March 3, 1991
Everything was going to be all right now.
The woman lifted her arm, barely able to make out the scars from so long ago in the streetlight's dim orange glow. She had come to accept their place as trophies... and as reminders that, one day, she would be returned to that place which she had been taken from seventeen years before. As her fingers traced the scars something happened to her that she would never have thought possible:
She smiled. It was a sad, defeated smile, telling of moments lost and battles waged and, finally, of inevitable defeat. Some would say it was the smile of the already-dead.
All the years spent in hospitals and institutions, all the tens of thousands of dollars paid to doctors and therapists... all of that meant nothing now as she ran down the dark alleys that had seemed so familiar in her youth. She ran without seeing the filth strewn about her, without feeling the blank stares of the homeless, without hearing the frantic shouting behind her.
The smile came because she knew what she had been missing now, what she had lost so long ago. Stepping into the street, the woman nimbly danced around the rapidly-moving cars, almost as if they weren't there. She didn't hear the shouts and curses of angry drivers who had barely swerved in time to miss her. They didn't matter anyway; she had purpose now.
She had to reach the Fires.
Reaching the opposite side she faced the tall red-brick building that was her final obstacle. In the dimness she could not read the profanity that had been spray-painted across the walls and windows and doorways. It probably wasn't the same anyway, not after fifteen years. What she sought, though, was very close to her - a metal ladder that led to a rickety fire escape. Clawing her way up the cold metal rungs and stairs, the woman climbed as fast as her limbs would carry her. With every step she took the structure vibrated dangerously, but she paid it no mind. A few concerned shouts came from the street below, but she was too close to hear them. She could almost see the Fires now.
Then the metal stairs ended and she was standing at the top of the fire escape. She desperately tried to pull the ancient fire door open but it refused to budge. She screamed, kicking at the door with all her strength, and stomped violently in frustration when it became clear that she wasn't going to get that way. She gripped the door handle, braced herself to pull again -
- And the fire escape fell away with a resounding crash as the weakened metal finally let go. The entire structure fell to the street four stories below, sending cars and pedestrians in all directions to avoid the falling tangle of iron. A woman looked up at the building and began shouting, pointing at a person desperately gripping a door handle, legs flailing in midair, trying to find a foothold on the brick facade of the structure.
She looked down at the traffic on the street and the remains of the fire escape. Her breathing slowed as the voice spoke to her again, soft and gentle and always right. It's time to bring you home.
The brilliant light surrounded her body, tongues of flame embracing her as she reached out to them. It was all right now, it was all going to be -
May 20 - 21, 1976
" - all right?"
"What?" The boy looked up from the book he was trying to read and into the most beautiful green eyes he had ever seen. He immediately knew who the girl was, of course; every boy on the South Side of Chicago had been trying to go out with Chance Mason since the beginning of the school year. Except for him, that is; he was only a freshman and she was a junior.
"Your knee, is it all right?"
"Oh, yeah, it's fine. See?" He flexed his left knee, although it pained him severely. He had tripped at a track meet the Saturday before and had gone down hard on it, but the doctor said that it would heal up just fine - if he didn't strain it again.
Chance smiled and the boy's heart took flight. "I'm glad to hear it. I stopped by because Owen wanted to know if you were still going to help him fix the lawnmower tomorrow."
"Yeah, I'll be by around noon, like we agreed on."
"All right, I'll tell him. See you tomorrow." As she walked off the boy let out a huge sigh that he hoped she wouldn't hear. Ohhh, I'm in love, he thought. I'm sure of it.
Johnny Ventura closed the book and stuffed it into his bag, then started the long walk home. He had missed the bus - again - and now had to walk over two miles. But it had been worth it because Chance had actually talked to him. He walked through dirty alleyways and across busy intersections, underneath the tracks of the "El" (the elevated trains that criss-crossed urban Chicago), avoiding the street people and bums that his father had warned him about since moving to this part of the city. That had been three years ago, right after his mother had died of cancer. His father - a beat cop for most of his life - would be home soon, and Johnny wanted to be there so they could talk.
