The Gas n’ Sip on the edge of Clifton had nothing special going for it. A few pumps. The occasional customer and car coming and going. Nothing special at all. Nothing special except for Denby Evers standing near the glass front doors in a raggedy suit, smelling of sewer filth and talking to an unordinary immortal that could not be seen by a single ordinary soul.
Denby and James had found their way out of the gates of hell without incident and walked the railroad tracks to the town's edge. Denby was surprised that he only received minimal looks from passersby. Justifiable minimal looks saved for those who appeared to have spent their afternoon in a sewer. Which Denby had.
They stopped at the Gas n' Sip to take inventory and decide on a favorable path to the fountain of youth. Also, Denby was hungry since he had missed lunch with Hazel. A missed lunch with Hazel that he had unsuccessfully attempted to remove from his thoughts. He would have to settle for gas station travel snacks.
Denby pulled his phone from his pocket.
Ah . . . rats . . .
Seven missed calls from work.
His decision to run off with James and save the world was beginning to sink in as he was surrounded by the ordinary in the light of the real sun.
"Are you to inform others of your journey? Report your whereabouts?" James asked.
"Nope," Denby answered. "I mean, what would I say?"
"You committed to venture forth with nary a long thought. I can feel that you have an adventurer's heart, my good Denby. Hurry inside. Find nourishment. We have a long journey ahead of us."
Denby pressed the map icon on his phone, "What is the actual address of this fountain of youth?"
James fiddled with the flat black medallion hanging from his neck, "The coordinates are . . . forty point six two, north. Eighty point oh five, west."
Denby thumbed in the numbers, "Pittsburgh?"
"Outskirts of The Pittsburgh. In the woods of Wexford."
"No taxi is gonna take us that far. Not that I would wanna pay for that trip,” Denby slid his phone back into his pocket. “We are not walking to ‘The Pittsburgh.’ We gotta figure something out."
"Yes. Agreed. In doing so, we must tiptoe the fine line between my world and yours. The farther we remove ourselves from the coast, the more likely we will run into Latimore's patrols."
"Latimore's patrols? Fabulous. I'm goin' inside.”
A pair of teenagers walked out of the Gas n' Sip, saw Denby in his filthy dress clothes, talking to thin air, and made clear of him as quickly as they could.
"Might be wise to locate a change of attire. Your crazed appearance may not benefit us," James pointed out.
Denby looked himself over and smelled the sleeves of his grimy suit, “Might not just be the attire givin' off the crazy vibe there, James. But agreed. Clothes and transportation. Stay right here. Be back in a minute."
Denby swung open the glass doors and went inside.
The young clerk behind the Gas n’ Sip counter watched as Denby shopped up and down the skinny, poorly lit aisles. Denby did not appear to be the average shoplifter, but he did have the look of someone a bit unbalanced. Unbalanced and on a mission as he gazed into a doughnut display case.
Denby placed a mix-and-matched box of day-old doughnuts and a can of diet soda on the counter, "Don't suppose you have any fresh . . . or more fresh?"
"Nah, man. This is it," the young clerk rang up the doughnuts and soda.
"Nothing in the back . . . or anywhere?"
"Nope," the young clerk said while he got a whiff of Denby's afternoon. "Rough day?”
"Yeah. But it's all gonna be worth it. Gonna go save the world,” Denby swiped his credit card through the scanner. “Gotta stop by the fountain of youth first. Need to pick up some warrior lady."
The young clerk did not bat an eye, "Good luck with that."
Denby collected his soda and boxed doughnuts, flung open the glass doors and left.
The young clerk shook his head, "Lunatics everywhere."
Denby clung to his day-olds with one arm, cracked open the soda, took a big bubbly gulp and let out a belch. He was about to tear open the box when he noticed something. Something that he should have noticed sooner, but did not.
James was gone.
The box of day-old doughnuts fell to the ground. The can of soda slipped from his fingers and hit the pavement with a fizzy explosion. Denby spun in a circle and searched frantically in all directions. James was nowhere to be seen.
Ya gotta be kidding me, he thought before yelling. "James! Where'd you go? James! Come on!"
The young clerk watched through the glass. He watched Denby twist around in his raggedy suit. He watched Denby march and spin. He watched Denby mindlessly trample and crush the box of doughnuts into the parking lot pavement.
