Fantasy Horror magic sacrifice nuclear war shopping mall

Light of a Thousand Suns

By James Van Pelt
Jun 3, 2020 · 5,468 words · 20 minutes

Photo by Science in HD via Unsplash.

From the author: Don't you think that if magic truly existed that there would be more important uses for it than love spells or turning princes into frogs? In our world where the threats are so huge most people can't even recognize them wouldn't the real wizards and magicians, the good ones, be working to save us all? Those are the questions a unremarkable mall cop faces when he visits a trailer at the edge of the parking lot.


Without beginning, middle or end, of infinite power,
of infinite arms, whose eyes are the moon and sun,
I see thee, whose face is flaming fire,
Burning this whole universe with Thy radiance.

-from the Bhagavad Gita

Trellis noticed the trailer parked at the edge of the Lynwood Mall’s parking lot, but he didn’t think much about it.  He hadn’t been sleeping well.  Troublesome dreams he couldn’t recall.  In fact, the idea that maybe the trailer had been there for a couple of days tickled the back of his mind until he dismissed it in the morning’s hassles.  Penney’s had started their big ½ off sale, making traffic in the lot heavy and crowd control a nightmare, so Trellis didn’t spend much time watching the monitors.  First, a tiny woman who must have been at least ninety-five tried to muscle a thirty-two inch Radio Shack plasma screen television into her minivan and sprained her neck.  Waiting for the paramedics to get there, he held her hand.  “I’m not really hurt, dears,” she kept insisting as they strapped her to a backboard.

Then he spent a half hour helping two high school boys change a flat.  After that, a woman so overweight the backs of her arms shifted from side to side when she walked stuffed four-hundred dollars worth of stretch slacks and extra-extra large blouses into a baby carriage before strolling out of Foley’s. He knew she was a shoplifter the second she came into view of the south exit camera.  The bad ones kept their heads down and tried not to look like they were in a hurry.  He sprinted to the exit and confronted her before she left the sidewalk.  Of course, she swore she knew nothing about the clothes until he started pulling out one item after another. 

“They’re for my baby girl,” she mumbled over and over as Trellis sat beside her as the policeman processed her for arrest.  Trellis felt sad.  “This isn’t the end of the world.  You’ll grow from this.” 

Catching shoplifters bothered him.  He liked it better when he could give tokens to a forlorn five-year-old wandering in the arcade where his mom put him while she shopped.  He liked to jiggle the tokens in his pocket when he walked, knowing he would give them away later.  Trellis liked watching people buy gifts, and he liked families smiling as they talked to each other, packages in hand. 

Trellis didn’t look at the trailer again until night had fallen and the mall closed.  An old Airstream, a beat up silver bar of soap on wheels, sat at the parking lot’s edge, hitched to an even older red pickup with busted running boards.  A lone figure walked into the streetlight’s illumination, knocked on the door, then disappeared within.

After finishing his rounds, making sure the gates pulled down in front of the stores were latched and the kiosks covered, he checked the parking lot monitors for the last time.  No movement from the trailer and no lights within.  He signed out for the evening before handing his keys to the night man, a retired car salesman with an extensive collection of dirty jokes.

“How’d it go today?”  A long mustard stain marked the night guy’s left sleeve.

“Another day, another dollar.”

“Ain’t it the truth?”  The night guy settled into the office chair in front of the monitors.  Dim lights showed empty halls, the central fountain no longer spouting, quiet loading docks, and a half dozen views of the parking lot.  A sheet of wind-pushed newspaper slid across one screen.  “How long you going to keep working both day shifts?”

Trellis shrugged.  “Until they get somebody new.  I don’t mind.  Sleep’s overrated anyway.  I get bad dreams sometimes.”  He winked.  “I’ll check that trailer on the way out,” he said, looking toward the image.

The hallways smelled of linoleum polish and warm chocolate.  Trellis twirled his car keys on one finger as he left the building and walked to his car. 

It wasn’t until he was ready to pull out of the mall that he noticed the trailer parked by the exit, and he remembered that he said he would check it.  He thought it was funny he’d almost forgotten.

