Excerpt for Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy


By J. Michael Gonzalez


© 2017 J. Michael Gonzalez, all rights reserved


Smashwords Edition


Cover Design by James, GoOnWrite.com


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please download an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not download it, or it was not downloaded for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and download your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is strictly coincidental.


Author's Website

http://jmichaelgonzalez.com


ISBN: 9781370902026




And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away

Percy Shelley, Ozymandias




“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Contents


Copyright

Expected Company

Leaving LA

Bottomed Out

Time On Paper

Art Therapy

Wind Change

The Learning Curve

Strength Limit

Fast_Friends

Marked: Daniel

Marked: Nicolette

Ground Zero

Ryan

Burdens

Kashmir

Chemistry

Cleanse the Evil

Seek the Truth

The Knee of the Curve

Premonition

The (Dead Man) Mr. Ford

Deja vu

A Sortof Date

The Club

Near Miss

The Ride Home

Other Fish

Questions Asked

The Second Arrow

Harbingers

Father and Son

Catalyst

The Rubicon

Something Brave

Fugue

The New Reality

Leaps of Faith

Wreckage

Prologue





Chapter One: Expected Company


WHEN the knock finally came, Miles was just finishing his preparations in the kitchen. He had been expecting his visitor since awakening with a panicked shout in the predawn hours, sweat-soaked sheets twisted about his body. The dream had imprisoned him with razor-edged images of violence and ruin, stubbornly resisting his semi-lucid struggles to awaken. Though many of the dream’s specific details had attenuated throughout the afternoon, two images had retained their dream-like hyperreality, coming into focus as the rest of the dream faded: yellow eyes glimmering in the foggy gloaming, watching him through his kitchen window; and the girl, eyes glazed with the ecstasy of her magic, fire and decay spreading in her wake, corrupting everything she touched. Though the premonitions had been coming less frequently of late, this was one of the strongest he could remember; it filled him with dread, like some monstrous scorpion clinging to his back, its claws pulling at his thoughts.

There’s work to be done, he thought grimly as the knock was repeated, a tight lipped smile touching his features as familiar undercurrents of fear and excitement percolated through him.

He briefly settled in his chair at the kitchen table, checking his preparations, ignoring the twinges in his knees and hips as he sat. Earlier that afternoon, he had experimented with the placement of the sword relative to his chair, arranging the furniture and practicing until he could snatch the scabbarded blade without looking and execute a left-handed slash over the kitchen table. He had practiced the move -- ignoring the dull pain in his joints -- until he could grab the scabbarded blade, draw and cut between ticks of the clock mounted over the refrigerator behind him. He nodded once in satisfaction as he scanned the kitchen one last time, his heartbeat quickening.

The work of a Celestial Advocate is a young man’s work, he thought, though he still looked forward to sparring with this adversary. He chuckled at his vanity, knowing it was foolish, but unable to suppress his anticipatory excitement. He crossed his small, sparsely furnished living room, unconsciously flexing his hands, pushing away the dull fibrous pain; nearly six decades of work with fist, sword, and heavy caliber firearms had taken their toll.

Even Celestial Advocates have a limited shelf life, he mused, still an integral part of the celestial machinery even if they’ve been granted a special place within it.

It was a risk answering the door unarmed...but even weakened by age as he was, an Advocate was never truly weaponless. He paused, one hand on the doorknob, closing his eyes in concentration as he extended his senses beyond the door; he sensed darkness (was it nighttime already?), fog...and his visitor, standing on the other side of the door. His concentration deepened as he unconsciously cocked his head to the side (a tremor of unease passed through him; it wasn’t so long ago that he hadn’t needed to concentrate at all); he realized he was searching for a heartbeat which wasn’t there.

He nodded as his eyes opened; he had read that part of the premonition correctly, then.

As his guest knocked a third time, a mischievous smile began pulling at the corner of his mouth. He pulled open the front door, revealing a tall, nondescript man wearing a pea coat -- at least, he would have appeared nondescript to someone unable to pierce his Glamour.

To Miles, he looked like something else entirely.

The man favored Miles with a sardonic smile, dipping his head in a nod of subtle mockery.

Miles smiled gently back, waiting.

The man’s smile became forced as he realized that Miles was waiting for him to speak, that he wasn’t going to make an invitation until it was explicitly asked for. It was an absurd and childish power play, but one which the man was forced to concede.

His voice was a pleasant tenor, though his accent was hard to place -- neutral news caster American, perhaps with the slightest hint of upper class London, “I’ve always wanted to meet you, old man. If you would be so kind...it would be nice to step in out of the damp.”

Miles smiled graciously, “I’ve prepared some tea; it’s just finishing brewing.”

The man hesitated, frowning slightly, but hid his irritation well, “Tea would be lovely.” He made no move to enter.

Miles waited a moment longer, fighting to suppress his smirk, then stepped back, “Then by all means, come in and join me for a cup.”

“Thank you.”`

Inviting evil into your home, he thought, always a tricky prospect. He’ll doubtless leave a token behind...bother.

Have I become arrogant?, he wondered, a trickle of doubt pooling in his thoughts.

The man made his way through the living room into Miles’ kitchen, settling at the table at his gesture. His visitor watched patiently as Miles prepared the tea in silence, long practice lending artistry to his careful, precise movements. It unnerved Miles to have his guest almost at his back, though he wasn’t so foolish as to let his visitor completely out of his sight; he had arranged his kitchen so he could watch the other out of the corner of his eye with the sword propped against the granite countertop near his hand. He glanced into the alcove over the kitchen sink, at the small ‘decorative’ mirror in a stylized brass sun-shaped setting. He smiled faintly at what he saw there...or didn’t see, really. He had mounted it there -- thirty years ago? thirty seven? -- after another guest had unexpectedly tried to kill him; his shoulder still twinged when the weather turned stormy.