The young clerk came to the proper conclusion that Denby would not be moving along any time soon. He moved from behind the counter, pushed open the glass doors and stuck out his head, "You, ah, okay . . . buddy?"
"Fine. Everything is fine," Denby yelled, then promptly cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "James!"
The young clerk doubted the assertion that all was fine and started to question a few other things—namely, his current line of employment, "Man, I shoulda taken that job at Burger Palace . . . gotta be less lunatics at Burger Palace." He sniffed, ". . . and I wouldn't stink like gasoline." He yelled, "Mister, come on! Get outta here."
"You can't leave me stranded in Jersey, James!" Denby shouted.
The young clerk watched Denby continue to stamp back and forth over the crushed box of doughnuts, "I think Claire works at Burger Palace."
“James!" Denby shouted again and again. "James! James!"
The young clerk scratched his ear, “Lots of girls work at Burger Palace. And I bet they get free burgers too.”
"And fries. Burger Palace fries are the best," the young clerk said to himself as he thought more about a different line of work.
"Buddy! Get outta here or I am gonna hafta call the cops," the young clerk yelled then mumbled. "Hate callin' the cops."
The battle of wills between the young clerk and Denby would have continued for an eternity, or at least until a shift change, if not for a rumble. An approaching rumble that began to rattle the windows of the Gas n' Sip on the edge of Clifton.
The rumble became deafening.
Denby stopped shouting for James.
The young clerk stopped daydreaming about Claire and paychecks from the Burger Palace.
They both watched as the source of the thunderous rumble, a small two-door nineteen-sixty-six faded-red Chevy Nova, pulled to a stop at a fuel pump.
The Nova spoke in chortled rhythmic grumbles.
A plain gold locket hung around the rearview mirror. It shimmied from the vibration of the Nova's idling engine.
The driver turned the Nova's key, and her chrome voice fell silent. The rumble was replaced by the window-muted interior speakers bleating out the rock-and-roll song "Join Together" by The Who.
The driver switched off the radio and climbed out of the Nova.
Denby and the young clerk were temporarily mesmerized. There was something eerily familiar about the driver. He was older, but it was hard to tell exactly how old. He had a weathered face and wore bright sneakers, dark blue jeans and a white T-shirt that half-covered a smattering of colorful tattoos.
Denby tried to put his finger on the familiarity.
Is that . . . that looks like that one actor.
It was not that one actor.
That one actor from that old prison movie?
It was not that one actor from that old prison movie.
Where he ate all those eggs?
It was not that one actor from that old prison movie where he ate all those eggs.
What is that guy's name? He was a good actor.
Denby looked down at his doughnuts spread in a paste across the pavement.
The driver fueled the Nova.
Denby and the young clerk returned to their Gas ‘n Sip standoff.
“I mean it. Get outta here!” the young clerk yelled.
Denby ignored him and sat down on the curb in front of the store. “You know, I should have expected this. As soon I said, ‘Wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.’ That is like the kiss of death. Nobody ever stays put when you say that garbage. That is common knowledge. I'm an idiot.”
The young clerk stood over him, “I don’t know what kinda weird stuff you got goin' on, but can ya please do it somewhere else?”
“I guess he coulda been snatched up by one of Latimore’s patrols. But I think I woulda noticed that.”
“Man, ya got five minutes. If you aren’t gone in five minutes, I am gonna call the cops. For real. I mean it,” the young clerk shook his head and walked inside.
Denby sat on the curb, elbows on his knees, hands holding up his chin, “Latimore’s patrols. Latimore’s patrols? What even are Latimore’s patrols? I shoulda asked. I shoulda asked more about Latimore. I never ask enough questions. Why don’t I ask more questions before jumping into things?” Denby continued to ask himself questions about questions as the driver walked up to the front of the Gas n’ Sip.
The driver was about to pull open the glass front doors when he overheard Denby ask himself, “What is wrong with me?”
The driver stopped, looked at Denby in his worn and filthy suit, “Hey . . . ah . . . you okay?”
"I mean, who wouldn't ask questions? Like, a ton of questions. About all of it," Denby mumbled to himself.
"Kiddo! You okay?"