The apartment was small and somewhat dingy, but the rats hadn't found it yet and the neighbors were nice to him, especially Mrs. Gravetti in 3F; she would often have him stay over when his dad had to work late and she made the best suppers. Johnny closed and bolted the door, then flicked on the TV and sat on the couch. An hour later Johnny heard the sound of a key turning in the lock. By the time he got to his feet the door was open and Vince Ventura stood there, shrugging off his jacket. "Hi, Johnny."
"Hey, Pop. How was your day?"
"Oh, pretty good. It was quiet, for once." His father sat down heavily at the kitchen table. "You seem in a good mood."
Johnny just smiled as he started getting pots out for supper. The next day he woke early, finishing his chores well before noon and then hitting the streets. The Masons lived several miles away and Johnny had no money to take the train; he was hoping that Mr. Mason would pay him enough to get home, or at least offer him a ride after he found the problem and fixed the mower. Even if he didn't, though, if Chance was there that would be pay enough. Johnny couldn't describe the feelings he experienced whenever she was near; all he knew was that he felt wonderful when she was around.
The Masons lived in an aging house that sat on the edge of a cluster of factories and warehouses. Owen had told him that the house had been owned by a wealthy railroader who had stubbornly held on to it when the factory owners had come to him, and the only reason it still stood was that the land had little value now that the railroads had become less important. The lawn was small but wildly overgrown; it had obviously not been cut since the previous year. Approaching the door Johnny could hear a sweet, melodic voice floating through the air and his feelings began to fly again.
But then Owen Mason opened the door, and the feeling left him. Owen was a scrawny dark-haired boy that Johnny went to school with; he was, however, not a person Johnny considered a close friend. He was rather loud and annoying, and his behavior bordered on rudeness at times, but he was tolerable to hang out with - especially because he was Chance's little brother. His hair was an unruly mess, as usual, and to Johnny it seemed like his nose belonged to someone else; it stuck out way too much. "Hi, Johnny. Ready to -"
March 6, 1991
" - get to work?"
"I said, are you ready to get to work?" Jack Marshak looked down at the younger man as he sat at the desk. Micki had gone off to see her parents in California, leaving the task of running Curious Goods to Jack and Johnny. Normally that would be simple enough, but today Johnny had seemed very out-of-sorts. He had been sitting at the desk in a daze, clutching a newspaper in his hand.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm okay."
"You had me wondering, Johnny. You've been staring at that newspaper all morning." Jack took a sip of tea and studied the younger man's face; pale and drawn, with dark flashes under his eyes. It looked like he hadn't slept in days.
"Have I? I didn't notice the time." Johnny's eyes reflexively followed the headline again: Mental Patient Dies in Tragic Accident. Next to the text of the article was a photograph taken from a high school yearbook, a photo of a young girl with dark hair and intense eyes. Even though he hadn't seen her in almost a decade, he instantly knew who the person was. "I guess there was a lot I didn't notice."
Jack sat down at the other side of the desk. "Johnny, if something is bothering you, I'm here if you want to talk."
"I don't know if you'd believe me, Jack. It all happened so long ago... it seems like a dream, sometimes. But every now and then I wake up and I swear I can hear her talking to me, begging me to let her go back there..." Johnny's voice faded as the tears came, swift and unrelenting. They fell onto the newspaper, blurring the girl's image and the words beside it, and Johnny was powerless to stop them.
"So you know, Johnny," a voice interrupted from the front of the store. Johnny and Jack both looked up to see a thin young man dressed in a jean jacket standing just inside the open doorway.
"Owen? Is that you?" Johnny stood and approached the newcomer, examining him carefully. The terrible mass of dark curls was gone, as was the gap between the front teeth, but the angular nose and prominent chin stubbornly remained as reminders of childhood.