“I remember your sire,” Miles murmured, wondering how long their veneer of civility would last.

He heard the frown in his guest’s voice, “She still holds a grudge over your murder of Carbrey.”

The emphasis on the pronoun was unmistakeable. Miles suppressed a quiver of fear, forcing an indifferent shrug as he returned to the table bearing two glazed cups decorated with white herons taking flight over a forest pond, “I’ve been abundantly clear about the boundaries of my domain. Carbrey and his get were trespassing; I disposed of the invading vermin accordingly. It was fortunate you weren’t part of the raiding party, Berwyn.”

Miles struggled to hide a smirk as he affected a muddled expression, “...or Attercop, is it now?”

It was childish and mean-spirited, but he couldn’t repress the impish glee that surged through him; the temptation to goad his visitor was hard to resist. He struggled not to grin as his visitor became unnaturally still, his gaze filling with malice. He quickly regained control, schooling himself back to stillness.

Pity, Miles thought, revising his estimate of his guest’s threat upward as doubt momentarily bubbled back to the surface. Disposing of him would have been easier if he could have been taunted into a rage.

“Archangel, old man; I am Archangel now,” his visitor sneered. Miles filled Archangel’s cup first, disappointed that he’d side-stepped the gibe before continuing, “The Dark Lady has a long memory, old man. She won’t forget your slight.”

...and neither will I’, Miles silently finished for him. Though his sire’s destruction had freed Archangel -- his new name symbolic of that release -- Miles had always known Berwyn...Archangel...would eventually seek him out.

Miles shrugged again, filling his own cup before settling across the small kitchen table from his guest. He pretended to sip his tea as he studied the man, noting Archangel’s gaze flicking to the sheathed sword propped against the granite countertop. Archangel’s lips tightened in consternation before he could master his countenance, returning to patient stillness as he reluctantly pulled his gaze away from the blade.

Miles suppressed a chuckle, No old friend, that’s not The Sword -- I hid that from you weeks ago. You’re worried that if you can’t see it, I must have some trick planned.

He grinned at his visitor. The weapon leaning against the countertop -- though real enough to kill -- was partially meant as a prop, a distraction from the Desert Eagle mounted under the table. He doubted it would destroy Archangel, but half a dozen .50 caliber silver-tipped slugs would probably ruin his day.

His visitor’s frustration momentarily boiled over, “You won’t be able to hide here in your little ghost town much longer; the world is changing, old man! The old order is collapsing; something new must grow in the vacuum!”

Miles grimaced, “And naturally you--“

“Give me the girl!” Archangel interrupted. “We both know she’s returned to your domain. What will you do when her power manifests? This little ghost town you’ve made will become the very little eye of a very big storm. Do you think to stand against the entirety of the Sundered Havens with your decrepit carcass, old man? Can you even pass an hour without pissing yourself? Or do you plan to...dispose of her...when she comes into her power? Murdering your kind has never been your modus operandi, despite your reputation. Give me the girl, and you can grow old here in your little graveyard.”

He smirked, adding, “Well..older, at any rate.”

Miles suppressed an inward sigh; another premonition come true -- the Mortal Heir was in his domain. He had prayed she wasn’t, that she could be someone else’s problem; he had been so tired, lately. He wondered, not for the first time, whether Merdathin’s mysterious visits were somehow related.

The pieces fit, he thought, his jaw tightening with consternation. Merdathin never did anything with a single purpose in mind. If he ever resurfaced, Miles resolved to ask him before killing him...even supposing he could kill him.

He pushed the thought to the back of his mind, irritated at his wandering focus; he had more pressing matters to consider.

It all comes back to the girl, he thought sadly. He pitied her for the misery and sorrow he foresaw in her future. He had fought to keep his domain free of monsters like Archangel, but he knew his visitor was right on both counts: when she came into her power, she couldn’t be ignored; and Miles wouldn’t murder an innocent. He shuddered at what her life would become if he allowed Archangel to take her away. It would be better if she was dead than to fall into his hands.

Or the Dark Lady’s, for that matter.

He would die to prevent it, he decided -- though he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Staring into his visitor’s eyes, he felt a chill run down his spine, a cold premonitory prickle that left him sweaty and shaken, wishing he could handle the loaded Desert Eagle mounted under the table, knowing its cold solidity, heavy with deadly purpose would bring him comfort; he was suddenly filled with certainty that the girl was not to be his task, that his work for the Celestials was almost done; but the way been prepared, his successor chosen. If his successor should fail...he shuddered as dream images of fire rose before him; it might be better if she died in her sleep after all. He suddenly felt small and exhausted, his mind unfocused in his failing body.

Still an integral part of the celestial machinery, he reminded himself bitterly.

As if reading his thoughts, Archangel ground his teeth with frustration. His patient smile returned, becoming predatory as he moistened his lips with the tea, “It’s almost time, old man.”

Miles stared out the window, taking in the chilly, foggy evening, suppressing a shiver of fear as he nodded, “Almost. But not tonight, I think.”

A sudden calm descended over his thoughts. He gently placed his tea cup on the table, his lip curling in response to Archangel’s widening smile. He heard the faint creak of muscles bunching.

Thunder filled the kitchen as Miles pulled the trigger underneath the table, the percussion splitting his eardrums, jolting his ribcage, making the teakettle jump on the countertop. Blood splattered the wall behind Archangel; his agonized bellow shattering the mirror in its decorative setting as he stumbled backward, his chair slamming into the wall behind him with a cottony thud! after the Desert Eagle’s thunder. Miles triggered three more rounds from under the table, spattering the off-white paint behind Archangel with overlapping sprays of gore, forcing him back another step.

