By: Nikki Williams
Joan took one last look at the sunlit ocean from her window seat.
Blue, like the sprawling sky that filtered through foliage as she’d trekked into the dense woods.
When she’d finally found the hut under the high canopy, Joan’s breathing slowed. She’d been hoping it wasn’t still there. Pressing her palm against the door, she stepped into darkness. Something in the air burned her eyes and throat but she stood fixed, waiting.
A man emerged from behind a thick curtain, a few flickering wicks at his back, his eyes hollow in the inky blackness. There was something about his hands: fingernails like jutting blades, digits curling constantly like a centipede inching closer. Like they could keep going forever.
He cleared his throat—the echo bristled the skin on her bare arms. Joan removed a crumpled photo from her pocket. She placed it into his palm, her eyes sliding to the thatch wall. The man turned and she followed him to the tiny room where shadows strutted across the walls as if they were alive.
Joan ignored the smiling stewardesses, slowly drifting past the beeping, bright lights and muffled conversations in the airport terminal. She’d tried sleeping on the flight to no avail and longed for the leather comfort of her car. Sinking into the red Altezza, she closed her eyes and her shoulders relaxed. She started the car, then tensed up again as her engine rumbled but would not start. Panic seized her brain. Shutting out the low thumping of her heart, she slowly turned the key again. This time, the car roared to life. Joan sped off into the traffic, the terminal watching her disappear like a force had swept her away.
By the time she reversed into her parking spot nearly an hour later, something had shifted. The fatigue in her bones didn’t feel like jetlag. There was no shaking the sinking sensation. Though she’d planned to catch up on work when she got in, sleep descended on her like a dense fog.
Joan awoke to the sunset’s glow and a throbbing pain behind her eyes. Nothing an aspirin and her favorite food couldn’t fix, she mused, resenting the noises coming from her stomach. Slipping on her black Crocs, she yanked a tunic off a hanger and immediately wished she hadn’t. Hints of cobalt and coral recalled the tufts of sky she’d glimpsed on the twisting jungle path.
It took her less than the usual ten minutes to get to Leshko’s. There was no parking at the downtown eatery, and she’d leave her car a few blocks away; the short commute gave her time to clear her head. But it didn’t work this time. Something was gnawing at her.
Exiting with her order, Joan stopped suddenly on the sidewalk. A beggar stood on the corner, her craggy digits clutching a tattered, fluttering sign. Walking past her, Joan stole a cursory glance at the woman’s hands. She was surprised at her own concern when there was nothing she could do for her. Crossing the street, she lowered her gaze, listening to sirens wailing far away as she walked back to her car.
She scanned her surroundings as she approached the Altezza, the city skyline draped in its twinkling veil. Soon, the scent of spices was filling her car, fragrant whiffs of pepper and basil. She sighed, suddenly craving Leshkos’ lava cakes, wishing it wasn’t already too late.
When Joan finally turned the key, a sensation streaked down her spine.
The loud bang shattered the evening calm.
The beggar stood slack-shouldered where Joan had left her, the fireball reflecting in her wide eyes.
Flames cracked like knuckles as they devoured the chassis, leaping towards the sky as if they’d come alive.
Nikki is a copywriter and music critic. Her work appears in The Citron Review, Ellipsiszine, Sublunary Review, LEON Literary Review, Sky Island Journal, Literary Yard, PreeLit, Nymphs and New Pop Lit. She munches trail mix and takes stunning photos when not busy writing.