"Yeah, Johnny. It's me. I wish I could say that it's good to see you again." Neither man smiled as they shook hands, and Jack noticed a sudden tension fill the small store. "You read the paper?"
"Couldn't help it. I almost missed it at first, but then the picture caught my eye. That was yesterday afternoon." Johnny looked over at the desk. "She didn't change much."
"Bullshit, man. She changed a lot after that summer; Mom and Dad must have spent twenty grand on shrinks and therapy over the past fifteen years. She was on every kind of drug you can think of." The newcomer looked over at Jack, then back to Johnny. "But that can all wait, I suppose."
"Owen, I'd like you to meet Jack Marshak, my boss and a very close friend." Johnny motioned Jack over and Owen shook his hand. "Jack, this is Owen Mason. I've known him since I was thirteen."
Greetings were exchanged, and Jack offered the newcomer some tea. The heavy tension started to lift as all three sat down around the desk and Johnny and Owen began exchanging stories about what each had been doing for the past several years since the last time they had met. Owen, always the scrawny nerdish type, had made himself a career in the computer programming field (a fact which didn't surprise Johnny at all). Nor was Owen surprised when he found out that, before selling antiques, Johnny had been involved in auto repair. His nasal voice had softened even more and, Johnny realized, it was actually pleasant to hear him talk now. "So, how did you find me?" Johnny finally asked.
"I heard that your father got killed a while back, and that you almost got sent up for it. Mrs. Gravetti kept track of what was going on because she always liked you so much, and I just got a hold of her when... after Chance died. I found out where Curious Goods was and came right over."
"Owen, what the hell happened, anyway? What was going on with Chance?"
"I think you know, Johnny. I think you know perfectly well what happened. It was the Fires."
The silence fell so suddenly that Jack almost felt a chill pass through the store. "But - but they weren't real. Neither of us saw anything," Johnny stammered.
"She thought they were real. Chance thought they were very real, and that's what counts. Where do you think she died at?"
"The warehouse? That's where the fire escape collapsed?" When Owen nodded, Johnny just closed his eyes. "I thought they had torn it down years ago."
"Nobody wants the property now. Hell, even the bums stay out of the building."
Jack, who had been listening quietly to all of this, finally spoke. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I was just wondering... who is this Chance person?"
"She's my - she was my sister. Two years older, and a lot crazier, too."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mister Mason. She was obviously very special to you both."
"Tell you what - you can call me Owen if I can call you Jack. And I appreciate the sympathy." Owen took another drink of tea and made a face. "Johnny, can't we have something civilized to drink? Coffee, maybe?"
"I'll see what I can do." Johnny headed up the stairs to the tiny kitchen, leaving Jack and Owen alone.
"You know, he's changed a lot, too," Owen said. "He's a lot more mature than the last time I saw him."
"I suppose so. He's only been working here about two years, but the change has been quite obvious. So, I take it that you and he were close friends at one point."
"Pretty close. At first, it was because he had a crush on Chance... but then, so did dozens of other guys all across the neighborhood. She was a special girl. I sort of looked after her when she did some crazy things, and she was always doing something crazy. She definitely earned the name." Owen chuckled quietly, almost to himself. "You know, our parents named her Chance because my mom's doctor thought that the risk of her getting pregnant was too great. But she took the chance and carried her to term, and the baby was beautiful. Anyway, Johnny and I got to be pretty good friends after..."
Owen's eyes lost their focus as his voice trailed off. "After what?" Jack asked.
"Jack, you seem to be pretty worldly. I mean, you've seen a lot in your life, right?" When Jack nodded, he continued. "Well, what I'm about to tell you might seem to be crazy. Do you believe in the supernatural?"
"Very much so. I'm something of an expert on the subject, as a matter of fact." Jack restrained himself from telling Owen about the main work that he, Johnny and Micki did at the store - the recovery of cursed antiques.
