In a display of monumental patience, Dahlia gave the wrench one last hard pull and stepped back from the truck wiping her hands with a rag. “Alright, Jim. Try it now.”
The engine coughed and sputtered before rumbling to life. An elderly man leaned out of the driver’s side window and gave a thumbs up. “You’re a miracle worker, girl.”
“The miracle will be when you stop calling me girl. I’m old enough to give you grandchildren.” Dahlia gave Jim a wide grin. “Great-grandchildren if I was wild enough.”
“Ah, you lot are too sensitive.” Jim turned off his beat-up van and hopped from the driver’s seat, wiping his own hands on his jeans before giving Dahlia a hearty handshake. “Thanks for helping me out. Business is in the shit and I’ve got no spare cash for a new truck.”
Dahlia returned his bright smile. “If you can give Ricky a new fridge hookup on the cheap, we’re square. She will not stop talking about an ice maker and some insane need to control the fridge from her phone.” At his confused look, Dahlia just shrugged her shoulders and slammed the hood into place. “She knows more about this stuff than me. I’m a tinkerer, not a techie. Besides, she’s a fantastic cook. It’s worth the investment.”
Jim held his belly in deep laughter. “Ah, God, the stars in your eyes. I’ll get you the fridge just because I looked at my own wife like that, bless her soul.”
Dahlia laughed as he crossed himself and she packed up her tools. “Take it easy on this old gal, Jim. Eventually, you’ll have to upgrade to a fancier ride and you know those have fancier gimmicks in them.”
“I bet you could learn. I learned my son didn’t like girls but women like you sure made up the difference!” Jim’s cheeks flushed red and for a moment Dahlia thought Jim was either drunk or legitimately touched. “If I can learn gays, you can learn computer cars.”
“Shit, you sentimental ass. My heart just melts.” She stepped into his hug and accepted a paternal squeeze.
“Thanks again for the fix. Tell your lady I say hi and I’ll look into the fancy fridge!” Jim gave her shoulder a hearty pat and jumped back into the driver’s seat. They both gave a final wave as he backed out of her driveway to head home.
Dahlia tucked the dirty rag in her back pocket and went to put her tools back into their proper places. Ricky would roll her eyes at the hyper organization but there had to be balance in relationships; one neat freak, one clutter bug. Dahlia didn’t mind cleaning since Ricky worked long hard hours and didn’t deserve housework on top of it.
Speaking of the devil, an ice blue SUV with a dented front bumper pulled into the driveway and shut off. Ricky’s long leg stretched out of the open door followed by a bleary-eyed brunette in a wrinkled suit. She didn’t quite balance right on her high heel and Dahlia caught her arm before she could fall.
“Hard day?” Dahlia took advantage of their position and slid her arm around Ricky’s waist.
“I had to battle the damn board to give the nurses a fucking raise they deserve.” Ricky reached back into the car and grabbed a steaming paper bag. “I brought home dinner since you said Jim would be coming by. I hope burgers are ok?”
“Sounds good to me. Just let me change and wash my hands.” Dahlia gave her a kiss on the cheek and followed her into the house. A dog howled in the distance and a chill ran up Dahlia’s spine. She took an extra second to make sure the door was locked.
After dinner, Dahlia rubbed Ricky’s aching feet until she fell asleep on the couch to the drone of a sitcom on the television. Just as she started to nod off herself when her phone rang She tried to reach for it without waking Ricky but she yawned and blinked open her big brown eyes.
“Hi, is this Dahlia Zender? I was hoping to schedule a pickup for some scrap metal.”
“Sure, how many pounds do you think?” Dahlia went into the kitchen for a notepad and pen.
“I’d say about 200 pounds?”
Dahlia scribbled down the number and asked for the person’s name. “Ok, Randy. Just leave me your number and I’ll verify from the recycling center to confirm when we open tomorrow around 8 am.”
“Sounds great. Thanks a lot!”
When Randy hung up, Dahlia ripped the paper from the pad and left it by her keys at the front door.
“You shouldn’t indulge these after-hours calls, hon.” Ricky ruffled her hair to loosen the dark curls from their tangles. “People will take advantage and you’ll always be on the clock.”
“I know. But this was a quick one and he sounded like a sweet old man.”
Ricky stood up and nuzzled her head into Dahlia’s neck, squeezing the shorter woman in a hug. “I guess I’m not the only one who’s lucky you have a soft heart.”
“Come on.” Dahlia tugged at Ricky’s hands and led her to the bedroom. “Let’s get some sleep. It’s gonna be a rough day tomorrow. That guy is in the middle of nowhere.”
“Make sure you charge extra for fuel.” Ricky yawned and headed for the shower. “Care to join me?”
Dahlia smiled. “Well, in the interests of conserving water. I have a soft heart for the environment, too.”
“And there’s the sense of humor that got the ring on my finger.”
With a kiss goodbye sweetened with toothpaste as Ricky got ready for work, Dahlia left home for the scrap yard to use their truck for this special haul. As usual, her boss was late but as the first one there, she got the best truck before anyone else. Once she signed it out and took the keys, her boss, Carl, walked through the door.
“Mornin’” He grumbled around a long sip of coffee.
“Yikes.” Dahlia noticed the heavy bags under his blue eyes and his shirt wasn’t as pressed as usual. “Rough morning?”
“One of my dogs was really sick all night. Throwing up all over. Scared my girls half to death.”
“Oh, man.” Carl’s fosters meant the world to him. Helping the animals helped him and his three daughters cope with the loss of their mother to a sudden seizure five years ago. “You sure you don’t want Andrew to cover? He can come with me on this early run and you can have a nap here in case anything happens.”
“Nah, I’ll take the run with ya. Hopefully, they’ll tip big. It’ll help with the vet bills.”
“If you insist.” She showed him the address. “But I’m driving. It’s far enough that you can nap on the way. I won’t be offended you’re getting out of my scintillating conversation.” She laughed and twirled the keys around her finger.
