13 - Coast Guards

I stared at Yixin over the bar. “Is this some kind of test? It flies in the face of everything you and everyone else in SFAIS have been telling me to do for the past four months."

She grinned, her expression full of mischief. "So we'll be careful and we won't tell anyone. Seriously, dude, this is a show you don't want to miss. I've lived in Chinatown for 200 years: I know fireworks."

"It's fire in the sky? That sounds unpleasant," I turned to wipe down the counter. "I'm not sure I want to get close to that."

“Oh, believe me, you do." She pulled out her phone and fiddled with it. "Here, this will give you an idea.”

Dropping the cloth, I leaned closer to watch the video. It looked nothing like the shifting curtains of light I had once flown beneath far to the north, but there was an energy and violence to it that pulled me in. “Sure. You can keep us from being seen, right?”

“Hell yeah!” She leaped up and threw her arms around me across the bar, beaming as I hugged her awkwardly back.  “Meet me at SFAIS headquarters tomorrow and we’ll head to Ghirardelli Square. This is gonna be awesome.”

The next evening, Yixin sat waiting for me on the steps of the SFAIS townhouse.  As I approached and saw her outfit, I began to laugh. “No one told me it was winter,” I said, glancing down at my usual t-shirt and leather vest. “I feel underdressed.”

“It is January,” Yixin shrugged, the movement barely visible under her puffy jacket and scarf. “Plus I just assume it’s colder in the sky. Right? Do you have some sort of magical temperature resistance? It must get freezing when you’re flying around.”

“I feel the cold,” I said. “I just don’t mind it. You ready to go?”

“Yeah, just give me a minute.” She stepped into a jangling harness and I helped her clip it to my vest; then she paused and the air around us seemed to blur slightly. “Let’s fly.”

We shifted into the Otherworld, mist falling away beneath us as I launched us into the air. Yixin shouted directions over the wind, the ends of her scarf tickling my face.

As we flew high over the city I heard occasional sounds of the Otherworld from the ground: distant clashes of weapons, the screech of a cable-car veering off course, shouts, and even a chorus of drunken singing. Soon enough we reached the edge of the city and began flying over the waves. Yixin steered us left along the coast, and I circled higher before transitioning back into reality. The new Bay Bridge glittered beneath us, streams of headlights reflecting off its mirrored suspension cables. Farther, the partially demolished specter of the old bridge lurched out of the waves, haggard and industrial, swallowing the night into its maw. 

We landed on a piece of it and made ourselves comfortable, sheltering ourselves from the wind in the lee of a pillar. Yixin produced a thermos of hot chocolate and offered me a sip. “This is perfect,” she said, snuggling close to me on the blanket she had somehow concealed beneath her puffy coat. “The show should start any second.”

She was right. Within minutes, the sky exploded around us. The noise was like the end of the world, but the colors were like the beginning of all things when the first sparks from the world of fire began to melt the elemental ice. Even the life that emerged then, as the first giant’s body became visible beneath the frost, could not have been as dramatic or as startling as these roaring lights rocking the air. I sat with my arm around Yixin, my wings wrapped around us for warmth, and gaped at the display.

After some time, beneath the chaos and whistle of the fireworks, I began to feel that familiar pull, stronger than I had ever felt it in San Francisco. I turned to Yixin, but she sat rapt, gazing upward as she sipped from the thermos, utterly oblivious to the silent call that had began to tug at my limbs.

I poked her, and she turned. “I have to go!” I shouted over the noise.

“What?”

“I have to go!” I gestured toward the water.

“I can’t hear you!”

I grabbed her elbow and transferred us both to the Otherworld. The bridge beneath us disappeared and we plummeted toward the water before I had a chance to catch us. Swearing, I beat my wings as hard as I could, nearly straining a muscle to yank us upward just as the tip of a wave sprayed my calves. A sudden rainstorm splattered across my face.

Yixin flailed and kicked wildly, and I hung on to her arm with both hands, managing to pull her up to eye-level despite her initial, panicked attempts to break free. As she calmed down and tilted her head to shout at me, her hair whipped across our faces.