Denby jerked his head upward, "Me?" He tried to gain some composure, "Yeah, I'm fine."
"You sure? You don't seem . . . fine."
"My friend ran off."
The driver looked around the lot, "Maybe they'll be back?"
The young clerk flung open the front doors and stepped out between Denby and the driver. “Man. That’s it. Quit bothering the customers.”
“He’s not bothering me,” the driver interrupted.
“Well, your five minutes are up. Callin’ the cops,” the young clerk turned to the driver. “I hate callin’ the cops.”
“He seems fine. Says his buddy ran off. Maybe give him a minute?”
“Fine? This guy came here alone. There isn’t any buddy that ran off. There isn’t any James that he has been screamin’ about. He looks like he’s been crawling around in a toilet. Oh . . . and he said he is going to save the world.”
As the young clerk’s words trailed off, James skipped from around the corner of the Gas n’ Sip.
Denby jumped to his feet and yelped, “James!”
The driver and the young clerk watched as Denby grabbed thin air and said, “I told you to wait right here.”
“Greatest apologies, my good Denby,” James offered sincerely.
“Where’d ya go?” Denby asked.
“I thought it a perfect time to check in on Jerry, but needed a spot to ‘unpack’ so-to-speak.”
“You went to go check on your rabbit!?” Denby yelled.
The driver and the young clerk watched in bewilderment as Denby continued to converse with thin air. The young clerk looked at the driver, “See, the dude is a loon.”
“Jerry is not ‘my rabbit’ as you say. But, he does love head rubs. So I thought it an opportune time to get a few scratches in while you procured sustenance,” James explained.
"Okay," Denby took a deep breath. "But ya can't just wander off like that.”
“Get out of here! You can't loiter," the young clerk yelled and turned to the driver. “I’m callin' the cops.”
"Wait," the driver put his hand up.
"Wait?” the young clerk asked.
"Yeah, just wait. Kid’s harmless,” the driver made his way toward Denby.
The young clerk shook his head, “Whatever, man.” He gave one last shout Denby’s way, "If you're not gone in five minutes, I am seriously callin’ the cops! Ya know, for loitering! Ya loiterin' nutjob."
“Hey, kiddo . . .” the driver said as he gingerly approached Denby.
"The youthful vendor is correct. We must go," James said. "We cannot be delayed by your authorities, nor would you find comfort in a jail cell."
"We still need a way to ‘The Pittsburgh,’" Denby said to James.
"Hey . . . kiddo . . . you need a ride outta here?" the driver asked.
Denby turned to the driver, "Excuse me?"
"Before employee-of-the-month calls the local sheriff on ya . . . you need a ride?"
"You want to give us a ride?"
“To ‘The Pittsburgh?’” Denby asked.
“I am headed that way.”
“You wanna give two strangers a lift?” Denby asked.
“Sure. Why not? Seems like ya need a little help,” the driver looked at Denby, the thin air, then back to Denby. “I heard you two are gonna go save the world. I am always up for a little world savin'.”
"I don't know," Denby looked at the Nova and the California plates. "Seems a little weird that you’d give a couple of strangers a ride."
"Seems a little weird?" the driver laughed. "Look, kid. It is just you and your . . . buddy. You need a lift. I can help ya out."
"It appears we have found a charioteer, my good Denby," James said.
"You think he seems okay?" Denby asked James.
The driver laughed again.
"Nearly ten thousand years walking this Earth does not preclude me from being wrong on the rare occasion, but my instincts tell me this gentleman is indeed a good man,” James said.
Denby looked back at the Nova and then to the driver. "Okay. We'll take you up on the offer.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
"And your friend?"
"Tell Jim it's nice to meet him," the Nova driver shook Denby's hand. “I'm Bradbury. Let's get you two to ‘The Pittsburgh’ and save the world."
The faded-red Nova screamed westerly along US Interstate Eighty as she crossed into Pennsylvania countryside.
Sunlight reflected off the plain gold locket that hung from the rearview mirror, splashing a dance of flashes across the blacked-out interior. The ballet of light twirled down to the floorboard as the Nova's original factory radio played "Ramble On," by Led Zeppelin.
Denby rode shotgun in a bucket seat and wrapped his knuckles around a handle above his head while the Nova broke all laws and etiquette regarding safe highway travel.
