backpack. Please.”
She hung onto it tighter, and I pictured Bumblebunny soaked like a sponge with silt along with Edgar’s blanket, weighing us down to death. But they didn’t.
Waymore splashed like a dog and the three of us landed ashore at the same time. We lay there, panting, but there was no time. The other boats would be on us in a few minutes.
I got up and gimped over to a break in the cliffs. An old wooden sign hung off-kilter from a post:
LAVA FALLS TRAIL
DANGER: IT IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TO ATTEMPT THIS TRAIL, ESPECIALLY WITHOUT WATER. TRAIL IS STEEP & REQUIRES SOME CLIMBING. NO SHADE.
A voice carried from downriver. A rafter cupped his hands and shouted at us to stop, his warnings bouncing off the walls on the other side of the canyon.
“Follow me,” I said to Waymore, and pulled myself up the near vertical rocks. I had to put all my weight on the bad ankle to climb and I shouted in pain each time I did.
Waymore held Sam in one arm and climbed with the other. I glanced down at him.
“You’re not getting scared on us now, are you, Waymore?” I panted.
I groaned, climbed the next few rocks up.
“You’d tell me the truth ’bout that, right?”
“I’m not scared a heights, just bridges. And crowds. I don’t like crowds. And elevators. Don’t care for ’em. And balloons. And—”
“—Okay, we get the picture,” Sam said.
As we climbed, the cool river water wrung out of us. Sweat funneled in from my crows’ feet and stung my eyes. But the trail leveled out from a near vertical climb to heavy switchbacks. It still murdered my ankle but at least the ankle didn’t have to bear all my weight. Waymore huffed and puffed behind. Whenever we got even a little shade, we took a break. The sharp volcanics braded our fingers and shins with scrapes.
I kept looking down, but I didn’t see the rafting party following us up. Maybe they’d kept going. Maybe we’d fooled them into thinking we ran the rapid. But the cliffs we climbed obscured the river and the shore, so I couldn’t be sure they weren’t right below us.
In two grueling hours, drenched with sweat, so thirsty I wanted to lick the beads off my skin, we made it to the rim. I took Sam from Waymore and the three of us surveyed an alien terrain; blistered, dry, shadowless.
A range of mountains to the west snagged muddy blue rain clouds, thick ones that promised lightning. Thunder rolled and shook the stones at my feet.
“You’re not scared of thunder, Waymore, are you?”
He panted and shook his head.
“I am,” Sam said.
Midday sun painted our faces red and gold through prisms of sweat. I’d welcome the rain, when it came. We heard loose gravel skitter down the trailhead and we all turned to look. Another pair of hands grabbed onto the rim; big, strong male hands.
They’d followed us the whole time.
“Take her and run!” I handed Sam off to Waymore. He ran straight up a giant cinder cone that stood beside the rim. “Not there!” But he kept zig-zagging like an ostrich. I gimped over to the trailhead. The man’s hands grabbled the final tier of rocks, and I stepped on them hard.
He yelled, let go, and a man under him shouted, too. I picked up stones and tried to strike the men before they could draw guns. I leaned over the cliff and almost fell. I saw a couple men in NPS uniforms but no guns. I guessed they hadn’t had time to arm or that they weren’t cops. They stood on a bench a few feet below the rim.
“You get back down or I will throw you down!” I said. I tossed a couple stones near their heads to show them I meant business. They climbed down the trail.
I glanced up at the cinder cone, which must’ve been 900 feet high. Waymore had set Sam down and he and she struggled up the black rocks. I limped after them, and started climbing. It was a mountain of basalt.
It was bloody murder, like running up a mountain of marbles. Even with my limp, I caught up to them soon. We’d take two steps up, slip down a few feet, take a few steps up before our weight triggered a minor rockslide and we’d slip down again. The sharp, glassy rock cut up our soles and our hands.
We stood in a metallic light, the sun hanging from a storm cloud, igniting the world in a pitiless glare while the storm began its slow eclipse over the sun’s face. A leader bolt from the cloud struck out, smoking the summit of the cinder cone above us. Thunder exploded. It seemed like a volcano all over again.
Shouts from below. The rangers hadn’t climbed back down to the river after all. Now, they stood at the base of the cone and shouted at us, as if their words had any power.
“Fucking heroes!” I shouted back, and picked up some stones and whipped them down at them.
The back of Waymore’s tee shirt bulged. Fear. Angelfire said that the pathway for the demon to enter him was through his fear.
“Don’t be afraid, Waymore!” I said.
His face screwed up, his eyes clinched and his back arched, with fists squeezed liked rocks. He licked his lips and they turned inside-out. He pointed at me. “You, first!”
I scooped up Sam and limped past Waymore.
“We’ll get hit by lightning!” she screamed.
“Lightning never strikes twice in the same place!”
It started raining. No, it started pounding. We climbed. My ankle screamed, screamed louder than the men climbing up after us, than the hail hitting us like shrapnel.
Waymore scrambled to catch up, only he wasn’t Waymore anymore. He reached out his fat paw for my bad ankle. He slipped, missed, went down a few feet. Then I slipped, too, and he smiled. He grabbled for my ankle. I kicked him with my bad foot and he fell down a few more feet below me.
“That hurt me more than it did you,” I panted. He laughed and tried to catch up, but the rangers beneath had caught up to him.
He turned and fought them, swinging his arms like gantries, knocking one of them down while the other ducked. Them sliding, him standing there, pounding his chest in victory. Lightning danced around all three of them. Wishing it would hit him, hit them. Sam and I kept low and slipped down a few feet.
I set her down. “Crawl! Crawl, Sam, crawl!” On our hands and knees we inched up, bloodied, bitten up by the mountain of glass. The storm summoned up columns of sand and the rain sparkled the basalt cinders like obsidian up and down the face of the cone. Dime-sized hail bulleted our backs. Thunder cracked and ozone sharpened the air. I turned and saw the rangers making for lower ground. Waymore raised his arms in victory, inviting the leader bolt’s strike.
We made it to the top.
At the summit of the cone stood a hiker’s registry shaped like a lectern.
I covered Sam and got as flat as I could. Bad knives of white fire stabbed all around us.
“You said lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place,” she said.
“Not exactly in the same place.”
The hail turned to rain, the black sky gave way to a window of clear blue, the thunder resigned itself to grumbles over the low hills to the east.
The whole mountain of glass steamed as the rain exorcised the heat of the day from it. Seething in a mist of rain, the heat crawling off his head and shoulders in foggy mares’ tails, the blunt lines of Waymore Puckett’s form appeared over the short horizon. I lifted Sam up and pushed her down the other side of the mountain. “Run!”
She surfed down, skittering, falling, popping back up to standing. I pulled the hiker’s registry up out of the earth and wielded the mini-lectern by its wood post like a battle ax. Waymore raised his arms to swallow me and I bashed him over the head with the registry stand and down he fell, the rocks cutting up his cheek. His shirt half up his torso, I saw the effigy carved on his back—a hideous, swirling orgy of demonic forms, all eyes, all maws, all fangs. The oglethings with glassy black, spiders’ eyes. A medieval rendering of Hell. Then out if it two bodies took shape: one body strangling the other. The heads on the bodies grew faces. My face and his. He, the strangler, and I, the strangl-ee.
I hammered him again across the back of the head with the sharp edge of the lectern. Again, I hit out. Again, until the crack of wood on bone became a soft thud. His scalp a bloody matte of scarlet hair and oily red blood. The giant stilled.
I tossed the wooden stand as far as I could down the slope. I ran after Sam, sobbing like a boy.
© 2017 by Michael C. Just