The scabbarded sword was already in his other hand when Archangel roared again. Miles dropped the pistol as Archangel flipped the table out of the way, an errant splinter stinging Miles’ neck as it shattered into kindling. The blade was a silvery blur as he drew and cut to meet Archangel’s lunge. A fan of blood sprayed across the wall as Miles felt the tug of razor edged steel pulling deeply through flesh. Even in his dotage, he was fast, bringing the blade around for a second cut.

It should have finished it.

It should have...

Homecoming





Chapter Two: Leaving LA


NICOLETTE started her long journey home from her friend Angela's place early on a Sunday morning-- well before the sun began to rise. Angela hadn't been awake to see Nicolette out the door, which suited Nicolette just fine; seeing her friend’s relief at her departure would have been hard to bear. Her presence at Angela's house had made Angela nervous. She was probably worried that Nicolette would ask to spend another night, and another after that, and so on until either Nicolette brought the cops down on her, or she had to kick out her unwelcome roommate. Just thinking about it made Nicolette want to sigh. She wasn't like that anymore, if she ever really had been; her memories of her time with Angela as her friend were pretty hazy. Nicolette had genuinely wanted to spend exactly one night, just long enough to make a couple of phone calls and have somewhere warm to sleep afterward. She had a schedule to keep, a journey that she’d been planning for the last two and a half years.

Today, it was finally starting.

Her journey had truly started with the click of the door latch behind her; Nicolette suspected that no amount of knocking would have brought Angela to the door once that lock clicked shut. She sighed, a little hurt not to be trusted, but aware that perhaps the suspicion wasn't wholly unjustified...but for all the wrong reasons. Still, it had been great to sleep indoors in a bed; it beat sleeping in the bus terminal or wandering around downtown until it was time to go.

"Thank you, Angie," she murmured into the chill predawn silence, her throat aching with emotion, "you came through for me.”

Knowing the best way she could repay her friend would be to leave without fuss, she turned and began her walk to the corner where she intended to catch a bus downtown. She felt giddy as she stepped down from the front porch to the walkway, then through the flaking wooden gate to the sidewalk. It was exciting; she was moving from the known to the unknown, feeling a little bit like old Bilbo after he had been dragged from his comfortable and predictable hole. The Road goes ever on and all that.

She was truly leaving. That in itself was a victory worth celebrating.

She had little hope that her reception at the end of her journey would be a warm one; at this point she was hoping for a quiet, unnoticed arrival and a little breathing room to begin rebuilding. The bus arrived on time, roaring and wheezing down the somnolent city street, its noise and stink magnified by the slightly hazy stillness. She stepped aboard, pausing to study the sleepy people on the bus, most of them likely on their way home from late shifts or Los Angeles nightlife, wanting only to find cool sheets and a warm blanket.

Not unkindly, the bus driver tapped the fare-box, "Gotta pay to play, honey."

Nicolette quietly dropped in the requisite change and wandered down the aisle, stumbling slightly as the bus lurched back into motion. She sat on the left side of the bus, sliding all the way to the window. She watched the city shudder past, hands folded patiently in her lap, unconsciously fiddling with the coil of wire wrapped around her ring finger.

She stepped off the bus downtown, barely noticing the sleepy urban landscape surrounding her; its novelty had long ago ceased to register. It was just scenery, now -- hopefully just bad memories she could start working to forget in an hour or so. Suppressing a shiver in the chill pre-dawn, Nicolette walked the quarter mile to the Megabus terminal. The man in the ticketing window glanced at her id, accepted her cash, and gave her a ticket for the 6am North Bound Shuttle. Nicolette hadn't really expected any trouble, but she dreaded being recognized or having to explain where she’d been the last three years. He barely even noticed the blonde-haired, dark-eyed girl. To him, she was just another traveler with her own reasons for leaving the city anonymously on the cheap.

The bus was a long, blue animal with darkened windows, giving her the impression of an elderly man wearing wraparound sunglasses. It spoke to her of safety, anonymity, and travel under the radar. Her nervousness eased as the bus began to board moments after she finished her business. She took a seat on the lower level, near the back. She didn’t have any baggage to check.

Just the clothes I'm wearing, she thought, the contents of my pockets, and the bitter cup I’ve been given to drink from.

Her spirits were pretty low, but she was leaving Los Angeles behind. She cast her mind back over the long boredom, back through all the humiliations and indignities moving to LA had necessitated, her regret and loneliness and doubt...and couldn't come up with a single thing she had done that she felt proud of in this city. The one thing she had no doubts about, though, was her initial decision to leave Half Moon Bay and disappear into the depths of Los Angeles, like a cockroach fleeing the kitchen light.

At least I escaped from Mother, she thought, caught in the familiar dull ache of paired guilt and relief.

(three drops of blood, spattered on ugly yellow linoleum...waiting for the bus while the unseasonably warm sun beat down on her shoulders...rumble of the bus making her head feel as though it was going to split apart...guilt, despair, crushing self-hatred)

She blinked rapidly at the ugly memory, forcing it down before it could fully blossom in her mind's eye.

First things first, she thought.

Even now, seven years after her escape, two years after her mother had died, Nicolette still felt guilt and a sense of failure. She could never shake the feeling that she could have tried just a little bit harder, that perhaps there was some kind of effort threshold and if she had just managed to cross it, everything might have come out okay. She knew that was fallacious, that her childish need for approval was hard-wired into her brain, that it would take years to fully exorcise that feeling, but knowing the truth did little to assuage her guilt. She still felt as though she’d somehow failed.

With a shuddering roar, the Megabus came to life, grumbling resentfully at the lightening cityscape. She waited for the vibration to change into a rumble as the bus slipped into gear.

As it put on its traveling shoes, she thought with a slight smile, feeling impatience and anticipation begin to rise past her depression.

Do a little dance, sing a little song, get the heck out tonight, she thought, suddenly nervous. She wondered if this was how Orpheus must have felt when the gates of Hades opened.