“I’ll take it.” He said through another yawn and signed his name with a hand with rough dry skin from frequent handwashing. All those pets and fosters must make a mess. Dahlia always wanted pets but Ricky won’t even agree to one dog.
Dahlia adjusted the seat while Carl made his gentle giant, hard-earned fit body into the passenger seat. He set up the GPS for her as she pulled out of the yard then passed out to the random pop station on low volume. It was only white noise for the two-hour ride as Dahlia tried to think of ways to get Ricky to agree to take one of Carl’s more mellow fosters off his hands. A breed that would be ok at home with her regular-ish schedule and Ricky’s sasquatch sighting levels of irregularity in her schedule. Maybe a good running partner for herself and a cuddle bug for Ricky. Dahlia could almost predict every argument against it and a suitable counter-argument. She almost had it all worked out when she had to elbow Carl awake as they pulled up to the given address.
When Carl looked the place over, his eyes narrowed. The house was clearly run down but the rest of the neighborhood didn’t seem dangerous. “Let me radio back to the yard that we arrived. Just in case.”
“He seemed like a sweet old guy on the phone.” Dahlia trusted his instincts. Carl worked in repo before switching to the scrap metal industry after his first daughter was born as it was safer but he had a good eye for trouble. She kept the doors locked and her hand on the panic button on her phone.
“Let me call him to confirm the pickup. I don’t want him to think you’re alone.” Carl dialed from his business smartphone. “Hello, this is Triborough Scrap and Recycling. You made an appointment with one of my workers to pick up some scrap?” Dahlia couldn’t hear the exact words but Carl nodded despite the frown lines around his mouth and eyes deepening. “Yessir, for the weight you requested, there’s no way one person could pack that alone. If you’re ready, please meet us outside at the truck to sign some forms?” The lines smoothed and Dahlia thought she heard the old man would be right out. “Thank you sir! Just look for the bright green truck.” His late wife’s favorite color. When Dahlia went to put her phone away, Carl stopped her with a gentle but rough hand on hers. “Right. Thank you very much, sir. Bye.”
“Sounds good but keep your mace on you. You never know.” Carl checked for his totally legal and not at all questionable knife hidden in the small of his back and I slipped my tiny can of mace into the wide band of my fitness tracker. I’m just an overzealous health nut and not carrying a paralyzing substance at all, Mr. Police Man. Totally legal. No reason to suspect a thing.
An elderly man leaning heavily on a cane and an ancient flip phone stepped out of the front door and waved; picking his way towards them. Dahlia sighed with relief but Carl’s shoulders only relaxed a fraction.
“He looks safe enough.” Dahlia turned off the truck and they both hopped down. Carl went to greet the customer while she prepped the back of the truck and got their work gloves. She tied her sweatshirt around her waist and put her long black hair in a tight ponytail before slipping on her sweatband to catch some of the sweat before it could drip down into her eyes and risk the temptation to wipe at her face with the dirty gloves. You’d think that would only happen once but after an hour of hauling heavy scrap, it’s easy to be so exhausted you forget.
Carl waved her over and had Randy lead them to his unfenced backyard. Dahlia took a cue from Carl and followed behind them both, keeping the customer in between them. “We should have this cleared up in about an hour. We’ll weigh it, cut you a check for the metal, and write you up an invoice for the pickup and haul away before we go.”
“Thank you so much, sir. You’re doing me a great favor.” Randy smiled. “This old swing set has been an eyesore since the grandkids grew up. Ashamed to say I let it rust over once the wife died.”
“Totally understood, sir. We’ll take care of it.” Carl sounded much less guarded, especially when the formerly impressive metal swing set came into view like a sad rusty Stonehenge set in grass someone had tried desperately to trim around the mess.
“You sure you can handle this, missy?” The old man looked Dahlia up and down in a way that made her bristle with the need to defend herself.
“I keep the best on my team, sir. Don’t worry.” Carl did her the favor of responding in a way that wouldn’t get her fired. She made a mental note to remind him of the need for a shirt saying “Don’t worry, I’m scrappy.” She was a sucker for a decent pun. People would either be too amused or too annoyed to question her strength.
Luckily for both of them, the old swing set was on its last legs and came apart with a rough pull. The bits were easy to carry and load in the back of the truck to be weighed.
The hour went by faster than Dahlia thought it would and she rolled her aching shoulders while Carl wrote up the invoice.
“I think this was worth the drive out.” She said, walking with him to Randy’s front door to collect payment.
“Good, then you can drive back, too.” Carl laughed and marked where Randy should sign the paperwork.
“I can’t thank you two enough. The neighbors couldn’t wait for me to get rid of that thing.” Mr. Frederick opened his door and went in alone to retrieve his wallet. “Are you sure I can’t offer ya something to drink?”
“That’s sweet of you, sir, but no thanks.” Dahlia agreed with Carl on that point. Never take any food from a customer. You never know.
“Ah, better safe than sorry, I understand.” He hung his cane on his arm to pull out his credit card.
Carl took the card and started to write down the numbers while Dahlia looked around the front yard. ‘This neighborhood is so quiet.’ she thought, looking up and down the block.
When a metallic thud rang out, she turned to see Randy bring the cane down on Carl’s head a second time.
“What-” Three muted pops sent pain radiating outward from her abdomen.
“Sorry Dahlia. You weren’t careful enough.”
When she tried to scream, blood bubbled from between her lips and down Dahlia’s shirt.
Dahlia tried to grip the door frame but failed and she fell onto Carl’s motionless legs. “Don’t worry about him. We just want you.”
She wasn’t certain if it was blood loss or tears that made Mr. Frederick’s form melt and twist away from the sweet old man and into something amorphous and blinding. It hurt to look at, and hurt to breathe, hurt to try and stay off the floor.
“Just sleep.” Now, his voice was different. Or was that the world slipping away? Dahlia could only think of lips sweetened with toothpaste and juicy burgers eaten before a shared nap on the couch. But here it was just cold and tasted of copper and darkness.