“I have to go. Somebody’s about to die. It’s coming from that direction.” I pointed with my chin, and she squinted through the rain as if she could see it. I stared too, as an enormous, ghostly whaling schooner  plunged out of the dark towards us. Far below, small figures ran to and fro on the deck. “Not that! In the real world. I’m sorry, I have to leave you on the bridge.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! I’m coming with you!”

“You can’t come to Valhalla!”

“How do you know?”

I shrugged and shook my head in frustration in case she missed the gesture. “I don’t. But I also don’t know what’ll happen if I try to take you there. You could get trapped there forever, or stuck between worlds, or it could kill you.”

“I’m three hundred fucking years old, dude. It won’t kill me. I order you to take me to Valhalla.”

I burst out laughing. “We’re not on duty, asshole. You can’t order me to do anything. I don’t have time for this.”

“So go! I won’t be in the way, I swear. You won’t even know I’m here. Just get us the hell back to the real world before I freeze to death.”

I nodded and shifted us back to modern San Francisco. The rain disappeared immediately, replaced by damp, buffeting wind and the boom and flash of the fireworks. We landed back on the bridge, where Yixin grabbed the blanket and tied it tightly around herself before reattaching her harness. Terrified for a moment that it had disappeared, I reached for the pull inside my chest, and it reverberated stronger than ever.

We flew for barely the space of a few breaths before I spotted the column of smoke rising out of the water to join the trails of smoke left by the fireworks. As we approached, the scene became visible: a small motorized boat in flames with a second, larger boat pulled up next to it. The fire had spread to the second boat, and a small crew dashed around on its deck, shouting to a distant third boat that blazed its lights through the dark.

Yixin and I hovered over the commotion while I tried to pinpoint the right soul through the smoke and confusion. The noise of the fireworks had dimmed behind us, replaced by shouts and the crackle of flames. “That’s a coast guard vessel,” Yixin pointed at the larger boat. “This is a rescue. They might get everyone out alive.”

I shook my head, amazed that she couldn’t feel the death tugging at my skin. “I’m going to have to get close to the fire.” She nodded, pulling her wet shirt over her face as I hesitantly lowered us closer to the deck of the smaller boat. A woman in a bright jacket rose from the smoke, holding a smaller figure in her arms. She tossed the child to a man on the second vessel before turning to run back into the smoke-filled cabin. Yixin and I followed her, alighting on the deck outside the cramped cabin as she stepped over the body of a man on the floor and lurched to the corner, where another child huddled beneath a metal window frame. As I watched through the doorway, the man’s spirit stood up, separated itself awkwardly from his body, and stood staring at me for a moment before disappearing. I pulled us into the Otherworld just in time to see his spirit dissolve into the waves. Yixin gasped and coughed in the damp, blessedly smoke free air. Rain continued to fall heavily in the Otherworld, and it hissed where it landed on my smoking clothes and burning skin.

We remained in the Otherworld for just long enough for Yixin to catch a breath. When we returned to reality, the fire had spread to the back of the boat and begun to make a popping sound. Yixin clutched my arm. “Do you hear that?”

I nodded.

“It’s spread to the engine!” Ahead of us, the woman in the reflective jacket pulled the last child into her arms and turned to run. Behind us, the engine exploded.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The woman, so close to the help waiting in the second boat, was hurled into the air, her body still curled around the child. She hit the water at an angle. Something sliced into my side, and I ducked, diving after her as pieces of debris whistled past us. I had grabbed Yixin almost without thinking, and kept an arm wrapped around her waist as I used the other to fish for the woman and child. In the dark, I could see her faintly glowing form separate itself from her body, her eyes wide with horror as she watched the child disappear under the waves, trapped by her own corpse.

I hovered for just a moment, frozen, half in the water, half-reaching for the drowning child. Then I turned and grabbed the dead woman’s spirit by the hand, pulling her up out of the waves.

Yixin’s long hair and loosening blanket flapped against my neck as I beat my wings, lifting all three of us above the wreckage. “Can you make a light?” I asked her, spitting wet strands of hair out of my mouth.