Bouncing down the interstate at breakneck speeds jostled loose a memory from Denby's childhood.
Was I seven? Maybe I was eight?
He was nine years old when his balding, doughy next-door neighbor brought home a brand-new baby-blue Corvette. Denby remembered the entire neighborhood crowding around that car. He remembered the balding, doughy new Corvette owner obliging the onlookers with high-speed rides around the block. High-speed rides for all. All, including young Denby, who considered such high-speed rides terrifyingly unnecessary.
So completely unnecessary.
He remembered those following days were filled with neighborhood gossip. The grown-ups used words that Denby would not understand until much later in life. Words like "midlife" and "crisis" and "inadequacy."
If there was one thing Denby was quite certain of, it was that Bradbury was not a balding, doughy neighborhood showoff. Bradbury did not even appear to be of the same species as a balding, doughy neighborhood showoff. Denby doubted that the words "worry" or "crisis" had ever passed Bradbury's lips. He even wondered about the "midlife" part and what the odds could possibly be that he was now traveling with two immortals. One unordinary and one far removed from ordinary concerns.
"So . . . umm . . . it's a . . . a nice car," Denby attempted small talk over the Zepplin.
"Huh?" Bradbury pulled his phone from his pocket and slid his thumb down its face.
"I said you have a nice—" Denby shouted as the music faded to silence. "Sorry. I said ya got a nice car."
"Umm," Denby gestured toward the old factory radio and then to Bradbury's phone, "that's . . . kinda neat."
James leaned forward from the backseat, "A bit of magic. Wouldn't you say, my good Denby?”
"A rewiring trick. Keep it original while improving the inner workings," Bradbury explained.
“Mister Bradbury is indeed correct. That is the trick," James said as he slid back into the tiny backseat. He craned his neck and looked out the rear window. "Our Mister Bradbury travels like a man possessed by the winds of the gods.”
“James says you drive well,” Denby relayed to Bradbury.
Bradbury glanced into the rearview mirror at the empty backseat, “Thanks, James.”
“You think I am crazy, right?” Denby asked Bradbury.
“Crazy or not, I’ve never found it useful to judge. You’re harmless and need to get to ‘The Pittsburgh.’” Bradbury kept his eyes on the road, “I can get you to ‘The Pittsburgh.’”
“I like this Mister Bradbury,” James said.
Denby shifted around in his seat and faced James, “Tell me something.”
“Go ahead,” James twirled his hand.
“Whaddya want to know, kiddo?” Bradbury asked.
“Talkin’ to James,” Denby clarified.
Bradbury looked into the rearview mirror, “I’ll try not to eavesdrop.”
“You and your kind were banished with a . . . miracle. Whatever ya wanna call it.”
“That includes all records of your existence.”
“So . . . how does ‘my kind’ . . . how do people know about dragons?”
“Excellent question!” James bounced.
“Nobody should know about dragons,” Denby said.
“Dragons?” Bradbury laughed while he asked. “Really? Dragons?”
“There is this fantasy world that exists. Nobody can see it but me,” Denby explained to Bradbury. “It is a long story.”
Bradbury laughed again, “I bet it is."
Denby turned back to James, "So . . . dragons?"
“Some things cannot be known for certain. But there seems to be a handful of quirks . . . anomalies . . . within the miracle,” James told Denby. “Inexplicably, some things . . . some ideas . . . seeped over to your world. They can be seen through the hearts and minds of . . . ordinary . . . artists, writers and the like. They are written or drawn or created as fiction, as myths and as legends. Mostly inaccurate, but sometimes not. As is the case with dragons.”
“So, there are like Hobbits and stuff?” Denby asked.
“Not exactly. But Mister Tolkien’s heart was no doubt in touch with my banished world,” James said. “I have seen it throughout time. Open minds and hearts that can glimpse and feel the unordinary. But nothing like you, my good Denby.”
“So . . . no Hobbits?” Denby asked again.
“No Hobbits,” James answered again. “But there are beings and things so fantastical—”
“That’s it. I can’t take it,” Bradbury slammed on the brakes. The Nova screeched onto the shoulder of the interstate.
He threw open his door, got out and walked behind the car.
“Hmm. I guess it is possible I was wrong about our Mister Bradbury,” James said.