When Ricky entered a silent home, she sighed; feeling tired for them both. “I bet they kept her late again.” She said before biting her lip to stop herself from talking out loud. Not keeping her internal monologue internal always got her into trouble growing up with her strict parents but somehow worked well in negotiating contracts with stubborn, penny-pinching board members who remained divorced from reality.
As a peace offering for getting stuck dealing with off-hours work exactly like she told her wife not to do; Ricky brought home a lime custard cake with fresh strawberry topping and upon seeing an empty house, she put it in the very back of the fridge for safekeeping.
Before she could ditch the business skirt and jacket for more comfortable clothes, the doorbell rang.
“Ugh, I don’t want to people anymore.” She moaned and bit her lip again. ‘Internal monologue, woman. INternal.’ It hurt every muscle to tug off her heels and put them by the door before she looked through the peephole. The sight of Carl and blue uniforms made her shiver and she threw open the door. “Yes? What is this?”
One of the cops looked at Carl who shook his head. “You may wanna sit down.”
Ricky’s eyes narrowed taking in Carl’s sunken eyes and slurred speech. “Are you drunk?”
The cop pressed her lips together and put her hand on Carl’s arm. “Ma’am, I think you should really let us in and have a seat.”
“What happened?” Ricky’s voice cracked, tired muscles gave way and Carl failed to catch her before her knees hit the doorframe. “Where’s Dahl?”
They didn’t need to say anything. The mournful look Carl and the officer shared and the tears in Carl’s eyes said it all.
After so many years in the hospital telling countless family members a loved one has died or there is no hope, Ricky gagged on the thought of the wail from her own throat as an exact replica of every mourner she’d ever encountered. Somehow her clogged nose registered the scent of the chest she cried in was Carl’s but the hands trying to pick her up must be the officers. There was a couch cushion holding her up, tissues thrust into her hands, and platitudes her ringing ears she barely perceived. None of it mattered compared to the burning ache of the ring on her left hand.
‘It’s usually raining during these types of things, right?’ Ricky sniffed and pushed her sunglasses up higher on her sweaty nose. The cemetery provided a tent for them but the sun still beat down to add heat and discomfort on top of mourning. The small gathering listened to others sharing how Dahlia impacted their lives and how much she will be missed while standing in front of a large picture of her on a stand surrounded by flowers.
It touched her heart to see everyone talk, and when Jim and his son finished their last words, she said how grateful she was as the final person to say her piece. Carl took her hand as she watched everyone else file away with some last words of sympathy and Carl’s eldest daughter, Judy, made sure nobody lingered too long. Rose, his youngest, stayed by her father’s side just in case he had another dizzy spell from the terrible concussion he got in the same accident that killed Dahlia. He was thrown from the crashed truck when the seatbelt failed but Dahlia was trapped inside when the vehicle burned.
“Are you ready to go?” Judy pressed a cool towel into Ricky’s hand. “Or did you want to stay to see them lower the coffin?”
Ricky wiped the back of her neck and forehead, grateful she kept her dark curls high in a bun out of the way. “Nah, there’s no need. There’s nothing in there.” She turned away from the empty wooden box and started to gather up the bouquets to take home and dry out. Judy helped in silence and the four of them loaded the blossoms in her car.
“You okay to go home alone?” Carl’s voice broke and Ricky had to hug him. He squeezed tight with one arm, the other still aching from the impact of rocky ground.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
Carl and his daughters looked her over but didn’t argue. “Call us if you need anything. Anytime, alright?”
Ricky nodded, wanting nothing but for this day to end. She knew they all wished her well but the weight of it all made her anxious and she desperately needed to decompress.
The ride home barely registered. Ricky felt like she’d sat behind the wheel and teleported to her driveway. It fit the robotic way she unloaded the car, tossed the sweaty black dress at the hamper, and took a shower. Her stomach growled as she put on her pajamas, reminding her how little she’d been eating.
Ricky opened the fridge and picked out one of the many premade meals Jim brought over and caught sight of one of Dahlia’s leftover beers. While the container full of rice and marinated chicken spun in the microwave, Ricky took a can and stared at the label. The can started to sweat as she turned it around in her hand. She didn’t understand how Dahlia could stand the stuff. Ricky preferred a sweet wine if she drank at all. She still brought it with her to the couch and curled up to watch the news with the food in her lap. Ricky picked at it, chewing slowly in anticipation of stress-induced nausea. She reached for the beer and took a sip. It was too bitter at first but the spices in the food mixed with the citrus in the beer and she leaned back with a sigh. Just like Dahlia after a long day. Now they were all long days. Her eyes watered and Ricky put the open beer back in the fridge.
It wasn’t long before her stomach felt overfilled with less than half of the food gone. Ricky put it back and brushed her teeth before climbing into bed. She snuggled into Dahlia’s side of the bed and let the sound of the TV in the bedroom lull her to a fitful sleep. She almost dismissed the sounds of running water as part of her dream; she dreamed of their last night together often. Ricky sniffed and buried her face deeper into Dahlia’s pillow but the sound didn’t stop. Did she leave the sink running? She’d been forgetful the last few days. Ricky wiped at her eyes and lumbered to the bathroom to find the lights on and the shower at full blast.
‘Man, that’s wasteful.’ She scolded herself, entering the bathroom. Ricky saw smudges on the floor and made a note to clean them in the morning when she pulled open the shower curtain.
What little food she’s eaten made her so nauseous, Ricky gagged and almost fell on the floor. The tub was filled with dirt, boiling hot water, and a muddy, naked, and terrified Dahlia shivering in the soapy water.
“I still feel cold.” Dahlia sobbed, turning the hot water up to the max. “Why am I still cold?”
Ricky barely managed to catch herself on the sink before blacking out.
