Down in Flames
What if you were hit by a train?” asked Donny. “Could you survive that?”
Angela Obscura, beast of the underworld, traveler to the mortal realm, member of the Infernal Council, and friend of Donny Taylor, popped another cheese curd into her mouth and chewed it while considering the question. “You mean,” she said after a gulp, “hit and bounced off, or run over and scraped underneath?”
“Both,” Donny said. “I mean, either.”
“Bounced off, I’d probably be okay. Run over, not so much. I’m not completely impervious, you know. If an infernal being’s wounds are bad enough, all the heat and steam leaks out. Then you’re gone, good-bye.”
Donny nodded and grabbed another curd. “But fire doesn’t hurt you, right?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she scolded, one of
her own cheeks puffed with food. “And no, I thought that was obvious. I’m fireproof, right down to the hair.”
“Oh yeah, that makes sense,” Donny said. Angela’s hair, which returned in a different length and color every time she switched from her monstrous to human forms, was currently long, auburn, and abundant with curls. She’d also been remade with a cinnamon sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Donny pointed with a curd. “What if you were electrocuted?”
“This one time, when electricity was kind of new, I didn’t know about the no-appliances-near-the-bathtub thing, and I got a pretty good shock. It would have killed you, but I was fine.”
“How about hit by lightning?”
“Happened once, when I climbed a tree for a better look at a storm. Apparently you’re not supposed to do that, either. That hurt like crazy, and I’m pretty sure I saw my skeleton for a second.”
“Wow.” Donny thought for a while. “What if you fell a long way, like out of an airplane?”
She brushed her hands with a napkin and dropped it onto her empty plate. “Donny Taylor, are you trying to figure out how to kill me?”
He laughed. “No. It’s just . . . It’s just cool. I’m curious.”
“No doubt you are,” she said. “So, the verdict on cheese curds?”
“Pretty great,” he said. They were sitting at a sidewalk table under a blue umbrella on a street in Milwaukee. Across the street and a block over, he could see where the Milwaukee River flowed toward Lake Michigan, barely a mile away. Back in Brooklyn or Manhattan, where he’d spent his first twelve years, the streets would have been bustling with crowds and crackling with the weird, grimy energy of that frantic metropolis. This town was sleepy in comparison and sparsely peopled, but perfectly pleasant, especially on a crisp fall day.
Speaking of pretty great, he thought to himself, looking at his friend across the table. A person might possibly think Angela Obscura was anywhere from fifteen to nineteen, but they would certainly think that she was beautiful in a way that was different from all the other beautiful people. The truth was that she was approximately one hundred and fifty years old, and wasn’t human at all. Angela’s left hand, currently clad in an elbow-length red glove, was always covered with reptilian scales. There was an ancient gold bracelet on that wrist, and if she were to take it off, the rest of her body would quickly transform.
Just a few months before, Angela had saved Donny from a fiery death. In return, he’d promised to assist her on her missions in the mortal world. That was the deal, anyway. Most of the time it felt like she just dragged him along because she wanted the company.
“Not a bad little town, eh?” she said. “It all smells like bratwurst and beer, don’t ya know?”
Donny laughed. “Kind of.”
“And, golly, look at all the sandy-haired, earnest Midwesterners. Bless their hearts.” She put a fist to her mouth and burped. “Well, I guess we should go. Now that my craving for cheese curds has been vanquished.” She pushed her chair back and stood up.
“We didn’t pay for the food,” Donny said.
She reached into her handbag, pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, and looked questioningly at Donny. “That’ll cover it, right?”
“With, like, an eighty-dollar tip,” Donny observed. But Angela was already on the move and five paces away. Donny anchored the bill to the table with a saltshaker, grabbed the empty backpack Angela had given him, and followed.
Before Donny could catch up, a car slowed beside her. It was filled with guys who looked like college students. The driver, a brawny blond quarterback type, put his elbow out the window and patted his horn so that it gave a little squeak. He grinned at Angela. “Hey, girl. You’re pretty sweet, you know that?”
Angela gave him a sideways glance and rolled her eyes.
“C’mon—don’t be that way,” the driver said. “Why can’t you be friendly? Hey! I’m talking to you!” He kept the car rolling at the same pace that Angela was walking. His friends inside the car laughed.
Donny kept a few paces back. Part of him was twitchy and nervous, but part of him wondered how this would play out. This guy had no idea what he was dealing with.
“Hey, how about a smile, girl? I bet you have a pretty smile.”
Angela stopped. She pivoted on her feet, turning to face the car. The driver slowed to a stop and grinned at her. Inside the car, the friends nudged one another and stared.
Angela’s mouth spread into a broad, toothy smile, but Donny recognized a fiery look in her eyes. Uh-oh, he thought. She stepped off the sidewalk, right next to the car. Before the driver could say another word, she put two hands on his side-view mirror, tugged, and snapped it off. There were wires inside, and she pulled it sharply back to break them free. Then she turned the mirror to herself, looked into it, and announced: “Look, I’m smiling now!”
The driver stared back, his mouth open. His friends burst into laughter, and the one behind the driver reached forward and slapped him on the shoulder.
Angela tossed the mirror through the window and onto the driver’s lap. “Now you can use that to take a good look at yourself.” She blew him a kiss and walked away.
Donny heard the clunk of the car being thrown into park. The driver’s door swung open and the driver shot out, the broken mirror in one hand. “Hey!” he shouted.
Angela turned, and Donny took two steps to the side. He knew from the look on her face that she was about to
hit the driver with a telepathic beam of sheer terror, and he didn’t want to be anywhere in the line of fire. Even from where he stood, he felt the tiny hairs on his arms tingling. The driver opened his mouth again, almost certainly to bark something truly unpleasant, but instead of speaking, he moaned with fear as his eyes bugged from his face. Inside the car, his friends sensed it too. Donny heard their manic, high-pitched shrieks: “Get back in the car! Let’s get out of here!”
The driver staggered backward, stumbling over the curb. The mirror slipped from his hand and clattered onto the pavement. He fumbled his way back into the car, tugging the door shut behind him. The tires squealed, spitting blue smoke, and the car accelerated away, driving straight through a red light. Cars that were crossing the intersection slammed on their brakes to avoid a collision. The driver’s bad day got even worse, because a police car appeared from around the corner, firing up its siren and flashing its lights.
Angela rolled her shoulders and cracked her knuckles as Donny jogged up beside her. “You really need to be careful,” he said. “I mean, that guy was a jerk, but he could have hurt someone just now.”
She giggled. “What do you suppose he’ll tell the officer?”
“That there’s a crazy girl down the street with gorilla muscles,” Donny said. “We shouldn’t attract police attention, you know.”
“Because I’m still a missing kid. Remember?”
“Oh, ha-ha, yeah,” Angela said. “Well, we only came for the curds. And something almost as good. Come on—it’ll be dark soon. Time to get to the marina.”