Bradbury popped the trunk.
“What’s he doing?” Denby asked.
James’ view was blocked by the open trunk, “I cannot see. Be ready to run, my good Denby, and listen to my every instruction. Should defensive action be required, I will guide you.”
Bradbury slammed the trunk shut. A duffle bag was slung over his shoulder as he walked around to the passenger door. "Get out," he commanded.
Denby reluctantly opened his door and stepped out of the Nova while keeping his seat propped forward so James could escape.
Bradbury dropped the duffle bag on the ground, "Another mile and I think I was gonna lose it—”
"Look—” Denby tried to interrupt.
"Take off the suit,” Bradbury demanded.
Bradbury unzipped the duffle bag. He pulled out a well-worn tee shirt with CalTech written in orange across the chest, "Put this on.”
"What?" Denby asked.
"And these," Bradbury dug into the duffle bag again and pulled out a pair of blue jeans. "That will be the end of us having to smell whatever garbage you've been crawling through."
"He is right—we do still smell quite putrid," James sniffed.
Denby took off his grubby dress clothes and dropped them in a heap at his feet. He stood naked next to the Nova, naked with the exception of his ordinary white boxer-briefs. He put on Bradbury’s CalTech tee shirt. He pulled on the blue jeans. The loaner clothes were a touch too big, the shirt a little swimmy, the jeans a little draggy.
It's an improvement I suppose, Denby thought as he checked out his reflection in the Nova's passenger window.
"Don’t know James’ size or I would offer him something,” Bradbury said.
“He’s tall. Lincoln tall,” Denby said.
“Ya got lots of miles to tell me all about him,” Bradbury said.
Denby’s plain grey suit and inoffensive tie lay in a pile on the side of Interstate Eighty as the Nova sped farther into Pennsylvania.
Denby had spent many an unexceptional afternoon daydreaming about road trips. He daydreamed of impromptu adventures that would break him away from his daily doldrums. Sadly, daydreaming was as far as he had ever gotten. Until now. Now he was well on his way to the fountain of youth in a tattooed stranger's car, while wearing said stranger's spare laundry.
Denby smirked as he watched ordinary trees, mile markers, off ramps, SUVs and cars of every make and model blur past his open window. James was right about the winds and the gods and Bradbury.
He watched the sun touch the horizon.
“I get it. I do," Bradbury kept one hand on the wheel while he occasionally glanced downward and swiped across the face of the phone resting in his lap.
"I am serious," Denby said.
"Me and James are gonna take out this evil tyrant guy.”
"I get it."
“Free the people of James’ world," Denby said as he looked back at the sleeping immortal in the backseat.
"I get it."
“I know what it is like to save a world from chaos."
“I don't think we are talking about the same kinda thing.”
Bradbury stopped swiping across the phone, looked at Denby, and then continued his swiping, "I think we might be."
“End-of-the-world type stuff?”
“It is the end of somebody's world every day, Denby.”
"No. Really. For real.”
“For real, it is the end of somebody’s world every day,”
“For real, they said it would literally be the end of the world."
“I don’t doubt ‘em,” Bradbury swiped upward on his phone, and "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown" by the Rolling Stones played from the stereo.
Denby held his hand outside the open window. He let air rush between his fingers and momentarily embraced a mindless calm. A brief allowance nourished by gazing at the peaceful Pennsylvania countryside. He was so mindlessly calm that he failed to notice something. Something out there. Something that loomed on the horizon between the setting sun and the fountain-bound Nova.
He closed his fingers, cupped the rushing air and caught that something out of the corner of his eye. From Denby's distance that something was only a speck. A black speck moving across the setting sun.
What is that? Is that . . . what is that? Denby squinted and shielded his eyes. "What is that?" he asked aloud to Bradbury.
"What is what?" Bradbury asked.
"That," Denby pointed at the black speck. "That right there. You see that?"
Bradbury leaned over and looked out Denby's window, "I don't see anything."
The black speck darted and zigzagged across the sky. Then it stopped. It stopped abruptly as if something caught its attention.
Bradbury looked toward the sunset, “You seeing dragons?”
“No . . . no dragons left," Denby said matter-of-factly while keeping his eyes on the speck in the sky. "I think . . . I think it is getting bigger."