"Then you might believe me. I've thought about this so much over the years, but I can't even begin to figure it out. The night this all started was just a few months after I met Johnny. It was almost the end of the school year, May of 1976, and Johnny had come over to fix our lawnmower one afternoon. He was only thirteen but he already knew more about engines than most of the auto shop seniors. Of course, he spent most of his time with them, too, so that explains part of it." As Owen continued to explain the events of that long-ago day Johnny stood at the head of the stairs, lost in his own memories of what had happened when -
May 21, 1976
"Are you boys done already?" Will Mason looked up from his newspaper and saw Johnny and Owen standing before him, their hands covered in oil.
"Yeah, it was nothing. The carburator got clogged, is all. Easy to fix," Johnny said.
"That's good to hear. How much do I owe you fellas?"
"Just a ride home for me, Mister Mason." Johnny was proud that he'd been able to fix the problem so quickly, and now he had the rest of the day to spend with Owen... and maybe Chance.
"I'll tell you what - if it's all right with your father, you can spend the night over here. We'll feed you supper, and I'll drive you home in the morning. Okay?"
"Sure! Can I use your phone?" Johnny was almost floating with the prospect of spending the entire day this close to Chance. He already knew his father would let him. Minutes later he and Owen were prowling the neighborhood, weaving between the tall warehouses that had been empty for years except for a few bums. "Why doesn't anyone use these anymore?" Johnny asked as the two boys crawled through a hole in a chain-link fence.
"I'm not real sure. I think it's because people think they're haunted."
"Haunted? Come on, you don't believe that. Ghosts aren't real, man." Johnny looked in one of the many broken windows. "Wanna go inside?"
"I'm not supposed to, Johnny. My dad said he'd belt me but good if he caught me ever going inside."
"Hey, who's gonna tell him? I won't if you won't." Johnny began crawling through, careful not to cut himself on any of the glass that remained in the frame. He heard a muttered goddammit from behind him, and a few seconds later Owen crawled through as well. "So, what did people keep in here?"
"How am I supposed to know? This place has been closed for longer than I've been alive." The boys walked across the empty building, pausing briefly to look at the rotting corpse of a pigeon that turned out to be the only item of interest.
"Well, I don't see a ghost. Except maybe the pigeon's..." Johnny's voice trailed off as he looked up at the rafters and caught sight of something moving. Grabbing Owen's shoulder he turned his friend around and pointed upward, but the movement was gone.
"What? What is it, Johnny?"
"Did you see that? There's somebody up there!"
The boys both looked closely but nothing moved on the beam far above them. "I don't think so, Johnny. Listen, there's nothing in here. Let's go back to the house."
"Yeah, all right. This place is boring, man." Neither boy voiced the fact that each was spooked.
As the two boys worked their way back to the Mason's house Johnny kept looking back over his shoulder; he couldn't shake the feeling that someone was behind them. "Owen... are you sure there weren't any ghosts back there?"
Owen turned around, obviously exasperated. "Johnny, ghosts aren't real. Never have been, never will -"
A crash from down the alley startled both of the boys and they bolted toward Owen's house. Johnny ran faster than he ever had before, vaulting fences and taking corners with lightning speed. Owen was with him step-for-step, sending worried glances back over his shoulder. "Do you think we can outrun it?" he asked.
"I don't have to outrun it. All I have to do is outrun you," Johnny panted, pulling ahead of his friend.
"Hey! Get your butt back here-" Owen increased his speed and managed to catch Johnny just as they reached the Masons' front porch. "I can't believe you said that, you jerk!" Owen said as he grabbed Johnny's shirt and yanked him around. "What the heck do you think you were doing?"
"Getting you to run faster. There's no way I was gonna leave you back there for the ghost -" A hand clamped down on Johnny's shoulder and he shrieked, jumping down the porch steps in a single movement. As he scrambled around the side of the house he heard soft laughter echoing behind him ... and then Owen was shouting. Johnny trotted back and saw Chance doubled over on the porch, her arms clutched around her stomach, laughing her head off.