Peeling bumper stickers decorated the trailer’s back: FRODO FAILED!  THE GOVERNMENT HAS THE RING, and FIGHTING FOR PEACE IS LIKE F***ING FOR CHASTITY.  He chuckled at the last one.  It struck him as cute when people substituted asterisks for a curse word, as if that made one not think of the word.  A decal of a mushroom cloud under a red circle and slash covered one of the dark rear windows.

As he turned onto the street, still laughing, he realized that he hadn’t actually gotten out of his car to check the trailer.  Isn’t that odd? he thought.

At home he watched Fox News for an hour.  Tucked between a story about a celebrity scandal, and another chronicling which starlets were pregnant, was a brief piece about a pair of middle-eastern countries with atomic ambitions.  The commentator pointed out that forty-four countries operated nuclear power plants, all capable of producing weapon-grade nuclear material.  What did a couple more or less matter? 

That night, the dream Trellis remembered was of F***ING FOR CHASTITY while a television in the background moaned out an emergency signal.  “Seek shelter now,” a voice called out.  SEEK . . . SHELTER . . . NOW.  Trellis slid around in his dream bed, never quite able to hold the starlet, and he couldn’t tell if what he heard close by was his breathing or the shrill call of air raid sirens, and all the time a light so bright he couldn’t close his eyes against it burned in the room.  In the dream, the flare beat into his head, and his heart flapped like wings against his ribs.  How can I catch her under the light of a thousand suns? 

It was a most unsatisfying erotic dream.

Trellis found the night guy filling out his records in the security room.  The dawn’s golden gleam caught the top of the silver trailer.  Wonder how long that’s been there? Trellis thought before remembering he’d seen the Airstream the night before.  He checked his watch: 6:30.  On the interior monitors, the morning cleaning crews worked the mall floors and buffed the display windows, readying for the 9:00 start of business.  A motorized flatbed dolly, loaded with boxes for restocking, moved from store to store, but Trellis, munching his morning donut, concentrated on the trailer where three people stood in line at the door.  It opened, letting one in, and the two remaining stood with their arms crossed against the morning cold.  Another person coming from the bus stop walked the length of the parking lot, vanishing at the edge of one screen to appear at the edge of the next.  He joined the two.  They nodded to each other the way strangers do.

“People can’t camp out at the mall.  Did you call the cops on that trailer?” Trellis asked the night guy.

“What trailer?”

“West parking lot, next to the highway.”

The night guy put his flashlight in his locker.  He looked puzzled.  “I thought about it.  I’m pretty sure I did.”

“Call it in?”

“No, thought about it.  Are you positive it was here earlier?”

“Yeah, all day yesterday.”

“If it’s still parked at closing, we can report it.”  Then he told Trellis a ten-minute long joke about a skinny blonde, her fat boyfriend and a wheelbarrow filled with wet cement.

After the joke, Trellis glanced at the monitor before heading on his rounds.  “Did you notice that trailer?” A strong sense of déjà vu swept over him.

“What trailer?”

While Trellis tested his walkie-talkie’s batteries and read the morning’s routine, thoughts about the trailer flitted away.

Later, when Trellis stopped at Pretzel Palace for a mid-morning snack, he found himself thinking about a mushroom cloud under a red circle and slash.  He finished the pretzel before rushing back to the video surveillance room.  No cars were parked next to the trailer, but four people stood outside the door.  He headed for the west exit, keeping the trailer’s slippery image in his head, pretty sure that if he stopped thinking about it for a moment, it would squirt off like a minnow.

Acetone smells from the nail salon distracted him, but he ignored them long enough to make it to the doors, and by then he could see the silver shape at the parking lot’s edge. 

“What are you folks doing out here?” Trellis asked as he approached. 

“Waiting our turn,” said a house-wifey woman in a tie-die blouse and fringed jeans first in line.  Sleep circles so dark that she might as well have a pair of black eyes marked her complexion.

