“It’s a long way down, a long way down,” I sang aloud as I rode up the neon green, off-season ski lift. The spray-painted metal bar creaked as if to warn me against what I was about to attempt.
“It’s a long way down to the place where we started from.” It was one of the worst songs to have stuck in my head. “I think the only song worse would be Spirit in the Sky.” I pursed my lips, trying to fight back the urge, but it was too late. “La la, la la spirit in the sky. It’s where I’m going to go when I die.”
I could hear Leo laughing, his cheerful voice was somehow audible over the Utah wind. “When I die and they lay me to rest I’m going to go to the place that’s the best.” Holding on to the area of the car that was connected to the zip line, Leo was using his massive wings to push my metal seat up the mountain like a parent pushing their child on a swing.
“Are we almost to the first summit?” I asked. We were getting higher than I expected for a commercial zip line.
“You mean the tourist summit?” Leo chuckled, making sure to shout down to me.
“Yeah, I guess.” The ski lift ended at the highest point of the mountain. It was a gorgeous ledge, surrounded by a fence, with signs perfect for directing anyone skiing down any of the dozens of majestic slopes. (When there was actual snow, of course. Without snow it just looked like a scary suicide spot.) Strangely this did not seem to be the largest mountain in the area. “Am I going to need oxygen?” I tried to ask, but we were so high, my voice was lost in the wind. I would have to wait until we actually landed.
After a few minutes, of Leo’s cheerful singing, we made it to the top. Upon locking the ski-lift bench into place, Leo took a seat by my side, leaning back as if we were an elderly couple, sitting on a front porch swing, just looking up at the sun. “Well, were here.” He rocked the seat way too hard, practically sending me flying.
“Where?” I asked, quickly gripping his arm.
“Under the sky temple,” he replied as if it was no big deal.
“Under it, how?” I looked up, hoping to see an obvious answer. There was something above us, but if he hadn’t called it a temple, I would have assumed it was just a particularly opaque mass of clouds.
“There’s a reason why airplanes get hit with birds all the time but you never hear about a plane colliding with an actual floating building,” Leo replied, leaning his head all the way back, like a joyful child.
“The temple can move on its own.” I marveled at the idea, but then a second thought connected. “Does that mean it knows we’re coming?”
“It?” Leo asked with a snicker. “That’s where the bait comes in.” Leo hopped off the bench, readying his pack. The backpack looked as unassuming as ever, although the color seemed to shift in the light. “You’re going to want to duck.”
“Duck?” I asked out loud when I should have been focused on covering my head.
Leo opened his portal bag, unleashing a massive black torrent of spiders. At first it looked like black water, but as the spiders took to the sky, the scene reminded me of the ending of Charlotte’s Web. In the cartoon, at least, the spider’s egg sack opens, releasing hundreds of babies. Each one of the babies is holding a single string, allowing them to fly off into the wind. The scene before me was equally as majestic. Except these were not babies.
The spiders were the size of Lucas, if not larger. But unlike Lucas, they were not chibi little cuties with plushie, ball shaped bodies. No, these spiders had massive legs that stretched out like wings. And all seemed to be producing web materials the thickness of climbing rope.
“Are they holding the temple in place?” I asked.
“They’re drawing their power from the portal dimension,” Leo explained. “Quite a sight. They’ve been working on this for the entire drive.”
“Um, why?” Was this the bait Leo had been talking about?
“No, that was the diversion. You’re not going to like the bait.” He stretched his arms over his head as if prepping for a workout. “But first we need to reach the temple.” Leo flapped his wings, propelling himself upward to land atop the rope-web. “Give me your hand.”
“Sure.” I reached out my hand, mentally preparing for the force. Just as I thought, Leo was full of energy and together we ran up the ropes (he ran while I tried to avoid getting dragged.) All while the spiders engaged the army of birds in combat.
I tried to focus on climbing, or at least not falling, keeping up with Leo as the terrain became more vertical. But with the last few feet at almost a ninety-degree angle I got a clear view of the battle below. I could see spiders lassoing birds; they seemed to have the ability to attack in multiple directions all while holding onto their web. But their lack of wings put the spiders at a distinct disadvantage. Birds of various shapes and sizes attempted to tear the spider’s limb from limb. It was just a matter of numbers.
Leo and I made it to the sky temple, which appeared to be made of compacted snow, similar to an igloo. Stroking my hand to the wall, it seemed to sparkle. It turned to vapor for a moment before reforming before my eyes.
I hoped I could take a rest at this beautiful space, but that was not to be,
“Now it’s time for the bait.” Leo took a knee. It was then i realized he’d left his portal bag on the previous landing.
“Are you moving the bag? Won’t that hurt the spiders?”