"Chance! How could you do that? You scared the hell out of him!" Owen yelled, stomping his foot on the porch.
"The same way - I got you two - to run - back in the alley!" she gasped between fits of laughter. "You - you should have seen - your faces - !" And Chance broke into hysterical giggles again.
Owen looked over at Johnny's red face. "You still think she's so wonderful?" he demanded.
Johnny looked at Chance laughing on the porch and grinned in spite of himself. "Absol-"
March 6, 1991
"We have to go back, Owen. We owe it to her." Johnny stood and began pacing around the store nervously. What am I doing? he thought, wondering why he had even brought the subject up.
"Johnny, you're not making any sense. Why should we go back to the warehouse? What good could it possibly do?"
"I... I don't know. We might find out what she saw, what was going on -"
Owen stood and shouted, "We were both there that night! Neither of us saw anything, and that's beacuse nothing was there!" He raised a hand to his forehead in frustration. "Nothing was there, and nothing will come out of it."
"Owen, we were there. We both saw how she looked, the sound of her voice after we pulled her up. It wasn't her. It wasn't Chance."
Owen refused to look at Johnny; he looked around the store, at Jack, at the empty coffee cup sitting on the desk. "If I hadn't been there... if I hadn't heard her voice... I'd say you were crazy. But you're not, because I saw it too." His eyes began to tear as he was lost in the memories. "She... didn't look right. Her eyes were different, and her voice... but I can't remember it all. Everything happened so fast, you know?"
"Yeah, I know. It was just a few minutes, but I think they were the longest minutes of my life." Until I started working here, he thought silently, knowing that Jack was thinking it as well.
"So... what do we do? Do you really think that going back will help?"
"I don't know. But I think Chance experienced something that neither of us was aware of that day. I think she was trying to get back to whatever she saw. She was trying to get back to her Fires." Johnny looked over at Jack, who had remained silent through most of the afternoon. "Jack, have you ever heard of anything like this?"
Jack looked up from his cooling cup of tea. "No, but strange things happen all the time. You say that she was different, Owen. But how?"
Johnny picked up his coat and the keys to the Mercedes. "We've got to finish the story. We'll tell you -"
May 21, 1976
"- on the way to Jenny's house. She always sneaks out after my parents go to bed and heads over there to party, and there's this perfect spot down by the warehouses where we can scare her to death. It's gonna be great, Johnny!"
Owen and Johnny were sitting on the floor in Owen's room, picking through baseball cards and discussing how to best pay Chance back for the terror she had brought them that afternoon.
"I don't know, Owen. What if we get caught sneaking out? I don't want to get in trouble again." Johnny threw down a card in disgust, knowing that he shouldn't even be thinking about doing this... but really, really wanting to get Chance back, to do anything to be noticed by her.
"We won't get in trouble, Johnny. Not from my parents, anyway; Chance might kick our butts after we do it." Owen looked at Johnny with a distinctly puppy-dog look in his eyes.
Oh, well... Johnny was always a pushover for a good joke. "Sure, why not?" he grinned.
"That's the spirit, Johnny. Now what evil tricks should we pull?" And the two boys spent the rest of the afternoon coming up with the perfect plan to scare Owen's older sister. Owen knew the perfect spot to get Chance back, a place down by the warehouses they had been inside earlier that day. He would come up behind Chance, hiding in the shadows between the buildings, and then tip over one of the trash cans that littered the alley, which would send Chance running... and right under Johnny on top of a tin shack, who would dump a bucket of water all over her. It was the perfect plan, and it was hard not to laugh evilly as the afternoon passed into evening, and evening into night.
Sometime after eleven Johnny heard faint sounds of movement coming through the wall - from Chance's room. A few minutes later Owen hissed, "Johnny? She's in the yard. Let's go."
