It’s been a few days, and I don’t know what to do. The clinic, ‘Rain Down temple’ opened for business.
We serviced mainly people searching for enlightenment, and cancer patients looking for medical weed. But everyone agreed, receptionist Syren’s ‘homemade, organic, vegan,’ jerky was to die for.
I couldn’t believe that people thought this stuff was as vegan. It was clearly meat. But I wasn’t about to out her. Saying it was man-made was so much easier than having to explain where a vegan holistic temple would get their hands on a supply of beef.
“I’m going driving with Johnny,” I said to her as I left for the communal van. The boss’s eighteen-year-old cousin/brother (a secret I managed to keep even as we grew close,) had his learner’s permit. I was only twenty but in the state of North Dakota, I could legally teach him.
“Wait to say goodbye to Remy before you go,” she said in her usual sweet, little-girl voice.
“Sure.” I glanced at the clock on the wall. I knew Johnny was waiting for me int he van. But looking around, the lobby was filled with patients waiting to see my boss. Remy had to be out soon.
“My dear children of the light, welcome to Rain Down Temple,” Remy Desilva greeted his morning appointments. With his long hair flowing loose over his shoulders, paired with his full thick beard, he looked like a sexy Jesus.
This was especially true when he turned to me with his salesman smile. “Good morning, Miss Angelina Cruz, did you sleep well?”
It was a rare moment when he called me by my full name. “I did, thank you.”
He greeted his patients with a bow and the usual yoga teacher-like greetings. I assumed he was speaking Hindi. He then introduced me as his nurse. Sometimes I was his physical therapy nurse other times I was an RN. It didn’t really matter to me since I wasn’t actually getting paid. (My ‘compensation’ was room and board.)
I wore a fittest t-shirt with an over-sized flannel worn as a light jacket: In short, I didn’t look like a medical professional, but neither did Remy. As long as Remy said I was to be trusted, his patients all gave me the benefit of the doubt. “I’m going driving with Johnny, as part of his therapy.”
“Yes, Johnny, my little cousin from the big city,” he explained to his followers. “Angelina has been helping him adjust to the peace and tranquility God’s country.” He turned back to me. “Johnny’s an amazing cook. You two should go on a picnic.”
“That was the plan.” From the time we spent together, I learned that Johnny’s mother had taught him how to cook at a young age. It was truly his passion.
I exited out the back, to the old, retro, wood-paneled van. Johnny was waiting, head down, arms crossed over his chest as if sleeping.
I stroked his cheek, brushing a lock of his wavy brown hair. His skin was warm in the morning sun. “You ready to go driving?”
“Just waiting for you, Angel.”
We made the hour long drive to the nearest grocery store and bought all of the cheapest cuts of meat and ugly vegetables that could double as seasoning. He wasn’t rich by any means but after Syren recovered his backpack he had over a hundred dollars that he didn’t remember packing when he was kicked out of his childhood home. (So clearly the money belonged to the now deceased attackers.)
But their loss was our gain. Johnny bought a camping grill and on a sunny North Dakota day, we took a drive into the vast prairie and under a tree for a picnic. “Johnny, this is safe right?”
“Huh?” he asked as he lit the camping stove filled with rubbing alcohol.
“I don’t want to set the tree on fire.”
Johnny chuckled as he ran his fingers through his long brown hair. “I thought you were going to ask if rubbing alcohol would alter the taste of the meat.” His voice was so sweet and innocent. Born and raised in North Dakota, he sounded like a cartoon cowboy, the kind that would end a conversation with ‘Aww, shucks.’
I sat by his side, taking a sip from my water bottle. I was wearing denim shorts, letting the sun warm my skin. I suddenly felt Johnny’s hand on my leg, his rough fingers moving slowly up my thigh. I could feel my heart flutter. I wanted him to touch me, to hold me.
“Can I draw you?” Johnny asked. His focus was on the fatback, chicken parts, and root vegetables cooking in a small cast-iron pan. He turned and smiled, his dark eyes locking with mine.
“Did you bring your sketchbook?”
“Of course.” He tossed me a worn, leather-bound book.