One difference between you and me, Orph old pal, she thought, is that if I turn around and LA disappears, good riddance.

Of course, LA bore more resemblance to Hades than Eurydice in her heart. Abruptly, the bus lurched into gear and began to slide along the curb, making the turn into traffic after pausing at the light. Her spirits rose as she realized it was finally beginning to happen -- she was finally leaving LA -- with luck, never to return.

Maybe you never left Harlan alive, Patty, she thought, but I sure as hell am leaving LA alive. Damaged, maybe. Battered, definitely. But alive.

She had escaped; for now that was enough.


An hour later, as the sun rose over the mountains, the bus was climbing the long slope into the Grapevine on the 5N. Soon it would descend into the sere Central Valley, laboring its way back up the state to the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, one more stop on her way to the coast -- to Half Moon Bay.

To home, she hoped, her eyes filling with unshed tears.

She sat, her face turned to the window, her hands in her lap, calmly watching the landscape as the bus slowly but inexorably put the miles behind it. Her plan was finally in motion, but for the moment there was nothing for her to do but wait.





Chapter Three: Bottomed Out


IT was a little after 3 in the afternoon when the bus crested a rise and began its descent through the verdant coastal mountains. She was finally in the home stretch after almost ten hours on the road. It had started with the downtown bus to the Megabus station early that morning in Los Angeles. After almost six hours cruising up the 5, she had dismounted in San Jose, already feeling weary, but still with nearly 5 hours of travel to go. It was the first time she’d set foot in the San Francisco Bay Area since she’d left...escaped...deserted. She frowned at her inability to decide what words described her departure from Half Moon Bay, her birth place. Most of Daniel's family was probably still there, though she knew her own father and siblings had left shortly after her mother died two years ago. The thought that she might be in such close proximity to her second family (and Daniel!) left her simultaneously giddy with anticipation and nauseous with dread. Most of the probable outcomes were likely bad ones, but the giddiness just wouldn’t close up shop and go away.

Earlier that afternoon the Megabus had dropped her off in the San Jose station where she’d walked across the platform and caught Caltrain -- light rail -- up the Peninsula. She had almost made it across the platform before being stopped by a middle aged man in an expensive suit asking her to autograph his pocket silk. The intensity of his grey-eyed stare had unnerved her, but he seemed friendly enough. She was surprised by the dull ache in her chest as she watched him quickly hurry away from her, as if afraid of being seen with her.

At least he said ‘thank you’, she mused, forcing herself to feel bitter amusement at his furtive retreat in lieu of hurt shame. Almost 4 years since she’d last been in front of a camera, and fans still recognized her. She sighed, hoping Half Moon Bay would give her more anonymity than Los Angeles had.

By the time the train boarded, she had shaken if off. She had long ago learned how to compartmentalize chance meetings like that. There was a time when she would have been thrilled by the encounter, pleased to have been recognized by a stranger...

She found a seat on the upper level, her curiosity driving her to seek a broader view for the trip back. She had rarely traveled this far from the coast in her youth (though some might call 24 youthful, she certainly didn’t feel very youthful after 6 hours on Megabus!). Nicolette tried comparing her memories of the South Bay and Silicon Valley to her memories from her previous trip, but couldn’t really find many differences.

Of course, when you’re concussed and blinded by tears for half the trip, it’s hard to make a really meaningful comparison, she thought, feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted.

I guess coming home was bound to dig up things that I’d worked hard to bury, she thought. I feel like some kind of cut-rate paleontologist, digging through layers of bad decisions and unlucky breaks. A real paleontologist finds bones, she thought. What will I find? Will the bones just be a dry, fossilized record of past mistakes, or are they going to be the festering remains of my life in Half Moon Bay, holding records of pain and sorrow still unresolved?

As her throat began to tighten, she abandoned the absurd line of thought. If she kept flogging herself with her regrets, her return journey would be just as heart-breaking as her outbound one had been.

At least then my memories would have symmetry, she thought ruefully.

She stared out the window as the train rode its tracks through the heart of Silicon Valley. She knew it was supposed to be an ‘Economic Powerhouse’, driving the economy of the state and possibly even the nation. To her it mostly looked like freeways, low boring buildings, and trees tamed to the urban environment. For such an important place, it looked plain and uninteresting, like a strip mall, but without any shopfronts or eye-catching marquees. It depressed her, and she was glad when the light rail ride ended near the shopping mall. She glanced westward toward the mountains, seeing flows of grey mist beginning to pour between the peaks, a slow motion wave drifting down the green, forested slopes.

Half Moon Bay is just the other side of those mountains, she thought. Where Daniel probably is, the thought arising before she could stop it. She had a brief memory of his brown eyes twinkling with amusement, a smile pulling at the corner of his lips. Guilt and betrayal surged through her, momentarily overpowering the hopeful longing accompanying the memory. Angrily, she pushed the memory down, but knowing she was so close to her destination got her feet moving. From the mall, she caught the 294, almost the last leg of the journey. The 294 went west into the mountains, passing over the Crystal Springs Reservoir, a lake nestled in a valley between green, forested mountains. It was beautiful as it caught the afternoon sunlight, but she was exhausted, barely able to summon enough interest for more than a cursory glance at the long water in its forested valley.

I need to call Ramona, she thought, her exhaustion unable to completely blunt her fear and anxiety. She wanted to discretely suss out Daniel through his mother, and to apologize...

She shook her head, suspecting that running away had probably hurt Ramona almost as much as Daniel. She didn’t think Ramona would be happy to hear from her.

Later, she thought, tamping down a brief spasm of paired guilt and worry.

As the 294 crested the low coastal mountains and began the long descent on the other side, her earlier giddiness resurfaced along with dread. After seven long years away, it was hard not to react to all the possible scenarios she’d imagined, both good and bad. The bus traveled through tamed pine forest, passing long stretches of wildness, interspersed with dirt roads winding back up into the woods marked by mail boxes.