Without a tinge of irony, the man behind her said, “Saving humanity.”  He wore an “I Served” Marine Corps patch on a flight jacket.  His face too was haggard.

Behind them, beyond the sidewalk, traffic zipped by, thirty minutes short of rush hour. 

“Do you mind it I go in?” he asked.  The people in line creeped him out.  Their postures were odd, a strained mix of nervousness and resignation.  He imagined inmates on death row if they had to form a line for executions.

“No rush,” said Marine Corps patch.

Trellis knocked on the door.  The woman who answered stepped onto the metal stair protruding from the trailer’ side.  A piece of black yarn tied her grey hair into a ponytail.  She blinked against the sunlight.  “We’re going as fast as we can,” she said.

“Um, sorry.  I’m not with them.  Mall security.”

“Oh.”  She turned to the inside. “Mall security.”

“Invite him in.”

A powerful wave of incense surrounded Trellis as he mounted the stair, and it took a second for his eyes to adjust.  A woman who could have been the twin to the one at the door sat at a short and narrow table on the opposite side of the trailer.  Beyond her, a small sink, a spice rack, and a drainer holding three plates and three cups were tucked under the cabinets.  A curtain hung from ceiling to floor and wall to wall, hiding the rest.  The ceiling pressed close enough to Trellis’ head that he had to duck.  No one else was in the trailer that he could see.

“Sorry to bother you ladies.  It’s just that you have been in the parking lot for a while, and it doesn’t look like you’re shopping.”  He sat on a chair bolted to the wall next to the door.

The lady who had let him in sat next to the other.  If they weren’t twins, they had to be sisters.  “No, we’re not.”

“We’re not doing anything illegal,” said the other.  She looked at her sister, “At least nothing immoral.”

“I didn’t say you were.”  Trellis said.  “But what are you doing?”

A man wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the hood up over his head, pushed aside the curtain.  In one hand he held a fat white candle, in the other, a long black-bladed knife.  “What’s the holdup?  We’re on a schedule.”

“Mall security,” said the woman next to the curtain.

The man in the sweatshirt glowered at Trellis.  “Send the next one in.”  He closed the curtain with an impatient tug.

The woman closest to Trellis  rose. “Excuse me.” She squeezed past him and opened the door.  “Next.”

The tie-died housewife, shuddered.  “Okay.”  Trellis caught a glimpse of the man behind her before she climbed the stair.  The man put his hand on her shoulder.  “God bless you,” he said.

“He will.”  She stood just inside as if afraid of fully entering.

“How did you find us?” asked the pony-tailed women next to the curtain.

The tie-died woman rubbed her eyes.  “I Googled ‘ban the bomb’ and followed the links.  It was a lot of links.”

“We get many that way.  It’s not too late to go back.  You can still change your mind.”

The woman closed her eyes tight before taking a ragged breath.  “No, this is the right time.  It’s a good time in my life.”

Trellis looked at the three of them, a strange tableau of women talking without making sense.  Also, the hooded figure with a knife unnerved him.  Trellis put his hand on his walkie talkie, but wasn’t sure that a better strategy would be to bolt for the door.  None of them were paying attention to him.  He’d never listened to a conversation that felt so charged with subtext.

“You know it works?” said the tie-died woman  “It absolutely works?”

“Yes,” said both of the other women.

“I’m in.”  She took a deep breath, let it out, and then breathed again before walking to the curtain and through.  The pony-tailed woman closest to the curtain followed her.

“What in the hell is going on here?” said Trellis, perched on the edge of his seat.  His voice raised an octave by the end of the question, and his pulse drummed.

The woman eyed him impassively.  Finally, she said, “This isn’t a good way to start.  We haven’t been introduced yet.  My name is Jennifer.”  She put out her hand.

Trellis took her fingers in his own.  She had a firm and pleasant handshake. “My sister’s name is Chastity.”

“Trellis,” he said, then flinched, recalling his dream.  “Chastity?”

“My parents named the younger children after the virtues.  My other sisters are Hope and Patience.”  She paused as if thinking over the practice of naming children.  “How old are you?”

