Facing east toward the mountains, Angel Cerillos dug his toes into the loose slats of the shed’s roof. As the sun shimmered across the New Mexico desert, he lifted his arms upward, feeling the turquoise talisman warming against his chest like a piece of desert sky.
“The eagles are my brothers...” he chanted. He swept his arms downward in the eagles’ curving wing thrusts, imitating how they soared over the parched mountains.
“I am greater than the eagles...”
Eyes drifting shut, his mind flew skyward.
“I am king of the skies....” The rhythmic beat, beat of his arms echoed the chant. He could hear the singing clearly now – there, just beyond the horizon. A thrumming chant that was getting louder and louder, day by day. Magic singing that no one else heard....
“Angel! Angel!” Treese Tanner’s voice cracked through the dream. Arms still flapping, his feet skidded on the tin roof. Scrabbling with fingers and scraping with toes, he slid along the burning metal, and then down over the edge.
A cry tore from his throat. He flew now, but straight down, slamming onto the hard-packed dirt. Gasping for breath, he saw his foster mother loom like a black shadow against the sky. Treese Tanner’s lips pursed and she jammed her big hands on her hips. The hot wind blew her badly-cut hair around her head like a faded halo.
“Y’okay?” she asked.
Angel tried to answer, but all that came out was a raspy grunt.
“Can you get up?” she demanded.
He wheezed again, and thrashed like a bug on a pin. She stared back, exasperation evident on her weathered face. “You deserve to have broke every bone you got,” she told him. “Fourteen years old and you don’t have the sense you were born with. And those sad blue eyes of yours don’t fool me. I seen the way you look at Gary when he pushes you too far. But you watch yourself around him – he can get mean.”
“I know,” Angel grunted. “I ain’t gonna get in his way.”
Treese snorted. “I don’t think you’d hardly know anything, the way you’re always mooning around.”
“I can look after myself.” Angel stared up at the sky, wishing he could fly up there and away from his life.
“You need someone to watch out for you, kid, but I’m not the mothering kind, so you be careful. Now, get up. Put your shirt on. We got work to do.” She turned and headed toward the front of the motel. Angel stayed where he was, lying in the dust, waiting for his breathing to get back to normal.
For a moment he had thought his secret chant was going to work, thought that the haunting dreams and whispering voices would be satisfied and stop. His only friend around here, Celsa Reyna, had helped him come up with words that sounded like an old Indian chant. He had even come out here early – not sunrise exactly – but as close as he could manage without an alarm clock. Spitting out a mouthful of dust, Angel sat up and stared into the gleaming blue sky. For a minute he had felt like he could flap his arms and rise into the air just like one of the eagles that soared over the motel. Felt like he could escape.
“Angel!” Treese called from the front of the motel. “Get a move on!”
“Coming!” Angel yelled back, even though he stayed put, looking up at the sky, drinking in the beautiful blue. For once he felt peaceful, not all torn up by the storms of emotion that rolled over him like thunderclouds on the mountains. Up until the state moved him here to the Lone Butte Motel he had been able to pull back, not get caught up in the fights and bad stuff around him. But there was something about this clean dry air, endless horizon, and blue sky that had him stirred up. Of course, life at the motel didn’t help.
Treese sounded gruff, but she was all right. Angel mostly liked her. But his foster father, Gary, was a whole different deal. He could make anyone laugh with his jokes. His voice was silky and smooth. Everyone liked Gary. Everyone but Angel...and maybe Treese too, though she never said.
With a sigh, Angel got to his feet. He shook back his straight brown hair, tried to dust off his skin, then gave up and pulled on the loose shirt that was one of Gary’s hand-me-downs. His foster father would be back from town soon with another case of beer. If the motel’s rooms weren’t clean and the beds changed, he’d be mad. That would mean the silky voice would get hard and if he’d already started on the beer, maybe he’d stop joking and start slapping.
For a moment Angel gripped the turquoise talisman – the only thing that he had left from his own family. His fingers traced the two-headed, horned snake, more like a dragon, with its long sinewy body looped back and forth and a fanged head on each end. Angel had had it as long as he could remember, strung on string or an old shoelace around his neck. “You keep that safe,” his ma had told him. “It’s your birth gift from your father.”
And he did keep it safe. It never left him, no matter what. He’d figured there was some invisible magic on it because no one ever said anything about it and no matter how chaotic his foster homes were, the other kids never grabbed for it. They just looked and then their eyes slid away like they forgot they saw it. And mostly Angel forgot too. But a few months ago, around his fourteenth birthday, there had been a change. Sometimes, the carving seemed to hum like the high voltage wires that swayed high above the highway. When Angel held the dragon in his two hands, he’d felt a jolt of power. Everything he saw, heard, smelled and tasted seemed brighter, cleaner...more beautiful. His head swam and he felt himself soaring into ideas and visions that were new and frightening. And then...nothing. They just faded away. He didn’t know whether to be terrified or thrilled. But those feelings had compelled him to try the Indian chant thing. Dumb.
“Angel!” The sharpened note in Treese’s voice meant she’d spotted Gary’s truck on the horizon.
“Coming!” Angel shoved the talisman under his shirt and sprinted towards the motel. He rounded the building’s cracked adobe wall and grabbed the laundry cart he’d left by number18. By the time Gary’s truck spun gravel into a cloud out on the parking lot, Angel was head first into the room’s shower stall, scrubbing. The bed was stripped and the soiled laundry in the cart. Crisp, clean sheets that Treese had ironed last night were on the bed, and the faded bedspread had been smoothed over them.
Angel felt rather than saw Gary’s presence in the doorway. He scrubbed harder, not looking up, knowing that even a glance might invite some kind of punishment if Gary was in a punishing mood.