"Bigger?" Bradbury asked.
"Wait . . . not bigger," Denby answered. "Closer. It . . . it is getting closer."
Denby was correct on both accounts. The darting speck was indeed getting bigger and closer. It had become a flying black mass that appeared, from Denby's perspective, to be fluid — ink spilt in the sky on a mad rush toward the Nova.
"I . . . need to wake up James," Denby's calm was gone.
“Yeah,” Bradbury watched Denby grab and shake emptiness. "Better wake up Jim."
"Hey, buddy. Wake up.”
James twitched but remained fast asleep.
The flying black mass was getting closer. So close that Denby could now see that the inky streaking mass was not one large something, but actually hundreds and hundreds of small somethings. Unordinary somethings that were flocked tightly together as they flew.
“Wake up!” Denby yelled.
James shot up to attention, “Denby! Good gods. What is it?”
Denby frantically pointed at the unordinary somethings in the sky.
“Oh . . . dear,” James said.
“Oh, dear what?” Denby asked.
“Oh, dear?” Bradbury repeated.
“What is it?” Denby asked James.
“Granthors. Blasted granthors,” James said.
“Granthors?” Denby asked.
“Granthors?” Bradbury repeated.
“Flying hound dogs,” James said.
“Flying hound dogs?” Denby asked.
“Flying hound dogs?” Bradbury looked out at the empty sky. “You are something else, kiddo.”
“Hound dogs? Really?” Denby asked.
“Obviously, they do not possess little waggy tails, but their purpose is the same. They are pets. Pets used for hunting,” James said. “One of Latimore’s patrols, no doubt.”
“Latimore’s patrols . . . for hunting?” Denby asked.
“Hunting anything Latimore desires,” James explained. “If close enough, they can certainly smell my amazingness. Which I am sure Latimore still greatly desires.”
“How close?" Denby stammered. "How close do they have to get?”
“They are close enough already, my good Denby.”
“Why is Latimore—“ Denby stopped.
The granthors were only a few dozen yards away. Close. Close enough that Denby could see their rabid bodies bumping into one another as they flew. In the ordinary world it might be possible to confuse the creatures for some type of over-sized bat. That is, if bats had many sets of clawed-limbs that dangled from their midsections. Bats crossed with bear-traps, that is what Denby would most likely call them. Currently he did not care to call them anything. He was paralyzed with fear. Paralyzed, with the exception of being able to hurriedly roll up the passenger window.
Bradbury dipped his head. He wanted to see, but from all ordinary angles, he saw nothing.
The flocking flying mass of granthors broke up, twisting and twirling and revealing what was hidden at the center of their unordinary formation—three hulking winged beings, with slender humanlike bodies. Their elongated skulls opened in unison and let out a deep baritone pulse.
“What . . . what . . . ,” Denby panicked.
“Those. Those would be the granthors’ masters,” James said.
“The granthors’ masters?!”
“Hallomen,” James answered.
“Hallomen?!” Denby’s voice held his heartbeat.
“Three of them, no less,” James said.
The granthors re-formed around their masters, and the black mass of winged owners and flying hound dog, bat bear traps moved with unordinary speed toward the Nova.
"What do we do?" Denby asked. "What do we do?"
"There is nothing we can do. Bradbury drives. We will be perfectly fine behind the ordinary glass and steel. The machine will protect us,” James said.
“That’s it? That’s the plan? Bradbury drives?”
“I’m driving, kiddo,” Bradbury said calmly.
“Would be in our best interest to have the charioteer close his window. Post haste,” James ordered.
“Mister Bradbury, you need to roll up your window.”
“Ask Mister Bradbury if he could perhaps drive faster. If the machine has it,” James recommended.
“And James wants to know if you could speed up,” Denby said. “If the machine has it, he says.”
“James wants to know if the machine can go faster? If it has it?” Bradbury glanced at the empty backseat.
“Yes,” Denby and James said together.
“To outrun the hound dogs . . . and their masters?” Bradbury asked.
“Yes,” Denby and James said together again.
The granthors and Hallomen were nearly on top of them.
"One second," Bradbury leisurely rolled up his window and swiped across the face of his phone. "Let's see if I can't find some proper music. Some 'outrun the monsters' music."