“Fifty-four,” he said without thinking.  How much space was in the trailer beyond the curtain?  By his figuring, there could hardly be room for three people on the other side.  Whatever they were doing in there, they weren’t making any sounds.

“Do you remember nuclear fire drills?”  She rested an elbow on the table and the side of her face in her hand.

“What does this have to do with you and whatever you and those people outside are doing?”  His chest constricted, as if his skin had shrunk a couple sizes, compressing his lungs.

“I do,” she said.  “I remember ‘duck and cover.’  I remember radiation shelters in the basements of public buildings.  You’re old enough.  Do you remember too?” 

She sounded so reasonable and matter of fact.  Trellis concentrated on slowing his breathing.  For a second he thought he’d just felt coronary twinges, his fate from eating most of his meals in Café Court for the last fifteen years, rotating from one fast-food outlet to the next.  He was on his feet all day, but he’d noticed the bulge of belly that hung over his belt more and more lately, and his mantra, “I’m big boned,” carried less conviction each time he said it.  Yes, maybe it was a coronary.

Not that a heart attack was any more comforting than being in a trailer talking to two strange women and a man with a knife.

Trellis felt as if the mall were a thousand miles away, that the trailer existed in an alien landscape.  He returned to a familiar script, but it sounded ridiculous to say it.  “Ma’am, you can’t sit a trailer in a public parking lot overnight.  There’s zoning to consider.”

“Do you want to know why we’re here?”

“Sure.”  His head swam a little.  The incense was strong, even stronger than he’d first thought.  He could taste it, an exotic flower coating the back of his throat.  “Can I have a glass of water?”

Jennifer filled a cup she took from the strainer.  He sipped it gratefully.

“It’s about the bombs,” she said.  “It’s about duck and cover, and confronting the sword of Damocles.”

“I’m sorry?”

She leaned toward him, her hands clasped now, elbows on her knees.  “Don’t you remember?  Didn’t you have nuclear nightmares?”

For a second he relived being ten (or was it last week?), where he looked out his windows at the orange glow climbing in the sky, and the sick, lost feeling of recognizing it, too late.  Rushing toward him, like in those Civil Defense films, a death wall filled with long glass teeth ready to shred him in an incinerator of instant motion.  And he couldn’t move, not in the dream.  It was always too late.  He remembered hiding beneath his desk in third grade like all the other kids, rumps poking out of one side and hands-covered heads poking out the other.  Even at the time he thought his desk would be poor shelter if the roof came down.  He sucked his breath in sharply.  He had had that dream last week!  The illusive dream he never recalled.

“I never knew where my family was, in the dreams.  I couldn’t help them,” Jennifer said sadly.

Trellis leaned against the sun-warmed wall.  His head swam with incense and the weirdness of the conversation, but what troubled him more were all the nuclear war images he’d ever stored up trying to leak out, every mushroom-clouded nightmare he’d ever dreamed.   Nobody talked about nuclear bombs anymore.  Atomic bombs were a part of the 60s.  They were yesterday’s fears.  Weren’t the bombs locked up safely or destroyed now?  “Really, ma’am, this is . . . interesting . . . but I think you’re going to have to move the trailer.”  He stood, being careful not to thump his head on the ceiling.  “Um . . . what was that you said about the sword of Damocles?”

She considered him for a moment, still leaning forward.  “You came all the way out here to see us.  Most people can’t come this far.  You should see the rest.  Come downstairs.  Would you tell the folks outside that we’ll be a few minutes?”

Trellis opened the door.  Sunlight glinted off  windshields, and he could hear automobile traffic again.  “The lady asks you to be patient.”  The Marine Corps guy shrugged.  The line looked like it had gained a few more people since he’d come in.

The closing door shut out all noise. 

Jennifer opened the curtain.  “Watch the step,” she said as she started down.  “There’s no bannister.”

A long flight of stairs lit by a light at the bottom fell before him. 