She was once again settled on the left side of the bus, resting her head against the window, enjoying the vibration though the cold glass. She watched for familiar sites or places that she might have visited (with Daniel!, her mind unhelpfully supplied before she could stop it). The bus wheezed to the top, then began the long roll down the switchback, where it passed the invisible but intuitively felt border between The Wilderness and The Town. She watched, her throat tight.

As the bus finished the lower half of the switchback and climbed a short hill, she waited in anticipation, watching for the Christmas tree farms: long orderly rows of cultivated pine trees of various ages, types, and sizes. It was one of the things that identified the border of Half Moon Bay for her.

When the road wound past the trees and through the horticulturists’ alley, her eyes did fill with tears as she unconsciously pressed her palm against the window. She watched the figure of a rusted red tyrannosaurus rex as the bus drove past it. It was a huge iron sculpture, purposefully made to rust and gain texture and character in the North Coast air. It stood as a sign for passerby, to attract the interest of tourists and to mark a small collective of produce and souvenir shops, marking the eastern edge of the city.

“Clifford!” she murmured huskily, a name she had bestowed on the monster during Beverly Willards’ sixth birthday party. The kids had started a game which involved fighting the attacking monster, but when Nicolette had first laid eyes on it, she had immediately dubbed it ‘Clifford’ after said big red dog and set herself to defend him against his vicious, soulless attackers (i.e., her classmates). Daniel had wanted to be one of the knights slaying the dragon, but Nicolette had forced him to stand with her and defend him. By the end of the party (or at least, when the parents had realized the children were all but playing in traffic), all the kids had switched sides and were defending the fearsome, rusting monster from The Poachers (at the time, Nicolette hadn’t known what the word meant, only that it signified bad people that hurt animals). Even then, she thought, she had loved Daniel, albeit in the uncomplicated way of a child. He was her knight, her protector, her best friend...eventually, almost her first lover.

Her biggest betrayal.

She watched, her heart beating faster as the bus topped a small rise, the trees drawing apart like a curtain framing the road; the ocean came into view, a grey somnolent expanse, extending all the way to the pale glimmering line underneath the early evening fog. Her breath caught, as the mystery and majesty of the ocean filled her with a momentary rush of anticipation. The bus approached a busy intersection, then wheezed its way over to the side of the road. People -- mostly kids coming from the mall -- stood up and began filing off the bus onto the sidewalk. She took a deep breath, then forced herself to her feet, a strange mix of excitement and dread roiling about in her stomach. She descended the steep steps, then took the last long step down, meeting the gray, chilly afternoon. Out on the coast, the high-altitude fog tended to roll in early. It was going to be a damp evening.

She watched as the bus roared away, its passengers dispersing toward the mini-mall parking lot, or to the crosswalk across the main avenue. She was left alone at the bus stop. She still had to finish some last minute business, eventually to return and wait for one more bus to take her to Montara, a small suburb about 6 miles north up the 1 -- the Pacific Coast Highway. Angela had made the reservation at the lighthouse hostel for her the month before. Her excitement slowly drained out of her, leaving only dread, and a dreary sort of exhausted disappointment.

She was home, had come full circle. She’d left to escape this place, running blindly, only caring that she was getting out.

Well, here I am, she thought, feeling as though she’d once again run away from an impossible situation in Los Angeles. She sighed deeply as she settled onto the bench, feeling thoroughly defeated. Soon, she’d have to start confronting the wreckage of her first failed escape, but for the moment, she was thankful that there were other more pressing matters that demanded her attention -- starting with getting to the Lighthouse and maybe calling Ramona to get his contact info; the number she had didn't seem to work any more.

Welcome home, Nikki, she thought bitterly. When she had left Half Moon Bay seven years before, she’d thought she could never feel more thoroughly beaten, beaten by the exigencies of her life and the consequences of her decisions.

Apparently she had thought wrong; that realization stung her eyes and the back of her throat.





Chapter Four: Time On Paper


TWO days later, Nikki sat in a small, claustrophobic office, blinking rapidly from the eye-watering stench of dust, industrial cleaning fluid, and aftershave. In an effort to distract herself from her burning sinuses, she let her gaze wander, soaking up myriad tiny details hoping to gain insight into the character of the man sitting across the cluttered desk from her. Her gaze fell on the plaque on his desk, a simple triangular wooden block with a plastic name plate, reading ‘Diego Garcia’.

Parole Agent Diego Garcia, she mentally added. Her parole agent. She studied him as he sifted through the pile of paperwork on his desk, an open folder sitting in a little cleared space on his blotter as paperwork, keyboard, mouse, pens, pencils, paperclips -- general chaos -- threatened to cross the little cleared semi-circle. She frowned, wondering at the implied metaphor: her life surrounded by chaos, with only the smallest of artificial buffer zones for protection. She shook her head, pushing the thought out of her mind as she sought distractions to keep the thought from creeping back in. She looked up at the wall behind him, studying the line of framed degrees on display, along with several citations of merit.

Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, UC Berkeley.

Bachelor of Arts, Criminal Justice, UC Berkeley.

Master of Science, Criminology, University of Pennsylvania.

She swallowed hard, momentarily overawed, “He must have wanted to be a parole guy since high school,” she murmured, then froze when he looked up. “Sorry, I was just looking at your wall -- at your pictures -- degrees on your wall, and was just” babbling like an idiot “thinking out loud.”

She coughed, blood rushing to her face, “Maybe a little too loud.”