I felt her body shift slightly, and a shower of little orange sparks began to dance in the air, glowing brighter until we could see clearly around for about the distance of a spear’s arc. She elbowed me gently, pointing at a flash of something in the water, a scrap of cloth or the tip of a wave. Flying closer, we found the body of a young man in an orange vest sliding between crests and valleys of the sea, his ghost floundering beside it. By propping the woman against my shoulder, I was able to reach down and pull him easily out of the water.

I shoved the young man into Yixin’s arms and continued to scan the water, circling the site of the wreck.

Some time later, Yixin and I had found two more souls struggling through the waves.. The pull had faded, and I felt confident no further dead would be arriving. My wings had begun to ache from the strain of keeping us all aloft.

I wanted nothing more than to push on directly to Valhalla, but I knew I had to give these souls a choice. I flew back to shore through the rain and fog of the Otherworld, souls and fox-spirit in tow.  

By the time Yixin and I had detangled ourselves from the harness, the spirits had begun to sit up and look around. I launched into my usual explanation while they watched me solemnly.

This time, I added a warning. “In Valhalla, we live and breathe violence when we train for the battle at the end of days. The four of you have been chosen because you died with courage and sacrifice in your hearts. You are fighters. It would be an honor to transport you to Valhalla, where you will spend your days fighting, hunting, and feasting, but it’s your choice.” I looked each of them in the eyes in turn. “June. Deborah. Carlos. Nathan. I want you to think hard and feel certain. The choice you make now will determine the course of your death.”

Yixin had turned to watch, her amusement clear, the corners of her mouth twitching. The four ghosts appeared not to notice her as she sat crosslegged outside our little circle, removed her shoes, and began to wring the water out of her socks. Instead, they went into a huddle and spoke quietly until Carlos, a sturdily built man in his fifties, stepped forward. “Will we see relatives or friends there?”

I shook my head. “It’s unlikely, as Valhalla holds only a few souls from San Francisco. You are some of the first.” He nodded and as the group continued to whisper, I itched with impatience. It still grated that anyone would choose the unknown, including possible annihilation, over paradise. What could there even be to discuss? I tried to put myself in the place of someone who knew nothing about Valhalla and to understand the stress these newly dead souls were experiencing. Octavia would probably tell me that I needed to respect whatever decision these souls made, whether I understood it or not.

I went to sit by Yixin, who appeared to be listening intently, her fox-ears perked. “Good choice on dead people,” she remarked casually. “These guys are really taking it in stride, going through the pros and cons and everything. “

“Don’t tell me what they’re saying.” I was intensely curious, but I could imagine Octavia’s voice in my head and knew I needed to allow the spirits their privacy.

Yixin shrugged. “It’s kind of boring anyway. I just want them to hurry up and get on with it so I can check out this Valhalla you’re always talking about.”

“Listen, I can’t bring you there.”

“Of course you can.” She turned away to hang her wet jacket on a nearby shrub.

“That’s the problem. I might actually be able to bring you there. But if I do, there’s no way I can take you back. You would be stuck there forever.”

“Probably not, though. I mean, forever’s a long time. It’s plenty of time for me to figure something out.”

“What are you talking about?” My voice had increased in volume and Deborah glanced over her shoulder at us. I tried to quiet down. “You have to take this seriously, Yixin.”

“No I don’t, Sigrid,” she said sarcastically. She’d imitated my accent perfectly. “It’s my life and my decision. I’ve been alive hundreds of years and traveled across the entire world. Do you know how rarely I get a chance to see something new? No way will I pass this up.”  

I stared at her, open-mouthed. I wanted to shake her, but one look at the set of her mouth and I knew it wouldn’t have any effect.  Instead, I let out a long sigh and met her eyes. “Valhalla may not welcome you. Watch what I do, and be careful.”

She began to smile, but I had already turned to the spirits.  “We’ve made our decision,” said June, speaking for the others, “and we want to come with you.”

I nodded and walked into their midst. “Take my hands.” Before Yixin could move more than a step towards us, I gathered the four heroic souls into my arms and flew into the sky.