“How can you have stairs in a trailer?”  After a few steps, he knew he was below the surface of the parking lot.  “You’ll get in trouble for excavating on mall property.”  But the roughly-carved rock walls didn’t look new, nor did the rock stairs worn to a groove in the middle appear freshly quarried.  His fingers trailed down the stone as he descended, and patterns cut into the cool rock passed beneath them, like hieroglyphs or maybe something even older: cave carvings perhaps.  When he came back, he decided, he’d look at them more closely with his flashlight.

“The mall’s a Johnny-come-lately,” said the woman.  “Besides, the stairs come with the trailer.”

The descent emptied into a round chamber fifty feet across with a domed ceiling lit by a large chandelier dangling from chains in the middle and four muted lamps mounted on wall sconces.  Chilly, dry air moved across Trellis’ face.  The hooded man and Chastity sat on a long stone bench in the middle of the room, facing them.  A shadow fell across the man’s face, so Trellis couldn’t see his expression, but he was breathing hard.  Chastity’s head hung low, and her hands rested flat on the bench, like a woman so tired she’d never get up again.

“Where’s the lady who came down here with you?”  Trellis couldn’t see a door or any place where someone could hide.

Jennifer said, “She made a blessing for all of us.”

The man on the bench swept back his hood to reveal a black border of hair around his mostly bald head.  He had a vaguely Arabic cast to his skin.  “We’re suicide bombers,” he said, his hand draped loosely over the knife.

Trellis wondered if his walkie-talkie would work underground or if it wasn’t already too late for him to think such thoughts.

“Nobody covers us on the ten-o-clock news, though,” said Jennifer.  “People don’t even see us unless they are already looking.”  She walked across the room to her sister.  “Your turn to work the trailer.  Maybe a cup of tea would do you some good.”

Chastity sighed and gathered herself.  “That woman had kids, she told me.  An eight-year-old girl and four-year-old boy.  I begged her not to go through with it, but she did.  I don’t like the ones with kids.”

“Where is she?”  Trellis asked again.

Chastity said, “Over 2,300 people are reported missing every day.  Some never turn up.”

The hooded man looked at her, clearly annoyed.  He turned to Trellis.  “Didn’t you ever wonder how suicide bombers could do it?  Strap the explosive around their chests.  Give up everything they ever will have for what?  To kill a handful of people.  Even the most successful ones don’t get more than a score or two.  Doesn’t the trade seem inequitable?  Everything for a few lives, and they have to know that their single sacrifice won’t make the difference.  Most of the time they aren’t even killing their enemies.  They’re just killing.  They have to have seen the results of the other bombers’ work.  A line or two in the newspaper.  Maybe a poster in their neighborhood celebrating their gesture.  That’s it.  Conditions don’t change.  So how do they do it?”

“Are you saying that woman blew herself up?  I didn’t hear an explosion.”

“It’s for the magic,” said the hooded man.  “There’s magic in the sacrifice, they figure.  If they make the sacrifice, then the gods will smile at them to drive their enemies away.  They do it to better the world.  They think they are saving lives in the long run, making the world a better place.”

“But it’s evil.  What kind of motivation is that, suicide for evil?” asked Jennifer.  “And their magic doesn’t work.  They don’t really have magic.” 

Chastity walked past him toward the stairs.  “Over 2,300 people a day.  Almost 900,000 a year.  Some vanish for sacred reasons.  I’ll bring the next one down.”

The hooded man checked his watch.  “Good.  We’re running late.”

“Late for what?”  Trellis glanced from one to the other.  Nothing made sense.

“The clock’s ticking.  It’s just a few minutes to midnight,” said the hooded man.  “It’s always ticking.”

“No, it’s the middle of the afternoon.”  Trellis took a step toward Jennifer and the hooded man, not sure of what to do.  This situation certainly wasn’t a part of mall security training.  Behind them, on the other side of the bench, he saw a pit.  He sidled around the bench, keeping his distance from the two of them, and the pit’s dimensions became clearer.  Eight or nine feet across and deep, so deep that he knew now where the breeze he’d felt when he entered the chamber came from. 

“We have real magic,” Jennifer said, “and better motivation.”  She turned on the bench so her feet nearly dangled over the drop.  “That is the throat of the world.”