He smiled absently as he looked back down, his scrutiny of her paperwork leaving her feeling as though she was suffering through a particularly thorough doctor’s exam. She wanted to simultaneously check the buttons on her blouse and take a very long, very hot shower. He was swarthy, middle aged but fit -- perhaps a little bit too sedentary for his own good. His black hair was cut short, though it was starting to go prematurely white; perhaps the contrast made the white more visible. He was only average height, but somewhat muscular and broad shouldered, his blue chambray work shirt pulling ever so slightly tight over his shoulders.

Nicolette had the sudden urge to scatter his paperclips on the floor, or run her fingers through his hair. She fought to suppress nervous giggles at the mental image of Agent Garcia’s hair standing at all angles, struggling to keep her composure at the inappropriate absurdity of the thought. She desperately wanted to break the feeling of solemnity the whole proceeding had, to mitigate the fear engendered by that solemnity. Anything to make Garcia seem more human and less...institutional. It was that last which filled her with fear -- the idea that he was merely an instrument of an institution which regarded her as insignificant; she was just a thing to be shuffled back and forth and discarded with unthinking indifference should circumstances beyond her control warrant it, like a bent paperclip shuffled from one end of the desk to the other until it was finally tossed in the wastebasket when it became a nuisance. Only in her case, it was back to prison instead of the wastebasket...though she supposed one could argue there wasn’t much difference.

She folded her hands in her lap to keep them from visibly shaking, her earlier nervous mischief gone.

She watched his lips moving as he subvocalized some of the paperwork he was reading. She was momentarily fascinated by the way his pencil-thin mustache seemed to exaggerate the movement of his lips. She briefly wondered whether his lips would be soft or if his mustache would tickle. Whether he’d be fun to kiss.

Jesus Nikki, she thought, he’s old enough to be your father! Down girl!

She shook her head, forcibly pushing the thought away, painfully conscious that her desperation to humanize P.O. Garcia drove the inappropriateness of her thoughts. She doubted he saw her as anything other than an inconvenience; something to be managed, perhaps, but never quite making the transition from something to someone. Unfortunately, once acknowledged, the thought stubbornly refused to go away. She found herself wondering what she would do if he made an advance, if allowing it would help her or hurt her.

She took a deep breath, forcing her fear back as she realized she was seriously debating whether she would be willing to prostitute herself to stay out of prison. So far, Garcia had given no indication he was that kind of man.

Let It go, she told herself, you’re borrowing trouble. The only thing going on here is that you’re scared spitless and writing horror stories for yourself as a result.

He nodded as if unconsciously agreeing with her thoughts, then closed the folder resting in its little window of calm, “Let’s talk about you and your situation. You’ve reviewed the terms of your parole?” He paused long enough for her to nod before continuing, “Good. I see some really promising things in your file -- things which I don’t see often; you joined a substance abuse program, you sought out counseling, you got your GED and managed to get an AS degree as well.”

“Biology, from Chaffey.”

He nodded absently as he continued, “That takes hard work and dedication.”

She sat back, surprised at the implied compliment, listening for a ‘but’ in his words; she was disconcerted when she couldn’t find one. He studied her expressionlessly, watching the emotions playing across her countenance, “That’s a good foundation we can build on, see if we can set you up to get through your time on paper as painlessly as possible.”

She nodded, studying him, wondering what his angle was. She felt a weary sort of surprise as she realized that it might just be possible his intentions could be trusted, that his interests and hers might coincide.

He smiled, despite puzzled lines appearing on his forehead, “You seem surprised.”

She nodded, suddenly finding speech eluding her.

“Miss Cooper -- may I call you Nicolette?”

“Nikki is fine,” she murmured hoarsely.

“Nikki...you’re young, intelligent, a hard worker -- you have all the tools necessary to succeed. We just...”

His voice trailed away as the impact of his words registered. He wondered if Miss Cooper’s tears were a good sign or a bad one.

A good sign, he decided, as he offered her the tissue box which normally lived on his desk. It wasn’t common that his clients reacted so emotionally, but he liked to be prepared. Of course, Nicolette Cooper wasn’t very representative of the type of clients that he usually saw -- he could probably count the number that had earned Associate’s Degrees while incarcerated on his hands with fingers left over. He waited patiently for Nikki to regain her composure.

She smiled apologetically, crumpling a damp tissue in her hand, embarrassed at her display of emotion. The tension and fear had been building since her release; by the time she knocked on his door, her composure had been paper thin.

The conversation she’d had with Daniel’s mother, Ramona, hadn’t helped, she reflected ruefully; two days later, she still felt bruised and torn from their exchange. The bitter knowledge that Ramona’s anger was at least partly justified had left her feeling stripped bare and defenseless against her words.

I’m going to make this right, she thought, determinedly pushing aside her discouragement. I don’t know how, yet...but I will.

She met Garcia’s measuring gaze with a tremulous, embarrassed smile.

“I’m sorry,” she finally continued, “It’s been a trying couple of days.”

He nodded sympathetically, giving her a moment to regain her composure before continuing. He became businesslike and professional as he caught her eyes with his own, “Let’s talk about your living arrangements. I spoke with your father, and it sounds like he wants to help out.”

Nicolette nodded, struggling with her conflicting feelings; gratitude that she would have her own place to stay, frustration that she should need her father’s help, rage and disappointment that he would take the easy way out and buy her off despite her earlier refusal of his help, pain at his implicit rejection.

So like Dad, she thought bitterly, always good at finding the middle ground between his obligations with a minimum of personal involvement. And he says I’m not a good influence?, she thought indignantly, her pain and wounded pride competing for space in her emotional landscape. Where were you when Mother was being insane? What were you doing when your eldest daughter ran away from home to get away from that lunatic? How does taking the brunt of Mother’s insane plans and abuse for seventeen years make me a bad influence?

Stupid motherfucker, she thought, feeling her resentful rage rise up. He probably paid for Bea and Stuart’s college. What help do I get from my ‘family’? A bribe to stay away.