Once outside, Johnny picked up the bucket he had filled with water earlier that afternoon and trotted toward the warehouses right behind Owen. "Are you sure we can get ahead of her?" he whispered.
"Yeah, pretty sure. All we gotta do is cut through a couple of alleys and we're set." The boys rushed through the path Owen had laid out for them and in a few minutes were all set for their plan. They settled in to wait...
And waited. And waited...
A half-hour passed before Johnny climbed down from his perch atop a shack and trotted over to Owen. "I don't think she's coming, man."
"She always comes this way. I followed her a few weeks ago." The boys sat in silence for a few more minutes. "Dammit, come on. Let's go find her," Owen grumbled, knowing that Chance was probably doing something dumb. Again. They headed back toward the Mason house through the dark streets, ducking around trash cans and hoping that the few bums in the area hadn't suddenly decided to become violent. Passing by the warehouse they had explored earlier in the day, Johnny grabbed Owen's shoulder. "What is it?" Owen tried to say but Johnny shushed him before he could say a word.
"I heard something back there. I think it came from inside the warehouse." Johnny went over to the window they had used earlier to get inside. "Yeah, someone's inside."
"Probably a bum. Why the hell would she go in there?"
"I don't know, but I don't think it's a bum." Johnny listened closely for a few seconds.
"Because I hear a girl laughing in there." Johnny leaped through the window and into the near-total darkness of the empty warehouse, Owen right on his heels. They ran out onto the main floor, looking up into the darkness for any sign of Chance, but nothing was there. "Do you see her?" Johnny yelled.
"I can't see anything. It's too dark in here," Owen answered, his foot coming down on something brittle. The dead pigeon that they had found earlier, he realized with a sick feeling in his stomach.
A soft, lilting laugh echoed from above them, almost blending into the faint noise of the city outside. Looking up, the boys could see a shape moving between the shadows in the rafters, something that definitely did not belong there. "Chance? Are you up there?" Owen shouted.
The shape did not answer; more laughter floated down to them instead. "It's got to be her. How do we get up there?" Johnny asked.
"I think the stairs are over here." They sprinted toward one corner of the warehouse and raced up the rickety staircase until they ran out of steps to climb. Looking out into the dark they could make out the outline of a walkway in front of them, stretching out across the top of the warehouse. Somebody was moving on that walkway.
"Chance?" Owen and Johnny whispered almost simultaneously.
"Isn't it wonderful?" The shape flowed toward them in the darkness, timid in its movements but sure in its voice. "Isn't it beautiful?"
The voice chilled Johnny to the bone. It was the voice of the person he wanted to know better... but, at the same time, he didn't know that voice at all. And that terrified him more than anything he had ever experienced before. "Chance, come over here. It's not safe. You're going to fall off the edge - "
"Fall. Yes, maybe I'll fall... or maybe I can fly." And in one swift motion she had reached the edge of the catwalk, and was looking over. "It's so pretty down there. Look at it - the Fires just move over everything like water. It's so beautiful... so beautiful..." Chance leaned further over, began to fall -
Johnny and Owen barely managed to catch her before she fell over the edge, each one having a death grip on one of her arms. "No! Let me go! I have to go to them! It will all be all right if you just let me go!" she howled as the boys wrestled her to the floor. "Please... let me go to them... please..." Chance broke into tears as the night closed in around all three of them. Both boys knew that something major had just happened, that nothing -
March 6, 1991
"- would ever be the same for her again. Or for us." Owen looked out the car window at the bleak urban landscape rolling by. "After that night Chance wasn't quite the same person. She spent the rest of school in psychotherapy. The doctors thought it was some kind of psychotic break and put her on all kinds of drugs, but nothing worked. After she graduated she spent a lot of time in institutions all over the state... and in hospitals after her suicide attempts. Mom and Dad had to sell the house to pay for all the bills that got racked up, and she still never got much better. You know, I used to sit with her at night and talk to her after my parents would leave. She seemed almost normal; she'd laugh at my jokes, she'd be interested in what I was telling her... but she wasn't completely there. Some part of her just disappeared that day. I can't explain it."