“Sort of the ultimate wishing well,” said the hooded man.  He crossed his arms, still holding his black-bladed knife.  “We don’t toss in coins.”

Trellis felt stupid and so weirdly out of place that he wondered if he wasn’t still dreaming last night’s dream.  The air rising from the well tasted like a museum, a clean and dry library breeze that had traveled across a long desert, brushing the tops of dunes and rows of books for hundreds of miles before funneling to his face.

“Magic’s like life,” said Jennifer.  “It’s all a trade.”

Trellis stood on the well’s edge, but he didn’t feel vertigo or the normal nervousness he had about heights.  At his feet, though, a dark wet stain marked the stone, and he knew before he dipped his finger in that it was blood.  “What happened to the lady who came down with you?”

“Do you still have nuclear nightmares, Trellis?  Do you know how many nuclear warheads there are in the world?”  Jennifer stared at him intently.  “Twenty-eight thousand, give or take several thousand.”

The hooded man said, “She made a trade.  I told you, we're suicide bombers.  We're anti-war wizards and witches.”

The sound of footsteps came down the stairs.  Trellis turned from the pit.  Chastity led the Marine Corps patch man toward them.  Her hand held his as they walked into the chamber.  The man’s knuckles were white.  His eyes were closed.  Trellis imagined how hard he must be gripping.

“You might not want to see this.”  The man with the knife pulled his hood over his head.

Trellis backed away until his hands met the wall.

Chastity stood on her tiptoes to whisper into the MMarine Corpsman’s ear.  He mouthed something back to her, and with evident difficulty, let go of her hand.  She directed him to the edge of the pit, then faced him toward Trellis, his eyes still closed.

Without a word, the hooded man drew his knife across the candle, as if he were coating the blade.  He stepped around the bench to stand beside the man.  Their breathing filled the room along with the thudding rush of Trellis’ pulse.  The hooded man met Trellis’ eyes.  “It’s a one-to-one trade.  One life.  One bomb.”

He plunged the blade into the man’s chest and then pushed him over the edge in single move. 

Trellis blinked.  Except for a runnel of blood creeping down the hooded man’s wrist and a single drop that fell to the stone floor with a hollow plink, there was no motion and no sound.  The rush of Trellis’ beating heart seemed to have stopped.  No one breathed.

“What did you do?” asked Trellis, his voice a dry squeak.

Jennifer said, “Made the world safer.”

Pushing himself away from the wall, Trellis approached the pit’s edge.  The hooded man and Jennifer moved aside.  From the pit, air continued to push steadily out, just as clean and dry as before.

The hooded man crossed the chamber and knelt at a small chest.  He took out a towel and carefully wiped the knife blade.  A hand touched Trellis’ wrist.  Jennifer stood beside him.  “Somewhere in a Kansas silo or a Russian submarine in the Atlantic or an arms depot in India, what used to be a warhead is now an inert hunk of metal, and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people are a little safer.  You need the right knife, the right spell, and the throat of the world.”  She swallowed hard.  “And a suicide bomber.”

“Did you really kill him?”  Nothing about the scene struck him as real.  The feeling that he could still be dreaming came to him again.  In a moment, he would be back to pursuing starlets, and maybe this time they wouldn’t be too slippery to hold.  He clenched his fingernails into the palm of his hand, but the pain did nothing to wake him.  Was the Marine Corps man still falling?  Trellis thought about the line of people waiting outside the trailer, all the people he’d seen gathered at the trailer since yesterday.

“Not killing,” said Jennifer.  “He allowed it himself.  There’s a difference.”

Blood rushed from Trellis’ face.  He swayed, and for a second he wondered what would happed if he fainted.  “You’re monsters.”

Jennifer’s eyes teared up.  “Yes, I suppose we are.  It’s hard to live with.  I won’t have to for long.  There’s a bomb with my name written on it in my future.”  She still held his wrist.  “There may be no forgiveness for us, what we do here, but we’re small monsters stopping giant ones, and the victims here are volunteers.”

