I hope you enjoy the FREE first chapter of The Iris of Issoria.
“It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.”
Hot blood poured down her face. Anika wiped the thick, acrid liquid from her eyes. A metallic aftertaste lingered in her nostrils and throat. She opened her eyes in slow motion just in time to see a column of red fire headed in her direction.
The fire is headed for my face, she thought helplessly. Her arms hung limp at her sides. Her legs were glued to the ground.
“The power of the fire is in you,” a deep, hollow, disembodied voice bellowed. Anika took a deep breath, pursed her lips and released the contents of her lungs toward the fire in a feeble attempt to redirect the flames away from her. A bright, golden light blinded her as the mist of her breath made contact with the fiery missile that hurtled at her.
Anika was startled awake as her body jostled inside the car. They had hit a pothole on the road. Her heart rate slowed as she realized the blood and fire had been part of a dream. It was so real, she thought. She breathed a sigh of relief. An eerie, sleepy calm settled over her until she remembered why she was in the car with her mother. Although she was glad she was not covered in blood and about to be incinerated, the reality of her life weighed on her shoulders as she became fully awake.
Anika looked out the car window but the tears in her eyes blurred the breathtaking scenery of the sun setting across the Utah desert. In the horizon, the purple and orange swirls of the sky bled into the rust red earth.
“Can I call my friends to tell them we left?” Anika whispered as she stared out the car window. Tears spilled out of her dark brown eyes. She wiped the tears from her face and swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. The lump dropped from her throat and settled in her chest.
“No,” her mother responded in a cracked whisper. Her voice was sad and tired.
Anika reached for the daypack at her feet. She removed the photograph of her parents on their wedding day that she had kept in her wallet since she was nine years old. They both looked young and beautiful as they faced each other smiling with their hands intertwined against her father’s chest. Anika stroked the photo, then reached to open the car window. With the reflection from the setting sun, the glass shone with an eerie silver glow. Anika lowered the window and let the wind pull the photograph out of her fingers. She closed her eyes to squeeze out the last of her tears. When the deluge dried, she looked at her mother, Diana.
Anika’s mother stepped on the gas pedal at full speed. Diana was driving with one hand, as the other was bound in a makeshift splint she held against her chest. The laughing, brown eyes and infectious smile that normally punctuated her face were instead were carved into a stony gaze. Anika flinched as she remembered the sound of her mother’s cracking bones…her father’s piercing blue eyes looking at her angrily as he grabbed a handful of her dark brown hair…and the crash of the ceramic vase that she broke over her father’s head.
“It is going to be dark soon. When are we stopping?” Anika asked as she reached for the map in the glove compartment and pushed thoughts of her father, Derek, out of her mind. She could not bear to think about him.
Diana did not answer for a few moments. Her expression did not change. The silence between them was as thick and cold as a slab of ice.
“Not until we cross the state line,” she finally answered.
“I need to go to the bathroom. And I am hungry,” Anika said as she looked at the map of the United States on her lap.
“We are close to Cortez. We can stop there for a short break. I don’t want to stop to rest for the night until we get to Albuquerque.”
“Are you serious? We are not going to get there until two in the morning!”
“I know. I will get some coffee in Cortez to stay awake.”
Anika looked out the window again until the majestic colors of the sunset sky disappeared. Now the entire world before her was painted with the gray blanket of dusk.
In Cortez, Diana stopped the car at a run-down gas station. The pumps were rusted and did not have a pay-at-the-pump option. Anika and her mother got out of the car and entered the store, where a man with copper–skin, a weathered face, and gray stubble greeted them with a grunt. His gray hair was pulled back in a thick ponytail. He followed Anika with his piercing eyes as she entered the store. Anika reached for her mother’s shoulder as Diana served herself a cup of coffee from the instant cappuccino machine. Anika wanted to make sure the man knew she was not there alone.
Anika picked up two sad-looking bananas from a basket, a bag of potato chips, and two ice cream sandwiches. This was the best meal she could conjure without risking food poisoning. Anika met Diana at the counter to pay for her things. The clerk glanced at them with narrow eyes and a silent tilt of the head.
“So what are you two running from?” he asked as his dark eyes hovered over Diana’s broken arm and Anika’s disheveled hair.
“We would like to pay, please,” Diana said as she met his questioning stare. He pointed to Diana’s makeshift splint.
“I hope you gave him as good as you got,” the man said. His tone was tender and kind despite his rough voice. Diana did not answer him. She continued to stare him down until he spoke up again.
“Will this be all?” he asked.
“Yes, this is it,” Diana answered.
“Cash or credit?”
“Cash,” she replied as she opened her wallet and took out the money.