“All the spiders are out. Everyone else knows to stay put for the next phase.” When Leo managed to retrieve the bag, he threw it on the floor.
I watched in horror as my little son, Matty, emerged with Lenny the scorpion on his shoulder. Before I could ask what he was doing, Matty nodded and Leo grabbed my hand.
“We need to keep moving, Elena.” Leo pulled me down the hall, around a corner. But I turned back to see what my five-year-old son was about to do.
“Auntie,” he said in a sweet voice. “I’ve come to see you.” he had a small red backpack that he was holding against his chest.
“What’s in the backpack?” I asked, fighting against Leo’s grip.
But Leo quickly pulled me around the corner, sitting on the floor. “Shh! we’re not here for a fight.”
We’re not here for a fight? “Then what are we here for?”
“To trap Kay and retrieve Isaiah’s remains so she can stop drawing from his power like a battery,” Leo said confidently as if the answer was obvious.
“And all of that doesn’t involve fighting?” I had already survived three rounds of hell there was no way this boss level didn’t involve a battle.
“Do you play video games?” Leo asked, already on the move.
“Ever play a level where you lose all your weapons and have to sneak across a room?”
“Yes,” I replied with a groan.
“Then you know my plan.”
“So, are we going to be hiding in boxes or barrels?”
“If Matty’s part of the plan works, we won’t need either.”
Leo lead me to a series of ladders. He flexed his shoulders, causing his wings to fold back. “Let’s go.”
The image looked a little ridiculous. “Why can’t we just fly?”
“Because you can’t fly, and I don’t plan on carrying you,” Leo replied as he climbed, pulling his body up by his muscular arms. “And we don’t want to engage in a flight-based battle with an army of birds.”
We scaled the wall, up to the roof where I encountered a familiar sight. “Why is there a scarecrow up here?” It was the same creation from my dream; my husband’s skin and flesh hung loosely over a wooden form.
Before Leo could answer, a single massive bird descended upon the scarecrow. “That’s not good.”
“No shit, a seagull, is not good.” Upon seeing that my opponent was a five-foot tall air-raccoon I knew I was in for a fight. “Why a Seagull?”
“It’s the state bird of Utah,” Leo replied. “Why? I have no idea.”
I’d lived on a beach and I’d seen the movie Finding Nemo. So I was just waiting for the thing to cry out ‘Mine! Mine!’ But that would have been too cute. Instead, the sound that came out of the bird’s mouth was more like the death rattle screech of all of the birds who had died to the spiders.
Leo seemed merrily calm. “What do you know about seagulls?”
“They’re aggressive as fuck?” After a moment the answer came to me. “They live by the ocean.” Did I have anything from the ocean? “Do you have anything from the ocean?”
Leo tossed me a sand dollar. “Here you go.”
I wanted to say something sarcastic or witty but I knew what I had to do. I had to pray to my mother-in-law, and I had to do it fast. “Please, hear my cry.” Holding the flat shell in front of me like a tiny, palm-sized shield, I rubbed my fingers across the texture, tracing the flower shape present on all sand dollars. “Hi, Isaiah’s mom,” I said with my eyes closed. It was shameful that I couldn’t even remember her name but in my defense, it had been a while since we last spoke. “I’m not sure if you can hear me. I don’t know if I’ve been a disappointment. you’ve done so much for me and all I managed to do was get your son killed. I don’t have any right to ask you for help. But if you can…” The shell felt heavier.
Upon opening my eyes I could see it was growing a tumor-like spike from the center of the flower. “Ok…” I pressed the growing shell between my palms, as it formed the hilt of a sword. The more I focused the longer the growth became until it looked like a gun-sword from the Final Fantasy video games.
The shell sword was truly a sight to behold, it weighed as much as a shell but shimmered with the sparkle of diamond with elaborate silver inlays. It was so beautiful, it quickly caught the attention of the massive bird.
The seagull abandoned the Isaiah-scarecrow and went after my sword, attempting to grip it the way a normal gull would steal a hot dog or an ice cream from a small child.
Aware of what was coming, I swung with all my might. I was hoping to land a hit but instead the light sword slipped to the side, allowing the bird an even easier grip.
“Shit!” I was pulled in to the air as the gull’s screech pierced through the sky. “Leo help me!”
Leo swooped in, grabbing me away from the bird with one arm while retrieving the sword with the other. “Do you even know how to use a sword?” he asked, with visible frustration.
As I was struggling with my grip, we slid to the edge of the roof, inches away from sky diving without a parachute. And that was when Leo released me, giving me just seconds to get back to my feet. “Are you fucking serious?”
It was by pure luck that when I stood up, I somehow managed to stab the bird straight to the gut. “Yes!” And it got stuck. “Fuck my life.”