Bradbury swiped upward on his phone and "Gimme Shelter" erupted from the Nova's speakers.
Bradbury pressed the gas pedal to the floor, and the Nova’s engine let out a near unordinary roar. The plain gold locket trembled. James and Denby were thrust backwards into their seats. Bradbury could not see the unordinary black mass racing directly toward them, but he could see Denby. He could see the real fear on his face.
The music played and the nova flew with the winds of the gods.
If it were possible to outrun the unordinary, Denby believed that Bradbury and his machine could do it. Unfortunately, as the sun set on this particular day, no ordinary man or machine would be proven able to outrun the master Hallomen and their flying pet granthors.
The Nova was intercepted with ease.
The granthors surrounded the car. They clawed. They chomped. They gnashed. They hissed. James was right, the ordinary steel and glass was impenetrable armor to the rabid unordinary flying hound dogs. That, of course, did not stop their effort. Nor did it stop Denby's panic as he got an up-close view of the hundreds of apparently mindless beasts and their razor-sharp bear-trap bellies.
The three Hallomen spread their wings and effortlessly hovered above the speeding Nova as it tore west along Interstate Eighty at one hundred and thirty miles per hour. Denby and James' view was completely blacked-out by the granthors. They could not see the masters holding court above at high speed. The Halloman looked at each other, stretched their jaws, bared their long needlelike teeth and balked in baritone pulses to one another.
They were devising a plan.
“Are they gone?” Bradbury asked.
“No. No, they are not gone, Mister Bradbury," James answered.
"Nope," Denby relayed.
"Denby, they cannot reach us. We are perfectly safe," James said over the roar of the engine and music.
That should have comforted Denby, but it did not.
Denby had only been to the zoo once as a child, but he remembered it well. He remembered the lions behind the glass. How they growled and paced and looked at him. He remembered that feeling. The feeling of being looked at as a snack.
This is a lot like that, he thought. Except he was in a stranger’s speeding car, on a strange highway, in a strange state, and the lions weren’t lions, but giant flying unordinary creatures. Denby reconsidered his thought.
. . . maybe this isn’t exactly like that.
"We can't stay in this car forever,” Denby said.
“No,” Bradbury and James agreed.
“What if we run out of gas?” Denby asked.
Bradbury glanced down at the needle on the fuel gauge which was floating just above a quarter tank. It would be close. He would need to slow down to make it all the way to the fountain. But, if they did need to stop, he was most certainly convinced that no imaginary monster would attack while he hopped out for some gas. He did not answer Denby's question.
"We shall cross that proverbial bridge when we reach it. Or not reach it, as is the case, since we will be out of much-needed propellant," James answered.
The granthors continued their futile barage against the Nova. They pounded and bit and slobbered against the machine's windows. James and Denby could see nothing else, nothing but the wall of granthors. Until, suddenly and curiously, the granthors stopped. They stopped their attack, backed off and hovered in a half-shell formation a few meters from the speeding machine.
"What now? What are they doing now?" Denby asked fearfully.
Bradbury did not flinch nor respond. He had nothing to respond to. There was no traffic. He could see no monsters. He kept up the Nova's speed and glanced down at the declining fuel gauge while James answered, "They appear to have been called off."
As soon as James' words left his mouth, the three winged Hallomen descended upon the Nova. One hovered above the hood. One hovered above the roof. One hovered above the trunk. The granthors encircled them in riotous flying rings while the Hallomen closely surveyed the Nova and its passengers.
James did not possess Denby's fear, but he did speak with a new urgency, "We must push forward. How far are we from an ordinary town? An ordinary city?"
"What's going on, kid?" Bradbury asked.
"We are surrounded by terrifying flying monster things; they look pissed and kinda hungry," Denby said.
"The Hallomen are not here to feed their hunger," James corrected. "Again, how far until ordinary civilization?"
"How far do we have to go?" Denby asked again.
Bradbury pointed out the bloom of city lights that rose on the horizon, "Not far."
"We have no other options," James said. "Tell Mister Bradbury that he mustn't stop and under no circumstances are the doors or windows of this fine contraption to be opened."
"Right," Denby said.
"Right what?" Bradbury asked.
"Go with the winds of the gods, mister Bradbury," James answered.
"Just keep driving," Denby exhaled.