"Maybe there is no way to explain it. Like I said, strange things happen all the time," Jack said as the Mercedes prowled the darkened streets near the railroad yards. "But whatever happened, it doesn't sound natural."
"How do you mean?" asked Johnny as he turned a corner.
"You both said that she didn't talk like she normally would. How did she sound?"
"Her voice... had a higher pitch, I guess. She sounded like she was a little girl." Johnny nodded in agreement. "But the doctors looked for any signs of multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia. They didn't find anything physically wrong with her; no fugue episodes, no blackouts, nothing." Owen looked at Jack. "What are you thinking?"
"I'm not sure, not yet, but it sounds like it could be some sort of possession."
"You're kidding, right?" Owen asked; when Jack remained silent he looked away. "You're not."
"Not at all. I've seen it happen before."
Owen shook his head in disbelief. "Johnny, who the hell have you gotten yourself involved with?"
"Good people, Owen. The best, in fact."
"Over there." Owen pointed to a building. As Johnny pulled the car to a stop he could see fragments of yellow police tape still attached to the warehouse where Chance had died. "This is the place, but how do we get in?"
Jack pulled a small black pouch out of his pocket and knelt in front of the door. A large Master padlock had recently been installed, which would take him about two minutes to pick. "I'll take care of it. Keep an eye out," he whispered.
"Good people, Johnny?" Owen hissed. Johnny shrugged, not knowing how to reply.
Jack stood and plucked the padlock from the latch. "Let's go in."
Johnny and Owen felt as if they had been transported back in time; the warehouse was exactly like it had been back on that day in 1976. Both men were half-tempted to look for the decaying corpse of a pigeon. "What are we looking for?" Owen asked, the dust in the air trying to tease a cough out of him.
"The place where your sister was trying to reach when she died. Where did you say the stairs were?"
"This way." Owen started off toward the far end of the warehouse when a chill ran up his spine. "Johnny?" There was no answer as the words echoed through the darkness. "This isn't funny, Johnny. Speak up, man."
"Johnny? Can you hear me?" Jack shouted, peering up into the inky air that hid the rafters. "It's not like him just to run off this way, not anymore."
"Come on, Jack." Owen broke into a run and took the stairs two at a time with Jack right behind. They were almost to the top when the sound of gentle laughter brought both men to a dead stop. It was light and girlish, even though it was obviously coming from a young man, tinged with an air of madness, and it terrified both men to their very core.
Jack and Owen crept to the top of the stairs and peered into the dark, but could only make out more shadows. "Johnny? Is that you?"
"Yes... what do you want?" The voice was quiet and hesitant, and pitched far higher than Johnny would ever normally speak.
"It's Owen and Jack. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine... just fine. Don't you think it's beautiful?" Jack peered into the darkness and cringed; the fall was at least fifty feet, more than enough to kill. "What do you see, Johnny? What do you see that's beautiful?" "The Fires... all the Fires down there, red and orange and blue ones, moving all over the place. They're coming up here, to play with me, to dance with me." The sound of motion came out of the dark, footsteps, moving toward the far end of the catwalk.
Jack and Owen started after him, carefully staying back from the edges of the catwalk. "Johnny, talk to me. Remember that time we set fire to the McCullough's trash can? How bad it stank? Man, we couldn't get that smell off of us for a week. And all the pranks we pulled on those jokers in fifth grade, how could we forget those?"
"I... I don't remember that..." The voice was quavery, as if Johnny were on the edge of breaking into tears.
"Yeah, man, I know you remember it. I know you love to work on cars, I know you like to hit on women, and I know you weren't very good at it when you were young. I know you trust me." Jack and Owen could just barely make out Johnny's form in the darkness, leaning out over the edge of the catwalk. Jack silently moved in front of Owen and around Johnny, hoping to get to the opposite side before he had the chance to jump.