“Yes, I’m extending my bereavement leave.” Ricky paced the kitchen as she tried to put any strength into her voice. “I have plenty of vacation days and sick leave to use but use the maximum of my bereavement first, ok Julie?”
The head of human resources clicked a few links and set it all up. “You got it, boss. How are you holding up?”
“I feel like I’m on another planet.” Ricky caught a sob when she heard movement from behind her.
“I won’t keep you. Just let me know how I can help.”
‘I think this is outside your wheelhouse.’ Ricky thought, thanking her and hanging up the phone.
“I didn’t know where else to go.” Dahlia was hunched over on the couch staring at her hands. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come.”
“You’re home. Where else would you go?” Ricky poured herself a glass of wine and continued to pace back and forth.
“I scared you. I’m sorry.” Dahlia clenched her fists and folded into herself.
“What happened to you?” Her voice barely a whisper, Ricky clutched her wine in both hands looking deep into the glass.
“We went out to that Randy guy who called. I helped load the scrap and while we waited for the old guy to pay, he hit Carl over the head with his cane and I think he shot me.” Dahlia’s hands went to her belly, fingers dancing over the phantom pain of the wounds. “Next thing I remember, I was digging myself out of a deep grave.” She rubbed her face and finally dropped her bare feet to the floor. “I walked home. Only at night and hid during the day.”
“Good idea.” Ricky gained enough courage to join her deceased wife on the couch. “You looked like a mess when I first saw you. Who knows what would have happened if you were spotted?”
Dahlia sighed, her face twisting in confusion. “I don’t feel my heart beating. I never felt tired the entire walk here; never felt sore. I didn’t feel any injuries.” Dahlia sniffed. “Do I smell? A corpse should smell…”
Ricky’s heart broke at the fear in Dahlia’s still bright eyes and finally allowed herself to embrace her wife. “Only like a campfire and your soap.”
“I have to find out what happened to me. That guy must know something.”
“You want to go BACK to the guy who shot you?”
“What’s he gonna do? Kill me again?”
“Considering once is usually enough to do the job, honey, I don’t know what to think.” Ricky sipped at her wine and rubbed her forehead as she always did when stressed out or heavy in thought.
“I have to know.” Dahlia glanced at the collection of flowers by the door. “I won’t be able to get my life back, obviously. I don’t think anyone will take my resurrection as suspiciously well as you have.”
“Oh, this is not calm. I feel insane.” She finished the glass of wine and Dahlia laughed when Ricky hiccupped at the end of it. “But you’re really here.” Ricky reached out and curled some of Dahlia’s dark, damp hair around her fingers.
“I have to find out why.” Dahlia squeezed Ricky’s hand.
“Not alone, you won’t.”
“No way. The last time I went, I got shot. I can’t let you do this.”
Ricky gathered Dahlia into her arms. “I already had you walk out the door alone and not come back. I’m not leaving you.”
Dahlia could tell by the inflection in her wife’s voice there was no way to argue. If Dahlia snuck away, Ricky would find a way to follow. The sad perfume of the funeral bouquets filling the air reminded Dahlia of the pain Ricky had already been through, having to bury and mourn her once already sealed the deal. “You better make sure that no matter what’s going on, you stay safe, okay? I can clearly take more damage than you.”
“Maybe.” Ricky held on so tight, her arms hurt. “This could be a one-time thing. A miracle or-“
“A curse.” Dahlia pulled back and stood up, and walked over to the flowers. She flicked the petals and sighed. “I can feel this but I’m not hungry or thirsty. The chill I feel is empty and angry.” She went to the kitchen and grabbed a random container to try the food. “Everything feels dull and…” Dahlia smacked her lips and stared down at the plate. “Did Jim make this?”
“Yeah, he’s been dropping off food non-stop. Carl’s daughter’s, too.”
“He still uses too much salt.” Dahlia reached into the fridge and slugged an open beer. “Wait, did you drink my beer?” She looked deeper into the fridge and found the cake in the back. “And you bought my favorite cake…” She opened it and pulled a strawberry off to slip into her mouth. Though a bit soft from being stuck in the fridge, the flavor slid across her tongue with the memory of the sweet fruit.
“I think your sense of taste is working fine.” Ricky joined her in the kitchen and tapped her wine glass against the beer in a strange toast. “And that man has always been the right amount of salty.”
“No doctor should be ok with this much.” Dahlia put the dish down but kept the beer. “I wonder if I can get drunk.”
“Don’t test that tonight.” Ricky swayed on her feet, the combination of wine and rapid drop in adrenaline catching up to her. “I need to lay down.”
Dahlia went to her side and guided Ricky back to bed. “I may be kind of cold.”
“I don’t care.” Ricky slurred, forcing a quick trip to the bathroom to rinse out her mouth before falling into bed. “It’s fine. I’ll warm you.”
Dahlia hesitated, recognizing the words she spoke to her wife the night she left her ex-girlfriend when the mental abuse crossed to physical for the first and last time. She held the sobbing woman in her arms all night; vowing to make sure she never cried again. It was silly to Dahlia then, not knowing what it all would become; a slow romance blossoming into a marriage where their biggest problems were work/life balance and Dahlia’s fierce desire for a pet against Ricky’s ruthless practicality about the logistics of it all.
‘Logistics went right out the window now, huh?’ Dahlia couldn’t resist her old patterns of brushing her teeth and tying up her hair as if this were any other night preparing for a long day of work tomorrow. Dahlia allowed herself to be covered with blankets as if they were waiting for the heat to kick on in-between seasons when nature played tricks with the temperature. Nature had already played one hell of a trick recently, and Dahlia wondered if the realization of her current state would make a shiver go up her spine but there was nothing. Just the weight of the sheets covering her, the mattress beneath her, and the pillow under her head.
Then warm arms encircled her, a leg toned by running through various hospital wards and strenuous workouts draped over her hips and cocooned her in warmth; forcing Dahlia to accept the inevitable: despite the unearthly circumstances, she was not alone.