The hood-hovering Holloman watched this interaction. It watched the unordinary immortal converse with the ordinary Denby. It watched what it believed to be impossible. The Halloman pressed his eyes against the Nova's windshield. He looked at Denby. He looked at James.
James sat perfectly still and quietly ordered, "Denby, do not utter another word."
In Denby’s defense, it was a reflexive reaction. A highly ordinary reflexive reaction. He meant no harm when he twisted in his seat toward James and asked, "Why?"
The hood-hovering Halloman let out an ear-splitting screech, and its two brethren joined him in front of the Nova. They all three hovered above the hood and carefully observed.
“What . . . what are they doing?” Denby asked.
“Relax, we’ll be there soon,” Bradbury answered.
“They are no doubt trying to decipher how exactly a human such as yourself can converse with someone as amazing as myself," James answered. "And they are, most definitely, hatching a plan to tear us from this machine."
The Hallomen turned to face the fast-approaching ordinary city lights. They let out a series of baritone pulses, one after another.
The granthors formed around the Hallomen, and they became, once again, a single massive flying black mass.
"I'm sorry," Denby said.
"Don't be sorry, kiddo."
"No worries or sorries, my good Denby."
The flying black mass of Hallomen and granthors shot straight up into the night sky. Denby slunked his head toward the car's dash and looked up, out through the windshield, "Wait . . . where did they go? They're gone? Just like that?"
"Well . . . that's good," Bradbury answered.
"Being unseen and being gone are not one in the same," James answered. "But, I believe even the most adept of Latimore's hunters will avoid the simple dangers that lurk within ordinary cities. There, maybe, we shall find protection."
Bradbury slowed the Nova, its engine nearly slipped out an audible sigh as it cruised into the suburban glow on the outskirts of "The Pittsburgh."
It was late. It was dark. It was too late and dark for Denby to make out much of what Wexford, Pennsylvania had to offer beyond its ordinary streetlamps. More Americana, he imagined lay in the darkness. And as long as that darkness only hid more Americana and fewer unordinary flying monsters, then he was perfectly content on missing out on the scenery.
Bradbury stopped the Nova at a T-intersection. The beams from her headlamps shot over the asphalted road, through a row of manicured hedges and onto a golf course that sat on the edge of a small forest. “This is it? You want me to drop you off here?”
James leaned forward and propped himself between the front bucket seats. He studied his flat black medallion. "These are indeed the coordinates. The fountain is near.”
Denby thumbed the map icon on his phone, “Yep. This is the address.”
“I’m not leaving you out here,” Bradbury said.
“Mister Bradbury, your concern is appreciated, as is your spirited transport. I find that you hold yourself as one of the noblest humans I have ever encountered, but Denby and I must take our leave,” James said. “I will look after the young whippersnapper. Trust that he is in capable hands.”
“James says we gotta go,” Denby relayed as he opened his door, stepped out and helped James clamber from the back.
"Kid, get in the car. I can drop ya at a hotel. You can clean up, get some rest,” Bradbury said. “Hey, maybe we can even come back tomorrow and play a few holes when they’re open.”
James carefully examined their surroundings. He scanned the blue-black sky. He looked across to the golf course, its nearby wide-open fairway and putting green. He looked into the forest. His quick examination lingered on the trees—ordinary maples, birches and darkness. He nodded his head forward. “That is where we will find Calista. Gods help us."
“We’ll be fine,” Denby told Bradbury.
“Come, Denby. We must prepare for our rendezvous. I see a lovely spot to unpack,” James walked toward the golf course.
“Really, we’ll be fine," Denby reassured Bradbury. “We have a place to stay. James has this traveling house thingy that he carries around his neck.”
Denby shut the Nova’s door and followed James.
Bradbury stood before the Nova; her yellow headlamps wrapped around him. He looked out over the hedgerow and watched Denby wander. He watched Denby wander onto an open fairway, through a sand trap and onto a putting green. He watched Denby pace back and forth while holding an animated conversation with himself. Bradbury could not make out what was being said. He really didn't want to know. Out there in the darkness, Bradbury watched what he assumed was a harmless yet quite positively distraught young man.
“What am I going to do with this kid?” Bradbury asked no one.
Bradbury watched Denby vanish into thin air.