I had seen it before, but for whatever reason, I never thought to flip from back to front. Was greeted me were a series of detailed portraits; men, women children. But their clothing, hair and even certain facial features were all from different time periods.
“Are you designing characters for something?”
“Those are my friends. I can talk to the dead.” He said it so casually as if it was a truly unremarkable thing to say.
“Any dead person?”
“The ones who come to me.”
“Like guardian angels?”
“I wish. I mean, I would like to assume guardian angels would have stopped me from getting kidnapped, and beaten into a coma.”
“There are so many.”
“A few don’t talk to me anymore.”
“Because they crossed over?”
“I don’t really know. I mean I’ve been seeing random ghosts ever since I was a kid.”
“Does Remy know?”
“He doesn’t believe me, never did.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “The prophet Remy doesn’t believe in ghosts?”
“It’s not that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, he doesn’t believe in the afterlife. Growing up he always tried to convince me that I just had a lot of imaginary friends.”
“You’re not safe,” said a small child-like voice.
I looked around to see Johnny’s hands frozen in place. “Johnny?” I gently turned his head to face me. His eyes were glazed over and he seemed to be staring straight into the sun.
“We’re not safe,” he said in his own voice.
“We’re not safe here?” I repeated.
Johnny blinked his eyes, returning them to their normal shade of brown. “Not safe?”
“Do you remember when you were in a coma?” I asked, hoping to coax out more information about his strange condition.
“Kinda, I mean I know Syren put me in a magic educed coma to heal my body and mind.”
“Do you remember what you called me?”
Johnny blushed as he paused and bit his lip. “I think I called you, ‘Mom?'”
“You do remember.”
“Yeah,” he said softly with a shrug. “They told me you’d make a great mother one day.”
“Can I draw you?”
“Maybe after the food is done,” I said, turning our attention back to the camp stove. After all, the last thing I wanted was to start a fire on some random farmer’s land.
“Fair enough,” Johnny poked the contents of the pan with a metal spatula and paused to taste. “I’ll just sit back and enjoy the view.”
He looked at me with bedroom eyes.
Now I was the one blushing. “Tell me more about your friends.”
“Sure.” Johnny happily told me stories of Woodstock hippies, civil war soldiers, families crossing the country during the era of Manifest Destiny (or Oregon Trail for the gamers out there.) There were even a few Native American spirits that seemed to roam freely throughout the Midwest, searching for meaning in an unjust world.
“Phoenix was born dead, we put his soul back into his body,” this voice was a male, and seemed to whisper on a gust of wind.
Johnny glanced at me. “How did you know my middle name?”
“Your middle name is Phoenix? That’s kinda cool.”
“My mom wanted to name me Phoenix but my Dad insisted on a normal name. But why did you say it just now?” A smile crept across his face. “Is someone talking to you?”
“I guess, maybe I’m just hungry.”
Johnny finished the stew, serving it up in paper bowls lined with foil. The taste was spicy yet sweet and smoky/earthy tones that seemed impossible to achieve from the small camping stove.
“Can I sketch you now?” he asked as he put out the fire. He reached for the sketchbook, turning to a fresh page. From his pocket, he pulled a few ordinary-looking pens like something one would steal from a cheap motel.
“Do I need to hold still or anything?”
“No, I’ll make up the pose. I just want to observe your features.”
I couldn’t help but observe his hands. Each line seemed to come from muscle memory. “How do you do that?”
“We share a room,” he said, not looking up from his work. “Whenever I can’t sleep I look at you, sleeping on the floor on that plastic thing.”
“A yoga mat,” I said with a laugh, “I sleep on a yoga mat.”
“You could be sleeping in my arms.” Johnny rolled his shoulder back, flexing his bicep.
“…and that’s why I sleep on the floor.” My voice trailed off. I put down my food. I needed to touch him, I needed to hold him. My body felt like a puppet, being controlled by strings. I reached out and grabbed Johnny’s hand, causing him to drop his pen.
He said nothing as I turned his wrist, exposing a strange tattoo. The word, ‘Mystical’ written in cursive. “My first attempt at a tattoo.”
I kissed his wrist, then licked it.