Dahlia wasn’t happy about having to hide in the back seat while Ricky drove out to the ill-fated pickup site. But it was imperative she not be seen, considering she’s officially dead. Ricky doubted it would be well received if the government found out she was falsely reported dead; either getting some fraud charges or captured for experiments. If whoever tried to kill her finds out, they may come after Dahlia again. Who knew if this resurrection would work more than once?
Despite feeling silly laying so close to the floor and a little guilty because her own car was only this clean when she first bought it; Dahlia endured the long ride.
“Are you alright back there?” Ricky slowed as they approached the block where the ill-fated house sat. “You’ve been quiet.”
“I guess I’m nervous.” Dahlia poked her head up to look out the window. “I don’t want anything else horrible to happen.”
Ricky nodded and pulled over, wisely not in front of the intended home. “Hon, are you sure this is the place?” She turned the engine off and reached for her taser before stepping out of her car.
“Yeah, this is it. I recognize the street.” Dahlia checked for people and also got out, pulling her hood up to cover her face as she walked up the block before her non-beating heart felt colder than before. Where the little house once stood was barren land, fresh dirt settling in a neat square surrounded by overgrown grass. “No fucking way. It was here!” Dahlia kicked the dirt, digging at it with her foot. “What the hell?”
“I believe you, baby, but you can’t draw too much attention.”
“What does this mean?” Dahlia walked over the dirt to look at the rest of the property finding no trace anything was ever here.
“They must have cleaned up after-” Ricky hesitated. “What happened.”
Dahlia rubbed her face, wondering if perhaps when she opened her eyes she would see something different. In the silence, there was only disappointment.
“We should go.” Ricky looked around, wondering if the neighbors were watching them.
The wind picked up and Dahlia looked up. “Do you hear that?”
Ricky took her hand. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Come on.” Dahlia pulled Ricky back to the car. “I know I hear something.”
Ricky slid back into the driver’s seat, giving a double-take when Dahlia took the passenger seat. “We’re following voices now?”
“Is that any stranger than what’s happened so far?”
“I guess not.” Ricky started the engine and followed Dahlia’s hastily shouted instructions until they reached a secluded road with a bent metal guard. “Is this where…”
“Pull over here, honey.” Dahlia barely let the car come to a stop before jumping out and running across the road.
“Shit.” While Ricky took the time to put the vehicle in park and lock it, Dahlia jumped the barrier and slid down the embankment and out of sight. “Dahlia!”
The woman in question managed to keep her footing as she barreled towards the black stain at the bottom. The burned up husk of the work truck had been long since cleared away but the dusty grass was still scorched and stained from fire and oil.
“Be careful!” Ricky hissed from the top of the ledge, unwilling to risk a clear risk of breaking or spraining something.
Dahlia walked around the scarred earth looking all around her for the source of what was calling to her. The ground rumbled under her feet, the dirt rising as something burrowed up. As the ground opened, the forms of two large dogs shook themselves free and lumbered up to her. Dahlia backed away from the beasts; their fur black with blazing orange lines scattered along their backs like lava breaking through the surface of a volcano. Thick steam streamed from their mouths and noses and their bright orange eyes looked at Dahlia with curiosity.
“What the hell is happening?” Dahlia gasped and stepped back when they moved closer. One of the dogs put its nose right into her hand and she stopped trembling to let them approach her.
“Holy shit, are those dogs?” Ricky squeaked, ready to sprint back into the car.
“Not like any I’ve ever seen but it sure looks like it.” Dahlia knelt down as the dogs preened under her pats and scratches along their necks. “You sure fit along with all the other strange crap I’ve gone through so far. How is this even possible?”
One of the dogs sank his teeth into her hand and locked shut, orange ichor dripping into the wounds.
“Dahlia!” Ricky jumped over the ruined guardrail and ran to her wife, whose eyes glazed over as she slumped to the ground. The other dog stood between them, not growling but clearly keeping Ricky away. “Don’t you dare, you mutt.” She hissed, ready to push the dog aside but it diverted her with a firm but gentle nudge.
Dahlia hiccupped and twitched, gasping despite her heart and lungs no longer working as her mind was flooded with a barrage of memories. They rolled over each other, bending and twisting out of order so fast she couldn’t make sense of much more than loud voices, blood, and blinding light. When the tide abated, her own thoughts became clear once again and the dog was licking her wounds and whining in apology. To her shock, the bite marks sealed themselves up and vanished from her brown skin.
“Are you alright?” The other dog backed away finally allowing Ricky to be at her wife’s side. “Baby, say something.”
Dahlia clung to Ricky as she tried to make sense of what she’d seen. “I think we should get out of here.” She rasped.
“Good idea.” Ricky helped Dahlia up and they climbed the embankment on unsteady feet; flanked by the dogs circling them and propping them up to make sure they didn’t fall back down. By the time they reached the top, Dahlia was bracing Ricky; whose legs ached from the climb.
“I guess we’re keeping them?” Ricky panted, looking at the dogs as they wagged their thin tails.
“Maybe they’re keeping us.” Dahlia gave Ricky a bottle of water and watched as the dogs cocked their heads and turned their pointed ears forward as if hanging on her every word.
“I can’t fathom all this.” Ricky slouched back into the driver’s seat, wiping sweat from her face. “Nothing makes sense.”
Dahlia pulled her into a tight hug. “We should go home. I can deal with all this.” ‘I think…’
“If you think I’m letting you out of my sight, you’re nuts.” Ricky kissed her cheek. “The less sense this makes, the more I feel you shouldn’t be alone.”
“I don’t understand what I saw but I know something dangerous is happening.”
“I’m here for you, hon.”
“But yeah. I think we should go. It’s getting late and we don’t wanna attract any attention.” Dahlia took her place in the passenger seat with her hood up obscuring her face while the dogs curled up in the back seat.
Ricky sighed and started up the engine. “This is not what I meant when I prayed for you to come back to me.”