She knew it was irrational, but she felt as though she was getting more support from a man who was likely more interested in sending her back to prison. How messed up is that?, she thought, her lip curling in a snarl.

She was startled when Garcia spoke, then a little embarrassed as she wondered what her expression must look like...and how long he’d been studying her, “Nikki... For now, let’s take advantage of the offer. It’s a really good place to start rebuilding; finding work is going to be tough -- with your work history, morality clauses are going to present some serious obstacles in addition to your parole, and your father’s help can give us more time. We can discuss alternative arrangements once you’ve had time to get settled.”

“Okay?” he promoted when she didn’t immediately answer.

Fighting to keep her lips from trembling, she nodded, not trusting her voice.

“Good. I’ll visit and do a walk through once you move in.”

She sighed, resentfully wishing her father spent more time talking with her than her parole officer.

She added, “They’re doing some renovations at the cottage, so...”

He nodded, “Your father mentioned that. We can work out intermediate arrangements, but we need to get you out of the hostel; it’s not a great place for you. Let’s go over your release plan...”

Potential Energy





Chapter Five: Art Therapy


DANIEL studied the mass of copper wire on the work table before him. He flipped back the polarized face shield to get a clearer view of the piece. His studio was chilly, the air almost cool enough to turn his breath to mist. Thankfully, the heavy, long sleeved jacket which protected him from welding spatter kept him warm while he worked. The piece had started life as a car radio which he had mounted on a steel plate. He had subsequently added bits of wire bent into long curving organic shapes, then mixed in other metallic wrack. As it neared completion, it became suggestive of the ocean floor and graceful rhythmic movement. Daniel liked the juxtaposition of life and movement with bits of static and inflexible metal.

He had pulled the radio from a Pick-n-Pull some weeks before while scouting for a new project car that he and his brother could work on. He had spotted it while walking between rows of discarded, rusting vehicles, half pulled out of the dash console of an old and decaying Mustang, the exposed wiring suggestive of an internal organ brutally avulsed from the car’s insides. The mental image had left him nauseous and shaky, heart hammering in his chest as he struggled with the need to escape from a threat which rationally he knew didn't exist.

As he struggled to get his breathing under control, his VA therapist's words had come back to him, a calming mantra smoothing over the turbulent seethe of his emotions, seeding his imagination to incorporate the experience into his art. He had forced himself pull it free, working patiently and methodically, the physical activity calming him further, the seeds of his creativity already germinating. That had been more than a month ago; it had been gathering dust in the back of his workshop since then, little more than a nascent idea which had been momentarily forgotten.

He frowned, trying to recall what had drawn his attention back to it, had made the idea alive in his imagination once more. He sat back, his tools forgotten as he traced the creative thread through his afternoon until the dream from the night before surfaced, dream-memories of light and water filling his mind...


...as the setting sun broke apart into a dazzling display of sparkles scattered over the surface of the ocean. It was still too bright to look at directly, but if Daniel tilted his head slightly, his polarized sunglasses revealed very faint bands of color streaking wide swathes of the ocean around the dazzling display. There was a chilly wind blowing in off the ocean, bringing with it the smell of brine and the occasional hint of salt mist as the waves shattered themselves against the rocks into sprays of white foam. The day was extraordinarily clear, with only the faintest hint of haze far out over the water. He and Nicolette sat on a misshapen boulder, a quarter of a mile from the concrete and steel stairway which led from the cliff tops down onto the beach. They had walked as far as they reasonably could, seeking some measure of solitude from the other beachgoers. Most were tourists staying at the Ritz a little ways up the coast. Only a very small handful were out in the ocean -- the Bay Area coastal waters were far too chilly for casual beachgoers.

The boulder they sat on was oddly shaped, only passably suitable for a lengthy stay. He had willingly volunteered the flatter portion of their stony perch for Nicolette’s use, valiantly sitting on the oddly shaped side. They had been sitting for the better part of half an hour, mostly in silence as they watched the sun set. The muscles of his left leg were on fire -- the oddly shaped perch forced him to rely on his left leg to keep his balance.

Nicolette sighed as she abruptly pointed beyond the breaking waves. He squinted, making out several dark points just beyond the rough, disturbed foam, arrowing left to right. When he didn’t immediately reply, she dropped her arm and exclaimed, “Sea otters!”

He could hear the smile of pleasure in her voice, bringing an answering smile in response. Unconsciously, he tightened his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer. He was rewarded when Nicolette snaked her left arm around his back, feeling immediate warmth from her skin through his t-shirt. Her resultant sigh of contentment made the chilly air and burning pain of his left thigh seem almost immaterial (not to mention the resultant fight to keep from shivering -- he’d loaned her his jacket when she started shivering; while he didn’t exactly regret giving it up, he was definitely feeling the cooling evening air through his t-shirt).

She broke into his reverie, “You’re really hurting, aren’t you?”

Daniel chuckled, having long since habituated himself to her uncanny ability to deduce the bent of his thoughts, “Nah. Just trying to figure out what color you’d call that -- out there, on the edges.”

Rosette.”

He frowned as he pulled back, reading her expression as he challenged, “That’s...not even a color.”

He watched as the corner of her mouth pulled up into a smile, “According to Mary Kay, it is.”

Mary... your nail polish?”

Lip gloss.”

That hardly counts.”

He couldn’t keep from laughing, then laughing harder when she pinched his side with her nails, making him jump with surprise. He chuckled good-naturedly, “Ordinarily I’d make you pay for that, but I’m enjoying this sunset too much."

They watched in contented silence, listening to the thunder of breaking waves. He watched as Nicolette smiled when a particularly big wave broke, the vibrations of its passing felt through the sand underfoot. He was surprised at the sudden surge of emotion he felt as he studied her profile, her hand tightening unconsciously on his thigh as she intuitively sensed his emotion.