"I can't remember, Owen. It's all... so mixed up in here. It's like... like my thoughts aren't mine anymore." In the near-darkness Owen could barely make out the sheen of tears coursing down Johnny's cheeks, and he knew that time was rapidly running out. "I can't let her go. I never could, I guess."
"It's okay, Johnny. There's nothing you could have done. It was... it was meant to be."
"No, it wasn't. It was my fault... and they all died... and now it's over." Before Owen could digest the statement, Johnny pitched forward into the open air toward the concrete below -
- And was caught by Jack's arms before his feet left the catwalk. As Johnny fought to escape their grip, both Owen and Jack were blinded by a flash that came from all around them, punctuated by the screams of a dozen men being burned to death below them. The sensory barrage went on and on and just when Jack and Owen thought it might never end, the light fell away beneath them until there was nothing but darkness again. "Owen? Jack?" Johnny whispered, opening his eyes.
"Johnny? Are you okay?" Jack asked, loosening his grip just slightly.
"I think so... but what the hell happened? Where are we?"
"Still in the warehouse... but we're all alive." Owen spoke softly as he gazed at the last remnants of the flash imprinted on his retinas, knowing that he never could have understood what had happened here so long ago without coming back here. "Let's get out of here."
March 8, 1991
"And how are you feeling today?" Jack asked as Johnny walked into the store with Owen in tow.
"I'm okay, Jack. It's still fuzzy when I try and remember what happened in the warehouse... but I'm okay."
"And he's sure got his appetite back." Owen clapped Johnny on the back and grinned. "He's almost eaten me out of house and home."
"I'm sure getting reacquainted was well worth it," Jack said before his face turned somber. "I've found something I think both of you will be interested in. It's about the warehouse and what happened there." He motioned Owen and Johnny to sit down before he continued. "I checked the newspaper files and ended up going back over ninety years to find this. It's an article about a fire in a warehouse down by the railroad switchyards that killed twelve men in 1906. Apparently the fire was begun by the daughter of the railroad yardmaster, whose house just happens to be the one that you and your sister grew up in, Owen. The girl was born mentally handicapped, probably with what modern medicine calls Down's Syndrome. One day she wandered into the warehouse after seeing two of the workers lighting sparklers outside for other children and somehow she accidentally set a fire before wandering up onto the catwalk.
"The men tried to get up to her but the fire spread unbelievably quickly. Everybody who tried to save her was killed either by fire or smoke inhalation. By the time they put the fire out there was nothing recognizable except the building itself. Over the years it passed form one owner to another and eventually the incident was forgotten."
"Forgotten by everyone but the ghost of a little girl who just wanted to see something pretty," Owen finished, staring at the floor. "And who reached out to anybody who might be able to help her."
"Like Chance... and like me, in the end." Johnny looked up at Owen. "Even if we knew about all this, we probably couldn't have helped her. She was drawn into what happened to the girl so deeply that she could have never separated herself from that experience, and it just tore her apart."
"At least we know what happened. Man, my parents won't ever believe it, though." Owen looked at his watch. "We'd better get going if we want to get there on time. The funeral starts in an hour." As they headed for the door Owen said, "Do you think they're all right? I mean, Chance and the little girl."
Jack turned to him and spoke. "It's been my experience that those who deserve peace in the afterlife usually find it. Perhaps your sister was able to help the girl in some way. Maybe even now they're together, helping each other to find that peace."
"I hope so, Jack. Maybe I can find some, too." The trio walked out into the sunlight as Owen felt a lifetime of tension and fear start to slip away from him, knowing that Johnny was feeling the same. "Maybe this is my chance to get it right."
Johnny locked up the store and turned to his friend. "Maybe it's a chance for all of us."
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This page was created on April 25, 1999.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.