“And it’s not what I meant when I said till death do us part.” Dahlia laughed, and her eyes grew heavy, falling into a listless sleep. The visions from the dog tried to take form in her subconscious. But none of them made any sense. Screams for help, metal on metal, flames roaring all around her as she begged someone for understanding. Her life hadn’t been easy; in and out of foster care, almost getting arrested for auto theft but a kind-hearted person taught her to fix cars rather than steal them. Things were alright before she met Ricky with a black eye screaming at her ex-girlfriend in the parking lot of the dealership’s service center that she would sooner drive her car off a cliff than let her have it, but she had never encountered anything as bad as the memories scrambling for purchase.
When they got home, the dogs happily trotted into the living room and curled up on the floor in front of the couch.
“At least they’re well trained.” Ricky fell onto the couch, her body trembling from exhaustion and mind numb from the overload of impossible information. She was so overwhelmed, she didn’t even hesitate to drop her hand on one of the dog’s heads when it nudged her with a warm wet nose.
Dahlia bent over the back of the couch and kissed Ricky on the cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing.” Ricky yawned. She reached her sore arms up and hugged tight. “This isn’t like putting an empty milk carton in the fridge. There’s no blame here.”
“You should get some rest while I figure out what to do next.”
“Yeah,” Ricky stood and stretched with a grunt, sore from the long drive. “I’ll head to bed. Don’t you go running off?”
“I promise in all my troublemaking glory.” Dahlia kept a smile on her face until her wife was out of sight before it melted and they met the gaze of her two new companions. “It’s not that simple, is it?”
The dogs looked up at her, tilting their heads in an approximation of confusion.
“Yeah, just keep lookin’ cute.” Dahlia smiled as they preened under her attention. The shower water blasted to life and Dahlia could tell by the noise the strongest setting was on for Ricky’s sore muscles. “You’re gonna need names. Especially if I need you to protect Ricky while I do whatever I need to do.” The dog on her left yipped in agreement. “Don’t be a suck-up.” Her eyes drooped and Dahlia fell on the couch with the not so trained dogs in a pile to sleep.
In the face of a cavernous silence, the sound of the flesh of bare feet padded towards a fluttering light.
“Your gambit has failed.” The owner of the steps lamented in a sorrowful voice. “The angel of fire reawakened.”
“It is your own weakness.” A chorus rang out. “Rectify it.”
“As you wish.”
Dahlia moaned and cried out in her sleep. As she slept, her mind shuffled through the foreign images. There was something she lost and she had to get them back. If they stayed lost, something terrible would happen but what was it? Why won’t the memories align enough to tell her?
After the third round of mashed-up visions, Dahlia gave up on sleep and sat on the front steps. The dogs came and sat on each side of her; one looking out at the dark neighborhood, the other snoozing with its head in Dahlia’s lap.
“You shouldn’t be here.” A whisper came from the bushes and made both dogs snap to attention. Dahlia jumped to her feet.
“What the fuck?”
“Shhh!” A woman stepped out of the darkness and the dogs growled. “You too, mutts.”
“Who are you?” Dahlia whispered, taking in the sight of the rail thin woman with big black eyes too big for her face. “What are you?”
“Wow,” The woman said, stepping out from the shadows and letting the dogs sniff her fingers so they would sit quietly. “They did a number on you, huh?”
The woman looked around to make sure they were alone, white hair flopping over her pale face. “Let’s go inside. I can’t be seen.”
“Why in the world would I let you into my home?”
The woman smirked, sharp white teeth catching the porch light. “Because I know why you were murdered and what you need to do now before you get put down permanently.”
The dogs looked up at Dahlia, tongues lolling expectantly.
Dahlia sighed. “Don’t you dare wake up my wife.”
“Figures you’d get married.” The black-eyed woman shook her head, hair glittering in the streetlights. “Always a soft touch.”
“My name is San.” The black-eyed woman sat on the couch but was clearly uncomfortable. She hunched in the corner away from Dahlia. “We used to work together, I guess you could say.”
“Where?” Dahlia decided to stand, ready to react should this odd-looking stranger decide to try something violent. “And doing what?”
“Yeah, I’d be pissed off too, so I can forgive the tone.” San shrugged. “You were one of the nice ones back then, though. But that’s why you ended up like this.”
“Just tell me.” Dahlia sighed, rubbing her temples. “Why did someone kill me and why am I not dead?”
San took a deep breath. “You were part of an elite caste of angels tasked with eliminating enemies of God. You broke the rules so they cast you out. But you were reborn as a human and the host was sent to take you out again to keep you from causing any trouble.”
“Fuck…” Dahlia felt dizzy and sat down.
“Indeed.” San lifted her hand when one of the dogs shoved its wet nose against her knuckles and patted the dark head; fingertips brushing the orange cracks in the dark fur. “And they know you’re back and are coming to finish the job.”
“They’re doing a great job so far.” She grumbled. “What am I going to do?”
“Run. Like I plan to.” San stood up and went for the door.
“Wait! Why did you even come here if you aren’t going to help me?”
San’s shoulders dropped and her black eyes met hers filled with sadness. “Like I said, you were always nice to me. And it wasn’t fair what they did to you.” She turned around but kept her long fingers on the doorknob. “If you want a fighting chance, you’ll have to get your wings and halo back.”
“Why not? Makes about as much sense as everything else the last few weeks.” Feeling tears gather in her eyes, Dahlia wiped them away. “How the hell am I supposed to do that?”
Lips turned down, San went back to Dahlia and dug into her right eye. To Dahlia’s horror, San slipped the black orb right out of its socket and held out the clean eye. “Take it.” She said, not even the barest hint of pain in her voice. “I can grow another one. Look into it and think of your past. It will show you where to go.”
“Oh, God.” Dahlia held up a shaking hand and San dropped the eye into her palm.
“I wouldn’t be calling Him if I were you.” And with that, San went out of the front door. “Be careful.” And the door shut and latched behind her.