"Without you here it wouldn’t...” his voice trailed off as he struggled to find words.

Her smile faded as she heard the change in timbre in his voice.

Are you being maudlin?” she asked, a slight quiver in her voice giving the lie to her teasing.

Of course not!”

You don’t even know what maudlin means!” she countered.

I do too!”

What does it mean, then?”

It means you’re talking too much!”

She smirked, “What are you going to do about it?”

He leaned in and kissed her, enjoying her little sigh of pleasure as she leaned into him, his arm tightening in response. Her lipgloss tasted faintly sweet, but beyond that, he could taste and smell her, which excited him more. She made another small murmur in her throat as they briefly lost track of time.

When he finally pulled away an eternity later, she breathlessly murmured, “You have such a way with words.”

I know,” he responded, a little breathless himself but struggling to hide it.

They sat in silence, watching as the sun’s lower edge reached the water, igniting the surface of the ocean into myriad diamonds and citrons.

Dan...I wouldn’t be here without you...there just wouldn’t be much point. I mean...with everything that's happened...whatever happens...”

Daniel's brow furrowed as he heard the throb of strong emotion in her voice, a sudden nameless unease sweeping through him, his grip tightening in response, “Nikki, do you know how much I love you?”

She sighed, several moments passing as she waited for her voice to return, “I think I do, yeah. I love you, Daniel. And thank you.”

He unconsciously pulled away again, surprised to see her eyes filled with unshed tears, “For what?”

In response, she stared blindly out over the water, watching as the last fiery rim of the sun began easing below the distant ocean horizon, watching the light dimming, “For being like the rocks out in the ocean.”

He hesitated before attempting to introduce a little levity, “Wet?”

She shook her head, ignoring the humor in his tone, her gaze still abstracted, “For being impervious to my bullshit, like the rocks way out there in the ocean don’t even notice the waves.”

They sat in silence for a time, watching the sun dip below the horizon.

He struggled to find something to say in response, unsure where the emotion was coming from, his wordless unease swelling.

Nikki...”

She punched him lightly in his ribs, then laughed at his confused expression, “C’mon. It’s cold...and if your leg doesn’t stop shaking, I’m going to start feeling seasick.”


Eight years ago, he thought, Almost to the day. He shook his head in irritation that the calculation still came to him so effortlessly.

Did she know?, he wondered. Had she already decided she was going to leave?

A moment passed as he replayed the memory, analyzing it, searching for answers...as if he hadn't been replaying it fruitlessly for years. He shook his head, It just doesn't make any sense.

He pushed the memory aside.

This is pointless, he decided, my mind just isn’t in it today.

Normally, losing himself in the creative process -- exploring the memories and feelings of his time in Afghanistan with something creative -- was something that just happened. Today, though...from his first moment of waking his day had drifted by, his hours filled with nameless anticipation. He felt as though something around him had inexplicably shifted, that the changed landscape threatened to bring alien stimuli, things that he wasn’t yet equipped to handle. It left him on edge, impatient. Daniel accepted that change was an inevitable part of life, but throughout his life, he’d found that change and disaster were inextricably linked -- the bigger the change, the greater the likelihood those changes were catastrophic; his father’s dying, Nikki leaving, Daniel enlisting in the Army...Afghanistan.

Daniel sighed, deciding this line of thought wasn’t helping. He began putting everything away; perhaps tomorrow would be better.

When Dane arrived, Daniel had been sitting idle for nearly half an hour, pensive and unsettled. Dane glanced around Daniel's small workshop; it was little more than a rectangular, concrete-floored storage unit. Daniel had gone to great lengths to convert it to a comfortable creative space with the addition of shelves and storage space for his tools, a long workbench covered with metal shavings and sawdust -- not to mention several projects in various stages of completion. He had even added a small refrigerator filled with beer and snacks. Dane leaned around the open doorway, finding Daniel sitting with a beer in his hands, clearly lost in thought. He hesitated, taking a moment to assess Daniel's mood. They had an implicit understanding -- Dane was always welcome (Dane owned the storage unit, after all), but Daniel reserved the right to ignore him if he was working on a project. A slow smile spread across his features as he studied Daniel, bringing a twinkle to his brown eyes.

“Hard at work?”

Daniel looked up, startled. Dane grinned, his perfectly even, white teeth contrasting with his carefully maintained tan. He projected an air of easy-going indolence, but Daniel knew that his happy indifference was an affectation hiding his driven, hard working character. Dane was almost painfully earnest in his desire to be liked, though he had an innate charisma that made it easy to like him. Daniel suspected Dane had been something of a player before he’d met Shelly; he had probably snared her with his boyish good looks and easy-going charm, but Daniel suspected Dane was the one more firmly caught.

Daniel chuckled, shaking his head, “Just not feeling it tonight.”

“Thinking about Carla?”

Daniel's smile became slightly forced as he hesitated, then shook his head.

“No. We texted a couple times today, but I think she was more worried about me than...” he trailed off, unsure how to finish. Carla had been the latest in his long line of failed relationships. They had been close, often thinking on the same wavelength, sometimes able to complete each other’s sentences (like he and Nikki used to). But for all the implied closeness and intimacy, they had also reinforced each other in less constructive ways. His temper had always been a bit of a wild card, but since he’d left the Army, it had seemed much closer to the surface, something he was constantly struggling to manage. With Carla, he often felt out of control, frustratingly at the mercy of his emotions. She had always seemed darkly gleeful when she could goad him until he lost it, especially when he turned his rage on her. Though their fights were legendary, they seemed to end up in the bedroom more often than not.

It had been his longest relationship since (Nikki left) high school, and probably the most intense, but their mutually reinforced pathos often left him feeling sick and helpless in the aftermath of their lovemaking. That had been their pattern for the majority of their relationship, their dark chemistry shared almost from the moment they met after a show at the Cobra Room.


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