Chastity’s voice came down the stairs.  “Are you ready for the next?”  She sounded profoundly tired.

Trellis twisted his wrist away, covered his nose and mouth as if the air were poisonous, a contagion to be blocked.  Half way up the stairs, he nearly knocked over an old man wearing a bathrobe holding Chastity’s hand.  In a blink Trellis stood inside the mall, gasping for breath.  Soft music washed over him.  A young mom balancing a toddler on her hip put a dollar in quarters into the rent-a-stroller display.  Three teenager girls wearing ear phones talked animatedly as they looked into each other's bags from The Gap.  “That color would look so good on me,” said one.  “Oh, you can borrow it whenever,” said her friend.

Trying not to stagger, Trellis found an empty table in Café Court.  Shoppers came and went carrying trays filled with pizza or hamburgers or rice bowls.  Conversations babbled around him.  After he’d sat for over an hour, his breathing settled but his muscles hung without an ounce of strength.  The mall music played an instrumental version of Barry McGuire’s “The Eve of Destruction.”  A string and piano rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” followed.

In the music he could hear the stone chamber breathing before the man with the Marine Corps patch pitched backward, the solid thud the knife made when it connected, like a fist hitting a watermelon.  But he also heard air raid sirens and the chant of “duck and cover.”  And for a long time his thinking locked into a droning mantra, the light of a thousand suns the light of a thousand suns the light of a thousand suns (It was murder, wasn’t it, what he saw?  Surely murder!).  He caught himself sobbing.  Seek safety now, he longed to shout to the patrons around him.  SEEK . . . SAFETY . . . NOW, and he wondered how he could have gone day to day for all his years with such denial, such forgetfulness. 

How would he go on from today?

Time passed.  He knew it did.  It didn’t matter.  All that mattered was what should he do.  All that mattered waited in a silver Airstream sitting on the edge of the parking lot, ten feet from passing traffic, a block from a Starbucks to the north, a block from Barnes and Noble to the south, and directly above the throat of the world, a deep, dry and hungry well. 

The night guy sat in the chair opposite Trellis.  “Mall’s closing in twenty minutes, bud, and you haven’t started the evening checklist.  You all right?”

Trellis leaned back.  His vertebrae crackled.  How long had he been hunched at the table?  He looked around.  A few of the restaurants had pulled their security gates part way from the ceiling, even though they weren’t supposed to close up before the end of the day.  The dark blue of twilight filled the skylights above.

“I’ll be there in a minute.”  His voice didn’t quiver, which surprised him.

The night guy’s expression turned concerned.

Trellis forced a smile.  “Really, give me a minute.”

Soon after the night guy left, Jennifer filled his seat.  In the mall’s light her hair was more silver than grey and the age rays around her eyes were more pronounced.

“I would have thought you would pull up stakes when I left.”

Jennifer shook her head.  “You wouldn’t call the police.  Only people willing to come our way find us.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, but it occurred to him that the night guy wouldn’t have known what Trellis was talking about if he had asked him about the trailer.

She wrapped her hands over his.  “You didn’t answer me earlier.  You do have nuclear nightmares, don’t you?  You wake up at night so sick with fear you can hardly move?  That's why you came to us.”

Trellis tried to remember.  Did he have those dreams often?  Were his dreams so horrible that he blocked them from his memory every night?  With Jennifer’s warm hands covering his own, he was suddenly sure that he did.  He’d always had the dreams.  They truly were ghastly, and now that he knew, he doubted he would ever fall asleep again with peace in his heart.

He thought Jennifer saw what he was thinking in his eyes.  Maybe she’d said this very thing to other souls who quit denying what they’d known all along, who looked up and saw Damocles' dangling sword.  She said, “There’s magic in the world, Trellis.  It’s not the magic you think about from fairy tales, but it’s there just the same trying to protect you.  There’s magic out there trying to save us all.”

She squeezed his hands once.  “There will be a place for you in line, Trellis.  There will always be a place for you, when you’re ready.”  She stood to leave.  “I have to get back.  Midnight’s coming.”

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."