Dahlia stared at the sphere in shock, searching the flawless surface for some sort of clue to make sense of anything she’d heard. As an answer, the orb’s color shifted with silver glimmers and an image swirled to life. A shining figure with her face danced in battle with a twisted mass of jagged metal and rotting flesh. Golden armor smattered with brown blood didn’t seem to weigh her down in the slightest as she hopped from foot to foot, not a single blow from her enemy came close to landing and she turned the creature into a spray of blood and rusted metal. The woman with her face stood tall, with gleaming wings on her back and a blinding disk hovering over her short hair. Her skin was black as coal with red and orange cracks all over her body. Others in the same gold armor gathered around her, talking in a strange language whose meaning tingled at the back of Dahlia’s brain.
“Good job.” Dahlia whispered, hearing the words in some deep part of her still struggling to awaken.
“Honey? What are you doing?” Ricky leaned in the doorway, yawning and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What’s that thing?”
Dahlia blinked and looked around the living room. Both dogs were fast asleep and the morning sun came through the windows. ‘Shit, it’s been hours.’ She leaned back and put the black orb in her lap. “I think you better get caffeinated first.”
“Oh, God. There’s more.” Ricky croaked, raking her fingers through her hair and the coca colored curls spilled down to brush her shoulders.
“That expression is gonna be funny in a bit…”
“What happens when you get your wings back?” Ricky scraped the sides of her yogurt to get every bit out of the little container.
“You’re taking this suspiciously well.” Dahlia took a sip from a steaming cup of coffee and nibbled on a slice of toast; more out of habit as she felt no hunger.
“So far I’ve had my wife return from the dead, dogs burst through the ground with magic blood that gives you visions. I’m not trying to make sense of things anymore. I’m just along for the ride.”
Dahlia had no argument and continued munching on her toast. One of the dogs came to give it a sniff. “Lumos, no.”
“I can’t just keep calling them ‘dog,’ can I? The other one is Ignis. Fits them well, don’t you think?”
Ignis wagged his tail and sat next to Ricky’s feet, sniffing at the empty yogurt container. “I’m guessing they don’t need to eat either?”
“Doesn’t stop them from trying.” Dahlia held out the toast for Lumos to take but she only licked at it then let it drop to the floor.
“At least this will make packing supplies easier.” Ricky went for another cup of coffee, that little cup of yogurt sitting oddly in her stomach.
Dahlia didn’t dare argue. “I guess this is a good reason for you to bring out all those survival supplies?”
“Now you can’t accuse me of being paranoid.” Ricky got up to throw out her empty container and put her spoon in the dishwasher. “And you won’t give me some bullshit argument about not going with you.”
“Nah, that’s a battle I won’t pick.” Dahlia put down her cup, put the dirty toast on a plate, and looked deep into the obsidian sphere. “Come see the first location with me? I haven’t looked yet since I was looking at the past.” She reached out her hand and Ricky took it and she folded Ricky under her arm into a tight hug. “Ready?”
“Same here.” Dahlia took a deep breath, shuddering when it felt hollow because her lungs no longer worked. “Let’s see where to go first.” Holding the orb in both hands and thought of the image of herself on the battlefield, wings gleaming at her back.
“That looks like a swamp?” Ricky leaned closer and Dahlia opened her eyes. The image panned out to a sign welcoming travelers to Houma. Ricky grabbed her phone and checked her maps. “It’s going to be a long drive since we can’t get you on a plane.”
“You always wanted to take a road trip.”
Ricky stood and stretched before gulping down the rest of her coffee. Rubbing her tired eyes, she reached for a notepad and pen with long fingers. “I’ll get started on a list of things to pack. We’ll leave as soon as we can.”
“You don’t have to come,” Dahlia said, holding up her hand before Ricky could argue. “I know you don’t want to leave me alone but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to be around crazy sword-wielding creatures and strange women who pull their eyes out like it’s no big deal.”
“I understand.” Ricky blinked. “Ok, well I don’t understand but I get that this can get worse. All the more reason for me to stick by you.” She leaned over and kissed Dahlia on the forehead.
“Don’t take the good luggage.” Dahlia laughed.
Dahlia and Ricky packed Ricky’s SUV with clothes, snacks, and emergency supplies and set off early in the morning to make sure Dahlia wasn’t seen. The dogs happily curled up in the back seat with their master while Ricky did most of the driving until they were on less popular highways to avoid possible traffic cameras. It was hours before Ricky drove without constantly peering around for a car ready to run them off the road.
“You need a break?” Dahlia looked at the nearly empty road around them. “It should be safe for me to drive now.”
“Yeah, I need to stretch, too.” She pulled over and got out of the driver’s seat with a groan and Lumos and Ignis jumped out to roll in the dry grass. While they didn’t need food or water, the dogs clearly needed to work off their pent-up energy from sitting in the car.
Dahlia drove for a few hours while Ricky napped and they repeated the cycle of driving and motels until they finally reached Louisiana. Dahlia directed the way by looking into the orb, leading to a sign welcoming them to Houma City. They did their best to avoid tourists and Ricky did take a chance to indulge in some local foods and did bring some back to her wife despite the fact Dahlia no longer felt hunger. Thankfully, her sense of taste was reasonably intact.
After sunset, the four of them snuck out, Ricky holding her bat at the ready and Dahlia with a crowbar in hand, following the directions of the orb to a ramshackle old house with a fluttering light inside.
“Let me go in first.” Dahlia gave Lumos a pat and she sat in front of Ricky to protect her. Dahlia peeked through the half-open door. “Hello?” She knocked on the door and waited but only silence answered her. Ignis growled low and backed towards Dahlia. The swamp water bubbled and hissed and the door exploded outwards; showering Dahlia with shards of wood. A rolling wave of claws and teeth skittered through the doorway; hissing and spitting in rage. Random green eyes surfaced and sank on the creature’s skin, searching around for prey.