The bird fluttered, struggling to break free of the massive skewer, quickly dragging me to the edge. I needed to find a foot hold, a way top keep my balance. The creature was strong, for a seagull, but I just needed one good jerking motion. I locked my foot against the decorative ledge. there was just enough of a lip for me to get some leverage (hopefully before the solid material transformed in to water vapor.)
Nope, it was made of snow. I fell backward, but not before a wave of gore covered my face and chest. I was going to die and it was going to be gross. I could recall hitting a surface so hard that my mind went black. It felt like death; empty, quiet. This sensation was followed by what sounded like sand; a million particles of something, rushing towards me. I figured this was the burial of my remains. It made sense.
Much to my surprise, that’s not the case. “Wake up Elena! wake up!” the small voice seemed familiar.
“Lucas, is that you?” The skittering sensation was all over my body, apparently I was now covered in spider webs with a certain chubby spider resting on my chest.
“Yup, it’s me Matty will be so happy to see you!”
I recognized the restraints as the big, thick spider webs that had previously been used to lock down the sky temple. “What happened?”
“We won!” Matty said excitedly.
I looked around, to get my bearings. I was on the ground in the closed Ski resort, surrounded by spiders, with my son standing over me holding a burlap bag the size of a human head.
“We trapped auntie Kay!” Matty motioned to the bag, shaking it excitedly.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked as calmly as I could muster.
Matty looked to Leo with big doe-eyes. “Can I tell?”
Instead of answering, Leo opened the portal bag. With a wave of his hand, he instructed Matty and all the spiders to get back in the bag. “Now.”
Matty held the bag to his chest, looking down with a pout. “Oh, ok.”
When we were alone, Leo turned to me. “I’ll tell you more when we’re on the road.”
“On the road?”
“Yes, on the road.”
“It took you five whole minutes to come to that conclusion?”
“Took you just as long to take down the giant sea-rat.”
The drive back to Arizona was interesting. There was not a single bird in the cloudless sky.
After a few hours of silence we arrived, back at Sky Turtle Tours. The dilapidated stone structure looked as retro and desert-kissed as I’d left it.
Since the building was on public land Matty and I would able to stay. But without Isaiah there was no Sky Turtle Tours.
Leo parked the truck and stepped out before opening his portal bag. I could hear cheers and laughter; they were celebrating. Matty emerged on a wave of spiders, carrying him like the hero he was. “Mama!” he ran to my arms while holding an object that seemed to be the size and shape of a football.
“Is that Auntie Kay?” I asked, my voice devoid of emotion.
“Yup! we did it! we defeated Auntie Kay and brought Daddy home.”
“You brought Daddy home?”
Matty nodded and ran back towards the portal, just as the spiders and the bunnies dragged out a man-sized burlap sack. “All his parts are together!”
“But he’s still dead.” I did not mean to say that out loud, but it was all I could do not to vomit all over myself.
Matty’s face fell and so did the faces of all the animals who had risked their lives to return the love of my life to my arms.
“I’m sorry.” I turned away, to walk back inside my old home, slamming the cheap wooden door. “Fuck it’s hot in here.” I went for the generator, located in the garage. I struggled to open the door. With all my strength I slammed my shoulder into the door, causing the lock to break. “Holy fuck!” The room smelled like an overflowing toilet. And now I had no choice but to vomit.
Leo walked to my side. “Wow, those birds are sure crafty.”
When I was stable enough to take a breath, I could see that my garage had been attacked by hundreds of now dead birds.
Leo handed me a bottle of water from the broken bridge. “It’s not cold, but water doesn’t usually go bad without refrigeration.”
“Thanks.” I used the water to rinse the taste of bile from my mouth before attempting to see just how badly the birds fucked up my generator. It was bad.
Since the generator was broken, the inside of the store was blazing hot. Luckily the second floor, where the bedroom was, maintained a breeze, keeping the air at a nice livable temp.
I stomped upstairs and flopped down on the dust covered bed. “Fuck this.”
“Are you serious?” Leo asked, standing in the doorway, with his wings in full view.
“Am I supposed to be grateful? Is this my prize; to live as the crazy cat lady?
“Cat?” Leo asked with a chuckle. “I think ‘feline’ is the only species not represented downstairs at the party.”
“Or is that my fate; to be the mother of the new king of the animals?” Actually that wouldn’t be that bad. I’d have Matty.
“Your son needs to go to school.”
“You don’t think I know that?” I pulled the nearby pillow over my sweaty face. It still smelled like my husband after all this time. My husband, someone I would never see again. I would never hold him, kiss him touch him, or even speak to him. “So, what am I supposed to do with Isaiah’s remains? I mean, I assume that’s why you’re still here; I have to perform some kind of ritual or cast a spell or else his soul will be lost to the darkness?”