“Where you headed?”
“We are going home,” Diana said. She grabbed her coffee, turned to Anika, and asked her to haul the rest of their items. Diana walked to the door ahead of her daughter.
As Anika reached for the snacks on the counter, the man grabbed her wrist. Terrified, she looked back to the door as she saw Diana walk through it. Diana was unaware of what was happening.
“El poder del fuego esta en ti! Esta en ti!” the man said in a strangled, raspy voice as Anika struggled to set herself free from his grasp. He let go of Anika, and she ran out of the store with her wares. She shivered as she remembered the words she heard in her fire dream. The man said the same words to her in Spanish.
“What’s wrong?” Diana asked as Anika entered the car. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Nothing. I am fine,” she responded. They ate their sorry meal in the parking lot before driving off down the dark highway.
Diana stopped the car at a motel beyond the outskirts of Albuquerque. The neon “Vacancy” sign was missing both As. Noisy air conditioning units dotted each of the room windows. Graffiti decorated the outer walls of the motel. Anika stayed in the car while her mother entered the lobby through a door with cracked panes to pay for a room.
Later that night, the exhausted mother and daughter lay facing each other side by side on the lumpy mattress that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, bleach, and vomit. Diana wrapped her good arm around Anika.
“Mom, what is going to happen now?” Anika had not asked any questions about Diana’s plan since they had run out of the house with Derek close at their heels.
“I have a small house, a cottage really, in Texas. I have had it for a while. Your dad does not know about it. We will go live there for now.”
“Where in Texas?”
“In a little town called Hidden Hollow in the hill country. My grandma Marti bought it for me twelve years ago, right before you were born. She--,” Diana paused before continuing. “She went back to her home country soon after that. I haven’t seen her since then.”
“How come dad didn’t know about the house? I don’t understand.”
“I guess deep down inside I always knew the dragon would awaken.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Just that I often wondered if he was something other than what he claimed to be.”
“Will I ever see him again?”
“I don’t want you to.”
“He is my dad.”
“He tried to kill us.”
“I know. I don’t want to see him again either. I was saying it more in disbelief. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Some day it will.”
“When you yelled something at him, he stopped chasing us. What did you say? I could not understand your words.”
“Go to sleep. We have more than ten hours of driving time tomorrow.”
Anika knew better than to push her mother when she was tired, upset, and in pain. “How is your arm?”
“It still hurts a bit. We will stop by a pharmacy on the next town we find so I can buy some pain medicine. I forgot to get some in Cortez.”
With her uninjured arm, Diana caressed Anika’s dark brown hair. She kissed her on her forehead and nose. She smiled weakly at her daughter and said, “You look just like me. Your hair, your eyes, your nose….You are me.”
Diana was right. While Anika’s skin was lighter courtesy of Derek’s genes, Anika was the spitting image of her mother. Anika embraced her mother gently so as to not hurt her injured arm.
Long after Diana fell asleep, Anika lay awake staring at the ceiling dotted with peeling patches. The noise of the air conditioning unit kept her from falling asleep, so she thought about what had happened that day and what would happen tomorrow. They would move to Texas to the cottage in Hidden Hollow. Diana said the place was beautiful, but Anika could not overcome the sadness she felt when she thought about living in a house without her father. After tossing and turning for hours, she finally closed her eyes to sleep.
Bizarre dreams haunted Anika that night. She saw flashes of what had happened earlier at home with her dad, and she could hear him screaming, “She is not the one!”
She saw herself alone in a dark forest repeating the same words over and over—“dragon’s blood, dragon’s blood, dragon’s blood….”
Anika woke up once again as the column of red fire was about to hit her face. Her body was drenched in sweat even though the noisy air conditioner made the room unbearably cold. Anika got up from the bed to dry herself with a towel from the bathroom. As she sat on the edge of the bathtub, a dull ache filled her heart as she recalled the day years ago when Derek comforted her when she skinned her hands and knees after falling out of a tree. Derek had carried her into the bathroom as she buried her tear-streaked face into his shirt. He sat her on the edge of the bathtub while he washed her wounds with a warm, soapy towel. His blonde hair fell forward as he tended to her. He ran his hands over his head pushing his locks away from his face when he was done. Although Derek could not carry a tune to save his life, he sang while holding her as he patiently waited for Anika to stop crying:
“I know you will climb that mountain
Just look into your heart
And you will find the strength you need
I know you can climb that mountain
There is just one place to start
And that is right here beside me”
Her parents had sung that song to her for as long as she could remember. Anika went back to bed and drifted to a fitful sleep. In the morning, she forgot about the dreams, but she was left with a feeling that she was betraying her father.
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