Ignis barked and bared his teeth, the orange lines on his body glowing brightly. Lumos stood guard in front of a terrified Ricky and when the creature lashed out with long limbs towards her, Lumos trapped a clawed appendage in her jaws with a sickening wet crunch and shook it until it receded.
“Get back!” Dahlia brandished the crowbar from the car and took a swing at the largest part of the thing, hoping it was its head. It got stuck and the creature lunged at her, knocking her to the ground. She struggled to keep a cluster of teeth away from her neck even with Ignis on its back pulling with his jaws with all his might.
Lumos jumped on the creature’s haunches while Ricky came at it with the baseball bat she always kept in a vehicle with her. The creature flinched under the blows but shook them off with a howl, sending Ricky and both dogs landing hard in the mud.
The creature wheezed and growled, stretching to face the dual threat. “Rick!” Dahlia screamed, “Run! Ricky, run!” She could only hear the dogs whining and growling but not a peep from her wife. Panic ran through her and Dahlia screamed as she pushed the mouths away with all her strength. Heat roared through her as her skin shifted from creamy brown to inky black, splitting open in sharp orange lines just like Lumos and Ignis. Her hair blazed as bright as lava as well as her eyes, leading to micro-cracks all over her cheeks. Burning red nails as long as her forearm grew from her fingertips and slashed at the monster, causing it to shriek in pain. When it reared back, Dahlia shoved it back and cut it in half with her talons. The creature sputtered and growled on the ground, even in its death throws reaching out to kill her. She snarled back and stabbed at it, red hot talons making the creature’s rolling flesh boil away to the glimmering remnants of its eyes.
Lumos and Ignis padded up to her and nudged the orbs to Dahlia’s feet, who stabbed them onto her talons and slipped them down her throat. After the last one, she doubled over in pain and fell to her knees. A white slit opened in her back, cooling the hot flesh around it and a translucent wing unfurled bringing soft light to the dark night around them.
“Dahlia?” A shaky voice called out to her. Ricky watched her wide-eyed, a trickle of blood coming from the side of her head.
When their eyes met, the red and orange glow flickered, coal-black skin smoothed back to its soft brown, and a naked disoriented Dahlia struggled to her feet. Lumos circled her while Ignis stood guard over Ricky who trembled as she tried to sit up.
“Are you alright?” Dahlia rasped, reaching out to Ricky and frowning when she flinched back. “I-I’m sorry.”
Ricky raised her hand, extending a single finger to touch Dahlia’s palm. “Okay.” She took a shaky breath. “What was that? How are you not on fire?”
“I don’t know.” Dahlia shivered and slid her hand around Ricky’s to tug her gently to her stand. “But things are becoming clearer. We need to get you back to the motel though.”
Ricky brushed her fingertips against her aching forehead and sighed when she came away with blood. “I don’t think I have a concussion but you’re right.” She looked down and saw Dahlia’s bare body. “You better cover up, though. I don’t mind but the cops will.”
“I think there’s a blanket or sweater in the car.” Stepping carefully around Lumos and Ignis, who happily carried the bat and crowbar in their mouths. “But the important thing is the first aid kit.”
When they reached the car, Dahlia sat Ricky in the passenger seat and began to treat the head wound. “You’re right. It doesn’t look too bad; at least according to what you’ve told me about these things.”
“Here, let me look in the mirror.” Ricky checked the car mirror in the sun blocker and nodded. “I should be alright but I better not sleep too long. Just in case.” She leaned back into the seat and blindly accepted the water from Dahlia. “But I’m so tired.”
“I know, sweetheart.” Dahlia found her hoodie in the back seat and wiggled into it. She noticed the vague feeling of soreness and an itch simmering under her skin. For the first time, she felt more alive and warm, power humming at the ready. Pushing it down, Dahlia focused on driving and keeping her wife talking to keep her from falling asleep.
Once Ricky had taken a shower and was tucked safely into bed, Dahlia snuck in her dogs; who obediently stayed quiet and kept a vigil over Ricky. Dahlia milled around the tiny room to avoid going to sleep. Or whatever imitation of sleep she experienced now. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to see any more visions of what she was, why she died, and why she turned into a fire creature that could kill monsters. So many secrets and strange things that put Ricky in danger the more they came to light.
‘I don’t know how much longer I can let her come with me.’ Dahlia climbed into bed and held onto Ricky as tight as she dared.
San kept her head down among the shifting crowd of her own kind, tuning out the gossip simmering around her. The other lower genii couldn’t stop speculating why they were all summoned but San already knew. Dahlia found her first wing.
“Attention!” Gabriel’s voice silenced the crowd. He stood above them, golden armor blinding those who dared to look up at him or Michael, who glowered down at them in stark contrast to the soft smile on Gabriel’s pale face. “As you may have heard, a shunned has made a return.”
The crowd tittered but stopped as if a switch was flipped when Michael cleared his throat. “You all travel in the nooks and crannies of the world. If you hear anything, you are to report directly to us. Understood?” Michael always had a way of talking that made questions into unquestionable orders.
“Your help will be appreciated and rewarded.” Gabriel inclined his head as a dismissal and San tried to hide among the throng but Gabriel called out for her.
“A word, just for a moment.” He said with a smile that made San wish she could disappear. “I understand you were close with Dahlia? I know this must be concerning for you.”
San kept her eyes down, not daring to look higher angels in the eye, but managed to put a reverent smile on her face. “Dahlia worked with many genii as most high angels did during the wars, your excellency.”
“We are aware of who we work with.” Michael barked and Gabriel held up a hand to calm him.
“I only wish to let you know we understand this may be difficult for you; seeing someone you admired fall so low. If there is anything you need, do not hesitate to reach out to us.”
“Of course, exalted ones.” San bowed and joined the rest of her people as they scattered to return to Earth. She kept her easy pace even until she was sure the angels were far behind her.
San knew what that little conversation meant. She would be watched.
End Part OneRecommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in