Leo took a seat by my side. “I’m glad you asked. As you may recall, Isaiah was a demi-god, with life-giving powers.”
“Which he lost when he tried to heal a random kid.”
“But then he got it back when he allowed himself to be conned by his evil sister.”
“Recap over- what does that mean for me and my son?”
“If and when you open the man-sized container you will discover that your husband’s remains have already been cremated. They are yours to keep or giveaway.”
I sat up with a jolt. “I have to eat him?”
“In exchange, you will be gifted his powers, the ability to balance life energy. You can garden, try to create something…”
“All I know is being a military wife. I’m actually still collecting payments from my previous husband, since technically Isaiah and I were never legally married.”
“If you get a job on base, Matty can go to school with the local military kids.”
“Get a job?” I asked. “Like at the grocery store or maybe Pizza Hut?”
Leo walked over to the nightstand, waving his hand he created a laptop out of sand (it looked like a typical Lenovo, if carved from stone). He placed his palm upon the screen, pulling up a website for Veteran’s hospice volunteers. “Sounds good, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I had to do something to move on. “But what about you? Your job is done, right?”
Leo took a seat, kicking up his feet as he leaned back. “Right now I have no other place to be, but I cannot tell you what the future will hold.”
“That’s all I can ask for,” I said with a sigh, holding the pillow to my face. “Please go check on Matty, so I can try to dream a nice dream.”
Leo nodded and left, his wings sparkling in the sunlight as he shut the door. I fell asleep to the sound of laughter, joy, peace, and awoke to a blinding light.
“Ow.” I landed in the middle of the desert as if dropped from a plane. (Or more likely shoved from a car.) I dusted the sand from my face. Somehow I had been left on the side of the road, wearing only my underwear. This allowed me to feel an ungodly level of heat on every inch of my body. I stood up, looking around. “Isaiah?”
A figure was walking in the distance. I shouted but no sound came from my throat, so I ran. “Isaiah!”
The figure kept walking.
“I’m sorry! Please!” I ran until I tripped on a rock, landing on my face. Tears streamed down my cheeks. “I’m so sorry.” There was no use in running, this was just my final goodbye. “I’m sorry Isaiah, please forgive me.”
A gust of wind blew past my shoulder. I opened my eyes, looked up, and there he was. Isaiah looked as beautiful as ever, with his long brown hair flowing down his shoulders in sun-kissed waves. His doe eyes blinked once, then twice, like a doll.
“Please say something.”
He smiled his sweet, sexy smile as he brushed a lock of hair from his cheek. “You’ll figure it out.”
“I’ll figure it out?”
“I do love you and I never blamed you.” He reached for my hand, allowing me to stand by his side.
“I forgot how much I missed hearing your voice.”
“Taste of my ashes and you will never forget me.”
“You sure about that?” I asked, my face clenching with disgust.
“Do me a favor and try it once. Just once, see what happens.”
“What’s going to happen?”
Isaiah laughed. “Hell if I know. I don’t exactly have a lot of experience with dying.”
“But you must know the science behind it?”
“Science?” he asked, as if I was making a joke. “The science of superhuman life-magic?”
“You know what I mean. There have to be others; other humans who ate the remains of…never mind.” I was crazy for asking such a thing.
“All I know is that you must consume all the power, to fully keep me within your soul.”
“This just keeps getting better and better.”
“But just start with a sample. I trust you to follow your heart, to guide your mind.”
I awoke in bed. The moon was high in the sky, but the party had long since went quiet. I made my way to the man-sized duffel bag. Reaching in, I could feel only a tea-like powder. I needed a container, or two or five. But first I’d start with one.
By the light of the moon, I located the water bottle. Assuming this worked like tea, I put a spoonful of my husband’s ashes into the water, giving the container a gentle swirl. “Down the hatch.” I forced myself to chug the entire bottle.
The world went bright, too bright. But I could feel hands; skin, fur, claws. And then came another voice. The voice of the man I killed in Colorado.
“You don’t deserve to be here.”
“I know,” I replied not even turning around. “Life is never really fair.” I ran my fingers through the layer of dirt and dust on the floor. Right before my eyes, a flower started to emerge from the pile of filth. At first it was small, like a daisy, but the more I moved my fingers, the larger the petals became. It settled at a large rose (in shape anyway) the petals felt like potato chips. I crumpled them in my hand, creating a sparkly life-affirming light.
Perhaps consuming my husband’s remains might not be so bad. I turned to see if the old soldier was still behind me. He wasn’t. But I had a feeling that was not the last I’d seen of him.
Yes, this was a victory but this was not the end of my story. I located Matty, who was asleep using Lucas as a pillow. I thought about carrying him to bed, but instead, I simply kissed his cheek. “Goodnight my love.”