“Well, can’t you say hi?” Gary demanded.
Angel sat back on his heels and wiped his arm across his brow, hoping it would impress his foster father with how hard he was working. The man was big, a football player in his high school glory days, but now most of the muscle had slid down to his gut.
“Hi, Gary. I was scrubbing so I didn’t hear you come in.” Angel eyed the bottle of beer in the man’s hand and kept his face carefully blank.
His foster father grunted. Before he turned to go, he shoved his big knee into Angel’s shoulder blades, sending the boy sprawling head first into the shower stall. The cleaner streaked across Angel’s cheek, burning. Scrambling back out onto the cracked tile, he used his shirt sleeve to wipe the soap from his face.
“Watch you don’t slip there, boy.” Gary snickered and sauntered out. “And move your butt,” he called back. “If you want any lunch, all these rooms better be clean.”
Angel slowly wiped his face again. His skin stung, andthe earlier spurt of anger fanned into fury. He wished, he wished with everything he had, that Gary would be on the receiving end – just once. His hand crept to the turquoise dragon. The talisman burned in his hand, hotter and hotter. Angel shut his eyes and wished and wished.
A white convertible streaks toward the motel...a writhing shape skitters up from the dust devils that whirl across the road...the car swerves...spins into the Lone Butte parking lot...gravel shoots everywhere like dusty bullets...and Gary walks out of number18, beer bottle tilted up. He doesn’t see the spinning car...
The driver wrenches the wheel. The fender just side-swipes Gary, sending him sprawling in the dirt. The bottle flies from his hand, shattering on the stones, shooting shards of glass in all directions...
Treese’s cry shocked Angel from the dream. He dropped the talisman back under his shirt and tore outside to see what was going on. Gary was sprawled in the dust, his hand clapped to his cheek. A trickle of blood oozed between his fingers. Broken glass glinted in the gravel and beer steamed away in the desert heat.
A big man in a suit and cowboy hat rushed from the sports car toward Gary. Treese came pelting from number seven. Angel pressed back against the motel wall, breathing hard.
“You all right?” the man asked, squatting by Gary.
“You crazy fool,” Gary sputtered. “You coulda killed me.” He wiped his arm across his cheek, leaving a streak of blood on his sleeve.
“I really am sorry,” the man said. “I thought I saw an animal on the road, so I cranked the wheel and my car spun right out of control. That’s never happened with this car before. I don’t understand it. But are you all right? Should I take you into the hospital in Santa Fe?”
Gary struggled to his feet. The stranger rose beside him, offering a steadying hand.
Gary shrugged it away. “No, I don’t need no doctors. I’m okay.” He eyed the man and his pale eyes sharpened. “Say, aren’t you John Hydemann? You own the Turquoise Hill Ranch, right?”
Angel sucked in his breath. The Turquoise Hill Ranch bounded the back of the motel. And kept on going to cover hundreds of square miles more – one of the biggest ranches in the state. Celsa and several other kids at school lived in the adobe cottages Hydemann had built for his hired hands. She called him King Hydemann because everyone jumped to do what he said.
“That’s right. I’m John Hydemann.” The rancher held out his hand.
Gary grinned, wiped his palm on his jeans, and stuck out his own hand. “And I’m Gary Tanner. Don’t know why we haven’t met before, being neighbors. I own and operate this here Lone Butte Motel.” He motioned grandly. “It ain’t much at the moment, but we’re fixing it up. I plan to turn it into a resort and conference center – I’m thinkin’ of an Anasazi kinda pueblo theme. But I’m looking for the right business partners. Men with vision. Like me and you...”
“Can I offer you some iced tea, Mr. Hydemann?” Treese interrupted. Angel could see the embarrassed flush on his foster mother’s face.
Gary stiffened, but he kept the smile going.
“No, I thank you though.” Mr. Hydemann nodded to her. “I have an appointment that I’m already late for. And if you’re sure you’re not hurt, Mr. Tanner...” He offered his hand in a farewell shake.
“Gary, call me Gary!” He shook hands. “I think I’m just fine. Been a pleasure to meet you, John.” He leaned on the back fender of the gleaming white car like a good-natured pal.
As Hydemann turned to get into the car, he spotted Angel standing in the shadows. To Angel’s amazement, the rancher smiled and included him in his wave. Angel didn’t move but felt a brief surge of pleasure at being noticed.
That pleasure dulled his wits. He stayed when he should have slipped away, because as soon as the car became a white blur on the straight road, the friendly mask dropped from Gary’s heavy face.
“Iced tea?” he demanded. “Treese, you stupid cow! A man like John Hydemann don’t waste his time on iced tea...”
Angel knew where this was going. Gary would yell for a while, and then unless he got distracted he’d start whaling on Treese. Or Angel.
It gave him a sour feeling in his stomach, but there wasn’t anything he could do. He hesitated for only a moment and then with the skill of long practice, Angel slipped sideways through the shadows and around the corner of the building. He broke into a run and cleared the sagging fence in a fear-sharpened leap.
The desert spread out before him, reddish gold in the sun, mottled with tufts of grey and green shrubs. He kept on running, loping like a coyote. Behind him, in the distance, he heard Treese cry out once, making him break stride and stumble. Crouching, he clenched his fists and looked back. No sign of Gary. Just the same he sprang up and ran faster. His sharp breathing began to match the pounding of his feet. Dust rose behind him…and then he was alone and free.
If you want to read more, Dragons of Desert and Dust is on sale on Kindle and all ebook platforms! Also available in paperback! If you have enjoyed Dragons of Desert and Dust, try the companion novel Dragons of Frost and Fire! Dragons of Wind and Waves, the third companion novel in the Dragons of Earth, Wind, Fire and Air series, will be released in 2018.
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