Johnny closed sh sketchbook. “Do you want to go to the van?”
“No, right here.” My body felt hot like I was an overheating battery, desperate for a release.
I sat on Johnny’s lap, and we started to kiss. I felt my hands slipping down my jeans, my underwear. Then I went for his zipper. Johnny was already hard.
He looked at me with his innocent eyes. “Are you sure?”
I nodded, no longer able to speak. I positioned his hands on my waist as we made love, deep and slow. My vision blurred, as my body was overcome with emotion. It felt like an orgasm but so intense that my legs felt numb. There were tears in my eyes. My mind was lost in one beautiful moment.
Suddenly I felt a pair of rough hands grip my neck. “What do we have here?”
A second man struck Johnny in the face. “What’s a (gay slur) like you doing with a hot piece of (Hispanic slur)?”
“Can we get a turn, or does she charge by the-”
‘Bang! Bang!’ Two shots rang out in quick succession. Syren stepped off her motorbike, holstering her small pistol. “Were you two having sex? Aww, you’re so cute!”
I quickly got redressed and stood up. “Were you following us?”
“Remy told me to,” she admitted casually. “Plus I needed to go hunting, anyway.”
I expected her next words to be ‘And you guys took the van,’ or some kind of explanation of why she was out on just a motorbike. How did she plan on carrying back two dead bodies?
What happened next was something out of a video game. Syren removed her tote bag, waving it in the wind like a kite. The square-shaped bag transformed into a long army-style duffel bag. “Little help?”
Her words shook me from my catatonic state. “Sorry, I’m still a little shaken up,” I said, grabbing my sore neck to demonstrate that it was the attack that had me flustered, not Syren’s magic. “What do you need me to do?”
“Just hold the bag open, so I can toss stuff in.”
“Toss stuff?” The words barely had a chance to leave my lips.
Syren’s small, petite, body started to transform. Her arms became large wings, like that of an eagle, and her hands became claws. I had never seen an eagle up-close; the claws were terrifying but accurate. Long talons, the size of butcher knives, protruded from leathery yellow skin. With impressive precision, she butchered the bodies into pack-able chunks. But even her swift cuts could not prevent the bodies from leaving behind a substantial amount of blood. “Oh dear,” she said in her usual sweet tone, “we can’t leave such a mess in this beautiful place.”
I was about to ask if she needed assistance, but she clearly did not.
Syren opened her mouth, revealing a reptilian tongue that flowed nearly to her feet. Crawling on her hands and knees she licked the ground clean in a matter of seconds, swallowing up random rocks, dirt, and plants. “All clean!” She stood up, flexing her back. And in a matter of moments, Syren’s body returned to her human form. Her clothes weren’t even damaged. “Don’t worry, Angel, once I get the meat on the smoker there will be plenty of blood and bodily fluids left for BOOE tea.”
“Blood of our enemies, tea.”
Johnny stood up, putting his arms around me. “I think we just need to get back to the clinic and rest.”
I was grateful for his presence. “I-I want to go home.”
“Home? Like California?” he asked.
Syren had been packing her motorbike and magic bag into the van. “You want to leave Rain Down Temple?”
The way she asked was so innocent, now I was afraid. “No, I just need some sleep.”
Syren’s smile returned. “Sounds good, I’ll drive.”
I feel asleep on the rode back. I remember Johnny carrying me into our bedroom and laying by my side. Eventually, I fell into a deep sleep.
But when I awoke Syren was watching me. “I made you some tea.”
I could smell the rot from all the way across the room. “Um, thanks. I’ll drink it later. I’m still pretty tired.”
“Oh, ok,” she replied cheerfully. Syren left the mug on the nightstand.
I waited until I heard her footsteps leave down the stairs (and then 100 seconds after that) before getting out of bed and flushing the ‘tea’ down the toilet.
Now, as I type this, I can’t help but wonder who the spirits were referring to. ‘We’re not safe’- yeah, we were certainly not safe in that field.
Or are we not safe HERE, in the temple?
And what will happen when Syren and Remy realize that I didn’t drink the tea?
The adventure continues in Dakota Son, available on Amazon